Disclaimer - I own nada.

A/N – See? Two chaptersat once?I'm getting better, aren't I?

- x –

The day had gone from good to bad in a matter of seconds – however long it took to see Craig cozying up to Emma in the hallway - so it wasn't really surprising to Sean that it had gone from bad to terrible over the course of the morning. He'd left his English book at home, so he'd had to read on with Liberty, Mr. Baldwin returned his history essay with a giant, red D tauntingly sketched across the top, and all morning, he hadn't been able to get Emma to look at him once. He only wanted a smile, one single, stupid smile from her just to make this shitty day seem a little more bearable, but apparently he was asking for too much.

Not that he was willing to give up so easily.

He'd tried staring at her from the back row of English class, but she kept her eyes focused on her book. He'd coughed loudly and persistently from his seat behind her in History, but she just continued to watch Baldwin as he paced back and forth in front of the blackboard. In chemistry, Sean had gotten really desperate, and purposely bumped into her as he pushed past her to his lab table. She'd avoided looking at him even then, merely nodding with her eyes fixed on her shoes when he mumbled a completely insincere 'Sorry.'

At first, he thought that she was just being paranoid, afraid that someone might pick up on whatever it was going on between them if she looked at him too long, if she offered up even the slightest of smiles. But as the morning went on, Sean got a cold feeling in his gut that told him something was very wrong with Emma. He wondered if Craig had done or said something to upset her earlier, if that jerk has really tried to take advantage of her.

He was clearly going to be spending the rest of the day obsessing about this, since Ellie had backed out of their lunch plans, due to "another Ashley-related crisis," as she put it. It was probably for the best, since he would have been distracted by whatever it was that was going on with Emma even if he had eaten with Ellie.

Instead, he grabbed a bag of chips and a soda, and wandered the halls, searching – he knew though he wouldn't admit it to himself outright – for Emma. She wasn't at her locker, wasn't in the cafeteria, and he could only hang around outside the girl's bathroom on the first floor for so long before people would start to think he was some kind of perv.

He tried the gym and the MI lab before finally deciding that it was time to give up. He'd go sit outside, soak up some sun, and try and clear his head, if only for a few minutes.

But of course, just as he was ready to forget about Emma for a second, Sean found her, sitting beneath the mural in the school's front entrance way. She was nibbling at a sandwich and reading a book that was open in her lap. She was completely oblivious to everything around her, including Sean who stood just ten feet away, frowning.

"Emma," he called out, walking closer. "What's going on?"

She looked up, startled, and nearly dropped her sandwich to the floor. He watched as she wiped at her mouth for non-existent crumbs or smears of mustard, and avoided eye contact with him as best she could.

"Lunch," she finally answered, holding up her sandwich. "I didn't want to eat in the cafeteria. Too much noise."

When she finally met his eyes, Sean noticed that they were red, as if she'd been crying. He sat down beside her, accidentally bumping his knee against hers, and Emma seemed to reflexively move away from him, as if she didn't want to touch him at all.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked, a little more forcefully than he intended.

She shook her head.

"Someone could walk by. We don't want anyone to think—"

"That's not what I mean. You've been acting weird all day. What's wrong?" He turned, so he could look at her better. "Did something happen this morning?"

Emma finally looked up at him, her eyes full of bright tears, and sighed.

"My dad is dying," she whispered. "There's something wrong every minute of everyday."

Her voice was low and almost devoid of emotion, but Sean felt as if he had been punched in the gut. Way to be sensitive, he thought to himself. Of course she's upset, dumb ass.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, feeling ashamed.

"You don't have anything to be sorry about," said Emma. "It's not like…"

She huffed out a small sound that was almost a laugh, but not quite.

"It's not like what?"

"Nothing. Forget it."

"No," Sean declared. "I know better than anyone how hard things are for you, but there's something else going on her than just being upset about your dad."

"Sean—"

"Does this have something to do with Craig? Did that jerk do something to you?"

Emma blinked, clearly confused. She shook her head.

"Craig?" she asked, sounding like she couldn't remember who he was. "What does he have to do with any of this?"

"I just—"

Sean stopped himself, and stared down at the floor. He wasn't about to tell Emma that he'd been watching her in the hallway with Craig. She'd think he was spying on her or something, that he was jealous of her spending time with anyone that wasn't him. It didn't matter that that was probably the truth – she didn't need to know about any of it. She wouldn't like to know, he thought. It would probably scare her off, and that was the last thing he wanted.

"What?" Emma asked. She stared at him expectantly.

