A/N: Back again! :) Thanks for the feedback! Love you guys!

Soundtrack: Tonic- Take Me As I Am (Seth-centric.)

And as an afterthought, for the last [few] chapter[s], Taylor Swift's The Way I Loved You would have fit nicely.

Also, this story—with its high school-centric setting/characters/stuff—just makes me think of lame boy bands from the past. I laugh so much when I think of all the boy-band/bubblegum pop songs that could inspire me. :) It's like I'm in middle school again.


Once Melissa got the ball rolling, she discovered that even when it resulted in temporary discomfort, standing up and telling people what she wanted was infinitely more appealing than waiting to see what everyone else had planned for her.

Unfortunately, the next day as she walked down the hall with Brian and contemplated when and how to tell him that she didn't want to go to California with him, it occurred to her that she had to tell him more than that. California was one aspect of what she didn't want with him, but not all of it.

Breaking up with Brian didn't seem like it was going to be very fun, but she knew it was necessary. Her heart simply wasn't in the relationship, and if she was trying to clear out her life, Brian was an unavoidable example of something that had to go—at least, on a romantic level. Her feelings for Brian weren't romantic, they were friendly, and she couldn't force them to be otherwise; attempting to force them was only resulting in distancing herself from him entirely.

Lunch came and she walked into the room with Brian, but the previous day's lunch with Cece really opened up her eyes—and her mind—and she realized she needed to repeat it, not simply allow it to be a one-time performance. The last time she had deviated from the norm had been with Seth, for Seth, to go sit beside him at the lunch table. It was a little bit for her, too; she wanted Seth, so she needed him to approve of her.

Now Melissa needed her own approval, and she wasn't going to get it at Brian's table.

Her nerve almost evaded her when she saw that Cece was already sitting beside April at their normal table. She had been hoping to sit with Cece so that she didn't have to sit completely on her own, but she figured that sitting alone one day out of her life wouldn't kill her. The important thing was to make a stand against the life she didn't want; where she sat didn't really matter.

"I'm going to sit somewhere else, okay? I'll see you after lunch," Melissa told Brian as she shrugged out of his hold.

"Oh, you're sitting with the girls today?" he asked.

Smiling and shaking her head, she said simply, "Nope." Then, taking her tray, she made her way across the lunch room and surveyed the tables. Her attention was immediately drawn to Seth's table, as he was just taking his seat beside Jasmine, no lunch in sight as per usual. Jasmine offered him a little smile, said hello, and then didn't bother him as he opened the book he brought with him that day and got absorbed in that book.

Continuing her appraisal, she located the jocks-of-lesser-popularity table, the vaguely-bizarre-gothic table, the table of people no one really liked, and then she came to the table she had all but forgotten about—the AV club and various other brainy types.

Grinning, she strode across the cafeteria toward their table and then she spotted an empty seat—there were quite a few open, but she noticed everyone at the table was talking and seemed fully absorbed in their own thing, wholly uncaring or unaware of the hierarchy around them—and she climbed over the bench, sitting her tray down and taking her new seat, feeling just a little bit satisfied with herself. Glancing up at the guy across from her, she noted with a little bit of amusement that his eyes were wide, and he looked at her like she was Santa Claus.

"Hi," Melissa greeted cheerfully. "You don't mind if I sit here, do you?"

Shaking his head almost too quickly, he said, "No, not at all."

"My name's Melissa," she offered, ripping open her plastic wrap and taking her eating utensils out.

"I know," he said ironically. "I'm Kevin."

"It's nice to meet you, Kevin," she verified, nodding her head.

A minute or so passed and then another boy came over to take the empty seat beside Kevin, a heavy set boy with light blonde hair and Coke-bottle rimmed glasses. As he approached, Melissa glanced up and caught him making wide eyes at Kevin and making accusingly pointed glances in Melissa's direction.

Kevin merely grinned and said, "Sit down, Dave."

Turning beet red, the boy called Dave took his seat next to Brian, making the process of sitting down look almost painful as he stole glances across the table at Melissa.

When he did sit down, she met his gaze evenly, and his face turned an even deeper shade of red. Unsure of how much longer it would go on if unaddressed, she sat her tea down and offered her hand, saying, "Hi, I'm Melissa Baron, and you are?"

"D-Dave Mercer," he mumbled, awkwardly offering his own paw for her to shake.

"Hello, Dave Mercer."

"Well, I feel eclipsed," Kevin joked. "I didn't tell you my last name."

"What's your last name?" she asked.

"Kincaid," he supplied.

"Kevin Kincaid—very nice to meet you, too. Did you guys have a nice winter break?"

Dave merely looked uncertainly at Kevin as if to silently ask, "Do we dare trust the strange newcomer?" but Kevin wasn't looking, he was busy responding.

"Definitely," he stated. "We went on a ski trip and I got some killer footage on the mountains."

Gasping, Melissa forgot her formality and said, "Footage? You're into film?"

Raising an eyebrow, he said, "Um, hi; I'm the president of the AV club."

Laughing delightedly, she said, "Are you really? This is perfect. So, wait, you guys shoot a bunch of stuff at the school, right? And you probably get to edit it, or do teachers help with that?"

"We shoot, we edit, we organize—we mostly do it all. It's not a big club by any means, and there is a faculty advisor, but for the most part, as long as we don't try to do anything wild, it's in our hands. You know how wild we AV guys can be."

"I don't, actually. You're the first AV club guy I've ever met."

"Yeah, well, we don't make it past the bouncer at your table," he joked.

Shaking her head in mock solemnity, she said, "I keep trying to tell them we should fire him, but no one ever listens to me."

"Room for one more?" Cece asked rhetorically as she slid into the empty seat beside Melissa.

"Of course. What happened to…?" Melissa trailed off, gesturing to the table Cece had been sitting at.

