A/N: Hello again, and welcome to Cracks in the Foundation, part two of The Forgiveness Project! I know I said it would be the beginning of this week, not the end. Unfortunately, my muses decided to stub up on the very last scene so it took a little longer than originally planned. I have been looking forward to this part of the series for a long time and am eager to share it with you. In the first half, I was a new writer, laying the groundwork and feeling my way through the process, so thank you for bearing with me. The chapters will be a bit longer in this half (nowhere near my other stories for those of you who read Split Screen) but the story itself will not be nearly as long as the first.

Trigger Warning: There is mention of heart attack and aftermath, but the references are vague and brief.

Lucas Friar's heart thundered in his chest as he climbed the fire-escape that would lead him to her.

The way it was beating seemed more akin to how a knight might feel moments before battling the dragon and liberating the princess at the top, or maybe a sinner about to face final judgment. Riley had always seen him as a hero, but he was both; the knight and the sinner. Except in his real-life fairytale it was the princess who had done the saving. She hadn't slayed his demons with a sword or brute force, but with quiet understanding and an unyielding faith he wasn't always sure that he deserved.

The moment he reached the top their eyes met; her soft brown orbs glowing in the evening light. She had been waiting for him by the window, and she must have been nervous judging by the way she tucked her hair behind her ear upon the sight of him. The corners of his mouth tugged upward, unable to keep from smiling in her presence. Her gaze flickered to her feet, her cheeks brightening in hue as she lifted to meet his eyes once more.

"Hi," she greeted timidly, though a gentle smile played on her lips.

The light in his green orbs shone like sunlight coming through the trees as he took her in. Her long dark hair was flowing down in waves, framing her face and falling halfway down her back. Her hands were buried in the back pockets of her black jeans; her red floral blouse bringing out the pink in her lips. For a second or two his gaze lingered there as he contemplated whether they would taste more like berries or plums without the layer of vanilla lip gloss overpowering the natural flavor of her.

"Hey," he responded, swallowing down the lump forming in his throat.

Did she ever have thoughts like this, he wondered? Not about lip gloss flavors or what he might taste like, of course; she already knew the answer to that question. But did she ever have to hold herself back from acting on her own romantic desires?

Her smile grew in both size and radiance as she peered up at him through her lashes. There was something about the way she was looking at him he found unsettling-but in a good way. It stirred him somehow.

"Hi," she repeated, a small, sweet giggle filling the air between them.

Suddenly he was thrown off kilter as she launched herself against him, wrapping her arms around his neck, her fingertips digging into his shoulders. He grinned wider as he returned her embrace, pulling her as close to him as humanly possible; the scent of cranberries tickling his nostrils. It was one of the things that he had come to associate with memories of her over the last few years.

"I missed you," she whispered and even without the inflection or tonality that volume allowed, he could feel how much she meant those words.

He had missed her too. So much! The entire time he was gone all he could think about was this moment when he would see her again.

Awkwardly they disentangled, her returning to her previous position opposite him. Even that little space between them seemed too far after being so close. They stood, simply staring at one another, well, staring and smiling. Another anxious giggle escaped her as she reached for her hair once more and he couldn't help but chuckle in response. He thought back to the blushing girl tugging at the hem of her dress sitting across his lap that first day on the subway. She probably had no idea how she had changed since that day, but standing there watching her, it was easily noticed.

"You look…" he trailed off struggling to find the right word.

He was a fairly articulate teenage boy. They had shared innumerable conversations on a variety of topics. It shouldn't be this difficult to come up with a word that communicated his sentiments.

"Older," she asked apprehensively, taking a seat at the window, her fingers curled over the edge. "I feel older…like everything that's happened lately has aged me somehow."

Lucas sat down next to her; shoulder to shoulder, his hand grazing the side of hers.

"I was going to say breathtaking," he revealed in a slightly teasing tone, and was rewarded for his efforts when she turned to him with the ghost of a smile.

Eager to reassure her he continued.

"And you know, I think that it makes sense that you feel that way. Growing up isn't just about how many years you've been alive. It's the sum of our experiences. Some grow us more than others, and right now you and your family are going through something pretty formative. It's only natural that it would affect you."

Her head gave a slight tilt as she pondered.

"Wow," she breathed with a sigh of relief, "I never really thought about it like that."

She paused, quietly considering something, what Lucas didn't know. Cautiously her hand slid over the surface of his, slipping her fingers between the spaces of his own.

