Why are you asking me this? You've heard Ivy tell it. Believe me, hearing it from my point of view won't make that date anything other than an unqualified disaster.

Besides, it's better if she tells it. For one thing, she remembers the details more clearly than I do. And that's weird enough as it is. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to take in the facts of a situation without getting bogged down by emotionalism, but for some reason, I can barely recall what happened on that date. Plus, the things I do recall, I'd just as soon as forget.

No, I remember the general stuff. Like we went to the arcade, played some video games, watched a movie—a comedy, I think. Ate pizza. Went home. Other things stood out for me, too, like how beautiful she looked in that peach-colored dress, wearing the chopstick and necklace I made for her. How soft her skin was. How good she smelled. How her lips tasted like strawberry-flavored lip gloss faintly spiced with mentholated smoke. How her smile alone made the aggravation of dealing with my relatives totally worth it. How great I felt when I was holding her hand and kidding around with her. How great everything was when I thought she was mine. I remember those even now, clear as day.

But after Ivy announced to everyone what exactly I was to her—well, from that point on, my memories deteriorate into a semi-disjointed heap of thoughts and impressions. That's another weird thing. I can only vaguely recall whom I'd talked to and what I'd said, what I'd eaten, drunk or anything else, but I remember, with chromium clarity, how I felt.

I was mad as hell. At everything and everyone. At my old classmates for taking me completely unawares and for being the last people I wanted to spend my few precious hours of freedom with. At Lala, for failing to explain to me, when she said she'd invited a few friends along, that her definition of "a few friends" was so imprecise it was laughable. At Ate Queenie and her retarded attempts at blackmail. At Alvin and Leo, for spending more time with my date than I had, and for making her smile and laugh when I'd wanted so badly to be the one to make her smile like that. I was even seriously annoyed with that guy she danced with in the arcade, because she'd smiled at him and not at me. It should have been me right next to her, making a complete fool of himself and not caring in the least because it made her happy. It should have been me she turned to for company. Not Alvin or Leo, not any of the besotted idiots around us, and not her loudmouthed, self-centered jerkwad of an ex-boyfriend.

And I was furious with Ivy, more furious than I'd ever been before. I couldn't stand to be near her; her proximity grated so much it almost physically hurt. I was furious with her for being so loving and affectionate, and making me think she cared about me as a guy, not just as this dumb kid whose whims she had to humor. I was angry at how easily she had me believing that what she felt for me was at least a fraction of what I felt for her. I was furious with her for making me think there was something special between us one moment, then knocking all the strength out of me the next by telling everyone that she thought of me as nothing but a "good friend." God, I hated that phrase. If anyone else had told me they considered me a "good friend," I'd have ripped them apart for coming up with such a lazy, unimaginative insult.

Good thing she cut me off before I could finish my sentence. She spared herself the galactic-sized awkwardness of having to spend the next several hours hanging around this loser who, after a few measly kisses, actually thought they had some kind of a relationship. Or worse, of having tell that loser off in front of all those people. Thanks to her quick verbal reflexes, only she and my closest friends knew how I'd managed to turn myself into a stock character—the self-deluded nerd who kept chasing after the hot girl, unable to comprehend that she would never be his, ever.

But more than anyone, I was furious at myself. Somewhere along the way, I took every shred of common sense I had, not to mention my need to have every assumption backed by concrete evidence—in short, everything I'd built my personal philosophy upon—and tossed them right out the window. Instead, I replaced them with a combination of wishful thinking and gullibility, backed by what was essentially gossip. When my cousin Toby told me that Ivy had answered yes when he'd asked her if she was my girlfriend, I was so eager to believe him, and too cowardly to ask her myself, that I abandoned all caution and just decided to bet everything on presumption. I thought, it had to be true. The way she looked at me, what I felt when she kissed me, what everybody saw in us…every instinct told me she liked me, too. And I—I was ready to throw everything I had into worshiping her, uttering silent, nauseating vows that I would never make her regret choosing me.

Only to discover what a whopper of a misjudgment that was. I'm seldom wrong but when I am… Yeah, well, I haven't blown up any chemical plants yet. A lab once or twice, but other than that…

Oh, and for the record, when it comes to things like this, instincts suck.

Of course, if you look at it from another angle, that date was a rousing success. Let me put it this way: I'd intended to find out how Ivy felt about me, right? Well, even before the date was even over, I thought I already had my answer. Those kisses, everything we'd shared—none of them meant anything to her. It was all just me. Nothing had changed. Once again, I was back where I started, back to doing anything and everything I could think of to make her see me as someone she could fall for, and never actually getting anywhere, despite how it would seem. I was out of ideas and immensely pissed off and disgusted with myself and—

I don't know. I was just sick and tired of all mixed signals I kept getting from her, I suppose. I mean, what the hell did she think I was? Some kind of automaton who could take her constant screwing around with my emotions and come out unscathed? Was a little consistency from her so much to ask?

So suffice it to say that I spent almost the entirety of our time together in a state of tightly controlled anger. Don't get me wrong; I welcomed that anger. I nursed it, I kept it stoked high, I held it close to me like some kind of protective shield. I had to, because otherwise I'd have looked into her eyes and lost myself again. I'd have started thinking she looked sad despite her smile, and I'd have wanted to comfort her again, like a puppy that hadn't been kicked hard enough. I'd have wanted to touch her again, to kiss her again—I wouldn't have been able to help it. I knew because I tried, and she ended up pushing me away. It cut me up inside, knowing that nothing had changed for me either. I was still a brainless, spineless sap where Ivy was concerned. Still crazy in love with her, still clinging to hope despite the shit she put me through. It was seriously depressing.

Nobody was sorry when the date ended; that, I can honestly say. By then, the effort of holding on to my anger had left me numb, exhausted and wanting nothing more than to be left alone to nurse my wounds. Everything passed by in a blur—the ride home from the mall with Lala and her friends, her futile attempts to drag me into their conversation, Auntie Laura's phone call informing me that she'd sent her driver over so we could pick my sister up at her school. I was aware that my scowls and silences were skating at the edge of rudeness, but I couldn't muster the energy to care. Nothing seemed to penetrate the fog of misery encasing me, which suited me just fine.

In contrast, the ride to Reese's school was a quiet one, since Auntie Laura's driver was as inclined to chatter as I was. My aunt's spanking new Honda Accord, a birthday gift from my uncle, wound through the streets like a silent predator, but I found myself staring longingly at the jeepneys rumbling beside us, knowing I wasn't riding around on one of those myself only because my aunt wanted to keep an eye on us, just as Mama had ordered her to. It was a routine prison transfer via luxury vehicle.

My sister was waiting by a bench when she spotted me on the other side of the track field. Waving goodbye to her coach and teammates, she hoisted her gym bag onto her shoulder and started toward me. I noted her eager smile with a vague stab of regret. It was the first time I'd seen her smile since that god-awful night our mom caught us.

"So, how did it go?" Then she noticed the look on my face and her smile disappeared. "That bad?" she said in a small voice.

"Worse," I answered curtly as I took her gym bag.

"What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

Instead of battering me with questions as she normally would have, she just nodded and focused on her feet. It was decidedly weird seeing her acting so meek and subdued, like some alien had taken over my sister's body. Seeing her like this brought back bad memories for me, which, coming on top of everything else, was just what I needed to improve my mood.

"Ivy knows about us getting grounded, by the way," I found myself saying for some reason I couldn't fathom.

Reese looked dismayed. "Oh no. How did she—?"

"Lala told her."

I turned away to stow her gym bag in the trunk, but not before I caught her grimace. "Oh, crud. I should have known she'd squeal on us. Is—is Ate Ivy mad at me?"

I cast back to my last exchange with Ivy, her features looking pale and set as she grilled me about the events that led up to our date. "No. If anything, I think she blames herself."

This caused Reese to look even more downcast, and the ride back home proceeded in silence, with each of us staring out the windows absorbed in our own thoughts, watching the twilight bleed the colors away. It started to drizzle by the time the car halted in front of our house, engine still running, staying just long enough for us to disembark and for me to fetch Reese's bag from the trunk before the driver had to go back to pick our aunt up from some party. As I shut the trunk, a peal of feminine laughter caught our attention, and Reese and I turned automatically in the direction of the sound.

A couple was walking toward us from the direction of the corner store. I recognized the woman—or girl, since she couldn't have been any older than Ivy—as Marietta, the live-in nanny/housemaid for the family in the apartment below Ivy's. A plastic bag hung from her arm, and she was smiling up at the man beside her, who held a hand over her head as though to protect her from the fine sprinkling of water coming down from the sky.

Then I got a good look at her companion, and my entire body tensed up. Fuck, I swore to myself. My day is complete.

"Reese, go inside. I'll follow in a bit," I said as I met Ivy's scumsucker uncle's mocking gaze. When my sister looked as if she was about to choose that moment to break out of her funk and start questioning me again, I shot her a sideways glare. "I said get inside."

"Okay, okay, sheesh. Just give me my bag before it gets soaked." She grabbed her gym bag and disappeared into the house.

Meanwhile, Marietta was unlocking their side of the gate and smiling a greeting at me, her puzzled gaze darting back and forth between me and her escort. I might have nodded back, but I wasn't sure; all my attention was trained on Julio, who was smirking at me with no hint at all of embarrassment or remorse. The fog in my mind rapidly cleared, and images of the scene I'd walked into last night pulsed across a cold expanse of undiluted antagonism: The low mutter of voices, followed by silence, then a clattering crash. Ivy crouching on the floor amidst scattered vegetables, trying to put the pieces of her phone back together. And this man starting toward her, one hand covering his ear and the other reaching for her, eyes bloodshot and burning as if he had a fever in his brain.

