The two cloaked figures made their way outside the palace compound and into the sleeping city. It was the deepest part of night, the still, quiet hours before dawn, but the streets were not empty. Other figures drifted about—bakers, drunkards, thieves, and the occasional civil guard on patrol. The two walked the length of the city, moving from the aristocratic enclaves surrounding the palace, to the area of the city where the wealthy merchants built their tall houses, to the sprawling district where the most of the commoners lived and worked.
Smudges of light were beginning to stain the sky when they finally arrived at the outer fringes where the poorest inhabitants of the city lived. Already, the streets were coming to life with the sounds of cooking, the smells of boiling cabbage and gruel and the faint overlay of rotting fruit, the screams of crying infants, the scolding voices of wives haranguing their sons and husbands to find work, the cacophony of a multitude of vendors and beggars about to begin the day’s work.
The peasant girl led the prince to the ramshackle building where she had made her home, only to find, to her dismay, that the tiny room where she lived was already occupied. They located the landlord, but he merely cast her a look of contempt. “We do not welcome suspected thieves here, especially those who would steal from our prince.”
And when she asked about her belongings, he replied, “I threw them away” and slammed the door in their faces.
Incensed by the callous treatment, the prince stepped forward, his hand reaching for the long sword strapped to his back, but the peasant girl stopped him. “You mustn’t, Your Hi—Dominic,” she said softly. “You will jeopardize our quest if you reveal yourself now.”
“But this cur has thrown you out of your own home,” the prince replied, glowering fiercely. “You have nothing now except the clothes on your back.”
To his astonishment, she smiled. “Yes. Except for your ring that I carried, this is almost exactly how I arrived in your kingdom—with nothing but the clothes on my back. Come, we mustn’t linger here.”
The prince fell silent as they returned to the crowded streets. They bought some meat buns, but she cautioned him from being too free with his coin while they were in the streets. As they ate, a voice called out from a darkened alley: “Saya! Saya!”
Her face brightened at the sight of the slight young man waving at them from the shadows. “Jen!”
“Saya, come to the House. We managed to save some of your belongings,” the young man said, stepping aside to make way for her. When the prince followed, the young man blocked his path and regarded him with hostility. “Hey, who are you? You don’t look like you belong here.”
“It’s all right, Jen,” the peasant girl said quickly. “This is Dominic. The two of us are on a very important quest, and we need your help. Please, take us to the House.”
The young man gave the prince one last suspicious look, then nodded. “This way.”
As she was about to follow, the prince grabbed her roughly by the arm. “You said we were to keep our quest a secret,” he hissed. “What is this House and who are these people you would betray me to?”
The peasant girl shook her head. “I am not betraying you, Your Highness. The House is a sanctuary. It was once an orphanage that took in unwanted children, but many believe it burned down years ago. Now my friends and I work to support it and keep it alive so it can continue to take in the ones who most need our help.” She laid her hand upon his, refusing to wince from the pain of his grip. “Please, Your High—Dominic. You promised to trust me.”
The prince gazed at her searchingly, then sighed and released her. “Fine. Lead the way.” Then as they navigated through a confusing labyrinth of alleys and side streets, he spoke again: “So it is not true that you have nothing, after all.”
“No,” the peasant girl replied with a smile. “I have friends now, Dominic. Friends that I love and who love me. And that is worth more than all the riches and titles this world can offer.”
And with that, she took him by the hand and led him into her world.
– – – – – – – –
“Oh, hello. Funny meeting you inside a restroom again.”
I looked up in the mirror as I was washing my hands. Tara walked over to the sink beside mine and gave me a friendly smile in the mirror. “Hello,” I greeted back.
Turning toward me, she studied the bandage on my cheek. “Hmm, that looks like it’s healing nicely.”
“It is, thanks,” I murmured. A full day and a half had passed since I got my injury, and by next week the rich palette of colors on my cheek would have faded enough for me to do without the white gauze covering. Thank God I was spending the weekend at Lola Delia’s and not at home. I could just picture Tatay going all worried and overprotective and demanding that he and Nanay come to St. Helene to speak with the administration, thereby making the problem even worse. Ate Grace, on the other hand, would spend the entirety of the weekend railing at me for being such a wuss and forgetting everything she taught me about defending myself. Faith, of course, would be the easiest to deal with; all I’d get from her were pitying comments about how the bandage ruined my non-existent looks.
Lola Delia, though, wouldn’t give two hoots if I showed up in a gurney, so long as I could still manage to clean the three bathrooms in her house to her satisfaction or pull an entire day’s duty at one of the many stores and restaurants she owned. Then again, with the bandage spoiling my non-existent looks, I might not be allowed to work the floor at all, as customers generally didn’t want to see their servers looking like beaten-up thugs. House-cleaning it was, then.
“Joy, you okay in there? Move it or we’re going to be late,” Jenneth yelled from the doorway of the restroom, anxiety threading through his voice.
Tara apparently heard it, too. “Your friends are so sweet to worry about you,” she mused. “You’re lucky to have such good friends, Joy. Not a lot of people can say that. You must care about them so much.”
“You’ve got good friends, too,” I replied, thinking, Birds of a feather and all that. “Look, I have to go.”
