Q. 8: Your first kiss! Ohmigaaawd! What was it like? – IVY

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 8

IVY

You know what’s weird? This happened around five, six years ago, but I still get that floaty, high-as-the-sky feeling every time I think about our first kiss. Our first kisses. We kissed three times that day and I consider them all first kisses, so we had three first kisses. And don’t bother confirming this with Migs, because all you’re going to get is a snarky comment about how I’m an English major, and English majors can’t count.

What’s it like? Mmmm. You know that song from the ‘60s? The one that goes na-na-na-na-na…if you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss. Cher did a revival of it. The Shoop Shoop Song, yeah. Well, that day. I finally understood what that song meant. The way he kisses, it’s like everything I love about him, everything that makes him Miguel, is in his kiss. Sometimes he starts out sweet and oh so gentle, and sometimes he’s so infuriatingly slow and deliberate that it drives me crazy. But then this heat builds up, and soon all I can do is hold on tight and enjoy the ride. He gives himself—all of himself—in his kiss. More than his technique, it’s his honesty that makes his kisses so amazing.

And I should know. I was hardly a kissing virgin back then. My first kiss was stolen from me when I was six by our neighbor’s eight-year-old son during a birthday party, and as you can expect, it was a cold, sticky mess that left the taste of hotdogs on my mouth. Ew. There were other guys after that—not a lot, I admit, but there’d been one or two who were pretty good kissers. And there’d been Jeff, of course. He definitely put a lot of effort into kissing, I’ll give him that.

But the instant Miguel’s lips touched mine, it was like all those previous kisses happened to some other girl in the distant past. It was…oh dear, I’m calling myself a writer and here I am running out of words to describe Migs’ kisses. They made my heart ache. They weren’t practiced or experienced, but they seared through my emotional barriers and settled into a place deep inside me that no kiss had ever reached before. They made my knees weak, my toes curl, my insides melt—the whole package deal of clichés. They were the kind of kisses every girl deserves to experience at least once in her lifetime.

They also turned my world upside down. And here’s the answer to the question you asked a while back: that was when I finally realized—no, finally admitted to myself—no, finally let myself see that I had fallen in love with Migs.

Ka-boom! God! Can you imagine what that felt like? After months of merrily deluding myself that my feelings for him were platonic, even downright sisterly? Then with just three kisses, I went from “oh, I’m glad we’re friends again, I don’t even know why I was so upset about him and Trisha being together” to “oh my God, I’ve never felt like this before”, to “oh my God, it wasn’t a fluke, I’ve got it bad”, and finally to “oh my God, this is it, I’m in love.”

I felt as if I’d been shaken awake from a long and confusing dream. Everything had changed so fast. I was dazed and at a loss, looking around and wondering why the sky was still blue, why the houses hadn’t been stood on their roofs, why the passing cars weren’t promenading through the air, why the people around me were acting as if I was still the same person I’d been that morning. I wasn’t the same. I was in love with Miguel. My best friend. The boy I’d been thinking of non-stop for months, whom I’d been dreaming of far more often than I was willing to admit, whom I’d instinctively turned to for comfort from the very beginning, who stayed with me and held my hand when I needed him most. The boy who made silver roses for my hair, who brought me to life just by being near me, who was one of the best human beings I’d ever met. The boy who kissed me as if I was the missing fragment of his soul.

I was in love with Migs. And while we’re on the subject of old songs, it was the end of the world as I knew it.

After he and Nay Loring had disappeared, I made my way back to our apartment, immersed in a kind of rosy haze. I couldn’t feel the weight of my bag pulling on my shoulder or my suitcase dragging on my arm or the concrete driveway underneath my feet. For all I knew, I could have been bobbing eight feet in the air like a balloon on a string. My body was tired, which was normal after a shoot, but I was only vaguely aware of it. The rest of me felt so light and free I could have danced up a storm until the wee hours of the morning. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d always suspected that most of the stuff I’d heard about this love thing was nothing but hype, even back when I’d been with Jeff, but now I knew better. Now I knew.

Our little kitchen looked as if it had been in a bar fight with the entire fruit-and-vegetable section of the local market. Egg shells and packets of spices were scattered amongst the piles, bundles and scraps of vegetation. Virtually every pot, pan and kitchen utensil we owned was piled in the sink. Lola herself was standing at the stove stirring something in a pot, and the smell of stewed vegetables, fried fish and Lolo’s Camels permeated the apartment. I took a deep breath, and for a moment I was back in my grandparents’ house in our hometown again.

Lola turned and gave me a smile. “Hello, ineng. How did your day go? Have you had dinner yet? We were just about to sit down and eat, so come and join us.”

“Sure thing,” I replied cheerfully. “Just let me take a shower first. Where’s Lolo?”

“What’s that? Oh, our firefly’s back,” Lolo said as he emerged from our room. “So how did it go at work? Break any hearts today?”

“Maybe one or two,” I tossed lightly over my shoulder as I dumped my bag and suitcase on the floor in Erwin’s room and went to fetch my towel. Stopping halfway into the bathroom, I hugged the doorjamb and announced, “Actually, while I can’t guarantee the condition of a few people’s hearts, I would like to assure you that mine is completely intact.” Smiling at the startled looks on my grandparents’ faces, I peeled myself off the doorjamb, pirouetted into the bathroom and shut the door.

I’m in love with Migs. My mind sang out the words as I stood underneath the spray, letting the water patter against my face. The clarity that came over me had me reeling inside, and like a child let loose inside an amusement park after ages spent gazing at it from afar, I explored my memories of him and of us with brand new eyes. All at once, everything about our relationship that had confused or frightened me made sense. That feeling of safety and belonging whenever I was with him. My physical awareness of him and the electricity that crackled between us that was far from platonic. The flashes of irritation whenever I heard he’d been with Lala or some other girl. Oh God, Lala. Ugh. No wonder the thought of that prissy little baggage turned my stomach. If she thought I was going to let her lay a grasping finger on Migs—

And oh God, no wonder I couldn’t get anyone to believe my constant denials about my feelings for him. The truth must have been scrawled all over my face, pitifully obvious to everyone except me. Just a one-sided crush, my non-existent ass. The attraction between us had never been one-sided. I knew that now. I’d loved him from the start, ever since that summer afternoon at the Lagoon when he decided to stay and listen to a strange girl’s tale of woe instead of fleeing the first chance he got. This constant wanting to be with him, wanting to make him happy, wanting to be somebody he could be happy with—wanting him with every fiber of my being—how could it have been anything but love?

And how could I have been such a blind, cotton-headed idiot to not realize it sooner?

A knock on the door interrupted my ruminations. “Ineng, aren’t you done yet? We’re waiting for you, you know,” Lola said, while in the background I could hear the muffled thump of a hand making sharp contact with the table and Lolo grumbling, “She’s doing the laundry in there, I tell you.”

I became aware that I’d spent the last five minutes just standing there, cradling my pink shower scrub to my chest while honey-scented foam dripped down my elbows. “I’m almost done,” I called out as I turned the tap.

For now, I decided, this was enough. Later, I would face the repercussions of this realization. Later, I would deal with the thousand and one reasons it couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t work. Later, I would figure it all out. Later, later, later. But for now…for now, I wanted to explore and celebrate my feelings for him. I wanted to keep this nugget of truth to myself before anyone else found it and picked it apart. For now, I had this, and no dour warnings from well-intentioned colleagues or the knowledge of the hopelessness of it all and of the inevitable heartbreak in store for me—

I opened the bathroom door and was met by Tito Julio’s leer. “Don’t bother getting dressed, Angel. We’re starving here as it is,” he said in the tone of an exasperated older brother prodding a dawdling younger sibling.

—or the presence of creepy uncles with eyes that wandered in a way that made me want to shower all over again was going to take away the joy I felt at knowing I loved Migs.

Dinner was a light and easy affair. Relatively speaking. Lola somehow managed to keep her probing into the embarrassing parts of my life to a minimum, contenting herself with shooting faintly astonished looks in my direction and murmuring the occasional, “Is that so?” Then again, I did kind of dominate the conversation with my play-by-play recollection of Miguel’s and Reese’s first time at a photo shoot—minus the part about Migs and I pretending to be a couple, our fight leading up to our first kiss, his highly entertaining reaction to Lola’s theory about food and sex, our near-kissing scene, and his confrontation with Orion. In short, all the really interesting parts.

As a major plus, after that initial remark about my unclothed state, Tito Julio barely said a word. No innuendoes disguised as innocent teasing, no reaching underneath the table to touch my legs, no humiliating jabs at my posing as a kid. I watched him warily at first, but the most he did was give me this weird, dark stare. Other than that, he was fairly well-behaved, so I suppose I just assumed he was in some strangely subdued mood and could be considered harmless for the moment. Or more likely, I was too self-absorbed and too damned happy to keep my guard up around him.

You know what? That part totally mystified me. How happy I felt, I mean. Ever since Migs kissed me underneath the tree, I’d focused my attention mostly inward, bracing myself for the panic and despair that should have logically followed the realization that I’d gone and fallen for the one guy I couldn’t have. And for the most part, I was right. The fear and despair were there, lurking in the shadowy corners of my mind. But the pure joy of it, of knowing I loved Migs—that, I hadn’t anticipated at all. I had no idea I could feel so wonderfully alive, and I found myself furtively checking my reflection in the mirror and on various shiny surfaces to make sure I wasn’t blazing like a Christmas tree.

I love him, I love him, I love him, I chanted to myself as I collected the dirty dishes and added these to the mountain rising in the sink, while Lolo and Tito Julio adjourned to the balcony. I love him, and guess what? I have reason to believe that Migs likes me, too. I ducked my head to conceal my expression, but apparently I wasn’t quick enough. “Dear, you look flushed. Are you sure you’re all right?” Lola asked.

“Yes!” I cleared my throat and toned down my chirpiness levels. “Yes, I’m okay. Here, let me take those.”

I took the serving bowls and added these to the less precipitous slopes, ignoring the way my grandmother’s gaze was following me. “Well, something good must have happened today,” she remarked with frank inquisitiveness.

Does having the guy I love kiss me and ask me out count? Refusing to take the bait, I grinned and said instead, “Lots of thing happened today, some of them weird but most of them good. What are you making here anyway, Lola?”

“Oh, some atchara, ube halaya and leche flan to give to your Tita Mila and her family. And some of those are for your Lolo’s old high school friends for when we have dinner with them tomorrow.” She gestured toward the row of bottles on one end of the kitchen counter, some of which were filled with purple pudding while the others contained shredded, pickled carrots and radishes. I’d already seen the oblong aluminum pans of golden leche flan lining a shelfin our refrigerator. “I’ve just about finished here. I can help you clean up, ineng, if you want me to.”

“No, that’s okay, I’ll do it. Just let me take a break first,” I said, amused at my Lola’s roundabout way of telling me to do the dishes. As I retrieved my cigarette case, my gaze fell upon the bottles on the counter again. “You sure made a lot of these. Just how many of Lolo’s friends are you guys seeing tomorrow?”

Taking a page from my book, Lola merely smiled. “Oh, not all of these will be given to friends, but I’m hoping to change that.”

I raised an eyebrow at that, but Lola had already settled into a chair with a cup of herbal tea and a copy of Good Housekeeping, looking as though nothing short of a court order would make her utter another word on the subject. With a shrug, I headed out to the balcony for the smoke I’d been deprived of all day, perching on the railing a safe distance away from my uncle. In between puffs, I glanced out into the dark in the direction of Miguel’s house. I wondered if he and Reese had made it though the parental blockade. Although I hadn’t heard any raised voices coming from their house, I couldn’t help recall how worried Reese had been on the way home. And there’d been that grim expression on Nay Loring’s face when she’d told Miguel to come inside.

