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The Matchmaker
Story by: Storm Dancer
Cover by: Tasnim S. Marohomsalic

Prologue

Sometimes the only thing you want is a date. Someone to be with, whether for a single date or an eternity. But the problem always is, there isn't anyone available that's even decent. So what do you do? You wait. You sit down and wait for him or her to show up. That's where I come in. Most people don't even see me. The majority of those who do notice me know me as the face behind the book, or the girl in the corner of the smart classes. My teachers know and worship me as Miss Laycha. The extreme few who are actually my friends know me as Emma. But no one knows the person behind the quiet mask covered by a book. The whisper borne through the corridors by hopefuls and established couples. The murmur that makes that special someone materialize if you just drop your name into locker 420, the third locker from the left in the C wing. The person without a name, known only as The Matchmaker. Cha pter 1

Emma It's always gratifying to walk through the halls of North High and see the happy couples everywhere: in broom closets, dotting the hallways, staring soulfully into each other's eyes. You really can't escape them. Especially now, in the beginning of the year, where everyone's still in the rosy haze left over from glorious summers. All that is a tribute to my skill, talent that allows 90 of my couples to end up happy, or at least in an amicable break up. And the few times they do break up, it's basically always because they request someone completely wrong for them. Yeah, I take requests. Not often, because people don't often tell the Matchmaker how to do their job. The people trust the Matchmaker's judgment more than their own, which is good, because I usually know what they want better than they do. And it shows, because the people I pair them up with are much better suited then those they would have chosen for themselves. "You."

I paid no attention to the voice addressing me as I bent down to open my locker. "Book girl." The voice was deep and masculine, refined but icy cold. I forced myself not to respond to the commanding tone and continued placing books in my locker. "Are you ignoring me?" his incredulity was touched with more than a hint of rage, and I had to contain my laughter. Poor kid, thwarted by a nerd. I rose lazily to face him. "I'm sorry," I drawled as I stood, "I wasn't aware you were speaking to me." My eyes traveled up a well built body clothed in designer labels, much taller than my own petite frame, before stopping to meet inscrutable dark grey eyes. The words nearly stuck in my throat as I saw who I was addressing. If it had been a 19th century novel, I would have fainted. "I addressed you quite clearly," Darien McGavern stated. In anyone else, I would have labeled his remark a retort, but he didn't stoop to those levels. Everyone knew that. Retorts implied he had done something to defend, and everyone knew that simply wasn't possible. Not for Darien McGavern, Ice Prince, richest kid in school, the one nobody stood up to. When he said jump, everyone else fought for the chance to ask how high. 'No, you addressed someone called 'book girl'. As far as I know, that isn't my name or a title bestowed on me." Everyone except me. "Then you obviously aren't well informed," he scoffed, "Where is locker 420?" At that, my hidden smirk nearly broke its bindings. Only intense self control and the fact that it was Darien McGavern I was speaking to held it in. With it being Darien, the smirk was incapable of appearing on my face. People say he's

intimidating, and if anything, I think that's an understatement. I simply refuse to dance to his piping. Or that's what I had always resolved to do in the unforeseeable case that he would actually speak to me. I was pleased with myself that I had kept my oath. "You have business with the matchmaker?" I asked, making my eyes as innocent as possible while concealing my laughter. This would be a fun assignment. Darien McGavern! "Of a sort," he scowled. On anyone else, that expression would have looked hideous. On him, it worked. "Now, Emma Laycha, where is the damn locker?" Cowed at last, I wordlessly gestured to the locker directly above my own. I couldn't quite see what he slipped in, as his long, lanky body obscured my sight, but something definitely went into the Matchmaker's locker. He spun and scowled at me once more, then stalked away without even a nod of thanks. I tried to be mad about it, I really did. I attempted to work myself into a rage, speculating on all the other things he could have done to show his thanks without compromising his dignity. But no matter how hard I tried, there was only one refrain in my mind, one that cancelled out all the anger. 'He knows who I am!' I thought, trying not to sound giddy even to myself, 'He

knew my name!'

Darien Of all the- I couldn't think clearly. That girl. She actually thought she could defy me! She, who barely came up to my chin, who I could probably break in half without hardly trying, stand up to me! Me, Darien McGavern, the heir to the McGavern fortune, millionaire in my own right. My scowl grew as I turned my back on her and stalked away, contemplating her insolence. To presume to retort to me, to correct me, to tease e even! Well, I

had of course set her back on track. No mere girl can tell me how to talk to her! I stole a subtle peek back at her. She saw me and grinned. I yanked my head back around. So maybe she wasn't as set back on course. Oh well, she was a nobody. No one worth dwelling on. If only she hadn't been laughing when I snapped at her! I really could have convinced myself to ignore her otherwise. But those damned huge emerald eyes were laughing, smirking even beneath the glasses. Dangerous bitch now, because she had seen me put the note in the

Matchmaker's locker. Now when the matchmaker found the note, it could easily be traced back to me. Damn. Damn that girl to the poor hells where she belongs, with her thrift store clothes and dime store jewel-no, she didn't wear any jewelry. Even cheaper. Maybe, if I'm lucky, her parents will work for mine, like most do in this damn school, and I'll get her thrown out. That would be a blast. 'Hey, D-money!" Yea. Brock. My so called best friend, in reality just the only person I can stand for any length of time. True, he's not quite as rich as me, but then again, only the Lexingtons are. But he's easy going, doesn't argue, and is easily dominated. By me, of course. He always goes by what I said. Except that one time "Hello, Brock," I responded indifferently. "Dude, hear of any parties this week?" he asked, trotting easily beside me. My legs may be longer as I am taller, but he's more athletic than I am. Sure I work out, and I'm no weakling, but Brock's the football quarterback. I don't need the athletics to help me, though. My native good looks and money get me all the girls I could ever want. Well, perhaps not all, but all in the conceivable future. I don't need a mythological matchmaker to help me find love. Hell, I don't even need love.

"Because I need some encouragement after the big game," Brock was still chattering, "we'll probably win, but a backup plan to get wasted is always necessary!" That's Brock for you, always enthusiastic. Far too enthusiastic. And talkative. I was forced to cut him off as he continued to ramble. "Saturday. Lexington's." It always shuts hum up for at least a minute when I use that tone. "Dude, that's awesome! Lex throws awesome parties!" Usually, at least. But he was right in this case. Lex's parties were nearly as good as mine. "It's just a party, Brock. We go to one almost everyday," I chided him abruptly. A flock of freshmen sauntered by. I scowled, and they fled. "But maybe this time, that new step-sister of Lex's will show. I haven't seen her before, and she must be hot." 'Lex has a sister?" I really hated to ask Brock anything, he's so stupid, but in this case it was called for. New girls are always good. More and more are getting paired up, thanks to this damn Matchmaker. A new unattached girl could prove a good distraction. "You going to show?" Brock queried. He always asked, and I consistently answered the same thing. Another example of his all prevailing idiocy. "Of course. Don't I always?" I flashed a passing sophomore my patented not even a smirk, and she backed hurriedly away, facing me with an awestruck expression for as long as she could before she ran into the wall and, blushing, fled. My smirk grew into a sneer.

Chapter 2

Emma As soon as he was gone, I yanked my locker back open. No one has ever noticed the hole in the bottom of locker 420, because they're all too cowardly to open it. They're afraid opening the locker will break the magic spell that is The Matchmaker and they'll have to set themselves up. The horror. I pawed through the notes in the basket at the top of my locker. A few notes of thanks- always nice for when my confidence is down-, a few requests, a couple bills for bribes, and one angry letter from the bitch I oh-so-mistakenly set up with a complete bastard. I was just doing my job. They were perfect for each other, really! In other words, there was nothing unusual in that basket. Everything was signed and none by Darien. But I knew I saw him put something in the locker! He wouldn't have asked for the locker if he hadn't. I stood and glanced around. No one was in the hall, as usual. Having a locker on the far edge of nowhere was occasionally useful. I yanked locker 420 open. I never bothered to lock it. Even if people tried to take anything, all the notes were in my locker, and the hole was inconspicuous enough that they wouldn't notice anything. Locker 420 should have been empty. Jammed in the hole where the notes fell from locker 420 to mine was a scarlet rose with a slip of paper attached. Raising my eyebrow at the oddity-what good did giving the Matchmaker a rose do, monetary bribes would be more practical- I unfolded the paper. A note was written on it. 4 words.

I want the Matchmaker.


No name, no return address, no way of knowing who had written it. But there was only one person it could be. It had to be Darien. It was the only conceivable

option, however inconceivable it might be. Even the handwriting matched what I knew of him! But what on earth was the possible use? Why would he do that? I had to quell my inner giggle at the request that he wanted to be with me. It made no sense! And Darien McGavern did not do anything without a solid reason behind it. Everyone knew that. But he wanted me. No, not me, the Matchmaker. How did he even know it was a girl? And how was the supposed girl to know it was him? He'd never written to the matchmaker before, how was I expected to know it was him? I couldn't know the handwriting. "Yo, Em!" My inner debate interrupted, I slammed the locker shut, rose and all still inside. Hurriedly, I spun to face the approaching boy. "Hi Allan." As always he frowned at his given name. The almost rise it gets is the only reason I call him that, rather than his nickname. His face cleared quickly, though. Nothing kept him down for long. "Why are you looking in the Matchmaker's locker?" "I'm not," I retorted easily. I love Allan to death, but he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is useful in situations like this. "Okay!" If he hadn't been 6'5 and majorly built, I would have said he chirped. I rolled my eyes and patted him affectionately on the shoulder. He threw off my hand. "Want a ride home?" he asked. "I've told you before," I began patronizingly, but he cut me off for once. "That you refuse to get rides with me. I know. But I still don't get why!"

He wouldn't. He had been popular since preschool. "It won't do your reputation any good to be seen with me," I explained slowly, "Or else, I would be popular simply by association. I don't want either of those to happen." "Why not? You don't want people to like you?" he asked, confused. "I'm fine with the friends I have, and I don't want people to like me because you do," I informed him, "So I'm not getting in your car." "Fine," he pouted. I grinned. I had discovered I was incapable of staying mad at Allan for long. He turned to jog away, but I stopped him, a sudden idea intruding. It was a long shot, but "Allan, what do you know about Darien McGavern and the Matchmaker?"

Darien "Dude, this is taking forever!" Brock complained. I nodded curtly, For once, I agreed. These idiots obviously did not comprehend the idea of either move forward or get the hell out of my way. The crowd in the halls was moving slower than a turtle. More like a sloth. Or a snail. Or an amoeba. "Move." I commanded, not yelling, but pitching my voice just high enough to be heard amidst the bustle. People pressed themselves against the walls as I strode down the now silent corridor, Brock trailing in my wake as the crowd closed up behind us. "Yo," Lex was fighting his way toward us, occasionally waiting as people squeezed to get out of his way, without him even asking. At one especially crowded area, he physically lifted a girl out of the way and placed her to the side with a polite 'excuse me'. But for the most part, people let him through. I don't know why, they can't actually respect him. Maybe it's the smell. He, like, Brock, had

come straight from football practice, and they reeked of sweat and mud. I had learned early on in my friendship to block out the smell, as I wouldn't have been able to stay by them otherwise. Neither of them or the rest of the team would ever learn that people don't find that stench attractive. People being me. Brock greeted Lex with an exuberant punch on the shoulder. I was almost impressed that Lex stood up to it. I would probably have been on the floor if I had taken the fall impact of Brock's punch. "Hey," Brock cried, "I hear you've got a party Saturday." "Yup. Even convinced the old man to pay," Lex replied just as happily. "So any chance your sis will show?" I saw Lex's eyes flick to the crowd, as if searching for someone, but before I could trace his look, his eyes were back on Brock. "How'd me getting a sister get out so fast?" he inquired, and I was almost impressed in spite of myself. It was an almost subtle attempt at misdirection. "Oh, rumors. They say you got a new step-mom, as well as 15 brothers and sisters and 20 pets." Lex and I stared at him. "What?" Brock shrugged, "People in this school will say anything. So, is your sister coming?" "Oh, well," Lex had obviously decided a distraction wouldn't work. Brock could be a bull dozer at times, "I doubt she'll show." I leisurely lit a cigarette and drew from it, hiding my slight shock. Most girls jump at the chance to go to one of Lex's parties. They know I'll be there, after all.

"Is she hot," I drawled after another pull at the cigarette. Lex turned to face me, and even I was astonished at his expression, though I was careful not to show it. Lex was glaring. At me. His face hurriedly shifted back to its habitual slightly goofy grin, but I was sure that I had said something to make him mad. And nothing provoked Lex. Everyone knew that. "So?" Brock prompted. "Dude, that's a loaded question!" Lex exclaimed, his face set once more into a smile, "She's alright, I guess." "But you would have to say that, wouldn't you?" I said lazily, ignoring the crowd listening to the entire conversation, "You can tell us the truth. Is she?" "Why, McGavern?" Lex retorted, "Thinking of using the Matchmaker like us lesser mortals at last?" "Why would I need the Matchmaker?" I scoffed, "I can find my own people to have sex with." Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one figure moving faster than the rest, weaving out of sight between pupils. All I caught was a flash of pale skin and dark clothes before she was out of sight. That Laycha girl. Idly, I wondered what had happened that she had left so suddenly, but I quickly dismissed it as unimportant. She didn't matter, and never would. Brock whistled to hide his discomfort. I knew he hated to have the Matchmaker brought up. How could Lex do that? He must have known as well as I that the Matchmaker evoked bad memories for Brock. I mentally cursed Lex. I was the one who would have to deal with bringing Brock out of this Matchmaker induced funk. "As I'm sure many girls can attest to," Brock responded to my cocky comment as if he wasn't upset at all. He was pretty good at that. I knew him well

enough to tell he was down, but no one else would. "Come on, Dar. Later, Lex!" He strode away, head high. This time, I was the one who followed in Brock's wake, after a condescending glare at Lex, just so he knew he had done something wrong. "What's eating you?" Brock asked as we approached our cars. "What the hell do you mean?" I replied testily. I had been meaning to ask him the same thing, so he could vent about the Matchmaker. He didn't have any right to pry into my business. "That. You yell in the hall, then you get mad at Lex, and now you're getting pissed at me. What set it off?" Brock was being surprisingly perceptive. But you know what they say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. "I'm just bored." I couldn't very well admit that some slip of a girl I could probably break in half without half trying mouthed off to me, now could I? "No, that's why you're never in a good mood. What's so bad about today?" He wasn't going to let up, I could tell. It was probably better to just tell him now instead of having him annoy me for days until he got it out somehow. "Some girl was impudent," I muttered. Brock snorted. "Wow, dude, you need a life. Some kid's got you this worked up?" I groaned and stretched as we come to my car. "I going to get trashed," I informed him, "That's life enough for me."

Brock chuckled as he jogged to his car. "Amen to that, brother, amen."

Chapter 3

Emma I was silent as I slipped in the front door, my light footsteps echoing unnaturally loudly in the massive entrance hall. One summer wasn't enough to accustom me to this massive house. Scratch that, this wasn't a house, it was a mansion. And it's impeccable. I can't toss my bag down here like I could at my old home. Here, I removed my shoes and placed them carefully on the rack before padding up the Grand Staircase and through the beautifully expensive corridors. "Emmy!" My mother came dashing up to me, her cropped blonde hair ruffling as she ran. "Hey Mom, why are you here?" I dead-panned. Don't get me wrong, I love my mother, but her enthusiasm gets old. Fast. She gave me a quick laugh before running past. "Gotta run, Honey. Jack just forgot some papers." Yes, my mom is her husband's secretary, and yes, they've been involved for more than the half year they've been married. But at least he did the decent thing, marrying her. Jack's not bad, for a filthy rich business lord. I followed the path my mother had rushed out of to another wing, this one covered with soft carpets and a slightly more lived in look, although it was still scarily neat. I eased open the plain wooden door and collapsed on the bed of my blessedly messy room, dropping my backpack and jacket on the floor.

As if on cue, my phone rang. Glad of a reason to be lazy, I picked it up and flipped it on. "Hiya!" A perky voice came form the other side of my phone. "Hey, Rhi," I responded with a groan, "Aren't you a little awake for," I consulted my watch, "10:00 your time?" "They gave me sugar after 6," she chirped. Bad idea, with Rhi. Normally, she's hyper. On a sugar high, she's terrifying; I didn't even want to know what she was like on a drug high. "So, how are things in the motherland?" I asked, quite aware that the best way to stop her from getting even more hyper on me was to head her off. "Okay, I guess," She said, sobered by the thought, "Nowhere near as good as home." "Obviously. And how is the lovely Lord Ass- I'm sorry, Baslyn?" She snickered. "As much as a bastard as usual. I mean, I know he's cheating on me, and everyone in both families know, but they can't admit it and just let me go." "See, this is why I don't like rich people," I announced. It distracted her, just like I'd intended. "You are a rich person, now, Em," she teased. "Yeah, right. Like I'd ever act like that prick of a McGavern." I could almost hear her sudden focus. "What happened with him?"

I cut back the instinctive denial. Nothing would put her on track like a quick retort. "What do you mean," I responded casually. "Why did you mention him?" she pressed, "Do you finally admit to liking him? Did he ask you out? Did he-" "Well, not exactly" "Tell, tell," She whined, "Come on, spill!" With such articulate urging, how could I resist? I told her the whole story. Rhi is the only one who knows the real identity of the Matchmaker, I hope. She had helped me, before she left. "So now he's asked for the Matchmaker even though he doesn't like her or even know who she is for some unknown reason?" Rhi clarified. "Pretty much, yeah," I agreed dourly. "Wow, you're screwed," Rhi informed me, and then after a pause calculated to sound casual, "How's the business otherwise? Any interesting people?" "He hasn't asked," I assured her, seeing right through her off-hand manner, "He's barely looked at a girl since you left." Okay, it's a bit of an exaggeration, but it is figuratively true. He hasn't looked seriously at a girl. "Is he still sad?" she asked quietly, like she does every time, "Is he mad?" "Rhi, it looked like you randomly ditched him. Yes, I'd say he's both sad and mad. Doesn't mean he won't snap you back when you finally take me up on my offer to kill Lord Bastard and come back home."

It made her laugh, like I'd intended. She'd been dealt a hard portion, finding her match only to lose it due to family obligations she had no part in making. "I wish, Em. I want to come home. I want to come back to him." "I know, Rhi," I offered her what slight comfort I could, "I know."

Darien It was past midnight when I stumbled into my house, not even making it to the family wing before I collapsed onto a couch in the front parlor. "Darien?" a voice called down the hall. I groaned in response. A moment later, the sun blonde head of my kid brother peeked through the door. "Hey, Dar, you okay?" "Don't talk so loudly," I moaned, "why are you still up, kid?" He padded into the room, big blue eyes widening at my messy clothes and hair. "What happened to you?" he asked, but he already knew. He had found me worse than this before, "Come on, get upstairs. Mom and Dad will kill us if they find you here." "Our parents won't do a thing," I contradicted, "Their gaze will go right over us like usual." As soon as I said it, I wished I could take it back. Troy flinched as if I had punched him. He prefers to keep his illusions that our parents love us. "Still, you have to get to bed or you'll never get to school tomorrow," he informed me, dragging me to my feet. I yanked out of his hold as soon as I was standing. "I can get there by myself," I retorted, "You, sir, are going to bed."

"After I help you," he stated. Damn kid, he can be as obstinate as me. "I'll be fine." "No you won't'" "I'm 17. You're 10. I think I know better." I swayed on my feet and nearly collapsed. Troy grabbed my arm, dragging me back upright. "Not right now. Come on." "You never answered me, why are you still up?" I asked, stubbornly staying in place. "I was thirsty," he answered with a shrug, giving up on dragging me with him. I must have been 1 times his weight. "Then I'll wait. Go get yourself a drink, and then you can help me." This time, I wasn't going to budge. "Fine." He stalked off into the kitchen. I sighed and sat back down on the couch. I wasn't really drunk, just exhausted and drunk enough to be rash and out of it. But not out of it enough to be immune to the scared look in the kid's eyes. My head sunk into my hands. He couldn't have slept through it. No, Troy had to see me at my worst. God, I hate irony. Troy shuffled back in, already half asleep. He sprawled n the chair across from me, poses oddly symmetrical. "How've you been, kid?" I asked, trying to pass the time. "Not bad," he sipped his milk, "But Alexa still won't notice me."

"She'll come around," I assured him. He gave me a cocky, albeit sleepy, grin. "Who wouldn't?" Yep, the kid's my brother. His grin faded, "But it's been 2 years and she still hasn't noticed!" "You have the slight disadvantage of all the other girls liking you." "Doesn't stop you," he observed sleepily. "Kid, you're 10. You have a slight age discrepancy." He looked questioningly at me. "I've got a bit more experience," I explained. "But I'll never be as good as you," he sighed, "She'll never like me." His voice trailed off. When I looked up to see if he was planning on continuing, his eyes were closed and his breathing slow and regular. I smirked. He tried to act so old and mature, and then his age betrayed him. I drew myself to my feet and groaned, stretching. The alcohol was basically burned form my system. I scooped troy up and carried him, still sleeping, to his room, through the Midas-touched halls and silvered rooms. I gently set him down in his bed, tucking him in carefully. I ruffled his already sleep-messed hair with a rare fond smile. He looked so innocent, as innocent as only a child can look, lying there. And he was sad he wasn't like me! That he still believed in one girl. He had so much I didn't, happiness and kindness and faith. Faith in humanity, faith in love, and most of all, faith in me. "No," I told the unhearing boy, "You don't want to be like me. Don't ever become like me."

Chapter 4

Emma I watched idly from my seat in the back corner as Darien stalked into our first period class, actually early for once. He dropped into the chair in the opposite back corner and leaned back, closing his eyes and resting his feet on the desk. I went back to my book, ignoring as completely as he obviously didn't notice me. A moment later, a familiar smell drifted over to my corner. I glanced up. Darien was still the only other one in the room, and he was in the same position as before. The only change was a cigarette sticking out of the corner of his mouth. I managed to stifle a groan. I could not deal with this. Not this early in the morning, not from him, and not after I had spent all night agonizing over how to respond to his note. I glanced at my watch. There was a good 7 minutes before class would start. Why did he have to be here early today of all days? Another sidelong look showed that Darien had no intention of moving until class started, and probably not even then. I shut my book and rose, walking noiselessly across the room. I moved to stand in front of Darien. He didn't open his eyes, but he shifted slightly, as if ready to bolt given the any provocation. "Could you please remove that?" I asked. Might as well try courtesy, however futile I may know it to be. He ignored me. I repeated myself, louder this time. His only response was a long drag on his cigarette. I sighed, resigned. This would take awhile to argue, and I really didn't think I could hold up for that long time. There was only one viable solution. I reached over and plucked the cigarette out of his mouth. His eyes shot open and he sat up. Unfortunately, he forgot that his feet were on the desk, so he toppled over. I ignored his antics, calmly extinguishing the cigarette and dropping it in the garbage.

"Did you just do that?" he inquired coldly. It wasn't the expostulation of rage anyone else would have used. He had recovered from his upset well, and was towering over me, seemingly serene. "Depends. What is 'that'?" I drawled. This confrontation would be a lot easier if he wasn't about a head and a half taller than me. "You just took my cigarette." His voice was hard and cold. "I did." There wasn't much point in denying it, was there? I tossed my long, pin straight black hair and met his sapphire eyes boldly. He looked affronted at my easy defiance. "And may I inquire what precipitated such an action?" "Impressive wording," I observed dryly. He glared. I guess most people were afraid to meet that look, but I had no problem. Okay, I had only a little problem. Not enough to stop me. If he was going to really hurt me, he would have already. His blue eyes were nearly white with anger, however much he attempted to conceal it. "Answer me!" he demanded. "Yes." His confused look, however fleeting, was priceless. "You asked if you could inquire. I told you yes, it was possible for you to ask," I clarified. Ha, take that. 'Why did you take my cigarette?" Darien spat. Baiting him was fun. He reacted so easily.

"I asked you twice to remove it. As you neglected to respond, I took your silence as an affirmative." "And why would you do that?" "Because I dislike cigarettes," I explained patronizingly, "Not to mention they're not allowed." "Do you think I care?" His voice was getting dangerous. "No, but I do." Actually, that was a lie, I really didn't care that he was breaking the rules. If he wanted to screw himself over, hallelujah for him. But it was a convenient excuse to explain things I really didn't want to talk about. "And why should I care what you think?" He managed to imbue the word 'you' with all the disgust his arrogance could muster. And that was quite a lot. Okay, this guy was starting to get on my nerves with his mightier than thou attitude. He really needed to get over himself. Sure, he was hot, and handsome, and I had on occasion noticed him be charming, but someone had to take him down a notch. I didn't deign to respond to his query for a moment, just stood defiantly in front of him. Startled by my defiance, he didn't' stalk away of push me aside, as I had half expected him to do. At that moment, the bell rang and I could here the stampede that always proceeded it rumbling outside the classroom. "That's what you have to find out," I smirked and spun, strolling back to my seat, secure in my women's privilege of having the last word. I could feel his eyes on me long after I had sat back down and recovered my book.

Darien As I watched the girl's retreating back, I couldn't help but feel like I had lost, although she was the one who had fled. And what the hell did she mean by her parting statement? As I was absorbed by these thoughts, the rest of the class came rushing in and I was forced to return to my seat. I did keep my feet on the ground and sit up, though. I like math, and I'm decent at it. That's why I'm in the smartest class. Actually, contrary to popular belief, I'm in mostly AP or honors classes. When I feel like showing. But I always show for math. The teacher herded the stragglers in as the rest of the class took out their books. I like Mr. Kaplan, he's a good teacher and he doesn't seem to care very much that my father is Gregory McGavern. "Are we ready now?" he asked, his signal that class was about to actually start. I shook my head to wake myself up. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Emma Laycha put down her book. Since when had she been in this class? I had never noticed her before. Although she was generally beneath my notice, I had thought I knew everyone in this class. Maybe she just hid in the corner and never spoke. She couldn't be good at math along with every other subject. Mr. Kaplan began to talk about solving systems of 4 equations. A bit simple for pre-calc, but we were still reviewing. I couldn't wait until the month of review was up and we could actually learn something interesting. "Now. I want you to solve this system," Mr. Kaplan wrote 4 equations on the board, "When you do, come up and let me check it. First one done gets a prize." I grinned smugly as I bent over my notebook. I didn't care about the prize, there was nothing really worth winning that he could offer, but more fame is

always good. And I rocked at algebra. This was all but won. So I'm competitive, sure me. 10 minutes alter, the sound of a chair scratching against linoleum made me look up. Emma Laycha walked quickly but unhurriedly to the teacher's desk and offered her notebook for inspection. "Very good, Miss Laycha," Mr. Kaplan exclaimed, handing her a Kit-Kat bar, "You win the prize!" Amazed, I glanced at my paper. I had one more variable to solve for. How could she have beaten me? I looked angrily over at her, but she was gnawing on the candy bar as she was once more absorbed in her book. Alerted by something to my glare, she looked up and met my eyes. Emerald eyes laughed at my futile anger. My fists clenched. I had contained my anger earlier, if she tried to confront me again, she'd be dead. The bell rang and I stormed out. I stalked to my locker, even though my next class was right next door to math and my locker was halfway across the school. I didn't feel like English today. I needed to go somewhere, anywhere. As I rounded the corner of the A wing, where my locker was, I was greeted by a dejected Brock trudging towards me. He raised a hand in greeting, but his usually loud welcome was nowhere in sight. "What happened to you?" I asked bluntly when he was in hearing distance. "Jess broke up with me." "But I thought you said you didn't really like her?" I clarified. "I didn't. But she dumped me. Dude. That never happened before last year. I'm supposed to be the one dumping. Now I can't keep a girlfriend for more than a week."

"You don't really want to," I explained as I turned so I could walk with Brock to his class, burying my own fury. He needed therapy, quickly. "Of course I do!" Brock exclaimed, "If I didn't, would I be so down?" "You're trying to replace Her." That stopped him in his tracks. I took a few more steps before I tuned back to look at him. 'I am not trying to find another Rhianna," Brock stated flatly. "That's impossible," he added in a mutter to himself. "You loved her, so you want to find another love," I responded bluntly, hurrying him along. He couldn't afford another detention; his coach was in a bad mood already this week. "I don't need love!" he retorted angrily. "Good. Keep telling yourself that. So neither Jess nor Rhianna matter. Get to class." I shoved him into his classroom. He stumbled to his seat, at least slightly less in a funk then he had been before. I strode back to my locker, bad mood returning full force. Brock was getting mad because his love left? He should be fucking thanking God the he had love at all. I jerked my locker open and tossed my books in it. I was already storming away when a tentative voice stopped me. "Excuse me?" some kid looked up at me, obviously terrified. "What?" I snapped.

'you-you-you dropped something," he stammered. I looked back. A glint of red was on the floor before my locker. I nodded curtly at the boy in thinks. He scurried away as I approached my locker once more. ON the ground was a faded rose, the same one I had put in the Matchmaker's locker yesterday. I new note was attached.

You'll have to do better than a flower, McGavern.


In spite of my horrible mood, I grinned.

Chapter 5

Emma As soon as school let out, I was off, dashing as quickly as humanly possible to my locker. I needed to get to work in 20 minutes, and it took even me about 15 minutes to get to the caf. Jack had offered me a car, and I didn't really need to work now, but I hate being dependent on Jack. Which meant I ran to work, 4 days a week. Hey, at least its good exercise. Unfortunately for my hurrying plans, the halls were packed with students going the opposite way from me. Gotta love irony. I was shoved backwards until I finally managed to weave my way through. That's one of the many times I wish I had the height to actually be noticed. After an agonizingly long time, I managed to weed my way to my locker. I snatched a few books, hoping to God that they were the right ones, and slammed the door shut. The door bounced back open, the basket fixed to the top falling with the impact. "Damn!" I swore, leaning back down to quickly gather the scattered notes. Darien's handwriting caught my eye. I glanced at my watch, then back at the

note. Cursing, I grabbed the note and stuffed into my pocket before hastening away, backpack bouncing as I threaded my way through the crowd. o0O0o0O0o "I know I'm late!" I panted as I skidded into the back room of the Black Dog Caf, shrugging of my bags and pulling on my uniform apron. "It's okay," Cass, my co-worker, informed me, "Mr. Dictator hasn't stopped believing my bathroom story yet. You've only been in there, for, oh, about 10 minutes." 'Thanks," I replied, pulling my long hair back into its customary ponytail, "Do I look halfway presentable?" I like to look sort of nice, sue me. I'm a girl, after all. "Yeah, about halfway." I made a face. "That's twice as much as you, dear!" I retorted, slipping out behind the counter. "Ems! You've arrived!" Mr. Dictator, as we'd fondly nicknamed him, gushed. We joke about him being evil and strict, but honestly, he's the nicest man I know. "Yeah, I'm sorry about the lateness. I was delayed," I replied contritely, taking his place at the register. "All that matters is you're here now, darling," he chirped, "Now, you take the counter and I'll go check the stores!" He wandered off. I composed my face into its usual painful grimace disguised as a smile. The people here are great, but the clientele leaves much to be desired. Can't they ever read the damn menu? Luckily, I had a few minutes before the after school rush and the influx of moronic, at least partly high, high school students.

Darien's note crumpled in my pocket. If I took it out here, it could compromise my entire dual identity. The Matchmaker would be demolished. I would be ostracized. I drew the note from my pocket and smoothed it out onto the counter top. No one from school would be here for a few minutes anyway. The letter had the same handwriting, the same thick, heavy, obviously expensive notepaper.

A beautiful flower for a beautiful girl, even though the rose fades in comparison
I rolled my eyes. That was just overly clichd, and I know clichs. It's part of the business. Did he really expect The Matchmaker, someone who deals in romance, and thus clichs, everyday, to be won over by a few unoriginal words? I guess I had overestimated him, and that would be extremely difficult. My estimation had been dangerously low. How idiotic could this boy be? I flipped the note over to scribble my response. This time, I didn't need to agonize over it. If he wasn't going to try to make this interesting, I certainly wasn't. I could very well ignore him and be none the worse. He was the one chasing The Matchmaker, not the other way around. I was only responding to humour him and to try to divine his motives. It's not like the Matchmaker was enjoying his attentions. It's not like I wasThe bell heralding the entrance of a customer rang. I shoved the paper back into my pocket before looking up. When I did, I nearly groaned out loud. Darien McGavern had entered the caf. Damn, I hate irony!

Darien I slammed a 50 on the counter.

"Large, black coffee," I demanded without looking at the person working the counter. A small, pale hand took the money silently and offered me the change. "5 minutes," she stated. The lack of respect here was the norm. It's why I come. This girl must be new, though. My usual person sounded older. I glanced up. A petite back was facing me, slight body competently mixing up the drink. God, what was it with me and seeing Emma Laycha lately? Do I live in a fucking romance novel? As I turned to go to hide in my usual nook, a glint of parchment coloured paper sticking out of her apron pocket caught my eye. It looked exactly like my own personalized note paper. "Where'd you get that?" I commanded, gesturing to the note. She carefully finished making my coffee before turning back to me. "I fail to see how that's any of your business." While I had to concede her point, at least to myself, I couldn't very well admit that to her. "I fail to see why I should care that you fail to see how it's my business." I winced as that came out of my mouth. She only raised her eyebrows and offered me the drink. I took it, but didn't leave. "I don't care what you think," I clarified, "How'd you get it?" "Has anyone ever told you," she said in an oddly monotonic voice, "That you are extremely rude?" And who was she to scold me? Some working girl, who obviously didn't have any money to live on. I mean, working? In high school? My fists clenched around my coffee.

"Common opinion would declare you wrong," I managed to sound almost civil. She didn't even make the effort. "Common opinion is usually incorrect, in this case obviously even more so then usual." "And you have any right to say anything about incivility?" "More so then you," was the returning shot. 'I wasn't rude until you were." "Pointing fingers. Very mature." She grinned, but even I could tell it was more to annoy me then to express any amount of mirth. "Attempting to bait me. Even more mature." "Who said I was baiting you?" "I did." "And why should I care what you think?" Clever, using y own words against me. But my response wasn't quite as enigmatic as hers. "Since I've been right." With that I walked away, for once with the last word. It didn't matter that I hadn't found out what I had set out to, that she still kept the secret of the notepaper to herself. I had got the last word, which meant I had won, and that was all that mattered.

Chapter 6

Emma

"Was that my notepaper?" God, chalk annoying persistence up to this guy's faults! I come over to clear Darien's table, and he gives me grief. Yet again. Can't he just let it go? "Perhaps." I turned to return to the counter. He grabbed my arm, keeping me there. Slowly, I turned to face him. Who was he to touch me in anyway I did not perceive necessary? "How did you get that paper?" he demanded. Right, Darien McGavern, that's who. But can't he just give a girl a break? "I dug in the garbage to find something you had touched so I could pretend I was touching you," I drawled. It would have been a wonderful exit line, but Darien's hand was still tight around my wrist, and it wasn't worth hurting him just to get away. "Is that the truth?" he inquired. Wow, he had actually considered it. That's just pitiful that the girls at this school would do something like that. "Perhaps." I tried to yank away, but his hold was to firm. Stronger then he looked. He must have some muscles "Yes or no?" he insisted. Looks and presumably muscular body aside, this guy was a bastard. A far too persistent bastard. "Perhaps." I grinned impishly at him, than scowled as his grip grew tighter. If he continued to squeeze, screw non violence, he was going to get slaughtered. "Now, I really need to go back to work." "Then go," he spat. "You're still holding my wrist," I observed, "I mean, if you find me that irresistible..."

He dropped my hand like it contained some really nasty disease. I rubbed my wrist. He better not have left a bruise, or I would set Allan on him. "Can't you just tell me?" he pressed, hopefully for the last time. "Yes, I could." "Then do!" "If you don't care about me or my opinions, why are you so insistent?" "I like to know all my stalkers," he responded coolly, leaning back in his chair as if he had come to a conclusion he had been having difficulties with, "So it seems I need to add you to the list." "You are an arrogant bastard." I meant it to be casual, a nonchalant observation. It must have come off much more vicious then intended, as his eyes flashed with what might have, in another person, been hurt. Maybe I'm not so good at containing my anger. Or he can't take the truth. I prefer the latter. But he flashed a brilliantly mocking smile. "You sound like that's a bad thing." I glared. He glared back. A stand-off. "Em!" Allan approached the table, face darkening as he saw who I was speaking with, "Is there a problem here?" Having a huge, bulky football player at your back does wonders for courage, even if I probably could have taken Darien on my own. Bu I'm never one to pass up bodyguards. "Oh, no, Allan," I smirked at Darien, "McGavern and I were just having a friendly debate."

Darien scowled but didn't contradict. Even he was intimidated but Allan's sheer bulk, even if he didn't show it. "So, did you want me for anything?" I asked, turning to Allan and completely blocking Darien. "I just wanted to know when you were off your shift and if you wanted a ride home." "Allan, I've told you a million times" "And it still doesn't make sense," Allan complained. "Wait," Darien cut in, "Lex, you know her?" "Your incredulity flatters me so much," I drawled, startling an amused grin out of Darien. "Yes I know her," Allan told Darien, "It looked like you do too." "Come on, Allan," I grinned at Darien's affronted glare, "I need to get back to work." I strode away, back straight and head high. I wasn't retreating; I was leaving the defeated enemy to lick his wounds. Allan followed me, shaking his head regretfully. "You shouldn't talk to him," he admonished. That got me confused. Allan was the last person to say something like that about anybody. I had never met anyone less suspicious, except maybe Brock. "Why not?" I asked in bemusement, "He may be a conceited asshole, but he's intelligent." "He's dangerous. Did you hear what he did to Mia Smith last year?"

I had. She had requested someone else, but before I got around to it, Darien had snapped her up, and she wasn't proof against his charms. The other guy, who would have been good for her, was forgotten, and Darien had been a bastard. All because I hadn't gotten around to it. "Darien McGavern would never think of me like that," I assured Allan with a fake laugh that he didn't catch, "Not for all the money in the world."

Darien I still didn't know if that was my paper. Damn that girl, she was far too evasive for her own good. Well, more for my good, but that's all that matters. My eyes wandered over the room to finally fix on Emma and Lex, still talking. She laughed, than walked back to the counter. He seemed to accept that it was a real laugh, but I knew better. I was an expert on fake laughs. I had been using them for years. But still, it was another mystery to add to Emma Laycha's score. How did Lex know her? How did she know Lex so well? I couldn't even remember Lex's real name, he had been Lex for so long. Maybe she was his mystery sister. But that wouldn't work, rumor had it his step mom had been poorish and Emma had gone to our school for a while. I think. I hadn't really noticed her before. Come to think of it, maybe she only came last year. But wasn't she in my English class freshman year? "Darien!" I screechy voice cooed, jolting me out of my thoughts. I groaned, only barely managing to keep it inaudible. I really wasn't in the mood for groupies. A crowd of bleached blondes converged on my table. "We missed you at lunch," Candy pouted. She pouted well, and she knew it.

"And I missed all the beauty you usually provide," I smirked at her, but her eyes were already roaming the room. I turned my attention to the other girls. 'But I was just burnt out after 1st period. I needed a break." "Poor baby!" Jess exclaimed, "Do you, like, need another, like, coffee? Like, of course you do!" I began to decline, but she was insisting, rising to order it. I gave up and smiled at the rest of the flock. Candy draped herself on the chair next to me. "Why did you, like, leave?" she asked, "I, like, saw you. You looked, like, pissed." "No reason," I told her. She didn't press me, even though that was a clear invitation to let me rant. When she didn't get the hint, I continued, "Did I miss anything?" "Noth-" "Like, so much!" Lila cut her off. She began a long story about some break up or another and someone almost getting kicked out of school. Nothing I cared to corrupt my brain thinking about. My mind began to wander. Candy was the only one of these girls who occasionally had something to say, and she was still looking around the room for something. Emma's voice echoed in my head. What right did she have to call me a bastard? Or to deny me what I wanted to know! But why was I so insistent? I really didn't care except as idle curiosity if she had me paper or not. Another stalker wouldn't disturb me, and she had to know she had no chance. It might even be interesting, as she was sure to go about stalking in some intelligent way. But I kept on baiting her, even if she was responding in kind. It wasn't like she was worth arguing with, no matter what she had told Lex. Even if she was wittier than anyone else I had talked to, and didn't care about who I was; only what I said.

"Can you, like, believe it?" Lila finished emphatically. "Not at all," I responded, distracted by my musings. No one noticed, and my thoughts continued until Jess stomped back over and slammed down on her chair without any care for her obviously expensive skirt. "That girl was, like, very, like, rude," she whined. I looked up at the counter. Emma was calmly filling a order. "What did she, like, do?" Candy asked sympathetically, also looking up at the counter where Lex was chatting with Emma. "Well, I was like, I like your, like, bracelet. And she, like, didn't, like, tell me, like, where she, like, got it. Can you, like, believe it?" "She didn't!" Lila cried, along with the other surprised and horrified noises from the other girls. I could barely hold in my laughter, and them and Emma both. She had probably got it from a cheap store or something, and was afraid to admit it. But who cares anyway? 'She must not have, like, heard you," Candy declared, "I'll try when she comes to, like, give Darien his coffee." Okay, Candy was being far too devious for something this trivial. Maybe all these girls were even weirder than Emma. If that was possible. At least she saved her weirdness for more important things. Emma walked over gingerly carrying the hot mug of coffee. "You, like, held up until, like, the coffee, good," Jess cooed, pushing my dark blonde hair away from my face. I shook it back irritably. Emma's sleeves were rolled back and her charm bracelet displayed prominently on her thin wrist. It hadn't been like that before. She had been wearing her sleeves down.

"Let me, like, take that!" Candy offered immediately, tossing her naturally blonde hair over her shoulder and leaning across me to grab the coffee from Emma. "Thanks," Emma replied, handing it over, eyes twinkling. "Ooh!" Candy squealed, 'I, like, lover your bracelet!" "Thank you, my friend got it for me." Emma turned and walked away. "See," Candy told Jess, "She's, like, a perfectly nice girl. She just didn't have, like, an answer for you." "I don't, like, see why I like the bracelet, anyways," Jess huffed, "It's so, like, ugh! Like, cheap." I glanced over to see if Emma had heard. She had glanced up from her conversation with Lex, and our eyes met for a moment. I realized she had known exactly what we had said the whole time, and however much we argued about other things, on one point we were in total agreement. These girls were complete and utter idiots.

Chapter 7

Emma I really hate Thursdays. It's the day when the sameness of the world really catches up with you, when you realize that your whole life is just the endless repetition of a few actions, a mindless reel of apathy. Or at least, I do. I completely agree with Douglass Adams, I never could get the hang of Thursdays. As always, I jog to school, stop about a block away, pull out my book (The 2 Towers today), and meander in, adeptly dodging moving objects and flying people. I make my way to my locker, put my book down, grab the stuff I need

for my first few classes, and glance through the Matchmaker's basket for anything urgent. If there is anything either urgent or interesting, I ponder it a moment before walking away. If there isn't, I shut my locker, pick up my book, and wander to class, still reading. My routine never alters, not because people respect me too much to interrupt it, but because they don't notice me. Usually, that's useful and amusing. On Thursdays, though, it's enough to make me want to slaughter them all. Today, I almost made it to class before I sensed rather then saw someone standing directly in front of me. "Could you please move?" I asked, not taking my eyes from the book. "No." It would have to be him, wouldn't it? I put a finger in my book to mark my place and shut it, crossing my arms stubbornly across my chest. "A gentleman lets a lady proceed first," I pointes out. "Is there a lady here?" Darien smirked. His groupies giggled dutifully. Obviously, they hadn't realized he had insulted them too. "More ladies then there are gentlemen," I retorted smoothly. He scowled. "Because of course a girl who buys things from a thrift store knows what a gentleman should be," he spat. His flock rustled like that had been a horrible insult. I don't think he's gathered that I'm not offended by my shopping choices being publicized. "You should try shopping at a thrift store sometime, perhaps then you would appear vaguely different from your fellow clones." I grinned and slipped by him before he could stop me from having the last word. Maybe Thursdays aren't that bad after all.

"You shouldn't have, like, insulted him," a cheerleader informed me as she trotted to catch up to my hurried pace, her bobbed golden hair bouncing as she trotted beside me. "Why ever not?" I asked, not putting down my book. I was going to finish the chapter by class. "He'll get revenge. He isn't big on being, like, insulted." "He needs to be taken down a notch." "Maybe," she agreed, her perfectly manicured pink nails rising in a shrug, "But not by you. By someone who could, like, fight back. He could make your life a misery." I glanced covertly at her. She looked sincere, but that didn't make sense. From everything I've ever seen of her, she was only slightly more intelligent then her fellows. Not enough to be a philanthropist. "Why do you care?" I asked her. I remembered this girl, Candy I think her name was. She requested the star forward on the soccer team last week. That was a nice and easy assignment. A note in his locker and a note in hers setting up a date, and they were together. I wondered if they still were. I doubted it. They weren't right for each other. He was far too arrogant for someone with even a hint of decency. "I know people who like you," she explained, turning down a different hallway, "People whose opinions I, like, trust. Just be careful with Darien, okay? Don't let his meanness scare you." She left. I looked after her a moment before continuing on my way. Well, that was a refreshing change. A cheerleader was being kind to a nobody. Maybe there was hope for this school after all.

A jock, sprinting down the hall, as unobservant as ever, slammed me out of his way and into a locker. Okay, cynicism restored. o0O0o0O0o "Now before we start a book," my English teacher droned. I doodled on the margins of my notebook. Usually, I adore English, but not when we've been going over comma rules for weeks and the idiots that call themselves my classmates still don't get them. How hard can it be? "We're going to need more grades, so you're going to do a project" Blah, blah, blah. The real reason he's having us do a project? Our presentations will take at least a day, and that's 1 less class to put up with our idiocy. "You'll have to pick your favorite author and present their life and works to the class" So perhaps one hour of work. I'll get it done quickly, if I don't procrastinate like I usually do, and then sit back and laugh while the rest of the class freaks over how much work it is. Over achievers, pah. "And to give it a twist, we'll do it in pairs.." He was handing out information sheets now. Partners. Annoying, but not horrible. There's an odd number of people in the class, and I can be the odd man out. Or I can put up with whoever gets stuck with me for a while. I hate group work, I'm not going to let some moron mooch off of my hard (ish) work, but I can deal with it. No one in this class is too horrible. "But to make it fair, the partners will be assigned alphabetically. Arnold, Borlak" I continued his list for him. Assuming the last three would be the trio, it meant I sat up straight as I realized who my partner would be.

"Laycha and McGavern" I swear the world hates me.

Darien "You are fucking kidding me!" I yelled as I stormed out of my English class, stomping over to where Brock was waiting. "What happened?" he asked tolerantly. He's gotten used to my rages by now. "I don't do work!" I ranted, "And no one makes me do it! No one. But I bet you that damn scrap of a girl thinks I'm going to do part of it. She's going to try to make me, and so she's not going to do it, and then I'm going to fail it. It's not that I care, but that doesn't matter to her. It'll be all 'I care', and 'you should' from people like her. Why does God have it in for me? 1st she invades my caf, and now this!" Brock was completely confused by now. "Wait, who's doing what to who?" he attempted to interrupt. I ignored him and continued my tirade. "He's mad," a calm, amused voice answered Brock, "Because I've been assigned to be his partner for an English project, and he believes, quite correctly, that I will not allow him to fob all the work off on me." Her slightly condescending tone got my attention like nothing else would have. "Look, Laycha," I spat at the tiny girl, who was leaning unconcernedly against the wall, "I didn't ask to be your partner, and I really don't fucking care about this damn project, so I don't see why I've got to do anything." "Think of it as training for when you do care," she suggested.

"Not likely." She stood and straightened up to her full height. It would have been more impressive if she had been less than a head shorter than me. "You think I'm any more thrilled about this arrangement then you are?" she hissed, emerald eyes blazing, "But unlike you, I actually want to do something in my life other then live off of my father's money, so I need to get in the habit of doing distasteful things. Including working with you. I'm sorry to inform you, but this project is going to work." I chuckled. She scowled. She obviously wasn't used to people laughing when she made proclamations like that. And they call me arrogant "You want to do well, so you do all the work," I proposed. She sighed, anger still sparkling in her eyes. "As much as I would love to do that, you don't deserve the A I could give you." "And you say I'm conceited." "Conceit isn't when you say something everyone knows as the truth," she retorted, "That's a healthy pride." "A bit too healthy, if you ask me," I observed loftily. "No one did," she muttered. I smirked. "What was that?" I inquired innocently. "You would think that," she scoffed. "Why?" My voice was getting lower as my temper rose. That sounded like a true insult, and I do not take insults from chits who I could break without a thought.

"Because that's probably the reason I don't roll over and show you my belly like the rest of this damn school." Her holier-than-thou attitude tripped me over the edge. Who was she to tell me she was better then everyone else? That just because no one else argued as vocally with me, she was supposed to be better? She had to be set back on track. Suddenly, I moved, pinning her against the wall, one arm on either side of her. A flicker of fear passed through her eyes as quickly as remorse through mine. Then her eyes hardened and I sneered. "You know you want to show me more then your belly," I purred. At this, even Brock reacted. He had been quiet throughout the whole argument, but now he stood straighter and made a concerned noise, though he made no move to stop me. Emma's eyes froze. I reeled back, face stinging. Where the hell had that come from? That wasn't human speed; that was lightning. I had never even seen it coming. Emma was still leaning against the wall, but her amusement had left and her breathing was slightly louder then usual. "Don't ever touch me again," she ordered, "Or I will do worse than slap you." "Like what?" I mocked. Like she could do anything to hurt me. Another stinging pain. What the hell? And I had been expecting that one too. "I can do more to hurt you then you know," she informed me. At my skeptical look, she forced a chuckle. "Wow, I sounded like a 3rd rate villain from some horrible hero movie." "Basically," I admitted. How could she just let go of her anger like that? She had been ready to kill me and now she was making fun of herself with me. "So," she said easily, 'When should I come over?"

"What?" who said anything about her coming over? "We don't get much time in class," she told me, 'I think it would be best if we worked on it this weekend." "Why can't we go to your house?" At the time, it didn't occur to me that I had conceded that I would work. "Because I'm sure your house has better resources," she responded innocently. So she was flattering me, I'm just as susceptible to it as the next man. "Good point. How about Friday?" "Dar," Brock cut in, speaking for the first time, "candy's got a party on Friday." "A good point," I granted, 'Saturday, then?" "Okay. I'll see you then." She walked off, but before she had gotten very far she dashed back. "Remember," she hissed, "you're doing half the work." And she was gone, but not before giving my perfectly styled hair a ruffle. I scowled, trotting off to me locker with Brock beside me. "Are you going to work?' Brock asked as I shoved books into my locker. A piece of paper fell out and fluttered to the floor. "Hey, what's that?" I recognized the Matchmaker's handwriting at once. "I don't know," I said quickly, pocketing the note, "What did you just say?" "Are you actually going to work?" My mouth dropped open. That manipulative little bitch! "I'm stuck with her coming, aren't I?" I asked hopelessly. "'fraid so," Brock chirped, "But hey, maybe she'll do all the work anyway."

"Doubt it," I responded despondently, 'Come on, we have to get to lunch." o0O0o0O0o When I had finally lost Brock, I pulled out the Matchmaker's note.

How do you even know I'm a girl?


Now that was a challenge I liked.

Chapter 8

Emma "Hey kiddo!" Allan grinned as he jogged through the family room, ruffling my hair fondly. I rolled my eyes as my hair fell back into its boring, unvaried straightness. "I'm only two months younger then you, I'll have you know," I retorted, not taking my eyes from my book. "Two months and 8 days," he corrected me loftily. I put down my book and made a face at the towering boy. "Same difference" "Child, it makes all the difference," he replied with a grin. I slapped him with my book. "Ow, Em, that hurt! What was that for?" "Being an idiot. How was the game?" "We won. By a lot. 101-31," he smiled wildly, "Brock was by far the star. Hey, that rhymed!" "You really are a child," I informed him, returning his smile, "Why aren't you at the party?"

He attempted to look cunning and sly. "Who said there's a party?" Needless to say, he failed miserably. "Allan's, there's always an after party. It isn't here, is it?" I looked around in a panic for signs of a party. He laughed. "Don't worry about it. It's at the Maloney's. I just stopped by to change and shower." I raised my eyebrows. That was unusual; he generally went straight to the party from the game, no matter how much he reeked. "Someone to impress?" I suggested idly, closely watching his reaction. He looked slightly startled, and a faint flush stained his broad tanned cheeks, but he did a better job of concealing his reaction then I would have expected. "No, why would you say that?" he inquired, voice carefully casual. I smirked, the Matchmaker's plan for my campaign beginning already. I usually only matched people on request from both, but I could make an exception for my stepbrother. He just might need help to win his lady. "No reason," I shrugged, "Have fun at the party." He paused in the doorway and looked back at me. "You could come, you know," he proposed cautiously, "It's not just for players and cheerleaders. McGavern's hosted half of them, and he's never been to a game. I don't think. Not since sophomore year, anyway. You'd be welcome there, anyway." "Thanks, but no way." My refusal was just as final as the welcome I'd get there. Not even Allan's patronage would get me approval, especially as Darien wasn't precisely my biggest fan. Not that I was his, but that would make it even

worse. The chances of me being accepted at that party were precisely the same as Darien McGavern and I becoming friends. Allan shrugged. We had argued this point before, and he knew he couldn't win. I refused, and will always refuse, to go to a place where I'll be reviled for being sane. Besides, I couldn't deal with all those cigarettes in one place without doing something stupid. "I'll see you later, then," Allan told me, disappearing through the door to his room. "Later," he didn't hear me, his heavy footsteps fading into the distance until the only sound around me was the faint sounds of the shower running. I hate big houses and their not-quite silence. I turned back to my book, losing myself in the story. Not even 15 minutes later, a door slammed and I knew Allan was off to woo his girl, whoever she is. The quiet was now complete. I hate big houses and their empty stillness. I tried to read, but the silence was oppressive. Mom and Jack were out on one of their uber expensive dates and Jan, our housekeeper, had her day off today. I was alone in the mansion on a Friday night. Way too much like a horror movie for my comfort. Once my mind began jolting me out of my book at every hint of a noise, I realized it was time to stop reading. I jogged to my room, determinedly ignoring the dark hallways and shadowy rooms. Finally, I collapsed onto my bed. The house groaned in the wind, the only sound I could hear other than what I was making. I could almost feel the emptiness crushing me. It was nights like these that I would give anything to go back a few years and have Rhi back to invite over. Of course, a few years ago the dark, silent mansion would have been a dark, silent apartment, and the complicated

sound system I was messing with would be a old boom box, and my queen four poster featherbed would be a hard single bedstead. But I would give all that up just to be able to call Rhi, call anyone, and have them for company on this lonely evening. I pulled out my Matchmaker work. On the top of it was one of Darien's notes. I unfolded it slowly.

No male would care about soul mates or have the perception to do about it if they did.
Yes, I was perceptive or whatever. But it didn't really help me, did it? I slouched over my desk and emptied the basket. Might as well do something as the sound of Friend Like Me, from Aladdin, filled the room. This would be a lonely night. Alone.

Darien I opened my eyes blearily, then closed them immediately as the too bright sunlight hit my eyes. How late was it? I hadn't managed to get home until 4, and my pounding headache told me I had drunk too much not to have slept till all hours. "Dar?" Troy's voice was the only thing that could have pulled me out of my stupor. "Yeah?" I groaned, sitting up. He was perched on the end of my bed, peering curiously at me. "Just wondering if you were awake." I punched him playfully. "Well, now I am."

I rolled out of bed and stood with a moan. Gulping down the aspirin on the table with practiced ease, I stumbled sleepily down to the kitchen without even bothering to pull on a shirt. "I don't think it's a good idea to go down there now, Dar," Troy warned as he trailed beside me. "Why not?" I mumbled, "I need my caffeine fix-" I stopped as I staggered into the kitchen. My mother was sitting at the counter, daintily munching on her gourmet salad. "Darien," she acknowledged. "Mother," I responded with just as much warmth. Troy looked between us in confusion. "Where have you been this morning?" "Asleep. That's what one generally does in the morning." "Why did you sleep so late?" "I was at a party," I informed her. I make it a point not to lie to my parents. They don't deserve it. "If people saw you associating with those sorts of people" "It was at the Maloney's. I wasn't corrupted." "But if people had seen you drinking so heavily" she trailed off warningly. "Mother, I won't ruin your perfect image. Everyone there already knew my habits." I got out a bowl of cereal. "Good. Be sure to keep it that way. Your father and I will be working until late."

She left without another word. No parting pleasantries, no bones of affection to throw to her starving dogs of sons. I threw myself down on a stool and began to slurp my cereal, the slurping a petty revenge against my snobs of parents who formed me in their image against my will. Troy sat next to me, watching me eat. "Why'd you do that?" he asked, grabbing a candy bar to munch on. "What?" "Talk to mom like that." "Like what?" I grabbed another bowl. "You were so mean to her!" "She was mean to me too." "No, she wanted to make sure you were alright," he contradicted, face screwed up in an effort to believe himself. "You're right, kid. I'll try more next time." Neither of us really believed me, but we didn't call it. Troy still liked to pretend our parents cared about us, and I didn't want to completely crush his illusions. I ate the rest of my cereal in silence until the deep chimes of the doorbell reverberated throughout the house. "You expecting anyone?" I asked Troy. He shook his head, just as bemused as me. No one ever came here during working hours, except occasionally Brock, but he didn't ring the bell anymore. "Alfred will get it," Troy observed. "Yeah," I replied distractedly. Was I forgetting something? If only I could remember I need a remember all right now.

The intercom came on. "Master Darien, someone for you," Alfred announced. "What the-" I cut off the expletive just in time, so as not to expose Troy to too much swearing. He shrugged, catching my meaning anyway. I jogged to the entrance hall, still too much exercise for my alcohol soaked brain. I skidded to a halt just before the door and strolled in, face set into a nonchalant smirk. Emma Laycha was being shown across the hall by Alfred, making surprisingly little noise on the tiles made specifically to amplify motion from those who were clumsy or low class. The hall was meant as a test, and walking quietly on it was a skill. Emma came to a stop in front of me, eyes barely stopping at my shirtless chest. I took immediate offense at that. Was my chest-well muscled and hard, I might add- not worth drooling over? And what kind of teenage girl doesn't ogle any shirtless guy? I glared down at her. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Chapter 9

Emma This was the outside of enough. He invites me over- okay, I manipulated him into inviting me over- to his house, and then he acts all surprised when I actually show up! I even left later then I had planned to give him time to sleep off his hangover. True, Allan wasn't up yet, but I figured Darien was lighter then Allan. Besides, Allan out drinks everyone.

'What am I doing here?" I spat, meeting his eyes squarely, refusing to look down at his shirtless chest (I was right, though, he does have muscles). He leaned against the wall, and I could see his eyes were just the least bit unfocused. He wasn't in any condition for an argument. Good, that meant I was going to win. "Yeah," he repeated, "Why are you here?" "You invited me," I informed him coolly. "I did not!" "Yes you did." "No." "Yes." "No" So we sounded like a pair of kindergarteners, what are you going to do? I wished I had a tape recorder. This would be good blackmail. "Dar?" We both spun to face the hall and the interruption of our argument. A kid, maybe about 10 by his looks, was peering out of a doorway, "You did tell her to come. You were complaining about it to Brock yesterday." Darien opened his mouth as if to yell, than shut it. He repeated the process several times, during which I had to fight the temptation to observe that he looked rather like a fish as the moment. The kid grinned up at me through sunlight blonde hair. "He has problems remembering stuff like that, sometimes," he informed me, ignoring Darien's fish-like antics.

"You don't say?" I drawled. Darien glared daggers at me, but he ruffled the kid's hair. I had been expecting him to go cold and haughty like he usually did, but he didn't. "Well, thanks for losing me the argument," he teased, and I could swear I detected a trace of an actual, heartfelt smile on his face. Stop the clock; is Darien McGavern actually fond of someone? The boy's laughing cerulean eyes met mine, and I knew who the kid must be. His eyes matched Darien's, when Darien was in one of his rare good moods. "Your brother?" I asked Darien over the kid's head (just barely, he was only about 10 inches shorter then me). Darien nodded curtly. "Why have I never heard you had a brother?" He didn't know why that was so weird. Most people wouldn't know things like that. But I thought I knew the basics, things like siblings, on everyone in the school. "No one comes over here," he enlightened me. 'What about your parties? You host half the football after parties." Let him wonder where I got that bit of information. "They stay out of the family wing. I isolate them," he answered, "Now, Troy, me and Emma-" "Emma and I," I corrected under my breath. Grammar mistakes annoy me. He sneered at me. "Emma and I have to work. Go amuse yourself." Well, at least he took my correction. "But Dar" the kid, Troy, whined. Darien rolled his eyes affectionately.

"Go do your own homework," he ordered, "You told me you had a lot of social studies. Emma's even better than me at that, so if you finish it while she's here, you can ask her for help." His brother made a face, but ran off. "Thanks for volunteering me," I told Darien. "You're welcome." "So," I taunted, "I'm better then you at social studies?" He groaned. "I can't argue with facts, Laycha. You get the highest history grades in the school." Actually, I don't. There's a senior who all he does I work, but he does get better grades then I do. Not that I have to inform Darien of that. "Come on!" he commanded, stalking down the hall. I jogged to keep up, only glancing back once. The butler had disappeared. Do all servants know how to do that? If they do, I'm going to servant school to learn. Darien had gotten far ahead of me. He glanced back, irritated. "Are you coming?" he demanded. I hurried up to him, and he walked on without another word. This house was even bigger then Jack's, and I didn't used to think that was possible. I put all my energy into memorizing the way we went. Hell if I was going to get lost in the McGavern Mansion, or need Darien to show me to the door. We finally stopped in a small (comparatively, of course) den, complete with laptop and desk. State of the art laptop, of course. "You can work in here."

I raised my eyebrows in my best skeptical look. It was nearly as patented as Darien's smirk. "Where are you going to work then?" I asked ingenuously. "I'm not." I let out an exasperated breath. "Do we have to go through this again, McGavern? You are doing half the work. No more, no less." "Why?" for a second, he sounded (and looked) exactly like his brother when he was told to do his homework. "You know I'll just bring your grade down." I chuckled. At the incredulous look on his face after that chuckle, I broke into a hysterical fit of laughter. He watched me, completely bemused. "What?" he demanded as I sobered. "McGavern," I stated, keeping a straight face this time, "I could fail this project and still have a B in that class. Do you think the grade actually matters to me?" "Obviously not, despite what you asserted on Thursday," he responded coldly, trying to sound horribly dignified, It's hard to sound dignified when you've just been the butt of fits of laughter. "I stated that I needed to learn how to work with bastards, not that I needed the grade," I corrected just as icily, "Now sit down. Who do you think we should do?" He sat, more out of surprise then any desire to obey me. Still, point for me.

Darien

"Who do you want?" I replied in tones that I hoped conveyed the honour I was bestowing on her by letting her choose. "Well," either I wasn't as good at manipulating voices as I thought, or she completely ignored the inflection, "I was thinking either Tolkien or Louisa May Alcott, but I can do basically anyone." "Alcott," I considered a moment, "Didn't she write Little Women?" She raised her eyebrows, and I could tell she was impressed despite herself. "Among other things, yes." She agreed, "But if that's too feminine for you, I can respect that. Do you have any suggestions?" "I would emasculate me too much. How about Joseph Heller?" "You like Catch 22? Interesting." "Why?" Did she not think me intelligent enough to like an actual book? Well, maybe that would be justified, but she was supposed to be observant. "Wouldn't have taken you for a rebel," she replied, still studying me with her head cocked at a slight angle, as if trying to see through me. "I'm flattered," I drawled. She rolled her eyes. "So, Heller sounds good. Do you know anything about his life?" "Not much." I flipped open the laptop and began to search, "But my father has some stuff we could use, if we can get it." She bent over the computer as I skillfully navigated the search. Before I knew it, we were hard at work. She didn't even crow her victory over me. Much. o0O0o0O0o

"Are you guys done yet?" a small head peeked into the room. I put a final note down on our paper (Emma disclaimer her handwriting as too messy to be read, so I did all the writing while she worked the computer) and Emma glanced at her watch. "We better be, I have to get home. We can finish it in class." "Or BS it," I suggested. She swatted me with her ever present book. "Fine, we can do it in class. I'll walk you to the door." 'You don't-" she began, but Troy cut her off. "But I didn't get to ask my questions!" he complained, letting his lower lip quiver in the ultimate puppy dog pout that can get him anything from anyone. Emma was no exception. She chuckled and sat back down. "What's the question?" "Um" he looked sheepishly at the ground, and I could tell he was making it up on the spot, "Do you like my brother?" Me and Emma-Emma and I- exchanged horrified looks. "You said a question about homework," she disclaimed quickly. "I said a question. Do you like him?" I could almost hear the thoughts running through her head. While the last few hours, despite actually working, hadn't been torture, and bantering with Emma had become almost enjoyable, the best I could hope for was the she would temper her statement enough to not give Troy too horrible an idea of me. He didn't know how I acted at school, and if I had my way, he never would. If Emma was uncensored, I had the feeling bastard would come up quite a bit, along with many other adjectives I wouldn't understand. Although if I didn't, that meant Troy wouldn't either

"Not at all in the way you are implying," she stated, and I let out the breath I had been holding. At least she hadn't been too verbose. "Now," she continued, "I really do need to get home. Big family dinner tonight." I rose as well. "I'll show you out," I offered. It's easy to get lost in this labyrinthine house, and there's no way she could find her way back to the door by herself. Brock still had issues, and we'd been friends for years. "I'm fine." I raised an eyebrow. "No, really, I can get out." "If you get stuck," I informed her only slightly patronizingly, "just hit an intercom button." "Thanks, but I'm good." She shrugged on her bag, "Nice meeting you, Troy. Darien, don't do anything stupid until after the project is due." "Same to you," I retorted. She sneered and jogged out the door. She always jogs. Maybe it's because her legs are so much shorter then everyone else's, she has to jog to keep up. Troy also watched her leave, as I was wondering if she had a car to get home, and whether I should have offered to drive her. Maybe someone was picking her up. "I like her," Troy announced. "Congratulations." "You should invite her over more," he suggested, "she's better than those other girls who come to your parties." "Perhaps." The buzzer on the intercom rang. Grinning arrogantly, I answered it.

"Just wanted to tell you," Emma informed me with a suppressed triumph I could even hear over the intercom, "I'm out. So you don't have to worry about me." Well, better is definitely a matter of opinion.

Chapter 10

Emma The project had gone off well, loathe as I was to admit it. Not only had Darien done his share of the work with minimal complaints (after we had gotten over the initial hurdles), but he had also presented with an ease and char, I could never emulate. Not in front of all those people, at least. It's not so much that I care what they think about me, but if I humiliated myself, I would never forgive myself. But with him as my partner, I may- just may, there's no way of ever proving it- have gotten a higher grade then I could have without him. OF course, with me, he got a much better grade then he's probably ever gotten in his life. So he still got the better deal, but it would be difficult for me to get the better deal in this situation. I leaned back in my chair and watched the last pair for today (Robertson, Smith) finish up. They had stumbled and stuttered through the entire presentation and ended on a distinctly anticlimactic note, but they were rather better than the rest of the fools that had gone. At least they hadn't stated anything blatantly false, like one group's assertion that WWI started in 1912. The bell rang, jolting me uncomfortably out of my thoughts. Even with being distracted, I was still one of the first ones into the hall, a skill I had perfected over long years of practice. Of course, it helped that I had already packed all my things away, but that detail's negligible.

"Laycha!" I forced myself not to freeze at Darien's commanding voice, but only to turn casually. He needed someone who wouldn't obey him blindly. "Yeah?" He walked quickly- no hurrying for a McGavern- up to me. "You did well today," he informed me. I would have taken it as the compliment it ostensibly was, except for the condescension saturating his voice. "Why thank you!" I cooed with obviously false sincerity, "So did you." He actually flinched. Barely perceptibly, but it was most definitely a wince. "Stop," he ordered curtly. "Stop what?" If he was going to try to command me, well, I could be as literal minded as the worst jinni. He half-shuddered. "Talking like them." "Who?" "My groupies," he explained. I smirked. Well, now that I know it scares him "Of course," I agreed in the same tone as before. He scowled, but it looked less vicious then before, almost good-natured. He wasn't mad, that much I knew, but he still walked away without answering. He apparently knew that after giving out that choice piece of weakness, he was doomed to lose to me forever after. Score one for me. But it was weird for him not to even try to argue. In our unusual burst of interaction lately, he had always fought tooth and nail until one of us lost (generally him). It felt kind of nice to have an almost civil conversation with him. Well, civil for us, anyway. Maybe-barely even a maybe, it's so farfetched-

he wasn't as bad as I had thought. The insufferable arrogance and callousness could be just a shield. I turned around at a whimper from behind me. A freshman was scurrying out of the way of Darien's glare to allow Darien the first spot in line for lunch. Or he really could just be an intolerable bastard. o0O0o0O0o I sat in my room, notes spread out over the desk. I was doing my true work now: to mix and match these people until the most possible people were happy. The names were spread into 2 columns, boys on the left and girls on the right. For those who that didn't apply-I did work with gay couples, as long as I was informed of both parties homosexuality-there was a pile on the left to be dealt with later. I picked the first name at random from the right. Grace O'Shea. She was a popular girl, a bit flighty, but one of the better ones. Not a groupie of Darien or any of the jocks. She was only annoying because of a persistent optimism and naivet, along with a lack of ability to focus for long times. She would need someone to counter balance that. Maybe yes, Joe Marrato would do. He was less then popular-rather a lot less- but they still had a lot of things in common (Grace was a closet studier), although he was more grounded and jaded to offset Grace. I pulled out a sheet of blank, anonymous notepaper and began drafting my notes to them. She could work with a note giving a name, time, and place. He might take more effort, adding to that a list of her interests and what he should wear and do. The Thai place should do for the date. It had good food, but wasn't frequented by many students, which would be important to Grace. She wouldn't stand him up, though; no one stood a Matchmaker date up. It was well known that if

they did, the Matchmaker would no longer work for them, and very few people wanted to risk that. Still, it would be a good idea to let Grace become accustomed to Joe before they went public. Now all that was left was to find out when they would be free and work from there. Wouldn't be too difficult, Allan could give me most of the gossip on Grace and I had connections with Joe's friends. Give it a week, and that pair could be added to my successes column. "Em?" Allan knocked on my door. It was by now a well-established rule that everyone who wanted to go into my room knocked, and if it wasn't answered, you did not enter. That had taken a while and a few embarrassing moments to institute, but it had finally been burned into Allan's brain. "Yeah?" I threw down the cover of my desk and opened the door. Allan was holding his cell phone a little way away from his ear, looking at it and me in complete bewilderment. "Phone's for you," he informed me hesitantly and shoved it into my hand. Now I was just as confused as he was. Who on earth would be calling me on Allan's cell? Hardly anyone even knew we associated, and none of those would want to speak to me. "Laycha?" I nearly dropped the phone. Why the hell was Darien McGavern calling me?