“Yeah—oh, wait, could you do me a favor?” she said quickly. “Could you tell Christian to drop by the faculty room this afternoon? Mr. Alonzo wants to talk to him.”
“Um, sure.” Mr. Alonzo taught sophomore English, although he wasn’t handling our class. Well, whatever it was, it probably had something to do with English class.
Tara tilted her head and gave me a curious look. “Aren’t you worried about him even a little? I thought you were his friend.”
“Worried? About Christian?” I asked, confused. “Why should I be worried?”
But she was already shaking her head. “Oh, nothing. If you haven’t noticed, then… Anyway, I have to go, too. See you around, Joy.”
She waved goodbye before heading off in the opposite direction, leaving me staring after her. As soon as he caught sight of me, Jenneth grabbed my arm and began dragging me off to our second class for the day, having accompanied me on a quick restroom break to make sure no one ambushed me in there again. “Okay, what did the witch say to you this time?” he demanded.
I frowned. “I’m not sure. Probably nothing. And to be fair to her, she really isn’t acting all that witchy around me.” Not yet, anyway.
“Puh-lease,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m with Nathan here. That girl and the rest of her coven are up to something. Don’t let your guard down, Joyous.”
“I won’t,” I reassured him.
“Speaking of my roommate, what exactly did you say to him during your date yesterday? The guy’s so down in the dumps he tried to lock me out of our room last night. Good thing I had my key with me.”
I winced and trained my gaze on the floor. I hadn’t had a chance yet to tell my friends about how my so-called date with Nathan went. And Nathan himself—well, I had no right to expect help from that quarter. “We…talked. About, um, stuff,” I hedged. Thankfully, we got to our classroom before Jenneth could do more than toss me an exasperated look.
Because the truth was, I didn’t know how I was going to break the news to our friends—all of whom had been cheering on our relationship—that there wouldn’t be a relationship between us after all. And worse yet, that I had fallen all over again for Christian, whom they understandably considered the enemy. I could just see them looking so disappointed in me.
Although to be fair, telling Jenneth, Maisha and Honey couldn’t possibly be any harder than telling Nathan. As promised, I’d taken him out to a nearby ice cream bar for milkshakes, and while we were there, I finally gathered my courage and told him the truth about my feelings for him and for Christian. He’d seemed pained but unsurprised, and when I was done, he simply stared at the tall glass of vanilla milkshake that he’d only managed to finish halfway, his fingers absently shredding the strip of paper the straw had come in.
“You know, I’ve been kind of expecting this,” he said with a short, bitter laugh. “Ever since he came here, you’ve only been looking at him. Even when he was treating you like shit, you were still all about him. I would’ve been deaf, dumb and blind not to notice.”
I stared at the puddle forming on the table underneath my own neglected chocolate milkshake, aching at the hurt and disappointment radiating from him. At that moment, I completely understood Christian’s foot-dragging about letting me go. Rejecting someone like this was excruciating, more so since Nathan was one of my closest friends. “I’m sorry,” I said in a tiny voice, twisting my hands together in my lap. “I liked you, too, and I really thought—I-I honestly didn’t mean for this to happen.”
He snorted. “Nah, of course you didn’t. How could you? You didn’t even know he was coming back. It’s just that I’ve been waiting right here all this time, while all he needed to do was show up—”
He bit off the rest of his words and turned to stare out the window. I did the same, barely seeing the people and vehicles moving past the café window. I wished there was some way to speed time up so we could get to the stage where this dreadful conversation was behind us, but I also understood that Nathan deserved a chance to say his piece.
Finally, he gave me a sad little smile. “You know what annoys me the most? The fact that I can’t bring myself to hate either of you.”
“No, don’t say anything. Not now, okay?” he said quietly. “I just—give me some time.”
I nodded, feeling lower than the crud on the soles of my shoes and afraid that I was losing his friendship as well. We didn’t linger at the ice cream bar after that, and as we walked back to the campus, it was as if we were encased in our own little bubble of awkward silence that not even the sounds of the street teeming with people rushing to go home could penetrate. The streetlamps came on just as we entered the campus gates, lending our surroundings a romantic glow that felt almost mocking at this point, and as we left the noisy street behind, the silence between us turned melancholy. I kept my gaze focused on the ground as we trudged toward the House, trying not to cry. I could imagine only too well how Nathan was feeling. I’d been in his position before, and being the one inflicting the pain felt every bit as awful as being the one on the receiving end. Worse, in a way, because now I had guilt to contend with as well.
Then as we neared the House, Nathan cleared his throat. “He came to apologize to me, you know. And he said…other things, too. Gave my classmates a shock to find an A-student hanging around our classroom, that’s for sure.” When I looked up at him in surprise, he gave me another sad smile. “I’ll say this just once: If I have to give you up to another guy, then better him than anyone else. Sure, he can be a total jerkass, but he really cares about you, Joy. I’d even go so far as to say that he’s head over heels for you.”
