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

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 7

MIGUEL

Um, yeah. It preempted our first date, but you won’t hear any complaints from me.

It was…well, mind-blowing is really all I can think of. Warm, slick, sweet and so incredibly soft. It felt like vertigo, like flying and falling at the same time. I admit, there was a fleeting instant when I wondered, “Now what?” Then her lips moved, and my brain shut down and instincts I never knew I had took over. My hand moved of its own accord, somehow knowing to trail my fingers along her throat, bury itself in her hair, and cradle her head to get a better angle. In response, she slid her arms around me and pressed closer in a way that was slowly driving me crazy. Nothing, and I mean nothing, I had ever experienced in my life prior to that moment could begin to compare.

The need for oxygen soon forced us to separate, and we opened our eyes at the same time. She looked different, beautiful in a way that no amount of makeup could recreate. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips were rosy and a bit swollen, and her eyes were unfocused. Unable to resist, I lowered my head again.

Ay! Look at those kids! Have they no shame?”

I screeched to a halt, lips still reaching for hers, eyes slamming wide open. Jerking apart, we turned to the source of the cry. A middle-aged woman in a housemaid’s uniform eyed us disapprovingly through the slats of the neighboring mansion’s fence, while a couple of younger maids stood nearby alternately beaming at us and pouting at their senior.

“Aw, now look what you’ve done,” one of the maids complained. “You leave those two alone, they ain’t bothering anyone.”

“They’re sooo romantic. It was like watching a real-live telenovela,” Maid Number 2 gushed. Then, noticing that we were staring back, she waggled her fingers at us and hollered, “You go on. Don’t mind us,” while their senior shook her head in disgust.

A soft gasp made me look at Ivy. The rose tint in her cheeks was quickly draining away, leaving her face looking oddly pale. She was gazing sightlessly at the ground, breathing unevenly, her fingers curling against her chest. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, I moved to shield her from view and gave the maids a hard look. Then, realizing what had been cut short, I muttered feelingly, “Fuck.”

Ivy looked at me in shock. “Migs!”

“What?” I retorted. “I’ve heard you say worse. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Taking her hand, I set off in the direction of Belle Giardino, eager to put distance between us and our unintended audience. Noticing some resistance on the end of my arm, I glanced over my shoulder and found Ivy staring at me with a dazed expression. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

She blinked a couple of times, then shook her head. “Nothing. It’s just that I’ve never heard you swear before.”

“I’ve sworn plenty of times.” Mostly in situations where she was involved, although I refrained from mentioning that. I also decided not to bring attention to the fact that she’d kept her hand in mine, even though it—and other things—were featuring prominently in my thoughts. She had a distracted air about her and was still looking a bit pale, alternately gazing about her then up at the sky with faraway eyes. It was beginning to worry me.

“Yeah but…you know, not like that,” she replied vaguely. “You always seem so virtuous and well-mannered, so hearing you cuss like that is kind of like hearing a duck growl.”

“A duck?” I shot her a mock offended look, wanting to shake her out of her stupor. “Can’t you think of something more manly to compare me to?”

Her eyes widened innocently, and I was relieved to see her lips lift in a smile. “A goose? A chicken? Oh, how about a turkey? I nearly got pecked by a turkey once. Turkeys are scary, especially when they puff up and gobble at you.”

“I think I’ll stick with the duck,” I sighed. Her smile became a giggle, and I couldn’t help but smile back. “We had this chaplain back in St. Helene,” I said as we slowed to a stroll again. “His name’s Father Ramilo, and he was really big on courteous speech and not taking the Lord’s name in vain. He didn’t wash out anyone’s mouth with soap or anything, but he had this way of looking at you that made you want to reach for a bar of Safeguard and beg him to get it over with.”

She giggled again, and the sound of her laughter felt like a different kind of kiss. “He heard Alvin say ‘shit’ once,” I continued. “I seriously thought he was going to swoon when he realized he was standing right behind him. Father Ramilo didn’t say anything, but Alvin’s penance for a whole week was to bring a small crucifix, the kind you can prop up on your desk, and do ejaculations before it at the start of every class right there in the classroom—”

“And do what?”

“Ejaculations. You know, short prayers you repeat throughout the day, like St. Paul instructed.”

“Oh. Oh!” She passed a hand over her brow in embarrassment and relief. “I get it. Oh dear, that sounds like cruel and unusual punishment.”

“It was. It took Alvin an entire semester to live down his reputation as ‘the boy who ejaculated in class.'”

She gawped then burst out laughing, peals of mirth exploding from her until she stumbled and had to lean against me for support. I laughed as well, both at the memory of Alvin’s suffering and out of sheer delight at her reaction. “Oh my God, way to ruin my mascara, you jackass,” she whimpered, dabbing at her eyes with my handkerchief. “How old were you then?”

“We were in fourth grade. St. Helene students are known for their precocity, if not for the goodness of their hearts,” I added dryly, noting her half-amused, half-appalled look.

“But aren’t you supposed to be a—”

“Not everything that goes on in a private school is about virtue.”

She looked at me searchingly, evidently discerning the hardness in my voice. Intending to steer us back to lighter topics, I turned to her and got caught in her gaze again, all the words I’d planned to say drying up in the soft light in her eyes. Still, she chose not to probe and instead laced her fingers through mine, giving my hand a comforting squeeze.

I love you, Ivy.

I stiffened, then relaxed when I realized I hadn’t actually gone and said it out loud. A small part of me wondered though, Would that be so bad?

“Let me guess. You were a sacristan, weren’t you?” she asked, taking up the slack in our conversation.

“Yup. We had a rotation system for the boys who serve as altar boys. You could tell which boys were assigned to be sacristans for the weekly Mass because they tended to be the best behaved. So you see, being in St. Helene isn’t so much about putting the fear of God in us as it is about putting the fear of Father Ramilo and his penances.”

She tilted her head at me. “You like him, don’t you? Father Ramilo, I mean. I can hear it in your voice.”

I smiled, caught up in the memories. “He was a brilliant mathematician, and the only teacher who didn’t treat me with kid gloves or suspicion. He was the one who pushed for me to be allowed to take higher Math courses in UP, and he helped me prepare for the special placement exam. He’s one of the few things I actually miss from my old school.” My face warmed as I glanced at her. “I hope you get to meet him someday.”

“Me, too,” she replied softly. Then, her own face coloring, she bit her lip and quickly faced forward where white, vine-covered walls were coming into view. “Oh, look! I can see Belle Giardino now. Imagine that!”

I only half-heard her over-bright burbling; the sight of her mouth was too distracting. I recalled how her lips had felt beneath mine, and the lightheadedness threatened to return full-force. Oh man, I kissed her. I actually kissed Ivy, and she actually kissed me back. I felt drunk on the memory, and given my activities the previous night, I knew what I was talking about.

There was one problem though: I wasn’t all that sure what the kiss meant. Was she my girlfriend now? Did this officially make us a couple, or was there something else I had to do, some obscure male-female ritual that I didn’t know about? Also, neither of us had actually told the other how we felt, just sort of hinted at it, and in Ivy’s case, it was less of a hint and more of a Freudian slip. Should I go for a formal declaration of my feelings first? Should I ask her straight out how she felt? And what if she…well, what if she changed her mind? What if she didn’t reciprocate?

Truth was, Ivy wasn’t the only one feeling nervous. This was a whole new level of the unknown for me. The only thing I was sure of, walking beside her with her hand in mine, watching her gather her hair up with her other hand and flap it against her nape, then look up at the sky and make some comment about how it felt like rain, was that I wanted to kiss her again. Now. Or as soon as earthly possible. With option to repeat as often as desired. And it would be often, believe me.

Feeling my gaze on her, she glanced hesitantly at me. She seemed different somehow. Unsure, even afraid. It made me want to hold her and tell her that everything would be okay, that whatever it was she was scared of would never be able to touch her as long as I was around. Fortunately, enough prudence remained to keep me from turning into a complete cornball in front of her. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep me from blurting, with all the suavity of a brick through a window: “Go out with me?”

“What?”

I shut my eyes against the urge to bash myself on the head. That did not come out the way I’d planned. My voice had even cracked at the end, like an overdone question mark. “Will you go out with me?” I said again, managing at least to produce a complete sentence this time. “This Friday, if you’re free. We could, um, go see a movie or something. And then maybe eat out or go walking or—or whatever activity you prefer.” Shut up, Santillan, you’re starting to prattle, the inner voice warned.

“Oh.” Her eyes had gone very round, her face had turned very pink, and her other hand had drifted up to her chest again. “I know you’re serious about being an active participant in our little charade, but you really don’t have to go this far—”

I stopped walking, forcing her to stop as well. “I mean for real. Go out with me for real.” She fell silent, the fear in her eyes warring with something else. Thinking to tilt things in my favor, I released her hand to stroke her cheek with my thumb. “Don’t say no, Ivy,” I coaxed.

She inhaled sharply, then closed her eyes and leaned her face into my hand. “Don’t you dare use this move against me. Ever. I mean it, Migs,” she growled, eyes flying open to glare into mine.

I grinned. “Why? Is it working?”

“Shut up.” Taking my face in both her hands, she drew me down until we were inches apart, only to say, “I’ll answer you later, okay?”

“Later?” I echoed, mystified and disappointed that I’d puckered up for nothing. “Define ‘later’. A couple of hours? Tonight? Tomorrow?”

