The three teens sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts as the world celebrated the New Year far below. Lucas glanced at Riley again from the corner of his eye, careful not to move his head this time. She looked so miserable, huddled into herself, shivering slightly. Maya had instinctively taken up the same position, though they couldn’t see each other with him in the middle. He paused at that observation, rolling it over in his mind. It was true, figuratively and literally, he realized. Despite his best efforts to stay neutral to the girls’ spats and disagreements (even when he had actually agreed with one side or the other), he had learned that Riley and Maya needed each other far more than they needed him. It was a hard lesson, driven home especially after their friendship had nearly briefly ended because of Riley agreeing with him instead of Maya for once. After all of her poking and teasing and name-calling of the past three years, he hadn’t thought that Maya would take a little bit of fun (so he thought) retaliation so personally. And she hadn’t – she had been more upset that Riley hadn’t immediately jumped to her defense. In the blonde’s eyes, that meant that Riley had implicitly agreed –and sided with – Lucas instead of her.
They were Riley and Maya, Maya and Riley. And even if Lucas had maybe privately briefly wished for the day where it was ‘Lucas and Riley – and Maya’ or ‘Lucas and Maya – and Riley’, he knew that was still a long way off. Maybe not as far off as he had assumed, given the revelations of the night, but nothing was changing tonight, even though everything else already had.
His mind made up, he stood and deliberately walked a few paces away before turning to face the girls, his expression deliberately unreadable. Just as he had suspected would happen, Riley and Maya instinctively scooted closer to each other, seeking the other girl’s warmth and body heat in the absence of his own. Now they sat side by side, shoulders touching, and equally woeful expressions on their faces as they looked up at him. Part of him couldn’t help but admire the picture they made, such a study in contrasts; light and dark, blonde and brunette, tall and slim and petite and curvy. Yet like sun and shadows, there couldn’t be one without the other.
“For two people who have been doing a lot of talking lately, you two apparently haven’t really heard anything the other has said.” He said sternly. “Friends talk, and real friends listen. Remember, Riley? Well, now it’s my turn. Here’s what’s going to happen. You two are going back to the Matthews’ apartment, and you’re going to talk. Which means no more lies.” He turned his gaze on Riley, who bit her lip and looked away guiltily. “And no more secrets.” He added pointedly as he turned to glare at Maya, who met his gaze defiantly for a moment before also looking away. He had to take a minute to collect his thoughts – and his anger, which was increasing by the minute. “And of the many, many topics you’re going to cover, make sure you start with this one: where exactly do I fit in your lives? Because for as long as I’ve known you, it’s been a duet. Riley and Maya, Maya and Riley. I told you already that I refused to come between you two, so don’t you dare put me there. Either you figure this out and make a decision, or I will.” He warned. “And since it’s a night of ultimatums, you two have until four o’clock tomorrow afternoon to get everything out and settled between you. And then I want to talk to each of you.”
That surprised them into looking at him, startled, before glancing at each other pensively.
“I’ll text you tomorrow with a time and location to meet.” He finished coolly. “Oh, and girls? We are not going into the new year with this unresolved. So make sure you put that bay window to good use.” With that said, he strode towards the door and left.
“You did a good thing, Lucas.”
Lucas groaned, dropping his head back to hit the couch with a muffled thump. It was nearing on three o’clock in the morning, and he had just finished catching his older brother up on the whole messy situation via Skype. Matt turned away slightly to hide a sympathetic smile, which he knew his younger sibling would take as condescending.
“I’m serious.” He continued, waiting for the teen to raise his head back up and look at the web cam. “You’ve told me so much about Riley and Maya that I feel like I know them too. And the one thing that you’ve always emphasized is how much you admire their close friendship. That’s a rare thing, to have someone that you know will have your back no matter what. So although I know how incredibly hard it was to not react how you really wanted to, you should be proud that you were mature enough to do the right thing and protect the girls and their friendship. I’m proud of you, kiddo.”
That got Lucas’ attention enough to sit up and stare at the screen. “Seriously?”
“Seriously.” Matt confirmed. “Luke, think about how far you’ve come these past few years. You went from this little punk ass kid who was mad at the world to lettering in baseball and basketball for JV and Varsity, plus winning the Scholar Athlete Award and being voted class President your first year in New York. Mom can’t stop gushing about you every time I talk to her. You’re making the rest of us look bad, Small Fry.”
Lucas scowled. “First of all, I’m taller than you by an inch. Enough with the stupid nickname.”
Matt grinned at the familiar retort. “Hey, you’re the youngest of three boys. Deal with it.”
His brother rolled his eyes, but had too many other things on his mind to continue the old argument. “Matt, what do I do?”
“Let me recap. You and Riley had an official/unofficial thing since pretty much the first day you met, right? Even though Maya was there the whole time, she was the one pushing you two together.”
“All through seventh grade.” Lucas smiled slightly despite himself, remembering. “And all summer, and through the beginning of this year.”
“Fast forward a while, to the girls being naïve city twits – sorry kid, but it’s true – and you all returning back home for the rodeo. Which by the way, what the hell were you thinking, getting on Tombstone? You’re fifteen, Lucas! There’s an age and weight limit for bull riding too, although everyone seems to have forgotten that part!”
