Seeing the Forest

Chapter 6: Slipping

For a late Saturday afternoon, downtown San Jaime is bustling like crazy. I haven't seen the streets so jammed with cars for a long time. I leave my car at the Safeway parking lot and walk the three blocks down to Green Bean Café, which is a favorite haunt of Matthias High students, and rightfully so. Personally, I am their number one fan when it comes to lattes.

The afternoon is quite chilly, and the line is nearly inching out the door when I arrive, but I spot my friends inside, further up the queue. Joining them requires giving a rueful, apologetic smile to the people I hurry past.

"You are chronically late this year, young lady," Mel scolds as I squeeze into the group, startling Marcus, who gives a surprised grunt and then offers a smile.

"Oh come on, it's only 4:10," I grin. "And plus, this way I don't have to wait in line so long with you guys. I'm a smartie for being late," I say, although that hadn't really been my intention.

"More like smart aleck," Lee grins from behind Marcus.

"Or that," I agree.

Mel smiles broadly. "Come on Meg, what are you gonna order? I can't decide what to order." She twirls a strand of her black hair around a finger, a delicate crinkle touching the bridge of her straight nose.

"Probably a latté, I guess," I reply, tilting my head back to an uncomfortable angle in order to scan the chalkboard menu posted high above the baristas heads, searching for the seasonal specials. Ah, there is a cinnamon latté; maybe I'll try that.

Suddenly I am aware of a commotion behind me, an intense buzzing conversation taking place underneath the hum of noise in the small coffee shop. I whip around, promptly shouldering the lady in line behind me. As I turn my head to apologize, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a ridiculous scene – tiny little Sandy, with her innocent blue doll's eyes hard and convincing, firmly chastising Marcus for something in a heated whisper. But when I drop the apology and turn around again, I wonder if I had been imagining things, because Marcus is conversing amiably with Lee, and Sandy has magically appeared on Mel's other side.

It's at this exact moment that I realize only 25 of our group is here. Kenny, Michael, Bobby, and Phil are not here, and neither are Denise, Tori, and Sarah. Something suspicious is going on; I can feel the mood skimming over my skin. Kenny is present at almost every group outing, and what is even stranger is that Lee is here without him. Although Sandy and Mel are a self-contained unit anyway, Marcus is here without Michael or even Bobby, which is extremely out of place as well.

It's too late to say anything though; it's our turn to order. Somehow there is a combination of jostling around such that Lee and I are the last ones to order. As I order a cinnamon latté, shuffling around distractedly in my purse for money to pay the cashier, I sense another odd disturbance to my right, where everyone is waiting for their drinks. By this point, my attention is so widely dispersed that when I hold out a five-dollar bill to the cashier, I'm startled when we make eye-contact. His face is plain and friendly, but his eyes are the most amazing shade of sea-green – I've never been to the Caribbean, but this must be the color of cool tropical shallows, the cleanest and clearest aqua-green.

The cashier gives me a strange look, hesitantly reaching out slightly to accept the five-dollar bill.

"Wow, I'm sorry," I say, snapping out of it and laughing apologetically. God, I swear I have ADD sometimes. "Your eyes are just the most unique color. But I bet you hear that all the time."

The cashier nods good-naturedly as he rummages for my change. "I do," he says, eyes flickering up to make eye-contact with my again briefly, "But it never gets old hearing it from a gorgeous girl." He drops 3.07 in the palm of my hand and gives me the kind of friendly-and-sweet smile that only people with a perfect balance of self-esteem can offer.

I smile back and move to the right, clutching my change in one hand, wondering to myself why my smile could never be that confidently perfect. As I duck my head, juggling my purse and wallet to put my change away, a warm breath brushes over the back of my neck. I look up to find Lee Summerfield glancing at me curiously.

"What?" I say, unnerved.

"Nothing," he says quietly. "This might sound kind of weird, but I think –"

Suddenly I hear an anguished screech from my right. It sounds something like "Aughfuaahh! No!!"

