A/N: Single update this time. I apologize again for taking so long, but life has been beyond crazy and this chapter has rewritten itself a few times. Thank you so much for support! Seriously, every follow, fave, and review means so much to me. The dust is finally beginning to settle so I'm hoping to be updating more frequently on all three stories. If all goes well, I'll be down to two by summer's end ;)

*Remember when we first started this journey together I told you no pairing is all good or bad. Everything I have done or will do I can back up with words and events from the show or commentary from its creator.*

Without further ado, I give you chapter seventeen of split screen sadness.

Lucas thumbed through his comic book, disappearing into the fictional world of Barry Allen. His fingers were itching to unfold Riley's latest letter, but he continued to deny them. There were already too many words in his head; angry words to his girlfriend, secrets the brunette had shared with him on the rooftop. So many words and no resolution in any of them!

He knew it was wrong to avoid his troubles this way. It wasn't fair to Maya, leaving her on such a vague and hostile note. Though he doubted it bothered her being at odds with him. She'd reached out over the last few days, sent texts and left voicemails, but nothing that indicated any distress or remorse. If anything, she seemed annoyed, which was hardly incentive to make contact.

In the past he would have gone to Riley. She would've listened without judgement and by the end of their conversation he would have confidence, clarity, peace of mind. Whatever he'd come in need of, she would've unknowingly provided. She'd called it a turning point, as though they were finally finding their way back. That seemed to make her happy. He was glad, but couldn't find it in his heart to agree.

Nothing had been the same since Texas. Even before the choice or the almost kiss, there had been a shift in their relationship. But Lucas didn't want to think about that so he pushed the thought aside, burying himself inside Flashpoint instead. He'd read this issue before- many times- but never given much thought to the story itself. After all, stories were created for escape and entertainment, not deep psychological analysis.

It was a perplexing concept; the difference between a multiverse and an altered timeline. He thought about Barry's memories rewriting themselves, but somehow that led to thinking about Riley and her speech the last week of school. He'd never realized before how many of their memorable moments included Maya. Sure, he had known that she was there, but had never thought about what that meant.

He could easily look back on his time with Riley and pinpoint the milestones. There were specific memories that begged to be relived in the quiet hours of morning. He couldn't say the same of his relationship with his girlfriend. There had been no gradual build, only a sudden rocketing into the stratosphere. It was only after months of reflection that he'd realized those moments with the girl he thought he would end up with were also moments with the girl the guiding hand had chosen for him. The day the brunette fell into his lap was the same day the blonde approached him on the subway. The day Riley had supported him in the election was also the day Maya had made the choice not to play that recording to the class, prompting him to name her secretary. Just like that his history was being revised.

Why it was Maya, he still didn't understand. The only interest they shared was Riley. They didn't like the same books, movies, or music. They had different goals and life views. They didn't even get along all that well. So why were they still together?

The kiss; or rather the spark preceding it, had started it all. That was the part that he truly enjoyed, the part that made everything else hurt less. It numbed the pain of all he'd lost and the frustration of their daily fights. It distracted him from the shame and guilt he carried where Farkle and Riley were concerned. But it didn't make those feelings go away. They were always there, even when he couldn't feel them.

Making out was fun and it felt good, but that wasn't a substantial reason for a relationship. He knew that, and he liked to think she did too.

Unlike him, she seemed to enjoy the fighting almost as much as the kissing. Though, that hadn't been the case with their last confrontation. In his anger, he had aimed the harshest words he could think of where he knew she was most vulnerable, and they'd struck with deadly aim. He hadn't meant to take it so far, but the damage had been done. There was no taking it back. Whatever happened between them hinged on their next conversation.

He leapt with the bell, from his hiding place in the school library. He should have been on the other side of the building, rushing to his own class. Instead he was standing in the hallway across campus, awaiting and dreading his target's arrival, as the newest member of their circle rounded the corner.

"Hey," he greeted the sophomore with a forced dimpled grin, "Do you have a minute? I'd kinda like to talk to you about something," he asked, getting straight to the point.

Caleb glanced to the side, as though considering the request.

"Well, that's definitely different," he chuckled to himself. "You've never had much to say to me before."

Whether they were hanging out with the guys or with the group, Lucas had never been much of a participant. Each time they shared company the blonde was either nose deep in a book or quietly observing from the sidelines.

"Haven't I?" Lucas inquired, one side of his face scrunching until it appeared he was winking.

The dark-haired teenager shook his head with an amused smirk.

"Not really. You've barely said a word since we met," he replied.

The blonde wanted to defend himself, but found no evidence to support it. Yes, he'd spoken in Caleb's presence, but never directly addressed the guy himself.

"Well allow me to correct that," he said, extending his hand, which the second young man accepted. "Hi, I'm Lucas." The image of a shy brunette hurling back toward him flashed through his mind, but he blinked it away. "It's nice to meet you."

He could see her smile, the light in her eyes when he'd told her his name.

"Officially," he added with a smile. This time more genuine.

Caleb nodded as he shook the Texan's hand.

"Likewise Lucas. I've heard a lot about you," he stated with emphasis.

His green eyes narrowed at the comment.

"What have you heard," he questioned curiously.

And more importantly, who had he heard it from?

The brunette shrugged as he took back his hand.

"Just that you're a great guy who would do anything for his friends," he explained.

Lucas nodded, a little disheartened. He wasn't sure what he'd been hoping for, but apparently, that wasn't it.

"That's actually why I wanted to talk with you," he confessed.

Caleb's brow raised skeptically.

"About how great you are," he teased, in a way that brought Zay to mind.

A soundless chuckle escaped his lips against his will.

"No, about a friend we have in common," Lucas clarified. "Specifically, Riley."

The sophomore's stature shifted at the mention of her name, and his friendly features contorted into an expression of concern. Which meant that Riley wasn't a conquest to him after all.

The freshman felt something in his chest tighten at the realization, but forced it down. It was good that his feelings were real. It meant that he'd have to respect her wishes.

"Look, I don't know exactly what your intentions are with her but-" the blonde began, but was distracted by laughter that unexpectedly burst from the brunette.

His hazel eyes glistened with humor.

"My intentions," he parroted, "what are you, her dad?"

To anyone else it would have been a joke, but Lucas had met Riley's father and there was nothing funny about his overprotective nature when it came to his daughter.

"Yeah, no," he said, stretching out the vowels of the first word, and then swiftly hammering the rebuttal. "He's a whole other ballgame." He thought back to that first day when he had drug Lucas, seat and all, out of the cafeteria. "On a different field," he continued, remembering the first time he had been chased from the window with only one shoe. "Possibly a different planet…" he paused lost in thought while Caleb patiently waited. "Anyway, like I was saying," he restated, "I know you guys have your little back and forth thing that you do, and that's fine," he faltered a moment before regaining his nerve; her words from the rooftop spurring him forward. "But that's not really her thing. She just doesn't know how to tell you that."

Lucas studied Caleb's expression, anticipating a reaction.

The sophomore nodded in understanding; a friendly but reserved smile forming on his lips.

"Okay, well, I appreciate your concern for your friend, and I get that you just wanna protect her, but Riley doesn't need protecting, especially from me," he assured before glancing at the clock on the wall. "I have only the best of intentions and I'm not gonna do anything without a green light from her."

Lucas could hear the sincerity in his words and it made him feel about two inches tall. He had been so quick to judge the stranger, based on nothing more than his argumentative nature with Riley. It may be different from what he'd shared with the brunette, but that didn't make it wrong. Part of her even enjoyed it, even if she didn't want to or understand why. He'd never treated Riley with anything other than respect, and Lucas and his friends with kindness. Even when the Texan had been less than welcoming.

"So we good," he asked expectantly, growing anxious to make it to his classroom before the second bell rang.

The blonde nodded with a smile.

"Yeah man, that's all I wanted," he said, releasing him.

Caleb shot him one last smirk over his shoulder as he hurried toward his class, like a dagger to his pride. Much as he hated to admit it, the guy was very likable. Which meant his disdain for the newly inducted member of the group was purely of his own making.

He turned around, ready to make the long walk to the other side of the building, only to find a familiar gorgeous blonde standing behind him.

"Maya," even the way he spoke her name oozed of exasperation. "Hi."