When he jerked his head, I followed the direction of his gaze to the steps in front of the House, and my mouth fell open. A figure was sitting there, bathed in the glow of the streetlamp, with his elbows propped on his knees, his hands buried in his hair, and his backpack tossed down beside him. He didn’t look up as House kids moved up the stairs past him, all while shooting him puzzled glances, but at the sound of our footsteps, he lifted his head and looked straight at us. He stood up as we approached, his face unsmiling, his dark gaze shifting from me to Nathan and back to me.
“Christian, what’re you doing here?” I asked, bewildered.
“Waiting for you. Took your time, didn’t you?” Christian replied in a frigid tone. His eyes shifted to Nathan, and my heart jumped when I saw the glint of challenge in them. But I knew what to watch for now, and sure enough, I saw the fear underneath the icy anger—a fear revealed in the way his hands curled into fists.
Nathan saw it, too, apparently. His shoulders sagged a bit more, and he sent me a resigned glance. “I’ll go on ahead.” Then he added, with a flare of defiance: “And don’t worry, Joy. This doesn’t change a thing between us.”
With that, he turned and headed up the stairs, leaving me to have to explain Nathan’s little bit of revenge to an even more furious-looking Christian. Sure enough, Christian demanded: “What the hell did he mean by that?”
Sighing, I plopped down on the steps, feeling drained from the emotional bungee jump I’d just taken. “He means we’ll always be friends. At least, I think that’s what he means. But what about you? It’s already late. Why are you still here?”
“I wanted to talk to you, but you disappeared right after class. So I tracked down Jenneth, and he told me you and Nathan were on a date. Funny, I don’t seem to remember you mentioning that little detail,” he said sarcastically, although my explanation that Nathan and I were just friends seemed to be taking the edge off his anger.
“I didn’t tell you because you had so much on your plate already, and I didn’t want to bother you with unimportant stuff,” I explained patiently. “Anyway, how did basketball training go? Any chance of our boys saving their worthless butts from total disgrace?”
Talk about having too much on his plate: Earlier that day, Christian had discovered that some of the guys in our section had been bragging to the boys of 2D-Bonifacio that they would beat them in the inter-section basketball competition during the upcoming sportsfest this year, now that the prince of St. Helene was on their side. The 2D-Bonifacio boys hadn’t taken kindly to the boasting, especially coming from a section known to be mentally strong but physically and kinetically the opposite of that, and before long the issue had escalated to the level of a homeroom-wide bet—any sections that 2A-Rizal managed to beat in basketball would have to treat us to pizza, but on the flipside, any sections that managed to defeat our boys would be the beneficiaries of the pizza treat, courtesy of 2A-Rizal. And if our section kept true to its past record of getting trounced by every other section in basketball, that meant we—as in the entire 2A-Rizal class, including those of us who would’ve shot down this preposterous bet if we’d known about it—were going to have to foot the bill for a pizza party for four sections.
After he’d nearly given himself a concussion from slamming his palm on his forehead too hard, Christian proceeded to chew the other boys out for presuming he’d be willing or able to take on four teams all by his lonesome while the rest of them just stood around and watched. Chastened by both the prince and the glares coming from the rest of us, the boys agreed to undergo intensive basketball training after class until the sportsfest, to be led by the prince himself, and so take responsibility for protecting our section’s honor and school allowances themselves.
Christian shoved his fingers through his hair and scowled at the memory of their first training session. “We’re done for today, but man, have we got a long way to go. Those idiots suck at even the basic skills, they get tired after a five-minute stroll around the court, their idea of teamwork is arguing about whose strategy is better, as if they knew how to pull off any kind of strategy other than ‘relax, we can beat them at Math anyway’…”
He trailed off and looked at me in surprise when I started laughing. “Now you know why we never win at sportsfests,” I chortled, tempering my mirth with a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry you got stuck with damage control, and on top of your studies and Self-Defense Club training, too. If it weren’t for that bet, it’s almost not worth your time.”
His grin flashed as the rest of his anger melted away. “Well, I did say I wanted us to be known for more than just being a bunch of physically and socially challenged nerds, didn’t I? This is my fault for not being careful what I wished for.” Then his grin disappeared, and he asked with a nonchalance that didn’t fool me: “So anyway, how did your date go?”
“Not so good,” I replied with another glum sigh, hunching over to wrap my arms around my knees. “It hardly qualifies as a date, since I spent most of the time being a rotten person to Nathan.”
“Why? What did you do?”
He sat down beside me as I told him about telling Nathan that I couldn’t return his feelings after all, carefully leaving out the other half of that admission—that my feelings were otherwise fully engaged with the boy sitting beside me at that moment, listening intently. “I hurt him so badly, Christian, and I don’t know how to make this better. Or will anything I do just make things worse?” I went on despairingly. “And even though he said we’ll still be friends, I just can’t see he can stand to even be around me. What do I do now?”
His expression had softened throughout my narration, and now he planted his hands on the step behind us and leaned back, gazing at the tops of the trees in Annie’s Park across the street with thoughtful eyes. “I can’t speak for him, but from what you’ve told me, he’s already spoken for himself,” he said at last. “He needs time. He’ll probably want to hang out with other people for a while, or try out new things, or ask another girl out—stuff guys do to recover. I can’t promise you’ll stay friends after this, but I don’t see why you shouldn’t. Just don’t be the one to let your friendship end, you know what I mean?”