“Oooh, later, later, later!” she exclaimed, stepping back and bouncing up and down. “Don’t you know what ‘later’ means? Pfft, disgraceful. I know you Engineering majors aren’t the most articulate people on campus, but still!”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on. Just tell me how long I have to wai—”

Without warning, she grabbed me by my lapels, yanked me down and crushed her lips to mine. And that was it. Escape velocity achieved. When we came back down to earth, I stared into her eyes, working to get my breath back. She pulled away and touched her fingers to her lips, looking stunned, dreamy and bemused all at once. “Oh my God,” she whispered, apparently unaware that she’d spoken out loud.

Deciding to take that as a compliment, I licked my own lips, which still tasted of her, and smiled goofily. “What was that for?”

She started and dropped her hand, blushing. “I wanted—that was, ah…that was to thank you for shutting up and waiting until later for my answer.”

“What? That’s not what I—”

“Oops, time to go! They’re probably sending out a search party for us even as we speak.”

With that, she spun around and skipped on ahead, her mood shifting yet again to that of barely contained energy. I felt a lot like skipping myself, but settled for following her at a dignified pace. So far, the number of questions she’d given a direct answer to remained the same—that is to say, zero—but I was at least ninety-seven percent sure of one thing: She’d wanted to kiss me again as badly as I wanted to kiss her. Sticking one hand in my pocket and looking up at the cloud-covered sky, I allowed my smile to grow into a blissful grin. I was right; it was turning out to be a great day.

Speaking of questions… “Hey, there’s something else I want to ask you.”

“Shoot.”

“Remember when we had dinner at your place with your grandparents? Your Lola kept asking me all these questions about your pork adobo. What was that about?”

She made a face at me over her shoulder. “Jesus, you don’t give up, do you? You asked me this last night, too.”

“And you still haven’t answered me,” I pointed out, then added, “have you?”

“Ooooh boy.” She pressed the heels of both hands to her forehead and cast a hopeful look toward Belle Giardino. When no one conveniently appeared to interrupt us, she lowered her hands and appeared to utter a brief prayer. “Have you read the book or seen the film Like Water for Chocolate? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Well, Lola believes in something like it. See, when he was young Lolo was a bit of a playboy, and Lola always says the reason Lolo chose her over the other girls was that she kept him well-fed. She believes in the saying that a man’s heart is through his stomach, which is why she’s dead-set on making sure Sharm and I know how to cook. Erwin, too. I don’t think she has a high opinion of his dream to become rich enough to hire a personal chef.”

“Oh. That’s interesting,” I commented, giving the mental image of Lolo Simon as a ladies’ man a wide berth. Then again, this certainly put all the romantic advice the old man had dumped on me in a new light.

“It gets worse. Lola also believes that, to a guy at least, food and sex are directly related. When you cook, you infuse the food with your energy or aura or whatever, so how a man reacts to your cooking is an indication of how he’ll react to, ah, to you personally. By which I mean intimately. Oh hell, I’ll just come right out and say it. Lola believes that how a man reacts to your cooking is an indication of what sex will be like between you.”

I ground to a halt in the middle of the parking lot and stared at her. “What?”

She stopped too and turned to face me, embarrassment and amusement battling it out on her face. “It’s supposed to be a test for sexual compatibility. At least, this was what Lola told Sharm and me to hook us into cooking. It was so we could, ah, use it on prospective boyfriends. You can bet there was a lot of giggling going on during lessons.”

As I scanned through my memories, I actually felt the color drain from my face. “So the reason she kept asking me what I thought about your adobo was so…”

She winced. “Yeah.”

“Your Lola wanted to know how I’d…how we’d…”

She bit her lip. “Uhuh.”

“Your grandmother thinks that how I like adobo is how I like—” Somehow, my brain couldn’t stop fixating on that horrifying idea, until it dug up something equally horrifying. “And she was teaching this to my sister?”

“Oh, don’t worry. She gave her the age-appropriate version. I hope,” she added in a not-very-reassuring way. “In any case, it’s a good thing Reese doesn’t go to St. Helene, right? Ahaha.”

I couldn’t fix her the withering look she deserved because I was too busy running my response to her Lola‘s interrogation against this distressing new theory. Her adobo had been good…a nice balance between salty and sour… the kind of spicy that lingers in the mouth…something about soft and tender potatoes…cooked just the way I like it. Crap, I thought as blood rushed back into my face. Talk about being better off not knowing.

Guessing my line of thought, Ivy pressed her knuckle to her mouth but her laughter bubbled up anyway. “Oh Migs, relax, okay? It’s just some crazy thing Lola believes. And anyway, how can you tell me about Alvin’s ejaculations with a straight face but blush like a choir boy at the mere mention of the word ‘sex’? Oh, but you weren’t a choir boy, were you? You were a pure and virtuous sacristan.”

“Oh quit it.” I stalked past her, silently vowing to get back at her for her teasing. She trotted beside me, still snickering, and I shot her a glare. The glare turned into something else when she gathered her hair again and twisted the coppery mass up to cool herself. I found myself tracing the curve of her nape and bare back with my eyes, while my hand twitched at the memory of how her skin had felt. My internal temperature spiked as the words “spicy”, “soft and tender” and “just the way I like it” took on meanings they were never intended to have, meanings that quickly became entangled with heated, half-formed images of her…of us…

“…so hot,” she was moaning. “I wish it would rain already. Hey, you want to go get drinks at the restaurant? My treat. How about it? Migs? Hello?”

Dismayed at the direction of my thoughts, I tore my gaze away and fumbled with the hotel doors as I held them open for her, hoping like crazy that the blast of air-conditioned air would cool down my guilty flush. “Drinks. Sure,” I answered with forced casualness, the effect ruined somewhat when my voice cracked again.

She gave me a strange look, then grabbed my arm and yanked me closer. “Watch out,” she said as a small troop of children carrying an inflatable whale tumbled spast. As the group disappeared, Ivy and I looked at each other, and we both seemed to freeze. Her hand felt way too good on my arm, and she was so close I could’ve just leaned down and—

God, I wanted to kiss her again.

Whoa, wait a minute. Again? We were right in the middle of the lobby of Belle Giardino. Had I gone completely nuts? Fortunately, the unruly thoughts came with their own failsafe mechanism; the sparrow-like image of Lola Rosa, complete with rosary beads clacking around her neck, appeared in my mind, bobbing her head approvingly. I shuddered at the sudden chill.

Ivy must have felt my tension, because she quickly let go of my arm. “Sorry about that.”

Before I could say anything, Reese came bounding up from out of nowhere, dressed in a completely different outfit consisting of a skirt, shirt and necktie. “Where have you two been? I can’t believe you guys left me behind!” she cried.

“Sorry, Reese,” Ivy apologized again. “I—we went out to find me some cigarettes. We didn’t have any luck, though. This village is just too snobby for sari-sari stores.”

With that, Reese turned to me next as if to say And what’s your excuse? I merely grinned. Giving up with a roll of her eyes, my sister proceeded to update us on current events. “Anyway, things have gone kinda screwy since you guys ran off. Trisha’s turned mopey, and I just know it’s your fault, Kuya¸ because she wouldn’t look me in the eye when I asked about you. And Orion’s been driving everyone crazy wondering when you’d come back. And I think Ian and his girlfriend have been fighting because—”

“Breathe, Reese. The oxygen’s free,” I quipped.

She gave me an annoyed frown, blinked, then looked at Ivy, who blushed under her scrutiny. An instant later, her face split into a broad grin. “Well, looks like something good happened. So I guess you guys have already kissed and made up, huh?” she teased.

As my own face ignited, Ivy retreated a step and covered her cheeks with her hands, stammering out a feeble denial. My sister’s eyes grew round with shock and dawning realization, but before she could let out a piercing squeal, somebody else beat her to it.

“Ivy-chaaaan!”

With a sense of déjà vu, we watched as a pair of skinny arms wrapped around Ivy’s neck, squeezing a choked gurgle out of her. “Ivy-chan, how could you leave me behind like that?” Orion wailed, rocking her to and fro like a ragdoll. “I was so, so, so lonely without you! Belle féechikattekureru, swear to me you’ll never leave me again, I can’t bear it! You are my light, my angel, my divine inspiration…”

As the loony designer continued to gabble what sounded like lines from a particularly drippy love song, I glanced at Reese, who shrugged and said, “See what I mean?”

“Orion, can’t…breathe…”

Ivy tugged at the arms around her neck until Orion loosened his grip. He turned his head and looked straight at me, his grin so knowing it was all I could do not to squirm. “But of course, in the face of such grand amour even I must stand aside, ne?” he added, winking at Reese, who erupted in giggles of pure disloyalty.

Ivy groaned and hung her head over his arms. “Orion?”

“Yes, ma cherie?”

“You’ve been hitting the bong in the men’s room again, haven’t you?”

Cackling, Orion twirled her until she was facing him. “Oya oya, you’re one to talk when you’re glowing so brightly it’s hurting my eyes. Just look at you! Can it be you’re even more radiant than you were this morning? Pourquoi est-ce, I wonder?” he purred, shooting me another sly grin. “Besides, how does a young girl like you know about naughty things like smoking weed in men’s rooms, hmm? What have they been teaching you at that school of yours? Now back to work, Ivy-chan, there’s a good girl. With luck, we can finish up before that ungodly hour when you and your friends have to go home.”

Some movement caught my eye; Trisha had emerged from the restaurant. Like Reese, she’d changed outfits, and her denim shorts and bright pink shirt appeared at odds with her glum expression. Her gaze met mine, only to slide away again. I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty; it was sort of my fault her feelings had been hurt.

“Trisha!”