"Lucas…I feel older," she said again, only this time she spoke the word as though it were a key to some great treasure they might unlock. She leaned in closer, waiting for him to understand the implication of her words. "I'm older now…and I think maybe I'm ready," she explained giving his hand a squeeze for emphasis.

His eyes grew round as her meaning began to sink in.

She was ready; for him. For them.

She was ready to be with him.

"I mean, only if you are," she began babbling, "if not, we can just keep being friends, or you know, unofficially dating, or whatever you wanna do. I just thought you'd want to know that things have changed…at least for me they have."

Riley would have kept rambling, but she lost herself in the meadow of his gaze as he leaned close enough she could feel his breath against her lips as she whispered "I'm ready if you are."

Her lids fluttered down as she prepared for the meeting of their lips. Finally, he was going to take her face in his hands and make her his own. She had given him his first kiss the night of their first date and now he intended to return the gesture, by giving her hers. He only hoped that she would cherish this memory as he had that one.

The immensity of the moment washed over him as he gently placed a hand to her face, his fingers splayed from her neck to the hollow of her cheek. He let out a breathless chuckle, his lungs suddenly straining for air. The other hand brushed the hair from her face before taking its place on the other side. All he had to do was lean forward and everything would change.

He'd just closed his eyes, ready to lean in when the bedroom door burst open; his former teacher staring daggers at him as he lunged toward the blonde.

Lucas bolted upright, his mind still in a haze as he struggled to separate fantasy from reality. The first thing to register was the stream of concentrated cold air beating down on him from overhead. The second was the subtle vibration humming from the floor, the chair, the window at his side. He tossed his head back against the rest with a sigh. It was all coming back to him now as he lifted the blinds. Without the aid of a device it was impossible to know how long he had been asleep, but the sky was pitch black, indicating late night or early morning. Over to his left sat his best friend; earbuds in, eyes closed, his bright red neck pillow barely visible in the darkness of the cabin.

He tried to go back to sleep, but his thoughts were restless. It didn't matter if he was awake or sleep, he was haunted by the memory of deep brown eyes and the quiver in her voice that day at the hospital. He'd nearly cancelled his plans that very evening; eager to be near her, to help in any way he possibly could, but Riley had insisted. This was his chance to spend some time with Pappy Joe, and she wouldn't be the reason he didn't go. He had gotten on the plane, and spent his summer making memories with his grandfather and his friends back in Texas, but part of him had never left the city, had left her.

"You awake Zay," he asked, nudging him gently with his shoulder.

The boy next to him mumbled "not again," as he shifted positions in his seat.

"Nope, not awake. In fact, very much asleep," he growled, tossing his head to the other side of his pillow.

The blonde sat quietly contemplating, alone with his thoughts, but it was no use. He thought much better out loud.

"What do you think it means that even in my dreams I can't kiss Riley without some type of interruption spoiling the moment," he pondered aloud.

Zay groaned in exasperation.

"I would tell you, but we've already established I'm not awake," he turned his back toward his friend.

Lucas gave the knob above a twist, silencing the hiss of the air conditioner, as if that were contributing to his distraction.

"Why can't I just kiss her," he bellowed, tossing his hands in the air. "It's not like I don't want to. I think about it all the time, but then when I'm with her it's like I can't work up the nerve and on the rare occasion I do, someone has a crisis or I lose a shoe. There's always something!"

The closest he had come was the night of the Valentine's dance and he had been acting purely on reflex at the time. She was making assumptions about his feelings and pulling further away from him. At that moment, something had simply snapped inside. All he could see was her disappearing into the night, just like she had back in Texas when he'd pleaded with her to reconsider. He wasn't letting her walk away again. He couldn't, but now that he knew she wanted him to- shouldn't that make it easier?

Hearing the desperation in his buddy's voice he twisted the other way around with a sigh. Clearly Lucas needed to talk and being asleep had not made Zay exempt from this conversation.

"Do I really need to spell this out for you, bro? Smackle and Farkle are two of the most scientific minded people on the planet and even they know you're doing this wrong," he grumbled, taking the blonde by surprise.

His brows knit together over his curious green eyes.

"What do you mean?"

Zay whined as he removed his pillow from his neck and shifted all his weight to one side.

