Q. 7: How did it go, asking her out on a date? – MIGUEL

READ IVY’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 7

MIGUEL

 It was, um…oh, man. Ivy was involved, so you can imagine how that went.

No, it wasn’t that. That turned out okay, although I admit, waking up to a headache and a stomach full of moldy jelly was no fun. Neither was finding numerous gaps in my memory of the previous night. I spent ten minutes trying to piece together just how I’d gotten from Point A—having a so-called discussion with Lolo Simon on the balcony—to Point B—waking up in bed still dressed in jeans and a shirt that was definitely not mine. I remembered that first scorching shot of gin, and the next one. I remembered coming to that anvil-to-the-head realization that in all the time I’d been trying to make Ivy fall for me, I had yet to ask her out on an actual date. Then there was Lolo Simon’s thoroughly confusing lecture on courtship and romance, much of which I could have lived my whole life without.

Beyond that, well, you probably know more than I do. A lot more; Ivy’s descriptions can be, uh, colorful. I knew she’d been there. There was no mistaking that crazy-familiar emotional cyclone I only ever felt around her. Everything else though was a Swiss-cheesed, alcoholic pulp. I could only recall fragments of our exchange, and most of what I remembered made me wish I could erase it from memory completely. And underneath was a nagging sense that I’d screwed things up again somehow, along with a weird conviction that sunflowers were my favorite flowers in the world.

It did not help to have her grinning at me the next day and pronouncing me an amorous drunk.

But like I said, that part turned out okay. I was afraid she’d be angry with me or upset, but she was pretty cool about it. She even made me soup to help settle my stomach, which was nice. And with that out of the way, I was free to take advantage of this unexpected piece of good fortune: a chance to spend the entire day with her. It almost didn’t matter that my sister was tagging along with us—or, to hear Reese put it, that I was tagging along with them. That there would be all these other people around, and that Ivy would be working part of the time—I was pretty sure Reese had told me something to that effect, but all that sunk in was that I finally had a chance to be with Ivy, the way I’d imagined back when the school break started, before her grandparents, my meddling relatives, her bosses and the rest of frigging humanity barged in.

So I decided I’d ask her out that day. I had the rudiments of a plan, buttressed by my research on the social custom called “dating.” One thing for sure, I was through messing around and not making my intentions clear. One way or another, I was going to find out how she felt about me, and asking her out seemed like a good way to go about it. Now I was being given a golden opportunity to set my plan in motion. If a choir of angels had appeared to blast hallelujahs in my face, it couldn’t have been any more encouraging.

Who? Ah, the matinee idol, the one with the semi-permanent smirk. The guy who had my easily impressed sister gushing about how hot he was and how great he and Ivy would look together. Who, from the moment he entered the café, wouldn’t quit ogling Ivy like she was some kind of pastry on a cake display.

Nope, he didn’t bother me at all. Why?

Well…okay, so he did kind of bother me. And trust me, the feeling was mutual. It started with a sinking feeling that my plan had hit a snag when my sister wouldn’t shut up about him, and when he did show up, I was even more irritated to find he looked exactly as she’d described him. Worse, when I glanced at Ivy, I found that she was watching him as intently as he was watching her. Honestly, I was this close to dragging her out of there and leaving Reese to drown in a puddle of drool, but it was around that time that the floor opened up and hell’s minions began pouring out, cutting off our escape.

Or so it seemed. People were appearing from out of nowhere. Then Ivy was yanked from my side and nearly terminally cuddled by a—by this person who was babbling in three different languages. She hadn’t told us much about Orion Kenichi, but then nothing she could’ve said could have prepared us for him. He was of average height and skinny, because “willowy” doesn’t sound right on a guy, even using the term loosely. His skin was chalk-white, but he made up for it with his hair, all done up in red and yellow tufts, and his outfit, which consisted of cringingly tight jeans and a denim vest over a white shirt that gaped open in the front to reveal more of his bony chest than anyone outside the medical community cared to see. Looking at him, I didn’t know whether to laugh or back away in case he was contagious.

Another guy came up behind him, a roundish, balding figure with a perpetually mild expression. A woman who looked to be in her late twenties. A pony-tailed man wearing a photographer’s vest. And of course, frigging Ian and his troupe, who all looked as if they’d been popped out by the same assembly line that produced the popular jerks in my old school. In short, exactly the kind of people I was dying to hang out with.

I drew back while Orion continued to test Ivy’s ability to survive without oxygen, and only then noticed the girl who was bringing up the rear. She was cute in a china doll sort of way, with a mass of brown curls framing her face. She also looked a bit lost in the midst of all the goings-on, which sparked some fellow feeling within me. She caught my eye and smiled shyly, but before I could respond, Orion released Ivy, exclaiming: “And look, you’ve brought your boyfriend along! It’s going to be a wonderful, lovey-dovey day!”

Wait, what?

For an instant, I wondered if I hadn’t inflicted some kind of brain damage upon myself, causing me to hear things. But Orion was staring straight at me. As was everybody else, although seeing Ian’s smirking grin morph into a scowl did wonders for my headache.

Her boyfriend?

From the corner of my eye, I noticed Ivy looking at me with a strange expression. Her gaze darted away, and she pushed her hair back and smiled. “Hi, Orion, everyone,” she said in a sweeter-than-usual tone of voice. “I’d like you to meet—”

“Your boyfriend?” As he pushed his way toward her, Ian gave me a skeptical once-over before dismissing me as a total non-entity. “What gives, partner? I thought you said you were coming alone,” he said, oblivious to his girlfriend’s frown.

“Well, I figured it’d be selfish of me to keep you guys all to myself. Besides, it’ll be more fun with more people around,” she replied cheerfully. “Anyway, I asked Orion and Morisato-san, and they both said it was okay if I brought a couple of friends along.”

“But of course, Ivy-chan!” Orion cried, dancing between them like a one-man chorus line. “Your friends are always welcome. Especially this.” Without warning, he pounced on Reese, who squeaked as he tilted her face up toward his. “Ma chère, you are très adorable. What is your name and will you do me the honor of posing for me today?”

“Yes, sir! Reese, sir! You speak really good English, sir!” my sister blurted, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh crud, I didn’t mean to say that,” she moaned.

As Orion threw his head back and laughed, the roundish figure Ivy called Morisato coughed to gain our attention then launched into an explanation of how Orion had grown up in New York, finished high school in Japan where the two of them had met, studied fashion design in Tokyo and Paris, and fine arts in New York. “He is much better in English than in Japanese,” he said in his careful, accented English, his tone full of the fond familiarity of old friends.

I’d have paid more attention to all this if the photographer-guy hadn’t sidled up to Ivy just then, grinning crookedly. “So, this is him, huh?” he said, jerking his thumb in my direction. “About time you brought him along and introduced him to us.”

She gave him a baffled look that appeared somewhat at odds with the color rising in her face. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ignoring her, he turned to me and shook my hand. “Miguel, right? Or do I call you Migs? Anyway, the name’s Adrian. Nice to meet you.”

“Miguel. Uh, how’d you know my name?”

This time, it was the woman, Bella, who answered. “Ivy’s told us all about you. Oh, don’t worry, she didn’t say anything bad. Far from it, in fact,” she added with a sigh.

“Oooh, this sounds interesting! What did she tell you about him?”

Face ablaze with curiosity, Orion quick-stepped to Ivy’s side, throwing a scrawny arm around her shoulders to keep her from slinking away. I narrowed my eyes. Fruit-basket or not, this guy was being altogether too touchy-feely around Ivy for my taste.

In response, she hid her face behind a fall of hair in a show of bashfulness that struck me as slightly out of character for her, although I also had the impression that, somewhere behind her protective curtain, she was grinding her teeth. “It’s not what you think. He’s not my—I mean, we’re just—”

“Yes? This handsome shounen and you are what?” Orion cut in, lazily rubbing his cheek against her hair as he grinned sidelong at me. “Only cher amis? Ne, tell me, Ivy-chan, why is your face so red? And why is he frowning so thunderously at me? He doesn’t seem to like me being close to you, ne? Is he the possessive type then, your kareshi?” he added, twirling the end of the strange word into curlicues.

By then, my own face was burning with embarrassment at the barrage of questions. Nevertheless, I was riveted to the spot, awaiting Ivy’s response, bracing myself for the inevitable torrent of denials but unable to suppress a pathetic hope. But to my surprise, the denials didn’t come. No unconcerned laugh, no wisecrack to defuse the situation, no determined change of subject, no physical violence, nothing. Instead, she sighed, extricated herself from Orion’s hold and moved to stand between Reese and me.

“You guys really should let me finish my introductions,” she chided gently. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Miguel and his sister Reese. We live next door to each other, and they’re good friends of mine. Just friends. Migs, Reese, meet the Shoujo Shine team.”