Most of all, I remembered the wrongness. It overpowered the welcoming, albeit slightly toasted, smell of spaghetti sauce. The sense of wrongness practically screamed at me when I saw Ivy's tear-filled eyes and the shattered expression on her face, which was the same shade of white as the bathroom tiles—except for the angry red blotches around her mouth and her bruised, swollen lips.

At the sight of those red marks, something dark and violent erupted deep inside me. Afterward, I had the sense to be disturbed at how quickly that feeling had threatened to engulf me and sweep away my self-control. But not then. At the time, I wanted to lose control. I saw myself hitting him again and again; I could almost feel the impact of my fist on his greasy flesh. It was like a roaring hunger that wanted to be set loose inside my skin. It was the first time I'd ever felt that way, and I'm talking about a personal history that included being cornered after school and regularly beaten up at one time.

Only the knowledge of how supremely stupid it would have been to attack him kept me from giving in to the feeling. The guy was only several inches taller than me, but he had twice the muscle mass, not to mention he was a grown man who was twice my age. Sound, rational decision, calling the tanods for help. Even Ivy said so. But I hated myself for it. The hunger demanded that I tear a hole through the bastard who'd hurt her, and to hell with the fact that he was related to her—but I didn't. I couldn't protect her. As it turned out, it was Ivy who'd had to protect me from Julio, going all Amazon-warrior with that kitchen knife. I couldn't do anything for her. That reminder of what a weak, helpless kid I was dragged me down like a lead weight, a burden I didn't have the courage to face up to just yet.

Now he's back. Because of course, he is. I walked toward the pair, pushing my glasses up and regarding Ivy's uncle with a distaste I didn't bother to hide. "I'm curious," I began in a casual tone. "What gave you the idea you'd still be welcome here?"

Marietta gasped. "Ay, isn't that a little rude? He's Ivy's tito."

Julio's smirk stretched into a condescending smile. "Nah, it's fine, Etta. You know how kids are these days. Especially the pampered ones." He tsked, sounding for all the world like an indulgent uncle defending a misbehaving nephew.

"I warned you last night," I said to him, dropping all pretense of civility. "Stay away from Ivy."

His smile didn't waver, although his eyes hardened. When Marietta made a confused noise, he gave her a meaningful look and shook his head regretfully. "I was afraid of this. See? He misunderstood how it is between my niece and me."

"Miguel, Julio told me about it. What happened last night with Ivy—it wasn't what you think it was." This, Marietta said to me, her expression completely earnest.

He got to her, the scumsucker. "There's nothing to misunderstand," I retorted heatedly, even more annoyed at having to justify my position. "But just to be sure, I'll say it again: Lay a finger on her, for whatever reason, and I'll have you jailed so fast you'll leave skid marks on the pavement."

To stress my point, I pulled my cellphone out of my pocket and held it at my side, my thumb poised over the keypad, ready to bring up the barangay hall's number on autodial. At that, the dark hunger howled. Not this again, it raged. Hit him. Kick him into the street. Carve the lesson in scarlet waves of pain so he'll never forget.

This is your responsibility, son. There's no one else I can count on but you. Do you understand?

But again, I choked. I gazed steadily at Julio, letting him see my determination, but the truth was…I was scared. I recalled how painful it had been to be beaten, and even though I survived it, that didn't mean I wanted to go through it again. I—I'm not proud of this. And to add to my shame, I must have revealed some of my misgivings, because Julio's expression, which had gone tight with fury, suddenly turned cunning.

"You'd lock me out here then?" he asked.

"In a heartbeat," I promised.

"You'd keep me away from my folks? 'Cause they're up there now with my niece. Tonight's supposed to be a special family dinner, just the four of us." Heaving a sigh, he turned aside and rubbed the back of his head as though wrestling with a thorny problem. "Shit. I don't know how I'm gonna explain to my folks that Ivy's friend Miguel barred the gate against me and even threatened to call the authorities on me. Just for horsing around with my favorite niece."

He sounded so genuinely rueful and perplexed that doubt assailed me. It didn't help that Marietta was clucking her tongue sympathetically, making it clear that, as far as she was concerned, I was the bad guy here. He's right, the doubt whispered. Bravado is one thing, but I can't keep him away from Ivy forever. He'll have to spend time with his parents in the future, and she'll have to face him then. And even if I told them that he'd hit her, why would they believe some kid they'd only just met over their own son?

And would Ivy back me up, when she can't even trust me enough to tell me the truth?

And…what exactly did I witness last night, anyway?

"S'too bad," Julio added offhandedly. "The folks like you, Miguel. And you know, what they think matters a lot to her."

I narrowed my eyes, indicating to him that I knew what he was doing. The problem was, I had zero leverage over him, and he and I knew it. Any way I could attempt to make him stay away from Ivy would result in me alienating the grandparents she adored and putting her in a difficult situation with her family. In the end, she'd be the one who'd have to clean up the mess. No matter how pissed off I was, I couldn't do that to her.

My fist tightened as anger at my helplessness swept over me. Fuck! First my mom, then Ate Queenie, then Lala, now him. I've had just about enough of people blackmailing me.

Julio's eyes glinted with satisfaction, and I clenched my teeth against the urge to punch his face in anyway. The scumsucker had managed to check me, but still… The image of Ivy standing alone in her apartment, hugging herself and trembling, flickered through my mind. She'd looked so fragile, but she still kept on smiling, still kept making lighthearted banter and pretending she was okay. All I wanted was to protect her, but even at her weakest, she still kept me at arms' length, never letting me get close to that vulnerable inner part of her that she guarded so fiercely. She wouldn't even let me hold her. She had to wait until my back was turned before she let herself cry.

"Julio was just playing with her." I became aware that Marietta was speaking. "He told me so last night—he wanted to give her a bit of a scare. It's just a harmless prank from when they were kids. You're sweet, Miguel, but don't you think you're over-reacting?"

The drizzle was starting to come down harder, and I frowned at her through the water droplets dotting my glasses. "What did you say?"

"She's sayin', Ivy and I are close. Real close. She's like my own little sister." I turned to Julio, my gut churning at his words. He shrugged. "You know how fights with your sister can get. It's damn stupid, but last night ain't nothing but a quarrel that got out of hand."

The back of my neck felt chilled all of a sudden, and it wasn't because of the rain trickling into my collar. Tito Julio and I treat each other like siblings. That means we fight like siblings, too, although this one got a bit out of hand. It was, word for word, almost exactly the same thing Ivy had said to me. I thought then that she'd fed me another quick and easy fib, something she'd come up with on the spot to get me off her back. But here was her uncle now, spouting the same lines with an ingenuousness that would have seemed natural to anyone else but was disturbingly familiar to someone like me, who'd memorized the many, many faces of Ivy after all this time.

Julio glanced up at the sky and pulled up the collar of his leather jacket. "Hey, Etta, you go on ahead. Miss Jenny'll be lookin' for you."

Marietta pouted, shooting me a vaguely accusing look. "You're not coming in?"

"Nah, I'll let things be for now. I just have one more thing I want to say to this kid before I go. I'll text you, babe."

She vanished, shutting the gate behind her and leaving the scumsucker and me standing underneath the streetlight, rain dripping from our hair and into our eyes, watching each other like two gunslingers at high noon. In lieu of tumbleweed, a tricycle sputtered past, and as the rumbling faded in the distance, Julio bared his teeth at me.

"You're getting in my way, kid." His expression was no longer affable, but dark and threatening. "You want to think about what you're doing, if you know what's good for you. Word from the wise."

I realized I had somehow ended up facing him with my back to the gate, bodily blocking his way. I thought of the risks I was taking by opposing him. I thought of Ivy crying without a sound, her face pressed against my back. I thought of her telling everyone that I was a good friend to her and nothing more. All of these, in the span of microseconds.

Take care of the family, and protect the people you love. This is your responsibility, son. Do you understand?

I pushed my glasses up and looked Julio in the eye. "Fuck you."

He moved. I braced myself. Then another voice: "Susmariosep, Miguel, the rain—what are you still doing out here?"

Nay Loring's sturdy frame, looking even larger in the shadow of our massive black umbrella with the particularly pointy metal tip, emerged from our side of the gate. Reese followed close behind, sheltered underneath a smaller umbrella, her eyes wide and anxious. She clutched our land-line phone in one hand and the ballpeen hammer she used for Practical Arts in the other, for some reason. Julio gawked almost comically at them. He had good reason to hesitate. Not only did Nay Loring tower over him by a good foot, just one of her arms, which she'd crossed over her chest, was the size of both of his.

Relief coursed through my body, pooling mostly in my knees. At the same time, shame made me want to shrink in on myself. Rescued by the females again? the hunger inside me mocked. Man, you are such a loser.

"You." Nay Loring glowered at Julio. "What mischief are you up to?"

Backtracking quickly, Julio raised his hands. "No mischief, Ma'am. Just talking with Miguel here."

"It's all right," I called out. "He was just leaving."

"Yeah? W-well, good, because dinner's waiting." I almost smiled. My sister's show of bluster would've been impressive if it hadn't been for the quaver in her voice.

I sent Julio a cold look. "You call me kid like it's an insult, but the truth is, you don't dare force your way in here because you're afraid of me. You're afraid of my family and how much more powerful we are than you. You're afraid of me telling your parents what you did, because there's always that chance they'd believe me. But most of all, you're frigging frantic because Ivy'd choose me over you in an instant, and you know it."

I started to head back to our side of the gate, wondering if Ivy would've thought I was cool then—if she'd known, that is. Then that line of thought was cut off when Julio grabbed my shoulder.

"You think you know her, huh, you little fucker?" he growled. "She ain't told you shit. You don't even know she was out on a date with that pretty boy with the fancy ride yesterday, do you? She's stringing you and Pretty Face and God knows how many other sad dicks along—listen, I'm doing you a favor here. You're not the first she's had, and you ain't gonna be the last."