It wouldn’t hurt to make sure. I pulled out my phone and sent a quick “hey, r u guys ok? was yr mom srsly mad?” to Reese. A minute later, her reply came: “we’re ok. going 2 sleep now, i’m tired.” I sighed in relief, then grinned to myself. Well, no wonder she was tired. It had been a busy day for Reese, and I was pretty impressed with the easy way she’d handled meeting all those people, give or take a few star-struck moments around Ian. She’d even made friends with both Orion and Trisha, and I knew she and Trisha had agreed to keep in touch. And to think, they’d just met each other that day. That girl’s got people skills all right; she’s as outgoing and sociable as her brother is not.

Speaking of her brother… I poised my thumb over the keypad, then had to lower my phone again and take a couple more drags on my cigarette to calm the butterflies in my stomach. Jesus, how about that? Just the thought of sending Migs a text message was making me nervous. Hell, just looking him in the eye and telling him how cool I thought he’d been standing up to Orion had taken every ounce of courage I had. I sincerely hoped these schoolgirl-worthy spasms of shyness weren’t permanent.

Come on, girl, get it together. It’s not like you’ve never done this before. With that, I applied myself to the grueling task of texting Migs. “hi,” I began. “r u ok?” Oh God, I sounded like I was talking to some frail, old guy who’d just fainted in the middle of the street. I erased the last sentence and tried again. “just wntd to check if u’re ok.” I clicked “send” then proceeded to suck an entire cigarette down to the filter as I waited for his reply. What was taking him so long? Maybe he was already asleep? I was just about to light another stick when my phone beeped, startling me into nearly dropping both my lighter and phone.

“i’m ok. u?”

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. He was okay. And I was officially blissed out. “nevr bettr,” I typed back. “jst a bit tired. i bet u r 2. i’ll see u on fri, k?”A wave of uncertainty washed over me. Did I sound too eager? I didn’t want to pressure him or anything. But then, I also wanted to let him know how much I was looking forward to our date. Oh my God, was this real? I hadn’t dreamt that moment when he’d asked me out, had I?

Or maybe I should play it cool. Yeah. Because cute, sweet guys like Migs were falling out of trees to ask me out.

Oh, to hell with this. Truth was, I was looking forward to Friday; there was no point in hiding it. I sent the message before I could change my mind.

His reply took nearly as long as his first. “btw, i fixed ur lola’s phone. i’ll give it back tom. evening.”

“hey, thanx! she & lolo won’t b here but i’ll b sure 2 tell her.”

“good nyt, ivy.”

I stuck my tongue out at my phone. Sheesh, would it kill him to be a little more expressive? Oh well, he must really be tired. “good nyt, migs,” I sent back. My Migs, I thought experimentally, letting myself savor the words for the first time, and nearly fell off the railing in my effort to keep my heart palpitations in check.

A hand suddenly clamped around my arm and dragged me off the railing while another pried my phone out of my fingers. I found myself looking into Tito Julio’s face, every drop of good feeling swallowed up by a surge of bile-flavored fear. With a faint sneer, he stepped back out of reach and tossed my phone up and down. “Who’s this, Angel?” he asked casually, but with an undertone in his voice that sent a chill down my spine.

“None of your business,” I snapped, only then noticing that Lolo was gone and that I was alone with my uncle on the balcony. “Give that back.”

He raised my phone out of my reach when I tried to snatch it back. “Is it Migs? You were texting him, weren’t you?”

“Like I said, it’s none of your business.”

He stared at me, his expression as dark and unreadable as it had been during dinner. Then, switching tactics, he reached out and cupped my cheek, causing me to recoil from him reflexively. “Stay out here with me tonight, when the folks go to sleep. We haven’t gotten a chance to really talk. You know, like old times. I miss you, Angel.”

“You must be fucking delirious.”

His eyes narrowed. “Bet if I were Four-Eyes, you’d be crawling all over me by now.”

“You keep Miguel out of this.” I tried to spit out the words, but my voice came out thin and shaky. His stare seemed solid enough to reach into my throat and cut off my air, and I knew I couldn’t let him touch me again. Knowing that he wouldn’t dare do anything while his parents were in the vicinity, I began hopping up and down and yelling in a whiny, childish voice, “Tito, give me back my phone! Give it back, give it back, give it back! Lola! Tito Julio took my phone and won’t give it back!”

“Here now, what’s all this racket?” Lolo appeared with a fresh bowl of ice and glowered at us. “What are you, a pair of eight-year-olds? Julio, give her back her damned phone and go buy some more gin.”

Tito Julio eyed me malevolently as he handed me back my phone, and I wasted no time in skedaddling out of there, taking refuge behind the mountain of dirty dishware in the sink. However, my encounter with my uncle seemed to have sapped most of my energy. Too tired to finish all the washing, I filled the pots and pans with water instead to soak, promising Lola I’d deal with them tomorrow. The errand Lolo had sent Tito Julio on bought me some peace and quiet, and once again I was able to escape into the safety of Erwin’s room, making sure to lock the door and turn off the lights.

As tired as I was, though, I found it hard to fall asleep. But it wasn’t like the past sleepless nights. Instead of being hounded by the toxic stew of my psychoses, I lay in Erwin’s bed and stared up into the darkness as the events of the last twenty-four hours crowded sleep out of my mind. I thought of the pure possessiveness in Miguel’s face when he’d pulled me close and announced to everyone that he and I were together. I thought of the way he came after me when I’d run from him and Trisha, appalled at the rawness of the emotions that were spilling out of me. I recalled the way he looked at me, smiled at me, touched me, made me laugh—I’d never be able to look at Alvin again without cracking up. I pictured him wearing that blue and silver shirt and those too-loose khaki pants, a combination of coolly good-looking and adorably awkward that ought to be declared dangerous to people with heart conditions. And I remembered the way he kissed me, all dark fire wrapped in melting sweetness, like chocolate from heaven.

It’s not Trisha I’m interested in.

Turning over on my side, I tugged the pillow down and squeezed it tight. Oh my God, the look in his eyes when he said that. And that time when Orion had tried to make us do a kissing scene. Migs was just—he’d made me feel so—I mean, I was putty in his hands. If he’d only known it, his ego would be set for life.

God, I thought with a dreamy sigh, what a day.

“Well, I hope you’re not doing anything more messed up with that boy. You can’t possibly be that crazy. I mean, you and this kid? Please. People would eat you alive.” Miss Belle’s voice spoke up again, dispelling the pink fog and floating hearts in my head. “Plus, you’ve got your contract to think about. Orion may be willing to forgive anything for the sake of romance, but not the Dragon Lady. And definitely not Morisato.”

Thank you, oh Voice of Reality, but I already knew that. There was not a single fucking argument anyone could throw at me that I didn’t already know. I could hear them inside my head like a cloud of whining mosquitoes. But I wasn’t ready to listen yet. Not yet.

“Honest to God, Ivy, out of all the guys in that huge campus, you just had to pick the one guy who’s totally inappropriate for you, huh?”

I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I saw myself once again looking at Miss Belle’s reflection in the mirror and struggling not to say the words, only too aware of how lame they sounded. Throwing the pillow off, I sat up and pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes. Oh, hell no. I was not going to let this get to me yet. Not yet. I wanted time. I didn’t have to tell anyone about this, least of all Migs. Nobody else had to be saddled with my feelings. But just once, I wanted a chance to be honest with myself about something and not have to suppress my feelings or deny them the instant they came up. I wanted…I wanted a chance to see what it could have been like for us, before I turned him down and ruined everything. I wanted a chance to pretend for a while that he could be mine, knowing now that I was his.

Simply, completely, irrevocably his.

Wiping my nose on my shirt sleeve, I crawled toward my bag and felt for the key-chain he’d given me months ago. Working by the narrow beam of light from the little red flashlight, I opened my suitcase in search of my newest treasure: the handkerchief Migs had given me earlier, which I had buried in the depths of my suitcase as a means to deter him in case he asked for it back. I pressed the neatly folded square of white cloth against my nose and breathed in deeply. His scent filled me, that unique blend of soap and cologne mixed with what I call Migs-smell. Smiling, I closed both hands over the handkerchief and held it to my chest. Honestly, all I needed was to hiss “preciousssss” and the image of pitiable covetousness would be complete.

I went over to Erwin’s desk and, with the flashlight clamped between my teeth, grabbed a piece of note paper and a pen, wrote down the date, then the words “Belle Giardino”, then in all caps: “FIRST TIME MIGS AND I KISSED.” Then I took several more sheets of paper and scribbled down the details, committing them further to memory.

When I was done, I tucked the sheets into the folds of the handkerchief, then shone the light this way and that, searching for a box or a container of some kind. Then I thought of the empty can that was all that remained of Sharm’s Danish cookies. She’d decided it was too pretty to throw out, so we stuck it in one of the kitchen cabinets vowing to reuse it, then promptly forgot about it. Last time I checked it was still there.

I’d gotten as far as the door when I suddenly remembered a tiny, insignificant detail: my uncle was still out there, probably well on his way to getting piss-ass drunk, if he wasn’t there already. Tito Julio sober was a nasty enough piece of work. Tito Julio drunk was—

Let’s just say I am never getting anywhere near him drunk ever again.

With a sigh of regret, I decided the can could wait until morning and lay back down on the bed with my treasures—Miguel’s handkerchief held loosely in my hand, the key-chain lying on the pillow beside me. The craziness was waiting for me in my dreams, though. I was back at my grandparents’ house in our untidy little town, standing on the low step in front of our door. The sky was curiously discolored, as though it was neither day nor night but a mixture of both. Migs was standing in our front yard with his back to me, surveying his surroundings while Lolo’s chickens milled around at his feet. Joy surged through me, and I called his name and held my arms out to him. For some reason, I couldn’t go to him myself. I didn’t know why, but it was terribly important that I stayed at my post in front of the door. But when he turned to me, I saw that he was frowning. “This can’t be right,” he said, his expression disappointed and vaguely accusing.

My happiness withered and shame grew in its place. He was right; our house was ugly. The drab, gray cement walls, the lopsided mango tree at the corner of our yard where the goat was tethered, Tito Julio’s pedicab with the flat tire dumped haphazardly to one side, our scraggly santan hedge with the faded, broken garden gnome listing drunkenly in one of the gaps—ugly, ugly. Of course he’d hate it here. And if he hated the view of our house from the outside, then what on earth would he think when he saw what was inside? No matter what, I couldn’t let him in. No matter what, that door behind me had to stay shut. But instead of asking to be let into the house, Migs just walked off, saying he had a class to attend. I looked around again and discovered that our house had been transported to his neighborhood, where it looked even more ramshackle and out-of-place among the nice houses with the painted gates and trimmed front lawns. Then I realized I had to go to class myself but when I tried to follow, the door behind me opened and Tito Julio’s hands grasped at me and dragged me back into the waiting darkness.

I opened my eyes, rolled over onto my stomach, and got a face full of keys and a flashlight. “Ow,” I groaned as I sat up, rubbing the side of my nose that had been smushed by metal. Locating Migs’ handkerchief beside the pillow, I pressed the handkerchief to my nose and let his scent lift my spirits. At least I hadn’t dreamed yesterday up. Not the important bits, anyway.

I found Lola bustling about in the kitchen while Lolo made his way over to the balcony with a cup of coffee and a newspaper tucked under his arm. Seeing no drunken bodies splayed out on our rug, I greeted my grandmother then asked, “Where’s Tito?”

“He already left, dear. He said he had some things to do.”