"Ugh, I'm so sick of the catty bitchiness at that table. I'm sorry not everyone feels the need to talk about their friend behind their back." Shrugging, Cece said, "I didn't mean to interrupt, but when I saw you weren't joining our table or Brian's I knew I was in for another half hour of debate about your love life, and it's not that I don't find you just fascinating, but…"

"I wouldn't have wanted to sit through it either," Melissa stated. "Cece, these are my new friends, Dave Mercer and Kevin Kincaid. Kevin is president of the AV club," she announced proudly.

"Hey, video stuff, right? That's right up your alley."

Kevin raised an eyebrow. "Melissa Baron is a closet AV geek?"

"Hey now, watch the labels," Cece said mildly. "Geeks aren't as hot as my Melissa here."

"Sorry; I'm a geek, I meant no offense," he replied immediately.

"Like I said," Cece replied smoothly, offering him a smile, "geeks can't be hot. Find a new label."

Kevin's jaw fell open and he stared at Cece for a moment before collecting himself, then he blushed, seemingly at a loss for words.

Winking at Melissa and gently nudging her in the side, she said, "I like this table."


For the first time in awhile, Melissa had a great time at lunch. Watching Cece delight in making Kevin blush every time she flirted with him was a worthy show in and of itself, but realizing there were other people at her school who shared her interests—not shopping or hanging out, but a real interest—was eye-opening.

When lunch was over, before they went their separate ways, Kevin extended an invite to Cece and Melissa to attend one of the weekly AV club meetings if they felt like it. It sounded interesting, and even though Cece had never touched a video camera prior to ice skating, she was pretty open to new things and she thought Kevin was cute, so she said she'd happily tag along to a meeting if that was allowed.

At the end of the school day when Melissa walked next to Brian nervously trying to figure out a good way to start The Conversation, she was more than a little relieved when Cece came over—tagging Kevin behind her by the hand—and waving enthusiastically to Melissa and Brian.

Kevin looked like she was dragging him, and he was looking rather uncertainly at Brian.

"Hi," Cece said, yanking Kevin up to join the group and giving him a cheerful smile.

Clearing his throat, Kevin said, "Taking on all the titans at once, huh?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, but sure," she stated.

"I don't believe you've met," Melissa said. "Brian, this is Kevin Kincaid. Kevin, Brian Harrington."

Kevin nodded, saying, "We have several classes together, but it's nice to meet you."

"Yeah, you too, man," Brian said easily, but he raised his eyebrows to Melissa as if to ask why he was talking to this formerly invisible person.

"So, you won't believe this," Cece said, tapping Melissa on the shoulder. "Turns out Kevin's in my biology class. Who knew, right? Anyway, I was telling him about our little ice skating video making thing and how you made a music video of it, and he was interested in seeing what you can do. Are you doing anything after school? We've been invited to check out his media equipment."

"I have a lot of it," Kevin offered. "My uncle Nick lives in LA, he's actually in film and since we share a similar interest, he let me have his old equipment that he didn't need once he upgraded."

"Kevin's the president of the AV club," Cece informed Brian.

Jaw dropping open a little, Brian turned wide eyes on Melissa and said, "I was joking when I suggested you start mingling with the AV club."

"Well, that's fine, but I didn't mingle per your request," Melissa mingled. "I met Kevin at lunch today and we have things in common; isn't that how people traditionally make new friends?"

"Come on, Brian, you could join us," Cece told him.

"Yeah… no," he said, shaking his head. "Melissa, can I speak to you for a moment?"

Feeling like a child whose parents just realized the cookie jar was empty, Melissa sighed, gestured to Cece and Kevin for one moment, and then walked off to the side with Brian.

"What are you doing?" he asked without preamble.

"What do you mean, what am I doing?" she asked, shaking her head.

"I mean… all of this social rebellion crap," he replied, with an all-encompassing wave in Kevin's direction. "I mean, don't get me wrong, in doses it can be cute and refreshing, but the full-blown metamorphosis thing? Not so much."

"I'm not trying to be cute, Brian."

"Then what are you trying to do?" he asked distinctly. "I mean… you never seem to want to hang out with us at all, and when you do hang out with us, you just kind of… space out. I understand that you're going through something right now, and… this whole thing with Seth is really getting to you…"

"This isn't about Seth," she told him, shaking her head. "He may have triggered it, but that's only because he brought me out of my comfort zone and left me stranded there to find my way back. Really, he probably did me a favor; who knows how many more life decisions I might have passed on if not—"

"Melissa… I'm not a damn life decision, okay?" he asked, glancing away in frustration and raking his hand through his hair. "Look, I'm at a loss here. I tried to be supportive, but that pisses you off. I try to give you space, and you… join the AV club."

"I didn't join the AV club, I just—"

"Well, whatever, you know what I mean," he interrupted, sighing.

Sighing heavily, Melissa said, "You know what, this is as good a time as any. Brian… obviously we're very different people…"

"We're not very different people," he argued. "We're very similar people, Melissa, that's why we made such a good match."

"How, Brian? How do we make a good couple? Since the moment we started trying this out for real, we've been about as close as California and Maine. Brian, it is abundantly clear that as a couple, we don't work."

"That's not true," he said dismissively.

"It is true. As friends, we were good, but as a couple we're not. I think we should just… go back to being friends. We got along better, and… I just think it's a better idea."

"Have you talked to Seth?" he asked knowingly.

Biting back the urge to growl, she said, "This has nothing to do with him."

"I notice you said this has nothing to do with him, not that you didn't talk to him. He wasn't in school the other day, I'm sure you noticed. Was he sick?"

"Stop," she said, raising her eyebrows. "We are not going to fight about this."

"I just think I deserve the real reason you refuse to give me a shot."