A buzzing filled my skull, drowning out everything except his words. Shrugging his hand off, I barked over my shoulder at Nay Loring: "Wait!"

All the while, I was thinking: She was out on a date with Von? While I was stuck at home feverishly thinking up schemes so I could be with her and striking bum deals with a devil of a cousin, she was out there with him, painting the streets of Makati red? Pain slammed into me. How she must've been laughing throughout our disastrous date at the mall. Compared to what Von could do for her…

It's not just him, either, said a sly voice. There's Jeff, too, and even Ian. Every single one of them is so much better for her than you. After all, you're just a kid.

"Just what are you getting at?" I demanded, scowling at Julio.

He chuckled, apparently having regained his composure after seeing the effect his words had on me. "You're smart, ain't you? I think you know what I'm getting at. But I'll tell you this, kid: If you really believe she'll choose you, then you're just an idiot after all."

"Kuya, come on already."

I ignored Reese, ignored Nay Loring coming up behind me, ignored the chill of my wet clothes against my skin. If I'd turned into a lump of concrete and fused with the driveway, it wouldn't have surprised me in the least.

Then Julio leaned closer so I'd hear him over the rain. "You wanna know why? It's because I had her first."

His voice was a pleasant, hypnotic rumble, and completely at odds with the way his words detonated in my face and buried themselves in my mind like shrapnel. "Anywhere you touch her, remember: my hands've been there first. And trust me, she liked it when I touched her. Hell, you ought to be thanking me, since I taught her all she knows. I'm in her head, I'm in her soul—I've been inside her any way you can imagine. So yeah, tell yourself she's yours all you want, but she'll always belong to me."

Pulling back, he laughed again. "I wonder if you'll still want her after this."

Bile surged up my throat. While I staggered from the impact of his revelation, he adjusted his jacket and hailed a passing tricycle. As the vehicle came to a stop at our house, I recovered enough to rasp: "You're lying."

Pausing in the act of boarding the tricycle, Julio grinned at me. "Ask her, Four-Eyes. Then you'll know who's lying to you."

I fell into a kind of daze after that. Somehow, Nay Loring managed to drag me into the house and out of the rain. She then proceeded to fuss over me, ordering me to change out of my wet clothes and take a warm shower, then come back downstairs for dinner, although the idea of putting anything into my roiling stomach didn't appeal much. It just seemed as if the next time I came to, I was sitting on my bed, dressed in a dry pair of shorts and a tank top, just staring blankly at a spot on the floor.

Coming out of my stupor, I looked around, reacquainting myself with my own room. My wet shirt, T-shrt and jeans were dumped haphazardly into my hamper instead neatly folded. Earlier, Nay Loring had brought up a basket of newly laundered clothes for me to put away. The basket still sat in the middle of my room, untouched. On my desk beside my computer, the Comparative and World Literature book I'd intended to read as part of my preparatory work for the next semester lay unopened, the small stack of index cards I was going to use to make notes waiting expectantly at its side.

I hadn't even turned on my computer. Not good. I'd planned to finish that website for a neighbor who owned a pest-control business before registration at UP began. That was only a couple or so days away, and I'd only just managed to get the code right. Honestly, I had too many things to do. I didn't have time to be so lackadaisical.

Then my gaze fell upon Gene, the little stuffed hound Ivy gave to me, who was now perched atop my computer's CPU, his tiny spectacles glinting in the light, and the pain in my chest made me hunch over. With a hiss, I pulled my glasses off and pressed my hand against my watering eyes. Images tumbled over and over in the darkness of my mind: Ivy standing up for me against her own boss. Ivy dancing above that Dance Revo platform. Ivy flushed and sweet, melting into me as I kissed her.

Ivy smiling and flirting with my old classmates. Ivy laughing with Von in his car. Ivy telling the world we weren't together. Ivy pushing me away.

Ivy and her uncle together, his hands touching her like that. And those red marks around her mouth. They were from him. Her uncle. That was just…

Sick. God, it was sick. I knew things like that happened in an abstract sense, but up until now, it had never involved anyone I knew. But Ivy? God, really? Did it have to be her?

It couldn't be true. Julio was messed up in the head. He was suffering from this insane delusion that the two of them shared a special bond beyond that of uncle and niece, and he considered me some kind of interloper. That would explain his weird hostility toward me—that and the fact that he was a scumsucker. And a practiced liar too, judging from the way he'd easily gotten Marietta to believe his twisted version of last night's events. It wasn't too farfetched to conclude that he'd say anything to get a rise out of me, as payback for my thwarting him not once but twice.

What a liar. Ivy would never have let him get close enough to her to do that. I'd seen the look of granite in her eyes whenever she addressed him, disguised by her ever-present smile. She distrusted him, hated him even, going so far as to warn both Reese and me away from him. And now I knew why: her uncle was a lying, bullying scumsucker who, if he couldn't hurt someone with his fists, used words instead.

And dammit, it was working.

"No." The word came out hoarse, like a sob. No, I would not believe it. If I did, it would mean I'd failed to protect her again. It would mean I was too weak to defend her honor even against her uncle's lies—even from my own doubts. If refusing to believe Julio was the only thing I could do for her, then I would do it.

I raised my head and met my father's gaze from his place on my bookshelf. Take care of the family, and protect the people you love. This is your responsibility, son.

Wish you'd covered this in your sermon, Pa. But it's too late now. Blindly, I dropped my glasses upon my bedside table and shoved the heels of both hands against my eyes, wishing with all my might that I could rewind the day and erase the last ten hours.

There was a knock on my door. I wiped my face and put my glasses back on, then went to open the door, revealing Nay Loring carrying a tray with a tall glass of yellow liquid.

"Warm calamansi juice with honey," she informed me. "You got soaked in the rain, and you didn't eat as much during dinner. This will keep your cold from getting worse."

"I don't have a cold," I replied as I took the glass from her, but she gave me such a perceptive stare that I flushed and turned away—and promptly sneezed. "Okay, I may have picked up a bug or something. Thanks for this," I mumbled, rubbing my nose. Well, that was fine. Better to have her thinking I had a cold than me admitting that I'd been sitting here bawling like a baby for who knew how long.

As I downed the juice, she spotted the laundry basket and tsked. "You haven't put away the laundry yet? I need the basket to put Ma'am's clothes in. Ay naku, I'll do it myself."

"No, leave it. I'll do it later." My protests went ignored as she briskly stacked the clothes into my closet—folded in a precise way so as to maximize the greatest amount of space, and arranged according to clothing type, color, and how often in an average month I wore them. What can I say? My old nanny knows me well.

With a sigh, I went and turned my computer on, then sank into my desk chair with the half-formed thought of getting some work done tonight. As the computer booted up, Nay Loring cast me a frown over her shoulder. "What's this? No more working on that computer, Miguel. And no more studying either. Go to bed and get some sleep."

"I'm fine," I started to say, but Reese came into my room at that moment. "You left your cellphone downstairs," she said as she handed me my phone. "Ate Queenie's sent you four text messages asking how your date went. She sounded kind of annoyed that you're ignoring her by the last text."

I put my phone down on my desk without bothering to read my cousin's messages. Like I cared if she was annoyed or not. "Didn't I tell you to keep your nose out of my phone and out of my business?" I grumbled.

My sister shrugged. "It was right there on the dining table. Oh, by the way, Mama called. I told her you weren't feeling well so you went to bed early. I didn't think you wanted to deal with her after—after everything."

I raised an eyebrow at her uncharacteristic show of consideration. Nay Loring straightened, basket in hand, having finished putting my clothes away. "I'll take the glass. Now come, get some rest. You'll feel better in the morning."

I stared at them, wondering why they were being so solicitous. Then it hit me. "You believe him, don't you? Jeez, you seriously believe all that garbage he spewed about Ivy?"

They exchanged glances, then Nay Loring sighed and regarded me with a mixture of exasperation and pity. "I don't know enough about the girl to say I believe or don't believe. I only wonder if you do. Ay naku, what a situation you've gotten yourself into."

She departed while Reese stayed behind, looking uncomfortable. "Look, nothing he said is true, okay? It's completely ridiculous," I insisted before she could say a word.

She nodded. "Okay, Kuya. You're probably right. You usually are, anyway."

She turned to leave, but stopped and turned when I called her name. I gripped the armrests of my chair and collected myself. "Listen, um, about our date a while ago—that's not true either." When she looked blank, I drew in a breath and fixed my eyes on a point somewhere above my bed. "I mean, you said before that Ivy likes me, right?"

"Uhuh," she said, still puzzled.

"You're wrong. She doesn't—she doesn't like me that way. Not the way I lo—I like her."

She frowned. "What? No, that can't be right."

"Trust me on this." Talking around the lump in my throat, I gave her a condensed report of our date, including my almost introducing her as my girlfriend and her quick and timely save. "After everything, I'd thought—well, whatever. I'm clearly mistaken. And so are you, about her feelings for me. Just thought I'd tell you," I finished with a shrug, followed by a sneeze.

Reese's frown deepened. "I thought you and Ate Ivy were going to ditch the others and go off on your own, just the two of you."

I leaned my head back, absently rubbing my nose and aware of a pounding behind my eyeballs. "I planned to. That was why I asked Alvin and Leo to come along, so they could run interference. But like I said, it didn't work out that way. Besides, after Ivy had pretty much put me in my place, dragging her off to be alone with me would've just made her uncomfortable. I didn't want to make her have to dump me twice."

That sadness in her eyes, even though she tried to act cheerful around Alvin and Leo. I know it made her feel bad to have to reject me, even indirectly. How much worse would she have felt if she'd had to say it to my face?

Yeah, right. No matter how bad she might have felt, she couldn't possibly feel any worse than I do right now.