A great start to the day, I thought, relaxing completely as I headed to the bathroom. My face in the mirror looked wan from lack of sleep, but it was nothing a strong cup of coffee and a cold shower wouldn’t cure. I didn’t have any shoots today anyway, just a meeting with Orion and the others at the office. That is, if they hadn’t spent the night at Belle Giardino having the kind of fun they usually got up to whenever Orion was around.

I went to the kitchen to make my coffee, and fetched the cookie can down from the cabinet while I was at it. It was only after I’d washed and dried the can that I noticed that only Lolo and I were around. “Hey, where’d Lola go?” I asked my grandfather.

Lolo gave the newspaper an irritated shake. “You know your grandmother, how she likes giving foodstuffs away for no good reason. Like she thinks people’d starve without her.”

“Oookaaay.” I let Lolo’s grousing about Lola’s cooking for other people slide. To be honest, I thought it was kind of sweet how my grandfather got jealous whenever Lola cooked for someone other than him and family. “So where is she?” I tried again.

He harrumphed. “Out on her damned goodwill mission. I knew she wasn’t listenin’ when I told her that meddling would do no earthly good. Bah, look at this, another Bureau of Customs official caught in an extortion scam. Corrupt bastards, every last one of them.”

I turned away with a sigh, figuring I’d have better luck winkling an answer from Lola herself. Maybe. I was reaching for a pan de sal from a bowl on the table when Lolo lowered the paper and looked over at me. “I’m surprised you’re still here. I’d have thought you’d be rushing over there yourself right now.”

“Over to where?” I asked, taking a gulp of my coffee.

“Your Miguel’s house,” he answered, causing me to spray coffee all over the table. “Unless it was your idea to have Rosa give them somethin’ to sweeten his mama up,” he added, his eyebrows clumping together above the bridge of his nose.

“Shit!”

Slamming my cup on the table, I started for the door, then stopped and glanced down at my comfy old T-shirt spattered with fresh coffee droplets. Veering into our room, I quickly changed into a more presentable blouse. As I hurried down the stairs, I sternly reminded myself that this was my grandmother, and that she loved me and I loved her, and that I was not to drag her back by the ear and screech at her no matter how much I was tempted to. Holy hell, what is she thinking?!

It felt strange to be entering the gate in the fence. I’d passed through it only once before, and back then I was headed the other way. Now here I was retracing the steps I took when we first came here, still feeling as much an unwanted stranger as before. Trinity gave a happy bark and trod on my feet. Less welcoming was Nay Loring, who stood in the doorway watching me with an unfathomable expression. I recalled how she’d witnessed our moment outside the gate, and couldn’t help but blush.

Would Migs be there? Would things be different between us? Or would it be as if yesterday hadn’t happened? Focus, girl. One thing at a time, I admonished myself, taking a deep, calming breath. “Good morning. Is my Lola here?” I ventured, even though I could hear my grandmother’s voice coming from inside the house.

Nay Loring nodded and reluctantly moved to let me pass. The scene that greeted me as I stepped into the kitchen did nothing at all for my nerves. Ranged around the dining table were three couples. Two of them looked to be in their late forties and mid-fifties, and were dressed in polo shirts and silk blouses, gold watches and pearl and diamond jewelry, looking like those socialite couples who regularly turn up in magazines like Metro. The third pair appeared to be the offspring of one of the older couples. The older of the two was a girl who looked a couple of years younger than me—I mean my real age, of course—with her hair falling in fashionable layers around her shoulders. Beside her, leaning on his elbows on the table, was a boy of around fourteen. There was no sign of Miguel or Reese or their Mama. I could see a resemblance between the younger duo and Reese, though. Except that where Reese’s face was bright with warmth and friendliness, theirs looked about as warm and friendly as a barred window, while the older couples’ smiles looked as if they’d been pasted on with spit.

Standing before them was my grandmother. She was chattering away, seemingly oblivious to her audience’s air of suppressed horror overlaid by a layer of cool civility. On the table were two familiar-looking bottles, one full of shredded pickled vegetables and the other filled with purple pudding. When I came in, the boy was poking at one of the bottles, his mouth twisted in a faint grimace. The whole scene looked more like the interrogation of a prisoner than a visit from a neighbor who had come bearing gifts. Gifts, incidentally, she had slaved all day to make, and which now sat on the table, ignored and unappreciated.

It took me only a moment to take it all in, and it was enough to make my spine stiffen with a twang. My own appearance sent a ripple of shock through the panel of judges. Six jaws dropped and six pairs of eyebrows gained altitude as six pairs of eyes tracked my progress into the house. I’m used to drawing people’s attention, but something told me the stares coming my way were far from admiring.

Except for the boy, who silently mouthed the word “god.” I cast him a look. Nice to know there were some things you could count on in any situation.

“…appreciate how your family has taken such good care of my granddaughter and her friends,” Lola was saying. “I’m so sorry to miss Mrs. Santillan. I wanted to—oh, here’s my granddaughter now. Ivy, say hello to Miguel’s titos and titas. And I understand these two lovely young people are his cousins.”

It didn’t escape my notice that she’d failed to supply any names in her introduction. I clasped my hands together and inclined my head in a little bow. “Good morning,” I intoned, fairly glowing with my Patented Ultra-Realistic Sweet and Wholesome Aura.

Before anyone else could recover from this display, the girl choked out, “You’re Ivy?!”

Her tone rang with surprised dismay. Whoever or whatever she was expecting to answer to the name, I apparently was not it. The little devil on my shoulder egged me on to smile brightly and burble, Surprise! But no, we’re just kidding. I’m her twin sister. Ivy’s at home nursing a hangover from last night’s booze-fest.

The silence took on a bristly quality until it was broken by Lola’s sigh. “That was a little unnecessary, ineng.”

Oops. I cursed my mouth’s regrettable tendency to run off during times of stress. So much for making a good first impression on Miguel’s relations. Speaking of Migs, it would be really peachy if he showed up right now and saved us from this ordeal. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Yes, I’m Ivy. Nice to meet you.”

To her credit, the girl had the grace to look faintly embarrassed at her own rudeness. “Queenie,” one of the society ladies admonished in a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice before turning to me with a smile that strained to lift the corners of her mouth. “It’s lovely to meet you, too…Ivy. Amelia’s told us about you. And your friends, of course.”

Amelia, I thought. Not Migs or Reese, but Amelia.

“It’s just that you look—that is, we were expecting someone much, er, older?” Marilyn went on, the statement-turned-question betraying her bewilderment.

I sighed inwardly. “I’m twenty years old, Ma’am. I just look young for my age.”

“My granddaughter has a certain condition that caused a delay in her physical development,” Lola supplied.

“A condition?” the other lady asked, exchanging glances with Marilyn.

“Oh yes. It’s quite rare, but as you can see, Ivy is completely healthy otherwise.”

“I’m sure they don’t want to hear about my medical history, Lola,” I said with a nervous laugh, feeling a bit like a horse in an auction.

Another look passed between the other lady and Marilyn. “How interesting,” Marilyn murmured, her expression indicating a mild bout of constipation.

“Laura, enough with the cross-examination,” one of the men chided Marilyn—I mean Laura, earning my immediate gratitude. That gratitude lasted about two seconds when he gave me the kind of smile that certain kinds of men describe as “friendly.” “You’re a beautiful girl, Miss,” he told me. I smiled back and inched closer to my grandmother.

Yeah, I know! Pfft, can you believe it? Even Migs has a creepy uncle. What, is there some kind regulation, a quota per family or something? What’re the odds, right?

“Well, what I want to know is how you and Miguel manage to get along at all,” the girl named Queenie spoke up. “I mean, what do you even talk about? I know he’s my cousin and all but he’s, like, a kid. Like this kid here.” She yanked at the boy’s hair, making him yelp and knock her hand away.

“Well, that’s obviously not a problem for her.” Losing interest in the interrogation, the other lady rifled through her purse for her phone. “Sandra darling, I’m returning your call. How are the arrangements going?”

Ignoring the one-sided conversation now occurring at the other side of the table, Queenie inspected her French-manicured fingernails and gave me a smile as fake as any I could produce. “I guess so. Sometimes I forget how smart my cousin is. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, he’s not here right now. I hope you’re not too disappointed.”

I looked at her; she looked at me. In that moment of eye contact, we came to an understanding: I don’t like you, I don’t trust you, and from this point on any further interaction between us will be played out on this chessboard made from solidified dislike, with the pieces carved out of polished mistrust. Just so it’s clear.

Having reached my bullshit threshold for the morning, I put an arm around my grandmother and began steering us toward the door. “We really must go. I apologize for bothering you and—and I hope you enjoy the ube halaya and atchara Lola made. She’s famous in our hometown for her cooking, you know,” I couldn’t resist adding.

I was heading toward the gate behind Lola, holding myself stiffly so as to keep my emotions from bursting out in angry, smoking gobs all over the place, when I heard the screen door bang shut and a voice yell, “Hey, wait up!”

The name’s Ivy, not ‘hey’, I thought as I waited for the boy to come loping over. “Yes?”

“I’m Toby, Miguel’s cousin. My mom’s Laura and my dad’s Gerry. The others are our Auntie Cristy and Uncle Hubert. My mom and Uncle Hubert are the ones you talked to back there. And the obnoxious witch is my sister, unfortunately. And you’re…Ivy?”

“Got that right.” I shook his offered hand, smiling with a little more warmth. He was the first of Miguel’s relatives to actually bother introducing himself, after all.

He seemed to fall into another daze and didn’t notice he hadn’t released my hand until I gently tugged it away. “I can’t believe—wow. Sorry about all that. It’s just that you—you’re not what we expected at all.”

“So I figured,” I said dryly. “What were you expecting exactly?”

He looked slightly cornered. “Uh, you know. When we’d heard about you from Auntie Amelia, we thought you’d be, like…old-looking.”

I sighed. “Yeah, well, I hope you recover from the shock.”

“So you’re really Miguel’s girlfriend?”

My heart flip-flopped. “What if I am?” I asked. Purely out of curiosity, you understand.

“Oh.” Again, he looked thrown. “That’d be grossly unfair.”

“Unfair?”

“Well, yeah. He’s already at the top in terms of academics, and it’s a killer trying to beat his record. Then he puts up his web-designing business and even starts investing, for crying out loud. We thought, hey, at least he’s this dweeby, gigantic-headed nerd with lousy taste in girls. But I guess not if he’s got a girl like you. There’s got to be a limit to how lucky a guy can be, you know what I mean?”

It was my own eyebrows’ turn to scale the heights. “Wait, you mean, it’s a competition? You guys are trying to outdo him?”

Toby shrugged. “Our parents started it. It’s become sort of a family tradition.”

Jesus, what a family. “I don’t think I’m much of a prize,” I murmured, gesturing to indicate my body.

“That’s true,” he agreed so quickly it was rather insulting. “But we’d been imagining you with a hydrocephalic head or stubs for arms or something. You looking like…that just doesn’t subtract as much from Miguel’s score. He even gets bonus points for snagging an older woman, but of course our parents don’t know that,” he added with a grin.

And I can roll over and play dead, too, I thought sourly. “Look, I have to go,” I said out loud, inching toward the gate,then hesitated. “Um, where is he, anyway?”

“Miguel? Oh, he’s gone with Reese to her school to help her enroll for the second semester. That’s the reason we’re here. Auntie Amelia asked us to make sure—”

“Toby, get your butt in here right now!” Queenie barked from the doorway.

In the time it took him to snap back a reply, I’d slipped through the gate and was scuttling back to our apartment, too relieved at having escaped from the Santillans’ less-than-restful company to wonder about what he’d been about to say. In the end, I decided that my grandmother had meant well and that it was too much effort to get mad at her for—what, exactly? For attempting to establish diplomatic ties between us and Migs’ family? For trying to promote neighborliness and general peace and harmony?