"It's called the mating dance, Lucas. Dance is all about passion and rhythm; about expressing what you feel. You wanna get the girl? Stop thinking about it and just do it already!" he huffed as he re-situated in his chair. "And now that I've given you the answers to the universe, I'm going back to sleep. You should do the same."

As he leaned back toward the window, the corners of his mouth lifted in a lazy smirk. He already kind of had the girl, not that he was ready to share that information with anyone just yet. His smile grew as he replayed their conversation that day at the friendship bench in his head. She had told him that she loved him that day, that she wanted all the same things he did. It had been their first step forward after so many backward and side steps, and he'd never been happier than when she had told him she believed they were worth whatever risk was involved.

Both had agreed that they weren't ready, and if he was being completely honest, part of him still wasn't. There seemed to be another part of him though that could think of little else. There had always been at least two elements to their relationship. They were friends first and foremost but there had always been a steady undercurrent brimming just below the surface of something more' something about the way she leaned her hand against her cheek when she had asked him to keep talking that night in the library, or the silly expressions she made when she got excited about something. There was just something about her, and all the ways she was different from anyone else he had ever known.

He had never given much thought to the year between them, until recently. Even on that first day he hadn't felt any different from his new friends. He had been just as nerve wrecked as Riley had been when she had landed on his lap. He'd sat there awkwardly questioning where to place his hand.

On her leg?

Her knee?

His own leg?

The pocket between their bodies?

The number of choices had been overwhelming.

Maybe they hadn't been that different at the time, but somewhere along the way they had gone off in two complete opposite directions. He'd spent a lot of time looking back on the previous year, trying to understand what had gone wrong between them. Yes, there was Maya and whatever parts of her that had been attracted to him, but that was an outside force; something neither of them had any control over. He'd asked himself repeatedly what role he had played in the whole situation and his answer kept coming back to those moments where he'd lost control, first with Maya and then again with Riley.

Something was happening to him that didn't seem to be happening to the others. He couldn't pinpoint the exact origin. It had been so understated in the beginning, barely noticeable. He'd felt it the day Riley had come into the classroom in her cheerleading tryouts uniform and again in Texas when he had seen her and Maya come out in their new "country" apparel. There had been other times too, but it was always quiet, non-threatening, until it was combined with frustration. Then it became something else entirely that he still didn't understand.

He had a temper. There was no use denying it. He had a permanent record that would remind him if ever he forgot and educate anyone who read it to the depth of his troubles. Violent was the term the school psychologist had so kindly bestowed. His anger made him dangerous. He had easily understood that, had used it to his advantage more times than he could count or preferred to remember. This was a different loss of control, a whole new level of danger. With one kiss, he could have single-handedly destroyed any chance that he'd ever had with Riley, not to mention his friendship with Maya. He could have robbed the girl of his dreams of the moment they both deserved.

Riley had a way of taming those demons without even being aware of their presence. It was her faith in him, even when faced with the darkest parts of who he was, that had cut through the voice in his head tempting him to lay that bully out the way he wanted. It was her refusal to accept his help and her insistence to find a better way that had kept him from backsliding when she was in trouble. He'd have traded his very soul to end her suffering had she let him. It was always her pulling him back: at that campfire, in that parking lot. It was always her.

Of course, he knew she wasn't in the same place he was. While he was struggling to keep his "other" feelings in check, she was struggling just to make it through the day while still being there for those who she felt needed her.

"You think she's okay," he asked curiously. "I mean, I know she says that she's okay but…I'm not sure she would say anything if she wasn't. She didn't tell us about that kid online bothering her. She never let on that she was worried there was something between me and Maya, at least not until after she brother zoned me. She's always trying to take everything on by herself when she doesn't have to," he continued thinking out loud.

Zay placed the neck pillow over his head like a set of headphones hoping to drown out the voice next to him.

"She's a silent sufferer. You should try it sometime. Like now for example," he muttered.

As much as he thought of his friend and adored the sunshine girl, he was sick of her name, of the daily mentions and nightly dream analysis.

"I just hope she's letting someone help her with this," Lucas mused.

Zay twisted aggressively in his seat, glaring into green eyes.

"Seriously dude, one more word and I'm gonna press this button and ask the nice lady for a seat anywhere that isn't next to you," he barked venomously before once again turning his back to his companion.