Darien Okay, so maybe the whole idea was bad. Surely someone, somewhere, must be free. That begs the question, of course, of whether or not I would trust them with my house or brother, but still Although I don't really trust anyone, so none of that matters.

But it's not like any of this was my fault. I can't control if my father only now decided to inform me that Troy's usual sitter wasn't available for Wednesday, without regard for my plans tomorrow. And how the hell could I get a sitter on this short notice? I could ditch the party, I suppose, but that was a last resort. Greco threw the best parties, or at least the mock ones for weekdays the Greco told his parents were innocent. He was very good at getting everyone home without alerting their parents, too. So I really would not like to miss it. But there must be another way! The phone on the other end was ringing. I suppose I could find an alternate way of getting in touch with Emma, but this was the least effort and humiliation for me. Or so it had seemed until the phone started ringing. "McGavern?" Lex wasn't confused; true, I rarely call him, but not infrequently enough that it would raise questions. "Lex," I replied, rising and circling my room with quick steps, "Do you have Laycha's cell number?" I could hear his sharp intake of breath. That confounded him, I could tell. It confounded me too. "I can just give the phone to her," he suggested, suspiciously for Lex. So he didn't want me have her number. Why was he so protective of her? "That's fine. Can you do that now?" I agreed. No use in risking Lex's nonexistent ire over something that trivial. "I'll get her. Hold on a sec." The sounds of his clomping steps echoed through the phone. SO Lex was near Emma at, I glanced at my watch, 7:00. Weird. What were they to each other? My circling hurried. I could hear a knocking through the phone lines, then soft negotiations to get Emma to open her door. Not only was he with herm but he was in her house. I wonder, I wonder.

Finally the phone changed hands and I could hear Emma's softer breathing on the other side. "Laycha?" "Darien?" For one moment her shock shook me out of my nerves-not that I was nervous, I don't do apprehension, this was just a weird interaction- but then she recovered and I armed myself for the inevitable battle. "What do you want?" "Are you doing anything Wednesday evening?" Well, that was smooth. At least now it's all out there. Emma didn't say anything for a long moment. I hadn't stopped moving since I picked up the phone. "Why?" she broke the silence with her suspicions. I nearly laughed in relief. Trust Emma not to jump to horrific conclusions. "Because I am in search of a babysitter for Troy," I explained haughtily. "And I'm your choice?" she drawled, "I'm honoured." "Seriously, Laycha," I retorted, "The regular sitter called in busy; it's Alfred's day off; no other service I can find will take a job this short notice, and I-" 'have to go to Greco's thing," she interrupted, "I know. But why me?" My mind had stopped at her knowledge of my schedule. "How the hell," I began, but she cut me off again. "Allan's going too. But why me?" Finally, an explanation that made sense! "Because you were the most likely person I knew to have no plans for tomorrow," I responded.

"You know you have girls who would fall over themselves to get in line to help you in any way possible. So I repeat, and stop being factitious, why me?" Despite the fact that I didn't understand her vocabulary, I could get the gist of that command. "True," I agreed with more than a touch of my usual conceit, "But have you seen those girls? I wouldn't trust them in my house or with my brother for an instant." "So you trust me?" she immediately asked. "More than them," I chuckled disparagingly, "But that's not hard." Her scowl penetrated the distance between her house (wherever that is) and mine. "You sure know how to flatter a girl," she retorted. "I know. So?" "I'm not sure," she said, but I was almost certain she was just taunting me now. She had all the cards, she could afford to. "Look, Laycha," I spat, getting sick of this game. It was usually fun, but I was serious for once, "tell me yes or no, I need to find someone soon." She laughed. Laughed, at my annoyance. She had a really bad habit of doing that. The nerve. But if there's one thing Laycha has in spades, it's nerves. "Of course I will," she cooed. I shuddered. That tone was even scarier coming from her then any of my groupies. But then her voice changed back into its usual brisk tone, "Don't have anything better to do tomorrow, you were tight." From anyone else, it would have been a fatal admission of weakness in our war of wits. From her, though, it was only offering Tantalus a single grape.

"I know," I replied with the same casual arrogance. I could almost feel her eyes roll. "So, 6 tomorrow, my house?" I confirmed before she had time to take offense and back out. "Sure," she agreed. "Good. See you then." I had almost ended the call before she retorted. "No, we still have more to talk about." "What?" Despite my lazy tone, I was getting slightly worried. She sounded too smug to bode well for me. She was grinning evilly, I could tell. "We haven't discussed price yet," she said sibilantly. I nearly groaned. o0O0o0O0o I collapsed into a chair after a long bargaining session with Laycha. WE had finally picked a mutually satisfactory price, mainly because I really didn't care; it was just fun to argue with her. A crinkle from my pocket reminded me of the Matchmaker's note I had picked up earlier. I pulled it out to read.

Touch, Darien, Touch. But you still need better lines.


First Laycha, then the Matchmaker. Good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?

Chapter 11

Emma I took a deep breath as I walked up to the McGavern Manor. Last time I was here, I had been so focused on figuring out how to convince Darien- well,

manipulate Darien- into working that I had rung the bell and was ushered inside before I could be intimidated. This time, though the massive pillars and rococo decorations more then slightly overawed me. I, in my ancient jeans and baggy, comfortable sweatshirt, had no right to be anywhere near this place, according to the house. And honestly, the house's opinion was beating mine. I glanced at my watch. 5:59. No point to waiting, it would just start me off on a bad foot. Well, worse foot. Troy had seemed nice, but who knows how Darien had influenced him since then. I rang the bell, hearing it toll faintly in the house. Feet pounded to the door and yanked it open. "Come in," Darien ordered, nearly dragging me through the entrance hall to the family wing, "Right on time. Good." "You're welcome?" the hurry of this was confusing me slightly. He finally let go of my wrist in the immaculate kitchen. "So, money's on the table if you want anything, well, anything in reason, there's stuff for dinner in the fridge, my cell number and other emergency numbers are posted by the phone, I should be back by midnight to relieve you, his bed time's 9:00 and don't let him con you into anything later, feel free to sleep or do whatever after he goes to bed, just don't burn down the house," I was nodding, absorbing all the information he was spitting at me with an ease that came of long hours of taking orders as he finished, "got all that?" I nodded. He raised an eyebrow skeptically, but didn't contradict me. "Good. Troy can tell you anything else, or worst comes to worst you can call me. But that's emergency only. Do not call me otherwise. Where is Troy, anyway?" "How should I know?" I drawled. He was in too much of a fuss to care about the implied insult. It was rather amusing, actually, a 16 year old, arrogant, bastard of a boy acting like his brother's mother.

"Rhetorical question," he responded off-handedly, "Troy! Come down here!" "Coming!" the boy's higher voice wafted down the stairs. "He has to do his homework, too," Darien suddenly turned to me, "Don't let him get out of it." "Okay," I shrugged, "Now if only you paid that amount of attention to your own work." He turned the full force of his seductive almost smirk on me. I had seen girls literally swoon from that look. It had no power over me. Well, I didn't let it have nay power over me. "Well, at least now I have one A." I rolled my eyes. "Practicing your seduction tactics?" "I don't need to practice," he retorted haughtily. "Well, just manage to get here with your pants on by midnight," I replied mockingly. "You know you would rather them off." "And preferably sober," I added, pointedly ignoring him, "And do me a favour and keep Allan in check? He's supposed to give me a ride." "Will do," he saluted sarcastically, tossing his dark blonde hair. Troy trotted down just in time to cut off my witty retort. Pity, it would have been a zinger, but Darien immediately shifted back into mother-hen mode. "Here's Emma," he announced, "You know each other. I've got to go. Have fun, children."

"Because the party can't start until he gets there," I muttered to Troy in a very audible voice. He tried to hold in a laugh, but it exploded out of him. Darien gave me a scowl and ruffled his brother's hair. He disappeared with a parting, "Be good, kid!" from the hall, followed by a, "that didn't mean you, Troy!" I rolled my eyes and turned to face the boy. He was beaming up at me, his expression as different from his brother's habitual smirk or scowl as day and night. "So," I asked, leaning on the counter, "What do you want to do?" He shrugged, still grinning broadly. "I dunno. Can I have dinner, please?" "Sure," I opened the fridge. A massive array of foods that I had no idea how to even begin to prepare met my eyes. What did Darien think I was, a freaking chef? I turned back to Troy, "If you can tell me how to make anything in here." He hopped off his stool and walked over to another cabinet, laughing under his breath. "Macaroni and cheese is okay," he told me, tossing over a box of Kraft . I caught it easily and looked dubiously at the instructions. "I think I can manage this. But I warn you," I admonished as I peered around for a pot, "I can burn water." "That's okay," he perched on a counter stool as I put the water on to boil, "So why are you baby-sitting?" "Your brother called me in desperation," I replied distractedly, focusing intently on the stove.

"So this is all a favour for Dar?" he asked, resting his elbows on a countertop so smooth I was nearly afraid to touch it. "No, I wanted the money too," I carefully added the noodles to the water, cringing for the inevitable disaster. "You go to Dar's school, don't you? Then why do you need the money?" What was this the Spanish inquisition? "I said want, not have. And not all kids at that school are rich. There are scholarship programs." "But you came here 'cause Dar asked, right?" he pressed. God, obviously Darien's persistence was genetic. "No, because I wanted the money and I could get a good deal out of him." I poured the water into a colander, not even killing myself in the process. "So, do you like Dar? At all?" His attempts at matchmaking were amateur, to say the least. It was a sapling speaking to an ancient oak in that respect. "He's not as bad as I thought," I admitted without thinking as I tipped the noodles back into the pot, "But I never thought much of him at all." "Oh," Troy's face fell a bit, "Do all the girls at school like him?" "Basically, except me," I shook the cheese into the pot and stirred cautiously. "Do I have to act like him to get girls to like me?" Finely honed instincts made me forget momentarily about the food and smirk at the boy, whose bright blonde head was resting on his hands. Someone was having courting problems "Want to tell me the lucky lady's name?" I inquired with a grin.

"Alexa," he replied mournfully, voice muffled by his hands, "But she won't even notice me." "Look on the bright side," I suggested, setting down the bowl of mac and cheese, "then she doesn't dislike you. And I don't think your dinner is burned." He took a bite, but I could tell he wasn't tasting it. The only taste on his tongue was the bitterness of thwarted affection. 'But both her best friends like me!" he exclaimed. I oohed in alarm and sympathy. "That is bad," I agreed, "but not insurmountable." He perked up, his head lifting so quickly I was almost afraid he would strain it or something. "It's not?" "Nope," I stated emphatically, "trust me on this, I'm good at it. I give you my word I will help you in anyway possible." Hey, he was a good kid, seemed worth helping. And Darien would be of no use. Troy's sunlit appeal was very different from Darien's brooding, bad boy magnetism. "Now, tell me everything," I commanded. "Well, we met in 2nd grade" he interrupted himself to take a bite of macaroni and cheese. A shocked expression came over his face as he swallowed. Had I poisoned him? That wouldn't be good. Damn, I knew I should have tasted it first. Or we should have ordered pizza. Pizza is always fun. "Hey!" he exclaimed, "this isn't half bad!" My ego jumped at least a foot.

Darien "Laycha?" I called softly as I strode into the house. She didn't answer, but she couldn't have heard me from here unless she had super sonic hearing or something. I walked quickly to the family wing. "Emma?" I called again, louder this time. Troy would sleep through it; Troy could sleep through a hurricane, a train wreck, and a tornado happening at the same time. She still didn't answer. She wouldn't have ditched, would she? I peered into the den and let out a relieved breath. Emma was curled into a ball on a chair, obviously asleep. I grinned and padded over to her, planning to shock her awake. AS soon as I got within a yard of her, though, she sat up, blinking sleepily. "Midnight already?" she yawned. I nodded. "Yeah." She yawned again and stretched, but didn't rise, instead, curling back up. "Has Allan left yet?" she asked, still bleary-eyed, "He better be coming soon, I'm tired." "You aren't going with Lex," I informed her. She raised her eyebrows. "Why ever not?" "Because last I saw him, he was well on his way to passing out." I couldn't tell her I really had tried to stop Lex, though I had failed. Lex and drinks were like magnets, they just attracted each other. I couldn't stop it, no one can. I may not drink if I'm going to look after Troy, but he obviously has no such scruples. But if I told Emma I had tried, she would think it was me caving to her demands.

"Damn," she muttered, "Guess I'm walking." She rose, but I moved to block her way out. "No, you won't," I stated, "I may live in a good neighborhood, but I'm not going to let a girl walk home alone at this hour." "What could happen to me?" I had never thought innocence one of her faults, especially not of something like that. "A lot," I replied, "So you'll have to wait for someone else to come home, and then I'll drive you." "I'll be fine," she spat, trying half-heartedly to get around me, but her anger was still half-asleep like the rest of her, "You needn't bother." "Yeah, I do." So I sounded a bit reluctant, anyone would f they had to stay up to drive some chit home. "You really are a gentleman, aren't you?" she drawled, curling back up on the chair. "Don't let it get around," I retorted. I couldn't afford people thinking I could be nice, after all. There was a reason not many people knew I had basically raised my kid brother. "Whatever you say. So when is someone returning?" "Alfred should be home soon," I told her, sitting down on a chair facing her. "Where are your parents?" she inquired. It seemed she was determined to talk, and I had nothing better to do until Alfred came back. I shrugged. "Somewhere."

"Won't they be home soon? Midnight is a long time to stay out." Damn her, no one is supposed to ask these things! "Maybe. Doubt it. They're on a trip." In all honesty, I had no idea where they were. All I knew was that they weren't home. Nothing more then that mattered. It's not like they ever cared where I was, anyway. But Emma didn't need to know anything about my family life. She knew far more then anyone else (except maybe Brock) already, and she most certainly was not going to learn any more. "You're lying," she informed me matter-of-factly. "No I'm not!" I snapped, stung. Why would she just assume I was lying? I mean, so I was, but she had no way of knowing that. "You can think that," she assured me. "I'm not," I muttered, trying not to sound like a child. But then curiosity got the better of me, like usual, "Why did you think I was lying?" "Your eyes," she replied. I had a feeling she was saying much more then she usually would have if she had been completely awake and I was prepared to take full advantage of that. I'm only a gentleman to a point. "What about them?" Was she a stalker? The whole studying my eyes thing was pretty weird. Her own green ones glinted laughingly back at me. "They're only sapphire when you lie." Yep, definitely scary. Not even I knew that. And how could she tell? I think I would have noticed if she was staring into my eyes when I was lying. "How did you notice that?" I asked.

"Habit." I could tell that, despite her lack of awareness, I wasn't going to get anymore out of her. But it's still freaky. "That's weird," I observed. I was almost certain she wouldn't take offense at being called weird like any sane person would. "They aren't my eyes." So that wasn't what I had meant, it was a good job of twisting my words. And she had a point. "So now I won't be able to lie to you anymore," I mock whined. She chuckled, long dark hair veiling her face. "Just make sure to hide your eyes if you do," she laughed. "Wait," she sat up, "you make it a habit of lying to me?" "I lie to everyone," I confessed. She smiled wanly and curled back up. "You aren't the only one," she muttered in a voice that I guessed I wasn't supposed to hear. What was Emma lying about, exactly? "When is someone getting here?" she continued in a more audible voice. I glanced at my watch. 12:30. "Probably within a half hour," I informed her. She groaned. "What happened at the party?" she asked idly. "Nothing unusual," I commented. It was true, sadly enough. Her piercing eyes flicked over me. I had gone in my usual impeccable state, open black button down over a blue t-shirt and jeans with hair ruffled just enough to be becoming. I had come back with my hair a complete mess and clothes in the same state of disarray. "It looks like you had fun," she observed dryly. I smirked at her.

"Well, I didn't drink, but when the girls do" I trailed off suggestively. "You're a pig." It wasn't even like she was telling me something I didn't know, her tone suggested that she was simply reiterating a fact that everyone knew. "I am not fat!" I exclaimed, purposely misinterpreting her words. She threw a pillow at me. I caught it and chucked it back. She put it underneath her head thoughtfully. "You really are, though," she continued, "You just aren't aware of it. Yet." "Oh?" "You don't see it, do you?' she said. What don't I see? I hate people who don't define their antecedents. "The girls who cry because of you. Who shut themselves into the bathroom stalls after you drop them. Who fade away after you discard them like a used-" "That doesn't happen," I denied emphatically, "The girls I do stuff with don't care about things like that." "Mia Smith." I winced. She had to bring that up, didn't she? The one time- And it's not like it was my fault anyway! R so I always tried to convince myself on those white 3 AMs. "A mistake," I spat, "a fluke." "No," she contradicted, "Just a more obvious incarnation of a pervasive plague." "And what's that plague called?" I joked, though I could tell she wasn't joking. But I was doing my best to turn the conversation. "Darien McGavern." "That's Darien McGavern the third," I corrected with a grin. She sighed.

"I'm not kidding Darien," she warned. "Well it's not my fault!" I exclaimed, than continued in a mutter, "It's the damn Matchmaker's." "What?" she snapped in surprise, "Why hers?" "If all these girls weren't asking to get set up with me, the problem wouldn't be there." She laughed, a long, hysterical, going-to-suffocate-if-you-don't-stop-laughing sort of laugh, silent but obvious. "You're so arrogant, Darien," she chuckled when she could breathe again. I sneered. "What do you mean?" She sobered and looked at me with huge, unreadable eyes, as wide and unblinking as a cat's. "So arrogant," she repeated in a quieter voice, and I had a notion that she wasn't speaking to me anymore. I wasn't about to ask her about it when she abruptly changed the subject. "When is someone getting here?" Only to happy to leave the subject of my... indiscretions, I looked at my watch. "15 minutes ago," I admitted. She sat up. "We have school tomorrow," she observed. No shit, Sherlock. "Yeah." "I need sleep," she added. So does every human being, I really didn't see a point. "So..?"

She unfolded herself from the chair and stood, stretching. "I'm walking home," she stated flatly. I rose as well and pushed her down onto the couch. "You'd fall asleep in a ditch," I informed her, grinning at her obvious weakness, "Sleep here." "Here!" "Yeah," I shrugged, "I'll drive you home or to school or whatever tomorrow. I won't tell anyone, even." "Like I trust you," she muttered, looking mutinous. She knew she had no choice, though. I wouldn't let her out of the house alone, and she quite obviously needed sleep. I left her to make the couch as comfortable as she could and walked to my room. I set my alarm clock conscientiously for a half hour earlier than usual, to give Emma time to get home, and settled into bed. Emma's accusations ran through my mind. I wasn't that bad, was I? Had I really become something like that? I tossed and turned with that on my mind. I couldn't sleep, couldn't close my eyes without Mia or Emma's accusing, enigmatic eyes appearing before me. Finally, I rose and stalked to the den. If I couldn't get her out of my head, I would at least make her suffer with me. Emma was lying on the couch, deathly still. Her skin was so pale in contrast with her dark hair and clothes, and in the shadows it looked inhumanly so. For a minute, she didn't move, and I was terrified my instinctive worry was right. Then I noticed her shiver and cuddle into her sweatshirt more, and I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding. The haunted illusion was dispelled.

I padded silently in. this time, she didn't wake when I got close. I grabbed a blanket lying next to her and covered her with it, then returned to my room without waking her. I fell directly to sleep.

Chapter 12

Emma I blinked awake with no idea of where I was. I wasn't a morning person at the best of times, and after having had 7 hours of sleep in the last 48 hours, I didn't have a clue what was happening, except that the morning sun never, ever, cut across my eyes in my room like it was doing now. I lay still a moment, trying to wake up and recollect myself, stuff started to come back to me. The leather beneath me reminded me of where I was. The McGavern Manor. I had slept over at the McGavern Manor. Somehow, my sleep drenched mind couldn't wrap itself around that simple fact. It only comprehended one thing. I had to get out of here before people could see me and jump to extremely wrong conclusions. As silently as possible- and that's the silence of years of training- I slipped out from underneath the blanket and folded it neatly on the couch. I didn't recall going to sleep with a blanket, but that was easily put down to an exhausted brain last night. This morning. I cringed at the thought of what I might have told Darien. My insomnia didn't often catch up to me enough to get me that out of it, but when it did, I had no control over myself. I could only hope I hadn't revealed too much, but I had only the vaguest of memories of what we had said. Grabbing my backpack and sweatshirt, I scurried down the long, empty corridors to the front hall, glancing at my watch. I had time to stop back at the house before school, if I hurried and skipped breakfast. Mmm breakfast. The wafting

smell of bacon and eggs drifted through the halls, catching my attention. I fought the urge to follow it as I entered the front hall, but just as I was about to step foot in it, the butler materialized in front of me. Oh great, so now he shows up. He couldn't have done that last night, of course, because that would have been good for me. "Would Miss like some breakfast?" he offered. For all its polite phrasing, it wasn't a suggestion, and I was too weak-willed to resist the smell even if it had been. I trotted obediently after him as he led me to the kitchen, where I was brought up short by a woman sitting at the table, calmly nibbling at a piece of toast. She looked me up and down with crystalline blue eyes under perfectly plucked eyebrows. I could feel her condescendingly taking in my obviously slept in clothes and hair that for once almost managed to be messy. "Who are you?" she demanded with arrogance worthy of her eldest son. Still, I smiled and put out a hand for her to shake. Being rude to people in power was never a good idea, and she came off as the kind of woman whose bad side was a mortal place to be. If I hadn't been ashamed of being a total dork, I would have called her a sorceress: chilling, powerful, beautiful, and with vaguely menacing air. "Emma Laycha," I introduced myself. She gave my hand a quick, dismissive shake and then dropped it as if it was repulsive. "Of course, Lexington's new step-daughter," she remarked. I concealed my surprise that she knew who I was, but her sons did not, "Why are you here?" I slid into a seat at the counter as Alfred set a plate down in front of me. "I was baby-sitting Troy and my ride home turned out to be unavailable. BY the time someone came back to give me a ride, it was too late for me to leave," I replied coolly. This woman was intimidating, yes, but I could manage to stay on my feet.

"Oh?" she imbued reams of meaning into that one syllable. Her eyes ran up and down me again, and though I couldn't read any emotion in her face, I knew where her thoughts were going, "And where did you sleep?" I smiled icily at her, for this battle I could win. I had proof that I had slept on the couch, if she cared to look at the couch. "On the couch." "I am certain you did," she returned in tones that contradicted her statement. I chuckled without any humour at the pure absurdity of what she was thinking. "I assure you madam; I want nothing your older son would offer me." Her eyebrows rose into perfectly coifed hair. I continued to eat; making sure it was as daintily as I could manage. Darien I would annoy by scarfing down my food, but this woman was above such petty wiles. "If I may inquire, why were you baby-sitting?" she queried, couching nosiness in polite terms, "Surely Jack gives you everything you want." "I'm sure he would," I agreed loyally (and, as an added bonus, truthfully), "But I prefer the independence my own money brings." "Sensible," she admitted. Hiding my glee at getting this woman to praise me, I tried to recall what I had heard about Mrs. McGavern. Her husband's full partner as a CEO, I remembered, people often used her as an example of how women were on the rise in the business world. She had worked her way up the corporate ladder through skill and cunning alone; she had been her husband's business partner before she was his wife. She continued eating her toast as I finished my bacon and eggs. I rose and placed my plate in the sink. "Thank you, Alfred," I told the butler, who nodded enigmatically, "It was delicious."

"My pleasure," he replied simply, whisking away Mrs. McGavern's plate before she had a chance to even consider clearing it herself, if she had even been intending to, which I doubt. I picked up my backpack and turned to leave, nodding my farewell to Mrs. McGavern. As I reached the doorway, a commanding voice called me back. "Wait, girl," she ordered imperiously, "I will take you to school. It is on my way." I returned her calculatingly charming smile with my own seemingly open one. "Thank you, but no," I demurred, "I would prefer to walk." As I left the room, I could have sworn her smile was real. o0O0o0O0o Allan stomped up to me the minute I entered the school, usually joyful face dark with anger. "Where were you?" he demanded. I rolled my eyes. "I slept over at the McGavern's," he opened his mouth, but I overrode him, "and it was on a couch, thank you for your confidence in me. I didn't really have a choice, seeing how someone forgot to pick me up." His eyes widened and he slapped himself on the forehead with a massive hand, then rubbed it as he felt the impact. "Oh, shit, Em, I'm sorry, but" "Stow it." I shoved past him, stalking away from him with the greatest dignity I could muster. He ran after me. "I think I have some clothes in my car, if you want," he offered placatingly. I turned. He knew my weakness for cleanliness.

"I'm a bit smaller than you," I pointed out patronizingly. He shrugged. "I'm sure you can figure something out." I sighed in exasperation, but my OCD-ness overcame my reluctance and I followed him nonetheless. What choice did I have? Rhi wasn't there to save me with a clever solution of how to make her much longer clothes fit me, and there was no one else I could conceivably borrow clothes from. No one else close to my size even knew I existed. He rummaged around in his trunk for a moment, than grabbed a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. They looked to be at least 5 times too big for me. "Sorry," he said as he offered them to me, "These are all I have." I groaned, but accepted them. Maybe if I found something to use as a belt, the shirt would work as a dress "Hey Lex!" a feminine voice called, than faltered as she approached, "Why are you, like, giving her your clothes?" I turned. Candy was trotting towards us-well, towards Allan. "Umm" Allan was staring at her blankly. She cocked her head in confusion, but that only made her shirt slip a little bit lower and Allan's eyes to glaze even more. "I'm in an unfortunate state of lacking clean clothes," I cut in smoothly, trying to save my step-brother from too much embarrassment, "Lex was kind enough to offer me some of his." Her eyebrows rose high enough so as to be lost in her short-cropped blonde hair. "Lex?" she observed, "You're quite a lot larger than her." "But no one else was offering," he protested, finally finding his voice.

"Like, no one at all?" "None," I confirmed. Her aquamarine eyes inspected me quickly, seeming to judge me, but not as Mrs. McGavern had. This was purely a surface judgment. "Well, now I am. Come with me." She grabbed my wrist. "No offense, Candy," I stood my ground, "But I don't think your stuff will fit me either." This is a good part of the reason I hate being so damn short. No one's stuff fits me, except my own. "I know," she agreed, pink manicured nails digging into my wrist, "But it's, like, closer. We can improvise." "Oh joy," I drawled. She grinned perkily and dragged me off, abandoning Allan at his car. "Don't worry," she assured me, "I'm real good at this sort of thing. I've had, like, loads of practice." "It's not you I'm terrified for," I retorted, "It's me.

Darien I glowered at the world from my slouch in the corne3r of after-lunch math. Well, t was before class, so no one was there to glower at, but if anyone had showed up, my rage would have driven them away. I mean, she was just rude. Disappearing after I went to all the trouble to actually wake up and get ready to drive her somewhere early-okay, so I still woke up at my usual time despite my alarm, she could have waited- before school even! And then she's just not there with the blanket all neatly folded so it seems like she never even was there.

But by far the worst part of the whole damned affair was stumbling bemusedly into the kitchen and having Alfred inform me with his damn completely dispassionate monotone that Emma had had breakfast with my mother. My mother! And not only that, but my mother seemed to approve of Emma! And that is so freaking messed up, because my mother likes no one except her husband. Not even her sons! And she certainly doesn't approve of me, as she makes clear in no uncertain terms. But she approved of the nobody-Emma, I mean. Emma's just a low-class plebian who actually works. During high school! How not high class can you get! And yet my mother approves! I was so deep in my angry ramblings that I barely noticed someone enter the room. When the sound of metal scraping on linoleum finally alerted me to their presence and I glanced over, I could see Emma slouched in her usual seat across the room, reading as per usual. My glare strengthened. How dare she sit there so innocently, like she hadn't done anything, and with me in the room, too! I pushed my chair out so violently it fell over and rose, storming over to her with no degree of subtly. She only looked up when my shadow blocked her light. She crossed her arms deliberately over her chest after carefully marking her page and closing the book. "What do you want?" she asked impatiently. Impatiently, as I if was in the wrong! ME! "Why did you just disappear this morning?" I demanded, glaring down at her with all the force years of ruling everyone who came my way bequeathed. She met it without any of the usual caving. "Disappear?" her confusion seems honest, but I knew from experience she was a very good liar, "I left, yeah, and I didn't think it worth waking you." "I told you I would drive you," I spat. Look at her, trying to act all clueless. The sad thing was, if I hadn't known perfectly well she knew what I was talking

about, I would have believed her. But as I said her words, her confusion cleared slightly. "You did?" she asked. I nodded curtly. She knew perfectly well I had. She shook her head apologetically, tucking a loose strand of her dark hair behind her ear, "I should have warned you, I was completely out of it last night. You could have told me all your deepest, darkest secrets and I wouldn't remember them right now. It always happens when I'm that tired." "Sure it does," I drawled, rolling my eyes condescendingly. "What?" she snapped, scowling, "It does!" "I know," I assured her in patently false terms. She inspected the cover of her book. "What are you doing?" I asked, curious despite my anger. "Checking to see if any of your sarcasm dripped onto my book," she informed me with a bright, empty grin. "Ha-ha, very funny," I replied, glaring at her, "But it doesn't mean you were telling the truth." She rose so the height difference would be slightly (and only very slightly) less. I can still glare at her down my nose, though, so it didn't really matter. "I am telling the truth," she stated so dangerously that I might have been scared had I been paying attention, but as it was I was simply gaping at her. "Laycha," I heroically resisted the overwhelming urge to laugh, "What are you wearing?" She glared and attempted to sit back down, but I grabbed her arm to keep her upright. When I saw her green eyes mentally murdering me, I lost the battle and cracked up.

Emma was wearing a pleated light grey skirt that went down to a little above her knees, a white v-neck long sleeved shirt, and a pink sweater. Pink. This on a girl who I had never seen in anything lighter than navy and by no account would ever wear a hint of pink. The sheer incongruity of it all, along with her death stare, kept me laughing until the bell rang and I retreated back to my seat in the surge of other students entering. And the best part was she didn't get in a word edgewise. Not that I wasn't still angry. I was seething as I sat through class, sending her murderous looks as she answered the occasional question (inevitably and annoyingly correctly). She just looked so... different that it was impossible not to break into hysterical laughter. When class finally ended, I didn't manage t catch her after she left, shooting out with a speed I could never manage. For a freaking genius, she didn't seem to want to stay in any of the classes for long. I didn't manage to catch her alone again until last period, when I was skipping French and she well, I assumed she had free, because I couldn't imagine her skipping a class. She was standing in front of a bulletin board, apparently studying one notice very closely. I slid up behind her silently, and leaned down to mutter in her ear. "Thinking of entering the talent show?" Before I knew what happened, an elbow in my gut made me trip backwards. "Hell, Laycha!" I cried, "I didn't deserve that!" She pulled me back to my feet with a barely hidden smirk. "Oh, that was you! Sorry, it's just instinct," she apologized brightly with absolutely no sincerity. I glared at her, but she only met it with a freakily perky grin that revealed absolutely nothing about how the hell she was that fast. "Bitch," I muttered.

"Same to you," she replied pleasantly, going back to studying the flyer. "So are you?" I pressed, leaning over her to look at it, my head directly above hers and my arms imprisoning her between them as I braced myself against the wall. "No," she replied curtly, ducking out underneath my arm, "I just wanted to see when it was." "Obviously not," I continued without seeming to hear her, shifting to lean with my back against the wall, "You don't have any talents to showcase." She had been walking away, but when I said that she turned back, eyes glittering evilly. "Oh no?" she replied monotonically, "Care to place a wager on that?" "You're on," I agreed, shaking my hair back away from my eyes, "What's the bet?" "That I can get into that show," she replied, taking a step closer towards me, "What are you prepared to lose?" "Why don't you name an amount," I suggest only slightly maliciously (hey, the anger was still very there), "I need to know that I'll actually get the money." "An amount?" she chuckled menacingly, "You are so closed-minded, Darien. Why don't we make it more interesting then money?" Now I was getting slightly scared. I had already witnessed this girl's fertile imagination. I wasn't sure I wanted it turned on me. "Like what?" I asked cautiously.

"Oh, how about," she considered a moment, "When you lose you have to come to school dressed in drag. And wear it the whole day. And if anyone asks, you tell them the truth." Harsh. But the talent show wasn't for almost 8 months, not until June (our school is OCD about rehearsals and tryouts and stuff), so it's not like I would be cold or something. And she might forget. And anyway, there was no way I could lose, so it was perfectly fine. Nothing Emma was good at could be put on a stage. "And when you lose," I retorted, "You have to profess your undying love for me. In the middle of the lunch, in the cafeteria. And everyone has to be listening." Eyes sparkling with a evil light, she held out a hand. "Deal," she declared. I shook it, squeezing as hard as I could. She didn't even wince. "Deal," I agreed. I let go of her hand. She didn't show that it hurt from the pressure I had put on it, but rested it on her hip. "So," I continued, changing the subject, "How did you get those clothes?" She shuddered theatrically. "Your groupies got a hold of me," she said, crossing her arms self-consciously again, "I think they think I'm their new doll." "You're not exactly a Barbie look alike," I observed, inspecting her with a lazy eye. "That just makes them have more fun being, and I quote, 'creative'" she retorted. I snorted, only a bit viciously. It served her right for disappearing. The revenge seemed enough, or even a little bit over the top. I wouldn't wish some of those girls on my worst enemy.

"Then I suppose I'm not angry anymore," I announced. She sneered. "What makes you think I cared when you were?" I let a slow, seductive smile spread over my face as I leaned down so my face was nearly level with hers. "Babe, no one can not care about me." She rolled her eyes and stalked away. I followed, unwilling to give it up. She was far too much fun to needle. And it was weird; she didn't react like everyone else. Most other girls would have instantly agreed with me once I used that look on them. For someone so unworldly seeming, she didn't react like most other bookworms I saw. "See, you care in not caring," I insisted. She kept walking, ignoring me rather more successfully than most. The only way to get her to pay attention would be to shock her. "Want to go to Lex's party with me?" I inquired in mock-seriousness. She spun so quickly even I was surprise and had to amend my statement. "You know I was kidding, right? "Allan has a party?" she spat, taking a tangent that I didn't expect. "Yeah." Why did it even matter? It's not like she would be invited. "When?" she demanded, eyes narrowing perilously. "Saturday." Her face lost all emotion, except for her cold, hard emerald eyes. She glanced around the hall. As fate would have it, Lex walked out of a classroom as the bell rang at exactly that moment.

She stormed away, people moving subconsciously out of the way of the physically unintimidating girl, pushed away by force of will alone. Lex looked up and met her eyes, then glanced past her and looked at me with brown eyes filled with terror and a plea for help. She marched up to him and grabbed his wrist. Watching the tableau, I didn't blame him at all for being scared. "Allan," she hissed, "Are you having a party this Saturday?"

Chapter 13

Emma He immediately began to backpedal. "Umm... well, it was kinda," he sputtered, "a spur-of-the-moment uh-" "Allan, be quiet," I snapped. He shut his mouth obediently. A faint chuckle emanated from the boy behind me. "Was I mistaken, or was it a distinct clause in our contract that you inform me of any and all parties you're planning to throw!" "We had a contract?" Allan asked, diverted momentarily by confusion. "Not a written one," I explained impatiently, "But I assumed some things were understood as of last summer, that being one of them." I could sense Darien listening, as he must have followed me over to Allan. Damn. I might have to censor what I was going to say-not a huge loss to be sure, as I wouldn't waste my best insults on someone who wouldn't understand them- if I didn't want Darien to figure out the relationship between me and Allan. I was actually amazed he hadn't already discovered it already, but maybe his snobbery

and the surety of his intelligence blinded him. But still, it would be difficult to chew out Allan without giving anything away. "Yeah, I guess it was," Allan keened, "and I was going to tell you, I really was-" I stared at him incredulously. By now, it should have gotten through even his opaque mind that I didn't care about excuses unless they were extremely valid, which these most certainly were not. He should have realized that every word he said was just making my ire grow. "Dude, shut up," Darien advised idly, though underneath his bored tone I could detect a hint of amused interest, "I don't think it's working." "I can handle this myself, McGavern," I spat, not deigning to move my glare from Allan, who was by now glancing around for an escape route, to Darien, "Thank you very much. Allan. When and where?" "Saturday," Allan muttered shamefacedly, looking down at his feet-not that there was a huge difference between that and looking at me, the obscenely tall lummox, "Home. 8 to whenever." I groaned, not that I should have expected anything less. Allan was a darling boy, but he didn't get that what he found fun others might not. This meant that all of Saturday morning would be spent helping him set up, during the night I would be secluded in my room, and Sunday afternoon I would be cleaning up. Not even including the time put in convincing mom and Jack to leave the house, that took up my entire weekend- I wouldn't even have time to get to the gym like I had been planning to. "Allan," I chided resignedly, "You know Jack said you were supposed to ask me now." "Why would-" Darien asked, but I cut him off, spinning on the balls of my feet to face him with a sickly sweet glare.

"Darien, please, can't you see I'm having a confrontation here?" I cooed with a patently falsely ingratiating smile, "The time for questions will be later. Maybe. He met my glare squarely, even if I could notice his well-concealed flinch at my tone. "Maybe?" he asked. I frowned at his arrogant tone that said all too clearly that he was not expecting to be denied. "Probably not. Actually, no, the time for questions will be never," I retorted haughtily, turning back to Allan with a final flick of my hair. He was grinning apologetically at me, and I could feel the fury leeching out of me. "Allan, you know I'm the one who's going to end up doing all the work," I scowled, but he was standing up straighter, the terror I was instilling in him ebbing with my anger. When I wasn't on the warpath, intimidation was not my strong point. "I know," he replied contritely, "But Can-people were telling me to last night, and I guess I must have said yes, and now I can't back out without lots of people being angry at me" He was beaming like a puppy that had just eaten my shoes and was certain it was a great accomplishment, so proud of his feat that I couldn't be mad anymore. Damn dogs and their earnest innocence. Give me a cat over a dog any day. I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Oh, fine," I growled, and Allan perked up immediately. "Really Em? Thank you thank you thank you! Thank you soo much!" he exclaimed, nearly jumping up and down with glee, "So, McGavern, you coming?" "Yeah," Darien agreed languidly, shifting instantly back into his too-cool-forschool persona as he got the limelight, "If I have nothing else to do."

Allan either didn't notice or mind the implied insult, but I both noticed and minded. Not to mention that Darien's arrogance got on my nerves sometimes- a lot-all the time- and he needed to be notified that he didn't rule the universe. "Well," I retorted, turning a gaze as cold as his won onto Darien, my features changing noticeably from the exasperated fondness I used with Allan, "Glad to know his little shindig is worth a small portion of your exalted attention." And this coming from the guy who I had heard admit that 'Lex threw the best parties'! It's not like I was stalking him or anything. But he never noticed me, so he talked in my presence and I just happened to overhear. It's amazing how people assume you can't listen and read at the same time. "You should be," Darien replied coolly, not appearing to catch the sarcasm. "Oh," I drawled, "I am." That alerted him to my insincerity. HE took a step closer to me, so I had to tilt my head really far back to keep my eyes locked challengingly on his now blue-grey eyes. "Good," he spat. Allan was looking between us like it was a tennis match, his eyes flicking back and forth. "Dude," he moaned, "I am so lost." I broke the staring contest-not that he won, I was just getting bored- to roll my eyes and reach up to pat him on his chestnut head. "You should be used to that by now," I mockingly comforted him. Darien snorted, breaking his arrogant mood, but Allan grinned thickly. "Thanks, I" he began, but then, cutting himself off, "hey, that wasn't cool!" "What wasn't?" I dead-panned and Darien smirked. Damn that boy for being so confusing! I could hate him one minute for his arrogance and self-absorption, and

the next moment he would be almost tolerable! Couldn't he just put himself in a nice little box like everyone else? "You just got owned, Lex," he observed. Allan groaned comically and slapped his head with a huge hand, still grinning. "With little Emmy here, I'm used to that," he admitted, ruffling my hair playfully. I sneered at him and slapped his arm. He jumped and rubbed it. "Hey, Em!" he cried, "That fucking hurt!" "You deserved it," I informed him, coolly ignoring his cry of pain. I've always believed that pain is the best teacher. "Do not call me Emmy." Darien was chuckling sardonically. I would have noted the rare laugh, except it was at my expense. "What?" I snapped. "Emmy?" he inquired, eyes shifting to an almost black shade as he tried to keep in his laughter-rather more successfully than many other people. Then again, he was a past master at concealing his emotions. "No," I spat decisively, "never." "So Emmy," he continued, eyes glinting with concealed mockery, "Think Lex's elusive step-sister will be at the party?" "I told you," Allan broke in with a nervous glance at me that I hoped Darien hadn't noticed, "She didn't go to any of my other parties, she's not going to this one." "I didn't ask you," Darien replied, not taking his eyes off of me. He was obviously getting some sort of sadistic pleasure out of this-not that I could blame him, I would be too. "I asked Emmy."

I turned back to Allan, conclusively cutting Darien off from the conversation. "Allan, did you make any plans yet? We only have, what, two days?" I asked. He shook his head, his straight brown hair flopping with the motion. "I got in real late last night." "Really?" I corrected him under my breath. People need better grammar, especially with adverbs, and I had made it my goal to alleviate that burden on humanity's ears. Some people find it irritating. I said tough luck. Allan grinned good-naturedly at me. "Really late," he amended easily. Suddenly, something occurred to me. "Allan, did you sleep at Greco's?" I asked, smile draining off my face. His chocolate brown eyes were confusedly concerned. "No, I went home," he replied bemusedly, "Which was a good thing, 'cause Diana was real worried because you didn't come home." Damn, I had forgotten to call. Mom was usually pretty good at letting me have my independence (at least now that things had changed), but staying out all night without calling she was not fine with. I would be in for a long rant from her when I got home. But that was not the point right now. "Were you drunk when you were driving?" I asked pointedly. Allan groaned. "Em," he whined, "don't start this again.' Darien was leaning against a wall, just watching us, judging without saying anything. It was rather unnerving. I mean, I know that's what I do a lot, but it's a lot creepier when a 6 foot tall, undeniably handsome guy does it than when a plain, tiny girl does. And I didn't like being assessed by anything as objective as his eyes.

"Allan, I've told you before, you're going to get hurt. Or hurt someone," I admonished softly, trying to hide my all too real concern. He might be certain of his own immortality, but I knew better. I flinched as I tried to hide the memory of the bright flash, the burning heat, the searing pain"Come on!" Allan exclaimed, breaking through my memories. I sighed gratefully. I did not want to remember that. I had blocked it out for a reason. He continued, "It's not going to happen. Nothing's going to happen. "You can think that," I snapped and stalked away, leaving the boys to wonder why it made me so angry. They didn't have to know why I was so sure that something could happen. I yanked open my locker, letting it slam against the one next to it as a way to relieve my anger. The Matchmaker box fell down, and when I quickly scooped it up again, a heavy, quality piece of notebook paper caught my eye. Darien had written back to the Matchmaker.

Maybe I do. But nothing I could say would impress someone like you. Rhyme completely not intended. I won't add bad poetry to my sins.
The note broke me out of my anger as I gave a small giggle. Then I realized what I was doing and cut off my mirth. It was just more evidence of the annoying bipolarity of Darien's personality. He was infuriating and amusing, intriguing in some way which I couldn't identify and had never seen before.

Darien I had never found the Lexington's house to be particularly impressive. Sure, it was big, nearly as big as mine, and richly decorated, but it paled in comparison with my house, that had the riches of Croesus plastered across its faade.

And I liked it for exactly that reason. My house-never home- was beautiful of course, but it was a cold, arrogant beauty that reflected the inmates' attitudes. Lex's house was inviting and reflective of his own personality-obviously wealthy and well bred, but not stand-offish. "Dude," Brock yelled, already trotting up to the door, "Hurry up! We're already late!" "So what?" I followed him at a much more dignified pace. Sure enough, I could faintly hear the pounding music and voices from inside. Good. There weren't too many cars here yet, so I would be noticed when I entered, but I wouldn't be the first, something a make a point of. Being the first is tacky and pays the party a tribute none deserve from me. We didn't bother to ring the bell; Lex wouldn't be able to hear it. Instead, we strode through the entranceway (same sort of tiling as mine, so of course I made no noise. Brock was only slight louder) and into the rooms where he always held his famous parties, far away from the locked family wing. "Hey, guys!" Lex slurred slightly, appearing next to us. I raised an eyebrow skeptically. The party had only started a bit ago-well, an hour ago- and he it was obvious he had already been drinking heavily. "Hi Lex!" Brock returned cheerfully. I glanced suspiciously at him. He sounded far too happy to really be having fun. But what could be wrong? It sounded like something had triggered a Rhianna memory, but I couldn't see anything that might. Poor guy, to have been so completely destroyed by one girl-well, two. But he would have his revenge. I was making sure of that. Lex pounded us both on the back with massive, drunken strength. Brock, nearly as huge as our host, didn't seem to feel the force of the blow, but I, a few inches shorted and significantly lighter, had to exert all my willpower not to stumble. "Glad you guys are here," Lex announced, "Everything's where it always is."

We thanked him, not that he probably heard us, and allowed him to stumble back to the dancers, where one of the girls (Candy, it looked like) yanked him to her and he complied with a stupid grin covering his face. Me and Brock made our way over to the bar and grabbed one of the beers sitting underneath it as we cased out the scene. Or at least, I chased out the scene. Brock was being even slower than he usually was, an accomplishment I didn't think possible. "Who's your prey tonight?" he asked off-handedly in a monotone. I shrugged. The girls here might need a few more drinks in me before they looked attractive enough for me. "I don't know," I told him, "Depends on who shows later." He nodded at a brunette who had just pranced by, miniskirt and halter so small that they were effectively not there. "How about her?" he suggested. "Not yet," I disagreed immediately. Honestly, I have some amount of class. Or at least standards. When I was sober. "Oh." He obviously wasn't all there, his mind-what there was of it- far, far away, "how about" he trailed off. I rolled my eyes. "What is up with you?" I demanded. He couldn't meet my eyes. "Nothing." I laughed cruelly, trying to jolt him out of his daze. "Never be an actor, you are incapable of lying," I informed him maliciously, glaring at him with me fiercest 'tell me everything' look that I had picked up from me father, "Tell me. Now."

He met my eyes for the first time all evening, and I noticed-with a hint of guilt- that his grey corneas glowed in contrast with the bright red veins of his bloodshot eyes. "I can't stop thinking about what day today is," he confessed, taking a large gulp of beer and setting it down, empty, on the counter. He grabbed a new one before continuing, "I just can't fuck stop!" Today? I hadn't thought there was anything special about it, not like Valentine's Day or something. I glanced at my watch for the date. November 7th I nearly winced at my stupidity. Or course. 2 years ago today, Brock had gotten the note that set him up with the so-called love of his life. But honestly, how am I supposed to remember every single Rhianna related date? I'm not the one who's freaking obsessed with her! Still, Brock's forlorn eyes broke even my diamond shell. I tossed him another beer and gripped his shoulder in a wordless expression of the sympathy I couldn't afford to express. "Come on, man," I coaxed to comfort him in the only way I knew how, "Let's get smashed and forget everything." o0O0o0O0o "Have you seen Lex?" Candy screamed over the deafening music that had gotten progressively louder as the hours wore on. I shrugged, taking a small sip from my 2nd beer of the night-I didn't know why, but despite my words to Brock I didn't feel like drinking tonight. I set the can down and lit up a cigarette, inserting it into my mouth before I answered Candy. My face never shifted from the brooding scowl the pulled girls in as if I were a magnet.

"Probably passed out somewhere," I guessed, "He was drinking enough to knock out a bear, as per usual. Why?" Her face fell slightly, a bit of the excited light going out of her eyes. "No reason," she said unconvincingly, "He just, like, promised me another dance and he hasn't yet." "You know Lex," I replied idly. She was the only one of the girls who hung around me who was worth anything, but she nowhere near qualified as someone I cared about, like a friend or something, and thus didn't deserve my full attention, "He can't keep away from alcohol. He probably drank so much he forgot." "I know, damn him," she pouted and leaned against the bar next to me. She made a visible effort to smile. "Is, like, that other girl here?" Sometimes, her ditziness takes even me by surprise. She can act surprisingly sane, on occasion. Still, antecedents are useful things that she seemed to despise. "Which one?" I asked. Some girl sidled up to me and pressed herself up against me. I disentangled myself from the girl and pushed her away, avoiding her drunken gaze. Even drunk, that girl wasn't worth the effort. "The one you've been, like, hanging out with a lot lately," Candy explained, her only reaction to the momentary distraction a slight furrow of her brow that smoothed out quickly. "I haven't been hanging out with anyone unusual lately," I disclaimed, but she shook her head. "Yeah you have," she insisted, "that girl who Lex talks to sometimes. I dunno her name. The book girl?"

As soon as she gave the last epitaph, I realized who she meant. I scowled at what that mean, though. "Emma?" I replied incredulously, "Nah, she wouldn't be here. Good thing, too, all she would do is sit there and read or something; she wouldn't fit in here. And I haven't been associating with her that much!" Candy giggled (I winced at the sound. I hate giggly girls, that's one thing Emma has going for her-she rarely giggles) and took a long swallow of her drink. "Yeah you are," she contradicted with over the top merriment, "You two are like, always arguing." "That's not hanging," I corrected her loftily, "I do not hang out with poor girls who have no concept of respect and no consequence." She gave me an odd look, but all that probably meant was I had used words too big for her to comprehend. "Right," Candy clearly didn't believe me, although I had said nothing that wasn't true. She continued, "I don't know about her not fitting in here, though. She's nice enough. I snorted. Emma, nice? Not the one I knew. That one was fucking evil-to me at least. She didn't seem nearly as antagonistic towards Lex. "I'm gonna go find Lex," Candy announced, and with a flick of her bright hair, she was gone. I looked around at the hordes of drunken teens. Brock was off in a corner drinking to forget, and there was no one else in this entire house I cared remotely about. Somehow, I found myself wishing Candy wasn't right about Emma fitting in here. Emma wasn't a part of this world where I could do nothing to help a heartbroken friend or a drunken one, where all that mattered was money and

looks, and there was nothing to do but drink for release. And somehow, that didn't seem nearly as attractive today as it usually did. o0O0o0O0o I sat up from my place on the floor, where I had apparently dropped off-not from drink, because for some reason I couldn't tonight, but from sheer exhaustion- at probably around 3. The music was off, and no one seemed to be there and awake. Party must be over, I decided as I rolled to my feet. People were passed out all over the floor, but none was moving. Wait, that was wrong. Someone was. A slim form was leaning over something on the floor, reaching out to take it. "Emma?" I asked, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Chapter 14

Emma Saturday afternoon I double-checked Allan's party preparations. It's part of the reason I hate Allan throwing parties; I'm the one who has to deal with everything: provisions, getting the adults to allow it and leave for the night, organizing clean up, trying not to let Allan convince me to smuggle in more drinks, and the like. Allan may say it's his party, but in reality it's mine. Which is a good thing, as any party I throw would be much better than anything he could organize. I don't know how he managed before I showed up. After the party preparations, which I invariably forced Allan into, I restocked the mini-fridge in my room with everything I could possibly need: snacks, drinks (non-alcoholic), and some leftover Chinese, just in case. I didn't want to be forced to go out of my room (and adjoining bathroom) by starvation. Or anything else short of a fire. Or perhaps a flood, though I'm on the third floor. Or an earthquake. Or- never mind, I just didn't want to appear at the party

until the wee hours of the morning, when everyone was either asleep, gone, or too drunk to notice me. At five to 8, I herded Allan out of his room, where he was still primpingsometimes I think he primps more than any girl I've ever known, including Darien's followers- and into the area of the house where he held his parties, the showy areas. I retreated back into the family wing, locking it securely behind me. I returned to my room, locking that door as well for added security- I don't know why anyone would want to break into the family wing, but it can never hurt to be certain. Finally, my usual party night preparations were complete, and just in time. I could hear Allan's jovial voice greeting someone only moments after I entombed myself in my room. I threw myself down on my bed, fiddled with a remote until my alternative rock was on just high enough to drown out the hip-hop that made its way through the floors separating me from the party, and grabbed a book from one of the shelves that lined the room. I attempted to read it for somewhere around an hour, but after realizing I had read the same page 3 times, it seemed pointless to continue a hopeless case, and I tossed it onto the floor, where it joined the myriads of books that had suffered the same fate since I was last bored enough to reshelf them all. I was bored. Very bored. Very, very bored. Glancing at my watch, more out of the need for something to do than from any real desire to discover what time it was, I groaned. It was only 9:30. I had a good 4 hours before I could even begin to consider going downstairs, I knew myself too well to think I'd fall asleep, and it was too late to call Rhi. There was absolutely nothing to do. My gaze fell on my closed desk, and I rolled off my bed with a moan. I sat down and tried to work on Matchmaker business, but I couldn't concentrate with the faint sounds of partying emanating from downstairs through my long turned off music.

I didn't know why it was so hard to ignore the sounds of people tonight. Usually, I would read happily, or work on something or another, until 3ish (if it was quiet by then), when I would go down to make sure no one was dead, or in very bad straits. But this evening something was different. I felt, if I dared to admit it even to myself, lonely in a way I hadn't been since Rhi moved. I had been content in my own company for so long, I didn't know why I wasn't anymore. Maybe it was that lately, with all the communicating- arguing and mocking, to be sure, but still communication- Darien and I were doing, halfremembered memories of having a friend present had been evoked and- screw this, the moment I start even beginning to think of McGavern as a friend of Rhi's standing it's long past time to call her. She can deal with the unholy hour it must be there. "Em?" she answered my call on the second ring, not groggily as I'd expected, but hoarsely, as if she had been crying. My initial plans of whining were instantly abandoned. "You okay, Rhi?" I asked immediately, leaning against the headboard of my navy 4-poster bed, curtains closed and the phone on speaker beside me. At least with the party going on, it wasn't like anyone was going to be eavesdropping. "Do you know what day it is?" she replied, nearly choking on the words. I could hear a rustling, and I was certain she was wiping tears away from her grey eyes. She always insisted (falsely, as everyone but her knew) that she looked like a hag when she cried. And one thing Rhi could never stand was to resemble anything like a hag. "What day it is?" I started to inquire, but I cut myself off as realization struck me with all the force of a cannonball, and, snatching the phone up to my ear, "Oh, shit, Rhi, you okay?" "I guess," she sniffled, and I guess the tears were starting again, "It's just so hard, you know?"

No, I didn't know. I didn't know what it was like to have found a match who I was completely compatible with and who I believed myself in love with and then had to leave him behind, hating my memory, for something as stupid as an arranged marriage. I didn't even know what it was like to think myself in love. And I never would deceive myself so, if I had anything to say about it. "I would imagine," I said in an attempt to balance truth with sympathy, "But isn't it getting better with time?" "A bit," she admitted, "But not much. I mean, everything reminds me of him. Every time I see Baslon, I can't help but compare him with Brock. It's just not fair!" Suddenly, with her usual instantaneous mood swings, her sorrow and regret morphed into fury. "I don't want to fucking marry him! And aren't arranged marriages illegal?" I didn't know, but it was nothing she hadn't asked me a thousand times before. "Why the hell can my parents just drag me into their family castle that I didn't even fucking know about because my dad's damn older brother got himself disowned and suddenly I have a 'family responsibility' to break up with my darling boyfriend and get engaged to a bastard like Baslon! And" I had to move my phone away from my ear so as not to be deafened by her spazzing that broke the sound barrier. But she needed to rant to someone, so I simply put the phone down and resigned myself to a long tirade that I would intersperse with monosyllabic expressions of sympathy. At least it's not boring. Finally, she wound down, taking a few deep, shuddering breaths, ad I could hear her anger ebbing back into nostalgic grief. "But honestly, Em," she almost whimpered, sounding as lost as any teenager ever was, "I just want to come back. To Brock, to you, to everyone." Well, at least she mentioned me. "I know, Rhi," I repeated, hoping I didn't sound as hopelessly helpless as I felt, "But you only have another year until you're of age and can go to college and leave your traitorous family behind."

"I don't know if they'll let me!" she contradicted, desperation tinting her mournfulness, "How much education do you need to be a trophy wife, after all?" "You'll escape," I stated with far more conviction than I had, "And you'll come back and fall into Brock's waiting arms, but he'll drop you and be so horror struck that he did that you'll have to kiss him to make him feel better, and he'll probably drop you again he'll be so awestruck, and then" I trailed off as my aim succeeded: she started giggling at my image, albeit wetly. "I wish," she agreed regretfully. We sat in silence for a moment, as I tried to ignore the faint noises of the party that I could only hear if I strained. Rhi finally broke the silence. "Why are you calling me this late, anyway?" "Allan has a party and I'm bored to pieces," I informed her, shifting restlessly so I was sprawled across the bed, one ear in the phone, the other muffled against the thick blankets. I couldn't hear anything but Rhi. "Why don't you go join them?" she suggested as if it would be the easiest thing in the world, "I know Allan would love you to." I sighed. Did I need to have to have this argument with everyone I knew? You would think one of them would get the point. Eventually. "Because I wouldn't fit in," I informed her with exaggerated patience. "No," she disagreed, one of her rare perceptive moods coming onto her at just the wrong time, as usual, "that's not why. You went to those kinds of parties in middle school, and you fit in just fine. Better than fine, the way you told it." I bit my lip, rolling over uncomfortably. Damn her for knowing me so well. And for having known me since we were little, and having heard my stories of those parties.

"Well, yeah," I allowed reluctantly. No point in lying to her when she knows she's right, after all, "But I gave those up." "I think that's the real reason you don't want to go downstairs," she mused, "It's not that you think you wouldn't fit in, but that you're afraid you will." I sat up, hopping off the bed to pace circles around the room, or a somewhat circular path as I navigated my way between the stacks of cloths and books. "What do you mean?" I prevaricated. She was right, of course, as she well knew I knew. If I got lured back into the whirl of action and excitement Darien and Allan lived in, getting out semi-intact wouldn't be as easy the second time, and the first time wasn't easy. "You're scared if you hung out with Allan you would get back to all your old habits," she said with all the needless persuasive power she could muster, so as not to spark one of my outraged tirades that I tend to go on when offended. But it was needless; I knew she was right, so I wasn't offended, and there was no point in arguing, "I know," I admitted, throwing myself back down on the bed, staring up at the canopied top, "But I don't want anyone else knowing that." "Why not?" she asked innocently, though she well knew my answer- I had told her a million times. I scowled, and though she couldn't see it I was sure she could hear it in my voice. "Because then their arguments might convince me," I claimed insistently, "And I really, really, don't want that to happen." "Stand strong sister, stand strong!" she laughed, then she sobered, and I could hear her real concern for me in her voice, "But one party won't make a difference, and you're lonely. I know you are. Go have some fun."

"I'm fine!" I protested, sitting straight up on my bed and punching it for emphasis, "I'm not lonely and I have fun!" "And you're lying," she overrode my objection with implacable certainty. "Honey, I know you are." "Fine, I am," I pouted, annoyed that I had to admit even that weakness, "But honestly, Rhi, why would I want to go interact with dozens of smashed teens when I won't let myself find the same release?" "To laugh at them?" she suggested with a giggle. I grinned. She knew me too well. "As much as I would love to," I admitted with a sigh that was part regret, part nostalgia, and part relief, "No thanks. It would open a bigger can of worms than it would close. I'm fine just going down after and speculating. My imagination is funnier than anything reality could be." She giggled again, then something cut off her mirth. "Just when you do go down," she said sadly, "Make sure Brock's alright, 'kay?" "I'll make sure he's not dieing, sure," I agreed cautiously, running a hand through my hair distractedly. I really hoped no one was in a bad way tonight. I didn't feel like dealing with that. "No. Make sure he's actually okay," she insisted firmly, the brick wall that I knew she had in her coming to the fore, "Because it's all my fault if he isn't." "Ill try my best," I replied. I had read too many fairy tales to promise anything, let alone something like that. How was I supposed to comfort I starcrossed lover? "But now you have to get to bed." Screw my boredom; sometimes Rhi needed someone to take care of her. "You'll be fine?" she asked worriedly, 'I am tired, but-"

"I'm an insomniac, you know that," I told her with a chuckle, "I don't need sleep. And I'll be fine if you will." I say down at my desk and pulled it open. "Now go away." 'I'm fine," she insisted, trying to hide a yawn and failing. I could almost see her embarrassed flush. "Okay, I'm exhausted." "Dream well," I ordered her, and then hung up. I glanced at the desk, covered in notes and homework and stuff I had to do. I closed it and opened my closet, taking out a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. If I was going to be in the talent show, I would have to get back into practice. o0O0o0O0o I meandered downstairs eventually, the sounds of the party having died a while ago. I wandered through the sleeping people, looking idly for either people in some sort of danger, Allan, or Brock. As I made my way through the chaos, my foot hit something lightly, and I pulled up my baggy pajama pants to see what it was. A beige box with an all too familiar logo was lying on the floor. Shit. I leaned down to make sure I wasn't hallucinating, but I was correct in my estimation. What the hell was it doing there? Allan knew I couldn't abide cigarettes. I let my hand brush over the once well-known sight, giving into even that little temptation. I looked around, but from my quick assessment, everyone was dead to the world. I had been good for so long. So painfully long. I had resisted the temptation that Allan, Rhi, and Darien had spread before me. A little surrender wouldn't matter, I could give in this once. I reached down to take one- just one, certainly. No more. I could only take one, I wouldn't want any more. Now if only I could really believe that before my hand, independent of me, took a cigarette

"Emma? What the hell are you doing here?" Startled and embarrassed at having been caught in my lapse, I dropped the pack.

Darien Pure panic fluttered across her face for an infinitesimal second. When I was more alert, and not half stunned by her appearing out of the darkness like some sort of wraith, I would wonder what caused that spilt second of fear. But at that moment, I was shocked by her mere presence, and minor anomalies in her facial expressions didn't concern me. "Making sure no one's dead," she spat after the panic cleared, picking her way delicately through the bodies littering the floors, where people had simply found the most comfortable place they could. I didn't notice then, though afterwards I would kick myself about it, how she had neatly sidestepped my real question. "I don't think anyone's hurt or anything," I assured her, though I wasn't too sure about anything just then. She nodded distractedly and paused in her path to turn our star soccer forward onto his side so if he threw up (unlikely, but possible) he wouldn't choke on it. "Well, you aren't the best witness," she countered, sounding much more awake than I was as she threw a blanket over some girl who had curled up in only a mini-skirt and tube top, "You seem to have passed out early." 'Me? Pass out?" I scoffed as well as I was able, "I can hold my alcohol. I just didn't drink much. I fell asleep legitimately." She snorted. In all honesty, given my reputation, I didn't believe myself either. "I'll believe that when is seeing it." She continued her slow circuit of the room as I tried to drag a witty comeback out of some recess of my mind. Needless to say, I didn't succeed. Why did

someone I actually had to think with have to wake me up? Why couldn't it have been Jess or someone else mindless? "Where's Allan?" she asked suddenly, her voice echoing weirdly in the resting room, the stillness only broken by me and her. The quiet noises we made were absorbed into the overpowering stillness of so many sleepers. "I lost track of Lex after an hour or two," I admitted, dragging myself slowly off the ground. If Lex hadn't invited her, which would be the only reason she would have to be here, then why was she here? Unless she lived here "You're no help," she snapped, continuing her inspection. I shrugged, more comfortable now that I towered over her again. 'He's probably in his room," I suggested, giving the room a quick glance and finding no sign of him. She frowned, surveying the room through oddly luminescent eyes that seemed to have no problem seeing in the gloom I was straining my eyes in. She bit her lip, something I noticed she did when she was worried or nervous, as she made her way to the corner, looking down sympathetically at someone I couldn't make out. "I hope so," she murmured distractedly, leaning over the hunched figure draped in the corner. I stumbled over to her, trying not to trip over too many people, as I attempted to see how had drawn her concern. Brock was slumped over an empty can of beer, with more cans littering the floor around him. His dark auburn hair fell lankly, as opposed to its usual loose curls, reflecting its master's state of mind. His head fell back in a way that looked horribly uncomfortable. "Why is he like this?" Emma snapped at me, dragging one of his arms over her shoulder and easing him to his feet. She buckled under his weight, and I moved instinctively to take the other arm, her words jolting my own conscience awake.

"He had issues with today," I informed her defensively, trying to both impress upon her my helplessness in this situation and to stop her from asking any more questions. His love did not deserve to be mocked like a had a feeling she would do, "He drowned his sorrows." She relinquished the weight to me gratefully and led me over to one of the couches that were shoved against the wall. As I staggered over, Brock's weight throwing me off balance, she evicted the senior lying there with a casual shove and motioned for me to lay Brock there. "Poor guy," she muttered with a hint of what I almost thought was regret, but that didn't make any sense. Even if she did know what had been done to him, she would have nothing to regret about it "He didn't deserve any of this." She turned to leave through a different door then she had entered from, but I stopped her before she could go. "Where are you going?" I asked, levering my friend onto the couch with difficulty. Was she abandoning me here with Brock? Not that I cared or anything, but still And why was she here in the 1st place? She had never answered my question! "To get him some aspirin," she explained with a quick smile that made me think she had heard the hint of desperation in my voice, "and a glass of water. I'll be right back." She dissolved into the dark hallway, and a moment later I could hear her rummaging around. How the hell did she know Lex's house so well? It was almost like she lived here but that was too absurd an idea to even consider. I looked meditatively at the sleeping people around me, then at the door Emma had disappeared through. She sounded like she was having difficulties, by the quiet swearing I could hear, and she might take awhile I slunk over to where I had first seen her and peered around the floor, trying to find whatever it was that Emma had been so ashamed of. A little blackmail

never hurt anyone, and she seemed to know so much about me and I knew so little about her that I needed something to even the score. And curiosity never hurt either. Satisfaction brought back the cat, after all. But I couldn't fine anything- there was nothing there to find. Only a bunch of blankets and bodies. After a fruitless, hurried search, I heard running water. Apparently Emma had found aspirin and was getting a glass of water. She would be back soon, and I had a feeling that she wouldn't be happy with me searching the ground-not that I cared what she felt. But I wanted her to take care of Brock. Disappointed by my failure, I spun on my heel to stalk back, and nearly tripped when my feet planted on a loose rug. As I hastily recovered, glancing around surreptitiously to make sure no one had noticed, I saw a small box my slip had uncovered. I bent down to look at it. "Darien?" Emma called, walking back in. I jumped, and mirroring her earlier actions, dropped the box. She gave me an odd look as she noticed my jump, but she was busy arranging Brock comfortably on the couch and didn't see what I had dropped. "Come help me. Brock's too big for me." I obeyed, any suspicion of why she might be there driven out of my mind by my musings on why Emma was so affected by a cigarette pack. I mean, sure, she seemed to disapprove of them, knocking mine out of my hand whenever he saw me with one, but disapproval was different from shame. Yet another mystery to add to her tab. "Emma," I asked as I sat down on the couch next to Brock and she arranged the aspirin where it could clearly be seen it was his, "Why are you doing this?" I had thought I had been fairly clear about what I meant, but that could be put down to the bit of alcohol that was still in my blood. Her hand stilled for a moment after I had asked the question, then kept moving. She covered Brock with a careful, almost maternal motion I didn't think her capable of before answering.

"None of you drunkards would notice if someone really was in trouble," she said, once again avoiding what she well knew was the real question. I was getting sick of that, though. I wanted a straight answer, for once. "No," I shook my head emphatically, feeling a bit like my brother as my hair swung into my eyes, "that's not what I meant, and you know it. Brock wasn't that badly off, in comparison with some people here. Why are you taking care of him? Why are you here in the first place?" I'd like to see her get out of that one. She turned in the doorway, her back to the family wing, her dark, baggy sweatshirt and pajama bottoms blending into the darkness that surrounded her until the only part of her that was really visible was her face, glowing in contrast to the blackness. "It's not for him, nor Allan," she said slowly, as if considering her every word. A slow grin spread across my face, as I considered who else she could be doing it for, but she cut me off before I could speak, "And not for you either." Damn, she knew me too well. "It's for" she hesitated a moment, biting her lip, "Old promises, I guess. Good night." And she vanished into the hall before I could insist she answer my second question or clarify the first. Frustrated, I stretched out on another couch. She always managed to leave me with more questions than I had started with.

Chapter 15

Emma I reckoned everyone would be out of the house by noon, at the latest. Hell, I knew everyone would be gone, because if they weren't, I would force Allan to kick them out-literally. He can be very intimidating, if I'm there scaring him into submission. I had only managed to convince Mom and Jack to stay away (they deserved a lovely night out alone together, and if Allan had a few friends over

I'm sure we would be fine) until 4:00, and I needed time to clean up from Hurricane Teenagers. Well, to force Allan to clean up, anyway. I set up, he cleaned- it was a satisfactory arrangement for all concerned. So when I stumbled downstairs at noon (insomnia was fun, but I was not a morning person in any sense of the world), the surprise was extremely unpleasant when I found people still downstairs, and neither of them Allan. One was still asleep, as was only to be expected. The other, though, looked up at me out of alert blue eyes as I entered the room. "What the hell are you doing here?" I snapped instinctively. Darien's eyes flicked up and down me, and I could feel him taking in the inordinate amount of skin me tank top and pajama pants were showing- not that I had anything worth taking in. I crossed my arms self-consciously across my chest all the same- where was my sweatshirt when I needed it?- but his eyes fixed on mine. "Why shouldn't I be?" he retorted, returning m scowl, though not with the same moodiness. No one could match me morning mood- morning being whenever I happen to wake up- not even the notoriously broody and bad-tempered Darien "Because I have to get Allan to clean up," I spat, resisting the urge to emphasize my point with a childlike stomp, "And everyone has to leave!" I was so not in the mood for this! "Everyone is gone," he observed with what was for him good nature I hate morning people- as he gestured around the room. He and Brock were the only people left, but he put me in a bad mood equal to ten others. "I don't care. You have to leave!" I insisted, turning my back haughtily on him and stalking over to the closet where I kept garbage bags, conveniently within the area where the parties were held but able to be locked. "I'll leave when Brock wakes up," he bargained patiently, as if trying to placate me. Didn't he get I was not in a mood to be placated! "But I can't leave while he's here. And I don't want to wake him up."

He couldn't see the eyebrow I raised at the wall. Was Darien showing concern for someone other than his brother? What a surprise! All sarcasm aside, though, the knowledge that he was staying for a altruistic purpose, not just to annoy me, made me a bit less hostile. "Fine," I agreed curtly, irritated with having lost the argument. I spun and tossed him a bag, which he caught before he saw what it was. He looked at it in complete confusion. I rolled my eyes. "If you're here, you're making yourself helpful." I didn't leave any room for protest. He looked from the bag to the floor then back to the bag. He met my eyes, utterly lost. I snorted. "Garbage." I pointed to the floor, "Bag." I pointed to it with the other hand. "Make them come together." I brought my hands together, as if trying to talk to a very slow child. "I know," he spat, face set in an obstinate frown, "But I'm not doing it." His tone had been cordial: caring towards his friend and not all hostile towards me. But now he straightened and his eyes were hardening into a crystalline sapphire (the same color as his mother's) and the arrogant, smoldering rage that I hadn't seen in a while were resurfacing. Any sane person would have run for the hills. But sanity has never been my strong point, and I was not in a temper to deal with his pride. "Yes you will," I stated, eyes sparkling dangerously. I didn't care if he was the goddamn Queen of Sheba, he was either going to help me or leave. I would not hesitate to dump him out on his ass. "No I wo-" I cut off his protest with a shove into the opposite corner. I took a wide stance, hands braced on my hips, to block him in.

