Thanks for reading!

---x---

Chapter 2: Moment of Clarity

Earplugs in, iPod set to shuffle, he raised the volume and stared back at his mother's moving lips. All she had done since his return was talk. Talk, talk, and talk about the stupidest shit known to man. He knew she was begging for a lifeline, her bait hanging in the air waiting for his bite. But he refused to grant her anything past a bored look or a grunt in acknowledgment.

"What?" He scowled at her when she jerked one of the earphones from out his ear.

"When I talk I would appreciate it if you would listen Dylan Nathan Andrews!" She huffed, her shoulders shaking with unleashed rage. It was the most worked up he had ever seen her. "I have to open the Café this morning, my partner Maggie is unable to." She straightened her top and grabbed her coat from the counter.

He didn't care. She knew he didn't care and yet she still went on to explain who Maggie was and how they had become partners at a Café named Carpe Diem. Meanwhile Dylan continued to stare back at her with his usual blank face. His mind drifting the instant she had begun to speak. His left ear was still able to hear his music so he decided to concentrate on that.

That was until she switched subjects, "I'm expecting a call from the school later on today. Please direct them to my cell, they're concerned about your… past." She bit her bottom lip in thought.

He grunted. It was the most interest he'd shown her all morning. She mentally patted herself on the back for a job well done. However, that triumph was short lived when he reached to plug his right ear in again with his music. She glared at him in warning and the hand dropped in disgust. He muttered an ugly word under his breath, one she chose to overlook effortlessly.

Couldn't she just ignore him as she'd done when he was a child growing up? He wondered how long before she gave up on him and found herself another habit to distract her from the present. His father, Eric, had her trained well: do as he said—or else. Now that there was no more Eric Andrews, what was there for her to do?

"I have the utmost faith in you for this year Dyll." She smiled, fixing the collar of her sons aged army jacket. The one he'd found in the attic when he was 12, it had belonged to her father. She smiled then, her fingers lightly brushing across the material in memory of her father. Dylan shrugged her hands away and she sighed sadly. "You know you could always go down to the school yourself and…" She let the sentence run off on its own.

His focus was already back to his iPod, scrolling through the songs with only mild interest. His eyes never leaving the small glowing screen in his hand. "Never mind, I'll take care of everything. Okay, I have to go now." She shook her head and went for the door, "I love you." She said suddenly, her eyes outside the open door. Her hope rising in wait of his answer.

But Dylan had already plugged his ears again. The loud and angry lyrics of an equally disturbed and explicit Rapper blaring through his eardrums.

---x---

She had been standing outside the house for the past fifteen minutes debating on whether or not to knock, ring the door bell—or just walk right on in. She hadn't seen him in almost three years. What if he didn't even remember her? What if he'd changed so much that he had completely shut her out?

Of course he had shut her out. He hadn't answered even one of her ridiculous letters. She wrote him one every two weeks. Updating him on what he was missing in Darlington and how much she missed talking smack with him. She wanted to tell him the truth. Every time she put pen to paper she wanted to let open the floodgates and tell him that she loved him. That no matter how much he tried to push her away she wasn't going to ever let go.

Alex Evans knew that how Dylan Andrews acted around everyone was a huge front. She'd worked hard to break through it when they were kids. She would have to work twice as hard now that they were teenagers. She just hoped he'd allow her back in. Or had too much time passed between them? She could feel the distance between them grow as she raised a fist to knock.

The door swung open before her knuckles could make contact with the door and she gasped in surprise. "Dylan." She laughed at herself, her cheeks reddening in embarrassment. "Hey." She brushed the hair from her face.

He blinked back at her, caught in his thoughts. She was blonde. Last he'd seen her she was a brunette. A tutor girl. She dressed like a nerd and carried Chex Mix in a small plastic zip lock bag. Looking down at her now she looked completely different. Her dark locks were no longer tied back into messy pony tails but smoothed, straightened and dyed blonde with highlights. Her bulky glasses that made her look smart and geeky were now replaced with contacts.

He snorted upon seeing her attire. "When did you fall into the GAP?" He cracked, his words stinging her.

