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3

It is tomorrow morning. It's gotten so cold that the teachers decide to let everyone in early. Martin notices the posters all over the school hallways, advertising an evening Christmas dance for this Friday.

Normally, Martin would shrug off the event and stay at home, because he wouldn't have any girl to hang out with. With Clare in mind though, he decides to give it some thought – Christmas dance is almost as important as the Summer prom, and he'd imagine he'd be able to make some good memories with her.

He'd have to dress up fancy though; it's semi-formal attire, and all he has at home is this one-piece suit zipped up in a bag. He hasn't worn it in a while; he wonders if he could still fit wearing it..

Martin scours the halls, looking for Clare. He bumps into his friends David and Lucho who are just walking rounds in a circle path – asks them if they've seen Clare. She has blonde hair, and maybe she's wearing a black dress.

They don't know about her, unfortunately.

"Are you suddenly seeing a girl, Mart?" Lucho goes. "Is that why you haven't shown up for lunch before?"

"It's.. I've only met her yesterday," Martin says, "but it's actually kind of a long story.."

"I think we've got time, tell us!"

So Martin starts explaining to them the situation with Clare – how he met her by the bench, all the things that made him fascinated about her, and when he brought her to the nurse's office after a group beating.

"I made a promise to her that day," Martin says. "I want to show her that people can still be good to her. That she should never have to be afraid of getting bullied. She's beautiful, meng. Oh, if you guys meet her.."

There's still ten minutes before classes start.

"Why don't we go look for her?" Lucho goes.

By luck, David spots her in one of the classrooms, already sitting at a desk, reading a novel. ("That her?" "Yep.")

They enter. Martin notices she's got on some black eyeliner this time. As they come closer to her, she gets more and more buried in the pages of her book, shying away from them.

"Clare--!" Martin greets.

She glances up, recognising him, and her eyes light up with warmth. "Oh, hey. For a second, I thought you guys were--"

"No no, these two are my friends," Martin goes. "David, Lucho – this is Clare."

"Howdy!" Lucho shakes her hand, smiling. "Nice to meet you."

David meekly says "Hi."

Clare seems to scrutinize them from head to toe. Lucho, with that smile that comes out of nowhere, would be the kind of person you'd easily be able to get friendly with. David meekly stands, gazing off some distance aways yet still receptive to the situation at hand.

"You've seen those posters over the hallways?" Martin goes. "About the Christmas dance?"

She doesn't look too enthused about it upon first mentioning, until she realises just what he is about to ask. "What about it?"

"Well.." Martin blushes a little. "Do you want to go, with me? For a dance?"

A mixture of happiness and hesitation rushes through her. "I.. the dance.." She pauses. "People there are going to poke fun at me and you."

"So? Ignore them! That's not hard to do. If they try anything funny to you, Lucho and David can come along as our bodyguards."

"Right!" Lucho goes. "Damn.. I don't have a dance partner.."

"Go dance with David! Bodyguards shouldn't complain!"

"Emm.. okay!"

"As long as I'm around, I won't let anything happen to you," Martin says. "All that suffering you've been though, it is going to take a turn around, starting right now."

The bell rings, and they have to leave for their classes. Clare glances at them going for the door – she hears Martin say, "Just remember; if you can find even an ounce of happiness, all the pain and sadness won't matter."

And for her Physics class, the teacher's voice seems to die out of her awareness. Einstein's theorem of gravitation and energy.. what good does an abstract theory do against Martin's words? An ounce of happiness.. and all the pain and sadness won't matter.

She'd like to believe it with all her heart, really believe it, a glimmer of hope, and yet, there is always that dark spot in her mind laughing at her.

(it's more like all the happiness in the world won't matter)

(drowned away under pain)

Of course, Clare tries to fight it off, that goblin. Struggling against the icy rapids. With what little strength she has left-- sooner or later though, she'll fall victim to the void.

The warmth drains from her hands and legs, leaving them numb. She wants to curl up in a ball.

Fight it.

Picture yourself, held in his arms – he'll help carry you into the light.

Clare winds up forgetting to take notes for the class; instead she folds a piece of notebook paper into origami, a paper phoenix which she colours out with highlighter. She puts that into her pocket for later.

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7

On the night of the Christmas dance, Clare is dressed in her spider dress, her coat on, waiting by her doorstep for any sign of Lucho's van. Her parents have wished her good luck, and may she enjoy her time in the arms of a pretty boy.

The air is tinged with a crisp coldness – the kind of coldness she feels comfortable in, exposing her cheeks to. She doesn't know why that is. Coupled with her budding anticipation, it makes her feel precious (like she could walk easily in the inches-deep snow) and a foreboding – her dress would be the crown of thorns lodged on her body, the others jeering and mocking at her.