Trisha froze. And Ivy, who’d called out to her, sent me a strange look beneath her lashes before closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, the Shoujo Shine Girl was back, flashing Orion a dimpled smile. “Just getting into character. And I’ve heard much worse in school, you know,” she said, sticking her tongue out playfully. “Just let me get something to eat before I change. Miss Belle and our stuff are in Hall 3, right? I’ll meet you guys at the ballroom. Trisha, wait up.”

She headed toward the now nervous-looking Trisha, and I knew I couldn’t let her go just yet, not while there was a chance she’d misunderstood my actions. I called out her name, but when she looked at me over her shoulder, all I could think of were the kisses we’d shared, the memory filling the spaces between us. In the end, I just smiled at her and said, “Later, okay?”

She smiled back, a little shyly. “Okay.”

Then she and Trisha were gone. I pushed my glasses up and turned, only to find Orion and Reese with their heads close together, hands clasped in each other’s, staring at me with similar expressions of rapt fascination. “Will you look at that,” Orion murmured.

“Yeah,” Reese sighed.

With a mental shake of my head, I left them to their shared hallucination, setting off for the terrace so I could finally sketch the gazebo and the bridge. I could show Ivy the sketches later; she’d like that. However, I hadn’t taken two steps when a hand grabbed me by the shoulder. The hand was attached to a familiar, scrawny arm, which in turn was attached to a familiar fruitcake of a designer, and for one awful moment I thought he was going to pull me close and cuddle me like he did Ivy.

My terror must have shown on my face, because he took one look at me and burst out laughing. “Miguel-kun, you are one interesting garcon. Very interesting. I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner,” he said, slinging his arm across my shoulders. “Ah, but let me make up for it. I want you to pose for me, Miguel. I want to see if we can capture that magnetism, that fire, that—how to say it? That je ne sais quoi I saw in you. Sou, sou, kimetanda yo. You’ll pose for me next, oui?”

“No frigging way,” I snapped, trying in vain to shrug his arm off.

“Oh please, Kuya. Come on, give it a try. It’s fun!” I looked at Reese, who was now clinging to my other arm, and made a mental note to raise the interest on the three hundred bucks she’d borrowed from me a couple of days ago. Traitor.

No amount of protesting dissuaded my captors from dragging me through the open doors of the ballroom. All heads turned toward us: the Belle Giardino staff; Morisato-san sitting at one of the tables with his glass of beer; Ian’s girlfriend and her friend, awaiting their turn to be shot; Adrian, who’d straightened from his tripod in surprise. The scene was dominated by a makeshift studio set up on the dance floor, complete with marbled cloth covering, lights and umbrellas. Ian sat with regal indolence on a red, velvet wing-back couch, flanked by his two buddies. Although the lights were too bright for him to see us clearly, he still managed to convey his mild amusement at our appearance. Then again, the guy was supposed to be an actor after all.

Releasing me, Orion clapped his hands together and began issuing instructions in a rapid-fire manner. “Tres bien! Ian, you look extremely kakkoi. That hauteur, that arrogance—very modern-day dark prince. James, turn your head a little to your left and smile, don’t grin. The camera is your darling. You must woo her, court her, seduce her! You must be bold, not sheepish! Nathan, elbow on one knee, chin on your hand—there! Kanpeki!

He snatched his camera off a table and began clicking off shot after shot. But just as I was about to slink away, thinking he’d forgotten about me, he threw over his shoulder, “Reese, koneko-chan, see if any of those fit your handsome brother.”

“Any of what?” I asked, awash in dread. In reply, Reese clamped her hand around my arm again and towed me toward a rack of clothes. Beside it was a narrow table covered with assorted fabrics and accessories. “Where did all these come from?” I wondered, unable to keep the panicked edge out of my voice.

“Well, now you know why we came here in that bus.” Reese scrutinized the clothes, then snatched a fire-engine red shirt and a pair of olive green shorts off the rack and held these up against me. “Orion, how about these?” she hollered.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered, backing away.

Pausing in between shots, Orion looked me up and down assessingly. “Hmm, a different shirt, I think. More earth tones. I see Miguel-kun as more substance, less flash. Clean, strong lines; cool colors; natural fabrics with texture. Conservative but elegant.”

“Yes, Boss,” she replied, giving him a thumbs-up.

I glowered at her. “Remind me again, because I must have missed it the first time—why are you doing this?”

She looked up from the clothes she was rifling through and giggled. “Didn’t you hear? It’s because you’ve got this magnetism, this fire, this jen—jenny say—”

Je ne sais quoi. Do you have any idea what it means?”

“Well, no.”

“It means neither does he,” I growled, pushing away yet another shirt.

“Well, I’ve been thinking I could be a fashion designer some day. It’s so much fun.”

“Whatever happened to becoming a world-class sprinter?”

For a moment she actually looked conflicted, then a wide smile bloomed on her face. “That’s easy. I’ll be both! Besides, Kuya, think how happy Ate—I mean, Ivy will be when she sees you’re interested in what she does. And just imagine the look on her face when she sees you in this.” She flourished a dark blue, button-down shirt with thin, silver lines running across the front, and a pair of light brown pants. “How about these, Orion?”

Orion grinned. “Oui, c’est parfait.”

“You heard him,” Reese said to me. “Go to the men’s room and put these on.”

I looked at the clothes, my heart sinking into my socks. Reese’s words had burrowed into my brain, though. What would Ivy think when she sees me in this? Before I could stop myself, I glanced at Ian and his friends, who all looked as if they’d just stepped off the pages of one of my sister’s magazines. Ian, especially. An image of him holding Ivy in his arms popped into my mind, and I narrowed my eyes in thought.

Then the devil himself laughed at something one of his friends said and looked over at me. “Nah, it’s cool. This way, he won’t feel completely left out, you know?” he said in a voice audible to everyone, his expression oozing condescending magnanimity.

My hackles rose. “Hand those over,” I told my sister, and without another word, I headed for the men’s room.

The shirt was a surprisingly good fit, just loose enough to be comfortable. The pants, though…I had to hitch the waistband up every now and then as I made my way back to the ballroom, feeling more and more foolish with every step. I searched for Reese, intending to show her what a fiasco dressing me up turned out to be, and found her and Trisha chatting together. When she noticed me, Trisha appeared to stop in mid-sentence, her jaw dropping in a somewhat worrying way. Then a familiar laugh rang out, drawing my gaze to the stunning girl dressed in black and gray who was talking with Orion.

Orion caught sight of me and nudged the girl. Coppery hair swirled out, then Ivy was looking at me, eyes going wide. This time, she wore a gray tank and a chunky silver chain with a star pendant, low-slung black jeans and black sneakers. More silver chains jangled at her wrist, and underneath a floppy black cap her hair hung sleek and smooth to her waist. Staring at her, I could feel my heart hammering and my mouth going dry all over again.

Without a word, she left Orion, walking toward me as if in a daze. “Wow,” she breathed, her eyes traveling slowly downward. “Wow, Migs, you look—” She trailed off and reddened, and from the corner of my eye I could see my sister’s satisfied smirk.

Then Ivy smiled, and suddenly I was glad Reese and Orion had forced me into these clothes. The way she was staring at me, it made me feel—well, to be honest, it made me feel as if I was the best-looking guy in the room. My confidence soared, and smiling back, I began to walk toward her, only to halt and tug at my waistband again. “The pants are loose,” I mumbled.

Closing the rest of the distance, she reached up to straighten my collar, then ran her hands lightly over my shoulders and down my chest. Everywhere she touched she left little charged trails, and I fought to keep my reaction from showing on my face, conscious of the eyes upon us. Then she blinked and hastily pulled her hands back to fiddle with her hair. “O-orion was just saying how he’d convinced you to pose for—ah, I’m sorry, you were saying? Your pants are loose?”

“I can fix that,” Miss Bella announced as she came over, one hand already going for my waistband, the other holding a small sewing kit. Some primal, protective instinct made me jerk away from her, and she arched an eyebrow at me.

“No, that’s fine. I’ll do it,” Ivy replied sweetly, but her eyes when she looked at the older woman were decidedly cool. “I can do his face, too, so you can relax, Miss Belle,” she added before turning to me. “May I? The pants just need a little adjustment—”

“Hey partner, we’re on.”

This time, it was Ian who’d interrupted, stopping by Ivy’s side after retrieving a black leather jacket to sexy-smirk her and pinch her cheek, although I was gratified to see that the smile she gave him was a tad forced. He spared me a mocking glance. “Too big for your britches, kid? Or no, my bad. Looks like your britches are too big for you.”

Ivy smiled even more toothily. “Just give me a second, Ian.”

“Yeah, well, get moving, Rocker Girl.”

We watched him stride off. “He’s got a great future in the comedy business, with lines like those,” I commented, and she coughed to cover her snort of laughter.

Somehow, we’d both forgotten about Miss Bella, who reminded us of her presence by sighing loudly. “Just leave it, Ivy, okay? I’ll take care of him. You better go before Orion starts swearing in French again.” She sat me down at a table where she’d set up her makeup stuff, and thrust her fingers into my hair, making me wince from the slight pain. “Here’s a word I’d like you to consider, Miguel: Haircut. Give it some thought,” she said to me after instructing me to take my glasses off.

“His hair is fine,” the black and gray blur that was Ivy countered. She’d been hovering nearby, as if unsure whether to join the others or argue with Miss Bella over who gets to stick me with pins and smear gunk on me. “I love his hair,” she confessed in a low voice. The words sounded as if they had been wrenched from some place inside her, and I wished I could see her face clearly.

I had no difficulty sensing Miss Bella’s annoyed huff though. “Ivy, go away.”

“Ivy-chan!” Orion yelled at the same time. The next moment, the black and gray blur was gone, merging with the brilliantly lit mass on the dance floor.