“You hear that, Belle? They’re just friends, she says,” Adrian commented with amused disbelief when the introductions were over.

Morisato-san coughed. “Miss Lopez, is there something I should know about?”

At the same time, the other girl nudged Ian’s girlfriend and addressed her in a clearly audible whisper, “Are they or aren’t they?”

Ian’s girlfriend curled her lip. “Who cares? I just want to get out of here already.”

Blushing again, Ivy sent me a vaguely panicky glance, and I drew in a breath to back her up.

“Oh, come on, she already said they’re just friends.” Ian laughed before I could say anything. “Lay off my partner, guys. She’s too embarrassed to speak as it is.” He gave her a crooked, intimate smile, and she smiled back.

Something dark and acid-hot erupted somewhere inside my gut, and the next instant, I heard myself announce: “No, they’re right. Ivy and I aren’t just friends.”

In the astonished silence that followed, I found myself taking her hand and pulling her closer in a wordless but unmistakable declaration. She moved awkwardly, her entire arm stiff with shock—for which I didn’t blame her one bit—but the moment our bodies touched she melted against me ever so slightly, and I had to fight off a wave of lightheadedness.

Crap, what am I doing?! Now she’s got me pretending to be someone I’m not.

Judging from their reactions, everyone else shared the sentiment. Reese goggled at me, her eyebrows vanishing into her hairline. Then Orion’s triumphant cackling filled the café while Morisato-san coughed and muttered, “What’s this, what’s this?” Bella rolled her eyes and thumped Adrian none-too-gently on the back when he choked on his laughter. Everyone else looked on with varying degrees of confusion, apathy and impatience. But what I liked best—what gave me a nice, satisfied feeling inside—was the sour surprise on Ian’s face as he looked me in the eye for the first time.

I pushed my glasses up and gave him a smirk of my own. Wrong, jerkface. She’s mine.

A quiet sound made me glance down at Ivy. She was gaping up at me, her face scarlet, her cheek grazing my upper arm. I started to blush myself. Dumb as it sounds, I hadn’t realized until then just how close we were, let alone what exactly my momentary lapse of judgment had gotten us into. My hand grew damp with sweat, and when she closed her eyes, terror made my throat lock.

This is it, she’ll deny everything, she’ll laugh in my face, they’ll see what a total loser I really am.

Her eyes opened and stared straight into mine, the gold-flecked depths full of questions. Beginning and ending with: Are you out of your frigging mind?

And incredibly, I grinned and held her hand tighter. Just this once, let me pretend. “Sorry, Ivy, but it’s clear they’re on to us, anyway,” I said out loud. “It wouldn’t be fair to keep this from them any longer, don’t you think?”

“N-no,” she replied weakly. “I—you’re right, of course. I…can’t believe I thought that.”

Orion clutched at his chest and sighed. “Ah, l’amour. I am such a genius.”

Fortunately, the bus pulled up at the curb just then, which served as a signal for everyone to shuffle out of the café. Exhaling with relief, I fiddled with the handle of Ivy’s suitcase—a suitcase for several hours’ stay at an urban resort?—lingering over the task as a pretext so I could recover from the previous, nerve-wracking moments.

“You’ve gone bonkers.” I straightened to face my très adorable sister, who crossed her arms and pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Then again, I really should have seen this coming,” she mused, watching Ivy break away from the group and head toward us. Then she grinned and punched me on the shoulder. “Go for it, Kuya.”

“Reese, sorry, but do you mind going on ahead to the bus? I’d like to speak to your brother for a minute.”

We studied Ivy, noting the way she stood with her hands clasped and her head tilted in a demure, un-Ivy-like way, a polite smile fixed on her face. Then my sister broke the three-way stand-off by giggling. “I think I’ll go bonkers, too. It looks like fun.”

As if on cue, the china-doll appeared. Her eyes met mine for a moment, before she turned to address my sister. “Excuse me. You’re Reese, right?”

“Uhuh,” Reese replied.

“I’m Trisha,” the china doll said. “Um, would you like to sit together on the bus?”

Reese seemed surprised at first that anyone from this rarefied conclave would deign to approach her. Then she glanced at Ivy and me, and grinned like a fox. “Sure. Let’s go,” she said, briskly herding Trisha toward the bus.

“Wait, a-aren’t they coming?” Trisha cast a helpless look over her shoulder.

“Nah, those two want a moment to get all mushy and stuff. They do this a lot, you get used to it,” Reese answered matter-of-factly. “Hey, are you into any clubs or sports at your school? I’m on the track team…”

I watched the two girls disappear, marveling at the quirk of genetics that had given my sister a near-supernatural ability to adapt to any social situation, but had skipped me entirely. Not eager to stick around for Ivy to chew me out about taking advantage of the situation and duping her bosses, I picked up her suitcase and tried to follow.

“Migs, wait.”

Gulping, I turned. She was frowning at the floor, but when she looked up, confusion and, oddly enough, fear shone clear in her eyes. “Why did you do it?”

“Do what?” I hedged.

“Why did you tell them we were together?” Before I could stammer out an excuse, she exhaled gustily and went on: “For your information, Adrian and Miss Belle were only teasing. I could have handled them on my own. And Orion—I’ve seen him go into raptures over a pair of chopsticks. Orion’s obsessed with romance. He sees it everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. If we’d just let him ramble on, he’d have moved on to something else. Now he’s never going to leave us alone.”

Even where it doesn’t exist. If someone had stuck a knife between my ribs, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. “Enough, I get it,” I snapped, turning away and stalking out before my ego sagged any lower and tripped me up.

“Hey, I’m not fin—Migs, wait!”

She grabbed my arm just as I was exiting the doorway. Still smarting from her words, I tried to yank my arm back, but she hung on tight and I only succeeded in dragging her through the door with me. We ended up stumbling out onto the sidewalk like some graceless, six-limbed alien creature, with her suitcase banging against my leg and her obese canvas bag catching on the doorjamb.

Mortifyingly aware of my dwindling supply of dignity, I steadied the both of us and used her grip on my arm to jerk her closer so I could glare at her to full effect. “I said I get it, okay? You’ve got everything under control. My mistake in thinking you needed help back there, as your earlier request seemed to imply.”

Releasing me, she glared right back. “You don’t get it at all. I didn’t ask you to lie for me. And even if I did, you didn’t have to go that far.”

“What—that doesn’t even make sense!” I grabbed a fistful of hair in frustration, then blew out a breath and turned aside. “Look, you know what? I’ll go set everyone straight. I’ll tell them it was just a joke.” I sucked in a breath at the stab of hurt and slogged on. “It was my idea of a lame joke. That should make things easier for you.”

“Wait!” She snatched my arm again before I could storm off. Clearly, she was never going to let me have a dramatic exit. “That’s not what I meant,” she said quietly.

“Then what did you mean?” I demanded exasperatedly, rounding on her.

Oya, qu’est-ce que c’est? Are you two all right?” Orion’s voice rang out. “You’re not having a lovers’ quarrel on this wonderful day, are you?”

We froze, abruptly reminded of our audience, but neither of us looked away. There was a beat or two of silence, then my anger dissolved into shock when she lifted one hand and, hesitating only for an instant, slid it over my shoulder. Her lashes drifted downward, and the beguiling scent of strawberries and Ivy surrounded me as she stepped closer and pressed her face against my neck.

“Never mind what I meant,” she whispered as I stood stiffly, my arms dangling at my sides. I couldn’t help shivering as her breath warmed my skin. Then she pulled back and smoothed my hair down with her fingers. “For now, let’s roll with this, okay?” she added in a fierce tone that jarred with the gentle expression on her face. It made me wonder how much of this was just an act she was keeping up for the sake of our audience.

Ivy finds it easier to play a role when there’s an audience around.

The memory of Sharm’s warning drove away the warmth even as it wrenched me back to reality. Get a grip, Santillan. It’s not real, a dispassionate voice in my head cautioned. The weight of all the curious stares from the windows of the café and the bus, to say nothing of Orion’s avid grin beaming at us from the doorway, dragged down at me until I was sunk in a kind of bruised misery. With less enthusiasm than I’d started the day with, I let her link her arm through mine and steer us toward the bus, which swung into the street as soon the doors closed behind us.

Reese and Trisha had saved us the seat behind theirs. Unfortunately, Ian and his girlfriend were sitting right behind us. I felt eyes on me—an unpleasant, prickling sensation—as I braced myself against the moving bus to stuff Ivy’s suitcase into the overhead compartment. When I finally dropped into my seat, I was sweating, motion-sick, achy in the cranium region again, and unreasonably sore at that suitcase.

“Whose dead body have you got stashed inside that thing?” I grumbled to her.