“They were rather taken by surprise, weren’t they?”Lola remarked with an expression I’d have described as smugly pleased on anyone else. “That was good. People tend to reveal their true characterswhen taken unawares. I myself thought they were quite gracious but a little, er, preoccupied with appearances. Well, it was certainly an interesting experience meeting them, don’t you think?”

For finding a way to scope out the enemy under the guise of performing a generous act, apparently.

“Yeah. It’s a wonder how Migs turned out so differently,” I replied as I settled down to my overdue breakfast.

“Hmm. I wonder about that.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, glancing at my grandmother.

Lola took a thoughtful sip of tea. “Just that perhaps Miguel isn’t all that different from the rest of his family. There’s a saying, ineng: the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

I considered the implications of that, both in Migs’ case and mine, and shuddered. What a horrible prospect. “Migs isn’t like them,” I protested. “He’s not a phony, for one thing. He’s honest and perceptive and kind and—”

Lola laughed softly, making me blush. “I only meant to say, dear, that perhaps you shouldn’t underestimate your influence on him. It could be you don’t see his relatives’ qualities in him because he’s truly cut from a different cloth. And it could also be that he’s learning to look more deeply precisely because you see him as a person who does.”

I blinked. Oh. I’ve never thought of it that way before.

“After all,” Lola added gently, “isn’t that what love is about? Two people learning to be the kind of person the other sees inside?”

This time, the heat radiating from my face nearly set my pan de sal on fire. “L-love?” I spluttered. “Who said anything about love? I don’t—” I can’t do it. “I’m telling you it’s not—” I can’t deny it anymore. I trailed off and stared miserably at my grandmother, who gave me a knowing but kindly smile. “I don’t think his family likes me much, Lola. Especially his mom,” I found myself confessing, although I conveniently failed to mention the most plausible reason for his family’s dislike. Nevertheless, I was terribly aware of it; it crowded the spaces between us like the huge, reeking elephant it was.

Lola sipped her tea, a veritable doyenne of serenity. “Oh, that’s only because they don’t know you well enough yet, dear.”

“What? Oh…no,” I said, shaking my head. “No, I’m pretty sure that’s not it. I doubt it would make one speck of difference even if they did get to know me better.”

“Nonsense. It would make all the difference in the world.”

“No, it won’t.” I regarded her despairingly, wondering why she seemed just as determined to pay no heed to the glaring wrongness of the whole situation. How was she supposed to tell me what to do about my feelings for Migs if she was just going to dance around the problem and toss pithy proverbs about?

As soon as I’d finished the thought, I realized how unfair I was being. Then, as though she’d read my mind, Lola set her mug down delicately and said, “What will happen will happen, ineng. Just let time do the work it’s supposed to do. I know that you and Miguel care about each other. But whether it’s the kind of caring that will grow into love—well, all I can say is, if it is, then it will take time. Don’t force it or make demands on it. Don’t even try to defend it. Just be patient, and I promise you, dear, everything that is meant to happen will happen in the right place and at the right time.”

Her words were beautiful and moving. Too bad I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, much less how to apply it in my situation. Was she telling me that, because of our age difference, Miguel’s feelings for me weren’t the same as my feelings for him, that I couldn’t and shouldn’t expect anything to happen between us, and that I ought to keep my paws to myself? Well, big surprise there; it was pretty much what everyone else had been telling me. Still, the disappointment felt like a puncture wound, letting out the oxygen I needed to live.

Then something hardened inside me. Not yet, I thought stubbornly. I’m not going to listen to this yet. There’ll be plenty of chances for me to do the right thing later, but right now, I want exactly what Lola and Orion said were supposed to be working on my side: time.

I became aware that my grandmother was watching me, and I quickly mustered a smile for her. “Thanks, Lola. I’ll remember that. Oops, it’s getting late. I’ve got to get moving if I don’t want to be late for our meeting.”

I was in the bathroom about to shower when I heard Lolo’s voice through the door. “Well, you think that did any good?”

With unshakable tranquility, Lola replied, “Oh Simon, only time will tell.”

Speaking of time, our meeting at DM Ross hardly took any at all. It was hard to conduct a meeting when the person handling the agenda—who was, in fact, the agenda—was unable to hold his head upright and moaned continually about the oni dancing inside his skull. When Orion uttered a drawn-out groan of misery and slithered out of the chair and onto the floor, the rest of us decided to adjourn for now. I was doubly glad to find that Black Sugar and his Lady MacBitch were similarly absent. After what I’d gone through at the hands of Miguel’s relatives, I was in no mood to take either Ian’s tiresome attempts to add me to his list of conquests or his girlfriend’s hostility.

A clear, blue sky gilded with fat, white curls greeted me as I exited the building. Smiling in bliss, I set off toward the mall, intending to trawl for cute, non-essential items to waste money on. As I wandered around Glorietta, I found myself constantly thinking about Migs. I passed by shops selling men’s clothing, and imagined him wearing the various outfits I saw, which had me giggling to myself and drawing weird looks from the people around me. A glimpse into a kitchen and dinnerware store made me think about what I could cook for him tonight, which inevitably reminded me of his reaction to Lola’s superstitions about food and sex, which in turn led to the memory of him leaning close and whispering that Lola had been right, so that I ended up clapping my hands to my heated cheeks and drawing weird looks from the people around me.

I browsed through a bookstore and wondered which books Migs would be interested in; the same thing happened in a record store. Computer and gadget shops were utterly hopeless. At the perfume and cosmetics bar, I drifted to the men’s section and went through half a dozen bottles, searching for his cologne. The brief trip through the supermarket to buy dinner ingredients and a few other things reminded me of our shopping trips together. And everywhere I looked I saw couples, which would set me off daydreaming about the two of us together. Even the sight of any male with a lean build, messy hair and glasses had me whipping around, heart jumping, which was just pathetic.

Finally, in a kind of desperation, I entered a gift shop full of plush toys, ceramic figurines, wooden knickknacks, and more ribbons, rhinestones and fake flowers than you could shake a stick at. It was a place Migs wouldn’t be caught dead in. And wouldn’t you know it, I found this adorable, stuffed basset hound with a suction cup on his bottom so you could stick him on top of a shelf or computer monitor with his little legs dangling over the edge. He was just a little bigger than my palm, and wore a tiny pair of spectacles and a blue T-shirt with the word “Geniuz” on it.

Just to make me feel better about the whole thing, I also bought three throw-pillows with funny messages printed on them, one each for Sharm, Erwin and Reese, as well as an ornate picture frame for Lola, an ashtray for Lolo, and a fuzzy, bug-eyed tarsier that you could clip onto a pencil for no discernible reason other than I hate that shop.

When I emerged from the mall, the cheese-curl clouds had grown into a heavy, gray blanket, and a light drizzle had begun to fall. I stared at the sky askance, mentally counted my money, then began trudging toward the train station, although the idea of battling the rush hour hordes was draining away my will to live. As luck would have it, as I was passing by a café I heard someone call my name. A guy was waving at me from a table underneath an awning, a manic grin on his face. The personification of delicate, fragile womanhood—albeit one with a cleavage that looked like it had its own time zone—sat opposite him, never breaking her worshipful stare.

That, as you know, is typical female behavior around Von Garcia, Cosmo’s hottest hunk of the year turned theater actor. Although, you know, it’s really not fair to describe him as though he’d just recently discovered the higher arts. As a child, Von had already been performing onstage, long before he became a Bench model search finalist. And he’s good. No, really, you should go see him perform one of these days, it’ll blow your mind. Believe it or not, there’s more to him than sculpted abs, a square jaw and sexy, Spanish eyes. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy, if a bit of a flake. Von and I are kindred spirits, and yes, I’m aware that I just called the son of a five-star general who owns more property and cars than he knows what to do with a kindred spirit.

I waved back and walked on, but the next instant he was bearing down on me in a rather alarming manner. “Ives, am I glad to see you,” he exclaimed with desperate joviality. “Are you busy? No, don’t rush off yet, please. Come over and join us.”

“No, Von, I have to go home—it’s starting to rain—”

My protests fell on deaf ears as he propelled me toward their table and introduced me to his date as his neighbor’s daughter. Inwardly rolling my eyes at this mile-wide hint, I proceeded to address him as Kuya and spin some elaborate tale as to why his neighbor’s prepubescent daughter was wandering around the shopping district of Makati all alone.

Then he was hustling me off again on the pretext of treating me to a drink. “Well, Kuya, start explaining,” I told him archly as we stood around pretending to peruse the menu.

He heaved a gusty sigh. “It’s Melody. When I met her at that party at Davey’s, I really, honestly thought she could be it. You know, the One. She was just so sweet and vulnerable and wonderful to be with and—well, we hit it off right away.”

“I just bet you did,” I muttered, thinking about that latitudinal bosom. Men.

“But now we—shit, I don’t know what happened. D’you know, before you showed up I was so bored I wanted to go crazy just to have something interesting to do?”

“Uhuh. And what exactly is my role here, pray?”

He grabbed me by the shoulders and stared at me with grim intent. “You’re on your way home, right? I’ll drive you. Neither you nor your toilet paper will get rained on, I swear. Just get me out of here before I really go nuts and start howling like a dog or something.”

“Hey, can I charge people to watch?”

“I’m serious, Ives! Come on, please? Please please please please ple—”

“Wait, wait a minute, let me get this straight.” I paused as though giving the matter some thought, although my need to get home as soon as possible had pretty much decided for me. “So you’ll use me as an excuse to ditch your date, and at the same time shamelessly exploit my condition so she’ll still see you in a good light despite your weasel behavior. In exchange, I get to bum a ride off you in your fabulous black Benz with the genuine leather seat covers and cedar and pine scent. Does this seem fair to you?”

“I’ll throw in a grande cappuccino with whipped cream and a honey-glazed donut,” he said with a grin.

I grinned back. “Make it a mango-almond cheesecake and you’ve got a deal.”

Soon, I was ensconced in the passenger seat, happily but very carefully sipping at my free cappuccino as we wove through the city streets. We updated each other on the goings-on in each other’s lives and gossiped about mutual acquaintances. Then out of curiosity, I asked, “So what’re you going to do about Melody?”

He winced. “For God’s sake, I just barely managed to escape from her and now you want to bring her up again?”

“Such drama. Well? Are you still going to see her or what?” I persisted, all for the fun of watching him squirm.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it,” he replied, which meant, in Von-speak, not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. Then he slid me a glance and waggled his eyebrows. “Why are you asking? You’re not falling for me, are you? Because I have to warn you, my standards are extremely high.”

I burst out laughing. “Puh-lease. Your standards, along with the rest of you, are completely safe from me.” This was an ancient joke between us, but since you ask: No, I’ve never been remotely attracted to Von. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because we’re so alike personality-wise that it would have been like being attracted to my own reflection, and that’s just a little too Greek-mythology for my taste. And I’m not even considering the way he treats his girlfriends. We’re buddy-buddies, that’s all. I’ve known Von longer than I’ve known Miguel, and if there’d been anything more between us, it should have happened a long time ago. By the time I met Migs—well, that was it for me.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of guilt as I thought about Migs. I knew my being with Von bothered him. He rarely spoke about it, but then he didn’t have to. Erwin wasn’t the only one who’d seen the look of hurt disappointment on Miguel’s face that afternoon I turned down his invitation to buy a couple of Cokes and just hang around because Von had unexpectedly appeared, demanding that I go with him to some event I’d totally forgotten about. It felt awful, to tell you the truth. Although a part of me couldn’t help but feel thrilled every time Migs showed his possessive side, I hated the idea of making him feel bad in any way. So since then I’d been limiting the number of times I hitched a ride with Von, except in cases like this, when hitching a ride meant I’d get back home to Migs much sooner. And I made sure we didn’t linger outside the gate as much to chat where Migs might see us and draw the wrong conclusions.