"I refuse to give you a shot because I do not believe we make a good couple. I think that while your support was extremely helpful, I only see you as a friend, and forcing myself to try to see you as more is making me want to see less of you, not more of you. I think that you can see the truth in what I'm saying, but you don't want to. You made up your mind that this was the course of action we should follow—or, your family and my family made up your mind—and you're completely content to just go with it. That's fine. If that is what makes you happy, do it. It doesn't make me happy. I want to at least give my own ambitions a shot, Brian, and if I fail, I fail, but… I fail if I don't try, too, and then I just have no respect for myself because I caved. Then I always wonder what if."

"You could still end up wondering what if, Melissa. I'm not going to wait around on you forever while you find yourself."

"You don't have to," she said with a slight smile. "I don't want you to. I love you to death, Brian, but not as a boyfriend. I'll admit, just like Seth said I was, I was curious as to what you and I would be like in a relationship. Now I've seen, and… it's not right. Surely you see that?"

Shrugging, he said, "Not really. You've been moody, absolutely, but that's to be expected when you're hurting. I don't agree that we couldn't make this work."

"But we shouldn't have to make it work, Brian! We haven't been married for 25 years; we shouldn't have to force it. It should just be there. It should be there even if we don't want it to be, even when we fight it, even… if we try our damndest to push it away, to push each other away. It should be almost unavoidable. It should be…"

"Seth," he finished quietly.

Glancing away and releasing a little sigh, she said, "Well, the passionate ones don't always work either, but… I'm only 17; I'm not ready to throw in the towel just yet."

"Fine," Brian said, not looking altogether pleased, but admitting defeat. "I'll give you some more space. If you want to break up already, I guess there's not a whole lot I can do about it."

"You'll see someday," she assured him. "Someday you're going to meet an infuriating woman who's going to push all your buttons and invade your every thought, and you're going to love her despite how crazy she makes you, and then you're going to think back to this conversation and you're going to be so glad that we didn't force ourselves into this."

"If you say so, Dr. Baron," he said, forcing a lightly mocking smile.

Smiling, she said, "I don't even have to be a shrink for this diagnosis. So… can we still be friends?"

Grimacing, he said, "Don't word it that way, Melissa. It's terribly cliché, and I don't play the wounded party very well. I don't believe anyone but you has ever dumped me before."

"Sorry," she offered, grimacing slightly.

Shoving his hands in his pockets, he shrugged, forcing a smile that didn't meet his eyes. "Well, you have fun with your new AV club friend."

"I will. And we'll still hang out," she insisted.

"Yeah… see you around, Melissa."

As she watched him turn and walk away, she felt a little bit guilty and a little bit sad. Her sadness wasn't because they were breaking up—she knew she didn't want to date him—but because she had the very distinct feeling that things between them weren't going to be the same.

"Hey, you okay?" Cece asked, frowning in concern as she watched Brian walk away.

Nodding her head, Melissa said, "Yeah, I'm getting there."

"Are you two fighting?" she asked.

"Not anymore," Melissa answered quietly.

Making a sad face, Cece wrapped her arm around Melissa's shoulders and said, "Everything's going to be okay. Come on, Kevin's telling me all about this group called The Clash—he said he'd play the CD for us in the car. Are you sure you're okay? You look a little blue."

She nodded again. "Just experiencing life as a single woman for the first time since… well, ever."

Eyes widening, Cece said, "You broke up?"

Melissa noticed that Cece sounded disappointed, but not surprised. "We sure did."

"Was it… amicable?"

"Yes. Sort of. I don't think our relationship will be the same as it was before though. I don't know if anything is going to be like it was before."

"Growing up sucks," Cece stated, still making a long face.

"Indeed," Melissa agreed, sighing and following Cece over to Kevin so they could leave.


Despite the fact that she was the one that did the dumping, and the fact that she had sincerely wanted to break up, when Melissa returned home that evening after hanging out with Kevin and Cece she felt a little sad and a lot lonely.

There had been no falsely supportive "I hrd u & brian broke up! sry!" text messages from any of her fake friends, but she figured the maelstrom would happen the following day—assuming any of her friends would even bother talking to her. The prior break-up had at least left Melissa's legacy interesting, but this time she and Brian didn't break up publicly and she hadn't left him for Seth, so there was probably a fairly decent probability that once again none of her "friends" were going to give half a damn about her. Brian was no longer going to be her knight in shining armor, and she didn't even have Seth to keep her company in social Siberia. Granted, she had Cece, and Kevin had seemed pretty cool… perhaps it was time for a new era.

That still made her sad. In theory, she knew she didn't actually like the people in Brian's social circle, but they were all she had ever known—they were her social circle. Being dropped was still going to serve as a slight shock to her system.

Letting Seth go with the old era didn't sound like a good idea though. As she stared up at her ceiling, blankly trying to absorb all of the changes she was making in her life, she had the thought that she should call Seth. It had bothered her that he didn't bother to mention the stupid video she had made for him—she had spent a lot of time and thought on that, and she didn't think a simple thank you would have been too much.

However, calling Seth would mean getting off the bed, and she didn't really feel like she had the energy to do such a thing. So, instead of reaching out, she closed her eyes and drifted off.


The following day was worse than she had expected.

No one offered her any sort of fake sympathy as they had done before—they seemed to understand once and for all that Brian and Melissa were done, and they no longer had to pretend to like her. The first class she had with both Brian and Seth made Melissa feel supremely uncomfortable, and even though neither one of them spoke to her—in fact, neither of them seemed to know she existed at all—she felt so tense the whole time, so uncertain, that she made the class miserable for herself. When it was over, she was the first person out of her seat and through the door.

