Chapter Two

After a fair amount of pushing and cussing on Wesley's part, Baby Blue was finally up and on its way. Down the highway, cars passed and people gawked at the big blue van. Some of the faces wore pitying expressions, as though those onlookers thought Wesley were down on his luck and this was the only car he could afford at the time. They weren't thinking about the other cheap choices he had out there, and none of them guessed that the driver was actually Wesley Ripley—the sullen heir to one of the largest fortunes in the country.

At the mall, Wesley parked on the highest level of the parking ramp. Not a lot of vehicles parked up here; there were maybe twelve or fifteen others. Considering there were over seventy spots up here, though, twelve or fifteen other automobiles weren't many to count. Wesley, Drew and Melanie raced to the closest set of stairs like children, ignoring the row of elevators beside the stairwell.

Travis lingered behind, finishing his second joint in the past hour. It had been a long drive, and stressful because Baby Blue didn't have a working radio. He would catch up with the others before they left him—he always did, and they never thought of leaving him without a backup ride. If he lost them at the mall for too long, he came to where the ride home was parked. If he couldn't remember where the car was parked, he went down to the transit station on the basement floor of the parking ramp and waited. Melanie, at least, would look for him there. Even if she didn't, he could always catch a bus. Wouldn't be the first time, probably not the last.

Wesley won the race to the doors from the stairwell. Drew had tripped, and Melanie had stopped to make sure he was all right. Wesley had run faster, and crowed his victory to the elderly couple passing him on their way out. Clucking her tongue disapprovingly, Melanie escorted a limping Drew to where Wesley stood holding the doors open for them. Once they were five steps away from the entrance, Drew hopped away from Melanie, nimble as ever, and landed inside the building beside Wesley. His shouting boasts joined Wesley's, and they made faces at Melanie through the glass of the doors… until they remembered the doors were push as well as pull, and found their faces smashed up against the glass and Melanie brushing past them.

"Ouch," said Drew, rubbing his nose as they turned to follow their friend.

"That was cold," agreed Wesley, and the two young men began whispering conspiratorially behind Melanie's back.

When they reached the mainstream of the mallway, a catcall trailed after Melanie. The scheming whispers stopped and both powerfully built boys stiffened to send a glare at the catcaller. The catcaller turned away and pretended not to notice, chatting it up with his two cohorts like he had never looked at Melanie. Drew sighed like his lungs would explode if he didn't, and switched his narrowed gaze onto Melanie's narrow back. They had dated, once, when they were both seven-years-old. Now Drew was bigger, stronger, although not much taller.

"Did she have to wear such a revealing outfit?" said Drew, watching Melanie's long tan legs.

"You would have been disappointed if she didn't," said Wesley, appraising his friend from the corners of his ocher eyes. Drew grinned sheepishly and glanced away, taking in the scenery—as well as the other girls wearing divulging attire.

"I want to go look at CDs," Melanie declared over a shoulder.

"Lead the way, Majesty."

"We shall follow you to the ends of the earth, your Grace," added Drew. The boys giggled behind Melanie, who hid a smile by turning away her head. After the giggle-fest, the two young men fell into talk about baseball. The Cardinals had run the entire season and were on their way to the World Series. Drew wanted to see them play the Red Sox. And as sports-talk usually does, baseball turned to football and football turned to basketball, until the topics of conversation had come full-circle. By the time they reached Sam Goodie the boys were back to arguing about Cardinals and Red Sox.

"But the Cardinals don't have Sami Sosa," argued Wesley.

Running a hand through his highlighted hair, Drew let out an exaggerated breath and caught up beside Melanie. "The rap section calls to me, Milady," he said. "If you would be so kind as to excuse me so I would be free of the guilt for leaving you for a time…"

- "I have to go away for a while, Mel-bell." -

"Of course," said Melanie with a dismissive wave, playing along with the royalty role. Drew nodded curtly, pecked Melanie on the cheek, and broke away from the group. Wesley took the short man's place.

"My queen," started Wesley. Melanie glanced at him from the corners of her big blue eyes and raised her slim eyebrows. "Because of my—ah, cohort's lack of chivalry, I shall accept the pleasure of escorting you. Where would you like to look first? Is there a certain type of music you prefer?" Though he asked, he already knew what her choice would be. He added hopefully, "Perhaps you would be interested in looking at the guitars?"

"Be gone with you, Jester… But don't leave the store without me."

"Your Highness is too kind," replied Wesley with a grin. He kissed Melanie's cheek then went to the guitar display far on the other side of the store. He picked out the most expensive one and began tuning it. Melanie knew that Wesley would buy it only if there was something wrong with it. That was just his way of doing things for reasons only Wesley comprehended.

Melanie went to the Retro section and began flipping through the alphabetized CDs.