"Yes you will," I growled, HE stared at me in shock- not many people had ever seen me in an honest to goodness evil mood. I ignored his surprise, "And you will at least pretend to like it." My temper used to give even the bullyboys at my old school pause, and that was when I barely reached their waists. My temper wasn't as bad as it had been then, and Darien was cleverer than those thugs. He knew, despite his arrogance, that is was not wise to cross me in this mood. "Fine," he scoffed, bending down to pick up a piece of trash with the air of a cat forced to do a distasteful thing, but determined to let you know it was his idea all the time. I sort of wished I had a cat to compare him with. That would be an interesting study- Darien McGavern, boy or cat? A weak chuckle from the couch made Darien jerk straight up to face his friend, his lips twitching despite the murderous look in his eyes. "What?" he snapped. Brock laughed again and began to sit up, then winced as the full effect of his binge hit him. He lay back down quickly. "You. Cleaning." Brock chortled, his laughter only increasing at the homicidal look on Darien's face. "It's just so weird." "No kidding," I agreed, not bothering to hide my satisfied smirk, "But the maid look certainly suits you." Ha. Take that as a blow to your pride. "I am not a maid!" Darien yelled, sounding like a spoiled child denying that they had to go to bed, "I shouldn't even be-" "Dude," Brock interrupted, rubbing his temples, "Stop the loud noises." Darien shot me a positively evil glare and stalked over to his friend, dropping the bag to the floor as if it burned him. I managed to hold in my snort only by a horrid amount of effort. And he thought he was so mature.

"Are you okay?" he demanded of Brock, but despite the hostile tone I could detect real concern in his voice and eyes. I must have been getting better at reading him. Scary thought. "Did I do something really stupid?" Brock countered, avoiding what I knew had to be the real question behind Darien's query. Darien had to know about Rhithe only reason Brock didn't know about me was a specific request that I stay incognito. I did not want to be dragged into the circle of friends that Rhi began to run with. "You got totally wasted," Darien informed him, not pressing him about Rhi with surprising compassion. Or perhaps he just didn't want any sort of secret peripherally involving him to be aired where someone could hear it. "But you didn't do anything too humiliating. This time." Brock's face fell with mirth so calculated that I knew he hadn't actually forgotten last night, what had happened or why he was so depressed. My fists clenched around the bag. This was my fault- at east in part, I wasn't selfish enough to take all the blame- and I had no way to set it right. "Really?" Brock mock moaned, his face looking as lost- puppy doggish as Allan's ever had, "But making you pull me off table is so much fun!" I perked up, scenting a story. "Hey," Some of Darien's customary coldness was returning with the assurance of his friend's well being, "That was an experience I never want to repeat. You may not remember it, but I do. Too well. Not take the damned Advil so we can leave!" Only then did Brock notice the medicine I had set out for him last night. He did an almost comical double take. "Woah!" he exclaimed, amazement saturating his quiet voice, "Where'd that come from?"

"Emma," Darien replied, "She got it for you." Since when did he call me by my first name? Since when did that make me feel good? Brock blinked in confusion. I could see the wheels in his brain turning, albeit slowly. "But why is she here anyway?" he asked innocently, voicing the one questionwell, one of the questions- I really didn't want to answer. This one, though, I had been expecting since Darien had seen me pacing the sleeping party last night. I really dislike people who aren't so certain of their intelligence that they can see what's right in front of them. Darien opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again and turned

portentously slowly to face me, eyes glinting coldly in the morning sun streaming in the picture windows. "I don't know," he said slowly, dangerously. Oooh, the cold king voice. Terrifying. "Why doesn't Emma tell us?" I giggled weakly. I had really hoped he wouldn't go about this by a direct confrontation. I was an expert of half-truths and lies mentioned so casually that no one even suspected them, not people staring straight at me with too intelligent eyes and I only had one chance. Not to mention this was morningand have I mentioned I don't do mornings? "Wouldn't you like to know?" I retorted, chastising myself the second after that escaped my mouth. That didn't announce to anyone with half a brain that I was hiding something. And I could see in Darien's face that at this moment, he was using more than half his brain. "Yes, I would," he replied in the low, even voice that was even more intimidating than his shouts or growls, "So please, Emma, enlighten us. Why were you here, if not for the party?'

I bit my lip. I couldn't see any way to dig myself out of this hole. I suppose it was inevitable from the moment that Darien dropped his first note in the Matchmaker's locker that he figure it out Everyone else had me boxed into a set role and were sure there was nothing to be discovered, but Darien and I had been thrown together too much lately for him not to be curious. In fact, I was astonished he hadn't deduced it long before now- not that I hadn't been perfectly content in his ignorance. I took a deep breath. If I had to give this one up, I might as well do it straight out. Brock and Darien were still waiting, Brock's face screwed up in confusion and Darien's set in hostile curiosity. "I live here," I stated as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Didn't you know?" I grinned cheekily and turned to go wake Allan up. Behind me, I could have sworn I heard Darien's jaw hit the floor

Darien She lives here? I had known that she and Lex seemed to hang out during some evenings, and he knew where she lived, but living in the same house! That was outside of the realms of possibility! The only way it would work, unless she was a maid or something, which couldn't be- she went to an expensive school, and she didn't act like any help I had ever known- was if she was somehow related to Lex. And the only way that would be true was if she was Lex's stepsister My jaw dropped. The minute the thought even occurred to me, it was so damned obvious! The odd connection between them, the way Lex knew things about her no one else did- but not everything, how she managed to go to an expensive private school How had I not seen it before? How could I have been so stupid?

"I am such an idiot!" I exclaimed, hitting my head with my hand. Brock looked on, still lost. That made me feel at least a little bit better. At least someone else hadn't known. "You just figured that out?" Emma's mocking voice drifted back down the hall. I hadn't realized I had shouted so loudly- not that I was surprised I had. Damned girl and her secrets. "You didn't exactly help!" I yelled back, but she was out of earshot, or at least she didn't reply. That's right, she better run. No one makes Darien McGavern look like a complete idiot and gets away with it. Brock was staring at me, totally confused- as per usual. He had missed the point of that exchange completely. "Why are you an idiot?" he asked blankly. I rolled my eyes and collapsed onto a couch. I felt like such a moron, it wasn't even funny. This was not good for my self-esteem- not that it needed much help. Damn. Now even my thoughts were sounding like Emma. "Emma's Lex's stepsister, the one we've all been wondering about," I muttered between the hands covering my face. Brock's face cleared, then screwed up into bemusement once more as he found the flaw in that logic. "But I thought Lex's stepsister was hot," he pointed out. I gaped at him. Was his grasp of logic really this faulty, or was it just the hangover? "It's all been hearsay," I moaned, involuntarily replaying all the hints she had dropped, all the ways I should have known, "God, I'm an idiot!" "No you aren't," Brock replied absently, taking his medicine with a calmness I couldn't comprehend. The only way I could explain it was his not understanding what she had said. Did he not realize the magnitude of this revelation? The girl I had been mocking- for being poor no less- was anything but a nonentity! She-

she actually mattered! For something other than her own merit! The humiliation when that got out- or if she informed my mother, somehow. "This changes everything." I groaned. And it did. I could obviously no longer tease her like I had been doing- one of my main sources of ammunition was gone, in the first place, and in the second- well, she obviously had some motivation for keeping this a secret- what was she planning? She was apparently just another one of those girls, only with a bit more sense. "No it doesn't." Great, she was back. Emma walked back in with Lex trailing sleepily behind her- a view I took in with one, contemptuous glance before turning back to my silent self-condemnation. She handed him a garbage bag and, with a gentle push, ordered him to go clean up in the other room. That done, she strode over to me, holding the dropped garbage bag and looking inordinately mad that no work had been done in her absence. Like I was capable of doing anything- even if I had been any more inclined to take her orders. I didn't look up at her. I couldn't. I didn't know how to think of her. I needed more time to recategorize her to one of the girls I had been so delighted she wasn't. "How could I have missed it?" I spat to myself, still stunned by the blatant failure of my skills at perception. She heard the quiet comment, thought, and couldn't help but smile in satisfaction- I could hear it in her voice. "Because I wanted you to," she answered matter-of-factly, "If I had wanted people to know, I would have told them. Or, if I wanted to be more subtle, let Allan drive me home." "So you decided to keep it a secret just to humiliate me?" There, I had said it. The real thing that was rankling, beneath the anger of her not telling me. It was a violent blow to my pride, that I hadn't noticed something that should have been so damned obvious.

"Don't be so narcissistic," she scolded me, rolling her eyes, "I don't care that much about your humiliation." I snorted in disbelief. And she was constantly making fun of me for some other reason, of course. That made perfect sense. A small grin grew on her face, as if she could read my thoughts. "At least not in this case," she amended with a shrug. At least she was being honest. Now. Except for the whole lying to everyone, to me, for the past few years! Besides the impressiveness of that feat, I was certain she had to have had a reason for it. "So then what happened?" I inquired with a contemptuous glare, "IT slipped your mind for 2 years? It didn't occur to you to alleviate our curiosity? It didn't-" She cut me off before the full force of my icy rant could fall on her. A good idea- for her, at least. A good yell would have made me feel better. "Nope," she replied coolly, obviously not totally comprehending her danger. I was not known for restraint when my temper broke its bounds- I tried to avoid physical violence, especially towards girls, but she was pushing me perilously close to the edge. Except a hard glint in her eyes told me she did know exactly what she was doing. Stupid girl. She continued, regardless, "I kept it from you quite on purpose." "May I inquire as to why you perceived the need to shroud your life in shadows?" I drawled with false civility. My face didn't shift from its uncaring smirk even when Emma gave me an odd look askance. "Has anyone ever told you," she asked in a complete non sequitur- trying to distract me, no doubt, "That you get rather poetic when you get mad?"

I scowled at her. I knew of that tendency of mine- it came from learning that one of the few times my parents paid attention to me was when I used flowery language- but I did not appreciate her bringing it up. "Yes, actually they have," I retorted, "So why were you keeping your illusion?" We had lost Brock somewhere in the polysyllabic words. HE still didn't get why I was making such a deal, more the fool him. He was, as usual, looking between me and Emma in utter confusion. Emma glanced at him, than at Lex, than back at me, biting her lip. It was almost as if she was inspecting me for something. Finally, she nodded, making up her mind. Good for her. Like I care what she says. "Because I didn't want this to happen," she announced in a very nice non-answer. "What's 'this'?" I demanded curtly. I was not in the mood for the diplomacy conversations with Emma usually required. "You're thinking about me differently," she informed me as I spluttered in incoherent denial, the eyes fixed on me oddly regretful, "You think I'm like one of your groupies who has to want something from you or has less brain than a doorknob. I'm neither- I could never be either. I didn't want to be forced to live in a place with those people, so I didn't tell." "No I'm not-" my instinctive protest was cut off when I began to actually think about her argument (one of my greatest curses). She was, loathe as I was to admit it, correct- if you used her brand of logic. Before I knew this secret, my first reaction to Emma had been to beat her, or a reluctant appreciation of her intellect; when I learned it, I immediately assumed it was some sort of plot against me. But that wasn't Emma. I could tell that even with my brief knowledge of her. If she had wanted to bring me down- and I didn't think she would bother- I wouldn't know about it. "Okay, fine." I took a deep breath as my anger ebbed in the face of her hard logic. "But didn't-don't- you want the perks it can bring? The popularity?"

She shuddered theatrically, much to my confusion and Brock's delight. "Not at all," she averred, emphasizing the point with a cut of her hand against the air, "I would hate to be constantly in the public eye like you are. I wasn't raised to this- I'm a lower class girl at heart, Darien. I don't need to be any more. I couldn't function in your world of money and power. I prefer to sit in the shadows and watch." I gaped at her. How could she so easily marginalize something so important I couldn't fathom. I could comprehend not wanting to be the center of attentioncould empathize with it even, but she sounded as if she would give up all the money and the power that came with it in an instant. "And you do know," she continued in a conversational voice that, combined with the malevolent look in her eye, sounded as dangerous as anything I had ever heard, "That if either of you tell anyone, and I mean anyone, or write it down, or display it in any way, I will hunt you down and kill you. Slowly and painfully." Brock actually shrunk away from her. I couldn't blame him. When she was mad, she was scary, all 5 bristling feet of her. The cold dignity was even more intimidating- I didn't doubt she would do as she said. "So," I said into the silence the followed her proclamation, "Me and Brock-" I caught Emma's eye "Brock and I should be leaving now." As I reached the door, towing Brock behind me I needed time to absorb all this information- Emma appeared in front of it with an evil grin. "Oh no," she told us, hands planted firmly on her hips, "You didn't leave when I gave you the chance. You doomed yourself. I'm putting you two to work." As she shoved the garbage bag into my hand and dragged me to what was apparently my territory, not even I dared to disagree.

Chapter 16

Emma For once in my life, I really wanted vacation to be over. It wasn't that I disliked Thanksgiving, in the normal way of things. I've never been one to give up free food, especially good free food. It's just that the normal way of things was not what we were celebrating, not now that Thanksgiving was with the Lexingtons. But now all the Lexingtons, from their 90 odd year old matriarch to the littlest of babies that littered the floor (my step-cousins' kids), inhabited the house. To a girl whose Thanksgivings before this had always consisted of me, my mom, my grandmother, and a single uncle and cousin, it was all a bit overwhelming. The sheer amount of humanity- I do not like crowds. And their obvious disapproval of Mom did not help. They tried; I will give them that. All of them were making an effort to get to know Mom and me better. But neither mom nor I appeared to our best advantage in this formally informal family setting, with its own inside jokes and traditions. I was my normal quiet and vaguely cold self, and Mom was acting more and more feather-brained as she got more and more nervous. Add to that a dozen people talking at once, a grandmother's cutting remarks at our expense, and 2 lost men trying to side with everyone at once, and dinner was tense, to say the least. "Gather up everyone!" Jack boomed heartily, standing at the head of the table with Allan at his left hand. They looked uncannily alike: big and brown and jovial, "It's time for toasts!" The conversations ceased immediately, and everyone turned in their chairs to face him. Confused, I glanced at the cousin next to me- a girl about my own age who had been chattering at me for most of dinner- and finally began to pay attention to her.

"What's happening?" I muttered as genially as I could as everyone refilled their wine glasses- excepting the infants, of course, who had already been put to bed. She turned to me, chocolate eyes shimmering with excitement. "Oh, right, you wouldn't know!" she chirped in reply, keeping her voice low. She was one of the nicer ones- instead of making a joke out of my ignorance, she hid it. "It's like, the ultimate tradition. We go around the table and drink to what we're thankful for." She might have gone on, but Jack stood at that moment. "Ooh, look! They're starting!" Luckily for me, I was seated a good ways away from Jack. I needed time to think. Not that I had to come up with something to say- BSing had always been one of my strongest skills- but I noticed that after their toast, the person took a significant gulp of their drink. And I wouldn't do that. They had poured me wine as a matter of course- I suppose I should have been flattered- even though I would have preferred something else. I didn't think anyone had noticed I hadn't drunk anything- or at least, no one had thought it worth commenting on. But it would be obvious if I refused to drink to my toast- obvious and insulting to this hidebound family. But it didn't seem worth breaking 2 years of abstinence, either. "I'm thankful," the girl next to me announced with the ingenuous smile that ran in the Lexington family, "that we're all here again, this year with even more really cool faces that I hope are here to stay!" She took a long swallow amidst broad smiles and sat down. My turn. Joy. Taking a deep breath- as my coach always told me, it calms the nerves- I stood, holding my still full glass lightly in one hand, trying not to appear nervous. "I'm thankful," I began with the customary start, looking out at the sea- or at least it might as well have been a sea, there were so many people- of politely interested faces. I gulped (public speaking is not my forte) and continued, "I'm thankful for the new family I've acquired and the old that's been there through everything." I raised my glass to my mom, "Here's to you, Mom."

Mom beamed brighter than any of the candles in the chandelier as the coos rang through the room. I took a miniscule sip of the wine and sat down. No one said anything. I deflated in relief and success. "Well, drink to it!" Mrs. Lexington (Grandmother, as she insisted I call her) demanded authoritatively. All eyes turned to her, than continued on to me. "Grandma, she did," Allan muttered, trying to placate her. She would have none of it. Her strong features- the same ones as in her son and grandson- were set. "Not properly, she didn't," she contradicted, almost too regal to be querulous. But only almost. "She ought to do things right if she wants to be a part of this family." "But-" I cut off Allan's protest. I wasn't intimidated by her manner, and I had seen Mom's flush at her words. I could and would speak for myself- I didn't care what it brought me. "I'm sorry, Ma'am," I explained as courteously as I could, trying to keep the indolent tone that I usually used when angry out of my voice, "But I don't drink." A stunted gasp from the audience. "That's foolishness," she retorted matter-of-factly, as unconsciously arrogant as I had ever seen Darien, "Drink up. Nothing wrong with it. It's what the rest of us are doing. Or are you too good for us?" "Not at all, I'm sure," I attempted to keep my patience, but I was never a long-suffering person and my short thread was running dangerously small. "But-" "Are you squeamish 'bout it?" a new voice chimed in, all earnest encouragement. The whole table was staring at me now, as if I was some sort of foreign animal in a zoo. "First time? Nothing wrong with that. If you get drunk, we'll put you to be easy." "No, that's not-" someone else cut me off.

"No big deal, just drink!" "Come on, we need to get on with the toasts!" "Drink!" They were all gazing at me, confused as to why I was making such a large deal about something that seemed to them so small. They couldn't know why drinking was so abhorrent to me, why I had stopped. They hadn't been there. But still, all those eyes I hated being the center of attention more than anything, especially of audiences who, for Mom's sake and mine and even Jack and Allan's, I needed to impress with, if not my skill, at least my good-nature. "Fine." I announced, trying not to sound as vindictive as I felt. I don't think I succeeded; though- my cold voice cut through everyone else's like butter. "I'll drink to my new family." Into the silence my curt words produced, I downed the whole glass in one practiced chug and sat down, hard. I knew that skill could come in handy someday- at least this time it was good quality. I had always preferred wine to beer. A moment of shocked silence, and then the person on my right stood and broke it, beginning, "I'm thankful" The ritual continued, but any enjoyment I once had in it was gone. The tension was still lurking there, waiting to break out again- I had to leave before it did. I wouldn't be able to keep my temper a second time. I had just broken- sort ofa promise I had made to myself 3 years ago in the aftermath of blood and pain, and I could not deal with these too warm, too inquisitive people on top of that.

I fidgeted in my chair until the toasts were over, than I rose and snuck behind Jack's chair. Out of all the people here only he and Mom knew why I didn't drink- he would understand why I needed to escape. "I've got to go for a run," I whispered insistently to him. He didn't give me a second look, only nodded and aged with a grin, "I'll distract the old dragon." I returned his infectious Lexington smile halfheartedly. Allan gave me a weak smile of his own when he overheard. "You okay?" he asked, peering anxiously into my face. He had no clue why I was so affected, didn't even begin to understand, but that didn't matter to his doggish loyalty. He was worth 10 of me any day. "Fine," I managed to bluff as I adeptly slipped out of the gathering area of the house and into the family wing. I stopped in my room only long enough to toss the long, infernally formal green dress necessary for Thanksgiving with the Lexingtons onto the floor and pull on comfortable sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt. Creeping downstairs, I made my way out of the house with none being any the wiser. Finally, I was free. I took off down the street, my feet pounding rhythmically against the pavement. I didn't care about my usual light, silent step- my fury was channeled into the movement. AS my anger and frustration wore off, though, my sprint diminished into an easy jog I knew I could keep up for hours. Now this- alone, in the dark, with the night wind playing with my hair- was what I was truly thankful for. I let my mind wander, my feet choosing a path of their own accord. Today, that happened to lead past McGavern Manor (only a few blocks away). I wondered idly if Darien was having a good Thanksgiving. Knowing his family- or rather, knowing what I had heard in his hints and half-truths- I doubted it.

I settled onto a swing of the neighborhood playground, but didn't begin to swing. My feet traced patterns in the woodchips underneath the swing. Darien and I had begun an odd sort of acquaintance after the events of earlier this month. He knew one of my secrets- I had inordinate amount- and that drew us closer whether we liked it or not. We were school friends, bantering during school, or occasionally he would stop by the caf when I was working. It was relaxing not having to keep up a faade with someone other than Allan, and I think he enjoyed (not that he would ever admit it) someone who would argue with him with impunity. If I had been a bit more noticeable, the school would have been in an uproar, but I was just high enough on the social ladder to be an acceptable platonic friend. But- he confused me as not many others did. He respected intelligence, but thought more of money. He hated and guarded his parents. He was cold as ice, but loved his brother fiercely. Witty and amusing, cold and arrogant. His letters to the Matchmaker were cordial and courting, but at any mention of the Matchmaker his face would freeze with hatred. He was a bundle of paradoxes and"Need a push?" Well, think of the devil and he shall appear.

Darien I loathe Thanksgiving. There's nothing more to it. Everyone else is celebrating with their families, and I'm trapped in a horribly formal room with my parents and brother, pretending that there's nothing wrong with our family and we really do love each other. Occasionally there's someone else there as well, a cousin or protge of my parents, hoping for patronage. They're generally a few years older than me, but as easily quelled by one of my looks as any of my peers. We'll eat the many courses, make small talk about our unrelated lives,

and make believe that my parents care about Troy and me. A wonderful way to spend a holiday. Needless to say, Troy and I escape as soon as possible. Troy disappears first, slipping off somewhere in a way I can't emulate, and then I stalk out soon after. Not that it matters to my parents. They're always too wrapped up in their own conversations to notice, let alone care. My Thanksgivings are usually spent, not frolicking with my family like Brock and Lex describe, but in my room, alone. There's never any parties-everyone is with their families, and everything is closed. So my main pastime is staring out the window, watching the occasional car rumble past on concentration. That's why I noticed the body-shaped patch of deeper darkness running by the house. I watched it jog past as the only break in the monotony of the road, but I only noticed who it was when a street light glanced off her white skin and illuminated her long (for her short legs), determined stride. But what was Emma doing out here, tonight of all nights? While I wasn't as shocked by it as I once would have been- Lex's house (and her's) was only a block or two away- I still took me by surprise. For all her blustering, Emma was very much a family person. She should have been either at the massive Lexington family party that Lex tells about every year, or with her fatherwherever and whoever that was. Not only that, but, while I had seen Emma running before, she had never run like this. Her head was down, her feet heavier than usual, and she was nearly sprinting. But she wouldn't appreciate any sort of interference on my part, as she had long since driven through my thick skull (her words, not mine). Questions offended her and helpful suggestions made her angry, so I would leave her alone. It would be her fault if some creep decided not to take Thanksgiving off. the street outside with unwarranted

But- a breath of air would be nice, and a bout of Emma's dry wit might wash away the sickly sweet pleasantries of my so-called family. I could probably still catch up to her I shrugged a jacket on over my polo and slipped on some sneakers, scrawling a note for Troy (if he happened to wake up) on some scrap paper before I pounded down the stairs and out the front door, ignoring the non-existent calls to hold me back. Emma was long gone, of course, but I had seen which way she was going and the neighborhood wasn't that large- it was too exclusive. I finally caught up to her at the playground, and I stopped as she settled onto a swing and sat without swinging. I crept up behind her, pleased that for once I had managed to sneak up on her. I don't give a damn if she was stone drunk; I'm not letting her forget this. "Need a push?" I asked into the ear, waiting for a shocked squeal, or, at the very least, a jump. AS per usual, though, she didn't seem surprised. All I got to slake my confidence was a sharp intake of breath- but that was enough to prove to me that she hadn't noticed me before. She turned to me with a lopsided smile that didn't reach anywhere near her eyes. "I don't think it'll hold my weight if I do anything more strenuous than sit," she admitted with a dubious look at the plastic-wrapped chains that were holding her up. That look only betrayed that she had only lived here a year, and that she wasn't used to quality. "This isn't some second rate elementary school playground," I informed her loftily, giving her a push to emphasize my words, "This is maintained well enough to hold anything. And anyway," I added as I pushed her again, "You don't weigh anything." "I would take that as a compliment," she retorted over the creaking of the swing set, "If only you'd meant it that way."

I shrugged, forgetting that she couldn't see me. She understood the sentiment, though because she didn't bother to linger on that point. She could be way too telepathic sometimes. "And I don't need you to push me," she continued, "If I had wanted to swing," a quiet, surprised chuckle belied her words as I sent her soaring upwards with a particularly strong push, "I would have done it myself." "Fine." I grabbed the chains and the swing stopped abruptly, sending her groping to hold into something to keep her seat. Partially to my chagrin, partially to my relief, she succeeded. "Bastard," she spat as I anticipated the elbow to my ribs by stepping prudently backwards. "I don't think so," I retorted with an exaggerated expression of contemplation, "But you'd really have to ask my mother." She shuddered theatrically, twisting her back unnaturally to look at me. Normally, her eyes would be blazing during one of our pseudo-arguments, but today they weren't. They were dull and lifeless. "Your word is good enough for me," she assured me, then immediately looked shocked at what she had just said, "No offense, I'm sure your mom is a lovely person, she just scares me-" "It's fine," I told her, trying to believe myself but no succeeding, as I never did, "She scares a lot of people, there's no shame in your cowardice." And she's not a lovely person, I added silently. Thankfully, Emma's telepathy didn't work this once I really didn't want or need her knowing that my mother's public face was her only face, and that my arrogance wasn't all my personality. "I'm not a coward," she snapped, still contorted to look behind her. Her scowl deepened, and I raised an eyebrow at her questioningly. "Sit down," she ordered, gesturing to the swing beside her, "You're giving me a back ache."

I obeyed- no, I deigned to take her suggestion into consideration- and gingerly tried my weight on the swing. For all my patronizing words to Emma, I was significantly heavier and I did not want to end up in an undignified pile on the woodchips. Having decided it would hold, I relaxed into the long-forgotten plastic seat. We sat in silence for a while- not an uncomfortable silence; we just didn't have anything to say for once. The swing set groaned quietly as Emma began to swing gently, but the sound was swallowed quickly into the abyss around us. Finally, I broke the silence. "Why are you here?" I asked casually, running a hand through my hair, "Don't you have thanksgiving stuff to do?" "Don't you?" she countered, coming to a halt. She leaned her cheek against the chain, facing me. I shrugged. "I needed some air," I replied. It had the dual perks of being true and noncommittal. But she smirked, and I knew she had seen through my tactics. "As did I," she agreed amiably. I grimaced at her, mad at having been beaten at my own game. She was the only one who ever did that to me. She grinned back at me, far too innocent for comfort. "Now really," she continued, rolling her eyes, "Why are you out here? I would think your family has some big, pretentious affair." 'What Family?' I almost spat before recollecting my pretensions to a happyish family. I swallowed and tried again. "It's just too formal," I told her. True, as far as it went, and it was too dark for her to see my eyes anyway. She couldn't, wouldn't know I was lying. She nodded absently, though I bet she was filing away the information to pull out at the most inconvenient (or maybe crucial, but I didn't have high hopes for that) time. "Now you have to tell me," I stated, not leaving any room for argument, "I shared, after all."

"Oh, it's not really anything," she prevaricated. I looked skeptically at her, and she caved. "All the Lexingtons are wonderful people I'm sure," she admitted slowly, reluctantly, "But there's just so many. I hate it! I hate having to talk to people I don't like and who don't like me!" Nonplussed by her unusual candidness, I asked the question that had been bothering me since I learned Emma's real identity. She was in a confiding moodmaybe I would learn the truth, for once. "Why don't you just go to your dad's, then?" I inquired, trying to couch my question in the least intrusive way possible for such an intrusive question, "It would assumably be more what you're used to. Again, she gave me the lopsided, insincere, cynical smile. "That would be difficult," she informed me gently. Then, after some thought, she added, "And lonely." Was her father dead? That thought bit through even my admittedly thick skin. She saw my look of horror- moonlight has a way of piercing my barriers just like it does everyone else's- and interpreted it correctly. "No, he's not dead," she reassured me. She thought a bit again, and once more she had to amend her statement, just to confuse me farther, "At least, I don't think he is." "What the hell are you talking about, Laycha," I growled. I hated how she was deliberately misleading, especially when I was getting all hopeful that she would confide in me. I don't even know why I was so enthusiastic to know more about her- except she was different than other girls. She had layers, for one thing. And I couldn't intimidate her into telling me everything I wanted to know. Emma smiled softly at me, her verdant eyes walled in the reflective moonlight. I suddenly regretted I had asked. Anything that could make her look like that was

not for me to know. But I had a right to, right? She shouldn't keep things from everyone. It wasn't good for her. "I don't know who my father is, Darien," she informed me gently. My mouth dropped in amazement at her for the 2nd time in a month. She really had to stop doing this to me- except she had way too many secrets for me not be stunned after each revelation. "But-what-how do you not know? I stuttered, trying not to sound too chagrined at having asked. I do have better feelings, I just don't use them muchbut this was one of the times I wished I had used them. "Are you adopted or something?" "Nope." Now that she had told me that, she seemed more cheerful. Maybe the fact that she didn't really have a family like the Lexingtons was weighing her down, and after telling why she didn't have a family, she felt better? I don't know, I prefer to leave the interpretation of girls' minds to girls or the most intrepid of my sex. But she continued calmly, regardless of the reason, "I'm my mom's biological child. What you see before you is the product of an inadequately protected one night stand." I was gaping unabashedly at her. That was unexpected, to say th e least. I mean, I knew that sort of thing happened, but I didn't know it happened to people I knew, or had even heard of. "You have no idea?" I blurted out before I realized how horridly insensitive that was. Arrogant asshole I may be, but that, intentional or not, was a low blow. If anyone had a right to snipe at other people's families, I did- but no one had that right. Families are sacrosanct. Emma must have picked up on my chagrin, because she grinned comfortingly up at me. "It's okay, Darien," she chuckled. I scowled. I didn't like my missteps providing amusement for anyone. "I've long since accepted that fact. My mom's my family. And now I guess Jack and Allan and all those other stupidly kind Lexingtons back

at the house. I don't need a father, compared with all that." Her merriness, while true, struck a dissonant note with me The swing set creaked as Emma began to swing again, the rhythmic sound lulling me into contemplation- not that I needed much encouragement. To have never had a father I couldn't comprehend it. My father had shaped me, as much as I disliked admitting it. His presence in my life, looming, silent, ignoring, had made me what I was, whether he meant that or not- I guessed not. For all my incomprehension, though, I couldn't pity Emma- at least she had never seen her father turn his back on her again and again and again. "You don't know how lucky you are," I muttered into the not-quite silence. For a long moment, I didn't think she had heard, but then the swinging stopped and a white hand squeezed my shoulder gently. "Yes, I do," she told me before she slipped away into the dark. I sighed. She hadn't understood, just like everyone else- I was a fool to think she would be different.

Chapter 17

Emma There was something wrong with the innate structure of the universe, I mused as I collapsed into my seat for first period class, when you're looking forward to the start of school after a short vacation. Not that I disliked school-not this one, anyway- but what teenager doesn't like a break from work? But the return of school meant that all the Lexingtons were finally gone, I had my precious solitude back, and normality was restored. Well, as normal as things can ever be for a high schooler with an alter ego who's being not so subtly wooed by her normal persona's cordial acquaintance for reasons she doesn't know and can't even begin to guess. There was a time when I would have

welcomed this excitement, once when I was still young and nave. Very young and naive-enough to think this was real drama. Darien settled down in the desk between the wall and me with his usual genius for grand entrances, snatching my book out of my hands and ignoring my protests by holding it out of my reach- damn his obscenely long arms. I scowled darkly at him, but by now he was used to my early morning moodiness and was adept at disregarding it, casually reading the back of my book. "What is this?" he asked, trying to make sense of the fantastic cover and delightfully enigmatic summary. I rolled my eyes and held out an expectant hand for the book. "It's a book, not that you would know what that is. Now give it back, I actually want to read it," I ordered. He flipped through the pages, holding the book in front of his face so it completely shielded him. That was odd- usually he wouldnt deign to be seen skimming one of my books, let alone seems so engrossed in it. I immediately began searching for the catch. A moment later, it entered. Or rather, she did- one of Darien's cheerleader groupies popped her head in and surveyed the room. Darien sank lower in his chair, drawing the book closer to his face. "Emma!" the girl, Candy, cried, apparently overlooking the rather large,

masculine lump in the desk next to mine, "Have you, like, seen Darien?" As amusing as it would be to give Darien up- not even I was that cruel. "Not since before break," I deadpanned. Darien relaxed. He evidently hadn't been sure if I would cover for him. I was evil, not heartless- but just because I wouldn't set the wolves on him didn't mean I couldn't torture him. "Why? If you really needed him, I could probably find him." Darien squirmed. I hid a grin. 'No, I was just wondering," she replied without any concern about a missing heartthrob. She meandered out, than ducked back in again as something else occurred to her. "You haven't seen Lex either, have you?"

I would be even less inclined to turn Lex over- but to him she wasn't exactly a wolf, or at least, he wasn't just a bit of prey. "He's in the cafeteria with his teammates," I told her, hiding my grin when her face lit up with that information. She wasn't the worst of her type- when she smiled like that, I could see what Allan saw in her. "OMG, thanks!" she gushed, dashing out of the room as fast as she could in her 5 inch heels- I would have fallen on my face after one step in them, let alone anything faster than a walk. But I had yet to see her fall; unlike some of her friends who couldn't manage the heels they tried to wear. "She's gone," I announced, turning to give Darien one of my best Looks. He straightened up and set my book back on the desk. I snatched it up with a scowl- it was on the right page, though I was certain I had seen Darien flip a few pages while I was conversing with Candy- but he only grinned at me. "Your flight was successful." "I didn't flee," he retorted loftily, his glare, toned down by his good mood, was not nearly as intimidating as it once had been. Teasing him was almost too easypride makes such a good mark. "I made a great and intrepid escape." I raised my eyebrows skeptically. "So hiding behind a girl and a book is" I hesitated a moment, rubbing my chin thoughtfully, "heroic." I cocked my head as if considering the idea as he narrowed his eyes at me in half-hearted anger, "that's news to me." Oh, the joys of an easy shot to start the day. Its beautiful- and not many things are beautiful in the mornings. "Shut up," he replied without malice, rising out of the seat- he never sat next to me in class, and I wouldn't even consider asking it of him; it's not like I wanted him to- and leaned casually against the wall, lighting a cigarette. I sighed and got up as well, batting it out of his hand. He groaned, but he had found out that I would keep doing that until he ran out of cigarettes. He didn't light up again.

"That's a nasty habit," I observed, as I usually did. We had played out this scene far too often since Allan's party. I never bothered him about the consequences if a teacher caught him; it wouldn't work if I did. He didn't care what the teachers thought- he figured, and was sadly probably right, that he was immune. No matter how his parents treated him, the administration was still in awe of them and their money- and generous gifts to the school. Personally, I thought that it would be a gratifying experience for him if his parents cut him off from their influence for a while, but I'm, as Darien never fails to inform me, messed up. Which may be true, but I wasn't the one who was still smoking. "Doesn't seem so to me," he replied unconcernedly. I rolled my eyes. It wouldn't- until you got cancer and died! "Girls don't like smoke breath," I retorted. Maybe shooting for the things he actually cares about would work- not that I had any hope. It took a car accident and a near-death experience to stop me, after all. "They've never seemed to care before," he informed me haughtily, though truthfully. It was a stupid thing to say (blame the damn morning), what with how girls tended to act like bitches in heat. I can't imagine why, maybe his overwhelming arrogance. It would be disgusting- hell, it is disgusting- but it can be so damn funny! "But I bet the one girl you actually want to kiss won't let you, because you smoke. It's karma." I shook my head and shrugged, as if trying to tell him the truth gently. "Karma? Now why would I deserve something as horrible as that?" he whined, his loftiness lost. It usually was, after we established that it wouldn't work on me. I snorted. "I have absolutely no idea." "And," he continued as if I hadn't spoken, or at least, as if he hadn't picked up on my sarcasm, "I can make any girl I want to kiss want to kiss me."

"Any girl worth kissing," I retorted quickly, stung by his casual dismissal of my sex, "Won't succumb to your seduction." He laughed, apparently thinking that it was a joke- he had way too much confidence in his own powers- but I kept my face stoic and didn't bother to disillusion him. He would learn, someday. When a girl actually turned him down. Maybe the Matchmaker could; he was obviously leading up to asking her out. I could reject him cruelly all for his sake, of course. "But this is all hypothetical," he pointed out as he sobered, reaching for another cigarette and stopping at my glare, "there aren't any girls really worth kissing in this school." To give myself credit, I refrained from hitting him- though the death glare I sent his way quickly notified him of his mistake. Ugh- I didn't mind that he didn't want to kiss me; in fact, I was overjoyed by that fact, because I certainly wouldn't have wanted it any other way, but not to be worth kissing was just rude. I could find so many boys to tell him otherwise- if I felt like telling him that much about before. Which I didn't. At all. "Sorry, Emmy," he drawled, chuckling at my outrage at the name and the sentiment, "did I insult you?" Though, unluckily, he had no annoying nickname to use in a similar way, I had another weapon in my arsenal. "Oh no Darien!" I cooed, fluttering my eyelashes and slapping him flirtatiously, "You are so silly! You couldn't insult me. I'm so happy you're even talking to me I couldn't be bothered to actually think, let alone be offended by something you said!" he cut me off with a shudder- I don't think he even noticed what I was saying, he was so horrified by the tone. I gave him a wide, innocent grin. "The scary thing is," he tossed back his light hair, trying to make believe he could keep the argument going when I had obviously won, "That you're so good at that. Did you only recently acquire a brain?"

"Nope!" I chirped, tapping my temple and grinning manically, "I'm like the Scarecrow!" Darien tilted his head, confused. I sighed. By now, I was fairly used to him not having seen or done basic staples of an American childhood- and I didn't have that horribly normal of a childhood. I had accepted him never having had a s'more (though my inner chocoholic nearly died) but this was a bit much. And he called me messed up! "You have seen the Wizard of Oz, right?" "Of course I have," he spat defensively. He probably didn't want a repeat of the hysterical laughter that followed the s'more revelation. I did manage to contain my laughter- with a heroic effort, only driven by my pity for his deprivation. "Though not for a while," he admitted, with a surprisingly self-deprecating shrug. Then, to make up for his lack of haughtiness, "But I know the Scarecrow went to find a brain. The Wizard gave him one!" I shook my head sadly. Doesn't anyone pay attention anymore? "The Wizard's a fraud," I explained gently, with as little condescension as I could mange. It was still quite a lot- so maybe I wasn't trying quite as hard as I could have. "He didn't give the Scarecrow anything real. HE always had a brain, he just thought he didn't." Realizing that he was no match for me in Wizard of Oz trivia- I retain way too much random information from movies and books and stuff- he quickly returned to the original question. "So if you've always had a brain," he said, giving the 'if' undue stress. I made a face at him, which he didn't deign to notice, "Why can you do such a good impersonation of my mindless ditzes?" I rolled my eyes at him, yet again. He really could not leave a subject alone. Not that I really minded in this instance- he knew I watched people way too much, and good mimicry skills could account for the rest- but in others, it could get not only infuriating, but also dangerously close to stuff I had no intention of telling anyone about- not even him, who had managed to learn so many of my secrets.

"You are too bloody persistent," I muttered into my book. He chuckled. "Bloody?" he inquired in amazement- he obviously hadn't heard some of my even more nerdy sayings. "Yes, bloody. I've been rereading Harry Potter," I retorted, digging in bag until I removed the 6th book and brandished it at him, "Gonna make something of it?" He actually shied away from the book, his distaste obvious on his face. "You read that crap?" he asked incredulously, snatching the book out of my hand and dropping it back into my bag. He wiped the contaminated hand on my sweatshirt, despite my evil look. "Read it?' I gave a wicked chuckle, "I could practically recite it. All 6 books." He stared at me in an odd mixture of awe and disgust. "You are such a dork," he announced, his voice monotonic with shock. I don't know what surprised him so much- he was the one who first knew me as 'book girl'. "And proud of it," I declared cheerfully. The bell rang shrilly, and I jumped. I despise bells, and I despise people who aren't jolted by them- like the boy calmly standing by me- even more. "So now you go sit up front with your popular, almost smart friends, and I'll stay back here and revel in my dorkiness." He looked over to where he usually sat- the chair next to it was empty, as his seatmate, one of the not as stupid jocks, was always late and usually slept through class- than back at me. "No thanks," he replied, tossing his bag at the seat beside me and seating himself there with a calm disregard of the astonished looks that only someone as unquestionably popular as him could manage, "I'll try to cancel out your dorkiness form back here."

Darien I found Emma again during lunch- French and free, my two classes without her, varied between being the best and most boring classes of the day, for exactly that reason. It had occurred to me that we had never resolved the earlier issue to my satisfaction, or at least, I hadn't found out what I wanted to know. If she had only been Lex's stepsister since early last summer, and her mother hadn't been very prosperous before, how had she managed to get into an exclusive (or, more to the point, expensive) private school like ours? "Did you go to school here before this year?" I asked without preamble, even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer. Maybe if I surprised her, she would actually tell me the whole truth. I wasn't stupid and I wasn't under any illusions- I may have discovered one of her secrets, but I knew she had many more that she wasn't going to confide in me, or so she thought. I still didn't know what was her issue with cigarettes, or why she had my notepaper, and she didn't tell me everything about thanksgiving- but I was going to find out. Eventually. But this time, I was pretty sure she was telling the truth when she answeredit agreed with my opinion. "Yeah, since 9th," she admitted with a surprising lack of surprise, as I had accosted her right inside the lunchroom doors. I should have been used to never being able to sneak up on her, but that didn't mean I wasn't determined to. Someday. "Why?" "How'd you manage? Financially, I mean," I asked curiously. She shook her head despairingly at me- her favorite expression when it came to me, second only to rolling her eyes.

"It's called a scholarship, Darien," she explained with all of the usual, uncalled for patronization that I despised. I might not be a freaking genius like her, but I'm not an idiot, and she should remember that. "That would work," I nodded sagely, trying to hide my rising anger beneath a veneer of cool indifference. When she spoke to me like that- it sounded far too much like my father for comfort. "Then why didn't I notice you before?" She wasn't at all quiet, after all. She likes to have her opinions heard as much as anyone I've ever seen. But I hadn't ever seen her before I put my note in the Matchmaker's locker, and, contrary to popular (or Emma's) opinion, I'm not that conceited that I don't notice those beneath me. "I didn't want you to," she said matter-of-factly. And she called me arrogantshe had just as much pride as me. By this time, we were well into the lunchroom. I glanced around at the shocked faces hid with varying degrees of skill, daring them to comment on the 'Ice Prince' talking to a self-proclaimed dork. No one did. Emma either didn't notice my challenge or ignored it and continued talking, "I've made a study of going unnoticed." "I'm not that unobservant," I snapped, tiring quickly of her elitist attitude. Honestly, she had no right to chide me. She opened her mouth to retort, closed it as she thought better, than spoke after a moment of consideration. "I'll just show you," she said slowly, handing her tray to me without considering the fact that I was already holding one and had to go through some interesting and undignified acrobatics to hold both. Emma hugged her bag to her chest and seemed to somehow diminish. Shoulders hunched, head bowed, and her long hair curtaining her face, she made her way through the crowd to a table with a slight shuffle. She was jostled and pushed around, with none of her usual presence that cleared her a path even when immersed in a book. She sat on a windowsill, and a moment later some idiot kid sat there as well, jumping back up as soon as he realized that he had just sat on someone. My fists clenched as I watched, half in awe, half in anger. What

was that kid doing, being so blind? That was just- rude didn't even begin to encompass it. Someone that stupid didn't have a right to live. "See what I mean?" she popped up beside me, taking back her tray without even a thank you. Expecting her to do something of the sort, I was able not to react and keep my balance. "Yeah," I admitted reluctantly, but her demonstration had been thorough- I couldn't find a loophole in it, "But I'm not as inattentive as everyone else. I can be perceptive, when I want to be." She hesitated with her retort as she took a seat at an empty table. Knowing that she wouldn't ask, or even imply- she feared the condemnation of our classmates that I didn't need to care about- I casually sat down at the seat across from her, pretending not to hear the small gasp that went up from the rest of the lunchroom. The price of being a king among peasants is always being in the public eye. "You can be," she finally allowed, but from her intake of breath I could tell she was going to continue- eventually. After a sip of her water, she did. "But you didn't see me either." I opened my mouth to argue her point, but then I closed it again with a nearly audible snap. There was nothing to say. She was right. I may not have sat on her or anything that drastic, but I hadn't known who she was or anything, not before she let me see her. Well, that conversation hadn't gone where I wanted. Emma seemed to do that to my plans. But then again, if Emma's face was anything to go by- and it wasn't always- she didn't like where it had gone anymore than I had. Her disgusted face didn't seem to be only form the food. Silence descended as we gave our food undue attention, not the usual casual silence that came in between our bickering, but a vaguely uncomfortable silence

that made me almost want to babble just to fill it. Luckily, Brock appeared in the chair next to me before I did. "Dude!" he exclaimed, his grey eyes alight with gossip fervor. "Oh, hi Emma," he added offhandedly, turning back to me once his courtesies were done, "Did you see? Grace O'Shea and Joe Marrato are together!" "What!" I expostulated in complete shock. I had not seen that coming at all. Joe was a dork in every sense of the word, though one of the less nerdy ones. And Grace was one of Candy's good friends! How the hell had they gotten together? "How'd that happen?" Brock's face barely twitched when he gave the inevitable response. He had better control of his expression than I gave him credit for, sometimes- but he had gotten practice lately. "The Matchmaker," he swept over the answer in his hurry to impart as much gossip as he could in as short a time as he could- he was worse than the girls, I swear, "But they walked into school today holding hands, and have been ignoring all the talk, and they're really mushy together, and it's really cute!" Emma was smiling at her food in quiet satisfaction. I scowled at her. "What are you so happy about?" I spat. She gave a shrug and smiled broadly at me, with a total lack of consideration for my fury. "Doesn't it give you warm fuzzies to hear about two people falling in love?" she replied with what I thought was sarcasm, though I couldn't tell for what. Emma and warm fuzzies did not have even a nodding acquaintance. "No," I looked away from both of their smiling faces. They both might revere the Matchmaker- though I would have thought Emma had more sense and Brock would have learned better- but I didn't. No human could orchestrate love, and the Matchmaker was only human, albeit a mysterious and intriguing one. Anyone

who tried would only end up breaking hearts, as someone-me- had to show the Matchmaker, "I give them two weeks." "They've been going out for a month," Emma observed blandly, gesturing at me with the French fry she had been holding, "The Matchmaker note was sent on October 26th, and their first date was November 2nd. It's already December." Brock and I gaped at her. I knew she saw everything, by her own admission, but that was just stalkerish. Except not even my stalkers knew about my own notes with the Matchmaker. "What?" she asked after swallowing the French fry, "I'm acquainted with Joe. Vaguely. I hear things. And anyway," her eyes grew as cold as jade as she glared at me, "Why do you think the Matchmaker's so useless?" "Because she tries to build love," I told her curtly, this not being a subject I wanted to talk about, "Love happens where it will, not at her whim." Emma's raised eyebrows told me what she thought of that argument. "Who sad anything about love?" she retorted, suddenly deadly serious and with more passion than I had ever heard her talk about anything else, and I saw a quick glance at Brock that I couldn't quite interpret, "Love's just an illusion anyway. The Matchmaker finds people who are compatible but wouldn't normally find each other for some reason." I stared incredulously at her. How could she say something like that? I honestly had no idea. Not when Jack had married her mother when he could have had so much better, when she saw the rare couples who actually looked happy and were completely engrossed with each other. Her cynicism was immediately apparent, the moment you talked to her, but this went far deeper than that. This was probably rooted in one of those many secrets that I didn't yet know- but that didn't mean it was right. I knew love existed- hell, I saw it whenever my parents were home, not that that was often.

"Well, maybe there's a reason they don't see each other," I pointed out, setting any love arguments aside. You can't argue with faith. "Grace and Marrato live in different worlds. Who knows how they'll deal with those colliding?" Emma opened her mouth to argue, but Brock cut her off with a weary command that had enough grief in it to make us listen. "Guys," he ordered, his own experience making me obey him this once. I don't know why Emma did- she was perceptive enough to hear the sad frustration in his voice. "Just let it be." She shrugged and went back to finishing her food- she ate infernally quickly- and I struck up an unrelated conversation with Brock. She didn't speak, but from what I could see, she was deep in thought, and would shoot odd, curious glances in our direction every once in a while. Lex wandered over, a crowd of cheerleaders trailing in his massive wake. They grabbed seats in a mass of jostling for position and fake, trilling laughter. "Have you heard about Grace?" Lex began, but I interrupted him before he could bring up the argument again- for Brock's sake, of course. I would have been happy to beat Emma's metaphorical face into the ground. "We already discussed it, right Em-" I stopped. Sometime, somehow, she had disappeared. If I didn't know better, I would have said she could teleport, with how she kept appearing and vanishing. "Where's Emma?" I asked in confusion, peering over the heads in the lunchroom in a vain attempt to find her. "She probably left," Lex told me astutely, shoveling food into his mouth with astonishing speed, 'She doesn't like crowds. Or talking. Or people in general." I shrugged and returned to my food, ignoring the fluttering girl next to me who was trying to flirt. If she didn't want to talk to me, so be it. But I would find out more about her. Someday.

o0O0o0O0o When I opened my locker after lunch, one of the Matchmaker's plain pieces of notepaper fell out. I grabbed it quickly- by definition the notes weren't distinctive, but I couldn't risk anyone knowing of my correspondence- and leaned into my locker to read it. It was written in her usual copperplate print, but the pen strokes were far darker than usual.

If you hate me, why do you want me?


I grinned as I replaced the note, my eyes cold and calculating. I was intriguing her. Good. Human nature meant she would want to find out more about me, and the net could close about her. The plan was working perfectly.

Chapter 18

Emma I looked drearily from the freshmen filled bus, to the snow whipping in the wind outside the school, and back again. This is why I hated winter with such a passion- ignoring, of course, the fact that I disliked all the other seasons for other reasons. I could either run home and arrive frozen, or take the bus and be irritated to death. Unless, of course, I wanted to let Allan drive me home, which didnt seem so unattractive anymore- except that Allan had a football meeting and was staying too late? Karma for something, I'm sure. At least it wasn't one of the days I was working- than I would be forced to run. Though that would at least make my decision clear, and I wouldn't be mired in this evil conundrum: which was the better way to die, freezing or annoyance? I didn't know my face was reflecting my morbid thoughts until a voice jolted me out of them. I hid my surprise well, I hoped- it wouldn't do to let people know I was fallible; especially him- but my glare may have given my anger away.

"Why so mad?" Darien asked, striding over as he spotted me before he left the warm school building. He was thankfully devoid of his usual flock- Brock would be at the football meeting, but I didn't know how he managed to lose his groupies. That was always, he assured me, a difficult task filled with many intrepid adventures. I didn't think highly enough of their intellect to believe him. "Because I'm going to die before I get home," I told him sourly, curing up in my sweatshirt to try to revel in the blessed heat before I would have to venture into the glacial outside and giving the snow-covered ground a baleful look. "Pity," he drawled absentmindedly. I transferred my evil look to him. He gave me one of his slow, mocking smiles that made me simultaneously want to hit him and bask in its glow (generally- no, always- I decided on the former). Occasionally, I empathized with the girls who followed him everywhere. "But why?" "I'm facing imminent death either by freezing or by aggravation," I groaned, drawing my hood over my face. He raised an eyebrow questioningly at my dramatics, inviting me to elaborate. I did so, if grudgingly- while I've never been one to enjoy airing my troubles, complaining always made me feel better afterwards. And complaining to a- not friend, I hesitated to call anyone a friend anymore, but Darien was certainly more than my myriads of casual acquaintances- couldn't hurt. "I could walk- well, run- home, or I could take a bus filled with," I shuddered melodramatically, "freshmen. Including Mac Stonewell." That boy was perhaps the most annoying child in the universe. He was pompous, stupid, a know-it-all, pretentious, and he persisted in hitting on me every time he saw me. Why did it have to be the one guy- okay, one of the guys- who I truly despised was the only one who flirted with me? "Why can't you drive?" Darien inquired, surveying the bus with cold contempt. I would bet basically everything I owned that Darien had never ridden a bus in his life, unless it was some sort of tour bus.

"No car," I replied curtly, glancing at my watch. The bus would leave in 5 minutes. I had to make a decision- but procrastinating was so much fun! "Why not?" Darien asked blankly. Someone who could drive not having a car was a foreign idea to him, I realized. Sometimes, his lack of knowledge about other classes contrasting so sharply with his air of worldly wisdom shocked me. "Won't Mr. Lexington get you one?" "Yeah, but I didn't want one." More the fool me, of course, but I hadn't realized just how foolish a decision that was until I found out that public transportation didn't run out here. How was I supposed to know that? It had never applied to me before- since when had I had a choice of cars? "You're an idiot," he informed me loftily. I didn't argue- it was true- but he prudently took a step back before I could attack him simply to keep him in training. The boy was learning, I will give him that- it took Allan a whole summer to realize that after being insulted, I would hit the offender- not that he insulted anyone, of course. "But-" I began to try to justify my idiocy, "I couldn't have- oh, shit!" My bus was pulling away. "Damn!" I bashed my head gently against the wall. I probably wouldn't have ended up taking the bus- I felt like I had to take a shower after even spotting Stonewell- I did not appreciate the decision being taken from me. "Looks like you're going to walk," Darien observed idly. My look shot daggers at him. Thank you, Captain Obvious. I knew I would be wading home through knee deep snow and trying not to freeze in the blizzard currently going on- I did not need him to rub it in. "No freaking duh," I spat, rolling my eyes. He shrugged my anger off like a duck did water. I think it was that skill that allowed him to tolerate me for any period of time, not that he was good at that. "You could just get a ride home with Lex," he suggested, all false helpfulness. It just showed how annoyed I was that I didn't immediately reject his proposal for

the sole reason that it would mean admitting I was wrong- but I was freaking cold, and his attitude was not helping. "He's at that football meeting," I replied tersely. Damn early winters. It should not be snowing this much in mid-December. Hell, it shouldn't snow this much ever. Or at all. I was so moving to Florida as soon as possible. "You could wait." He just had to be reasonable today, when I just wanted to wallow in self-pity. Why did boys always have the worst timing? "I actually have something to do as soon as I get home," I retorted belligerently, but he didn't deign to take the bait. "Coffeehouse?" "No." I didn't offer any more information, he didn't ask. He could be wonderful about not pressing me about stuff I didn't want to talk about. But it was in those annoyingly kind moments of his that I would be willing to tell him stufftalk about irony, not that I was complaining. We stood in silence after my skilled conversation stopper- my specialty- as I gather my courage to go out into the bitter weather for the trek home. Finally, he sighed and shoved off the wall he had been leaning against to stand. "Well, come on," he ordered brusquely, "Neither of us have all day." "What?" I snapped. It was all well and good for him to tell me to hurry up; he didn't have to run home in what was as good as a freaking blizzard. He had his nice cozy car. "I have to be home for Troy, you have your mystery thing to get to- we have to leave," he explained not so patiently (I made a note to tell him what a horrible teacher he would make), herding me towards the door, barely giving me enough time to grab my backpack. "And if you don't hurry up, you're going to have to wait for Lex, because I'm leaving."

Was he actually offering me a ride? Where had the standoffish boy who refused to even say my name gone? "Emma!" He had gotten ahead of me- not hard, with his legs being twice as long as mine, "Come. Now." Oh. There he was. I was of half a mind to refuse, just out of habit and pure stubbornness- I had never been good at obeying orders, and following him went against all my pride- but the icy blast of wind that hit me when he opened the door to usher me outside decided me. Pride was a wonderful thing, but I refused to freeze because of it. I jogged up to Darien and trotted after him as he strode to his car, walking in the path he cut with both body and will. He may not be good at many things, but as a windbreak he is quite satisfactory. We hurried to his Mercedes- I was pretty sure that it was only one of his cars- and he quickly threw himself into the driver's side. It took me a bit longer to get out of the cold; he had to move some stuff before the passenger seat was clear enough to sit on. "Do you have enough crap?" I asked, picking a book off the seat as I sat down. I examined the book idly, wanting to know what kind of literature Darien read. He didn't seem to be the sort who kept a library in his car, like I would if I had a car- but the book was sitting there for the world to see. The nearly cubical book's cover had a centerpiece of a dragon, with a man helping a woman to mount it. The bright reds and golds were cut with liberal splashes of other bright, rich colors. I glanced at the title, but before I had time to study it, Darien snatched the book away. "It's Troy's," he muttered, tossing it into the back seat. If it had been anyone else, I would have thought I saw a blush, but his cheeks were too tan to detect one- yet another reason to be envious of tanned people. I grinned. I may not have seen much- but I recognized the book and the author. "Oh really?" I kept my face perfectly straight. This was what long years of practice were good for, after all, "Most 10 year olds read books called Wizard's

First Rule"

"They do," he insisted, lips twitching at my earnest, unquestioning tone, "almost as many as read War and Peace." Personally, I thought he was reaching a bit high in his comparisons. Terry Goodkind may have been a good author, but he didn't measure up to Tolstoy. "Troy seems like a very erudite boy," I agreed serenely, my calm faade not shifting in the slightest. Impassive expressions were my forte- I wouldn't break until after he did. "That he is," Darien affirmed, mouth clenched in a vain attempt to contain his mirth. The competition had been declared- even as he pulled out of the school and onto the main road, the battle lines were drawn. He continued, resolutely not meeting my eyes, "reading Huck Finn in the cradle and such things." "What varied taste!" I exclaimed, only my eyes twinkling mockingly as we passed other cars- Darien had to be going over the speed limit. Ah speed. I had forgotten what it was like- no one else I knew now drove so recklessly. Allan was a conscientious driver when sober, and I hadn't driven with anyone else my age since- for years. "Fantasy, classics and adventure novels!" I covered my open mouth with a hand, eyes widened in mock surprise as I feigned fainting back into my seat. My impeccable acting talent worked- or maybe my lack thereof worked better. Either way, it broke him. His face cracked into a broad grin, one that I rarely saw on him. This time, there was no either/or- Darien's smile put the nonexistent sun to shame. "Damn you, Emma," he cursed with no conviction, only laughter in his voice and navy eyes, "Why do you have to be the only one who can keep a straight face longer than me?" My only reply was an enigmatic smirk as we sped past the poor people on the streets. I was warm, would be home on time, was actually having fun (that happened all too rarely lately), and I had just schooled Darien. All was right with the world.

Darien I accelerated out of Emma's driveway, a smile still on my face and a competitive glint still in my eyes- she may have beaten me this time, but the war was far from over. As I headed home- slower than I had on the way to Emma's, I had noticed Emma's grin at how fast I had gone- I fumbled in all the junk in the back for my book. I didn't want to lose it in the black hole that was my back seat; I was almost finished. I didn't know why I was so reluctant to admit that the book was mine. Emma was no idiot, she had to know it was mine- the argument was all for form's sake. She wouldn't criticize me, not like if Jess or someone saw me reading it. She read the same sort of stuff shamelessly- and Emma may have been many things, but a hypocrite wasn't one of them. My best guess was that old habits die hard- I'm still not used to a friend who won't ridicule me for reading fantasy, or even reading at all. I didn't get more than a few yards into the house before Troy came barreling into me. He threw his arms around my waist and buried his face in my shirt as he hadn't done for a while, but not before I caught a glimpse of blue eyes dulled with tears. My smile died with my good mood and I knelt down to meet his eyes, gently detaching his clutching arms. "What's up, kid?" I asked as tenderly as I could- not very well. I'm not a kind person, as basically anyone could tell. Even if Emma may think I am after seeing how I treat my brother. "Dad-dad-dad said he wouldn't be home for Christmas!" he sobbed, this time into my shoulder. I drew him into a warm hug, letting him cry himself out as I tried not to explode with anger. No matter what else my parents may have done, or not done, I had thought Christmas was sacred. Although I had been alone for Christmas before, with only an overpaid babysitter, that had been before Troy or when he was really young. Ever since Troy could remember, or

parents had been home for Christmas, if at no other time. What the hell were they thinking? Strong, steady footsteps made me look up. When I saw who was approaching, I disengaged myself from Troy and rose, face as impassive as I could make it. Troy pressed against me still, and I slung a comforting arm across his shoulder. My father stopped in front of us, grey eyes as cold as the weather. It felt weird, being able to look straight into his eyes- for so long he had loomed over me, a larger than life figure. But not anymore- I was nearly the adult he had always treated me as. I've been told I look like my father, and I can't deny it. We have the same long, lanky build- quick rather than bulky. I have his dirty blonde hair as opposed to my mother and Troy's corn silk gold, and his well-defined, aristocratic features. But I've always staunchly maintained that the only thing I have form his are his looks- not his manner, or his lack of affection. Or so I've always hoped- lately, I've been wondering if maybe I'm more like him than I thought. "Darien," his musical voice was deeper than mine, but the timbre was the same. Just by hearing us you could tell we were related- the air of command was the same. "Father." There was no emotion in my voice, like he always required- in that, at least, he had succeed, even if he didn't care about anything I did. "I see Troy already gave you the news," he said, eyes barely flicking to the tearstained face of his youngest son before resting on my own face, as cold as his. "He has," I confirmed, trying to relax into my normal nonchalant pose. I don't care, I reminded myself, if I don't care it can't hurt- the one lesson I had been forced to learn, that Troy hadn't yet. That he never would learn if I could help it. But it aided me now- any show of the rage I felt building in me would be counterproductive. "You won't be here over the holidays."

"That would be correct," he nodded dismissively, already moving past us. He had wasted enough of his attention on us already- why spend one moment more than necessary with your family? "When are you leaving, sir?" I asked calmly, holding Troy firmly in place when it felt like he was ready to bolt. He was my best safeguard against blowing up at my father- I always have performed best for an audience. "And is my mother accompanying you?" "OF course," he tossed over his shoulder as he left the house, his briefcase bouncing against his leg, "We'll leave on the 21st." And he was gone. Not saying where they were going, or why- just gone, as per usual. I let go of troy and dropped to one knee again, forcing his teary eyes up to my angry ones. "It'll be okay," I insisted forcefully, putting a hand on both his shoulders, "We'll have the best Christmas ever. I promise. It'll be better than any one you've ever had before." "Bu-bu-but mom and dad won't be there!" Troy whimpered, tears flowing down his cheeks. This had made him seem at least 3 years younger than he was. Christmas had always been his favorite time of year- he loved being a family. "They won't, but I will. And," I swore recklessly- but who cares about forethought when your little brother is that sad? "it'll be better than any Christmas you've ever had or ever will have." He sniffed, but the tears slowed and finally stopped. "Really?" he asked incredulously, dashing away the drops with an impatient hand as he gazed up at me with uncertain eyes that were nevertheless inclined to believe me.

"I swear." I stood and ruffled his hair fondly. "But you need to get in your wish list sooner, then. Why don't you go do that, if you don't have any more homework?" He smiled weakly and ran upstairs, shaking his head hastily to rid his face of any lingering tears. I followed at a slower pace. I was already absorbed in the minor logistics of my rash promise: I didn't know how to make a Christmas! It was the one thing I never thought I'd have to do for troy- I could act as a parent in every other respect. Hell, I had even gone to a parent-teacher conference once (skipping school to go, and I completely recognize the irony). But usually at Christmas we could do a very plausible counterfeit of a loving, happy family; I didn't need to help. I sighed dejectedly as I dumped my bag onto my bed. I would do my best- there was never any question about that- but what if my best wasn't enough? And there were the practicalities to worry about. Alfred got off from the 20th to the 30th, Troy and my vacation began on the 19th, and I- oh shit. Brock wanted me to go to something on the afternoon of the 23rd. No service babysitter would work that close to Christmas, and I wasn't going to trust some random teenager with my kid brother. But now, I had a resort in times like these. A desperate measure, because it would mean she was up a favor on me (but who was keeping score?) but a lifeline regardless. Emma rarely did anything that didn't involve school or work; she would almost certainly be free. The coffee shop was closed by then. I had my phone out and her number dialed before I recalled her mysterious (Emma's favorite adjective) activity that had required her to get home so promptly. She wouldn't have her phone right now; I would have to wait. Well, there was no hurry- I had stuff to do. I could always get my homework done. That phrase brought my thoughts to a screeching halt. Since when did I do homework? Since never, that's when. I ignored the sneaking suspicion that Emma's overachiever nagging had finally paid off and decided that I just had

nothing better to do right now and I had just come from school, so of course that was where my mind went. For someone as popular as me, I sure had a lot of time to fill. I wandered resolutely out of my room, only partly to rebel against the voice that sounded scarily like Emma that was chiding me to do my work, and down the hall. Troy's door was open and I paused, leaning against the doorframe, watching him. Troy was working feverishly at his desk on what looked like homework. He was really nothing like me at all, and yet, he was too like what I could have been. Some combination of the light and the snow made a single beam light up his thoughtful, yet still smiling, face. How the hell was I supposed to give him a Christmas? I was just a screwed up teenager- why did I have to be a parent too? I groaned and walked slowly back into my room. I might as well get what I could arrange done, however little that was. A message would be enough- Emma liked Troy enough that I could basically depend on her being there. As I expected, the phone went to voicemail, Emma's recording so unavoidably hers that, despite my futile mood, I couldn't help but grin. "Hey, it would be Emma if I were here. Obviously, I'm not, so leave a message

and I might get back to you, if you're lucky. Later!"


A beep rang in my ear. "Hi, Emma?" I said, pacing circles around my room, as I had done far too often, "I need a favor"

Chapter 19

Emma

Darien's house had ceased to intimidate me. Maybe it was because I knew the people inside better, or maybe I had grown more accustomed to its garishness, but the house, while I still thought it ugly, held no fear for me. But I still needed to remind myself of that as I walked up the neatly shoveled walk (I would have bet everything I owned Darien hadn't done it). The miserable weather of the past week had abated, and the sun peaked through the clouds and reflected off the snow-covered lawn. I rang the doorbell, hearing its mournful toll booming throughout the house. I only shivered outside for a moment- the sun may have been out, but it was damn cold- before the door was jerked open and I slipped gratefully inside, unwrapping my coat nearly before I was in. To my well-concealed surprise, it wasn't Darien who had answered the door, or the butler. Brock grinned at me cheerfully and took my coat without my offering with instinctive courtesy. I let him have it gratefully; I could occasionally comprehend what Rhi saw in him. "Hi!" he exclaimed happily as we walked to the den that seemed to be the center of Darien and Troy's household. I still wasn't confident of the way in this labyrinthine mansion, but Brock led with a casual skill that meant he had been here many times before. I hid a grin. Darien may have claimed he didn't have any friends- but he lied. "Hey," I replied just as cordially. Even if I was skeptical of his worth, I could appreciate him as Rhi's ex and Darien's best friend. I had to trust him, regardless of his intellect (or lack thereof); he knew too much. I hesitated a moment before I asked a question that had intrigued me since he had answered the door. "What are you doing here? Darien said he didn't invite people to his house unless it was for a party or something." "I'm the exception," he informed me, not at all offended by my query, "Just like you." He chuckled merrily, as if at an inside joke, than sobered, studying me

with as much intentness as his gentle grey eyes could summon. "You do know how rare you are, right?" Well, I do like to flatter myself that I'm one of a kind- but didn't think that was what he was talking about. He sounded far more serious than was his wont. "What do you mean?" I asked cautiously. I had thought I knew him as well as one could know someone like him- but I had never heard this tone from him, not even about Rhi. It was almost protective, but without the jealousy that Rhi always provoked (or so she described). "Dar doesn't make friends easily. Real friends, I mean." Brock explained, halting in the middle of the hallway. I had a feeling he didn't want Darien to know he was telling me this. My suspicion was confirmed when his voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "And he talks to even less, but he's been talking to you. So justdon't hurt him, okay? 'Cause he's a lot more vulnerable than he thinks and pretends." I raised my eyebrows, impressed. Darien may not have had many real friends, but he apparently inspired intense loyalty in those he did. Come to think of it, I had never heard Allan speak badly of Darien either, despite my rants. "We're not in love or anything," I contradicted. His speech had sounded more like a warning for a potential girlfriend than a friend. A strictly platonic friend. I wondered if Brock did this to every sort of friend of Darien's, or if I was special in that too. He gave me a cynical half smile that sat oddly on his face, one that seemed to state that he knew something I didn't. I scowled. I did not like those sorts of smiles, never had. Too much like condescension. "Sometimes," he told me with sad, dead eyes that had always blazed with life when they looked at Rhi, "Friends are better than lovers." I opened my mouth to reply, to try to say something that would bring those eyes to life, even if I couldn't repair the damage I had done- but had it been damage?

Darien had heard us, despite our whispers. He threw open the door at the head of the hall, cutting off whatever I was going to say. We probably looked weird, standing stock still in the middle of the hallway, whispering- but Darien didn't comment. "It doesn't take this long to get here from the front door," he observed, an odd, well-hidden, glint that I couldn't read in his eyes as his eyes swept over us, "What kept you?" I swept past him and into the room, leaving Brock to trail behind- where he usually was, poor boy. "That's for us to know, and you to find out," I tossed over my shoulder, walking over to where Troy sat at his computer with dignified unconcern. Darien gave Brock a look, but this once; the larger boy didn't quail under his gaze. Much to my amusement, he shrugged and didn't meet his friend's gaze. "Fine then," Darien retorted, trying very hard not to put- or so it seemed. I hid a grin. "Don't tell me." He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned sullenly against the wall. "We won't," I assured him with effusive cheerfulness, then, ignoring his aggrieved snort, I leaned over Troy's shoulder to peer at his game. "Whatcha doing?" He grinned up at me, his blue eyes sparkling as gleefully as the sun on the snow outside. "Playing Worms!" he said excitedly, returning immediately back to his game. I met Darien's eyes briefly over Troy's head, and for a moment our usual odd understanding was there and he deigned to shrug despite his offense. Wow. A ten year old was making me feel old. So wrong. "What's that?" I was trying to make sense of the small squiggly things that I supposed were meant to be worms exploding on a surreal sculpture set over cartoon water. Ooh- explosions. I decided that if I liked video games, I would adore this one. Troy hit a button and the game paused. At liberty now, he spun his chair around to face me, an incredulous look on his face.