Ivy lifted an eyebrow, and I waited for the expected smart-assed retort. “Of course, there’s no dead body in there, silly. Just some clothes, my makeup kit, my hair-styling equipment and, ah, other stuff,” she said instead, still in that sweet, composed manner she’d adopted since the others had shown up.

Reese’s head appeared over the back of their seat, followed by Trisha’s. “What happened to you guys out there?” my sister asked curiously.

“Nothing,” I muttered.

“Oh, nothing,” Ivy answered at the same time. We looked at each other, then looked away. “We were just talking about something. Oh Trisha, I meant to tell you, it’s great that you could come today even though your aunt couldn’t,” she said, deftly steering the conversation in another direction. For our benefit, she added, “Her aunt’s Maris Gutierrez, owner of the Philippine license for Shoujo Shine. She’s one of the Gutierrezes, you know, the family that owns the string of malls and restaurants.”

Tita Maris wanted to come, but she had to inspect the site for her new bistro,” Trisha explained.

“Yeah, it’s too bad. I’m going to miss hearing her go all—” Ivy’s chin lifted, her eyebrows twitched up, her eyes appeared to shrink, her lips pursed together until her face seemed more angular, and when she spoke her voice sounded deeper and crisper—“‘I don’t believe in good enough. Excellence is what I do, and what I expect from you.’” Then her face relaxed and her voice returned to normal. “Who’s going to keep us from having too much fun today? I mean, we could pull a muscle or something.”

We stared at her, but when her dimples flickered in a suppressed grin, Trisha burst out laughing. “Wow, you sounded exactly like her. That’s so funny.”

“Yeah, that was cool. You got the Dragon Lady down all right.” A shadow fell over me as Ian loomed above, propping his arms on the back of my seat and trapping some of my hair in the process. “So who else can you do, partner?” he asked Ivy.

I stared straight ahead. No way was I going to crane my neck and look up at him like some hero-worshipping fan, not even to free the hairs stuck underneath his arm. Behind us, I could hear his girlfriend complaining about the too-chilly blast from the AC, the bus driver’s cow-handed driving, and not being able to find her lipstick or something. Where he found the fortitude to endure that high-pitched whining I didn’t know, but it wasn’t doing my headache any good.

“Just Miss Gutierrez, actually. I’m not really good at doing impressions,” Ivy admitted with a self-conscious laugh.

Reese and I exchanged a look. Ivy could do hilarious imitations of pop stars, political figures and some of the more notorious teachers in UP, but mentioning this probably did not count as “playing along.” Then I got distracted when she took my hand and wove our fingers together in a move so natural it was as though she’d done it a million times. I pretended I couldn’t see my sister’s struggle to keep the grin off her face, focusing instead on looking as normal as possible and trying not to sweat too much.

Ian seemed puzzled. “Really? That’s not what I’d heard.”

“Well, whatever you’ve heard about me, it’s not true,” she declared, with no trace of irony whatsoever.

There was a pause as Ian attempted to process this. “Hey, Trish, you’re Megan’s sister, right? Why isn’t she here? I’d have thought for sure that Orion would ask for her,” he said at last, evidently deciding to drop the issue of Ivy’s mimicry skills in favor of a topic less rife with contradictions. “Man, I haven’t seen Megan since that party at Derek’s. That’s been, what? One…no, two months ago.”

Ate Megan’s in Hong Kong with my mom,” Trisha answered.

“Yeah? Too bad for Orion,” he commented, still unmindful of his girlfriend’s escalating demands for his attention.

Trisha’s shoulders drooped, but Ivy quickly spoke up: “Oh, I don’t know about that. After all, Orion himself invited Trisha to come today.”

“The sister can’t be any cuter than her,” I thought out loud, and Trisha colored and gave me a grateful look.

Ivy nodded. “Exactly. When he wants to be inspired, Orion goes for girls with the kind of look that matches his artistic vision for the moment. So for today, we girls here—” she gestured to indicate Trisha and Reese— “are Orion Kenichi’s Barbie dolls.”

Ian started to say something, turned aside to bark “just a minute, Soph” at his girlfriend, then turned back to Ivy. “So what does that make me? After all, he wants us to be together from now on,” he told her in a voice that set my teeth on edge.

This time, I was sure she wasn’t going to be able to resist giving him a well-deserved dose of mockery. Instead, she lowered her head, hiding coyly behind her hair again, and pulled our joined hands onto her lap. “Oh, well, um, I’m not sure. That’ll be up to him.”

Ian chuckled. “You’re so cute, you know. How about if we—”

“Look, do you mind?” Unable to take it anymore, I jerked my head forward and freed the hairs stuck underneath his arm. Pushing my glasses up, I turned to glower at him, the ensuing dizziness and the stinging in my scalp adding to my annoyance.

Ian raised his hands. “Hey, sorry, Mike—no, Miguel. It’s Miguel, right?”

I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t particularly care what he called me so long as he quit sliming all over my girlfriend—my pretend girlfriend, then closed it again when said girlfriend’s fingers tightened around mine to near fracture point. The next moment, an explosion of light shot needles into my brain, curtailing any sort of response aside from a hastily muffled whimper.

Adrian lowered the camera. “Say cheese, people. Ivy, how about you and Ian together?”

Ivy released my numb hand to push herself up to a kneeling position on her seat while Ian slung an arm around her shoulders. Adrian took a couple shots of them, then a few more of all of us. By the time he moved on to the rest of the group, I was ready to sink into a nauseous heap on the floor. Unthinkingly, I groped for Ivy’s hand, seeking comfort, and sure enough felt immediately better when my fingers closed around hers.

This lasted about three seconds before she tugged her hand away. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, keeping her gaze averted and her hand wrapped around the strap of her bag.

I stared at her as hurt rolled over me. Sorry? For what? Does this mean she doesn’t want to hold hands after all?

Kuya, you okay?”

“Huh?” I turned to find Reese eyeing me concernedly.

“I said, are you okay? You look kinda weird.”

“I’m fine. I think I’ll take a nap.” With that, I leaned back and closed my eyes, hoping that would be enough to dissuade my sister from prying any further.

“If you say so.” Even with my eyes closed, I could sense Reese’s shrug. To my relief, I heard nothing more from her, or from anyone. Just the sounds of conversation all around and laughter from Ian’s group, the rumbling of the bus, and the occasional irate honk of a car horn from outside. Despite what I said, I couldn’t sleep, not with my mind working to figure out what her apology meant and getting absolutely nowhere except the most likely—and incredibly depressing—conclusion: that Ivy didn’t feel the same way about me, and that at best my advances were only making her uncomfortable. And I—I was getting all twisted up over nothing more than superb acting on her part. Suddenly, my decision to ask her out began to seem more and more like a childish daydream.

Then she spoke my name. When I didn’t respond, she shifted around in her seat, then something soft and warm cupped my cheek and guided my head down toward her shoulder. Caught off-guard, I dropped all pretense of sleeping and opened my eyes.

She lowered her hand and gave me a small smile. “You can sleep on my shoulder if you want to.” Her smile wavered when I remained silent, and she went on with a mixture of uncertainty and appeal: “You did the same for me. I—I just want to return the favor. Besides, we’ve got some time before we reach Belle Giardino. A nap will do you good.”

She’s just returning the favor, the clinical voice pointed out. But when her face fell at my lack of response, I was forced to admit it: How she felt about me, what was happening or not happening between us—none of that made a difference. The sad truth was, I’d do anything for her. Simple as that. With a resigned sigh, I sank lower into my seat and leaned my head on her shoulder, wishing bitterly that someone had thought to warn me that falling in love would annihilate my will power, my pride and my survival instinct. When it came to Ivy, I was just another hopeless, spineless sap living for every crumb of attention she deigned to offer.

Then her hand crept back upon my cheek, anchoring my head to her shoulder to keep it from sliding off with each lurch of the bus. “Sleep, Migs,” she whispered. “I’ve got you.”

If you only knew. I fought the urge to pull her closer and cuddle her like a teddy bear, contenting myself with absorbing her touch until I drifted off for real. When I woke up, her hand was still cradling my head, her elbow propped up on her bag. A thin, white cord snaked down her shoulder and into a battered-looking Discman. She was gazing out the window and bobbing her head in time with the music, but as soon as she felt me move, she dropped her hand and tugged her earphones off. “So, how’re you feeling?”

Straightening, I pulled my glasses off and rubbed my eyes as I did a quick systems scan. “Better, actually,” I replied with some wonder. “You were right about the nap.”

Reese’s head popped up excitedly. “Oh good, Sleeping Beauty’s awake. We’re here!”