Lucas peered out the window once more, his thoughts drifting back to the brunette. Soon- he didn't know when, but soon, he would be back in the city where he belonged. And he would see her. Granted, it wasn't under the best of circumstances, but that was the beauty of Riley Mathews. Even the dreariest day was a little bit brighter with her near.

Riley glanced out her window to the world set aglow. Any other day she would have thought it was a beautiful day, but not today. Today it seemed wrong somehow that the sun would dare to shine so brilliantly when something so terribly unfair was taking place. In the movies, the weather always matched the occasion. On this day, the sun would be barely peeking behind the clouds, a slight drizzle of rain falling gently in the background. Instead it was blazing without shame. Didn't the sun know what today was?

The world was supposed to know what it was doing. That's what she had been told by everyone older and wiser than her and she had believed them, because, well, why would they lie? But the more she thought about the year she'd had, the more she wondered how this could be what was supposed to happen. How could this be the plan of the universe?

In what world could it be right for two best friends to have feelings for the same person? What possible good could come from such a trial? Unless she and Lucas really weren't meant to be…but if that were the case, why give her these feelings at all? Why make him think he wanted her too? And why hurt Maya that way? Hadn't her best friend already had enough rejection and pain to last a lifetime? Why have her develop feelings for yet another person who didn't return them?

How was any of this fair?

As if summoned by her thoughts of him, her phone went off alerting her to his latest message. He had been texting her ever since he'd left for Texas. At first she had distanced herself from him; distracted with the fate of her grandfather, but that wasn't the only reason she had pulled back.

She rotated the bracelet circling her wrist. It had become her new nervous tick, next to tucking her hair. She'd considered taking it off, putting it away somewhere. It seemed wrong that she should have such a symbolic piece of him, and that her sister should be forced to see it as a constant reminder of what she didn't have. The last thing she wanted was to torture Maya, but she simply didn't have the heart to remove it. His gift had become an extension of her; one she couldn't part with any easier than the one who had given it.

Lucas was blissfully unaware of Maya's true feelings and though Riley hated the idea of any more secrets between the three of them, it wasn't her place to tell. The blonde had made her wishes very clear on the subject. She didn't want him knowing anything and really, there was no reason why he should. He had already made his intention toward both girls crystal clear. Maya was a friend and nothing more. The only one with a choice to make regarding the boy who had unintentionally ensnared them both was her.

If only she had known sooner, there would be no decision to make, but she and Lucas had already crossed that thin line separating their friendship from something deeper. They had shared "I love you's" and hopes for a future as more than just friends. He knew how sacred a promise was to her. There would be no convincing him that her feelings had changed so quickly, not after all that had been said and done.

She glanced down into the blue swirling orb, seeking answers she knew she wouldn't find. He believed in her, believed that she could do anything she wanted, be anything she wanted. Right now, the only thing she wanted was not to be her, not to be in this position; not to hurt anyone she cared about. There had to be a way to honor both relationships, she just hadn't found it yet. But she had to, if the three of them were to have any chance of coming out of this mess together.

It was as if someone had pressed the fast forward button on her life the moment she had gotten that phone call. She and Maya had raced to the hospital, only to learn of her Grandpa Alan's heart attack as they rushed him into emergency surgery. The doctors kept using big words that no one understood, while Farkle and his father did their best to translate, but their words all blurred together in her head. The whole day was just a flash of pictures and words that didn't fit.

Only now in hindsight did she see the events of that day clearly. Josh's absence after Christmas, the jokes he had made to her father and his pleading with him to take better care of himself; he had known that something wasn't right. The way Maya had crumpled in her arms before the ceremony confessing her fear because she was afraid. It wasn't change she was frightened by. It was the knowledge that her lie was affecting them without Riley being aware. She understood because she had felt the same when it was her withholding information. Every day she had woken up in terror that it would be the day the bottom fell out of their little world.

Her phone went off again. He was still waiting for a response.

After weeks of avoiding the issue, Maya had forced her into the bay window and demanded they finally finish their conversation. Personally, she didn't think there was much left to say. Maya had feelings for Lucas, so did she. Which meant neither one could be with him without willingly hurting the other. She remembered what it had been like for her to see the two of them together, thinking they were only at the beginning of their story. It had been like breathing through infected lungs; excruciating and yet necessary for survival. Could she do that to her sister?

It seemed selfish to move forward knowing that, but it's what the blonde wanted. She wanted Riley to continue this path with Lucas as if nothing had changed. As much as part of her wished to do just that, she wasn't sure she had it in her to do so.

