The prince’s return was met with cheering and jubilation the likes of which had not been seen in the kingdom for years. The celebration went on for quite some time. The kingdom’s citizens held parades in his honor. Commoners gathered to extol his many virtues and trade stories of his exploits in the distant lands. Members of the nobility vied with one another for a place of honor at his side. And the prince graciously accepted the adulation of his people, noble and commoner alike.
The peasant girl observed all this from her place at the edge of the crowd. When the prince rode by on his white charger, she watched him silently, willing him to remember.
His own gaze turned in her direction, but his beautiful smile was meant only for his overjoyed subjects. His eyes met hers for but a moment, and then he turned aside.
In the midst of joyous celebration, the peasant girl wept. The prince had forgotten her.
– – – – – – – –
“This is a nightmare,” I moaned into my hands. “I’m asleep right now and having a nightmare, so will somebody please wake me up already? I’m going to be late for class.”
When nobody made a move, I straightened and pinched my own arm, then buried my face in my hands again when the pain indicated that I was unfortunately wide awake and still smack-dab in the middle of a situation nothing could have prepared me for. I was safe for now, though. We were in the Biology 1 lab having lunch with several other House kids, and the lab had never felt as much like a sanctuary as it did at that moment.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay.” Jenneth slid a comforting arm across my shoulders and touched his head to mine. “You’ve pulled through worse before, Joyous. This is nothing.”
“Uh, Christian is a bit more than ‘nothing’,” Nathan said nervously from his seat across me. “And Jenneth, I wouldn’t act so close with Joy out there where the non-House kids can see, if I were you. Ow! What’d you do that for?”
His tone turned wounded. Lowering my hands, I found Nathan frowning at Honey, who’d reached over and pinched his arm. “Since when did you become Christian’s spokesman, Nathan? I thought you liked Joy,” Maisha grumbled over her takeaway keema meal, which she bought at a specialty shop outside the campus.
Nathan blushed at that, but his expression remained serious. “You don’t know him the way we do. Tony might act like the Big Man on campus, but not even he wants to tangle with Christian, especially when he’s in a bad mood.”
“What happened, anyway?” Annelie asked from a nearby table. “We’ve been hearing crazy stories all morning about how Joy is a stalker chasing after this guy Christian. What’s going on?”
My friends launched into a recounting of the events at the school entrance and what happened after in class, allowing me to lose myself in my own thoughts once again.
“Sorry. Have we met?”
His smile and his words had felt like a slap. Even Nathan felt it; I was standing close enough to him to feel a tremor go through him. All the words I could’ve said—all the words I’d been waiting for years to say to him—dried up in an instant. All I could do was stand there with my mouth open, staring up at him with all the vacant bewilderment of a puppy who couldn’t figure out why her master was putting her in a sack and leaving her behind.
Then before anyone else could react to his question, a look of recognition swept across Christian’s face. “Wait, is that you, Joy? I can’t believe it. It has been a while.” He lifted his eyebrows as his grin grew friendlier, and the crowd stepped back to give him a clear view of me.
His eyes are so cold, I thought hazily. Doesn’t anyone else see how cold his eyes are?
All around us, people had begun to murmur among themselves, and the murmuring quickly grew louder. “Isn’t she a scholarship kid? Christian, you know her?”
“Yeah, sure.” Christian shrugged carelessly. “My mom and her mom are friends, and we met at my aunt’s wedding when we were kids.”
“But is she really your girlfriend? That’s just impossible, right?”
“Impossible?” Tony scoffed. “We heard it from his own mouth. He called that ugly thing his girlfriend. Ain’t that so, Nathan?”
Nathan twitched again, but didn’t answer. Christian slid Tony a narrow-eyed look. “I see you’re still being an asshole to girls, Tony. How’s that working out for you?”
He’d said it mildly but the warning was clear, and it caused several girls to titter and Tony to lapse into fuming silence. To my shock, Christian looked straight at me again, his expression apologetic. “Don’t let him get to you,” he said in a kindly voice. Then to the rest of the crowd: “Yeah, we kind of played around with that, but we were, like, ten years old and bored out of our minds. It’s embarrassing to think about it now, okay? Give me a break.”