Lunch was the real cherry on top of a fantastic post-break-up day. It was the moment of the day Melissa was dreading the most, so she took her time making her way to the lunch room. When she got there she went to the line, very careful not to look away from the spot directly in front of her. If anyone was talking about her, she didn't want to witness it, and she was absolutely positive that she wouldn't be able to look in Seth's direction without giving in to the weak urge to flock to his side, hoping he would protect her like he protected Jasmine.

Her former protector was another thing she wasn't sure of; would Brian try to act like nothing happen and invite her to sit with them? Generally he was busy trying to keep Melissa in the loop, and if he did she wouldn't have the heart to tell him no—everyone had to know she had dumped him.

Her self-control was pretty good while she was in the lunch line, but when she turned to walk back to the cafeteria, she found her curiosity getting the better of her and her eyes wandering over to casually brush Brian's table.

When she spotted him, her heart missed a couple of beats. Brian was sitting with his friend, talking and laughing as if nothing had ever happened, and his arm was draped around April, whose eyes were bright with delight at being the girl on his arm.

"Seriously?" Melissa muttered to herself, shaking her head in disbelief.

It didn't make sense, but suddenly as she watched her former best friend taking over her life, Melissa suddenly felt like the lunch room was the last place she wanted to be. When had high school gotten so evil? Those people shouldn't matter to her at all—why did she feel like she had been kicked out of some important club? She hadn't been kicked out, she had walked out on her own…

Being replaced was not a comfortable feeling.

Glancing around the cafeteria, she couldn't find Cece and she couldn't bear to look at Seth.

She felt like she didn't have a single friend in the world.

Worse, she had made it that way.

Swallowing back the ridiculous burning of tears behind her eyes, she tried not to notice as April's gaze caught hers, lingering for a moment and then smiling an extremely self-satisfied little smile.

Deciding lunch simply wasn't worth it, Melissa turned around, handed her tray to the first person she spotted in line, and then vacated the cafeteria.


Although Melissa wasn't generally one to skip classes, when the lunch debacle had taken place, she decided that she was going to take a mental health day for the rest of the school day.

Going home to an empty house made her feel a little better—on top of everything, she really, really didn't want to deal with her mom. Since she was on her own, she slipped on a pair of sweat pants and a big sweatshirt, pulling her hair up into a messy pony tail and climbing under her covers to watch tv. Perhaps it wasn't the healthiest way to spend a day, but she was pretty sure that she couldn't deal with anything more that day. Too much had changed too fast—in one month there was not one aspect of her life that had remained the same.

The minute school was out, Melissa's cell phone was ringing and it was Cece.

"Where were you today?" Cece demanded, not even bothering to say hi.

Sighing, Melissa said, "I was there until lunch, but I couldn't… deal."

"Are you okay? Brian's an asshole and April's a bitch—everyone else falls somewhere below those classifications."

"I appreciate the sentiment, and it's really… fine, I just… I didn't want to deal with it."

"I'm coming over," Cece stated. "I'm going to stop and get a carton of ice cream, and we're going to veg out and do nothing for the rest of the evening."

Smiling a little, Melissa said, "That actually sounds really amazing. I could use a night of nothing but ice cream."

"What about a movie? We should indulge in some cinematherapy, if you ask me."

"Nothing romantic," Melissa stipulated.

"Do you think sad? Or would you rather something different? I was thinking something truly awful—either Heathers or even Clueless was at the top of my list."

Gasping, Melissa said, "Evil high school movies that will put the ridiculousness into perspective—great idea. Bring both."

"We will make fun of the cool kids all night," Cece stated happily.

"See, now this kind of thing makes me love you."

A little over a half hour later, Cece came over, still in her school uniform, and hauled a bag full of movies, ice cream, and chocolate covered raisins with her and they spent the better half of that evening laughing at the people who slighted Melissa instead of mourning the loss of any of them.


Once Cece left, Rita—who had picked up on the girl's night and the entire tub of ice cream that had been emptied and put into the garbage can—immediately flocked to Melissa's side, a look of concern on her face. Whether her concern was over the fact that her daughter had eaten half of a tub of ice cream, she was wearing ratty clothes, or the fact that both things indicated a break-up, Melissa could only guess.

"Are you okay, Melissa?"

"Yep, I'm fine. Cece and I were just hanging out after school."

"You ate an entire tub of ice cream."

"She helped," Melissa offered.

Giving her yet another imploring glance, Rita said, "What's going on?"

"I broke up with Brian," Melissa admitted, knowing that it would have to be addressed eventually.

"Why? Have you been talking to that neighbor boy again? I swear, I am going to have a talk with Debbie—"

"I did not leave Brian for Seth. I am still not talking to Seth. I broke up with Brian because I don't want to be his girlfriend, and don't worry, because he's already filled my position, so he's not too heartbroken or anything."

"That's not necessarily true, some people just throw themselves into a new relationship, it doesn't mean he didn't care."

"It does," she disagreed. "If he cared about me so damn much, how could he just move someone into my place so quickly—and my former best friend, at that!"

Smiling very slightly, Rita said, "Well, at least now we know my hypocrisy is a hereditary trait."

Scowling, Melissa said, "I'm not a hypocrite."

"Then you didn't care about Seth? Unless I'm terribly out of the loop, isn't that exactly what you did when Seth dumped you?"

Paling a little, Melissa tried to deny it, but found herself uncertain. "I… I… That wasn't the same. Seth… wouldn't give me a… chance," she finished, her tone completely deflated.

Rita raised an expectant eyebrow.

"And Seth… Kailee! I only… I thought…." Huffing a great sigh of irritation, Melissa said, "I thought you were supposed to be on my side."

Smiling gently, Rita said, "Darling, I am on your side, I'm merely pointing out the same blind spots you so kindly pointed out for me."

