Aya's face contorted in anger and she attempted to wrench herself free from his grasp. "Get off of me!"

Tears sprang to her eyes and her arm tore from his. It took her a moment to realize she'd been slapped. "You call that burnt piece of shit breakfast! You lazy-"

"Shut up!" A sudden wave of anger had caused the outburst, but now as his eyes blazed in her direction, she was flooded with fear. He advanced on her and she took stumbling steps backwards, trying not to trip over herself. His hand shot out without warning and gripped her shoulder, his other slamming flatly against her cheek and rocketing her into the wall. She slumped onto the ground and immediately found a boot planted in her stomach. Coughing, her arms found her torso and wrapped around it, her eyes tilting up and searching his own for mercy.

She found none.

"Get out!" he yelled, and she gave it no second thought. Without pause, she jumped to her feet and raced to the front door, dipping to grab her messenger bag along the way.

-----

Nothing in the world was more annoying to a hangover than an alarm clock. Slamming his fist onto the off button, Bret rolled over in bed and swung his legs over the side of the bed, grunting as he held his head. What a wild night, he thought dimly and with a tinge of regret, but he had never let regret stop him before. Lumbering to his feet, he padded to the bathroom and dropped his boxers. He clambered into the shower and turned the knobs, letting hot water cascade over his face and running his fingers through his hair, letting last night drip off him with the rivulets of water that cut down his body.

-----

A voice rang up the stairs, slicing through the music. "Kurt, this is the last time I'm going to tell you! It's seven in the morning, turn your music down!"

With a resigned sigh and a hint of a smirk curling his lips, Kurt took his iPod from it's stereo system and plugged in his set of headphones. Slipping them on, he rocked his head back and forth to the beat while he shoved a pile of unfinished homework heedlessly into his gaping backpack. As he watched his half-written history essay crumple into the abyss, he winced. He tried to calculate the drop his already suffering history grade would take without the essay due today, pulling a wrinkled shirt from the ground and over his head. He kicked through a mass of clothing on his ground, searching for his shoes, and when his foot connected with its prize, he grabbed them and shoved them over his feet. Shouldering his backpack, he rushed downstairs, checking his watch as he did so and grimacing. He was going to be late if he didn't hurry up; breakfast would have to be cut from the schedule this morning. He grabbed his skateboard from its spot against the foyer wall, heading out the front door and planting the board beneath his feet. With a few kicks, he was off.

-----

Shouts rose through the ceiling, shaking the foundations of what appeared to be a happy family. Rae snorted cynically, glancing at the picture frame erected on her nightstand. Happy...nothing's been happy since you.

Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she slung her purse over her shoulder and picked up an armload of books. As she opened her door and tiptoed down the steps, attempting to conceal her entrance, the volume of the argument skyrocketed. She hurried down the steps and located the sounds to be coming from the kitchen; she groaned as her stomach rumbled. Figuring she'd stop for a bite to eat on the way to school, she pulled her keys from her purse and headed out to her car.

-----

Hands collided in the air in a fierce hello, loud clapping noises sounding in the hall.

"Bret! How's it going bud?"

Bret shrugged his shoulders as he milled in the hallway with a few of his fellow football players, waiting for the bell to ring. "Have a major headache...last night sure was crazy, wasn't it?"

"Shhh!" Mike hissed, glancing down the hallway as their coach lumbered down the hallway.

"Naes! You ready for the game tonight?" The coach was amiable enough, but he looked at Bret with concern.

"Hell yeah sir."

"Watch your language, Naes," he scolded, but there was a gleam in his eyes and a hint of a smirk upon his lips. "In any case, I'll see you at the game tonight. And for godsakes, stay in school or else you won't be able to play tonight!"

It felt as though a rock had dropped into Bret's stomach; he'd forgotten that rule. He pulled his lips into a winning smile and nodded. "You can count on me."

"That's the spirit I like to see!" The coach beamed at him and hit him on the back genially, going on his way.

As soon as he turned the corner, there was a collective groan within the group. "I totally forgot there was a game tonight...how about you guys?"

Each of them issued a grunt of consent, and then a girl with her head bent walked into Bret. He flared and shoved her into a wall, knocking her backpack to the ground and watching as books sprawled from the top of it. With a kick, he sent them down the hallway. "Why don't you watch where the hell you're going?"

She looked up at him with fright, and adrenaline soared through his system. He couldn't explain why his fuse had been so short lately, but it took nothing to start him off. He was just about to ask the question again when he saw his girlfriend Steph round the corner, heading in their direction. He nodded to the guys and they started toward her, Bret leading the way and leaving the girl in the dust. In spite, he dug his foot into one of her notebooks, tearing it apart.

-----

Bending down and fisting away a few stray shameful tears that were burning at the corner of her eyes, she began to gather her books. What a bunch of monkeys, she thought angrily. Primitive little bastards. She cursed under her breath just as a hand set on top of hers, and she glanced up to see a guy with auburn hair holding out a handful of books. He was smiling at her.

"What'd you call me?"

They both stood up, and Aya ran a hand through her hair, laughing sheepishly. "I just can't stand those guys."

His smile slid off of his face as he glared in the direction that the guys had walked. "That was really low, what they did to you." He looked back toward her, his expression turning to one of concern. "Are you alright?"

She shrugged solemnly, bending down to pick up the torn pieces of her notebook. "I'm used to it."

He offered a hand to help her up but she ignored it, standing up on her own and shoving her armload of books back into her backpack. After a moment's awkward silence, he began, "Hey, I was wondering-"

But what he was wondering, she wouldn't find out, as the shrill cry of the bell cut off his voice. She watched as everybody began hustling to their classes, and looked back at him to find his face reddening with embarrassment. He tipped his head in a goodbye and hurried off toward his own class, and Aya bit her lip as she began to move in the other direction. I wonder what his name is...

She sighed and reminded herself that she was herself, that she couldn't date, not only because of her father but because nobody would have ever chosen her over others. And yet, as she made her way to her homeroom, she found herself wondering over and over again what the boy's name was.

-----

"Couldn't we wait until after school to get some?"

Bret shook his head, rolling his eyes in an irritated fashion. He wished his buddies would just shut up every once in awhile. "No, I need some to get me through my next class. English...eugh, what a horrible class. My parents taught me how to talk, I don't see why we need this bullshit."

"It's supposed to help us talk and write properly, Bret," Mike said casually, sending Bret reeling with anger. Since when did his friends talk back to him?

He turned on Mike and shoved him into a car, grabbing the chest of his shirt and pulling him toward himself, shoving him back again. He moved his face mere inches away from Mike's, and said softly, "Do you have a problem with the way I talk?"

Mike's eyes were wide and he shook his head, doing his best to smile as he placed his hands over Bret's arms. "Hey now, c'mon bud, I was just saying. Of course I don't have a problem with the way you talk."