I sneezed again, which gave me a handy excuse for the tears in my eyes, and belatedly realized that my sister had just asked a question. "What?"

"I asked if you'd confessed to her yet," she repeated. "I mean, have you actually told her how you feel about her?"

I fixed her a bleary look. "I've kissed her a few times, I've given her chocolates and stuff, I even made her that chopstick and necklace set. I spent the last five months practically stalking her. By now, it shouldn't be that hard to figure out how I feel about her."

When my sister looked unconvinced, I exhaled and continued: "I almost confessed, that night they had a party at their place. You should've seen how terrified she looked when she realized I was trying to confess to her." I gave a short, bitter laugh that ended in a cough, then pushed my glasses up and smiled humorlessly at Reese. "I'm done, little sister. It's starting to upset her, and I'm just going around in circles anyway. I don't know if any of this matters to you, but I'd appreciate it if you never mention Ivy or her imaginary feelings for me again. Oh, and close the door when you leave, thanks."

I turned back toward my computer with what I thought was quiet dignity, only to ruin it when I sneezed again and had to yank the collar of my tank up to my dripping nose while I lunged toward my closet for a handkerchief. Through the throbbing headache, I could feel the weight of Reese's disappointed, disapproving stare upon me.

Finally, she huffed. "You know what? I take it back. You, Kuya, are a great, big idiot."

She spun on her heel and banged the door shut with more force than necessary. I was too wrung out to puzzle out the reasons for her inexplicable snit, and as I soon discovered, to do anything else remotely productive. Not long after, I gave up and turned my computer off, then switched off the light and crawled into bed.

But instead of falling asleep, I just lay there in the dark, coughing and sneezing sporadically, my mind racing—well, let's just say I've had better nights. Better mornings, too. For a long while after I woke up, I just stayed in bed feeling stuffed up, achy all over and, when the events of the previous day trickled into my memory, empty and depressed.

It was mid-morning when I trudged downstairs, nearly tripping over Trinity in the process. I found Reese and Nay Loring both dressed and getting ready to leave. At the sight of me, my sister gave a dramatic gasp. "Oh my gosh, you look awful. You didn't get any sleep at all, did you?"

"Your powers of deduction continue to astonish," I muttered as I slumped into a chair at the table and began picking at the fried rice, scrambled egg and longganisa they'd left for me. "Where are you guys going?"

"To National Bookstore. I just realized I needed to buy some supplies before school starts, so Nay Loring's taking me. Yuck, wipe your nose, will you?"

I sniffed as Nay Loring placed a couple of pills and another glass of calamansi juice beside my plate. "Just rest for today, Miguel. No working and no studying. We'll be back in a few hours," she instructed in her fussy-nanny tone.

Just before they left, my sister jumped on my back, looped an arm around my neck, and said right into my ear: "Kuya, I'm so sorry, but I think I did something last night that I'm afraid you'll be mad about. It's something so scarily awful at first—"

"Huh?" I pulled her arm off before she accidentally choked me to death.

"—but later it turned out to be totally wonderful and—eeeeek! I still can't believe I did it! And I've got great news for you! But I'll tell you later. Anyway, I'm sorry if I messed up. Oh, and Auntie Cristy called to say she and Uncle Hubert are dropping by this afternoon." Her high-pitched squeal, delivered at point-blank range, drilled straight through my ears, rendering me too stunned to make sense of her garbled rush of words. By the time the resulting headache had lessened somewhat, I was alone in the house.

After doing the dishes, I shuffled back to my room and fell across my bed. After a thought, I reached under my pillow and took out the test tube that contained the tiny silver and gold origami cranes. Ivy's first gift to me. If she only knew how many foolish daydreams I'd spun around these cranes: the silver one was me and the golden one was her, the two of us together forever in our own little world. I might even tell her about it someday, maybe share a laugh with her over it. Someday, when the pain wasn't so bad anymore, when I could just be the kind of friend she wanted me to be—when I finally stopped being so desperately in love with her.

I must have managed to doze off, because when I opened my eyes again it was to familiar voices from my window, coming from the direction of the gate. I rolled out of bed and peered out my window. A taxi idled in the street, with Julio, currently my least favorite person in the world, leaning against the side smoking a cigarette. Then Ivy and her grandparents appeared at the gate, carrying a couple of travel bags and a huge, woven bayong crammed full to bursting.

Her Lolo and Lola were leaving today? So that's what the family dinner was for. Like a magnet to iron, my gaze was drawn to Ivy, who was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, with her hair knotted into a ball atop her head. She was flushed from the exertion of carrying the bayong and scowling at Julio. Chuckling, Julio tossed his cigarette butt aside and pinched her cheek. My fist clenched even as Ivy jerked away from him and brushed past to stuff the bayong in the trunk, with no help at all from her uncle. As she straightened, she glanced nervously up at my window. Julio followed the direction of her gaze and smirked.

I pulled back, even though I knew the screen was too dark for them to see inside. Then Ivy sighed and look away, one hand rifling through her bag. She paused, opened her bag wider and rifled in it some more, then announced: "Wait, my cellphone. I think I left it in the apartment."

She disappeared back through the gate, and I went on to prove Reese's assertion that I was an idiot correct by suddenly going into hyperdrive. I threw on a clean T-shirt then rushed out of my room, my equally idiotic dog rushing out with me, barking excitedly.

I sagged forward against the chain-link fence, panting, just as Ivy came around. She halted when she noticed me, eyes going wide. She looked as wan as I felt, and her eyes, normally sparkling with humor, were dull and tired. I drank her in, and wondered if the time would ever come when just the sight of her didn't give me that electric-jolt-to-the-stomach sensation. I loved this nutty, neurotic girl, and there seemed to be nothing at all I could do about it except grin and bear it somehow.

"Hi," she said carefully.

"Hi," I croaked back.

The wariness in her gaze turned to concern. "Are you okay? You don't look so good." Before I could respond, she stepped closer and poked her hand through the fence, laying it across my forehead. Her hand felt cold and it shook a little, and I had to fight the urge to catch her wrist and keep her from leaving. Get it together, you dumbass.

Then she blinked and yanked her hand back. "Sorry," she mumbled, blushing. "But you know, you do feel a little warm. Did you come down with a cold or something?"

"Kind of," I admitted.

She gave me a small, appealing smile. "Would you like me to come by later? I know a great soup recipe for colds. It's made from vegetables—chockful of vitamins and all."

"No need. My aunt and uncle are coming by to check up on us."

The instant I spoke the words, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. She flinched and stepped back, the dull sheen returning to her eyes. "Oh, okay. Sorry. I suppose I'd just get you into more trouble with your family, huh?" She bit her lip and watched Trinity attempt to persuade Charlie to play with her. "A-about yesterday—"

I shut my eyes at the reminder of our fiasco of a date. "You don't have to say anything. Yesterday was a mistake that should never have happened."

"A mistake," she echoed in a tiny voice. "Yeah. You're right. Haha."

Awkward silence bubbled up between us until she tacked on a bright smile. "I, ah, I have to go. We're bringing Lolo and Lola to the bus station and—ah, I'll just tell them you said hi, okay?"

"'We' as in you and your uncle, you mean?"

Something in my tone must have alerted her, because her gaze snapped to my face. "Yes."

My fingers tightened around the chain links of the fence. "You'll be alone with him after your grandparents are gone. Are you sure that's a good idea?"

She gave me another big, bracing smile. "I'll be fine. We'll be in a place full of people. And after this, you'll never have to bother with him again."

"You know, I've been wondering about that. Why exactly can't you be left alone with your uncle?" The words kept pouring out, and I was helpless to stem the tide. It was truly ridiculous how, when I was at my most brainless, wounded and unreliable, I couldn't seem to shut my piehole.

What little color was left in Ivy's face drained away, leaving her smile behind like a ship run aground. "I—that's because—"

"No, wait, answer this first: Were you with Von the other night?" Why the hell are you asking her this, Santillan? You're not her boyfriend or have you forgotten? railed the fading voice of reason inside my head.

"What? No. I mean, yes, I was with Von, but it wasn't a date or anything. I bumped into him at a café and he drove me home—wait, how did you know about this?" Gradually, an expression of profound horror spread across her features. "Tito Julio. You've been talking to him…last night?" she asked in a strangled voice.

"Yup. Out in the rain, where I more or less blocked his way in so he couldn't enter the gate. So if you missed him during dinner, I apologize," I said derisively.

"Oh," she whispered, closing her eyes for a moment.

"He said a bunch of other things, too," I added, softening my tone a bit, somewhat taken aback at the effect my words were having upon her.

She'd begun to tremble, wrapping her arms around herself. "Yeah? What else did he tell you?" she asked in a faraway voice.

"He said, he had you first," I replied baldly, seeing no way to soften the truth. "He said that the two of you have been like that. Lovers. That he's touched you everywhere. That he taught you everything you know." I raked a hand through my hair, mentally recoiling at the ugly words—uglier still when Julio had said them. "He said so many crazy things it's hard to keep track. But one other thing I remember he said: that you belong to him. So tell me, the reason you can't be alone with him: Is it because you hate his company? Or is it because you don't trust yourself around him?"

Bleak did not begin to describe the expression on her face. "Do you believe him?" she asked still in that weird, distant tone, as though she was talking in her sleep.

All at once, I didn't care that she'd publicly dumped me yesterday, or that we still had her uncle's toxic vomit to clean up. I wanted to hold her so badly I ached. "Truthfully? No," I told her. "Of course, I don't believe him. Your uncle's a psychopath, in case you haven't noticed. You're not what he said you are, Ivy."

She looked away for a moment, shuddering as she drew in a breath. When she turned to face me again, she smiled—a strange, frozen smile that curled into a sneer at the corners. There were no walls behind her eyes, but there was no light or warmth or any glimmer of emotion either. They were just flat, light brown discs. This time, I was the one who drew away from her, shaken to find this cold, doll-like stranger standing in Ivy's place.