Still deflated, Melissa wondered if she had really made Seth feel as worthless and dejected as Brian had made her feel that day. Would it be worse, since Melissa and Seth had actually shared a connection? He had actually expressed the sentiment that he thought if she had been telling the truth about not liking Brian, she would be single.

With a heavy sigh, Melissa said, "Damn, I am a hypocrite."

And Seth didn't have anyone to eat ice cream and watch bad movies with.

That intense feeling of isolation that caused Melissa to flee the school grounds—that was Seth's default.

"Admission is the first step," Rita stated. "Now why don't you go call Brian and sort this whole mess out? I'm sure he'll understand."

Not bothering to correct her mother's assumption that she was applying the Brian part of that argument, Melissa wandered back up the stairs and into her room, walking over to her window and peering out at Seth's.

His light was out.

He was probably at work.

Sighing, she flopped down on her bed and began to sort through her own thoughts once more.


Thankfully, the next day was Friday and Melissa knew she only had to survive that day, then she would have the whole weekend away from school.

Since April was absolutely wallowing in her new position—she was always attached to Brian's side or his lips or his shadow—Melissa found herself a little bit glad that they had stopped being friends already, because the new side of April was absolutely nauseating.

It also felt fake.

A time or two on Friday, Melissa caught Brian watching her—and of course he immediately looked away when she caught his gaze.

That fateful time of the day eventually showed up. It was funny how many years she had sat through lunch thinking that it was only a time for nourishment and socialization, never realizing what an utter vortex of hell it might be to the people on the outside of her little bubble. Life was so safe, so secure, so absolutely certain in that little bubble with the fake friends and the popular boyfriend. There was no guessing, no dreading the moment when you would have to find a place to sit—no consideration that perhaps you would be tormented while you munched on your turkey sandwich.

Life and lunch felt a lot different outside of the bubble.

After she made her way through the lunch line she briefly looked around for Cece, but she didn't want the girls or Brian from her former table to think that she was looking at any of them, so when her cursory glance failed, she began to look for Kevin at the AV table. Looking at that one felt safer, but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found either.

Feeling slightly less liberated, Melissa had the thought that the glorious beauty of her freedom was already beginning to wear off—she was simply not a person who thrived when she didn't belong to something, and she wanted a new spot to fit comfortably into.

"The cafeteria got a whole lot bigger, huh?"

Turning around, vaguely shocked, Melissa faced Seth.

He offered a little smile.

"Yeah," she managed. "I never… realized how big it was."

Merely nodding, he said rather abrasively, "I heard you got dumped."

Surprised at his candor, her first instinct was to bristle, but then she thought of her conversation with her mother the evening before and thought perhaps she deserved it. Taming her reaction, she offered a slight smile and said, "Didn't anyone ever tell you not to listen to gossip?"

One of his black eyebrows shot up, but she noticed he looked distinctly less pleased. "You're still together then?"

"No, but I didn't get dumped. You see, a wise man once asked me why the hell I wasn't single if I didn't like my boyfriend, and I realized that didn't make a whole lot of sense."

His lips curved upward but he nodded, playing along. "Sounds like a pretty smart guy."

"Sometimes," she allowed. Then, dropping the light mood, she said, "Hey, listen… I didn't really… realize before that my immediate acquisition of Brian may have made it seem like I didn't care, and I just want you to know, if it came off that way, that definitely wasn't the case. I cared a lot, but April told me that you were dating Kailee and I… felt betrayed, like you had lied to me about the whole stupid idea to break up with me, and I just… well, I just fell into it. The point is, I don't want you to think that it meant I didn't care."

Looking supremely uncomfortable, Seth nodded.

"Did you… get that video I made you? I know it was stupid, but…"

"It wasn't stupid," he said, still looking uncomfortable. "It was… I have to go."

Blinking, she said, "Oh."

"Sorry," he said, not even bothering to wait for her response as he dashed from the cafeteria.

Scowling at the door he exited through, she shook her head, taking her stupid tray and slowly walking a few feet, glancing at the tables. Since Seth had bailed, Jasmine was sitting by herself again, picking at her French fries. Deciding to venture over that way, Melissa took her seat where Seth normally sat, right across from Jasmine.

"You're back," Jasmine remarked.

"No," Melissa answered dryly. "Obviously I am not."

Since Jasmine didn't really know what Melissa was talking about, she merely gave her a curious glance and then went back to picking at her food.

Melissa sighed at her sandwich, not really even hungry anymore.

That day, lunch was infinitely less enjoyable.


After lunch, Seth wasn't in his classes.

Feeling vaguely agitated, Melissa hardly paid any attention to anything the teachers said and didn't take a single note.

By the time she was leaving, she was so thoroughly frustrated that she wished she would never have tried to explain herself to him at all. He had started talking to her—she thought that was a good sign. Why had he gotten spooked so easily? All she wanted to do was apologize if she had made him feel unimportant—she thought it would make him feel better if she had inadvertently made him feel bad, not make him leave school.

When she got home, however, she was more than a little stunned at the sight of Seth leaning against the wall next to her front door, obviously waiting for her.

Her heart fell a little and she didn't know what to expect, but she didn't even bother taking her book bag out of the car, she just removed her keys from the ignition and hesitantly approached her door, gazing at him questioningly.

"I came to see you on New Year's Eve," he stated without preamble. "When I got the disc. I came over to see you, but you were already gone."

"You did? Why?"

"Because… it was nice having someone try that hard. Because… you should probably hate me, and instead, you tried to give me another chance."

Shaking her head as she stepped a little closer, she said, "I could never hate you, Seth."

"But you should. The things I said to you that night… they had to have hurt, they were meant to hurt."

"Well, mission accomplished, they hurt like hell," she said lightly.

"And even after I hurt you—on purpose—you tried again. It made me wonder… if maybe I was a little wrong, if maybe… maybe…."