A car rode up to them then, and Bret shook his arms from Mike's grasp, turning to the car and walking to the window as it wound down.

"Hey Jake, took you long enough."

-----

"I'm within the time limit, and I have what you asked for, so I don't see what you're complaining about."

Jake was one of the few who dared to take an attitude when encountered with Bret, but whether Bret would admit it or not, he depended on Jake. He was Bret's supplier, his lifeline, and somewhere within that thick skull, Bret knew that. So he didn't retort to this comment, but rather pulled his wallet from his back pocket and counted out a wad of bills, exchanging it with a small baggy. Bret glanced over it, eventually grunting with consent, and placed the bag and his wallet into his pockets.

"Great doing business with you. That's the finest cocaine on the east coast. Just remember; you didn't get it from me."

Bret nodded in agreement, then turned and walked back to the school with his friends in tow. Jake was under the guise of making sure they got back into school with no problems, ready to pose as Bret's older brother who had brought him his forgotten lunch money, but truly, he was counting the backs of those following him, for they were following, each of them at least half a step behind him. He wondered with a touch of longing what it would be like to have people following you, people that watched your back for you and had it if you ever found yourself in trouble. Jake had dropped out of the tenth grade four years ago, seeing no need for it. He had his business in making people like Bret happy, and prided himself on keeping himself out of trouble. He knew what he was doing; six years in the business, and not a single cop on his tail. It was a nice sentiment, however, a good feeling to have, he imagined, that of not being alone, of being depended upon for more than five minute transactions. He wondered how Bret did it, watching his form slip through the doorways and his friends file in behind him. He had caught sight of the confrontation between Bret and his buddy in the grey shirt. He crashed the man into the side of a car, could have probably socked him in the face, and was following Bret inside as faithfully as the rest. It's about fear, Jake presumed, throwing his car into reverse and pulling out of the parking spot he had pulled into. It's about strength, domination.

He began to drive out of the parking lot, stopping at a stop side at the end of it, looking over himself. He was pretty scrawny, though tall for his age. Pale, his jet black hair contrasting in a way that made his lank locks appear to lie in a greasy mess, that made his skin look almost sickly, his sunken eyes only adding to the illusion that wasn't quite a mirage. He checked the road before pulling into it and heading back to his house, glancing at his reflection in the rearview mirror and grimacing at the sunken pouches beneath his eyes that gave them a bruised look. It was because of the drugs, he knew that, and even though he wasn't about to give them up in order to look like some pretty boy, he knew that he was in no physical condition to dominate over another male and coerce them into being faithful. Bret, the all-star, in charge of his friends, in charge of his girlfriend, in charge of his life. Jake pressed his foot harder into the gas, masking with anger the desperate yearning to be important, in control.

-----

"Alright, I have last week's test graded." A small roar of excited yells mingled with a few jovial, though slightly exasperated, insults. Aya's trigonometry teacher, Mr. Brast, raised his hand to signal for quiet. "I know, I know, 'finally,' right? In any case, I've written your grade and a comment on each of your tests, pointing out problem areas so you can work on them for next time, which is scheduled to be this Friday. So, look over what you've done wrong on this test and the comment if you need to, work on that, and you should be good to go for Friday."

He began to weave his way through the desks, and Aya apathetically contemplated her grades. Her forte really was in English, but she had a logical side and had maintained a decent B in her math classes up until late last year.

But then again, everything had come to a screeching halt at that time. Aya's social life, academic ambitions, her happiness...the car driving in front of her mother.

Her mother's life.

She jumped a bit as a paper slid across her desk, stopping in front of her, its face down. She was so skittish here...she didn't dish out trust too easily these days, but ever since they had moved her over the summer, ever since she had shown up the first few days of school with bruises on her arms (she had learned since to disguise those, though, her makeup and costuming skills worthy of Broadway, she would think and laugh on the surface of her mind), she had simply been on edge. She imagined herself to look like some furtive animal out of its element, but it wasn't so much something that others saw than something that they sensed, something that they just knew about her the moment her presence entered the room. Prey, their senses would tell them, weak, when in actuality, she physically looked only a little more socially anxious than the average Jane.

Taking the test and flipping it over, her apathy slipped a few notches, leaving her heart to sink into her stomach. She'd hoped for a C, though, realistically, was expecting a D on the basis of the grades she'd been getting over the past few months. What she found etched into the paper in red ink was an F, appearing to dominate the entire face of the paper, though it was truly sitting politely in the upper margin of the page. Written in the scrawl of a man in his mid-thirties beside the capital letter was the message, "Very disappointing, Miss Lee. I know you can do better than this. Most of your mistakes lie in simple errors of basic arithmetic. Take a little more care in your work."

She bit at her lower lip, wincing as her teeth found the split in the skin, the result of a particularly viscous fight she and her dad had earlier this week. She felt her lip grow wet and began to suck on it, tasting copper as she tried to stop the bleeding. It was minor enough, and had stopped by the time the dismissal bell screamed through the halls, signaling a mass exodus as Aya's classmates stormed for the door, for home, for freedom.

She snorted cynically, rising slowly from her desk and shoving her test and other various books into her messenger bag. Freedom...wonder what that's like. The moment she finished that thought, however, she grimaced internally, remembering that, at this time last year, she had known what freedom was. As she passed through the doorway and headed for her locker, she cleared her mind of such thoughts and began considering ways to get her grades up. She wanted to, really wanted to in some part of her, but concentration was simply beyond her, or behind her, really. Her will to do something about it simply couldn't overcome the almost insatiable need to curl up into a ball and fall asleep, metaphorically or truly, until it all went away. As she grabbed a few books and binders, a halfhearted attempt to fool herself into thinking that she might work on catching up in a few of her classes that night, she felt a pang of guilt hit her as she wondered what her mother would say about her grades. She walked her way out of the building toward the parking lot, making her way home, remembering her mother's smile, her laugh, the way she had always been proud of Aya's achievements, especially in English, how she had beamed proudly at Aya as she stood onstage for a school poetry reading, as if she had waited her entire life to see Aya growing up and couldn't wait to see more-

"Watch out!"

Aya turned toward the noise and saw a car making it's way toward her, whipping around a corner at a ridiculous speed for such a busy parking lot, and threw herself out of the way, her foot hitting the curb and sending her knees sprawling across the sidewalk, her face coming down and her cheek scraping angrily down the trunk of a growing tree. She fell onto her stomach and her lip smacked into a root, and she rolled over, watching stars wink in front of her eyes and barely able to hear anything but the ringing and pounding of blood resounding in her right ear that had scraped along the tree as well. Closing her eyes for a moment to ward off the pain, feeling wetness seeping down her cheek and chin, shiny creeks of blood tracking their way across her skin.

When she had managed to hold the worst of it at bay, she opened her eyes and saw a girl standing over her, looking down at her with worry.