Which was, come to think of it, kind of not the way to go about discouraging his crush on me, as I’d claimed I’d been doing. Aaargh. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been.

“Ives, are you listening?”

“Huh?” I snapped my head toward Von, only then realizing that he’d been speaking.

He sighed. “I asked you what all that stuff is for.”

“Oh.” I glanced down at the shopping bag containing the ingredients for the dinner I’d planned—spaghetti with meat sauce, breadsticks, a tossed salad, and some of Lola’s leche flan for dessert. “These are for dinner. I know it’s hard for you to conceive of it, but we peasants do have to cook our own meals.”

“Hey, when are you gonna let me try some of your home-cooked meals?”

“Oh Jesus, you know not what you’re asking for,” I answered, laughing. “I’m not really all that good at cooking, you know. But you should try my friend Sharm’s cooking. She does amazing things in the kitchen.”

“You mean the dude with the stripy hair?”

“Uh, no, that would be Erwin. I meant my other friend. The biological female.”

“Oh, yeah.” He nodded. “The shy one.”

I turned aside to hide an amused smile. Granted Erwin and I could get pretty boisterous, and that compared to us, Sharm probably seemed like a long-suffering governess from some Victorian romance, but shy? I’d seen her get all in a guy’s face because he’d been bullying Erwin, and I’d heard how she’d clambered on top of a jeepney armed with a bullhorn to rally the troops during a women’s rights demonstration, and these did not add up to a person who was shy. Tongue-tied, flustered and horribly self-conscious upon unexpectedly finding herself in the presence of a hot male specimen maybe, but not shy. Just wait till Sharm heard about this.

The rains had let up, but typical of Metro Manila, the cars appeared to have gone at it like rabbits and reproduced a hundredfold within the past hour. I stared out the window, willing the traffic to part before us, then glanced down at my phone. I’d texted Miguel that morning to tell him about the bottles of atchara and ube halaya we left at his house, though not about meeting his relatives, which I figured he’d find out about soon enough. I texted him again that afternoon to ask him what time he’d be coming over. So far, he hadn’t replied to either message. The afterglow from my epiphany was still strong enough to sustain my mood, though I couldn’t help wondering about this sudden silence on his part. Especially coming after the breath-stealing intensity of his last kiss.

Shaking off the disquieting “what-ifs” buzzing around my head, I turned back to Von. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

He rolled his eyes. “Would you stop spacing out and pay attention? I asked what was going on with you.”

“What do you mean what’s going on with me?”

“You tell me,” he retorted. “There’s something different about you. I can’t pin it down. So spill. Is there something you haven’t told me about, something going on…?”

“Von, we haven’t seen each other in nearly two months. Of course I seem a bit different. It’s probably my nails, see?” I said lightly, flapping a hand in the air even though it too dark for him to see.

The look he slanted me was uncharacteristically sober. “Hey, we’re friends, remember? And I’m not always as self-absorbed as you think I am.”

Uh-oh, he’s showing signs of unusual mental activity. Thankfully, these moments didn’t last long, and in case of emergencies I knew how to turn him back to normal, which was to shift the conversation back to himself. But with our gate coming into view, I didn’t have time to pull off a diversionary two-step. “Nothing’s going on,” I insisted, but judging from his frown,I didn’t deliver that convincingly enough.

The car oozed to a stop. Glancing upward, I suppressed a disappointed sigh at the sight of Migs’ darkened window. I fumbled with my bags, causing Von to huff loudly, get out and go over to my side to open the door and help me out. Thanking him for the ride, I unlocked our gate, then stopped and turned when he rested a hand on my shoulder. “Ives, you know you can always count on me, right?” he said quietly. “If you need anything, anything at all, just call me, okay? I’ll be there.”

I opened my mouth to tease him about this sudden onset of noblesse oblige, but the expression on his face gave me pause. Oh dear, he was serious. Surprised, touched and a little uncomfortable, I summoned a smile, glad that Migs wasn’t around to witness this. “Thanks, Von. Same goes for me, but what on earth brought this on?”

He shrugged and smiled that smile that clinched him contracts left and right. “Nothing. I just felt like saying it. It sounded pretty good, didn’t it? Kind of like—” He widened his stance, curled his hand loosely into a fist as though holding a microphone, then proceeded to sing in a God-awful falsetto: “You and I must make a pact…”

Unaccountably relieved at the return of our jocular banter, I quickly got into the spirit of his performance and joined him in singing the next lines. “We must bring salvation ba-a-a-a-ack. Just call my naa-a-a-ame, and I’ll be there.”

He stopped dead and stared at me. “What the—I’m singing the Michael Jackson version. What’re you doing, ‘cat being strangled to death’?”

“Oh screw you, you’re not exactly Pavarotti yourself,” I countered, laughing. “Anyway, I’ve got something for you.” Digging through my bag, I produced the tarsier clip and gave it to him.

He took it with a faintly puzzled air. “Thanks. What’s this?”

“Your reward for being a good friend and an excellent chauffeur. Ciao!” With that, I slipped through our gate and hurried home. Turning on the light, I dumped the groceries on the kitchen counter and the rest in Erwin’s room, put on some reggae music on the CD player, then twisted my hair up into a chopstick bun and set about making dinner. I kept my phone within reach on the counter just in case Migs decided to make contact, but except for an invitation to hang out at Sarah’s from Jeff, which I turned down, my phone remained silent. Nevertheless, I refused to let myself entertain any doubts. Migs said he’d be coming over, and he would.

I set a pot of water to boiling, stirred the spaghetti sauce, then set the table, laying out two of our best plates and arranging the breadsticks in a mug. I dragged the stepping-stool over to the counter, and was reaching into a cabinet for two glass tumblers when I heard the door open. My heart somersaulted again in a delicious wave of anticipation and nervousness, and I glanced over my shoulder, a welcoming smile blooming on my face.

Only to die an abrupt death as Tito Julio walked in, closing the door behind him.

Grayness filled my vision, a pressure in my ears muffled the comfortable sounds of home, and I had to grip the handle of the kitchen cabinet to keep from toppling off the stool. Then everything whooshed back an instant later, sharper than before, odd details leaping up out of the thin humming filling my mind like static. Shaggy singing about some girl being his darling angel, weirdly enough. The baby’s crying from the apartment below. The bright splashes of yellow on our cream-colored dinner plates. The ugly green of my uncle’s T-shirt as he shrugged off his jacket and draped this over the back of a chair with a deliberateness that made my gut clench with fear.

I was alone with him. No best friends to rescue me. Of course, I knew it had only been a matter of time, that I couldn’t avoid him forever, no matter how hard I tried. Since he’d come in, Tito Julio hadn’t spoken a word, only looked at me with that same dark, unreadable expression he wore the night before. Finally, moving just as deliberately to hide the fact that I’d gone so tense my body was vibrating, I closed the cabinet, stepped off the stool and faced him. “Who let you in?” I asked with false calm.

“Etta did. She knows me.” My stomach turned to lead. Etta. As in Marietta, Ate Jenny’s housemaid and stay-at-home nanny. Tito Julio had been making friends, against my express wishes. Then his gaze flicked to the table. “You expectin’ someone?”

My first impulse was to deny it, which was dumb because the whole setup proclaimed otherwise. Before I could reply, he circled the table toward me. The blankness in his face, his unhurried movements, and the banked fury I could sense from him chilled me, and I found myself retreating from him until I fetched up against the counter. He smiled, the first sign of pleasure at having rattled me, and the fury seemed to abate somewhat. Pointing at the pot of boiling water, he said, “You better do somethin’ about that.”

I rushed to obey, lowering the flame and pouring the pasta into the pot. I went on cutting up the cucumber and tearing up lettuce leaves for the salad, horribly aware of him standing behind me, watching my every move. In the muggy warmth of the kitchen, his smell surrounded me, sour sweat mixed with alcohol and cigarettes overpowering the pleasant aroma of spaghetti sauce. He’d had a few already, though not enough to make him lose control, thank God. But the rage—what had gotten him so riled up now?

His low chuckle made me jump. “Look at you. Cookin’ dinner for her man like a good little wife. I’m touched,” he commented mockingly.

“Don’t be. This isn’t for you,” I retorted.

His mouth curled in a sneer that told me he already knew that. “Shame Four-Eyes ain’t around to appreciate all your hard work.”

I swallowed my reply—that Miguel would be here anytime now, you wait and see. As much as I missed him, all I wanted now was for Migs to stay far, far away from here.

When I didn’t answer, Tito Julio’s face hardened. “You get around, don’t you, Angel? How many guys have you got sniffing after your pretty little tail, huh?”

“You’re insane. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He went on as if he hadn’t heard me. “Gotta give you some credit, though, that last one looks like he can afford you. Bet riding that fancy car of his gets you pretty hot.”

I whirled around and stared at him, aghast. “You mean Von? You were watching us?”

He smiled again with no warmth or humor. “Four-Eyes know about him? Huh, didn’t think so. Guess he still believes whatever the elders tell him, like a good little kid. Well, fuck, now I get why you keep ‘im around. You always were a deceitful little bitch. ”

“W-what?”

“You’re a slut, Ivy. Always knew you were,” he saidwith honeyed callousness.

I crossed my arms over my middle as I began to crumble from the inside. “I’m not,” I heard myself almost plead.

He laughed as if I’d said something funny, then raised his hand. I flinched but wasn’t quick enough to keep him from snatching the chopstick out of my hair with a painful yank and tossing it away. As my hair came down, he grabbed fistfuls of it and wound it around both his hands. “You’re a slut and a liar,” he went on casually. “Hell, your body shows it. What else do you call it when you look so pretty and innocent when the truth is you’d jerk just about anyone around just to get that itch of yours scratched?”

His words tore me wide open, leaving me feeling wounded and weak. “Shut up,” I whispered, and wondered despairingly if it was the truth I was fighting against.

Again, he went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Shit, Ivy, how do you stand to look at yourself in the mirror? Always knew you had a rotten streak in you. I tried to protect you from yourself, you know. But you started avoiding me and then you left home and now—fuck, you’d think nothing of breaking that kid’s heart when you’ve already got Pretty Boy panting after you. You got a lot of fucking nerve acting all high and mighty around me.”

He was so close, I could feel his heat wrapping around me. His thick smell, his hands releasing my hair and sliding around my upper arms, his breath in my face… My stomach lurched, and I turned my head aside as far as it would go as I fought down the nausea. “Don’t,” I said hoarsely.

“Don’t what? Tell the truth? It ain’t gonna change what you are. Your fancy education, your modeling gig, your rich pretty boys—they ain’t doing shit for you. You’re still a lying, little whore who’d destroy a man’s life, just like your mother.”

I flinched and glared up at him. “You’d say that about your own sister?”

He shrugged. “Ain’t no secret what Rosemarie is. Why do you think you got born?”

I stared at him in dumb dismay. God, how he did do it? Somehow, he always managed to search out the most noisome sewers of my mind and fling the contents in my face. What was he, some kind of personal demon? But he was talking again, his face softening with anticipation, his eyes hot and triumphant as though sensing that he’d weakened me enough. “S’okay, Angel. I’m here for you. You remember when you were younger? I took care of you then. I taught you how to deal with guys that got fresh. I showed you what they wanted so you’d know what was coming. And you, you looked up to me. Shit, you kept beggin’ me to play with you, remember? It was our little secret.” His voice deepened to a croon. “We’re good together. And you’re mine, my angel. You got that? You’ll always be mine.”