There had to be another way.

She turned her focus to the image in the mirror, fingering the rhinestones and pearls adorning the collar of her black dress. It was short, sleeveless, and like the dress she had worn the night of the valentine's dance, the shoulders were sheer. There was a trail of black buttons leading the way down to her waist which was tapered with a big white bow.

She only hoped that it was appropriate for the occasion.

Cory Mathews appeared in the frame of his daughter's doorway, wrapping his knuckles against the wood.

"You about ready kiddo? It's about time to head out," he gently reminded.

She gave a silent nod, another emotionless smile plastered across her features.

Today was the one day no one would question the sincerity of her expression. They would all be too busy putting on their own show, keeping their own secrets. It was a masquerade, only instead of wearing masks, they would each come donning a counterfeit grin equal to her own.

The courthouse was already in a frenzy when Farkle and his family arrived. The steps were littered with paparazzi. Every reporter and photographer within a fifty-mile radius must have camped out overnight, eager to make a name for themselves by covering his father's trial. There was also a large group of protesters circling the vicinity; investors in Minkus Incorporation who now felt deceived and were seeking retribution. From a young age, he had been taught the concept of economics and how it applied to the world he lived in; specifically, the family business, but he had always managed to detach himself from the ruthlessness of it all because it wasn't personal, it was just business.

But to these people it was personal. It was their life savings, their retirement, their hard-earned money going to a cause they knew nothing about. It was a violation of trust between them and the company; between them and his father. As the founder and Chief Executor of Operations, it was his face they associated with Minkus Inc's doings. It didn't matter what he had or hadn't known at the time. In their eyes Stuart Minkus was nothing more than a figurehead and guilty as sin.

As they neared the building, the angry swarm gathered around shouting their outrage and offensive line of questioning. Bulbs flashed and tempers flared as his father wrapped his arms around his family, steering them through the crowd. Unable to get a rise out of the defendant or his wife, one of the reporters turned their focus to their only child.

"As the heir to the Minkus fortune, how do you feel about your father's ill-gotten gains," she asked, shoving her microphone right in his face.

His crystal blue eyes turned to ice as he stared her down. Logically, he realized that this was just another story to her, perhaps even her "big break." In her mind, she was simply doing her job. Nevermind the family she was destroying or the innocent man she was condemning.

It wasn't personal, it was business, but that didn't make it okay.

"I feel like this whole thing is unfair," he spat with fury. "My father has done nothing but work and sacrifice for this company, for a legacy he could be proud of! It's not like we knew this was gonna happen!"

The reporter narrowed her eyes, seeing an opportunity to fortunate to pass.

"Didn't plan to embezzle or didn't plan to get caught," she asked, before turning toward the camera. "You heard it here first, folks. Minkus Junior, guilty by association or willing accomplice?

The grip on his shoulder tightened at his words. He glanced up to see his father, eyes full of gratitude and sadness.

"Don't bother son. Just let the system do its job," he whispered into his ear.

As much as he appreciated his son sticking up for him, he knew none of those vultures had any interest in the truth. They were only looking for a way to advance their own agenda and scandal sold far more headlines than innocence.

Farkle stood outside the double doors staring into the abyss. He'd known this day was coming for several months, had thought he was prepared to face it, yet as he stood there amidst all the chaos the reality of the situation was finally hitting him. This was truly happening. Any moment they would file into the courtroom and begin the proceedings that would determine his family's future and the fate of their company. Up until that exact moment he had somehow managed to separate himself from this inevitability; telling himself since they had nothing to hide, they had nothing to fear. He wasn't so sure of that anymore.

If this were a perfect world where a person was judged based on their actions and nothing more that might be true. But this was a world of labels and lines; a world where people were told to chase the American dream of building an empire and then resented if they managed to succeed. This was not a case of State Vs Minkus, but Have's versus Have Nots. He'd never given much thought to that line before, the one that divided him from much of the population, but it was there. He'd always known his family was wealthier than most, and that afforded him privileges others didn't have, but he'd never been ashamed of that success until now.

That extraordinary stroke of luck might cost them everything that mattered, if the jury couldn't dissect the facts of the case from their own feelings about his father's money.