"Worms Armageddon," he explained, awestruck at my still blank face. It was evidently inconceivable to him that someone not know what this game was. Troy was better than his brother- but his upbringing caught up to him sometimes. He had never known what it was like to have to go t the library for computer access. "Right" I figured it wasn't worth the effort it would take to comprehend it. I hadn't been initiated into the video game world until Allan introduced me to his system this summer, not early enough to develop the obsession I saw in many of my peers. I mean, random violence and killing people was always good, but the virtual version could only hold my attention for so long. Sensing my inattention, Troy turned back to his game. Not at all affronted, I left him to it and walked over to the older boys. They at least could always provide amusement, even if they didn't know it. But I was too kind for my own good. "Don't you guys have to be somewhere?" I prompted. Boys. It didn't matter how they were raised, or where, or when. If they didn't have someone to tell them their own schedules, they would be lost. Darien and Brock looked at me in surprise, not having noticed my change in focus. "Not ye-" Brock began to answer, but Darien cut him off after a quick glance at his watch. "Yeah, we do," he agreed, surveying his friend's jeans and t-shirt with a practiced eye, "and you need to get ready." Brock nodded diffidently and disappeared obediently out the door. I bit my lip as I watched him go. Darien wouldn't like to hear what I had to say- as if I cared. "You should treat him better," I observed as clinically as I could- this wasn't anything personal, just a dislike of anyone being walked on. I think Darien would have gotten whiplash if he had turned his head any faster. He had been pouting slightly, still put out by my earlier snub; now his face froze into its usual

arrogant sneer. I continued regardless. He couldn't intimidate me- not that way; anyway, "He's a much better friend than you give him credit for." "I know my friend's worth," he spat. Troy gave him a frightened glance, than shrunk into his chair, making it creak slightly. Darien's eyes flicked to his brother, than back at me. He forced his face into a painful facsimile of a smile. "Sorry. What do you mean?" I rolled my eyes. He wouldn't get what I had to say; he wouldn't be able to comprehend what I meant. But I owed Brock the effort- maybe if I told Darien enough times it would sink past his shield of pride. "You're so condescending! And demanding," I told him, gesturing sharply with my hands. His unwavering gaze didn't falter; I wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. "He's a good friend, he cares about you. And you care about him, if you would deign to show it. Why can't you? He could do with a good friend, after all that's happened to him." I resisted the urge to clap my hand over my mouth- Rhi and Brock were not common knowledge, and I shouldn't know about them. Luckily (sort of) Darien was too angry to notice my slip. I hoped. He glanced at Troy, who was determinedly ignoring us, and then yanked me over to a corner of the room, trapping me in the meeting of the walls. I let him, vaguely amused by the force of his emotion. "You have no idea," he hissed, blue eyes blazing like the heart of a flame. Even I was taken aback by his coldly righteous fury. "Do not talk to me about how I treat my friends. I treat them better than you could ever know. I would- I dodo anything for them, and my real friends know that." If I had been anyone else, I would have quailed beneath the dual weight of my incorrectness and his soft, livid voice. But I was too proud, despite the truth that burned in his words, to walk away. I may have been wrong and sanctimonious- but I still looked up and met the blue lightning of his eyes with my own cool emerald, shaded by the black of my eyelashes. Time stopped- the stalemate threatened to last.

"Dar!" Brock called as he slammed a door closed in the hallway. Darien jerked his eyes way, taking a step back and releasing me from the corner. I sidled out and around, into the middle of the room. I could have escaped from Darien- but I hated to be caged. "You ready?" "We're leaving," Darien announced, stalking to the door with a terrible dignity. Brock met him in the hallway in a much nicer outfit (khakis and a green polo), bouncing on his feet like an eager puppy. With an inscrutable glance at me that Brock followed with complete confusion, Darien dug in his pockets and pulled out a key ring. He tossed it to Brock. "Were taking the Porsche. You want to drive?" Brock lit up like a candle at that as he caught the ring with automatic ease, and his effusive thanks could be heard throughout the house until the slamming of the front door heralded their exit. I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding and turned to Troy, who finally relaxed as the tension between his brother and me dissipated. "So," I asked as I collapsed onto the couch, feeling the regret at my confrontation now that I had the liberty to appear less than indomitable, "What do you want to do today?"

Darien I walked into my house with unusual tentativeness. Not that I was scared, or remorseful, because of my earlier argument with Emma; but I wouldn't put it past her to booby trap the house. And, without Alfred's implacable courtesy to stop them, Troy would probably help her, just for kicks. I wracked my brain for every trick I had ever heard of or played as I slowly eased the front door open. An inch- nothing happened. I thrust it open and leapt back. No shower of water, no creak of some other trap; it was safe to proceed. I walked in cautiously, closing the door as gently as I had forced it open; thankful no one

had seen my antics. I should have known better. Even mad, Emma wasn't childish; she wouldn't descend to that level. I hoped. If she was anywhere to be found, that is. They weren't in the den. I strode to my room- no one. Not in his room, my parents, or any of the myriads of other rooms in our house. I was just about ready to hit the intercom to try to locate them that way- kidnapping seemed more Emma's style than immature prankswhen I finally identified the niggling feeling of not-rightness that had been bothering me since I entered, that had made me so paranoid. A subtle, pervasive scent of something baking overwhelmed the usual sterile smell of the house. I was immediately on my guard. Not that it smelled bad- on the contrary, it smelled delicious- but I had no idea who could be baking. Alfred was the only one who entered the kitchen, except for my occasional forays for snacks- him being here couldn't be good. I walked quickly to the kitchen, steadfastly keeping my body language neutral. Nothing was wrong, I was sure of it- I just wanted to make certain. But how much could go wrong in the few hours I'd been gone? Even Emma and Troy working in concert couldn't get in that much trouble- although I'd learned not to underestimate Emma. The scene in the kitchen stopped me in my tracks in the doorway. Troy was seated comfortably at the counter, munching on a cookie from the tray that sat in front of him, as Emma wrestled a cookie sheet larger than her into the oven. She straightened and tossed back her white-speckled hair in triumph. I could see the flour rise off her hair when she blew it irritably out of her face. That done, she hopped onto the counter beside Troy and delicately picked out a cookie from the tray. The kitchen was coated in flour and frosting. My jaw dropped. I was not cleaning this up. Somehow alerted to my presence, Troy turned around and caught sight of me lounging in the doorway. Frosting outlined his mouth, and I thought I could see some flour in his white-blond hair as well, but his eyes were glowing.

"Darien!" he cried happily, though rather unintelligibly, through his mouthful of cookie. He swallowed, then grabbed the tray of frosted Christmas trees and practically shoved them in my face. "Want a cookie?" "I don't think I have a choice. There's no way we're going to eat all of these before they go bad." I dusted off the stool next to my brother and sat down, making sure not to get flour on my black polo. I took one of the cookies he offered, one with such an intricate design (for a cookie) that it had to be one of Emma's. Cautiously, because I vaguely remembered someone saying that Emma was a disaster in the kitchen, I sampled it. "These are really good!" I exclaimed after my mouth was empty. "I know!" Troy agreed, stuffing another cookie whole into his mouth and speaking around it somehow, "Emma says she can't cook, but these are the best cookies I've ever had!" "I wouldn't say that," Emma contradicted, tracing a pattern in the flour on the counter next to her. Except for a quick glance when Troy first called me, she hadn't looked at me at all. That wasn't like her; it was almost like she was avoiding me. She had never seemed ashamed before, even during our numerous other tiffs. Those made me feel much better- and worse. My ire hadn't lasted very long- I don't hold grudges unless I get really, really mad. Everything else is just my usual impersonal contempt. But she hadn't pushed me that far (yet). I couldn't blame her for succumbing to the image I projected; in fact I should have been complimented about how good my faade was. It was completely irrational to expect her, of all people, to understand me, but had assumed that if anyone could see through my illusions, she would have. But my fury had died quickly, and her apparent remorse made me feel almost guilty. Ugh. Thank God she was never ashamed. "Not the best, but definitely quite good," I assured her, my eyes fixed resolutely on her in an attempt to make her look at me. She was just as stubborn in this as in everything else- I couldn't force her to do anything without exerting too much effort.

"I'm just astonished they aren't poisoned," she drawled. I managed not to spit out my mouthful of cookie, but the cookie went down far too fast for comforther shame wasn't all a ploy, was it? I covered up my undignified shock with a nonchalantly raised eyebrow. "Trying to kill me, Emma?" I asked, impressed and worried by how casual I sounded. Something was wrong with me when death threats barely fazed me, from her at least. "Not intentionally," she countered with a flash of the Emma I was used to, though she neither met my eye or took the easy shot I had practically given her. Something was definitely wrong with her. "Baking and me just don't mix. Pun unintended." I groaned. "Good. Puns should be a punishable offense. Preferably punishable by death." "I don't know," she disagreed with a shrug and a considering look at the flour she was still drawing in, "Only really bad puns. Good puns can be amusing." I gave her a wide-eyed, incredulous stare. "There's such a thing as a good pun?" I inquired sardonically. She let out a smothered chuckle, seemingly by accident. She stopped drawing on the counter. "Touch," she admitted, "But I'm still glad I didn't manage to slip arsenic into the recipe. Totally by mistake, of course," "That would be a Freudian slip in a more literal sense," I observed, snagging another cookie. She smiled evilly at me- the strain between us had disappeared somewhere amidst our easy banter. "There wouldn't have been anything Freudian about it," Emma replied, glancing up at me from under long, dark lashes, looking so innocent that it took me a second to reconcile her words with her expression. "But not only am I eating these as well, but it seems sacrilegious to poison Christmas cookies. Maybe

Easter cookies, or Beltane" Only she would consider the fittingness of when to poison someone. "So don't eat anything you've touched during the spring," I confirmed lightly. I knew she wouldn't really poison- disregarding the moral considerations, which I wasn't sure, would matter to her; poison didn't seem like her style. I would be more wary of a knife in my back. "Duly noted." She grinned and let out an evil laugh. Troy tried to join in, but he couldn't even pull of a decent malicious sneer. Emma and I were still teasing him about his failure when the timer rang. Emma slipped off the counter to open the oven. "You made more!' I gaped as she wrestled another tray out of the oven. "We can't eat all of these!" Troy hung his head, but there was no embarrassment on his face, just an ineffective attempt to hide a smile. "Well, adding stuff is fun. And we had a big bowl." I saw Emma give him a nod. Apparently he made the agreed upon excuse. "Troy," I admonished, taking the tray from Emma and putting it on the stove to cool, "there's only 2 of us, not an army." Emma's piercing gaze suddenly bore into me. "How long is it only going to be you two?" she demanded. Stung by her authoritative tone, I wouldn't have answered, but Troy had no pride to speak of. "We don't know. Mom and Dad didn't say. Sometime after New Year's, right Dar?" She looked horrified, an expression I had never seen on her before. She tended to take everything in stride, whether it was working with me on a project or getting sneaked up on- I studied the look with interest.

"Don't move," she snapped, whipping out her cell phone and wandering out of the kitchen, so we couldn't hear her conversation, or even whom she called. She better not has gotten flour everywhere. "What's she doing?" troy asked hesitantly. I shook my head. I had no idea, and I wasn't afraid to admit that I was getting kind of annoyed at her high-handed manner. Crossing my arms across my chest and leaning against the counter, I prepared to learn exactly that. Before we could get very irritated or afraid, Emma returned. "You're staying with us for Christmas Eve and day," she announced in a tone that brooked no argument. However well that would work (it was the answer to my prayers, in fact), I wasn't going to let her order me around. "We don't need your charity," I protested, imbuing the last word with as much contempt as I could. She ignored me completely, though I couldn't fault her for it- she was being attacked by Troy's energetic hug. I gently pulled him off of her before he strangled her she wasn't much bigger than him, after all- and he nearly waltzed upstairs. Emma and I watched him go. "You don't have to do this," I muttered. So maybe I was grateful, that didn't mean she had to know how out of my depths I was before she bailed me out. "No, really, it's no problem," she replied sarcastically, turning to face me. I was suddenly struck by how close she was. Her head had to be tilted almost all the way back for her to meet my eyes, and I could almost fell the warmth coming off her body. I resisted my uncharacteristic urge to take a nervous step back. "Darien," she said into the silence that had followed her word. I didn't move. Her eyes dropped to her feet; her forehead was a hair's length away from my chest. "I'm sorry." I didn't have to ask what she was talking about, just like she had understood my not- apology. Through the same weird rapport, she knew she was forgiven- she

met my eyes again with her usual straightforward emerald gaze, framed by black lashes in white skin. To break the charged hush, I picked up a lock of her hair to examine. "You're a mess," I informed her dryly, trying to brush the flour out of her silky soft hair. She broke the too potent affinity by taking a step back. Her hair slipped out of my hand like water, despite my odd reluctance that I disregarded. "This whole place's a mess," she replied, an expressive gesture with her hand taking in the whole kitchen. "Someone should clean it up," I pointed out casually. Guessing what was coming, I edged towards the door, none too subtly. Speed was my ally right now, not stealth. She nodded and glanced around at the dirty room. "Oh Darien," she sang innocently, grabbing a rag to shove at me. But I was too fast even for her (and I anticipated her). I was out the door and halfway up the stairs before she could reach the door. "No way," I shouted down the stairs, safe in my perch at the top of the stairs, "this time it's your mess!" She shook her dishrag at me from the bottom of the stairs, scowling to hold back her grin. "Savor your victory this time," she yelled back, her hidden laughter resonating in her voice, "Next time you won't be so lucky!" She was right; I decided as I retreated to my room, she was probably too right.

Chapter 20

Emma

I heard the doorbell ring, of course. Our bell my not have had the ominous clang of the McGavern's, but its cheerful chimes still resonated throughout the house, even over my blasting music (the Aladdin soundtrack, because that movie rocks). It didn't, however, occur to me to stop my last minute present wrapping (procrastination is fun, isn't it?). In fact, I barely registered that the bell had rung; my music was on loud enough that the bell was only a whisper above it, and I was too absorbed in considering if the Christmas tree wrapping paper was more appropriate for Allan than the cartoon frogs. So preoccupied was I that I didn't even notice my bedroom door open until, "Wouldn't have pegged you for a Disney fan," Darien observed, stepping into my room as if he didn't have a care in the world. I sat bolt upright from my nest of wrapping implements, flipping off the music. What the hell was he doing in my room? No one went into my room. He surveyed my room with a critical eye. "Or the four poster type either." I narrowed my eyes angrily at him. He didn't appear to discern my ire as he glanced at the naked katana resting on my desk (authentic and live, a birthday gift from Jack last year). "That now," he said with a mocking half smile, "I could have guessed." I rose, shedding paper scraps, and stalked over to block his path before he reached my desk, emanating fury. I didn't care that it was Christmas Eve and I should be merciful, or I had invited him and thus he had a right to hospitalityhe was in my room. No one was allowed in my room, other than me. "Out," I ordered curtly, pointing an uncompromising finger at the door. "Now." He was only taken aback by a second; by now he was used to my moods and idiosyncrasies. That didn't mean he accepted them, though. "Why?" He reached casually past me for the katana. I snatched it off the desk before he could even consider hurting himself with it and planted it, point down,

on the floor both my hands resting on the hilt. He drew back his hand slowly. "Protective of your space?" he asked with good-natured teasing. His good moods were just as arrogant and presumptuous as his bad ones. He didn't get that I needed him out. And I did, desperately. There was far too much evidence in my room of too many secrets. "Yes, I am," I managed to force out from between clenched teeth. I resisted the urge to drive the point home with the sword, but my glare would have to do. Blood is just so difficult to clean- old habits from when I actually had to clean up after myself die hard. "So get. Out." And then, just because I had been raised to be a good hostess, "Go find Allan. He can show you where you and Troy will be sleeping." "He and Troy are already off plotting something," Darien informed me offhandedly, seating himself comfortably on my unmade bed. Most guys would have felt awkward enough in a girl's room, let alone sitting on her bed, but if he did, he certainly didn't show it. He was quite at ease (although luckily all my laundry was hidden. I don't know how he would have reacted to bras and underwear strewn everywhere), probably just to spite me, because I would have preferred him out at almost any cost. "Allan doesn't plot," I retorted, knuckles white against the black-bound hilt. He may not have been uncomfortable, but I was. He shrugged, not conceding but not denying my point. I once more heroically resisted the urge to drive him out of the room with the flat of my blade. Instead, I picked up the sheath from where I had thrown it on the floor after practicing earlier with deceptive calm and sheathed the katana in one smooth motion (a harder feat than it looked). I replaced it on its hook, ignoring Darien's impressed look. In lieu of holding onto it, I crossed my arms across my chest. "Darien, could you please leave?" I asked disingenuously, my voice gentle and young sounding. As I thought, the innate streak of gallantry that he worked so

hard to conceal with his arrogance and womanizing wouldn't let him refuse me when I sounded like that. It wasn't a weapon I could use often for fear of wearing it out, but it was a very useful part of my arsenal in manipulating Darien. "Fine," he acquiesced, rising and stretching like a cat who didn't want to admit that it had been kicked off the couch, he meandered out the door as if leaving had been all his own idea. I closed the door behind him with a gentleness that belied how much I wanted to slam it. I turned the music back on and sank back onto the floor to finish what Darien's arrival had interrupted, rubbing my temples wearily. I wasn't angry anymore: he had left when I asked, after all. But it wasn't fair, I decided; he shouldn't be allowed to so easily invade my space with such a relaxed air, and worse, I shouldn't be so loathe kicking him out. o0O0o0O0o We were midway through an intense game of Monopoly when Mom and Jack got home from work. Troy had just landed on a loaded free parking, yet again (I swear that kid had to be fixing the dice, because he was far too lucky) while Allan was still desolate from having just landed on Darien's Boardwalk for the second time. I sat by, chuckling at the McGavern brothers' avaricious glee and Allan's despair, all the while hoarding my secret: I, with my orange and light blue monopolies, was actually quietly winning. I hear mom's trilling laugh far before they came in. No one else was even aware of them- testosterone poisoning was at a peak I was planning to take advantage of- until Jack boomed over Troy precisely when he was about to make a very disadvantageous deal with Allan, "Don't do that!" The boys all jumped at least a foot as I hid my smirk beneath a hand. After they had landed, Darien and Troy scrambled to their feet, like they were soldiers surprised by a commanding officer. Darien's face reverted

instantly to a sullen boy at odds with his handsome, glowing countenance a moment before. "Dad!" Allan whined, reluctantly putting his property back down, "Why'd you do that?" "No else would," his father answered, ruffling Allan's chestnut hair fondly. He clapped me on the shoulder in greeting, and I grinned up at him, eyes twinkling as I saw him take in the actual winner of the game. He turned to Darien, who was standing stiffly, one hand on Troy's shoulder as he gazed impassively at Jack. His brother's head was down, looking at his toes as if afraid to meet the adults' eyes. "Hello, Darien." Jack shook Darien's hand jovially. Though he had apparently met the older man before, Jack's genuine cordiality didn't seem to be what Darien was expecting. What would have the reception been at his house, I wondered. Would it have been so different? "Thank you for having us, sir," Darien replied woodenly, letting go of my stepfather's hand and locking it on Troy's other shoulder. Jack disregarded, intentionally or not I'm not sure, how formulaic the response was. "No trouble at all!" he rumbled, holding out another hand for Troy to shake with equal formality as he had shown the elder brother, "Troy, I would guess?" Troy grabbed Jack's hand and hurriedly let go; retreating as far back as Darien's body behind him would allow him to go. "Yeah, thanks," Troy muttered diffidently. He was so painfully shy, even with Jack, who was one of the most inoffensive adults I knew, but he hadn't been at all like this with me. Odd. Jack beamed and began to respond when Mom, who had lagged behind her husband in the hallway for some reason) breezed in with all the force of a tornado.

"Allan, darling," she chided lightly without looking anywhere else, not yet perceiving our guests, "Must I tell you again to take your jersey out of your bag right after you get home? There's only so much me or Jan can do if it gets moldy." Allan ducked his head shame-facedly. "Sorry, Diana," he muttered. Mom always had a way to make people feel guilty without antagonizing them. "It's fine-" she began, but I cut in, saying what she would be too nice to say. "But it'll be you who smells, not her." Mom leaned down to give me a one-armed hug, which I returned nonchalantly, ignoring another, quickly hidden, disbelieving look from Darien. HE didn't get that just because I didn't show affection didn't mean I couldn't. "Don't make fun of Allan, honey," she scolded. I rolled my eyes dismissively. She only told me that a million times a day, and how much I paid attention to it was inversely related to how many times she said it. "But it's so easy!" I complained, as I always did. My family ignored me- it's not like I had anything new to add to the debate. Hurricane Mom had already moved on, anyway. "And you must be Darien!" she exclaimed, overlooking his formally extended hand to wrap him in a hug, to which he didn't respond but didn't push away. I exchanged a look with Allan and Jack; she was in full mother mode. The brothers wouldn't know what hit him. "It's so nice to finally meet you! I've heard so much about you!" Darien raised a questioning eyebrow at me over her shoulder (not that he had much room over her shoulder, because height was one of the many things I hadn't inherited from my mother) but I only shrugged. I hadn't said anything. Much.

She released Darien, who stepped back as if shell-shocked, and turned to Troy. "You're Troy?" At his nod, she embraced him as enthusiastically as she had his brother. Troy, however, returned her embrace with almost equal gusto, though no one could match Mom's hug. "Welcome!" she continued, letting the boy go, "It's so nice for friend's of Emma's to come. Ever since-" At my sudden, sharp look, she cut herself off. Mom was amazing, but lying was not one of her strong points. "She hasn't brought friends home for years! Are you hungry? I'll go make you some-" Allan decided to take mercy on Darien and Troy, who were so overwhelmed that they were simply standing still, lost between their deeply bred formality and my mother's persistent maternal instinct. "Diana," he told her patiently, interrupting her flow of words with a rudeness I had to train him to do, "We're in the middle of a game." "What?" she glanced at the board. "Oh, of course. I'll leave you to it, then." She bustled out of the room, an amused Jack trailing behind her. From the doorway, she threw back over her shoulder, "By the way, boys, Emma's beating you all." "Mom!" I yelled as the boys frantically counted their money and reckoned up mine in shocked incredulity. "So not cool!" "I've told you before, honey," her voice drifted back down the hall, mixed with her merry giggle and Jack's rumbling chuckle, "At least give them a chance."

Darien If it had been any other family, dinner would have been beyond awkward. No matter how many courtesies were uttered, Troy and I were disrupting the family dynamic that the Lexingtons definitely had, even if it was 'Mom and Jack' rather than 'Mom and Dad' (or Dad and Diana for Lex). But Mr.-

Lexington-call-me-Jack and Mrs.-Laycha?-Lexington-but-call-me-Diana were unlike any adults I had ever met, and even Mr. Lexington was different at home than I had ever seen him at any of my parents' formal gatherings. They honestly accepted us, treating us as much like part of the family as they possibly could. Mrs. Lexington had charmed Troy out of his shyness and was well on her way to wheedling all his confidences out of him with as much skill as her daughter had ever shown by the time we had finished the main course, and somehow Mr. Lexington had engaged me and Lex in a conversation that had me chattering like I hadn't in years. Emma just watched both conversations with a casual cheer that had a hint of justified smugness. I'd seen her unreservedly happy as often as I had seen her hug someone- truly, this seemed a house of wonders. Emma slipped out of her chair and began to clear the empty plates (we had decimated the meal that, as Mr. Lexington had proudly informed me and I had heard with blatant shock, Mrs. Lexington had homemade). I froze in indecision, half rising out of my chair. It didn't seem right that I let Emma do all the work, but honestly, clearing plates? I knew the etiquette for 100s of situations, had had it drilled into me since I could talk, but this had not been in the lesson plan. Alfred or one of the other servants always cleared; it had never occurred to me that it would be otherwise. Mrs. Lexington must have caught my quandary, because she shook her head at me. "No, no, you're a guest," she assured me, "You don't have to help." I settled uneasily back into my seat. If I was going to intrude on this cookiecutter perfect family, I felt like I should do something to help. My conversation faltered as I sat uncomfortably and watched Emma efficiently whisk the table clean and disappear into a door that I presumed led to the kitchen. As soon as Emma was gone, her mother turned her brilliant green eyes to me. Her daughter didn't much resemble her: Mrs. Lexington's short hair was nearly as blonde as Troy's, she was on the taller side of average, her features tended towards gentle where Emma's were hard as any predators, and she would smile where Emma would stay inscrutable. But they had the same intense, piercing eyes that could see past the surface of anyone, including me.

"So," she asked, leaning forward and resting her chin on one delicate hand. She was suddenly as focused as my mother ever was- but my mother would never put her elbow on the table. I was immediately just as on edge as I had been when I walked in, with an added side of the defensiveness Emma's questions always conjured. "How do you know Emma? I know you and Allan have been friends for a while, but it was Emma who invited you." I thought I heard a crash in the kitchen, as if someone had hit their head against the wall, but I ignored it. "We were assigned to do a project together," I answered, choosing what interactions to relate very carefully. I didn't think her parents would appreciate being told about our first meeting beside the Matchmaker's locker. "And she babysat Troy a few times. She just wouldn't let us be alone on Christmas if she could help it." "I should say not!" she agreed emphatically, but not distracted, "but was there any other reason for her to bring you here?" her suggestively raised eyebrow left me in no doubt as to what she was acting about. "What?" I stammered, blessing tanned cheeks that didn't show my blush- not that I was blushing, I didn't blush. "No, no, its nothing like that!" I've had a lot of girls that could be called my girlfriends, and a lot more I've had some involvement with, but I've never had to meet the parents. Not that this was a 'meet the parents' situation, but it was as weird as one. Or so I would imagine. "We're friends. that's all. Nothing more." "Oh?" I got the feeling that Emma's mom didn't believe me, and even worse, from the odd look Lex was giving me he didn't either. Poor him, the one time he's suspicious is the time I'm completely telling the truth. Or maybe he was just being protective of his stepsister. But then Mrs. Lexington's eyelids dropped, and eyelashes as long as her daughters' shielded her eyes and thoughts. "Well, I'm glad you're her friend, anyways. After her issues at her last school-"

The door banged open and Emma came in, effectively cutting her mother off. Just when she was getting to the good part, too, but I'm sure that was Emma's point. "So, dessert in front of the tree?" she suggested, balancing a stack of plates in one hand and a tray of fruitcake and cookies in the other. I half expected her to have the teapot on her head, but it, along with something a bit harder was on the wheeled table she was pushing in front of her. "Sounds wonderful honey," Mrs. Lexington affirmed, rising from the table. The rest of us followed her lead as she left the room, but I held back and plucked the tray out of Emma's hand as she walked past. Emma glared; I kept moving. I didn't want my dessert to fall; it wasn't like I was being nice or anything. o0O0o0O0o A good few hours later, only I and Emma were left in the living room. I had forced Troy to go to bed only an hour later than usual; the adults had pled exhaustion an hour after that. Lex had disappeared a little after them, and so now we were alone. It was 2 am, and I was sprawled across a couch that would have been too comfortable to be in a displayed part of the house in my house, staring idly up at the play of shadows the firelight cast on the ceiling. Emma was curled up in a massive armchair, a blanket wrapped around her. The only light was from the fire flickering in the huge hearth. "Emma?" I asked, still staring at the ceiling. My voice sounded loud when the only other sound was the crackling of the fire. "Why are me and Troy here?" "Troy and I," she corrected instinctively, then hesitated, as if wondering how much to say. She waited for so long I was considering asking the question again, but finally she answered, speaking slowly and quietly, considering every word. "Mom used to sometimes have to work on Christmas, when she was pulling two jobs to keep us in the apartment and to give me spending money. Those were the most miserable Christmas's of my life, and I've had some pretty bad ones. No one should have to experience that. I wish I hadn't had to, even if the

money mom made went to buying me a new outfit. Or at least, that's where I ostensibly spent it." Would every time I learned anything important about her be past midnight, I wondered. That certainly seemed to be the trend. "What are you really spending the money on, then?" She had said she wasn't aware of what she was saying when she was tired, but despite the hour, she didn't seem at all fatigued. It wasn't taking advantage of her, it was just curiosity. She sighed and paused, but finally answered with such simplicity I didn't doubt her sincerity. "Cigarettes." "Why?" I made a face at the ceiling. I didn't get it. She hated cigarettes as much as anyone I had ever known, as I knew all too well. "Why do you think?" she spat. I sat up and looked blankly at her. She was no longer staring unfocusedly into space, but was still not looking at me, gazing at the fire as if she was seeing something more than just the flames. "I was fucking addicted. If you can even say was." Comprehension dawned. My jaw dropped in surprise. I hadn't seen that one coming, but then again, I could never predict Emma. "That's why you detest cigarettes so much." "Among other things," she allowed her fireside visions over as she shifted her focus to me. "That and the fact that they'll kill you if you don't quit." I let the slur go. Not the time to interrupt the unusual openness. "Are those the issues your mom was talking about?" I would have thought that Emma was the sort of person to clever to get caught, but if her mother knew, she would have had to have been found out.

"No. She never knew about that one." Her face was shadowed, the light missing her. She seemed to blend into the chair and the darkness, but I could still hear the hard note in her voice. "So what was she talking about?" As soon as I had said it, I realized I had gone too far. Emma wasn't ready to spill everything, and her limit had been reached. Not even Christmas magic could make her suddenly reveal all her secrets. She sighed and uncurled herself from the chair, tossing the blanket onto the floor. She stretched as sinuously as a cat. I kept my eyes resolutely on the fire, not on the lithe body that was suddenly thrown into sharp relief, silhouetted by the firelight. "I don't want to argue with you tonight," she told me softly, sounding tired of more than just being awake. Her long hair hung loose around her face, blacker than the darkness around her. The pale face that reflected the light and seemed almost to glow looked feral, almost fey. "So I'm going to pretend you didn't ask that." I rose too, not as gracefully, but then again, I was considerably larger and less delicate than she was. "Why don't you ever tell me anything about anything?" I demanded. If she had been in another mood, or if I hadn't been so tired (I wasn't used to staying up so late without some reinforcement), I wouldn't have asked, but as it was She laughed incredulously, a wild note in her voice. "Darien, you know more about me than basically anyone. You're a good friend, even if you try not to be, but there are still things I don't- can't- share with anyone. And what you're asking about qualify." She spun on her heel, stalking out of the room with all the grace of a hunting panther, but no anger. "I'm going to bed. Good night.

I watched her go, wondering if I was pleased that she had called me a good friend, or annoyed that she still hadn't told me. With Emma and her damn secrecy, it was generally equal parts of both, but tonight, the former had to win.

Chapter 21

Emma Of course, I didn't actually go to sleep. I went to my room (sort of bed, right?) but I had had caffeine, it was Christmas Eve, it was only 2:30 am-I had at least another hour before I would be tired. But I had needed an excuse to get away from Darien; the warm darkness and companionable silences were making me far too communicative (I had always been most comfortable at night). But Darien didn't know of my insomniac tendencies; it was a viable escape tactic, if only I knew what exactly I was fleeing. I groaned as I collapsed onto my bed. I adored my family- my immediate family, step or otherwise, that is- but god had dinner been nerve-wracking! Well, not all of dinner itself, Mom and Jack had worked their magic to bring Troy and Darien out of their shells, but there had been moments I may have hid it well (I had practice, after all) but I would gladly have murdered my mother after her little interrogation. I knew moms were supposed to embarrass their teenage daughters, but Mom had always been so good about that! Although She might have just seen that I was more nervous about this than I had been for a long time. The upcoming talent show auditions didn't have me in half so much of a worry, though I don't know why. Mom had been cool with all my other boyfriends- not that Darien was even potential boyfriend. He was a friend, and I wondered if he knew how hard it was for me to admit that, but that was all.

A half hour later (after attempting to read two books, getting distracted by Darien coming past my door, and one run through of my talent show routine) and I was more than thankful when my phone rang. Slightly surprised- who the hell would be calling me at this hour? I thought I was the only one insane enough to be awake- I rolled over and grabbed the phone sitting on my bedside table without bothering to look at the caller ID. "Hello?" I said cheerfully. Most people are weirded out when I'm in my best moods past midnight, but this person knew me well enough to expect it. "Hi!" Rhi exclaimed happily. I raised my eyebrows. Rhi was a morning person, sure, and it was Christmas morning for her, but 8 o'clock? And this upbeat? I hadn't heard her this merry since the last time she went out with Brock, before her parents decided to mess with her life and she made the horrid decision not to tell Brock why she was dumping him (she thought it would be less painful not to have to imagine her with another guy. I told her she was an idiot, but what can you do?). "What happened?" I immediately demanded. Left to herself, she would ramble for hours before she got to the point, and I didn't have that much patience. Actually, I didn't have any patience. "I talked to my parents." I rolled my eyes. "You do that everyday, Rhi," I pointed out. She giggled. I scowled. I wanted to know what the hell was up, and her purposeful dancing around the subject was so not helping. "Yeah, but this I really talked. And I gave them actual proof that Lord Bastard was cheating on me- you know, like you said I always should? and that he was a total asshole and this time they actually listened and didn't just say I was being a baby," she gushed. I could almost hear her bouncing up and down with joy. Knowing her, though, her next move was she would fall down because she had jumped wrong. "And they said they'd talk to his parents and see what they

could do 'cause they didn't want me to be unhappy and they hadn't realized how horrible he really was and" My mouth dropped. I nearly tumbled off the bed. After my imaginative gymnastics routine that actually kept me on the bed, I managed to interrupt her incredulously. "Wait- so they're stopping the engagement? You can come home?" I was grinning like an idiot. This was the best news I had had in a really long time. She sighed, some of her ecstasy draining away. "I dunno. I mean, they know I really really really want to come back, but they'll probably make me stay out here so I can finish this year of school." "You're coming home," I repeated, the magnitude of it dawning on me. Rhi was going to come home. Darien and Allan were amazing people, and Candy and Brock were growing on me, so that by now I was fond of them, but Rhi was and always would be my best friend. We had been together since we were kids, and she had the courage to come talk to the little girl on the other side of the playground in the thrift store clothes. She knew stuff about me I couldn't tell anyone- but she had been there and helped me through it, so I didn't have to tell her. "I know!" she cried, all her former euphoria returning in a blast of warm wind, "How amazing is that? But I got to go now. Family stuff, 'cause its Christmas and all- aren't my parents amazing? And isn't it really late there? You should go to bed. Laterness!" I hung up the phone, still smiling broadly. Rhi coming was the best Christmas present I could ever have asked for. I fell asleep soon after in the same mood. Waking up, however, was a different story. The 1st thing I saw was 3 male faces peering down at me from beside my bed. I blinked, hoping I was hallucinating. They were still there, troy with his innocent

grin, Allan and his sheepish smile, and Darien, longing against a bedpost, smirking evilly. At any other time, I would have been furious. Hell, I was furious. But it couldn't have been later than 8 am, and I wasn't awake enough to coherently express my anger. "Come on Emma!" Troy chirped, bouncing on the end of the bed and jarring me more awake. "We've got to open presents now!" I groaned and rolled over, yanking my blankets over my face. Christmas presents or not, I was not getting up for anything. It was vacation, and that meant noon was the earliest I was getting up. I heard murmurs of the boys conferring, Darien's lowish tenor dominating over Troy's alto and Allan's baritone. Suddenly, Troy yelled, "1, 2, 3!" and before I could react, the covers were jerked away from me, and Darien scooped me up. Ignoring my protests, some of which were very loud and others of which were very violent, he carried me downstairs, Allan and Troy flanking him and trying to avoid my flailing arms. By the time he had deposited me on the couch, I had realized the futility of struggling and was leaning resignedly against Darien's arm and trying not to think about how I now had proof for what I had always suspected. Darien had a really good body. "You," he accused me as he dropped me with surprising gentleness, "need to eat more. That should not have been so easy." "So I'm little, sue me," I retorted, crossing my arms and tossing back hair that luckily wasn't the mess it sometimes was in mornings. I had cause to bless that smallness sometimes. Occasionally. Very occasionally. "Maybe I will," he drawled. I made a skeptical face, but for once he declined to be drawn into an argument. After a second, I gave up. It was too early for a debate anyway.

"Well, now that I'm down here," I declared, dripping regality all over my moon pajama pants and oversized t-shirt (actually, it was Allan's, and big enough to be a dress on me), "Bring me presents!" Troy looked up at me with big blue puppy dog eyes that were simultaneously identical to his brother's and yet worlds away. "Can I open presents too?" he asked piteously. Well, his mother had taught him one thing at least. I was in charge here, and he instinctively knew it. I chuckled. "You can," I allowed graciously, "But you two," I favored the two older boys with a glare that made Allan at least look abashed, "will deliver my presents to me." "The tree's about two yards away from you," Darien observed dryly, glancing between me and the tree with an odd expression. If I hadn't known him as well as I did, I would have said it was nervous, but he was never nervous, that I had ever seen. Allan, however, had already bowed to the inevitable and was fetching me my first gift. I opened it slowly, carefully, savoring the feel of having lots of presents. Still, I set aside the wrapping paper almost completely intact. Economy could never hurt. I pulled the shimmering chain out of the velvet box, a smile growing on my face. "It's lovely!" I cried, watching the dangling silver crescent moon pendant sparkle in the morning light. Allan grinned and dropped his head, rubbing the back of his neck in embarrassed pleasure. "It's nothing, I just saw it, and it seemed like something you'd like," he muttered. I pulled him into a one-armed hug for thanks. "I love it," I assured him, replacing the necklace gently. It was too nice to be worn with ratty old pajamas. I turned to Darien, who was hovering near the tree. "Well?" I prompted, raising my eyebrow expectantly.

"Close your eyes," he ordered. I stared straight at him in response. Mornings made me contrary, especially when I was woken up way too early. He rolled his eyes and nodded to Allan, who obediently shoved a pillow over my face. "Alright, they're closed!" I yelled into the pillow, shutting my eyes. If he really wanted it to be a secret for that much longer, I supposed I could oblige him. "Now could you stop smothering me?" "Good." At what I guessed was another signal from Darien the pillow was removed. I kept my eyes closed, despite the temptation to see what the noises I heard were. Darien was moving, picking something up I waited not so patiently, tapping my foot. "It's not as good as Lex's," he said, again with the almost anxious note in his voice. He sounded quite close. , "But I didn't have much time, and I didn't have any good ideas, so" He dumped something warm and furry onto my lap. My eyes flew open. Slit-pupiled green eyes stared back at me out of a pointed black face. "Darien!" I exclaimed, holding up the tiny kitten that had been placed in my lap as if not sure it was real. It submitted to my ministrations docilely, until I decided to check its sex. Then it-he- slashed at me. I dodged adeptly. "Darien!" I repeated, to disbelieving to express my joy. His smile at my shock dimmed slightly at my reaction (and probably my inarticulateness) but he didn't deign to give my justification. "If you don't like him-" I cut him off, clutching my new pet to my chest. He squirmed slightly in my possessive grip, and I relaxed. Slightly. "He's amazing, Darien," I informed the boy, stroking the cat gently, "And so are you." I could almost see the tension roll off him. He may have even stood up straighter. Other than that, he didn't react to my gratitude anymore than to my perceived disapprobation, but Troy, Allan, Jack, and Mom (who had come in to

my amazing present, shocked that we had beaten them up. They had forgotten about the whole 10-year-old needing presents thing) had broad grins on their face. "It was Troy's idea," he replied curtly, meandering away from the knowing looks shot at him from everyone else in the room (except for Troy, who only looked confused) and towards the tree to seat himself next to his brother. "Now, can the rest of us finally get to look at our gifts?"

Darien I worked my way through my presents leisurely, with no regard for neatness (although I was of course polite enough not to make a mess on the Lexington's floor). By the time I had opened the nice boxed set of Tolkien from Emma (something no true closet fantasy lover should be without, she told me), a coffee shop gift card from the Lexington parents, a video game I had wanted for a while but not gotten around to getting from Troy, and an autographed football from Lex, Troy and Allan were already engaged in a furious game of soccer around the living room with Lex's new ball and the adults had migrated to the kitchen to prepare pancakes (honestly, pancakes? How much more cookiecutter could you get?). Emma had opened the rest of her presents with illconcealed excitement, but now she was just sitting and watching the game, idly stroking the cat. I got up from my seat on the floor to sprawl on the other side of the couch. "Have you decided on a name yet?" I asked, gesturing to the cat. He rubbed his head against my hand, so I didn't move it away. Even I know better than to disobey cat orders. "Troy's idea?" she countered, by which I figured she hadn't. I scratched his head, feeling his purr vibrate me.

"Sort of. He suggested it, but I had remembered you said you got kind of lonely sometimes and-" I stopped talking before I said too much. Emma smiled as if she knew what I was thinking, but she let it go, thankfully. She probably could have gotten the whole story out of me, from me trying to figure out how to get her company to Troy's suggestion to the long train of people that led to their parent's permission. But she didn't need to know that; I didn't even know why I had put such a monumental effort in. "I was thinking maybe Blackjack," she said after a short pause, stroking his sable fur absentmindedly. "How would you nickname that?" "Shelby?" "Ugh." "Salem?" I gave her a disbelieving look. She shrugged. "I watched too much Sabrina the Teenaged Witch during my formative years," she confessed. I shook my head disparagingly. I guess if you don't have cable, you don't have many viewing options, but come on. There had to be something better than that. "Think about it," I proposed. None of her names were right for the kitten, and it would be near criminal to have a pet with a horribly inappropriate name. We watched Troy and Lex's game in silence for a moment. Lex was up, 3-2, but he had just gotten a penalty for endangering the vase on the mantelpiece, and Troy's chances for making the shot looked good. "Are you going to Brock's New Year's party?" I finally broke the silence, though I could guess the answer. Not that it mattered; she was going, but still "I wasn't aware there was one," she responded coolly, sincerity oozing from her voice didn't believe her for a second.

"How could you not?" I inquired skeptically, 'First of all, you've told me often enough that you're omniscient," she half-smiled at that, unable to deny it, "And I was there when Brock told Lex to-" she held up the hand that wasn't petting the cat to stop me. "All is explained," she announced with an exasperated look of comprehension, then, calling to her stepbrother, "Allan!" He glanced up, holding a furiously (and futilely) running Troy away from the ball with one huge hand on the boy's forehead. "Yeah?" "Do you know anything about a New Year's Party?" she crossed her arms and looked expectantly at him. I was suddenly chilled by her resemblance to my mother. "Oh yeah!" He cowardly didn't meet her eyes. Not that they weren't scary or anything, but bravery is standing up to terrifying things. Like Emma. "Brock's having one and wants you to come!" "And when did he say this?" she prompted, drumming her fingers on the opposite forearm. Lex flushed slightly and looked down. "2 weeks ago," he muttered quickly, hastily returning to his game before she could reprimand him any more severely. Emma turned back to me. "You see," she gestured in fond vexation. I hid my grin. My brother and I were not that amusing to watch. "So are you?" I persisted. Who cared when Lex told her? It wasn't like she had plans, nor a hard choice to make now that she knew. Go to a party and have fun, or stay at home and not? Hard decision, definitely. "No."

"Yes." She didn't actually have a choice. It was far past time to integrate her into the society in which she had to live. She wouldn't last much longer in high school without knowing the party scene, and me and Brock and Lex's endorsement should be enough to make her feel as comfortable as possible. "No." she still obviously thought she had a say in this. More the fool her. "Yes." She sighed and buried her hands in her kitten's fur. Her long loose hair fell in front of her face in a silky sheet and shadowed her face so I couldn't quite make out her expression. "No. I don't do parties, Darien- I can't." She sounded as if that should have told me something. Yeah right. She had probably just never tried them and was scared. "Why not?" I challenged, meeting her eyes in what was obviously a dare to actually tell in the truth in daylight for once. For a long moment, 2 pairs of bright emerald eyes gazed unflinchingly up at me. Then one pair dropped, and only cat eyes stared. "I just can't," she said quietly, looking down at her lap. I rolled my eyes in annoyance. "Why not?" I insisted. All her secrets (at least, I assumed this was another one of her secrets because everything about her was) were starting to really irritate me. "You wouldn't understand!" her voice suddenly jumped at least 10 decibels. Lex and troy glanced over, startled and alarmed, but when it became evident that neither of us were in physical danger they lost interest and returned to their game. "I can't go to this party, I won't be able t go to the next party. I can't go to any damn parties!"

"Because you think you won't have fun?" I queried, trying to comprehend her intense antipathy to parties. Before, she had only seemed indifferent, but now that I delved deeper it really seemed like she hated them. Being Emma, it could just be contrariness, but I could read Emma better than that now. This was real, whatever it was. "No," her voice dropped so low that I doubted anyone, especially me, was meant to hear her next words. It had more the feeling of a revelation than an answer. "Because I know I will. I leaned in and grabbed both her shoulders, catching her eyes firmly. She didn't look away, but judging by the flicker of something that was almost fear in her shielded eyes, that was mostly bravado. "You are going to that party if I have to drag you there, kicking and screaming," I informed her slowly, purposefully. She wasn't getting out of this one. "You need to get out more, Emma. You need to let loose, have some fun." "I do have fun," she protested as she broke out of my grip, her eyes fixed on anything but me. Then she tossed back her hair and her chin rose, an oddly defiant look on her now exposed face. "Fine, I'll go," she declared, a stubborn set to her expression. Her eyes locked onto mine with an almost physical jolt. "But I can't promise I'll have fun." If I hadn't been so certain I would win this argument, I would have been shocked at my victory. I had suspected I really would have to drag her there against her will. It wasn't often that Emma succumbed to my charm, and even I had had a moment of doubt after her outburst. Emma raising her voice was not a good sign. But somehow, I refrained from gloating. To my dying day, I never knew how. "I can live with that," I conceded with fake reluctance. She gave me am onesided smile.

"Good, 'cause you ain't getting anymore." I heard, for the first time, a hint of the class in which she had been raised in her voice, as if her caving had been some sort of trigger to her regression into coarse speech. I glanced at the grandfather clock that rested against the wall by the door. The Lexington's should have some time family time alone; it was time for us to get going. "Troy," I called. The game paused. "We have to go." Him and Lex walked over, identical disappointed grimaces on their faces. "Dar, do we have to?" Troy whined. I ruffled his hair and shook my head in regret as I gathered up my gifts. "We can bond," I told my brother. He grinned, knowing that when I said that it meant something stupid, testosterone-driven, and probably painful thing that would be incredibly fun. We had done paintball before maybe laser tag? "Okay!" he chirped, beginning to stuff his gifts into a bag with an abandon only known to those under 12. By the time I had returned from saying my farewells to the parents and giving them our regrets, Troy was raring and ready to go. "Bye Emma, Lex," he exclaimed, grabbing my arm to tow me out the door, "Thank you!" He gave up on me and was out the door in a flash. I followed more sedately, Emma walking after me, setting the kitten on the ground. I stopped in the doorway. Emma nearly ran into me, but managed to stay both upright and not trip over the kitten that twined about our legs. "You really made Troy's Christmas, Emma," I told her. I wouldn't, couldn't, let go of my pride enough say thank you, but for this, I could imply it. She had done me a massive favor. She smiled almost shyly, glanced down at the cat, than completely out of the blue and out of character; Emma wrapped her arms around me in a hug.

I managed not to stutter in my shock, r say something really stupid. I was good with girls, I knew that. I could handle charming them and hooking up, and anything in between. But hugging denoted a degree of intimacy I had never had, never wanted with any girl. Emma hugging me was weird and awkward, but somehow, uncannily comfortable. "Darien," she said into my chest. I could almost rest my chin on the top of her head, and for some reason, I had to stop myself from doing it. "Thank you." "No, Emma," I replied, returning the hug as smoothly as I could, "Thank you."

Chapter 22

Emma "Why are you here?" I snapped as I threw the door open on New Year's Eve to reveal Darien standing on the porch, tapping his foot impatiently. He barely gave me time to not get stepped on before he strode in and began to circle. I would have been mad, but it was freaking cold. "To make sure you're coming. Lex couldn't make you, you've got him wrapped around your little finger," he told me, surveying me like I was some sort of mannequin wearing an outfit he wasn't sure if he liked. I glared at him, turning with him as he circled. I had actually dressed with care that night, trying to find a balance between the new and old mes. It had taken me a while, but I had finally found an ensemble that satisfied me. The black pleated skirt that ended an inch or so above my knees belted with a thick scarlet belt, burgundy tank top, sheer black button down that I was wearing open, and red stiletto heels that were fairly short were just shy enough of slutty to be attractive. I had rooted in the box that held my old clothes for the button down and heels, and the result had turned out better than I had expected. "I keep my promises," I growled, refusing to show any discomfort beneath his unwavering gaze. Carl, as I had finally named the cat (after my grandfather, I

had explained to Darien, though he held out for Legolas until the end) twined around my legs. I bent down and picked him up as an innocent excuse for distracting Darien. "So, do I pass?" He either didn't get my sarcasm, or ignored it. "You look fine," he admitted, meeting my eyes at last and smiling reluctantly, if sincerely. I raised my head in offended pride. I wished I could toss my hair back, but it was twisted into a bun at the back of my head and held in securely with a hair stick. "But can you even walk in those?" He looked askance at the thin heels. I shrugged and hid my grin in Carl's fur. I could do a lot more than walk, I had once ran and won a race in these heels (one of those ideas that seem good when you're drunk), but Darien didn't need to know that. "Worst comes to worst, they'd make good weapons," I observed, circumventing the question. Lying to Darien was getting more and more difficult, much harder than it should have been, but omission was always easier. And harder to catch, as he was getting better at reading me. "Who're you planning to fight?" he asked with mock nervousness. I gave him my best evil grin. It was very, very good; I had way too much practice. "Wouldn't you like to know?" I taunted. Now he really was anxious. Ha, take that. If he was going to put me through this, I needed to give him some torture in return. "I said you should have fun, not make a scene," he cautioned me. I decided to forgo pointing out the irony of him telling me that. When did I ever make scenes? But I did roll my eyes. Maybe blatantly lying to him wasn't that hard. "If you insist," I allowed magnanimously, but with a sly glint in my eyes. I think he might have hit me then, or at least tried to, if Mom hadn't come down right then. Like usual, Darien immediately clammed up.

"Darling, you look lovely," she cooed, examining me similarly to how Darien did, but far less disposed to criticism. "Oh, hello Darien!" He nodded awkwardly. He still wasn't used to my mom's effusive maternalness. Or how different I was from her. But mom didn't notice, her attention being fixed elsewhere. That is, on me. Joy of joys. "Where'd you get those earrings?" she asked, peering at the silvery crescent moons dangling from my ears revealed by my swept up hair. They glinted, drawing attention to them like little pieces of fire hanging from my head. "I don't remember those." My hand stole to hold Allan's moon necklace. "Dan gave them to me," I muttered. Her eyes widened in shock. I looked down, still rubbing the pendent. It wasn't my fault that the earrings looked so good with the necklace. Dan and Allan just both knew my tastes. There was nothing symbolic about the earrings. Nothing at all. The fact that I was wearing them to the first party I had gone to in years meant nothing at all. "Honey," she held me at arm's length, studying my face with terribly kind intensity. I hate it when she did that. The kindness made it impossible to get irritated at her. I buried my head in Carl's pelt, not willing to meet her eyes. They would probably far too know for comfort. "Will you be okay?" "I'll be fine," I replied curtly, jerking out of her hold. Carl, protesting my sudden movement, leapt out of my arms and Darien's face revealed his shock- I rarely spoke that overtly angrily- but Mom, being mom, just gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze and left. She understood that even if this was a mistake, it was a mistake I had to make. Sometimes, I adored my mother. Darien opened his mouth, probably to ask a question that nothing would have compelled me to answer, but Allan with for once impeccable timing, pounded down the stairs. Of course, that meant the timing was horrible for Darien, but I didn't care.

"Emma, are you-" he stopped talking when he saw Darien lounging against the wall, and his face, for a split second, was as suspicious as I had ever seen it. But then it cleared, and all was well again. "McGavern, you coming with us?" "I had to make sure Emma wouldn't chicken out," Darien replied, greeting Allan with a quick, almost brusque, handshake. I shook my head to clear any lingering memories, and looked at the boys. They were a handsome bunch, my escorts; even in the old days I wouldn't have been ashamed to walk into a party with them, and I used to be pretty picky. Allan was dressed, of course, like the stereotypical athlete in jeans and a nice Tshirt that showed off his extremely impressive biceps, his brown hair lying wherever it happened to fall, but Darien outshone him like the sun over the moon. It couldn't have hurt that I had always preferred my guys long and lanky rather than overly built, but even Rhi would have agreed with me here. He was freaking gorgeous, I realized (not for the first time) as I admired him with purely aesthetic pleasure. I could see how he broke hearts, in his dark jeans and navy button down shirt that I guessed would match his eyes in some lights worn untucked, with his carefully spiked dirty blonde hair held out of brilliant eyes. Add to that his brooding, bad boy air and dangerously magnetic smirk- but it was purely aesthetic pleasure. That's all. Suddenly excited, I threw my head back and laughed out loud in delight, the boy's surprised expressions only making me laugh harder. While the boys were still recovering from the bombshell of my sudden merriment, I grabbed their wrists and dragged them forward towards the door. I was glad to note that I was as steady on my heels as I had ever been. Like riding a bike, I suppose. "Well come on!" I urged, still laughing as I herded the boys outside, "What are we waiting for?" o0O0o0O0o Two hours later, and my merriment had ceased. It was hard, harder than I had expected. It was a mistake to come, to even consider coming, and I had known

that- but Darien, damn him, had somehow connived me into forgetting that, had set afire the rebellious spark that had lain dormant for a year or two, and I couldn't help but go along. I leaned against the bar, clutching the edge firmly. It was a lifeline, of sorts. Maybe if I held onto it, I wouldn't succumb to the siren song of the music that was still making my body move in time to it. I had already fended off a few trays of beer and a couple drunken advances, but the music was by far the hardest to resist. "What're you doing, just sitting here?" Darien demanded, calmly disentangling himself from some girl's clasping arms and striding over. I raised my eyebrows at him as he grabbed a beer from behind the counter. "I think the operative question is, what are you doing?" I countered, eyeing the girl who stumbled off with thinly veiled contempt. At least I had never been someone like her- she was probably too drunk to remember. He shrugged dismissively and drew a box of cigarettes out of his pocket. Then, with a glance at me, he replaced them. "Sorry," he muttered awkwardly. I waved an indifferent hand. He could figure out how appreciative I actually was that he had considered me. "So, who was she?" I queried. At his questioning look, I nodded to the girl he had just sent away, who was now dancing alone on the edge of the dance floor. Kind of pitiful, really. "Oh, her." He took a sip of his drink. "I dunno. Ashley, maybe? Dana?" It didn't seem to concern him overmuch. At least I had known the names of all the guys I met at parties. Mostly. Usually. Darien must have noticed the revulsion on my face, because he remarked, "Does it bother you?" "Well, it certainly doesn't make me feel good," I retorted irritably. Being back here reminded me uncomfortably of whom I used to be. Had I ever been as callous as him? Sadly enough, the answer was clear.

"Come on, Emma," he was more relaxed here than I had ever seen him, willing to cajole, if not plead. Must be something about being on his home ground. "Loosen up. Have a drink or two. Have some fun." "I am having fun," I insisted, gripping the bar harder. His constant taunting that hadn't let up since we got here (and before) had been beating on my hard won defenses, and added to that the temptations so plentiful and easy in front of me. I shouldn't have come. "No you aren't. You haven't moved in an hour," he retorted with irrefutable logic. Although I could have fun staying in the same place. Sort of. Actually, even when I was reading or something, I had to be fidgeting or something. But that was beside the point. He leaned against the wall and took another sip, all his body language declaring how much cooler he was than everyone else here. "Lighten up. Go dance. Find a," he hesitated for a barely perceptible second, "guy somewhere. Let your hair down." Something in me snapped. His relentless teasing had done its work- he had gotten to me. "Fine." I snatched the beer out of his hand and drained it. I would need the comfort, and distance. "You want me to have fun? I will." I didn't know about the almost mad gleam in my eyes, but something about it worried Darien. "But that was my-Emma, are you okay?" he stuttered as I handed him back his drink, gave him my best innocent grin, and began to move away. I ignored his calling after me and plunged easily into the crowd, grabbing another beer from a passing tray. It was the work of but a moment to borrow Candy's makeup bag (well, filch, but she would find it again and probably wouldn't even notice) and fight my way to the bathroom. Once there, and after I had kicked the making out couple out, I rolled my skirt up a few inches (only a few, I didn't want to be a complete slut) and quickly applied a bit of makeup (some eyeliner and lip gloss. Again, I didn't want to look like a whore). I stashed the over shirt in a corner and

finally, reluctantly, removed the necklace and folded it into the shirt. The earrings I left on. I stood in front of the mirror and studied myself. I still looked like me, but it was an elder version of the old me. This was a me that only Rhi, out of everyone I now knew, would recognize. I tried out my come-hither smile. It came, limping a little, but with no less power. I was ready. I sighed, gathered my courage, plucked the hair stick out of my hair as a final afterthought, and stepped out of the bathroom. The music immediately engulfed me, and for the first time since the accident, I abandoned myself to it. Until Darien quite literally pulled me out of it, yanking me away from a very nice boy a few hours (it was past midnight, wasn't it? I had a vague recollection of champagne being popped and some guy trying to kiss me and missing) and quite a few drinks later. I let him drag me away from the dance floor, panting and grinning. "What are you doing?" he demanded. I giggled a little; he had said that before! But it was different this time, the inflection maybe? He was mad now Uh -oh, someone was in trouble! Miraculously, I remembered to be angry. "I'm having fun," I spat, "Isn't that what you wanted?" He gave me a look I think he copied off my own skeptical ones. It was funny on him "Only if you really are," he told me. I grabbed for the beer he was holding, but he caught my wrist. Hey I was supposed to be faster than him. "You don't want that," he informed me, peering into my eyes, "How many drinks did you have?" "Enough," I said unconcernedly. He had a cigarette in his mouth- he had probably lit up as soon as I left. Suddenly, I really, really craved one. I like, needed one. Right now. My free hand grabbed it.

"You really don't want that." He took it back and snuffed it, dropping it into a nearby sink. I pouted charmingly, but he didn't let go of my wrists. He looked really tall from here, 'cause I had to be really close for him to hold both my wrists. "Yes I do," I protested, not caring that I sounded like a petulant brat. I liked being a kid. It was fun. But I was still a kid, right? 16 wasn't that old or was it? How old was Darien? He was tall; he was probably older than me- did that make sense? "Trust me," he said, shaking my wrists to drive in his point. It was kinda fun- I like, shook all over and rattled a bit. Sorta like a ride at an amusement park, except without the spinniness. "You don't." Later, I would wonder why I did it. Maybe my tolerance had gone down, and I really was a lot drunker than I had thought. Or maybe I was just caught up in my old wild, wanton self and she possessed me to do it. Or maybe it was just part and parcel of that wild, half-remembered night that released all the rebellion I had been hiding since that fatal night. But why ever I did it, it took a second to seep through my alcohol soaked brain what was happening, and even then I didn't believe it. It was impossible- but true. I was kissing Darien McGavern, and for some reason never known to me, he was kissing back.

Darien I would have expected Emma's kiss (not that I was expecting a kiss from Emma, in any way, shape, or form) to be restrained, innocent, maybe awkward, definitely unskilled. That was what it should have been, after all. It wasn't. It was warm and passionate and skilled enough that my body responded before I could stop it, returning the kiss with equal ardor. Then (sadly, a part of me

would always think) or, more to the point, was she actually Emma, or some bad clone? "What do you think you're doing?" I hissed, trying not to draw attention. To her, not to me- it was common enough to see me making out with some girl at a party, but she would never forgive me if I drew attention to the fact that 'some girl' had been her. "What do you think?" Yes, that was definitely a purr. I didn't think Emma was capable of purring. If she was a cat (and that was possible, given how much she loved Carl) she was a feral mountain cat, not a capricious lap cat. This was too weird; maybe she was right and I shouldn't have brought her. "You have to go home," I announced, propelling her none to gently towards the door. She was not going to have another chance to humiliate herself. Her mood shifted with the drop of a pin. She clutched at my arm in panic. Even drunk, her grip was strong enough to hurt and force me to stop. "NO!" she exclaimed, planting her feet and refusing to go any further. Heads turned to look at us. I let out a huff of annoyance and yanked her into a corner, away from people. "Darien, I can't go home, not like this!" she gushed frantically, gazing up at me with huge eyes framed with interminably long lashes, "Mom can't see me- I swore- if she sees- Darien, I can't!" I groaned. We were really lucky she couldn't, or didn't, wield her eyes with such deadly force when she was sober, because if she did, the entire male race would be at her beck and call. "Fine," I agreed reluctantly. But then I hardened my resolve. It probably helped that her eyes lessened their intensity. "But you aren't staying down here. Brock has rooms upstairs where you can sleep it off." That, she submitted to with a submissiveness that only proved something was wrong.

I dragged her over to where I had last seen Brock. It was pretty impressive, actually; drunk as she was, she never even stumbled. She hadn't been kidding about those heels. "Hey, Brock," I muttered, speaking as quietly as I could while still being heard over the music. "Do you have a room she could lie down in?" I gestured to Emma. He shot me a look, half smug and half shocked. He knew very well what I usually meant when I requested a room. "Not like that!" I clarified immediately. How could he even think that? Actually, I was surprised he was being that logical. "She's really drunk." "How do you know? She doesn't look it." He was right. She might not have looked like Emma, dressed as she was just shy of a slut, but she looked sober enough as she waited impatiently for me, swaying slightly to the music as if she couldn't resist it or stop herself from dancing. "Trust me, she's not herself," I assured him. There was no way an Emma in her right mind would have kissed me. "Well, I can see that," he chuckled a little lewdly, running his eyes appreciatively over Emma's altered outfit. I glared; he grinned like I had just proved a point. "Alright, man. Just put her in the room you usually stay in. No one's allowed up there, it should be empty." As a matter of convenience, I knew all the codes to get into various locked parts of Brock's house. I nodded my thanks and pushed Emma upstairs. No one gave us a second glance or looked to see who my girl was this time, thank god. When we got to the room, I shoved her onto the bed. "There. Now sleep it off." She bounced back up onto her feet, pacing the room with quick steps that almost seemed a dance. With her, somehow, everything did. "But I'm not tired!" she protested, an obstinate child at odds with her rather... mature outfit.

"Maybe not," I explained patiently, crossing my arms firmly, "But you've drunk far too much." I kept my post at the threshold. I'd like to see her try to get past me. "Too much?" she giggled, more like a kid than my groupies. I still cringed. She didn't notice, and that more than anything told me that she was not sober. "I've been drinking more than that since forever!" "What do you mean?" I asked before I could stop myself. I felt bad, asking about her secrets when she was so obviously drunk. But she wasn't saying anything I probably wouldn't eventually find out anyway, and its not like I was asking any of the questions I really wanted to ask- like who was Dan, and how on earth had she learned how to look the way she did now. From a purely objective stance even I could admit that she looked hot. "You don't go to parties." "Not anymore," and now she was as languidly sophisticated as any debutante that I had ever met, "Not since high school started. But all through 8th grade damn, I must have gone to a party every night!" Some of disbelief must have shown on my face, because her mood shifted yet again. Normally her moods changed with all the deadly speed of a fencer going from parry to attack, but now they had all the fickle changeability of a tornado wind. "I was." all vaguely disgusted amusement, " I was pretty, witty, didn't need to work in school, bored out of my mind, and Mom was always working. What more did I need?" "So you wanted to grow up too fast?" I attempted. She laughed and shook back her hair. It rippled all the way down to the end of her back, just teasing the edge of her skirt. "Among other reasons, but what preteen doesn't? And you're not the only one who feels the need to rebel against a father who's never there." Her eyes were

suddenly very, very green and very, very piercing. I changed the subject quickly. How was it that even drunk, she hit far too near the mark for comfort? "But 8th grade? That's a little young," I observed as monotonically as I could. She probably would keep talking anyway. This way I would only learn one of her secrets instead of a lot. And anyway, its not like I was going to tell Emma about the kiss or anything she said here. With any luck, she wouldn't remember any of it. "Oh yes, I was such a little slut!" she trilled mockingly, though there was a clear undertone of regret, or maybe even pain. That trill was all bravado. I heard the same note in my voice far too much when defending myself to Emma. "I was a precocious child, with my older boyfriends and party life. How'd you think I got addicted to cigarettes?" "But you aren't now," I countered. I wished I hadn't let her talk. I felt like I was watching something private, like a Catholic confession. Even if she would tell me eventually, I hearing that pain was blasphemous. It wasn't right. Emma, even if not as indomitable as she liked to appear, was too strong to be like this. Or at least, to be seen like this. "I don't know about that," Now angry, she gestured sharply down the curves her immodest outfit revealed. I refused to let my eyes follow her hand. "I'm still the same person, evidently." Trust her to use big words when drunk. "No you aren't. You're only here because I- because people forced you to come," I contradicted her forcefully, resisting the urge to shake her. I didn't want to get that close to her again, just in case. One kiss could be explained away. Two would be more difficult. "This isn't you, Emma. Not anymore. You stopped being like this, you aren't. How-Why?" For some reason, I was desperate. I needed to know. The say wisdom is found at the bottom of a bottle, maybe she would have some for me. "I decided I didn't like who I was; Mom got a new job with Jack; I switched schools; some other shit went down," she was quiet now, sitting on the bed as

still as I had ever seen her. She put a hand to one ear, as if checking that the earrings were still there. "Nothing to help you, sorry." I didn't ask how she knew why I had asked; I figured I didn't want to know. Not even Brock, who I had been friends with since he moved here in 3rd grade, could read my mind like she could. "Go to sleep," I ordered abruptly, still hovering by the door, "It'll make you feel better." She obeyed and kicked off her shoes, flopping down onto the bed. "I know." And there was the Emma I knew, finally back. I didn't like the person she had left behind. "I'll be ready to go home by the time Allan is." "Probably before," I agreed, willing to banter now that she was reverting back to her usual self. "Almost certainly," she curled up into a ball, ending the conversation. Lying there, without the almost tragic world-weariness in her eyes and voice, she looked very little and very young. I refused to allow myself more than that one glance. She wasn't Troy, who I had no qualms about watching sleep, just to assure myself that he was there. As soon as she decided to sleep, I left the room, closing the door gently behind me as I returned to the party downstairs. Hopefully, I would be able to find someone there who would make me forget that Emma tasted of lemonade

Chapter 23

Emma We never talked about that night. Darien must have thought I didn't remember it, and except for an oblique comment about how he was glad I was back to normal, he didn't mention anything that happened New Year's Eve, neither the

kiss nor the confidences that followed. And while that annoyed me (it was my right to know what I did, after all) I couldn't exactly reprimand him without letting him know I knew. That kiss that whole messed up night was best condemned to the depths of my mind that were as hidden as a needle in a haystack and dwelt upon just as often. I had been less drunk than he had surmised, but probably more drunk than I had estimated, just enough to know what I was doing and not care. Well, not care at the moment. But both of us were masters of the art of avoidance, and we could ignore or conceal any unruly thoughts. So as January faded into February with all the mildly nasty weather usual to that season, nothing changed about our friendship. If anything, we grew closer over that time. We bantered and fought and clashed with the same unyielding pride as we had before New Year's. Darien continued to try to woo the Matchmaker through his flirtatious notes, and she continued to delay him until I figured out what the hell he was really up to. Other than that, the Matchmaker's business was good, especially with Valentine's Day approaching (joy of joys). We juniors began to contemplate colleges, life got more hectic, and to top it all off, there was a small matter of an unresolved bet with Darien to deal with. "Don't tell me you need the Matchmaker's help," I teased as I walked up to my locker only to find Darien studying the locker above it intently. Ooh, something good was sure to be in there. "Of course not," he retorted quickly, taking a hasty step away from the locker. I chuckled and dropped my backpack onto the floor, opening my locker carefully so that my body blocked his sight of what was within. It was hard to see the basket from that far outside my locker, but I didn't manage to keep so many secrets so well by being careless. "I don't need anyone's help." "Not from her, I'll give you that," I admitted wryly, careful not to move as I picked out the books I would need at home. I loved having free last period, no annoying crowds to push me around when I only wanted to get in and out as fast as possible. Which reminded me "You really need to stop skipping French."

He rolled his eyes. That mantra was as old (almost) as my cigarette admonition. Not that that made it any less true, nor did the totally unfair fact that he could pass that class anyway. I mean, even I had to show up to class to pass it. "Pour quoi?" he complained, a slight smirk playing on his face as he continued. He knew very well I didn't take French. Bastard. "Je le comp rends dj tout." I grabbed a gym bag and slammed my locker shut, standing with a toss of my hair. Was he in for a surprise? He had forgotten a major detail- I had gone to school (albeit unreliably) before he had met me. "Mais tu peux toujours apprendre plus." I grinned at his shocked look. Ha, take that, trying to confuse me. Just because I took Latin now in your face, Darien! "It's not like French matters in the long run," he muttered, reverting to English when it became apparent that there was no reason for him to continue in French. Which was fortunate, because I had only taken a few years of French, and as I had only shown up half the time, this conversation was already exhausting my French knowledge? "That depends," I replied, leaning comfortably against the Matchmaker's locker. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a figure lurking in the end of the hallway, eyes fixed on the locker. It looked feminine. Good, I needed more girls. Which was an unusually state of affairs, but it was certain to remedy it soon. These things normally did. "On what you want to do with your life, I mean." "Nothing I would want to go into would need French," he stated firmly. I raised my eyebrows skeptically as I began to walk down the hall with him strolling beside me. Behind me, I saw the girl slink over to locker 420. Good, I was right. She looked younger-maybe a freshman? - And I had a couple very nice freshman boys "You need it for business," I observed blandly, "To talk to foreign partners and stuff." Not to mention that French was a lovely language with a rich history

behind it. Darien could be annoyingly pragmatic at times, when he wasn't being incongruously idealistic. He stopped and glared at me for a split-second, almost sorrow in his face, but than his tone and expression became flippant and he kept moving. "Who said I wanted to go into business?" he asked with a voice that said it didn't matter and eyes that said it did. "No one," I replied soothingly, smothering my eye roll. Boys and their egos. Or at least, Darien and his. They were definitely worse than girls. "I just assumed" "Well, you assumed correctly," he spat, but what was meant to be a cutting retort was full of all the lost dreams he could never quite kill. And I had a feeling he had tried pretty hard to destroy them, given how he had acted. "My father ahs it all planned out for me. I'm going to go to Princeton than Wharton, like everyone else I the McGavern family since time began." I winced internally in sympathy. From what I had heard about Darien's father (mostly gleaned from conversations with Troy or Brock) he did not seem very paternal, and this only drove that in. At least Jack was letting Allan choose what he wanted to do, with no expectations of him taking over the business (although Jack would be thrilled if Allan did). But I couldn't allow anyone to think I was human enough to sympathize, so externally I could only inquire, "And if it were up to you?" He shrugged as if he had never thought about it. Knowing him, though, I bet he had a meticulous plan filed away with all of his other 'if only's. His next words confirmed my suspicion. "I would go to some big college in a big city," he said with absolutely no emotion. I knew that voice- that was the voice I had used when I was at a crappy public school and there was a chance I had gotten in here. It had stopped me from hoping for the impossible. "And then to law school somewhere far, far away."