He jerked me against him and laid his open mouth on mine in a rough, slobbering kiss. I gagged and shoved at him, but when his other hand thrust forcibly between my legs, I miraculously regained my strength and then some. Reaching up, I clawed at his face then grabbed his ear and twisted in a spirited attempt to tear it clean off. He pulled back, his thigh managing to block my incoming knee. The instant his grip loosened, I tore myself away and stumbled backwards, throwing my arm out for balance, and ended up sweeping vegetables, the kitchen knife and my phone off the counter and onto the floor.

The sickening clatter of my phone breaking apart cut through the crimson haze. “Oh no,” I whimpered, rushing to kneel over my stricken phone. It lay in three pieces, with the back cover and the battery having flown off. I was acting irrationally and I knew it, but for the moment I ignored everything else, including my uncle, as my broken phone loomed in my mind as the pinnacle and representation of all my problems. As I picked up the pieces, my vision blurred. Weird, I hadn’t felt like crying before then. Now I had to bite my lip hard to keep from bursting into tears in front of my uncle. Fuck if I’d ever let him see me cry. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get my hands to stop shaking long enough to put my phone back together.

Then a familiar pair of hands entered my field of vision, taking the pieces of my phone from me, and a familiar voice said quietly, “Here, let me.”

Horror, disbelief and dizzying joy crashed through me. My head snapped up, and through the strands of hair straggling over my face, I found myself staring at Miguel. Oh God, I’d forgotten all about him. He was down on one knee in front of me, wearing a gray T-shirt, a pair of shorts and flip-flops, his hair curling messily over his glasses. At that moment, he seemed as beautiful as an angel to me. Crazed laughter bubbled up my throat. Tito Julio and Shaggy screwed up. Migs was the angel around here, not me. My guardian angel that God had given me to make up for my asshole uncle. Miguel’s frown deepened as he took in my disheveled appearance, his eyes narrowing and turning colder than I’d ever seen before. It reminded me so much of my dream that I looked away, scrubbing my mouth as though I could wipe away the marks Tito Julio left on me.

From the corner of my eye, I could see his jaw go tight. Then, to my everlasting alarm, he got to his feet and moved to stand between me and Tito Julio like some knight in shining armor. A knight in plain gray T-shirt and glasses. I couldn’t see his face but I could see my uncle’s, and Tito Julio’s expression promised sulfurous retribution, although the sight of the red welts underneath his jaw cheered me considerably.

Miguel spoke first. “I suggest you leave,” he stated in a flat, hard voice.

Proving that he didn’t know Migs at all, Tito Julio chose to pretend he hadn’t said anything. “Go home, kid. We’re havin’a family discussion here.”

“I said leave,” Miguel said again. In his right hand, he cradled my broken phone, and with his left he reached into his pocket and pulled out another phone, which I recognized as Lola’s. His thumb darted over the keypad without him taking his eyes off my uncle.

My uncle scoffed. “Or what? You’ll jump me?”

“No. That would be stupid,” Miguel replied, still in that inflectionless tone. “Physically, you’ve got every advantage over me. But I’ve met bullies like you before, and like them you know only one way to work things out. You’re really simple-minded, aren’t you?”

Tito Julio’s face flushed, and I sucked in a breath as a different kind of fear caused my heart to relocate to my throat. For fuck’s sake, Migs, what’re you doing? Don’t insult him, it’ll only make him madder. Almost without conscious thought, I picked up the knife that lay inches away and stood up. I had no idea what I planned to do with the damned thing. All I knew was that I had to protect Migs somehow.

While he’d been talking, Miguel finished dialing and now raised the phone to his ear. The CD player had stopped by then, which meant we could all hear the electronic ringing, followed by a gruff voice saying, “Barangay Hall, Teacher’s Village.”

He’s calling the tanods, I realized. That’d work.

Judging from the sudden pallor on his face, Tito Julio shared the same thought. “What the hell—” he sputtered, taking a step forward.

Migs didn’t so much as twitch. “This is Miguel, Mrs. Santillan’s son. We’ve got a problem here I’d like to request assistance with,” he spoke into the phone, cool as you pleased. Even I was starting to find his iron control over his emotions a little unnerving.

“The fuck?! Who’re you calling, huh? Put that phone down now!”

Tito Julio lunged forward, whether to grab the phone away from Miguel or to hit him, I didn’t know. I didn’t wait to find out. I quickly stepped into view as the universe narrowed down to two things: my uncle coming for Migs, and the knife in my hand. To this day, I’m still not sure what exactly happened, but something in my face must have gotten through to Tito Julio, because he took one look at me, stopped cold, and lowered his arm. Hardly breathing, I stared into my uncle’s eyes, willing him to see the single thought blazing in my mind.

Hurt Migs, and I will make you bleed.

Miguel continued to talk on the phone, calmly giving our address and a description of my uncle as though a fully-grown man hadn’t just threatened to deck him. He glanced sideways at me, then at the knife. “Hang on a minute,” he said, raising his eyebrow meaningfully at my uncle as if to ask, You want to do it the hard way or what?

“Go,” I growled at my uncle. “Get out of here before the tanods come.”

For an excruciating moment, the three of us were frozen in a kind of Mexican standoff—the two of us side by side and Tito Julio opposite us, his gaze shifting back and forth between Migs and me. Finally, he spat an oath, gave me one final glare, then turned and stalked out of the apartment, pausing only fetch his jacket from the chair. I stood stock still, waiting for my brain to get its act together, as Miguel wrapped up his phone call and left shortly after my uncle, presumably to bar the gate after him. He’s gone. He’s not coming back, I thought, meaning both Tito Julio and Migs. Relief, revulsion, shame and disappointment mixed with a pain that felt as if someone had scooped my heart out of my chest, and I shut my eyes and wrapped my arms around me as the tremors set in.

Then I heard my name, felt a touch on my shoulder. I recoiled instinctively and looked up, only to find Miguel pulling his hand back, consternation and worry on his face. His throat worked, then he said, “He’s gone.”

I gazed at him in wonder. But you came back. “H-how much did you hear?” I croaked.

“I heard your uncle’s voice, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Then a crash as I was coming up the stairs,” he replied, making me damn near collapse in relief. He hadn’t heard anything. He hadn’t seen what my uncle did. “When I came in, you were on the floor trying to fix your phone. By the way, here.”

He held out his hand, upon which lay my phone and Lola’s, both as good as new. I stared at them as though I’d never seen them before, not trusting myself to speak. There he went again, quietly fixing my broken pieces. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Why did he keep doing that? Didn’t he know what effect it had on me?

Sensing my dazed state, he set the phones down on the table and stepped closer, offering the comfort of his nearness. Reaching up, he smoothed my hair down, tucking the strands behind my ears, then stroked my lower lip with his thumb, soothing the ache there that told me I’d managed to graze my lip against my teeth. His touch was light and so gentle it nearly did me in. Frightened at the way he could dissolve me so easily, I drew back out of reach and stared down at the floor, forcing myself to take deep breaths to regain my composure. I couldn’t let him touch me again. I’d lose it completely if he did.

He dropped his hand and curled it into a fist. “Ivy—”

“Don’t,” I whispered.

“What did he do to you?”

“Don’t ask. Please.” Focus, girl, I told myself. Pretend you hadn’t just acted like a piece of low-born gutter trash. Pretend you’re still nothing more than the funny, fluff-headed Ivy he knows. Make it easier for him to forget tonight ever happened.Tito Julio and I treat each other like siblings,” I told him, choosing my words with care and opting to give him bits and pieces of the truth. “That means we fight like siblings, too. You know, all drag-out-and-dirty, no-holds-barred… When you came in, Tito and I were reliving our greatest hits. Pun intended,” I added with a weak laugh.

My joke fell flatter than a pancake. “Is that all you’re going to say?” he asked tersely.

“That’s all there is to tell.” Forcing myself to meet his gaze, I mustered a sheepish smile. “Although this one…got a bit out of hand, I guess.”

Miguel gazed steadily at me. I prayed he wouldn’t press the issue, and was relieved when he exhaled and closed his eyes. “Okay,” he said. “I understand. I won’t force it out of you. But you know, you can’t keep blowing me off forever.”

“A girl can try,” I quipped.

“Whatever.” He peered at me. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Good. I’m glad.” He nodded, then added solemnly, “May I take the knife now?”

Oh. Flushing with embarrassment, I unwound my limbs and handed him the knife that I’d been holding in a death-grip all this time. He took it with rather pointed care but otherwise made no comment about my latent homicidal tendencies. I made a face as I glanced around at the vegetables scattered across the floor. “What a mess.”

“We’ll clean it up,” he said, then promptly put his words to action by fetching our broom.

“The salad’s rui—oh no!” I rushed to turn the stove off, but it was too late. The water in the pot was nearly gone and the noodles were a soggy mess. The spaghetti sauce was salvageable, if Migs didn’t mind eating spaghetti sauce with a slightly scorched smell and crunchy bits. My spirits sank as I attempted to perform first aid on the meal. It was just one more thing to add to my list of grievances against my uncle, but at the moment it seemed to me to be the most unjust: ruining the dinner I’d made for Migs.

He came over to my side as soon as he’d finished cleaning the floor. “How is it?”

Dejectedly, I showed him the results. “I know I’m nowhere as good as Sharm, but this—I mean, this is bad even for me.” I attempted a rueful laugh but had to give that up on account of how close I was to crying.

“Hmm.” Miguel looked thoughtful for a moment, then he swiped at the sauce with one finger and stuck it in his mouth. “Not bad,” he commented with a grin. “The burnt flavor adds personality. Who knows, pan-grilled spaghetti may just be the next best thing.”

I sniffed. “Are you trying to pull my leg, rookie?”

He chuckled, then sobered when he glanced over at the table. “Too bad your uncle couldn’t stay for the dinner you made,” he said coolly, pushing his glasses up his nose.

“What? No! No, no, no, no, Jesus Christ no,” I declared, shaking my head vigorously. “I didn’t make any of this for him, I made this for—”

I stopped and blushed furiously, realizing what I’d been about to reveal. Aaargh. Honestly, I was my own biggest tattletale. He looked again at the table, and as his gaze noted the cozy setting for two, color rose in his own cheeks and his lips lifted in a sweet, sexy half-smile. “You made this for…?” he prodded me with a sidelong glance.

I gulped.“F-for you. But it’s all ruined now and you’ve probably already eaten anyway, so let’s just forget about this, okay?” I added in a rush as I made a move to pick up the colander where I’d put the pasta and dump the contents in the trash.

His hand on my arm stopped me. I watched, speechless, as he reached over and plucked up some noodles. They broke off in his fingers like a wad of paper mache; undaunted, he popped them in his mouth anyway. “Tastes fine to me,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

“You are?” I asked with patent disbelief.

“Yup. I’m always hungry after rescuing damsels in distress.” He delivered this line with such straight-faced gravity that it took me a moment to notice the teasing glint in his eyes. “The cucumber and lettuce were done for, but the carrot’s fine. We can have one part of a salad to go with the spaghetti.”

“But—”

“If you think I’m passing up a free meal, think again,” he stated firmly, then added with a spark of wry humor: “Just let me handle the knife for now, okay?”

He washed the knife and the carrot in the sink, then proceeded to peel the vegetable and chop it into sticks. I stepped back to give him room and simply watched him work, my hands coming up to close over the aching sweetness radiating from my chest.

No wonder I’m in love with you, Migs. You make it impossible for me to be anything else.

Unable to resist the flood of emotions, I stepped directly behind him, leaned my forehead against his back, just above the hollow between his shoulder blades, and closed my eyes. For now, nothing else mattered. For now, I had this. His warmth, his scent, the feel of his muscles moving underneath me, his kindness and strength that invited me to sink into him and rest for a while… I imagined his spirit enveloping me in a warm embrace, Migs protecting me, keeping me safe…

Migs going as stiff as a plank. “Ivy?” he said worriedly.