Lee and I turn together like synchronized swimmers to see Sandy, with half her drink dripping on the arm of her sweater, and Mel looking appalled but making no move to help. "Ohhh no," Sandy wails, "Oh my god!"

"Oh lord," I mutter, pushing through the throng of people looking on sympathetically in the waiting area to get some thick brown napkins.

"What happened?" I demand of Mel as she snaps out of her frozen state – probably too horrified by the sight of Sandy's pale pink wool-blend sweater, ruined now – to help me clean the mess up. A spluttering, apologetic barista helps us, extremely red in the face.

Sandy interrupts, sighing heavily as she wrings out the sleeve of her sweater. "Just me being clumsy as usual," she says, sounding pissed to the max. "Ugh. Well, that settles it." She sighs again, even more heavily than the first time, sending a meaningful look at Mel.

"Settles what?" I ask, standing there with a handful of napkins soaked with hazelnut-cream coffee. Lee tries to help, attempting to sweep them out of my hands, but I clench on to them. "I got it," I tell him.

"Let me," he says, raising his eyebrows, and on second thought I relinquish the dirty napkins. I don't feel like fighting my way back through that crowd to get to the garbage can.

"Meg, really!" Mel chastises. "You can't expect Sandy to enjoy her afternoon when she's got coffee all over her! The sweater may be saved if we get it to the dry cleaners right away. It's okay, I'll take you home," she says sympathetically to Sandy.

"No, no, that's really not necessary…" Sandy looks forlornly at the arm of her soft sweater. "Oh well, okay," she says.

Within thirty seconds, the pair whisks out of the shop in a breeze of delicate perfume, and Marcus, Lee, and I are left staring out of the floor to ceiling window of Green Bean at the windy street outside. Right then I realize that Mel hadn't even bought a drink. What the hell is going on?

I whirl onto Marcus suspiciously, but he whips out his cell phone to take a call, turning away apologetically with a finger held up.

Finally I face Lee. His lips are itching to tip into a grin, I know it. He just stands there and looks at me, clearly amused, and takes a sip of his cappuchino.

"Well, isn't this pleasant," he says cheerily. "Why don't we get a table?" He leaves me no choice, gently grabbing me by the elbow and nudging me toward a chair.

"There's not enough chairs. We need one for Marcus," I tell him pointedly. "Oh crap, I forgot about my drink! You get a chair for Marcus." And with that I struggle my way back through the crowd to the pick-up counter to get my cinnamon latté.

By the time I weave back, Lee still hasn't gotten a chair for Marcus. Rather, he's sitting there, looking thoughtful and generally entertained by the world.

"Hey Meg," he says kindly, slouching down in his chair to stretch his leg out, pushing out my chair for me with his ankle. Hmm, creative. "Have a seat. And relax, would you? Your jaw's set like you're ready to do battle."

"Let me guess. Marcus suddenly had some life-or-death situation to take care of," I deadpan, sitting down, now fully defeated.

"Oh, how you did you know? You must be a psychic," Lee chuckles.

"I read palms on the weekends, in fact," I smile, rolling my eyes and take a sip of my cinnamon latté – ah, delicious. "Well, this is just lovely," I say airily, sitting back in my chair, gazing at Lee. "Can't remember the last time I got set up like this. I forgot how enjoyable the experience is," I say sarcastically.

He laughs and leans forward, resting his forearms on the table. "I want to know what Mel and Sandy said to convince Marcus to go along with this," he says contemplatively.

"This is ridiculous."

"Oh, certainly. Quite preposterous."

"Ludicrous, indeed."

"I'd say it's absurd, really."

I hesitate, thinking. "Alright," I cave in. "You win, I'm out of synonyms. So you actually want to do this, Lee Summerfield? We're going to give in, and let our devious friends have the satisfaction of knowing they have succeeded?"

He grins, his dark eyes unusually sparkling. "Now, I don't think it would be half so bad, do you? Clearly, we're made for each other. No other reason we'd get set up like this."

He catches me off-guard, and I laugh at his comment.

"In fact, I might as well propose to you right now. We can elope to Vegas, baby," he continues, dropping me a humongous wink. I realize he's probably trying to edge another laugh out of me, and stupidly, it totally works.