The bus turned into the parking lot of one of the few fully constructed edifices within a new and extremely posh residential subdivision. A combination of resort, day spa and hotel, Belle Giardino was an elegant, white, three-story stucco house surrounded by white walls veined with vines, shady trees, manicured hedges and shrubs with flowers of every color. While Morisato and Bella handled matters at the reception area, the rest of us wandered around the lobby and corridors, admiring the impressionist paintings, old-fashioned candelabras, burnished furniture, and numerous vases stuffed with flowers. I understood why Orion came here to be inspired; the place looked like the setting for every romantic movie ever conceived. Almost every corner was portrait-worthy—great lighting here, a good backdrop there, and enough flower arrangements to make a professional florist weep tears of blood. There was even a ballroom, albeit smaller than the ones in the hotels I’d been in. It looked ready for a party. All it needed was for someone to set the enormous crystal chandelier ablaze.

Kuya, come on! We’re heading to the pools!”

Reese’s voice echoed through the ballroom, and I turned to see Ivy vanish through the double doors with my sister and Trisha in tow. It was almost amusing how the three girls who were closest in age—that is to say, the two girls who were closest in age and one who appeared to be the same age—bonded together, while Ian’s group held themselves apart. While we were milling around in the lobby, I’d overheard Sophia, Ian’s girlfriend, sniff loudly to her friends that she was going on ahead to the pools and they could just “leave the kids to play hide and seek.” I knew Ivy heard it—the security guard out in the parking lot probably heard it—but she gave no indication that the comment had affected her. Then again, for all intents and purposes, Ivy was a twelve-year-old kid, not a college senior four years older than Ian and his friends. It was like being in on an elaborate practical joke, and I would have enjoyed being part of the conspiracy more if it wasn’t for the mounting suspicion that Ivy was avoiding me.

I trailed behind as they explored the hotel, with Orion leading the way like a cross between an over-caffeinated tour guide and a majorette from hell, and Adrian straying here and there to snap photos. Ever since we’d gotten off the bus, Ivy had carefully maintained a distance of at least twelve inches between us—not enough to make the others suspicious, but enough to let her sidestep away if I got any closer. She spoke normally to me only when others were within hearing range, and avoided making eye contact unless necessary. In fact, Trisha was the only member of this strange expedition who’d glance backward every now and then to check if I was still around; the thought occurred that if I’d fallen out a window, Ivy would have blithely skipped on, oblivious.

That’s not just conjecture, by the way; I actually had a chance to test it. Not by falling out a window, obviously. More like, uh, an urgent physiological imperative, causing me to break away from the group and speed toward the nearest restroom. By the time I emerged, everyone had disappeared. There were only a few people on the floor, most of them employees.

Hell yes, it bugged me. Being left behind and more or less forgotten was not my idea of fun. But focusing on my irritation made me feel something other than useless, superfluous and out of place in this company. After inquiring at reception, I headed to the hotel’s terrace, which overlooked the garden-cum-swimming pool area, and stood among the customers dining al fresco at the restaurant/café, trying to locate the others.

“Miguel?”

Trisha emerged from the restaurant and walked over to me. A humiliated flush crept up my neck. At least, it was Trisha who’d found me and not Ian or his pals. “Uh, hey,” I said casually, trying not to seem too much like an unwanted cat who’d dumped been by his owner in the middle of nowhere.

“If you’re looking for the others, they’re at Villetas Rosa and Calendola.” She pointed at a couple of the small cottages scattered around the two amoeba-shaped swimming pools. Sure enough, two guys who were unmistakably Ian’s buddies emerged from one of the cottages and headed to the bigger pool, where two girls were already sunk to the chest.

“I thought they were supposed to be modeling for Orion,” I wondered out loud.

“They will, later. Reese and Ivy are at Villeta Rosa with Miss Bella, getting dressed.”

I glanced at her. “What about you?”

“I wanted to check out the restaurant first. It’s sort of a family passion. And—and I kind of noticed you were missing a while back.” She blushed and looked down at her feet. “I thought I’d wait for you here. Um, so you’d know where to find us.”

I blinked at that unexpected thoughtfulness. “Thanks. Well, I guess we should go.”

We went down a set of stairs and onto a stone path, which took us the scenic route around the pools, trees, shrubbery, oversized rocks, some picnic tables, a couple of fountains, a small amphitheater with a gazebo that had some interesting architectural elements, and flower beds like ordered islands floating in the sea of carpet grass and dripping from the trellis that overhung parts of the pool. We slowed when we came to a wooden bridge bisecting the other end of the main pool. It led to the smaller pool, which was dominated by a slide painted in blazing primary colors. It was clear that whoever designed the garden and swimming pool area, not to mention the entire building behind us, was not a big believer in the minimalist school of design.

All the same, I felt a small pang of longing. It would have been cool to draw the gazebo, and the bridge, too. Then again, given how the day had started out, it never occurred to me that I’d have so much free time on my hands.

A chance to be with Ivy, huh? I thought glumly. Yeah, right.

Becoming aware that Trisha was staring at me intently, I muttered, “Nice place.”

She beamed. “You think so, too? The owner of this place was Tita Maris’ sorority sister in college, so we’re free to use the facilities.” She blushed again and gave me a sideways look. “Um, Miguel? Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Are you really in college already? In UP?”

Reese’s doing, I bet. “Yup.”

“Wow,” she breathed, looking awed. “You must be super-smart.”

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Isn’t it hard for you and Ivy to be together, since you spend so much time apart?”

“Not really. We go to—” I caught myself in time, just before I inadvertently revealed that Ivy and I went to the same university, thereby creating more trouble that Ivy would not thank me for. “We, uh, we manage,” I croaked, floundering over my close call. Trisha kept looking at me strangely, though, so I was forced to elaborate: “Um, we have a schedule. For, you know, dates and stuff.”

Trisha looked unconvinced. “A schedule? I guess that works. I just wonder if—”

“Oh great, you found him!”

The sound of Ivy’s voice gave us both a start, making us realize we’d stopped walking and were just hanging out by the side of the pool. Then I got a good look at the girl walking down the path toward us, and all the air left my lungs in a little whoosh.

It’s not that I’d forgotten how gorgeous she was; that’s practically impossible, anyway. And I’d seen the billboards and magazine ads and everything, so I knew what she looked like dressed up and with makeup on. But it was the first time that I, personally, had seen her looking like, well, like a model. She was so—she just…she had on this pink, strapless dress with a crimson jewel in the middle of her chest and a ribbon around her neck. The skirt was made of some sort of floaty material that swirled above her knees. She had a pair of strappy shoes on, and her hair had been curled, gathered at the sides and pinned to the back of her head, with coppery waves rippling around her. And her face—she didn’t look like a clown or anything, but they must have done something to her because her eyes seemed brighter and her lips—I mean, they were just—

She looked amazing. That’s all I’m trying to say. And I did get used to—no, not “get used to” precisely, but I did eventually get better at controlling my reactions around her, which is…uh, kind of a weird thing to say, I guess. But that first time? Nothing less than an instantaneous descent into tongue-tied idiocy.

In fact, it wasn’t until Ivy had stopped right in front of me that I noticed my sister standing beside her, tapping her foot and frowning. She’d changed her outfit as well, and was wearing what looked like a black scarf underneath a blouse cut out of a white fishing net, a denim skirt that looked only a couple of inches wide, a brown hat and brown boots. My eyebrows shot up. “What the heck are you wearing?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m wearing clothes, genius. Is that all you have to say?”

“No, I still have to go and apologize to the kid whose doll’s clothes you stole.”

“You’re mean, Kuya,” Reese returned, pouting. “There’s nothing wrong with this outfit. Orion picked this for me himself.”

I scowled. “It’s too small.”

“Your skull’s too small.”

“Reese—” I began, then forgot what I was going to say when Ivy slid her hand around my arm and gave it a squeeze. I looked at her, then quickly looked away. If I stared at her too long, she’d know for sure how just the sight of her turned my brains into oatmeal. Worse, she’d make me forget that I was pissed off at her. As it was, my arm tensed with the effort of holding on to my ill humor as if it was some kind of protective charm.

“It looks great on her, doesn’t it? We dubbed it the Jpop aidoru look,” she said amiably.

“You look cute, Reese,” Trisha agreed while my sister preened and looked smug. At the sound of loud laughter, we looked over to the other side of the pool where Ian, all spiffed up in black pants and a black silk shirt open at the collar, was cracking jokes with his pals. He looked over at us and applied his trademark Sexy Smirk, to which the three girls responded with smiles and waves. Suddenly, hanging on to my displeasure was the easiest thing to do.

As he neared us, Ian looked Reese up and down appreciatively. “Hey, not bad. You look all grown up like that,” he remarked, which had my sister blushing, stammering and peeking worshipfully up at him. Then he trained his gaze upon Ivy and laughed. “Check us out. This is so totally prom-night. Am I supposed to give you a corsage or something?”

Non! Chigau!