"That's your mistake right there," the doll said, her voice as cutting as her smile. "You should believe him. He lies like a fucker, but except for one thing, everything he told you is true. Tito Julio was my first lover. We're not anymore, but that doesn't change the fact that my uncle did have me first. He had me over and over and over again."

Breath grew scarce, and what little air I could suck into my lungs seemed to be filled with gravel. I coughed as I shook my head, trying to deny her words. My head pounded and my vision swam, but the animated mannequin before me refused to disappear.

Instead, she crossed her arms and made a sound of mock commiseration. "Oh dear, did we shock you? Because you see, I'm not the pure, innocent maiden you keep pretending I am. This perfect paragon you've been chasing after? She doesn't exist. There's only me, and I'm tainted goods, my uncle's sex-toy, a slut born and bred. So sorry we had to destroy your illusions like this, but I promise you, you'll recover soon enough."

A car horn blared impatiently, and she gave me one last smile. "I really must go. Goodbye, Miguel. It's been fun."

She turned and walked away. Somewhere behind me, Charlie hissed and Trinity yelped in pain. Somehow, I managed to stagger back up to my room and fold up on my bed. Nay Loring and Reese found me there, and Nay Loring immediately dosed me with enough fever and cold medicine to knock out an elephant, followed by several gallons of calamansi juice. In the midst of my dreamlike, partly drug-induced haze of absolute misery, I was treated to an array of confusing visions. My aunt and uncle were there, along with all their progeny. Nay Loring, of course, and Reese. And Trinity, with yet another glass of juice.

At one point, I thought I saw Reese floating at my bedside, telling me something with great earnestness and verbosity. She said she really wanted to be with you, but you were giving her the cold shoulder and Ate Lala kept sticking to you like glue...

"I was wrong. Julio wasn't lying. Ivy—" I heard my own voice say, although it sounded so thick I wasn't sure. But for some reason, I thought it was important that she knew this.

For a moment, Reese's head turned into Trinity's. When she became human again, she shrugged. So what? I'm sure that happened eons ago. She's still the same person, isn't she? Anyway, I don't think you're listening. Kuya Alvin said she really wants to be your girlfriend, but she…

"I think…she hates me now," I slurred.

Trinity rolled her eyes. Oh, forget it. Just go to sleep already, Kuya. I'll talk to you later when you're less loopy.

That seemed like a good idea, so I did. When I woke up, my room was awash in darkness. A glance at the flashing digits of my alarm clock told me it was close to midnight; a rumbling in my stomach confirmed that I'd slept through both lunch and dinner. But my head was clearer, which was an improvement, and my body wasn't feeling quite as much like a worn-out dishrag as before.

I groped for my glasses, went to the bathroom for a shower, then came back to change before heading downstairs. Trinity greeted me, and I scratched her behind the ears to keep her from barking the entire household awake. Nay Loring had left a bowl of chicken tinola and a plateful of rice on the table, covered with a plastic lid, along with a small saucer containing a couple of fever and cold pills. I checked the refrigerator—yup, there was that pitcher of juice, full once again. I hoped they didn't expect me to finish all that. I sat down at the table and pulled my plate over.

Tito Julio was my first lover…My uncle did have me first. He had me over and over and over again.

My appetite dried up. I pushed the plate away and cradled my head in my hands as memories that had been held at bay by the combined forces of fever, drugs and sleep came crashing back. Chasing after these were all my doubts that kept lingering in the back of my mind. The resulting storm of hurt and confusion had me well in its grip.

I'm not the pure, innocent maiden you keep pretending I am.

Ivy. I thought I knew her but…could it be she was right? Could I have allowed myself to fall in love with an illusion? All this time, I'd been with her, watching her, learning everything I could about her. All this time. From my dreams to my waking moments, she was all I could think about. She filled me more than anyone else in this world. So how? How could I have been so wrong about her?

I'm tainted goods, my uncle's sex-toy, a slut born and bred.

It makes sense, the doubts told me now. It had always made sense, only I refused to see it. She was a model, right? It was her job to put herself on display. I'd seen her when she was working with Von. She'd flirted with him so easily, the kind of easily that bespoke of natural talent…or plenty of practice. And the stories she'd told me about what models did to get jobs. Did I actually think that those were all just secondhand tales she'd heard from her model-friends, and nothing she'd gone through herself? Could I really be that naïve?

She'd been her uncle's lover. Her uncle. She'd let that slimy scumsucker touch her the way only the one who cherished her the most should be allowed to touch her. I hadn't even permitted myself to dream of touching her like that. Did she let him kiss her the way I kissed her? How many others have there been? There was Jeff, of course, but what about Von? Ian? Some nameless Casanova from her modeling world? Maybe I was some kind of novelty to her. A nerdy, clumsy, untried kid—quite a change from all the mature, experienced guys she must have known.

But then, she was twenty years old. An entire universe of difference lay between twenty and thirteen. Was I really stupid enough to expect otherwise?

Trinity whined a little, whether in regret that scraps of chicken weren't forthcoming or in alarm at my sudden immobility, except for my fingers digging into my hair and the hissing of breath through my teeth. But I was too preoccupied with my quick tour through the twisting halls of insanity. All the warnings Ate Queenie and my aunts and uncle had bombarded me with after just one meeting with Ivy and her grandmother soon added to the cacophony in my head. Shit like "this is just a temporary phase for you" and "her family is uncouth and her background too different" and "how shameless and indecent of her to be preying on a child" and "how can you trust someone who looks the way she does?" And Toby's prizewinning comment: "A woman like that who's actually interested in you? No, really, what's the catch?"

Their words whirled inside my mind like a hurricane. I hadn't paid them any heed back then, but now…were my relatives right? All this time, was it just me being stubborn, willfully blind and totally fucking stupid?

Was all this just a mistake? My feelings for her—nothing but adolescent hormones and overblown fantasies? Who was Ivy, anyway? Was she really what her uncle said she was, what my family said she was…what she herself said she was? She'd finally told me the truth about her, and it was the truth. I had no sense that she was lying, despite what Julio had expected. But she told me not because she trusted me. If anything, she thrust the truth at me the same way she'd brandished that knife at her uncle. Maybe it had finally dawned on her that I was no different from my dumbass classmates from St. Helene, and decided she was tired of hanging out with this kid who couldn't seem to get a clue. Whatever her reason was, it was clear she wanted to be rid of me.

Ivy had rejected me. The question of the rightness or wrongness of our being together was officially moot. Honestly, I ought to be rejoicing right now; I knew my relatives and even some of my friends would be ecstatic. No more confusion, no more chasing after some elusive goal, no more getting dragged around on emotional rollercoaster rides by this girl who seemed to hold an inordinate amount of power over me. My life would go back to the way it was before I met her: straightforward, predictable, logical, and safe.

Only I wasn't rejoicing. I was dying inside, inch by inch. With every thought, a piece of me broke apart, leaving nothing behind but open wounds and emptiness. For the first time, I understood why people called the experience heartbreak.

I don't know how long I sat there with my head in my hands. An hour, maybe? By the time I gathered the will to get up, Trinity, who'd kept vigil at my side, was snoring away. Moving stiffly, I stowed my uneaten dinner in the refrigerator, then eyed the pills speculatively. There were enough to ensure I remained out cold until at least noon, which meant several hours of not having to deal with this agony. I picked up the pills, then dropped them back on the saucer. Depressed or not, I still disliked losing control of my thought processes, and besides, the meds tended to produce some bizarre dreams.

As I turned off the lights, Trinity lifted her head and snuffled, then went to sit meaningfully by the back door. Muttering about her lousy timing, I went to unlock the door and held it open to allow her to go outside. Out of habit, my gaze wandered toward Ivy's apartment, and I tried to ignore the stab of disappointment at finding it dark. Well, duh, of course it was dark. She was out drinking with her appropriately-aged friends right now, celebrating Trey's birthday, if I remembered correctly. Who knew what time she'd be home? Besides, it wasn't any business of mine what she did with her friends. It was just another world of hers that I couldn't be a part of.

Then I heard the metallic clang of the gate being pulled shut, followed by a spate of familiar-sounding giggling interspersed by shushing noises. A girl's voice rose a little then was oddly muffled as a male voice spoke over her. As the couple drew closer, I began to catch the words the guy was saying.

"…down already. You wanna wake everyone up?"

I stiffened, recognizing the voice as one I'd heard just the day before. Jeff. Wait a minute. What the hell was he doing here?

"Mmmph! Mm-mmph!" Ivy. Still sounding muffled, and as the two of them wove unsteadily past our back door, I saw why: He was walking with his arm around her shoulders and his hand plastered over her mouth while she flailed about in protest. Neither of them noticed me standing there in the gloom.

"…'nd off me! Are you tryin' to kill me?" she burst out when she finally succeeded in prying his hand off her face. "Why'd we come here, anyway? Thought we were goin' to Sharah'sh. I wanna go to Sharah'sh. They don't go 'round lookin' like they wanna arresht me there. And leggo of me. M'not falling-down drunk yet."

She threw his arm off and shoved at him just as they were lurching up the stairs, and for one heart-stopping moment, it looked as though she was about to prove her own words wrong until he caught her arm and yanked her upright. For some reason, she seemed to find her close brush with death unbearably funny, and her giggling spilled out into the cool night air until it was cut off by the shutting of door.

That was my cue to leave, I told myself. Whatever was going on in that apartment, it was no concern of mine. So just call Trinity back, turn around, lock the door, go upstairs and try to get some non-drug-assisted sleep. There was nothing for me here. She wasn't mine to worry about or protect. She'd made that abundantly clear—twice, in fact. Which was just as well, because she was totally wrong for me. Wrong age, wrong values, wrong lifestyles…just plain wrong. We were nothing to each other. Wasn't this what I'd concluded a few minutes ago—a thousand years ago?