She self consciously pulled at the ends on her shirt and slid her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. Her smile pulled back up into place as she attempted to breeze over his comment. "So, it's good to see you again." She moved forward to wrap her arms around him. "I missed you."

He froze, unable to decipher how it felt to have her in his arms again. His best friend, the only person to ever understand him. He raised a hand to hug her back and paused, could he do it? She pulled back before he could find out. Guess not.

"So where were you off to in such a hurry?" She asked, tilting her head to the side in a show of her curiosity. She read in Cosmo to always seem interested—but not too interested. She seriously was deranged if she had resulted in consulting a women's magazine for tips on how to handle Dylan.

He pulled the earphones from his ears and grimaced, "Excuse me?" He asked pushing them into his back pocket.

"Where. Are. You. Go-ing?" She rolled her eyes and laughed, "God Dylan, you feeling okay?" She pushed him playfully by the shoulder.

"Fine." He growled walking past her.

She frowned down at her hands. This was going to be harder than she thought. Especially since he looked so damn delicious with his new buzzed haircut, his striking baby blue eyes and killer smile. A smile she had yet to witness since seeing him again for the first time in ages. His army jacket went in strange contrast to his baggy jeans and black Nautica shirt with black Timberland boots. Yet at the same time it gave him an oddly authentic look that had her mouth watering. The flashy silver watch on his wrist sparkled in the faint sunlight and drew attention to the simple silver band around his thumb.

He was so different from the Dylan she had grown to love. She didn't want to cuddle with this Dylan. She didn't want to stay up all night talking and laughing with this Dylan. With this Dylan she wanted to do things that she didn't care to admit. Things that would make even her promiscuous sister Lauren blush.

He had obviously brushed her off. Not even caring enough to ask her how she'd been for the past two and half years. 'I'm great Dyll, and you? Beat anyone else up while you've been away? Set anymore houses on fire? No? Well, me neither.' She bitterly thought to herself. This was useless, he clearly wasn't interested in her, not even as a friend.

That was what hurt most.

They had been so close before he left. She was the only one to ever see the real Dylan Andrews. But now she had no clue who he was anymore. Shoulders sagging in defeat she glanced at her hands again as she stood on the porch and sighed. She really did miss him.

Her eyes darted over to where he stood at the end of the front lawn. The old Dylan would have hugged her back, he would have greeted her with the kindness she deserved. This new version was void of emotion, he had grown accustomed to not giving a shit. However, seeing Alex standing on his mothers porch looking so completely lost, he could not stop himself from reaching deep down inside his heart, to the corner where he'd hid the old Dylan.

His back to her he turned his head to glance at her over his shoulder, "You comin?" He asked casually.

She looked at him in shock, "Oh, umm... Y-yeah." She nodded and hurried down the steps to his side.

Baby steps Alex, baby steps.

---x---

The wind blew across her face as she knelt down before the grave to set down a single red rose. It was a routine she had come to loathe. Every Sunday she came and confessed her sins to Jenna, and every Sunday she went back home feeling like her heart and soul had just been ripped out from her chest.

"So today I told my mother to go fuck herself." Jodie admitted as she leaned back against Jenna's headstone and lit a cigarette. "Dad didn't really care for that, he took my car keys away. I had to walk here." She said taking a drag. She sighed and rested her head back to stare up at the sky, "I teased Ace the other day. In the worst way, but he deserved it." She snorted.

She blinked back tears and sucked in a huge breath, "I don't know what to do with him Jen. I'm guessing that in whatever state of nothingness you are in now you can read my mind. You know that I used to be in love with him. Which is why I was pretty shocked when you two hooked up and started dating behind my back." She grunted and pulled from her cigarette.

"It's okay. I forgave you a long time ago." She shrugged, her shoulders scrapping against the concrete stone at her back, "I don't think I can ever forgive Aiden though." She admitted as she huddled into her coat to keep warm, "What to do? What to do?" She pondered her options for a moment.