But no, they will never break her. Though she could have chosen the typical fluffy outfit like all the rest, or give up attending altogether, she is here now, ready to be laughed at, ready to hold Martin's arms in the music.

Earlier at school, Martin demonstrated how he will protect her during the dance; Lucho and David will be attending also, staying near her side (but not conspicuously so) – while there is little they can do about the occasional whispering, they will be watching out for anyone who tries something like splashing her with fruit punch, or outright assaulting her. They'll be dancing in the meanwhile, with each other or with other friends there.

"You'll be safe under our watch," Lucho promised. "That I guarantee."

Much of the houses in the cul-de-sac are lit with lights, multi-coloured hues diffused onto the dusk sky, as if to make a stand against the impending night. Her parents, having returned yesterday from their business trip, are busy setting up the Christmas tree inside at this very moment.

She sees the headlights come around the corner, and the van skidding slightly on the road. It pulls over next to the driveway. A loud honk.

Clare gets in the passenger door – it's a spacious van, and she is seated by Martin, drinking coffee.

"All set back there?" Lucho asks. "Okaay-- let's go."

The drive to school is tedious; when they've managed to see the building, numerous cars are jamming the road, where other students are waiting their turn to be dropped off or park. A white limosine in the midst takes up space – one guy steps out with a girl, dressed in matching red and white, and they are greeted like celebrities stolling on the red carpet. It's Vincent and Maria.

Apparently, the dance is so much of a big deal for everyone to get noticed, and Clare glances out the snowclad windows to see groups of people, dressed like Santa and his jolly green elves.

She is already looking out of place.

"Damn, the parking lot's filled.." Lucho says, noticing how the cars ahead are moving to the mall's parking spaces now, opposite the school's entrance. "Hope we don't get our suits dirty."

"Are you ready for this Clare?" Martin asks, holding her hand. "This is going to be our moment – let's make the most of it."

The parking spot they eventually wind up in is a considerable distance from the school. Their feet trudge through a mixture of yesterday's slush and today's snow, and it takes a while to cross the road over when the other cars are honking their horns at the passersby, impatient.

~

In the school's foyer, there are signs posted, pointing to the gymnasium and the cafeteria. Most people are swarming in the direction of the gym – Clare, Martin and his friends have to drop off their coats though.

Much of the school's hallways have been cordoned off. Only Lucho's locker is available, so they all agree to stuff their coats in there.

"Whoa.. Clare--" Lucho's eyes seem to widen, seeing Clare's outfit for the first time. "That really looks stylish!"

"She picked it out herself," Martin says, in his old one-piece suit. It's the same suit he wore when he auditioned for the strings orchestra a year ago. "I think it looks nice. Yes."

David just gives an approving nod. With his white tuxedo and bowtie, he is a debonair charmer (something like Sean Connery), having slicked his hair back.

~

And when the doors open to the gym, it's surprising how the gym's transformed from the typical basketball court to a lush dance floor. The spotlights from the ceiling dazzle; everyone is dancing, boogeying to the rapid beat of the music set by the hired DJ.

And Clare recognises the tune – it is September, by Earth, Wind and Fire. Hearing that song blared over the loudspeakers immediately gives her a sense of reassurance; she's heard it dozens of times back at home, when she'd privately dance it out wearing headphones in her chair.

So she dances.

She dances, shaking her body left and right. Nevermind what other people think of her. She dances on the floor, enjoying herself – sees Martin doing the same (thanks to her), and as the music starts transitioning to another song, she feels a wonderful euphoria rushing through her body, hot and warm.

If the night goes on like this, it could easily be the best night she's ever spent at the school.

..

After a while, Clare decides to take a short break from the dance floor – she pulls Martin along with her to the cafeteria for a eat to bite. David and Lucho head along too.

The kiosks are closed for the night, but in the midst of the food court is a table filled with cupcakes and caramel brownies, watched over by the janitor (who made them). The people who aren't really interested in the dancing sit by the tables, playing Magic the Gathering or just talking about the latest in game news. Numerous balloons are stuck floating by the ceiling.

Clare helps herself to as much of the brownies and cupcakes as she can; apparently her early dinner wasn't enough for this particular night.

"I'll be back, I have to go washrooming," Martin says.

In the washroom, as Martin sits down in the stall, he overhears someone entering, talking over the phone.

"Oh, it's perfectly alright," he hears, "I hope you're enjoying your time back at home. I'll show you some clips of Gina's wild dance moves after."

"Damnit, why did I have to get suspended by that bitch?" Martin recognises who it is over the speakerphone; it's Enrique! "I'm missing out on a lot of fun-- but that doesn't mean I have to cry about it. Listen, did you see her there?"

"Her?"

"Did you see Clare there at the dance!????" There is a kind of frenzied urgency in Enrique's voice.