“Alone at last.” Miss Belle’s expression—or what I could see of its reflection in the mirror propped in front of me—was sardonic at first, but soon turned serious. “I wanted to talk to you without Ivy butting in. I know about the two of you. She told me about how you’re pretending to be together as a way to keep Ian and his bitchy girlfriend at arms’ length.” She paused to put some…whatever it is…on my face, then continued: “Look, I don’t normally pry into people’s personal lives, okay? Who Ivy chooses to go out with is her business. But I’ll be frank with you, just as I was with her earlier. For both your sakes, I hope that what she told me is all that’s going on between you.”

I went tense—well, more tense than I already was being subjected to her ministrations. “With all due respect, Ma’am, I fail to see why it should matter to anyone what’s going on between us,” I replied stiffly, beginning to understand the reason for Ivy’s unusual behavior. I wished I could put my glasses on. Not being able to clearly see my opponent was putting me at a disadvantage. For that matter, so was having my opponent do my hair and makeup and sew my pants up for me.

Miss Bella chuckled dryly. “I like how you made that sound more polite than it should. But it’s understandable that you don’t get it. Mostly it’s because of who Ivy is and what the company wants from her. Under her contract, anything that will put her ability to play the Shoujo Shine Girl at risk is a no-no. This means she has to keep her identity a secret, maintain a low profile, walk the straight and narrow, and not draw any attention to her. Especially media attention. Especially negative media attention. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Unfortunately, I was beginning to. “So she’s the image model of a popular clothing line who has to keep her identity a secret from the media. Don’t you think there’s something contradictory there?” I pointed out in an attempt to deny the rather unpleasant image forming in my mind.

Even without my glasses, I could see her faintly pitying expression. “The image the company is promoting is basically Orion’s concept of the Shoujo Shine Girl. She’s this wholesome, sweet, fresh-faced young girl with a secret side—a streetwise, sophisticated, sexy side. When Orion first saw Ivy, he knew nobody could play the part better than her. And well, that much is true, right?” she added meaningfully.

It was easy to figure out what the situation was. Orion was right; only Ivy could portray the Shoujo Shine Girl perfectly. In a way, she was the Shoujo Shine Girl. A beautiful girl who looked to be around twelve, but no real twelve-year-old could pull off the hints of an older woman’s maturity as effortlessly as Ivy could, because that’s exactly what she was. It was an unfair advantage, and a somewhat misleading one, too.

No, not just that. If you came right down to it, it was a lie. All these girls—my sister and her friends, Lala and her friends and all the others—were buying these clothes so they could be like the Shoujo Shine Girl, but the truth was, the Shoujo Shine Girl didn’t exist. What there was was an improbable permutation of genetic anomalies, unique personal circumstances, and innate acting ability. What there was…was just Ivy.

Just Ivy, the twenty-year-old with a body on a “deferred development plan”, who kept on smiling and laughing and pretending to be somebody she wasn’t.

Miss Bella went to fetch some accessories, leaving me standing there gazing at the cloud of light and shifting colors. I could hear voices—my sister’s, Orion’s, Adrian’s, Trisha’s, Ian’s and his friends’, and Ivy’s. It was a fun scene, full of the juxtaposition of youthful energies, joie de vivre and whatever else Orion would say. Just how much of it was built upon a great, big deception? It gave me a headache just thinking about it.

Miss Bella came back and handed me a belt, followed by a pair of black-rimmed glasses with no lenses. “So the light won’t bounce off and hide your eyes” and “you look better with glasses on” were her explanations.

I pocketed my wire-rims and slid the prop glasses on, which of course didn’t do a thing for my vision. Miss Bella, though, had no such impediments as she peered into my face. “Well, I can see you’ve got a handle on the situation now,” she remarked. “I also hope you understand where I’m coming from when I talk about you. It’s all right for Ivy to date someone, shall we say, from her circle, and it’s all right for you to be friends. But if you and Ivy were to date and the media somehow gets wind of it? And you a media personality yourself?” She shook her head in unmistakable disapproval.

I fixed her a level stare. “I don’t see the problem. I go to the same university she does, and we don’t allow media there either. One article in the Inquirer doesn’t make me a public figure.”

“Uhuh.” She scoffed at my deliberate obtuseness—or my naiveté, more like. “And you don’t see the problem with an adult dating someone who’s so obviously a minor?”

“It won’t matter,” I stated icily.

We eyed each other, neither of us giving ground. Finally, she threw her hands up and began to straighten her stuff. “Fine, then. Do whatever you want. God, this is why I hate talking to teenagers. They think they know everything. I just hope Ivy decides to be sensible about this,” she said, lapsing into a low, irritated mutter.

I became aware that my jaw had clenched, and I knew I had to get out of there before I lost my temper again. Before I could stalk off though, she called my name and impatiently beckoned me closer. “Look, consider this a warning, okay? From a concerned friend. Only a blind idiot wouldn’t notice this thing going on between you, but if you were really Ivy’s friend, you’d know how important her work is to her. Don’t do anything to jeopardize it.”

I drew in a breath to convey to her, in no uncertain terms, how unnecessary her warning was, but what she said next gave me pause. “Remember, they’re watching her. And for as long as you’re together, that means they’re watching you, too.”

This is a joke, right? “Is it Orion?” I asked, amazed at the self-control it took for me not to laugh out loud.

“No, not Orion,” she replied with a faint smile. “I meant the higher-ups. Including him.

I looked in the direction of her subtle nod toward the table where the roundish, red and white figure of Morisato-san sat. That placid face, the lazy regard that somehow always managed to track Ivy wherever she was—he was monitoring her, observing her actions, waiting for her to slip up. Like a quality control officer. Or a prison guard.

At Miss Bella’s prompting, I reluctantly made my way to the front. Judging from the two mostly black-clad figures standing together in front, it was Ian and Ivy’s turn again to be photographed. However, the terrible jealousy I’d felt earlier wasn’t as intense as before, although I suppose not being able to see what was going on had something to do with it.

Instead, I tuned out the noise as I pondered Miss Bella’s revelations. I’d be the first to admit that I knew precisely zilch about how the modeling industry worked. I’d heard stories though, from friends at college and from Ivy herself, about the unsavory things models are sometimes forced to do just to get and keep a job. Compared to those, being made to play the part of a twelve-year-old on-camera and during the occasional live promo tours at malls was pretty tame. Nothing to point and shriek “scandal!” at like some fussy old lady. After all, things like that happened everyday in show business.

And it was working out. Ivy seemed happy, and she worked hard at her job. Orion plainly adored her, and Adrian and even Miss Bella seemed to care about her. If her bosses regarded her as less than a human being and more like a kennel-show champion they had personally bred and trained, so what? They paid her to do it; it was the reason she and her friends could afford to stay in our apartment. Put it that way, even I owed Shoujo Shine and her crazy contract with them big-time. I could practically see Ivy jabbing a finger in my face as she rattled off these arguments.

Still, the whole thing felt…I don’t know…wrong. Sighing, I ran a hand through my hair and thought about our earlier fight, and of the wounded defiance in Ivy’s eyes. I’m doing what I have to do. She was right; I didn’t understand. Granted, our chosen career trajectories differ rather significantly, but I simply couldn’t see myself tolerating any work environment where I’d have to pretend to be someone else for indefinite periods of time. Add to that the hassle of keeping track of all the details of my cover story and constantly weighing every word and action to check for consistency. Jeez. Just the idea of it sounded completely exhausting.

How did Ivy feel about this? She knew Reese and her friends loved Shoujo Shine’s clothes because of the Shoujo Shine Girl. So many girls must have come up to her and told her how much they wished they could be like her, not to mention all the guys who’d fallen for the girl they thought she was. What went on in her head whenever she encountered that, knowing that what they were idolizing was an illusion?

Who was she to all these people? For Orion and the company, she was their property. Thousands of girls saw her as the girl they themselves could become. Guys like Alvin saw her as fantasy material. Even her friends…except for Sharm and Erwin, they treated Ivy as someone who never got hurt, who could take blow after blow and still come up laughing and kidding around. Just because she never showed them what she really felt inside. Lolo Simon’s words drifted back: Ivy is, in many ways, just an ordinary young woman. And like any young woman, she wants to be seen and appreciated for who she is. Problem is, her face keeps getting in the way.

So that’s what he’d meant. It made me furious just thinking about it. They were all using her. She was so remorseful about forcing Reese and me to lie, but people were forcing her to lie all the time. Even me, I realized with a wave of shame. She knew from the start that she’d have to fake her way through the day and that her boss would be breathing down her neck, but she’d chosen to risk it to bring Reese and me to this photo-shoot thing. And like the selfish, insensitive jerk I was, I had to get on her case about it and burden her even more with this pretense of a relationship.

Why? Why did she have to do this? I’d known girls who acted as though being easy on the eyes was a license to get away with murder, yet none of them could hold a candle to Ivy. Honestly, she didn’t need to pretend. What good did it possibly do her?

A strange sensation made me look over my shoulder. At first glance, Morisato-san seemed as stolid, soft-spoken and unremarkable as Orion was high-strung, histrionic and flamboyant. What kind of person was he? Odd that he was hard to pin down. Then the red and white blob moved in a way that looked as if he’d nodded at me. I nodded back, aware that he’d been watching me, too. It was a weird feeling, to say the least.

“Miguel.”

I turned to find a camera hovering in front of me. Adrian grinned. “Here’s Old Betty, like I promised. Give her a try. Uh, wait. Maybe you should put your glasses on first.”

