The prince regarded her in silence, then turned aside. “I wish to be alone. You are dismissed.”
“But Your Highness—”
The peasant girl was taken away by the guards and led down to the dungeon, where she was shoved into a dank, fetid cell with no light except that coming from a tiny window high above her head. She huddled in the corner of her cell, listening to the cries of the other prisoners and despairing of her fate. After some time, she heard the clang of the dungeon gates and the sound of footsteps, and soon the captain of the guard appeared in front of her cell. Beside him stood a tall, hooded figure.
The captain unlocked her cell and waved at her impatiently. To her astonishment, the captain proceeded to unlock the chains around her ankles and wrists. She stared in bewilderment as the captain turned to the hooded figure. “Are you sure, Sire?” he asked.
“Yes,” a familiar voice answered. Her eyes went wide. Then the hooded figure turned to her, and even though she could not see his face, her heart cried out in joyous recognition.
The prince gave her a mocking bow. “Lead the way, my lady.”
– – – – – – – –
A week later, a new rumor was causing a stir among the students of St. Helene.
“They say he had a girlfriend back in New York, but now he’s broken up with her because he’s going after some new girl here,” I overheard Ate Leilani tell her fellow juniors and the seniors over dinner at the House cafeteria.
“Yeah, I heard some girls in the restroom talking about that,” said Ate Zara, the one remaining scholarship kid in the junior class and Ate Leilani’s best friend.
“So were the guys in the badminton club,” put in Kuya Joey.
“The badminton club? Wow, the news has really spread, huh?”
“Hey, what’re you trying to say? That we in the badminton club are out of touch, huh?”
“Ugh, someone tell me why every move that guy makes is considered newsworthy.” Ate Kath rolled her eyes in disgust, ignoring the ruckus on the other side of their table where Kuya Joey was messing up Ate Leilani’s hair while she shrieked with laughter and batted her boyfriend away.
“Well, I for one would like to know who that new girl is that’s caught his eye,” Ate Zara said, pushing her glasses up and grinning. All heads turned toward me, with Ate Leilani peering through tangled strands of hair, and I became the focus of several curious stares beaming at me like search lights.
“Um.” I shifted my tray in my hands, regretting having paused on my way to our own table just to eavesdrop on this particular conversation. “Why’re you all looking at me?”
“Because, Joy, you’re the resident expert when it comes to His Royal Highness Prince Dashing Le Dreamboat,” Ate Leilani said, smoothing her hair back.
“I’m what? And what did you call him?” I sputtered with laughter at the over-the-top title while Kuya Joey cried “hey, I’m a dreamboat, too, you know!” indignantly.
“She means Christian, kiddo,” Ate Zara translated in a theatrical whisper. “And since you’re his closest friend here, you get to answer all our questions about him.”
“Starting with: who is this rumored girl that Christian likes?” Ate Leilani finished while Ate Kath groaned and dug into her meal in a blatant attempt to tune the rest of us out.
Before I knew it, every girl in the cafeteria had swiveled their heads toward me. Ignoring the blush creeping across my face, I took a deep breath and raised a hand. “Okay, first of all, that rumor is wrong,” I announced in as sensible a tone as I could manage. “Christian didn’t break up with his girlfriend in New York because he didn’t have a girlfriend in New York. I don’t even know how this rumor got started since nobody even knew about it a week ago.”
“How do you know he didn’t have a girlfriend?”
“He told me.”
For some reason, my answer caused many of the girls to exchange knowing glances. “And what about this girl he’s supposed to have fallen in love with here in St. Helene? Did he tell you that, too?” Annelie called out eagerly from their table.
“I don’t know anything about that,” I sniffed, although the way my face flamed even more rendered my claim slightly less believable. Thankfully, Jenneth appeared then and began waving his arms about like a celebrity handler. “Yes, okay, no further questions,” he admonished over disappointed groans. “That’ll be all for now. Our Joy needs to eat.”
I let my best friend herd me over to our table, pondering the changes a week had wrought. Me, an expert on Christian? Oh, good grief. We’d only just started out with this strange, new thing called friendship. At this point, I was more of an expert on writing essays about St. Helene’s values than on anything to do with Christian himself.