"Yeah – she's got on this weird-ass black dress, and dude, you should have seen her funky dancing! Urghaurghaurgg! Trash like that shouldn't even be here in the first place."

"Go send her my regards for me, would you kindly. See to it she never wants to come back."

"Absolutely." That someone hangs up his phone.

Oh no..! Martin hurriedly finishes using the toilet, but before he can get a look as to who it is on the phone, that someone has already disappeared out the door. Clare is going to be under attack at the dance, but what should Martin do? She's having such a good time dancing, and he doesn't want to spoil her mood worried about the fact that someone's aiming their sights on her – the solution would be to have David and Lucho be extra vigilent watching out for her, and they should be able to intervene before anything happens.

Back at the cafeteria, Lucho is having fun with the helium balloons – he's breathing helium air from them, making his voice high-pitched like Donald Duck, which Clare giggles at.

"Hey Marty--!" Lucho grins. "Try the helium!"

"No, there's something important I need to tell you guys first--" He huddles Lucho and David together in a whisper, such that Clare can't hear – she glances at them, wondering what they are talking about.

"I was in the washroom and I heard someone talking over the phone with Enrique. They're going to do something to Clare – but I'm not sure what exactly."

"Who was that on the phone?" Lucho asks.

"I'm not sure. I didn't get a good look at him. Just be extra careful, and don't ever let Clare out of your sight; who knows how many people are going to be involved in this. Understand?"

"Si."

David nods.

Clare has heard her name mentioned in their whisperings. "What are you guys talking about?"

"I'm telling the guys some advice about watching over you," Martin goes. "So you don't need to worry about anything Clare. I've got everything under control!"

They make their way back to the gym, where it has become a slow dance, everyone coupled up in each other's arms.

"Relax," Martin says, taking Clare's hands, "and don't let go of me."

She buries her head in his neck, and allows herself to float through their movements. It's one of those sappy songs they're playing, but you can't help needing to be by someone's side upon listening.

been a long road to follow
been there and gone tomorrow
without saying goodbye to yesterday
are the memories I hold still valid?

Of all the loneliness she's endured, perhaps this moment signifies the light at the end of the tunnel.

or have the tears deluded them?
maybe this time tomorrow

the rain will cease to follow
and the mist will fade into one more today

She stares into Martin's brown eyes, glad that he has coaxed her to the dance, looking forward for today and tomorrow, and all the days afterward. To her amusement she notices over Martin's shoulder that David and Lucho are dancing as well in each other's embrace.

At the end of the song, everyone stops dancing – a slow clap from a few, which turns into outspoken applause for the DJ.

"Thank you! Thank you," the DJ goes, speaking into the microphone. "I would like to take this opportunity to give special thanks to the sponsors who have made this Christmas dance possible.."

Martin feels someone tug at his collar from behind-- dropping a sharp pin down his suit.

"Aaagh!" He tries reaching down his back to get it, but can't reach it – the pin is poking him by his torso.

"What's wrong?" Clare asks.

"Mierda, someone dropped a pin down my back..!" Martin says. He looks around for the perpetrator, but all he sees are people staring at him reacting out of pain. "Who did this?"

No one says anything; Martin hurries for the door so he could get the pin out in private.

Clare sees him go, and it feels like watching the comforting edge of the swimming pool moving away as she drifts towards the deep end.

She is suddenly surrounded by people – two girls who start grasping her by the shoulders.

"Hey Clare."

"How's it going, Clare?"

She immediately recognises the underlying mockery in their tone of voice; her first instinct is to struggle, break free of their grip. She tries lunging forward, but their hands still hold steady over her. "You bastards, let me go!" Clare yells.

Lucho and David hear the commotion behind them – they turn around to see Clare's arms pinned behind her, and the sound of a handcuff locking her wrists together.

"Halp!" Clare goes, gathering everyone's attention.

But suddenly, Gina takes the microphone from the DJ, a spotlight trained on her. "This is the Student Response Team, stepping in to intervene. We are taking Miss Belhomme from the dance floor for the sake of everyone's safety. Please clear the way to the doors."

Because the teachers needed a way to claim responsibility over the Christmas dance without having to actually supervise, they have appointed students to do that job for them. The Student Response Team, consisting of people wanting to get extra credit.

"What the hell?" Lucho and David step in between the gropers and the gym doors. "Clare didn't do anything wrong – you let her go!"

"Get those bastards off of me!" Clare tells them.

"Mister, she slipped a tack in her dance partner's suit," Groper #1 goes, hauling her by the shoulder. "That is why we are taking her out of here. Come on, Clare, let's go."

"I don't believe a word of it--" Lucho takes a swing at one of the gropers, but she quickly dodges and slams him in the chest with her elbow, sending him down.

"Resistance will be considered an act of insubordination!" Groper #2 glances down at the sprawled Lucho, before picking him up. "What is your name, boy?"