"Never gonna dance again, 'cause guilty feet got no rhythm." Melanie swiveled her head from side-to-side in time to the song playing overhead. "Should have known better than to cheat a friend and waste the chance that I'd been given. Never gonna dance again, unless I'm dancing with you-ou-ou…" Her hand draped over the CD display tapped out an aimless beat while she chanted each verse. "Time can never mend the careless whispers of the good friend. To the heart and mind ignorance is kind. There's no comfort in the truth, pain is the heart you find…. I'm never gonna dance again, guilty feet got no rhythm. Though it's easy to pretend, I know you're not a foo—ool. Shoulda known better than to cheat a friend… Never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you-ou-ou… With or without you… Tonight the music seems so loud; I wish that we could lose this crowd… Maybe it's better this way. We could have been so good together. We could have—"

- "I have to leave now, Melanie! Don't make this harder than it is." -

"So wrong that you had to leave me alone…" she finished softly, and trailed off humming.

A pair of sneakers appeared in the border of Melanie's peripheral vision, pointed toward her. Melanie looked over at them, curious of their brand and class. Four years of Haylee Mercer's teachings had done its damage and left its scars.

The shoes instantly had all of Melanie's attention. They were white Converses with dirty pink laces and written on in multiple colors of permanent marker. She hardly noticed their lack of class. Instead her blue eyes zeroed-in on the rubber-topped toes of the shoes, where the bold worlds 'I heart Mel-bell' had been written in pink. The shoes were badly scuffed and the writing had faded, but the pink ink burned into Melanie's retinas as if carved there. Those shoes weren't Wesley's or Drew's, or even Travis's, as unbelievable as that sounded.

Melanie looked up slowly.

-"Don't make this harder than it is."-

A hand touched her chin, gentle and warm. Tentatively, the hand lifted her chin until Melanie was forced to see what before she hadn't wanted to. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.

"Tobias," said Melanie, so softly that she wasn't sure she'd spoken at all.

-"…harder than it is."-

He had grown taller. His eyes were still big, round, and a darker blue than hers. His hair dark brown, but it was cut short and spiked with gel and hairspray and it went well with the cobalt three-piece suit he wore. Now his skin was browner than gold, yet remained smooth, though his nose was sunburned and peeling. There was a small bump in his nose that hadn't been there before, as if it broke a while ago and not quite healed right. So much about him had changed, but he looked so much the same. A more mature version of himself, more of his father in him now. But he smiled his old smile that was all of and only Tobias Kiser, and Melanie felt her knees turn to butter.

"Mel-bell," he said, his voice a powerful rumble. So calm and cool, as if he had been expecting her. "It is you…"

It had been three years since they last saw or contacted one another. Melanie had hated him for all that time. He had not called ahead and she had not expected him, but then, here was Tobias, her long lost love. Melanie wondered what she was supposed to say to this sudden surprise.

- "I like the way that rolls off the tongue… Mel-bell. That shall be thyne new nickname! My nickname for you. You will be forever special that way."-

But she was saved by Wesley's arrival.

"Your Highness—" called Wesley. The shout dropped short at the same time that Tobias's hand fell away from cradling Melanie's stunned face. Wesley stopped at the opening of the alley between the two walls of CDs and stared at his long lost best friend in wonder. "My God," he said after some time, blinking away the astonishment. And then Wesley crowed, "Tobs!" and leapt across the space separating them to crush the young man in a brotherly embrace. Wesley continued to gush, "I missed you so much, little brother! It's been, like, ages!"

"I… missed… you… too… Wes," gasped Tobias. His attention was elsewhere, though, as he watched over Wesley's broad shoulders at his ex-girlfriend hurrying away from the enthusiastic young couple. She was out of the store and still running when Tobias finally came back to his senses. "Let go, Wes! I can't… breathe!"

Sighing reluctantly, Wesley released his friend. His expression was grim while he studied Tobias's matured face and the out-of-place formal wear.

"Man," said Wesley, meeting Tobias's gaze with the question clear on his face. "What are you doing back? All us were starting to think you was gone for good. You didn't call or write or e-mail—I thought you were dead or had gone into hiding someplace remote, like you went off to be a hermit in the Rockies."

"Close," said Tobias, giving sheepish. "I was sent to some military college. You've heard of West Point?"

Wesley's face went blank. "Jesus, Tobs," he said. "You're in the army?"

"Not by choice," said Tobias. He looked to the side when he said it. "And I'm about to be head of my father's corporation. Gramps is sending me to some business college around here. I got to choose this college."

"What'd you pick?"

"State."

"Should I be jealous?" said Wesley, eyebrows raised.

"Yes and no," said Tobias. He continued to gaze to the side while he spoke, but now a hand came up to rub the nape of his neck as if to play with a lock of hair. Then he seemed to remember that it was too short at his neck to play with now and he dropped the gesture. "It depends on if you like military training," he said and looked at Wesley, "or business association, and dealing with bad guys. But you wouldn't get jealous anyway because of all the money involved, so let's not waste my time asking stupid questions."

"Hiss," replied Wesley, and raked imaginary cat claws through the air. "Somebody's become a bit snippy of late. Don't scowl at me," he added when Tobias gave him sullen. "It's true, but I don't blame you. You've had a lot to deal with since… well, since, you know."