So turn around. Don't get involved; she wouldn't welcome it anyway. Turn around and go back to your nice, safe room and your nice, safe life. Turn around. Right. Now.

I was still telling myself this as I scaled the fence like a burglar in my own home—despite the oil, the hinges still made a distinctive squeaking noise, and I couldn't risk it being heard and recognized. If my mom found out I was breaking the terms of my punishment, I'd stay grounded for the rest of my college career. I leaned against the gate after jumping down on the other side, smothering a spate of coughing against my shirt sleeve, then pushed off toward the stairs. The relief I felt at finding both that Ivy's and Erwin's rooms were still dark went beyond words. Then again, what exactly did I plan to do if the light in either bedroom was on? Tap on the window until they showed some neighborly consideration and turned it off?

I slowed as I got to her door, wondering for the hundredth time in five minutes what the hell I was thinking. What she was doing in there with him was, I repeat, none of my business. On the other hand, what was totally my business was my skulking around outside her place, like some kind of perverted, criminal stalker. I am being a frigging idiot, I castigated myself before spinning on my heel to head back home, only to freeze when I realized I could hear voices through the door. Once again feeling like a creepy voyeur but unable to help myself, I pressed my ear to the wooden panel.

"…left sheveral bottles here. Shee? Oooh, lucky! I'll get ice. Whoopsh, didn't notice the shtool there, hahaha."

Then again, I didn't need to stand so close to the door to hear what was going on. Ivy was making plenty of noise, giggling and chattering and clinking glasses together. She seems…cheerful. Aching disappointment snaked through me. What, you actually thought she'd be as torn up about your pseudo-breakup as you? I snorted to myself. In case you've forgotten, she dumped you, not the other way around.

"Hey, how come I never got to see your grandparents before they left? I'd have liked talking to your lolo again," Jeff said.

Ivy giggled again and thumped her glass on the table in a way that reminded me of Lolo Simon. "Nah-ah. Trusht me, you'd not've enjoyed your chat thish time. Not. At. All."

"Why not?"

" Caushe he was ravin' 'bout the sonuvabish—the shonuvabitch who broke my heart the moment he got here. He didn't have 'is gun, but he shtill packsh a mean right hook."

"You should've let me talk to him. I might've said something different, you know."

Every part of me froze. Even Ivy, wasted as she was, seemed to pause. "And whaddya mean by that?" she finally asked, sounding amused.

"I've been thinking, you know? About you and me. D'you know we could've been celebrating our first anniversary by now?"

"Yeah? Imagine that," she said softly, while I shut my eyes and died a little more inside. Then, to my surprise and certainly to Jeff's, she let out a peal of laughter. "Y'know shomething? I reeeeeally don't think sho. And won't Gishelle have something to shay 'bout that? You remember her. Your girlfriend, the one you fought with in the middle of Trey'sh birthday bash? Classhy of you, by the way—"

"We didn't just fight. We broke up."

"Oh? What, back then? Over the calem—calamaresh?"


"Wow, I'm shorry."

"Are you?" he said in an intense tone. "Are you really sorry it's over between us?"

I perked up a little more when Ivy responded with a befuddled: "Huh? Yeah, 'courshe I am. You guysh are like the—like the...Golden Couple. That'sh what we call you behind your backs. Poor Gishelle. Wish I'd known. Could've had her over for com-company—"

"You don't have to lie to me, Ivy." There was a clatter, the kind glasses made when they were knocked aside by someone reaching across the table to grab the other person.

"'M not lying," Ivy protested, still bewildered. I smiled in the darkness. She really wasn't; I could have walked in there right now and told Jeff that.

"Yeah, you are."

There was another noise, this time of chairs scraping across the floor. I tensed, wondering if I shouldn't go in there right now and put an end to Jeff's shenanigans. But while I was hesitating, he launched into full-rant mode. "Why else would you tell me you don't want to be alone tonight? You think about me, too; I can see it in your face. This thing between you and Miguel—that's just bullshit. Twisted bullshit. You're just pretending to like him so no one'd think you're still in love with me, but I know better than that."

I flinched. It was one thing to consider the possibility that she was just using me, and another to hear it spoken out loud by another. By her ex-boyfriend, no less.

"You're being ridiculous." Ivy sounded angry now. "When I shaid—said I didn't wanna be alone tonight, I meant we should go to Sarah'sh and hang out there. I didn't mean this. And don't you dare drag Migs into this. Just accept that I don't like you anymore and go get Gishelle back—ow! What're you—?"

At her choked yelp, I turned the knob but before I could open the door, something pushed heavily against the other side, keeping it stuck in place. When Ivy gasped, I could hear the sound coming from right on the other side of the door. "What the fuck're you doing?" she demanded, her voice oddly wheezy and high-pitched.

"Don't fight it. Neither of us wants to be alone tonight." Jeff's voice sounded even closer, as though he'd mashed his face into the door when he pushed her up against it. I shoved against the door, but thanks to their combined weight pressing against it and my general weakness, I couldn't get it open. And likely due to the amounts of alcohol they'd ingested, neither of them seemed to notice that the door was trying to push back.

"I don't want Giselle. I want you," he muttered thickly. "You're so beautiful, so beautiful. After your treatment, we'll go back to the way we were. But shit, Ivy, don't make me wait any longer."

"No! Leggo of—no, don't, please don't—"

Ivy's broken, terrified pleas galvanized me. Backing up as far as I could go, I threw my full weight against the door, ramming it open and sending Jeff flying backward with a crack and a muffled cry of pain. I picked myself up, only to bend forward again when a ferocious fit of coughing hit me. From the corner of my eye, I spotted Ivy sitting on the floor in front of their computer desk where the door had flung her aside. With her ball of hair coming lose and strands straggling over her face, she looked almost exactly the same as she did the night I found her with her uncle. She was staring slack-jawed at me, as was Jeff through his hands over his forehead, and I realized they were waiting for some kind of explanation for my sudden, dramatic entrance.

Unfortunately, I hadn't exactly come prepared with a snappy one-liner to cap my shining moment of badassery. Instead, what I did was sneeze into my sleeve—I didn't have time to dig in my pocket for my handkerchief—then wince and put a hand on my left shoulder when the action pulled at abused bones and muscles. Damn, that frigging hurts. Ow.

"Migs?" Ivy mewled.

Readjusting my glasses, I walked over to her and held my hand out, which she accepted dazedly. I intended only to pull her to her feet, but as she stood she swayed forward and fell into my arms, burying her face in the crook of my neck. Nuzzling her hair, I asked: "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head and clung even more tightly. I turned to the dumbfounded Jeff, who'd dropped his hands to reveal, to my immense satisfaction, a purpling goose egg rising majestically above his eyebrow. "Leave now, and you can still catch a tricycle that will take you to the jeepney terminal," I told him in a voice so flat it sounded dead to me.

"What—how'd you—that fucking hurt, you know?!" he sputtered, gingerly touching the lump on his forehead again and examining his fingers for bloodstains.

"Or you can stand around outside and wait for a taxi cab. Your call."

"You're not even going to apologize?! You could've—"

He failed to mention whatever it was I could have when I speared him with a stare that registered in the Kelvin scale. "Just go. Now. Don't argue. Don't make walking away from this even more difficult for you, because believe me, I would love to make it impossible for you. So just leave right…now."

He regarded me mutely, then looked at Ivy, who hadn't moved except to clutch fistfuls of the back of my shirt and burrow even closer, as if she was trying to hide inside my body. Then without another word, he hung his head and shuffled toward the door.

As he passed us, I stopped him with an oblique look. "If you're lucky, in the morning she'll have forgotten what you did to her and still let you be her friend. But I won't forget."

He got the message.

The door closed behind us; I heard the gate shut shortly thereafter. Silence filled the apartment as we stood there, both of us trembling, me from the icy, knee-knocking fear that seemed to crash over me all at once. God, when I think about what could have happened to her if I hadn't followed them, if I hadn't been here…

"It's okay, you're safe, everything's okay now," I found myself murmuring repeatedly, and wondered which one of us I was reassuring. I pressed my lips against her temple, ignoring the throbbing protests of my shoulder to hold her even closer, filling myself with the sensation of her to chase away the fear. So tell me, are you completely surrounded by depraved assholes, or is this just the alcohol disagreeing with you? I considered asking her—kiddingly, of course, to get her to stop crying, crack a smile and return with a smartass quip of her own. But for some reason, I couldn't squeeze the words out, which in hindsight is a good thing, because as far as jokes go, that one probably wouldn't have gone over well.

Then the far more pragmatic thought occurred that I should go down and bar the gate to make sure no other unwanted guests tried to come in. "Ivy?" I whispered. "Ivy, let go for a minute. Are you listening? I have to go—"

"I know."

She released her death-grip on my shirt and disengaged herself from me. She hadn't been crying after all. Her face was dry, and the flush in her cheeks was likely due to all the stuff she'd been imbibing. But the look in her eyes was misty, adoring and profoundly sad all at the same time, and the smile she gave me was bittersweet. Seeing her smile like that made my chest hurt almost as badly as my shoulder did.

"I know," she said again, tottering back a step. "It's just that…you even smell like him. Thank you. I've always, always believed in you."

I started to ask her what—or more importantly whom—she meant, but she was already turning aside and sinking into a chair, her clouded gaze now fixed upon the few bottles of gin sitting on the table, along with the pair of glasses containing melting ice cubes and the ashtray. Still puzzling over her comment, I went off on my task, checking the windows of the downstairs apartment and our house, and heaving a sigh of relief that nobody seemed to have woken up from the commotion. A miracle, that. Trinity woofed once as I went past, and I hastily shushed her. She knew how to nose our back door open anyway, so I didn't have to worry about her being stuck outside the house.