I nodded. “Yes, I think so. I’ll be there for him when he comes back. We all will.”
“Hey.” I turned to face him, and lost myself in a pair of warm chocolate eyes. “Stop beating yourself up already,” he said softly. “You did what you believed was right, and that’s not an easy thing to do. I should know,” he added, his own voice threaded with regret.
I gave him a grateful smile, acutely aware of his arm brushing lightly against my back. “He told me you apologized to him, by the way,” I murmured, glad to have the streetlamp behind me so that the shadows partly concealed my rising blush.
“He deserved it. I was an ass,” he admitted with a one-shouldered shrug. Then his lips lifted in a sly, satisfied smile as he added: “Did he tell you what else I said?”
“No. Just that you said other things as well.”
“Well, it was just one other thing.” My heart rate speeded up even more as his gaze bored into me. “I told him too bad, buddy, but I’m taking you back.”
A wave of heat rose up my body and fountained from the top of my head. “You told him what? Of all the conceited, arrogant, presumptuous—” I quickly ran out of words in my indignation. Oh my gosh, poor Nathan. What he must’ve thought.
Christian’s eyes glinted beneath the light as he leaned closer, catching my chin to keep me from looking away. “It’s the truth, and you know it,” he countered in a low, fierce voice. “You’re mine, Joy. You’ll always be mine. I’m not letting anyone take you away from me, so do us and the world a favor and accept it already.”
My face heated up several degrees more. “You—I’m not—I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I protested feebly, trying in vain to ignore the way my heart was racing.
In reply, he smiled again and released my chin, only to gently brush the backs of his fingers underneath the bandage on my cheek. “So what’s my reward?” he asked.
“Reward?” I echoed, too distracted by his proximity to focus on our conversation. Oh my gosh, he smells good, I thought as Christian’s familiar scent mixed with a woodsy fragrance tickled my nostrils. He must’ve taken a shower before coming here.
“Yeah. I completed the dare, so I should get a reward,” he explained, tweaking the silver ring at his throat with his thumb.
I blinked a couple of times. “Wait a minute. A reward? It’s a dare, not a contest. You don’t get a reward for completing a dare.”
“Is that the rule?”
“Then I’m changing the rules.”
Before I realized what he was up to, he took my hand and drew it to his mouth, pressing his lips against the back of my hand in a warm kiss, his eyes never leaving mine. My breath stuttered then stopped, and I swear my own lips tingled in anticipation. Finally, after a moment that I wished had lasted much longer, he released my hand and gave me another grin as he got to his feet. “Okay, I’m good for now,” he announced, raising his arms above his head and stretching, then stooping to hoist up his backpack. “I have to go. We’ve got a ton of homework to do, and you’ve got your own curfew to mind.”
“O-okay,” I squeaked, cradling my hand to my chest and staring at him with huge eyes.
He smirked down at me. “The look on your face right now. Don’t worry, Joy. Whatever it is you’re thinking, we’ll get to it and more real soon, I promise.”
“I-I wasn’t thinking any such—”
“Sure you weren’t,” he drawled, stroking my bottom lip with his thumb. “See you tomorrow.”
He turned and loped off as I stared after him. When my face had cooled down enough, I got up and went inside, but found that I didn’t have much of an appetite for dinner, so I just took a cup of instant ramen up to my room, excusing myself by claiming I needed to get some studying done. I failed to notice that Nathan hadn’t come down for dinner either, too absorbed as I was in the sparkly cloud of daydreams inside my head and the spot of warmth on the back of my hand and on my bottom lip.
I sighed inwardly as guilt stabbed me now. Some friend to Nathan I was turning out to be.
Surreptitiously, I glanced sideways where Christian sat at one end of our table. His face was slack and vacant, his eyes glazed over. I suppressed a grin. He looked bored to death. Either that, or he was actually sleeping with his eyes open. Not that I blamed him. Science was normally interesting, especially when we were doing experiments, but not during long stretches of lectures like this one. Then his gaze flicked toward me, and without changing his expression, he winked. I blushed as an impish smile made his dimple appear, and quickly faced front again, checking to see if anyone had noticed.
Remembering that I had a message to relay, I took a Post-it pad and wrote down on a few square sheets: I need to tell you something. After sticking these to the inside cover of my Science workbook, I looked over at him again, and blinked. His pose remained exactly the same, except he was now holding his pen balanced between his nose and his puckered lips like an overwaxed, electric blue moustache, making it wiggle by moving his fish-lips from side to side. His gaze met mine again, his eyes gleaming with laughter, and I ducked my head and bit my lips to keep the giggles in.
“Maybe we can ask Mr. Garcia to assist in our discussion of the axial skeleton, since he seems so interested in it. Mr. Garcia?”
My head shot up in alarm as everyone, including our teacher, suddenly turned and looked at Christian. He gave a start and hastily took the pen out from under his nose, causing laughter to ripple across the room. “Uh, the axial skeleton, Ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes. I believe I told you to read up on the section on the main groups of the human endoskeleton yesterday.”