"Yeah, I know," said Tobias without emotion. He looked around, pretending not to see Wesley's expression change once his friend realized what he was doing.

"You ain't gonna find her in here, little brother."

Tobias sighed and looked at Wesley, cringing when he noticed that his friend's guard had gone up. Yet he asked, "Melanie hates me, doesn't she?"

"I wouldn't know," said Wesley. "She avoids my group a lot. And when she does deign to hang around with us fools, then she doesn't show much of what she is feeling. Mel has gotten good at hiding the pain." The ocher eyes moved elsewhere, as if not looking directly at Tobias would make it feel less like betraying Melanie. "I think she's still hurting, but it isn't quite hatred. It isn't just you, either."

"What do you mean?"

Wesley shrugged, but answered, "I shouldn't be telling you all this… But you've always been my number one, and Mel ain't gonna tell you any time soon…"

"Come on, Wes. It's not like I'm gonna go tackling the next person that cares and tell him."

Wesley smiled wistfully. The smile had vanished by the time he said, quickly, like taking off a band-aid, "Her mom was killed three years ago, about five or six months after you left. Mrs. Rose got caught in the crossfire of a gas station robbery. Mel went to live with her dad a while, and it didn't work out, so… mostly Haylee has taken her in." Slowly, his brown eyes sad, Wesley brought his gaze back to meet Tobias's stunned face. "If Mel's heart wasn't broken before," said Wesley, softly, "I reckon it is by now."

Tobias stared at his friend.

After a few seconds the shock wore off, and Tobias demanded angrily, "Why didn't I hear about this? I told Mel to write to me if… if anything happened. I told her to send the letter to my granddad, and he would send it off to me wherever I was."

"If she wrote to you then she didn't tell anyone about it," said Wesley. His tone was cooled to sub-zero temperatures and Tobias quickly realized that he had crossed a line with his friend. He had crossed into dangerous territory. Tobias realized he had crossed into Melanie's territory, which was forbidden. He was out of the loop, and Melanie was suddenly out of his reach. "Ask your gramps about it," said Wesley, "see if he got a letter for you and just forgot about it. He's got a business to run, so I won't put it past him to forget such a small detail. He's old, anyway." The frost in Wesley's voice melted then and he smiled sadly. "Do me a favor," he continued, "and don't mention any of this around Melanie. Don't mention her mom at all when she's still in hearing range. It gets Mel… she gets weird. Not exactly mad but… I can't explain it right. She just starts acting funny—like some whole other Melanie. All emotionless-like and cold-hearted. She acts like she don't care, but we all know she does. We all know it's killing her from the inside out."

"You mean she acts soulless," said Drew, suddenly behind Wesley.

Wesley spun with a yelp and stuck an accusing finger in his short friend's face. "Don't sneak up on me, Midget!" he said. "I'm liable to step on you."

"Which is exactly why I must warn you ahead of time," agreed Drew. He smirked, and then looked past the friend pointing at him to the one he hadn't seen in a few years. The little smile went away. "Hey, Tobs," said Drew. "Haven't seen you around lately. How's the business life?"

"Wouldn't know yet," said Tobias, smiling slightly but without humor. "Unless it's a lot like the military life. How've you been, Drew?"

"Depends on how you look at it," said Drew. He mirrored Tobias's mirthless smile, then glanced at Wesley. "Wes, you might want to go track down Her Grace. I followed her outside the store but lost her in a crowd of tourist-types about midway down the hall. It isn't going to be pretty if she meets up with The Travesty first."

"The Travesty?" echoed Tobias.

"Travis," answered Wesley.

Tobias looked at him and said, "What's there between Mel and Travis?" and wondered if the jealousy showed in his voice.

His friend answered absently while gazing toward the nearest exit out of the store, "Disgust. Or guilt, depending on whose side you're willing to take. Nowadays our Travis is all about drugs. It's because of his dad, who started slapping him around last year, but Mel is convinced it's her fault." Wesley suddenly returned attention to Tobias and Drew, sliding his look from one to the other. "Listen, I'll catch up with you guys later. If you plan on sticking around awhile, Tobs, meet me at the food court. Won't take more than a couple minutes. Midget… you just stand there and look pretty."

Wesley left the store before Drew could snap a reply.

Tobias looked down at Drew. "Wow," said Tobias. "You really haven't grown."

The short man shot him a dark look. Tobias was taller than Wesley by a couple inches, which made Tobias much taller than Drew, but Tobias was much thinner. "I can still kick your ass," said Drew.

"Angry little thing, aren't you?"

"You wanna piece?"

"Oh, God, no. If I took a piece, what would be left?" Drew scowled at Tobias, who smiled his old slow smile. "Ah," said Tobias, "it's good to be home."

-

(A/N) Thanks you for the compliments and your opinions: Sonhe Deusa, Manju (2 reviews (sorta), and the longest one yet! I really appreciate that, and your opinion on my poetry, so extra thanks to you), and Jesse. Oh, and to Eclipsia Soulbird (my new beta): thanks for editing and inspiring this chapter! I was so stuck until your email the other day.