"Sometimes I wonder if you ever even cared for him at all." She inhaled her cancer stick and blew it skyward, licking her lips before she began to confess her sins, "I saw you and Jude that night." She nodded, "Saw you pressed up against the tree in the back woods of your house. You thought I was asleep, but I followed you. I'm always… following you." She traced her fingertips over her friends name etched in the polished granite.

"So that's why I don't feel too bad for always being jealous of you." She sighed, "You were in love with Jude. I was in love with Aiden, and Aiden… Well I'm not quite sure who he loved. He was with you but he was always doing the nice boyfriend-like things to me." She pursed her lips, "You should really hear some of the things he says to me sometimes Jen. You'd laugh your ass off. He sounds like such a girl." She chuckled and smashed her smoke into the grass at her side.

"But I guess he's all I have now." Her eyes followed the leaves that surrounded her as they rolled around in the wind.

A tear slipped past her defenses, sliding down her cheek and falling onto her arm. She slipped her knees up to her chest and held on tight. "I miss you. So much." She whimpered. "You fucking stupid bitch. How could you do this to me?" She cried, into her knees.

The sound of crunching leaves pulled her head up instantly, her eyes locking with the strangers before her. Which was odd seeing as how Darlington was such a small town. Jodie thought she knew everyone. He was tall and rugged looking, he had 'bad boy' written all over him. He gave her a once over as he continued on in his walk. She laughed softly to herself, amazed at how pathetic she must have looked.

"And that my dearly departed friend, is why I hate coming here." Jodie said out loud and pushed to her feet. "I always end up a withering mess after talking with you." She snorted. "Well, until next time." She said waving down at Jenna Sanders grave. "Bye bitch, I love you." She whispered, kissing her fingertips and touching her stone. She walked off without another word.

Half way out of the cemetery her phone began to vibrate. Without looking she pressed ignore and slid it back into her pocket. She knew it was Aiden. No one else ever talked to her unless they absolutely had to, and even then it was short, quick and to the point.

No one wanted to talk to a murderer.

Insistent as always, her phone rang again and she snatched it out barking, "What?" into the receiver.

"Where are you?" Aiden snapped back.

"None of your business." She rolled her eyes as she crunched through the leaves.

He sighed, "I'm sorry." He said upon hearing the leaves, "I forgot that you go see Jenna in the afternoon." He muttered, "Look, my mom's making me come to this stupid dinner tonight so…"

"So?" Jodie snorted, she could care less if Aiden had to eat with his mom or not. She hadn't sat down at her own family table in years.

His response was reluctant, as if he feared her answer but desperately hoped for a positive outcome. "So… I was wondering if you'd come." He asked.

Her stomach sank. Jenna was always the one to hold Aiden's hand as he suffered through the constant chastising from his mother's husband Richard Vargas at their rare 'family' dinners. She felt like a substitute for the real thing. She knew the love between both Aiden and Jenna had died out long before her demesne. Aiden had made it very clear that he wanted Jodie by his side, even after breaking it off with Jenna and getting back with her the week after. But it still hurt to know that if she sat beside him at the table he'd secretly be wishing she could be more like Jenna.

"I… uhh…" She gulped. Her feet glued to the ground beneath her.

The slight impatient tapping noise filled her ears from his end as he waited for her reply. She hesitated to say yes and fought to say no. If she went she knew things between them would change, lines would be crossed.

"Jo, please." He begged, his voice soft and feeble. "I need you." He whispered.

She relented. "Fine." She muttered. "Come pick me up at the cemetery. I look decent enough." She said brushing fingers over her designer attire. Jodie always looked good, even in her most darkest of times.

"I'm around the corner." He said, the sound of his truck roaring down the block. "Thank you Jo." He spoke with a slight smile in his voice. Inwardly ecstatic to know that she'd be by his side to help distract him from the torment he was about to endure. Richard Vargas was the devil incarnate. His soul mission in life to make Aiden's life a living hell.

"No problem." She sighed, a small spark igniting within her loins.

She hadn't felt needed in so long.