But still… I sighed to myself as I twirled some spaghetti on my fork. But still…it has been kind of amazing so far.
The day following the afternoon we decided to start out again as friends had been a good, if slightly disorienting, day. First of all, there had been no black-Sharpie poster that day, which while being thoroughly welcome news, struck me as a bit odd. Was our mystery author/artist in need of a break again? Or did our presence in the front hall scare her off before she could put up a new poster? More likely though, she’d heard about Christian’s warning or had actually been lurking around when he’d told off those boys. In that case, I didn’t blame her or the other would-be bullies for choosing to lie low for a while. Until that moment, I hadn’t known anyone could be both cool and terrifying at the same time.
I hadn’t realized I’d practically been holding my breath until the moment Christian arrived, and I felt a little firework of happiness go off inside me. Then in the midst of exchanging greetings with our classmates, he slanted down a warm smile at me. “Hi, Joy.”
“Hi, Ch-Christian,” I returned, hoping that nobody noticed the way I stumbled a bit over his name, and hoping even more that nobody noticed my blush. Judging from the way Christian’s eyes twinkled, it was safe to say that at least one person had noticed.
He gave no indication of it though as he stopped beside my desk and leaned down toward me. “So, was there anything?” he asked in a low voice, meaning the black-Sharpie poster.
I shook my head, conscious of all the surprised stares directed our way, mostly from the girls in our class. “Nothing. Turns out you were right.”
“No, you were right. It was your theory to begin with. And listen, if anything happens…”
He trailed off, raising his eyebrows meaningfully, and I had to smile. “I got it, thanks.”
He opened his mouth to say something else, but Jasmine and her friends called his name and drew him away. And after that minor aberration, things went on as they normally did, except for the fact that we had stopped avoiding or ignoring each other in class. That meant that sometimes I’d look up to find Christian staring at me, and sometimes he’d be the one to catch me watching him. Each time that happened, he’d give me a tiny smile before we both looked away. We also didn’t approach each other any more than usual. I stuck to Jenneth’s side while Christian was anything but stuck to anyone’s side, flitting from one group to another but mostly hanging out with the boys in our class, who by and large seemed to have accepted him so completely you’d think he’d been part of the A sections since prep year. Yet those furtive glances and little smiles were all it took to kick up a cloud of sparkles inside my chest and heighten my awareness of him until I could pinpoint his location within a range of thirty feet without having to look.
When lunch time rolled around, I made my way to the classroom that served as makeshift detention room, holding the sheet of paper given by my homeroom teacher in hand and mulling over what to write for my next essay, this time revolving around the theme of “Integrity”. But when I got there, somebody was already sitting at one of the desks near the window, busily scribbling on his own sheet of paper.
He looked up and smiled as I came in. “Well, you look surprised.”
“Christian?” I frowned in confusion. “Wh-what’re you doing here?”
As a reply, he showed me his sheet, which was already a quarter filled with handwriting. “I got the idea from you. To be honest, I’m kind of amazed they let us do this. I always thought detention was, you know, detention. A fixed sentence or something.”
“The teachers tend to give A-students the benefit of the doubt, since we’re usually well-behaved,” I said as I turned another chair around so I could sit facing him—unconsciously recreating our positions in the detention room, I realized later.
Christian raised an eyebrow. “Usually?”
“Until you, that is,” I amended, fighting back a grin.
“Good. It’s about time we A-students get to be known for something other than being a bunch of stuffy, socially incapacitated nerds.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. You are the least nerdy A-student this school has ever seen,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
A grin brought out the dimple in his left cheek. “At least you’re not telling me I don’t belong in 2A-Rizal anymore. I’m making progress,” he said, doing a fist pump.
“Okay, gosh, you’re not going to let that go, are you?” I shot him a faux-peevish look, then sighed. “Seriously, though, it was wrong of me to say that. I had all these preconceived notions about you when the truth is, you really deserve to be in 2A-Rizal.”