She hadn’t, of course. Our assigned reading consisted only of the previous sections. Fortunately, I’d already finished the entire chapter, and was hurriedly scribbling down keywords from the section she was referring to on my Post-it pad, thinking I could slide the pad over to him or something, when Christian cleared his throat and began reciting: “The axial skeleton is the basic structure that supports the appendicular skeleton. It consists of eighty bones, and its three major parts are the skull, the vertebral column, and the ribcage, plus the hyoid bone and the ossicles in the middle ear. The face has fourteen bones—two upper jaw bones or the maxillary, two lower jaw bones or mandible, two cheek bones or zygomatic bones—”
“Yes, all right, that will be fine. Thank you.”
As our teacher turned aside to bring up a diagram of the axial skeleton on our whiteboard, Christian breathed a sigh of relief, then grinned at our classmates who were giving him surreptitious thumbs-up signs, raising his binder to display the page where he’d written down the keywords of the next section and making a victory fist-pump. I should’ve known he’d have long since realized that being in the A-section meant always reading ahead of the lessons. And classic Christian—taking a situation that would’ve meant mortal humiliation for someone like me, and coming out looking like everybody’s hero. How does he do it? I thought wryly as I looked over at him. Then when he glanced at me to gauge my reaction, I directed his gaze to the cover of my workbook that I had propped up to face him, where I’d stuck a Post-it on which I’d written “Nice work!” followed by a smiley face.
Then I turned my workbook and showed him the other Post-its, to which he responded with a nod.
“Whew! That was a close one,” he exclaimed as he and Jenneth came over to my side when the lunch-period school bell chimed.
“Close? You were ready for it. In fact, you sounded like you memorized that entire passage in the textbook,” I replied with a grin.
He grimaced. “I almost didn’t read that part last night. All I wanted to do was crash right there on the floor.”
I sent him a commiserating look while Jenneth snorted. “If I were you, I’d make those basketball idiots make me handouts of the readings. You know, as payback for throwing you and the rest of us under the bus with that stupid bet. Then you wouldn’t have to study for the rest of the year.”
“The idea has crossed my mind,” Christian replied, shooting the boys an evil look before turning back to me. “So what did you want to tell me?”
As I relayed Tara’s message to him, the cheerful look on his face faded into a strange frown. “I didn’t know you and Tara are friends,” he said. “You guys talk a lot?”
“Hardly. We don’t exactly run in the same circles, you know,” I said lightly as we walked down the hallway. Beside me, Jenneth scowled down at the floor but kept quiet, sticking to the promise I extracted from him and the others not to tell Christian about the Protect the Prince Club’s bullying. As though sensing the undercurrents, Christian shot Jenneth, then me, a suspicious look, and I gulped when I saw his eyes focus on the bandage on my cheek. “It’s no big deal. We met earlier in the restroom, and I guess she knows from Nikki that we’re in the same section, so she asked me to give you the message,” I explained quickly before he could ask any other questions.
“Hmm. That’s interesting,” Christian muttered underneath his breath.
As we came to a junction, we slowed to a stop and I once again invited him to join us for lunch at the Biology 1 lab. Again, he graciously declined the invitation, explaining that he had something to do over lunch before heading off in the other direction.
“Wonder what keeps him so busy during lunch,” Jenneth mused as we watched him merge with the crowd then disappear down the stairs. “From what I hear, he doesn’t hang out with anyone in particular, just sort of hops from circle to circle. Hey, where’re you going?”
“Go on ahead, Jenneth. I’ll follow in a minute,” I threw over my shoulder as I darted off in pursuit of Christian.
“Don’t go off alone, you idiot!”
He caught up with me as I rounded the corner that opened into the front lobby. Together, we pressed against the wall and watched Christian smile at and exchange fist bumps with practically everyone he met, then exited the double doors to the outside, still completely alone despite receiving multiple invitations to have lunch together.
Jenneth and I exchanged glances. “He goes off-campus for lunch?” I wondered out loud.
“So what? He can afford it,” Jenneth replied with a shrug. “So is he, like, a lone wolf masquerading as a social butterfly, or is he spending all those off-campus lunch-dates with someone like he said—hey, wait!”
I set off after Christian, with Jenneth following close behind. We slipped out of the high school building then stood there on the steps, scanning the empty length of Sampaguita Street in puzzlement and confusion. Students’ cars weren’t allowed on Sampaguita Street on normal days, so Mang Chito couldn’t have driven over to pick him up at the high school building’s entrance, and if he were walking toward any of the campus gates, we should have spotted him walking down Sampaguita Street. But there was no sign of Christian anywhere.
“Maybe he was abducted by aliens,” Jenneth offered.
I scoffed. “Aliens? Please. You obviously don’t know a thing about him.”
“Oh, sorry, Miss Resident Expert on His Highness. What’s your guess then?”
“It’s simple. He’s been training in martial arts ever since he was a kid, so that means…Christian’s a ninja. That’s right. He’s a ninja who’s given us the slip using his incredible ninja skills.” I nodded decisively as Jenneth shot me a look of disgust.