She looked small and fragile standing there, looking straight through him. The corners of her mouth tugged upward as she offered him a half-hearted smile, making his stomach queasy. He searched the deep blue eyes that so often flashed with emotion and found them lifeless. For the briefest moment, he longed for the shade of anger in those ocean orbs.

Timidly she took a step forward, her hands limp at her sides.

"You don't have to look so scared Lucas."

She never called him that.

"If I wanted to yell at you, I could've done that over the phone," she stated flatly.

And she wasn't picking a fight.

He struggled to wrap his brain around the olive branch she was extending. This wasn't the Maya Hart he knew at all. The Maya that he knew would have come into this conversation with blazing glare and wicked grin. Was it possible she was just as weary of the constant contention between them as he was?

"I'm just surprised to see you," he stuttered nervously. Something about this calm and collected girl standing before him put his senses on edge. "I thought your next class was over by the gym." Which would have put them on opposite ends of the school as he'd originally intended.

The amazon warrior peered toward the ground, having seemingly developed a fascination with her shoes.

"It is." There was a pause before she finally looked up, meeting his gaze.

"I was looking for you," she admitted sullenly.

His lids fluttered as he tried to process what was happening. After days of avoided calls and texts, she had come searching for him. She wasn't angry, annoyed, or even defensive. There'd been no hint of this attitude in any of her voicemails or he might have returned one of those calls. It seemed his words had cut deeper than he had predicted or intended. All that time he'd wasted crafting a defense might have been better used forming an apology; a way to build her up after breaking her down.

"Well, you found me," he said with a sheepish smile, attempting to lighten the mood.

There was no reward for his efforts. He wished that she would laugh or smile. Even her shouting was preferable to eerie composure.

"I did…with Caleb of all people," she replied, pointing toward the corridor the sophomore had disappeared down.

Both glanced around the empty hallway. The bell was about to ring, but Lucas was in no hurry to get to class. This was the conversation that would determine the fate of his relationship and he'd been putting it off long enough. He gestured to the side doors that would take them out the building and off school property. She followed his lead, him holding the door open for her, and then trailing behind. All the while her mind churned on the image of Lucas and Caleb together in the hall.

She wasn't sure when she'd clasped her hands in front of her, but she began twisting her fingers as she groped for words. It had taken time for her to feel his absence, and a day or two longer to realize it wasn't what she wanted, then another day to swallow her pride. Finally, she was ready to talk, but he must not have been because all her attempts went unanswered. She'd been on her way to work things out when she'd stumbled on the blonde interfering just as he'd scolded her for.

"I figured you wanted to apologize to him for my…what did Riles call it? My incessant need to throw her at someone," she quoted the words with care, spinning rapidly to face him. "But I didn't even come up, did I," she asked without waiting for a response. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised," she mused with a tilt of her head, "That's what we do, right? That's our pattern," she continued in a tone that made him wonder if she was speaking to him or thinking out loud.

"Riley sees us kissing outside the school and you blame me. I hold your hand in front of her and you attack me for it. She runs out of the bakery upset, and you threaten to break up with me," she huffed in frustration, shaking her head. "It always comes back to her," her voice was breaking and he couldn't tell if it was due to sadness or anger.

Lucas reached for the back of his neck as she listed his many so called offenses, his blood simmering as he thought back on each experience. His jaw set in a hard line and his green eyes smoldered with contempt.

"The reason I "blamed you," he spat venomously, placing air quotes around her choice of diction, "is because you ignored me all day and then slammed me up against a wall to make yourself feel better. I "attacked you" because you only reached for my hand to stake your claim after making a rule that you didn't want to hold hands," he went down the line, fueled by fury. "And I wasn't threatening you when I said-"

Maya stepped closer, invading his personal space. At one point this had intimidated him, but somewhere along the way the maneuver had lost its effect. Now it only escalated their battles.

"That you were done with me," she challenged defiantly.

Any humility or regret she'd felt evaporated with his rebuttal.

He took another step forward; close enough to feel the heat and the burn he associated with this tiny blonde firecracker.

"With this, Maya," he exclaimed, his hands waving wildly in the small space between them. "With the constant fighting, and the schemes, and the way you're always turning things around on me to make me seem like the bad guy!"

The complaints came pouring like water from a spigot.

"When I'm really the bad one," she asked skeptically with a raised brow.

It was the role she'd signed up for; her part of the duet. She'd always known this, and never minded…until now. Maybe she had gone it about it the wrong way, but she hadn't meant to. It wasn't like there was an instruction manual lying around for rules on how to get with your best friend's unofficial ex-boyfriend without hurting or disappointing anyone. Even if there was, who would read it? The title alone was a mouthful.

Lucas heaved a sigh, his shoulders sagging in defeat. Tempting as it was to lay all the fault at her feet, it wouldn't be fair. Everything she'd accused him of, to some extent, was true. He still harbored feelings for the brunette, and though he was extraordinarily protective of her as a friend, he couldn't always discern- nor had he always tried to- what actions were fueled by which motivation. He didn't know why Maya did the things she did, but she was his friend too, and his girlfriend. He owed her the benefit of the doubt.

"You're not a bad person," he replied, running a hand through his dirty blonde hair.

He'd spent the last two years as her friend, and though he still didn't comprehend her complexity, he'd seen enough to know what it was Riley, Farkle, and everyone else saw in her. There had been moments of weakness, glances at the girl behind the wall; at the campfire that night when she'd revealed her insecurity about the future. Again, on New Year's, when she'd given him his first compliment. She had spoken softly and with kindness, peeling back her defenses. It was only then he could imagine the depths hidden behind that snarky surface.

"You just don't know when to stop pushing."

It was one of the very first things he had learned about the blonde. In pursuit of establishing a movement against homework, she'd accidentally raised a sparkler from Farkle's presentation too high, setting off the sprinklers in the classroom. Mr. Mathews had shouted the words at the top of his lungs. Maya had a tendency for overstepping. It was in her nature.

She wrinkled her nose indignantly.

"Funny," she remarked, "you didn't seem to mind my scheming when I was pushing Riles into your lap!"

He didn't even try to deny that claim. Instead he snapped back, "That was different!"

"Why," she shot back, "because it was you?!"



She was trying to shift the blame from herself to him, but he wouldn't allow it. This wasn't about him and Riley. It was about her and Riley; about her ignoring her best friend's discomfort and protests whenever the subject came up.

"Because we both wanted it," he insisted.

Yes, she had given both a nudge forward when they'd stalled, but she'd never pushed them to do anything they didn't want to do. Riley had wanted to talk with him that day on the subway, she simply lacked the courage to initiate. They both did. There had always been a desire to communicate and connect between them. The same couldn't be said of her attempts to force Riley and this new guy together. She wasn't sputtering or stumbling through efforts to be closer. The brunette was visibly discouraging a relationship. Something neither he or Riley had ever done with one another. At least not until Texas.

"You keep pushing her toward Caleb and she keeps fighting you," he growled, smacking the palm of his hand with the back of the other. "Doesn't that tell you anything?"

Maya combed her hair back from her face in frustration. She didn't know whether to cry, scream, or break something as she tossed her head back and inhaled quick and deep. A strangled shriek escaped her lips, unable to find the right words. How could she possibly make him understand?

"It tells me…that Riley doesn't know what's good for her." She exhaled slowly, determined to reel her emotions in. "She never has. That's why she has me."

Lucas stood straight and tall, unmoved by her explanation. It was clear that he'd already made up his mind she was the one in the wrong and nothing she could say would absolve her of that crime. But he might listen to the words of someone he trusted to tell him the truth; someone he respected and admired.

"Without me, she would never unfold her hands," she repeated her best friend's declaration from long ago. If he wouldn't listen to her, perhaps he'd hear Riley's reasoning. "I've always pushed her, and yeah, she doesn't always like it at the time, but she's always grateful after the fact."

He liked to think that he and Caleb were worlds apart in comparison, but that wasn't true. The brunette had fought her every step of the way when it was Lucas as well. She had rebelled against speaking with him for days. Each time she'd prodded she'd been met with silly arguments like "we have a great text relationship" or "I walk through life the way I walk through life." If she'd let Riley call the shots she would still be secretly sniffing him from behind.