I went back to Ivy's place, wanting to check up on her one last time. That was all I wanted to do, I told myself. After all, she was alone, drunk off her rocker, and had just been assaulted by her jerkfaced ex-boyfriend—in her own home no less. Even if she felt nothing for me, intoxicated ramblings notwithstanding, I still had to make sure she was okay. It had nothing to do with who she was or what she meant—or used to mean—to me. It was simply the decent thing to do, and besides, as our tenant, I figured we owed her some measure of protection.

But when I got to the apartment, the sight that greeted me drove away all thought of landlord-tenant responsibilities. She was still sitting in the chair, her knees folded up to her chin, a half-empty glass in her hand. In the time it had taken me to go downstairs, cross the driveway, bar the gate and come back, she'd managed to make short work of her grandfather's leftover gin: one bottle was empty when I clearly recalled it was more than half-full before I left. Despite the booze and the lit cigarette in the ashtray, she looked incredibly childlike, huddled up in the chair like that.

But it was her expression that arrested me, rendering me incapable of doing anything but stand there and stare at her. Her eyes were dark and haunted as she gazed off into space. Her face was composed, but tears streamed down her cheeks and dripped onto her collarbone. Her breath hitched, but other than that she didn't make a sound. She didn't even seem to be aware that she was crying, or that she wasn't alone anymore. When she finally stirred, it was to knock back the rest of the gin and put the glass down on the table. Then she picked up the cigarette and took a deep drag. She may have looked like a child, but the air of deep, desperate isolation that seemed to surround her was far from childlike. In fact, she looked…

Stripped bare. Emptied. Exposed. These were the words that came to my mind. And I realized that I was gazing upon the real Ivy, the woman who hid behind the megawatt smile, the gorgeous mask, the playful laugh and the jokes about being "older than she looked." Her hair was a mess, her bun listing to one side and spilling copper tentacles like a mutated jellyfish. Her skin was red and blotchy, and her eyes were beginning to swell from all her crying. Her feet were bare and dirty, and I couldn't even tell what she was wearing. Some kind of skimpy, halter-top blouse and a miniskirt? She looked unkempt and disreputable, she reeked of alcohol and cigarettes—I could smell her from where I stood—and was, in general, completely devoid of any trace of sex appeal.

She couldn't have been more beautiful to me at that moment.

I called her name softly. She turned her head, struggling to focus her eyes, then smiled that hazy, bittersweet smile again. "Hello," she said, the 'h' stretching out as though it wanted to turn into a sigh instead of a word. "You came back."

I walked over to her, wondering what Ate Queenie and the rest of my relatives, not to mention my sheltered, private-school friends, would think if they saw her now. They'd probably pack a hospital's entire emergency bay after pitching a collective fit. But they'd met her when she was looking commercial-model stunning and when she was accompanied by her grandmother like a proper young lady, and they still managed to come up with all sorts of unfavorable opinions and assumptions about her, despite knowing next to nothing about her aside from a few superficial facts.

But…hadn't I done much the same thing myself?

"Y'know, you look sho mush—so much like him it's amazing," she said, peering up at me with slightly cross-eyed warmth.

"Who exactly do I look like?"

"Ash if you didn't know," she replied with a giggle. "Migs, of courshe."

I lifted an eyebrow. "Uh, that's probably because I am Migs."

She shook her head vehemently, causing her bun to slide a little closer to her ear. "No, no, no, no, no, no. Y'see, that can't happen. That'll never happen. Never again."

More tears slid unheeded down her face as she leaned forward and reached for the last, still mostly full bottle of gin, which I adroitly moved out of range. "I think you've had enough," I admonished.

She frowned. "Have not. Give that back, I n-need that. Fucking Jeff nearly undid all my hard work tonight. Fuck 'im, that—that selfish rat-f-f-fucker. What'd you do to him, anyway? Did you shhhmite him?"

"I don't know about smiting, but he's got a lump the size of a tennis ball sprouting on his forehead." I pulled up a chair and sat down, blowing my nose on my handkerchief. Well, that figures, I thought with some wry humor. After the turbulence of the past few days, the heartbreak of the last forty-eight hours, and the tense half-hour we'd just had, here we were, settling down to a quiet conversation at half-past two in the morning, as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world. Exactly the kind of weirdness that tended to happen around Ivy.

Laughter bubbled up her throat again, but since she'd been pulling on her cigarette at the time, she ended up coughing and huffing smoke out both her nose and mouth. "Really? On the forehead? Wow, that'sh jusht like the way I met 'im."

She proceeded to tell the story of the first time she'd met Jeff—how she'd been the first person in the lecture hall and had tried to turn on the air-conditioner by standing on top of a rickety desk, how Jeff had walked in and surprised her, causing her to topple backward and Jeff to rush forward to catch her. They ended up with her elbow planted on his forehead and the back of his head embedded in the floor, which necessitated a trip to the campus infirmary. But even though she'd sprained her wrist in the fall, she refused to go in for treatment for fear that her medical condition would be found out. Instead, she hung around outside to make sure he was okay, and Jeff had not pressed her to get her own injury treated. I'd heard the tale multiple times before, since Jeff seemed inordinately fond of recounting it over and over again, dwelling at length on how she'd been such a ditzy klutz and how he'd been her noble rescuer who was injured for his trouble. The difference now was that, for once, it was Ivy telling the story.

"I thought he was being kind and resh-respectful of my wishes. For years, I couldn't see what a cheap, rat-ass-loving bastard he is. You can say it. Fucking shtupid of me, huh?" She attempted a rueful laugh, but her tears were running faster and the laugh emerged as a sob. "Y'know what my problem is? I'm a shucker for kindnessh, that'sh what. Jeff, Manny the Maniac, Stephan, Tito Shit-Stain-of-the-Universe Julio—they all seemed so kind, and every s-s-single one fucked me over. Why do I keep doing that? Why do I keep fucking up my life like this? What the hell is wrong with me?"

She was crying in earnest now, covering her face with her hands. Carefully, I took the cigarette from her before she burned herself, memories of the first time she and I met rising to the surface on a tide of emotion. All of a sudden, she stood up, pushing her chair back and swaying like a bamboo in a high wind, then grabbed the gin bottle and poured herself about half a glass.

"I need this," she declared before gulping down the gin. "Something terrible happened today, and I don't wanna think about it but I'm shtarting to—"

I got to my feet as well, taking the bottle before she could pour herself more, and setting it on the table. "What terrible thing? What happened?" I demanded, grabbing her by the shoulders and turning her so that she was looking straight at me. "Was it Jeff?"

She blinked slowly, then shook her head. "No, not Jeff."

"Was it your uncle? Did he touch you again?"

She winced and glanced down at her shoulder, and I consciously loosened my grip. "No, he di-didn't. But y'know, the thing about Tito Julio…the thing about 'im is…he doesn't need to touch me to hurt me," she murmured vaguely.

I gritted my teeth. "What happened, Ivy?"

She looked up at me, and to my dismay, she was crying again. "You stand there looking like him, talking like him, and you ask me what happened?"

I went still, breath suspended, heartbeat stopped then restarted in triple-time, as the meaning of her words sank in. She covered her eyes with her hands and sobbed like a little child as her words poured out. "If this is my punishment, I'll take it. I deserve it. You s-s-sent me the most wonderful guy in the world, and whaddo I do? I fuck him over. He hates me now, and he should. He should! But I w-w-wanted him, y'know? I want 'im so much, but he can't be mine, he can't be—"

I hauled her close, smothering the rest of her words against my shoulder. She uttered a half-squeak, half-whimper before going boneless against me, and I suddenly found myself supporting her weight, causing me to stagger backward. The backs of my knees hit the chair and I plopped down in it, but instead of untangling herself, she slid her arms over my shoulders and crawled into my lap, burying her face against my neck.

She continued to cry, and the pressure from her head made my shoulder hurt, but I was too busy free-falling through my own thoughts to notice. With her drunken, weepy confession, she'd torn down my fortress of self-righteousness and hypocrisy, leaving me with no defenses against the truth.

And the truth was, I was wrong. About her. About so many things. Mostly, I was wrong about me. The truth was, I was hurt, confused and insecure, lost in unfamiliar emotional territory when I used to be so sure of the world and my place in it. But instead of facing up to my feelings, I tried to cover them up by letting everyone else lead me around—my family, my friends, even that scumsucker Julio.

I'm not the pure, innocent maiden you keep pretending I am.

Even Ivy. It was like Lolo Simon said; she understood what was going on better than I did. I assumed all along that she kept me at arms' length because she didn't think she could trust me enough to confide in me. I resented her for underestimating me. But maybe she was right. Maybe the problem was me. After all, how could she trust me if, at the first chance she gives me even a hint of the truth, I draw away from her and resort to parroting all the judgments my family and friends have about her?

Because at the end of the day, I was a good boy. The responsible older brother, the upstanding student, the good son. It was my steady state, my safe mode. I was a good son who did what his elders told him to, allowed himself to be steered around from one opinion to the next, moved from one pre-approved goal to the next, and always took the safest, most sensible route. What a good son didn't do was think for himself, no matter how much pain, doubt and uncertainty it caused.

So I was wrong, but I was right, too. I hated being patronized and treated like a child, but as it turned out, I was all but asking for it. Weird that I could figure things out easily on my own when it came to mental stuff—so easily, in fact, that I'd become smug and self-satisfied, and I didn't even realize it until now. But when it really counted…

"I'm sorry," I said, speaking the words into her hair. "I'm sorry, Ivy." It came out as "U'b sorry, Iv-by," and I became aware that I was crying, too, which did not help my stuffed-up nasal passages in the least.