Maya stood behind him, her hands uncharacteristically clasped as she pondered how to protect her little bird from the hate and the judgement swelling up around them. He was such a sweet and sensitive soul, despite his overwhelming intellect. While he defined himself by his mind, she knew better. It wasn't what was in his head, but his heart that made him special.

Hers was breaking for him, but she couldn't show him that. He wouldn't want her to. It was why he'd done his best to continue as though nothing of consequence was happening all summer. Because he didn't want everything to change. Their patterns of behavior had all been previously established and those were the roles he wished for them to play. She glanced down at her hands, wondering why she'd always had to be so hard where he was concerned. Had she shown him kindness more often, he wouldn't consider it such an irregularity now.

"So I've been marathoning Law and Order all summer and I think I've got this lawyering thing pretty figured out," she declared striding forward, her heels clicking against the stone steps. "Any time they say anything bad about you or your dad I'll just stand and shout I object! Sure, they might hold me in contempt," she jested with a shrug, "but that just shows my commitment to my clients," she reasoned with a toss of her head, sending her blonde waves rolling behind her shoulder.

Farkle couldn't help but shake his head, one corner of his mouth lifting to form a smirk of amusement.

"I appreciate the uh…commitment, but please don't do that," he pleaded with her.

The last thing he wanted was yet another person he loved at risk of jailtime, or more likely juvenile detention in her case.

She nodded in agreement, silence falling between the two of them. Trying to live up to the role she had assigned herself had left little comfort or conversation. She just couldn't pull it off. Whatever usually fueled her incessant rejection of the genius or her pretense of noncaring, simply wasn't there.

"Tell me what I can do to help," she asked, desperate to feel useful.

What could she do?

What could anyone do?

None of them had any power in this situation.

"Tell me what to do," he begged. "Tell me how to handle this. Cause no one I know has ever been through anything like this, and there's no manual or research study on the subject. There's too many variables and not enough constants, and I don't know how to do this," the words came flooding out; his every doubt and fear, but he knew they were safe with her.

Maya nibbled on the corner of her bottom lip, contemplating his request. Farkle was the smartest person she knew. No matter the question, he always had an answer. No, not just an answer, the right answer. The best answer. What insight could she possibly offer him?

"Okay," she breathed, placing her hands on his shoulders, pointing him toward the doors he had been standing in front of.

"Close your eyes," she commanded as he peered at her curiously. "Just do it," she snapped when he hesitated. "Now I want you to picture your dad. He's smiling…he's happy. He's got an arm around your mom and the other around you, and the three of you are walking out of the courthouse. The jury has just found him not guilty on all counts- "

Farkle's lids rose, revealing the deep blue pools beneath studying her.

"I told you, I've been watching Law and Order all summer. You pick up things," she defended before continuing her instruction. "Now just hold onto that picture in your head."

He nodded, turning toward the blonde.

"So it's like a visualization," he inquired.

She brushed her hair back behind her ear with a smile.

"It's what I do with my art," she explained. "I see something in my head and then I make it real by putting it on paper…but visualization makes it sound a lot smarter so let's go with that."

Again, he nodded, but this time it seemed to be an acknowledgement rather than agreement. He hated hearing her so self-deprecating. It wasn't like her at all. She was the girl who owned her brokenness with pride, but she did have occasional moments when her guard was let down. It made sense that today might be one of those days. She was trying to be gentle with him; poor, defenseless bird that he was in her eyes.

Riley scanned the endless sea of people searching for any trace of her friends. Though they hadn't made any preordained plan to be there, she knew none of them would leave Farkle to face the wolves alone. Being a nobody in the eyes of the crowd made it much easier to navigate. While they were seeking out victims to exploit, she was moving inward without notice. She had just cleared the courthouse steps when she paused, the distinct feeling that something, or more significantly, someone was pulling her backward.

The brunette spun on her heels, losing her balance, and toppled straight into the arms a tall, blonde, handsome boy with bright green eyes.

"Hi," she sighed, breathless from almost falling.

His emerald orbs dragged her down under, to the depths of his soul as he graced her with a dimpled grin.

"Hey," he replied, equally stunned.

For just a moment she forgot where she was and why. She forgot everything except the heat radiating between them, the racing of her heart, and the brilliance of his smile. How was it possible that someone so beautiful inside and out had come to care for someone like her, and how could love from someone like him ever be a bad thing? Surely, this wasn't all some cruel joke inflicted on them both. There had to be a purpose; a reason their relationship had unfolded the way it had.