Deprived of our quarry and lacking any other remotely plausible theory that would explain his disappearance, we had no choice but to go back inside and head over to our own cave. I could already picture Jenneth telling everyone about our brief attempt at tailing Christian, only for him to vanish into thin air. We’d probably spend half of lunch period tossing around wild speculations about Christian’s social life, or peculiar lack thereof.
Then I wondered if Nathan would even be there, and my heart sank. Maybe I ought to look for another place to have lunch in for a while. I didn’t want to deprive Nathan of the company of the friends he’d found in the House after having been rejected by the people he’d initially thought were his friends, and if he was feeling awkward around me… Then again, that smacked of me letting our friendship die, as Christian warned. I sighed to myself again. Honestly, keeping up with unexpected reading assignments in class was easier than figuring out what to do in a situation like this.
But when we got to the lab, all worries about dealing with Nathan fled. We found the door of the Biology 1 lab closed and our friends standing out in the hallway, wearing identical angry, bewildered expressions while Ate Kath and Kuya Simon argued with Kuya Gani, the janitor who’d freed me from the storage room before. He stood in front of one of the doors with his arms folded across his chest, a small metal hoop in his hand from which the keys to all the rooms in the school jingled together, his frown deepening the more our seniors argued with him.
“Look, I hear you, all right?” he said, raising a hand to forestall any more words. “But I’ve got my instructions from the Science and Math Dep. They said to lock up the lab when it’s not being used for class, and that includes lunch period. If you’ve got complaints, take it up with the Department. Or the Student Council, if you want.”
“What’s going on?” I asked Honey, who was chewing her bottom lip anxiously.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “When we arrived here, the door was locked, and Kuya Gani just said we can’t stay in this or any other lab during lunch periods anymore.”
“But if we can’t stay here, then where are we going to eat lunch? The House is closed to students during class hours,” one of the preppie scholarship kids said, to which Annelie and Francis shrugged.
“Kuya Gani, come on, you know us,” Kuya Simon was saying in a wheedling tone. “We House kids have been using this lab for years, and the Science and Math Dep was fine with it before. I don’t understand why they’re changing their minds now.”
“That’s right,” Annelie chimed in. “And some of us are scholarship kids from the A-sections. A-students are allowed to use the labs, right?”
This sparked some vocal agreement as the rest of us pressed forward. But Kuya Gani was already shaking his head. “Pipe down. Look, like I said, my job is to lock up the lab and make sure it stays locked, okay? I don’t know what made the faculty change their minds, but I heard they’ve gotten a complaint that you kids don’t clean up after yourselves and you leave food and trash everywhere. That’s why the labs are off-limits now.”
“What? That’s not true. We do clean up after ourselves. We’ve always been real careful about that,” Ate Kath objected indignantly. Jenneth and I hung back, with Jenneth looking white-faced and frozen while my own mind raced down some distinctly unpleasant paths.
Oh no. They wouldn’t go this far…would they?
“Who made the complaint, Kuya Gani? Do you know?” I found myself asking, causing everyone to look at me.
Kuya Gani shrugged. “Some students from the class that uses the lab after lunch, I think.”
“Were they girls?” No way. They can’t do this. Then again, maybe they can.
Beside me, Jenneth twitched when he realized the direction my questions were heading. I saw the exact moment the others got it, too—the widening of eyes, the furrowing of brows, the horrible understanding and the skepticism, the hope that I was wrong.
The janitor sighed. “I don’t see how it matters, but yeah, they were girls. One of them supposedly found ants crawling all over the lab instruments or something.”
“But we don’t even go near the damn instruments,” Francis growled, with Gemma stepping close to him in silent support.
“Look, the point is, you kids can’t stay here anymore, so go find somewhere else to have picnics in or whatever it is you do in here. Go eat at the cafeteria, that’s what it’s there for. Go on, get out of here.” Kuya Gani waved his arms at us in a shooing motion, then took his own advice and walked off, still shaking his head.
Instead of leaving, we just hung around in the hallway in a kind of daze, trying to come to grips with the fact that we’d just lost our safe, secure cave in this school. “It’s them, isn’t it?” Honey asked in a low voice. “Those girls who complained about us—they’re part of Christian’s fanclub. That’s what you were thinking, right, Joy?”
“If this is their doing, then this means war. Bad enough that they’re bullying Joy. This is harassment of the entire House,” Ate Kath declared angrily, to which some of the others nodded.
“Hey, slow down, guys. We don’t know for sure yet,” Kuya Simon cautioned. Then he looked over at me. “But really? You think those fangirls are behind this?”
“I don’t know. I’m just speculating about this, and I could be wrong.” But for some reason, I found myself recalling something else Tara had said earlier, something I thought was inconsequential at the time, but sounded now like a warning. Or a veiled threat.
You’re lucky to have such good friends, Joy. You must care about them so much.
“But why would they even do something like this?” Honey asked. “Dili na mao—are they just being incredibly petty or what?”
“They’re doing it to flush Joyous out, obviously,” Jenneth answered grimly.
You must care about them so much. “No, it’s not that,” I said out loud. “If that club is really behind this, then they’re doing it to flush all of you out. I think—I think they’re going to try to get to me through you, because you’re my friends. I’m so sorry about this. Please be extra careful, you guys,” I added in a whisper.
