To choc me: Hello again, sis, and thank you for treading and reviewing! And yes, Angelo's a bit on the weird side, isn't he? ^_^;

To Mr. Potato: Tsundere. Definitely a tsundere. And also, thanks for the review!

Cultural Notes on Titles:

Ate (AH-teh) & Kuya (KOO-ya) - literally, Older Sister and Older Brother, but can be used for a woman or man who is older than you, but for whom you hold a certain degree of familiarity and closeness.

Mang - used for older males, more respectful and indicates less familiarity than Kuya.

Ma'am (followed by name) - in the Philippines, teachers and authority figures who are well-liked are often addressed this way, for example, Sir John or Ma'am Jennifer. It sounds a bit off in English, but trust me, it's perfectly okay in Filipino English.






On Finding an Enchanted Sword

"Fran, over here!"

Even before she heard the cheery voice calling for her, Fran had already spotted the familiar mane of brown curls bobbing at the edge of the milling crowd of students. Yumi waved—an unnecessary gesture at this point—and with a smile, Fran headed toward her.

Yumi grinned as she drew closer. "Oooh, I love your new haircut. I didn't know short hair could look so good on you."

Fran ran a hand through her chestnut hair—the layered ends curling inward above her shoulders, her bangs curving over the frame of her glasses—and smiled again, a little self-consciously. "Thank you. Honestly, it surprised me, too. I almost didn't recognize myself when I looked in the mirror afterward. I sat there trying to figure out who that girl was who kept making faces at me."

Yumi giggled. "Well, you look great. What's up with the new look, anyway? I thought you were just going to keep your hair long until we graduated or something."

I'm not entirely sure myself. Fran thought about the strange impulse that had caused her to turn her back on years of not caring much about her appearance and led her straight into that beauty salon at the mall with the request that they make her look pretty. She'd even foregone a trip to the bookstore for it, a decision that had her mother eyeing her with a mixture of puzzlement and poorly disguised relief. Whatever the reason was, she had to admit it was a good idea when she saw the results. "I don't know," she responded with a shrug. "I suppose I just wanted to try something new."

They retreated to a nearby bench and watched the students pour in through the gates and collect in the school's front courtyard in preparation for flag ceremony. Sunlight was just beginning to burst through the line of trees near the parking lot, and Fran squinted against it as she scanned the faces of the newcomers, until she realized what she was doing and forced herself to look away.

"Talk about surprises, I got one too when I saw your bag in our homeroom," Yumi was saying. "After my sister dragged me to school with her at an ungodly hour because of some student-council thing, I thought I'd be the earliest to arrive."

"Yes, well, I thought I'd try looking around at the SC again, just in case. I even tried to get Mang Dan to unlock the door to the AMOC room again, but he refused. Honestly, I think I'm starting to get on his nerves."

"Oh. Still no luck at finding your flash disk, huh?" Yumi commiserated.

Fran shook her head. Almost two weeks had passed since she'd lost the USB flash disk in which she stored all her school essays and reports, her blog entry drafts, the original stories she'd written, as well as an entire library of complete and incomplete fan fiction and an embarrassing number of pictures of hot anime boys she'd downloaded off the Internet. She's stashed it in her bag the night before their slumber party at Lisette's place, but when she got back home, the flash disk had disappeared. She'd gone back to school the next day, even though Kuya Aldric had grumbled about having to drive her there again, but she couldn't find the disk anywhere—not on the second floor of the SC, and not anywhere in the library. She'd even hunted down Mang Dan, one of the janitors, and pleaded with him to unlock the door to the AMOC, but the flash disk wasn't in the room, either.

By now, the frantic consternation she'd felt at the loss had begun to fade into a fatalistic resignation. It helped that she'd managed to back up all her files into a folder on the desktop computer she shared with her younger brother Greg. She'd hidden the folder and password-protected it for good measure, but with Greg endlessly customizing their computer to make more room for his games, she worried constantly that he'd stumble upon her folder and snoop around in her files—or worse, erase them altogether. Honestly, she was so looking forward to getting Kuya Martin's old laptop for her fifteenth birthday, which was less than a week away. At least, she wouldn't have to wait until her little brother surfaced from his gaming to update her blog.