"Nothing. I'm just… I'm having a bad day."

She nodded.

"Me too." She dropped the rest of her sandwich into a brown paper bag, and crumpled it into a ball as she stood. "I'm just tired, Sean. And cranky. No big deal."

Sean watched her as she straightened her skirt, and gathered her books. He didn't believe her for a second.

"I've got to go," she said. "I'm supposed to meet JT to go over Armstrong's homework assignment."

He stood himself, watching her as she walked away. There had to be something that he could say or do. He felt as if some kind of pit had opened between them, a distance that definitely hadn't been there last night when they were alone in her room.

"Em," he called after her, struggling for words. "I—"

She turned back to him, her eyes still wet and shining, looking heartbroken and lost. She barely moved, waiting for him to say something.

Sean opened his mouth, the words burning the tip of his tongue, but before he could get a single one out, the front doors opened, and a gaggle of gum-snapping, gossiping grade 8's came parading through the foyer. He watched them for a moment, trying to make them vanish through the sheer force of his will alone, and by the time he turned back to Emma, she was gone.

"Fuck," he muttered under his breath.

In an angry fist, he crushed his empty soda can, and flung it at the floor.

The prissy girls behind him gasped, sounding like a bunch of annoying birds or insects.

And in that moment, Sean knew that the day just gone from terrible to something so far off the charts, it didn't have a name.

- x –

For the past few weeks, Craig had spent his mornings at school practically living for lunch. That wasn't exactly something new – who wouldn't rather be stuffing his face with his friends than sitting around listening to a Physics lecture or taking a Pre-Calc pop quiz? – but lately it become almost like an obsession. He'd count the minutes at the start of each class, and periodically check the clock while he sat stuck at a desk, so he could update the tally and feel himself inch closer to freedom. There was a very simple reason for this – Ellie.

At lunch, in the middle of the crowded cafeteria, they always seemed able to find some time, at least ten minutes or so, to talk to each other alone. Ashley would be off checking her e-mail or making photo copies for SITE, so they'd be safe on that front. Sean never seemed to be around all that much these days, so he wasn't a problem either. Craig and Ellie could just talk, without worrying about what other people would think or feel, without worrying about other people listening to their conversation. Most days, they didn't talk about anything earth-shattering, just basic stuff like new music they liked or why they liked or didn't like the book they were reading in English, but sometimes, it would be serious stuff, like when she told him about how scared she was for her father, stationed half-way around the world, in a dangerous, unstable place, or when he confided to her that he was afraid that he wouldn't ever really be good enough at music to make a career of it, even though that was what he wanted most in the world.

Craig had even considered telling Ellie about what it had been like to find out that Manny was pregnant, how it felt when he learned that she was going to have an abortion. He'd never told anyone about that stuff, and sometimes it seemed like it was eating away at him inside, when he'd pass Manny in the hallway and see her big, sad brown eyes, or when he was at the mall and saw some guy pushing a stroller with a baby inside. But he'd never gotten a chance to share any of that with Ellie; he was back to being persona non gratis with her again, and so all of that would have to remain buried inside him.

Ever since Ellie had effectively cut Craig out of her life, he'd begun dreading lunch. The only way to deal with missing her (and he could finally admit to himself that he was missing her something bad) was to keep himself busy. He made plans with Jimmy to play basketball one day, spent another day with Spinner going over some new songs for the band, but most days, he'd wind up somewhere with Marco, going over whatever they'd learned in class that week because he'd been too distracted to really pay attention. Today he'd been studying Pre-Calc with Marco in the library – they had a quiz tomorrow, and he knew he was totally screwed. Thank God Marco was willing to help.

Craig gathered his Pre-Calc text and notebook from his locker, and slammed it shut, getting a cheap thrill from the violent sound it made. He didn't have time to enjoy it for long, because without any warning, he was slammed back against the cool metal and turned around. When he finally got over the surprise and caught his breath, Craig found himself face-to-face with one very pissed-off Sean Cameron.

"Come on, man," Craig huffed. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Sean grabbed fist-fulls of Craig's t-shirt, and thumped him against the locker again. He fell back against the wall, hard, and banged his head.

"What—"

"So Ashley and Manny weren't enough for you, Manning?" Sean snarled. "You need another girl to add to the collection? To make you feel like a big man?"

Craig's mouth went dry, and a fuzzy, light-headed feeling came over him. Nothing had happened between he and Ellie, he told himself. Not really. She wouldn't have said anything to Sean about it – he was positive about that. So Sean couldn't know anything for sure. It was all just speculation, nothing that could be proven. It was like he decided that morning – he'd just deny it. He'd pretend that he wasn't feeling a thing for Ellie. No good would come of telling the truth – that was certain.