"Hey, you alright?"

Aya shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment to fight off the fresh pain that swept her ear, and pushed herself up to a sitting position. The girl, her black-brown hair shading her eyes from the sun's glare and revealing a look of concern, offered her a hand up, which she took. She saw the skid marks from the car's driver, a passenger inside looking frightened and its driver marching his way angrily over to the pair of them, screaming.

"You stupid son of a bitch, why don't you watch where you're going? You could've fucked up my bumper, you could've dented my hood, smashed in my windshield while you were at –"

Aya drew back and slammed her fist into the guy's face, rounding hard into his jaw and setting his mouth to bleeding. She turned back to the girl and smiled a bit, shaking out the pain now mingling amongst her knuckles.

"I think I'm alright now."

The girl grinned, looking over at the guy who seemed to decided that he didn't want to actually lose any teeth and had begun making his way back to his car. "Name's Rae. Helluva punch, if you ask me."

Laughing once, she said, "I'm Aya. I was known for my right hook at my old school."

"Really?"

"No."

They laughed, and then turned as footsteps quickly made their way toward them. The guy with auburn hair had stopped in front of them, panting slightly and looking at Aya. "You alright?"

"Everybody keeps asking me that. You'd think I'd just nearly gotten run over by a car or something." Rae laughed, but the boy continued to look worried, so she said, "I'm alright. You look awfully concerned for somebody who doesn't even know my name."

"What? Of course I do, it's Aya."

She raised a brow, and blushed slightly. "How do you know that?"

Though it was hard to tell through his suntanned face, she thought that his cheeks had begun to burn a bit as well. "I've seen you around before. I doubt you've seen me, though. My name's Kurt." He glanced over at Rae. "So now we're all introduced, except..."

"I'm Rae. Good to meet you."

"Indeed." He grinned, a carefree grin of white teeth and no worries. Jealously and yearning washed over Aya. "So, where are you two headed?"

"No clue," Rae responded, as Aya did with, "Anywhere but home." They glanced at her, Kurt looking confused and Rae's eyebrow raised, and she shrugged. "I'll get killed if I track blood all over the carpet. It's new."

"Well, if neither of you is in a hurry, we could take a drive in my car. I have paper towels in the backseat," she directed the latter toward Aya, who nodded.

"Sounds like a plan."

Kurt shrugged. "I have nowhere to be."

Rae grinned, looking between the two of them. "Well then, come on!" She lead the way to her car, pulling her keys out of her purse as she went, and unlocked her car. Pressing the button to unlock all of the doors, she tossed her bag into the backseat and hopped in, Aya putting her bag beside Rae's and sitting in the backseat as Kurt sat up front. Turning around to look between the two of them, Rae inquired, "So, where do you guys want to go?"

Kurt looked perplexed for a moment, his shoulders rising and falling in a shrug. "No clue."

Aya thought briefly of the pond at the park, the small, comfortable niche against the weeping willow that sat at the pond's edge, but then shook off the idea. It was her own private place, she liked to think, as not many people traveled that far into the wooded end of the park, into the clearing where the lake had formed, and after all, she had just met the two of them today. "No preferences here."

"Well, I have a place in mind. Anybody mind taking a drive to Wellington Creek?" When neither of them objected, Rae smiled. "Good, we'll drive out there. I know the perfect place along it." With that, she turned around and started the car, pulling out of the parking lot with considerately more care than the guy who had nearly ran into Aya earlier, an event that was hardly a half hour behind her but seemed to be broken into a separate age. Was she really here, in this car with two other people who willingly had invited her, who seemed to genuinely want her company? It was a foreign thought to her these days, but it seemed to be just as true nonetheless.

She smiled at the idea, and a small gasp of pain at the pull in her cheeks and lips reminded her of the cuts she'd sustained. Rae looked at her through the rearview mirror, saying simply, "The paper towels should be at your feet." She reached down, pawing between the usual teenage array of car artifacts, such as various CDs, long lost tests and papers, a few empty packs of cigarettes, and then found the paper towels, wedged between the floor and the driver's seat. She grabbed them and easily pried them free, pulling a few sheets from the roll and tearing them from it, folding them into a pad and dabbing lightly at her cheek and ear, biting into her lip and sending a fresh wave of pain through it before she dabbed at that as well. She folded it in half and lightly patted her knees with the fresh pads, then looked back up to Rae.

"Where should I toss this?" Rae grabbed a bag, its handles looped around the car's shift stick, handing it back to her as she kept her eyes on the road. Aya placed the paper towels inside and handed the bag back up to Kurt, who put it back in its place as they turned off a main road and drove along a winding countryside road, a crop that looked like wheat but that Aya couldn't confirm it to be growing amongst farm plots on either side. The wheat abruptly gave way to corn as they made another turn, and Aya smiled.

Catching sight of her, Rae grinned into the rearview mirror before looking back ahead of her. "Hey, Oh Quiet One. Whatcha so happy about back there?"

Aya smiled wider, her cheeks only smarting slightly as the sharpness of the pain began to subside into a general soreness. "It's really nice out here." She glanced up at the sky, as blue as one could ask for, fluffy white clouds spattered here and there, almost ruining the scene with it's cliché look, but not quite. "Peaceful. Like..."

"Like that's how it should be?" Rae attempted at a finish.

"Yeah." Aya grinned wider at the idea. "Like that's how it should be. Like the rest of the world is missing out on special places like this, but it's like we're watching them fight back." Like the lake, she finished internally.

"Hey, look for a CD case back there." When she caught sight of Aya's raised brow, she laughed. "The long one. The CD should be on the first page; a burnt CD, purple, black sharpie on the front that just says 'Mix.' Hand it up to Kurt. I want you to hear it."

Aya found the CD case that Rae had mentioned and unzipped it, seeing the CD that she was referring to immediately. She pulled it free from its slot and handed it up to Kurt, who pressed it into the CD player slot in Rae's radio console, and music began to play, immediately lifting Aya's spirits. Her smile lifted the corners of her mouth incredibly, her eyes smiling in a synchronicity with her lips that they hadn't reached in quite a long time. A sadness hit her as she thought that she hadn't been this happy since her mother had been around, and suddenly anger, burning, spitting anger flooded her as she watched the beauty of this place whip by on either side of the car, the corn replaced by nodding sunflowers, glinting a yellow-orange in the sunlight. Here it was, beauty, absolute beauty, and people just wanted to get there faster and easier, wanted to cut it down and burn through it, like they had cut down her mother, burning through her body and leaving it behind. They never found the man who had done it; her mother had been walking down a not very often traveled road, corn on one side and overgrown trees on the other, serenely, Aya liked to imagine, when some idiot who just wanted to get there faster, who had probably lost himself on one of the back roads and was angry about being slowed down to begin with, had erased her. She had slowed him down, and he had broken it down so he wouldn't be slowed down again.