Besides, even if anyone had found her flash disk, she doubted they'd be dumb enough to stick an unknown device into their computer. And it wasn't as if the flash disk itself, as well as the Sword Art Online cellphone strap she'd attached to it, couldn't be replaced. There really was no reason for her to get so worked up about this.

Nevertheless, the loss of the disk filled her with a nagging sense of unease. There were far too many personal files in that device, files that could potentially cause her a lot of embarrassment if anyone discovered them. She felt as if she'd filled a bag with her underwear with her name written on them, then misplaced that bag. To anyone who chanced upon it, that bag and its contents would merely be a humorous, disgusting oddity, something to laugh over and yak to everyone about. But for her, such a situation would be a mortal blow.

She bent over and covered her face with her hands, moaning, "Oh my gosh, what if they wave my panties around and hang them out the windows? I'd die for sure." That was it. She had only one choice, if she ever wanted to sleep peacefully at night again: She had to find that disk.

Her resolve renewed, she lowered her hands and pushed her glasses up her nose, only to find Yumi looking at her strangely. "Your panties?" her friend asked. "Fran, are you daydreaming again?"

Fran's face warmed. "Um, kind of. I was just having a little panic attack. I'm sorry."

"I really wish I could help you, but I can't do anything with lost objects," Yumi said, staring down at her hands folded on her lap. Fran nodded in understanding. Most people assumed that Yumi was an amateur palm-reader who just happened to be amazingly lucky guesser. Only a handful knew the truth: Yumi had a unique ability not to read palms but to feel emotional energy through her hands. And she wasn't just lucky. She was so good, she could tell you exactly whom you liked and hated and felt mildly annoyed with—and who liked, hated and was annoyed with you in turn.

Fran still remembered the day Yumi revealed her ability to her and Lisette. She'd been so afraid they'd turn on her and call her a freak or a witch—and from the bullying Yumi had experienced in their freshman year, that fear was not unfounded. But the three of them had been best friends since fifth grade, and nothing was going to change that. Besides, Fran had added with a giggle, Yumi having a cool psychic ability couldn't scare her away. She spent half her waking moments living in fantasy worlds inside her head, and obsessed over fictional characters with a whole spectrum of supernatural powers. Learning that her best friend could fit in among those characters wasn't frightening, it was every shade of awesome.

Of course, Yumi wasn't the only weirdo in their trio. It just so happened that her brand of weirdness was the most obvious. Even Lisette, who seemed the most normal of them, wasn't quite what people thought she was.

And speaking of whom…

"Hey, it's Lisette! Over here, Lisette!" Yumi stood up and waved at the tall, slim, short-haired girl who burst through the gates like an Olympic sprinter, backpack bouncing wildly.

Lisette skidded to a halt when she reached their bench. "Whoa, I made it!" she panted. "I'm not late, am I?"

"Nope, you're just in time. Flag ceremony's just about to start," Yumi replied cheerfully.

"What happened? Why do you look like you ran all the way here?" Fran wondered.

Lisette blew her sweat-dampened bangs off her forehead and grimaced. "It's my grandpa. He insisted that Kuya Ben drive me to school, but since Kuya Ben drove Ate Cheryl to work first, I had to wait for him to come back for me. All that time wasted when I could have just taken the jeepney and gotten here sooner," she grumbled as the three girls went off into the assembling crowd to search for the members of their section.

Fran and Yumi glanced at each other. "But you commuted to and from school all year last year, and he seemed okay with it back then," Yumi pointed out.

"Who knows what's going on inside Lolo's head?" Lisette replied, rolling her eyes. "Ever since he read that article about that girl who'd been kidnapped, he's been on an overprotective kick, for some weird reason."

Fran giggled. "I hate to say this, but that sounds like a perfectly reasonable reason to me, even if you can outrun any kidnapper—oops. I mean, gosh, you're right, I hope he lightens up soon," she added hastily when Lisette made a face at her. "By the way, you, ah, haven't found anything, have you?"

Lisette shook her head. "No, nothing yet. Sorry, Fran. In any case, Ate Minda and the other maids are keeping an eye out for your flash disk. I'll let you know the moment we find it."