Since he couldn't even seem to get the words past his lips, she figured it was probably a good thing. Bad things he had no problem saying, but emotional things seemed to be as difficult for Seth as reading the Arabic alphabet might be for Melissa.

"Maybe I really wasn't going anywhere?" she offered.

"Yes," he said, nodding. "It's difficult for me to… let someone close, because the only people I've ever cared about have always left. I told you that. I just didn't want to risk it, and I knew you were a risk, because… well, I gave a damn. I wasn't supposed to give a damn."

"Caring about someone isn't always such a bad thing, Seth. You just might want to work on allowing it, because it's sort of impossible to love and be there for someone when they're… well, dumping you."

Shaking his head and glancing down at the crumpled up envelope she didn't realize before that moment that he was holding, Seth said, "I did not intend to break up with you. When I told you the night before the dance that I didn't want to break up, I didn't. You didn't even freak out about me being there with Kailee—you obviously weren't happy about it, but I shouldn't have kept it from you. When I came here on New Year's, my intention had been to apologize for being an asshole, explain why I was an asshole, and… ask if you'd consider letting me try again. Of course you weren't home, and then I started having my doubts so I put it off until the next day, then I found out you and Brian had made it official and it pissed me off, so I just scrapped the whole idea."

Grimacing, Melissa said, "That was my bad. Were you really going to try to get me back?"

He nodded with a self-deprecating smile. "That was the plan, but it didn't really work out."

"Well… I know it's not New Year's anymore, but is that offer still valid?"

Instead of telling her of course it was, and claiming her as his again, he frowned a little, saying, "Melissa… it's important that you understand I may never be good at this. I cannot guarantee you that if you stick it out with me, I'm going to be worth your while. I do care about you, but when I said I didn't want to love you, I really meant it. Loving someone is terrifying—you're giving someone a chance to just slice open your heart at any given time, and I have to say, that isn't appealing."

"It's not, you're right, but it's more than a risk, Seth—think of the good that can come out of it. I mean, in loving you, I've really only gotten a glimpse at the heart-slashing side and I'm still willing to do it. Loving someone can be scary, sure, but aren't there some risks worth taking? I would not leave you. I would never stop wanting you. I don't need you to be easy, all I've ever needed was for you to try. I can be a patient person, Seth. I really wasn't trying to pressure you before—it's okay with me if it takes you more time to love me than it's taken me to love you, I understand that you have more issues with closeness and attachment than I do and that has never been a real problem."

"But I feel guilty, Melissa. I feel like I'm cheating you. It's not your fault I feel this way."

Shrugging, she said, "You really don't understand what it means to be loved, do you? Seth… when you feel the way that I feel about you—I can only call it love, I don't know what else is so patient and unconditional—it isn't about that. You can't be cheating me, because you're filling a void that no one else can. The only way you're cheating me is if you're not with me. I love your flaws. I don't accept you despite how you are, I love you for it. I am not overlooking things about you in order to love you, Seth, I find everything about you thoroughly and completely loveable. I love who you are, and I wouldn't change you if I could—all I want is for you to let me close enough that I can stand beside you. I don't know how else to explain it…"

Her words were registering, she could see it in his eyes, but once more words seemed to elude him. For a moment, he looked so frustrated with his own inability to formulate a response to what she said that it looked like he might take flight again, but he obviously fought down the urge, taking the small step forward to close the distance between them, and he gave her a soft, lingering kiss.

Having missed his kisses so much, Melissa got a little bit bolder and she moved her body even closer against his, wishing they weren't wearing so many layers of clothing between them, and she deepened the kiss.

When they needed air, Melissa pulled back, smiling at him and saying, "You want to come inside?"

"Your parents…"

"Aren't home," she finished, singling out her house key and putting it in the slot.

"Your brother…"

"Is at his friend's house until my mom picks him up on her way home. We have three hours of utter safety."

"Do we?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "What do you expect we could do to kill that time?"

"Well," she said, tugging him inside by his coat sleeve, "we should probably invite Dawn over and see if she would like to play a board game. Or we could make some of that fantastic jewelry like we made on Thanksgiving. Or we could study for the chemistry quiz. Or—"

Cutting her off, he pulled her in for another kiss, simultaneously pulling her coat off her slender shoulders, then peeling his own off as she wrapped her arms around his neck, backing toward the stairs.

"Or we could go to my bedroom," she finished, grinning, as she grabbed him by the hand and hauled him up the stairs.


A good hour later, Melissa curled sleepily around Seth's body, lovingly caressing his bare chest.

"I have missed that a lot," she stated.

"That we can agree on," he said easily.

"You are ridiculously good at that," she informed him, raising an eyebrow.

Shrugging, he said, "I've gotta have some good qualities, right?"

Smiling and placing a little kiss on his chest, she said, "You have plenty." Then, resting her head on his chest and looking up at him, she added, "So, will you get all weird on me if I bring up the conversation we were having before this?"

"It's possible, but go for it anyway."

"Why did you dump me? I mean, other than the fact that you got skittish about getting close to me. You told me that you didn't plan on dumping me, so what did I do to change your mind?"

Sighing, Seth reached across the bed, cradling Melissa against his chest as he snatched the envelope off of her bedside table. "You didn't do anything. I was on edge because of this damn letter."

Her eyes widened as she stared at the envelope, having no idea what it was, but assuming it could only be bad. "What is it? They aren't moving you, are they?"

Shaking his head, he said, "It's not that. It's from my mother."

Her jaw fell open and she felt her eyes widen a little more. "I thought… you said your mother doesn't talk to you."

"She didn't. She doesn't. The letter… came out of left field. My social worker said that she probably wanted to try to contact me because she knows once I turn 18 she'll have no way of knowing where I go or what happens to me, she won't be able to find me so these last few months are her last chance."