"Look, Sean," he started to say, feeling sweat drip down the back of his neck. "I think you've got the wrong idea about—"

"The last thing Emma needs right now is you playing games with her. What kind of jerk are you?"

Craig stilled for a moment, wondering if he'd misheard Sean. But he'd said it plain as day – EMMA, not Ellie. Craig shook his head, and tried to make sense of what was going on here.

"Emma?" he said, genuinely confused.

"You heard me. She's got enough going on without some wannabe ladies' man messing with her head."

Craig frowned.

"Hey, Sean, take it easy, man. There's been a real misunderstanding here."

Sean pushed Craig against the locker again, taking an even tighter grip on his shirt.

"Let me make it really clear then, okay?" growled Sean. "You make her cry even one single tear, and I'll make sure you do some crying yourself. Got it?"

Craig nodded, confused as ever.

"Yeah, man. I don't know why…" He took a deep breath. "I've been friends with Emma for a long time. I feel bad about what's going on with her and her family. That's all. There's nothing else going on. Seriously."

Sean loosened his grip slightly, taking a step back.

"Good. Keep it that way." Sean finally let go of Craig's shirt, and backed off. "We used to be friends, man. I don't want to have to do this again."

"Me neither. Believe me," Craig assured him.

Sean nodded, and stalked off down the hall without saying another word.

"What the hell," Craig muttered to himself as he straightened his shirt.

He had no idea what he'd done to, with, or for Emma that would get Sean so pissed off. As far as Craig knew, the two of them didn't even speak to each other anymore. He had no idea why Sean had taken on the role of Emma's protector or why he thought she needed protection at all. It was all so strange.

But Craig did know one thing – if this was how Sean reacted when he thought someone was taking advantage of his ex-girlfriend, there was no telling what he'd do when it came to his current girlfriend. Craig felt himself getting sucked into a mess that was a bigger disaster than the Titanic. It was almost as if he were standing in quick sand, and there was no way to pull himself out.

As he bent down to retrieve his math books, Craig noticed someone standing near the end of the hall. He looked up, and found Ashley smirking at him, with all the glee of a little kid on Christmas morning. He had no idea how long she'd been standing there, or how much she had heard but she'd definitely seen something.

"Enjoy the show?" he asked snidely.

"You have no idea."

With that, she turned and headed for the cafeteria, looking like she didn't have a care in the world.

"Fuck," Craig muttered under his breath, banging his fist against his locker.

- x –

In the middle of the noisy cafeteria, Ellie sat alone at a table, waiting for Ashley to show up. Ash had said that she only had a couple of e-mails to send, so she'd be there for lunch in ten minutes, tops, but it was almost twenty minutes already and there was still no sign of her. Ellie went back to her notebook, where she was sketching a burning building. She wished that she had a red pen to color in the flames.

It had taken some serious effort but Ellie had finally gotten Ashley to believe that she had no desire to be friends with Craig Manning. So things had essentially gone back to normal – the way they'd been about two months ago, before she'd ever started seeing Craig as more than a sleazy, two-timing creep. She avoided him like the plague, laughed when Ash told nasty jokes about him, and never even mentioned his name when she and Ash were together. She was back to being the old Ellie, best friend extraordinaire.

Too bad she felt awful about the whole thing.

This morning, even though she'd been holding Sean's hand, she watched as Craig comforted Emma, who was no doubt crying about her dad. She was mesmerized by how kind he was to Emma, how he put his arm around her and offered up all the sympathy and understanding that he could. Ellie knew how easy it was for him to empathize with Emma, how he knew exactly what she was feeling, but that didn't mean that it wasn't tough for him to face his own fear, anger, and sadness, which he had to do in order to be any comfort at all to Emma. It was such a sweet thing for him to do, Ellie thought, and despite what Ashley might think, she couldn't help thinking of Craig as anything less than kind and brave.

She'd wanted to tell him exactly that, but she wasn't supposed to talk to him anymore – they weren't friends; they weren't anything to each other actually – and she was with Sean anyway.

God. Sean.

As if she didn't feel bad enough, now she had to go and think of Sean. She'd been so caught up in this stupid Craig and Ashley drama that she'd pretty much been ignoring him lately. And instead of being angry or resentful, Sean had let her off the hook entirely. He'd been so understanding and supportive lately that she felt even worse. Even today, when she had to tell him that she couldn't eat lunch with him because Ashley had her heart set on a little girl talk, Sean had only smiled and nodded, then kissed her on the cheek and disappeared.