".. Lucho."

"Well Lucho, you have officially given up your dance privileges. Get out. Go home. If we ever see your face here again--"

Only one of the gropers have their hands on Clare, so Clare takes that opportunity to slam her on the leg, before yanking herself out of grasp and make a run for the exit.

Groper #2 paws at Clare as she rushes by, tearing her dress at the back.

The doorway is almost in reach..

Someone trips Clare and she tumbles down, her cheeks sprained by the waxed floor. She sees it is Maria, who just stares down at her, eyes blank and unsympathetic compared to the effervescent facade she had on earlier.

"Thank you, Maria," Groper #2 says. "We'll take it from here."

Clare could just barely hear everyone clap after the doors has shut behind.

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6

"I saw him by the washrooms," Clare tells Martin. "Enrique."

"Did something happen?" Martin puts away his phone – he's been playing Candy Crush while waiting for Clare to come back.

"The bastard taunted me." Without thinking, she grabs a soy sauce packet from the table and squeezes it in her grasp. She feels the packet pressed to its limits before it finally pops, spilling the wet sauce dripping down her fingers, onto the floor. "It's just like a dog, who's able to yip at his prey knowing it can't fight back. You ever know that feeling, Martin? Huh?"

Martin just stares at her stained hand for a moment. He's never seen this side to her before – it frightens him a little, actually. "Clare.. try to relax," he says.

"Non, why don't you tell him that instead? Maybe he'll relax after I make him hurt--"

"CLARE!" Martin erupts. "Puta madre! You will accomplish absolutely nothing out of revenge. He and his goonies hurt you – okay. I'm sorry. But striking him back, you'll be entering his realm, a place where dogs just bite other dogs lower than each other. A realm you'll be trapped in. And you will never find any happiness there, only misery."

Clare quivers, her hands shuddering at her sides, staring down in shame, eyes teary and red. The other people in the food court are staring at the both of them.

".. what am I thinking?" She lets go of the packet, letting it fall to the linoleum floor. "I'm.. I'm like a monster.."

"No you're not." And Martin holds her to his side in the empty space, in comfort.

"I wanted.. to hurt him, hurt them all so bad that they'd never breathe air anymore." Clare catatonically rests her head on his shoulder, shutting her eyes to the world. "I'm no good."

"It's alright.. everyone has these kinds of thoughts at times, whenever they get wronged by someone. It doesn't make you a monster though; you can always choose to move beyond it. What's good and what's not good, it lies in how you act to those feelings."

And with her sinuses tingling, Clare goes on shopping with Martin for her outfit. They visit the Christian Lacroix boutique store for the spider dress – it's dark inside, with low key incandescent lighting so that the shadows are noticably defined on the clothes displayed. The spider dress itself, eloquent with dark seduction upon the mannequin, is $260.

Luckily it happens to be on sale, being 10% off.

So Clare asks one of the assistants to get her the dress – he sizes her up first with a measuring tape, and then grabs an appropriately-fitted dress from the storage.

"Try it on," the assistant tells her.

She takes off her clothes in the dressing room and puts it on, finding it a bit hard to pull up the zipper at the back by herself. It fits her snugly.

Once she emerges out with the dress, it's like a different person is there. Her movements make the spider legs sway. The dark angel pirouettes, and Martin only gazes upon the black fabric overlaying her form, like it is an exposure of her inner being. He realises that having a swan dress upon her wouldn't fit her at all.

"Does that fit?" the assistant says.

"It does, oui."

So Clare gets the dress folded up in a box. Afterwards, she buys the gloves and boots from the Bay (for $80 total), and by the time she leaves with Martin, it is incredibly cold outside. Everyone is running back and fro from the mall to their cars. The blizzard tosses the snow on the ground in a whirlwind, and the icy air seems to penetrate through Martin's clothes, utterly numbing his joints.

It seems like an eternity before they make it back to her house. None of the lights are on inside, and Clare opens the door herself instead of ringing the doorbell.

Martin is shivering, his coat and pants white with frost.

"C-c-cold!" he goes, as he takes off his jacket and gloves. "Hey, why aren't your parents home?"

"They're on a business trip," she says, laying down the bags. "They'll be back in two days."

"I should have brought a warmer jacket.." He notices that Clare isn't shivering – she takes off her jacket without any complaint, and then helps Martin out of his coat and shoes.

"Oh, before I forget--" She gets the paper crane out of her pocket, which has been mangled from the blizzard. "I wanted to give you this."

"What is it?"

"It's supposed to be a paper crane. But it's.. miffed now. Sorries." She thrusts the colourful crane into his hand. "Here. Think of it as a lucky charm."