Orion materialized between Ian and Ivy and slung his arms around their shoulders, causing Ivy to lurch forward with a little “oof.” He clutched a large sketchpad and several pencils in one hand and a plastic folder with multicolored bits of cloth sticking out of the edge in the other, while a camera as fully loaded as Adrian’s hung around his neck. “I call this, ‘The Awakening of a Young Girl’s Heart,’” Orion said enthusiastically, flapping the plastic folder dangerously close to Ian’s nose. “You, Ivy-chan, represent the pure emotions of a young maiden in the first bloom of love, innocent yet passionate, slowly yielding to the temptation of Ian’s dark desires. Next, we have the kawaii Reese representing the joie de vivre of a—wait! Where’s my petite Parisienne?” he demanded, squinting at Trisha with a perplexed air.

“Sorry. I’ll go change now.” Trisha hurried off, followed by Reese who said she wanted to see how Miss Bella did her hair and makeup. Without missing a beat, Orion resumed rhapsodizing about the blending of energies and the juxtaposition of opposing elements represented by various bits of cloth, uncaring of whether anyone was still listening. He bustled off, herding Ian along, but Ivy somehow managed to slip out from under his hold.

Then there were just the two of us, the epicenter of a widening circle of awkwardness. I snuck another look at her, and froze when our eyes met. Flushing, I turned away and adjusted my glasses, then stuffed both hands into my pockets to hide how flustered I was.

“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded, dropping her saccharine act.

I bristled at her accusing tone, which implied I’d somehow let her down by failing to trot at her heels like a puppy. “You’ve been forcing liquids down my throat since this morning. Do I have to draw you a diagram?” I answered in a bored manner.

“Oh, spare me the condescension,” she snapped. “It was your idea to pretend we’re together. The least you could do is get with the program, and newsflash! Proper boyfriends don’t disappear on their girlfriends without warning, only to reappear with another girl on their arm.”

Blindsided by the unfairness of her charges, I whipped around to glare at her. “Get off your high horse, Ivy. I also offered to come clean, but it’s obvious that nothing’s more important to you than ‘getting with the program’. And by the way, is that what you call it, this split-personality thing you’ve been doing? Pretending to be someone you’re not around people who don’t care enough to make you quit doing it? In that case, maybe Ian’s friends are right to stay away, because frankly, you’re starting to creep me out.”

I was ranting and I knew it, but I couldn’t seem to stop. The words were firing themselves out of my mouth, and even through my anger I could see them hit their mark. She turned white, making her makeup look as if it had been colored in with crayon, and for a moment, tears sparkled in her eyes. That shut me up, the glimmer of proof that if my plan had been to get back at her for making me feel lousy for the past few hours, then I’d succeeded beyond all expectation. Only it made me feel a thousand times worse.

I made her cry. Shit.

“Ivy, I—” I trailed off, realizing I had no idea what to say. And then…there was nothing to say. In the few seconds it had taken for me to complete the transformation from human to nematode, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened her eyes again, her features were composed, and her gaze was as steady and serene as a concrete wall. And just when I thought I couldn’t feel any worse, she took a careful step back, distancing herself from me. It was surprising how much that gesture hurt.

Orion called her name, and she looked over my shoulder, smiled brightly, and hollered, “Coming!” She gave me one last look, her smile dimming to cool politeness. “I’m sorry you don’t like the way I work, but I’m doing what I have to do,” she said in a toneless voice. “I don’t expect you to understand, but if you can’t help me, then kindly get the fuck out of my way.”

I watched her walk away, and considered running headlong into a tree on the off-chance that it might make me feel better, or at least numb. The sound of muffled snickers drew my attention toward the pool, where Ian’s buddies had apparently heard enough to put two and two together. One guy shook his head in commiseration. Women, eh? I turned on my heel and stalked off, fists clenched in my pockets. I didn’t have any particular direction in mind aside from away from our audience, but somehow—to no one’s surprise, really—I ended up following Ivy anyway. I hesitated, her last words to me still ringing in my ears, but I told myself it was either that or head to the villetas and watch Miss Bella slather face paint on Trisha then get yelled at by my sister for invading girls’ territory. In other words, I rationalized, I didn’t have a choice.

Several people were scattered about the amphitheater, including a trio of starry-eyed teenage girls and a few kids who’d been playing in the pools earlier, a couple of members of the hotel staff awaiting orders, and Orion and Adrian hovering around the gazebo emitting camera clicks and trilingual commentary. A lawn chair and umbrella were set up on one side, where Morisato sat sipping a glass of beer, while a woman dressed as one of the senior hotel staff stood nearby carrying on a mostly one-sided conversation with him.

But what made me stop in my tracks and go completely cold was the scene taking place at the gazebo itself. Ivy had her back against one of the posts and was gazing up at Ian while he leaned over her, their faces mere inches apart, one hand braced against the post beside her head. She turned her head toward the camera, smiled, winked, then moved around the post and tossed her hair back as Ian came up behind her. They changed positions again, posed for the camera, then again, moving in an intermittent courtship dance—she coyly flits off, pretends not to see him but looks at him from beneath her lashes, he watches her with smoldering eyes, pursues her, touches her, draws her closer to him—over and over again. It was easy to see why Orion chose Ian to work with Ivy. They were a striking combination, with his dark good looks playing against her delicate beauty. It was actually fascinating to watch.

I hated it. Every second of it.

Yes, I know. Totally irrational, totally immature—totally lame-ass stupid. I felt like some hick from the boondocks watching his first movie and needing to be told that it wasn’t real. I didn’t need to be told. I could clearly hear the stream of instructions and encouragement from Orion. I even heard Ivy’s joking comment in between poses that she felt like Liezl Von Trapp, and both Orion and Adrian shooting down her offer to sing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” while Ian wondered “Lisa who?” Nothing about the scene they were enacting looked even remotely realistic, but that still didn’t stop me from wanting to tear him away from her. It didn’t stop me from wishing I was Ian—that I was the one holding her, the one she was smiling so adoringly at. I’d felt jealous before. I’d tortured myself imagining her with Von or Jeff or some other guy often enough, but this… It stunned me, the fact that I was capable of feeling something so terrible.

They’d moved away from the gazebo to the flower-outlined steps of the amphitheater. Ivy was posing one step below, her hair streaming out courtesy of an electric fan they must have borrowed from the hotel, while Ian stood a few feet away, gazing at her intensely. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Then, in the middle of changing positions, her head turned and her gaze found mine—and moved on, as if she hadn’t even noticed me there. I recalled the last thing she said, and shriveled up inside.

Orion called out some more instructions, and Ian walked off the set, pausing to exchange words with Orion. As Orion went to join Adrian and Ivy in another part of the amphitheater, Ian accepted a small towel and glass of water from the senior staff-lady, caught sight of me and headed over, Sexy-Smirking the three girls while he was at it.

“You were watching?” he asked. I shrugged, and he raised his glass in a mock-salute. “Hey, no hard feelings, okay? That was just work. In fact, that was pretty tame compared to the things other directors would make us do. I think Orion’s being careful with her.”

“Glad you’re here to tell me that,” I replied dryly.

“You get it? Cool, that’s cool.” He gave me a look that made the muscles in the back of my neck go tense. “She’s almost thirteen and almost all grown up. That’s what she said when we first met. I gotta admit, there’s something about her that’s, I don’t know, different. She’s got a grown-up side to her. It’s really…intriguing.”

Crap, I thought. Maybe Ivy isn’t as good at acting as she thinks she is.

Oblivious to my anxiety attack, he went on: “Her sense of professionalism’s a

mazing, you know? The way she gets into a role, giving it one hundred percent? Oh, wait, you probably know all that, being her boyfriend and all.” He said this with a straight face, making me wonder if I’d only imagined the mockery in his tone.

I looked at him coldly. “Get to the point already.”

“Hey, relax,” he replied, chuckling. “I’m just saying you’re pretty lucky, landing a babe like her. Keeping her, though—I mean, you can’t be lucky every time, you know?”

“I don’t see how luck has anything to do with it.”

He gave me a pitying look. “Listen, I know how it is in the business, okay? You’re always busy, you meet so many people…my own girlfriend doesn’t get that. It’s the same with Ivy. She may be only twelve, but she’s already got a great career ahead of her. She’s got much more going for her than just—” he glanced with clear contempt at my UP T-shirt—“school and stuff. Think about it: If she’s this hot now, what’s she going to be like when she’s older? All I’m saying is, whoever she’s with has to understand this side of her, and you know the first step is to being understanding?” He leaned over and smiled in a not-all-that pleasant way. “Don’t get in the way.”

With that, he handed me the empty glass and the towel, and strode off to join the others. Fortunately, one of the hotel staff took them away before I could do some damage with them. Reese and Trisha arrived then, and began pelting me with questions. I don’t recall what I said, or if I answered at all. I don’t even remember turning around and walking away. All I wanted at that moment was to get as far away from there as possible.