It wasn’t just me, either. It had come as a surprise to everyone in our section how easily Christian had caught up with the rest of us and how he was managing to keep pace with our lessons, so much so that in the past two quizzes in the sciences and math he’d ranked in the top quarter of the class and was now hovering near the top in English, to say nothing of his superstar status in PE and his breakout performance in music as well, after our teacher had made him stand in front of the class and introduce himself by singing a song, and he proceeded to bowl us over with his smooth, strong baritone voice. And all this while giving the impression that he spent most of his waking hours horsing around and partying with his friends on the weekends instead of studying.
It was frankly unbelievable how one person could embody every quality idealized by St. Helene society. Christian was the hottest and most popular guy in the entire sophomore class, scion of one of the country’s wealthiest, most prominent business-owning families, and the most naturally gifted athlete in the entire school, not to mention a fairly decent vocalist in a pinch. As if that wasn’t enough, he was also one of the smartest students in our class. Which meant that in St. Helene’s caste system, he stood head and shoulders above everyone in every category imaginable.
Good grief. No wonder people had taken to calling Christian the prince of St. Helene. The Protect the Prince Club really needn’t work all that hard to protect his single status, because it was almost impossible to find a girl who could possibly be his match.
I’ll make you fall in love with me again, Joy.
No. Oh no no. I may have fallen in love with him again just as he said, but I had no intention of going down a path that led only to heartbreak. This time around, we were going to be friends and nothing more.
“What preconceived notions?” he asked, bringing me back to the present moment.
“Hmm? Oh, well, you know…” Flushing, I waved my hand to indicate all the ways he was so different from the rest of us in 2A-Rizal, then caught the gleam in his eye. “Wait a minute, are you fishing for compliments?” I demanded.
“So you were going to compliment me?” he countered teasingly.
“You wish.” I stuck my tongue out at him, and we both laughed. We focused on our essays for a while, until a thought occurred to me and I lowered my pen again. “By the way, why did you ask to serve detention now? Are you doing anything this afternoon?”
“Tryouts are being held this afternoon.”
“Tryouts? You still have to try out for the soccer team? Why? Didn’t they see the way you wiped the floor—I mean, wiped the field with the whole team?”
“No, not the soccer team, but thanks for the vote of confidence.” He looked up and grinned at me, and I blushed again when I realized how indignant I’d sounded. “Actually, Coach Gomez told me I don’t need to go through tryouts so long as I sign up.”
“Hah, well, no surprise there. They’d probably roll out the red carpet for you if they could. But if it’s not the soccer team, then which team are you trying out for?”
“The Self-Defense Club.”
I blinked a few times at that. In the hierarchy of sports teams, the martial arts teams were only ranked somewhere in the middle in terms of prestige and exclusivity, and among St. Helene’s four martial arts teams—karate, taekwondo, judo and the Self-Defense Club—the last one was the least respectable. As far as the rest of us could tell, all it did was act as a catch-basin for all the people who couldn’t cut it in the other teams. In fact, if it were a little bit more honest, the team would’ve been named the And Everything Else Club.
And now St. Helene’s prince, who’d already broken one rule by staying in the nerd section instead of moving to the cool, rich kids’ section, was going to break yet another rule by joining a team nobody cared much about instead of the elite soccer team?
“What does the Self-Defense Club even do?” I wondered out loud.
Christian threw his head back and laughed. “You know you’re the third person to ask me that? The club does a little of everything—aikido, Shotokan, Shaolin gung fu, White Crane, even muay thai and pentjak silat—basically anything Guro Marcial finds interesting at the moment. But what I like about it is that Guro Marcial is a master in eskrima, arnis and kali, and I’ve been wanting to study those seriously.”
“Oh. That makes sense, I guess. Martial arts has been your thing ever since you were a kid,” I said thoughtfully. “It’s just that, well, everybody’s expecting you’d join the soccer team. Won’t Tony and your other friends be disappointed?”
“Just to be clear, Tony and the others aren’t my friends. We just so happen to live in the same neighborhood,” he corrected me. “But about soccer—well, I like it, but I don’t need it, you know? What I need is the mental and physical discipline of martial arts. Ever since we came home, I’ve been looking for a dojo so I can get back to training, and the clubs here are the most accessible.”