Martin smiles. He puts it into his pocket. "Now it can be miffed in my pocket, hehe." He takes a few steps, finding it awkward to move – his joints are still recovering from the cold, and his skin is fuzzy all over, getting adjusted to the house's warmth.

"My, you really are cold.." Clare gets the idea of putting him in the shower. "Why don't you come upstairs? I think I know a way to get you warm, fast."

She leads him up to the petite bathroom, where the shower hose is right beside the toilet, without a curtain. Some plastic buckets and little tubs are on the floor. A glowing LED display on the wall tells the temperature of the running water – 20 degrees celsius.

Martin thinks that Clare is going to blow-dry him warm – she takes off his sweater and puts her fingers by his shirt, lifting it up, making his hair fuzzy with static.

She gazes at his bare, masculine chest for a moment. There's some hair growing down his navel, and the thought of what might lie down there gives her a jolt of excitement.

"Clare..?" His heart starts thumping faster, sending a flush of warmth through his body. The only other time he's gone shirtless before a girl is at the pool parties, when he'd be hanging out with his cousins and their friends – but this is different.

This is just strictly between him and her.

He's never thought of her that way before.

"We're going to shower, if that's okay with you," Clare goes.

And then it hits him – he's about to get very close to making it with her; she's got no qualms about getting the both of them down to bare skin.

"What about my night clothes..?" he says.

"There's spare pajamas in the closet, just in case. I think they should fit you."

So she unbuckles his pants, letting it fall to his feet. And then his underwear. And finally, his socks. The places where she touches him make him feel tingly. While he is standing there, she puts his clothes by the chair on the corner.

Then Martin watches as she undresses – without any detectable trace of shyness in the motions. He sees her body, thin and slightly bony, her breasts lush and her nipples like buttons.

Visibly blushing, he fights the urge to get hard.

Clare can only smile; she nudges him to the shower, where she turns the water stream on, adjusting the heat of the water so to get it just right, where it's pleasurably steaming, but not scathing.

The droplets pour down both their faces, their figures.

Clare grabs her father's shampoo and starts lathering Martin's hair – it would be a tad silly to have his hair smell like cherry (like herself), so instead it'll smell like zesty mint. Her fingers rub to his scalp, massaging every bit of his hair.

Some of the lather drips down his back, his chest and legs, spilling down onto the drain.

It reminds Martin of being in a massage parlour, except with more sensuality and intimacy. He just closes his eyes, and let himself drift off into a place where he could relax, his senses at the behest of her whims.

After rinsing off his hair, Clare gets a handful of soap cream and starts washing his body – first his chest and back, and then his arms (his armpits are quite hairy)..

He shivers with anticipation about her washing his lower half.

She manages to keep a straight face about it, even though it feels kinky.

Once she's done with Martin, she washes herself-- he asks her if he could do it for her, but she says no.

Finally, she shuts off the tap, and the whole washroom is covered with steam. Water drips from the showerhead, with the tubs and buckets on the floor filled to the brim. Clare pours out all the accumulated water – splash!

She dries Martin first with the towel, rubbing the cloth on him like she's making a fire, and then herself.

With the mop from the corner, she dries the floor.

"Wait here, I'll get you pajamas," Clare says, having the towel wrapped around herself as she exits. This leaves Martin alone in the bathroom, time enough to dwell on Clare – the different facets of her he's seen; the shy girl at school, the tasteful girl at the mall, the sensual girl just moments ago in the shower..

She'd wanted to hurt those people who humiliated her all these times. He vividly pictures her bloodshot eyes as she squeezes the soy sauce packet.

Thinking about it, he'd be no different if he were in her shoes. Vengeful, afraid and withdrawn. Maybe he is lucky enough to have had avoided all that, but then, what would give him the right to tell her to let it go, just like that? He hasn't felt the kind of pain she's endured.

It actually pisses him off, realising how some people just land in unfortunate circumstances, whether by accident or by luck. That there are people who are inherently better off in life, and they don't even realise the disparity between themselves and others, or that they realise it, but they don't seem to care.

Everyone should always have equal opportunity to find happiness.

Out of that noble notion, he is with Clare now. As a friend, a self-appointed guardian angel who will try his best to make the bad people go away.

He should tell her that she's truly one-of-a-kind person he's ever met – that's what he feels.

She emerges in the washroom, wearing pink bunny pajamas (so cute!). The pajamas she has for Martin are quite plain in comparison, blue with white stripes, and he puts them on with no trouble whatsoever. They seem quite loose and baggy, wearing them.

"They don't exactly match your size," Clare goes, giggling. "I guess it's because we might have guests over who are on the bulky side."

"It's fine, it's fine, I like the looseness, it makes me feel comfortable."

By the sink, Clare gets a spare toothbrush beneath the counter for Martin, and they brush their teeth together.