I did exactly that, realizing just then that Ivy and Ian had taken a break and were talking with Orion, who was hunched over a table busily sketching in his sketchpad. Adrian launched into a quick lecture on basic photography, but I was distracted when Ian suddenly grabbed Ivy and twirled her around until she ended up gracefully bent backward over his arm. She laughed while Orion moaned, “Non, non, something’s missing. What oh what could it be?”

What’s missing, I thought darkly, is me going over there and making that jerk keep his hands off of her.

“Hey, you with me?” Adrian said, waving a hand in front of my face.

I flushed and forced myself to focus. “Yeah, I got it. But who am I supposed to shoot?”

“Oooh! Us, Kuya! Take our pictures!” Reese and Trisha tumbled onto the set, and under Adrian’s guidance, I took photo after photo of them. I quickly got the hang of it, and the stuff about key lights, reflectors, lighting ratios, and the combinations of lighting and angles were actually pretty interesting. Plus, it was fun to order my sister around and have her do what I say without her usual whining.

I was down on one knee when I felt fingers rubbing the back of my neck, sending shivers through me. “Hey, you’re taking over from Kuya Adrian?” Ivy asked brightly.

“Yup. He said he needed a break or something,” I said with a smile.

“Great! We could use a better-looking photographer to flirt with around here.”

Ignoring Adrian’s muttered “that’s not what Claire says,” she skipped off to join the other girls. After a while, I became aware of Orion standing behind me, watching the girls intently. He glanced down at me, then seemed to come to a decision. Clapping his hands, he announced, “Reese, Trisha, I’d like to have Ivy alone for a moment.”

Obediently, the two girls left Ivy alone on the set. But instead of hoisting his own camera, Orion merely crossed his arms and grinned. “Saa, Miguel-kun, continue please.”

I looked questioningly at Ivy, who planted one hand on her hip, touched a finger to her lips and blew me a kiss. “Whenever you’re ready, Migs,” she sang out, flashing me a dimpled smile that had me blushing.

She struck pose after pose—playful, lightly mocking, coquettish, sullen, pouty, tough and rebellious. She danced, she played air-guitar, she tossed her hair back and made faces, she draped herself over the couch, she lost herself to the rock music playing over a karaoke machine. And soon I was lost myself, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

Eventually, Orion called for a break and summoned Ivy, Ian, Adrian and Miss Bella, closing me out of the group. I relinquished the camera to Adrian, who congratulated me on my first try. Craning her neck around Ian, Ivy caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up, beaming with so much pride that for a moment I felt as if I’d just pulled off a Pulitzer-worthy feat of photojournalism. I felt like grabbing Old Betty back from Adrian and really showing her what I could do. Then her eyes went soft, and I realized that what I really wanted was to kiss her again—

“Slut.”

The ugly word, spat by a low, feminine voice tore through the moment. I turned and squinted narrow-eyed at Ian’s girlfriend. Her friend whispered something to her, but Sophia just retorted, in a voice sharp with contempt, “So? What’s he gonna do about it?”

Good question.

The next moment, Reese and Trisha were beside me, talking loudly and blocking my view of the other girls. Judging from the anxious glances Trisha was giving Sophia, as well Reese’s warning frown directed at me, I figured they’d known where the fumes of hostility were coming from all along.

Oui! Sou da! I want Miguel-kun. Where is he?”

Crap. I turned in the direction of Orion’s voice with such deep reluctance that my bones creaked. There was still a chance. The doors were open. But before I could make a run for it, Ivy appeared and grabbed my hands. I was fairly sure she could hear the Jaws‘ theme song being transmitted through my nerve endings, and the smile she gave me was both understanding and encouraging. “Relax, Migs. Breathe. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”

“Really? So I don’t need to do the Funky Chicken or something like you guys have been doing?” I replied, unable to keep the quaver of hope out of my voice. My choice of words proved unwise. She stared at me for a moment, then stomped on my foot. “Ow! Jeez! What was that for?” I spluttered, hopping around on one foot.

She crossed her arms and stuck her nose in the air. “Pfft. You’ll be fine. If you’re having problems, just focus on Reese and Trisha and pretend you’re kidding around with them.”

“Miguel! Allons, allons!”

Orion clapped his hands imperiously as Ivy walked off. With a sense of impending doom, I headed to the front, only to have Miss Bella snag me by the collar to repair the damage I did to my coiffure and scold me into putting the prop glasses back on. Meanwhile, Orion rattled off a stream of instructions, only a fraction of which I grasped. Soon, I was standing underneath the glare of the lights, my skin prickling with sweat, squinting at the shadowy figures in front, unable to figure out which ones were my sister and Trisha. To make things worse, I could hear Ian and his buddies laughing off to one side. “Looking good, kid!” he hollered derisively.

I soldiered on, and I actually thought I was doing okay for a while. That is, until Orion lowered his camera and sighed. “Miguel-kunetooo, how do I say this? You’re not here to have your picture taken for your school library card. Mon dieu, I’ve seen corpses show more emotion than you. Where is the fire I saw in you a while ago? You must be more relaxed! Be natural! Be yourself!”

“How about I be gone from here?” I grumbled to myself. To be fair, Orion hadn’t yelled at me the way he’d yelled at Ivy and Ian. In fact, he was relatively nicer to the amateur models than to the two professionals. Still, I could feel the burn of humiliation spreading in both directions from my neck. I felt clumsy, awkward, exposed and way out of my element—in short, I felt like the snotty nerd I’d been in St. Helene. The one who always finished last, who got tripped, shoved and kicked along with the soccer ball, who’d gotten both ankles bruised during tinikling lessons in PE because I couldn’t get the timing right.

Then a familiar voice called out, “yeah, I’m here,” and a figure emerged from the shadows and stepped into the light. She’d traded her gray tank, silver chains and floppy cap for a yellow, flower-patterned blouse, a necklace of little daisies, and a side ponytail. The blouse was made of some sort of sheer material, and as she walked toward me her body was outlined in a nimbus of light, revealing the tiny, spaghetti-strapped shirt she wore underneath. All thought evaporated; I tried unsuccessfully not to stare as the temperatures jacked up even higher.

Then she got close enough for me to see her humor-filled grin. “So, you want to do the Funky Chicken now or later?”

“Uh,” I croaked.

Laughing, Ivy bounded to my side, hooked her arm through mine, and flashed a victory sign with the other. As the cameras clicked away, she winked, cocked her hip firmly against me, and bent first one way then the other, forcing me to do the same or risk falling over. “There you go,” she said approvingly. “Loosen your body up a little, Migs. You’re closed up tighter than a clam.”

“I don’t know what he wants from me,” I complained, frowning at Orion.

“He wants to see you—well, both of us as we usually are when we’re together. No scenes to play out. Orion knows what he’s doing, I guess,” she said with a shrug. “Just pretend you’re in a role-playing game or something.”

“No RPG I’ve ever played was anything like this, I’ll have you know.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” she replied lightly as she leaned back against me, crossed her arms, and tilted her face up toward mine.

Yup. Like a first kiss or something, I thought, looking into her eyes. I imagined I heard her breath stutter a little before we changed positions again. Twisting around, she peered up at my face with a thoughtful expression. “You know, I don’t think those glasses look good on you. What if you take just them off?” She reached up and pulled the prop glasses off, blinked a couple of times, then slowly grinned.

“Give those back.” I snatched the glasses from her and slammed them back on, flushing self-consciously and muttering, “I look stupid without glasses.”

She shook her head. “No, you don’t. Trust me, you don’t. I’m just used to seeing you with your silver wire-rims, that’s all. But now that I think about it, those glasses do make you look a bit like Harry Potter.”

I raised an eyebrow, frankly unconvinced. “Harry Potter. Right.”

“No, really. All you need is a black robe, green contacts and a lightning scar right here.” She raised a hand and traced a finger on my forehead, again sending shivers through me. Something seemed to pass between us before she pulled away and turned to Orion. “What?” she asked confusedly.

Ma cherie, I said you should go sit on the couch,” Orion drawled.

So we did—side by side, back to back, with me standing behind the couch while Ivy sat, then the other way around. Then Orion made me sit on the floor in front of Ivy. It took a surprising amount of time for us to arrange our limbs in a way that satisfied him. “How do you do it?” I asked Ivy when the designer was out of hearing range.

“Do what?” she asked right back, aiming a dimpled smile at the cameras.

“Make it look so easy. It’s too hot, too bright, too uncomfortable, and Orion’s clearly psychotic. How do you manage to look as if you’re having the time of your life?”

She tucked her hair behind her ear and gave me a surreptitious smirk. “It’s a gift, Migs. Some of us have it, and some of you don’t.”

“Yeah right,” I replied, rolling my eyes. We paused so I could sit on the edge of the couch beside her again while she folded her legs up underneath her, Indian-style. For all that her entire demeanor was crystallized sweetness, I decided that she looked altogether too smug. An idea occurred, and as I planted a hand on the couch just behind her, I said in a voice only she could hear, “Hey, you know your Lola‘s theory about food and guys?”

She turned her head toward me. “Yeah? What about it?” she asked vaguely, although I could hear the wariness in her tone.

I inched closer, ignoring the way my pulse was accelerating. “Well, I’ve been giving it some thought.”

“Hands loose in front of you, Ivy-chan,” Orion’s voice interjected.

She did as instructed, but her expression as she stared at me was both cautious and preoccupied. “You have?”

I swallowed. I was having trouble focusing on what I was saying. She was so beautiful, so warm, so close… “Yeah. I think she’s on to something,” I said hoarsely. It was dawning on me that there was a fatal flaw in my plan to discomfit her by discussing her grandmother’s cookery-related superstitions at the most inopportune time, but it was too late to stop.