"Sorry, I've got a dentist appointment tomorrow. Maybe I can pencil you in for next week," I tell him, smiling.

He sighs theatrically. "Well, I'll take what I can get."

I take a slow sip from my paper cup, savoring the cinnamon and coffee taste. This is what heaven tastes like, I know it. I smile secretly to myself – this is indeed quite ridiculous. I can't believe Mel had the nerve to engineer something like this, no matter how clearly fake and awkward the set up was. Incredible. She must be really getting desperate on my behalf.

I glance across at Lee, who still looks contemplative, and is gazing with mild interest at the bold paintings on the walls of Green Bean. I shake my head in amusement. Made for each other. Right. As if anything is that good or easy.

"Can I try some of your drink?" he asks out of the blue, turning his dark eyes on me. "I'll trade you." He pushes his cappuchino toward me.

I look at it uneasily. I'm not too great about sharing germs. With my friends, I'm usually fine, but you never know what kind of bacteria and germs are floating out there. I took AP Biology last year, so I've seen my fair share of graphic pictures depicting disgusting little germs. One glance at the rim of Lee's cup fires off all the worst imaginative neurons in my brain.

"I don't know," I say hesitantly. "I might be coming down with something. I'm not sure you want to share with me."

He smiles. "Fair enough," he says, reclaiming his cup but moving to sit forward in his seat rather than back, so that the space between us is diminished. "So how many hints did you get from Mel?" he asks, eyes twinkling with intense amusement. His posture is calm and unthreatening, and I know his body language as he leans in only demonstrates a friendly interest. Yet my gut jerks slightly, because in that split second, glancing at his calm posture, I still get the impression that there is some deeply intuitive force right there in his eyes, right under his skin, a force I'm not sure I want to see.

The moment passes, but still I can't stop myself from leaning back in an attempt to increase the distance between us again. "Like three, maybe," I reply, keeping my tone weightless and easy. I look down at the plastic top of my coffee cup so my side-swept bangs drift down across my forehead. "Which is pretty good, actually; I've had less warning in the past. She thinks I need a boyfriend, ever since – well… She tried the whole summer." I glance up at Lee under my bangs.

"Yeah?" he chuckles, resting his forearms flat against the top of the table and splaying out his fingers for a moment before pulling them back into loose fists again. "How come?"

I shrug, tossing my head back unconsciously to move my bangs off my face. "I don't know. She thinks I need to fun-date around. That's her term, not mine." I take another few sips of my latté, wondering how long Lee and I are going to sit here and make conversation. My radar is up for any moments of awkwardness, which I think will edge in any time now. I'll stick around for one minimum, I tell myself; Lee probably deserves that much. By the second moment of awkwardness, I'm making a getaway.

"Well," Lee says, "don't get offended, but I don't think you're really the fun-dating type." He looks at me with his eyebrows raised, expression light but with a lurking look of apprehension at my response.

"Oh really," I say scornfully, setting down my cup. I give him a very pointed look. "Well, I'll have you know that I am actually very well experienced in fun-dating. How dare you insinuate –" But I can't keep it up any longer than that, because the astonished expression on his face is so priceless that I break out into a chuckle.

"You know what," says Lee, laughing with me, quick on the joke, "I think I know all about you, Meg Calander."

"Is that so?" I ask him in my previous condescending tone of voice, before offering him a grin.

"Yes. You love to surprise people."

"Ah," I say, this time, for the first time, giving him a truly genuine smile, because he has earned it. I lift up my paper coffee cup in a small toast to him. "Who's the psychic now?"


Lee and I hung around Green Bean for another 45 minutes of light conversation, the most we've ever had at one time, before parting ways. Mel will be grandly disappointed, because our conversation consisted mainly of general topics like school, college, sports, and favorite colors – yes, that is a plural; I have at least five – and our parting was as easy and platonic as can be. No hug, only the friendly see-you-later sort of knowing smile that passes between people when they share an amusing experience.

