When the bell rang for recess Gabriel was once again the center of attention. His brilliant idea of standing out in the rain where the whole school could see him had made him widely known, and even girls from the South building now came into our classroom just to talk with him. I sighed as I realized that he had probably become as popular as Michael, and only in twenty-four hours, and changed classrooms with Steph, trying as hard as I could to simply ignore him.
I felt proud of myself when I managed to focus my attention on what the teacher was saying, although that uncomfortable burning sensation on my back still remained. I decided that, logically, he wouldn't spend two hours uninterruptedly staring at my greenish jumper, which meant that sickening sensation was all in my head.
Like always we met the rest of the group for lunch and he naturally joined in, as if he were one of us. The others greeted him kindly, Joe with excessive joy, asking him about how he was getting along with everyone else. He answered all their questions with a smile, in that make-believe of honesty and kindness. As far as I was concerned, he was simply too close for comfort and the fear I couldn't seem to control began taking over me.
When we sat down I noticed that there were people peering at him from every table, the girls whispering and giggling among themselves. He seemed oblivious to it all. All he could probably see were foolish and insignificant Humans, frail pawns for him to use and manipulate at will.
"Are you finished? We'll be late," he told me in a warning tone, looking worried, and I almost dropped my glass.
"Late?" Joanne asked inquisitively.
"Yeah. I promised I'd help Mariane in the library. I guess it will be a great opportunity to better understand how things work around here," he replied and I put down the glass with too much strength, shuddering at the sound of my name.
"I'm ready!" I growled between clenched teeth and stood up. I heard Sarah and Joanne's laments at being deprived of Gabriel's company and he promised them that they'd talk again later. I stormed out of the cafeteria, trying not to give in to the shivering his presence caused me.
"What do you want?" I asked, sure that he was following me, even though I couldn't hear anything remotely similar to the sound of footsteps.
"Nothing, really." His reply was in that soft tone that, even so, I could clearly hear above any other sound. "You, on the other hand, were probably thinking about sitting there all through lunch break. You don't want to see that Human, thinking you won't be able to explain your presence there, afraid they might think that you're stalking him. But, if I'm with you, we'll only look like two cousins having a nice talk."
I froze on the spot, the cafeteria long behind us. He intended to follow me outside as my alibi? But that meant what I feared the most! I'd be taking him near Michael again! I could still vividly recall how scared I'd been just the day before, thinking about what he might do to him.
He walked by me like a shadow, always in that long, calm pace.
"You have nothing to worry about. I'm only trying to uphold my part of the Contract," he stated without stopping. "Coming?"
I had to force my feet to move and followed him, knowing he'd go to Michael with or without me. With me around I could more or less keep things under control, or at least try.
When we stepped outside the pattern that had followed him all day repeated itself once again. There were whispers, staring people and girly laughter everywhere, making me feel even more insecure and flustered. He was the talk of the school and I couldn't help thinking that it would certainly look strange, the new idol of Christ the King walking around with an insignificant girl like me at his side.
"There they are," I heard him say under his breath and I hardly had time to raise my head. "Hey! Michael!" he called out, waving at him with a pleasant smile, and I almost forgot how to breathe. To make matters worse, Michael not only heard him but also replied with a greeting and, before I could even think about what was happening, Gabriel was already moving towards their group.
"What do you think you're doing!" I demanded in a harsh voice, practically having to run to keep up with him.
"Greeting my new friends," he replied in an icy cold tone, even though he kept on smiling, and only stopped when he reached them. "Hey there! Since yesterday." Michael nodded politely.
"Yeah. Gabriel, right?" he asked but didn't wait for confirmation. "Hi there, Mariane," he said, peering at me as if I were a child hiding behind her mother, and my heart jumped as my cheeks heated up.
"Hi," I replied, too embarrassed for anything more, and he smiled.
"See? Haven't forgotten your name." Michael sounded proud of himself and I was completely lost in his warm smile. "You guys remember, right? She's the girl who saved me last Friday," he told the others with a bit of exaggeration, and I quickly became the center of everyone's attention.
"Oh, yeah. The girl who came running out of nowhere," recalled one of the boys and Steven greeted me with a light nod.
"And this is Gabriel, her cousin," Michael went on and I sighed in relief when their gazes shifted towards him instead.
"Ah! So you're the transfer student everyone is talking about," the same boy observed, staring at him from head to toe.
"Leave him alone, Francis!" a red-haired girl with dark-green eyes reprehended him. All smiles, she stepped forward and held out a hand, her skin soft and delicate. "My name is Lauren." I couldn't help notice her carefully painted nails, the same color as her lipstick.