~

In the darkness of Clare's room, the window is a faint and distant orange from the diffusion of street lights outside. You can hear the howling of the icewind gale, the sound of which makes Clare and Martin grateful they're huddled up in those three layers of blankets.

For some reason, he finds it difficult to drift away into sleep. He's so close beside Clare, and he could smell her cherry-scented hair, and the lavender from the bedsheets. He sees her outline in the darkness, and he wonders what it would be like to steal a kiss from her lips.

He hears her breathe in and out, softly and gently.

I wonder what she dreams about, every night? He could only guess – he hopes they are pleasant dreams, as a solace from the harsh reality she faces at school.

One thing comes to mind – to make a prayer for her well-being; he remembers his mother always used to whisper prayers from the book of Psalms when he was young, when his mum thought he was asleep in bed. Perhaps the same kindness can be shared with Clare.

So he whispers one to the empty air, in the name of St. Maria. He tries very hard to recall the exact words his mother used; the parts he found fuzzy he improvised.

Then he hears Clare shuffle in her sleep – she tosses an arm over Martin's chest, and it feels like he is being clutched to her side.

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5

"Seriously, why become a spider?" Martin goes – they are walking home from school, he and Clare, and the dimming sun grazes their eyes just over the trees and houses. "That is a very off-beat choice.."

For a while, Clare just shuffles forward. The snow intermittently tumbles from the tree branches onto the ground, as her footsteps go 'crunch'.

Then she says, "Do you really want to know why?"

"Si."

"I'm not an angel, Martin," she goes. "I never was. I don't have the white wings or the angelic purity of heart. Instead, I'm the shadow underneath your feet, which you constantly overlook. I'm the shadow that hides in every corner, under every thing and every one. Hiding behind every smile and every light. Because the people who love the light hate me, I thrive in the darkness where even the ugly things can be made beautiful."

Before God made it light, there was shadow. Before people were born, they were nurtured in shadow. And when they die, they come back into the shadow again.

The smile Clare has bears a heartbreaking fondness.

"I know who used to live in that old, shabby place," Clare says, pointing at a dilapitated house with plastic wrap over the fractured windows. Martin has passed by this house a couple times when he'd go to the galleria. "He was a Vietnam veteran who only wanted solace after his line of duty, having seen death and destruction a world away. He only comes out just to buy groceries. Then they carried him over to a nursing home and this place is left empty since. I think his name is Roger."

"I never knew that.." Martin says.

"His pet hamster is buried underneath the bushes there."

Clare's house is by the cul-de-sac that overlooks the hilly field. The maroon roof and steep staircase to entrance make it look eerie. Not that far away from my home, Martin thinks.

By the door, Clare gets the key from her knapsack and lets Martin in first.

Her house is quite claustrophobicly small – Martin can already see the cluttered kitchen and the living room with its small flat-screen TV hung on the wall beside many family portraits and paintings.

"My place doesn't look like much, hehe," Clare goes, helping Martin hang up his jacket in the closet.

She watches him stare at all the memorabilia on the shelves. The bronze coat-of-arms, bearing the name "Belhomme." Some awards from Clare winning artistry contests. A toy cow resting beside a Cowstian Dior cowbell.

"Waw..!" Martin exclaims. He points at the surrealist paintings of landscapes, of flowers and dolls on the wall. "You did this?"

"Mm mm. It was for the Gothica contests, where you have to paint based on a theme or certain constraint." Clare pauses, gazing upon her own pictures. To her, it is remarkable how the things one sees everyday, taken for granted, can be joyeous and interesting in the eyes of another. Having Martin in her home makes her feel delicate, as though everything she is has been put on display for his eyes. "The one with the Siamese dolls for example, I could only use the warm colours."

The Christmas tree hasn't been hung up yet.

Upstairs, when Martin sees her room, he is awestruck by the eclectic layout. Tatami mats are lain on the floor beside the pink bed, with a glass cabinet of perfumes and perfume samples beside her closet. In the corner is her bookshelf with a pile of stuffed animals by the bottom. And just by the window, he sees her desk littered with a laptop, papers, scraps from magazines, and a makeup kit.

Clare lays her bookbag down before jumping onto her bed, landing on her back, bouncing up and down. She invites Martin to join her in its comfyness.

"It's soft," Martin remarks. "Smells like lavender."

"I wanna show you something." Clare opens the glass cabinet and gets one of the samples. She sprays it over her neck. "Here, smell."

Oh, that's where the scent comes from.

"Every time I get the chance, I collect perfumes by the mall," Clare says. "When I smell them, it.. whisks me somewhere. The lavender-scented one is a garden deep in the forest, where the sun can hardly penetrate. And hidden beneath the vines, is a Celtic gate, where it leads you to the labyrinth below."