"Oh, okay."

"Hey, don't give up yet. You'll definitely find it," chirped Yumi, ever the optimist.

"We can check the Lost and Found bin at the admin office later," Lisette added. "Who knows? Maybe someone's already turned it in or something."

Fran smiled. "Thanks, you two. Honestly, I—"

A face in the crowd caught her attention. A lanky figure with brown hair, hazel eyes behind black wire-rims, and a little mole on his chin. He was standing behind a group of juniors, holding himself apart from them, and Fran found her footsteps slowing and her neck twisting as her gaze lingered on him.

Angelo. The last time she'd seen him, he was heading down the stairs after having brushed her aside, her entire supply of gauze bandaged over the wound on his right arm. The wound he'd gotten protecting her from a falling piece of furniture.

He hadn't been at the library the day she went back to search for her flash disk. At the time, she hadn't been sure how she felt about it. Relieved, she supposed. In their last encounter, he'd made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her, and she would rather have spent a day washing her brothers' reeking sports socks than spend any amount of time with a jerk who did nothing but insult her, belittle her, and make stupid, ignorant comments about people he didn't even know.

He'd also held her in his arms, and spoken to her of crystal balls and exploding universes.

No, no, she was definitely relieved. After all, she'd come this close to kissing him; just recalling that moment of insanity made her want to curl up and disappear. The last thing she wanted was to remind him of it and give him more material to humiliate her with. But then, there had also been a tiny, sinking feeling of disappointment, too. And that was because—because—well, because she was trying to find her lost storage device, and he was the only other person in the world who could have known where it had gotten to. He was the one who made a mess of her things in the first place. Put it that way, he was morally obligated to help her find it.

I wonder how his wound is healing. I wonder if he'll recognize me with my new hairstyle. I wonder if he'll even bother to notice me. I wonder—she thought, annoyed with herself—why I even care.

Sensing her gaze on him, he turned and looked straight at her. The feeling as their eyes met made Fran imagine cords of sunlight crisscrossing between them—warm and golden at first, then heating up until her skin burned from it. She thought hazily that she ought to wave at him or something. Anything to break the odd sense of being suspended in mid-air by his gaze.

Just then, a smiling girl with a ponytail bounced over to him and began speaking in a rapid-fire manner. As Fran blinked out of her trance, Angelo lifted his hand to adjust his glasses, gave her one last, cold look, then turned his back on her, giving the girl his full attention.

A totally irrational flash of hurt shot through her, then quickly morphed into indignation. Fine. It's his loss, anyway, she sniffed, turning away herself and focusing on responding to Lisette's compliment about her hair instead. The next time she sneaked a glance over at the juniors from the corner of her eye, Angelo had disappeared from view.

She was distracted by Yumi crowding in between her and Lisette and hissing: "I'm so, so glad you guys are my classmates this year, but good grief, why did he have to be in our class, too?"

She followed the direction of Yumi's dark stare to a tall boy with messy black hair chatting animatedly with several of their classmates. Ah, of course, Fran thought, hiding a smile. For Yumi, only one person in the world merited being spoken of in that tone of voice: Ren, her erstwhile childhood friend and now mortal enemy, the boy who'd once heartlessly rejected Yumi when she told him about her power, and with whom she'd been waging an intense cold war ever since.

As though sensing that he was the subject of their conversation, Ren looked straight at Yumi, and a smirking grin appeared on his face. "I don't know. It looks to me like we've got a couple of mixed nuts in our section this year," he responded loudly to someone, although the direction of his gaze made it clear whom he was referring to.

Yumi bristled at the jibe, but stubbornly refused to give any other indication that she'd heard him. Still, Fran couldn't help but notice how all throughout flag ceremony and even afterward—such as during class when they were assigned seating positions, and Yumi cursed her rotten luck some more when she found herself seated either next to or directly in front of her nemesis in most of their classes—Ren's eyes followed her friend everywhere, even though he kept that mocking grin pasted on his face. And Fran noticed, too, how Yumi surreptitiously did the same thing whenever Ren wasn't looking, even though she quickly looked away again and frowned every single time.