I nodded as understanding sank in. He was trying to deal with his anger issues, and I suppose going back to martial arts was one way to go about it. His reply, however, caused a whole bunch of other questions to crowd inside my head. Questions like: How was he planning to balance his studies with practice sessions at the Self-Defense Club? And if Tony and the others weren’t his friends, then who were his friends? Who did he hang out with and where? And here was a big one: If his mom had been so determined to salvage her wreck of a marriage, why did she suddenly decide to leave New York and come back home? Where was his dad now?
I wanted to ask him all of those, and others besides. Like what did he do in his free time? And what were the things he liked—what colors, what food, what TV shows, what movies, what songs? How much of him had changed over the years? What made him sad, what made him angry, what made him come alive with bliss? I wanted to know everything about him—now, at that very instant, if I could. But as I opened my mouth to ask another question, he stopped my words by reaching across the table and covering my lips with his fingers.
“Later, Joy,” he murmured, his smile warm and amused, his fingers gently stroking my lower lip as he pulled his hand back. “We’ll talk as much as you want, but right now, we’ve got these essays finish.”
Blood rushed into my face as I glanced at my watch, then immediately drained away again when I saw how much time had gone by. “Oh my gosh, you’re right, I’m so sorry,” I squeaked, returning once again to my essay again. To save time, we brought out our lunches—another extra helping of breakfast for me, and a couple of sandwiches purchased from the cafeteria for him—and ate them while we wrote.
Fortunately, we managed to finish our essays with a few minutes to spare. As we were walking toward our next class Jenneth came hurrying to meet us, looking anxious until he realized who was walking beside me, at which point the astonishment on his face nearly made me burst out laughing. As the three of us walked through the hallways, with me in the middle and Christian and Jenneth flanking me, Jenneth grabbed my arm and hissed: “Don’t look now, but a bunch of girls on the third floor balcony are watching you and Christian, and they do not look happy.”
I stiffened, then carefully turned my head to peek in the direction Jenneth had indicated. Sure enough, several girls were leaning against the railing of the balcony, a position that afforded them a great view of Christian walking beside me. Every time they caught sight of me at his side, however, their faces shifted from dreamy and adoring to sharp and hateful, and I had to suppress a shiver. “I know some of them,” I whispered back. “They’re the ones who locked me in that storage room.”
“Are you talking about those girls up there? Are they the ones giving you a hard time?” Christian said, interrupting our impromptu war briefing. He slowed down and glanced up at the watching girls, but not before I’d caught the glint in his eyes. My heart dropped to my shoes. It was a glint that signaled he was in the mood to stir up trouble.
“Christian, whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it.” I snatched at his sleeve to try and stop him, but this only made it easier for him to grab my hand, yank me forward and twirl me around until I was positioned on his other side, in full view of our shocked audience. Then he slid an arm across my shoulders and hooked it around my neck, tugging me closer to him in a pose that radiated protectiveness, if not outright possessiveness. Then to add to my horror, he looked up at the girls again and bared his teeth in a grin that practically dripped with challenge.
Mess with her, and you mess with me.
“Oh sweet Lord in heaven,” Jenneth muttered from somewhere nearby. His words echoed my feelings exactly, because although Christian didn’t know it, by being seen acting so cozy with him, I had as good as thrown down the gauntlet in the Protect the Prince Club’s collective faces.
I managed to forget about any non-random acts of malice the Protect the Prince Club might be cooking up for me for a while when I celebrated my birthday with my family at home over the weekend. I returned to the House, still feeling stuffed from my birthday feast courtesy of Ate Grace and Nanay, and toting a small bottle of perfume that was my birthday gift from my family—“you’re fifteen, Ate Joy, ditch the baby cologne already” was Faith’s explanation while Ate Grace had simply taped a note to the box that said “for your next date with NATHAN,” underlining Nathan’s name twice— and found a mango roll cake from Ascension House and a small teddy bear from Nathan waiting for me in the rec room, while my friends and the other House kids all gathered round to scream “Happy Birthday!” in my face.