But as she watched the sunflowers nod a little more vigorously as a late-summer wind whipped through their heads, she began to smile again. Her mom had loved things like this: drives on back roads, happy music, the wind in your hair and the warmth on your face, so comforting that you can't tell if it's from the sun or the smile that's placed there. "What is this?" she inquired of Rae, whose eyes darted to the rearview mirror and back, an odd look of relief and some small amount of confusion, maybe, crossed her features.

"Hellogoodbye. It's a song called 'Here in Your Arms.' It always gets me happy. Carefree, just like this place." As she finished her sentence, the trees that had been emerging closer and closer on the other end of the sunflowers took over completely, and she pulled off onto the shoulder toward the left-hand side of the road, parking the car and turning it off after a moment of waiting for the song to come to a close. She climbed out of the car as Kurt and Aya followed suit, and lead the way down an embankment where the sound of bubbling water was coming from, showing them proper footholds. "Careful, it can get muddy back here sometimes and it'd suck for you to slip. Just stay on the little path, see it there? That way you won't get any poison ivy on you." The latter was directed to Kurt, who was wearing shorts that exposed the majority of his shins.

They followed Rae's direction and footsteps, but after a moment she had gotten a bit ahead and then disappeared around a corner entirely. Aya, ahead of Kurt, slipped without noticing she'd stepped on an unsteady rock, and Kurt quickly took hold of her, holding her up and helping her regain her balance. She beamed at him, laughing a bit. "My hero." His cheeks flushed slightly, which she took silent note of, and then began making her way around the corner. She stepped around it and gasped in shock, Kurt turning the corner and quickly taking hold of her arm, afraid that she had slipped again, but Aya simply stood there, a grinning Rae holding her arms out to indicate the clearing and the creek behind it, cascading a set of rocks that formed a small waterfall. "Oh, Rae, it's beautiful."

She turned back to Kurt, who was wearing a small smile of content and a hint of awe in his eyes, then sat onto a large, flat rock amongst the clearing and smiled at the water. Kurt found his own seat as Rae sat confidently upon a rock closer to the water, and Aya surmised that she sat there as often as she came down here. "You really know how to pick your places," Kurt complimented.

They made small talk, most of it circling around school, a common affect among them, and after they had made mention of which students were the most annoying, which teachers wore the ugliest vests, they made their way to grades. "My mom's going to flip when she finds out I didn't do that history essay. It's going to kill my grade, but I completely spaced. They give us so much homework that I can't remember all of it. Fuck writing it down, though; I don't care that much." Kurt grinned amiably, in a way that showed he cared more than his forgetfulness would allow him to show.

"I know how you feel," Rae empathized. "I got As and Bs all my life, so when I came home with a C last marking period she nearly killed me. I just got a C on a test in the same class, I can't stand math, and I really need to work on pulling that up unless I want another reaming out by the parentals." She turned toward Aya, who stiffened slightly at the impending question, which came forth in a smooth manner that the question didn't deserve. "And your mom? She tetchy about grades?"

Aya shrugged in what she hoped would be an offhand fashion. "She passed away last year, actually."

Rae looked whipped and bit her lip remorsefully. "Oh, wow, I'm so sorry."

Kurt nodded, and Aya shrugged slightly again. "I still have my dad though. But he's strict." There was a slight pause in her voice before the word strict, and she laughed inwardly at the idea of such a word covering all the bases. "Speaking of which, anybody have the time?"

Kurt glanced down at his wrist, a worn velcro digital watch wrapped around it, and said, "Quarter to five. Why, you gotta be home or something?"

"Shit, you're not serious, are you?" Aya had jumped to her feet without realizing, her mind racing. It had taken them about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes to get here...would she get home in time to make dinner and clean up, not to mention a shower and change to keep him from noticing what she had done to the knees of her jeans? Not a chance: her father got off work at five, and it would only take him a half hour to get home. She bit hard into her lip, trying to keep the panic at bay. When she had staved it off, she turned to Rae. "I really need to get home. I'm going to be late getting there, my dad likes me to be there when he gets home. Can we leave?"

"Sure, if you need to go." She was looking at Aya skeptically, and continued, "Is it really that big of a deal?"

Aya shrugged a bit in an attempt to play it off. "He's overprotective. He can be anal about this sort of stuff."

Kurt had already stood up, and Rae did the same, grabbing her purse as she did. "Well then, it's not a problem. Where do you live?"

"1274 Midnight Way."

"Is that before or after Holland Drive?"

"After."

"Well then, let's get moving."

They made their way to the car in faster time than they had gone down it, Aya was thankful for, and they hopped into the car, taking off. Aya paid no attention to the beauty of the day; it had lost its splendor within her worry. Rae hadn't even bothered to play the CD, but instead was letting a popular rock station play through the usual rush hour traffic report. In fact, she seemed to be running on autopilot, her mind somewhere other than the road, Aya noticed at a quick glance, and another one in Kurt's direction revealed more distraction, although of a happier kind.

They arrived at Aya's house at quarter to six, having lost time in traffic, but Rae knew quite a few back roads, it seemed, so they avoided the majority of it. There was no avoiding the fact that her father's car was already in the driveway, however, and as she got out of the car, the front door opened, his form framed menacingly in the doorway. She grabbed her bag and tried to look nonchalant, as if this was a simple screw up and she'd have to spend the night in her room for it. "See you later, guys. It was fun, thanks," and with that, she walked resolutely up the walk to the door.

His eyes fell frozen onto hers, and his voice was sharp and just as icy when he whispered, "You're late." She walked past him and he shut the door behind her, a fist tightening into a vice-like grip on her arm tightly immediately after doing so, yanking her back as she attempted to make her way quietly upstairs to her room.

"You're late," he repeated. "That's the second time you've messed up in one day. I think it's about time we went over your lessons." He used her arm to whip her into the wall beside him, and she crumpled into a heap upon the floor. He placed kicks into her stomach and chest, most of the force pulled back at the last moment, but not nearly as much as had been when the kicking had first begun, right after they had moved here. She bit viscously into her lip to hold back her yells, blinding pain racing through her head and leaving pins and needles behind and a trickle of blood running down her cheek again, but she would not allow herself to scream until she was sure that Rae and Kurt were out of earshot. Bunching the chest of her shirt in his grip, her father roughly pulled Aya to her feet and pinned her to the wall, left hand pressed firmly to her sternum as his right hand slapped her repeatedly, openhanded smarting pain leaving her skin raw, especially on the scraped side. I wonder if he knows that the blood there isn't because of him, she thought deliriously before he raised his right hand to his left eye and rocketed the backside of his hand against her cheekbone, stars winking in front of her eyes as her body was wrenched free from her grip and her head slammed into the wall, sending her sprawling to the unforgiving hardwood floor once again. As her father walked away, she heard a car engine revving up and pulling away from the house from the outside, a ridiculously normal sound coming from both 10 yards and entire world away, and she let herself an internal sigh of relief at Rae's departure. Her reassurance did not last long, however, for a musical tinkling sounded from further within the house and her father's heavy footsteps were returning. Blinking blood from her eyes, she watched his boots reach her and white light exploded in front of her gaze as it felt as though her scalp were going to rip free from her head, her hair a handhold her father was now using to lift her up again. She shrieked and desperately tried to gain her feet, to take the pressure off of her hair, but before she could stand up properly he had grabbed her by the neck and closed his fist around it, lifting her up slightly and crashing her back into the wall. She gasped for air that wouldn't come, her legs flailing weakly, her face growing hot as blood collected there. He held a broken piece of a vase, and pressed a sharp tip just above the center of the neck of her shirt. That used to be mom's; useless thoughts.