Again, I didn’t know where I could hide out and lick my wounds for a while, but my feet must have had some idea because I soon found myself in the one place in Belle Giardino where I felt most at home: the hotel’s small and luckily empty Internet café. I checked my email, headed to my favorite message boards, scrolled through the new entries, answered some cries for help. But the sense of satisfaction I got from solving problems was absent, what with Ivy’s and Ian’s voices playing in an endless loop inside my head. Then my own mental voices joined in, and it became a real struggle to focus on whatever it was I was typing.

unplug your computer and open the RIGHT side and check for a broken fan or loose cables. that drumming noise could also mean a hard drive that’s about to fai

Don’t get in the way…Is that really what I am to her? Just some kid getting in her way?

download drtcp, set your TCP to 37453, set everything else to default, click accept, exit, reboot, then come back with another tweak test

Why are you so affected anyway, Santillan? You saw how she acted out there. Sure, she’s stunning but she’s too confusing, she’s got too many issues, and your family doesn’t like her. Plus, she’s older than you. It’s time to admit how hopeless this is and give up.

all the compounds you listed have the chemical formula (C7H14)O2 but looking at their structures, the heptanoic acid has the highest boiling poi

Oh God, I made her cry.

That brief flash of wounded vulnerability in her eyes filled my mind. I pressed both hands against my forehead and shut my eyes. In that toxic cocktail, it was the memory of our fight that cut the most. I thought about how I’d looked her grandfather in the eye and vowed I’d never hurt her, only to prove myself a pompous liar not twenty-four hours later. I was supposed to support her anyway I could; instead, I let my temper get the better of me and ended up hurting the most important person in my life.

“Shit,” I cursed, thumping my forehead with my hands. “Shit, shit, shit—”

“Whoa, what’s up, Miguel? You get some bad news or something?”

Lowering my hands, I stared blearily as Adrian came in and settled before the computer beside mine, setting his camera case on the floor. As he waited for the browser to appear, he cocked an eyebrow at me. “Having problems?”

“No,” I muttered. “What are you doing here? I thought you were out at the shoot.”

“Got a text that a file I was expecting had just been emailed to me. We’re shooting inside the hotel now anyway; the light’s gotten bad outside.”

I nodded, and for the next few minutes we were absorbed in our respective tasks. Then I happened to notice the website he was scanning. “Cool layout,” I commented. “May I see the source code?”

“Sure. We’re still beta-testing this, though,” Adrian said as he pushed back to give me room. For a while, our conversation revolved around platforms, markup languages, and the pros and cons of using Flash and C++, then moved on to a few of the projects of the fledging web design business he and his friends had put up. Finally, he leaned back and peered at me. “You’ve got some pretty good ideas. We could use someone like you on our crew. You a Computer Science major?”

“No, Chemical Engineering. Designing web pages is just a hobby of mine.”

He raised his eyebrows. “And you’re a graphic artist, too?”

“Yeah. I also draw a little. Mostly landscapes and buildings, though. Technical stuff.”

“Yeesh!” he exclaimed, laughing. “Is there anything you can’t do?”

I can’t keep my mouth shut when it really counts. “There’re lots of things I can’t do,” I said stiffly, returning to my seat.

“Hmm.” Adrian regarded me thoughtfully. “So, Miguel. You and Ivy, huh?”

I flinched, then steeled myself to face him. “We’re not really together, you know. This is just a joke between us that, uh, kind of got out of hand. Sorry. And before you ask, it was my idea, not hers. She just went along with it to keep me from looking like an even bigger idiot,” I finished, dispirited to the point of incaution yet relieved at finally laying things out in the open.

Adrian blinked slowly. “You really believe that? No, don’t answer, I can see that you do. Damn, she’s screwing this up real good,” he added, frowning at nothing in particular.

“It’s not like that, it’s—” I paused, hunting for the right words, then decided what the hell. “You know about us, right? Then you should know there’s no way we could ever—I’m thirteen and she’s twenty and…we’re friends but that’s pretty much it.” With that, I pushed my glasses up and hunched over my keyboard to hide my expression.

Adrian likewise turned back to his computer, but just when I’d begun to think that was that, he mused out loud: “You know, I must have photographed Ivy hundreds of times, in every kind of setting and light, so I can say I know her face better than anyone. But when I saw her with you today—let’s just say there’s something there I’ve never seen before. And as good as she is, I seriously doubt this is something she can fake.”

I sat completely still, my finger frozen in mid-click. Noticing my reaction, he glanced at me and shrugged. “Joke or not, Miguel, there’s something real there. And it’s bigger than what she’s prepared to deal with if she’s being extra pigheaded about it. So be careful how you handle it, okay? I’m willing to bet this is just as new to her as it is to you.”

I felt as if he’d just reached in and pulled my brain inside out. “Wait, how do you—?”

Smiling, he nudged the camera bag beside him gently with one foot. “Like I said, I know her face. Tell you what, I’ll lend you Old Betty later so you can try your hand at professional photography. Since you’re an artist yourself, you’ll understand what I mean. Oh, and about all this ‘you should know’ stuff—” he flashed me a crooked grin— “since my wife’s three years older, I’m probably not the best person to ask.” Bombshells delivered, he closed the Internet browser and rose. “Back to work. We’re having lunch in a few minutes, but there’s been a slight mix-up. Nobody’s sure if the food’ll be delivered to our villetas or if we’re eating at the restaurant. See you around.”

When he left, I attempted to get back to my forums, then gave up after a while and just leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling. There’s something real there…it’s bigger than what she’s prepared to deal with. What did he mean by that? Then, for some reason, Reese’s words replaced Adrian’s. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the way she looks at you. How did Ivy look at me exactly? And how was that different from the way she looked at me while she was telling me to, quote-unquote, get the fuck out of her way?

Sighing, I closed the browser and left the café. At this rate, I was better off trying to puzzle out where lunch was coming from. At least I’d end up with a full stomach.

I went to the restaurant, and found nobody from our party there. Thinking that the food would be delivered to the villetas after all, I set off on the path, but as I went past the amphitheater, I found myself slowing, my gut churning at the prospect of facing Ivy again. The next moment, I swerved back toward the amphitheater, and sat on the grass underneath a shady spot. I told myself it wasn’t all abject cowardice. I just wasn’t all that hungry yet. Besides, if I was going to face Ivy again, I had better be ready with a well-crafted apology. Something that sounded humble and remorseful enough to gain her sympathy but dignified and logical enough not to be mistaken for outright groveling. As far as I was concerned, she still owed me for abandoning me then accusing me of—actually, I wasn’t even sure what she was accusing me of. Something to do with Trisha? A worm of guilt burrowed through my mind, and I shook it off. The only relevant facts were that I owed her for yelling at her, and she owed me for ignoring me. Hmm. Put it that way, maybe I ought to wait for her to apologize to me fir—

Whap!

“Ow!”

Rubbing the top of my head that had just come into abrupt contact with something flat and bendable, I twisted around to glare at my sister, who was standing over me with arms crossed and a censorious expression on her face. “What’d you do that for?”

“For making me look all over the place for you,” she sniffed, dropping down beside me. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you forever. Kuya Adrian said you were at the Internet café, but when I got there you were gone. Then I went to the restaurant but they said you’d already left. Then I went to the villetas but you weren’t there. Then I—”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I grumbled, readjusting my glasses, which had nearly been knocked off my nose by Reese’s friendly greeting.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. “You’ve been acting weird all day.”

I scowled. “I’m fine. Quit bugging me about it. What did you hit me with, anyway?”

With an affronted “humph”, she drew her hand out and tossed something—a few somethings—into my lap. “Here. Ate Ivy said to give you this.”

Eyes widening, I picked up my sketchbook and box of charcoals and drawing pencils. “I can’t believe you brought this. How did you—”

“She asked me to get it from your room last night so she could pack it in with her suitcase. She said it’d help keep you from dying of boredom.”

“Wait a minute—my room?” My eyes narrowed. “You went through my desk drawer without my permission?”

“I did knock, you know,” she retorted, rolling her eyes. “Even though Ate said you’d be out of commission. She was right; you were snoring like a buzz-saw and drooling into your pillow the whole time. Now I understand why,” she added with a giggle.

I let her insulting description, the likelihood that she’d messed up the carefully arranged contents of my drawer, and her abuse of both my sketchbook and my head slide. I was too busy staring at my sketchbook and pencils in wonder, feeling…feeling something indescribable. But nice, very nice.

Ivy brought my sketchbook for me. How did she even know? “When did she ask you to give it to me?” I asked instead.

“Right around the time you disappeared. When they were shooting at the amphitheater.”