My birthday good luck continued to hold till the next day, with no new black-Sharpie poster in sight and no counterstrike yet from the Protect the Prince Club. I had actually begun to hope that my mystery author/artist had finally gone into retirement, and that Christian’s actions had actually served to discourage the girls from trying anything instead of inciting them even more. The news about me being chummy with St. Helene’s prince had spread by then, and I spent morning assembly feeling my skin itch with every dark stare focused on me, as if every single girl in the vicinity was wishing I’d be transported to some distant place, such as Timbuktu. The problem was, every time Christian glanced at me or smiled at me or spoke to me, I forgot about all the hostility directed at me and I couldn’t help but smile back, which only made things worse. I wished there was a way for me to telegraph to everyone that Christian and I were only friends and that he was safe from my slimy, stinky clutches, but I doubted anyone would believe me at this point.
At least…anyone who’d ever seen the warmth in his eyes whenever he smiled at me.
Then later that afternoon, while we were sitting inside the detention room writing about “Responsibility,” Christian reached into his backpack and plunked down a colorfully wrapped box about the length of my hand in front of me. The box was surprisingly heavy, judging from the thud it made when it landed on the table.
“Happy birthday, Joy,” he said when I looked at him in surprise.
“You remembered. I can’t believe it,” I exclaimed happily as I started unwrapping the box.
He snorted. “Of course I remembered. I also remember that the last time I greeted you ‘happy birthday,’ your birthday was already long over. So sorry for the late greeting. Again.”
I sucked in a breath as the memory of a table set for two in the center of a ring of fairy lights drifted through my mind. “I didn’t mind then, and I don’t mind now,” I replied with a smile, which turned into a delighted laugh when I saw what he’d given me. “Post-its! A whole box of Post-its! Thank you so much!”
He laughed too as he watched me inspecting the box closely, counting all the pastel colors, then bring the box up to my nose so I could take a deep, appreciative sniff. “And great timing, too, since I’ve just about run out,” I went on, then looked at him curiously. “How did you know I like Post-its anyway?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” he answered, laughing again. “You’ve got Post-its stuck to the pages of your notebooks, Post-its stuck to the lid of your pencil case, Post-its stuck everywhere. Even the homework you submitted for Social Science still had a Post-it stuck to the inside of the folder. It was a good thing I checked it first.”
I winced, flushing with embarrassment. “Oops, I forgot about that one.”
“It’s okay, I took it off before I passed it,” he reassured me. “Anyway, it wasn’t hard to figure out you have a thing for sticky squares of paper. Oh, and talk about sticky things.”
He bent down, then came back up again with another box—a larger, pale blue, square-shaped one this time. It was tied with a golden bow at the top, and the elegant black lettering on the top and side of the box spelled out Marie LaRoche. My jaw dropped as I encountered yet another object from my past.
“Oh my gosh, Christian,” I breathed as I pulled the box closer, “don’t tell me you tried to bake again.”
A beat of silence, followed by the scraping of his chair against the floor as he stood up and stalked round the table toward me. I jumped out of my chair and fled to a corner of the room, only to have him trap me there. “Just for that crack, Miss De Castro,” he growled, looming over me and raising his hands threateningly, “I am going to throttle you.”
I shrieked with laughter and threw my hands up as he thrust his fingers through my hair and tickled the back of my neck. “Ah! Stop! Uncle, uncle, uncle,” I gasped, teary-eyed with mirth and hunching over to protect my neck while he cackled like a supervillain.
All at once, the atmosphere changed. Our laughter died away, and I stared up at him, wide-eyed and panting, suddenly aware that my hands were lying flat on his chest, vibrating to the frenetic rhythm of his heart. His hands moved, brushing my hair back then cupping my jaw and tilting my face upward. His eyes had gone dark and intense, locking with my gaze before dropping down to my mouth. Then he began to lower his head—
“What’s going on in here? I could hear you out there in the hallway.”
Our homeroom teacher came in, and we leaped apart so quickly I wondered if I wasn’t harboring hidden athletic talents myself after all. Luckily for us, the Marie LaRoche cake box sitting on the table managed to draw all her attention. “Oh my, is that what I think it is?” she gasped.
Christian glanced at me, one fist pressed to his mouth, his face flushed as deep a shade of crimson as mine undoubtedly was. Then he winked at me. “It sure is, Ma’am,” he announced, and with a flourish, proceeded to untie the box and open it, revealing a small but absolutely sinful-looking chocolate cake, the same kind of cake he’d gotten me before. After he explained that it was to celebrate my birthday, she hurried back to the faculty room to fetch three forks.