"Well… what does it say?" she asked hesitantly.

Smiling sardonically, he said, "I haven't a damn clue; I've yet to convince myself to open it. Unfortunately, regardless of whether I opened it or not, the letter has been sitting there taunting me since the day it was given to me—Friday, the day of the stupid formal, before school. I wasn't moody that evening because of Kailee, I was moody because of this stupid damn letter."

"So open it! How could you stand to have it all this time and not read it?"

Glancing down at the offending piece of correspondence, he said, "I just keep remembering the last time I got a letter from her. The memory ebbs the excitement a little bit. I'm doing alright now—or, I was—and I don't want to let her fuck with my head again. A part of me wonders what it says, but the other part doesn't give a damn. I've toyed with the idea of just throwing it out, but… I can't bring myself to do that, either."

"I don't think you should throw it out," she said, pushing herself into a sitting position and looking at the envelope, contemplating what advice to give him on the matter. On the one hand, it could be more cruelty that would knock Seth down—but he was a resilient person, and he wasn't alone anymore, so he would be able to survive it. It would probably effectively kill any lingering emotions he might hold for the woman who had given birth to him, but if she was still out for blood so many years later and willing to strike out at her innocent son to get it, maybe he would be better off severing those last ties.

On the other hand, it could be a more positive letter. If she had told him years earlier that she never wanted to hear from him again, why would she contact him right before he turned 18, to remind him not to contact her? That didn't make sense.

Then the thought struck her: Seth had kept the unopened letter because he was afraid of what was inside, but he had brought the letter to her.

Smiling softly and caressing his cheek, she said, "If you want my opinion, I think you should open it. Like you said, Seth, you're doing well now, you're not the same 12 year old boy who was rejected by his mother, you've grown into a really strong, really wonderful guy. Whatever's in that letter you can handle it, and you don't have to handle it alone."

His lips curved up slightly, a tender smile as he twined a lock of her hair around her finger. "You're gonna be my strength?" he asked, his tone light and playful, but with a hint of solemnity.

Nodding resolutely, she said, "I think I'm up for the job. Not that you need it, you've got more strength than I do, but our combined forces can certainly withstand a little letter, right?"

He nodded a little, but he still held the letter, looking down at it as if it might bite him. "I guess there's no time like the present."

"That's what they say."

"Then again, there's always tomorrow," he offered.

Smiling slightly, she leaned up and kissed him. "True, but tomorrow we might not be tangled up naked in bed. If the letter is bad, I am in the absolutely perfect spot to try to take your mind off of it right now."

Raising an eyebrow, he said, "You make an excellent point; this is obviously the time to open the letter."

She chuckled lightly and nodded, watching him as he ripped open the envelope and withdrew the single page, handwritten letter from his mother. It was incredibly tempting to try to make out words to ascertain what the letter was about, but Melissa settled for watching Seth's face, assuming that would tell her more about the contents of the letter than the former method.

Unfortunately, Seth's face gave away nothing; he read the page with about as much emotion as her father read the newspaper each morning.

By the time he sat the paper down and glanced up, looking through her instead of at her, she was ready to rip the letter out of his hands and read it herself.

"Well, what did it say?" she prompted.

His jaw clenched a little and he shook his head. "Debbie wrote to her."

With a sinking heart, Melissa quickly jumped to Debbie's defense. "Seth, I'm sure she didn't mean anything by it. What did she say? Debbie was probably just as confused as I was as to how a mother could reject her only son… I'm sure she didn't mean to… do anything wrong."

Shaking his head, he said, "She wasn't mad that Debbie wrote to her. Apparently she's been toying with the idea of writing to me for awhile, and when Debbie wrote her the letter, she took it as a 'sign' that she should contact me." Rolling his eyes, he said, "Apparently my mother's found religion, and now she believes in signs."

Unsure of how to proceed, Melissa merely bit down on her bottom lip thoughtfully and said carefully, "Well, what did she… say?"

"She wanted to apologize to me, ask for my forgiveness for how she's treated me over the years. According to her she's a different person now and she sees the errors of her ways, regrets what she did, and regrets pushing me away even more. She wants a chance to make amends," he added, his voice lightly mocking.

Not wanting to voice her own opinion until she had his, she asked, "Well, what do you think about that?"

Seth shook his head. "I'm not my mother; I'm not so big on second chances."

Leaning in and gently caressing his chest to take the sting out of her words, she softly reminded him, "I'm giving you a second chance. Sometimes people really are sorry, Seth. Sometimes people really screw up."

With a look akin to disgust, he shook his head. "No. She doesn't get my forgiveness on this one."

"I know that… knowing your mother killed your dad has to be really hard to forgive—"

"Not that," he interrupted. "I forgave her for that a long time ago—the man pushed her past the point of tolerance, he humiliated her and destroyed her over and over again. Yes, she could have just left, but my mother's a weak person, she could never have left him. What I don't forgive is what she did to me. Do you understand that it's primarily her fault that I can't get close to you? She is the cornerstone of how fucked up I am. She doesn't get to 'find God' and then just magically become absolved of all the damage she's done. Hell no. It's nice to know she's sorry, I guess, but… it changes nothing."

"But what if this could help you move past that stuff, Seth? Now you know that your mother doesn't feel that way about you, maybe—"

"No, now I know that she thinks she's found a way to stop feeling guilty. Well, hooray for her, but I didn't get a damn escape hatch from all this fallout, so why should she?"

"I doubt that it's been easy…"

Shaking his head, Seth met her gaze and said, "Don't defend her, Melissa. You don't know anything about this."

"I'm not defending her," she said quickly. "I would never take her side against you, Seth, I just… I wonder if it might be good for you. I only worry about you. I don't even know your mom, I'm not worried about her feelings."