She sat down on top of a nearby picnic table; her expression weary.

"Look, I know you think I'm selfish and I want her to be with someone so the mess with us won't matter anymore, and yeah," she conceded, peering up at him the blue in her eyes reflecting back like a broken lens. "I want that. Of course, I do…but that isn't why I do it."

He sat down next to her, leaning his elbows on his knees.

"Then why?"

Her delicate hands began to paint the air in front of her, forming a small invisible ball in her hands.

"Riles lives in this tiny little bubble of acceptability. And she's comfortable there, sitting with her hands in her lap, but she's not really living." She turned to face him as she elaborated. "The only time she steps outside that bubble is when I push- "her lips curled into an amused smirk. "Or in some cases toss her, into the unknown."

This subtle reminder elicited a smile from the Texan.

"She likes her feelings small and manageable. She has no idea what it's like to feel something so strongly that it completely takes hold of you," there was a wistful tone to her voice that told him she wished this for her friend. "But I know that you do," she said, catching him off guard.

"I'm pretty sure that's why the universe put us together, because we both feel things in such a big way."

He nodded in acknowledgment, replaying her sentence in his head. He'd been asking himself for days, weeks, months even, what the universe saw in the two of them together that he couldn't see. Was that what kept the two of them together; the will of the universe? Neither of them had meant to start this, yet neither seemed capable of walking away either. Each time one of them tried that inexplicable sensation made the decision for them.

"It's probably also why we fight the way we do," she observed with a playful smirk.

He had to admit, it was kind of cute. Even if he didn't understand her sense of humor, it was good to see her smile, and he found himself returning the gesture. These moments between them were few and far between, but he enjoyed them. Perhaps that was what kept him holding on, the hope that someday she wouldn't feel the need to hide her true self from him. The person he was now and the disguise she wore so well made no sense together, but perhaps it was the potential of what they would become that kept them coming back for more.

Whatever he felt for Riley was irrelevant to the equation.

If all she said was true, and she was merely trying to live up to her half of their previous understanding, he couldn't fault her for that. He knew the brunette wouldn't either. However, if she continued her current path it was possible the bonds of their friendship would fray to nothing. He couldn't allow that. Not when the shift in their dynamic was a direct result of his choices.

"I know that's how things were," he swallowed the lump in his throat as it hit him once more that neither friendship would ever be the same, "but she's different now."

She didn't want to hear that. She wanted him on her side. Even if he didn't agree, even if she was wrong; she wanted his support, especially when it came to her best friend. But she said nothing.

"Maybe she doesn't need you to push her anymore," he suggested gently.

She didn't want to hear that either, but what if it was true? What if Riley didn't need her anymore?

"Did she tell you that," she asked.

He hung his head, not wanting to confirm, but she wasn't Riley. She didn't know how much it'd hurt him to say those words, and she didn't understand him well enough to read between his lines.

"Not those exact words," he replied, just above a whisper.

He hated hurting her, hated hurting anyone.

She nodded solemnly, the corner of her mouth twitched but never rose.

"Okay, so maybe you're not jealous," she said in defeat. "Maybe you're just a better friend than I am."

Lucas hadn't known Riley nearly as long, and yet, somehow, he seemed to know her best friend better than she did.

He reached out, placing his hand on her shoulder with a consoling squeeze.

"She knows you mean well," he assured. "Just maybe give her the chance to figure out how she feels on her own."

He pulled his hand back, wishing he knew some way to make this better for her. His jaw fell agape as she slumped against him, resting her head on his shoulder. Instinctively, he wrapped an arm around her. She glanced curiously at his hand, but did nothing to discourage the gesture. It was the closest to a comfortable silence the two had ever shared.

They sat quietly, him holding her; afraid of saying or doing anything that might break the spell. This was what he wanted; conversation, connection, peace. As she sat in his arms, exhausted and depleted, he found himself wondering if they could have that together. Their classmates had given them the title of fire, but if he was both campfire and library, and temperament was the one thing they shared, wasn't it possible that there was a little summer rain in her too?

She met his gaze, clear blue orbs shimmering back at him.

"What about Farkle, do you think he knows I had good intentions too," she questioned.

It was the first time they'd discussed the subject and Lucas was at a loss how to respond. He'd like to believe the genius still saw the best in them, but his commentary that night in the theater implied otherwise. He knew they'd earned his anger and disappointment, but she was on the verge of breaking. He couldn't tell her the truth. Fortunately, she spoke before he could.

"I know Riles is right. I'm the one that messed everything up and I'm the one that needs to fix it…it's just…I'm scared. I'm not a fixer like her. When I try I just make things worse."

The way the words rushed out of her mouth reminded him of…no. He wouldn't keep comparing them. That wasn't fair to Maya. He needed to be there, in the moment, with her.

He stroked her arm, pulling her closer..

"I don't think it can get much worse," he whispered into her golden hair.

She sighed, staring out in front of her.

"I think we finally found something agree on," she replied.

While Lucas was struggling to disentangle his thoughts, Riley had been grappling with her own dilemma. It wasn't until she'd watched him disappear down the city street that her words from their conversation began to sink in. She'd been so flustered and frustrated the words had gushed out, but now that she'd had time to reflect on them she was embarrassed to have revealed so much. She'd confessed things to him that she hadn't even admitted to herself yet. She'd criticized his relationship with Maya without even realizing it. Worst of all, for the first time since her return, she'd allowed herself to imagine her life had his choice gone differently.

The letter had been a nice cover, and she had meant what she'd said. Humiliating and inappropriate as it had been, it felt good talking with him again. She sighed, propping her elbow on her desk, twiddling her purple pen between her fingers. It was wrong to think about all the little ways she had held back, to wonder how he might've responded had she said what she was truly thinking in those moments.

She could never understand it before; how he or Maya could both claim to have feelings for two separate people. How could Maya go weak in the knees each time her uncle walked in the room and still want to be with Lucas? How could Lucas like her so much and still choose the blonde? She was beginning to understand. While she was still withdrawing from Lucas and all they had shared, she'd somehow managed to get strung out on someone else.

The brunette shifted her head left, glancing back to her newest vice, catching his gaze. Quickly she turned away, but a small, warm shiver ran through her as she sensed his hazel eyes still on her. As much as she'd tried to deny it, she wanted them there. She wanted his attention, his focus. She wanted him to want her.

Because she wanted him. At least part of her did; the part that wasn't still pining over her best friend's boyfriend. What was she supposed to do with that? She knew what to do with her feelings for Lucas. Bury them in the bottom of her soul and pray they never resurfaced. But what about the rest?

Caleb Fuller, too, was the complete package. Not only was he visually appealing with those deep mysterious eyes and wide charming grin. He was also intelligent; well-read and well spoken. He wasn't afraid to disagree with anyone. In fact, he was quite forthcoming where his passions were concerned.

What might it be like, were she to become one of them?

He was persistent in his ideals. No matter how many holes she poked in his defenses his conviction stood. He fought back fiercely and with such sincerity that she found herself wanting to believe him. Would he fight for his own love the same way? And if so, what girl wouldn't want to be loved like that?

Their teacher's voice sliced through her thoughts before she could venture further. Which was probably best considering their dangerous trajectory.

He stood at the front of the class in his khakis and white button up shirt. The sleeves rolled up to the elbows. The only splash of color in his ensemble was the bright blue tie hanging from his neck. She got the feeling he wasn't quite accustomed to the accessory by the way he kept playing with it at random. Even now, he held the end of the fabric in his hands, peering down at it as though he were puzzled with its existence around his neck.

"Alright," he said, tossing the tie aside, addressing the room. "I want you guys to pair up into groups of two and discuss last night's reading. You can disagree, that's fine," she could have sworn he narrowed his eyes first at Caleb and then her as he made that statement, "just please, be nice about it," he pleaded.

This time she was sure that comment was directed toward them.

She turned back once more, her pen now hovering at her lips. They were the only two in the class to openly spar about the material, so it wasn't exactly a stretch. This time he offered a mischievous smile and a bold wink, taking her by surprise.