Maybe this school year will be different, Fran wrote later in her blog, taking her chance at the computer while Greg took a bath and the rest of their family watched TV in the den. If Yumi and Ren could sort out their feelings for each other before the year ended, or before one of them murdered the other…

Taking a sip of her hot cocoa, she pushed her glasses up and continued to type: Yes, I believe this year will be a memorable one. This might even be the year one of us finds love—real love, the kind that stories are made of. I don't have a reason to feel this way, except that when I was thinking about this earlier during class, I happened to look out the window. Outside, I saw a pair of butterflies with gorgeous black and yellow wings fluttering in the air, coming together then separating then coming together again, as if they couldn't bear to be apart for long. Something that beautiful has to be a good omen.

Whatever good news the butterfly omen portended, it certainly wasn't that she'd be reunited with her missing device soon. For the next few days, Fran made regular trips to the Lost and Found bin at the administration office. The continuing search at Lisette's house still turned up nothing as well. Finally, Fran steeled herself one lunch period and, after telling her friends to go on to their classroom without her, went up to the third floor of the school building where the juniors held their classes.

Her purposeful pace slowed when she realized she had no idea what Angelo's section was, or even what his last name was. After wandering around the corridors for a while, she stopped a couple of junior girls to ask them if they'd seen Angelo.

"Which one? We've got three Angelos. Four if you count Mikey Castro."

When Fran described the Angelo she was searching for—just so tall, glasses, a mole on his chin, hangs out at the library a lot—the two girls exchanged telling glances. "Oh, Angelo? Angelo Marasigan? That Angelo's the one you're looking for?" one said, her expression indicating that Fran really ought to reconsider her choice of Angelos. When she remained firm, the girl murmured, "Hmm, we don't really know where he goes off to for lunch. Have you tried the cafeteria?"

"I just came from there, and he wasn't there," Fran replied.

The girl shrugged. "Oh, then we really can't help you. Sorry."

"He's in III-Mercury, I think. That's their room over there," her companion said, pointing to one of the classrooms. "Since lunch period's almost over, maybe you can just wait for him to come back."

Fran smiled and thanked them. As she was walking away, the girls' voices drifted back to her.

"A girl's looking for Angelo? That hasn't happened in ages."

"She looks like a freshman. She probably hasn't heard…"

"I wonder if she'd still be interested in him if she knew…"

Frowning, Fran glanced over her shoulder, but the girls had already disappeared. She reached the room and peeked in, but Angelo wasn't among the occupants. After briefly debating with herself whether or not to wait for him, she decided that she'd rather not risk being late for her next class. In any case, now that she knew which section Angelo was in, he'd be easier to track down next time.

She turned to head back to her own classroom, but she'd only taken a few steps when she came face to face with the devil himself. Angelo was walking toward her, his hands in his pockets, with the same ponytailed girl trotting at his side, talking a mile a minute. As Fran's gaze collided with his, she felt the cords of sunlight looping around them again. She gave herself a mental shake; now was not a good time to go drifting off on one of her daydreams again.

"—what with everyone going to Rowie's place tomorrow then to Greenview Mall, I'm telling you, you'll be missing out if you—what? Why'd you stop?" The girl halted herself and frowned at Angelo. "I knew it. You weren't listening to me, were you? And who're you looking—oh."

The girl looked at Fran, then back at Angelo, then back at Fran again. "Go on ahead, Sam. I just have to talk to someone," Angelo told her, his faintly sardonic gaze fixed on Fran.

"But it's almost time—"

"I know, don't worry about it. Just go on ahead," Angelo repeated, giving Sam a fond smile. Fran's eyebrows lifted. That smile softened his features and warmed his eyes, reminding her again how cute he really was. She hadn't even known that a smile like that was within his limited range of facial expressions.

Then, of course, he had to revert to his Mr. Hyde persona again. Taking a few steps toward Fran, he pushed his glasses up with a finger and drawled, "You just couldn't stay away from me, huh?"

Fran stiffened in affront. "I beg your pardon?"

He rolled his eyes. "Forget it. It'll just ruin the joke if you make me explain it to you."