---x---

"You're kidding me." Alex laughed, her feet happily dangling over the pier. The sun was minutes from settling down over the horizon and she couldn't have even dreamed up a more romantic setting. Now if only he'd lean over and kiss her she could die a happy tutor girl.

He shook his head, leaning back on his hands. His face turned to look at her and really see her for the first time. She had grown, matured for the better. It was almost a disappointment to know that she was no longer the innocent Alex Evans he had once knew. She looked more experienced and aware of the world. No longer giving him those blank, clueless stares like she once had.

"Come on Dyll, you did not really kill a deer while you were away." She snorted. Her hands playing with her gloves in her lap, "I missed you, you know?" She said suddenly then shrugged, not making eye contact.

"I know you did." Was all Dylan came back with. His hand gently rubbing up and down her back. Silence surrounded them once again, just as it had for the past 20 minutes before Alex had tried to break the tension by asking what Dylan did while he was away. She was met with lies about self improvement and new friends.

She knew they were lies, Dylan knew they were lies.

But that didn't stop the two from lapping up every drip of peaceful conversation. In those two minutes spent laughing, it was almost as if Dylan had never gone away. Alex desperately aimed to capture that moment and stretch it as far as possible but soon lost to the jaded side of her troubled friend.

She hated how the silence seemed to wrap around them like an airtight cocoon. She didn't know what else to say to fill in the quiet calm that had fallen between them. It seemed that since Dylan's return, Alex had been desperately trying to get him to open up to her as he once had. She knew that this was impossible however, seeing as how Dylan was more closed off now than he was back then. It saddened her, made her heart break for him. Alex couldn't even imagine what life would be like if she were to become as closed off as Dylan.

The boy to her immediate left stretched his arms high above his head and yawned. The sun was now almost completely gone and he knew he would have to leave soon. For a moment Dylan sat paralyzed beside the petite Alex Evans. Afraid of what he'd become and how much it would effect the poor innocent girl beside him. He'd been inwardly glad the night he'd been hauled away from Darlington and thrown into the plane that took him to Texas. It meant that Alex had a chance to start over, without him to bring her down.

Yet seeing the way she hung on to his every word when he spoke, or stared at him intently when he was silent, he knew better. She'd never start over, not if it meant leaving him behind. He both admired and pitied her for her loyalty. Admired her because of how honorable she was. But pitied her because of the waste of time it would be for her in the end to ever believe Dylan was worth anything.

"I should get going." Dylan spoke, breaking the awkward silence that had grown thick between them, "Moms making me eat dinner with her at the table." He snorted, "Her sad attempt at making us a family." He rolled his eyes and stood, "Later Alley." He patted her back and walked off down the dock. Taking bits and pieces of Alex's heart along with him.

She smiled and waved as he made his way down the pier, completely unaware of the effect he had on her. She wondered if the silence between them meant something that she was missing. He'd seemed to enjoy it while she'd been inwardly squirming. He was so different, she'd noticed. He didn't smile much, not that he ever had before. But it was different now, he was different.

And she was the exact same.

She smashed her face in her hands and groaned, "Alex, you idiot."

---x---

Jodie loved Aiden's house. It was so beautifully elegant and so clean. It looked like something straight out of InStyle magazine. A publication that Jodie was obsessed with. There was something about the way the featured homes seemed so real and happy. It's occupants always smiling and the interior always wonderful and interesting. Every trinket and picture having a story behind it's purpose. So it was of no surprise that since Maggie Vargas had bled sweat and tears designing the house, she and Jodie Ryder were soon engaged in a deep discussion.

A discussion that made Aiden wish he had ear plugs. Did it really matter what kind of fabric was used to make the curtains? Or the difference between eggshell white and mother of pearl? White was white. Black was black, blue was… well, you get the point. It was the only time in Aiden Caulder's life that he actually wondered what Richard was doing. Standing up and politely excusing himself from the room—which was useless seeing as how the two cackling women barely spared him a glance—Aiden walked down the hall of the house to his step-father's study.

He knocked lightly until he heard the man inside call him in, "Hey Richard." He spoke softly, his feet shuffling across the room.