Her eyes widened as my meaning sunk in, and a gorgeous blush tinted her cheeks. “What do you mean, she’s on to something?”

“Closer, Miguel-kun. Let your shoulders touch. Oui! That’s it!”

“I mean she’s right,” I said, leaning closer still, “but maybe only on a case-to-case basis. In my case, well…” I let my gaze drop to her mouth then travel back up to her eyes. I must have been possessed or something.

“Tilt your head up to his, Ivy-chan. Closer! Oui! Subarashii!

Luckily, only I could hear her moaning, “You’re drunk. I know it, you’re drunk. And I’m fucking touched in the head. Oh, why are you bringing this up now?”

“I couldn’t think of a better time.” Her blush, the dreamy haze in her eyes, the way she trembled a little—there was no way she could have faked those. Whether she acknowledged it or not, I affected her as much as she affected me. The certainty invaded my system like a drug, and the urge to kiss her became a drumbeat in my head.

“Closer!” Orion howled somewhere in the distance.

I lowered my head until our noses brushed against each other’s, until I couldn’t tell anymore which breath was mine. Her lips parted, and her eyelids fluttered downward. “I don’t even remember what you said about my adobo,” she whispered.

I smiled and whispered back, “Liar.”

Saa, ima shinasai! Kiss her!”

We froze, our eyes flying wide open, the strange tension enveloping us crumbling to dust. Moving mechanically, Ivy pulled away and turned to give Orion, who was closer than I’d thought, an incredulous stare. “K-kiss?”

Orion nodded vigorously. “Oui! That’s what I said.”

I felt almost sickeningly disoriented, unable to believe that I’d somehow forgotten where we were. No, I didn’t forget. I hadn’t imagined Orion’s voice trumpeting at us, but it had been an incidental thing and—well, let me put it this way: If he hadn’t interrupted, I would have been pressing her into the armrest by now, oblivious to the lights, the heat, and the presence of two photographers, my sister and several strangers, half of whom were hostile to either or both of us—oblivious to everything except Ivy. I had never lost control like that before; certainly never to the degree where I ceased to care about my surroundings. But now…with her…

What the hell is happening to me?

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one shaken by what had happened, or nearly happened, judging by the tension I could feel vibrating through Ivy. Her face slack with disbelief, she stammered out, “But Orion, I’ve never—I mean, you’ve never—”

Et alors? What issue could there be with you kissing Miguel? You two are koibito, are you not?” Orion pointed out, the mad glint in his eye making it clear what the strange word meant. “Oya oya, don’t tell me you two have never kissed before.”

Ivy and I blushed furiously, practically announcing our just-starting-out-with-this-kissing-thing status to everyone. She covered her face with her hands, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. When she returned to her previous position, she added something new: her hand slid around the back of my neck, drawing me to her. It would have been perfect if her hand hadn’t been cold and unsteady, if I hadn’t seen the apology dimming her eyes.

My lips tingled with anticipation, and I had to clench my fists to keep from pulling her close. All I could think of was how much I wanted—no, needed to kiss her…

“Migs?” she said in a tiny voice when I continued to hesitate.

…but not now. Not like this. Not with all these strangers and their avid, uncaring eyes watching. Not with her feeling guilty or ashamed or thinking I was being forced into it. And no way in hell was I letting them take these glimpses into Ivy’s vulnerability and turn them into a sideshow, contract or no. She was already giving them everything they wanted. But this—what we felt for each other, who she was when she was with me—no way in hell was I letting them take this from her as well.

“No,” I said out loud as I stood, taking her hand and pulling her up with me. “We’re done here. We have to leave anyway. It’s getting late.”

Somebody gasped, but it was only when I took the prop glasses off and replaced them with mine that I was able to fully appreciate the shocked tableau my declaration had caused. Adrian’s eyebrows formed twin arches on his forehead, while Miss Bella’s mouth was pursed in what could either be disapproval or cynical amusement. Ian and company were exchanging smirks, while the Belle Giardino staff were looking apprehensively at Orion.

And with good reason. Orion’s chalky complexion had turned a shade of purple that clashed with his red and yellow hair, and his eyes were fairly spitting lightning bolts. Ivy shrank back against me reflexively before catching herself and standing straighter. I couldn’t blame her. Orion looked downright menacing when he was pissed. “Au contraire, Miguel-kun,” he said in a voice like a newly sharpened knife. “We are done when I say we are done. Now sit down and do as I tell you.”

“Sorry, sir, but like I said, we can’t. We have to get home soon or our mom will start worrying.” I said this for my sister’s benefit as well, stepping around Orion with Ivy’s hand gripped tightly in mine. I got as far as a couple of feet before a hand landed heavily on my shoulder.

Orion snarled something in French that did not sound flattering. “I despise insolence,” he said, switching to English again. “And I despise disrespect and insubordination even more. How dare you? Did you think I traveled across oceans to this miserable little country to be treated with unforgivable rudeness and openly defied by an arrogant gaki like you?”

His voice rose to a screech, the only sound in the suddenly dead silent ballroom. Even the music had petered away. Nobody moved, spoke or otherwise did anything that might draw the attention of the enraged designer, who was pacing back and forth and screaming invectives in three different languages. Ivy’s hand felt clammy, but when I tried to pull her behind me she refused to budge from my side—or was petrified, just like everyone else. I moved in front of her instead, to keep her out of the way of flying spittle at least. Orion noticed my movement, which seemed to incense him even more. He stuck out a hand and laid it in the middle of my chest as if to physically shove me into submission.

That’s it. I knocked his hand aside, now royally pissed off myself. “Talk all you want, we’re still leaving,” I ground out, fury overriding any remaining caution or good sense. “I may be insolent and arrogant, but one thing I’m not is working for you, so quit thinking you’ve got a right to push me or mine around. And maybe you’ve forgotten that this ‘miserable little country’ gave you everything, including your Shoujo Shine Girl. If you’re going to start in on owing respect, then maybe you should start with you.”

Not particularly interested in his reaction to my speech, I pushed past him, barking “let’s go” at my sister, who hurriedly fell in behind us. I grinned to myself; I was going to cherish that moment of prompt obedience in the years to come.

“Ivy!”

Orion’s voice cracked like a whip, and like a trained circus animal, Ivy stopped in her tracks, jerking me to a halt as well. I turned around—to do what, I didn’t know. She gave me an indescribable look, then pulled her hand away and turned her back on me.

My gut clenched as if I’d been punched.

“Ivy-chan, you’re not leaving, are you?” Orion said, his manner cajoling now. “Stay, ma cherie. The bus can take your friends back to the office and they can go home on their own, but you must stay with us. We’ll have fun with everybody tonight, oui?”

As I watched, a heartbeat away from losing it, Ivy’s shoulders relaxed and her hair swung as she shook her head. “I’m sorry, Orion, but Migs is right. It’s time we went home.”

Then she turned and gave me a small smile. If I wasn’t already nuts about her, I’d have fallen for her right then and there. She twined her arms around mine and Reese’s, chattering about how much fun she had with us and how sorry she was that we couldn’t take any of the new outfits with us. As before, her mood proved infectious, and as we collected our stuff and left, it was as if all the light and sound that had given the ballroom life was draining away as well, leaving only empty props behind.

Soon, everyone was packing up, although it turned out that only Adrian and the three of us were taking the bus back to the office. Everyone else was staying overnight. After changing back into my own clothes, I sat on the floor beside the door to the girls’ designated dressing room and sighed. Too bad I never got the chance to sketch the gazebo and the bridge like I’d wanted to. But when I closed my eyes, it wasn’t the gazebo or the bridge I saw but Ivy—all the different incarnations of her that day, the way she’d looked walking out of the light toward me, the way she’d backed me up against Orion, the way she’d smiled at me afterward. It had been a strange smile, come to think of it. And she’d looked…she’d looked kind of weird as well. Kind of sad, in fact…

At the sound of footsteps, I opened my eyes to find Ian knocking on the door. Flicking me a cursory glance, he shouted, “Soph! How much longer are you gonna take?”

A minute later, his girlfriend and her friend emerged. Like Ian, they looked at me as if I was something somebody had unwittingly tracked indoors. Ivy, Reese and Trisha came out a minute later, escorted through the door by Ivy’s bag and suitcase. The look Sophia sent her went beyond the pH level of contempt, but Ivy paid her no heed as Ian chosen that moment to slither nearer. “That was some acting back there, partner. If you ever consider auditioning for a role in a telenovela, I know somebody who—”

“Thanks, but I’m not really interested,” she said, edging away from him on the pretext of handing me the suitcase. I sent her a covert look. Was it me, or did she seem subdued somehow?

Unfortunately, Ian decided to shift his attention to me. “Oh, hey, Miguel. You know, I gotta hand it to you. You don’t take half-measures, huh? When you screw up, you screw up big-time.” He raised his hand palm-up and opened his fingers wide, making explosion sounds in his mouth and elbowing his friend to cue him that it was time to laugh.

I shrugged. “Subtlety is for sissies. You should know.”

The group gathered in the lobby to say goodbye, with Orion whirling around in the middle, as manically enthusiastic, trilingually boisterous and overly clingy as before. I stood apart, just in case he started frothing at the mouth and lunging at people. It was as if our confrontation had never happened. If anything, it confirmed my theory that “artistic type” was just another way of saying “mentally unhinged.”

I owed him an apology, I supposed, if only for the abruptness with which I’d ended his fun. The last thing I wanted was for him or Morisato-san to give Ivy a hard time because of what I did. My chance came—way too soon, I thought—when he made his way over to me, with Ivy clamped to his side. “Sir,” I began stiltedly, “I apologize for—”

Non, non, non!” he interrupted, wagging a finger. “No need for that. You were acting according to your nature. Such a thing is to be admired, not apologized for.”