“Pappy Joe signed the consent form, and I have insurance.” Lucas mumbled meekly.
Matt glared at the screen, but didn’t retort. He knew as well as his brother that although their father was a strong man in a lot of ways, it was really their grandfather who rode herd on the entire family. And there was no way Pappy Joe would let even a superficial smear on their family honor go when there was a chance to rectify it –even a decade later.
Still, this was his little brother, and from the sound of it, it seemed like their father hadn’t even tried to argue. Also typical. Lucas could see the vein in his forehead pulsing slightly, even though the screen, and winced.
“Anyway, fast forwarding to after the rodeo, where Riley decided to rearrange everyone’s lives by suddenly deciding that she loves me, but only like a brother, which I still don’t get what that even meant— “Lucas hastily returned to the original topic of conversation, only to get frustrated all over again. “—but she decided that because she believes that Maya likes me, and actually has from day one, which I have my doubts about, but whatever.”
“Lucas,” Matt interrupted. “I don’t need the full recap; I actually had a point until you interrupted me. Let me ask you this: If Riley hadn’t put you in the friend zone, would anything have changed, even knowing that Maya liked you? Don’t think, just answer: yes or no?”
“No. Nothing would have changed.”
“Because I don’t like Maya romantically. We joke and tease and push each other like you and Ami —ohhh.”
Matt could practically see the light bulb click on over Lucas’ head. “Okay, next question: would you and Maya have ever gotten together at all if Riley hadn’t stepped back?”
Lucas’ first response was to say “no” but he paused, thinking. He had known Maya was teasing; had even enjoyed their little competitions and commentary back and forth over the years. Maya didn’t trust many people, especially guys, to get close enough to talk to, much less tease. Yet something about him had triggered a response in her from day one. Now that he had an idea of how wary and cynical she could be, he was a bit honored that she had let her guard down enough to tease him and let him in her inner circle.
But would the teasing have turned to something more? He wanted to say no, but couldn’t. Riley had always been in the forefront of his mind, partly because he did genuinely like her, but partly because he had known that he hadn’t had a chance with Maya. Until he did. And then it wasn’t all it had cracked up to be.
“I don’t know if we would have or not,” he said slowly. “Without Riley to balance us out though, we probably wouldn’t have even become friends in the first place, so I guess not.”
“So then why are you still wondering what you should do?”
“Because Riley lied to me!” Lucas snapped. “She stood in front of me, looked in my eyes, lied to my face, kissed me on the cheek, and walked away without even hesitating. Why would she do that?”
“To protect her best friend?” Matt replied instantly. “She obviously wants the best for Maya, right? So who better for her best friend than the boy she likes and knows and trusts?”
Lucas sat back with a thump. Matt was right. From the first day he had met her, Riley had always tried to do best by her friends, especially Maya, even when it meant setting aside or sacrificing her own happiness.
“Not that we Friar men have a type or anything— “
Lucas rolled his eyes.
“—But she sounds a lot like Amelia. Let me guess—she’s more focused on what might happen in the future rather than what is happening right in front of her.”
You know what I don’t want? I don’t want to go out for a while, and then break up, and not talk anymore. Isn’t that what people do? Isn’t that what happens next? I don’t understand that. I want to always be able to talk to you Lucas; I always want you in my life. And maybe the best way to do that is to be like brother and sister…
Riley Matthews hated not knowing things. As the daughter of Topanga and Cory Matthews, she had been taught from a young age that knowledge was power, and not having all the facts meant turmoil and uncertainty and change. Nothing that she had experienced in her short young life had convinced her to change her opinion, and so she continued through her world, determined to learn everything she could and always have as much information as possible before charging into a situation. If there was nothing else Lucas had learned about the quirky brunette, he knew that despite her child-like way of viewing the world and her love of bunnies and sparkles, Riley Matthews also hated not being in control.
“Okay, so what do I do now?”
“What do you want from the girls?” Matt countered. “Specifically, what do you want from Riley? Do you want to venture into the realm of dating and relationships and change, even knowing that with high school coming up and you all growing up, there is the distinct possibility that you might grow apart? Or do you want to continue to play it safe and be her friend, and sit back and watch her continue to date other guys? You can’t have it both ways, Luke. Riley’s right about that much. Whatever the eventual outcome, once you blur the line between friends and something more, you can’t go back.”
Lucas sat back in his chair, his thoughts whirling. Matt had put into words what he had been feeling since that night in Texas by the campfire with Maya. But he wasn’t there, in New York; he didn’t know the girls personally like Lucas did.
“I guess I’ve got some more thinking to do.” He said.
“I’ll leave you to it then.” His brother replied. “Tell mom that I love her and I’ll be home soon; Pappy Joe wants me to come out to the ranch for the summer since we’ll be working with a skeleton crew. The regulars will stay, but there’s too many that will take off on circuit.” He paused, thinking. “I’ll try to time it for your graduation so that I can come out there for a few days before going to Texas.” He raised his brows. “I want to meet these two girls who have knocked my baby brother for a loop.”
Lucas scowled. “I knew I should’ve called Stacia.” Anastacia was their sister, older than Lucas by eight years, but younger than Matt by four.
“You know you love me. Bye, Small Fry.”