He made a face and the crowd laughed, both at his comic stylings and out of pure relief. The security guard appeared then to tell everyone to stop blocking the entrance way, and soon Christian and the others were lost among the chattering, milling people ahead of us.
And that’s when we heard it.
“Oh my God, he’s so nice. He even defended that scholarship kid.”
“Man, he shut Tony down like nothing. So. Cool.”
“I knew she couldn’t be his girlfriend. That’s just crazy.”
“Wonder if she still thinks she is.”
“She’s a scholarship kid, right? I wouldn’t be surprised if she followed him all the way here.”
“Oh my God, a stalker? That’s so laaaaame.”
“Joy?” Jenneth said worriedly.
I looked at him, my eyes swimming. “I couldn’t say anything. You’d think after all this time…”
He moved closer in an attempt to shield me from the curious looks of passing students. “Look, we have to go. We’re going to be late.”
Taking my arm, he steered me toward our classroom, waving goodbye to Nathan, Maisha and Honey, while I fought to banish the clouds inside my head. In a handful of words delivered in a conversational manner, Christian had taken our shared past and smeared it across the ground for everyone to step on. Every memory of us that I cherished, every moment that had served as my talisman for years…they were as nothing to him. Just as I was as nothing to him.
We were ten years old and bored out of our minds.
My arms tightened around the books I held to my chest. I won’t cry, I swore. You will not make me cry, Christian.
It became my mantra for the next few hours. Our class had settled down and our Social Science teacher had just entered the room barking instructions to pass our individual reports on the different aspects of the Great Global Convergence. There was no sign of Christian anywhere, and as I passed my report forward, I let myself breathe a sigh of relief. He’d obviously made a mistake. He belonged to 2B-Del Pilar after all, because it was just impossible that he could belong to 2A-Rizal. The nerd section.
Then Christian appeared in the doorway, wearing a sheepish expression that only made him seem endearing and approachable. “Good morning, Sir. Sorry I’m late. I, uh, got lost looking for this room,” he said to our teacher as astonishment rippled visibly throughout the class. Catching sight of me, he sent me a rueful grin. “Guess I should’ve followed you guys instead of Tony and the others.”
Our teacher peered at him over the rims of his glasses. “Are you the transferee, Mr. Garcia?”
“Fine. Just as long as you remember where our classroom is from now on. And see me at the faculty room at lunch time so I can give you your schedule for make-up quizzes and reports. Since you’re coming in during the middle of the period, you’re going to need some help catching up with the lessons. Is there anyone here who can volunteer to help Mr. Garcia?” He surveyed the room while my classmates exchanged looks with one another. Already, I could see one or two girls blushing and beginning to raise their hands.
“If it’s all right with you, Sir, I think I’ll have an easier time with someone I already know. For now anyway,” Christian suddenly announced.
“Is that so? You have someone in mind then?”
Again, Christian stared straight at me, a small smile playing on his lips. “You don’t mind, do you, Joy?”
Again, my mouth fell open but no words came out. Our teacher looked over at me and nodded. “Fine. Miss De Castro, you’ll be helping Mr. Garcia go through the past lessons so he can prepare for the make-up quizzes. Mr. Garcia, you may take that seat in the back.”
As he walked past my desk, my gaze was drawn almost helplessly to his face, and my heart seemed to stop at the chilly flatness in his eyes. “I knew you’d understand,” he murmured, still with that tiny smile that didn’t reach any higher than his mouth.
You don’t want to get on his bad side.
Nikki’s old warning drifted up from the depths of my consciousness, and I shivered.
Our teacher resumed his lecture, and I became aware of the round-eyed looks from my classmates. Not just at me, though. All throughout class, every one of my classmates continued to shoot surreptitious glances at the boy sitting at the back of the class. He pretended not to notice all the attention he was getting as he listened to the lecture and took notes in his binder, raising his hand every now and then to ask a question, and speaking with the open, friendly confidence and easy humor of someone who took it for granted that when he spoke, people listened.