I think that after all these weeks, I've finally figured out why Kenny took an immediate liking to Lee, drawing him straight into our group very notably without any evident tests of personality or character, which has happened every other time we've integrated a new person. It has everything to do with that inexplicable electricity I saw in him in that split second. Lee clearly doesn't bow to anybody; although on the outside everything about him looks mellow and laidback, you find yourself glancing at him out of the corner of your eye every once in a while, to make sure that yes, he's still there looking calm and chill, there's nothing to worry about.

Lee Summerfield is the odd man out in our group. He's different, smart, not a super-jock, not clueless and completely self-absorbed – which is why, despite how refreshing he is, I find myself retreating. He's one of those people you have to keep your eye on, because his sense of perception is just too acute.

Despite a new addition, the group lives on just as it always has, changing little in dynamics or routines. Old habits die hard, they say, and for the group, the oldest habit is partying. It always starts the same way: a discussion at lunch on a Friday.

This Friday though, events take a more pleasant turn, to my surprise. Due to my late arrival, I hadn't witnessed too much of Adam Stuart's party last weekend, but it was clear from the Bobby-Denise spectacle and the various other salacious stories I hear from Mel and Sandy that it had been packed with enough drama to satisfy even the worst gossip-whores for a while. So when the topic of the upcoming weekend inevitably surfaces at lunchtime on Friday, we agree we'll all skip out on this week's bash at Amanda Cole's and do something tamer instead.

"How about the movies?"

"But there aren't any good movies out right now."

"Bullshit. There's that new Matt Damon action movie."

"Isn't there a new Adam Sandler film out too?"

At this, Phil absolutely cannot contain himself. "A-dam, Sand-ler," he says loudly in a happy singsong chant.

I burst out laughing, I can't help it. The rest of the girls collectively roll their eyes.

"Adam Sandler is Phil's favorite," Kenny explains to Lee Summerfield, seeing his bemused expression.

"Well, who can blame him?" Lee chuckles, and Phil beams.

"Hey, let's go swimming!" someone says, clearly still bent on finding a group activity to do this weekend.

"It's too cold."

"Well, hot tub, dude."


"Touch football," Bobby suggests.

"Ew, no, then we'll be excluded," Denise says, referring to the girls.

"No, touch football's fun," I contribute absently, ripping off the paper label from my water bottle. I feel like everyone suddenly turns to look at me. "Well, it is," I say defensively.

Kenny grins, shaking his head. "Our Meg's such a jock," he teases.

"I am not," I deny. I wave a hand dismissively, trying to get everyone to move on. "More suggestions?"

"I don't know."


"Lunch at Little Mario's."

"Hey, I love that place."

"Ugh, but it's so far."

"It's worth it."

"No. It's frickin' sandwiches."

"Amen. I'm not taking a half hour drive just for sandwiches."

"But they're good."

"She's right."



"Well, there is that school fundraiser thing."

"Wait, wait, wait, that's for like the junior class or something."




"Phil, stop saying that, no one gets it. I'm not sure it even makes sense in the context."

"I don't get it."

"Me neither."

"??" (This is Sarah, so lost by this point that she can't even formulate a coherent sentence.)

"Well I think it's kind of funny, even if it is out of context," I defend Phil.

"That's because you're in smarty pants AP Spanish."

"So?" I reply, grinning at Phil, who blows me an extravagant kiss as thanks for setting him up.

"¿Entonces?" he implores, throwing up his hands and gazing skyward with extra melodrama for good measure.

"Stop it, Phil!"

"Yeah, that's not funny."

"It is so!"

"Why are we always so off track?!"




"I'm warning you."

"Everyone shut up," Kenny chuckles good-naturedly. "Let's hear about this fundraiser. Where is it?"

"Ridgeley Center," Sarah contributes.

"So, what, ice skating?"

"Yeah," Marcus affirms.

"Does that sound good? Ice skating? What do you guys think?" Kenny says, looking around. Everyone seems to think it's a fairly good idea.

"We haven't done that in a long time," Bobby says thoughtfully.

"So, ice skating?" Kenny confirms.

"I don't know how to skate," Lee says offhandedly.