He was confident, she'd give him that. Most her fellow students walked through the halls with their eyes on their feet, trying to be as invisible as possible. But not Caleb. His eyes were always on the horizon, his angular chin proud but not too high, a smile on the curve of his lips. He was hard not to notice as he waded through the sea of bodies with ease. Of course, he was sophomore. He'd had time to acquaint himself with the place before they'd arrived.

Mr. Honeycutt had asked them to pair off, leaving the choice of partner up to them. She knew Caleb would want her, just like she would want him to. However, she wasn't sure she had it in her to go another round with him at present. While their discussions were lively and unpredictable, they were also exhausting. Which was exactly why nothing of a romantic nature could happen, she reminded herself.

Her classmates whispered among themselves, searching for their own partners. Desperate to avoid another head-on collision with the brunette she turned to face the childhood friend sitting behind her.

"You and me," she asked with a hopeful smile.

He peered back at her, his blue eyes shining with an unspoken apology.

"I'm sorry," the genius replied, fidgeting with the copy of the play in his hands. "I already have a partner," he explained gesturing to a boy diagonal from his desk, "and even if I didn't, I'd still have to say no," he tacked on swiftly.

Her cocoa orbs clouded in confoundment.

"What do you mean you'd have to," she probed.

He sighed, his gaze cast downward. After her outburst at the bakery earlier that week he'd promised himself he wouldn't interfere anymore, and perhaps it wasn't his place, but this wasn't just about Riley anymore. For better or worse, Caleb was one of them now. Whatever happened between them would affect everyone.

"Do you remember last year when I realized you were lying, how I begged you to tell them what was going on and you refused?"

On instinct, she pulled back, somewhere between stunned and stung.

"Are you saying it's my fault we're like this," she asked, the slightest tremor in her voice.

A shadow of bewilderment crossed his features. That wasn't what he had been trying to say at all. Though he knew how sensitive the girl was to criticism, he'd forgotten to account for her insecurity.

"I would never say that, Riley. I would never put that on you," he assured, glancing over toward his new partner before refocusing his concentration. "We all made mistakes."

He was still angry, for several reasons, but he wasn't above seeing his own role in it all.

"For example, shouting your secret out in front of our entire class was probably one of mine," he admitted. "Your mistake was holding everything in and trying to take the weight of all our misdeeds on your own," he elaborated carefully.

A small chuckle escaped her lips as she thought of her dramatic exit at her mother's bakery. No one could accuse her of biting her tongue after that display.

"Talk to him," he urged before rising from his desk.

She appreciated what Farkle was trying to do, but he didn't understand. She couldn't talk to Caleb; not the way she had done with Maya, Lucas, or even the genius himself. There was a language barrier between them. She spoke in sarcasm, he responded with innuendo, or occasionally vice versa. Either way their conversations never got off the ground. One more reason they could never be more than friends.

Every nerve ending stood in salute as he neared. Already she could feel his influence over her; a power he hopefully was unaware of. She closed her eyes tight, wishing it away, but her heartbeat rang louder with each step he took. It had been so much easier when she could blame those feelings on her new identity or some otherworldly spirit taken over her. Now that she knew the true cause, it was nearly impossible to dismiss or ignore.

"I don't have a partner yet," he declared with a bone melting smile and boyish shrug.

A biting laugh erupted from her tiny frame as she shook her head. There it was again, that poised tone and playful demeanor that she found equally fascinating and infuriating, if only because she envied it so.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," she replied, knowing he wouldn't accept the rejection without a fight.

He ran his thumb along the edge of the book, shuffling the pages.

"I think it's a great idea," he stated. Already she was getting lost in his twinkling orbs. "We're both clearly familiar with the material and we keep each other on our toes," he continued.

His second reason was enough to rip her from her shameful reverie. It didn't matter that he was devastatingly attractive or incredibly devoted. A relationship was supposed to be more than getting lost in someone's eyes or flirtatious banter. It needed substance. It required a deep and meaningful connection. What kind of relationship could they possibly have with only their Romeo and Juliet debate to sustain them? They couldn't.

"Why," she challenged, genuinely curious. "We'd only end up arguing. That's what we do."

His shoulder lifted to meet his jaw in a half shrug. A gesture that perfectly matched the roguish smirk his lips had curled into.

"Maybe that's why," he countered. "it's never boring."

Riley rose from her seat, arms crossed and eyes narrowed. She leaned in as though about to offer a secret.

"But not exactly productive," she refuted.

Caleb studied the brunette. She was as stubborn as she was beautiful, and already gearing up for her next strike, he realized. He thought back to Lucas's warning earlier that day. The guy hadn't told him anything he hadn't already figured out for himself and he'd had every intention to proceed as usual, but as he stood there for the first time he feared that he might be fighting a losing battle. He'd thought he was doing the right thing, playing by her rules, but if he couldn't get through to her, make her really hear him, then it would all be for nothing.

"You know, we're not so different, you and I," he said.

His words were a white flag waving high and she wanted to reward him for it, to say that he was right, but she couldn't. It would be a lie. The version he knew wasn't the real her. Or maybe it was now, but hadn't always been. Everything she'd said and done with him went against her nature and her better judgement. Whatever she might feel, she couldn't deny that.

"Not as much as you might think," she stated matter-of-factly, thinking that might somehow make it less hurtful or sickening. It didn't.

He'd offered a truce and she'd thrown it back in his face.

For the first time she could remember, the corners of his mouth fell; the handsome smile that churned her insides gone. His brilliant hazel eyes had gone dark, as fading to gray. Seeing him this way made her physically ache. She'd known he'd be disappointed, but never had she imagined such a hopeless expression on his face. Never would she have thought to hold such power over someone, especially not someone like him. But there it was. She had finally won and took absolutely no joy in the victory.

"People generally see what they look for, hear what they listen for," he replied, his tone lifeless as he turned to find another classmate who might be willing to work with him, though most were already taken.

A spark of recognition flared in the recesses of her mind. She knew those words from somewhere.

"To kill a mockingbird," she murmured breathlessly.

One side of his mouth lifted into a knowing smirk. For once he had not just her attention but her ear. He'd made a connection.

He shifted to face her with a half shrug. "See, not so different," was all he said.

It was something; a reminder of one interest she knew they shared. They both loved literature, internalized it in a way only lovers of the written word could. In her haste to place distance between them she had forgotten the most important lesson her father had taught them. Friends talked. Real friends listened. In all their tit for tat, she had never bothered to listen. Banter was built for amusement not understanding. One only had to listen long enough to form a response.

That had been her mistake before. She had stopped talking and without talking there could be no opportunities to listen.

"Why does it matter so much to you…what I think of the play? What do you get out of trying to change my mind?"

Every interaction, every conversation, came back to this one subject. Was it all a game to him? A way to get her attention? Surely, he could see how frustrated she became at times. Why continue to push her buttons, unless it was just for the sake of setting her off?

Again, he shuffled the pages of his copy. Did he do that absentmindedly or was it a tick; something he did when he was nervous like the way Maya ran her hand down the middle of her head or Lucas scratched the back of his neck when agitated?

At first he opened his mouth to speak, but there must have been a circuit shorted between his brain and mouth because nothing came out. The second time a soundless chuckle came out, but still no explanation. This time when he smiled she could sense the anxiety behind it. He wasn't confident or teasing. He was stalled.

"It's just that…"finally the words came, "how we interpret literature, it reflects how we interpret the world." He gave another nervous grin before trying again. "I've seen you around. If someone drops their stuff, you stop what you're doing to help them. If they forget their lunch money you either give them part of your meal or run them through under your account."

Riley was speechless. He hadn't been drawn to her just for her looks or because he enjoyed "being kept on his toes." It was more than that. He had seen her, noticed her, noticed things she did. Boys didn't do that unless they cared. Her limited experience with Lucas and Charlie had taught her that much. But it still didn't answer her question.

"I guess I just have a hard time believing that someone as caring and kind as you could have so little faith in people. It doesn't seem like it should be that way."

For someone who had sputtered at the start, he finished strong. The color had returned to his eyes and his smile was less strained, more natural now.

Her lips spread into a coy grin as she thoughtlessly tucked her hair behind her ear.

"Okay, I'll be your partner."

Light beamed from his every feature as he grinned triumphantly in return.

