Next day, just read is all I can really say. Well that and hang in there. I'll make it worth the wait very soon. Enjoy!

4: One Step at a Time

As Ariel opened her eyes, she knew she wasn't in her room. It took her brain a minute to register her surroundings: the ceiling was sky blue, her own snow white, the walls were cream colored, covered in places by posters of actors and singers. Rusty's room. It was as familiar as her own. Sometimes even more so than her own home.

In the back of her mind, she knew she had seen someone-not a female, of that she was certain. The hair was very dark, the eyes...she wasn't sure what color his eyes had been. Likewise she couldn't bring up a face. She knew it though. The only other thing she was certain about.

Silence filled the room. She turned and saw her best friend still sleeping soundly. Call it intuition, she knew she wasn't alone in the room. "Hey." She went perfectly still, only her eyes looked around. Standing above her, with the sun crowning him like a halo, stood the stranger from before. But he was no stranger. Far from it.

"Tommy?" she said, amazed her voice worked at all. He smiled and kneeled down. Yes, now she could see him perfectly: dark hair, close to midnight black, crystal clear eyes, what she imagined the ocean looked like on an untouched beach. His face was cleanly shaven, not a hint of stubble, his side burns still short.

"Hey bright eyes." She offered a small smile, like her voice amazed it worked at all. She was certain all reason to be happy again had died with Ren. He returned it, still as bright and carefree as she could remember from a million years ago. She sat up and looked at him. He was older-obviously-more than that though. He seemed older than he actually was; not look wise, just the way he carried himself. She knew why-all of Bomont who had been there at least the past twenty years (which was most of the town) knew why.

"What are you doing here?"

Before he could answer, they heard a muffled "I called him", startling them both. Ariel turned to face her-her best friend, the one who knew her every wish, dream, and desire. The one whose home she could call her own when she needed to. Of course she would be the one to know who to call. She offered her best friend a warm smile took her hand. Rusty returned it and squeezed her hand. Tommy was quiet, standing again. The two girls turned to face him.

"Hungry?"

Rusty knew he meant it more for Ariel than herself. Still, she said "starved. You cook?"

He nodded. "Eggs, grits, bacon and toast." Ariel couldn't help but raise an eyebrow, making Tommy laugh. "What?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Nothing. Sort of hard picturing you...cooking."

He just laughed again, giving his head another shake. "I'll let you two get dressed" he said as he left the room, which he still found hard to do. Even when he had cooked breakfast, he

couldn't help but return to the room as quick as he could. Still, the scene was mostly the same, maybe a slight shift in her sleep. He was partly relieved-he had expected little to no speaking, let alone smiles, albeit small ones, they were there. Still, he knew her well and suspected it could have been a facade, a front. Time would tell.

Several minutes later, they came down the hall and to the kitchen. They were both dressed-Rusty in a denim skirt and a simple but frilly top. Ariel had on a similar skirt and fairly low-cut shirt. He had seen worse-much worse. Still, it was strange; seeing her grown up, when he had left, she had been nearly fifteen and dressed, well, with more clothes. He nodded to the stove where the food was waiting. "Dig in. Made enough for an army." He leaned against the counter from the stove and watched silently.

Rusty grabbed some plates Tommy already had out. He had been quiet, studying Ariel. Before she could open her mouth to protest, like he knew she was going to, he said "come on bright eyes" his eyes on hers as he spoke.

"Bright eyes?" Rusty said, clearly confused. Their eyes still locked, he smirked, Ariel turned her head, grabbing a plate which she loaded with food.

"Happy?" she asked, grabbing a piece of toast and started to nibble on it. He nodded and grinned. It was a small triumph but a triumph nonetheless. Rusty looked up. "Thanks" she mouthed. He just shrugged and smiled.