"Now, how do you figure we teach you your lesson this time? Apparently the old job just isn't doing it anymore." He slid the point down her shirt, and she bit her lip again, would have screamed if she had the air as the glass glided down her chest between her breasts, her stomach, to the end of her shirt, slicing it down the middle, her bra held in place simply by the cups now. "Maybe a last chance is in order. Would you like that?" She didn't want to do it, not when his breathing had become more of an animalistic pant that she did not recognize and no more liked, but she couldn't breathe, so she nodded as vigorously as his grip would allow. "Will you do it again?" She shook her head more slowly, the world swaying as cobwebs grew along the edges of her vision. "Can you promise?" She would have nodded, tried to, maybe even began to succeed, for she half thought she felt her body crumple uselessly before the world was swallowed by the webs.

When she awoke, she tried to roll onto her back and nearly cried out as her skin ripped free from the coagulating blood on the floor. It was beyond her to open her stuck shut eyes, so she licked her fingers and wiped them gently against her eyelids, warming and wiping away the blood that had congealed there and looked around. It was dark, and she had made a mess on the floor, it seemed, even more so of her clothes –

She suddenly remembered her shirt and was immediately flooded with hot, shameful tears, though they were silent. You knew it was getting worse, you saw all of the signs, but you didn't want to admit it, and now see what he's done? He going to rape you soon enough, don't you even try to deny it, he might even kill you after enough time –

But such thoughts wouldn't do; she simply had to move. That was all the moment required, and all she could handle. She pushed herself off the floor, grunting quietly with much louder pain, and began limping to the third floor where her room was. She had slept long enough to become a stiff bundle of soreness, and it was all she could do to make her way up to her room as quietly as she could. She didn't know what time it was, but she didn't hear her father and desperately hoped for him to be asleep; she couldn't handle another encounter, not today. When she finally clambered into bed and set an early alarm, seeing it was rather later than she thought, and doubted she would find sleep tonight. But as she gathered the covers around her and tried to take a calming breath, it became a shudder partway through and the tears came. She bunched up a portion of her comforter and pressed it to her face, her own muffled sobs her only lullaby as sleep found her.

-----

Why had he run off like that? He felt increasingly stupid as he continued to think about it, but he couldn't seem to get her off his mind. There was some inexplicable air about her, some beauty he couldn't quite grasp and therefore had no chance of explaining. Yet he couldn't seem to help trying, as his history teacher went on lecturing about old disputes amongst Western Europe, the boring reality of life, a world where beautiful girls paid no attention to slackers like him. This last thought brought a sickening swoop of shame to the bottom of his stomach, and he straightened his posture, watching his teacher with only one last, fleeting thought of the girl he knew to be Aya's eyes, wonder what jade secrets lie hidden there, for he had seen hints, but hadn't the chance to see more. Focus, he told himself, staring at his teacher in frustration, if you're ever going to stand a chance with her, you need to focus.

Something about this thought rang quite true, so focus he did, even taking the occasional note, a previously unexplored initiative. The bell rang and he stormed from the classroom with the rest of his peers, made his way toward his locker and grabbed a binder here, a notebook there, stuffing them into the space within his backpack that wasn't already occupied by old papers and slinging it over his shoulder. Yet, as he walked to the parking lot, stepping over tan pavement and onto black asphalt, he was hit with another sudden thought, and his stomach rolled over hotly, though not with shame but with an almost palpable fright that he couldn't reason: Focus on what? It was vague, he knew it as he stepped over the curb and onto the opposing sidewalk, beginning to make his daily journey home, and yet that feeling was still there, warming his insides anxiously.

He continued to walk down the sidewalk lining the school parking lot, stopping at corners here and there to allow his schoolmates make their way past. He had his permit, but had never gotten around to getting his license, let alone a job to pay for a car. His mom and him got along well enough on their own, his father having walked out on her before Kurt was even born (An excuse for a father if there ever was one, he always thought), but there was no way she could ever afford to buy him a car. He didn't mind that much, though; he didn't have many places he needed to be, he had a bike if he needed to travel longer distances and inlines that would provide more fun transportation if he so desired. I wonder what she'd think if I picked her up for a date riding my bike, another intrusive thought inquired, and he tried to push it away, glancing around at his surroundings for a distraction, but instead found the object of his mindset, as if summoned by his thoughts. He paused for a moment, a younger student glancing at him as he walked around, but Kurt was blinking, once, twice, debating whether this was a mirage. It didn't seem to be, he decided, but before he decided whether to walk and catch up or hang behind, he noticed a car whipping around a corner, no more a mirage than Aya herself.

"Watch out!"

He began to run, pushing past the freshman who had walked around him just moments before, watching as Aya noticed the car and pushed herself off to the sidewalk, tripping over the curb and crashing into a nearby tree, rebounding to the ground and rolling over. He sprinted past more people, but flocks of students were getting in his way, and he had to keep finding his way around cars and people. He barely saw the driver making his way back to his car past a kid that seemed just too big to be allowed, and wondered deliriously whether he actually had crashed into Aya and had smashed his face on the steering wheel before he darted around the next patch of kids and saw Aya standing in seemingly fine condition, shaking her hand and rubbing it slightly with the other. He continued to run up until he reached them, and said breathlessly, "You alright?"

"Everybody keeps asking me that. You'd think I'd just nearly gotten run over a car or something." The other girl, someone that he knew by face but not by name, laughed, but Kurt worried still, looking at the scratches and scrapes over her cheek and knees, and her lip didn't seem to be faring too well either. "I'm alright. You look awfully concerned for somebody who doesn't even know my name."

Kurt looked at her incredulously; of course, he hadn't gotten a chance to call her by name or ask on the pretense that he hadn't already asked around for a name to fit a girl with burgundy hair and emerald eyes, but it seemed unreal to think that this girl, the same girl he'd wondered about and sought out, even fantasized about a little with some admittance, would think that he hadn't known her name when she had been all that encompassed his mind for some time now. "What? Of course I do, it's Aya."