“It is?” I shot Ivy a befuddled look, and got a helpless shrug in reply.

Oui! The fault is mine for failing to understand the elemental nature of your soul. Because of you, I have realized that I need to train more in order to discern the truths you so clearly see. For that, bien merci, Miguel-kun,” he added, sketching a little bow.

What is this—one of Alvin’s ninja anime episodes?

He threw his head back and laughed, apparently finding my bewilderment hilarious. “You are fire and earth, Miguel-kun, fire and earth. Passionate, strong-willed and immovable, but when you move, you change the world.”

So I’m…geology? “Right,” I said, giving up altogether.

“I guess that makes me popcorn and cotton candy then,” Ivy joked weakly.

Chigau!” he exclaimed, spinning her out from under his arm to grasp her by the shoulders. “You, Ivy-chan, are air and water—yielding, liberating and life-giving. How can you not see this, ma cherie? Methinks you need to undergo training as well. Sou, sou, we must all be students in the great alchemy of life.” He paused dramatically to let this sink in, while she hung her head and groaned.

“Ah, but the two of you together!” He suddenly released her, giving her a push that sent her stumbling backward. Without thinking, I threw an arm out and caught her, holding her steady until she regained her footing while Orion clapped his hands as if he’d just witnessed a death-defying feat of acrobatics. “Ah, l’amour,” he sighed, then winked at us. “With such a perfect combination of elements, even time must be on your side.”

With that, he pranced back to the others, leaving us staring after him. Becoming aware that I still had my arm around her, I blushed and quickly let go. She reddened, too, but her face had grown pensive again. “He’s crazy, isn’t he?” she murmured.

“Mm,” I agreed.

“So what do you think are the elemental natures of Ian’s and Sophia’s souls?”

“An oil spill and a Molotov cocktail.”

She laughed a little at that. I studied her intently. Something was definitely different. Was she hurt? Sad? Disappointed? I gulped. Was it me she disappointed in because I’d trashed the shoot and picked a fight with her boss?

She pushed my glasses up with the tip of her finger. “You’re brooding again.”

“Yeesh, you two, get a room,” Adrian called out laughingly as he walked past us to the doorway, shouldering his camera bag. Her gaze skittering away, she mumbled something about needing to talk to Miss Bella and took off, just as Reese bounded up and prodded me to get moving or the bus would leave without me.

The rains were coming down hard, and the Belle Giardino staff were in a flurry carrying trunks and equipment into the idling bus while others held umbrellas over them. As I hefted the suitcase, Trisha appeared by my side. “Hi, Miguel. Um, I’m sorry for causing trouble between you and Ivy,” she said shyly.

I gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Not a problem.” Not in the end, anyway, I added silently, thinking about the kiss. “Thanks, by the way, for the food and all.”

She blushed. “You’re welcome. Ivy and I talked and—well, she made me think a lot about stuff and—um, I’m not making a lot of sense, am I?” Since I didn’t think my agreeing with her would help matters, I just kept quiet, which seemed to encourage her. “Anyway,” she went on, “I’m still sticking to my decision.”

“What decision?”

She smiled. “I want my first boyfriend to be just like you.”

As an unaccustomed heat climb up my neck, I opened my mouth and said the first thing that popped into my head: “My condolences.”

She giggled and ran back into the hotel. The staff had ferried everyone else to the bus, but before I could follow, somebody else came to say goodbye. “Miguel Santillan.”

I stopped and looked over my shoulder, rain running in cold rivulets down my collar. Morisato-san‘s round face stared back, his expression completely unreadable. “Yes, sir?” I said as my neck muscles tensed.

“You did not kiss her.” It seemed like a simple declaration of fact, but was loaded with meaning I couldn’t begin to guess at. I waited silently until he finally said, “You are…unexpected, Mister Santillan.”

With that, he nodded politely and walked off. I shook my head, deciding I had better things to do than stand there in the rain trying to puzzle out that enigmatic statement. Ivy and Reese were sitting together in the back row. Plunking the suitcase down on an empty seat, I sat beside my sister and stripped off my wet shirt, shivering when the air-conditioned air seeped into my just slightly less damp T-shirt. As Reese talked on about exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with Trisha, I glanced at Ivy and found her watching me with a strange expression. She lowered her gaze then turned toward the window. Worry began to gnaw at me. Why was she looking at me like that?

Eventually, Reese fell asleep with her head on Ivy’s shoulder, while Ivy continued to stare resolutely out the window. I leaned back and rubbed my eyes behind my glasses. Okay, first observation: She was unhappy. Second observation: This unhappiness started—when? After my confrontation with Orion? No, wait. It was earlier than that. The almost-kiss…?

I opened my eyes. Could it be she was unhappy not because of something I did, but because of something I didn’t do? Like, maybe, kiss her when she was expecting me to?

Yup. Genius does have its uses sometimes.

Casting back to when we were shooting on the couch, I imagined myself in her place, waiting to be kissed in front of so many people, only to have my…kisser…stand up and walk away. Ouch. How was I going to tell her she had the wrong idea about my refusal to do what Orion wanted? The ludicrousness of the situation hit me. Here I was fighting so hard not to kiss the living daylights out of her, only to end up with her believing the exact opposite was true. I swallowed a frustrated groan. I’d only been into this kissing business for half a day, and already it was throwing me more twists and turns than was good for my sanity. Whoever said that kissing was just nature taking its course ought to be taken to an open field and shot.

And since it was Allan, I could get Yna to help out.

Ivy’s voice saying my name cut short my daydream of Allan running frantically around the UP Sunken Garden while I took potshots at him. I looked over at her, searching her face for clues on how to convince her that I’d wanted to kiss her—short of vaulting over my sister’s sleeping form and kissing the living daylights out of her, of course.

Then her lips lifted in a sweet, shy smile. “Yes.”

“Yes?” I parroted, still recovering from the smile.

“To Friday. It’s a date.” She blushed and smiled again.

Of course, it was entirely possible that I’d gotten things completely wrong. Whoa man… “Okay,” was all I managed over the fireworks of joy going off inside me. I bit my lips as I settled back into my seat, but the silly grin leaked out anyway. If a meteor had crashed into our bus at that moment, I’d have died happy. Then, just to make sure… “Ten o’clock?”

“Okay. Um, Migs?”

“Yes?”

“I—I just—” She trailed off, seemed to lose her train of thought for a moment, then shook her head a little. “Thank you,” she murmured, her eyes warm and luminous. “For today. For everything.”

I love you, I thought. “Same here,” I said instead, smiling back. She returned to her vigil at the window, and so failed to see Reese grinning like Orion in her sleep.

Twenty minutes later, my sister wasn’t grinning anymore but peering anxiously out the window. The rains had stopped but bumper-to-bumper traffic slowed our progress down to a crawl, and the sky had long since darkened. “Kuya, it’s getting late,” she said, her face strained. “What if Mama gets home before we do?”

“I already texted her,” I replied. “I said we decided to wait out the rain and we got a bit stuck in traffic, so we might be a while getting home. But that was some time ago,” I added warningly, cutting short her sigh of relief. “Your alibi that we’d gone to the mall with your friends won’t fly if we don’t get home real soon.”

“You didn’t tell your mom that you were with me?” Reese shook her head in reply to Ivy’s question. “Oh boy,” she muttered. “Wait, do your friends know your cover story? Can they back you up in case your mom calls them?”

“Oh crud,” Reese whimpered, pulling out her phone and ducking her head away from my reproachful frown at all the subterfuge involved. Unfortunately, unless the traffic miraculously clears up, I didn’t see how we had any choice but to wait it out.

Apparently, Ivy had also been giving it some thought. “Let’s see if this works,” she murmured to herself, drawing out her own phone and moving up the aisle. We watched as she spoke intently with someone while looking out the window and occasionally consulting with Adrian. Finally, she shut her phone and made her way back. “Okay, we’ll get off at Dasmariñas Village and walk to Pasong Tamo Extension. It’s a bit far, but there’ll be a taxi waiting for us at the corner. We can take another route home.”

“How do you know there’ll be a taxi there?” I asked.

She grinned ruefully. “I’ve got the numbers of a couple of taxi companies on my phone. They come in handy during, ah, unusual situations.”

It went more or less as she said, although Reese practically gnawed a hole through her bottom lip throughout the taxi ride home. It was well past seven by the time we drew up in front of our gate. Reese rushed off into the house after a hurried “thanks, Ate” to Ivy. I hung around outside, however, helping Ivy unload her suitcase from the taxi.

She unlocked her side of the gate, then hesitated as well. “Migs, I—” she began, then fell silent, staring down at the ground as if trying to read words that had been etched into the concrete.

I drew in a breath. “I’m sorry. About earlier, with Orion. I wasn’t thinking—I honestly didn’t mean to cause trouble.”

“It’s okay,” she replied. ” I understand why you did it. And Orion’s probably already forgotten about it—okay, maybe not,” she amended when I gave her a skeptical look. “But even though he roars like a tiger, he doesn’t hold grudges. And you definitely earned his respect by standing up to him. Not a lot of people can do that.”

