"You're useless! Nobody wants you. You don't even have a father!"
Rory heard the taunts and ran toward the cluster of kids gathered around the slide. He found Mels in the middle of it, as he expected, facing off with Justin, the school bully.
Justin was twice Mels' size, towering over her, beefy in the shoulder and larger than any fourth grader had a right to be. Mels was smaller, slighter, with her pigtail hanging down her back. Rory winced, knowing what was going to happen.
"Go back where you came from, Useless." Justin pushed at Mels' shoulder. Rory could see her hands fisting at her sides, see the coiled fury in her stance. She was staring up at the bigger boy with narrowed eyes.
"I am not useless!" she gritted out through her teeth, almost against her will.
Rory tried to push his way through the crowd, but he was even smaller than Mels. He could see a teacher striding over from the cafeteria. He jumped up, trying to semaphore to Mels that trouble was coming. But she was focused entirely on her opponent.
Justin laughed. He pushed at her with both hands, palms open, the contemptuous shove of someone who knew he had his opponent outclassed.
Mels moved in a blur, she grabbed both his wrists, whipped around in a circle and slammed him down hard in the dirt.
"MELS!" Mr. Brody, the math teacher yelled and pushed his way through the crowd, he laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. Rory saw Mels tense, but the teacher was more than three times Justin's size. "What have we told you before about this sort of thing?" The teacher scowled down at her, he started steering her toward the school building. Reluctantly, with a mulish cast to her face, Mels went with him.
Justin rolled over and sat up, and with the thickness of bullies everywhere, yelled, "Yeah, you better be glad he saved you, Useless!"
Mr. Brody whipped around, stabbing a finger at him, "You, go home, Justin. I'll be calling your parents about this."
Justin shrugged, and pulled a "so what?" face. "Good!" He folded his arms, looking triumphant. His father had been the school bully before him. Even Mr. Brody knew that warnings would only make Justin's father more proud. "At least I've got a father."
Mels whipped around, fury in every line, Mr. Brody stopped her. Rory saw the shamefaced look Mels sent his way before Mr. Brody broke up the crowd and hustled her away to the principal's office.
Someone would come pick Mels up. Someone.
Rory stopped by Amy's house after school. He told her what had happened but Amy waved it away, Mels was always in trouble. And Amy was sick in bed with a cold and wasn't up to thrashing anybody right now. He left her the lemon cookies his mother had baked and went to find Mels.
He found her in the little grove beside the lake where she went when she was upset. The trees hid anyone from view, and he knew she liked the quiet.
She was doing one of her karate exercises. What she called kata. She said she'd learned it before she came to Leadworth. Rory figured it had something to do with her family, but she never talked about it.
She leaped and kicked, punched an imaginary foe, spun and kicked her foot up as high as her head. Her braids whirled. She was breathing hard. She must have been at this a while.
Then he realized, she wasn't just breathing hard. She was crying. Glistening tear tracks trailed down her dark cheeks. He started to step forward, then stopped. Mels was proud. She always acted like she didn't need anybody. She wouldn't appreciate it if she knew he'd seen her crying.
She spun and slammed her hand into a tree. "I am not useless!" She held her hand against the treetrunk for a long moment, every muscle quivering, tears dripping off her chin.
Then she got that stubborn look on her face. She straightened up and flicked the blood off her hand. She started the kata again, slower this time, making him realize how out of control she'd been earlier. She had a blank, dead look in her eyes. Determination, but no hope.
Rory's lips firmed. Right.
Two hours later, Rory returned to the lake to find Mels sitting on the grassy shore, peering out over the sun-striped water, thoughtlessly picking bits of bark out of her knuckles.
"He won't bother you anymore," Rory said in his piping voice behind her.
She spun around, startled. Her mouth opened wide when she saw him.
Skinny, lanky, weighing 60 pounds soaking wet, and about as offensive as a daffodil. He also had a black eye, a split lip, and was moving as if he was bruised all over.
He sat down beside her and picked up her hand. He brushed at the scraped knuckles and brushed away a bit of dirt with his own dirty, knucklebusted hand.
"You should wash that, you don't want to get infected," he said.
She just stared at him, her mouth hanging open. "What happened to you?"
He looked up at her through the tops of his eyes, then went back to looking at her knuckles. "Justin say's he's sorry."
Her mouth fell open even farther.
Rory looked back up at her, his hair hung in his eyes, and his crusty lip started bleeding again. He dabbed at it. "You're not useless, Mels. You're brave, and you're smart. And I'm sorry you don't have a dad. But you can be part of my family if you want."
Mels stared at him. Then started crying again. She hugged him hard. He squeaked. She pulled back and yanked his shirt up. His ribs were bruised.
"Your dad's not gonna be happy about that. You shoulda let me deal with Justin. I was gonna cream him."
"Nah," Rory said, examining his ribs and poking at a purple bruise on his stomach. He looked up and grinned at her in triumph. "This way worked better." He grinned at her. "His dad didn't like seeing him get creamed by the "school dweeb."
Mels laughed. The sound twinkled out of her like golden bells. She fell backwards in the grass and flung her arms out. Looking freer than she had in a long time.
She turned and looked at him. "You wanna go swimmin'?"
Rory looked from her to the lake and back again. He started pulling off his shirt. "Yeah, we probbaly outa clean these cuts anyway." He looked down at his purpling torso, then at her scabbed knuckles as she took off her socks.
"You know, if the three of us keep getting in trouble like this, maybe I outa train to be a doctor."
"Nah," Mels said as she shucked down to her shirt and pants. She stood there, ebony skin gleaming in the sun, "Doctors are lame. You outa be a nurse."
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