“No, don’t move, please,” I murmured, laying my hands on his back on either side of my head to keep him from turning. “I’m fine. Just…just stay like this for a while, okay?”

I sensed his nod, felt his muscles relax. My fingers clutched at his shirt as I buried my face against his back, hoping he’d somehow fail to notice the growing dampness on his T-shirt. As more tears leaked out, I concentrated on syncing my breathing with his to keep the sobs at bay. Get it together, for fuck’s sake, I ordered myself. Don’t burden him any further by worrying him. Your shitty issues are yours to deal with alone.

“I’m sorry.”

For a moment, I wondered if I was hearing things. “Sorry?” I sniffled, distracted from my wallowing by Miguel’s raspy apology. “What the hell for?”

It took him a few seconds to respond. “In the movies, the hero would’ve kicked that jerk’s ass for hurting his girl. The reality turned out to be a complete anticlimax.”

Alarm bells rang even as my insides melted. His girl. Oh dear. Setting that particular can of worms aside for now, I pulled back, ruefully eyeing the wet splotch on his shirt. He’d sounded offhand, but I’d felt his back muscles go tense again as he hunched over the counter. And even though I wasn’t half-piggybacking on him anymore, he still didn’t turn around. “What exactly are you saying?” I demanded as incredulity and rising indignation began to dry my own tears.

He shrugged and muttered sarcastically, “Calling the tanods. Sounds really heroic.”

I poked him in the back until he reluctantly turned to face me, his gaze flicking away from mine. I considered kicking his ass myself, but discarded the idea. Wounded male pride was fragile enough; wounded young teenaged male pride was probably grounds for deep, psychological trauma. Instead, I poked him in the chest until he looked at me again. “Miguel Alejandro Santillan, you are being an idiot,” I informed him.

Annoyance flashed in his eyes. “You don’t get it.”

“Yeah? Well, get this: If you’d taken on my uncle and gotten beaten up, I’d have killed you myself. And remember, I had a knife in my hand,” I pointed out, jabbing my finger against the side of his rib as though stabbing him with said knife. I must have hit a ticklish spot because he suddenly squawked and folded up, grabbing my wrist to prevent me from exploring that vulnerable area a bit more. I blinked in surprise then giggled, murmuring an apology even as I took note of his reaction. How interesting.

Rubbing his side, he shot me a disgruntled look, although with less heat than before. “Okay, I get it, jeez. I promise never to get beaten up in your presence, especially if you’re handling sharp objects.”

I nodded approvingly. “You learn fast, Santillan.”

Answering humor softened his gaze. His hold around my wrist loosened, and in a move as natural as breathing, his hand slid down to mine and our fingers laced together. At first, I was afraid our contact would undo all my hard work at repairing my emotional fences, but some of his strength must have seeped into me, and I found I wasn’t as raw as I’d been a few minutes ago. “You did the smart thing by calling the tanods,” I continued softly. “I guess I should have done it myself, but—” Tito Julio is my problem to deal with. “—I don’t know the number to call. Wait, hold on, you mean you’ve got the barangay’s phone number memorized?”

He smirked. “Prodigious memory, if you recall. I’ve got a whole telephone directory up here.” I gave him a skeptical look, making him laugh. “Just kidding. I couldn’t help memorizing the number after I did their website a few months ago. Also, my mom’s the treasurer of both the barangay council and the Homeowner’s Association so…”

He trailed off, the mention of his mom dampening the atmosphere somewhat. I glanced down at our joined hands and sighed. “Thanks for coming to my rescue. And Migs, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but please don’t ever, ever do that again.”

I meant it with utmost sincerity—the memory of him challenging my uncle still gives me heart palpitations, even to this day. Nevertheless, a small, silly part of me expected him to spout some romantic, chivalrous garbage like, “But of course, I will always ride to your rescue, fair lady. I am your devoted knight.” Instead, his eyes were clouded and his brow creased in a frown, although he tried to conceal it by adjusting his glasses again. It sent a tiny chill through me, but before I could ask him about it, he lowered his head and touched his forehead to mine.

“You smell good,” he murmured. Then he raised his head and grinned. “Like spaghetti sauce.”

I rolled my eyes. What is it about guys and food? Reaching around him, I took a carrot stick and clamped it between my teeth like a cigar. “Eat now, yes?”

His grin turned wicked. Before I could figure out what he was up to, he lowered his head again and bit off the half of the carrot stick that was sticking out of my mouth, his lips brushing mine in the process. Chewing the carrot, he drawled, “Yes. Eat is good.”

Despite his claim, the noodles were a hopeless pile of unpalatable mush, so we threw it out and dined instead on carrot, leche flan, and breadsticks dipped in what little remained of the sauce. Anxious to keep the mood light to make up for the heavy doses of drama earlier, I gave him a chatty, somewhat embellished update on the Further Adventures of Orion and Company at the Belle Giardino. He seemed increasingly troubled and preoccupied though, and I noticed him glancing at the clock every now and then. “Migs, am I keeping you from something? You seem kind of uneasy.”

He moved his head in a way that could either be a wince or a denial. “Not really.”

“Is your mom looking for you?” Jesus, I hoped not. Although considering the way my day had gone, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Duchess Amelia came storming over in a righteous rage to reclaim her son. At which point, I’d have to call for the men in white to take me to a soft, quiet place with padded walls.

“Actually, my mom’s out of town and won’t be back until Sunday.” He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head upward. “I heard you met my relatives. What did you think of them?”

A montage of facial expressions drifted through my mind—astonishment, hastily suppressed horror, indifference, “friendly” interest, open admiration, and thinly veiled contempt. “They were okay. Very polite.”

He looked at me intently. “Ate Queenie didn’t give you a hard time, did she? She’s a total, meddling pain in the posterior, but she does have her moments.” He said this with a faint smirk, making me wonder if it wasn’t a private joke at his older cousin’s expense.

“Queenie was fine,” I said, again skating over the truth. “I talked to Toby, though. He told me about the fine Santillan tradition of ‘let’s beat Miguel’s record and take his place on the family pedestal.’”

He groaned. “Oh, that. Yup, it’s as pointless as it sounds.”

“Why, because there’s no way they’d be able to beat you?” I said teasingly.

“Because achievements you made just to prove you’re better than someone else won’t really matter as much to you. It just means you excelled at meeting someone else’s standards, that’s all.”

“Oh.” I blinked, surprised that he’d chosen to answer seriously.

He pushed his glasses up and smirked again. “Plus, there’s no way they’d be able to beat me.”

“You self-effacing little teddy bear, you,” I said, laughing, as I rose to clear the table. He stood up as well, passing dirty plates over for me to deposit in the sink, but I could tell he was distracted again. Finally, I placed the last glass in the sink and turned to faced him. “Migs, what’s the matter? No, really, what are you thinking of?”

He looked at me with an odd expression. “Um, do you—Toby said—” Flushing, he cut himself short. “I wonder if—uh, no, forget that. I wanted to ask—” Again, he stopped and looked away, scowling and raking a hand through his hair.

Thinking that my expectant stare was only making it harder for him to talk, I turned aside to let water run over the pile of dirty dishes and give Miguel time to collect himself. He cleared his throat and shoved both hands into his pockets. “Ivy, about tomorrow…”

I felt myself grow cold all over. Calmly, I turned off the tap and faced him. “Yeah?”

“I—I’m really sorry about this but, um…”

My chest contracted. He’d mentioned his family, who weren’t exactly lining up to join my fanclub. Had they said something to him? Maybe I should’ve tried harder to get them to like me. I should have been more polite, more respectful, I should have dressed up more nicely, I should have made myself seem older than I looked, or younger than I was…fucking something. Now here was Miguel, looking nervous and a bit sick, trying to find the words to tell me that he was canceling our date. I should’ve known. They always changed their minds about me. They always ended up being disappointed in me.

I forced myself to focus on the immediate situation, the way I usually did when taking on a role. Write the script, block the scene, focus on your character’s intent.  “Say no more, Migs,” I chirped. “I get it.”

His brow furrowed. “But I haven’t told you about the arrangements yet.”

“In fact, I might have something else planned for—arrangements? What arrangements?” Dropping out of character, I stared at him in confusion.

“If you’d let me finish…” he grumbled, shooting me an exasperated look. “I was going to ask if you don’t mind meeting at SM tomorrow at 10 instead of us going together. Turns out I’ve got, uh, some stuff I need to take care of in the morning.” A strange expression flitted over his face as he said this.

“Oh.” I blinked, and tried to will away the embarrassed flush. “Yeah, sure, I don’t mind.”

“And, if it’s okay if some of my friends tagged along,” he mumbled, looking anxious again. “Not Yna and the guys. My friends from St. Helene.”

“Alvin and Leo?”

“Yeah. And, uh, a few others, too.”

Disappointment snaked through me at the thought that I wouldn’t be alone with him. Still, I was just so glad that he wasn’t backing out of our date that I’d have said yes even if he told me he was bringing the neighborhood stoners along. “Sure, no problem. I like your friends, especially Alvin. And I promise not to breathe a word about his ejaculations. Besides, it’s only fair since you hung out with my work-mates yesterday.”

His relieved, happy smile made up for my regret that it wasn’t going to be a romantic date after all. He began to close the distance between us, his gaze turning warm and knowing. “I’m curious. What did you think I was going to say?”

“Hmm?” I stared up at him, lost in his eyes. Then his question registered. “Oh! Ah, well, you know, dumb stuff.” He raised an eyebrow, causing my face to heat up some more. “I thought you’d changed your mind about our date,” I found myself confessing.

“I thought so.” Wrapping an arm around my shoulders, he pulled me close and leaned his forehead against mine. “I’ll always want to see you, Ivy,” he said in a voice that made me shiver all over. “I’ll always find a way to be with you.”

He pulled back before I could wonder about the odd way he’d phrased it. “By the way, I came here to give you something,” he announced.

“Yeah, Lola’s phone. Thank you for fixing it. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble.”

“It wasn’t, but that’s not what I meant. Actually, I just—crap. Um, here.”

He pulled out a long, narrow box from his pocket and thrust it at me. My heart began to pound as I took the box and opened it. Inside lay a familiar-looking chopstick with a wire rose on one end, but this one was… “The rose isn’t silver anymore!” I exclaimed in a vivid display of my skill in pinpointing the obvious.

Evidently, Miguel agreed, judging from the way he snickered. Ignoring him, I lifted the chopstick out of the box. It was still the same long, smooth, polished ivory, but the silver wire rose had been replaced by a copper one, which gleamed a rich gold-brown beneath the light. The loops and curves that formed the rose were different, too. There were more of them, for one thing, and were a little more spread out, like a rose just newly bloomed. There was even a leaf at the base, and from this hung two fine chains made of tiny, S-shaped copper links interspersed with transparent beads. The chains were much longer than any I’d seen on a hair chopstick, one longer than the other by a few inches, and at the end of each chain was a small, copper hoop. I shook the chopstick from side to side, making the chains swing around my hand, the beads sparkling like tiny drops of water. “Wow,” I breathed.

“There’s another piece in there,” he informed me. The other piece turned out to be a necklace made from copper links and water-droplet beads. In the middle hung a coin-sized, ivory-colored disk etched with geometric patterns. A copper wire rose, twin to the one on the chopstick, curved up from a point just above the pendant, linking it with the rest of the chain to create an asymmetric design. It—hey, you know what? Why don’t I just show you? I just remembered I brought them with me. They’re in this box…here.