“What about you?” I asked, drawing closer to her. “Are you…mad at me or—”

She smiled and shook her head, moving closer as well. “No. To tell you the truth, I thought you were pretty cool back there,” she confessed a little breathlessly. Suddenly looking shy, she looked down again, then screwed her face up in a comically wry expression and muttered from the side of her mouth, “Jesus, I can’t believe I’m saying this to somebody who chose to throw a hissy fit and walk out rather than kiss me. I sure hope this doesn’t become a tre—”

I was moving before I knew it, catching her chin with my finger and turning her face up to mine. Then I was kissing her again, pouring everything I felt into the kiss. She made a soft sound in the back of her throat and rose up on her tiptoes, sliding her hands around my neck, her fingers curling into my hair. When the kiss ended, we just stood there with our foreheads touching, her hands on my shoulders, my arms loosely encircling her waist, stretching the moments before we had to let each other go again.

God, I love you. I was tempted to kiss her again, just to make sure the words stayed safely unspoken. Then the real world caught up with us.

“Miguel. You come in now.”

I released her and turned. Nay Loring stood at the gate, her broad face unusually grave. I looked at Ivy, who smiled shakily. “Go on. I’ll be okay.”

I was glad one of us was, because the scene that met me when I walked through the door was the equivalent of a bucket of ice water emptied over my head. Reese was standing before my mom, who was still dressed in her office suit, with her briefcase and several papers laid out on the dining table. With a chill, I noted that the phone also lay on the table. The look my sister sent me was one of mute misery, but it was the expression of frigid anger on Mama’s face that captured my undivided attention.

“Come here.” Unlike Orion, Mama didn’t need to raise her voice to command instantaneous obedience. As I went to stand beside Reese, she asked Nay Loring, “Where was he?”

“He was outside, Ma’am. Standing at the gate.”

“Who was with him?”

“The girl. Ivy.”

“What were they doing?”

I stiffened, my gaze snapping to Nay Loring. “They were talking, Ma’am,” she said without missing a beat. I prayed that I was the only one who understood the warning in my old nanny’s face.

Mama’s eyes narrowed, but whether she believed Nay Loring or not I couldn’t tell. “Reese has given me an explanation about why you two have come home so late, but I want to hear it from you. Where have you and your sister been?”

I noted Reese’s nervous twitch, and knew that Mama had already been presented with our cover story and was severely unimpressed. Shit, I cursed silently. I disliked having to lie, but Reese was right. If our mom found out that we’d been hanging out with people she deemed “questionable”, there’d be no end of trouble for us. And it wouldn’t just be us; Ivy could get involved in it, too. I had no choice but to go with our cover story and hope like crazy I could deliver my lines with enough believability.

“We went out with friends, Ma, like I texted you,” I said, willing myself not to swipe at the cold sweat beading on my forehead. “We—we were on our way home when it started to rain so we, um, we decided to wait it out and—”

“Enough,” Mama interrupted, flattening her hand on the table. “Since you came in late, I will repeat what I already said to Reese. I called up Lily’s home and spoke to her mother just before you arrived. I was told that since they had no track and field practice at school today, Reese’s friends decided to go to Lily’s house and watch videos all day. And according to Lily’s mother, neither you nor your sister was present.”

I closed my eyes for a moment. Shit.

“Do not lie to me, Miguel,” Mama said, as calm and implacable as a looming iceberg. “I expect this sort of behavior from your sister, but not from you. Now I will ask you again: where have you two been?”

Reese flinched again, and I could feel the hurt radiating from her. All thoughts of murdering her for starting us down this path of deception and worse, for doing a lousy job of it, vanished. I took a deep breath and decided that I did have a choice. “We went out with Ivy today,” I began in a voice that sounded much more like my own, then proceeded to tell her how Ivy had invited us to one of her photo shoots at an urban day spa cum hotel in Alabang, and introduced us to a Japanese fashion designer. I focused heavily on the learning experience, the exploration of career options, and the intercultural relations, of course. I hated lying, but I wasn’t stupid either.

As I continued to talk, however, Mama’s face grew tighter and tighter. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” she demanded, turning to my sister.

“B-because I thought if you knew, y-you wouldn’t let us go,” Reese said in a small voice.

“You knew that I would disapprove, yet you decided to sneak around behind my back and go anyway? What kind of foolish, irresponsible thinking is that, Anne Therese?” Mama said in what sounded like a gently reprimanding tone. Again, I couldn’t help but contrast Orion’s temper tantrum with my mother’s quiet but far more nerve-wracking display of fury. The angrier Mama was, the softer and more coldly reasonable her voice grew. She didn’t need to assault anyone’s eardrums when her verbal attack alone was enough to inflict mortal wounds. “Who are these people you are associating with?” she went on. “What are their characters, their backgrounds? What do you know about them? Are you so unthinking that you would carelessly go to an unknown place with these—these questionable people while I sit here not knowing where my children are?

“And you, Miguel,” she went on, turning her glacial stare upon me. “I am extremely disappointed in you. As the elder, you are supposed to be the more intelligent and responsible one. You know that I rely on you to take care of your sister and curb her reckless behavior. You should have known better. Why did you let this happen?”

“Because I didn’t think attending one photo shoot was such a dangerous thing,” I countered. “I thought it would be fun to experience something new, and the people there were as civilized as anyone you know.” Half of them were, anyway, I added silently. “However, I admit that it was wrong for us to lie to you about it. We’re really sorry about that, and we promise not to do it again.”

Mama pressed her lips to a thin line. “You two are grounded for a month,” she announced. “You are not allowed to go out of the house except for academic reasons. And this includes your silly preoccupation with sports, Anne Therese. No track and field practice for a month.”

Reese went pale. “What? B-but, Mama, I can’t miss practice. The Intramurals are only three weeks away, and Coach is counting on me to—”

“Your Coach is going to have to count on somebody else then. Perhaps you should have thought of that before you decided to lie to me.”

At that, Mama turned aside and began sorting through the papers on the table, while Reese stood trembling, close to tears. “Mama, please—”

Mama gave her a look. “Go to your room, Reese. This discussion is over. Miguel, stay. There’s something I would like to say to you.” With a faint sniffle, Reese turned and disappeared up the stairs, while Mama sat down at the table. “Now, I want you to—”

“Two months,” I cut in, hiding my clenched fists at my sides. “Ground me for two months. Just let Reese attend her practice sessions. If she misses training, they’re going to kick her out of the lineup.”

“Are you challenging my judgment, young man?” Mama asked in a deadly tone.

I swallowed. “No, just—it’s my fault anyway. You’re right. I’m the one who should have known better. Please, Ma. This is really important to her.”

She regarded me silently, her expression turning speculative. “All right,” she relented. “She can continue her practice sessions, on the condition that she comes directly home afterwards, and you are going to make sure of it.”

I nodded tightly. “Yes, Ma.”

“You’re grounded for two months, Miguel.”

“Yes, Ma.”

“And you are forbidden from spending any more time with that girl Ivy, or with any of her friends, than is necessary. The same goes for your sister as well.”

“What?” I whispered, feeling chilled all over. “What does Ivy have to do with—”

Mama sighed as if disappointed at my sudden bout of idiocy, and began to shuffle some of the papers. “She’s a bad influence on you, as are her friends. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that every time you come home late, you come home with her. And now this photo shoot debacle.”

“But I—”

“And I find their habits quite—well, I admit they are not completely ill-mannered, but chain-smoking? Drinking alcohol at all times of the day? Coming home in the wee hours of the morning in the company of strange men?” She wrinkled her nose delicately. “I’ve also seen some of this Ivy’s relations, and they seem to be…very provincial. And who is that man who visits with her relations? That dark, leering man? Ah, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be a criminal. I’ve already told Nay Loring to lock the doors whenever he comes around.”

Okay, that I couldn’t dispute.

“Are we in agreement then?”

I stared dully at her as the headache I thought I’d managed to shake off this morning returned with a vengeance. “Agreement, Ma?”

“You are grounded for two months, and you and your sister are not to spend any more time with those people, especially Ivy. In exchange, Reese can continue attending her track and field practices and participate in that competition.”

Fuck, I swore for the second time that day. I should have known. For all my supposed brains, I had never yet managed to out-maneuver my mother in negotiations like this. “Yes, Ma,” I answered tonelessly.

She smiled. “Good. Now let me give you some instructions.” For a while, I wavered in and out of focus as she told me about the four-day conference in Cebu that she had to attend, about her flight tomorrow morning, about how she’d asked Auntie Laura and Uncle Gerry to look in on us and make sure Reese and I were towing the line. After what seemed like forever, she settled her hands on the table in a gesture of finality. “That’ll be all. You can go and call Reese down so you two can have dinner. I still have to pack for tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma.”

I turned robotically to go up the stairs, then stopped and faced her again. “Yes, what is it?” she asked impatiently as she continued to sort through the papers in her briefcase.

“You’re wrong about Ivy. Or her family or her friends,” I said in a voice as cold and level as hers had been. When she looked up, frowning, I pushed my glasses up and continued. “Our agreement is for two months. Including that thing about staying away from Ivy and her friends. For two months only.”

“That is not what I—”

“Because when the two months are over,” I said loudly before she could cut me off again, “I intend to show you just how wrong you are about Ivy.”

With that, I ran up the stairs and headed to my room, only to find Reese huddled on the floor beside my door with both hands clamped tightly over her mouth. She gazed up at me, tears rolling down her fingers and into her shirt. She’d obviously heard the entire exchange.

Kuya, I’m so sorry,” she half-whispered, half-sobbed.

I exhaled slowly. Shit, shit, shit. Grounded for two months? Forbidden to see Ivy? How did things manage to spiral down the toilet so fast?

“Oh no, Kuya, what about your date?”

I looked at my sister through eyes that were beginning to sting as well, then shrugged despairingly. “I don’t know.”

God, I thought as I entered my room and collapsed on my bed, what a day.

READ IVY’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 8

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