It was as if the balance of the entire class had warped, skewing heavily in his direction. The A sections were generally populated with serious-minded people whose lives revolved around academics, many of whom nursed ambitions of becoming top scientists and doctors or going on to university and earning multiple degrees. Our jokes tended toward word play and funny scenes in TV shows we watched, and our ideas of fun were limited to geek-outs about some sci-fi or fantasy series, illicit science experiments, and intense debates about social issues. In short, we were the nerd section; that part was hard to deny.
Then Christian landed in the middle of all this—a popular, charming, drop-dead gorgeous escapee from 2B-Del Pilar’s aristocratic society—and judging from the looks they were shooting him, it was clear my classmates had no idea what to make of him. Even Jenneth kept giving him the perplexed frown he wore when he was wrestling with a particularly complex formula. Not that I blamed them. Christian just seemed…wrong for 2A-Rizal.
More or less the same thing happened in our next two classes. Not the part about Christian getting lost on the way to class; by the end of our first class, he had no shortage of boys and girls, especially girls, who were eager to help him find his way around the school. But after his dismissal of me and everything we’d had together, I committed myself to avoiding him as much as I could while still occupying the same room. And after the frisson of fear I’d felt when I looked into his eyes, I kept my gaze averted, focusing on a spot on his left shoulder if I had to address him directly at all. However, he kept on choosing me whenever our teachers would ask for volunteers to help him catch up with our lessons—a peculiarity that did not escape our classmates’ notice, and some of them who’d been present at the high school entrance when Christian arrived began making connections.
“…their moms are friends, so of course he would…”
“…used to think she’s his girlfriend, maybe she’ll start thinking it again…”
“…wonder if it’s true she followed him here…”
Because thanks to Tony and Christian, everyone now knew I’d committed the most unforgivable social blunder of all: presuming a romantic relationship with someone who outranked me in every conceivable way—so much that we could’ve been from different worlds entirely—only to be very publicly dismissed.
I gripped my pen in my hand, eyes focused on the PowerPoint slides in front of me with such intensity I was surprised the whiteboard didn’t melt. I didn’t know what game he was playing, but I had absolutely no intention of playing along.
The irony didn’t escape me, though. Once upon a time, I would’ve sold my soul to see him, to hear his voice, to be in the same room as him, and to feel his gaze upon me. But now, all I wanted was to get away from him before he tore me apart all over again.
“Joyous, look, at least eat your breakfast,” Jenneth urged, pushing my half-forgotten boiled saba banana and egg toward me. I couldn’t seem to summon an appetite for them, let alone for lunch, but I dutifully peeled the plump brown banana and took a bite anyway.
Annelie exchanged glances with Gemma and Francis, the other freshman scholarship kid. “It’s weird imagining him in the A section,” she mused. “He’s just too…just too…”
“Hot?” Gemma supplied.
“Excuse me, are you saying we A-students can’t be hot?” Francis demanded in mock-indignation, causing his girlfriend Gemma to giggle and beg his forgiveness. We all watched the latest couple among the House kids flirt for a while, then sighed and returned to the problem at hand.
“He won’t last long in 2A-Rizal anyway,” I declared as I started in on my boiled egg.
“Why? You’re not saying he’s too dumb, are you?” Maisha asked.
“Christian’s not dumb,” Nathan protested.
“No, he’s not dumb. Not by a long shot,” I said before Maisha could once again point out that Nathan was turning into Christian’s defense attorney. “I just meant that if he stays in 2A-Rizal, he won’t get to do what he loves most.”
“And what’s that?” Maisha asked.
I smiled with satisfaction. “Play soccer. Think about it. When do we A-students ever have time to dedicate to the serious clubs and sports teams? We barely have enough time for all our homework, projects, exams and term papers as it is.”
Jenneth nodded thoughtfully. “You’ve got a point.”
“And the soccer team will soon be begging him to join. He won’t be able to resist, and pretty soon he’ll transfer to 2B-Del Pilar where he belongs.” I took a big bite out of my egg and turned prospect over in my mind, liking it more and more. “It’ll work. He won’t be able to sit still long enough to stay in 2A-Rizal, anyway. He’ll get antsy and bored within a couple of weeks, tops. All I have to do is wait him out, and soon my peaceful school days will return. Well, sort of return.”