Her cheeks reddened a bit in embarrassment, but she raised her brow skeptically. "How do you know that?"

He could feel some heat rising in his own cheeks, and swallowed before making some roundabout excuse and introducing himself. He turned to the other girl, whose name he didn't know, and after a lead, she named herself Rae. "Good to meet you."

"Indeed." Grinning, he decided he liked this, that he had a good feeling about the three of them; Rae, who in the mere way she held herself suggested a good deal of self-assurance, himself, and Aya, all of her secrets included. "So, where are you two headed?"

"Anywhere but home," Aya said, and Kurt hardly heard Rae's response. He was confused, which she seemed to take note of and shrugged in reply. "I'll get killed if I track blood all over the carpet. It's new."

"Well, if neither of you is in a hurry, we could take a drive in my car. I have paper towels in the backseat," she said, glancing at Aya at the last sentence. Both Kurt and her gave their agreements, and they made their way to Rae's car. They all tossed their bags into the car; Kurt, who was going to allow Aya shotgun, was disappointed when she reached the car first and made her way to the backseat, having lost out on his chance to show his chivalrous side. He liked to fancy himself a gentleman, he thought as they pondered where to go. When no other suggestions were offered, they decided upon a place that Rae had in mind by Wellington Creek, and made their way. Rae offered Aya the papertowels, which she took and then used to clean herself up with, throwing them into a trash bag that Kurt put back into place. He turned halfway in his seat, pretending to look out the windows but really catching glances into Aya's eyes here and there, watching a serene sort of happiness creep into them, and he was happy to see that the smile on her lips lined the corners of her eyes as well. Far too many people these days smiled without their eyes, he thought, thinking especially of several girls he knew at their school. A few more moments passed in silence before Rae said back to her, "Hey, Oh Quiet One. Whatcha so happy about back there?"

He was happy to see that her smile grew wider, glancing between the two of them and the scenery. "It's really nice out here. Peaceful. Like..."

"Like that's how it should to be?"

"Yeah. Like that's how it should be. Like the rest of the world is missing out on special places like this, but it's like we're watching them fight back."

Rae suggested that they listen to a CD, and Aya found the one she described, handing it up to Kurt. He put it into the CD player, watching it swallow the CD and then begin to play its contents. He swiveled in his seat to take his original viewing position, and was confronted with a smile of such a radiance he had never seen before. Who is this girl? he wondered moments before a darkness filled her eyes, the corners of her smile drooping in mute sadness. Fire began to burn there, her eyebrows creasing, barely noticeable, and then the fire lashed out, illuminating everything, all fears, sadness, all of the secrets that lie there, and for the half second that they were there he half understood. Before he could draw any conclusions, however, the fire died, and slowly, her smile returned. He felt his stomach dissolve hotly, his heart rising with the corners of her mouth, and he understood; what was most important, what he had to focus upon the most was why such a beautiful smile wasn't part of her every moment attire, perhaps so he might enjoy it himself every moment with her.

"What is this?" Aya asked, and he was sure that Rae had said something, but he heard none of it. Nothing could take his mind, his focus off of that smile, not until the car came to a stop and he jerked his head to face forward, pulling himself free from a daze that he hadn't realized that he had fallen into. They were pulled over on the side of the road, and the trees were heavy on their right, almost as heavy to their left, though there seemed to be a few sparse places here and there. He wondered for a moment whether the car had broken down, though he hadn't remembered hearing the car having any troubles at all, though he wasn't very impressive with cars to begin with, and he hadn't heard much at all, not with that smile there to distract him. He got out of the car with the rest of them, and walked around the front of the car, ready to check out the hood, but then realized that they had reached their destination, and Rae was beginning to make her way down an embankment. He hurried over, watching her find places to step upon here and there. "Careful, it can get muddy back here sometimes and it'd suck for you to slip. Just stay on the little path, see it there?" She pointed along a path, which he followed with his eyes and noted before she turned and said to him, "That way you won't get any poison ivy on you." He grinned at her, wanting to laugh as the breeze swept across his bare shins.

She began to make her way down further, giving direction to the two of them which they followed carefully, Kurt less because of the mud, which didn't bother him, more because of the poison ivy. He was watching his feet carefully, and noticed in front of him a slight wobble in the rock Aya had just stepped on, and he looked up, shooting his hands out to catch her and pull her back into him. His heart exploded into rapid beats, his skin screaming as voltage shot through every nerve of his body, up and down his spine and into his brain, leaving a slight buzzing there and raising the hairs on his arms. Her warmth felt amazing, her skin soft, smooth, her hair smelled familiar, was that lavender-? But his thoughts were cut off by her sweet voice, her smile directed at him this time, and he could feel the warmth of her smile radiate upon his face (not because he was blushing, never because he was blushing) as she laughed, saying, "My hero." He let her go and they continued. He was watching Aya's back carefully now, making sure she didn't slip again, almost hoping for another moment for him to just touch her again, to feel that wonderful warmth again. She turned the corner and was out of sight, though he heard her footsteps stop and her gasp. He quickly turned and took hold of her arm, expecting her to have fallen, but then he looked at the scenery and immediately understood why she had gasped. Rae stood there, gesturing toward a small waterfall within the creek, a small clearing there for them to enjoy it. "Oh, Rae, it's beautiful," Aya complimented, finding herself a seat.

He found himself his own seat, smiling, taken aback by the view, and agreed. "You really know how to pick your places."

They began to talk about school, students and teachers, Kurt making a funny joke about his math teacher's vest, and then they made their way to grades. Kurt complained about his history grade, grinning yet feeling slightly shameful. She's never going to go for a slacker like you. Rae went on about her own grades, and he cringed inwardly. Her parents kill her about C's. Your mom would hold a worldwide party if you got all A's and B's. Yet he was dragged free from his thoughts as the conversation was brought back to Aya, Rae directing toward her, "And your mom? She tetchy about grades?"

She simply shrugged, but Kurt thought he saw her eyes darken. "She passed away last year, actually."

"Oh, wow, I'm so sorry," Rae said, and Kurt nodded.

Aya shrugged a bit. "I still have my dad, though. But he's strict." He thought he detected a small break in her flow before she spoke strict, and shook it off as him being over observant. "Speaking of which, anybody have the time?"

He took the opportunity to be helpful again quickly, glancing down at his watch and saying, "Quarter to five. Why, you gotta be home or something?"

He hoped not, but she quickly said, "Shit, you're not serious, are you?" She jumped up as if she had sat on something hot, her eyes clouding over for a few moments before she dug her teeth into her lip, with quite some force, it seemed. Kurt wondered worriedly what lie behind those clouds, but she turned away from him to face Rae, saying, "I really need to get home. I'm going to be late getting there, my dad likes me there when he gets home. Can we leave?"