I held my breath when I saw him move to gently take her hand.
"Pleasure," he told her with a smile and Lauren seemed to wish she could prolong that hand shake. Francis frowned, crossing his arms, obviously ticked, and the other girl approached him, jumping up and down like a child. She had white-blond hair and bright blue eyes, and looked much more energetic and outgoing than her friend. Unceremoniously grabbing their hands, she pulled the two of them apart, and hugged Gabriel's arm as if he were her doll.
"Me too! Me too!" she protested and looked up at him, flashing her golden eyelashes. "Hi there. I'm Maggie."
He laughed, a laugh I still hadn't heard in his voice and that, even though it seemed to be from amusement, made me shiver more than his usual deep chuckles.
"You two. You're completely hopeless," Michael criticized, still smiling, and Maggie squeezed Gabriel's arm against her full breasts as if he belonged to her. "Well, Gabriel, I'm Michael, you already know. And these are Steven and Francis." Gabriel nodded, although Francis looked determined not to acknowledge his presence any more than he already had done. "But tell me. What do you think of our school?"
"Very big. Great facilities," he replied in his short version, since he'd already answered that same question dozens of times, and Michael laughed, noticing his tedious tone.
"I see your first days haven't been easy."
"It was to be expected. There's never been transfers this late in the year," Steven pointed out.
"It was an emergency and a special favor," Gabriel replied.
"And what classes are you attending?" Michael inquired, sounding curious. I clutched my hands together, too nervous to stand still. Michael was right there, right beside me ... so close! Suddenly it was like I had also become part of his world, and those trivial questions were music to my ears.
"Since I came in late, I really didn't know what to pick. So I decided to enroll in the same classes as Mari," he replied and Michael's green eyes turned to me. Sure everyone else was also looking at me, but all I could see was him.
"I already know you're taking History. That's where you were going the first time we met."
I nodded a little too enthusiastically and he laughed, leaving me certain that I'd just done something stupid.
"Besides that we also have English Literature, English and Philosophy," Gabriel added as I could hardly speak.
"I see. All literature classes," he noted, still looking at me, and I blushed even deeper. "I, on the other hand, am all sciences."
"I know," I replied on impulse and immediately bit my tongue. He looked intrigued and I stammered looking for an excuse. "Um ... I mean ... well, you were going up to the second floor, right? There's only laboratories up there, right?" I asked with the slight impression my voice sounded too high-pitched, and he smiled again.
"True. Still, taking those kinds of classes, I'm sure you enjoy a good book," he concluded and I nodded, not wanting to risk saying something wrong again. "Oh, that's great! These guys here all think the only thing books are good for is to gather dust," he commented, nodding towards his friends, and some protests were heard.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Francis grumbled and Lauren approached us holding on to Michael's arm.
"Agreed! That's not fair!" she complained with a beautiful pout.
"Not fair! Coming from you, who's always asking me for my notes so you won't have to even smell the insides of a book?" he declared and my heart hurt because he wasn't pulling away, or shaking her off, or anything that would simply send her flying somewhere else!
"Michael, this may come to you as a shock but, in truth, there are much better things to do in life than burning eyelashes for no apparent reason," Steven added in his calm tone and Maggie jumped up and down still glued to Gabriel.
"That's so true!"
Michael sighed, looking defeated, and winked at me making me blush all the way to my ears.
The talk went from books to movies, which everyone else seemed to think much more interesting pastime, and they started discussing the most recent box-office titles. I couldn't help feeling dumbfounded when Gabriel joined in, apparently knowing more about the subject than Michael, and certainly much more than me. Still, to my relief, surrounded by all of them, I realized his dark presence was practically lost, consumed by Michael's warm brightness. And instinctively I knew that that was the reason why so many people naturally gathered around him. Michael brought light and warmth to all those he smiled at or greeted.
I hated the sound of the bell as much as I hated the sound of my alarm clock in the morning. Michael and his friends said their farewells, since they still had classes, and we agreed to meet again the following day.
I could hardly contain my excitement as I watched them walk away and soon there were only the two of us standing outside.
Away from Michael's light, the cold terror of his presence began consuming me again.
"I'm going home," he said with a sigh, apparently tired.
"I ... I still have..." I started and ended shutting up. Why was I trying to explain myself to him? He glance my way and I felt like someone was burning me with hot irons, even though I kept my eyes pinned to the ground, trying as hard as I could to keep the memory of Michael's gentle face brightly alive in my mind.
Gabriel didn't say another word. And, in silence, turned his back to me and walked away, leaving me alone and shaking.