Honey looked at me with wide eyes. “I’ll text Maisha. Hopefully, she’ll read it before she leaves that room. And I’ll call Nathan as well. Where is that doofus, anyway?” she muttered as she pulled her cellphone out and turned aside.
“But what do we do now?” one of the preppie scholarship kids asked, breaking the silence. I looked over at them—at Aldrin and Pamela. They were two out of five of the youngest House kids this year, and certainly they were the two most vulnerable. They stood close together, with 381, and it made me think of what it had been like for Jenneth and me. The preppies who were still adjusting to life in St. Helene, who were just starting to realize what being different from everyone else meant—they were the ones who needed a safe space the most.
“We look for another place for now, I guess. Sitting around in the hallway isn’t allowed either,” Kuya Simon said.
“But where? The cafeteria?” Annelie replied doubtfully.
We all pictured the cafeteria in our minds, with its various cliques and groups fighting over tables or spots befitting what they thought their rank was within St. Helene’s social hierarchy, and shuddered. “I know. How about we use one of the empty classrooms for now? Then after class, Kath and I will go to the Science and Math Dep and talk to the faculty about letting us use the Biology 1 lab again,” Kuya Simon suggested, pinning a bright smile on his face.
Upon my suggestion, we trudged off toward the empty classroom Christian and I used during our lunchtime detention sentences, which had the advantage of being located near the middle of the high school building and was right beside the room Maisha was praying in. Honey fell into step with Jenneth and me, her phone still in her hand. “Nathan’s not answering his phone,” she complained. “And last night, he didn’t come down for dinner either. Did something happen on your date, Joy? Do you know why he’s acting so weird?”
Okay, this is it. I took a deep breath, then told Jenneth and Honey about my having turned Nathan down, and that our friend was going to need some TLC for a while, repeating the story for everyone’s sake when we were finally ensconced in the classroom, then again for Maisha’s sake, after she recovered from her shock over our exile from the Biology 1 lab.
And even though I didn’t tell them about Christian, my ex-roommate, who knew me almost as well as Jenneth did, figured it out anyway. “I knew it,” she said with a resigned sigh. “I was hoping it wouldn’t turn out this way, since I was rooting for you two. And I still think it would’ve been perfect—you and Nathan together, just like our other House love-teams. But the truth is, from the moment we first saw Christian standing at the school entrance, we already sort of knew. Nathan, especially.”
I winced. “Am I really that obvious? Wait, no, don’t answer that. I don’t want to hear it.”
“It’s not you who’s the problem,” Maisha pointed out, jabbing her chicken curry-stained fork in the air at me. “Well, we can tell but that’s only because we’re your friends. But you know who the obvious one is? It’s Christian. That guy’s definitely not shy about letting everyone know you’re special to him.”
“Wait a minute. Didn’t he bully Ate Joy himself?” Pamela interjected, twisting around in her chair after evidently listening in on our conversation, while I sat there blushing.
Honey smiled dreamily. “Unsa ba? You know how some boys are mean to the girls they like? Well, it was like that for our prince. Besides, he was clearly jealous of Nathan.”
Pamela looked confused. “That—that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Okay, think about it this way,” Maisha said. “With all the rumors going around about Christian, only one girl’s been consistently linked to him, whether in a good way or a bad way. Remember those stupid posters we used to find every morning in the front hall?”
“Yes, about that, don’t you think it’s strange that we don’t see those posters anymore?” I asked in a futile attempt to wrench the conversation away.
“When it comes to Christian, Joy’s name always comes up, ever since the beginning,” Maisha went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “Even this new rumor is all about Joy.”
“You mean about the prince searching for the girl he’s liked since he was a child here in St. Helene? The girl he broke up with his girlfriend in New York for?”
“Oh good grief, I already said he didn’t have a girlfriend in New York,” I moaned.
“Yeah, yeah, we heard you.” Maisha waved a hand dismissively. “But yeah, I mean that girl. The one he’d given a silver ring to, a ring that matches his.”
“Oooh, we heard about that one, too. It’s such a romantic story,” Annelie said as she and Gemma swung around to face us, followed by everyone else in the room, which pretty much killed my hope that our conversation could be contained. By this time tomorrow, every House kid would be able to recite, verbatim, everything that had been said here.
Now that she had a bigger audience, Maisha smoothed down the folds of her scarlet hijab and smiled like a cat. “You guys have no idea how romantic it is. And let me tell you, even the girls in my section are talking about checking out jewelry stores and buying silver rings, as if that would help. But like I’ve been saying, there’s only one girl who’s ever been in the prince’s sights. Joy,” she barked at me, “I know you’ve been wearing it again. Bring it out.”
“Noooo,” I groaned into my hands. “Maisha, what’re you doing?”
“Bring what out?” Pamela asked, and soon everyone began demanding I show them whatever it was. With great reluctance, I slipped my hand underneath my collar and drew out the black cord from which hung my own wedding-promise ring. There was a chorus of squealing and cooing, and some of the girls crowded around me to examine the ring.