What the hell am I doing, she asked herself. Sean is great, Ash is my best friend – why would I risk any of that for someone like Craig Manning?

Before she could come up with any real answers, Ellie spotted Ashley bouncing into the cafeteria like she'd just found she won the lottery. She practically skipped over to the table where Ellie sat, beaming from ear to ear.

"You know, Ellie, when I asked you to talk to Sean, I was only kidding," Ashley laughed. "I didn't think you'd actually do it."

Ellie frowned, not understanding what she was talking about.

"What do you mean?"

The smile slipped from Ash's face, and she seemed to suddenly sober up.

"I just saw Sean practically smacking Craig around at his locker," she explained. "I thought you'd told him to…"

Ellie's eyes went wide, and she felt her stomach tighten into one giant knot.

"Just now?" she asked, standing up. "Did either of them get hurt?"

Ashley shook her head.

"No. Nothing actually happened. It just looked like Sean put that loser in his place for once." She smiled. "I saw Craig in the library afterward. He was still alive and well. Unfortunately."

"Oh God," Ellie whispered.

If Sean thought for even a second that something was going on between Ellie and Craig, he'd punch first, and ask questions later. So it only made sense that he'd confront Craig first, before he got around to her. She had no idea how he'd ever even suspect that something was up with her and Craig, but why else would he push Craig around at his locker? It was the only thing that made sense.

"I've got to find him," she said, forgetting for a moment that Ashley was even there. She grabbed her books, and tossed the remains of her lunch into the trashcan.

She was halfway to the door when she heard Ashley calling after her.

"I think Sean was headed toward the parking lot," Ash said. "You can probably find him there."

Ellie raced through the empty hallways, peeking through the doorways of open classrooms, even though she knew where she was headed. She didn't want to risk missing him, if it was at all possible. But most of the rooms were empty, so when she reached her destination, she knew that she'd find him there.

Outside the door, she tried to calm her breathing – she didn't want him to know that she'd run the whole way to him. It was pathetic, and kind of melodramatic. She turned the doorknob slowly, and called his name.

Craig looked up from his book, and, when he first saw her standing there, smiled before he could catch himself. The grin faded quickly, replaced by a look of confusion and mild annoyance. Ellie scanned his face for any signs of cuts or bruises, but saw none.

"Are you actually looking for me?" he asked snidely. "We're not friends, you know."

"Craig," she said softly, moving slowly to sit across from him at the table.

"What?" he demanded. "What do you want?"

"Ash told me that you and Sean got into a fight. Are you all right?"

Even now, with a closer look, she couldn't detect a single mark on Craig's face. If they had gotten into it, it clearly hadn't gotten too far.

"Are you kidding me?" laughed Craig bitterly. "What? Did Ashley run all the way to you just so she could share the joyful news?"

"Are you saying she's lying?"

Craig sighed, closing his eyes like he had a headache. He opened them slowly, looking at Ellie carefully, as if he were considering what he should say exactly.

"No, I'm not saying she's lying" he said, sounding completely exhausted. "As usual, Ash is just blowing things out of proportion."

"You and Sean didn't fight?"

Craig ran a hand across his face and through his hair. He stared at Ellie intensely, and she could see a hundred different things in his eyes – sadness, anger, fear, confusion. He shook his head then, almost as if he were trying to clear it of all his runaway thoughts.

"We were joking around," he said finally. "You know how stupid guys are. We were just joking. No big deal."

Ellie nodded, though she wasn't sure she believed him. He was clearly holding something back, but she couldn't figure out what it was. If Sean had confronted him about her, Craig would tell her, no matter how embarrassing it might be. He wouldn't want her to be caught off-guard when Sean asked her about it, she was sure of that. So why did she get the feeling that he wasn't telling her the whole story?

"Craig," she whispered, and he looked up at her again, this time with clear, dark eyes. "I was just worried about you. I don't want to—"

"You really don't have to do that," he said shortly. "I mean, what would Ash think?"

In a blur, Craig gathered his books, and took his jacket off the chair behind him. Ellie watched him charge out the door, feeling strangely guilty.

What the hell was she doing these days?

She wasn't being fair to Craig, or Sean, or Ashley. She probably wasn't even being fair to herself. The whole situation pretty much sucked, but she was only making things worse.

"Fuck," she whispered under her breath as she watched the librarian shelve a bunch of encyclopedias. "Fuck."

- x -