"A lawyer, eh?" I swung my eyes up and down him, studying him with mockingly intense concentration. I could see him doing that. With his background, penchant for arguing and bulldog's tenacity, he could make a good corporate lawyer. I could not, however, see him completely exiting the corporate world whatever he said. "Hey, I'd be good at it!" he protested, taking my examination for skepticism. There was more in his voice than I think he knew. I was fairly flattered that he put that much weight on my approbation. I didn't think anyone had ever cared about my opinion that much, except for maybe Rhi. "Of course you would," I grinned reassuringly up at him. That it was the truth was marginal. If he wanted it he should go for it regardless of what his family wanted. That was how I had always lived my life. His father should not be allowed to define his life. "I-" we, or at least I, had turned onto a path less taken at the last intersection of hallways, the one towards the drama and arts room. It wasn't somewhere I went often. I already knew how to act well enough for my purposes, thank you very much. "Where are you going?" he pointed in the opposite direction. "Outside is that way." "Surely you haven't forgotten," I replied enigmatically. I did so love confusing him. He got so adorably angry- adorable in a little kid way of course. "Forgotten what, Laycha?" he growled, taking one long stride so he blocked my path. I smiled disingenuously up at him. That tended to bewilder him, because he knew I was up to something even if I didn't look it. "If it was so trivial you forgot, I don't know if I should tell you," I considered dramatically, tapping my chin with a finger thoughtfully. See what I meant about knowing how to act? I could practically see the steam coming off of him. "Damn it Emma, tell me!" he exclaimed, only just quiet enough not to be audible from inside the classrooms that lined the hall. I scowled and crossed my arms. He really knew how to sweet-talk a girl, this boy.

"I'm not going to tell you anything if you ask like that," I admonished, trying not to smile at how much I sounded like my mom. Well, I guess there were worse people to sound like than her. I mean, I was probably going to have to turn into her eventually. Not that I was looking forward to it, but a lot of people said it was inevitable. He let out a slow breath through his teeth, sounding like an angry cat, but he gradually subsided. I think his hair may have flattened a bit too. "Tell me what you're talking about, please." He muttered the whole sentence, but the last word was hissed, as if he couldn't bear to humble himself so much. I beamed magnanimously up at him. "I'm going to the talent show auditions," I told him brightly as we reached the door of the drama room and I halted, "Or did you forget about our little wager? I most certainly did not." His eyes widened momentarily as he recalled the bet and the stakes, than narrowed cunningly. The snake look did not become him. "No, I remember," he smirked. He was definitely sure of success. Which was great for him, because so was I. "You're going to confess your undying love for me in front of the whole school, wasn't it?" His eyes slid away from mine. I knew what memory those words had conjured up- it was the same for me. Hot lips and alcohol breath and warm bodies and- I quickly defused the silence, before either of our thoughts could go where we really didn't want them. "I believe you should start searching through your groupies' wardrobes," I announced authoritatively, with a wicked glint in my face as I dropped my backpack on the floor and shouldered my gym bag. "Or else I might have to pick out your cloths myself, and you know you don't want that." Before he could retort, I was in the changing rooms and the door had shut on my laugh.

I changed quickly into clothes appropriate for my act, than, noticing I still had time before my audition, I opened my backpack. Glancing through the notes I had managed to secrete there, I found the one I was expecting. The usual personalized notepaper, with the same flowing, purposeful handwriting, the note was as familiar to me as my own I response, after all these months.

You're getting slow. Why won't you grant me my match?


I sighed and tossed it back into my backpack. For more reasons than you knew, Darien, so many more than even I understood.

Darien After inadvertently escorting Emma to her auditions, I somehow ended up at the coffee shop. I didn't want to wait for her, that would just be weird and unnecessary, but I did not want to go home. My mother had informed me that she would be home for Troy. Which, of course, meant that she would arrange for Alfred to be there. Or, if, by some miracle, she actually did arrive at the house in time, I could not let her see me waiting around for her. I slid into a table at the back corner of the room without ordering anything or otherwise drawing attention to myself. I didn't actually want anything; I just needed a place to wait for something to do. Maybe I should have waited for Emma, if only because than I would have a purpose to my loitering instead of waiting impatiently for no one, but I needed some space from her. After that reminder of the bet, and how I was stupid enough to conjure up the memories of New Year's, I figured some not Emma time was necessary to clear my head. Those recollections were not good- were not ones I wanted to dwell on. But this whole alone time thing was beginning to bore me. Just as I thought that, right on cue, the door opened and Lex and Brock breezed in, followed by Candy and one of her friends. Not certain if I wanted them to see me- I was bored, yeah, but fluttering and giggles did not exactly

interest me- I scooted my chair back into the corner. That became void, however, when Brock caught sight of me and waved. I nodded back, unable to escape even if I wanted to, and after they had gotten their drinks my small table suddenly got crowded. "How'd you get out so early?" Brock asked, taking the seat next to mine, ignoring the girl clamoring for that chair who then lunged across the table to get the seat on my other side. Wow. Obsessive much? I shrugged casually, also disregarding the floozy. "Skipped French," I replied offhandedly. From Brock's other side, Lex chimed in, "You should stop skipping class, man." I rolled my eyes. What was it, pick on Darien day? Or maybe just in that household, because their parents seemed to have infected them. I did not need my peers to parent me. "You sound like your-" Lex cut off my complaint with a violent headshake. It had slipped my mind that most people didn't know who his stepsister was. It felt like I had known for forever, and that it should be common knowledge, but Emma still scared Lex enough for it to be impossible for him to remember. "You sound like Emma," I amended, though the statement had lost most of its punch in the change. Brock flashed me a wide, conspiratorial smile. "Is that a bad thing?" he asked with as much slyness as he could muster. I scowled at him. I did not like him knowing I meant before I did. I would have responded sharply, but, "Leave him alone, guys," Candy admonished as she came to the table, last of all the group. Noting the lack of chairs, she calmly seated herself on Lex's lap. For a second, completely astonished, his face was as red as Brock's hair. She either didn't notice or pretended not to. "It's not our business if he, like, wants to mess up his life."

"You're right," I drawled. So much for sensibility from that corner, or help. I should have known better than to expect her to disagree with Lex. "It isn't" "But, like, where is she?" Candy continued as if I hadn't spoken. I rolled my eyes at her and gestured lazily, cuing her to clarify. That girl has antecedent issues. Candy pouted a little, but informed me with only a bit of irritation, "Emma, of course. The girl who you're, like, always with now!" "I'm not always with her," I stated firmly. Maybe, if Emma were there (and this is only a possibility, mind) she would have detected a note of sullenness there. Judging by Brock's confused glance, he may have heard it as well. Not that it existed, that is; he may have imagined it as well. The girl who had won the sit-next-to-Darien competition (not that there were any other competitors) fluttered her eyelashes at me. I didn't think anyone even did that outside of cartoons. Why did I attract such girls? "Yes you do," she whined, digging hot pink nails into my arm and casting what I think she thought were flirtatious glances at me through eyelashes so mascaraed and tweezed that I could hardly tell what they were, "You never have any time to spend with us anymore!" I shot Brock an annoyed look that, if not a plea for help, at least requested assistance. He returned a sympathetic but helpless gaze. Lots of use he was. I calmly but firmly detached her from my arm. "Nothing could make that happen," I told her with just enough irony in my voice that those who already knew what I really felt about these girls (namely, Lex and Brock) could hardly contain their sniggers. But she definitely deserved my mockery. "But really," Lex asked as soon as he could trust himself to speak without snickering, "Where's Emma?" Candy's eyes darted to him, than away. I could almost have sworn that the sky blue flickered to green in that second.

"Trying out for the talent show," I answered. Blue, brown, and grey eyes gave me an irritatingly significant look. So what if I knew where she was right now? That happened with friends. They didn't have to make such a big deal about it. It's not like had her schedule memorized or anything. "But she might be finished by now. But I'm not sure," I added significantly. "Talent show?" Candy's interest was piqued. She sat up a bit straighter in Lex's lap. His face turned scarlet again. I studied it with interest. I had never seen that shade of red before. "What's she doing?" Lex and I exchanged clueless looks. I would have thought that one of us would be able to answer that, but apparently Emma had decided to be mysterious. She loved to be enigmatic far too much for anyone's good. Including her own. And, more to the point, mine, because if she hadn't been so damned intriguing, I wouldn't have needed to find anything out about her. "Don't know," I admitted reluctantly. Then, as it was irrelevant because she better not have gotten in, I continued dismissively, "It doesn't matter, anyway. She won't get in." Lex shook his head slowly, something that would have been a smirk had it not been Lex spreading across his face. "I wouldn't bet on it," he cautioned me. I decided to forgo the obvious retort, because anyone even guessing that her inevitable confession wasn't voluntary would ruin the fun. Again directly on cue (was my life a fucking play?) Emma strolled out of the back room and took over the counter with a few quick, mumbled words to the girl there. "Hey Em!" Lex called as soon as he caught sight of her (a good minute after she came out). Candy, Brock, and the other girl's heads whipped to face her, only just noticing her. I rolled my eyes. How unobservant were they? "Come over here!"

Her eyes fixed on me with burning intensity for a fraction of a second, then flitted away as Emma glanced around the near-empty caf. Then, with a shrug, she jumped over the counter and meandered to our table. Her long night-black hair was up in a ponytail, and her cheeks were flushed, although that was probably from running here. She looked nice without her hair shadowing her face, not that I would ever tell her that. "What's up?" she asked when she got within earshot. Brock and I made unconscious motions to get up and offer her our chairs, but she waved us back down, hopping onto the neighboring table. "How'd it go?" Lex demanded. Her mercurial temper shifted. She glared at me; I smiled innocently back. I hadn't done anything wrong. Everyone would have known eventually. It's not like I told people she kissed"Darien told you?" After the whole table nodded, she shook her head in annoyance but went on regardless. "I don't know; the results aren't posted until next week." "Oh yeah!" Candy exclaimed suddenly, "That is what they said" All eyes turned to her. She twirled a piece of hair ingenuously around one perfectly manicured finger and leaned back into Lex's shoulder. There was that new shade of red again. "What? I forgot!" Emma's gaze shot between Lex and Candy, but , unusually for her, she didn't comment. "Are you trying out?" Emma inquired tolerantly. Trying to get anything out of Candy took way too much patience, even if she was smarter than all of the girls she hung with put together. Of course, I think Emma's cat was too. "I did, yesterday. I've sung for the past two years." Emma nodded and seemed content to let the subject drop. Candy, however, was not. "What're you doing?" Emma's eyes twinkled as she saw the curiosity in everyone's looks. I refused to meet her eyes for exactly that reason. Even if I wanted to know, she didn't

have to know that I wanted to know. And it didn't matter, because Emma couldn't ever answer a question. "You'll just have to wait and find out," she declared. Collective disappointed sighs of Brock, Candy, and Lex. I raised my eyebrow sardonically. "And if you didn't make it in?" I proposed dryly. She may not have considered that an option, but it was the only possible outcome. I hoped. Drag would not look good on me at all. And I was really looking forward to Emma's announcement. Her lips twisted into a half smile: malicious, inscrutable, and merry all in one. "Well, then, you'll just have to live unsatisfied, won't you?" her laughing verdant eyes caught mine and held, and, despite her misplaced certainty, I couldn't help but smile. "Darien!" the girl next to me keened, her neon nails clutching my forearm nearly painfully, "Have you like, and heard about Greco's party this weekend? You should, like, totally come. It would be so totally awesome!" To my surprise (and Emma's if I were to judge by her well muffles snort) the girl didn't add, 'like, totally, pay attention to me!' But it was a close call, I think. Brock and Lex couldn't hold back their laughter this time. They broke out into chocked chortles. Even Candy hid a smile. I glanced at Emma, waiting for the inevitable witty rejoinder (and to gauge her reaction) but she had close off and my complicit look of annoyance met only shielded jade eyes. "I'm sure it would be," I agreed, still confused by Emma's response, or lack thereof. The girl's smile barely made it past her lips. God, why did Candy trail around with these bimbos? "But I'm not sure if I can," I added quickly. "Why not?" she insisted, her nails pushing farther into my skin. I refused to show that it hurt, but when I saw Emma's hidden smirk as she saw the nails I suddenly felt better.

"Busy, plans, and all that," I replied, attempting to escape her death grip. Why did all these chicks have to be so damn strong? Lex and Brock's chuckles continued as Candy jumped in to save her friend. "You really should come," she informed me, eyes getting bigger and more like a puppy-dogs, "Lots of people are. Lex is, aren't you?" after a quick elbow in the ribs, Lex muttered his assent. "And Emma will, I hope!' she added. My eyes flicked to Emma. Her head was down, but she glanced up and our eyes met with a shock far too similar to the one at that other party, when the results of her coming had been nothing short of a disaster. "I can't go," Emma suddenly stated with no room for argument. Candy opened her mouth to try to convince her, but Emma overrode her. "And while you guys are making what I'm certain are very important plans," her gaze fell mockingly on the bimbo, "I have customers to serve." At that second, the door opened, so paralleling her words that I had to wonder if she had scripted it. She slid off the table and was behind the counter before any of our protests (half hearted or otherwise) could make it out f our mouths. "So," the annoying girl just couldn't let go, could she? "You're, like, gonna go, right?" This conversation was completely pointless, I realized. Miss Never-takes-a-hint had no jurisdiction over me. If I didn't feel like going o Greco's party because there wouldn't be any good company there, it was my business and no one else's. I stood, forcing her to release me. "I can't," I announced, and then, before she could protest, "I've got to get home." I ignored Brock's confused look. He knew very well that I had to do no such thing. Eventually, he would figure out I was escaping. "bye."

"See ya." "Later, dude." "Bye!" But of course, Pink nails had to get the last word. She fluttered her hand in what I assumed was meant to be a flirtatious wave. "Okay, Darien," she cooed, pitched loud enough for the whole caf to hear and draw the wrong conclusions "See you at Greco's!" I could feel Emma's eyes lock on me as she heard those words, and the piercing power suddenly boring into me followed me out of the caf.

Chapter 24

Emma "What are you doing?" I looked up from the papers spread in front of me, saw Darien standing skeptically over me, and returned to studying the pamphlets. Never good at being ignored -though hysterical when he was- he let out an annoyed huff and plucked the brochure out of my hand before I could tighten my grasp. "What's this?" Resigning myself to paying attention to him, I turned in my seat and glared up at him, refusing to acknowledge that the position made my back scream. Why did he have to be so damn tall? And why did I always seem to hang around giants? Dan must have topped 6'2". "What does it look like?" I retorted, snatching it back. With his usual masculine thickness that contradicted his occasional moments of perception, he didn't

realize the question was rhetorical. Either that, or he just felt like being annoying; with Darien, it could very well be either. "College stuff," he informed me idly, leafing through the papers with detached interest. He picked two brochures out of the pile and examined them, amused. "Harvard and Yale," he observed dryly, tossing the Yale one back onto the pile, "Not setting your sights too high, are you?" I shrugged and continued to leaf through University of Chicago, not bothering to meet his eyes or even look directly at him. Sarcasm only became a few select people. A few people being, of course, me. "I'm not going to pretend humility, and I actually have ambition, unlike some people." "Implying, of course, that I don't," he explained to no one. I didn't deny it. I still thought that he should work more in all his classes, because he could be doing better than he was. And then he might get into college (one of his choice) on merit, rather than on his father's legacy, which seemed to me a much more honorable way to live, as I had deigned to inform him. A lot. He either didn't want to provoke the discussion (well, argument to be precise; but with Darien and I, discussions were debates by default) or he didn't notice. Whatever the reason, he continued on a totally different note. "Why are you starting so early? You don't have to think about it 'til next year." "Procrastination doesn't pay off in the long run." And I was bored out of my mind (February seemed to do that to me). This made me look like I was doing something, so if a teacher happened to look into the library I wouldn't be yelled at. Did I mention I was bored? "And the earlier I decide the better chance I have for a scholarship." He shot me a surprised glance, noted my total solemnity, and rolled his eyes in fond exasperation. "Emma," he told me with exaggerated patience, "Whatever you were at your old school," his eyes slid away from mine as he omitted the

truth, and they lightened to a really pretty blue-grey (not that Darien's eyes were pretty, but the color was. That's all), "You're a Lexington now, with all the perks included. You don't need a scholarship." I rolled my eyes, the condescending motion screening my revelation from his view. I had always kind of assumed I would need a scholarship to get into college- had lived with that since I could remember. It had never quite occurred to me that immutable fact of life had now changed. Darien was right; Jack could afford to pay my way through college. Whoa. "Well, waste not and all that. I might as well try for one if I can," I replied despite Darien's correctness. I couldn't let Darien get any cockier, after all. His head might explode. "You'd be taking money from someone who actually needs it." He raised an eyebrow at my expression. My jaw may have dropped; I know my eyes were wide open, but it was a weird thought. Darien, showing concern for someone other than himself? And people poorer than him, too. Someone alert Superman, 'cause the world's ending. "What?" he inquired snippily, "Am I not allowed to care for the less fortunate?" I got a hold of myself. I should have known better than to believe in Darien's mask; he tended to come out of nowhere with a sudden burst of compassion. And after all, who was better than me at understanding what a mask was? "You're allowed to," I answered calmly, despite the inner turmoil that continued to rage inside me. Why couldn't he just stay nice or arrogant? Then maybe I would understand him and he wouldn't be so damn intriguing. "You just don't." He brushed a stray strand of his burnished gold hair out of his face with strong fingers, still glancing almost wistfully at the Harvard brochure. "Not many people are worth it," he remarked. I nodded thoughtfully. And now he was being a cynic again. Couldn't he make up his mind?

I scanned the room, glanced at my watch, glared at the clock, sighed, and pulled out my book. Darien noticed the irritated sigh and looked askance at me. "What's up?" he queried, managing in a way known only to the 'bad boy' type of hot guys, to sound simultaneously interested and far too cool to care about anything. "Why care about the time?" "Mann requested," I made a face. It didn't sit well with me that anyone told me what to do, even if that anyone was a teacher, and it was a good cause. Or at least, it should have been, "that I assist him with history." His skeptical expression informed me how very unlikely he thought it that anyone order me what to do. "His teacher told him that he needed a tutor, and somehow he got a hold of my name, and it would look good on my college application..." I trailed off, waving a hand in frustrated inarticulateness. "And this means you're looking at the clock because" Darien prompted nonchalantly. Apparently my explanation had not impressed him. Tutoring, I suppose, was for lesser mortals. I'd like to see him try it sometime. "He was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago," I replied testily. Popularity was all well and good, but keeping appointments was common courtesy, especially as I was doing him a favor. I wasn't the one who needed a tutor; he should have had the politeness to be on time. So what if he was gorgeous basketball captain with jet eyes that could melt a heart of stone? "And he's playing truant," Darien clarified, still impassive except for a slight smirk. "Obviously," I spat, snapping my hand at the chair Darien was currently occupying. "As he's not here." Blue eyes darkened to the navy heralded his anger. He rose with ominous precision, still as emotionless as he had been when I had first met him. "I'll be back," he announced. I decided not to laugh at how much he sounded like a villain in a B-rated movie. "And so will Mann." He was speaking in the tone of

voice that made even me wary of arguing with him (not that it ever stopped me), so I refrained from expressing my sarcasm as he strode resolutely out of the room. Once he was gone, my head dropped to rest on my folded hands, my face almost touching the dark wood of the table. With my hood pulled up as far as it could go to block as much light as possible, along with dark jeans and the baggy sweatshirt itself, I probably looked more like a black blob with vaguely limb-like protrusions than human. But I really didn't care, because hell, I was tired. Today was Valentine's Day, after all, and even if Emma didn't attach much significance to the day, it was the Matchmaker's busiest time. I had stayed up 'til all hours for the last few nights, finishing schoolwork (I hate, hate, hate, hate the junior year workload), my extracurricular obligations, and on top of all that, the Matchmaker had to work overtime. Well, let's just say that even for my insomnia, I hadn't been getting nearly enough sleep. And then, just to add insult to injury, I'd had to get to school extra early today because of the flood of notes to be handed out. And if mornings and I didn't mix, early mornings and I were the north and south poles of a magnet. After a good 2 minutes of wallowing in miserable exhaustion, boredom

overwhelmed my half-hearted attempts to nap. I lifted my head (was it just me, or did it feel heavier than usual?), swept the brochures into my backpack, and pulled out the bag that held the matchmaker notes. I was the only one in the room, except for one person ensconced in a computer desk and another completely absorbed in her work. I knew from experience neither would move until the bell rang; my identity was safe. Valentine's Day was generally worth the extra work, because people suddenly realized they had taken the Matchmaker for granted and the thank you notes came pouring in. It was gratifying, knowing I was appreciated; and the certainty that my couples were happy was what I worked for. I pawed through the notes, smiling slightly at the number of them. It had been a good year, with numerous infatuated couples created and the only notable

breakup (Rhi's) had, well, extenuating circumstances. So not my fault. Anyway, that mistake was soon to be rectified, as Rhi was coming back in late August and so a happily ever after was coming for her and Brock after all. An incongruously black note cut through my contented reflections. I picked it out of the mass. Could it be from one of the emo kids I had set up? Generally even they were more cheerful than that on Valentine's Day... I examined it, a confused smile growing as I realized whom it was from. Cut in the shape of a heart, it had a jagged line drawn through the middle. Obviously store bought (but it would have to be, with him), it was still quite pretty, in a tragic sort of way. I flipped it over. Written in silver ink in Darien's well-known hand were the words,

Because I'm not with you.


I couldn't help but grin at the sheer adorableness of it. I knew he had an ulterior motive, and that his ultimate plan couldn't involve anything good for the Matchmaker, but still For someone so pragmatic and determinedly cold, he could be a real romantic when he wanted (or needed) to. Someday, he would find a girl who could break his icy faade, and she would be a lucky girl. "Emma." Surprised, I slipped the card into my voluminous sleeve and the bag into my backpack before I turned. Darien, herding a Chris Mann who looked - if a chastened expression was impossible on his handsome face - at least contrite, was standing in the doorway. "Here's your truant." He scowled Mann into the chair, spun on his heels as if washing his hands of the boy, and left. Barely wondering at his curt manner (Darien got upset at the most random things, and who was I to understand him?) I studied my student. Black eyes as dark and deep as black holes, strong and tall athlete's body, luscious black curls that any girl would've envied over dusky skin the kid was hot, and did he know it.

"I'm sorry I was late," he apologized. He gave me a smile that could have launched at least 50 ships and I felt my anger and annoyance drain away. I was too tired to be pissed at someone for long. "Just be here next time," I admonished, trying to be stern. This boy could charm anyone, and I was no less susceptible than any girl. I just knew things they didn't. Like the fact that he was as bad a womanizer as Darien, only worse because he gave a pretense of affection before breaking their hearts. And that with all the drugs he used, his athletic career was going nowhere fast. And there was always that quiet rumor that few people believed but I didn't quite write off, about some girlfriend of his coming in with a black eye. All in all, there was a reason I never dealt with him as the Matchmaker, even if he was requested nearly as often as Darien. "I won't be," he promised with a sincerity that was so well feigned I couldn't tell it was false, even if I knew it was, "I swear." Again, the horribly open, seductive smile. God, he was hot, and charming, and apparently as humble as Darien ever was. What's there not to like about him? "Then I forgive you. Let's start." Yes, I was well aware that Chris Mann was a bastard of the first degree and bad news. The real question though, was could I remember that?

Darien "Obviously," Emma growled, gesturing at my chair in frustrated inarticulateness, "As he's not here!" I could have predicted that much. Chris Mann couldn't care less about his schoolwork. About anything, really, except sex. And drugs. And I guess, a little bit, basketball. And more sex. At least I didn't pretend to care about more than that, even if I, in my heart of hearts, did. I mean, I had Troy, and my friends, and well, that's all, but it's more than Mann. And I gave no credence

to his story about a teacher making him get tutoring. Even if a teacher would risk the wrath of our sports crazed principal to threaten the basketball captain, he wasn't (loathe as I was to admit it) dim-witted enough to be failing a class. He knew better than to do badly in the stupid classes. But however much I distrusted Mann's motives, Emma shouldn't have to waste her time, especially not for one of the most worthless human beings on earth. Not to mention I wanted to see Mann crash and burn on the invincible rock that was Emma. "I'll be back," I declared, wincing internally at my words as they left my mouth. I sounded like some bad guy in a stupid adventure movie. But Emma didn't comment as I rose and tossed the pamphlet I had been torturing myself with back down, so I figured I was fine. "And so will Mann." I stalked out of the library, hearing a faint thump as the door shut. Which I guessed, was Emma's head hitting the table. Well, she had seemed tired lately, even if she wouldn't answer directly when I asked her why. Typical Emma, that. Ignoring the lurid pink and red halls as I strode through them, I headed towards the back of the school where I knew Mann could be found. It was where all the druggies lit up. I had hung there before, though not often- I didn't like the feeling drugs stronger than nicotine or alcohol gave me. I didn't even drink that much; and, come to think of it, I hadn't smoked in a while either. Maybe Emma hitting them out of my hand had helped. On my way, I scowled at a heart poster on the wall. Valentine's Day was not a holiday I deigned to notice, despite all the cards that seemed to be magnetized to me. Today was just annoying. It might as well be called Annoy-Darien day, because all the girls decided that it was the day for them to confess their love for me. Or, at the least, lust. None of them got that I didn't fucking care. Love existed, I could see that very well in people like my parents, who had time enough to lose themselves in the other's eyes for a timeless second even if they had no time for their sons; but not now and not for me.

I managed to catch Mann just before he stepped outside. Luckily, he wasn't high. Yet. That state wouldn't last very long. "Mann." He turned, tossing his dark hair (far too long in my opinion) out of his face. I didn't bother to hide my smirk that even those who prided themselves on their own power, like him, danced to my tune. In fact, Emma was probably the only one at this school who didn't. "Yo, McGavern," he nodded with careful cordiality. Neither of us were ready to openly declare war, even if both of us knew we were rivals verging on enemies. We were too alike, and yet too different, to get along or be neutral. But at the moment, we had a polite relationship that might have fooled outsiders into thinking we liked each other. "I heard you were getting tutoring," I began. Just ordering him to get his ass over to the library wouldn't have worked, however attractive a possibility it was. He would have stayed just to spite me. And anyway, I didn't want to challenge him just yet. I would win, of course, but it wasn't worth it. An enemy took so much work. "Yeah." He shrugged, a lascivious grin sprouting on his usually kind face. God, I wanted to punch him just for that. But I refrained myself. He wasn't worth it. "I don't need it, but there's this really hot chick I wanted to get, and she tutors, so it was a good excuse." His candidness didn't surprise me. He knew I knew what he was, and so didn't bother hiding himself. My fists clenched at his open avowal of what he thought of Emma, but I refused to let my irritation show. "Nice," I allowed my contemptuous smile to echo his salaciousness, "But when exactly were you supposed to meet?" He glanced at his watch. I could almost hear the grinding of the rusty cogs in his brain. Idiot. "Oh, shit, I think it was now. But I've got no idea where it is. Fuck!" And I repeat, idiot.

I restrained the urge to roll my eyes. How girls liked this guy, I had no idea. But I had more reasons to talk to this useless piece of human refuse than just to get him to tutoring. Especially after his comment about Emma. At least I didn't fixate on girls, or need the thrill of the chase. "Is it that Laycha chick? Short, black hair, kinda quiet...?" I inquired casually. Come on, you bastard, take the bait, I want to know what you're up to, tell me what I want. "Yeah, that's her. Hot, isn't she?" he grinned lewdly. "And I bet she's a virgin too." Was he actually excited about that? I never found out how I managed not to hit him in disgust right then and there. "She's that innocent. Let me tell you, I'm the one who's going to be teaching her, and there's not going to be any history involved in the lesson." I contrived not to chuckle at him calling Emma innocent. Okay, I would have agreed with him 6 months ago. He was still so horribly wrong; it was almost laughable. She may have been many things, but innocent was not one of them. But that didn't mean I couldn't capitalize on his ignorance. "Dude, have you seen her?" I drawled. He wouldn't know that Emma and I were friends, because he wouldn't bother to notice anything around me. And we didn't actually interact that much in school outside of classes; where he obviously wasn't. "Not even you have a chance with her. She's a frickin' ice queen." Then, because I needed to convince him, and not knowing why the admission was painful when admitting defeat before never had, I added, "I doubt even I would have a chance with her." He waggled his eyebrows. "The colder they seem, the hotter they get. You just have to know how to melt them." I had managed, by walking while talking, to start him moving in the general direction of the library. I shook my head in what appeared to be amused negation but was actually a good way to hide my distaste. And people said I was as bad as this sleaze? "Not even you Mann, not even you." Well, I would say, especially not him. Emma had

better judgment and taste than that. She hung out with me, after all. And I couldn't see why any girl could get as infatuated with him as they often did. Brock and Lex were just as attractive (or so gushed female sources) and athletic; not to mention they were actually good guys. "Oh really?" he turned to me, shallow black eyes glinting with a light I suppose he meant to be sly. In my opinion, it just made him look vaguely serpentine. "Hundred bucks says I can nail her." God, he was disgusting. Betting on his conquests? Abhorrent. I would never do such a thing. Especially not to Emma, because she might hurt me. But then again She would inevitably put him in his place (probably violently) whatever I did, and I winning the bet would only drive home his humiliation. Not that Emma wouldn't do that well enough on her own, but I might as well take advantage of the sheer stupidity of Mann. "Deal." I shook his hand a bit harder than necessary, but his squeeze was equally tight. "Those hundred dollars would be nice." He had no chance. Whatever Emma used to be, I bet somewhere in leaving her old life she had sworn off guys, or she might as well have. She saw everything, or so she said, and even if she didn't know that his reputation was purely that, with my urging, she soon would. And then she would kick him to the curb (literally, I hoped) like he deserved. Except maybe if she was drunk but she knew better than that now. And if she didn't, I would have to keep her within my sight at any parties they were both at. "There's never been a girl I couldn't get," he informed me with a challenge in his eyes and voice as we reached the library, "And Emma Laycha's not going to be any different." "There's a first time for everything," I retorted calmly as I opened the door, 'maybe she'll surprise you." He snorted.

I scowled as I opened the door and drove him into the room; my glare deepening as I caught him scanning Emma with unabashedly lustful eyes. Damn him, I felt dirty for even seeing that look. "Emma," I snapped. She turned, and her eyes widened as she noticed my companion. And that wasn't revulsion in those carefully veiled eyes, either, I realized, my bad mood getting worse. I suddenly, and horribly, wasn't quite as confident about the bet as I had been. "Here's your truant." She ignored me as I strode out, all her attention focused on Mann. Fine then. If she appreciated complete bastards who weren't worth the breath it took to dismiss them, then so be it. Her loss. I could lose the hundred dollars no problem, if she really was as shallow and unperceptive as the other girls. In that foul mood, I stomped through the halls. Lunch still had another fifteen minutes, and I could always ditch English afterwards. I had over an hour to boil with inexplicable rage towards Mann, Emma, and the world in general. "Did you know," I spat at Lex when I found him, laughing at the lunch table with a bunch if the team. Not even giving him time to greet me I continued, "That Emma has caught Mann's attention?" His jovial face grew worried. He knew as well as me how bad that was. But then, either more nave or more confident in his stepsister than me, his expression cleared. "I'll talk to her," he assured me in his normal unhurried, untroubled way, "But don't worry. Dude, Emma's smart. She'll be fine." And with that scant comfort, I was forced to be content. o0O0o0O0o "Ooooh Darien!" Emma sang, popping up beside me at the end of my nonexistent French class, which happened to be last period today. I grimaced at her. She had no right to be so cheerful when I was still in such a bad mood.

Especially not as she was usually the one in a pissy mood. "The talent show results are out!" Her good mood did nothing to help my awful one. "Oh really?" I inquired, not even bothering to show interest. My other bet suddenly seemed much more important, even if the stakes were lower. It was probably just that beating Mann would feel so damn good. "Yeah!" she grabbed my wrist and dragged me to the bulletin board. I let her, more because I didn't want to bother resisting than the fact that I wasn't sure if I could stand against her persistent tugging. "See?" she pointed excitedly, most of her usual reserve subsumed beneath her exhilaration. Indeed, printed on hot pink paper, was a list of all the acts that had made the cuts. I surveyed it blankly. Why did I care, again? It wasn't until I read the last name on the list that I was jolted out of my vexed lethargy. "Oh shit," I remarked, the impact slowly sinking into my anger and overwhelming it, "You got in." Well, this was simultaneously a blow to my ego (I had been so certain she didn't have a chance! Or at least, I had been when I made the bet. Now, honestly, I didn't see why she couldn't make it. Everyone had to have some talent.) and a very bad result for me. Emma was nearly glowing. "Yes I did!" she crowed, an evil look in her eye that I had no trouble interpreting. I could almost see her sizing me up for female cloths. This was not good, very not good. Why on earth had I made this bet in the first place? "Which means you-" "I know, I know," I cut her off, only whining a little bit. But really, I was completely justified. Not even my dignity could survive coming to school dressed in drag. "But do you know how much grief I'd get?" Hey, it was a long shot that Emma would capitulate, but anything's possible. "Come on, it won't be that bad." Easy of her to say, she didn't have to humiliate herself in front of the entire school. Would Mann have something to

say about this! Maybe, if I knew she was going to be absent someday, I could pretend to do it then With her usual uncanny telepathy, she followed my train of thought. "And don't even think about trying to fool me, because if you do I will make your life a living hell." Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at me. "How?" I scoffed. She didn't have that much pull at school, whatever she thought. I freaking ruled the school; I could renege on a bet if I wanted. And was dishonorable enough toand had that little respect for my word oh hell, I was stuck. Caught in my own morals; there's a new trap for me. "Well, a request from you to the Matchmaker for some really irritating girl should do," she suggested, grinning evilly. Her mind worked on levels of evils far too great. Even if I stood the girl up, she would inevitably annoy me. Forever. "Fine, fine!" I caved beneath her more powerful evil. Why, of all the people I hung out with, did it have to be the smart one that was evil? And she didn't even know it, but her threat was far more dire than she imagined. Why, it would ruin all my carefully laid plans, and make all of Brock's suffering in vain. Or at least not avneged. "I'll do it." "Well," she considered for a moment, tapping her delicately pointed chin with one long, elegant finger. I drew my eyes quickly back up to her eyes. "There is an alternative." "Oh?" I tried (and succeed) to sound both interested, but ineffably bored at the same time. She looked up at me through huge eyes that revealed nothing, and I got a hint of the same irresistibleness she had used when drunk. "You could just owe me something. One favor, any favor-within reason, of course- at any time. And you would have to give it to me." No humiliation? Nothing Emma could ask in the future would be as bad as that mortification. I jumped at the chance with a haste that, if I had known the favor she would someday call in, would never have existed.

"I'll take that," I agreed with a decisive nod. A slow smile sprouted across her face and made her almost radiant as she held out a languid hand for me to shake, and I wondered why instead of angering me, selling my soul to this devil made my stomach flip.

Chapter 25

Emma "Okay." I closed my notebook with a firm snap, sending a gust of cool March air into Chris's notes and ruffling his hair, "We're done here." The tutoring had begun a month ago; I wondered if he noticed that the sessions were getting progressively shorter as he annoyed me more and more. He shut his book obediently, disappointment coloring his gorgeous features. I would have rolled my eyes, if I hadn't been reluctant to let him know I was onto him. The difficulty of figuring out his little game would increase exponentially. But he laid it on way too thickly. "But the bell hasn't rung yet," he protested, deep black eyes doggishly pleading. I looked down at my books as I chuckled. Not even I, who prided myself on my iron will, could resist those eyes for long. "Since when does anyone object to ending a tutoring session early?" I inquired sardonically, stuffing my stuff into my backpack. He jumped on the opening I gave him with a speed that did him credit. At least he wasn't a stupid flatterer, or a lazy one. "Since more tutoring means spending more time with you." His deep voice rumbled in his throat, coming out watery smooth, the kind of water that, given enough time, could break massive boulders. Again, I refrained from rolling my eyes.

"Well, unfortunately for you, I have something to do," I told him bluntly. Maybe curtness would put him off, although if he were as like Darien as he appeared to be, nothing would halt his persistence. But I wasn't lying (for once). I did have to get home after school and go straight to practice. And if it wasn't quite as urgent as I made it out to be, well, Chris was really irritating me. At least Darien was forthright about his arrogance. He gave everyone the cold shoulder. But I always felt slimy after spending too much time with Chrissort of like I felt with a politician. He hid his meanness beneath a veneer of kindness, and that annoyed me, even if I could appreciate the irony of Darien having a good heart but an appearance of cruelty, and Chris seeming kind but actually was nothing more than a petty villain. Not to mention nothing angered me more than someone intelligent who didn't try. At least Allan attempted (and often failed), but Chris didn't bother to do better than the absolute minimum. Even Darien did more than that, and Chris didn't have Darien's native intelligence or drive to always be the best. But I didn't think I could stand much more of Mann. "Really? What?" Yeah. Right. Like I was going to tell him something I didn't tell any of my friends. I would only let Darien drive me home, not all the way there. Chris had a long, long, long (read infinite) way to go before he wormed his way that far into my confidence. "Nothing important." He either got the hint and, unlike Darien, wouldn't press or just didn't care. I guessed the latter, and I would have put a substantial amount of money on it. "I could give you a ride home, if you need one," he offered offhandedly, but with a sidelong glance that told me the proposition was anything but unmediated. "You don't have a car, do you?" So the plan was to get me alone? Ha, fat chance. I was neither that nave nor that stupid. "No, I don't have a car," I admitted. And I didn't want one, either. No need to waste gas and ruin the environment when I could just get rides everywhere.

Having friends who you could wrap around your finger who had cars; that was the key to transportation, "but-" "I'm giving her a lift, Mann, it's fine." Darien leaned against the tree Chris and I were studying under, the dark brown bark framing his blonde head and making it look almost as white as Troy's. A languid, unconcerned smirk spread over his face as Chris glanced at him, normally pleasant expression for once showing overtones of his all too obvious animosity. I ignored the byplay and scowled up at my friend. I could speak for myself, thank you very much. "I was about to say that," I scolded. He should know better than to finish my sentences. Neither boy paid any attention to me, blue-white eyes meeting Stygian black with a spark of lightning. "McGavern." Chris nodded, barely polite. But of course, if he showed how angry he was, I would see how sleazy he really is. Point to Darien. "What're you doing here?" "I got out early-" "Skipped French," I interjected under my breath. I did not appreciate being overlooked. Darien shrugged, face as arrogantly frozen as I had ever seen it, because of course he couldn't show he cared about anything; that would injure his reputation. "I've been skipping French," he amended; burning eyes not moving from Chris, "And as I was going to drive Em here-" I gave him a questioning look. He never called me Em. Only my mom, Allan, sometimes Jack, and Rhi called me that. I was not getting everything that was happening here. But that state would not last for long, not if I could help it. "-home, I figured I might as well find her now. I forgot you needed tutoring." Ooooh, burn. 2-0 for Darien. But maybe Chris was cannier than I credited him for, because he countered quickly and - if I had been as enthralled as he assumed I was - quite cleverly. "Yeah, well, if it weren't for Emma my captaincy would have been taken away."

That was worth at least 3 points. Flattery to me, something like humility (which Darien never even pretended), and a subtle (for him) reminder about his sports status. Darien didn't play a sport, after all, he just hung out with the football guys, I assumed because of Brock. That, of course, begged the question of where he had gotten that drool-worthy body; but I didn't want to dwell on that. And so Chris pulls ahead. "And what a pity that would be." He had imbued it with just the right amount of irony that I could pick up on it easily, but he could always disclaim any insincerity. Definitely Darien's point. "Yeah, a pity," I agreed as the match ended in a tie when the timer (my patience) ran out. I did not appreciate being left in the dark or being fought over like some piece of meat. Two pairs of startled eyes turned to me as I surged to my feet, breaking the nearly tangible tension. "Now, as long as you're here and we're done, Darien, we might as well go. See you later, Chris." And, taking a vise like grip on Darien's wrist, I hauled him away, black ember eyes searing my back. "What the hell was that?" I demanded when we finally reached the car, releasing my painfully tight grasp. I glared at him. He would learn that my black looks could do much more than simply burn. "I was just chatting with your student," he replied, rubbing his wrist gingerly. Serves him right, being a chauvinistic moron. "Damn, Emma, that fucking hurt!" "I don't care." I ripped the back door open, threw my backpack in, and slammed it closed as Darien meandered to his side of the car. Bastard. How dare he be so calm while I seethed? "What is up between you and Chris?" "Nothing, I told you." He got into the car and started it, looking expectantly out at me. When I obstinately refused to move, he rolled down the passenger side window with a sigh. "Emma, get in."

I resolutely stayed where I was. Strike! Maybe that'll get me somewhere! I mean, it worked for the French- okay, bad comparison. Darien was many bad things, but French wasn't one of them. "Why do you and Chris hate each other?" I demanded. And I did not stomp my foot like a child, either, despite the temptation. Why was it that Darien managed to reduce my age to 5-year-old levels? He rolled his eyes. "Just get in the car. It's cold." I glared. He groaned. He should know better than to try to outwait me. Even if he did win about half the time. "I'll tell you if you get in the car," he compromised. Still glaring, I yanked the front door open and sat down sulkily, my arms crossed tightly across my chest. I wasn't capitulating, exactly, but March was still coming in like a lion and outside the courtyard where Chris and I had been studying, it was frozen. Protesting would do me no good if I got hypothermia as well. Although then, Darien might feel bad for me and tell ah well, too late. Darien glanced at me and then back at wheel as I jerked the door closed with exaggerated anger, trying (badly) to hide his grin. Idiot. "So?" I prompted brusquely. Curiosity wasn't the only reason I wanted to know, after all, just the main one. I also wanted to know what could rouse such hatred in Darien, who, while not even-tempered in any sense of the word, rarely deigned to hate anyone. He rolled his eyes, but conceded. Ha. I win. "He doesn't like how popular I am, and I don't like how he treats girls." I stared blankly at him, not laughing skeptically only by a great effort of will. "You don't approve of how he treats girls?" I repeated disbelievingly, snorting quietly. The only differences I could see were of the subtlest sort.

"That would be correct," he replied loftily. Finally, I could let out all the pent up urges to roll my eyes I'd had to suppress with Chris! "Because you're so different," I drawled sarcastically as we pulled up to a red light. He spun to face me (ignoring all the driving principles I had been taught), sapphire eyes blazing angrily. I met his fiery eyes squarely. "The girls I hook up with know exactly who and what I am." He spat each word with deadly precision. "I don't pretend to care about them, and I don't chase them down. If that breaks their hearts, it's not my fault. But Mann He pretends to like them, and he actively pursues them until they're totally infatuated, and then he destroys them. He likes messing with their hearts, and that's something I would never do." His eyes, fierce as the sun, felt like they could see right through me. "The light's green," I pointed out, almost cowed by the intensity in his voice. Who knew Darien could argue that passionately? Maybe he would make it as a lawyer someday. He must have understood my unspoken concession, because he turned back to the road, the fire banking in his eyes. Silence pervaded the car and not our usual comfortable silence either. "So, how was tutoring today?" he finally asked, knuckles white against the steering wheel, "Is Mann as stupid as he looks?" "He's not stupid," I protested, though my defense was more devil's advocate than any protective instinct. Protecting the unarmed was all well and good, but not when the weak wasn't tolerable. "He just doesn't apply himself." "Whereas I apply myself so much," he retorted. I could hear something beneath the sarcasm, but hell if I could identify it. I had an odd feeling though, that if I only knew what it was, a lot of things would be answered. Later, I would know just how right I was.

"Ignoring the fact that you do, if you like the class," I countered calmly, "He's not as smart as you, but he's not stupid either. Happy now?" Why did he care so much? Was it only pride? He usually didn't care that much about intelligence. A lazy grin spread over his face, though why he looked so pleased I certainly didn't know. "Was that a compliment I just heard? From Emma Laycha? Is it even possible?" he teased, his grip on the wheel loosening in infinitesimal intervals. I wrinkled my nose at him in mock annoyance. I was free to act childlike now that I had learned everything I wanted to. And acting immature is fun, in small doses. And in select company. "Don't get used to it," I retorted, turning to the window with a dignified toss of my hair. Wasn't I allowed to be nice, every once in a while, and give a friend an indirect compliment? So what if it happened extremely rarely, that didn't mean it was impossible, only improbable. "Don't worry," he assured me as we pulled into my driveway, his voice an amused chuckle that reverberated through his chest and came out with none of Mann's practiced pleasantness but more sincerity than Chris's could ever hold, "I will."

Darien To be absolutely truthful, I had no idea why Mann pissed me off so much. Well, I didn't know what was at the heart of the problem; the side issues I was quite clear about. He was inching up on my status of most wanted boy in school, but I had had other challengers before, and I had pitied them more than anything else. I certainly hadn't hated them as fiercely as I did Mann. He just rubbed me the wrong way, maybe because of everything I had told Emma. But that wasn't all of it. Contempt would not have inspired my abhorrence, and if that was all,

Emma's defense of him would not have made me so furious at him that I was still fuming after I had dropped Emma off and stormed into my house. "Master Darien?" Alfred materialized beside me, jolting me out of my blind rage, though the fury was still simmering and distracting me. He was such a hypocritical bastard- Mann, not Alfred. I drew a long breath and composed myself. After a second, I trusted myself enough to speak acceptably. "Yeah?" "Your mother is upstairs. She wishes to take you to dinner tonight." His courteous monotone and emotionless expression made it take a while for this unprecedented proclamation to sink in. But when it finally did, it struck me with all the force of a cinderblock dropped off the Empire State Building. "Really?" I asked disbelievingly. He had to be jokingbut Alfred never joked. My mother was incapable doing something like that; it seemed almost caring, something a mother would do. A slight smile cracked Alfred's mask, a phenomena rare enough to convince me of his veracity; not that I had any real doubts. Alfred lied about as often as pigs flew. Probably less, actually, as pigs probably went on planes occasionally. "Yes," he informed me, no amusement in his voice to echo the slight curl of his lips, "You are to depart for the restaurant at six o'clock." "What about Troy?" I demanded, desperate for an excuse to get out of this. There had to be some sort of ulterior motive for her to do this, other than torturing me. Dinner alone with my mother (at least 4 hours, knowing the kind of restaurants she frequented) would be nothing less than agony. "I am pleased to look after Master Troy for that time," Alfred replied solemnly. I wasn't fooled at all. I knew very well how much fun those two had when Alfred finally decided to unbend. He had practically raised me, after all. Not to mention that all our video games' high scores were Alfred's.

"Fine," I snapped as I strode past Alfred and upstairs, my former anger diverted by this new quandary, "throw me to the wolves." Alfred's enigmatic almost smile, as confusing and non-committal in its way as Emma's smirk, chased me to my room. o0O0o0O0o "Darien." My mother was waiting for me in the entrance hall when I came back downstairs, dressed as I had suspected would be fitting, semi-formally in a black pants suit. Her ice blue eyes flicked up and down, studying my apparel in a way uncannily like how Emma had before New Year's Eve, making me suddenly glad I had opted to change into a button down shirt and tie rather than the polo I had worn to school. "Mother." I kissed her proffered cheek as expected. We were an affectionate family, after all, even if I had never seen Emma or Lex treat either of their parents that way. My parents needed to work on the quality of our script. An awkward silence. Finally she suggested, "Shall we go?" "As you wish." No emotion, that was the key. She had driven that into me from an early age. As it was fairly informal, she moved purposefully towards the BMW, rather than the limo she rode in for important meetings. I was vaguely disappointed, though I hadn't expected anything else; the limo was pretty sweet. Correctly assuming that she would insist on driving (my father convincing her to get a chauffeur for the limo had been an epic battle, one of the few fights I had seen between my parents) I took my seat on the passenger side, face still stonily serene. She sat in the driver's seat with the perfect assurance she did everything else; including the dismissal of her own children.

A tense quiet occupied the car ride. Neither of us had any reason to talk to each other, nor did we have anything to say. We were seated in the same manner, at a small table in the corner, isolated enough from the crowded restaurant to give the illusion of privacy. "So," she eventually broke the silence after we had placed our orders in impeccable French (long years of being taken to French restaurants were the reason I could skip French with impunity) and the waiter had disappeared in the same mysterious way Alfred did, "How has school been?" Way to not be clich, mother. "As good as usual," I responded blandly. Not that she would know what usual meant. For all she knew, that could mean I was like Mann, shooting up whenever I had an instant and even when I didn't. She acknowledged my sally with the minute twist of the thin lips I had inherited. It didn't reach her eyes. "Of course, you wouldn't expect me to understand what that means for you." I shrugged impassively. That was more perception than I would have attributed to her, but then again, her ability to read people was one of the reasons she had risen so far and so fast in her profession. Another silence. This one I stopped by a polite inquiry into her work, which she could elaborate on at great length with very little effort from me. That occupied us until the food came, but eating could only engage part of our attention, and her business had only so much I didn't know about it. It would be mine eventually. "So," she inquired, choosing a new inoffensive topic with an ease I guessed had to be acquired but seemed as natural to her as breathing, like all the social graces. "How is that young lady you're friends with? Emma Laycha, I believe?"

That brought my guard up with the precise clang of a drawbridge closing. "Fine," I allowed suspiciously. Why did she want to know about Emma? Why did she care about her? And how did she know we were still friends? My mother smiled a smile as real as anything I had ever seen on her before, except when she looked at my father. Great. So now Emma merited my mother's approval and liking, but not her own sons. "That's good," she said, an oddly speculative look in the eyes that glanced sidelong at me. I immediately felt like a wild animal, caged in the zoo, beneath the heavy gaze of constant viewers. "She seemed to be an intelligent girl." "She is," I agreed, keeping my face emotionless despite my continuing

bemusement at my mother's interest. Maybe Emma would do well in life and stuff; that had no reason to intrigue her. She nodded consideringly, a hint of laughter warming her eyes that didn't reach her mouth. I suddenly realized I could never, in all my 17 years of life, remember her laughing. What would her laughter be like? I shut off that train of thought quickly, realizing how academic it was. My mother would never laugh, not for me. Still, the ice in her eyes wasn't quite as cold as she observed, "She reminds me of myself at her age." I had to bite my tongue to keep my jaw from dropping. My mom never shared things about her past (so there were a few similarities between her and Emma), especially not anything other than the bare facts. But if my mother had started out like Emma I didn't want to even consider the possibility of Emma turning out like my mother. Some of my shock and disgust must have made its way to my face however hard I tried to conceal it, because another smile, not quite as full-hearted as before, but still remarkably uncalculated found its way onto her lips. "Didn't think I could ever be like your little friend?" she asked in what would have been with anyone else a teasing voice. I ignored the little voice in my head

that laughed at what Emma would have thought about being called a 'little friend.' "Not precisely," I countered coolly, still not trusting this new warmth. My parents held no affection for me; I knew that. I had no reason to confide in her, no reason to return that dubious love. The smile died as quickly as it had come, and the eyes that met me were remorseful. "No," she agreed sorrowfully, tragic eyes piercing my shields and reading my mind with all the skill moms are supposed to have, "that's not all of it, is it?" The next time we spoke, and for the rest of the evening, it was all controlled pleasantries. o0O0o0O0o "And then it was like nothing had changed!" I exclaimed into my phone, pacing my room like a caged lion. I had just finished telling Emma what had happened at dinner. Usually, I would have called Brock and ranted to him, but it had occurred to me that Emma might be able to understand what my mother was thinking better than he could. "And I have no idea what's happening! My parents don't act that way!" "Like a parent?" she interjected sarcastically. She probably rolled her eyes, too. She hadn't seemed as offended by my mother's comparison as I thought she would have. In fact, she seemed pleased. "Exactly!" I slammed my fist onto my desk, wincing slightly as it rebounded. I didn't have the strength to punch random hard objects, however good it was at venting my emotions. That didn't stop me, obviously, but it did make my hand hurt a lot whenever I did. "She's never acted like this before! I don't think I've ever had dinner alone with her before; let alone because she planned it spontaneously." Yes, I knew that was an oxymoron. No, I didn't care.

"Maybe she knows that and is trying to make up for it," Emma proposed calmly. Over the phone lines, something creaked as she shifted position. "Why now then?" I thundered. I must have walked this room 1000 times in the 45 minutes I'd been home, but I hardly noticed I was moving. "Why not when Troy or I needed her?" "I don't know," Emma replied tiredly, her cool voice washing over me and settling my hackles. She had that effect on people, when she felt like exerting it, and I was no exception. "But it is happening. Shouldn't you be happy?" "Only if she keeps it up," I retorted, still furious, "But I won't trust it. If I get my hopes up, she'll just dash them. And if I tell Troy" I trailed off. She would understand the tacit warning. Troy would get his dreams smashed, and he wouldn't understand why. I would not have our mother do that to him; she had done it enough to me. "At least she's trying," Emma pointed out, all icy anger. There was a faint sound of something scratching from her side. Was she taking notes or something? I really didn't care, as long as she was listening to me. "The least you could do is cut her some slack." "I did-" she cut off my protest. "Not really," her voice softened, coaxing more than commanding. This was her most dangerous voice, really, because it always caught me off guard. Primed for the whip, I was vulnerable to the silken bridle. "Just give her a chance, Darien." And now she was skeptically challenging, the doubt in her voice pricking my pride, "Can you do that much?" "Yes," I admitted reluctantly, my steps slowing. I groaned and collapsed onto my desk chair. Why couldn't my parents be normal? "I can do-"

"Hold on a sec, Darien," she interrupted me. I could hear faint voices from the other end, one of them definitely Emma's and the other's male, and than some indignant shrieks and a few thuds. "Hey, Dar?" Lex's voice now, and he was panting like he had been exercising. He had probably stolen the phone and was holding it above Emma's head now, judging from the creaks that made it sound like he was in motion, "Em needs to go now so I can kick her ass in Acquire." Beyond Lex, Emma snorted, conveying very well her doubt he would do anything of the sort. Lex ignored her. "So she'll talk to you sometime. Later." The dial tone clicked on, cutting off the sound of Emma and Lex's amiable bickering. I stared at the phone for a moment after they hung up on me. Of course Emma wouldn't get my suspicions, with her cookie-cutter family and loving mother. She didn't understand what it was like to have parents like mine, who really didn't give a damn about me. She couldn't comprehend how hard it was for me to 'just give her a chance.' But somehow, the past 45 minutes had made me feel better anyway.

Chapter 26

Emma "No." "Emma, please?" Chris looked pleadingly at me, every fiber in his body conveying disappointment. I wasn't fooled in the least. "It's just a little get together, for the team. We'll catch the end of March Madness, hang out why won't you go with me?" I threw my hands into the air in frustration as I strode out of the library, Chris easily keeping pace, his long legs taking one stride for every two I took. Damn tall people! "No," I repeated, trying to maintain my calm. Could he not understand that simple word? Was his head really that dense? He had never

shown signs of this thick-headedness in the month and a half I had been tutoring him. Could he not see that I was a lost cause? "Why not?" The question wasn't posed aggressively, only with resigned curiosity. For that reason, and that reason only, I answered him; albeit reluctantly. Curiosity killed the cat after all. "Because-" He didn't let me finish. Fine than, the cat could die. "Is it because of something McGavern told you?" he demanded belligerently, eyes narrowed. I wondered if this was a glimpse of the real Chris Mann, because if it was, I did not like what I saw. "Because that's all lies; he's just jealous-" I cut off his petulant protest. He had reached the limit of my tolerance, and I was done with both Mann and the conversation. "No," I snapped firmly, my head jerking around to glare at him, "It's because I don't do parties, not because of anything Darien said. Besides," and I had to add this, because he couldn't get away with insulting one of my friends. I was the only one who could diss my friends. I swept critical eyes up his body, meeting his eyes with lazy contempt. He didn't have a patch on Darien, whatever his fan girls said. "I don't see anything for him to be jealous of." "Then," he retorted, his persistent goodwill cracking beneath my obstinate refusal to acknowledge his charms, "you must be blind." "Maybe I am," I retorted. My eyes, crackling with anger and very much functional, met his and forced him a step back. If beauty was in the eye of the beholder, than apparently so was sight. Because he was missing some crucial things right now, the most important being that if I didn't regain control soon, I might hit him. "But that's not your concern, now is it?" I took a deep breath to recollect myself and closed my eyes for a second. When I reopened them, the green was as calm as the ocean shallows on a summer day. "Our next session's Monday," I continued serenely, "I'll see you then."

I was gone before he could respond. o0O0o0O0o "Mann is so damn annoying!" I exclaimed as I dropped angrily into the backseat Allan's car, tossing my backpack beside me with more force than strictly necessary. Allan and Candy (who we were apparently giving a ride home) turned to face me, confused by my lack of preamble. Still, "He's worse than annoying," Candy agreed with an alacrity that made me wonder if Mann had fooled her before. She certainly had more perception into his true character than most of the girls in her set, but that was the deadly irony in Mann's game. No girl would ever tell another that she had been duped, because that would reflect poorly on her. Villainous, certainly- but I had to have a certain reluctant admiration for his efficiency. "He's, like, a complete bastard. Have you heard about Trisha Corwin? He totally got her to break up with her boyfriend- who the Matchmaker, like, found for her- and then he dumped her like, right away!" I had heard. And while I didn't think much of any girl who allowed Chris to seduce her, Trisha wasn't stupid, just foolish, and I had been proud of that much. Both she and her boyfriend had been heartbroken after Hurricane Mann rolled through- though now they were happily together again. Ahh, the beauty of the Matchmaker. Allan's concerned brown eyes fixed on me, alarmed by my angry expression. He probably though I was angry at Candy for accusing Chris of something like that, rather than at Mann for being such a bastard. "Emma, you know he's bad news, right?" My exasperated look failed to quench him, so I resorted to words. It was a pity, too, that he had built up a tolerance to my withering expression. Would I not be able to use it on anyone anymore? "Did you hear what I just said?" I inquired sarcastically.

"Yeah, but-"he ignored the mouth I opened to protest, and I closed it sulkily. I couldn't argue if I couldn't get a word in edgewise, but that was what was so annoying about Allan. He steadfastly refused to quarrel. He also took all the fun out of life. "-you said you didn't like good boys, and Mann is sorta a bad boy, and-" "I'm not an idiot," I replied, rolling my eyes even though I was rather touched by his worry. I had a reputation to protect, after all, and being seen as soft wouldn't help it. 'I said he's annoying because he won't accept my refusal. There's bad boys who are endearingly misguided and misunderstood, and there's sleazes. And Mann is definitely in the latter category." Satisfied, Allan turned back and started the car. As we drove through the parking lot, all of us wrapped in our own thoughts, Darien walked in front of our car, crossing to his own. He raised a hand in a sort of farewell salute; I grinned back, making a face at him before we left the parking lot and turned onto the road. Candy tossed a knowing look over her shoulder, curling a strand of her blond hair innocently around one finger. "Darien's got the bad boy thing going on," she observed, blue eyes disingenuous beneath her tasteful, if heavy, makeup. "Yes." I admitted blandly, not quite certain of where she as going with this or sure if I wanted it to get there, "What are you implying?" She better not be thinking what I thought she was "Just that you liked the bad boy type, I can't see why you wouldn't have a crush on him." The car slammed to a stop as Allan stomped on the brakes in his shock. He disregarded the squeal of tires that was heard behind us, and the furious yelling, to spin to face me. "You have a crush on McGavern?" he demanded, usually passive face gape-jawed in surprise and a hint of anger. The surprise I could understand the source of, the anger less so. But I would find out, eventually.

Candy put a gentle hand on his leg, forcing him to look at her. "Lex, you can't, like, stop in the middle of the road," she pointed out. He obediently restarted the car, and we sped on, faster than he usually would risk going. "You like Darien McGavern?" he repeated incredulously, grip scarily tight around the steering wheel. Like any gentle giant, he didn't know his own strength, and when angry, tossed it around like it was nothing. All of which contributed to his own feeling of invincibility that, though hidden deeper than Darien's, was just as strong. Boys. "No, I don't," I explained patiently despite Candy's disbelieving look, "Candy only thinks I should." And I couldn't express how much I disagreed. No words in the English language could even come close to the strength I needed. "Well, you shouldn't," Allan declared, his basso's voice as uncompromising as it could be, "He might be a good friend, but you deserve a better boyfriend. He's almost as much bad news as Mann." Candy giggled fondly. I ruffled my stepbrother's hair, grinning cheerily and noncommittedly at him. "Thanks for caring, Allan," I laughed merrily, "But I can judge a potential boyfriends' worth on my own." Two pointed looks. "Not that Darien is one," I shot at Candy, crossing my arms resolutely across my chest. "If you say so," Candy assured me artlessly, her eyes wide and nave. Oh, she was good. "If you say so." o0O0o0O0o At 7:30, my phone rang. Surprised- Darien had requested help with history and said he would call me at 8, but he was rarely this early- I rolled over on my bed and glanced warily at the caller id. When I saw who it was, though, I snatched it up eagerly.

"Hey!" I said happily as I brought the phone to my ear, collapsing back down amid my blankets. "'ello," Rhi answered, just as cheerfully. She had been consistently in a good mood (or at least, whenever I had talked to her) ever since Christmas, when her parents had decided to allow her to come home. "Dropping h's?" I teased with a grin, "You aren't going to talk in Cockney Rhyming Slang when you come back, are you? 'Cause I don't think anyone could understand you, let alone me." "I'm not that anglicized!" she protested with a giggle, "but it would be no barney to try-" "Oh, just shut up," I cut her off. CRS may have been the weirdest languagepidgin- I had heard of. Those messed up English people. "So, why'd you call?" "Can't I just want to talk to my bestest of friends?" she inquired, hurt saturating her voice. Rhi always did have a penchant for melodrama; it was one of the reasons she and Brock worked so well together. He mellowed her out. Somewhat. "Sure, but she can't talk for long," I warned with an affectionate roll of my eyes. "Why not? What could be more important than your exiled best friend?" she asked, her tone still playful. But I hadn't known her for years upon years without learning her mannerisms, and I could detect a hint of actual offense. "Well, I told Darien-" She interrupted me, understanding dawning in her voice, though I couldn't tell where the smug chuckle came from. "Ahh, Darien. Say no more; I get it." "What?" I whined, sick of everyone pretending they knew what I was talking about. They could at least have the courtesy to inform me of what I was

saying, because more often than not these days, I was the one left in the dark. "I'm just helping him with some homework." 'Sure you are," she said it in a tone that said the exact opposite, and then in a knowingly conspiratorial voice, "but it's okay. I did it enough to you. You can ditch me for him." "Why just him?" I demanded testily. I wanted to know what conspiracy I was apparently a part of! There was nothing I hated more than not knowing stuff, especially when it concerned me. And this was about me, godamit! "Because you like him, and I have to give you time to woo him," she stated with utter certainty. My fists clenched, and I sat bolt upright on the bed. "No I don't!" I almost yelled. It didn't have any effect on Rhi. Later, I would wonder if my retort had been too quick to be true. But at the time I only figured that, being Rhi, once she got the idea in her head she would never let it go. I personally think she just hoped me going out with Darien would force him to approve of her more. He had never liked her after all, and apparently ditching his best friend hadn't helped. "That would be so great if you two got together," she gushed. Of course, she had to go to the absolute extremes. Next thing I knew, she would probably be discussing plans for our double wedding. "We could double date, and go to prom together, and-" "Rhi!" I barked, halting her spiel of potential joys before it got too out of hand, "that would be great. If I liked him. Which I don't!" "Emma," she informed me, like she was talking to a kid who wouldn't understand the obvious but who needed to know it nonetheless, "You talk about him like every other sentence. You get jealous-" "No I don't-"

"You get jealous of all his follower-girl-people. You think he's gorgeous. And," she administered the final stroke with an air of uncontested triumph, "You don't want him asking for the Matchmaker because that means he's not into you." "He's probably my best friend after you," I admitted, refusing to acknowledge the last few accusations, "And everyone knows he's hot. There's no point denying the obvious. But I do not like-" The beeping of my phone cut me off. There was another call. I flicked my eyes down to the screen. 8 o'clock. Of course. Rhi would never let it go now. "That's Darien," I explained hurriedly. I could almost hear her smirk. God, how self-satisfied could you get? She had no idea. I did not like Darien! Why could people not get that through their heads? Boys and girls could be just friendswould no one understand that? "I have to go. Later!" I hit the switch button with all the force of my resigned fury. I thought that it was resigned, that is, but my first words to Darien could, perhaps, have been planned better. "I do not like you!"

Darien "Emma, I'm hurt," I drawled, my surprise at her unconventional salutation not fazing me enough to stop my quick comeback, "I thought we were friends," Where the hell had that come from? I hadn't even gotten her mad yet today (a rare occurrence), though that may have been because I hadn't actually talked to her. But she had seemed happy enough with me when she left school, and her mood swings were usually triggered by something I did. "We are- I didn't mean- Different kind - arg!" she reverted to an inarticulate groan when words could not express her meaning. I waited, savoring the unusual

happening of Emma flustered. Either she would tell me what the hell was up, or it would be chalked up as a minor secret. My butting in wouldn't change the ultimate outcome. Still "Emma, what are you babbling about?" I inquired coolly, cutting through her frustration like a hot knife through butter. A deep breath from the other end as Emma regained her habitual calm. Good. As much as I enjoyed hearing Emma ruffled, it disturbed me. Emma shouldn't be like that. It wasn't right. "It's nothing," she finally said, all her impenetrability back in place. "So, what did you need help with?" Oh, that's cold, just leaving me hanging. And I didn't need help; we were just going to work together on a fairly challenging assignment. I could have done it by myself; I simply didn't feel like exerting myself. "It's not nothing," I contradicted matter-of-factly, hoping my objective voice would convince her to spill, "Not if you got mad enough to take it out on me. Tell me what's wrong." "I told you, it's nothing." "It's something." I had been sitting at my desk, now I rose to circle my room. We wouldn't get anything done until she was serene enough to concentrate, and moving helped me to focus. And coaxing Emma out of a rage promised to be just as difficult as the homework would have been. "Why don't you like me?" She sighed, but even over the phone I could hear her walls cracking and her reserve crumbling. "Why does everyone insist that I do?" she countered, anger rising in her voice. If I had been closer, I might have taken a step away. I was extremely glad that a few blocks separated us. "Even if every other girl in this school has a crush on you, that doesn't mean I have to!" Oh. This wasn't awkward at all, nope, no in the least. Maybe I shouldn't have pressed. But now I was in, for better or worse.

"There's no shame in liking me," I smirked. She would be in good company, after all. Not to mention the huge boost to my ego. And that meant Mann wouldn't win the bet. And- actually, did she seem a bit too defensive? "Except I don't!" she snapped with a huff of irritation. Okay. Maybe not too defensive, and just furious. "What is it with everyone? First Candy and Allan, then-" a miniscule pause, by which I figured out that this person had a connection with one of her secrets. Not worth probing for right now, though. I would have plenty of chances later. "-another friend, and now you!" her voice, edging on murderous, warned me that teasing was not appreciated. "Fine, fine, you don't," I agreed placatingly, ignoring a twist in my stomach that must have some from lunch. I knew I should've avoided the meatloaf, but nothing had looked any more recognizable. "But why do you even care what they say?" "I don't!" she yelled. I winced and held the phone farther from my ear. For someone who was usually so quiet, she could certainly shout. Really, really loudly. Should have known; it was Emma, after all, and she had to defy expectations. "But you would get annoyed too if you heard the same thing from four people!" "Three," I corrected. She must have been really mad to miscalculate like that. I did not envy Lex in the slightest, being only a few rooms away rather than a few streets. "Four," she spat. I raised an eyebrow in almost amused surprise. I had never heard Emma get so angry for so long. She generally flared and then burned out quickly, not this continued blaze. It was kind of funny, in a way; she was sort of cute mad- in a little kid way, that is. Not in any kind of attractive sense. "Chris didn't actually say anything, but even he implied it! And he had the nerve to call me blind!" "What did Mann do?" I snapped to attention at the sound of his name, all amusement gone. If he had decided to push the issue of the bet I knew I

shouldn't have made it. Even if, as Emma insisted (and insisted and insisted), she could take care of herself, he was still a lot bigger and well, I didn't like it. "Oh, nothing," I could almost see Emma wave her hand dismissively; I was that certain she was doing it. Scary, but somehow comforting. "Just nagging me to go to a party with him." "So I'm to presume you said no?" I queried delicately, trying no to sound as ecstatic as I felt. The hundred bucks were nothing compared to the confirmation that Emma wasn't a fool. And then Man would leave her alone, finally. "Of course I did," she retorted, the 'you idiot' only implied. I bet she rolled her eyes, too. Well good for her; she still couldn't rain on my parade. "He's obviously trying to get something. I just have to figure out what before I ditch him." "I think what he wants is obvious," I observed blandly. Emma had to know that; he was the kind of guy it sounded like she used to go with, from everything I had found out about her. And she had always seemed to understand that sort of stuff; I had even heard her give Candy advice on wooing a guy once, though I didn't catch the guy's name. "It's the same thing most guys do." "Well, yeah," she replied. Her silky hair brushed against the mouthpiece, causing a vague crackling sound, as she shook her head in frustration. Or maybe she was just opening a cough drop. It was probably that; Emma's hair was not silky. Except her voice hadn't sounded at all scratchy today. "But if all he wanted was to get laid, he wouldn't waste his time on me. There has to be another motive." "Has anyone ever told you you're way too suspicious?" I inquired with a wry grin. She could never accept that sometimes a cigar was just a cigar, even if this time she was right. Although Mann would have done it anyway, even if I hadn't agreed to the bet; it wasn't my fault he put words to it.

"Paranoia is only absurd until it happens," she informed me loftily, but I could hear her calming down. Good, distracting her had worked. I had been getting concerned that the female brain had transcended my understanding; I was glad to know that wasn't true. "Yeah, but people don't always need ulterior motives," I argued. It suddenly occurred to me that Emma was the only person I could have said that to. Maybe because she was even more cynical than me, or because with everyone else I had to keep up my sophisticated, world-weary pose. Though why I didn't have to act like that with her, I couldn't tell. It was still nice, in a way. "Maybe he only wants what he seems to." "No one's simple enough to want just one thing. There's always a lot of motives." I chuckled. I wouldn't be too sure about that. Mann really was that simple. He only cared about sex. And drugs, I suppose. And basketball. And- okay, fine, maybe Emma was right. But that didn't mean I had to concede. "How about no motives, then?" I replied, unwilling to let that point go. Not only did that mean I would lose, but I also wanted to keep Emma distracted so she wouldn't enter the downward spiral of her rage again. "Selfless love, or something." "Love?" she mocked, her voice sharp enough to pierce flesh, "there's no such thing." My jaw dropped. "Yes there is," I stated. It was a fact, after all; she only had to look around to see it. And if there was one certainty in this world, it was that Emma looked around. So why hadn't she seen it?