"You don't?"

"How do you not know how to skate?"

He puts up his hands defensively, grinning a little. "I grew up in So Cal, you guys."

"Well, this is the Bay Area. Not like we get snow over here either."

"Too bad," Mel says mournfully. "I love the snow. You get to wear cute ski jackets."

"Alright," Kenny says just as the bell rings and we all get up. "Saturday afternoon. What time?"

"It starts at three."

"Alright then. Three o'clock, Saturday, Ridgeley Center."

"Be there or be square!" Phil crows.

Marcus shakes his head. "Lame, dude," he grins.

Phil's handsome, goofy smile is brilliant, because he knows he has the last word.



Ridgeley Center is humongous. There are two ice skating rinks, equal in size. One is for recreational ice skating, open to the public, and the other is for ice hockey and figure skaters. As we bustle in as a group, I hear to my side Bobby explaining to Lee that sometimes there are hockey tournaments, which are fun to watch, and there's also always this one college girl who practices figure skating during winter break. He says, a hint of amazement in his voice, that she can do those triple-axel jumps. Lee's chuckling voice asks him what exactly a triple-axel jump entails, and Bobby admits he doesn't know, but it looks pretty damn cool.

It costs ten dollars for entrance and skate rentals combined. We tell the guy at the ticket office that we're with Matthias High, and he counts us and makes a little note on a clipboard, and waves us in. All the girls are excited to get on the ice, and the boys are already gearing up for some playful skating competitions.

Other than Kenny, Bobby is the one guy in our group who has been on friendliest terms with Lee since the beginning of the school year. As I sit down with everyone else and lace up my skates snugly, I sense that something's up.

"Hey dude, you gotta learn how to skate, it's hella fun," Bobby is telling Lee in a continuation of their conversation. Lee is so concentrated on lacing up his skates correctly that he only grunts.

"You want me to teach you or something?" Bobby carries on, but even as he says the words, I see out of the corner of my eye as he glances around for visual contact with someone else – ah, I hide a smile. Denise. She looks extra cute today, with her hair in a feminine French braid.

Lee is smart enough to look up at this point, catching Bobby's furtive glance. His smile is slow and deliberate.

"Nah man, it's alright, I don't want to slow you down, you know," he says.

"But someone has to teach you," Bobby says, clearly torn. His eyes skirt around the group quickly, and finally I look up fully and do the same. The rest of the boys are no help; even Kenny has the unmistakable light of competition in his eyes, and there's no way you can wrench him away from an athletic challenge, which Marcus has evidently just issued. My eyes slide to the girls – giggly and oblivious, as always.

Bobby makes eye contact with me across the bench, and he reads my face in an instant, melting into puppy dog eyes. I roll my eyes at him, but he knows he has me.

"Lee, I'll teach you," I offer, standing up.

"Great," he says immediately, grinning.

"Are you sure?" Bobby throws in last minute, just for the sake of politeness.

"Yes," I say emphatically at the same time that Lee says, "Yeah man, just go."

As Bobby takes off, Lee shakes his head with a somber expression painted on his face. "Meg, why do we always have to do all the work around here?" he inquires.

"There, there," I reply. "It's alright. All in the name of love. We are martyrs for a great cause and will be properly honored in the future," I inform him, letting a smile slip.

As he chuckles, I offer him my hand, which he takes readily. "C'mon, let's get you out there," I say, pointing to the ice with my other hand. "And if Bobby and Denise aren't flirting heavily by the end of today, Bobby definitely owes us lunch," I joke in a quieter voice once Lee is standing up.

His dark eyes regard me laughingly. "Well, you sure don't get taken advantage of," he remarks. Then he looks down at his feet, clad in skates. "This feels really weird."

"It'll feel better when you get out on the ice," I reassure him.

The rest area is padded with tough foam safe for the blades of our ice skates, and Lee clumsily makes his way to the entrance of the recreational rink. I'm sure I look no less ridiculous; waddling around in skates off the ice never quite makes for a flattering entrance. Still, I can tell from the get-go that his athletic instincts will make the job of teaching him pretty easy.