Yeah, aren’t they? They’re just handmade out of ordinary copper wire and plastic beads, but this set is one of my most prized possessions. In fact, I still wear them to events, and whenever I do at least one person comes up and asks me where I bought them. I always tell them this set is one of a kind. I mean, just consider the one who made this. The intricate design, the meticulous workmanship, all the hard work that went into each link—it’s Migs through and through.

Swallowing around the lump in my throat, I looked up into his slightly reddened face. “Migs, this is—I can’t believe you—”

He gave me a boyish grin. “You didn’t even ask how they go together.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

He tugged me toward our full-length mirror and presented the chopstick first. I obligingly twisted my hair up, took the chopstick and thrust it through the coil. I could see the copper rose peeking out from the side of my head while the chains dangled down one side of my neck. I shook my head from side to side, admiring how the motion made the beads sparkle. Then he stepped up behind me and drew the necklace around my neck, clasping it in the back and making my skin tingle everywhere he touched. The ivory pendant lay high on my breastbone and the copper rose followed the upward curve of one collarbone. It was definitely one of the most unusual necklaces I’d ever seen and—what was Migs doing back there?

As it turned out, he wasn’t just clasping the necklace but—here, you see the hoops on the end of these chains? And you see these two slightly different links on the back of the necklace? He was hooking these together—like so—so the chains would kind of loop down my back and connect to the necklace. Yes! Exactly! I couldn’t hold back the explosion of laughter when I realized what it was.

“It’s a collar!” I cried. “Oh Lord, you—you actually went and made a collar for the chopstick! I can’t believe it!”

Behind me, Miguel tried his best to act affronted, but he was too pleased with the results and too aware of how correct I was that he just ended up looking sheepishly self-satisfied. “Yup,” he said, pushing his glasses up to hide his grin. “I thought Yna’s idea was the best, so I reworked the design, and she and the guys helped me find the jewelry-making shop that sold the materials. Sorry it took a while. These were easier to draw than to make. What you’re wearing now are actually Chopstick version 2.8 and Necklace version 3.2. You can wear them separately, but if you connect them like this, the next time your chopstick falls out, you can just pull it up from here and stick it back in. Oh shit. You’re not allergic to copper, are you?”

I assured him I wasn’t, then touched the bronze-gold rose petals just beneath my collarbone. “They’re beautiful,” I whispered.

“You make them look beautiful,” he replied, then added shyly, “The copper reminded me of your hair.”

As I met his gaze in the mirror, the strangest feeling washed over me. I don’t know how to describe it. It was…like plummeting off a cliff and some voice telling you that you’d be flying three seconds before you hit the ground. I felt lightheaded and spacey yet weighed down at the same time. And I was electrically aware of Miguel. I found myself imagining him taller, his shoulders broader, his body filled out, his face more angular—Migs at sixteen, at twenty-three, at thirty-five, at fifty-eight. I watched him grow older, his eyes growing wiser and kinder with the passage of the years. I saw myself beside him all throughout. The vision, for lack of a better word, lasted as long as the pause between one breath and the next, but it left me dizzy. If I had to put the feeling into words, it’d be: This is my future right here.

It sounds like sentimental drivel, but it damn near brought me to tears again. It was the most dangerous kind of wish, but it was too late for me to unwish it. I felt a sense of quiet certainty, and it scared the shit out of me, so much that I physically tried to back away from it. I ended up bumping against Migs, who caught me by the shoulders and held me steady. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I answered, tearing my gaze away from our reflection. “Just a bit clumsy. Sorry.”

Fortunately, he decided to drop it. “So, um, you like them?”

“I love them. I really, really do,” I said with a warm smile.

He didn’t appear to have heard me, and was instead frowning thoughtfully down at the necklace. “You know, I can improve the hooks in those connecting links. If I adjust—”

“Don’t you dare, Migs.” I glared at him, covering the necklace with both hands. “You try taking these from me now, and I’ll—I’ll bite you.”

He laughed and raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. No more improvements. So, can I have my Rotring pen back now? I kind of miss it.”

Oh, right. I’d stolen his favorite technical pen shortly after he took the rose chopstick away the first time, declaring that he’d only get it back once he returned my chopstick. I’d put the pen in the cookie can along with my other treasures. Heaving a sigh, I turned and headed toward Erwin’s room, tossing a “Fine, a deal’s a deal” over my shoulder.

When I emerged, I handed him the pen and two shopping bags. “The pillow’s for Reese. And this one—” I pointed at the smaller bag, “—is for you.”

His eyes lit up with surprised pleasure. I guessed he wasn’t used to getting gifts for no particular reason. Opening the bag, he lifted up the small, plush basset hound with the sticky bum. “Nice to meet you, little buddy,” he greeted the dog almost formally.

I fiddled with the necklace and beamed. “Isn’t he cute? He reminded me so much of you that I just had to get him.”

He sent me a mock-withering look. “I can spell, Ivy.”

“No, not that,” I replied, giggling. “Just look at that schnoz. Imagine if you take his glasses off…” I clamped my lips together. Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that. With any luck, he wouldn’t get the reference.

Who was I kidding? Of course he’d get the reference. After a confused pause, Miguel slapped a hand over his face and looked at me with rising outrage. “Are you saying my nose is big?” he demanded, glaring at me above his hand.

“I—I didn’t actually say that. Ah, mind you, I’m not saying your nose is small either.”

“So you’re saying my nose is big!” he huffed, color creeping all the way up to his ears. “Don’t worry, buddy. We geniuses don’t have to listen to undersized nutcases like her,” he muttered to the dog while shooting me nasty looks.

Laughing in earnest now, I grabbed hold of his shirt to keep him from stalking off in a sulk. “I’m sorry—” I began, but had to stop for lack of breath. Fighting to get my laughter under control, I coughed a few times to clear my throat. “I didn’t mean to insult you,” I told Migs, who was scowling down at me with such comic disapproval that I nearly cracked up again. “Fine, so you don’t have a cute, widdle wabbit nose, but you know, it actually makes you look better. Even the hottest Hollywood stars have flaws. It makes them look interesting, not just pretty in a bland, Barbie doll way. Check out Julia Roberts and her too-big mouth, or Harrison Ford and his crooked nose.”

Migs actually pouted. “Easy for you to say. You’re perfect.”

“No, I’m not.” I gazed up at him steadily until understanding flashed in his eyes. “You’re a good-looking guy, Migs,” I said softly, my cheeks heating up again. “I guess you’re not used to thinking of yourself in those terms, but trust me, you’re really cute, nose and all. And I bet he agrees with me. After all, he is a genius, even if he can’t spell worth a damn,” I added, nodding at the plush-dog in his hand.

Miguel continued to regard me suspiciously, but his eyes were glinting with suppressed laughter. “So what do you think, buddy?” he addressed the dog, nodded as if acknowledging a reply, then turned to me and announced gravely, “Okay, we forgive you.”

Then he leaned down and kissed me, his hand reaching up to cup my face. Oh, I’ve been waiting for this, a part of me sighed just before all thinking processes ground to a halt. His lips were warm and firm but they softened against mine, moving over my lips in light, almost shy touches as though careful not to hurt me. My eyes drifting shut, I covered his hand with mine and matched him touch for butterfly touch, nip for delicate nip, following his lead, with each shimmering point of contact feeling as if it were coming from every part of my body all at once. The touches soon turned into warm, gliding kisses, sweet and achingly tender but I could feel the heat building up. His hand left my face to cradle the back of my head, while his other arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me close—oh yes indeedy, the heat was definitely building up.

We drew apart, and I had to grab hold of his shoulders because I didn’t trust my knees to support me at the moment. My heart was pounding away like war drummers on crack, and when I focused my gaze on his neck, I saw his pulse beating a counter-rhythm. “What was that for?” I wondered out loud.

“That’s for the dog,” he replied, smiling his sweet, sexy half-smile.

Oh. It’s a thank-you kiss. “In that case—” I looked up into his face and swallowed “—this is for the chopstick and necklace.”

Wrapping my arms around his neck, I rose on my tiptoes to continue where we left off. His arms came around me as he took control of the kiss again. Mmm, yeah, I guess you can tell by now that Migs likes to dominate, even when I’m the one who initiates the kiss. Not that I mind all that much. Not only is he a fast learner, he can be very creative. I set the tone this time around, letting my tongue dart over his lower lip for a taste. The kiss quickly turned steamy when he took this and ran with it, stroking my lips with his tongue, nibbling at them with his teeth, then sliding his tongue into my mouth and—oh my, oh my. Fuzzily, I thought about asking him where on God’s green earth he learned to kiss like that, then forgot all about it when he whispered my name against my lips then began pressing little kisses along my jaw until he was nuzzling my ear.

An electronic chiming, startlingly loud in the silence of the apartment, jolted us out of our rosy, kiss-flavored haze. Muttering a curse, he fumbled in his pocket for his phone, then pressed his lips together in a line when he read the message. “I have to go,” he told me, and for a moment he looked pained, as though he was resisting his own pronouncement.

I glanced at the clock, and was shocked to find it was nearly 12. Stepping away from him, I crossed my arms over my chest in an attempt to soothe the hollow ache at the thought of him leaving. Then I thought of our date tomorrow, and the ache eased. “You’re right. It’s really late.” I gave him a hopeful look. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yup. Tomorrow it is. Will you be okay here?”

“Yeah. Lolo and Lola will be coming home any time now.”

“That’s good.” Still, he made no move to leave.

I stared at him, wishing I could touch him again. I didn’t dare though, for fear I wouldn’t be able to let him go again until at least morning. Deprived of his warmth, I felt a chill in the air and absently rubbed the goose bumps on my arms, but the cold was seeping into me from the inside as well, bringing unwanted memories with it. You can’t possibly be that crazy, Miss Belle demanded again, shaking her head disapprovingly. I lowered my gaze to Miguel’s mouth, and thought, Obviously, I can.

You’re still a lying, little whore who’d destroy a man’s life, just like your mother.

Hidden at my sides, my hands clenched into fists. Not yet, I swore inwardly. I won’t listen to any of you yet. You can take turns fucking me over like I deserve later, but not yet. Not now. Because right now, I’m taking this.

“Migs?” He straightened a little and, to my mingled dismay and delight, drew closer again as if drawn on a string. I closed my eyes, marshaling my wits. “About what happened. You know, with Tito Julio and all…thank you for coming. For what you did.”

He shrugged off my halting thanks, and the hand that wasn’t holding shopping bags crammed with a stuffed dog and a pillow came up to brush the beaded chain off my shoulder. “Next time you find yourself in a situation like that, call me,” he ordered in an implacable tone, laying his hand on my shoulder and giving me a little shake. “You don’t have to be alone with that scumsucker ever again.”

I thought about Sharm and Erwin earnestly working to shield me from my uncle, never allowing me be alone with him. “Okay,” was all I said, letting my smile express everything I wanted to say to Migs but couldn’t. “Good night.”

“Ivy,” he whispered, paused, then leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss on my forehead. “Sleep well.”

Then he turned and headed out the door. Alone, I let the tears slide freely down my face at last. “I am so fucked,” I whispered ruefully to my reflection in the mirror, and in response the craving for a stress-relieving cigarette rose up out of nowhere and kicked me in the mouth. A craving I hadn’t once felt while Migs was here.

“I am so very, very fucked.”

It almost seemed like an understatement, because even as I blissfully replayed every single second of my time with him that night, even as I looked forward to our first date, a part of me was shriveling with frozen fear. Because when I looked at the two of us in the mirror, I saw Migs growing older, but I didn’t change at all. He grew stronger and wiser, saw farther and felt deeper as his world opened up, and his face changed with the passage of time while I. Stayed. Exactly. The same.

It was just about the loneliest feeling in the world.

READ IVY’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 9

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