"No there's not," she replied, as businesslike as me. No petty emotions for her after all. "It's an illusion, a fantasy. People can be compatible; can desire each other sexually, but love? That's just a fancy word for nothing." "Your step-father married his secretary," I said slowly, letting each word sink in and penetrate her unreceptive brain. "Against all reason. And didn't Lex's mother really disapprove? There had to be something stronger than love there!" Ha, take that Emma's cynicism! "Your mother wasn't born any richer than mine," she countered, a lightning flash of cold intellect and the need to win, "But your father married her anyway. But that had to be because of love, not because she was an up and comer in his firm and was earning enough money to feed a small country, of course." "First of all, my parents are in love," I replied, trying to contain my bubbling anger. I could rage at my family all I wanted, but no one- and I meant no oneelse could. Blood was thicker than water, and all that. And the one thing I was proud of my dad for was marrying my mother. "But that is a very different situation than yours, if you have to know." I must not have been as good at concealing my defensive fury as I thought, because she paused on the brink of another retort, then answered in a far less argumentative tone, "I'm sorry. Now, what did you need help with?" "Nothing," I retorted angrily. Like she actually meant that apology. Emma never apologized; I knew that as well as the next person. And I did not need help. I never did. She let out a long breath, an understanding tone in her voice along with what I would later recognize as sincerity. "I really am sorry, Darien," she said calmly, as if she hadn't been yelling herself hoarse ten minutes ago, "I shouldn't have spoken about your family like that." If there was any irony in her voice, I certainly couldn't tell. But, being Emma, that didn't mean it wasn't there. "But if you don't need my assistance, I'm going to go now. See you tomorrow." A click as the phone hung up, than the dial tone.

I slammed the phone down angrily onto my bed. What the hell had just happened? Had I actually just been hung up on? No one did that to Darien McGavern, even if she had managed it with the same disarming politeness of"One would observe," Alfred remarked from the doorway, which had apparently been open, where he had been eavesdropping like usual. I didn't mind it when he did it; he never told anyone anything anyway, "that if you wished to impress Miss Laycha, becoming angry is not the best way to do so." "I'm not trying to impress her!" I spat. Why would he dare to think that? I really didn't need help; the assignment wasn't worth doing. Who needed history, after all? I could scribble something off before class, if I felt like being an overachiever. "One would further conclude," he continued as if I hadn't interrupted, his implacable courtesy unruffled as I strode over to push past him out of the room, "That completing your homework is." He disappeared. I scowled at the place where he had been. No one guilt tripped quite like Alfred, I decided as I sat sulkily back down at my desk and pulled out my homework. Except maybe, Alfred accompanied by Emma's conniving, gentle voice in my mind.

Chapter 27

Emma "Darien," I demanded in irritation, stalking up to him as he lounged against the wall of a courtyard enclosed within the school. He glanced up, warm May air teasing his hair into something slightly more like natural messiness. But, of course, he still looked perfectly put together. I hate people like that. "Can you please get Mann off my back?" I mean, the first time he had asked me out it had been flattering in a weird sort of way. Sure, I knew he was a sleaze, but no one had asked me out for a

long time. The second through tenth times had intrigued me, as his persistence was out of character and I could never let such a deviation go uninvestigated. After that though, even my curiosity waned and Mann's never-ending suit served only to aggravate me. Especially now, when the talent show was in a week, and the matchmaking business was booming, and the end of junior year madness was beginning, and I was majorly stressed out. How Darien stayed so calm, I had no idea. It probably had something to do with his lack of interest in school. Or, of course, he did have less stuff to do than me. "Why would I be able to do that?" he drawled languidly. His hand flitted to his pocket to grab a cigarette, but, with a sideways glance at me, it dropped back down to his side. I didn't acknowledge that I saw, but that didn't mean I didn't appreciate it. "Because you're Darien McGavern," I explained, rolling my eyes. Fishing for compliments did not become him. His groupies worshiped him enough anyway; what did he need my accolades for? "And people listen to you. Though I can't see why," I added in a mutter. He didn't deign to hear the last sentence. "Well, yeah," he admitted shamelessly with a casual shrug. His deep blue eyes didn't move from my face, as if this was a fact so obvious that it didn't deserve any recognition. That would have seemed arrogant, and it was, but the sad thing was it was also true. "But Mann wouldn't listen to me. Especially not about that." That was oddly modest. Except coming from Darien, it didn't sound that way. "Fine," I scowled up at him, though laughter danced in my eyes. I wasn't really annoyed, after all. Well, not at him. I dropped my bag at his feet and planted my hands on my hips. "Don't use your influence for good." "I won't," he agreed amiably, kicking my backpack against the wall with one long leg. He was so lucky I didn't have anything fragile in there. "But is he really getting to you that much?"

"Yes!" I snapped, gesticulating futilely at the air in aggravation and frustration. His eyes followed the motion, than traced down my arm until they reached my shoulder, then locked back on my face with an almost guilty look in them. I ignored it. "I have way too much on my plate right now for him. I'm stressed and I'm tired and I'm overworked and I have no patience left!" My outburst would have struck most audiences dumb. I bet even Rhi or Allan would have been cowed. But Darien wasn't most audiences. "What's got you so worked up?" he inquired coolly. Of course, he seemed like he didn't care, or that's what his voice and body language said. But his aquamarine eyes were kind and almost gentle. And something in those eyes wouldn't let me stay bottled up any longer. "Everything!" I exclaimed, rubbing my temples as I joined him against the wall, "School, and the talent show, and colleges and SATs and stuff, and just everything!" Well, I couldn't exactly say anything about the Matchmaker. Darien hated her so much, he would kill me. And of course, there was my impatience for Rhi to come home, but Darien didn't know about my friendship with Rhi and I intended to keep it that way. Being recognized as Brock's girlfriend's best friend would have thrown me into the spotlight far too much then. Even if I was noticed even more as Darien's friend, the lie had gone on too long. I couldn't back out now. "And I guess Mann isn't helping," Darien observed dryly. I shrugged helplessly. He shook his head disparagingly. "He so rarely does." That forced a smile out of me, albeit a reluctant one. It was just a twisting to the lips, barely even able to be called such, but it cracked his impassive mask. A real smile lit blue eyes growing lighter almost as I looked into them. "Don't pay any attention to Mann. He isn't worth it," Darien instructed me, voice for once not cold and unconcerned but instead almost scarily intense, "He doesn't deserve enough of your attention to make you angry." And then the intensity dimmed, and the icy mockery was back. I shivered slightly. The day was

warm, so why did I feel cold without the heat of his gaze? "Just ignore him," he smirked cruelly, "that's what I do." I chuckled. He was right, and I knew it even if I couldn't admit it. But that didn't mean his advice was viable for anyone but him. We didn't all have his immunity from our peers, and I wasn't fool enough to dismiss the necessity of their approbation. "That's a lot easier when he's not dogging you around," I retorted tiredly. He rolled his eyes, apparently sure I was exaggerating. Idiot. Since when was I melodramatic? Especially compared to his moronic bitch groupies. "I'm not kidding!" I insisted, smacking Darien lightly on the arm to drive the point home. It almost rebounded off, his muscles were that hard, and I was glad I didn't put that much force into my attack. It was kind of hot, actually- I quickly herded my mind away from that line of thought. Dwelling on Darien's attractiveness would not lead to good things. "It's like he has my schedule memorized or something." "So? You know Lex's," he pointed out with inescapable logic. Could he not follow his logic a bit further to find out that the two cases had nothing in common? "Well, yeah," I agreed reluctantly, blowing a lock of hair irritatedly out of my face. It fell right back into my face, and I huffed in frustration. Darien smiled slightly, not quite a smirk but not quite a grin. Seeing that I was far too lazy and exhausted to actually reach out and do something about the annoyance, he rolled his eyes and tucked it behind my ear with surprising gentleness. I ignored the ghost-like touch of his skin against mine that I still felt after his hand left and continued, "But that's me. I know everyone's schedule, not just Allan's." Part of the job, really. I had to know when they wouldn't be near their locker. "But he just knows mine." "Weird," Darien confirmed lazily, hands locked firmly behind his head. I had a queer feeling that this didn't surprise him in them least. Suspicious. "Does he follow you? That would just be creepy."

"He's way too flattering and attentive, he's constantly showing off, and he's almost insultingly helpful. Darien," I snapped, throwing my hands into the air, calling out the fates that hated me, "He's as good as stalking me!" "Who's stalking you, chica?" God, speak of the devil and he will- no, calling Chris a devil is giving him way too much credit. But some sort of higher power that I didn't believe in had a really messed up sense of humor. "No one," I muttered, tossing an irritated look over my shoulder at Darien. The idiot had made me rotate so that I had to turn my back on Darien. Still, he could recognize an 'I told you so' when it bit him on the nose. "That's strange," Chris rumbled, almost purring. He took a step forwards, towards me. I refused to be intimidated and take a step back, so I stood my ground even if he towered over me. He didn't scare me. No mere human could scare me anymore. "Guys should be standing in line for the pleasure." I gaped at him. Had he even heard himself? Did he know how disturbing that sounded? "While that's very flattering," I assured him, not taking my eyes off of him. We were acquiring an audience- it wasn't often Chris Mann got rejected- and I couldn't show weakness, not as they surrounded us in a semicircle with the wall as the other side. "I've got to be somewhere." I turned to walk away. "No, stay a while and talk to me," he urged, reaching out a hand to grab my wrist. My hand flashed out, and his was knocked away before it could reach me. How dare he try to hold me? "Don't touch me," I warned coldly, deadly soft. A murmur of interest from the crowd; they hadn't expected something as hard as that from me. He stared blankly at me, stunned. I didn't care. Touching and I did not mix, not while I could still feel Dan's crushing grip on my hand. "I don't like you. I don't want to go out with you. And I don't want to fuck you." Shocked silence, than I stalked away to the music of the audience's gasps and a slow, sardonic clap that I guess had come from Darien. Only a few feet away, though, a voice halted me.

"Emma, don't be that way," It was more of a command than a plea, and he seemed to have no intention of being refused, not in front of all these people. But neither did I, and my will was far stronger than his. "It's not like that!" My anger, latent throughout the days of tutoring when he had acted decent, boiled over. The stress, the sheer hypocrisy of his request, and all my old rage combined into a single surge of pure fury as I spun around and took a step forward, eyes blazing incandescently. "Oh really?" I challenged, tossing back my hair and pacing forward, a panther fatally intent on its prey. Fatal for the prey, that is. "Was it not like that with Gina Arthur either? Is that why you dumped her after you pressured her into having sex? Or Katie Lamont? Or Julia Kenton? Or any of the dozens of other girls you've fucked and ditched?" I took another step, my tirade rising over the surrounding mutter of interest. Mann backed up a step. "Or maybe it's only 'not like that' when you're high. Oh, no, wait, that wouldn't work," I was all cold mockery now, and none of the panicked ire rising in his face could stop me. This had simmered for far too long. "Because three's never a moment when you aren't high!" Another step forward, another step back. "Maybe I should just spill all your dirty little secrets so these good people will see what you really are. Like how you tried to use the Matchmaker but she refused to help you. Or how you only passed 9th grade because you seduced a poor little girl into doing your work for you and than dropped her after you got your grade. Or," I took a final step forward, the wall at his back blocking his retreat, and uttered my killing strike. "how you got your girlfriend pregnant last year, and then disappeared faster than it took for you to do the deed. You don't know what happened to her, do you? Not after she transferred, too ashamed to look at anyone here, because you wouldn't admit that you were the father." The crowd was deathly silent now. None of them had known about that. I had only known because I had held her hair once when I happened upon her puking into the school toilets, subsumed by morning sickness. She had cried herself out on my shoulder, and the next day she had been gone. I looked up and met his shallow, reflective jet eyes that were only what everyone else thought of him, and he

couldn't meet my gaze for long. "You know, Chris, you should just drop the nice guy act, because you're nothing more than a pitiful sleaze whose only skill is pretending to be worth more than the crap you are. You-" Chris cut me off, but I had more. So much more. "Bitch!" he screamed, his pleasant mask broken by his anger, any awareness he had of the audience gone, "You little-" I didn't bother to listen anymore, turning my back contemptuously and walking away. The crowd parted to let me through, almost as if scared of me. Good. They better be. Once more though, I was stopped, this time by the sound of flesh hitting flesh with a resounding crack. I pivoted, settling unconsciously into a combative pose. Darien had Mann's wrist, raised to hit me in the back, firmly in his grasp, and it didn't look like he was being gentle either. "I believe she told you not to touch her," he hissed, white-blue eyes angrier than I had ever seen them. A few inches shorter and without Chris's obvious musculature, he still managed to dominate the tableau completely, his roaring anger drowning Chris's petty rage. Mann yanked his hand away, his usual casual control returning as he ran his hand through mussed black curls and his face settled into an unbecoming smirk. Of course, every expression was unbecoming on him. "You can have the money, McGavern," he spat, digging his wallet out of his pocket and shoving some bills into Darien's resisting hand, his eyes glinting maliciously, "The bitch isn't worth it." He sauntered away, the crowd dispersing around him, all probably running to spread the story. In a matter of seconds, Darien and I were alone in the deserted courtyard, the only sound my still heavy breathing.

"Shit, Emma that was amazing!" Darien exclaimed, quickly hiding the money Mann had given him in his pocket. Too quickly. Why was he guilty about it? My mind was working on hyper drive, having released too much adrenaline. I couldn't focus. Except that money? What was it for? "How'd you know all that?" My eyes rose slowly to meet his. "Darien," I asked, confusion and the emotional exhaustion that came after a fire slowing my words down but taking none of their force away, "Why did Mann just give you money?"

Darien "I'm not sure," I prevaricated instantly. It would have to be now, wouldn't it, when she was already stressed and far more likely to blow up if she found about my stupid bet. Even if she had proved me right and won it for me. Maybe if I split the money with her "But you certainly told him!" She had too. I had always known she could be terrifying, anyone who had known her for any amount of time knew that, but hell, I think Mann was about to piss his pants. I didn't even want to know where she had gotten all that dirt. "No, no, you know," she informed me, burning eyes fixed on me. Yes, definitely scarier than anything I had ever seen. Not that I was scared of her. "So want to share with the class?" "No," I replied sharply, stung by the irony. "Maybe it's my turn to have a secret. If anyone other than you is allowed to, of course." So maybe getting her angrier was a bad idea. But she deserved that. "My secrets have nothing to do with you." Was there a hint of hesitation there? She continued so smoothly I decided I must have imagined it. "But this involves me, somehow, so I have a right to know" Hallelujah. She had noticed. "And anyway," she added, shifting all her weight to one side and putting a hand

on that hip, "You always manage to nag the answer out of me. So now it's my turn." "I don't nag!" I protested. Distraction generally worked with Emma. Just in case though, I kept my eyes just shy of hers, hopefully too close for her to notice. Even if those too piercing emerald eyes saw everything. "You keep asking and asking and asking and asking until it's either tell you or kill you," she retorted, fond exasperation coloring her voice. So she wasn't mad anymore. Good. I hated it when she was actually furious at me, though I didn't know why. It didn't bother me with anyone else. "That's generally called nagging." "No it's not," I insisted loftily, dismissively, "And I don't ask that much. I'm just persistent." She snorted and rolled her eyes, relaxing back into her usual casually wary stance, ready to spring into action at the least provocation. She never could stand still; I had noticed- even now she shifted minutely back and forth on the balls of her feet. "Right. Persistent, that's what you call it. Ragging on me for weeks?" "I don't rag," I stated matter-of-factly. I was a McGavern, after all. Ragging sounded so plebian. And that was one fault I did not have. "Yes you do," she contradicted, "You haven't stopped interrogating me about that notepaper and that was months-" something about that must have triggered her memory, because she cut herself off and her eyes narrowed dangerously at me. Damn. "Distracting me won't work, not this time. What's with that money?" "Nothing." She gave me her patented Emma Laycha I-don't-believe-you look. I parried it with my best (and it was very, very good) I-really-don't-give-a-damnwhat-you-think expression, complete with insolently half closed eyes.

She sighed impatiently. "Darien," she said, and I should have known there was trouble afoot, because a belligerent gleam was back and her eyes had become as penetrating as the rays of the desert sun. But she somehow managed to contort her voice into a soothing gentleness so her next words caught me off guard. "It's either you tell me now or I force Mann to tell me later, when I'm even more irritated." What she didn't know, was that Mann would also paint me in the worst possible light, and it could look very bad indeed if handled incorrectly. He had already tried to do that, after all, giving me the money in front of Emma. He was trying to get me slaughtered; it was obvious. "He won't tell you," I informed her with a confidence I didn't feel. It couldn't hurt him anymore, and messing with my friends was his kind of petty revenge. Though, maybe he wouldn't spill, just to spite Emma. He had to hate her after that little display, maybe even more than me. I had never called him out, after all. "We both know I could get it out of him," she smirked. Returning the grin halfheartedly, our eyes caught. More out of bravado than anything else, I held the gaze that seemed like it could see right through me. Those eyes were so very deep and so very green, like the pine forests on mountains, touched and brightened by the sun Emma broke me out of my contemplation by continuing, "So, are you going to tell me?" "No." Who was she, to be making demands of me? A friend, an annoying little voice in the back of my mind whispered, and a good one. I hate that voice. "Yes." She gave me a quick upwards glance through her interminably long lashes, looking very innocent and very young. Yeah right. "Please?" Damn. How come I couldn't say no to that look? Every other girl in the whole fucking school had tried some version of it on me, and I had been totally immune. Until now. Now I was vulnerable to a certain pair of summer grass green eyes and a falsely sweet smile, and I didn't like it at all.

I groaned, knowing Emma would ferret it out eventually. It was probably best to get it over with before she got angry enough to kill. Maybe now she wouldn't be too mad. It wasn't anything big, anyway. "You really don't want to know," I assured her, but I could feel my resolve softening. I hardened it resolutely, but it was torn down as fast as I could shore it up. Stupid Emma, with her manipulation, and big eyes. Well, actually, not stupid at all, but I digress. Her expression didn't falter, though I could almost sense her roll of eyes at my change of argument. "Come on, Darien, please?" If I hadn't known Emma as well as I did, I would have said she was pleading. If I hadn't known her as well as I did, I would also have said she was being sincere. "I would hate to find out what's going on with one of my best friends from someone I hate." One of her best friends? That was the first time I had heard that, it made me feel kind of- oh. Low blow. Very low blow. I began to get angry. How dare she manipulate me? Why couldn't she just trust me? This girl had major trust issues, and I was getting tired of them. "Fine. You really want to know?" I thundered suddenly. Emma's face didn't shift at all, but I saw her eyes light up with anticipation. I spoke loudly and confidently. It may have been a stupid thing to do, but I wasn't ashamed of it. And she shouldn't be able to get angry about it. "Mann bet me a hundred dollars he could have sex with you." Maybe I could have phrased that better, though. That light in her eyes died. Her face, always pale, got an angry flush on her incongruously high, aristocratic cheekbones, but the rest of her skin obtained a deathly white pallor. "And you took it," she confirmed, voice lethally quiet. Her face, as usual, betrayed nothing, but her eyes were dull and lifeless, none of the anger I had been expecting anywhere.

"Well, yeah." Taken aback by her reaction, my speech could possibly have been more polished. Right now though, I didn't think she cared. "I mean, it was a free hundred bucks." "Was it?" she queried in the same voice that was simultaneously horribly dead and yet horrifyingly fatal. "Yeah, well, it's not like it was going to happen," I replied quickly. God, was I actually stammering? I needed to get a grip on myself, now. No one was worth such a loss of dignity. No one should have been able to make me that nervous, either. "So I decided to take advantage of a fool," I continued more calmly, "And I gained some money doing it. What's the harm in that?" "I think you'll find it wasn't free at all," she said. She had none of her serene equilibrium, despite her overwhelming apathy. That was vibrant and alive and, in its own way, stunning. This was none of those. "It cost you my friendship." She spun with the unexpected speed that always intrigued me and was halfway up the stairs that led out of the courtyard before I had processed what she had said and strode after her. That was a huge overreaction! "What? Emma, it was just a stupid bet I-" I tried to say I knew it was stupid, I really did. But the undignified words just wouldn't come; no matter how hard I tried. I was a McGavern before I was a friend, apparently. "What's the big deal, anyway? It's just a bet." She whirled around, the anger that I had anticipated finally manifesting. Standing on the steps, she was nearly as tall as me, and her night-black hair almost crackled with the fury she was emanating. Green eyes flared, full lips became thinner than thin, and long, elegant hands clenched- but at least she wasn't acting dead anymore. "This isn't about the damn bet!" she yelled. Her voice wasn't loud enough to carry, nor was it meant to be, but the rage made it most certainly a yell. I had never heard Emma this worked up.

"It isn't?" I asked, confused. I was pretty sure that was what had started this Even she looked bemused by her statement for a millisecond, anger dying in her face, but she quickly reasserted her furious collection. "It is, but that's only part of a bigger problem!" she exclaimed, waving wildly as she grasped for words to articulate her issue. It should have looked ridiculous. It didn't. "You treat people like they're dirt!" "No-" she cut off my protest, already in full onslaught. There would be no stopping her now, just weathering out the storm. "No, not dirt, like they're pawns or something and they only exist to dance to your tune. Did it ever occur to you I would want some say in it before you started betting on me like I was some sort of racehorse?" Why did she think I hadn't told her in the first place? "Or am I- is everyone- just another of your playthings meant only for your amusement?" "Did it ever occur to you," I retorted, trying to summon up my own anger as the only thing that would shield me from her attack. It came, slow and limping and weak. "that maybe I only took the bet because I respected you enough to know you wouldn't succumb to Mann?" "If that were true, you would have told me!" she shouted. Her gaze could have caused a building to explode. Her fists were slowly relaxing and tightening again, as if she was forcing herself to keep from punching me. "You would have treated me like an equal, and we would have laughed about it. But you had to keep me in the dark while you as good as whored me out like I was your sex toy or something!" "You're only mad because I managed to keep a secret from you," I shot back defensively, trying to keep my shields up even as she battered them down with her horribly cutting words that found every crack in my armor. I couldn't even meet her eyes anymore, though my head stayed proudly erect. But honestly, she was taking things a bit far. I mean, Emma, a sex toy? A laughable concept.

She surveyed me with eyes as indifferent as the day we met, but without the vague, sardonic amusement that had lurked in them then. "You know, I have half a mind to go fuck Mann just to teach you a lesson." My head shot up; my eyes caught hers. They weren't angry anymore. They were almost sad. Regretful, one might say. "You wouldn't," I stated blankly. She couldn't. Not because I would lose the bet- but that wasn't Emma. Emma wouldn't do that. She couldn't. It would be spiteful and wrong and gross and vengeful, in a way Emma wasn't. She wouldn't sell herself like that. She couldn't. "No, I won't," she agreed solemnly, just a hint of sadistic laughter at my panic in the depths of her face. "Because, as mush as I despise you right now, that's more disgusting." She leaned in close to me, so close that our noses were nearly touching. I was suddenly and inappropriately reminded of the New Year's kiss. Only 5 months ago, but it felt so far away, and yet the specter of the girl she had been skulked very near right now. "And I wouldn't sink to that level," she whispered. I could feel her breath; was almost breathing it in. "Not for you." And I was left alone on the stairs, a hundred dollars in my pocket and feeling poorer than I ever had before.

Chapter 28

Emma The music stopped. I stood still for a moment, allowing the adrenaline and delight of a perfectly completed routine surge through me, feeling the blood pounding in my head and flowing through the veins of my flushed cheeks. If I did it that well for the talent show tonight, I would be content. No, I would be more than content, I would be ecstatic. After this, everyone would see what I could do; no one- and I

mean no one, not just a certain moron with no redeeming qualities except for an occasional spurt of wit- could say I didn't have talent anymore. A shrill snicker cut through the quiet murmur of the crowded backstage of the dress rehearsal, breaking me out of my reverie. I stood up straight, wiping the sweaty wisps of my hair that had escaped my ponytail out of my eyes, and looked for the source of the noise. 2 freshmen girls, their bleached blonde and badly dyed scarlet hair bouncing in burnt curls, huddled in the wings, giggling contemptuously at me. I ignored them, not deigning to show that their derision got to me- not that it did, and jogged past them, taking a long swig on my water bottle as I did. They shut up just long enough for me to pass, but I could hear their whispers following me all the way to the seat where I had dropped my bag. Candy met me there, her wide grin counteracting the sneers of the other girlssomewhat. I didn't care what they thought of me, but I hated how they judged me so prematurely. They had no reason to hate me. They just did, without reason. Like all teenagers did. "That was amazing!" she gushed excitedly. Her act being in the first half, she hadn't seen my act (the first one after intermission) before, so this had novelty value, which made her more impressed. Well, that and the fact that I ruled. "You totally rocked!" "They obviously don't think so," I contradicted, jerking my head at the girls who were still glaring evilly at me. Candy gave them a cool look and shrugged dismissively; with all the easy arrogance of someone who knows they're at the top of the food chain. "Don't pay attention to them," she advised, tossing an arm around my shoulder. I refrained from wincing, both at the touch and at the words, which so echoed advice told to me before from a deeper voice that was nonetheless as beautiful as Candy's trained singer's voice. But I wouldn't think about that. Candy didn't know what he had said, nor did she know of my antipathy to touching. She was

declaring her support of me, and to girls like those, that support wasn't worth nothing. "They're just, like, jealous." She cocked her head. "And mad," she added after a second's consideration. "Why?" I inquired casually, pulling the tie out of my hair and letting it flow down to the small of my back. "I've never seen them before." "Because Darien likes you," was there a bit too much stress on the like? Couldn't be; not even Candy was that foolish "and because you, like, totally bitched him out Monday." Then, moving on as if that were nothing, she grabbed a lock of my hair and held it up admiringly, "Have I ever told you how much I, like, love your hair?" "You heard?" I asked tentatively, twitching my hair away from her grasp. She hadn't seemed mad for the past few days, not like the rest of Darien's so called friends (except for Allan), but she had been Darien's friend first "Honey, everyone's heard," she replied offhandedly, "People don't usually get mad at Darien. Not, like, to his face." And then, without missing a beat, "you really should put it up sometime. When was the last time you, like, did something other than, like, a ponytail with it?" "A while," I told her, still wary, waiting for the axe to fall, "But he deserved it." She took one look at my face and giggled incredulously, the sound not nearly as irritating as the cackles of some of her cheerleader friends. Maybe it was the lack of malice behind the laugh, or maybe it was just her personality. "You don't think I'm, like, mad, do you?" she asked, her voice rising in perfect trills over the sounds of the rehearsal. Not exactly the reaction I had been expecting. Which was good, in that she wasn't yelling at me, but bad, in that now I had no idea what to anticipate. And nothing irritated me more than being in the dark. "Well, yeah," I answered, concealing my double-take, "He is your friend."

She giggled again. "Emma, I love Darien." I shot her a skeptical glance. By my observations, she didn't hang out with the football guys nearly constantly because Darien did as well, and I had honed my instincts in that area extremely well. "Like a brother," she continued. Ha, I knew it. "But he's had that talking to, coming for, like, forever, and he might actually, like, listen to you." "He better," I muttered under my breath, "He was such a bastard!" My fury at him had in no way abated, not at all. I had pointedly ignored him all week, erased the messages he left on my phone unheard, and had refused to listen to anything Allan had to say on the subject. As a result, I had reverted back to my only solitary habits. And it felt kind of nice, the solitude and quiet. Very quiet, though. Enough to break my eardrums. "He was," Candy agreed too patiently, as if humoring me. Bad mood.

Condescension would only make me angrier. "But he's, like, really sorry now." So now came the 'you should forgive him speech'. I had already gotten it from Allan, Jack, Mom, and even Brock, who had hunted me down Wednesday after school, cornered me, and forced me to hear what he had to say. Didn't mean I had to bother to pay attention, though. Somehow, I didn't think Candy had a chance in hell. I snorted and quickly changed the subject. Honestly, why was everyone so concerned with this? It was just a stupid fight, just Darien being an idiot again. It's not like that's unusual. And anyway, it was bringing down my mood. "Wow, it really has been a while since I dressed up. I don't think I've even put make up on in, like, forever." "Woah," Candy was completely distracted. To a girl like her, that was nothing short of a change in the earth's orbit. Once, that would have been true to me too; in eighth grade I couldn't even go outside without my lip-gloss. Dan had always loved it when I was made up; he said the mascara made my eyes look even greener. No, dammit. I couldn't think of Dan, not now, not today. That would be even worse than thinking about Darien; I couldn't do it if I thought about Dan, I couldn't-

Candy conveniently cut through the downward spiral of my brooding. "We have to like, change that. You are totally coming to my next sleepover, and we are giving you a total makeover." "Whatever you say Candy," I smirked. Spend an entire night in a hell of makeup and curlers that I knew from experience wouldn't work in my hair but that the girls would try nonetheless. Like that was going to happen. At least it had distracted Candy, though. "He's going to be here tonight." Or maybe not. I knew who 'he' was; somehow, I always did when it was Darien. "Good for him," I drawled, turning away to tuck my water bottle into my bag. Like it mattered what he did. I didn't care about that arrogant, controlling, overbearing, mercenary, womanizing, frozen jackass. How he dared to show his face, I didn't know. But- in my heart of hearts, I was happy he was coming. Not that I would admit that to anyone, even myself. I was still mad, after all. Furious. Irate, even. But maybe those clear aquamarine eyes would cancel out the violet ones that wouldn't be there, where they were supposed to be. "He even, like, insisted on coming," Candy persisted, stopping my internal conflict that I wouldn't acknowledge, "I mean, Lex was going to drag him anyway, but Darien, like, dared Lex to stop him. It was actually kinda hot," she added thoughtfully. I pivoted quickly, my neck twisting fast enough to give me whiplash. Had she just said- no wonder she confused poor Allan so much; talk about mixed signals "What?" she grinned innocently at my expression, just a hint of the smugness of a cat in cream on her face, like she had proved something she had long been speculating on. "It's cute how much he wants to see you."

"Very different connotations between hot and cute," I mumbled under my breath, turning back around to dig my book out of the black hole that was my bag. No reason to be bored while I stuck around. "And I doubt he wants to see me," I added into my bag. "Did you, like, listen to any of his messages?" she queried, changing tacks with a speed and adeptness I wouldn't have credited her with. Not that I saw what she was getting at here, but what she had been doing obviously wasn't working; maybe she noticed that. "No," I retorted. Maybe, just maybe, I would have at least listened to them if he hadn't called me during the first flare of my anger. If he left them now- but he wouldn't, so that didn't matter. "He didn't mean any of it, so what's the point?" She raised a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "How do you know that?" she inquired, bright blue eyes disingenuous despite my exasperated look. "Because I do," I met her challenge. She gave me a glance uncannily like one of my mother's. "Well, it would have to be an apology. And everyone knows that Darien never means an apology, even if he deigns to say the words," I justified, trying to sound rational as I cringed inside. Had I actually just invoked the 'everybody knows' law? But that didn't matter, I just knew. "I heard him leave the last one," she informed me blandly, her gaze burning into me with as much power as my mom's when she wanted something very badly. "And if you had heard him, you totally would have, like, believed him." And normal Candy was back. Apparently she could only maintain a serious thought for so long before her ditzy frame collapsed. "He was all like, 'I'm really sorry and I know it was wrong.'" "And this proves anything because"

She ignored me. "And then he was like, 'I didn't know it would make you so mad.'" And suddenly serious Candy was back, weirdly enough. "And he said that he would never have done it if he had known it would hurt you. Never." She spoke slowly, letting every word impact my brain and sink in, slowly diffusing throughout my mind until it reached each every limit. "And I've never heard Darien sound so sad and lonely." "But that doesn't mean he learned his lesson," I observed, not turning around even though I had found the elusive book and not knowing why. I couldn't see her, but Candy's voice was too serious for her character. "You now, its kinda messed up and not at all like Darien, but I think he did." I flashed her a confused glance over my shoulder, though I remained kneeling on the floor, clutching my book like a lifeline. Her smile was wide and innocent despite eyes that edged on thoughtful "Just, like, think about it," she suggested, flouncing off towards the stage, where someone who I thought was her friend was performing. I didn't move. Had Darien actually listened to what I said? Had it actually penetrated the thick membrane around his head that was his bred arrogance and natural pride? All prior experience would deny that, but why would Candy lie? She may have only known him as the Ice Prince he appeared as, but she had known him for a while; she could at least tell when he was acting abnormal. I smothered a split second of regret that I hadn't listened to those messages. But I had all the rights in the world to be angry! How could he make a bet like that? But I couldn't see why Candy would deceive me in order to get me to forgive him, unless she had some really convoluted plan that not even I could attribute to her. And if he had repented, then did I have a reason to be angry anymore? But- forgive him? That would be conceding, and I couldn't do that. I had promised myself 3 years ago that I would never be so dependant that I would

sacrifice my pride like this. And I especially couldn't now; that would be condoning what he had done- though he was sorry. But I couldn't just let it go like that; I wasn't that kind of person. I couldn't. o0O0o0O0o Once again, it was quiet. But this time the silence was nowhere near absolute, not when outside I could hear the crowd rumbling and the MCs finishing their skit. But on the stage, the heavy air pressed around me, all warm, full darkness. Nervously, I fiddled with my loose pant legs that billowed around my legs even as I stood stock still. I couldn't concentrate. That was not good. Messing up now would be bad, very bad. Not to mention the physical part, it would prove to everyone- to methat I couldn't do this, not anymore. But Darien had occupied my mind for the whole afternoon. Should I forgive him? Slowly, dramatically, the curtain rose, revealing the pitch-black stage to the onlookers. A muffled murmur ran through the spectators like a wave. I took a deep breath, and gazed out on my audience. It could have been my imagination, because there had to be at least 500 people out there, all their faces blending into one glorious mass. But I didn't think so, not when the on face I could see clearly had eyes of lapis lazuli blue and were staring, challenging and proud, at me in a way I knew far too well, but with something I had never seen before. It wasn't arrogance, or even friendship. It was a true and sincere apology. And in that face, through my shock at what I saw, I read the answer to my problem. The light flicked onto me and any sight I had of Darien's face was lost. But not the decision I had made, that I had had to make. Yes, I realized as a long, high note of a flute rang throughout the theatre, Yes.

Darien 4 days. That's how long it had been since Emma spoke to me. 3 days. That's when I last leaving her messages on her phone. Not that I was counting, or that those figures meant anything to me, but I had always been good at math. Numbers stuck in my head. And those resonated in my brain until they drowned out everything else, the sound that wasn't a sound growing exponentially as the days multiplied. Until now that is, when I sat in the auditorium, waiting for the curtain to fall, and all other thoughts had fled. Next to me, Lex shifted uncomfortably in his seat. As much as he loved his stepsister, anyone and everyone could tell that he wanted nothing more than to be hunting Candy down right now, even if, as he had found out during intermission, non-performers weren't allowed backstage. Still, I would have thought had I been able to hear my thoughts anymore that Emma should appreciate his self-restraint. Later, we would decide that he wanted to make sure I didn't mess anything up for Emma. Ha. Like I would be that stupid or desperate. On my other side, Brock shot me an anxious glance. I had worried him by demanding on going; he, like Lex, probably thought that I would do something drastic. He should have known better. Emma would have. Finally, finally (though it hadn't been more than 30 seconds since the MCs left) the curtain moved, exposing a stage black as pavement covered with ice. A lone figure was barely visible in the middle, but I had no problem recognizing her. The scant glow cast by the emergency signs reflected off of Emma's white skin as she stood, still as a statue, as straight and tall and proud as any Athenian goddess. Her eyes glinted as green as summer leaves, and for a millisecond, they locked with mine. To anyone else, she would have seemed unchanged. But I could see that her eyes widen in shock and understanding the instant before a fiery red light flashed on from the ceiling, creating a lone column of air and dust cast in stark relief

around her, twining about her and staining her baggy pants and form-fitting, leotard-like top a purple as deep as the night sky. The theatre was deathly silent as a single high note sounded, pure in its simplicity. Her hands rose to meet over her head and dropped back down in front of her chest like a yoga sun salutation, that one note still ringing on, like some sort of African sunrise ritual. And her, the priestess through whom the magic, joy, and power ran. Full stage lights burned on at the exact moment as the music smashed into some sort of techno beat and she threw herself backwards into two continuous back handsprings, her pants streaming behind her as she flipped faster than I would have thought humanly possible. My jaw dropped, and I didn't bother replacing it. No longer a safari sun priestess, Emma had become a whirl of black hair and blue cloths and white skin, moving so quickly that she almost outlined the figure of someone dancing with her, parrying her strike. For, as I speedily realized as she jumped and kicked and flipped and struck to the pounding beat, this wasn't just a dance. It was a lethal display of her fatal skill; and she was no longer human, but a deadly sword, perfect in its danger. I couldn't tear my eyes away. The music screamed to a crescendo and ceased as Emma landed, as light as a cat, at the front of center stage, one hand raised to strike. A second of silence; the ultimate praise of any performer. Her face, apathetic as the weapon she had revealed herself to be, stared fearlessly out at the crowd, her chest heaving despite her frozen stance. And then the cascade of applause broke, thundering around the room with all the sudden force of a summer storm. A brilliant grin split her face, and she was human again. I let out a breath, not knowing if I had held it in awe or horror. She had been beautiful during her dance, but it had been a remote, sexless loveliness that had made her something other than human, above my petty admiration. But she was Emma again, the Emma I knew and missed. Horribly.

She bowed eastern style, the curtain dropped in front of her, and the show went on. I didn't pay any attention. A new thought consumed me, the unequivocal certainty that I would force her to forgive me. But drumming underneath that, in a constant refrain that wouldn't stop no matter how resolutely I ignored it, was the thought: God, she's beautiful. o0O0o0O0o "Lex!" Candy's high, piercing voice rang over the sound of the mob that crowded the hall out of the auditorium, "Lex!" He glanced up eagerly, brown eyes impatient. Brock and I also looked around, trying to find the source of the sound, but before we could even begin to search, Candy had appeared in front of us, the evening gown she had worn to sing exchanged for a short pleated skirt and a halter that dipped just low enough not to be immodest. But only just. "So?" she prompted, giving Lex a sidelong glance that made Brock and I exchange knowing looks. She wanted him so badly it wasn't even funny. They really just had to hook up already and kill this whole sexual tension thing. Brock and I murmured our congratulations, and she nodded her acceptance, but her eyes didn't move. She was waiting for one person, and anyone else didn't really matter. "That was really good, Candy," he stuttered, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably, obviously having difficulty articulating his awe, "Your voice is really pretty." Her smile could have made plants grow. Lex grinned tentatively in return, which only made her smile brighter. Brock and I stood awkwardly. This was one of the moments when I really wanted Emma there. She had known how to break an awkward moment. Damn it, why was I thinking of her in the past tense?

Candy broke the silence herself. "Wait here," she ordered suddenly, disappearing back into the mass of people. Lex turned to us, confused, but before his question could find its way to his lips she was back, herding another girl in front of her whose protestations stopped when she saw that she had an audience. Emma glanced up, saw who was there, and dropped her gaze again, almost as if she were ashamed. "Hey," she muttered. "Good job," Brock smiled at her, though I thought I could see something in his eyes that was almost a demand and almost a plea. "Yeah, that was awesome," Lex agreed distractedly, his eyes fixed firmly on Candy. I didn't say anything. I would either get shot down or snapped at, and I didn't feel like fighting a losing battle, not tonight when I didn't have a plan to make it a winning battle. Candy's gaze flickered from me, to Emma, and back again. Bright blue eyes, almost the same shade as Troy's but not quite as pure, rolled in annoyance. "Oh, come on," she commanded, grabbing Lex's hand and giving Brock a significant look, "There's, like, food and stuff downstairs. You guys can, like, come stuff your faces." They didn't need telling twice, following her obediently, leaving Emma and me alone. Finally, the pressure of strained silence that persisted despite the roar of the mob around us overcame my reluctance to speak - but there had never been weird silences between me and Emma before - and I broke it. "That was really cool," I told her hesitantly, braced for the inevitable blow, "And you did really well." She looked up at that, one of the quick glances through her dark lashes that made her appear so innocent and appealing. "Thanks," she replied almost shyly. Something was different here. Was I- oh joy of joys- forgiven? I had to try, if only I had some sort of chance

"Emma, I'm-" I took a deep breath, swallowed my pride and upbringing, and continued. Emma was more important than my unwillingness to apologize, no matter what I had learned from my parents. "-sorry. I was stupid, and you were right, and-" A gentle finger on my lips cut me off. "Yes, you were," Emma agreed without triumph or hatred in her voice or eyes, only a sort of exhaustion. "But I overreacted as well. So I'm sorry too." It made me feel a bit better that apologizing sounded painful to her too. "It's fine," I told her, not believing my luck. This was turning out so much better than I ever could have expected. I had anticipated at least a little violence or yelling, not this calm acceptance and forgiveness, and even this shouldering some of the guilt herself. Was this even the real Emma? "We're cool." She beamed at me then, a brilliant, glowing smile that transfigured her face and made her eyes incandescent with unadulterated joy. Those glittering jewels captured me in their magic that was as powerful as anything she had had during her performance, but human and so that much more magnetic. 'So," I said, casting around for a subject that would bring things back to normalcy and distract me from the sudden awareness of how tantalizingly the leotard hugged her modest curves, "You proved me wrong." She raised her eyebrows, inviting me to continue. "Oh?" "You do have talent," I admitted shamelessly. The concession didn't hurt as badly as I thought it would, probably because there was a certain dignity in deserved surrender freely given. "That was really cool. How on earth did you learn how to do that?"

She gave me a long, considering look, her emerald eyes boring into me like they were weighing my soul against the feather of Truth of Egyptian mythology. But my question hadn't merited this. It was supposed to be simple. "Let's go someplace quieter," she said just loud enough for me to hear. I looked askance at her, but her expression, as usual, gave nothing away. She wouldn't try to murder me in a back alley, would she? "I think," she answered my unasked question, "I owe you a story." After that, I couldn't not follow her outside. She led me to a small nook set just off the sidewalk, where there were a few benches placed under some trees that isolated it from the path. A perfect place for a lovers' tryst, my unruly mind informed me before I could squash it. "I never told you why I stopped partying, did I?" she began rhetorically as I leaned against a tree, preparing to listen. Emma stood in front of me, alone, as if she were on trial. I stood bolt upright. She knew about that? That meant she remembered the kiss, and hadn't said anything, which meant- something. Did it not mean anything to her, or did it mean too much? Until I figured out what that something was, I wasn't about to call her on it. "No. No you didn't," I replied cautiously, settling back into my relaxed pose. "Actually, the story starts before that," she continued as if I hadn't spoken, staring off into the dark night, seeing something (or someone) I didn't playing out on the starry sky. "It starts- and ends- with Dan." I didn't say anything. I had been wondering about him for a while, but she didn't need me to speak. She was years away, and my voice would only break the spell. "I met Dan a few months into 8th grade. I was already into the party scene, but he- he kept me there." She sighed. "He was perfect. Older- at least 17sophisticated, worldly, charming, and hot. Gorgeous, really. Long brown- almost black- hair, tall, muscled, and with these amazing eyes. They were so deep a

blue that they were purple, and I could just lose myself in them." My fists clenched. I didn't like this boy, not at all. She shook her head, jolting herself from her reverie. "Anyway, he was perfect. I thought I was in love. I was certainly infatuated." She sighed again, and the pain in her voice was enough to make me put aside my irrational anger. This story wasn't totally for me; it was for Emma too. "And things were amazing, for months. Dan and I, me and Danwe were inseparable. I don't know, looking back now, whether he really loved me. I mean, would it be possible? But it doesn't matter now, and it didn't then. I loved him, and that was what mattered to me." She snorted without mirth. "I was a fool. But no matter. Anyway, I thought things were going great. I had the best boyfriend in the world, parties were loads of fun, school was a breeze, and Mom had just gotten a new boyfriend too- her boss, Jack Lexington. I should have known things were going too well. The gods don't like mortals to be too happy, after all." She was pacing now, her agitation plain despite the toneless apathy of her voice and mien. I watched her, hating how helpless I was against these old ghosts. "8th grade had just ended. I would have gone to Dan's high school in the fall, and we wanted to celebrate. God, I don't even remember where we were going or coming from! But Dan was drunk, and I was being distracting, and the streets were crowded and-" She broke off, her eyes staring once more at horrors I couldn't imagine, rubbing her wrist as if pained by a phantom hand. I wanted to put out a hand to touch her, to comfort her, but what could I say to counteract something like that? What could anyone say? She took a deep breath. "I broke two legs and my arm," she said, her voice hoarse and her eyes nearly closed, but with the tone of one reciting a grocery list, "The driver who we hit got a concussion. Dan-" another long, rattling breath, as if she were about to cry, "Dan broke his neck." I couldn't conceal my sharp intake of breath, but I don't think she heard it. She was lost in old agony, drowning in a sea of what was. "He died before the medics got there. I haven't had alcohol again, until this year." Her voice was

soft now, barely audible, except for the pain that made it crash into my ears. "I got better- eventually. Got therapy and all that. Started over at a new school Jack managed to get me a scholarship at a school where I wouldn't be constantly reminded of Dan. I learned akido- that's what I just did- because the physical part helped me heal, and the mental aspects, well, they made me focus more on the here and now, less on the then. I got other hobbies that distracted me from what I had left. I kept myself busy, because than I wouldn't have to think about anything- about him. I stopped making friends, because then it wouldn't hurt as much when they left. I lost all faith in whatever it is people call love." A single tear dripped down her face. "I mean, how could he?" she demanded, her voice suddenly rising with terrifying intensity. "How could he just leave me? If he had loved me, he would have lived for me and not left me alone!" For all the rage in her voice, only grief showed on her face, a terrible sorrow that I decided should never be allowed on her face again. She would never be that lonely again, not if I could help it. "He should have been here tonight! He should have been there when Mom and Jack got married! He shouldn't have left!" No tears had followed the first. Her misery was too deep for that. I crossed the distance between us in one long stride and wrapped her in my arms. Any hatred I felt for this guy aside, Emma needed someone, and if he couldn't be here, I would have to do. And I would be good enough. "Emma," I murmured quietly, releasing her with one arm so I could tilt her chin up, forcing her to face me, "I don't- it wasn't his fault he died. It wasn't yours, either," I added, hoping against hope I was saying the right things to send that awful look out of her eyes. "He wouldn't have left you if he could have helped it, not if he wasn't an idiot." Or he better not have. "I didn't know him, but I do know this: if he had been here right now, he would have been so proud and happy for you. Just like all your friends are." Like I was. "He would want you to enjoy yourself I bet, not to close yourself off. I know I would, if I were him."

She closed her eyes briefly, and took a deep breath, the pain clearing somewhat from her face. Then she opened them again, and the agony was still in them despite the weak smile she gave me. "Thanks, Darien," she said softly, taking a step back, out of my embrace, "Thanks for understanding. And listening." "That's what friends are for, right?" I replied easily, trying to break the tension that wasn't awkward but simply too intense for words, and to find out what these thoughts whirling around in my head meant. "Right," she agreed simply, all her control back in place. Had she ever acted like that with Dan? Or was it only because of Dan that she acted that way? "I should go find my parents." She stepped out onto the sidewalk, and then glanced back at me. "And Darien?" I looked up eagerly, not sure what I was hoping for. "Thanks again." She was gone in a blur of black and blue I didn't move for a long, long moment. I had finally discovered what those thoughts were, and I didn't like it at all- it was impossible. Hating to see Emma in pain I could deal with. Anyone with any feeling at all would agree with me there. Hating Dan with a fierce and unreasonable loathing- worse, but again, it could just be because of our friendship. I wasn't jealous of him, after all, or at least, not much. But I was Darien McGavern, the untouchable Ice Prince of the school. No one wormed their way into my heart, no one. Except, I realized with a blast of shock and disbelief, someone had. But that couldn't be! Me, liking Emma? Crushing on her? Inconceivable! Except it wasn't. The heart of ice had melted under the heat of bright green eyes and a smile that could make a man kill himself, and there was nothing I could do about it. I liked Emma Laycha. I really liked herthe one girl who wouldn't succumb to my charms, and the one girl who I wouldn't want to. Damn it, I was so screwed!

Chapter 29

Emma

Parting is such sweet sorrow that we may meet upon the morrow. But I wouldn't be so sad if you had granted my request
I chuckled as I closed my locker for the last time that year (assuming I hadn't forgotten anything), fitting the basket carefully into my backpack. Oh Darien. A very good parting note for the summer, I would freely admit, especially the Shakespeare quote. Apparently he had divined something of what the Matchmaker liked- not that any girl wouldn't like poetry being quoted at them. There was nothing cuter than a guy speaking poems at you, in my opinion, except maybe him singing to you. But that was just me; did the Matchmaker like the same thing? Why was I even bothering to consider this? There was no way the Matchmaker could safely meet him, and even less possibility of him succeeding in his goal. Darien would hate me the instant he found out, anyway, and that would probably trump whatever plan he had. And I did need something to amuse me over the summer. But I would miss this correspondence during the months away from school, surprisingly enough. Sure, I would in all likelihood hang with Darien quite a lotmy unprecedented history hadn't scared him away, to my never-ending surprise, but had instead almost drawn us closer. It was like once the pink elephant had left the room, we could suddenly see each other far clearer but it wasn't the same. I enjoyed the exercise in cunning that keeping him in the dark entailed; sparring with him over the anonymity of the written word. It was the rush of the vigilante, the game of the masked thief who stole from you in the night and the consoled you in the day, laughing up their sleeve. I was hooked on that adrenaline, addicted to the subterfuge, and our usual bickering just didn't cut it. "Hey, Emma!" Allan's voice boomed through the hall, freshman scattering as he charged towards me. I stuck the note quickly as deep into my bag as I could and stood, grinning as Allan screeched to a halt in front of me. "We're seniors!"

"Only if you pass. Not yet," I chided him with a wry smile that couldn't completely conceal my excitement despite my best efforts. "The bell hasn't rung yet. Wait," I glanced at my watch, eyes twinkling merrily, "about 3 minutes." "Nope," he argued, massive body quivering with anticipation like a puppy contained for a moment but poised to explode into motion the instant he was released, "Do you know how long I've been waiting for this? Or how excited I am?" "Somehow," I replied, my eyes fixed somewhere past his shoulder, not seeing the bright halls of the school but instead a girl who tried desperately enough to almost destroy her to grow up too fast, "I think I do." Allan kept talking as if I hadn't spoken; which, though irritating, I had to be thankful for. If he had heard, I would have had to explain, and that would just be awful. "And I might be captain, and we'll totally rule the school! It would so majorly" " rock, I know," I interrupted, tired of his raptures. Honestly, senior year wasn't that big a deal. I mean, sure, we would be at the top of the food chain, and we would be getting into colleges (I hope), and we would have senior privileges, and we would get far more independence, and okay, it was pretty cool. "And it's summer now! No school!" Allan had ignored me, and was continuing happily, lost in his euphoria. I rolled my eyes in exasperation. He could at least have the common courtesy to listen to me once in a while. "The bell still hasn't rung yet," I cautioned him, prompted more by the imp of the perverse than anything else. I didn't even believe myself, "You could still get in troub-" A loud, shrill sound split the air, interrupting me and forcing me to clap my hands over my ears in pain. I could feel my whole body vibrating from the far too loud sound, probably moving me a few inches one way or the other.

"I will not miss that bell," I muttered angrily under the rising cheers that echoed through the halls, nearly as loud as the bell. Above and around it, I could hear Allan's booming voice, dominating the freshmen and sophomore cries. Large hands closed around my waist. Oh no, he wouldn't apparently, he would. Before I could wiggle away, Allan was swinging me in a circle, lifting me off my feet with accidental, overjoyed strength. "Allan!" I shrieked, half in irritation and half in laughter as he continued to spin me around, cackling manically, "Put me down!" "Honestly," a calm voice drawled somewhere in the vicinity of my locker, though I couldn't see who it was through the whirl of color that was the world while Allan still twirled me. But the voice was distinctive enough, as were the words. "Candy might get jealous if you keep treating Emma like this." Allan dropped me so fast that I should have fallen. Luckily, I managed to react fast enough so that I didn't land ignobly on my face. "Why would I care if Candy's jealous?" he inquired with a disingenuous expression that fooled no one, or at least neither Darien nor me. He needed practice. A lot of practice. And then, as if he couldn't resist the temptation, "And why would Candy be jealous?" I smirked up at him, only a bit condescending, as I retreated back to the wall. He wouldn't be ambushing me again anytime soon. "Because the sexual tension between you two could be cut with a knife," I explained patiently, and making my patience quite obvious to the outside world, "And that goes for both your questions." Behind me, Darien muffled an amused snort. "No it's not," Allan protested, though he couldn't hide the satisfied grin that spread over his face. See, this was why the Matchmaker wasn't necessary for those two. They knew very well they were perfect for each other, and they knew the other one knew it too. They or at least Candy just enjoyed the dance.

"Yes. Yes it is," Darien stated unequivocally. I still hadn't looked at him, all my attention fixed on Allan, but I could sense him lounging against the locker behind me. Or maybe that was just the feeling you get when people are looking at you. Though why Darien would be looking at me, I didn't know, because he was talking to Allan. Allan tossed his head in a way that would have made his hair flick like an irritated horse, had it been longer. "Nope," he insisted, 'It's not." Darien and I both rolled our eyes; at least, I did, and I assumed Darien did too. "So it was another couple that ditched their dates to dance every song together," Darien affirmed sardonically. A flush slid across Allan's face, but it didn't stop him from replying. "Yep!" he agreed cheerfully, his eyes falling to where my flip-flops met the floor. And then, under the combined pressure of my skeptical gaze and Darien's patronizing stare, he added, stammering, "I, uh, have to go, uh, do something. Bye!" he scurried away, looking as much like a spooked mouse as was possible for a football star. Which was a surprising amount. "Five bucks says he's going to find Candy," I proposed as soon as he had left, not bothering to watch the crowd part for Allan but turning on my heel to face Darien, mischief in my eyes. He smiled down at me, the defensive contempt fading from his eyes and lips. "No bet," he replied, shaking his head with a chuckle, "I've learned my lesson." I wrinkled my nose at him in lofty mock-annoyance. Those five dollars would have been nice, but I couldn't get mad at him without being a complete hypocrite. I should be glad he learned his lesson and I was. I really was. "So," I continued, shouldering my backpack with an inelegant grunt (there was way too much junk in there) and waiting restlessly for him to follow, "Other than that undoubtedly sickening sight, how was prom?" Our school, determined to be different, had put prom the Saturday before the last day of classes (today is a Monday), though exams would go on all the next week. But I hadn't

gone to prom, despite Candy and Allan's urging (Darien had forbore to try to convince me for which I was very grateful, even if I hadn't told him so). Yes, it would have been fun, and it would have been nice to see the result of the Matchmaker's work, but I couldn't risk it, not with the three-year mark fast approaching. Darien, however, had gone. "Not bad," he shrugged dismissively, "But last year was better. Fewer chaperones." I stopped myself from thinking about what that meant for him with a speed I couldn't figure out why I needed. "Last year?" I inquired, beginning to walk towards the door. Freedom, at long last! No school! "How many times have you been?" He fell into step with me, a cocky grin spreading over his face. "Three times and counting," he informed me, wiggling that many fingers in front of my face as we walked, "Read it and weep." I sighed dramatically and, with a falsely crestfallen tone in my voice, "Oh no, I have not gone to a prom every year of my high school career. Whatever shall I do?" I queried with my very best sarcasm, covering my mouth with my hands. "I don't know," he retorted haughtily, not lowering himself to acknowledging my , fine. Just because I didn't feel like seducing an upperclassman into asking me to the prom"What will you do?" "Live quite well, apparently," I replied with amicable snappishness, hefting my backpack higher to hurry my lagging feet. It was way too hot out to get mad, and it was the last day of school; I could let it go for once. "But it was fun? Was the band any good? Any drama? Hook-ups? Break ups? Anyone humiliate themselves?" And then, with a wink that was oddly hard, I added, "Land any hot girls?" He rolled his eyes at my deluge of questions, not commenting on my nosiness. But hey, if curiosity killed the cat, satisfaction brought it back, and I hated not being in the know more than anything. "I guess, of course not, I didn't bother

to pay attention, too many people to name, and- oh give me that!" I had stopped again to adjust the straps of my bag. His patience finally snapping at my slowness, he tugged my backpack from my unresisting hands and slung it onto his own back. I stretched thankfully, feeling ten pounds lighter without that weight. "Thanks," I told him gratefully. Three months without that burden: now that, I was thankful for. "No problem." He started walking again, and scowled as he felt the full pressure settle onto him. "Hell Emma, what do you have in here? Dumbbells?" "Well," I counted on my fingers, "My bio book, my history book, my Latin book, my math book, and half a dozen English books. And all my notebooks, of course. And miscellaneous other stuff." I thought a moment, reckoning up all the contents of my locker. For obvious reasons, I couldn't mention the Matchmaker stuff. "Yep, that's all," I finally concluded. Darien gazed incredulously at me. "You do realize that most of those classes were APs, and you already took the exams, right?" he asked slowly, like I was exceedingly dense. "Yep," I agreed easily, bouncing lightly on the balls of my feet now that I could. Being the charitable person that I was, though, I didn't run ahead of Darien. He was carrying my stuff for me after all. "Then why, may I ask, haven't you sold them back yet?" he demanded belligerently. I gave a dismissive shrug. I didn't care anymore; I wasn't carrying them. "I suppose I'm just a packrat," I explained without much thought, "I might need them again someday." I caught sight of Darien's dumbfounded, blatantly skeptical look. "Hey, you never know!"

"Yes. Yes I do," he maintained matter-of-factly, shaking his head disparagingly at me. "You're never going to use these weights again in your life." "Maybe, maybe not," I allowed with the enigmatic half smile that tended to rile him up so much. He glared at me. The mystery of it only deepened, followed by his glare. "Oh, do what you want!" he finally declared with an exasperated huff when he couldn't break past my smile. But he didn't give me the backpack back, so I was perfectly content. Oh, how I loved taking advantage of the gallantry of others. I paused in front of the school not quite sure where I was going. I had been walking just to be moving, but maybe driving Allan away hadn't been such a good idea. I seemed to have misplaced my ride home. Darien stopped beside me. "What's up?" he asked, switching shoulders with a stifled groan. Poor boy. But not poor enough for me to reclaim my stuff. "Not sure how I'm getting home," I answered with a self-deprecating grin, "I shouldn't have teased Allan quite so much." Darien hesitated, a barely noticeable second, then suggested, as diffidently as his ride would allow (not very), "You could come with me to pick up Troy, if you want." I glanced around, didn't see Allan anywhere, and shrugged. I didn't have anything better to do; my first exam was math and I've always maintained that it is impossible to study for a math test. Not that I would anyway. "Why not?" I agreed, allowing Darien to lead to the way to his car a convertible for the summer with its top down and sleek black body gleaming in the noontime sun. Luckily, he had refrained from painting flames on its side. "Troy'll be ecstatic," he added offhandedly, tossing the bag into the backseat, where it landed with a thump that shook the car and may have set off minor

shockwaves through the state. He sighed in relief, his shoulders rolling and stretching the thin material of his t-shirt tightly against his lean muscles. "And we can't neglect Troy's pleasure, can we? Even if it means torturing yourself with my presence," I teased, forcing myself to avert my eyes by vaulting the low door to the passenger side, settling myself in quite comfortably and ignoring Darien's roll of eyes at my theatrics. "It's a horror I put up with for him," he agreed, getting into his own seat through the door (honestly, some people are so unoriginal) and starting the car. It revved loud enough to bring a grin of purely masculine pleasure to Darien's face and we sped away with a squeal of the tires. I would only realize much later that Darien never answered my last question about prom

Darien Much to my surprise, it wasn't all that weird being with Emma. I had thought it would be awkward after her story and my realization, or at least I would have been awkward around her. This was a completely new situation for me, after all; how was I supposed to treat a girl who was a friend but whom I wanted to be more? Or, just as weird, an Emma without secrets? But it wasn't all that different, really. There were still things Emma didn't want to talk about, times when she hesitated like she was hiding something and my curiosity was peaked. We still laughed and bantered and quarreled just as much, and my repartees hadn't gotten any weaker towards her, thank God. Except now I had a heightened awareness of her; of what she was doing or saying or looked like or had that always been there? And there were the moments, striking out of the blue like a lightning flash, when she would do or say something and I wouldn't be able to respond at once, too awed by, well, her.

But usually, it was the same as it had been before Mann messed everything up, only with a greater bond, like now as we sat in easy silence as we drove. Knowing what I now knew about what had happened to her, I was astonished that she even had the courage to get in a car, but then again, cowardice had never been one of her weaknesses. She had had the bravery to talk to me like no one else did after all. "So," I broke the silence, trying to sound casual even if the question wasn't by default. Hey, it wasn't my fault that it was a good lead in! "are you doing anything next weekend? The one after exams?" She turned to look at me, the wind whipping her hair around her face like a cloud. I fixed my eyes firmly on the road ahead of us, but I could tell she perfectly understood the implications of that question. Of course she would, sometimes I swear she could read minds. "Not that I'm aware of," she replied, tapping her chin with a long, elegant finger that unconsciously drew attention to the delicate lines of her throat, "I was thinking of going to the dojo sometime. Why?" "Well, there's this thing," I informed her before I thought. Wow, that didn't sound stupid at all. I had to hide my wince as a grin flashed across her face. I couldn't have gotten a crush on the girl who would respect a momentary lapse in judgment, could I? Of course, then I probably wouldn't have liked her in the first place "You don't say," she drawled, all sarcastic incredulity. I opted against rolling my eyes at her, instead maintaining my vaguely contemptuously stoic faade. It was fairly obvious that I was going somewhere with this. "My parents are hosting this party thing, a reception for a bunch of their clients and partners and colleagues and other important people," I explained tolerantly, watching her out of the corner of my eye as we pulled up to a stoplight. She raised her eyebrows, prompting me to elaborate. "And I have to go, because they feel the need to display their eldest son," I continued. If I

listened closely, I might have heard some of the bitterness I had buried so deeply so long ago. From Emma's sudden, piercing glance, she may have listened that closely. But you never knew with her. "And I need to bring a date, or else someone with ambition will try to matchmake." She twitched, almost nervously, but covered it up quickly with a laugh. "Poor Darien," she observed with a wry smirk, shaking her head in mock despair, "You're just in too much demand." "I know," I agreed fervently, ignoring her sarcasm for the second time (today at least) in favor of the truth, "It's really annoying. I'm not just an object to be bartered off by my parents." "Then just get one of your groupies to go with you," she suggested immediately, as if she were trying to change the subject, "You know they'd be delighted to go with you, any of the hundreds." "I could," I conceded amiably. She really was missing the point here, wasn't she? That would open a whole new Pandora's box of issues, including but not limited, to their ceaseless giggling and their own interpretations of what the night would entail. "Or" I hesitated a second, then forged on bravely. Thankfully, the light changed just then, and that gave me an excuse not to look at her, "you could go with me and shield me." "Why?" was her instant response. Not offensively, but more as if she were honestly curious, "I won't make nearly as good a trophy date as some of them. I don't know half the stuff they grew up with." "Well, if I go with one of them I'd be bored out of my mind by everyone else and them," I pointed out with irrefutable logic. This was just a friendly thing after all. Nothing more. At least, not for her. "But with you I would be sure of some sort of amusement."

"Glad to know I'm so loved," she snorted with a half smile, her eyes sparkling as bright as the light on the mirrors, "Valued only for my supply of entertainment." "Nothing more," I nodded offhandedly, glad she had accepted my excuse for inviting her. She sneered elegantly at me honestly, how many people could be elegant while sneering? and sighed. "So, are we talking semi-formal, black tie, what?" she inquired. I hid a grin. That was definitely a yes to my invite. Oh, sweet revenge on all those awful matchmaking Mamas! Their doom was eminent, in the form of the small, pretty girl beside me. I couldn't wait. "Evening wear, I'm afraid," I shuddered at the thought. I like to look presentable as much as the next man, don't get me wrong, but spending hour after hour in a suit, in a stuffy and brightly lit room, was far too much, "My parents just signed a big deal or something, and they're celebrating. So you have to look especially impressive." "Oh joy." Despite her less than enthusiastic words, there was an excited glint in her eyes at the thought of a fancy dress. Girls. I will never understand them. "Well, I suppose I could spare an evening to bail out a desperate friend." "I'm touched," I informed her dryly. I wasn't really that set on her going. Okay, so maybe I was. But she didn't know that, and I wasn't desperate. It's not like I was begging her or anything. "Oh, shut up," she elbowed me playfully in the ribs, "You know what I mean." "Driving!" I yelped, rubbing my side while trying to keep my attention on the road. Damn, her elbows were sharp. She needed to put more fat on her bones if she was going to make a habit of elbowing me. "Bad time to pick a fight!"

It was like someone had turned the switch of her vivacity from on to off; she shut off that quickly, her face closing instantaneously. I immediately regretted saying anything. Bringing up Dan would not help me or her, damnit! "Oh, right," she muttered, sitting ramrod straight and deathly still, "Sorry." A silence, broken only by the cars we flashed past. As we pulled into the parking lot of the elementary school, it grew too oppressive for me, and I had to crack the tension. "Are you actually going to study for exams?" I asked, as if continuing a conversation that we had been having for a while. The silence shouldn't have been awkward, after all, only my unruly emotions had made me feel like it was, and Emma couldn't know that the silences felt oddly charged now. Not a bad odd, in fact almost a good odd, but weird nonetheless. "Of course," she exclaimed as if it should be obvious. She paused a second, and then, as a more realistic addendum, "If I have the time. And inclination." "You know, you aren't half the overachiever people think you are," I observed with a smile as we got out of the car to wait. She grinned up at me, eyes twinkling. "And you aren't half as scary as people think you are," she countered with a smirk, her eyebrows raised cunningly, "good thing neither of us will tattle." "Or will I?" I laughed evilly, throwing back my head like every good villain. She gave me a look, and I stopped, asking with a sulky set to my face, "What?" "Your evil laugh needs work," she informed me blandly, her lips twitching as if she was trying not to break into peels of laughter. Which, knowing her, she probably was. And even if I almost certainly deserved that mockery, I didn't have to like it. "Are you laughing at me?" I demanded indignantly, hiding the amusement I felt.

She swallowed, and her face went absolutely emotionless again, except for eyes still dancing too joyously for me to take her seriously. "No, no, of course not. Why would I ever laugh at you?" "I don't know, but you are," I contradicted, narrowing my eyes at her. I wasn't mad at all, not really, but she could at least own up to it, even if I knew better than to expect her to apologize. "Maybe I am," she retorted aggressively, even if nothing in her body language spoke of belligerence, "Whatcha gonna do about it?" I thought quickly, but no good threat came to mind. Maybe I should reconsider my career choice of evil mastermind. "Something horrible," I assured her disdainfully, "But it'll be when you least expect it." "Forgive me if I don't hold my breath," she drawled, voice dripping boredom and unconcern in a way that combined cosmopolitanism and navet, and in a way that was purely Emma. A loud bell clanged before I could reply, and seconds later kids came pouring out of the school like a flood. I exchanged an amused look with Emma, and then began to peer over the sea of heads, trying to spot bright blonde. Finally, "Troy!" I yelled, catching a glimpse of him. He looked around for the source of the yell, saw me, and grinned widely, trotting over to us with a few of his friends trailing behind. That's my brother, already developing a posse. He was well on his way to as much popularity as me. "Hey, Dar!" He cried excitedly, "You didn't say you'd pick me up!" I shot a glance at Emma, but she didn't appear to notice. Of course, she probably did anyway and didn't feel like enlightening me. "Got out early." I explained offhandedly. And truthfully sort of. Trying to get Emma alone so I could ask her to come with me to that event, may have been a small motivation. Minuscule. Barely perceptible.

Troy obviously didn't catch my omission, because he was already turning to Emma. "Emma!" he shouted with delight, his blue eyes shining as brightly as the cloudless summer sky above us, "You came too! I haven't seen you in ages!" he threw his arms around her, unable to express his glee in any other way. "Hey, kiddo," she replied with a grin at me, ruffling his hair fondly. Okay, when I started to get jealous of my kid brother something was very wrong with me. I had to get a hold of myself. She was just a girl, nothing more. Troy quickly let go of her and stepped back. "So, are you coming home with us?" he demanded eagerly, then, turning to me, "Is she-" "Hey, Troy," one of his friends cut him off, peeking curiously out from behind my brother, "Is that your brother's girlfriend?" "No!" Emma and I snapped simultaneously. Was hers just a shade too fast? Because I knew mine was, and so if she said it at the same speed as me No, she was probably just sick of everyone suggesting we liked each other. But she hadn't seemed to notice my indiscretion thank God. "We're just friends," I continued, shooting Emma a sidelong glance. She wasn't reacting at all, and I wasn't sure if that was good or bad. I ran an unconscious hand through my hair. 'That's all." "Oh, good." The kid gazed up at her, eyes wide and worshipping. Not very far up, I noted with amusement (though there was very little amusing about this situation) as she was only a foot taller than him. "Because she's really pretty." Suddenly, it just became far less amusing. "Well good for her," I spat, yanking the door of the car open with far too much force to be healthy, "Come on Troy, we're going." I didn't see, but could almost sense, the confused looks Emma and Troy exchanged, but Troy obediently hopped into the backseat of the car as Emma slid into the front with a wink at the boy, who looked like he was about to faint with pleasure.

"I think I was just hit on by a 5th grader," she observed, a look on her face that was half laughter and half disgust. Now that we were away from that kid, I supposed I could see where the former half came from. "I'm not sure whether to be flattered or insulted." "Hey!" Troy protested, which was good, because I didn't like the answer on its way to my mouth. It would have given far too much away. Stupid hormones. Stupid jealousy. "What's wrong with 5th graders?" I couldn't help but grin, my foul temper dissolving under the pressure of the beautiful day, Troy's cheeriness, and Emma's smile. "She's a bit old for him," I pointed out. Emma tossed her hair, an annoyed look on her face. Oh great, what had I said now? "Well, at least he thinks I'm pretty," she muttered just loud enough for the whole car to hear. And it being Emma, I'm sure that was calculated. "What?" I exclaimed. God, girls. "I didn't- what I meant- he said- I never said you weren't pretty!" I spluttered, completely lost. Was she honestly mad about something as idiotic as that? At least the girls I held in thrall never got angry about a slip of the tongue. But a smirk was growing on her face, and a satisfied glimmer in her eyes. 'I know," she chirped with extreme contentedness, leaning back comfortably in her seat, "You just look so funny when you're flustered." I groaned. "You," I told her, hitting the steering wheel to emphasize my point as apparently all the other times I had told her it hadn't sunk in, "Are a bitch." "But you love me anyway," she tossed back innocently, her smile making me totally incapable of being angry, even if I had been in the first place. That could be a distinct disadvantage to our arguments I foresaw, but somehow I couldn't care when its light fell on me.