“So it is you, Ate Joy! You’re the long-lost princess the prince has been in love with all this time! Oh, I’m so happy for you!” Annelie exclaimed while I leaned back in my chair and raised my hands to fend off her enthusiastic hug.
“Listen, please, don’t tell anyone about this, okay?” I begged as I stuffed my ring back into my blouse, letting that ridiculousness about long-lost princesses slide for now.
To my utter relief, Ate Kath took my side. “She’s right. Nobody here breathe a word about Joy’s ring to anyone outside this room.”
“Why not?” Annelie cried. “I think it’s great. I mean, I feel sorry for Kuya Nathan, but we all know that Joy and Christian have history together. Besides, it’s all over the school that he’s been paying attention only to her. It’s what’s driving those Protect the Prince Club wenches crazy. And just look at her! It’s obvious that Ate Joy likes him, too. You see them together in class, don’t you, Kuya Jenneth? Don’t you see how right they are for each other?”
“Mmm,” Jenneth grunted, and I belatedly noticed how quiet he’d been during the entire exchange, even though he’d been asking about Nathan and me earlier. I studied his face, and dismay filled me. He looked troubled and angry, glowering down at his nearly untouched meal. Oh no, he’s mad, I thought. Well, of course he was mad. Nathan was his roommate, so of course he’d side with him. And Jenneth’s hostility toward Christian was well known, too, since he blamed him for every bad thing that had happened to me. I should’ve talked to him about this first. He should’ve heard this kind of news from me first.
Making a mental note to talk to my best friend about this ASAP, I directed my attention to the powder keg of a situation on my hands at the moment. “Seriously, guys, please, please don’t tell anybody about my ring, especially any of the girls. I don’t want anyone to think we’re in some sort of relationship. It would ruin his reputation.”
“Why?” Aldrin said sharply, speaking up for the first time. “Is it because you’re poor and he’s rich? Or that you’re an outcast and he’s not? It doesn’t seem to matter one bit to him, so why should it matter to anyone else?”
“It matters in St. Helene,” Ate Kath snapped. “If it’s known that Joy has this ring, those girls are going to target her even more. And from what we’ve seen today, they’re starting to get creative about it, so be on your toes, everyone.”
“Girls are scary, kid,” Kuya Simon added sympathetically.
“I’m with Annelie and Aldrin here. I vote we bring Christian into this,” Honey announced. “He deserves the chance to protect his princess. Besides, how else are we going to stop those girls once and for all unless we force them to give up on him?”
“No. He’s got nothing to do with this.” We turned and looked at Jenneth, surprised by the vehemence in his tone. “He’s not like us,” he continued, his face almost dark with fury. “He wouldn’t understand what it’s like for us. A popular rich kid like him wouldn’t know what it’s like to skip meals just so you could afford to buy school books. He wouldn’t know what it’s like to be bullied because you didn’t fit in. He wouldn’t know shit about what Joy went through all these years. So leave him out of it. He won’t be of any help to her. Or to us.”
My mouth fell open. “Jenneth…”
Jenneth scowled and stood up, snatching up his bag and things. “I’m going ahead, Joyous. I’ll see you in class.”
And with that, he stormed out of the room, leaving us staring after him. Finally, I sighed. “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to him later. But going back to what I’ve been saying, I’m asking you, all of you—” I cast a meaningful look at Maisha, Honey, Annelie and the two preppie scholarship kids “—not to breathe a word to anyone about Christian and me. And please don’t tell Christian either. He’s got enough to deal with in his own life. I don’t want him getting sucked into this any more than he already is. Please.”
I gazed at them evenly until they all nodded, then I rose to my feet. “But this doesn’t mean I’m just going to lie down and take their bullying. Not anymore,” I stated quietly, letting them see the anger that had been boiling inside me for weeks. “They crossed the line by targeting my friends, and now I’m fighting back. I want them to see just how tough a House kid can be. Ate Kath? Kuya Simon? Can you guys call a meeting tonight?”
Ate Kath grinned. “No problem, Joy. You’ve got something in mind?”
“Yes, I do,” I replied, smiling back. “But I’m going to need your help, if it’s okay with you guys,” I added, looking around at everyone.
“Okay? Of course, it’s okay! Let’s get those bitches!” Maisha crowed.
“Now we get to see Joy in action,” Honey added as an aside to the preppie kids.
We agreed to hold a meeting at eight, then before we filed out of the room, Ate Kath reminded me again not to walk around the halls alone. But before Maisha and Honey could agree to escort me to my classroom, I shook my head and smiled again. “Not this time. I’m done with being scared to walk alone in my own school. Besides, I need to find out what exactly their aim is. And for that, I need them to ambush me again,” I announced.
“Are you sure? What if they gang up on you again?” Kuya Simon asked worriedly.
“It’ll be different this time,” I vowed. I had no idea yet how I was going to manage that, but somehow, something felt different. The hot, slow-moving anger had awakened inside me at the sight of my friends standing outside the lab, their place in the school taken from them forcibly, just because they happened to be my friends. I felt different. I felt strong, strong enough to finally face those girls head on instead of hide away behind my friends.
I touched the bandage on my cheek. Yes, it was going to go differently the next time around.