What do you know? She noticed me after all, I thought, growing warm inside. Then Adrian’s words came back: There’s something real there. I nearly stopped breathing as a new thought burst like a flare. Can it be that Ivy…likes me? She likes me likes me, and she just doesn’t know it? Is that what Adrian and Reese—and wait, even Lolo Simon—have been trying to tell me? Whoa, man.

“Well, looks like it worked,” Reese commented, peering into my face. “Does this have anything to do with the fact that you and Ate Ivy aren’t speaking to each other?”

I grinned dazedly. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Miguel! Reese!” Trisha trotted over, balancing a dinner plate and a saucer piled high with food and a couple of bottles of iced tea. “We’ve finally straightened lunch out. It’s an eat-all-you-can buffet at the restaurant, but you can eat anywhere you like.”

“Great! I’m starving!” Reese cried as she took off, but before I could follow—for some reason, my appetite had come back with a vengeance—Trisha stopped me. “I brought you a plate,” she said in a rush. “They told me you’d been waiting at the restaurant, so I thought you might not want to wait any more. Reese’ll come back here with her food.”

“Thanks.” I took the plate from her, surprised again by her thoughtfulness. Instead of going back to the restaurant though, she just stood there. “Uh, what about you?” I asked, trying to resist the smell of roast beef, mashed potatoes, fish fillet with cream, lasagna, steamed veggies and rice long enough to be polite.

She lifted the saucer of vegetables. “I’m on a diet. I don’t want to get fat. But, um, I wonder if I could have a bit of lasagna?”

I offered my plate, and she scooped a bit of lasagna with her fork and put it into her mouth. My stomach growled, but I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. I’ve got to go look for Ivy. Before I could act on the thought, Trisha looked at me worriedly and asked if there was something wrong with the food. Not wanting to make her feel bad after she’d been so nice, I settled back down on the ground and dug in. Swallowing a mouthful, I said: “Thanks again. You didn’t have to do this.”

She shook her head. “It’s the least I could do after you spoke up for me with Ian.”

“Ivy spoke up for you first,” I pointed out. “Have you seen her, by the way? Is she coming here?” Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to see her, even if I ran the risk of getting the cold shoulder again.

“She’s at the restaurant with the others,” Trisha replied, picking at her veggies. “I don’t really know if she’s coming; she and Ian were talking pretty seriously when I left.”

Ian again. My heart sank, and the food seemed to lose a bit of its flavor. Then she set her saucer down on her lap and sighed. “Ivy’s gorgeous, isn’t she?” she said wistfully. “She kind of reminds me of my sister. Ate Megan’s gorgeous too, and confident and popular. Half the boys in her school are in love with her. She changes boyfriends like she changes clothes, but that doesn’t seem to bother them. Sometimes I wish I could be like her, and sometimes I think I—” She stopped and stared at her lap, blushing deeply.

I relaxed, realizing she wasn’t talking about their actual ages. “Ivy isn’t like that.”

The look she gave me clearly said I’d heard that one before. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because I know her,” I answered, quelling a flash of irritation. Then something in my mind went click. I know her. Maybe I don’t know a lot about her, but I know her. She’s my best friend. I know her—and she knows me—better than anyone, so maybe I should just quit speculating and relying on others’ opinions, and…simply…trust her.

Yup, another blinding flash of the obvious, but it felt like a revelation to me. I had no time to explore it further though, because Trisha was talking again. “Excuse me, what?”

“I said she’s lucky to have you as a boyfriend. I hope I could be as lucky as her.”

“I don’t see why not. You’re pretty cute yourself,” I said, feeling as if I was counseling Reese.

She blushed again and smiled. “You think I might find someone like you some day?” she said, tucking her curls back behind one ear.

“Depends on how many guys out there fit the description—”

“I hope so for your sake, because this one’s already taken,” a glass-edged voice interrupted from behind us, causing my heart to slam against my ribs. Ivy stood not far away, holding a plate in each hand, a couple of Coke cans cradled in her arms. There was no point in wondering how much of our conversation she’d heard; judging from the ice crystals forming in the air, it was apparent she’d heard enough. I swallowed. Man, she looked pissed.

She walked over and set the plates and soda cans on the ground, her lips twisting upward in a mocking smile. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” she said in a voice that bore as much resemblance to her earlier sweet façade as arsenic trioxide to sugar crystals. “I just came by to give Miguel this—” she gestured toward one of the plates “—but I see he doesn’t need it after all.”

“It’s not what you think—” I started, but was cut off when her gaze, sharp with hurt and angry betrayal, slashed at me.

“Save it,” she snapped as she rose to her feet. “It’s okay, Trisha,” she said dully. “If you ask him, he’ll tell you the truth, and everything will be okay.”

Then she whirled and rushed off, nearly breaking into a run. “Wait!” I shoved my plate away and jumped up, grabbing my sketchbook and pencils on the way. “Ivy, wait up!”

I nearly crashed into Reese who was coming off the path. “Hey, watch it!” she exclaimed.

“Where’d she go?”

She pointed in the direction of the restaurant. “Kuya, what—”

“Stay with Trisha,” I instructed before taking off. When I got to the restaurant, I caught sight of Orion’s and Bella’s bewildered faces as they sat smoking round a table, Morisato’s placid gaze, and Adrian’s grin. “Where?” was all I managed between pants.

“Thataway.” Adrian pointed toward the front door. As I hurried off, I heard Orion’s eager voice rising in question as he scented new drama of some sort.

At first glance, the parking lot appeared devoid of life except for a flock of sparrows pecking on the ground in search of lunch and a watchful cat in search of the same. Looking around, I found our bus parked on one side. Raised voices were coming from the other side of the bus, one of which sounded distinctly like Ivy’s. Making a beeline for the bus, I nearly collided with the bus driver who came storming round the other side. Then Ivy appeared, with her arms hugging her chest and an aggravated expression on her face. She froze when she saw me, then her scowl deepened. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be inside explaining things to Trisha?”

“I told you, it’s not what you think. She was only—”

She raised a hand. “Stop. I don’t want to hear it right now. Not until I—can you believe he won’t give me a cigarette? Not even one lousy stick?”

I followed the direction of her glare just in time to catch sight of the driver giving her a disgusted look before disappearing into the hotel. “I think he might have a thing about letting minors smoke,” I said dryly.

She turned her glare on me. “I am not a minor, and right now, I don’t give a damn who knows. Oh, fuck this.”

She turned and began striding purposefully down the street. After a surprised pause, I caught up with her. “Where’re you going?”

“Out of this snooty subdivision to buy some cigarettes,” she replied, staring straight ahead. “We passed a Mini-stop somewhere back there. I need a smoke.”

Hiding a smile, I stuck a hand in my pocket and matched my pace to hers. “Did you bring an ID along?” I asked blandly. To her credit, she didn’t slow down, although she did blink as if it had only just occurred to her. “Okay, how about money? You must have brought some with you,” I added, beginning to enjoy myself. This time, her footsteps faltered, and she sent me a hopeful look underneath her lashes. “Nope, no can do,” I said lightly. “I look just as much like a minor as you do.”

Her shoulders slumped in defeat and her feet began to drag. “Damn. This just—just—”

“Sucks,” I finished for her, and had the pleasure of seeing her lips turn up in a reluctant but genuine smile.

We strolled aimlessly for a while in a silence that, while it wasn’t completely comfortable, wasn’t as thick with tension as before. The streets contained more empty lots than houses but the houses were palatial, and soon Ivy had stopped staring fixedly ahead and was looking at the mansions with wide-eyed fascination. Then she began to call my attention to some interesting features, and the remaining tension began to melt away. I can’t tell you much about the houses, because frankly, I can barely remember them. All my senses were focused on her—her voice, the way she moved, the childlike wonder and curiosity on her face.

We came to another empty lot beside yet another mansion, but this lot had a spindly-looking tree growing in front. Without a word, we headed toward the shade it offered. As Ivy dabbed at the sweat on her brow, I dug in my pocket for my handkerchief and offered it to her. She took it hesitantly, then blurted out: “Migs, why are you really here?”

“Trying to keep you from getting lost.” She looked at me almost pleadingly, and both my flippancy and my defenses crumbled. “Um, I wanted to thank you. For this.” I showed her the sketchbook and pencils.

“Oh,” she said unenthusiastically. “It’s nothing. I just thought you might get bored at a shoot, and I’d heard Belle Giardino had some interesting architecture, so…” With a shrug, she took the sketchbook from me and flipped through its pages. “You’re really talented, you know that?” she said, looking up at me with soft eyes.

I smiled. “Yup, but you’re welcome to try and convince me anytime.”

She laughed a little, then her mirth died away. “You should show Trisha this,” she mumbled, staring at the sketchbook.