Martin tries out each and every one of her perfumes; after three samples though, he finds it difficult to distinguish amongst the next bunch, and Clare gets him to take a breather before continuing on. He eventually picks out for her Belle D'Opium (by Yves Saint Laurent) as the perfume of choice for the dance.

"I think this suits you the best," Martin says. The scent is quite mysterious.. a dark, deep and sensual violet.

Clare just nods. "That will go with some black lipstick." Then she rummages through her desk, through the fashion clippings with the outfits, and finds the one with the black-laced dress. She shows it to Martin. "And this is what I'll want to wear."

The dress is droopy, with webbed embroidery around the neck and spidery "legs" protruding from the shoulders.

"Along with this.."

She picks out another clipping with dark red Christmas gloves.

"And this."

Black combat boots that almost go up to the knee.

"That's what I mean when I want to dress up like a spider," Clare goes. "At the dance, I could definitely shine with these on."

"I guess you could.." Martin says. "You are going to stick out like a sore thumb, though. How are you going to pay for these?"

"I still have the winnings from the contests," Clare says. "Think that amounts to $350, more or less – those outfits aren't much in demand, or else I could be paying twice that."

~

Martin gives his parents home a call to let them know he'd be staying over for the night. He goes with Clare to the galleria – the air has grown dramatically colder, and by the time they arrive inside, he is shivering through his layered coat.

And he's hungry.

Man, he should have eaten something before--

"I'm hungry," he admits.

"Are you? Hmm."

"I don't have much money on me.."

They make a detour from their planned shopping and wander off to the food court. There are a lot of choices, ranging from the standard burger combo at McDonalds to Thai cuisine at Yum Yum's.

"It'll be cheaper if we get the 2-combo special from Yum Yum's," Clare says.

Overall, she pays $14 for the both of them, and by the time the chef is done frying their combo, their mouths are watering from the rich cuisine that's served.

It's sweet and sour fried rice, with teriyaki chicken, peppered duck and vegetable curry. With two Sprites on the side.

They sit beside the glass railing where they can see all the shoppers one floor below.

Clare just silently eats her portion for the first three minutes – pausing mid-bite once in a while as if some thought has grabbed her focus from the present moment.

"You know what I'd like to do during the holidays?" Martin says, finishing his duck. "Host a movie marathon night with friends. The theme of the movies will be Westerns, because I like the bad ass cowboy action." He aims an imaginary revolver at Clare. "Bam bam bam. 'I'm gonna be a cowboy, baby.'"

"How nice." Clare remains cooly detached while glancing elsewhere, at the other people eating.

"What's the matter? You don't like Westerns?"

"They're not really my cup of tea," Clare replies. "I don't know why.. it's just the idea of being out on the crude desert, guns blazing, it doesn't really appeal to me. I like science fiction more. Solaris, Twelve Monkeys.."

"There's Sci-fi Westerns, like Firefly and Serenity," Martin goes. "Best of both worlds, huh?"

"Hm, touche. Listen, I'll be back – I gotta pee."

As Clare proceeds down the hall to the washroom, she spots a familiar face – one that makes her heart leap and her gut freeze inside. It's the ringleader from the group who assaulted her before! His beady eyes lock on with hers.

(Enrique, his name is?)

She flinches.

He notices, and lets out a light chuckle. "You're funny, Clare." He fakes a light punch to her face before walking away.

Clare clenches her fists very tightly, staring at the guy's back. His red shirt has a grizzly bear and the number '9'.

Getting suspended didn't even faze him, apparently.

All she can think about while sitting in the stalls is the dread of facing him and his goonies in the future. Will they be at the Christmas dance? ("They're from the band and cheerleading squad..") Most likely they will.

No.. it's not that.

It's the fact that she flinched in his presence – that she is afraid of him, that she could not forgive.

"Merde!"

She punches the side of the stall, so hard that it bruises her hand, making the stalls rattle.

"Hey-- what's going on?" she hears from the other side.

"Err, nothing!" she says. "My hand slipped."

"I heard a shout, was that you?"

"That was me yelping in pain! I'm fine."

Clare notices an indentation where she punched the stall wall. If that is the guy's face instead, she wouldn't mind how hurt her hands get as long as she makes him bleed for what it's worth.

qdesjardin: (Default)

4

The monochromatic hallways are always an eyesore. Clare hauls her binders to her locker, doing her best to ignore all the voices that might be pointing at her. She puts away everything for next period – it's Home Economics class, where you get to do a little baking.

It's one of the few classes where she's able to relax. The others have always congratulated her because all the food she's made tastes just perfect.

She remembers when she was very young that she liked to try mixing various ingredients from the kitchen, even though most of them turned out to taste not-so-good. Here, when the teacher provides everyone with a recipe for something, Clare just trusts her own gut instinct instead. She'd bake cookies with some vanilla and cinnamon inside of them, or cake laced with banana and chocolate chips, and she'd smile when everyone would hungrily devour them. ("It's soo good..!")