We spent the rest of the time finishing our essays, celebrating my birthday over cake with our teacher, and congratulating Christian on making it through the tryouts for the Self-Defense Club—as if his acceptance into the club had ever been in doubt. It took me all that time to get my heart rate to slow back down to normal, or as close to normal as it could get around Christian. Just thinking about it made my head spin. Oh my gosh, I’d nearly kissed him. Or he’d nearly kissed me, and I just stood there, waiting for him to do it. Oh my gosh, how stupid could I be? If I kept this up, I’d soon be passing the point of no return and laying myself open to pain, rejection and abandonment yet again. We were friends, just friends, nothing more. And that meant no more near-kiss experiences, because if I was sure about one thing, it was that real friends had no business kissing each other.
And they had no business feeling achingly disappointed that the kiss didn’t happen either.
Nathan came to pick me up after detention, which sent both a ripple of relief and a shot of apprehension through me. I gnawed my lips anxiously as Nathan and Christian eyed each other, but even though Christian’s jaw had set so tightly I could almost hear his teeth grinding, and even though Nathan had stared at him with so much false bravado he was practically beating his chest with his fists, neither boy made a move toward each other or exchanged words beyond a stilted “hey”. Hurriedly, I gathered my things and thanked Christian once again for the Post-its and the Marie LaRoche cake, then turned Nathan around bodily and began to push him ahead of me.
“Hey, Joy,” Christian called before Nathan and I had made it far. I stopped and glanced back. “When you get home, check out the blue Post-it pad at the end of the box.”
“What’s he talking about?” Nathan asked as we made our way home.
“His birthday gift to me. He gave me a box of Post-its.” I sighed and turned my face up to the dark, cloudy sky. “What a fun birthday it’s been. You guys have been so nice, and I love all of your gifts. I put the teddy bear you gave me on my desk, and he’s holding a pad of Post-its on his lap now.”
“Post-its,” he said dully, gazing straight ahead. “He knows you like writing stuff down on Post-its.”
“Yes. He noticed I had Post-its stuck everywhere, which, you know, I can’t really deny,” I gently pointed out. When Nathan remained silent, I bit my lip and tried another tack: “Um, Nathan? You know, tomorrow will be our last day of detention. Would you like to go for a milkshake with me the day after tomorrow? Like, maybe after our tutoring session? It’ll be my treat,” I added with a touch of inspiration. “You’ve been studying so hard lately, you definitely deserve a reward.”
Nathan glanced down at me, and the ghost of a smile flitted at the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, sure. I’d like that.”
Later, when I was alone in my room, I sat at my round table and took out the box of Post-its that Christian had given me. I pulled out the blue pad at one end of the box and studied it with puzzlement. It seemed to be a completely normal, blank pad of pastel blue Post-its. What was so special about this thing?
I turned back to the box, intending to return the blue pad into it, and only then noticed that the pale pink pad next to it had something written on it. Frowning, I pulled out the pad. On the first sheet, Christian had drawn wavy lines and curves with gold and silver ink all around the borders in a kind of art nouveau style. And in the center, written in black ink, were the words:
Coupons? I thought, half-amused and half-perplexed. I flipped through the other sheets in the pad, and found that the succeeding sheets all had something written on them.
The first one right after the cover sheet said:
Peel off & present each coupon
to me to claim service/request.
The next one said:
Services/requests offered are unconditional,
with no strings attached
or prior demands.
And the next:
(Except the ones that
need prep work, of course.)
And the next:
(Previous disclaimer void
the instant I master sorcery.)
I giggled, awash in a sparkling fog of happy wonder. Flipping to the next sheets, I read:
Services/requests have no time limits.
You can claim them tomorrow,
or next week, or next year
if you want to.
The next sheet:
No, really, I mean it.
No expiry dates here.
You can also choose not to claim.
It’s all up to you.
And the next:
But please consider it.
And try not to wait until next year
to start, OK? Please?
And the next:
In case you’re wondering, yes,
I worked on this all weekend.
Sure beats studying.
Beneath that, he’d drawn a frowny face that appeared to be dying of sheer boredom, and I laughed out loud. Then I read on:
The only condition
is that with each service/request…
And read some more:
…you’ll do it with me.