Riley went home that day with a new conundrum to solve. Though she had left Caleb back at the school, his words were still with her. He had a way of doing that; plucking her chords, without even being aware of how masterfully he played her. In every conversation they'd had, there'd been a moment when it was not her responding but the other her, the former her. The her that had loved so blindly and lost so much.

She wasn't that person anymore.

But if that was true, how did moments like the one they'd just shared keep happening? They had worked peacefully and respectfully until the bell rang signaling the day's end. Being the gentleman that he was, he waited patiently for her to gather her belongings and then accompanied her out into the hallway. This time when 'd called her Juliet and bid her farewell it hadn't felt like a tease or a chess move. It almost seemed…dare she say affectionate?

Was it possible that he knew who she was, even when she wasn't sure?

The brunette found herself drawn to her bookshelf. Carefully, she ran her hand along the spine of her collection before stopping on a familiar worn copy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. She pried the book from its hiding place and brushed the tips of her fingers against the cover. Inside the pages was the spirit of all she had been. Words of hope, faith, and optimism filled every margin; a mind and heart comparable to his own. She didn't know if she could ever be that person again or even if she should, but she knew that she didn't want to be faithless.

She pulled out her phone and texted three simple words: Ask me again.

Riley entered school the next day with Maya at her side. Though she was grateful to have her friend back, it wasn't quite the fantasy she'd spent several months imagining. Their initial reunion had filled the brunette with inexplicable bliss. However, the magic had quickly faded and been replaced with unease. The blonde's return hadn't healed the wounds within their circle, as she had hoped. Instead her presence had shed a light on the many cuts and bruises they each pretended didn't exist.

They could no longer deny the changes between them. Even she, the most optimistic of them all, could feel the difference. She didn't know how or when it had happened, but the girl standing next to her was not the same one that had tossed her toward Lucas that fateful day in the subway car. That Maya would never have broken a promise to the father they shared for the sake of simple curiosity. She also would have known better than to think that her sister would judge her so harshly. What she had done to earn her friend's distrust she wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. She would do whatever was necessary to earn back her good standing.

'Even if it means lying to everyone else you care about," an inner demon jeered.

For a fraction of a second, her smile faltered.

Maya, who had been gushing about the artistry of spray paint murals and her wonder at the complexity of the process, froze mid step, tugging on the brunette's arm until they were face to face.

"Hey," her eyes narrowed as she studied her sister's expression, "you okay?"

Riley nodded and smiled, attempting to assure the blonde, but the tone in her voice betrayed her. Before she might have been able to skate by on overstretched grin, but not now. She would have to confess something to keep her friend from prying further.

. "It's just…I was wishing that we hadn't waited so long. We were supposed to take all our classes together," she reminded.

The pint-sized freshman offered a thin-lipped smile in sympathy. They both knew this wasn't how it was supposed to be.

Suddenly, Riley's coffee colored orbs shimmered with hope.

"Maybe it's not too late. We could talk to the counselor and you could switch over," she burst out, clapping her hands excitedly.

It was the perfect solution. They had grown into the break, but surely, with time and vicinity, they could grow back together just as easily. Sharing the same curriculum provided the perfect opportunity. Not only would they be seeing one another in class, they would share projects, notes, and homework assignments as well. Their bond would be re-established and whatever spell this Ronnie person had over her would be broken. They would be Maya and Riley again.

The blonde could see that her best friend's mind was already miles ahead of her mouth and a potent shot of reality was required.

Her dream came crashing down as Maya snickered with amusement, her golden ponytail tossing side to side.

"Sorry Riles, but I happen to like the easy way," she jested, slinging her arm around the girl's slender shoulders and leading her toward the fork in the hallway. "You on the other hand," she continued, giving her companion a gentle nudge, "get a sick and twisted satisfaction out of this whole school experience. You like books and science and counting your A's-"

Riley lifted a finger in defense.

"Mom's the one that does that," she insisted, but Maya didn't seem to notice.

She paused at the intersection, inspecting the brunette one last time before shifting her in the opposite direction she would be headed.

"Now you go be a good little student. Make sure you listen to your teachers, and try not to bring any of them home this time," she teased with a playful grin.

Riley let out a small giggle at the joke, but there was no humor in it. Despite her complaints and impatience on the subject, she found herself missing her father. For the last two years he had been both parent and teacher. Sure, he had been overprotective and irrational at times, and had occasionally blurred the lines between the two roles, but he was always there. Now she was lost and alone, and he wasn't there to find or guide her.

Even if he were, it wasn't as though she could confide her troubles to him anymore. She couldn't tell him about the disastrous morning in her bedroom the day before or how she had felt like a rag doll standing there between them as they both made verbal jabs at one another. Or worse, how seeing the two of them in a room together had flooded her senses, driving her fear to the surface. Maya clearly resented her boyfriend; whether it was due to his choice, or their new level of closeness, she couldn't be certain but neither theory inspired comfort. She knew, of course, that Lucas loved her and would never do anything to hurt her, but his hostility toward the blonde hadn't gone unnoticed and it frightened her.

The image of Lucas's wild gaze just before pinning her against her bedroom door flashed through her mind. She knew exactly what he was feeling in that moment. Her own blood had been singing with the same hunger. For the first time in her life she had understood what Maya meant about having her senses overwhelmed. It hadn't mattered that they were in her bedroom or in the middle of an argument. There had been no decision process and no thought to consequence; only that bottomless "need" neither of them understood.

Mentally she flinched at the correlation her mind had unwittingly made.

Anger may not be a positive emotion, but it was a passionate one. The one thing her boyfriend and her best friend shared. And with that thought the picture in her brain began to bleed and transform into an image of a nightmare. It was no longer her against the door, but Maya, tangled up in her boyfriend's arms. It was her fingers digging into his hair as he kissed her frantically, feverishly, as though he would never get enough.

Her hands flew up over her face, as if that would somehow blind her mental eye. She squeezed her lids shut, willing the deformed memory into darkness. With great concentration, the lines of their bodies began to blur, losing shape and color like a chalk painting in the rain. Now there was only the sound of their racing hearts, in perfect rhythm, to torment her. She could hear the blonde panting as they continued to paw at one another in the dimly lit room in her brain, her best friend's name on her boyfriend's tongue as he tasted her. Hearing his voice moan her name like that was more than the brunette could bear.

Her hands slid from her face to her ears as she hastened toward her destination, desperate for escape.

Halfway down the hall she felt someone take her hand. A small yelp passed her lips as her body twirled off course and into the strong set of arms eagerly awaiting her. His arms. Instantly she melded into the embrace, dropping her bag to the floor. Her hands roamed the length of his back, her fingers curling over his shoulder blades as she pulled him closer. Still, she could hear him murmuring Maya's name in the darkness of her mind. With a strength she didn't know she possessed, she pinned him between her small feminine frame and the wall. Again, the image threatened to flare to life, but she pushed it away.

Lucas had never been on this side of their make-out sessions before nor had he ever given much thought to what it might be like. He found it strangely appealing, being the one trapped between an immovable object and a seemingly unmovable force. Against the wall, he was helpless to whatever delicious torture his girlfriend saw fit to bestow, and it appeared on this morning she "needed" to kiss him more than she wanted to. He would have happily complied with her attempts to disappear inside that feeling had he not witnessed her unravelling in the hallway.

With great effort, he pried his body from her own, though she clung to him, desperate for the haze of desire to cloud her troubled mind.

"Riley, what are you doing," he groaned as he fought off her spine tingling assault on his senses.

To his shock, this question seemed to have the opposite effect intended. Rather than drawing her defenses back, his words emboldened her. Her mouth twisted into an uncharacteristic smirk as she latched onto the back of his neck and began to lure him back down to meet it.

"If you have to ask, then I'm not doing it right," she murmured against his ear, sparking every nerve ending he possessed, before smashing her lips against his.

Was she doing something wrong, she wondered. He hadn't made any complaints. In fact, he seemed to losing himself a little more with every kiss. But it hadn't always been that way. That was something that had come with time and experience. In the beginning, he had been cautious, seeking her approval. Maybe that was what had drawn him to Maya? She wasn't afraid to let herself feel things deeply or get carried away in a moment.

She nipped at his lower lip the way she had seen her best friend do in her mind and was rewarded with the same tormented growl she had imagined.