Heck, she might grow up to be a chef someday.

She is just lucky enough to finish baking her brownies in the oven, and already the teacher is awaiting the first taste. "Mmmm.. c'est magnifique!" after her teacher has finished chewing one. "Mme. Clare, you will grow to be a fine chefesse in the future."

Clare lets a few of the students have her brownies before she saves the rest of them in a tupperware container.

At lunch, she heads for her locker to retrieve her lunch bag – a minute sandwitch with strawberry yogurt and salad. She keeps the brownies with her as she wanders off, looking for Martin.

"Did you hear? Enrique and Gina got suspended because of her..!" she overhears.

She bumps into him near the vending machines.

"Clare!" Martin goes. "There you are!"

"Martin.. I want to go to the dance with you."

"That's the answer I've been hoping for." He grins. "Let's go."

He leads her over to the computer lab, where David and Lucho are huddled by the monitors at the back, watching the League of Legends World Championship Series.

"You guys go here too.." Clare comments to herself. "It's just you've been sitting at the back all this time."

"And you usually sit where?" Martin asks.

Clare points at one of the computers in the left aisles, by the middle.

"Ohh – I never noticed you!"

Martin and Clare pull up chairs to join them. Right now, it is 53 minutes into the match between 'Las Dodos' and 'Counter Logic Gaming.' Both team's inhibitors are down, and everyone is duking it out at the Baron Nashor. It'll be the deciding point of the match – where the team that wipes out the other team will make a rush to the other team's base and destroy their nexus.

"Red team triple kill! Read team quadra kill!" the in-game announcer goes. "Ace!"

"Look at Reno go!" Lucho exclaims. "I tell you, you don't need ADCs anymore; you just need a good AP to soften everyone up and bruiser like Lee Sin to finish em down! Fatality."

Clare lays down her box of brownies on the table and opens it up. "Anyone want some brownies? I made some."

"Mmm.. brownies," David goes, as his fingers pick up one of the sweet chewy things and munches on them. "Man, they're really good!"

Lucho half-mindedly reaches for a brownie, not batting an eye to the screen, and when he finally tastes it, it's as if a switch has just flicked inside him and he turns to Clare, saying, "These are professional quality – Clare, you made those?!"

"I did."

"Waw.. to me it tastes like.. I don't know, it has a very sweet taste upon first eating, and then you chew it and you discover deeper layers of sweetness."

Clare takes Lucho's comment very deeply to heart. She smiles, reflecting over all those moments making those brownies.

"Do you cook at home?" Martin asks.

"Sometimes. When my parents are out on business meetings or if my maman gets sick. On se lève à l'occasion si nécessaire."

"You're French..?"

Clare cooly scoffs. "Oui. My parents.. they've always told me I come from royal heritage. As a little child, they'd tell me old faerytales about queens and princesses – how I was destined to be a princess when I grow up."

This gives Martin an idea. "Hm.. do you have some attire for the dance?"

"Do you mean formal wear?"

"Something like that. You could dress up just like a princess at the dance, Clare. Easily outshine all the other couples who attend." He grins. "A swan princess.."

A beat.

Clare nods a little. "Maybe.. maybe I could." The most that she's ever dressed up fancy for is during Halloween a few years ago, dressed as the evil witch Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Some of the younger children were visibly intimidated by her, which she took as a compliment – the adults and older siblings would admire her outfit otherwise.

Overall, she thinks of herself more as a 'dark' person, and dressed herself everyday as such. The image of being a bright and pure princess, it doesn't really apply to her.

"How about a spider princess?" she goes, shocking everyone around.

"Why?" the surprised Martin goes. "What are you thinking? Spiders are very creepy.."

"Most people are afraid of spiders.." Clare explains. "But I personally think they are terribly misunderstood creatures. They spin beautiful webs, just for the likes of flies and mosquitoes. They are not out to hurt or scare people, unless you intrude upon their safety." There's a hypnotic tone to her words.

She comes up to Martin, seductively playful now, a finger under his chin. "And just imagine yourself.. wrapped under the spider's embrace. All its eight legs holding you at its mercy. For a few seconds, you don't know whether it's the last moment of your life."

Martin is visibly eeked out.

"Then-- it gives you a back massage! Bwaaaa!" Clare giggles.

"Don't scare me like that!" Martin says, almost shaken out of his chair. "Why can't you be a nice swan? Halloween's over two months ago."

"Hey, a spider princess might not be such a bad idea actually," Lucho says. "She could dress up like 'Elise', the Spider Queen.."

"Yeah, but spiders? They don't really fit in with Christmas."

Clare says, "They meshed in Santa Claus, elves, pine trees, and the myth of Jesus into Christmas. Maybe spiders are the next thing."

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