The thought gave me enough strength to face the rest of the day. Even when I could feel Christian’s stare burning a hole in the back of my head. Even when the sound of his voice made me jump in my seat, so unaccustomed was I to hearing it. Even when the looks my classmates were giving me were starting to make me squirm. This won’t last, I reassured myself. And if incredibly awkward and slightly alarming moments in class are all I have to endure, then I’m sure I can wait him out.
My newfound confidence lasted until our last class, which happened to be Filipino. We were divided into groups of four and assigned to do a report on the religious underpinnings in the novel Noli Me Tangere—written by our section’s namesake, our national hero Jose Rizal—as well as the historical context of these religious themes. Unlike the other groups, our group had one extra member.
“If we’re just going to do straight reporting, then this is going to be a really boring report,” Christian commented from where he was slouched in his chair, his long legs stretched out in front of him. We had pushed our chairs together to form rings, with each group in a different corner of the room, to talk about how to divide the work among us. I found myself sitting directly in front of him. If I stuck my own legs out, our ankles would’ve touched, so naturally, I kept my legs folded away underneath my own chair. He was idly tossing his pen up in the air with one hand, making it spin, then catching it again, over and over, all seemingly without being completely aware of it. The sight of it almost made me smile. I guess he still had a fondness for throwing things up in the air.
“We always do straight reporting, Christian,” one of my groupmates said. “It’s what our instructions say.”
Christian made a face. “So what? The instructions just said to report on this. It didn’t say how. Straight reporting is boring. Besides, that’s what every other group will do. We’ve got to do something to make our report stand out.”
“This report is due two days from now,” someone else pointed out. “We don’t have time to do anything else.”
“Yeah, and that’s another thing. This is a huge topic, and we’re supposed to do a report on it, complete with references, and present this in class in two days?”
“In 2B-Del Pilar, they’d be given a week.” I looked up when confused silence greeted my comment, and met Christian’s eyes. Then I shrugged. “I, um, just thought I’d mention it.”
“Er, right. Thanks for the input, Joy,” one of our groupmates said. Christian lifted his eyebrows. Then without looking away from me, he threw his pen downward. It landed upright like a throwing dagger in between his books inside his open backpack beside his chair. When my eyes darted back up into his face, I found him staring at me in a way that was both knowing and arctic. My nerve broke, and I lowered my gaze again to the pad of paper where I was jotting down our work assignments.
Calm down, I thought over the pounding of my heart. Don’t let him see how he’s shaken you.
Even so, I still sucked in a breath when he spoke up again. “Forty percent.” When the rest of us just looked at him, he picked up the instruction sheet we’d gotten from the teacher and held it up. “The criteria for our grade. Presentation is forty percent.”
“So is content, and we always focus on the content of the report,” argued our groupmate.
Christian shook his head. “It isn’t just about content. You can have the best content, but if you can’t get your message across to your audience because your presentation sucks, then there’s no point to it. Look, all we have to do is add a little twist to our delivery.”
“Like what? A PowerPoint presentation?”
“We could distribute handouts or something.”
“How about a skit?” When everyone turned to look at me, I went on, my mind racing: “Christian’s right. Nobody pays attention to a straight report. But if we find a way to show our material rather than just talk about it…like maybe we could reenact how the Church was during Rizal’s time, you know, with all the corrupt friars using religion to make themselves richer, and suppressing knowledge and persecuting educated people…”
“A skit?” The others exchanged skeptical looks.
Leaning forward in his seat, Christian shot me a warm grin that restarted the pounding of my heart for an entirely different reason. “Exactly. Great idea, Joy. Look, we can keep the straight reporting because we really don’t have time to put on an actual play, but we can show how oppression, suppression and corruption worked back then. There’re five of us, right? One of us will be the reporter—”
“The truth-teller. The educated Filipino who wants to share the truth that the corrupt friars want to suppress,” I put in, my wariness around Christian momentarily forgotten.