"Oh no, it's fine, I got the 'joke,'" she retorted, holding a hand up. "And you're right, it's a good one. You, irresistible? Hilarious." She eyed him up and down disdainfully.

"Sure. And that's exactly why you were snooping around our class just a minute ago."

"Ugh, I can't believe how conceited you are! Just because I happened to be looking into your classroom doesn't automatically mean I was looking for you."

"So then, you were looking for someone else…?" His voice lilted upward skeptically. Fran opened her mouth to tell him off, belatedly recalled that she was, in fact, looking for him, then closed her mouth with a guilty flush. His answering smirk made her itch to apply her fist to his face.

Oh for goodness' sake. She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath. For some reason, this boy had the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in her. She opened her eyes again, and only then noticed a blue bandanna tied around his right arm just above his elbow, right where his wound was. "Oh. How's your wound?" she asked.

"What, changing the subject already? Okay, whatever. It's almost healed, if you have to know."

"If it is, then why do you still have that bandanna over it? You didn't let it get infected, did you?" she scolded.

"No, I didn't." His voice was so full of amusement that it made her lift her face to his in surprise. There it was again, that spark of genuine warmth in his eyes, so different from his usual prickly sarcasm or out-and-out antagonism. "The bandanna is Sam's idea. She thought the bandage on my arm needed some jazzing up," he went on, his hand covering the bandanna almost protectively.

Ah, that explains why he suddenly seems almost nice, she realized. He's thinking about that girl, Sam.

"I wouldn't have done anything to ruin all your hard work."

She blinked at that.

"After all," he added, "I wouldn't want you coming after me with your medicine kit and doing your stomp-fu on me again. Don't think I've forgiven you for that. My knee still hurts, you know."

She stared at him, wondering if she'd imagined the glint of humor in his eyes, but before she could make sure, he turned aside and pushed his glasses up again, hiding his face. "If you're waiting for me to apologize for that, don't hold your breath," she informed him stiffly. "You deserved it for not telling me you were hurt—oh for goodness sake, that's not important anymore."

She exhaled in exasperation and once again reminded herself why she'd bothered to seek this ungrateful jerk out. Somehow, just being around him messed her up so much that she forgot what her original intention was. The sooner she was quit of his company the better, especially if she wanted to emerge from this encounter with her brains intact and her criminal record still spotless.

"Honestly, I just wanted to ask you something. Just one thing, then I won't ever bother you again," she began, just as she was supposed to have done several frustrating minutes earlier. "You haven't by any chance seen a flash disk lying around at the SC about two weeks ago, have you?"

At that, his face—his entire body in fact—seemed to close up. "Your flash disk?"

"Yes," she said, a bit puzzled by his reaction. "It's pink and it's the kind you flip around so it doesn't have a cap. And it's got a little rapier in a red scabbard hanging from it."

"And why would you think I have your disk?" he asked coldly, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Because you're the only one who could possibly have found it! Because you were the one who scattered my stuff all over the floor in the first place!" she exclaimed, provoked into peevishness by his contrary behavior. "It was in my bag that day I came to deliver my aunt's books to the library, but when I came home it was gone. I've looked everywhere for it. I've bugged Mang Dan about it so much he's avoiding me now. Look, I'm sorry for snapping at you. I just want to ask if you'd noticed it lying around or something," she added in a more sedate manner.

He looked away, an unreadable expression on his face. "I didn't take your disk, if that's what you're saying," he bit out. While she realized with dismay that she'd made him feel like she was accusing him of theft, he frowned and turned toward her again. "Wait, did you say a rapier?"

Fran brightened, as she always did whenever the topic of her beloved fandom came up. "Yes! It's a small, white rapier with a light green hilt with a ring in a red scabbard. You can actually draw it out of the scabbard and all!" she said eagerly, momentarily forgetting how much he hated all things anime- or manga-related. "It's Lambent Light, Asuna Yuuko's second weapon in Sword Art Online, which her boyfriend Kirito used to defeat SAO's main boss and clear the game…"

Her voice petered off when she realized he wasn't even listening to her, but was looking narrow-eyed over her shoulder. She turned around and found Sam watching them from the doorway of their classroom, one hand clapped over her mouth. With both Fran and Angelo staring at her, Sam lowered her hand to say, "You know, I can see our teacher coming this way—"

Before she could finish her sentence, the ringing of the bell split the air, making Fran jump. Squeaking "oh my gosh, I'm late," she started to make a run for it, stopped, then looked over at Angelo in desperation.