"Sure," I replied sarcastically, "Of course I do." And I really, really, really hoped she couldn't detect that the veneer of sarcasm was only a thin layer over a much deeper truth. o0O0o0O0o I was unpacking my backpack that evening when the note fell out of a side pocket. A Matchmaker note. How the hell had it gotten there? I hadn't been back to my locker since I delivered my own note, so I couldn't have picked it up. Yet here it was, sitting on my desk, obviously her meticulously neat writing. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and overwhelmed the mystery of the thing. I opened the note, putting aside the question of how it had gotten there for later.

Better luck next year, Darien, it read, But don't hold your breath.
Now where had I heard that phrase lately?

Chapter 30

Emma "You're kidding me!" Rhi spluttered disbelievingly. Faintly, across the phone line, I could hear the sound of a drink being sprayed out of her mouth in shock. Luckily, I didn't have to conceal my satisfied smirk. I had purposely withheld this juicy piece of information until tonight, just to get this reaction. I loved surprising her so much. "That is so awesome. What do you have to wear?" Trust Rhi to focus on the most important stuff straightaway. "Oh, I think I've found something," I drawled. Which meant, in a reality that I would never confess to anyone, that I had dragged my mom shopping the minute I had gotten home last Friday, and screw studying. Luckily, I had managed to find a dress pretty quickly, or I might have bombed exams. But now they were done, for the second last time of my high school career, and all I had to worry

about was whether or not I could behave for a whole evening, without mouthing off to any of the bigwigs there. On the whole, I thought I could- though not without difficulty. "Well, you better look totally awesome. I mean, stunning and amazing," Rhi warned, vicarious excitement coloring reply, adding a quiver to her voice of suppressed joy. In fact, I bet she was trembling; Rhi was weird like that. "Because you're living every girl's dream." "What do you mean?" I glanced at my watch. 6 o'clock. Darien was picking me up at 6:30- I was far too lazy to walk, and he had reluctantly agreed to drive me as a condition for me going- and that meant it was time to get ready. I put Rhi on speaker and tossed her onto the bed, heaving myself up and opening my closet to pull out my dress, surveying it with an air of purely feminine satisfaction. It was a deep green color, almost like a pine tree, and long enough that the back just brushed the floor, which had the huge advantage of making me, look taller. The soft, clingy material molded to my body, tracing all my movements, and it shimmered to change shades as the light shifted. The halter top, a golden ribbon wrapping about my neck, hugged my collarbone close enough to be modest, but the back was open- not that I wanted to give anyone, Darien least of all, ideas. The waist, belted closely with a strip of cloth as golden as the neckline, lent variety to the monochrome dress; the close fit actually gave me some curves. All in all, it was lovely, and, as an added bonus, cheap. "Emma," Rhi spoke to me like she was stating the most obvious thing in the world to a two year old who was too thick to comprehend, "Darien McGavern asked you out. Girls everywhere would kill to be in your shoes." "No they wouldn't, my shoes would be too small for most," I replied absently, ignoring Rhi's snort of laughter as I hung the dress on the outside of my closet. Not to get into yet- knowing me I would manage to spill something on it- but

as inspiration for other stuff, like hair and makeup. "And he didn't ask me out. I'm going as a favor to a friend, and that's all he meant." "A friend who just happens to be The Most Wanted Guy in school," Rhi pointed out, "And not without reason." I shrugged, then realized she couldn't see me. Hopefully she understood, tough, because there was still a pause as I finished putting on eyeliner, willing my eyes not to water. I knew there was a reason I didn't wear makeup anymore. "Yeah, well, that's not according to me." As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn't. She had the ammo to refute it a thousand times over, even if it was true. Which it was, obviously. I didn't care that everyone thought Darien was the hottest thing to walk this planet; I didn't agree. At all. The only reason I was putting this much effort into looking nice was that I, like every other girl, liked to look pretty once in a while. I wasn't trying to measure up to Darien's usual standard at all. "Oh really?" And I would have winced at her teasing tone, knowing all too well what was coming, but I was in the middle of putting on mascara and I didn't feel like poking myself in the eye. "Because I seem to remember-" "I know, I know. I know. Do you really have to refresh my memory?' I asked, just shy of pleading. This was not what I needed right now. I had just recovered from Dan- and I hadn't even really recovered, then. My judgment had been faulty. But Rhi would not be put off. "Yes, I think you do," she insisted, and I groaned. Regardless of my pain, she continued, "Because I remember that, the first day of school in Freshmen year, when I was pointing out all the important people in our new school, you saw him- didn't you whistle- and you said that he was the hottest kid there." "A minor error," I objected, plaiting my hair into a braid with steady fingers. That had been a long time ago; it could no longer affect me. And I had been young and foolish; I quickly changed what I thought of him, once I realized what

an insufferable bastard he had been. She just had to bring up my youthful indiscretions "And then you went on, and I think he heard you because didn't he smirk at you when he walked by and you totally winked back and there was a connection even then, to say that you would 'do that.'" Her wicked amusement at my irritation was, I supposed in some distant corner of my mind, justified; I had tortured her enough. But still, that was uncalled for. "I was a different person then," I informed her loftily, letting go of my hair to keep myself calm while I set her straight. No point in messing it up just because Rhi was being an idiot. "You can't just divide yourself into two people," Rhi countered. I snorted. It worked quite well for me, thank you very much. Well, not two- I was up to at least three at this point, or somewhere around there. "And you know you still think he's hot." "Well, yeah, I'm not blind," I admitted around a mouthful of bobby pins as I twisted my braid into a crown around the top of my head. Sometimes, having this much hair was just a drag- but this wasn't one of those times. I looked good. "But that doesn't-" "Sorry, what was that?" my so-called friend inquired with absolutely false innocence; I could just imagine her, sea grey eyes glinting with merry laughter. Rolling my eyes at her, I shook my head experimentally. Nothing moved, thank God. I spat out the rest of the pins before answering her completely unfair question. "Fine. I find Darien extremely attractive. Are you happy now?" I snapped, slipping into my dress with a rustle of fabric. Despite my annoyance, I grinned as the slippery fabric slid into place around me, reveling in the awareness of just how good I looked. "That still doesn't make this a date."

"It means you want it to be," she countered immediately, not missing a beat. I cast my eyes upwards in hopeless disagreement. Could Rhi not get it through her head that I was the Matchmaker, not her, and that there was a reason for that? "No, it doesn't," I argued, inserting golden strands of metal into my ears and picking out some bangles for my wrists, "We're friends, nothing more. There is no romantic connotation at all. We don't like each other. It's not like that." "You can't believe that- not to mention you protested way too much," she retorted. Oh because she was the relationship expert. She had had exactly two boyfriends, and one of them was because of her parents and the other was because of me. She had not a leg to stand on. "Guys and girls can't be just friends." "And Darien and I are the exception that proves the rule," I replied with calm whimsy. I would not allow myself to be provoked; according to Darien, I would need all the composure I could get for the reception. "Although that never really made sense to me. Why a rule would need and except-" Rhi refused to be put off. "Keep telling yourself." She giggled, and I scowled. "I cannot wait until I come home to actually see this!" Oh yes, that would be simply glorious. Then she could not only mock me in person, but she could also humiliate me in front of people. What more could I ask for? "I will keep telling myself that, because I'm right," I insisted, wrinkling my nose at her before I remembered that she couldn't see it. I bet she could sense it, though, and if she couldn't she didn't deserve to be called my best friend. Darien would have known it was there from a mile away. "No you're not!" Oh, so that's where she wanted to take it. She was so on. "Yes I am!" Ha, take that. "Nu uh."

"Uh huh." "Nope." "Yeah!" "Nope." "Yes- are we really doing this?" I mean, we usually managed to keep out arguments above a 5 year old level. "If you won't admit that I'm right and you and Darien would make the cutest couple imaginable, than yes." For some reason unimaginable to me, I did consider it. For all of three seconds. And I would never, to my dying day, tell Rhi what I saw. "I don't think you could describe Darien as cute," I said thoughtfully, tapping my chin with one finger. Somehow, it just seemed like the wrong adjective. "I mean, it just doesn't fit. I've heard handsome, and hot, and good-looking, but he's not cute." Then I remembered some of the Matchmaker letters, and thanked God that Rhi was miles away and couldn't see the red flush I could feel rising on my cheeks. "Not usually," I amended, stepping in front of my mirror to examine the final picture. Yes, I would do quite nicely. "See! He can be cute, you admitted it!" Rhi crowed, her usual illogical logic working at full speed. It did make sense- if you were Rhi. Sort of like mad people's logic. "You'd just have to bring out his inner cuteness!" "Rhi, it doesn't work like that," I admonished, pushing Carl off my bed so I could sit. He, in the inscrutable way of cats everywhere, had been watching me dress with a critical eye that made me feel that much less special, and yet somehow at the same time even prettier, that I could stand up to his mocking gaze. "I highly doubt Darien will ever be a good boyfriend, no matter how 'cute' he magically becomes."

"Why not?" Try as I might, I couldn't detect any teasing in the innocently curious question, which meant I owed her an answer, even if it was as obvious as what color the sky was. "Ooch, he's got the wandering' eye, gurlie," I told her in my best awful old Scottish accent, which surprised a laugh out of her and me. "Fit to break a puir gurl's heart, it is." "I guess you're right," she giggled, my horrible imitation distracting her long enough for me to regroup my thoughts. Why had I hoped so much that she would deny that? It was true, I knew it was and she knew it was, but. I didn't know what. "But he could be cured of that, right?" "I doubt it," I contradicted, rolling my eyes again. Life wasn't a romance novel; not everyone could be redeemed by a girl and a kiss. Sometimes the bastard's cold, black heart wasn't made of gold, and he would just use the girl and leave. Not that Darien was evil or anything though he would just leave the girl- and I wasn't planning on kissing him. Again. "And even if it could happen, I'm not the one to do it." "Why not?" Rhi countered, quick as a flash. She had always been faster to rise to my defense than I was, though that was more because her ire boiled over quickly, while mine simmered. Still, I had to love her for moments like these; she was my best friend, after all, as ready to defend my back as I was hers. "Because I'm no fairy princess," I answered with calm, unequivocal logic that had no bitterness in it, "I'm not you, Rhi. I have issues of my own to deal with; I'm not about to go reform someone else. If Darien wants to be an idiot and mess around, I'm not going to stop him." "Em, you do nothing but mess with other people's lives. That's what the Matchmaker does." Rhi laughed, with only a hint of the irony that would have soaked mine. But that was so not true. I only meddled if people needed it; I just often knew better than them what was best for people.

"A bit quieter, if you please," I returned curtly. And if she didn't notice that I didn't refute her claim, will, it wasn't my fault. "You're on speaker." And while I probably would have heard Allan if he decided to venture near my room -he had all the grace of a hippopotamus- one could never be too careful. "People are going to find out eventually. You can't keep it a secret forever," she informed me patiently, almost pleadingly. I didn't have to ask what she was talking about. She had nagged me about this since the Matchmaker was conceived, and her level of success had never changed. "Hopefully not for another year," I replied tartly, not at all concerned. I knew quite well that no mystique lasted forever, and I didn't exactly have someone to pass the title on to. She would die a peaceful death when I graduated, unless some enterprising underclassman appeared next year whom I deemed worthy, which, while not impossible, was extremely unlikely. But I still hoped to make the four years intact. The Matchmaker wouldn't be nearly as effective I she was unmasked; it would be a tribute to my abilities if she survived. "Still, Lex and Darien will find out sometime. You're too close for it not to happen. They'll walk into your room or something and then the jig'll be up, and you'll have to tell them." I raised an eyebrow skeptically. "Umm no. No I won't. Darien never needs to know." I could hear pounding footsteps on the stairs outside my door. Too heavy for Mom, too fast for Jack, too careful for Allan- shit. Speak of the devil. "But-" I cut off Rhi's protest with a speed just on this side of panicked. "Someone's coming. I've got to go. Talk to you after!" I shut the phone before she could respond, just as Darien burst the door open, already talking. "Emma, you better be ready because my parents will kill me if I'm late. And I just spent ten minutes trying to convince your mother to let me come up here, and-" Darien stopped talking; I followed his eyes to me.

I gave a little twirl, exalting in his dumbfounded expression. "So," I asked with a sly, minxish grin, "Do I look alright?" I took his continued stunned silence as assent.

Darien Emma looked amazing. Awesome in every sense of the word. She seemed to have grown at least a few inches (the dress? Heels?) and her eyes glowed huge and brilliant (the color of the dress? Make-up?). The dainty clasp of fabric around her neck highlighted the long, elegant lines of her neck, revealed by her pinned up hair. The cut of her dress, something even a mere male like me could tell wasn't the latest fashion, emphasized her slim waist and understated curves in a way not even the tank top she had worn at New Year's had. I could gladly look at her forever like this- but she didn't look at all like the barbed, shielded girl I knew. Only the sardonic intelligence sparking in her shining eyes set her apart from the other girls I had taken as arm candy before, but even there she far outstripped every girl I had ever seen. This was someone I could not be ashamed of walking in with. I swallowed, trying to find my voice without showing Emma how much she had taken it away. I had perceived Emma as many things before: plain, cute, attractive, sexy, hot- but never before had I seen her look so breathtakingly beautiful. "You look fine," I finally managed to choke out, a bit curter than I had intended, because I had to stop my tongue from tripping over itself. Damn it, no other girl had ever affected me like this before! What was so special about this one- other than the fact that she was Emma? But that simple fact made all the difference. "I know," she agreed complacently, giving another giddy little spin that made me hope no one noticed that my pants suddenly felt too tight, and hope that she

didn't do that too often tonight. But try as I might, I couldn't drag my eyes away from the swirl of fabric around her hips. Maybe this night would be harder than I thought. "So," I finally announced, ripping my eyes back up to her face before she could notice where I was staring- though by her smirk, I might have been too late, "Let's go. I can't be late." "So you said," she retorted, and a grin flickered across my face. There was the Emma I knew and- the usual Emma, armed and dangerous. And I couldn't help but be relieved. I had a date who was both hot and entertaining. What could be better? "I thought you wanted to avoid this thing," she continued, grabbing a small gold purse with one hand and her phone with the other, "Why are you in such a hurry?" Because it'll get my mind off of how stunning you look right now. But of course, I couldn't say that, and the other answer was one I didn't want to give. I mean, whatever they treated me as, the hosts of this thing were still my parents and it was still going to be my company eventually, and I owed it to them and it to at least display myself. "Because I want to get it over with," I eventually replied, truthfully if not completely. Emma didn't need to know that I was omitting anything, though judging by her quick, sidelong look she had guessed. But if I had lied, she would have known right away- one of her most annoying traits, except that I was beginning to be able to do the same to her. "Fair enough," she shrugged, hurrying me out of her room. Apparently she didn't like people in her room, something I thus made a point of ignoring. Nobody could be as private as her; it simply wasn't allowed. Still, I followed her out into the hall, rolling my shoulders uncomfortably beneath the thick material of my dinner jacket. Still new, it didn't fit quite right yet, just to add to my irritation. God, I hated these things- though I didn't object to how good I looked in a suit.

"Mom, I'm leaving!" Emma shouted into the cavernous, empty entrance hall, so suddenly loud that I clapped my hands over my ears and scowled at her. She either didn't notice or didn't care (I suspected the latter) and swept outside, one long-fingered hand holding her skirt delicately out of the summer dirt. "You do know she probably couldn't hear that, right?" I asked, still rubbing my temples. Emma tossed a withering look over her white shoulder that said, quite clearly, that I was an idiot. Used to those looks, I disregarded it. "It's just a habit," she explained impatiently, taking her seat in my car with delicate casualness, tucking the long end of her dress in carefully. "You know, you really should lock your car." "Why? I was only out of it for ten minutes," I retorted, walking to me side of the car and sitting down with almost as much care as she had. I didn't want to walk into this thing looking like a slob. It was awful enough going in the first place. She laughed, a warm chuckle as inviting as it was endearing, cajoling everyone else to laugh even with the hint of cynicism never far from her lips. I stared down at the wheel, willing myself not to smile in return. "I knew kids who could be in your car and out of here in a quarter of that time," she told me with a wry grin, as if amazed at how innocent I was. One finger tapped thoughtfully against her chin. "Actually, I probably still could. I might take a little longer, though." "You can hotwire a car?" I inquired skeptically, raising a single eyebrow. I knew very well that she hadn't grown up in the manicured lawns and grandiose houses of this neighborhood, but she hadn't lived in the ghetto either. It wasn't like she had run with gangs, or had to steal to survive or anything. That much I knew for sure- basically. "Yeah, Dan taught me." I couldn't hear any tremor in her voice when she said Dan's name, or anything different about her tone. Maybe she was finally getting

over him, and about time to. I could compete with any guy alive, but it's hard to beat a ghost. "I never actually stole anything, but it was fun to learn. Like picking locks. You never know when stuff like that will come in handy." "Why would you ever need to hotwire a car you weren't planning to steal?" I asked, pulling out of the Lexington's driveway. Something occurred to me. "And how did Dan know how to hotwire a car?" "For when I forget my keys, obviously," she answered as if it were the most evident thing in the world, conveniently ignoring my second question. "And for when I need to use Allan's car. Or yours, for that matter." "So you would just steal my car?" I exclaimed in mock-horror. I had no real worries. She was more careful with material goods than anyone I knew, and if she was fiercely protective of her personal space, she was just as respectful of everyone else's. Unless, of course, she felt like messing with them was for their own good; then she would have no scruples. Even if she was wrong. "Of course not!" There was the flash of offense I had been expecting, even if I knew she knew I was joking. Then, with the devious half smile that always made me so intensely curious, "I would ask first and then ignore your answer." That got a laugh out of me, and her smile grew full-fledged in response. Which made me laugh harder as a defense against beaming like a besotted kid. When I finally managed to get both impulses under control, as we were pulling into my full driveway, "So, are we talking meeting-the-queen manners, or just normal formal, or full snarky overload?" Emma asked a wicked twist to her lips. I could tell she really, really, really wanted me to say the last one, and I kind of wanted to as well, I had to be honest. "A mix of the first two," I scowled, not even the fantasy of letting Emma loose on all those idiots in there brightening my mood now that we were here. "We

can insult people and scheme and backstab all we want, but only if we're polite about it to their face." To my surprise, an impish gleam came into Emma's eyes as she cocked her head, absorbing the information. I gulped, almost nervously. She would behave. She better. "So," she said slowly, as if trying to figure out the clearest way to phrase something that had been obscurely described to her. I prepared myself for some sort of convoluted sentence meant to confuse me into answering what she wanted, and so I was taken aback when she continued fairly simply, "I can be as evil as I want, as long as I'm polite and discreet about it?" "Basically, yeah." Her expression turned forebodingly thoughtful as we got out of the car, that vaguely malicious look till in her eyes. I barely spared a moment for the morals of the situation. Those people, my parents included, all deserved to have Emma set upon them. What did I care if she slaughtered them all? Verbally, of course. Not that she would; she liked to pretend that she was evil but I could tell that she did want to make a good impression on these people. After all, if she was rude, it would reflect badly on the Lexington's. We walked very slowly up the path to my house, Emma understanding how very little I wanted to go in. But we had to eventually, and so we reached the door and entered, my feet not visibly dragging; mentally, though, every step took an increasing amount of effort. It was very different from the last time we had walked into a party together. Then, Emma had been nervous- and with good reason, though I didn't know it then- and I had been coolly confident and vaguely condescending towards her anxiety. The noise had overwhelmed us on New Year's, pounding loud and seductive over the kids' yells. Here, only Emma's calm lead kept me moving, and the gentle murmur of conversation nearly drowned out the faint strains of the string quartet playing in the corner of the large room, not loud enough to induce anyone to dance even if anyone here had been so inclined.

Emma tilted her head, listening to the music with pursed lips. "The Trout Quartet," she muttered after a moment, with the satisfied nod of someone who plucked a piece of information out of a long-forgotten memory. "What?" I wasn't really listening, trying to spot my parents in the crowd. Not that I wanted to see them by any stretch of the imagination, or vice versa, but I had to show that I had made an appearance. Otherwise, I couldn't be certain they would see me, and that was the one time I ever got in trouble. "The Trout Quartet, it's what they're playing," she replied; not yet noticing my distraction. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, I realized the one thing I had yet to warn her about. "Shit," I swore under my breath. Emma glanced quickly at me, worry playing over her delicate faces. "Look, Emma, I forgot to tell you. My father, he's-" I stopped. How could I describe someone I didn't know, but knew far too well? There was nothing to say, but I had to say something. "Not very personable, I figured," Emma finished for me easily. The thought didn't seem to faze her, but she didn't know what she was talking about. She had never actually met himyet. "But it's too late for you to fill me in, because they're over there and coming-" her voice dropped to a whisper as my parents approached "-over here." "Darien," my mother acknowledged, blonde hair too light to go visibly grey shining icy white in the light. I had to admit, she looked handsome tonight, tall and proud and regal, but I did have to get my good looks and bearing from somewhere, and I had stopped trying to convince myself that I was adopted a good few years ago. My father only nodded curtly, eyes as blue as mine darting to Emma and back to me. I could see the gears in his mind grinding beneath heavy brows, and hastily moved to intercept it before he got the wrong conclusions.

"Mother, you've met Emma before, I believe," I announced, drawing Emma forward from where she had sunk back, more sensitively than shyly. The stilted, formal language slid effortlessly off my tongue, the years of practice making it second nature. "I have," my mother agreed with a slight smile playing over her face. She offered a manicured hand to Emma. "Welcome." "My pleasure." Emma gave the hand a firm shake without being self-effacing, the same polite, cautious smile on her face. I let out a bit of the breath I had been holding, but that was the easy parent. I turned to my father. "And this is my father," I continued, praying to any deity listening that both of them would behave themselves. Although my father wouldn't make a scene here, not with all these people watching. "Father, this is Emma Laycha, Mr. Lexington's stepdaughter." I could see Emma's eyes do the customary flit between me and my father, surprised by our resemblance. But she recovered far faster than most people, and held out her hand again. "It's very nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. McGavern." My father did a surreptitious survey of her, more intense now that he realized that she was more than just a nobody, then took her hand. But instead of shaking it, he raised it courteously to his lips. "Charmed," he murmured over it before letting it drop. Of course, I had forgotten. He could charm paint off the walls when he wanted to. But I saw Emma's eyebrows rise imperceptibly as she shot a look at my mother, and knew she wasn't taken in. After all, my smoothness hadn't worked on her, my father's couldn't either (though I wasn't fool enough to think there anything sexual in that gesture, it was just my father knowing how to get people on his side). But I hoped Emma had taken note of how very little he had condescended to notice his own son, and how quickly he left again without another word to either of us as he saw someone else enter. My mother favored us with one of

the sphinx-like smiles that she was famous for before she also swept away, blue dress glimmering with a frosted light. "So," I said with false joviality, turning to Emma with a smile and dead eyes, "Now you've met my family. What do you think?" Emma watched them from across the room, giving nothing away with her expression. That meant there was none of the sympathy I had hoped for, but also none of the pity I think I would have killed her for showing. It was just a blank, except for eyes that looked like she had just had a revelation. "Darien," she said slowly, her gaze never leaving my parents. Her voice was quiet enough that no one else could hear it, but it wasn't soft. It had too much of tightly bound anger in it, and a hint of something like regret, "now I'm just impressed you turned out as well as you did."

Chapter 31

Emma This man would not stop talking. I don't even know what he was prattling on about something vaguely financial and self-important, I guessed from the few words I could make out but he had been pontificating at me and Darien for well over fifteen minutes. My patience never my strong point had worn down past breaking point. I wasn't the one who needed to curry favor, after all. "Darien," I murmured, standing on tiptoe to reach his ear, quiet enough that the man couldn't hear over his noises of vanity. Darien's eyes darted to me, though his expression of polite interest didn't move an inch. "I have to, umm" I sought an excuse, choosing the first one that came to mind. He would know what I was doing anyway. "get a drink. I'll just leave you here."

He shot a glance at the irritation, who hadn't noticed anything, then looked down at me with amused eyes. "Traitor," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, nodding civilly when the man looked at us. "Of course," I grinned back evilly, also speaking in an undertone, though the man had gone back to his speech; I doubt he would have been distracted if I had screamed. Darien flashed a pained face at me before it shifted back, but ignoring the twinge of my conscience at leaving a companion in the lurch, I stepped behind him and dissolved into the crowd before anyone namely, the boy I had just abandoned could stop me. Behind me, I heard Darien's voice, sounding courteous to anyone who didn't know him but exasperated to me, "You don't say?" The man just kept talking. I smirked to myself as I reclined against a wall, congratulating myself on an escape well done. Honestly, some people should be legally required to wear muzzles. Or electric collars with universal remotes that anyone could use to shock them. I am totally inventing that. Humanity would thank me. Surveying the room from the safety of my wall, I laughed without a sound as I saw Darien, who had just gotten rid of the talkative man, accosted by another blowhard. Ha. Sucks for him, but better him than me. Some of these people were nice and intelligent, statistically speaking that had to be true, but how I was supposed to find them in the flood of glittering gold, I didn't know. The sheer amount of posturing and insincerity, matching that of any high school I had ever known, was giving me a headache. I had thought I would be able to escape that once I entered real life. It was good to know how false those illusions were. "So you're the McGavern boy's girlfriend." I spun, startled, to face the regal voice that had appeared as I was watching Darien. An elderly woman, the lines

on her face and iron grey hair giving away her age. Neither bowed with age nor with eyes dimmed of any intelligence, she stood before me, tall and proud and imperious. Her bearing spoke of condescension and of the knowledge that I wasn't worth much, but she didn't have the same air as Mrs. McGavern. Darien's mother acted like a sorceress, all power held deceptively in check beneath the surface, chilling in the threat of what you didn't know she knew. But this woman, with her hair arranged in waves around a triangular face and eyes of the same steely tint, was a queen who didn't bother to conceal her power. A Titania, secure enough in her power to stand up to Oberon. "No, I'm not," I corrected her calmly, though with the tired air of someone who had been forced to make a lot of the same corrections. And I had. Could people not comprehend the idea of a platonic friendship between a boy and a girl? It really wasn't that difficult a concept! "I'm just his friend." The fey glint in her eyes told me clearly just how little she believed me, but she didn't press the point. "Well, be sure you take him in hand," she admonished me with all the dignity of a matriarch commanding her tribe, "He used to be such a well behaved child, but he's become rather wild in the last years." "And why would I have any influence on his behavior?" I inquired delicately, trying not to get irritated. Why did everyone always say the same damn thing? Though it was interesting that Darien's rebelliousness was a relatively recent thing of course, to someone like her, relative might be a while back. "As I said, I'm only a friend." "It's high time someone had a word with him," she continued as if I hadn't spoken. If it had been two hundred years earlier, her fan would have been slapping menacingly across her palm. "He'll make a mess of his life if he's not careful, just like his father." "His father?" Darien's father had, I admit, surprised me. I mean, I had been expecting someone nasty from what I had gleaned from him and Troy and Brock, but that man had not been nasty. He was cultured and charming and cordial and

cold. In a way not even his wife was, and that neither Darien nor I, despite our facades, could match for now. It was frigidity so cold that it would disguise itself as warmth until you looked hard at him, and no one would ever bother to do that. The only time I had glimpsed a hint of the man beneath the mask was when his eyes had met his wife's, and even then it was only a peek, something nobody but she could read. "Oh, yes, Steven was a wild one in his youth," the lady explained with a vicious excitement, the malicious enjoyment of airing old skeletons playing through her voice. "His son's a carbon copy of him at this age. But then he went off to college, and he came back like he is now. Personally, I believe it's an improvement, but not many people agree with me." "Really?" if she would just keep talking this could get very interesting. It was like looking at a story of what Darien could be; what he would be if the same things happened to him. Not that I hoped or thought he would become his father. The elder Mr. McGavern didn't seem overly happy, at least not with his sons. The old lady cackled, her shrewd gaze seeing right through my plan. But she answered anyway, as if pleased by my curiosity, or roundabout way of satisfying it. "That was all before he met his wife, of course. She certainly put some life back into him." A smile that bordered on lewd. "Rumor has it that he was engaged during college, but then the girl had a baby, and the timing wasn't quite right." she shot a meaningful look at me that I had no trouble deciphering. "He didn't look at another woman for years, but the minute Olivia started working with him, he was caught. " she smiled, a bit nostalgically if not at all benevolently. "Of course, it didn't hurt at all that her competence made the company's profit nearly double." Then, and I could have sworn I heard the sound of a fan snapping shut reverberating through the time stream, "But that's all only gossip. You, young lady, should stop him before the scandal." I opened my mouth to speak, but she was my objection coming. "I am a woman child, and we have eyes, even if men don't. That boy there is watching you even

when his back is turned." She raised her glass to me in a kind of wry salute, and I could have sworn I saw her wink at me before she stalked off, as elegant and eldritch as a hunting cat. "Well." I spoke to the air after a second of realizing that I hadn't breathed since she left, "That was interesting." I was pretty sure I had just met one of those intelligent people I had known must have been here, but the effect was unsettling to say the least. She was not a comfortable person. "I see you've met Selina Wayne," another voice beside me observed. Once more, I spun on my heels in shock. I really had to work on not getting surprised if this was going to keep on happening. Mrs. McGavern stood there, staring into space and yet very, very alert, a glass of burgundy liquid held meditatively at the level of her eyes. "Her husband owns Wayne Enterprises, the largest manufacturers of cutting edge technology in the country." "I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't see you-" I stammered, trying to apologize for my inattention and indecorous reaction, but she cut me off, waving my apology away. "She knows everything about everyone, especially what they don't want anyone to know. She takes a malevolent delight in learning everyone's little secrets, and an even greater one in telling them. Still, you can be sure that whatever she says will be true and, somehow, help her husband's company, whether by currying favor or blackmail. She's certainly been around long enough to know what helps." "Um" I hesitated. Was there a point in telling me this? Darien did say that his mother didn't do anything without an ulterior motive, but I couldn't see what she could get out of saying this. Then again, I hadn't swum with these sharks long enough to know their mannerisms. "I'm going to be her in about twenty years," Darien's mother continued without any emotion, crystalline eyes steady and apathetic, just making an objective observation. "Her daughter never speaks to her unless she's forced to, but Selina

doesn't need it. She's perfectly happy with her husband and her money and her secrets." "That doesn't sound very fulfilling," I ventured. What was it with people and talking to me tonight? Or was this just some sort of gauntlet newcomers had to run; a sort of hazing ritual maybe? If it was, I wished they'd just hit me and get it over with. This was much more torturous; albeit also much more intriguing. "Perhaps," she allowed briefly, taking a leisurely sip of her drink. I kept quiet as she swallowed, trying to read her blank expression, but she spoke before I could. "But for people like us, who didn't always have the money we have now, is it really that wrong to want the security it brings?" She sounded interested in an impersonal sort of way, like a teacher posing a question to a class that they hoped would spark discussion. I sighed. For all my posing and patronization, I had rejoiced when I heard Mom was marrying a rich man, just because it meant more money and an easier life. "No." "We had barely anything when I was growing up," she explained, her voice and gaze lost somewhere and sometime far away, in a past I couldn't imagine. "So all my life the one thing I wanted was something. Money, security, comfort, love. And I got it too, I got it all." She gestured around with a sweeping hand, somehow encompassing not only the room but the neighborhood, the house, her life. "All thisthis was my dream, but I didn't wish upon a star to get here. This is the product of constant, backbreaking work." She fell silent. I copied her, following her gaze to the crowd around us. Where on Earth was she going with this? Was there a message I was missing between the words of her past? Or was it just a fun story? "Being a woman in a man's world it's not easy, Emma," she eventually pronounced, vaguely explanatory in tone, almost as if she was justifying something to me. But her eyes were still sharp and clear and unapologetic,

taking in everything even as she spoke. "You have to fight and claw for every inch you climb. Timidity, scruples; they get burned out of a woman far faster than a man, because she can't afford to show weakness. Especially one who came out of nothing. You have to be hard, hard as ice." Her eyes fixed on Darien's back. He had been detained by two or three more people, all yammering their heads off. From the tense set of his shoulders, I could tell that his temper was reaching a maximum point, but nothing in the faces of his companions said that he was showing any of his vexation. "Having a husband that's nearly requisite. Otherwise all sorts of nasty rumors circulate. They do anyway, of course. It's all part of the double standard- their sexuality is the easiest target for a man to hit when a woman starts to threaten him. Like it matters." A slight, contemptuous smile cracked her faade, one that invited me to share in the foolishness of men. "Even loving your spouse isn't absolutely frowned upon. Most of my colleagues at the very least are fond of their wives; we're past the age of arranged marriages-" my lips twisted disbelievingly, remembering Rhi "-and matchmakers." I flinched unwillingly, but she didn't seem to notice. I bet she did, though, at least subconsciously. I know I would have. "But acting like a mother to your sons, showing the least bit of tenderness men don't get that. They see a maternal instinct as weakness, and then the wolves pounce and you don't get back up. I learned how to be hard in a more difficult school than college, and how to want. If I lost any of this," again that sweep of the hand, "it would be worse than death, it would be the death of everything I ever worked for." "But Darien. And Troy," I protested without thinking. Yes, I knew the lust for material goods. But not at the expense of someone close to me. I wouldn't even consider then again, I hadn't spoken to any of my friends from before Mom's marriage did I?

"I love my sons," she replied, cool and collected, though the gaze that had stuck to her son was no longer expressionless. I couldn't read the emotion in it, though- longing? Regret? Acceptance? "But being a mother to them would mean risking some of what I fought so hard for especially Darien. When he was little, I was still carving out my territory. His unconditional child love convinced me I could ignore him and he would still love me, and now I look at him and see a stranger. Troy will soon be the same too. But I'm still here, still at the top." "Was it worth it?" I inquired keenly. Her grip tightened around her glass and the air around her tightened, but her answer was calm as a summer's day. "Maybe," she answered thoughtfully, eyes still fixed on her son. "I don't know. I have everything I ever wanted out of life." Suddenly, she turned to look at me, gaze piercing through all my defenses, and I saw the woman who had risen so far out of nothing. "I've always thought we were rather alike. Born poor, smart, proud, desperately ambitious but you won't become like me. That much I know." Her eyes flicked back to her son. "And perhaps that's fortunate." My head was going to explode from curiosity if I didn't ask soon. "Mrs. McGavern," I asked, almost timidly. I didn't want to jolt her out of this odd mood she was in; if not because I still wanted an answer, then because it would be painful for her. "Why are you telling me this?" "As I said," came her answer, eyes still on Darien, "I do love my son." "But-" if that wasn't the most irritating of non-answers I had ever heard, I didn't know what was. I had never been on the receiving end of one of those. God, my enigmatic ways must be really annoying to some people. Maybe I should stopyeah, right. I'd have a better chance of figuring out how to time travel. It's just a part of me that was too comfortable to change; not like I want to in any case. "Now, why don't you go rescue him," she suggested, sharp as broken glass again, without any of the vaguely dreamy quality of before. The business woman was back, and as she had said, weakness was fatal.

The abrupt change in subject startled me, but I was improving; it didn't turn off my smart mouth. "And how would you propose I do that?" I eyed the crowd Darien had attracted warily. Pompous men and eager mamas; neither would react well at my interruption, and with an equal potential for being annoying when they were mad. "You're a smart girl," she glanced conspiratorially at me, and I allowed myself a slight smile back, accepting the compliment in the spirit it was given. "You'll think of something." And she melted back into the crowd.

Darien "Really, Mr. Robinson, that's very interesting," I interjected weakly into the man's deluge of words, griping my fast deteriorating patience all the harder. Not that he could see it, because of course, on the surface I looked completely absorbed by his pointless boasting. I had been raised in this, after all, and my mask was damn near perfect, same as most everyone else here. But underneath my earnest faade, my anger smoldered. This was all so stupid. He had been talking for well on ten minutes, and he had yet to say anything worth hearing. I didn't think that was even possible. I took a long sip of my drink, willing the boredom to the back of my mind. Emma didn't know how lucky she was to have fled when she did. Of course, she was allowed to disappear. As the hosts' son, I was stuck on display. Emma was still probably floating around somewhere, though; maybe I could find her for some amusement. I thought I saw her speaking to Mrs. Wayne a while back Through the haze of my ennui, I felt more than saw a presence reappearing beside me. "Hey," a soft voice breathed in my ear, "Let's blow this joint." I swallowed a smile (the first since I had come in, I think) and, though my attention overtly stayed on Mr. Robinson, I muttered out of the corner of my

mouth, "I wish. But I can't escape." And hell if I was going to give her license to leave when I couldn't. "No worries." She smirked, and then raised her voice, interrupting the man with such innocent goodwill that he couldn't take offense. "I'm very sorry, Mr. Robinson," she apologized sweetly, green eyes made even huger than usual by make-up and design gazing entreatingly up at him. I could see him softening, forgiving, being manipulated. Oh, she was good. For all his annoyance, this man was not an idiot. "But can I steal Darien? His mother wants him." He beamed down at her; his wide face suddenly Santa Claus benevolent. "Of course, Miss. Laycha," he agreed amiably, his tone fonder towards her in twenty seconds than I had heard in all the time he had spoken to me, "we don't dare keep Mrs. McGavern waiting, do we?" "Of course not, sir," she replied, her tone deferential and respectful- which told me right away how insincere she was, but he wouldn't know that. She was playing him like a piano, and he wasn't easily manipulated, even if he wasn't a top player. "So, Darien?" her eyes twinkled with a mischievous light as she glanced at me. "As she says, duty calls," I quickly jumped on her bandwagon- hey, it was working, and I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth- inclining my head slightly in farewell. He bent at the waist, just enough for it to be noticeable, then gave Emma a much warmer smile as a good-bye. She led me away, her hand firm enough on my arm that I guessed she had a destination in mind. "So, does my mother actually want me?" I inquired, allowing Emma to drag me towards one of the doors on the side of the room that led onto balconies. Were we going to climb down the trellis? My father wouldn't like it, but if I said it was Emma's idea although how she was planning to climb in that dress, I didn't know.

"Well, she told me to rescue you," Emma answered, lips twisting into an impish smile, obviously quite satisfied with how she carried out her commission, "And I'm sure she would approve of lying for a worthy cause like this." I felt my lips curl into an involuntary smile, part amused at Emma and part contemptuous towards to myself. "I should have known." It was obviously irrational to expect my mother to actually request my presence. "Yes, you should have." She pushed open a door and led me out onto the balcony, taking a long, audible breath as the first gust of fresh air hit her, her chest visibly rising and falling as I saw her relax. "How do you stand it in there?" she asked, taking a step into the middle of the small floor and holding out her arms, as if claiming the space she couldn't have inside. The light from the reception streamed out through the glass doors and illuminated her in the sea of the night, her dress shimmering, the golden light glinting off of her crown of hair like moonlight off a midnight lake. "What do you mean?" I leaned against the wall next to the door, letting myself sink into the shadows as I watched Emma with an admiring, incongruously soft smile on my face. "It's so stuffy and mindless, and everyone- well basically everyone- is so damn stupid!" she half turned to look at me, just her head and a slight twist of her white shoulders, the rest of her still staring out at the black sky, "It's torturous." "Eh, it's not that bad," I admitted not sure why I was standing up for this thing I hated. Maybe it was just my instinct to debate anything Emma said, or maybe it was that, as much as I despised these things, they were still my life. "Our parties are like that, and these are nicer than the ones I usually go to." Her dress was the exact same hue, in this light, as the ivy that climbed around the ornate iron railing, so she almost seemed to blend into the plants like some sort of nature sprite.

"How could you say that?" she exclaimed, taking another grateful, lingering breath, "Parties should be full of music and drama and life! This is just, well, dull." "Only if you don't know what to look for," I countered, rising off the wall and beckoning her over to the door. From the darkness looking into the light, no one would be able to see us. Probably. "And these people aren't stupid; they just want to be underestimated. Like my mother, really. People underestimate her because she's female and my dad's wife, and then she can capitalize on that idiocy while they're not looking." By now, Emma had joined me at the door and we peered in, trying not to look like spying kids; which, I suppose, we were. "And as for drama, well, see that woman?" I gestured to a pretty young woman, only a few years older than us. "She's engaged to him," I nodded at another man across the room, "But everyone knows she's cheating on him with that guy." I pointed out the last player in that little drama. Emma raised impressed, shocked eyebrows over excited eyes. "And that man?" Emma followed my gaze to the person I was speaking about. "the rumors say that his handsome young

male

secretary

is

actually

his

lover,

though

there

hasn't

been

confirmation." Personally, I believed it. I had always thought he was too well dressed to be straight. "But life's happening here, life as real as at our partiesit's just better hidden." I could feel a scornful sneer on my face and added sarcastically, "The Matchmaker could do just as well here as at school." For an instant, something almost like fear flickered across her face, but it was dark and gone too quickly for me to really believe I had seen it. I almost decided that I had imagined it- almost. "You know, you do yourself too little credit," she observed blandly, her eyes fixed through the glass again, the light sinking into cheeks still flushed from the heat and making them glow. "You could do well here." "That was never in question," I agreed. It wasn't arrogance; I just knew my strengths. "But I don't want to be here. I don't want to be my father-" I

stopped as soon as I realized what I said. Way more than I had meant to divulge but I had dived in headfirst, and now there was no graceful way to extricate myself. "and staying here would turn me into him." Her eyes widened for a second, then her eyelids dropped to disguise anything she thought, surveying me from beneath lowered lashes. "I don't know about that." Suddenly the intense, almost regretful look turned minxish. "Come on, let's get out of here." "I told you, I can't!" I protested as she made to start dragging me again, removing her hand with concealed reluctance, "They don't notice anything else, but my parents would kill me for that." "Oh, blame it on me." Emma rolled her eyes dismissively, herding me back through the doors with inescapable persistence. Not that I was resisting very hard. "I'm sick of it here. WE can go back to my house." Before I knew what had happened, I was relaxing on a loveseat in the Lexington family room, jacket and tie off and with shirt comfortably un-tucked. Emma walked in, all her fancy cloths and makeup gone, replaced by sweat pants and a huge t-shirt that somehow suited her more than her formal attire, no matter how stunning that had looked. She paused at the other side of the couch, about to sit down. For a second, she cocked her head to the side, as if trying to remember a single detail she had overlooked. Then, with a light of revelation she plucked a few pins out of her hair, allowing it to cascade down her back in jet black waves. "This is much better than that thing," she announced, taking her seat with a luxurious shake of her head, setting her hair swinging again and inexorably drawing my eyes to its hypnotic sheen. "Yeah" I agreed without really knowing what I was saying, as my attention had been caught for good. Apparently, that lack of thought was noticeable, as she

shot me a skeptical, questioning look. I swallowed hurriedly, yanking my eyes back to hers, and quickly added, "I mean, I suppose so." "Do you actually enjoy that sort of thing?" she asked, curling up on her end of the loveseat in what was apparently her default pose in any sort of cushioned seat. Carl, who had followed her in, jumped up onto her lap, and she stroked him absently as I answered. My eyes fixed somewhere over her head while I thought about it. Did I enjoy it? I certainly didn't look forward to it, and I had agreed to leave with alacrity, but while actually in it "I like being good at it," I said slowly, trying to figure it out as I spoke. Emma didn't speak, just kept those piercing, comforting eyes steadfastly on me; eerily echoed by the cat eyes in her lap. "I belong there, like you said. I fit in. And I do like that. So yeah, I guess so." "An overwhelming affirmation," she drawled with a grin, cutting the too charged silence that could have followed my words. In a way, I was thankful she could have pressed and probably got more out of me- but it also irritated me. I had just shared something profound; that meant something, or at least it did when she revealed something. "Of course it is," I retorted proudly, my gaze falling back to her and earth, "I said it." "And that means it's a fact," she teased with a wry smile, her eyes glinting over the collar of her oversized sweatshirt, "Because you're never wrong." "Never." Her eyebrows nearly disappeared into her hair as she stopped petting to give me a look. "Rarely," I amended with a resigned shrug as she went back to stroking her cat after his protest, "I'm right more than most people." "That's not saying anything," she countered, tossing back her hair to get it out of her face, "Have you talked to our grade lately?"

"Not if I can help it, no." I ran an absentminded hand through my perfectly mussed hair. "Why do you think I talk to you?" "You mean it's not because of my stunning beauty, sparkling charm, and overwhelming wit?" she asked airily, sparing a hand from her pet to wave it to emphasize her point. Well, yeah, that pretty much summed it up. "Isn't it usually sparkling wit?" I queried thoughtfully, quite aware that I had completely avoided the question. Fortunately Carl, who had hissed in complaint of her otherwise occupied hand, distracted her enough that she didn't notice. She shrugged. "Perhaps," she allowed, yawning widely. She glanced at her watch, and then looked back up apologetically. "Look, Darien, I know it's only eleven, but I got about three hours of sleep last night, and if I stay up too late tonight that's how much sleep I'll get tonight. I really should go t-" "Say no more," I interrupted, rising. Sure, I was put out at being kicked out when she had invited me over, but she did seem tired. And a tired Emma was no fun. "I'll throw myself out." "No, it's not like that!" she demurred, lifting Carl off her lap so she could also rise. He gave her a very offended look and stalked out of the room, tail held high. She ignored him. "I'm just so exhaust-" another yawn cut her off. I smiled down at her, which suddenly made me realize just how close we had ended up. When I faced her, she couldn't have been more than six inches away, even with the height difference "It's fine," I assured her gently in a tone I knew in the back of my mind I had never used with anyone other than Troy. But somehow, that didn't bother me right now. "Get some sleep." She looked up at me, bringing our faces even closer together. Completely unconsciously I think. "Thanks," she muttered, a sheepish expression on her face, giving me one of her quick, upwards glance through long lashes.

I don't know what she was planning to do, if she was closing the few inches between us on purpose. But I knew very well that whatever she was doing, I was going to kiss her, in the quiet of her house with both of us sober, as I brushed a loose strand of her hair out of her face. And this wouldn't be like last time. This one would sweep her off her feet; it would make even her speechless. There was five inches between us. Four. Three. Two. One"Hey, Emma, you're home!" Lex threw the door open with a bang, startling both of us into leaping a yard apart. He looked awkwardly from Emma's flushed face, to me, who was looking anywhere but at her or him. "Am I interrupting something?" he asked slowly, suspiciously. "What? No!" Emma stammered, looking back at him, the blush fading from her cheeks as she regained her equilibrium, "Darien was just leaving." If I didn't know any better, I would have believed her; she had recollected herself that quickly. I, however, did not have that sort of skill. "Really?" Lex eyed me warily which was quite a feat for him, who never thought ill of anyone. "Em, you said you wanted to go to bed as soon as you got home." He glowered at me, like he was daring me to challenge him and try to keep her here. "Right, I did say that," she agreed calmly, the only thing that betrayed her discomfort the hand that fiddled incessantly with the lock of hair that I had brushed away. "Good bye, Darien." "Bye," I replied in a vague daze, letting Lex glare me out of the door. I was still confused about what had happened. Had I just almost kissed her really kissed her, not a drunken instinct? And more to the point, I discovered as I walked home with a smile growing on my face, had Emma just almost kissed me?

Chapter 32

Emma "I cannot believe you actually managed to talk me into coming here," I muttered under my breath to Candy, tossing the duffel bag filled with cloths for the next day onto the pure white carpet of her bedroom and eyeing the two other girls suspiciously. They looked like carbon copies of Candy, except one's perfectly coifed hair was a deep chestnut rather than blonde. Surprisingly, all of them wore sweatpants and a t-shirt; same as I did for pajamas, though their shirts were significantly tighter than mine. "I don't do sleepovers." Candy grinned innocently at me, collapsing gracefully onto her lacy yellow coverlet. "It's because I'm so cool," she explained without bothering to lower her voice- the other girls were eying me with blatant curiosity. I rolled my eyes and sat down as well, leaning against the side of her bed. I may have been in the right outfit, but I didn't match the color scheme; the dramatic navy of my pants and scarlet of my t-shirt stood out like a sore thumb against the pastels of the room. "And," Candy added after a moment of thought, "because Darien told you that you should come." "And why should what Darien say matter to me?" I inquired delicately. Candy simply smiled wider (and more mockingly, like she knew something I didn't), but the girl in lilac, with the shoulder length blonde curls, stared at me with huge eyes. "Because Darien McGavern is, like, the hottest thing to ever walk this earth!" she exclaimed in horror, like I had forgotten my own name, "I'd do, like, anything he said!" I opened my mouth to retort, but the brunette beat me to it, looking up from the highly concentrated work of painting her nails. Now that I got a good look at her, I noticed that she looked much younger than me and Candy- freshman, maybe? Sophmore? But the expression in her eyes was one I recognized, exasperated but tolerant. Well, I had never actually seen it before, but I had

felt it plenty of times. It was the look I gave Rhi when she was acting like an idiot. "That's because you're terrified of him, Marie," she informed the other girl, who pouted and crossed her arms across her ample chest but did not deny the claim. The brunette turned cool, interested chocolate eyes on me. "So you're Emma Laycha," she observed, surveying me without bothering to hide it. "Why would you say that?" I countered casually, giving her my customary enigmatic smile as I tossed my hair over my shoulder and began to braid it idly. She returned my smile, though it wasn't nearly as mysterious as mine, it was far more open and triumphant. "I haven't seen you around Candy before, or whenever Marie takes me to a party, so you're a pretty new friend," she informed me with well concealed excitement, "Marie hasn't said anything about you, so you don't hang around with her at all. But you obviously do hang with McGavern, and he doesn't seem to intimidate you, or attract you. Emma Laycha is the only person who fits the bill." I raised my eyebrows, impressed despite myself. "Not bad," I allowed, continuing my plait with deft fingers. The girl did her best to keep a straight face, but she beamed proudly through her set lips. "But," I continued. Her face fell. "I'm sure Candy also told you I'd be coming." She shrugged, not at all ashamed. I grinned; I liked this kid. Suddenly Candy, who had been watching the exchange in indulgent bewilderment, clapped her hands to her mouth. "O.M.G!" she cried. Three heads turned to her with varying degrees of irritation at her volume and shrillness. "You don't know who you are!" "Well, who does really?" I cut in, tapping my chin thoughtfully with a finger, "I mean, we're only teenagers. We're just finding ourselves" Candy made an annoyed face at me. The younger girl hid a laugh. The other one simply stared, big eyes the color of oak barked warmed by the sun, attractively wide and empty.

"No, no," Candy went on, ignoring my interruption, "I haven't introduced you guys yet!" The three of us seated on the floor shrugged. Honestly, I hadn't expected her too, and that sentiment seemed echoed in the other girls. "Somehow, we'll contrive to forgive you," I drawled, biting my lips to keep from snorting at the absurdity. I would never understand Candy. The brunette couldn't conceal her grin anymore, but the blonde nodded earnestly, taking my words at face value. Again, I was ignored by our host. "Girls, this is Emma." I rolled my eyes, but gave them a nod and a one-sided smile. "And this is Marie Jacobs." Candy gestured to the older girl on the floor. "Hi!" she chirped, her bright grin welcoming if brainless. I returned her smile cordially. She seemed nice enough, although not precisely intelligent. "And this is Ellie, her little sister." Ellie made a face at the moniker, but grinned at me anyway. "She's just a freshman, but we don't mind too much." "Rising?" I inquired, eyes flicking over her in a quick appraisal, from her baby blue flannel pants, speckled with white carton clouds, and to clever brown eyes that matched her sister's, framed by a tanned face. "Yep." She met my eyes squarely, not at all ashamed of her youth good for her. That was the way to fit in with older kids; don't pretend to be any older or more experienced than you are. I had learned that, as she evidently had. But hopefully in her case, not for my reasons. "I'm just a baby, as Marie never fails to remind me." Her sister giggled. "Well, you are!" she insisted, as Candy and I held in our laughter. Oh, sisterly love. One thing I'd never wished I had- a brother is quite enough for me. "You're, like, three years younger."

"Oh, three years. Big difference," Ellie scoffed, turning her head away with a flick of her hair. She went back to her nails with renewed vigor, purple brush flicking over their canvas with practiced, delicate strokes. "But it is, child," I flashed a condescendingly wicked smirk at her, "It is." o0O0o0O0o "No." "Emma, Come on!" "No." "You know you want to" "No way in hell." "Please?" "No." I folded my arms resolutely and glared regally back at the three eager faces pleading with me. "I am not playing truth or dare." "But Em-" I cut off Candy's protest firmly, without giving her a chance to answer. Truth or Dare may have been the stupidest game in the world; and the time I had had to run the length of my street in my underwear had nothing to do with that. "It's no use. I won't play it." Candy pouted. Marie frowned in disappointment. Ellie echoed her sister's expression, but then a smirk began to sprout on her open face. I eyed her distrustfully; she was the only one who might be able to convince me, though I doubted it. "Well then, on to the second choice!" she exclaimed, bouncing to her feet with an excited grin and complete disregard for the polish on her nails that she had

only just managed to finish- she had been distracted quite a lot. "Let's go. We're going to need to find something to drink for Never Have I Ever!" I looked long at her, considering. She looked back, a jubilant expression in her eyes, one that didn't fade as the silence stretched on. Candy and Marie glanced between us, neither quite sure what was happening but both aware that Ellie had some sort of plan. Slowly, I began to clap. "Touch," I admitted, lips twisting slightly in a defeated smile, "I concede." Ellie dropped back down to the floor, beaming proudly at her sister. Candy grinned and leaned off the side of the bed to put her head at our circle, the side ponytail we had tortured her hair into giving her an oddly alien appearance. "So," she announced sibilantly, a playfully malicious air exuding from her that made me slightly worried about the consequences of this game. This sort of thing never led to anything good. "Who wants to start?" I glanced shiftily at Marie and Ellie, not meeting any eyes. Ellie was gazing fixedly at her nails, not very good at being invisible- she was avoiding eyes far too noticeably- but not bad for someone like her; she presumably hadn't had the impetus I had to learn at her age. Her sister though, stunning and always the center of attention, had no facility for disappearing. "Marie!" Candy cried, bright blue eyes settling on her fellow blonde. The girl flinched and squeaked, but looked up bravely. "Truth or Dare?" Marie's chin rose in a burst of courage (or foolishness). "Dare," she declared, her eyes widening in surprise at what she had just said, and in fear at the matching cunning expressions spreading over the three faces studying her. We thought for a moment, wracking our brains for something suitable. This would have been a lot easier had I known her better; the best of friends are the ones who can hurt you the worst.

"Oh, I've got one!" And sisters, that is. Ellie's eyes had lit up, and Marie was shooting her cautious sideways looks. Evidently she knew her sister well enough to know that this did not bode well for her. "I want you to call Darien McGavern, right now, and tell him how much you adore him." The elder sister squealed in dismay as evil grins dominated Candy and my faces. "He wouldn't pick up," she prevaricated, her voice an octave higher than usual. She looked desperately between the rest of us, trying to find an escape route. "It's, like, twelve o'clock. And he, like, doesn't know my number; he won't answer." I dug my phone out of my pocket and tossed it to her. She caught it, but only barely, fumbling out of nervousness. "He'll answer this," I assured her, not concealing my laughter at her panic. "Now call!" Capitulating either to my fierce command or Candy's insistent gaze, Marie gingerly picked up the phone, her face screwed up in still-attractive terror. Excruciatingly slowly, she opened the phone, looked through my phonebook, and brought the phone to her ear. Without a word, I snatched it away- everyone looked t me in shock- and hit a button. The sound of ringing filled the room. "Hey?" Darien's voice answered, not at all groggy. Faintly, in the background, I could hear the strains of something the sounded like Harry Potter the fourth one I think and Troy's delighted laughter. "Hi, ummm, Darien?" Marie began, cringing. Ellie snorted, and I glared at her to shut up. He would find out what was happening soon enough anyway, but I didn't want anyone to ruin the joke. "I just wanted to say that I think you're really, umm, hot and awesome and amazing and" she trailed off, face cherry red. Candy's head was buried in her blanket. Ellie was biting her arm to muffle her laughter; I had almost bitten my lip through. "Thanks," Darien replied, as if this was a totally normal occurrence. Of course, for him it might have been, but I suspected very much that this was just his

classic arrogance shining through. Made it funnier, though. "But why are you on Em-" "Bye!" she squealed, slamming the phone shut before Darien could finish his thought. She turned to us, giggling despite herself. "I hate you all." "We know," I choked out, laughter finally exploding, Ellie and Candy not far behind me. Marie scowled at us, her lips twitching. "Are you done laughing at me yet?" she inquired with petty spitefulness, after a minute of our hysterical laughter. Still speechless with mirth, Candy somehow found the strength to nod. "Good. So, Emma," she turned to me. I met her eyes challengingly, unafraid. She leaned in closer, hair falling in long, curly curtains on either side of her face. "Truth or Dare?" I wasn't about to humiliate myself like that. "Truth," I stated unequivocally. After all, I had no qualms about simply lying if necessary. They wouldn't know the difference. Marie didn't hesitate, Apparently, she had been hoping to be able to ask this question, "What is between you and Darien?" she demanded. Candy's head show out of the bed. Ellie turned so fast that her neck must have broken. Glad to know I was so interesting. "Do you like him?" I blinked once, slowly, blank eyed and pale skinned. "No." Ellie raised a single eyebrow (damn her, why couldn't I do that?). "Then why were you so sure he would answer if he saw your number?" she asked pointedly, face still except for a slight curve of her lips. "We're friends, good ones," I explained patiently. I had really hoped not to have to deal with this tonight, but I should have known better. Too many gossipy girls in the room. "And anyway," I added, half as an afterthought, "That doesn't say anything about me, only about him."

"Then how did he convince you to come?" Marie jumped on her sister's point with indecent enthusiasm. "Because-" "My mom said you two looked 'very elegant' together at his parent's reception when Marie asked about it," Ellie broke in, the dignity of her accusation somewhat marred by her air quotes. "I like to look pretty, is that a-" Again, I was interrupted. "What about New Year's?" Candy insisted. I could feel my cheeks heating. "I was drun-" "And the whole Mann debacle," Ellie added, "he certainly stood up for you there." "You don't know the whole sto-" "Why are you two always together," Marie inquired, though it was quite obvious she felt she already knew the answer. "I told you, we're fr-" "Lex said you two looked pretty cozy after the reception." Candy had played her coup de grce. My face was scarlet, and I knew they could see it, but she had finally given me the opening I needed to get them off my back. "What about you and Lex, Candy?" I interjected before any of them could cut me off again, "You two certainly seem to be taking your sweet time to finally get it into the open." As I had hoped and expected, the sisters turned at the scent of new prey, and immediately began to drill her, Candy flushing with a prettiness I could never emulate.

Thankful, I retreated back into a corner. My face was returning to its usual Victorian pallor, but their words resonated through my mind. True, all true, and if it hadn't been me, my professional opinion would have been unquestionable. Meant for each other, without a doubt, probably already half enamored or more than half. Damn my logical mind. Why couldn't something they had said been false? But I didn't like Darien! Except, I realized as an agonizing shock that I hadn't felt since Dan started in my toes and rose in light flutters to my chest, and made me feel like I could fly, I did.

Darien It was one o'clock when the movie ended. Troy had made it through almost everything, but now he was curled up on a chair, fast asleep despite the music they played over the credits. Too lazy to turn off the movie or move in any way, I lay sprawled on the couch, my mind wandering in the foggy bog of almost-sleep. We hadn't had a night like this often this summer, with just Troy and I (and sometimes Brock) hanging out. Emma had usually been here with us, or I had been at a party, or Troy had been with a friendthings were changing here. People were at my house, friends who weren't just party-goers. However good friends I had been with Brock before, we never just lazed about my house; if we did something like that, it was always at his place. But now he and Emma were at my house nearly every day. Even my mother had, once in a while, come to dinner with us and though I was still suspicious, Troy was overjoyed. These nights were fun, just the two of us, but our lives weren't like this anymore; they had changed. It wasn't only Troy and me anymore. Somehow, over the year, more people had wormed their way past my defenses and into the select group of people I actually cared about, and I couldn't help but

distrust that. Once, I had loved my parents, and look at where that had gotten me. My phone rang, jolting me out of my sprawl. Quickly, with a surreptitious glance at my sleeping brother, I snatched it up, gaze flicking to the caller id. Emma or at least her phone. "Hey," I answered, a bit tentatively in case one of her sleepover-mates had stolen her phone again. Though I'm not sure stealing was the right word- I had heard Emma's laughter in the background as she hung up. While that had been flattering and weird I didn't feel like talking to Candy or any of her giggly friends right now. Thankfully, it was Emma's voice that replied. "Hi," she said, somewhat

sheepishly. I had a feeling that, with her uncanny skill at reading my mind, she knew exactly why I had taken that tone. "It really is me this time." "Oh, good." Troy stirred, and I forced myself to my feet and out of the room, down the black hall and into my room with the ease that came of having walked that way in the dark a thousand times before. Movie nights were somewhat of a tradition between me and my brother. "What, you didn't enjoy Marie telling you how amazing you were?" she inquired. I could almost see the wicked grin that accompanied the jab, and couldn't help but smile at the mental image. "That was a dare, by the way." "She didn't tell me anything I didn't already know," I shot back loftily. Honestly, it got rather repetitive at times, after the tenth girl a day had stuttered up to me. And it didn't mean a damn thing, either; they all moved on within a week or two, or at the very least, when they left school. Not to mention that they didn't have any taste to speak of look at the guys they ended going out with, people like Mann or just nerds. Those sort of words had no power to affect me anymore, not until a certain girl said them, and she didn't seem to be planning to anytime soon. "And who the hell was she, anyway?"

"Marie Jacobs. Pretty, blonde, not completely intolerable." I grinned at Emma's list of attributes. It was so purely Emma; no one else thought of people like that. "You should consider-" she stopped abruptly. "I should consider what?" I inquired curiously. She hadn't hesitated beforehand; she hadn't been trying to conceal something. This was different, not her almost giving away a secret but her hiding something else could it be an actual emotion? Or was that just my wishful thinking? "Nothing." Her voice was suddenly completely closed, and I knew better than to try to get anything else out of her. Annoying too that had sounded interesting. "But she and her sister Ellie are here with me and Candy, and Ellie's mind is way too evil." "Too evil even for you?" I chuckled, sitting back down at my desk and kicking my chair back so only the back two legs were on the floor, my feet resting on the table. "That's a scary thought." "I know, I've gotten soft in my old age," she laughed as well, and I could feel a shiver that had nothing to do with drafts go through my body as it resonated with the sound. "I think I've met my match in her" she trailed off thoughtfully. Vaguely afraid of her, or at least of that tone of voice, I changed the subject. Nothing good for anyone but her ever came out of that voice. "So, other than potentially evil children, how was it?" I asked, not really interested in the answer. It would be nice if Emma got more friends in my crowd, but being her, nothing I did would matter. She was fine alone, absolutely independent, a law unto herself without need of companions. And while sometimes that knowledge irritated me to no end, being aware that I wasn't needed, or at least that she could never admit it, it was also comforting that she would never become another clone. The world needed more Emma's just not in one place at the same time.

"Eh, fine. Lots of girl talk." I could almost hear her shudder. "I don't think I've had this much nail polish on in years." "Nail polish?" I asked with a buried laugh, instinctively hiding my smirk before I remembered she couldn't see it. I wouldn't put it past her to have somehow sensed it though. "You'd be surprised what three girls can coerce you into if you're unprepared," she retorted snippily. Maybe she had sensed it Her tone turned nostalgic. "And I haven't had a real sleepover for two years, at least." And I hadn't had a sleepoverwell, ever, but guys were different I supposed. Or maybe just I was. Although I did tend to stay the nights after parties- but that was common sense or necessity, not a slumber party. Falling asleep on accident didn't count. "Wow, did you really have no friends before I found you?" I teased, examining the stars I had glued to the ceiling with idle interest. I had been interested in astronomy once, for three odd months. But of course, my parents hadn't seen fit to notice I was defacing my room, so still the stars stuck; a testimony to my old capacity for enthusiasm. "I had a very good friend, I'll have you know," she snapped back, quickly enough that my attention flickered to the phone, but not angrily enough to keep it there. "But she moved away far away last year, and then the year before that she was totally immersed in her boyfriend" "Oh?" Hey, had I actually made constellations up there? That looked a lot like the Big Dipper from this angle oh, wait, no. That was a speck, not a star. "I mean, I couldn't object," Emma continued. Wow, she was talkative tonight. I wondered if Candy had provided alcohol, then decided against it. Emma wouldn't have consumed any even if it had been there. "They were really cute together, and I did set them up. But it gets lonely."

"I know what you mean," I agreed easily, still trying to figure out if those seven stars could be the Pleiades or just random. "When Brock was going out with Rhianna-" Suddenly, I realized what I was saying, and my attention snapped away from the ceiling, feet jerking off the desk and the front legs of my chair slamming to the floor. In the deep breath I took before I went on, I didn't register Emma's sharp intake of breath. Not then, anyway. "When Brock had a steady girlfriend, well, I didn't notice how much of a fixture he was in my life until he wasn't there." "Aww, did you miss him? Did you feel neglected?" To most people, Emma would have seemed mocking and mirthful, completely dismissive of anything I had to say. But I knew her better; I could tell, or at least my subconscious could, that she was nowhere near as calm as she appeared. In fact, she sounded nervous but Emma was never nervous, right? "A bit, yeah," I admitted, acknowledging to myself that I could never have told that to anyone else. "I'm used to him always being there, always having my back. He's the only one I ever let back me up. And thenhe wasn't ther e anymore. He was spending every waking second and some not waking-" a snort from the other end of the phone, "-with Rhianna." The scorn I instilled into that word could have frozen fire. "Well, that would have worn off in time," she assured me with incongruous certainty. What would she have known about relationships? She's only ever had one (that I knew of). Although, to be fair, what did I know? "Everything would have gone back to normal, if Rhi-" She stopped so abruptly that the last words were incomprehensible. I shrugged and leaned back again. All was back to normal now, and my Matchmaker plan was progressing well. Everything was good now, without Rhianna. "And also, I just don't get monogamy."

A sound that was halfway between a laugh and a sigh. "And what precisely does that mean?" she asked, enough offense in her voice that I actually answered with about as much though as I could spare form the stickers above me. "Doesn't it get boring? I mean, one person all the time!" Though I wouldn't get bored with you, I added mentally, but I didn't dare say it out loud. But honestly, if it was anyone else, the idea just seemed stupid. People were boring, as a rule. I could sense her eye roll. "Darien, you're a pig," she observed, disappointment coloring her reply. She didn't, however, sound surprised. I felt like that should have offended me. "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe, if you find the right person, every day would be an adventure, bright and new?" Yes. "I see that it works for some people." Images flashed through my mind. My parents. The Lexingtons. Brock and Rhianna, laughing together. Lex and Candy, dancing around each other but only delaying the inevitable. Emma and a shadowy figure with long dark hair, shining green eyes meeting a startling violet with a pure joy I could never evoke. I closed my eyes with a shudder, willing the image away. "But I don't think it's for me." "A pity." "Why?" she couldn't actually care could she? "Because-" she hesitated a second as if changing tracks mid-sentence. "Because when you rule it out, it won't happen." "Do you know how many clichs you've said in the last minute?" I countered, clearly sidestepping her comment. Maybe it was true, but that didn't matter. The only girl I could see myself with right now was off limits as no one had ever been before. And in a very real way, I was glad of that. Chains had never looked so inviting, but they were still chains.

"Yeah, well-" she stopped suddenly again, and I could hear rustling that meant she had moved the phone away from her ear. Unfortunately for her though, she hadn't covered the mouthpiece well enough, and I could hear every word. "Yeah, it's him," she muttered. Female sounding voices trilled with giggles (I recognized Candy's laughter), and somewhere in the background I could hear an unfamiliar voice cry, "Aww, how cute!" A smirk spread over my face, as it did every time someone suggested we should go out. This was one of the few times the masses obviously had the right idea. Usually, Emma would have snapped back belligerently, but this time to my delight her retort was far weaker. "Marie, shut up!" she hissed, still clearly audible over her muffling hand, "He can still hear us!" "Good. Darien," I recognized the voice now as the one that had called me earlier, though now she was shouting over Emma's clamped hand. She certainly seemed livelier now; sleep deprivation or alcohol I couldn't tell. "Just ask her out already! I promise she'll say-" "Bye Darien!" Emma yelped, slamming the phone shut so hard that the snap hurt my ear. Damn. Just when it was getting really, really, interesting. But would that girl Marie, I think it was have told me to ask Emma out if she actually thought she would say no? Marie certainly hadn't seemed malicious, or jealous that I hadn't asked her out. Maybewas it possiblethat Emma liked me back? She had almost kissed me- we were great friends and I didn't want to ruin that-She was beautiful-was maybe getting over Dan-hadn't gone out with anyone since I had known her-had turned down Mann- she had forgiven me, when she never forgives anyone.

But if she did like me, what then? Did I ask her out? I didn't want to mess up our friendship, as clich as that was, and I didn't know how to be a boyfriend. I didn't do relationships or fidelity; I wasn't capable of it. But, God, Emma I threw myself back onto the bed, staring up at the plastic stars that no longer seemed half so interesting. Starry night, hair black as night but silky smooth I was drifting off when a sudden, horrifying thought jolted me awake and bolt upright. This so messed up my plans for the Matchmaker!

Chapter 33

Emma "Emma!" The shrill cry loud enough that it should have made me clap my hands over my ears in pain at the volume and pitch cut through the crowded airport, making people wince away from the blur of movement rushing towards me in the wake of the yell. Seconds later, I was engulfed in a backbreaking hug, large enough to put a bear to shame. "Emma!" Rhi squealed again, finally releasing me and looking around for the bags she had inevitably dropped in her mad whirlwind. "Oh my god, I can't believe it's actually you! And in person too!" She was smiling the real Rhi smile now, the one that stretched from ear to ear and made her face glow with delight. I think Brock fell for that smile alone. "I know, it's about time, right?" I grinned back, just as excited as her, if somewhat quieter; I don't think I could ever reach that note. Rhi nodded enthusiastically, scooped up her bags, and began to walk, chattering non-stop. Yep, same old Rhi, tall and freckled and fire-haired, with a mouth as quick as her laugh.