He nodded. “And someone can represent the corrupt Church and try to shut down the report, then someone else can represent the civil guards and the superstitious indios, and so on. You get it? We’re not just going to report on it, we’re going to roleplay it.” When others began to show interest, he beamed and rose to perch on his desk. “Listen, we can do this in two days, and here’s how. Joy, write this all down.”
Pretty soon, he was drawing out ideas from our groupmates, breaking down tasks and responsibilities, and assigning roles like a cheerful, enthusiastic general. I hid a grin even as my hand started to cramp from trying to scribble fast enough to keep up. Despite his status as newcomer, Christian had once again stepped into the position of leader, something the others accepted without question judging from their rapt expressions.
And to think, I thought, amused in spite of myself, this is just his first day in school.
The discussion went on even after the class officially ended, and soon our group was the only one still left in the classroom. Jenneth had gone on ahead to do some research in the library with his own group. I checked my watch and winced; I was supposed to meet Nathan at the front hall later so we could go together to Father Ramilo’s office where I was going to tutor both him and my grade-school tutorees. Finally, Christian brought our meeting to a close with some final instructions about who was do research on and write about what.
“We’re heading to the library, Joy,” one of our groupmates called out.
“Yeah, just finishing up here. I’ll send copies to you later,” I said without looking up as I scribbled our names at the top. With a smile, I wrote group leader beside Christian’s name.
I didn’t register the click of the door locking until it was too late. When I looked up, I was alone in an empty classroom.
No, not alone. My limbs turned cold as I watched Christian release the door knob after he’d locked it. He began to walk toward me, his face impassive, his dark eyes glittering like fevered ice. I stood up as well, clutching my pad with nerveless hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked shakily.
“I should be the one asking you that, Joy,” he countered, his voice low and deceptively casual. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I—I just finished writing down our plan.” I raised my pad, stalling desperately while I tried to figure out how to extricate myself from this situation. “We have the beginnings of a script here—”
He kicked a chair aside, making me jump. As he advanced toward me, I backed away in an attempt to keep some distance between us, only to fetch up against a low shelf near the wall. I resorted to holding my pad in front of me like the least useful shield in the world, glancing frantically around in search of an avenue of escape.
There. To my right, a gap among the chairs. I could slip through it, grab my bag and my books, then make a run for the door. But before I could take a single step, Christian grabbed my left wrist and shoved me back against the shelf, then grabbed my right wrist to hold me in place. My pad fell to the floor like a bird shot out of the air, and I gasped when the corner of the shelf dug into my spine. But that pain competed with his bruising grip around my wrists. I was not thin by any definition, but his fingers wrapped around my wrists completely. I felt the strength in his hands all the way down to my bones.
I looked up into his face, dreading the moment when his anger shifted from icy blankness to dark, burning fury. “Let go of me,” I demanded, only it came out more like a whimper. “You’re hurting me, Christian. Let go!”
To my shock, he loosened his grip around my wrists—not enough to allow me to pull away, but enough to lessen the pain. “I’m going to ask you again,” he snarled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”
For a moment, all I could do was gape at him, my mind a complete blank. Then the meaning behind his question sank in, and my own anger surged upward, beating back the fear. “What does it look like I’m doing?” I snapped. “I’m a student here. I study and attend classes here. And I plan to keep going until I graduate from here.”
His eyes narrowed dangerously. “Is that what you’re thinking?”
“It’s not what I’m thinking. It’s what I know,” I retorted. “I have a home I belong to here. And I have friends here, friends that I love. St. Helene is my world now as much as it’s yours, and you’ll just have to find a way to deal with it.”
Using his hold around my wrists, he dragged me closer to yell in my face: “You’re not supposed to be here! What’s it going to take to make you stay where you belong?”
“I have every right to be here, Christian Garcia!” I shouted right back. “You have no idea how hard I worked to get here and to stay here. If anything, you’re the one who doesn’t have the right to tell me I don’t belong anywhere. I belong anywhere I want to, and nothing you nor your jerk-friends nor your bitch of a cousin can do about it.”