He regarded her impassively. "I don't have your disk, Frances Marie. And Kuya Dan wouldn't know anything about it either. He was on leave the day you came to the library. Ask Ate Julie. Maybe she found it."

He turned and walked to his class before she could thank him or apologize for inadvertently offending him. Once again, she didn't get a chance to ask him how he knew her name. And it was only when she was seated in class, after sheepishly explaining to her teacher that she'd been at the library and lost track of the time, that she realized he'd made no mention at all about her hair or her looks. Typical guy. He probably didn't even notice that something was different about me, she snorted, trying to ignore the pang of disappointment.

Then again, why would he bother to notice anything about you? He doesn't even like you, her mind argued. But it doesn't matter anymore, does it? After all, you did promise never to bother him again.

Following the lead Angelo had given her, Fran sought out Ate Julie as soon as class ended, with Lisette and Yumi in tow. They found the janitress mopping the floor in one corridor, but when Fran asked her if she'd found a flash disk fitting the description, she just shook her head.

As they turned to leave, Ate Julie suddenly announced: "I didn't find it, you know. Someone gave it to me. Now, I don't know about those things, so I just returned it to the library."

The trio went off to the library, only to be told by no less than Mrs. Santos herself that she'd had the thing sent off to the Lost and Found bin at the administrative office. "This is the library. This is not the Lost and Found Department," the Head Librarian barked at them.

Several minutes later, Fran sank down on the floor beside Lisette in front of the Lost and Found bin—really a drawer in an old filing cabinet in one corner of the administration office—while Yumi continued to dig through the assortment of items in the drawer, muttering, "It's got to be in here somewhere."

"It's okay, Yumi. If it isn't there, then there's nothing we can do about it," Fran said with a defeated sigh.

"Talk about a wild goose chase," Lisette commented, blowing her bangs off her forehead. "This just doesn't make sense. Where on earth could that thing be?"

Just then, one of the people who staffed the administration office—a friendly lady in her late forties named Mrs. Lorna Cabel, whom most of the students affectionately called Ma'am Lorna—walked in through the door, carrying several folders in her arms. She noticed the girls slumped around the Lost and Found bin, and recognition flashed across her face when she spotted Fran.

"Oh, hello, it's you again. I've been expecting you," Ma'am Lorna said as she put the folders down on her desk.

As Fran and her friends got to their feet, she reached into her desk drawer and produced a small, pink object from which dangled a tiny, green and white rapier in a red scabbard. She laughed as Fran practically flew over to take her long-lost flash disk, while both Lisette and Yumi cheered.

"This arrived in our office just this afternoon," she told them. "It seemsto be a very important item, so I decided it would be safer in my drawer than in the Lost and Found bin."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I've been looking for this forever," Fran cried. "And please, if you see the person who surrendered this again, thank him or her for me for saving my life."

"Well, I'm sure he'll be very happy to hear that, child."

"Oh, it's a boy?"

"Yes, my son. He was the one who surrendered your flash disk here. He told me to give it to 'the pretty girl with short hair and glasses.'"

"'P-pretty girl?'" Fran echoed, a blush warming her face.

"Oh yes, he said that," Ma'am Lorna replied with a twinkle. "And believe me, if there's one thing my son is very, very good at, it's knowing beauty when he sees it."

For some reason, the words lingered in Fran's mind even as her friends openly speculated who this boy could be and what class he was in. Somebody actually thinks I'm pretty, she thought, smiling to herself. For a moment, she found herself wishing the words had come from another boy, one who was just so tall, with glasses and a little mole on his chin. Then she waved the notion away. Who cared who he was? He'd returned her flash disk to her, and more importantly, he'd given her a precious little gift besides.

Thank you, whoever you are. Oh, this year's definitely going to be special, I just know it.