He pulled back, framing her face with his hands. Over the last four months each time he had basked in that candy colored gaze he'd found himself stargazing. As he dove into those beautiful eyes, all he could see were golden flames dancing in those chocolate orbs. This was a new problem. One he had not expected. Riley had always been the reserved one in the relationship, the strong one. Even in the heat of the moment, she was the one that always pulled back first. It wasn't like her to be blinded by the stirring of blood and electricity.

But it was like someone else he knew…

Instinctively he tilted his head to the side as she planted little kisses along his jawline.

"Riles," he tried again, "we have to stop. The bell is gonna ring any second."

This did nothing to deter her, as her hands continued to roam freely, reaching for the buttons of his flannel shirt.

"We're freshmen, it's a big building, we could easily have gotten lost on our way to class," she reasoned, her fingers marching a trail down his chest as she spoke. "No one's gonna care if we take a few minutes to…" What was a suggestive way to say this, she thought?

"reconnect," she finished with more confidence than she felt.

It wasn't that she didn't care about being late for class. She did. Of course, she did. She was the good girl, the good student, and silly as it might seem to her friends, she took great pride in her many certificates of perfect attendance. All of which Lucas knew. But what he didn't know, what she couldn't say, was that there was a much more immediate need to be filled; peace of mind.

"You pulled me in here," she purred, as she slipped her hands beneath the fabric of his button down. "Isn't this what you wanted?"

Yes, his body screamed, but his heart cried out for something more.

It had been the first he had seen or heard of his girlfriend since begrudgingly placing her in Maya Hart's care, and judging by her current condition, he had been right to hesitate. Every word and gesture since he'd spun her into his arms wreaked of the blonde's influence. Whether she had deliberately altered the brunette or indirectly, he didn't know or care. Either way he was powerless to shield the girl he loved from whatever damage the rebellious teenager could inflict. Riley believed in Maya like she believed in Pluto, blindly and passionately. There would be no swaying her from her best friend's defense.

Gently, he gripped her shoulders pushing her backward. Immediately he ached for her warmth, but space between their bodies was essential if he was to get through to her. His hands swept upward, cradling her head, demanding her gaze. He needed her to hear his words and know that he meant them.

"I didn't do this just to kiss you," he protested.

Her brown eyes locked with his green orbs and there was a flicker…of fear.

Quickly he fumbled to clarify his intentions. He wanted her, just not like this.

Not when she wasn't her.

"Don't get me wrong, I enjoy kissing you, and hope to continue doing so for a very long time, but it's not why I pulled you in here. I just…wanted to see you, be near you," he explained.

"I miss you," he whispered with such sincerity his voice made her quiver.

She understood exactly what he was trying to say. She missed him too. In a way that went so much deeper than the physical act of speaking or spending time together. She missed who they had been together, to each other. They were still them, but that certainty was gone. Maya's return had changed something between them, created a distance that hadn't been there before. She loved her best friend and was happy to have her back. But she missed who she had been without her. And worst of all, she felt guilty for feeling that way.

The weight of that realization came barreling toward her, knocking her senseless. What was she doing trying to bury her guilt and fear inside the boy she loved? That wasn't fair to him. And it wouldn't make them go away.

Tears pooled as she glanced up at him. She suddenly felt as though she were losing him all over again.

"I miss you too," she confessed brokenly.

Lucas had to stifle his relief as she crumbled in his embrace. As much as he hated to see her in pain, part of him was just happy to see that his Riley had come back to him. He held her, brushing back strands of her hair as she let it all go. The bell was ringing but he didn't care. He would stand there forever if she needed him to.

"I'm here Riles, I'm right here," he whispered, never meaning anything more. "I'm not going anywhere."

She clutched him tighter, burrowing her head into the safety of his shoulder. She'd been shamelessly throwing herself at him, trying to climb inside that place where her thoughts always ceased, but it wasn't in the burning intensity she found comfort. It was in his patience and effort to lure her back to reason. He could have had anything he wanted in that moment and all he had thought to ask for was her.

If that wasn't love, what was?

His green eyes cast down searching for a sign that the storm had passed. The first of many, he feared, and again he wondered how it had come to this. How had something that began so simple and right been warped into a bittersweet happiness built on the unhappiness of a friend…or rather a former friend? She could barely look at him now without hatred burning in her once crystal clear gaze. Not that he could acknowledge that fact or the pain it caused him.

Maybe they hadn't been as close as she and Riley…or she and Farkle…or she and anyone really. They'd often bumped heads on issues, but he did care about her. Not the way he cared about the brunette who was now trembling in his arms, but there were feelings there. It was easier to not to dwell on all they had once been though. Things got confusing when he thought too much.

For more months than he cared to remember the thought of her had brought only one image to mind. One of round sparkling eyes filled with shock, maybe even fear, and slightly parted lips hovering far too close to his own for comfort. Even now if he relived that moment in his head he could hear her gasp, feel the silk of her golden hair beneath his hands. Everything about the memory felt wrong…but it hadn't felt bad. Thankfully that image had been replaced with newer less mystifying ones. His feelings for who the blonde was now and where they stood were perfectly clear to him every time he caught a glimpse of the turmoil broiling beneath the surface in his girlfriend's eyes.

At first he had blamed himself, his choice, for doing this to them. But over time his guilt had shifted along with his hindsight. All he had done was what the girls had asked of him. That was when they bothered to ask. Most of the time they had apparently just made the choice they assumed was best for everyone without bothering to consult those who would be affected. On its own it was an understandable offense. Riley and Maya loved one another and wanted to make the other happy, but only one of them had considered his feelings, misguided as her perception may have been. Add to that disregard her constant ridicule and the hell she had been putting her so called sister through for months, his anger had only multiplied.

"You wanna tell me what just happened," he asked, running his hands up and down the brunette's arms.

Riley glanced up at him, hesitation in her eyes.

It wasn't that she didn't want to tell him. She knew it was the right thing to do, and she wanted to. Under any other circumstance the matter would already be resolved and forgotten. But this wasn't any other circumstance. It was Maya, the Achilles heel of their foundation.

Their relationship was one of mutual trust and support in every aspect, save one. Most of this was her own doing. Both Lucas and Maya insisted he'd never felt anything for the blonde other than friendship, and most days she believed them. But on other days, like this one, those doubts still lingered. Her insecurity and over-analysis played tricks on her mind until she was convinced that every silence or statement held some double-edged meaning professing their secret desire for one another.

She'd trained herself to separate knowledge from emotion, but that wasn't enough for him. He wouldn't be satisfied until those fears were nonexistent. She didn't have the heart to look him in the eye and tell him that day might never come.

"I was just missing you," she replied dropping her head. "I'm all better now, she assured with a smile.

His lips followed her lead, curling into an adoring grin. There was still concern in his eyes though. He knew there was more than she was saying. It was why she'd lowered her gaze. She didn't have it in her to lie to his face.

He paused, pondering how to proceed.

"You know you can tell me anything...don't you," he asked tracing the path of her arms until he found her hands.

She nodded as he entwined their fingers, peeling her from his chest.

Whatever she was hiding, she clearly intended to keep to herself. Unless he was willing to suffer the consequences of a confrontation it was best to change the subject. They'd built a solid connection over the years. He had to trust that. He had to believe they had both learned from their mistakes the year before.

"So tell me about yesterday, how was the big surprise," he inquired.

The wheels of her brain raced for a response and came up empty handed.

"It was, uh, definitely surprising," she stammered.

Lucas wasn't quite sure what to make of her answer, but appeared not to dwell on it as he leaned down planting little kisses on the back of her hands.

"Well, if anyone asks if you have plans this afternoon, the answer is yes. I have somewhere I wanna take you," he confided enthusiastically.

Her watched as her head tilted toward her shoulder, studying him.

"Lucas Friar, what are you up to," she giggled.

But he shook his head in denial.

"You'll just have to show up and see," he retorted before placing a sweet, gentle kiss on her lips and turning her toward the exit.