The rest of our group has already dispersed onto the ice, and far off in the distance I see Bobby skating circles around Denise, who, even though she doesn't have to hold onto the edge, looks a little wobbly as always.

"Huh, good start," Lee grins, nodding at the pair as he steps onto the ice fearlessly, steadying himself with a hand on the rink's wall. We don't speak for a while; I merely skate alongside him quietly as he concentrates on figuring out the process by himself, shuffling along on the ice while holding onto the wall. After about fifteen feet of this, he suddenly takes a much bolder step, but loses his balance.

I reflexively reach out to steady him, catching him with one hand on his elbow and the other flat on his back.

"Whoa there, you okay?" I smile.

"Yeah, thanks," he replies. "Damn, this is so much harder than it looks." His dark eyes sweep over the rink. I follow his gaze; the other boys are just getting started on their skating competition, and the girls are following behind, some linked arm in arm and chattering away – no doubt gossiping. He feels a little left out, I realize.

"It's okay, you'll learn really quickly, I promise. You know, maybe you should try not holding onto the wall," I suggest.

"You're not serious," he says. "I'm trying to avoid falling on my ass, thanks."

"You can do it, come on," I coax him. "I know you can. I'm psychic, remember?"

This makes him laugh. "Alright, fine," he says. "But I'm trusting you. Don't let me fall," he warns.

"'Course not," I grin, and skate in front of him so we're facing each other, and I take both his hands, which are cold just like mine. "I'm going to go backwards and pull you along for a bit," I explain. "This was how my brother taught me to skate. So, you figure out the best way to maintain your balance first. It helps if you lean forward a little and bend your knees. That way, you won't feel like you're about to fall over backwards all the time. Ready?" I ask, and start skating backwards. It requires a bit of effort, as he's taller and heavier than I am, but I manage it.

By this time, all our friends have made a full circle around the rink and are approaching us. I've known Mel long enough to understand that the twinkle in her eye means trouble of the worst kind: when her mind starts working its mischievous cogs.

Our friends circle around us, fitting around us into a big, happy amoeba-shaped group as laughs and light comments fly through the air. It's useless trying to teach Lee to skate with the group's restless energy enveloping us, so I let go of him and respond to Mel's conversation.

She grabs my arm, linking us together by the elbow, and lowers her head to talk directly in my ear. "So, how's the skating coming along, hmm?" she asks with a brilliant smile.

"It's fine, Lee's a fast learner," I reply, warning her with a playful arch of my eyebrow.

"Mhmm," she hums happily.

"Give it up, Mel. I don't even know him that well. And plus you know that dating within the group never works out well," I tell her, throwing a look over my shoulder. The rest of our friends are too preoccupied crowding around Lee and giving him pointers to notice the side conversation Mel and I are having.

She sighs, grinning. "I can't give this one up, sorry babe. I know some of the other guys I tried setting you up with were disasters – well maybe except Andrew Lloyd –"

"Andrew Lloyd was a sweetie," I agree.

"See!" Mel laughs. "They're not all bad –"

"But then there are ones like Kirk Wheeler," I interrupt her a second time, offering her my most saccharine smile.

"Okay, he was a creeper, sorry about that one," Mel relents. Just as Mel is about to say something else, Sandy whizzes up and links elbows with me on the other side so that I'm sandwiched between the two of them. Her momentum drags Mel and me forward so that we get pulled forward in a diagonal line. Mel emits a tiny scream and I laugh at Sandy's wobbly expression as the three of us try to regain our balance together.

"What's happening?" Sandy asks excitedly. "What are we talking about? I heard the name Andrew Lloyd and I thought, I have to come investigate! What's happening?!" she asks again, eyes sparkling.

"Nothing," I say very pointedly, ignoring Mel's satisfied feline smile.

"We're talking about –" And Mel casually tosses a deliberate look over her shoulder. "For Miss Meg, of course," she finishes, sharing a wicked grin with Sandy.

"Ah, of course," Sandy giggles. "Maybe we should go. Leave them alone to their skating."