Kurt watched Rae's own eyes darken and cloud, and he wondered what was going on that he had missed. "Sure, if you need to go. Is it really that big of a deal?"

She shrugged slightly, and he noticed that there was something a little too careless about the way she did so. "He's overprotective. He can be anal about this sort of stuff."

Kurt stood up, and after a moment or two Rae did the same, grabbing her purse. "Well then, it's not a problem. Where do you live?" Aya told her, and they got moving back up to the car. As they got into the car and made as speedy of a way home as they could manage, Kurt stared down at his hands, thinking back to the skeptical look in Rae's eyes, the clouds in Aya's, the sort of understanding that he had heard in Rae's voice. They came to a stop and he thought he heard Aya say something, but he was lost in his mind. Whatever it is that has her so afraid, she's not spilling...but that understanding. Rae knows, or she's starting to. All I have are a million and one useless questions, and she's already working on getting the answers.

Rae got back into the car, which was strange because Kurt couldn't remember her ever having gotten out of it, and they drove away rather quickly. She asked Kurt for his address, which he gave, but he noted that there was a slight tremble in Rae's voice, and he closed his fist as another stab of inexplicable fear hit him, and he wondered what kind of answers they were going to find.

-----

"Hey, you alright?"

The girl below her shook her head, closing her eyes and then pushing herself so she might sit up. Rae offered her hand to the girl, helping her up, and the driver who had nearly hit her came over screaming until the girl lay out on him, punching him with a good deal of force before turning back to Rae.

"I think I'm alright now."

Rae grinned, looking over at the damage caused and deciding that she could get to like this girl. Turning back to face the girl, she introduced herself. "Helluva punch, if you ask me."

The girl laughed, saying, "I'm Aya. I was known for my right hook at my old school."

"Really?"

"No."

She laughed with her, then turned as a guy with auburn hair ran up to them, stopping and saying to Aya a bit breathlessly, "You alright?"

Rae looked between the two, figuring that they knew each other as Aya said, "Everybody keeps asking me that. You'd think I'd just nearly gotten run over by a car or something." Rae laughed again, liking her sense of humor, but the boy didn't seem so easily reassured, so Aya continued, "I'm alright. You look awfully concerned for somebody who doesn't even know my name."

He looked downright astonished as he said, "What? Of course I do, it's Aya."

"How do you know that?"

Rae saw a slight red tinge creep into his cheeks, and she grinned slightly, laughing at the boy's obvious liking for Aya. "I've seen you around before. I doubt you've seen me, though. My name's Kurt." He turned to Rae, saying, "So now we're all introduced, except..."

"I'm Rae. Good to meet you," she accepted her cue.

"Indeed." He grinned, a good old American boy grin, and Rae almost laughed out loud at the cliché quality of it all. Clumsy, good natured boy falling for the not-so-stereotypical girl? It was nearly priceless. But she turned her eyes to Aya just in time to catch a slight shadow cross them, and the desire to laugh was erased. What was it that she had seen there, just before the shadow? She decided to allow Aya this secret, at least for now, and Kurt added in, "So, where you two headed."

"No clue," Rae said just as Aya did with an alarming, "Anywhere but home." Rae looked toward her, wondering suspiciously at the slight touch of desperation and disgust in her tone. Aya shrugged in a manner that was utterly unconvincing, and then said, "I'll get killed if I track blood all over the carpet."

Why would she not want to go home? I can understand the carpet, some parents are ridiculous like that, but she could just clean up and then go home, right? So why that tone as if she never wants to go there again? She figured she'd let it go, but when she offered to go for a drive with the two of them, even convincing Aya with an offer of paper towels to clean up with, she knew of her ulterior motives, whether she'd admit them to herself or not. She wanted to know more, had to know more; she had a strange attraction to the idea that it was her duty, and couldn't seem to explain to herself why. However, they both agreed, and she allowed herself a mental sigh of relief. Why do you care so much about finding out, she wondered, permitting herself an amount of admittance as to her true intentions. Because all of the signs are right there in front of me; the fact that her tone says that home is the last place she'd want to go, the bruise forming on her cheek, hidden carefully by makeup but not carefully enough, the secrets she's hiding, I can see it in her eyes, but I can't quite see what, and when I put all of the pieces together, I want to make sure I put them together right, because I could really fuck things up if I don't. She nodded a bit at this; it was acceptable, certainly enough, if not a bit meddling. But she just wanted to help, right? Or is it that the last place you ever want to go is home, and you've found somebody who feels the same and you want somebody to share that misery with? Aghast that such a thought had even entered her brain, even more so by the fact that it felt true, she pushed it quickly away and unlocked her car, having already led the two of them two of them to it as she thought, and tossed her bag into the backseat. Aya took the backseat and Kurt the passenger seat, looking a little reluctant as to the seating arrangements, and she almost grinned again. Rae herself climbed in, then realized that they hadn't decided where they wanted to go. She turned to the two of them, asking where they wanted to go, and neither of them had any suggestions. However, after Kurt had his say, she noticed that Aya paused for an interval, and saw her eyebrows crease almost unnoticeably in thought before clearing and saying that she didn't care as well. What's going on in her head? Where is she thinking about? "Well, I have a place in mind. Anybody mind taking a drive to Wellington Creek?" She knew about a clearing there that nobody seemed to know about or visit, at least not ever when Rae had done so herself. Neither of them minded, and she continued, "Good, we'll drive out there. I know the perfect place along it." She pulled out of the parking lot and began making her way toward the creek, glancing at Aya through the rearview mirror quickly. She seemed out of her element, a bit wary of her surroundings but happy about them anyway. Looking back to the road, she began to think again. Why doesn't she have any friends? Why does she feel so secretive, like she can't trust any of us? She wants to, I can tell she does, but she's afraid to. What is she so afraid of? She heard a gasp and glanced back through the rearview again, directing Aya toward the paper towels and continuing to make their way along the road. She handed Aya her plastic-bag-made-trash-bag and then turned off the main road. The scenery was beautiful; she always took the back road to get to her spot, for any other way just didn't feel right. She glanced back up to see how Aya's scrapes were holding up, and noticed that she was smiling serenely, though she hadn't said a word the entire trip. "Hey, Oh Quiet One. Whatcha so happy about back there?"

She noticed a sort of beauty in the smile that followed, a serenity that seemed so foreign to her and yet seemed to fit her with ease. Aya's eyes turned toward the window, silently indicating the source of her happiness, but then quickly flitted between both Kurt and Rae, and she surmised that Aya wasn't used to such company, yet enjoyed it nonetheless. "It's really nice out here. Peaceful. Like…"

"She trailed off, but watching Aya's eyes take in the sky, Rae offered with confidence, "Like that's how it should be?"