To my dismay and mortification, tears flooded my eyes and leaked down my face. Inwardly cursing my tendency to cry when I was furious, I tried to pull my hand free to wipe my face but he still wouldn’t let go of my wrists. All I could do was glare up at him and let my tears fall where they wanted. Well, whatever. Let him see how angry I was. Let him see how hurt I was. After five years of utter nothingness from him, he deserved to know my pain.
What he didn’t deserve was my happiness.
Then something strange happened. His body shuddered and relaxed, and his grip around my wrists loosened even more until they felt almost gentle. The icy fury drained out of his face like a wave retreating from the shore, and his gaze softened, his chocolate eyes filling with an impossible mixture of pain, longing, regret, and rising horror. I could’ve easily broken out of his grasp now, but I was too astonished by the transformation in him to move. What’s going on? I thought, utterly confused and still on guard in case he exploded again.
He lowered our hands but still didn’t release me. Instead, he drew in a shaky breath as his gaze roamed over me—my messy hair now concealing half of my face, the tear streaks on my cheeks, and lower still to take in my slightly disheveled uniform. My St. Helene Academy uniform.
“Joy,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “Joy, I—”
He trailed off, looking uncertain and achingly vulnerable, and my heart crashed against my ribcage, heat flowing outward from the impact site. And all at once, I realized that I was in greater danger now than ever before.
“I’m sorry.” The words sounded as if they’d been wrenched from his gut. He closed his eyes and his thumbs began to move, tracing small circles on my skin. “Chocolate,” he murmured, and smiled. A real smile this time, full of warmth and bliss.
He leaned closer, and I froze. But all he did was take a deep breath. “And cinnamon.” He opened his eyes and gazed into mine. “They always made me think of you.”
This will not happen again.
I made a strangled sound and yanked my hands away. “Don’t you dare,” I gasped, stumbling sideways away from him.
Just then, the door knob rattled sharply. In the glass window in the middle of the door, I could see Nathan looking puzzled as he tried to open the door, then growing alarmed when he took in the sight of Christian and me inside the room. “Joy? Let’s go already,” he called, his voice muffled.
Oh my gosh, I’d forgotten all about Nathan.
“I get it. It was Nathan you were waiting for,” Christian said mockingly. I whirled around, and found that all the icy anger was back. “Or maybe it isn’t Nathan at all,” he went on, smiling with sadistic glee at the sound of Nathan’s increasingly frantic struggles to open the door. “Maybe it’s that other guy, the skinny one who can’t keep his hands off you. Gee, Joy, just how many guys are you chasing after in this school?”
His head snapped to the side, and a red handprint appeared on his cheek almost immediately. I cradled my stinging hand, stunned and appalled at what I’d done. “Oh my gosh,” I squeaked. Moving with panicked haste, I picked up the fallen pad, gathered up my books and my bag, and ran to the door. But before I turned the knob and escaped, I turned back to Christian, who hadn’t moved except to watch me with a hooded expression.
“You—you deserved that,” I told him breathlessly. “Also, you can find someone else to help you catch up with the lessons. I’m done being your plaything, Christian, so just s-stay away from me.”
It was all I could do not to break into a run once we were in the hallway, with Nathan trailing behind me in silence. When we finally made it out of the high school building, I allowed myself to slow down and take several deep breaths.
“You slapped Christian,” Nathan said, sounding absolutely dumbfounded.
“Yes,” I answered shortly, wiping my face dry with my hanky.
“You—you actually slapped him. I actually saw you do it.”
“Yes, I did. I didn’t like what he said about you and Jenneth.”
“You slapped him. I don’t think anyone’s ever done that to him. You actually hauled off and slapped him.”
“Nathan, you can stop saying that now.”
“You know he’s not going to let that slide, don’t you?”
Standing on the porch in front of Father Ramilo’s Victorian-style house and hearing the lively voices of the tutors and tutorees coming from the study hall, I paused just before I opened the door and looked Nathan in the eye. “He can do his worst. I’m not letting him drive me out of this school.”
He nodded and smiled tentatively. “We know that. And don’t you worry. We’re all here for you.”
I smiled back. “Thanks. And now, enough about Christian. It’s time for some Math,” I added, laughing when Nathan groaned.
And the next day, my real ordeal began.