"Good idea, Sandy!" Mel laughs, and the two simultaneously spin a 180, so that we're directly facing the rest of our group now. In one swift movement, they untangle themselves from me and push me forward gently.

"You two are ruthless," I smile, shaking my head. "Absolutely ruthless."

They skillfully round up the rest of our group and coax them away from Lee so that he and I are once again left alone to watch as they all surge forward, skating and laughing.

"So you pick up any good tips?" I ask him, smiling.

"Yeah. Phil tells me Bengay will work wonders tomorrow when I'm sore from falling," Lee grins.

I laugh at that. "Of course. Gotta love Phil for that kind of advice," I nod. "So, umm…" I hold out my hands questioningly. "You still need help?"

Lee's eyes trace over my palms. Suddenly and inexplicably, I shiver. From the cold of the skating rink, I tell myself. "Sure," he says simply, gripping my hands gently but firmly.

As I had suspected, it takes very little time for him to pick up skating. He only falls once, because of me – I accidentally pulled him along too quickly, making him slip and lose his balance. By the time our friends have made three complete circles around the rink, Lee is skating comfortably without my help, and with the task of skating out of the way, we are left to shape conversation from something else.

"So what were Mel and Sandy all giggly about earlier?" Lee asks, looking sideways at me for the briefest of moments before refocusing his eyes on his feet, concentrating on skating forward.

I know that he knows exactly what they were harassing me about. "Oh you know, this and that," I say airily. "As I always say, there are only two things Mel and Sandy ever want to talk about."

"Clothes and makeup?" Lee chuckles.

"Close – fashion and boys," I provide the answer, making him laugh again.

"Hey, listen," Lee says, a purposeful note in voice telling me he is launching directly into a different topic. "You know last weekend, at Adam Stuart's party."

"Yeah," I say quickly, glancing at him.

"And I asked you about Michael – him being your ex-boyfriend and stuff," Lee continues, faster now. "I wanted to apologize for that – I've been meaning to, but it's never been a good time."

"Wait," I say, confused. "Apologize for what?"

This brings him up short. He stops skating entirely, and I stop with him. He stares at me, shimmering black eyes connecting straight on with mine for the very first time since the first day of school when he asked me for directions in the halls. I suddenly remember being thrown off balance by those eyes then, as I nearly am now, once again.

"I thought that I made you uncomfortable or something," he explains. "I kinda realized after that it must've been a sensitive subject. You were on edge."

"Oh," I laugh lightly, pushing the weight of the subject off for both of us. "Yeah, I guess I was. I was having a conversation with him before everyone walked into the kitchen," I tell him, as we resume our skating by a tacit agreement. "Don't worry about it, you don't need to apologize. It was kind of an awkward conversation with him though. Not enjoyable at all."

Lee nods, taking this in. Our eyes connect again, and his are filled with curiosity, but he is tactful enough not to ask anything further. We are silent for a long moment.

"We dated last year," I explain, unable to stop myself, maybe because of this unexpected tact and respectful quiet he has given me. "It was all bad," I say softly, voicing the barest of truths. "I was more into him than he was into me, you know? And I don't ever want to be in that unbalanced of a relationship ever again. When things hang out of balance like that…" I trail off, incapable of summing up the hurt that it entails in one sentence.

"It's okay, I understand," Lee nods.

And in that moment, right before our group comes up from behind and absorbs us again on their fourth trip around the rink, I feel like maybe he really does.


A/N: Hey everyone, sorry for yet ANOTHER inexcusably long absence! I'm on my summer break right now so technically I should be publishing chapters like mad. Hope you guys enjoyed this one! A review would be much appreciated :)

Also, for those of you who got confused during that long, mainly dialogue-only passage where Phil busts out the word "entonces", the word "entonces" means "so" in Spanish, except he is probably using it incorrectly because "entonces" is used more like the "so" as in "therefore".

Thanks for all the reviews from last time! I've barely been on fictionpress these days so I'm afraid I haven't sent out any kinds of personal thank-yous. So thanks for those who reviewed since last time! I'll be better next time about review responses, I promise!