Sighing, he tossed the letter aside and reached for her, pulling her up against him. "I shouldn't have even read it. I didn't care what was inside, I should have just ignored it."

"I don't think so. Right now you're on your guard, but… if you take nothing else away from that letter, just know that she regrets losing you. I know that feeling. Maybe you could get a little satisfaction from knowing that even though people sometimes foolishly let go of you… they regret it later, they wish they could undo it and have you in their life again. I, for one, am glad to have you back in mine."

Gazing down at her for a moment, he smiled slightly and brushed her hair out of her face. "Me too."

"If I can help it, you're not going to get rid of me again," she warned him.

His smile widened slightly and he pulled her in for a kiss. "How much time do we have left?"

"Mm, enough," she murmured against his mouth.

"Maybe we should move over to my house just in case," he suggested. "If I'm here when either one of your parents get home, there's going to be hell to pay."

"Then hell will have to be paid," she stated implacably. "I'm not hiding you, I'm not going to sneak around and back down. I've grown a bit of a backbone during our time apart, and they're just going to have to accept that you're in my life whether they like it or not."

"You may get grounded again," he suggested.

Smiling and running her fingers through his dark tresses, she said, "Yes, but we've found our ways around that. I personally enjoyed getting to sleep in your arms when I snuck over late at night, even if only for an hour or two."

"The good news is, we'll both be 18 in just a few more months. Once we move out, we won't have to sneak around at all."

Sighing blissfully, she said, "I really can't wait. I know I'll have to start doing more household chores, but I think it's going to be worth it."

"Agreed. Have you figured out where you're going to go?"

"Boston College," she said with a nod. "Once you dumped me I went through this whole new process of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, then Columbia started picking up momentum from the forces that approved of me with Brian, but at the end of the day I still picked BC, just not for you this time."

Making a face and rolling his eyes, he muttered, "Brian."

"Is that name still a bad word?" she asked with a little smile. "I figured since I dumped him you'd feel better about it. It has now been established that he absolutely is not a threat."

"He still had you when I didn't."

"He didn't have me," she said, not liking how he worded it. "I was never with him like I am with you, I never would be."

Smiling absently as he ran his fingers up and down her arm, he said, "I know. I'm glad you're a Christine."

"Me too," she agreed strongly. "I'm also glad to know that when the movie-slash-book-slash-play ended and Christine started her happily-ever-after with Raoul, she realized that she had made a terrible mistake and she was miserable for the rest of her life."

"You know all that, huh?" he asked, amused.

"Yep. Raoul's nice to think about from afar, but at the end of the day, life without the moody recluse is painfully devoid of passion."

"Yeah… I don't Erik was too thrilled either. Maybe when the book was over they came to their senses and reunited. Being a moody recluse really isn't as much fun without a Christine either, to be perfectly honest."

"I'm glad," she said, grinning. "Not because I don't want your life to be fun, but because I would quite enjoy being necessary for your optimum happiness; you certainly are for mine."

Nodding with an almost pensive look on his face, he said, "If I ever wig out on you like that again, just don't listen to me. If I try to dump you because you're getting too close, just… I don't know, have a sit-in. Refuse to leave. Steal my car keys or something. If you don't listen to me when I tell you to go away, I'll adjust."

"Duly noted. In the future if you attempt to dump me, I'll simply become a psycho girlfriend and refuse to be dumped."

"Hopefully it won't come to that," he added. "Who knows how different things will be once I'm out on my own and not being constantly reminded of my situation, too. Once I'm able to start making my own way, maybe I'll be able to… be more what you deserve. Regardless of how I may act, I do want you in my life, Melissa. I like having you with me, I just don't like the risk."

"And I am zero risk, as we have established. As harmless as a pillow."

Biting back laughter, he said, "I don't believe that phrase was in my music video. You're going to have to make me another one with 'harmless as a pillow' in it."

Trailing kisses up his neck and lightly nipping at his ear, she said, "I would make you a million music videos if that would make you happy."

Shaking his head as if amazed, he said, "You know you deserve better than me, right?"

Rolling her eyes, she put her hand to his forehead as if checking his temper.

Frowning, he said, "What are you doing?"

"You're being delusional; I thought you might have a fever."

He rolled his eyes right back and removed her hand from his forehead, bringing her wrist closer and placing a little kiss right on her pulse point. "Not delusional. Most girls wouldn't put up with all my crazy."

"That's why they don't deserve you," she told him, yanking the covers back and climbing across him so that she was straddling him. "You're quite the catch, Mr. Verelli. You almost have to be difficult, or you'd be too good to be true."

"I don't know about that…" Tilting his head so that she could better kiss his neck, he added, "But you should definitely keep doing that."

Grinning impishly as she continued to kiss his neck, she allowed one of her free hands to snake down his chest, down his stomach, and then venture lower. "And what about this?"

Instead of responding with words, his arm locked around her waist and he flipped her over so that she was on her back and he was above her, then he moved in to kiss her neck as she had been kissing his.

"You never let me be on top," she stated.

"Are you really surprised that I like to be the dominant one?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow as he lightly bit down on her neck.

"Mm, no, but if you give me another hickey…"

"What are you going to do about it?" he teased, biting a little harder.

"Tell everyone that Cece did it," she threatened.

That caught him off guard and he pulled back, both of his eyebrows shooting way up. "Well now… that could be interesting."

Narrowing her eyes, she smiled and said, "Don't even think about it. You're possessive, remember?"

"Damn, my hang-ups even inconvenience me," he said lightly.

Chuckling lightly she reached down to stroke him, distracting him from their playful conversation and turning his thoughts to altogether more pleasurable pursuits.


A/N: I'm so glad they made nice. Aren't you? :) Reviews = love.