“Why?” I asked, honestly confused.

Shrugging again, she returned the sketchbook and presented her profile to me. “You told Adrian about us. He told me right after spouting some freaky warning to stop screwing around. Whatever the hell that meant.” She frowned in remembered annoyance.

I took a deep breath. “Listen, I’m sorry about what I said earlier. I didn’t mean—”

She shook her head. “No, you’re right. About everything. About me. I was acting crazy, and worse, I’d gotten you and your sister involved in my mess.”

“It was my idea,” I reminded her.

“But I could have set everyone straight myself if I really wanted to.” She faced me, her arms coming up to hug herself again. “The truth is, I wanted to keep Ian off my back. I’d been warned about his reputation for pushing things with his female leads and making trouble for them, but I didn’t want to tell him off and make things too awkward between us. So when you, ah, came up with your idea, I…I just took advantage.”

She’s not interested in him! The relief that swamped over me was quickly followed by annoyance. That jerk was trying to steal her away! Still caught up in the memory of the two of them together, I heard myself say, “You sure didn’t look like you were trying too hard to keep him off your back.”

She glanced at me sharply. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I was watching you guys. You weren’t exactly pushing him away.” Realizing I’d just revealed my ignorant-hick-from-the-boondocks side, I swallowed the rest of my words and pushed my glasses up to hide my humiliation.

An indignant expression replaced her perplexed one. “Miguel Alejandro Santillan! That was work!” she exclaimed, planting her hands upon her hips. “We were just acting out the scene Orion wanted us to play. There’s less than nothing between Ian and me, no matter what it looks like on-camera. You yourself already pointed out how fake I was. I mean, Jesus!” She threw her hands up in exasperation.

Chastened, I stared down at the ground and muttered, “I know, I know.”

She stepped closer and laid her hand on the side of my face, lifting it until our eyes met. “It really bothered you that much?”

I said nothing. When she was this near me, touching me, she could easily lay bare everything inside me. “Migs, I promised you, didn’t I?” she went on. “When I finally find someone I want to be with like that, I’ll tell you first. I’m flighty and neurotic and unreliable and immature, but I never break a promise. Especially to you.”

Her words filled me like my next breath, but that wasn’t what had captivated me. It was the tenderness in her eyes. Tenderness, warmth—and total honesty. “I know,” I said again as a tingling sense of hope sparked to life inside me. Is this what Reese, Adrian and Lolo Simon see in her?

Her eyebrow quirked upward in a flash of humor. “You do, huh? How can I be sure you’re not just keeping an eye out for a scoop to send to some trashy tabloid—”

“I know because you’re real when you’re with me.” I caught her hand as she pulled it away. “You’re yourself when you’re around me. I’m sorry I didn’t realize it sooner,” I said quietly, meaning every word.

She exhaled and turned away, tugging her hand away and wrapping both arms around her middle again. “I used you, Migs. Don’t you get it? I used you and Reese to help me lie to people, and I’ve forced you to lie yourself. I never wanted to—I’m so sorry—”

“It was my idea, you know,” I repeated, disconcerted by the way she kept trying to take all the blame. “Wait a minute, is this the reason you were avoiding me?”

She nodded and crouched down on the ground, her hair cascading around her like a waterfall. “I thought if I kept my distance, I wouldn’t have to take advantage of you so much. It sounds kind of stupid now, doesn’t it?” she added with a weak laugh.

“Oh jeez,” I groaned, raking my hand through my hair. “Ivy, you are not using me. You can’t use someone who is a totally aware, totally willing, one-hundred-and-ten percent active participant. In fact, I instigated it, if you recall.” And regretting I ever did, if it resulted in her beating herself up over it.

She craned her neck and gave me a strange look before dropping her gaze. “I also thought that maybe you were regretting getting into this whole ‘couple’ thing. But it’s not too late.” She jumped up and spun around to face me. “You can tell Trisha the truth about us, if you haven’t already. I’m sure she’ll understand. Let’s go back now and—”

“Hold it!” I grabbed her arm before she could take off. “What the heck does Trisha have to do with this?”

This time, the look she turned on me was clouded with hurt and resignation. “You’re interested in her, right? Hey, I completely understand. She’s nice, unpretentious, rich, comes from one of the best families and, like you said, she’s pretty cute. Hell, you’d have to be brain-dead not to be interested.”

My jaw dropped as it finally hit me: she was jealous. At the same time I was agonizing over the thought of her and Ian together, she was feeling exactly the same way about Trisha and me. It was an idea I had to bend my mind around. Ivy—nutty, vibrant, beautiful Ivy who had X number of guys falling at her feet—was jealous of another girl because I might like her. The spark of hope went nova and threatened to burst out of my skin, beginning with the wide, sappy grin forming on my face.

Which, judging from her scowl and attempt to pull her arm away, was not something she appreciated. I let my hand slide down to her wrist before tightening my grip and gradually drawing her closer. “Ivy, I’m not interested in Trisha,” I informed her. “I don’t know where you got that crazy idea.”

“It’s not crazy,” she protested, still trying to twist her wrist free. “I saw the way she—and I heard you two talking and—will you let go? Have you been drinking again?”

Ignoring her last question, I pulled her closer and asked conversationally, “So tell me, why do you think I’m interested in her?”

“I already told you!” she countered desperately, giving ground inch by inch. “You said she was cute but you never even—you know what? Forget it. This was a stupid idea. I must have caught some kind of bug that makes me sneeze stupid ideas—”

“Ivy.” At that, she went still. I let go of her wrist, but she didn’t move away. She was so close I could see the delicate flush rising up her throat and face. Then she lifted her eyes, and I was caught. Her eyes were wide and fearful. What was she so afraid of? “It’s not Trisha I’m interested in,” I admitted over the pounding in my own chest.

Her eyes grew even wider as my meaning sunk in, and she licked her lips nervously. “You didn’t even notice me,” she whispered. “I mean, I did my makeup myself,” she added with a forced laugh. “At least I could get some feedback, you know?”

And that’s when I learned one of life’s great truths: A female, no matter how gorgeous, will always need to be told how attractive she is. I covered my face with my hands, gouging myself on the forehead with the corner of my sketchbook in the process. “Oh man. Ivy, you are way beyond cute,” I groaned through my hands.

“Gosh, thanks,” she replied sarcastically. “Your sincerity warms my heart.”

I took a deep breath and laid a hand on her shoulder, only to pull away again as if burned when I encountered the creamy smoothness of her skin. “I am sincere,” I insisted through clenched teeth. “I just couldn’t tell you because—because—”

“Because?” She leaned forward, obviously relishing the way the tables had turned. “Because what? Come on, say it, Migs. Spit it out.”

“Because you’re too beautiful, okay?” I blurted, making her blink. “You look like you belong in a movie or a magazine with someone like Ian. Not in normal, ordinary life with—with someone like me,” I continued miserably when spontaneous combustion failed to come to my aid. “You look like a stranger, not Ivy—and I’d rather have Ivy than anyone else. How’s that for a stupid idea?”

She stared at me until I began to squirm. Then she smiled sweetly, drew back her arm, and punched me in the gut. “Ooof!” I doubled over, clutching my middle. Her blow wasn’t that hard, but it caught me by surprise. “What was that for?” I demanded as I straightened gingerly.

She tossed her hair back and grinned. “For being a damned melodramatic fool.”

“Excuse me? Melodramatic?”

“Yes, you idiot!” she said, laughing. “You said so yourself, I’m me when I’m with you. That won’t change just because I got a new hairstyle, and put on makeup and a fancy dress and fancy shoes, and started talking with a weird accent. No matter what I look like or sound like or pretend to be, Migs, I’ll always be your Ivy.”

We both went absolutely still as her words died away in the humid, unmoving air. Her smile faded, and something akin to panic took its place. “I-I’ll always be the Ivy you know. That’s what I meant. It came out wrong, but you get it, right?” she babbled, her hands fluttering about like startled birds. “I-I’m just trying to say that I won’t up and change on you. At least, not without warning you first. Because you’re my best friend, you know? One of my best friends. I mean, you’re really important to me, and—”

“It’s okay. I get it,” I said in a voice I barely recognized. The whole world seemed full of electricity, my head felt as if it was about to fly off, the rest of me was shaking so hard by all rights I should have been rattling, and I was only half-aware that I was leaning closer and closer to her.

Or was it Ivy who was leaning closer to me? I couldn’t tell. I was too preoccupied with her lips—her perfect pink lips that had haunted me day and night since the moment I first saw her. “You do?” she sighed, her breath warming my mouth. “That’s good. Because I have no idea what the hell I just said.”

I think you just told me that you like me. Oh, and I love you right back.

With that thought like a song in my head, I smiled, then closed my eyes and kissed her.

And God, it blew my mind.

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 8

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