It was the last place in the world anyone would suspect Riley Mathews to spend an afternoon. Killing zombies over a television monitor on a game system was one thing, but to lock her up in a room with one for an hour? No one would inflict such a terrifying experience on the timid girl. No one except Lucas, that was. The clues began piecing themselves together in the back of her mind. The way he had refused to give her even a hint where they were headed, his sweaty palms which he'd wiped on his jeans before taking her hand, even the way he was looking at her now, waiting for a reaction spoke to his concern.

She didn't know what had possessed her boyfriend to bring her there, but it was clear that he'd had good intentions. Besides it wasn't a real zombie, she reminded herself. And Lucas would be right there beside her the entire time.

"I know it looks a little…" he struggled to find the right word, afraid the wrong one might persuade her to forgo the activity altogether.

She studied the poster on the door, mentally reciting the words, it's not real, it's just pretend, repeatedly to keep from cringing at the image.

"It looks fun," she fibbed, not wanting to disappoint him.

The blonde peered at his girlfriend skeptically. He knew at first glance this was not the kind of event she would choose for herself. Nor was it the kind he had originally designed. At first, his plan had been to take her to Dylan's Candy Bar, with reservations of course. Maybe even some customized items to remind her of him and their day together, but then Maya had miraculously returned to the fold, and he'd decided the candy store would have to wait.

"Really? I thought you'd need a little more convincing," he confessed.

She winced at his admission.

She would, if she had been telling the truth when she said it looked fun. Which she wasn't. For two years now they had been talking about everything and nothing. Over the last four months they had grown even closer as an official couple. She had confided her fears in him even when it was hard or not what he wanted to hear. So why was she suddenly twisting the truth between them now? Was it really that she didn't want to disappoint him, or was it so she wouldn't have to feel guilty for agreeing to put that wall back up again?

"Okay, it's a little scary," she corrected, "but I trust you, Lucas. I know you'd never do anything to hurt me. You wouldn't ask me to do this if you didn't think I could handle it."

His green eyes sought her chocolate gaze as he gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

"Can you," he asked.

He wanted her to try this, but he'd never force her to do anything she wasn't willing to.

She nodded with a smile.

"I can do anything as long as you're with me."

Together they made their way down the nondescript hallway where a surprisingly cheerful woman gathered them into groups of twelve and began rattling off rules and instructions. Being crammed in the small room with ten strangers was a bit awkward, but not nearly as much as being loaded onto a packed subway car blindfolded. Over the next sixty minutes she would be getting acquainted with those ten people rather quickly, as communication was a vital ingredient to solving the riddles that would produce a key ultimately releasing them from the room. They would also be loosening the chain on the zombie every five minutes, as if being trapped in the room with one wasn't incentive enough.

"I can't believe I just did that," Riley exclaimed fifty-eight minutes later as she returned the sign boasting her survival for the group picture.

Lucas watched silently with pride as she exchanged numbers with a few new friends they'd made over the last hour, before making her way back to his side and beginning the trek back to the subway station.

"That was amazing," she gushed excitedly. "I mean, I'll be honest, when we first got there and I realized what it was I was a little freaked out. I thought I'd be really scared, and I was at first, but then the adrenaline kicked in, and the puzzle started coming together and it was just…amazing! Even better than the game!" she continued to ramble swinging their hands back and forth.

The blonde just grinned in response, happy to see the stars return to her eyes.

"You were amazing," he said, strongly emphasizing her role in the group's success.

The brunette shook her head, a slight pink tinting her cheeks.

"You were amazing," she argued. "I never could have put it all together and found the key if you hadn't sacrificed yourself to protect me."

It was just like her to focus on the achievements of others, missing the greatness inside herself. As much as he appreciated her praise, it was far more important that she recognize her own. She had proven herself a natural born leader and brilliant to boot. Both of which he already knew, but there was no convincing her of this. She'd never believe it coming from him. Which was exactly why he'd sought out an exercise which would allow her to demonstrate those strengths and then have them pointed out to her by a nonbiased third party.

"I was hardly Prince Charming slaying dragons Riles," he insisted. "She was only an actor."

Riley's head tilted slightly as she pondered his response.

"Does that mean you don't want your reward," she asked coyly.

There was something so innocent and sweet, even in her most flirtatious moments. Nothing like the bold advances she'd made that morning. It was almost as though she didn't realize the implication of her words. Perhaps she didn't. He wasn't sure that he understood it either; this imaginary line they had chosen to cross or the temptations they'd found on the other side.

He did, however, know enough to understand he wanted whatever she was offering.

"What kind of knight would I be if I turned down a lady's favor," he replied, a playful gleam in his eye.

There was something about that look that made her stomach heavier and her head lighter. It was almost like being dizzy and nauseous, only she didn't feel sick. She just felt warm and tingly all over, and wanting something she couldn't quite grasp. A smile formed on her lips as she stood there, staring, trying to figure it out. What was it about him that made her feel that way? Slowly her hand raised, her fingertips tracing the contours of his face as she attempted to puzzle it out. Was it the color of his eyes or the shape of his lips, she wondered as she studied him.

It took a moment for her remember that they were standing in the middle of the street and she probably looked like a crazy person staring at him like that. Feeling self-conscious her hand fell from his face to the scarf hanging loosely around her neck.

"You know, back then ladies would give the men a token for luck or thanks," she stated, slipping off the wreath of fabric from her neck and placing it around his.

Lucas chuckled as he glanced down at the bright purple garment she had "rewarded" with him with. While he wasn't one for fashion he had to admit, the violet scarf did little for his current wardrobe choice.

"Well, kind lady," he responded, untangling the item from himself, "I accept your thanks, but I think this looks much cuter on you."

Carefully, he returned the scarf to its rightful place around her neck, his hands still tangled in the fabric. Slowly he wound the cloth around his fingers, pulling her closer until they were only a breath apart. She leaned in, ready to offer up his true reward, when she felt her back pocket begin to vibrate. Both stifled their groans of disappointment as she reached for the object, mouthing her apology before accepting the call.

"Where have you been," an impatient voice came through the speaker, "I was about ready to slap a leash on Mathews and have him sniff you out," Maya said jokingly.

The brunette threw up a finger, asking her boyfriend for a minute, before stepping to the side. Why, she had no clue why. It wasn't as though he could hear what was being said over the line, nor would he listen in on their private conversations. He wasn't that kind of person. Still, she found herself stepping back from him while she addressed her friend's concern.

"Sorry," she mumbled, "I was trapped in a room with a zombie," she explained, looking back toward Lucas with a smile.

Somehow he had given her exactly what she had needed without her even having to ask for it. For at least an hour she had felt capable and powerful and completely in control of her own life. For those sixty minutes, she was free of the secrets and fears that weighed her down.

"If that's how you feel why are you dating the guy," the blonde countered. "you know what, Nevermind, it's none of my business. I don't wanna know." She amended.

Riley would have defended him, but Maya had quickly shifted her response. She wanted to hear the brunette's stories, but she didn't really want to know about her relationship with Lucas. That was probably best for all involved, but it still felt wrong trying to keep track in her head of what she could say to who. She'd never had to do that before. Not even when she was pushing them together. They had always been equally informed.

Until now.

While she was busy contemplating, Maya took the opportunity to change the subject to her original reason for contact.

"Listen, I told Mom I was going to hang out with you after school, so if she calls, which I doubt she will, but can you just tell her we're doing homework and having dinner, and I'll be home in a bit?

She hated being put in this position. It was bad enough that she'd already been forced into lying to her boyfriend, but now she wanted her to lie to Katie as well. She had agreed to keep Maya's secret. She'd never said anything about covering it up for her. She could say no. She should, but if she did that would be one more thing the blonde shared with her new "friend" Ronnie, that she felt she couldn't share with her. Riley liked that idea even less. Besides, Katie hardly ever checked in on her daughter. She'd never had to. The chances that she would actually have to make good on this particular promise were slim to none, and it would help re-establish trust between them. Her agreement was nothing more than an unpleasant means to a happy end.

"Yeah, I can do that," she conceded, a knot already forming in her stomach with the words.

Maya's lips twitched upward in a pleased grin. She knew that this was hard on her friend, but it also showed her that Riley had taken her words to heart and was trying to be more accepting of her new friendship and interests. Were she to unfold her hands long enough for the roles to be reversed, the blonde would happily do the same for her.

"Thanks Riles, you're the best," she cheered before agreeing to talk later and hanging up the phone.