Aya smiled in approval, agreeing, "Yeah. Like that's how it should be. Like the rest of the world is missing out on special places liked this, but it's like we're watching them fight back." Her eyes clouded again, and Rae still wondered what lie behind them and how to go discovering it. She directed Aya to find a CD with a song that fit the scenery magnificently. Aya passed the CD to Kurt, who put it in and let the music play. Rae glanced back and was taken aback to see such a great smile painting Aya's lips that it illuminated everything else, turning the shadows in her eyes, the shade of a bruise on her cheek, the cuts and scrapes she'd sustained, all of it into positive loveliness. She looked back to the road, feeling accomplished for having brightened her day in such a way that she didn't think she had experienced for quite some time. A few moments later, however, Rae checked the rearview for cars and caught a glance of Aya's expression, seeing that it had changed to one of sadness before something snapped free, whipping out and striking Rae with the same nakedness that Kurt had felt, saw every ounce of terror, pain, anger, every last secret shining brightly through her sockets. Rae tore her eyes free quickly, staring at the road intently as her trembling hands gripped the steering wheel until their knuckles turned white. I have to find out what goes on behind those doors, behind those eyes. Not only do I have to know, I want to know.

Do you?

Doubts rose and spread through her mind like wildfire, and she thought again of the last thing she had been struck by, something Kurt had missed: power. There was so much heat in the fire that burned there that Rae recognized it as some power, power of emotion, power of spirit, power so strong and volatile that Rae was almost afraid of Aya, and she thought again.

Do you?

She drove on through more of the song, and was startled by Aya's voice asking, "What is this?" Realizing that the question was directed toward her, she hesitantly, almost reluctantly looked back at Aya. She was relieved to see her back to normal, a content smile in place upon her lips and she wondered if she even knew what power lie dormant within her.

Do you?

"Hellogoodbye. It's a song called 'Here in Your Arms.' It always gets me happy. Carefree, just like this place." Does she even know what it is to be carefree? Rae thought as she pulled the car over onto the shoulder, putting the car in park and waiting for the tail end of the song to come to a close before turning off the car. She clambered out, followed by Kurt and Aya, and began making her way down the embankment, warning them of the mud and poison ivy and showing them the path. She climbed down the path and turned the corner to the clearing that she knew so well. She came here a lot after Meredith died and they had moved, having gone for a drive without a destination and landed herself here. The path was more overgrown then, but she had trampled it to almost bare earth since. She turned as she heard Aya and Kurt catching up, their feet not as used to the path as her own, and when they turned the corner, she delighted in the looks of awe upon their faces. She opened her arms, displaying the view.

"Oh, Rae, it's beautiful."

Aya found a seat, Kurt sitting down as well as Rae sat upon a rock that she had sat upon since the first time she'd come here and which curved with her. Kurt smiled as he looked around, pleasing Rae with the compliment, "You really know how to pick your places."

Rae began the conversation, small talk about school, but noticed that Aya remained quieter though this. Does she socialize much? She seemed so comfortable after the guy in the car, so what's changed now? She thought about it, and then a frightening thought hit her; perhaps she was in her element then, with the adrenaline, the fear, the anger.

Do you?

She cleared her mind of such thoughts, however, listening as Kurt talked about his history grade, and she noted a trace of shame upon his features. She tried to bring up his spirits with her own tale of grades, but watched him instead wince slightly. She turned to Aya, hoping to have better luck with her. "And your mom? She tetchy about grades?"

Aya shrugged and she could see the withdrawal in that movement. "She passed away last year, actually."

She could have kicked herself, but bit her lip instead. "Oh, wow, I'm so sorry."

Aya shrugged. "I still have my dad, though. But he's strict." There was a small pause in her flow before the word strict, but it stretched into a mile for Rae, who wondered what strict meant and realized that she was afraid she might be able to see through the mile-wide gap unless she closed her eyes.

Do you?

"Speaking of which, anybody have the time?"

Kurt offered, "Quarter to five. Why, you gotta be home or something?

Aya sprang to her feet immediately, her eyes only a bit wider than usual, but upon closer inspection Rae saw that her pupils were widely dilated with fear. She could see gears churning desperately, but to what conclusions, she couldn't be positive. She watched as Aya buried her teeth into her lower lip, and even saw that her breath had become somewhat shallower. My God, what is it that has her this afraid? But you already know, right? That's why you're so hesitant to say for sure, because you're scared too.

Do you?

After what seemed like ages, Aya turned to Rae. "I really need to get home. I'm going to be late getting home, my dad likes me to be there when he gets home. Can we leave?"

She wore a doubtful look, hoping incredibly that she was wrong, and replied, "Sure, if you need to go. Is it really that big of a deal?"

Aya shrugged, completely unconvincing. "He's overprotective. He can be anal about this sort of stuff."

It only took a few seconds of looking at her to decide that any more delay could cause damage. Bending down to pick up her purse, she desperately tried to keep the pieces from falling into place.

Do you?

She figured out where Aya lived and then lead the way back to the car, hurrying more to keep her own mind occupied rather than for Aya's sake. Getting into the car and then making her way to Aya's house, Rae tried to focus on finding the way with the least amount of traffic. She tried to concentrate on directions, but everything was there, and it was getting harder to ignore. You have no proof, she thought to herself, you don't know anything for certain, so just chill.

Yeah? Well, while you're there relaxing, chew on this real quick: you know what's waiting for her, and you're driving her right into it. She was horrified by this, and that same bone-chilling thought reoccurred.

Do you?

She turned onto Midnight Way and watched the houses flick past, paying attention to their numbers. One more block and they would arive at Aya's house

(father)

(end)

(Do you?)

She reached the right block and slowed, watching the numbers crawl past them until she reached 1274. She was suddenly overtaken by an almost insatiable urge to speed away when she saw the car in the driveway, but placed her foot on the brake instead. Yet the moment Aya got out of the car, the front door to 1274 Midnight Way opened and a menacing man stepped into the frame, and Rae began wishing she had sped away after all. Aya said her goodbyes in a way that seemed to be trying so hard not to sound final that it did, and went into the house, the man Rae presumed to be her father shutting the door behind her. Rae stepped out of the car, for what reason she wouldn't allow herself to be sure of, and listened.

Do you?

Almost at once she heard a thud from inside the house, and she stood up straight, her entire body alert. Another thud, a few higher pitched cracks, and another thud. A car then started up, sending Rae jumping; it was a neighbor of Aya's, somebody driving right past the house without a car. Why isn't anybody doing anything? her mind screamed internally as all sounds were blocked by the sound of the car's engine. When it had passed, Rae barely made out the sound of something breaking, and then a scream. At that moment, something within Rae snapped and she did something that would haunt her: jumped in her car and sped off. She barely managed asking Kurt's address, and the entire drive was silent. But inside of her mind were screams, fearful screams, pained screams as her thoughts asked the same question over and over again.

Do you?

Do you?