"Hi," she replied, beginning to squirm in his arms.

He chuckled at her childish attempts to free herself as he planted her feet firmly and gently on the ground.

With that one fluid motion, both her head and feet returned from the clouds. When she had imagined throwing herself into his arms, this wasn't quite the scenario she had envisioned. She'd expected for their reunion to coincide with that of their other friends. What she hadn't anticipated was to end up clumsily tangled up in him yet again. Now there was standing on the courthouse steps with him, grasping for something acceptable to say under the circumstances.

"Thank you for catching me," she mumbled, her hand reaching up to brush her hair back. "You know…again," she amended.

His gaze landed on the bracelet around her wrist with a smile. She was still wearing it, and he wondered, if perhaps she had all summer. He liked the idea of giving her something she valued that much.

He shrugged, burying his hands in his pockets.

"I like being the one to catch you," he confessed with sincerity.

She glanced down momentarily considering an appropriate response. Truthfully, she liked him being there to always catch her as well. She just didn't like feeling guilty about it. Maybe her classmates were right, and it was nothing more than a childish infatuation with the boy who was always saving her. In Texas, she had called him a hero, and to an extent that was how she saw him. But it wasn't because of how he looked or his quick reflexes that earned him that title in her mind. It was his imperfections as well. It was his troubled past and how he had made the choice to change, how even when he was afraid, he still faced his fears. Those were the traits of a true hero. They were part of what made him…him. Maybe someday the feelings she was currently experiencing would fade, but her admiration of his character wouldn't wash away with them.

By the time she decided on a reply it no longer mattered, as they were no longer alone.

"I see our cowboy Casanova finally got his moment," the blonde sassed with a smirk, though it lacked its usual oomph.

Riley instinctively began to twirl the bracelet around her wrist once more.

"We were just looking for you guys," she assured, an apologetic smile on her lips.

Lucas sensed the transformation in demeanor the second Maya appeared. Even now, with the triangle over with, Riley struggled to balance her roles between the two of them. He could easily understand that since he was fighting a similar battle. While he was grateful for the time they'd shared alone, he hadn't come there to be Riley's unofficial boyfriend. He was there to be Farkle's friend, and the longer he stood on the steps lost in Rileytown, the more he was failing at his intended post.

Maya forced a chuckle as she imitated what she hoped came off as her famous mischievous twinkle.

"Well, you're not gonna find us in Huckleberry's pretty green eyes, honey," she teased, taking her act a step further.

She hated herself for adding to Riley's guilt about the situation, but she couldn't very well sell her "I don't care" mentality without employing her usual good natured ribbing.

"We're all gathered over there," she said, pointing to the others, "Farkle says they're about ready to start."

Lucas and Riley shared a meaningful look.

"Without Smackle," he questioned.

The blonde summoned up her strength for another one-liner. In the past she had relished these little zingers, but now they weren't only pricking at his smooth, impenetrable façade. They were wounding her too.

"Geeze, Ranger Rick, isn't one girlfriend enough for you?"

Riley glanced from Lucas's embarrassment to Maya's shame.

"But shouldn't she be here by now," Riley asked, offering both parties a reprieve.

Maya led them over to where Zay and Farkle were gathered with his family and some of the other adults. She explained that Smackle had planned to be back in time for the trial, but like Lucas and Zay, had been forced to cut it too close. An unexpected change in her flight plan had prevented her from arriving on time, but she was set to get in later that afternoon. With the group finally united, they shared greetings and hugs as the double doors opened, inviting the masses to come through security and prepare to take their seats.

Stuart took the other adults aside, an anxious smile strained across his features.

"Thank you guys again so much for bringing the kids by. I know that it means the world to Farkle having their support."

Cory and Shawn shared a glance before turning their attention to their childhood classmate.

"We didn't come here to drop off the children," Cory revealed.

"Nope, we're going in with you," Shawn replied, completing his best friend's sentence.

Stuart truly didn't understand the two men standing in front of him at all. They weren't technically what one would consider friends. Even during their days at John Addams, they hadn't been that close. And yet here they were, here to support him and his wife through this ordeal, when their own friends had failed to make an effort. While he had spent much of his adult life rubbing elbows it seemed his son had done a far better job and selecting the people truly worth having in his life. And because his son had befriended Cory and Shawn's girls, it seemed that he and Jennifer now had four new unexpected friends worth holding onto.