Riley slid the phone back into her pocket and made her way back over to Lucas, who had been patiently waiting on the sidelines, as always.

"Everything okay," he asked, sensing her discomfort.

She started to say yes, but thought better of it. She had already lied to him enough times that day, and he'd been less than fooled each one. The thought of attempting to deceive him once more while he stood there and pretended not to know that's what she was doing made her ill.

"I hope so," she replied, forcing a halfhearted smile.

She hadn't asked where the blonde was really going or who she was with. She already knew the answer. Most likely, she was somewhere with this girl Ronnie, doing something that she shouldn't be. But Maya wouldn't hear that. For some reason, she was fiercely protective of this new friend, even though she hadn't put in the same amount of time of effort to earn that loyalty. What was it about her that Maya thought she needed so badly? Why couldn't she see her for what she was? Trouble.

Lucas nodded, his eyes darkening with sadness and concern.

"Are you okay," he probed further.

Maya was a good person underneath all her bluster. Like his girlfriend, he hoped that she would be okay and all would work itself out. But Riley was his priority, and seeing her so lost and uncertain made his heart ache. Especially, when she didn't have to be. Riley Mathews was one of the strongest people he'd ever met. He'd witnessed her bravery and conviction on numerous occasions, but she only seemed able to tap into that power when protecting those she cared for. She saved none of that strength to protect herself.

Her smile brightened as she slipped her hand into his and whispered "I am now," but he could see she was weary from whatever battle she was facing in her mind.

"You know that I love you, right" he asked, his voice pleading with her to believe in him.

She peered up at him with those big brown eyes shining with promise.

"I know," she said, leaning against him as they walked toward the subway station.

Normally, this would have made him grin, but his thoughts were troubled.

"I'd never stand by and watch you get hurt, Riley. I can't," he murmured into her hair before planting a kiss there on her head.

She supposed this was how brave knights were supposed to speak to young ladies, and while his declaration was dripping in romance, it made her nervous to hear him talk that way. This was the same boy who, in his anger, had accidentally broken her mother's countertops just to get to her. He'd been so determined to end her suffering that he'd offered to take care of the problem himself. Were she to have given the word, he'd have backslid right back into the version of himself he'd chosen to leave behind. Not that she would ever allow him to make such a sacrifice on her account.

Timidly she wrapped her arms around his waist, winding his around her.

It was her fault that he was thinking this way. Despite her efforts he could obviously sense her concern for Maya and their sisterhood, just as he'd picked up on her insecurity earlier that day. She wished now that she hadn't made that promise, that she had fought harder for the right to be open with them both, but it was too late. She had vowed on the sanctity of their friendship. Were that to be broken, she feared she might lose her sister forever. Besides, knowing that she'd sworn such a thing would only hurt him more.

Not another word was spoken until they reached her apartment building. It was a little past five which meant their date would mostly likely come to a close with a cordial handshake at the door and then a stolen kiss upstairs. Neither wanted to let go, but knew if Cory found them "canoodling in the hall" again they might not see on another outside school for at least a few days. They had just begun their ritual of saying goodbye loud enough to be heard through the door when it unexpectedly swung open.

"You," Topanga growled, mimicking her husband's paranoid tone. "What do you think you're doing with my daughter out in the middle of this hallway? Canoodling again?!" she barked.

Both teenagers froze, uncertain how to respond.

"Nah, I'm just kidding," Mrs. Mathews stated with a dismissive hand, but still they stood afraid to speak for fear Mr. Mathews might be on the other side of the door. Realizing this, she spread the door open so they could see the empty living room.

"Mom," Riley asked, finally finding her voice.

Topanga smiled widely, clearly amused with their confusion.

"Yes, daughter," she replied.

The brunette leaned in as though afraid to speak the words too loudly.

"Where's dad?"

Topanga did her best to stifle the laughter she felt bubbling up. It would be wrong to completely undermine her husband, even if he was the most unintimidating human being alive to everyone except them.

"He's not here," she whispered emphatically.

Riley's cocoa orbs lit with an unspoken hope. She wanted more time with Lucas and her father's absence provided the opportunity.

Sensing her daughter's unspoken request, Topanga turned her focus onto the teenage boy in front of her, whose mind seemed to be wandering elsewhere.

"Would you like to join us for dinner, Lucas," she extended the invitation with a welcoming smile.

His glazed expression melted into one of shock and then embarrassment. Truthfully, he'd barely heard a word his girlfriend or her mother had said. His mind had been chewing on the events of that day and the unspeakable burden Riley was choosing to shoulder alone. He didn't know what could be so bad that she would shut him out after all they had overcome to be together, but he did know his girlfriend. Riley only practiced the art of deception when she thought it was for the benefit of someone she cared for. Which meant she was protecting someone now.

At first he thought it was him, but what would she be trying to spare him? He'd feared her feelings might have changed, that the months without her friend might have made her realize he wasn't worth the loss. Perhaps she even resented him for coming between them? But then she had fallen apart in his arms, telling him how much she missed him. While he knew there was more to her behavior than she had let on, she'd spoken so genuinely he couldn't help but believe her.

That left only one other conclusion. Maya was at the heart of her less than forthcoming nature.

"I appreciate the offer, but I can't tonight. I just remembered there's someone I need to meet," he bowed out as graciously as possible, to the dismay of his bewildered girlfriend.

He knew that she didn't understand and would worry that she'd done something to push him away. It was nearly impossible for him to walk away knowing her insides with churning with self-doubt, but he would quiet those fears as soon as he got home.

Cory Mathews hovered over his desk mumbling to himself as he attempted to sort through the chaos. The first month of school was always the most hectic. There were new names to learn, new lessons to plan, and unbeknownst to his students, he was still struggling with the loss of his former class. Gone were the days of trying to balance between parent and teacher. There was no Farkle time in the middle of an explanation, no smitten boys to chase out of the room. They had all grown up and left him behind. He knew this was the natural order of things. Children were supposed to grow away from their parents so they could find themselves, but without them he felt lost.

He'd just crammed the last of his papers into his bloated briefcase when he heard footsteps trailing down the hall. Another straggler from the first parent teacher conference, no doubt.

"I'm sorry, but you've missed your appointment. I'll be happy to reschedule for another evening," he recited, glancing up to the see who was darkening his doorway just as he was ready to end the day and go home to his family.

"Mr. Friar…I wasn't expecting you back so soon," he said, feeling a wave of nostalgia sweep over him.

It was in that very room he had first come face to face with the Texan. He'd known the boy's reputation but had decided he would wait and judge him based on his character rather than his record. In the end, he was glad he'd withheld judgement as Lucas Friar had turned out to be a kind, compassionate, honorable young man. The only downside Cory could see was the lad's weakness for brunette's named Riley.

The former teacher wasn't the only one caught up in the memories that room held. He'd only been gone four months, but standing in that doorway, eighth grade history felt another lifetime away. At the time, middle school had seemed a rollercoaster he couldn't wait to step off of, but when compared to his life at present he missed the beginning. He would willingly take a backseat to Maya once more, if it meant the triangle had never happened. He would wait his turn, if it meant the blonde could be on a better path, and the pain in Riley's eyes washed away.

Unfortunately, the triangle was a reality and so was its aftermath.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Friar," Cory asked curiously.

Though he'd never admit it, it felt good to say those words again.

Lucas stepped forward, anxiously fidgeting with the strap of his bag.

"Well, you know how the girls worked things out recently," he began.

Cory's eyes lit up at the mention of his girls and their reunion.

"Yeah, it's great, isn't it," he enthused, his features falling as he took note of the young man's troubled expression.

This might be a mistake. Maya had been a part of the Mathews family since she was a little girl. They may be just as blind to the danger she was becoming as their daughter was, but he had to try, didn't he? Riley was their child. Surely, they would want to know if there was cause for concern.

"Actually, Sir, I'm not so sure it is," he confessed, strangling the strap in his hands.

He had hoped it wouldn't come to this, that by showing her what a great leader she was, she would be less inclined to follow wherever the blonde led. Maya was treading a treacherous path these days and the last thing he wanted was to see Riley spiral down alongside her.

"There's a few things I think you and Mrs. Mathews should know," he continued.