What I’m trying to say is…
Would you like to spend
more time with me?
The next Post-it sheets that followed each had one item written on them, with the words decorated with more gold art nouveau curlicues. There were twenty items in all:
Go for a walk with me.
Help with school work
Truth or Dare
Be my personal servant for a day.
Have a snack with me outside the campus.
Go to the mall with me.
Go stargazing with me.
Take me anywhere I want to go.
Compliment me about anything.
One Favor, Any Favor
Show me something about you that I don’t know.
Ask me about something you don’t know about me.
Answer the question: What do you like about me?
Free Back Rub
Free page: Write anything you want.
The last one had a dashed line at the bottom where I could write my own request. I read and reread the items in pure astonishment. Some, like the help with school work one or the favor or the compliment, seemed innocuous enough. Some though, like the Truth or Dare or his offer to be my personal servant for a day, were enough to jeopardize his reputation in school if people ever found out that St. Helene’s prince was consorting with a social bottom-dweller like me. And some were essentially him asking me out on a date—on a whole array of dates, really—and giving me the freedom to name the time and place as well as the option to say no simply by refusing to give him the coupon.
Twenty “services” and “requests”, each one meant to bring us closer. And he’d given them just before our joint detention came to an end. This was his real birthday gift; it wasn’t the box of Post-its after all. He had to know that by giving these to me, he’d basically put himself at my disposal. That he would give me this much power over him, that he would trust me this much…
The next morning, when he arrived for our next class, he paused at my desk again and greeted me with the warm smile that I was rapidly getting used to. “Hi,” he murmured, and I couldn’t help noticing the tinge of red on his face and the way his gaze flitted away instead of lingered the way it usually did.
In reply, I thrust my hand out and slapped a Post-it onto the part of his body that happened to be within range. This turned out to be his stomach, the yellow square contrasting nicely with the royal blue field of his necktie. The Post-it was blank, and Christian regarded it with puzzlement for a moment. Then his blush deepened when understanding hit, and his expression turned nervous and unsure. I gave him a small smile just before he headed over to his chair, peeling the Post-it off his necktie.
“Psst. Hey, Joy.”
I turned to my other side, and found Jasmine and her two friends frowning at me. “What?”
“What was that all about?” Jasmine demanded, jerking her head toward Christian.
“Nothing. Just a little joke,” I replied with a shrug.
She eyed me suspiciously. “A joke? I hope you’re not trying to get close to him again. You remember what happened the last time you tried to give him a letter, don’t you?”
Yes, he threw it in my face. Except that wasn’t a love letter, and we’ve made up since then. We’re friends now, so suck on that. I didn’t have a chance to say any of that, though, because our teacher had come in at that moment. After a while, I snuck a glance over my shoulder at Christian, and found him staring at me with bright eyes, his dimple disappearing and reappearing as he attempted to hide his grin behind his fist. I blushed myself and grinned back, then hastily facing forward again. I knew he’d figure it out and flip the blank Post-it sheet over to the one underneath it where I’d written my response, complete with similar border art done in black and red ink:
I accept the terms and conditions.
Please stand by for my first request.
Thank you so much.
And later during our last detention together—with the theme of “Prayer”—we alternated between bouts of essay-writing and easy conversation about our classes and jokes about our classmates. He asked me about my friends, and I found myself telling him about each of them: Jenneth, my fellow scholarship kid who faced the same struggles as I did to get to where he was now. Maisha, a Muslim girl in a Catholic school. Honey, whose provincial accent instantly marked her as an outsider. Even Nathan and his struggle to escape the stigma of being an E-student, and how it had cost him the respect of his family and his friendship with Tony and the others. Talking about my friends inevitably led me to talk about Ascension House and the other House kids, and how much I loved being part of a large group of warm, caring people—people who knew what it was like to be ostracized, bullied or belittled by the rest of the school just because we were different somehow. People who understood how important it was to have a safe space and a supportive group of people to belong to, especially when you couldn’t feel that you belonged anywhere in St. Helene.
“Wow. That sounds like a great place,” he commented, smiling at how animated I’d become while telling him about my friends and the House.