"Hello, Aiden." Richard gave his step-son an accepting nod. His tall and lean frame almost intimidating. Almost. "How are you?" He said before taking a drink from his drink. His eyes watching Aiden's every move, analyzing everything from the way he carried himself into the room to the way he wore his clothes. Baggy, it was the fashion, but Richard would have liked to see Aiden in something more adult. Like a nice classic polo shirt and some slacks, would it have killed the boy to dress up a bit for his family?

With a nervous hand Aiden rubbed the back of his neck and sat down in the chair across from his father's desk. "Fine. And you?" He asked out of habit. It was odd really, asking his step-dad—a man he saw every morning and evening for the past ten years—how he was doing. One would have thought that in those daily passings they would have affiliated themselves in some sort of small talk.

"I'm good. Business is good, your mother tells me your grades are improving. I'm very happy to hear that." Richard swiveled in his chair, his gaze deep and penetrating. "Now tell me what I want to hear." He spoke business, "How's basketball."

Aiden's shoulders sagged. It was always about basketball with Richard, it was all he was to him. A chance to get Aiden into a good college and out of the house and out of their lives. "Basketball is fine. Our first game is in a few weeks. The outlook is good, we have some new good players this year now that Rodriguez and Williams are out. This year shouldn't be a complete disaster." He shrugged.

Richard's head bobbed up and down, "That's good news. So, don't you think it's time you start buckling down and cutting out all the distractions?" He said motioning outside the door where Jodie and Maggie were heard laughing heartedly.

It was the first real laugh he'd heard from Jodie in a very long time. His heart clenched, as did his jaw when his anger threatened to overtake him. "Don't go there Richard." He warned.

His step-father snorted, "Oh come on Ace, you can't honestly think this is going to last? Have you taken a good look at the girl? Sure she's gorgeous but she's a mess. She's been that way ever since that nut job you dated decided to—"

"Richard. Stop. Now." Aiden growled. His voice taking on a low, dangerous tone.

His step-father merely smirked at this, "I understand where you're coming from son, I do." He stood to circle around the desk to stop beside Aiden, "I know what it's like to want to be the hero. To see something broken and feel the need to mend it back to health, like a pretty little wounded bird. I know what you're thinking Ace. You think it will bring you two closer in the end. I know it, because I've been there. I have, and guess what?" He leaned in closer.

"Stop." Aiden glared back at him.

"She ended up being the biggest disappointment of my life." He sneered, "So pretty, so innocent and naïve. She hung onto my every word, did what I said, followed me around—"

"It's not like that." Aiden grit his teeth, his hands fisting down at his sides.

Richard scoffed, "Please. I see the way you look at her, and I'm here to tell you how it's going to end. She'll try to trap you, she'll use you, she'll cling to you until—"

"Shut up!" Aiden jumped up to his feet, chair scrapping against the floor. "Don't talk about her like that, she is nothing like that." He snapped as he backed away towards the door, "You don't know what the hell you're talking about." He shook his head.

"Don't I?" Richard chuckled, tilting his glass back to pull from the dark toxic liquid. "Look at Bev Andrews for gods sake." He said setting the glass down, "Biggest disappointment ever." His eyes narrowed, "I was lucky, I took myself out of the picture before she pulled me down with her issues…" He held his empty hands out at his sides, "But you'll see." He smirked and reached for his drink again, "You'll see." He repeated over the brim of the glass.

---x---

He stayed for two reasons. One, his mother. A woman who frantically struggled to keep her family together; and two, for Jodie. Who sat beside him with a smile and slight sparkle in her eyes. A sparkle he had thought was lost forever. How was it that his mother could bring out the old Jodie and he couldn't?

"Oh, Maggie this looks wonderful." Jodie cooed, her eyes widening as his mother brought out the main course, "You sure you don't need my help?" She moved to lend a helping hand.

"Don't you dare get up," Maggie pointed with a grin, "I love serving my family a hearty dinner." She winked.