Her own sobs had subsided by then into erratic hiccups and soft, incoherent mumbling. At my apology, she lifted her head and blinked at me in foggy wonder. We were a sight, the both of us—our faces red and puffy, tears and mucus dripping from various orifices, her entire torso swinging gently to and fro, as if she wasn't quite sure which way was vertical. I held her upright in my arms, and I felt as though I held her in the very core of my heart, as sappy as that sounds. Like my ribcage had expanded until it encased her completely. Every part of her was a part of me. All her secrets that I might be privileged to learn in time, or might never find out for as long as I lived—they didn't matter. What she did in the past, whether she fit into my orderly world or not—none of that mattered. I loved her, whoever she was. To deny that now, to pass judgment on her and turn my back on her would mean cutting off my own life support. I wouldn't survive it.

"Shorry? Whu' for?" she asked, befuddled.

I smiled, then turned aside and yanked out my handkerchief just in time for me to sneeze repeatedly into it. "Oh man, sorry about that," I croaked afterward, blowing my nose and shoving my glasses back in place.

I felt her fingers running over my face, cool and soft and smelling of cigarettes. "Thank you," she murmured. "You've been watching over me all thish time. Thank you."

Who exactly does she think I am? I thought, amused. "The pleasure's mine," I replied, meaning it wholeheartedly. Hesitating for only a moment, I reached for her lopsided bun, and with a twist undid the hair-tie still barely holding it in place. She smiled and shook her hair out, then leaned forward until the copper mass spilled across my front. My heart seized up at how beautiful she was. Her bare shoulders peeking through her hair, her fingers tracing lines from my forehead to my chin, making my skin catch fire wherever she touched me—all of a sudden, I found it hard to breathe for an entirely different reason. She was straddling my lap and her skirt had hiked up her thighs, and when my own fingers flexed in reaction, they somehow slipped underneath her blouse and glided across the smooth, warm expanse of her lower back.

Hell, yes, it was distracting. Give me a break. I was a healthy, young, teenaged male; there was only so much…distraction I could take. I think I behaved with heroic restraint, considering the circumstances. Ignoring the furious blush sweeping up my neck, I pulled my hands out from under her blouse and clasped them together, then jerked my face upward the instant I realized I could see right up her skirt.

"Mmm," she hummed as she slid her hands along either side of my jaw, cupping my face. Then she leaned closer until her forehead bumped mine—rather painfully, since she had less than perfect physical coordination at the moment. "Can I ashk you something?"

"Sure." My voice cracked, and I coughed and cleared my throat. "What is it?"

"What do you see when you look at me?"

Surprised, I stared at her. She stared back solemnly. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Instead, memories of her spun gently through my mind like images in a kaleidoscope—a thousand and one reflections of Ivy, one face for every person she met.

"Please," she insisted. "Just tell me. What kind of person do you think I am?"

"I don't know."

She drew back and frowned. "You…don't know?"

"I don't," I admitted hoarsely. "I thought I did, but now I just—oh man, are you crying again? I'm so sorry, love. Don't cry anymore."

I unwound one arm from around her waist and wiped her tears away with my thumb, babbling apologies and comforting nonsense. Then, surprising me again, she laughed and caught my hand in hers, planting a slobbery kiss in the center of my palm.

"No, no, no, no, no." She shook her head, laughing some more at the mystified look on my face. "People always know what I am. They always got me all figured out. Fucking amazing, because I haven't got me all figured out. And here they are, all ep—expertsh on me already, and I'm like, 'Fuck, really? Okay, if that's what makes you happy, then that's what I'll be.' But you, you're the only one who'sh ever shaid—said that. It's like—it's like you're giving me a choice. Not even Migs…"

She trailed off, and I shut my eyes as shame burned in my gut. "Ivy, I—you have no idea how sorry he is right now."

She giggled again. The next thing I knew, a pair of wet, alcohol-sweetened and menthol-smoky lips landed on the corner of my mouth. "He shouldn't be. He'sh beautiful." With each word, her lips brushed along my jaw to my ear before she slipped her arms around my neck again and nestled back against my shoulder.

I waited for the shivers to pass before trying to speak again. "Hey, it's my turn to ask you something."


"H-how do you feel about, uh, Migs?"

I swallowed nervously when she raised her head again and looked muzzily at me. Then she grinned. "Don'tcha know? I love him. Love 'im sho…sho…mushhh…"

Her head sank back down as if it had grown too heavy for her to lift, unerringly finding my bruised shoulder once again. But I didn't feel the pain. What I felt was intense, blinding, fucking exothermic joy. Instead of rocketing off into space, I hugged her fiercely, and once again found myself having to hold back tears.

She loves me. Ivy. Loves. Me. And she wants me, too. That's all I need to know.

"Well, guess what: Migs loves you, too," I told her. "I have it on the very best authority. So you don't have hold back, because he's totally—Ivy? Hey, are you listening? Ivy?"

I jostled her a little, which caused her arms to loosen about my shoulders and her head to loll back. A small moan escaped her lips, but her eyes remained closed and her breathing slow and steady. I stared at her, then laughed. "Great. My second attempt at a confession, and she falls asleep on me," I mock-grumbled to myself, but I was far too happy to work up any kind of pique.

Up until I realized that I was going to have to put her to bed again, but even then… I glanced at the clock, and was jolted to find that it was almost 5. I really had to get home. If Nay Loring woke up and discovered the back door open and her erstwhile patient missing—well, I really had to get home, was the point.

Besides, now that I knew how Ivy felt about me, I could take my courtship of her to the next level. I could give more thought to showing her that my feelings for her were real and unchanging, and focus on making her feel safe enough to confess her feelings for me without having to be under the influence and believing I was someone else entirely. Where just a few hours ago I was breaking apart, I now felt like a death-row prisoner given a new lease on life. I felt completely made whole and rejuvenated, my cold and busted shoulder notwithstanding.

Rising from the chair while keeping a floppy-limbed and entirely uncooperative Ivy from crumpling into a heap on the floor was a feat of strength on its own. Somehow, I managed to sling her arm across my non-injured shoulder and drag her over to Erwin's bedroom, our progress marked by low, incomprehensible muttering from her and intermittent coughing from me. As I laid her on the mattress, I lost my balance and toppled onto her. I rolled off before I smushed her, then lay on my back for a while, staring at the ceiling and trying to catch my breath. She made this job much harder by moaning my name and turning toward me, throwing an arm across my chest and a leg across my legs, locking me in place. I glanced at her in alarm even as a wave of heat rolled from my toes to the top of my head. I was almost afraid she'd feel the rapid spiking of my body temperature and wake up, but when she did nothing more than nuzzle my upper arm and sink even deeper into slumber, I sighed with relief and began extricating myself from her. But not before closing my eyes for a moment and indulging in a fantasy of going to sleep beside her like this.

Reminding myself of the need for haste, I got to my knees beside the mattress and straightened my glasses. She lay peacefully on her side, her hair spread out on the pillow behind her like a gleaming pool of copper-tinted ink, her fingers curled loosely beside her head. Her face was still flushed and marked by tearstains, and I smiled as I bent down and kissed her cheek.

"If you want me, then take what you want," I told her quietly. "I'm all yours, Ivy, always. I'll make you acknowledge this, just wait and see."

I managed to get back into our kitchen and lock the back door scant minutes before Nay Loring came in. I ended up having to pretend I'd just woken up, having finally gotten hungry enough for the dinner I'd skipped out on earlier. It was true, anyway; my appetite had returned. In fact, I might have been looking better than the previous night, despite my sleepless state, since she allowed me to get back upstairs without taking the meds, although I did have to drink a couple more glasses of calamansi juice.

I sprawled in bed, placed my glasses on the table, and sighed, sneezed and coughed in succession. After a thought, I set my alarm to go off in a few hours. I had unfinished business to attend to later, after all. Before I closed my eyes, I caught a glimpse of my father's face from his place on my shelf, watching me. It was probably just a trick of the light, and I didn't have my glasses on at the time. But I nodded gravely back at him in quiet acknowledgment.

Take care of the family, and protect the people you love. This is your responsibility, son. Do you understand?

Yes, Pa, I get it, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. Protecting the people you love isn't just about beating up bad guys and breaking down doors. Most of the time, it's about making sure they feel safe enough to be who they really are when they're with you. It's about consistently protecting the spaces inside you where they can be free, no matter what. It's an embarrassingly basic tenet of friendship, as everyone knows, let alone the kind of love that relationships are built on. But to the lost, clueless kid I was back then, it was an epiphany that shook me to the core as much as it gave me a sense of peace.

After that? Well, this part you've heard from Ivy. I won't repeat what she said here. Let's just say that after this incident, there was no going back for me. From that point on, I was certain, maybe not of our external circumstances, but of myself and the depth of my feelings for her. From that point on, I never had any more doubts that we belonged together, no matter what anybody had to say about it.

Including, for a seriously aggravatingly long time yet, Ivy herself.

Yup. And she calls me stubborn.





Author's Notes:

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! And yes, I am, apparently, still among the living.

Thank you so much to everyone who still reads this massive, glacially-paced fic. I'll be fixing the other chapters-I cleaned them up a bit-as well as streamline the author's notes.

Sorry for making this a bit short. Am still a bit woozy from the Flu from Hell. Love always to chocme and Shweta. And to willow1122 and CameliaLisha, I am SOOO SORRY this took a year. (Mapayapang Bagong Taon sa inyo, CameliaLisha!)

P.S. Thank you, Canaletto, for reading, reviewing and alerting me about the screwy formatting. I hope I've fixed it, and it reads better now. Deep gratitude again for not letting the fact that I uploaded this at 2 a.m. while apparently drunk to the gills stop you from reading anyway.