“It’s not great all the time, though,” I admitted ruefully. “We get into fights, too, and over things like whose wad of hair blocked up the shower drain or who dropped a used sanitary pad on the floor in the hallway or—and this one’s a classic—who sleepwalked in the middle of the night and peed in his roommate’s wardrobe. Stuff like that.”
“Oh man.” Christian screwed up his face in disgust, then burst out laughing. “Well, gross-outs aside, you know what that sounds like to me? It sounds like one big family.”
I nodded happily. “Yes. That’s exactly what the House feels like. A family.”
“Is that so?” For a moment, Christian’s expression turned wistful. “You know something weird? I’m actually kind of envious of you. At least you know what that feels like…”
He trailed off, suddenly looking uncomfortable, and I was reminded again of all the questions I wanted to ask him. But we were interrupted again by our homeroom teacher, who came in with a box of donuts, a large bottle of Coke and some plastic cups. She apparently had the idea to celebrate our last detention with a snack, which served as my signal to produce the bags of potato chips and cheese curls that I’d bought at the House cafeteria as my own contribution to our detention snacks. In a slightly unbelievable turn of events, we spent the rest of our last detention chatting with our teacher and gorging on donuts, chips, cheese curls and Coke, while our teacher and I watched with a mixture of horror and resigned humor as Christian’s white shirt gradually acquired an uneven coating of bright yellow cheese dust. In hindsight, I should’ve remembered what happened when Christian came into contact with cheese curls, and bought something less prone to staining everything on sight.
All in all, it had been a great ending to a great day. There had been no black-Sharpie posters, no outright bullying, and no sign of life from the Protect the Prince Club. In fact, the only thing marring the day had been a brief incident during lunch. Jenneth and I had been stopped on our way to the Biology 1 lab by none other than Tony and his friends, all members of the soccer team. We had pressed closer together, bracing ourselves for some kind of attack, but Tony only asked us where Christian was.
The question drew me up short. So Christian really hadn’t been spending his lunch periods with Tony and the others after all? The same thought must’ve occurred to Jenneth, because he grumbled, “You mean you don’t know? He always leaves before any of us, and we all thought he hung out with you guys.”
Tony glared at Jenneth. “I don’t like your tone, scholarship kid. You better watch it.” Then he turned to me, and I flinched a little before I could stop myself. “Yo, Garbage Girl. Tell Christian we’ve been looking for him. He and I have something to talk about.”
Oh my gosh, I totally forgot to tell Christian that Tony’s been looking for him, I thought now, lowering my fork into my plate of spaghetti, oblivious to the three-way dinner conversation going on at our table. Then again, the look in Tony’s face had sent an unpleasant tingle down my spine at the time, and it was obvious that whatever reason Tony had for seeking out Christian, it couldn’t be good. I ought to warn Christian about that tomorrow.
I looked up then, and noticed that only Jenneth, Maisha and Honey were doing the talking. Nathan was quiet and subdued, offering only weak smiles and pushing his food around on his plate in an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm. Guilt flashed through me. I’d been so caught up with Christian and the potential trouble from the Protect the Prince Club that I hadn’t given much thought to how Nathan was feeling throughout all this. He doesn’t deserve this, I scolded myself, not after he stood up for me against Christian despite how scared he was of him. Nathan’s a really nice guy, and he likes me. He deserves so much more.
Nathan looked my way then and our gazes caught. I smiled and touched his hand. “So, we’re still good for tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah,” he replied, smiling back.
The exchange caught Jenneth’s attention, and he immediately leaned forward. “Oooh, did I hear you right? You guys have a daaaaate?”
I told them about my plan to treat Nathan to a milkshake tomorrow as a reward for his diligence and progress, which sparked a round of teasing from our friends, especially from Jenneth and Maisha. Honey, though, was a little more restrained for some reason, but she smiled too and told us to give them a report about our date when we come back.
As it turned out, I’d only been enjoying the calm before the storm, because the next day, the Protect the Prince Club made their move.
And even worse, the rumor about Christian breaking up with his girlfriend in New York so he could pursue a girl here in St. Helene took on a whole new dimension when the entire school somehow found out who the girl he’d fallen for was.
And once again, that girl wasn’t me.