Jodie blushed and looked down at her plate. Having been included in that sentence as 'family' was quite touching. Aiden withdrew a hand from the table to touch Jodie's knee affectionately. He nearly fell out of his chair in shock when she leaned into his hand and smiled. Her hand covering his in an almost intimate manner.

His heart pounding in his ears Aiden gulped down the adrenaline of hope he felt just then and gave her a small smirk back. God, she was beautiful when she smiled. His eyes darted to the end of the table where his step-father sat shaking his head.

'Disappointment.' He mouthed back at his son.

Aiden looked away. "This is great mom, thanks." He said to his mother who looked like she was about to cry she was so stunned by his comment. The night was just full of surprises it seemed.

"Yes, Maggie it looks delicious." Richard threw in, "Steer clear of too many carbs though, won't you Ace?" Richard's brow rose curious when he saw everyone at the table staring, "What? He has to start training for basketball. Starting now." He said as he reached for a biscuit.

Jodie rubbed a comforting hand up and down Aiden's back, "Just ignore him, okay?" She whispered for only him to hear. Aiden nodded and took a deep breath to calm himself.

"So, you and me son. We'll start your training tomorrow morning with a 6 a.m. jog followed by some weights." Richard broke the silence, "Jodie, dear don't keep my boy out too late. Will you? In fact, how about I take you home after dinner? I don't think it wise for Ace to engage himself in any extra curricular activities unless its basketball. If you catch my drift." He dared to wink at her.

Jodie's jaw fell open and Aiden dropped his utensils onto his plate. "Richard, that was seriously uncalled for." Maggie cut in before Aiden could respond.

"What?" Richard scoffed, "I'm merely stating the obvious here. Ace needs to keep his focus and Jodie, you are a very pretty girl. Very distracting to a young man such as Aiden—"

"That's it." Aiden barked throwing down his napkin. "We're out of here." He stood and held a hand out for Jodie to take. "I'm sorry mom, I tried. Really. But he's going too far."

"I'm sitting right here you know." Richard replied smug as ever.

"Ace, don't." Jodie held Aiden back when he dove forward towards his father. "Let's just go." She begged, her fingers tightening on his arm, "Please." Her eyes had lost all their glitter, two hollow holes again.

His anger boiled over, "You're an asshole." He pointed a finger at his step-father.

"And you're whipped." Richard shot back, "Bravo Ms. Ryder." He applauded, his gaze on Jodie, "You managed to completely wrap my step-son around your little finger." He smirked, "I congratulate you on a job well done. Lord knows that white trash friend of yours was unable to control him the way you do."

Before anyone could react Jodie had already grabbed the nearest glass to toss into Richard's face. "No wonder your son never wants to go home." She sneered. "My condolences Mrs. Vargas." She gave Maggie a sympathetic glance. "I apologize, Maggie." She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose, "Your dinner really was lovely." She tried to express her regret then shook her head disgusted as she rested her eyes on Richard. "Asshole." She muttered under her breath and turned to exit the room, not waiting for Aiden to follow.

Aiden planted a small kiss on his mothers cheek, "I'm sorry mom." He said looking into her sad eyes, "I tried." He whispered.

She nodded in understanding, she knew how hard it was for her son to even be in same room as his father. "I know you did baby." She touched his cheek.

She watched as her son gave her a small nod and turned to face Richard, "Don't count on that run. I won't be coming home tonight." He snapped and walked out the room, barely missing the rising voices of his parents argument.

Once out of eyesight he rushed outside the house to his truck where he knew Jodie would be waiting. "Jo, I apologize for Richard. He's a giant ass." He said after opening the door. He cursed himself for bringing her into this, she didn't need this. She didn't deserve this.

She shrugged, her eyes desolate as she stared outside her window. "I want to go home now." She muttered.

He hopped into the drivers seat and turned her face to him by her chin, "Hey." He said trying to catch her gaze, "Look at me Ryder." She did, her eyes spilled over. He pulled her into his arms. "I'm so sorry baby." He whispered.

She nodded, "Can we go home now?" Her lip trembled.

"Yeah," He said softly, "We can go home now." He pulled her face closer, and placed a comforting kiss on her forehead.