"I mean, I feel like it's been forever since I was here. I know it's only been a year, but I still feel like you've changed soooo much. I bet everyone else has too." Only half-listening okay, maybe only a quarter listening I gestured her to Allan's car (still hadn't gotten around to getting my own caralright, not sure I wanted one). She tossed her bags in, still talking. "My parents won't be coming 'til next week, because they had business to finish up or something, but school starts so they let me come back early because they say I can take care of myself now." I snorted skeptically. "Or at least, they think so," she amended, beaming guiltily at me. "But how are people?" she continued with barely a breath, "I'm so excited to be back. How's Lex? It's so weird that he's your brother now. I mean, I knew he was, but now I'm gonna actually see it! Weird. Maybe if I had a brother, I wouldn't have had to move. But, in a way, it was better this way. Brock and I are both sure of ourselves now. Or at least, I am." Ah, now we got to the part of her rambling that I had been expecting and she had been waiting to throw in. "How is he, by the way?" "He's fine," I replied calmly, most of my attention on the road. I hadn't driven for a while. After all, I could usually get a ride, and I didn't often feel like borrowing car or driving for that matter. Although, I realized with a shock, I hadn't thought about Dan in weeks. Had I finally made it past him? Or, my conscience whispered in my mind, had someone else just replaced him? Hurriedly, before Rhi could notice my lapse into introspection, I went on, "Still pining after you, of course. I could track the progress of your relationship last year by his mood on any given day." She laughed merrily, her giggle as musical as Candy's (Why did I always have to be friends with people who can laugh prettily? It wasn't my fault that I couldn't laugh as daintily) but somehow more real, less contrived. "That's good. How awful and un-storybook-ish would it be if he had gotten over me? Not that I even thought that that could happen, because he's Brock, but still I was a tiny teensy bit worried." What on earth did she have to be

worried about? She was living a freaking fairy tale; her prince would never do anything as ignoble as forgetting her. Her life would end up with a happily ever after, just like it started with a once upon a time. "Well, don't worry, that hasn't happened," I assured her. A shy smile curved her perfect, cupid-bow lips, and I couldn't be bitter. Everything would be all right in her world, after a year of mess ups, and I couldn't begrudge her that. Not even when I knew my own problems couldn't be remedied by some boy's kiss. We pulled into her driveway after 15 more minutes of her amiable chatter and my contented silence. It was nice to have her back; phones just couldn't do her justice. My new friends were great and all, but there was something liberating about a friend who had known you for ten years, ever since she had happened to come up to you at a broken down old playground next to the kindergarten her mother was visiting. "So," Rhi panted as we finally managed to lug the last of her bags up three flights of stairs to her room, "I should call him now." Like usual, there was no question about who 'he' was. With her, I always knew. Her hand was already on her phone when my inner dramatic reared its head, the Matchmaker possessing my mouth. "Wait," I snapped. She froze midway through opening the phone, silver-grey eyes wide and scared. "Why?" I could see the panic rising in her face, terror that I had been lying or softening the truth for her sake (but honestly, when had I ever had pity on someone?). "Is he with a girl right now? I knew it! You were lying! Why didn't you just tell me? I could've taken it. He's forgotten me already! How dare him! How-" tears were growing in her eyes, huge, silent drops that Rhi could summon at need; that made her look so attractive and vulnerable; that I was pretty sure had captured Brock. "No, it's not that," I cut her off before she could really hit her spazzing stride. Rhi could really irritate me when her melodrama exploded into a mushroom cloud of tears and yells. "It's just, well, don't you want a better entrance?"

"What do you mean?" she asked cautiously, setting down the phone. I grinned wickedly at her, leaning closer with conspiratorial glee. I knew her too well. "Don't you want more of a surprise than just giving him a call? Wouldn't you rather make an entrance? A fairy tale, dramatic entrance that'll knock his socks off and remind everyone just why they believed in love?" I had caught her. By the end of my speech, Rhi's expression matched mine, impishly excited with eyes glowing in anticipation. "Did you have something in mind?" Her phone was back in her pocket; I had won. The scene played itself out behind my eyes, the ending of their romance novel, the happily-ever-after. "How does this sound," I proposed, slowly at first but getting faster as the plan took shape as clearly as a cloudless day. "Brock's birthday is tomorrow- as I'm sure you know." She nodded. "We- Darien and Allan and I- are throwing him a birthday party that night, at our house. If you came a bit late, texted me or something so I could let you in, and then I could say something like, 'Brock, I have a gift for you'" An hour or so later, and we had fleshed out our scheme down to the minute detail of her outfit, which Rhi insisted was the most important part. Rhi was perched on the edge of her bed; I was sitting cross-legged at the head of the bed, and the blue rugged floor was covered with a rainbow of clothes that had been considered and discarded. "So, enough about me," she finally said, collapsing exhaustedly to the floor and curling up there, like a bird in a crow's nest. "What's been up with you? How's Darien" She held out his name for a teasing stress, as sing-songy as a child chanting lovey-dovey, mocking rhymes at an older sibling. "Okay," I admitted reluctantly, not meeting her eyes. Just because she was right didn't mean I had to let her rub it in. "Maybe I do like him. A lot."

"I knew it!" she cried, jumping up and spraying clothes everywhere, all her fatigue forgotten. This excited her even more than coming home, apparently. And people called me a romantic, just because I was the Matchmaker. Rhi outdid me by a mile. "I totally told you so! I was so right!" "Yes, you were," I muttered into my hands, rolling my eyes. This was why I had resisted telling her. She made such a big deal about it. It's not like my epiphany had even changed me and Darien's friendship at all. "So," she chirped, grey eyes fixed on me with all the piercing intensity of any trained interrogator, "Does he like you too?" She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, blinding hair swinging around her shoulders. She had cut it, I noticed in a desperate non sequitur to distract myself, but it didn't work for long. She gave me a sharp look, and I caved. I hadn't been able to talk to anyone about this, and I had been aching to confess. "I don't know!" I moaned, rolling back onto the white eyelet coverlet, my hands over my eyes. I really did not enjoy this whole crushing thing; there was a reason they called it agony. But it never looked this painful from the outside, as the Matchmaker; I hadn't gone through this since Dan. Damn Darien and his stupid emotion-inducing tendencies. "He's been acting even weirder than usual. First he's really attentive, and I swear I've caught him staring at me, and sometimes he'll start saying something that sounds like it's going to be really meaningful, but then he goes cold and runs away from me. He'll avoid me, and then appear behind me and be really talkative and friendly. There are times I know he likes me- the other day he almost kissed me again, if we hadn't been interrupted- but then he acts like he dislikes me. I called him twice yesterday-" Rhi shot me a laughing look full of significance, and I scowled, "it was about the party, shut up. Anyway, he didn't answer. And that wouldn't mean anything, but Allan called him between those two times and he picked up, and he denied even getting my calls when Allan asked. God!" I groaned and hit my head in frustration, "I just don't understand him!"

Rhi snorted. "What?" I demanded, still fixating on the palms of my hands, considering the lines on them. Two lines crossed- I wondered if that would mean anything to palm readers, and if I would care if it did. I would prefer to have my fate in my own hands; I hated predestination. I needed to be in control of my own life. Which, of course, was why this vacillation was so damned painful. "You're the Matchmaker," she replied in a choked voice, holding back her laughter with difficulty. I raised my head to look at her. Her lips were clenched closed, as if opening them would release her mirth. Hmph. See if I was sympathetic the next time she had issues with Brock. "What's your take on it? You should know, after all. I mean-" "I don't know!" I repeated, head falling back down onto the bed. She made it sound so easy, but it wasn't, not when it involved me. "I told you, it seems like he likes me. Usually. Sometimes. But he's still Darien, and he still flirts with every girl in sight, and-" "He could be trying to make you jealous," Rhi suggested easily, still in that gleefully muffled voice. I propped myself up on my elbow so I could glare at her. This was not as simple as she thought. "You think that hasn't occurred to me?" I retorted, irritated but not so annoyed that I couldn't recognize the irony of our switched positions. About a year and a half ago, we had had this exact same conversation quite a lot; only, the guys were different and our parts were reversed. And my story probably wouldn't end up like hers. "But he certainly seems enthusiastic about a ploy like that." "Well, duh. I mean, he is a guy," she drawled, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world which I suppose it was. I favored her with my very best Not-Helping look (which I had perfected years ago on her) and she shrugged. "Well, just last until school starts. I'm sure the Matchmaker can figure it out." She leaned down and began gathering up her scattered cloths, like the neat freak

that hides deep inside of her. "By this time next week, everything'll be back to normal." Normal. Darien giving notes to the Matchmaker, trying to woo her for some unknown reason. Me, refusing to flirt with him for fear of showing my own vulnerability, but longing for him to start it. Rhi and Brock back togetherdamn it. Unless Darien was a lot thicker than I had thought (and he wasn't), Rhi's return would be the catalyst for the revelation I had been dreading for a year. He had to be able to connect the dots once he knew about my connection to Rhi. Damn. Damn damn damn damn damn. I fell back onto the covers, staring at the ceiling with a gaze that could only see proud, kind eyes a blue as changeable as the sea. Rhi was right, in a way. This time next week, everything would be decided.

Darien Tonight would be the night. I had been indecisive long enough, almost asking Emma out a dozen times in the past two weeks and then chickening out. But, I decided, that was going to end. I wasn't a coward, whatever else I might have been; no girl could say no to me anyway, and Emma Laycha would be no exception. I hoped. I was Darien McGavern, after all, and I refused to be ruled by a slip of a girl anymore. By the end of tonight, I would have a yes or a no, and that would either be the end of that or the beginning. It was with that decisive mindset that I walked into Emma's house, just before the party began. For once, I was early, but as I was officially one of the hosts, I figured I had to be. Emma had clearly been at work for a while now; the downstairs, public area of the house was already set out with the usual party fixtures. Someone (I suspected Emma, or at least I bet she had been the one to think of it) had hung a huge banner from one end of the wall to the other, reading 'Happy Birthday Brock!' One thing you had to say for Emma, she didn't think small.

"Hey, Dar!" Lex came shuffling into the room from the kitchen, glancing over his shoulder in fear. At the sight of me, he put on a burst of speed and darted behind me. Him being hundred pounds heavier and four inches taller I didn't really hide him very well. "Thank God you're here. You can protect me from-" Emma entered the room through the same door, foot tapping impatiently. "her," Lex finished with a squeak. Apparently not unexpectedly she was on the warpath. "Oh, good, Darien, you're here," she acknowledged curtly in a horrible contrast with her welcoming brother, "You can help." Lex made a noise somewhere between a sigh of relief and a squeal of protest. She fixed him with a stern gaze that I nearly quailed under, even though it wasn't directed at me. "You," she ordered without room for disobedience, "Will stay here. People should be coming soon." "But-" she rolled her eyes. "You look fine," with a single, preemptory look up and down him. She yanked the collar of his polo shirt straight and ruffled his hair carefully. "Candy will drop dead with awe. Now, Darien," she clamped a hand over my wrist, "Come on." She dragged me into the dining room, where a massive, sugary, chocolaty concoction decorated the same way as the banner dominated the table. "He's useless," she confessed with a laugh, her martinet's behavior dissolving in the wry chuckle, "All he's been doing for the last hour is look in the mirror. I swear, he's as bad as Candy." I grinned, trying to convince myself that I wasn't nervous. This was it, the moment of truth. I had it all planned out, was ready to turn on all my vaunted charm, could hear myself saying the words if only she would stop talking! "So I think we're all ready which is good, because people should be coming soon but I feel like I'm forgetting something, which I'm probably not, but you know

that phantom feeling you get?" she rubbed her palms against the tight, dark fabric of her jeans. "It's so-" "Emma." I cut her off, looking down at her with a fond, exasperated smile, placing a single finger over her mouth to stop her. "You're babbling." I could feel warm, dry lips curve into a sheepish smile against my skin, but she obediently shut up, eyes shining nervously as green as her t-shirt. But why would she be nervous? I was the one who should be. Not that I was, or anything. "Can I talk to you?" I asked, giving myself a mental punch at how stupid I sounded. Of course I could, I was already talking to her! Why the hell did she make me feel so much like an awkward preteen asking his first girl out? "Umm sure. But you already are, you know, so asking was pretty inane-" she started talking again as soon as I moved my hand, but before I could interrupt her, merry bells chimed throughout the house. "Oh, look at that, someone's here. We should go greet them." Apparently forgetting that she had left Lex out there for just that purpose, she rushed into the other room. I followed, totally bemused. What on Earth was wrong with her tonight? I had never seen her like this, skittish and discombobulated and barely in control of herself. In a way, that spoke of the trust she gave to me that she would show that tenseness, but it also scared me. Anything that made Emma so confused did not bode well for the rest of us. Could she know what I was going to that didn't matter. I would get my say tonight; no matter how hard she avoided me. o0O0o0O0o Two hours later, the party was already half over, and I still hadn't managed to corner Emma. I should have known it would be difficult; this was the girl who could go as good as invisible at will. But she had to do that on purpose why would she be fleeing me? She couldn't know what I was going to do, because that would mean she would find it undesirable, and that simply wasn't possible.

Anyway, for all of her vaunted perception, she couldn't know. And what girl wouldn't want to hear me out? "Emma!" Finally, I identified the smooth black head and grabbed her sweaty forearm, yanking her out of the mass of dancing bodies. Surprised, she stumbled and nearly fell onto me. I caught her instinctively and pushed her upright, trying to forget the feeling of that lithe body against mine. Was she drunk? I had never seen her like this before, sober or not. "Oh, hi Darien!" she gushed, pushing wet hair out of her eyes. She must have been dancing for a while, because she no longer had the put-together air that she usually did. Sweat-soaked black strands stuck to her face, framing eyes that glowed feverishly, almost hysterically. Her shirt hung off center on her slim shoulders, the modest neckline falling tantalizingly to one side to reveal just enough pale skin to be provocative. "This is a nice party, isn't it? We did well. People are enjoying themselves, I think. Brock's having fun, anyway, which is good because it's his-" "Shut up." The glare she gave me was pure Emma, and I was glad to know something was normal. She was still herself, if in a really messed up mood. "Can you just keep still for a second and let me talk without running away? I have something to say, and I'm going to say it." She bit her lip but nodded, her head raised like she was about to face the firing squad, solemn as a criminal facing a judge. I took a deep breath. Now was the time for the speech I had written. It was a good one, too, striking just the right note between arrogance and selfdeprecation. "Emma, we've been friends for a while now, and I do enjoy that. But-" she was staring at me now, and the look in her eyes, half terrified and half excited, drove my rehearsed oration right out the window. "Look, Emma, I like you. A lot. In a more-than-friends sort of way. So, umm" Her incredulous gaze was working its magic on me, voiding my mind of words as only she could. Of course, it had to be the girl I actually liked who made me sound like a complete idiot. "Yeah," I finished lamely, waiting for the axe to fall.

A moment of silence amidst the sea of noise. Time may have stopped as her eyes pierced through me, and I met them as squarely as I could. For that unending, infinitesimal instant, it seemed like she was judging me, considering if I was worthy, and I bristled with offended prideThen she was kissing me like I had never been kissed before, and I only had half a second to reassure me that she had not, in fact, been drinking before all other thoughts had fled. This wasn't like the sloppy, drunken kiss of New Year's, but it wasn't the tender almost-kiss of a month ago. She attacked me with her passion, like she was trying to burn something from her lips or into them. And this time I had no qualms, and my arms were finding their way around her waist as she buried her hands in my hair and damn she was so fucking hot and her lips weren't warm and dry anymore but wet and fiery. Then, as quickly as it had begun, Emma pulled away, a panicked look on her face, and before I could react she had slipped away into the mob. I stood, frozen, for a second. That was a yes. It had to be. She just had a habit of disappearing in times of intense emotional stress. A kiss had to mean she liked me, though, especially a kiss like that. Not even Emma could feign that sort of passion. Right? With that in mind, my paralysis broke and I was off, once more on the lookout for Emma. After all, confirmation was always good. In words, that is. What were we supposed to do now, anyway? Were we going out? Did I, Darien McGavern, most affirmed of young bachelors, have a girlfriend? Or were we just friends who liked each other? Damn it, why couldn't she remember that I couldn't read her there, that was definitely her shirt. "Brock." Emma entered the circle around the birthday boy just as I did from the other side, looking perfectly assured and calmly excited, most certainly not the girl I had just kissed. The dancing lights reflected off the absolute black of her hair and white of her skin, giving her an eerie air of otherworldliness. "I have a birthday present for you." And, as he looked up with laughter still echoing in his

face, she stepped aside to reveal a tall girl with hair as red as fire and eyes the grey of molten silver, smiling with uncertain joy. The laughter vanished from Brock's face as he stared blankly at the girl before him. Moving as if he was in some sort of gel, with long, slow, uncertain movements, he stood, still gazing at her as if he was afraid looking away would make her dissolve. "Rhi?" he choked, one hand running through his auburn hair, "Rhianna?" "Brock," she said, and her very voice was a caress that made me feel indecent for being in the same room as them as if she hadn't abandoned him a year ago. Her hand rose, as if to touch his face, but when he still didn't move she stopped, unsure. "Brock," she repeated with growing desperation, "I'm back." Still he stared woodenly at her, eyes hard and emotionless. The circle that surrounded them was frozen, as if to move would be to break the fairy-tale spell in the center. We were the backdrop, no more, and we all felt that and were trapped in it. "For how long?" he asked brusquely. Her hand dropped at the anger in his voice. Ha, take that. How dare she just come prancing in here, so sure he'd take her back after all the pain she caused him! She had broken his heart; she deserved all this and so much more. From across the circle, I caught sight of Emma, standing tense but poised to spring at any second. The silence stretched on as Rhianna studied the floor. Suddenly, her head went up, and, with a newfound resolution, she took a step forward. "Forever," she murmured, her hand rising once more to rest against Brock's cheek. His fists clenched into fists at his side. I could tell what an effort it was costing him to stand there, impassive but he better stay firm. Throw her to the curb, that's what he should do. "I'll never leave you again," she said again in the horribly soft, tender, seductive voice. I could see, with agonizing clarity, just when Brock melted. His large hand engulfed hers as he brought it to his chest. "Thank God," he muttered hoarsely,

drawing her close, "I couldn't lose you again." She leaned closer and he bent his head down to meet her, and I ducked out of the circle, unable to stand it anymore. How could he do that? How could he just forgive her, like she hadn't smashed his heart to pieces? How could heEmma wandered by the nook I stood in, trying to subdue my fury enough to make myself fit for human contact. I grabbed her roughly and wrenched her beside me, without any solicitude for her surprise. This time, she didn't stumble, nor did she gush. Her fey mood had passed, and she was cool once more. But that didn't matter. "How the hell," I hissed with tightly contained rage, none of the awkward, stumbling passion of only minutes ago anywhere evident in my voice. "Do you know Rhianna?" Emma turned calm eyes on me, no distress or anxiety or denial in them, only cool resignation. They were the eyes of a martyr at the block, who knows he is to die but has made peace with the fact, or of one of the old Roman patriarchs, about to drink his bitter cup surrounded by his friends. "She's my best friend," she answered tranquilly, her voice only loud enough to be heard by me but in no way hesitant or ashamed, as impassive as her face. "Has been for years." A veil lifted abruptly, night turned to day, the puzzle clicked into place. A cog finally fell into its gap and the whole mechanism began to turn. All the hints, everything I had learned in the past year but hadn't understood, came together, and I could finally see the awful, convicting whole. Rhianna, Emma's best friend. Emma had set her best friend up. The Matchmaker had set up Brock and Rhianna. How Emma knew so much more than she had any right to. Why she had my notepaper, way back when. How the Matchmaker

knew

about

me.

Where

Emma's

locker

was,

goddamit,

right

below

the

Matchmaker's! Everything finally made a horrible sort of sense. "Emma," I stated with a cold, absolute certainty that left no room for argument or doubt, "You're the Matchmaker."

Chapter 34

Emma

The music still pounded around us. People still yelled and laughed and danced and cheered. Normal life was flowing on its accustomed path. But for me, the whole world had focused onto a single face and the four words that it had declared, words that I had dreaded and expected ever since our first meeting, just under a year ago. Emma, you're the Matchmaker Then, just as quickly, my panic receded and the world returned with a blast of sound loud enough to stun me. Darien was staring at me, incredulous revelation warring with anger in his face as his own shock lessened. My brain was working on hyper-speed, the adrenaline of the confrontation to come already rushing through my body and making it tingle with anticipation. I couldn't let him explode here, where everyone could hear it. With any luck, I could contain this information, though my luck had apparently run out. Fast as lightening (or at least, faster than him) my hand was around his wrist and I was dragging him out of the party, up the stairs and away from the people who could be so fatal for my alter ego. Stuck in the paralysis of his surprise, he let me pull him into the den- the den where, only a few weeks ago, we had so nearly kissed- but when my grip loosened he shook off my hand instinctively, like it was contaminated. Hmph. He wasn't objecting to my touch twenty minutes ago.

"You're the Matchmaker," he repeated slowly, as if connections were still being made n his mind as the whole, hateful web spread out in front of him in all of its fateful glory. There was no point denying it. Not after seeing Rhi, not after all I had told him in my stupid vulnerability, and certainly not after my too telling reaction. "Yes," I stated calmly, perching on the arm of the couch in carefully tense relaxation. He already had a height advantage over me; I wasn't about to sit to give him a larger one. "I am." I kept my voice resolutely even, not belligerent. He looked like too many thoughts were going through his head to voice any of them. I braced myself for a furious yell, or a hurt plea, or some sort of indignation. What I didn't expect was for him to say, in a voice so tight that I was half waiting to hear it snap like an overstretched rubber band, "Do you know what you've done?" The assumed condemnation irritated me. "I helped dozens of people find their match? I gave some people who wouldn't normally have it hope that there was somebody out there for them? " I inquired sardonically. I had done nothing wrong; he would not put any blame on me. I had done absolutely nothing wrong. "I added a bit of mystery to the prosaic high school life?" "You ruined lives?" he spat back, light reflecting weirdly off his blue-white eyes and making them burn with caged lightning. I refused to be provoked. I had always known he would react like this, known how much he hated the Matchmaker, although I still didn't know why, I would probably find out very, very soon. But if I was so damn omniscient, why did his fury hurt so much? "I've done no harm," I firmly maintained, standing my ground. I would not retreat, not now. To show weakness would be to be destroyed. Or, at least, destruction for the Matchmaker. "No harm!" for a moment, he was lost for words, his fists clenching and unclenching with ominous control. "You've broken hearts!"

"So have you," I replied easily, leaning back against the couch. My disinterest was maddening him, I could tell, but I didn't care. In fact, I relished this fight: the fight to end all fights. It had been building for too long, had simmered to a boil. By the end of this, all would be decided. "Yes, but-" he gestured futilely at the air in front of him, grasping at nothing in a desperate attempt to articulate what seethed inside of him. He should have looked ridiculous. He didn't. "Those were honest heartbreaks. You don't even have the courage to man up to what you did!" He didn't. He didn't just go there. For a second, I let loose the bonds of my own anger at being unfairly accused. "Honest? What the hell do you know about honest?" I asked with lethal, mocking sarcasm, my eyes never leaving his. "I know when I've messed up, and I try to set it right. You, you- you've broken more hearts than the Matchmaker ever could. Has even one of them mattered to you? Have you ever looked at the pain you created?" I hadn't moved from my lounging pose, but Darien stood straighter, resisting a blow, "Have you ever realized that you've caused Brock's heartbreak in far too many innocent girls, just because you were bored and they were there?" I had touched a nerve. Darien took a step closer, a tiger stalking his prey. "Those girls never cared about me like Brock did Rhia-" I laughed, a cold, contemptuous laugh that set my own teeth on edge. The voice that came from my mouth wasn't that of Emma, the girl who had a crush on Darien and who depended on her friends. It was that of a different Emma, who had graduated from the school of life with blood as her gown and tragedy as her diploma, and she neither cared nor needed anyone. And never would again. "Oh, keep telling yourself that," I chuckled without mirth, icy eyes boring into Darien's, who met ice with the fire of his own gaze. "You don't know anything about them. Maybe it was all puppy love, or hero worship. Maybe Mia Smith going anorexic and depressed after you dumped her was a coincidence." Darien opened his mouth, but I overrode him. I would have bet he had no reply to

make, anyway. He couldn't argue with fact. "Or maybe," I continued, leaning in closer with my voice lowering to a sibilant whisper, "Those girls liked you in the way of teenagers, like Brock and Rhi, and you devastated them by using and tossing them away." "I did not-" he began to insist, but then thought better of it. He was too adept at this battle of words to let himself get trapped on the defensive. Attack, as my sensei always said, no one ever wins by defense. "Whatever I did or didn't do is immaterial. You- and Rhianna," the hatred in his voice as he snapped her name almost made me shiver. This ran deeper than a mere grudge against a girl who had stolen his best friend away from him. "The two of you broke Brock's heart. You nearly destroyed him." "You think I meant to do that?" I demanded, my icy calm melting a little despite my best efforts. I might have been many things- liar, manipulator, coward- but he had no right to accuse me of that. None at all. "Do you think, even for a second, that Rhi wanted to leave? She was as attached to Brock as he was to her- how could you even conceive of her wanting to leave?" "Then why'd she go without a word?" he retorted. He had no pretense of his usual control; his temper, so rarely roused, had blazed into a raging fire. He had passed over the quiet, harsh anger that he usually indulged in- or maybe he just hadn't reached it yet. That was the part I dreaded. Ice could put out fire, but it had no power against something as frozen as itself. "Why'd she leave him to find out she had fucking moved to England by a fucking letter?" "I don't know," I shot, vaguely sardonic contempt. I wasn't Rhi's keeper, after all- and that decision had never made sense to me, for all she could say about wanting to protect him from knowing about her engagement. I wasn't going to make her choices for her. "Why don't you ask her? Maybe she didn't want Brock to know her parents had gotten her engaged. Maybe she thought that would hurt even more. OR maybe she was just a coward. I hate to break it to you," one of my lips twitched in an expression that was part sneer and part snarl, "but people who aren't as perfect as you make mistakes. We're awfully fallible

creatures, humans; sometimes mortals fuck up. Not that you would know thatyou couldn't deign to err." My irritation at his arrogance, buried for the months of friendship, come out in a rush of scornful sarcasm. "Well, forgive me if I don't make mistakes that demolish people," he growled, taking a step closer, one hand running through his hair in distracted fury. "But you don't know the cost of your mistake. You didn't have to put your best friend back together again from scratch!" "What makes you think I haven't?" I was on my feet now, my hard-won calm overwhelmed by rage at his persistent, idiotic blindness. How dare he suggest that? He knew nothing. "Rhi didn't leave on purpose. It was her parents- rich, aristocratic, stuck up people like you- who forced her into it. For the good of the family, they saidtell me, McGavern, would you rather have had Rhi throw her prospects to the dogs, for something that would have inevitably ended? Tell me," I glared up at him, challenging him to actually think for once, "What would you have done?" He didn't take my up on my dare. Of course. He could criticize me for my alter ego, but a bit of self-introspection and he shied away like a dog from its master's club. "I sure as hell wouldn't have run away! I wouldn't have ditched my boyfriend without explanation. Do you know what the worst part of it was, Matchmaker?" If I had thought there was hatred in his voice when he uttered Rhi's name, it was nothing to how he spat my own moniker. The absolute disgust contorted his handsome face into a trollish mask. "It was the not knowing. It was the constant paroxysms of doubt, of wondering why she disappeared, what he had done wrong. Tell me, Matchmaker, does that seem like a good match for my friend?" "Why isn't Brock mad at Rhianna, then?" I demanded. That had always struck me as the one false note in his smoldering anger at the Matchmaker. Why was he so keen for revenge when his friend, the one who was wronged, wasn't? I had

always felt like there was something more than the righteous anger he claimed, something more primal than that: envy at her influence, maybe? Fear of her power over him? "Why didn't he take part in your plot to get back at the Matchmaker? By the way, what was your plan? What were you going to do to her? Break my heart?" I snorted. "A bit too late for that." Like I was stupid enough to let myself get attached to anyone again. I had been taught the lesson of a closed heart in a vicious school. I had just forgotten for a while. I swallowed, and I could feel the walls around my emotions rising once again with a strength that wasn't as satisfying as it had once been. His face turned a deeper red than his fury warranted, and I knew I had guessed right. An ugly smirk spread over my face. He needed to be brought down to earth, to realize he could be touched and defeated by us mere lesser people; that he wasn't on the top of the world. And I was delighted, with that nasty, fey streak that sometimes manifested in me, that I had taught him that. I laughed, cruel with all the snubs of everyone he had ever walked over. "Oh, grow up Darien! You aren't a god; you can't just use peop-" "No, you grow up." he cut me off, the icy fury that meant his rage had reached its truest, most dangerous form, finally appearing. At least that anger made him almost terrifyingly logical. I could argue with that anger. "The world isn't a storybook, a stage with you as the director. You can't manipulate everyone around you; you can't play with their lives and loves like they're only toys." He advanced and, cowed despite myself by the force of his conviction, I took a step back, though I still met his burning eyes boldly. He didn't know- he didn't know anything. But, then again, he knew everything that mattered. "You've complained, again and again, about how arrogant I am. Well, at least I let people make their own decisions. I grant them free will. I don't force anyone to do anything, through strength or intimidation or manipulation. You, you don't bother to let them live their own lives. The Matchmaker- you, sitting on your cloud of mysteries and dramatic, story book past- is nothing more than one more tool for you to control anyone, for all you say about how much you

value you your own independence and choices. Borck was undoubtedly happy with Rhianna, but maybe he would have been happier with someone else. I don't know- but I would have let him choose, make his own mistakes. You don't allow anyone enough intelligence to do that. And frankly," his eyes blazed with electricity and power, "I'm done letting you manipulate my life. I get enough of that at home." He spun on his heels and stalked to the door. I stood immobile behind him, glued to the floor by his fiery words. I had never thought of anything like thathe couldn't be right. I was seized with a sudden, desperate desire to make him understand, to force him to see how he was- had to be- wrong. "Darien," I called as his hand reached the doorknob and turned it. He didn't react; the proud set of his back didn't change. "Once I won a favor off of you. I'm calling on it now." He froze in the doorway, his hand still clenched around the handle.

Darien

"What?" I spat, my voice as taut as my body. More than anything, I wanted to leave this room, to leave her and all the unspoken promises she had broken, but I couldn't. I had given my word, and now I was bound by it as securely as if it had been a rope around my neck. "Stay," she was speaking in that damned reasonable, seductive voice that, without the fire of my rage, would have convinced me without the collar of my honor. My fingers tightened convulsively around the doorknob, knuckles white against the polished wood. "Stay, and listen. I don't expect you to understand. I don't even expect you to believe me, but- I just want you to know." Excruciatingly slowly, I released my grip and turned, face expressionless against

the vague bemusement of her face. What right did she have to sounds reasonable? I didn't want to Matchmaker to be reasonable; I wanted her to be the unlikable, despicable creature I had always imagined her as. "Fine." I faced her, emotionless as I could possibly be. She would not get a reaction out of me; she didn't deserve it. She wasn't even looking at me, her eyes staring into the air behind me like she saw something no one else could. I glared. If she was going to keep me here, damnit, she should at least look at me! "It started when I first came to this school." It wasn't like the last time she had shared her history, so long ago in the warm, charged gloom when I had had my fatal revelation that was all a lie. It all was. She was nothing more than another facet of the Matchmaker, and the Matchmaker destroyed lives and controlled people. "I didn't know anyone except Rhi- we've been friends forever, even with the demographic differences, and I came in late that year, still on crutches and given up on therapy. I was ready to change, to be someone other than Dan's girlfriend, to put him behind me." I snorted. It was always about him, wasn't it? That level of obsession was contemptible. For someone so compulsively defensive of her independence, she sure spent a lot of time letting other people define her. "I didn't mean for it to get this big- never would have expected it, even if I had wished it," she continued in the same measured, dispassionate voice, like she was telling a vaguely interesting story about someone she barely knew. "At first, it was because two of my acquaintances liked each other and wouldn't admit it. I didn't tell anyone it was me because- well, I didn't tell anyone." Of course she wouldn't, with her need for secrecy that went deeper than the bone. "And that worked really well. So then I tried again, with people I didn't know so well, people with whom I really only had my own skill to work with. And they're still happy together." She fixed me with a sharp, challenging gaze, but I didn't bother to respond. She had compelled me to listen- I wouldn't expend my energy more than necessary. I was standing tight and out of place, just inside

the door, strained as a bear in the center of a circle of dogs about to attack, my uncaring eyes never leaving her. "So the mystique spread- through rumors, and gossip, and the undeniable truth that the Matchmaker existed. I didn't start any of the talk or create it; the most I did was finding her locker." It was always her, I noticed. She never talked about the Matchmaker in the first person; why couldn't she just be honest and stop denying that the Matchmaker was her? She certainly wasn't ashamed of it, in her overweening pride. She wasn't even bothering to accept my anger as valid; those wide, bland eyes had stared at me as I was railing at her, apparently not even comprehending why I was yelling- but I didn't trust it. She had demonstrated very well how she could hide a snake behind a fascinating faade, and everyone knew how well she could lie. "The Matchmaker grew because of everyone else- your peers, the people you say that you're speaking for, made her. So, tell me, how do I have control issues if I had barely anything to do with it?" A part of me, small and growing smaller by the second, noticed how amazing she looked with her cheeks flushed angrily but with a totally impassive face: a calming figure in the middle of the room with the air of a fight about to happen. But most of me, the furious part that raged against the wrong done to my friend and the power of the Matchmaker, saw only an emotionless, detached girl, too closed off to care about anyone: the Matchmaker. And that vision of her, of the girl I had met in front of the Matchmaker's- her- locker, not the friend she had become, was quickly overwhelming any lingering fondness I had for her. "You started it; you didn't finish it," I informed her, voice steely. Even as she receded into the faceless, malicious creature, I could feel myself shifting back into the person I had used to be - I usually was - the person who took orders from no one. "You could have walked away and saved people a world of hurt when youre so called 'perfect match' went up in smoke."

"And why would I do that?" Angry now, defensive of the Matchmaker as she had never been about anything else, be it her friends or family. "Why do you refuse to see that the Matchmaker is a good thing? Sure, she doesn't have a 100 success rate- but who would? I make people happy; they like her. You're the only one who has an issue with her, who can't get it through his thick skull that the world isn't fucking prefect, and that people will get hurt, and that you have to learn to get a helmet. Who knows?" and now her voice had a cruel, primal quality in it, a sadistic delight that rejoiced in other people's suffering. "Maybe I did Brock a favor. Now he won't be so easy to hurt a second time. Because there's going to be another time- there always is." "Well, excuse me for not having a sob story in my past," I shot back, lips clenched as tightly together as I could and still speak. "But just because my boyfriend didn't die doesn't mean I don't know that life isn't all roses and bells." Maybe it was harsh; but it was deserved. "My life isn't perfect either; I have issues. I just don't go pushing my control issues and cynicism on everyone else-" "Oh, boo hoo," she laughed, anger no longer in her voice but only cold mockery, each note an icy dagger thrown to kill. "Poor little rich boy with his toys and whores and mansion. I'm soooo sorry for you." There was a wild, feral look in her eyes, like that of a captured tiger, caged but ready to strike out at her captors. "You can't talk- or are you a deprived child, Miss Lexington?" Honestly, I was tired of her always using my money as a trump card. Yes, I had never really known what it was to want something and not get it. But that didn't mean I was always content. I knew money couldn't buy happiness; she was the only person who hadn't figured that out yet. "At least your parents care about you." "Your parents care about you more than you think," she retorted, "You just can't see it because you're too wrapped up in what you want to see, too blindly convinced that you're some sort of tragic, neglected figure. Is that why you're such a promiscuous cad? Because the girls, at least, give you attention?" she

tapped her chin, face thoughtful except for her eyes, which glinted like sunlight off a glacier. "I'm sure Freud had something to say about that." "Oh, so now we're talking psychoanalysis?" She may have read more, but I could give as good as I got. Even if I had never before been the victim of her undiluted venom, her finely crafted words shaped for the sole purpose of penetrating every weak spot I had. I had seen her cut into Mann, mock my groupies but it'd never targeted me before. And she knew how to hurt, but she hadn't counted on one thing: in her anger or annoyance, she hadn't realized that the crueler she was, the less and less I saw her with any affection. "My intimacy issues haven't been showing in a desperate attempt to keep everyone away with layer upon layer of secrets. I haven't been schizophrenic, being two people." I could hear her heavy, angry breathing now, eyes nearly closed as she tried to contain her rage. Unsmiling, untriumphant, "I didn't set up my best friend with someone she would ditch after a year." "Do you think I wanted to?" she finally burst out, her voice soaring high and rough above my controlled hiss. "Do you think I would deign to set my best friend up with someone like Brock?" My nails dug into my palm. She took a deep breath, and then spoke again in a voice soft but all the more dangerous for that. "It's rather ironic, really." One long hand rested on the leather of the couch, and her eyes followed it, studying the contrast of white against brown with abstracted intensity. She couldn't even look at me. "My greatest failure and my highest success, all in the same couple. Failure, not only because she left, but also because I would never have done it. Success, because they were happier than anyone else." Suddenly hard, entreating green eyes darted up to meet mine, too fast for me to avoid. "I protested, you know, but Rhi insisted. She had liked him for forever after all, and had been nagging me about it since halfway through freshman year, when I finally got the means to help her. But I resisted. I wouldn't do it." "Why not?" I inquired, because it was apparent I was supposed to and I was still bound to listen. I wasn't at all curious- what went on in that crazy, convoluted mind was no business of mine.

"Because he wasn't good enough for her." She stated each word with enunciated carelessness, offhand like it was a fact everyone knew. Her eyes were boring into me now, any desire for me to understand drowned by malicious glee at just how furious it was making me. "Because I saw him as stupid and thick and dull and earthbound, not fit for someone airy and delightful like Rhi. Because I knew, in all my experience, that it wouldn't work." She took a step forward. I refused to retreat. "I let her make her own decision- her own, Darien- and I capitulated, and you know the rest. I didn't control her; I let her do what she wanted, and you know what happened? Life happened- glorious, awful life. Why do you care so damn much about the inevitable?" I didn't have to make excuses to her. I was in no way obliged to explain anything to her, who had evidently never told me anything honest about herself. "Because he's my friend, Matchmaker, and he didn't have a fighting chance. You set him up with a girl who was going to break his heart. You did that, for all your excuses. And no one does that to me, or my friends." I was done here, finished listening to the pointless justifications of the girl who had messed with my friend. I pivoted and stormed out again, but once more her soft voice stopped me. "Darien," she asked as I stood in the open doorway, her voice gentle and dispassionate and not at all belligerent. If anything, it was pleading and vulnerable. But I knew how well she could lie. "Are you going to tell people?" I paused, considering. She had as much on me as I had on her- friends could always hurt you the mostbut telling everyone the truth about the Matchmaker It was a very tempting proposition. That would be a fitting revenge indeed. "No," I decided, turning slowly, coldly to look at her, my face set into a contemptuous sneer, like something nasty smelling was beneath my nose. "You aren't worth it."

And then I was out the door and downstairs and through the party, ignoring Brock's concerned query of "dude, are you okay?" and Rhianna's pointed, concerned look (could she know? Of course she did, the partner and the asset). But I couldn't stay; the party was ruined for me, utterly and completely. I didn't stop moving, didn't start thinking until I was at home in my room, vaguely noticing Troy's wide eyes and Alfred's surprised eyebrow raise through the haze of anger and confusion and pure emotions that had covered my eyes since I had learned her dark secret. The veil had finally lifted- and right then, just for a second in my heart of hearts that I never had and never would reveal to anyone, I would have given anything to lower that veil again and forget everything I had seen beyond it. "God, Emma," I moaned, throwing myself back onto my bed and staring up at my starry ceiling, "Why did you have to do this to me?"

Chapter 35

Emma

"Emma!" I didn't react. One month after school started, and I really didn't feel like talking to anyone. No one wanted to talk to me, anyway, except for Rhi and Allan and, weirdly enough, Candy, who had flouted Darien's tacit command and still chatted with me (although not when Darien could see). "Emma, wait for me!" A voice too high to be male, too uncertain to be an upperclassmen, too insistent to be one of the people who had decided that they knew me because of the scandal caused by my break with Darien- who on earth could it be? I really didn't care. Associating with new people obviously didn't work out for me. I knelt down at my locker, ignoring the pounding feet that halted beside me.

"Emma" she trailed off, and I finally placed the voice. Ellie Jacobs, the freshman I had met at Candy's sleepover, Before. My life seemed to be divided into a lot of Before and Afters, now. But I was surprised she was talking to me; most of her crowd was too in thrall of Darien to do anything but snub me. "So, how are you?" she attempted as the silence stretched on. Once more I disregarded her. I had just had another solitary lunch that seemed much quieter than it had this time last year (Rhi had, as usual, sat with Brock, lost in her own little world), and I was not in a good mood at all. Though I didn't know why. "I haven't seen you much," she tried again, one fashionably booted foot tapping nervously against the floor. She was anxious about something, but why would I scare her? I only scared people I knew well or wanted to frighten, and she fell into neither category. I had reached the end of my tolerance, which was always short and had lately shrunk to nothing. Slamming my locker closed, I surged to my feet without looking at her. "What do you want?" I demanded belligerently, my arms clutched tightly around my books, studying the numbers of the Matchmaker's locker with uncalled for intensity. Although taken aback by my abrupt offensive, she collected herself with admirable speed. "I want to know what's up with you and Darien," she informed me calmly, adopting my own strategy of bluntness. I leaned against the Matchmaker's locker, schooling my face into impassiveness. "He has decided that I am not worthy of his time; I was reminded of how much of an ass he really is. Thus our current coldness." My voice was quiet, calm, controlled, and I was only telling the truth- so why didn't I feel sincere? Ellie took a deep breath, gathering her courage as the boot moved faster. I didn't blame her for the timidity; never the most welcoming person, I wasn't exactly being friendly. "Would this have to do with you being the Matchmaker?"

Finally, I turned to face her. She was staring at me, eyes wide and almost scared but lit with a challenging, excited light. But at least I don't make the same mistake twice; I wasn't about to give myself away again. "Why would you suggest such a ludicrous thing as that?" I inquired in measured tones, idly examining my nails. "Because I've been watching you!" She exclaimed animatedly. I raised an eyebrow at her, and she flushed, realizing how awkward that sounded. "Not stalking or anything," she hastily amended, the blush quickly receding from her cheeks, "I just suspected you, and I really really really wanted to find out because I just can't let a mystery lie and I've been curious about the Matchmaker since Marie told me about you because I think what you do is really cool and worthy, I guess. So I've been kind of staking out the Matchmaker's locker, and I've just been pondering it, and I came to the obvious conclusions, and-" "Ellie," I cut her off, allowing my lips to twist into a slight smile. God, did I ever feel old. And I was only three years older than her. Boys, that's who I blamed it on- two in particular. "You're babbling." Her cheeks turned red again, but the flow of words stopped. I eyed her carefully. If she blabbed to the wrong person- but then again, I had yet to confirm anything. I could walk away right now, and she couldn't do anything. "So," I asked, as if I didn't care and was only an impartial observer, "Have you found any conclusive evidence?" She opened her mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, far less impulsive this time. "Well, no," she admitted, her face falling, "Nothing really damning." I hid a grin. I covered my tracks well- usually. No one had ever found me out before or would again. "But," she added triumphantly, "I know it's you. You can't fool me; I-" she stopped suddenly, as if caught doing something she shouldn't.

"You what?" I prompted; my curiosity peaked. No one had ever come so close or had been so insistent about the Matchmaker's identity before. Why was she so different? No one had ever even suspected little 'ole me before. She looked away sheepishly, emotions playing over face so quickly that I couldn't quite get a read on them. "I got lost and overheard you and Darien fighting at Brock's birthday party," she confessed, Prada boots starting their rhythm again. Stupid! How could I have been so fucking idiotic? I knew that that room could be heard by anyone who walked by! Why the hell hadn't I taken him somewhere else, where we couldn't be overheard? Was just lucky it was her who heard, and not some gossip that would have spread it all over school by the next day. But there went my plan for denying it totally; she wouldn't be but off with a platitude about jokes. The best I could do now was to contain her. I sighed. "Okay," I muttered, glancing around to make sure that no one was there. Really certain, this time. "You're right." I fixed her with my firmest, most intimidating stare, the one created to quell drunk partiers and perfected by keeping Allan in line. "But you aren't going to tell anyone, right?" "Of course not!" she sounded honestly horrified at the thought; I had no choice but to trust her anyway. No revenge can work retroactively. "You're good for the school! No, I thought-" her eyes darted away from mine, suddenly bashful, "I thought I could help, or something." "I don't need any-" I cut off my instinctive protest of a solitary creature as the offer sank in. through her sister, she had entre into circles who shunned me, and she knew the younger kids better than I did. She could provide me with information and connections "Actually, you might be helpful." She looked up, an excited grin spreading over her face; a kid let loose in a candy shop. "Come to my house Saturday, and you can try to help me then. We'll see how it goes. In the meantime," I cautioned as her eyes glowed, "Keep your eyes open and your mouth closed. Now-" I talked over whatever she had opened her mouth to say. This was no sort of favor for her; it was pure, selfish laziness. An

apprentice meant less work for me. "I have to go to English. I will see you Saturday." I walked away before she could say anything else, a smile spreading involuntarily over me face. I had been worried about the inevitable death of the Matchmaker after I graduated, but who said she had to disappear when I did? I could train Ellie up all this year, and then maybe the title could be passed on without anyone being the wiser. We were allowed to pick our own lockers every year, and Ellie could have mine so that wouldn't be a problem; no one would notice if the handwriting of the Matchmaker changed Lost in my thoughts and plans, I didn't pay attention to my surroundings, and so when I walked into a strong back I didn't even notice the blockage until I had fallen and my books had gone every which way. The back turned, and I took one look into cold, crystal blue eyes before I glanced away, grabbing my books with as much dignity as I could muster while scrabbling on the floor. Of course, he didn't have the common courtesy to assist me, despite the fact that the collision was his fault too. Darien gave me a single, mocking scan (damn damn damn my clumsiness, why did I have to look like a moron in front of him?), snorted, and turned back to his groupies, a slight sneer on his face, too slight for anyone but someone who knew, or had known, him well to catch. My face not changing expression at all, I rose and swept away without a backward glance, all my previous contentment driven out of my mind by a pair of icy eyes. This hadn't been like the time we had fought over Mann. That time, after the first blaze of anger, all that had kept us from apologizing was the pride we (well, mainly- okay, only- me) couldn't swallow. But now both of our fury were very, very real, and with more than pride to fuel it. More than just the Matchmaker had been revealed; all the little thing, the mosquito bites that had irritated us for months, had been exposed in the glorious supernova of our friendship. And it was over; this wasn't just another of our habitual fights. We

weren't conspicuously ignoring each other this time; we didn't even know each other. It wasn't avoiding the other's eyes; it was sneers and mockery and pretending we had never been anything more than enemies. Except we had been, and I was having trouble forgetting that. I slipped into my usual back corner seat of English class early and pulled out a book, trying to dismiss the idea that, but for a single secret, I would have been chatting happily with Darien. o0O0o0O0o "As a whole," Mr. Corman, the teacher announced, returning our tests with his usual inviting grin suppressed under a sad, serious frown. Brand new to teaching and the school, with a friendly, sunlit disposition and looks to match, he was by far my favorite teacher this year. "I was not very impressed by these. I know it's not the easiest book, and I know half of you hate my guts for making me read it, but all in all, not your best work. With a few notable exceptions," he added with a smile that suited his face far better as he handed me back a sheet with a big red A scrawled across the top. I bit my lip so as not to grin. Well, I certainly should have done well; I adored that book. "We all know that all Laycha does is study and read anyway," came Darien's contemptuous drawl from the opposite corner, cutting through my pride in a job well done. I could feel his eyes on me, taunting and scornful, but I refused to let that affect me. Darien meant nothing to me, nothing at all. I didn't miss him; not his smile or his laugh or his wit or his eyes or his voice or his- I didn't miss him at all. I wasn't lonely; I just wasn't. Mr. Corman turned a disapproving look on Darien. He had never seen our friendship and so wasn't confused by the sudden, bitter change. To him, we were two people with such radically different outlooks on life that we couldn't get along. "Now, Darien, that's not-"

I interrupted the reprimand, gifting Darien with a coolly patronizing gaze. "Or maybe, McGavern," I observed, the bite in my voice thinly masked by my casual tone, "I'm just smarter than you." I twisted back to face forward, to where the teacher was watching the interaction with as much interest as any of the students, and pulled out a pencil and notebook to stop the discussion. I could just picture, with quite a bit of satisfaction, Darien's scowl, the begrudging one he got whenever someone else won. "So, class, let's be-" once more, Mr. Corman was cut off, this time by the crackle of static as the loudspeaker came on. "Emma Laycha to the front office," the impersonal voice of the secretary declared, "Emma Laycha to the front office." For a second, the whole room was silent with shock, me no less than the others. Why the hell would they be paging me? Sure, I had forgotten my phone at home, but why would anyone need to get in contact with me? Mom or Jack would be the only ones that desperate, and they could always just call Allan if it was an emergency. "Well, why aren't you going to accept your latest award?" Darien shot, breaking the silence. Once, that would have been playful teasing; this was scorn worthy of any grade school bully. Without a word, I rose and, with a quick glance for Mr. Corman's permission, I walked out of the room, a strange sense of foreboding falling over me, clouding the rest of the world as if the volume had been turned way down. Through the halls and into the office without being quite sure where I was going, the secretary wordlessly handed me the phone with a kind expression I had never seen before. I could feel the sword hanging over my, the tsunami about to break. "Emma?" Mom's voice was quiet and fiercely controlled, a tone I hadn't heard since I woke up four years ago in a room beeping with IVs and machines. "It's your brother- Allan." Allan? I hadn't seen him since last night, because he had

gone to one of Greco's parties and had been sensible and stayed over- obviously. "He got in an accident last night. He's in the ICU. They- they aren't sure if he'll make it." The sword dropped.

Darien

Life was back to normal. Blessed, uneventful normal, where I knew- and wasthe rules. School had begun, and I strode around the building surrounded by flocks of girls and a few boys who hoped my charm would rub off on them. I flitted from party to party, drowning the irreversible realization about how pointless they were in loud music and hard rinks and willing girls. I was back on an even keel, out of the messy roil of emotion that Em- that girl had thrown me into. It was great. I felt like myself again after a year of emasculated feelings and romance and deep talks, and I couldn't believe I had ever wanted anything else. In short, everything was perfect. Absolutely, undoubtedly, monotonously perfect. I stood outside the English class, passing the time between this class and the next with my flame of the week. Tall and blonde and curvaceous, Rachel was totally my type, even if she never stopped talking- only in it for the short term, without any expectations for anything more than the physical. Last year, she might have held my attention for at least two weeks. But now- though nothing had changed, not my mindset or desires- I was bored of her already, and we had only met last weekend. There was no depth to her, however hot she was, and- dammit, when did I start caring about depths? She was hot and she was into me and that was all that mattered. Now if I could only pound that into my stupid, uncooperative subconscious

I leaned back down to Rachel's face, her generous lips meeting mine eagerly. With a mental shrug, I half turned to pin her against the locker- and Em- Laycha walked by, and I pulled away instinctively, as if I was doing something disgusting. She strode by me, her eyes wide and blank and unseeing. Irritated- who was she to ignore me?- I yelled after her, "What, Laycha, your medal didn't come through?" Probably inn shock because one of her Matchmaker schemes had fallen apart, she didn't even react to my jibe, walking past with a smooth, mechanized gait that seemed simultaneously absolutely purposeful and totally unconscious. Without even a twinge of concern (even though this definitely wasn't normal, and something had to be wrong for her to act like this) I turned my attention back to Rachel, before being once more interrupted. "Dude, where have you been?" Brock demanded, appearing beside me with a furtive look at Laycha's retreating back, "I've been looking for you everywhere." I favored him with an exasperated glance. "I've been here for a while." As if that wasn't obvious. "We got out of class early. Where's Rhianna?" I glanced surreptitiously around, waiting for her to pop out of the woodwork. Where one was the other followed, that was generally the rule with Brock and Rhi. "I-" he shot a look at Rachel, who was watching us with avid, gossip-mongering eyes, 'I don't know." "Oh?" I raised an eyebrow. He shifted nervously on his feet, unwilling to say anything in front of the girl. I rolled my eyes- Rhianna would probably tell everyone anyway- but jerked my head at her. "Want to give us some privacy, Rachel?" Despite the phrasing, it wasn't a question, and she took it as such. Pouting childishly, she spun on her four-inch heels and flounced away, her cornsilk hair too short to move. Brock heaved a sigh of relief, glad to tell someone. He was never a person to keep anything bottled up. "We're spending some time apart," he admitted, his

head drooping. My jaw dropped, but I snapped it back up before anyone could see. "You broke up!" However much I hated the Matchmaker and Rhianna for doing this to him, and despite all my cynicism, that simply was not a possibility. Not a break-up with both of them here and together. It's not even that I approved or disapproved; that simply didn't enter into the equation. Like the last time, I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. "No- no- we're still together," he assured me, the panic rising in his voice at the mere thought only serving to confuse me more. Why were they apart if they obviously wanted to be together? Brock must have seen my bemusement, because he smiled weakly and continued, "We just decided- both of us- that we needed to remember what we were like apart." "You've been apart for the last year!" I spat, staring blankly at him. Was he really that stupid? "Who you are separate is miserable. You know that already!" "Yeah, but-" he hesitated for a second; trying to find the words (never his strong point). "You know how, when something or someone goes away, you always think its way better than when you had it? Like dead people." I had just taken a drink of water from the fountain, feeling irritatingly like I had to wash Rachel's taste out of my mouth. At his words, I nearly spit that drink back out, and I the process almost choked. "What the hell?" I spluttered, coughing in an extremely undignified manner. "Well no one ever thinks ill of the dead, right?" Brock attempted to explain his messed-up thought processes. I scowled, casting a glower around to see who had witnessed my humiliating reaction. Knowing my luck, Laycha would be there laughing at me- but no one was there but Brock, who was making a manful effort not to grin. Where was she? "So we make people seem really great who weren't. Me and Rhi-" Rhi and I, a small voice in the back of my mind corrected, one I didn't recognize as mine and refused to acknowledge as anyone else's, "-we'd both forgotten what it was like when we were actually together,

'cause we were so miserable. And then she came back, and I was like, this is so totally awesome, and so was she, but neither of us really thought about it. And, well- now we are." I blinked. "So you're breaking up," I clarified expressionlessly, "You aren't sure that you actually want to be together, because you idealized your relationship too much and now you're confused, despite that huge moment you had when she came back." This boy did not make sense, even with ten years of experience with him. Did he know how much most people (okay, including me) wanted what he had in Rhianna? He shrugged. "Yeah," he agreed, sheepishly enough that I guessed he could follow my thoughts, "Those moments aren't real, you know? They're great and all, but that's the easy part of a relationship. The hard part is between those moments, when it's just normal life." He fell silent, lost in his own musings. I kept quiet as well, pondering his words. Out of the mouths of babes and all that- I couldn't help but agree with him. The passion, the physical part was easy for me- as any girl could vouch for; it was the keeping the flame alive that I couldn't do. I got bored of my so-called girlfriends during the in-between times. Except for one- but that relationship had died unborn, and Emma had always been different anyway. I herded my mind away from that dangerous subject. Of course she had been different, she wasn't Emma. She was the Matchmaker, and I had no attraction or affection for her, whatever the moments and the in-betweens had been like. "You know, you never had issues like that with Emma," Brock suddenly observed, his own train of thought uncannily similar to mine. "Why don't you just-" "Leave it alone, Brock," I sighed. This was not the first time someone had urged me to apologize or let my anger go, and I doubted it would be the last. Candy, Lex, and Brock had tried and failed before; I expected Rhianna had urged Brock to attempt it again. But none of them- except, maybe, Rhianna (I didn't know how much she had been told, knowing Emma probably nothing)- understood why

I was so furious, and so none of them had come close to convincing me. I would not listen to any and all of their entreaties; she deserved all my fury and more. "But I don't get it," Brock protested, as he had before. I had told him that we had a fight and I no longer even knew her, but nothing more. As I had said, she wasn't worth it. "Was it just Rhi that got between you two?" "No," I explained with a patience getting quickly overwhelmed by the number of times I had had to use it, "We'd just been hiding tensions for a long time, and they all came out. It wasn't your fault; we just realized that we were far too different to ever be anything." "You guys have fought before," he countered, sounding almost pleading. He had taken the estrangement as his own personal responsibility, no matter how often I told him he had nothing to do with it. It would have happened eventually; I hadn't known it then, but anything me and Emma- Emma and I- could have become had a time limit on it. The Matchmaker would have come out sooner or later. "It's what you do. You fight, and then one of you- well, usually youburies your pride and you make up and are closer than ever. Why can't you do that this time?" "Because this time I'm no giving in," I replied with icy calm, my patience withering in the face of the exhaustion of constantly having to ignore Emma's presence- in person, in conversation, and in my mind. "I found out just how little she trusted me, and just how cruel she can be, and I'm not apologizing for that." "But at least you seemed happier with her," he said with the certainty only a best friend can have. "Rachel- you know you don't really like her. Not like you liked- like," he corrected himself, "Emma." "Stop!" I snapped, any tolerance I held for this conversation dissolving. Was done with her, finished, impartial. She didn't need to be discussed anymore. "She's as good as dead to me. And that's it."

Brock ignored me. "I mean, when you and Emma were really close, you were actually laughing and smiling outside your house. You took care of her, and I've never seen you do that for anyone but Troy. Hell, Dar, you got her a cat; you don't put that much thought into Troy's presents. "I know!" I yelled. Brock twitched in shock at my sudden, unexpected vehemence, but took it in stride. "I know what I was like, okay? I know that I was different, maybe better. But that's over now. Done. Finished." I took a long, ragged breath. Brock waited quietly, patiently. "I'm not going to cave this time," I finally announced, in a firm voice that I didn't think was mine but came from my mouth, "I don't have any reason to, and I'm not even sure I would if I did. She- she betrayed me, Brock, in a couple of ways, and I can't forgive that. Not unless she takes the initiative and apologizes. To me- a real, full-hearted apology, acceptably humble. And she won't do that, not ever. Because of pride and obstinacy and a dozen other things, not the least of which is the fact that she can't see what she did. This time, it's really done. And I'm not going to be the one to change that." I strode away, leaving Brock gazing regretfully after me, grey eyes very sure that they knew more about me than I did about myself

Chapter 36

Emma

I never found out how I got to the hospital after that fatal phone call. I sincerely hope I didn't drive. Maybe I caught a bus, maybe Mom came to pick me up- I've never asked, and no one's ever told me. The uncertainty was all part and parcel of the dreamlike mood that had descended over me like a veil,

muffling reality and sending it far, far away, so I could only vaguely see or hear or feel. I walked down the hall of the school in that state, not noticing anything and yet hyperaware of ever little detail. A part of me saw Darien making out with some slut; the same part recognized that not so very long ago that would have hurt. It still did, in a way, but the pain was drowned in overwhelming shock. Mom's words echoed through my mind.

"Allannot

sure

in

the

ER

unconscious" Hard as I tried, the record would not shut off, driving me
forward and forward until, the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital and Mom was guiding me into a waiting room. I hadn't seen this part of the last hospital I had been in (this one? I never knew, never wanted to find out, never wanted to come back). I had been unconscious when I went in and in shock when I left, the same shock I was in now but different. I had known this was going to happen, had known it could from horrible, bloody experience- why hadn't I warned him? Why hadn't I driven the point home more forcefully? I could have stopped him, would have, and should have. Words floated into the fog that surrounded me. A doctor was speaking to Mom. I was obscenely comfortable in this chair, staring at my hands and only seeing the bright scarlet of blood. "Cracked skull ruptured spleen bleeding in the

brain four days" None of it meant anything. All I knew was that Allan, like
Dan- like Dan the bright flash of the oncoming car, the sudden bolt of the crash Some amount of time passed as me and Mom and Jack sat our silent vigil. None of us spoke; speaking might make it real. The room had a copy of Starry Night on the wall; that was the only thing that was real. It wasn't sleep, that thing I sat in; it was nothing. I couldn't feel, couldn't think, and thought too much. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked over. Somehow Rhi was there, Her pale, freckled face floating out of the blur of beige walls. Blindly, I let her draw me

up. She moved to Mom and Jack, also pulling them to their feet and out of the room. Mom might have made something to eat- I didn't have anything. Or did I? Food didn't seem very important. Allan might be dying; why was I bothering to eat? That night, I didn't sleep. I stared at my ceiling, one thought running like a broken tape through my mind. I wasn't crying- why wasn't I crying? Mom had cried, Jack had cried; come part of me had seen it. But I couldn't. I hadn't cried for Dan and he had died. Maybe now, if I cried, my brother would live. Why wasn't I crying? This dead shock I knew; I had gone into it after another car crash so long ago and yet so dreadfully near. I had changed; why couldn't I cry? I drifted off into a fitful sleep as the sun rose, dry-eyed. I must have woken early the next day, because it seemed endless. We got to the hospital- I didn't go to school; Mom and Jack didn't even consider going to work. The haze didn't lift. I spent visiting hours in one of those awfully comfortable chairs, not speaking or hearing or doing anything. This time, I didn't think. I didn't sleep; I didn't live. I simply existed, somewhere between life and dreams, where nothing was real and nothing mattered. Somehow, I got home that evening. Maybe Rhi took us home again, maybe Mom and Jack collected themselves enough to get us moving, maybe a nurse shooed us out. I couldn't do anything. I had thought I was strong, that I had recovered, and that I had dealt with the pain. I was wrong. All I could remember was Mom's voice as I fought for awareness out of the drug-sleep, telling me that Dan had died. Dan- Allan- pain- horror- and numbness, always that infernal feeling of blanketed survival that had come upon me then, pushing away the fact of his death into the deepest corner of my agonized mind, where I would never have to deal with it again. I had functioned normally, for a while- but now all those dark corners were stripped bare and the cycle was turning again to take its awful toll, and Allan and Dan were blurring behind my eyes until all I could see or hear or know was Allan- Dan- Allan- Dan- death- blood- life death.

When we got home, I went straight up to my room. Once more, I didn't eat, didn't sleep. Didn't cry. Candy appeared on the next day, taking the seat beside me, not looking at me with her tear-stained eyes. "Rhianna told me," she said, and her voice was hoarse. She had cried- why couldn't I? I needed to just as much as her. "I- I had

to come."
If I had thought about it, I would have agreed that Allan would have wanted her there. As it was, I barely even knew she was solid. I nodded blankly and stared at my hands. She was lucky: she was there, waiting for news, preparing herself. I hadn't had that luxury. The whole thing had happened so fast- it had been a crash and pain and a scream and blood so bright it glowed and darkness and waking and death. And, always, the numbness. Death- it was a funny thing, really. Why did we all run away from it so much? It had to be better than this thing I existed in, which was so close to life but wasn't, a coma of its own. And the wounds had been reopened and lifeblood was gushing forth because even as this unfeeling had enveloped me bandages had been ripped off, and I was a fourteen years old mourning the death of a boyfriend she had loved and the life she had known, before I had wrapped myself in layers of secrecy and distrust to protect the slow, draining injury that festered in my center, the one that wouldn't heal until Dan's ghost stopped looking over my shoulder and asking me, always though I never knew I heard it, "Why why

why?"
I couldn't take it anymore, the silence and tension and numbness of the room. I had to go had get out maybe if I moved I could outrun the ghosts and find something to anchor me on this side of the veil, not the past realm of almost and used-to-bes. I was lucky; I had on sneakers and the same sweats I hadn't slept in; I hadn't had the energy to change. It didn't matter to me, though. I would have run in jeans or high heels anyway.

It was a crisp fall day, and I didn't have a jacket. Or maybe I had left it at the hospital. I couldn't feel the cold. It I couldn't feel the ache in my legs after an indeterminable amount of time had happened, or the icy sweat that soaked me to the bone. I didn't know where I was going, or if I was going anywhere at all. I simply ran, the pounding of blood in my head reminding me with every step that I had lived and Dan hadn't and now Allan was going to die and what had I ever done wrong to deserve this? It wasn't raining. It should have been raining. If the Earth had cried, maybe I could have to. It had been a beautiful day years ago, too. Damn it, it needed to rain. I needed to wash away all the blood and death; the showers hadn't helped but maybe the rain would. Impure rain, sullied like me by shadows of the past that I couldn't outstrip or hide from. I had been running for hours now, feet beating their steady rhythm to nowhere. Something wet stuck to the back of my neck: sweaty hair. I stumbled, rose, and kept going. Now the blood on my palms matched the blood streaming in the movie behind my open eyes, of broken spines and cracked skulls and limbs twisted in horribly unnatural ways. Why, why, why? My shaking had begun to resonate to that tune, the symphony of blood pulsing through my temples and muscles throbbing in my legs adding background music to the lyrics. Why had all this happened to me? Why had I been so stupid? Why hadn't it happened to me, but to those around me, those I loved? Why hadn't I dealt with Dan when I had the chance, instead of having it dropped on me with everything else right now, the straw that broke my back, just like Dan's had cracked. And most of all, why the HELL couldn't I fucking cry? I was back in my neighborhood now, running through houses I recognized or knew I should, to a destination the miniscule portion of me that could think didn't comprehend. Past the playground- I had told Darien about my father there. He hadn't taken it badly at all, hadn't let it affect his interaction with my mother. Even Dan had been awkward with her for a while.

Past my house Allan's house. Would he ever go back there? So much had happened in that house; had it changed me at all? That first party, where Darien had found out I was a Lexington. It had only brought us closer together: me and Darien, me and Allan. Had I not told Darien the truth because I wanted power? Or was it because the secrets stopped me and everyone else from realizing that I was slowly self-destructing, freezing because I was afraid of Dan's fate? Or a bit of both? Why did it matter anymore? Why couldn't I lay Dan's ghost to rest and move on? Why did I feel like I was betraying him by my bond with Darien, a thousand times closer than I had ever been with Dan? WhyA doorbell rang. It took me a second to realize I had rung it, and that I was standing at Darien's doorstep, my movement finally stopped. But the orchestra of pounding and shivering and throbbing pain continued. I swayed a little on the spot, but stayed upright through no will of my own. Darien opened the door wasn't that Alfred's job? I didn't question it, didn't have the capacity to. Reality didn't exist anymore, just his face out of the mist everywhere else. "I'm sorry," I said without preamble, my voice hoarse and dry from disuse. I hadn't spoken in who knows how long. Darien stared at me, shock and confusion playing over his crystal face in equal measure. "I don't know exactly what I'm sorry for everything, nothing but it doesn't matter. Life's too short for it to matter." The words were going from my subconscious to my mouth without passing by my brain, but that didn't bother me, not then. "I'm just sorry. For everything I did to you or anyone else, for being me and stupid, for Dan and Allan and-" Without a word, Darien took a step forward and wrapped his arms around me, enclosing me in a blessedly safe circle of warmth and strength and reality. And then, out of nowhere, life slammed back into me with all the force of a thunderbolt, and at last, for Dan's death and Allan's pain, for my own soul-deep anguish and the exorcism of old ghosts, I was crying.

Darien

For a long time, I just held Emma as tightly as I could, feeling her wracking sobs shake her body against my shoulder, her hands clutching my shirt with a desperate grip, like I was her only link to the world. I stroked her wet hair gently, letting her cry herself out as I tried to figure out what the hell was happening. I had never seen Emma like this before, not even when she was drunk. These tears betrayed an absolute, open vulnerability that I hadn't imagined she was capable of, and right on the heels of Lex's disappearance from school I had still been angry at her, furious even, when she had appeared on my doorstep like a wraith out of the light, barely substantial in the sun's glow. But then she had stuttered her apology, without forethought or control or her usual air of deliberation, and all that rage melted away in the face of her pitiable state. She was here; she had made the first move; she had done the impossible and apologized. And even if that didn't end my anger completely, it was a start. Finally those awful sobs that came from the bottom of her heart stopped, though her shivering continued all the worse. Slowly, eventually, I realized that even though it was cold out here, the bare cheek against my neck was burning, and she didn't seem to be shaking from emotion. I gently drew away from her as her grip on my shirt loosened, so I could get a good look at her. Bloodshot eyes gazed vaguely back at me, the green burning with a feverish light that made me think of Cassandra, or a Sibyl, out of a unnaturally flushed face. Her hair hung lank and wet around her head, bowed as if under too great a weight to bear. Her limbs drooped limply around her vibrating body, and as I watched she rocked forward, unbalanced and uncoordinated for the first time I had seen her. She was still a thousand times more beautiful than any girl like Rachel.

Without warning she stumbled, her eyes wide with fright as she saw the ground approaching but apparently unable to do anything to stop herself. I caught her and set her back on her feet, but didn't dare let go- she was leaning on my hand like it was the only think keeping her upright. Something was very, very wrong, and with more than just her. Something had made her act like this. But right now, the only thing that mattered was her condition. "God, Emma," I exclaimed, scooping her into my arms over her feeble protests (thank god for those; Emma was still in there somewhere) and carrying her inside, out of the cold. "How long have you been out there for?" She shrugged, her t-shirt wet with sweat against my arms. "Dunno. Four hours? I left the hospital in the morning, maybe? I don't think it had been light for long." Her head rested heavily on my shoulder. It seemed trusting. Dependant. Like a wall had broken and she could allow herself to need someone else. What had made this change in her that made her act years younger and yet gave her eyes such an ancient look? "It's three o'clock now! And that's twenty miles away!" I gasped incredulously, kicking the front door closed and striding purposefully through the house towards the closest comfortable surface we had- coincidentally, my room. "Did you run the whole way?" She nodded. "Did you even bother to drink any water on your marathon?" She shook her head slowly, as if she had to think hard to remember. I groaned. "You need a keeper," I informed her, letting her down on my bed with a tenderness that belied the exasperation of my tone. "Let me guess, you haven't eaten today either." "I- I don't think so," she replied hesitantly, as I snatched a blanket from the foot of my bed and tossed it over her. I didn't know much about medicine, but running that far without water, all her clothes sopping with sweat in the cold air, did not seem like a recipe for health. "The last few days haven't really been clear. Ever since Allan-" she cut herself off quickly, not in the old way of concealing a secret, but more as if she didn't want to remind herself of a disturbing subject.

"So you haven't eaten in three days," I clarified, skipping over the mention of Lex although I burned to know what had happened. Nothing good apparently, but I refused to believe the rumors flying around. He was in the hospital, that was widely known, but the stories about ODing, or death, or jail- I gave no credence to any of them. With Emma gone though, and Candy vanishing the next day, I had no way to disprove any of them, and after the second day I was getting worried. I couldn't imagine anything bad happening to the most inoffensive of boys- then again, I'd also seen how reckless he could be when drunk, and the last time I had seen Lex, he had not been sober. But that would come later. Emma smiled weakly, sheepishly, and not from her eyes, but still a smile against the tearstains on her scarlet cheeks. "Mom might have made me have breakfast yesterday," she considered, "But basically- no." I rolled my eyes. And I had thought that she could take care of herself. "I haven't really slept either," she added, as if anxious to make a clean slate of things. "God." I ran a distracted hand through my hair. "First thing's first. You need food and water, and then you need to sleep." I opened my closet door and picked out my smallest pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, tossing them onto the bed. She stared blankly at them. 'You probably shouldn't stay in those wet clothes," I explained. Obviously, everything was taking a while to process. "I'm going to get you something to eat, and you can change into those." I walked out of the room, effectively cutting off any protest she might have made. And being Emma, she definitely would have made one, if not many. I made my way quickly down to the kitchen, thanking my lucky stars that I was alone today; Troy was at a friend's house, Brock had opted not to come over today, preferring to go to Rhianna's (their little separation experiment had not lasted long), and it was Alfred's day off. Even if that meant I would have to make (or find) her food myself, I knew she wouldn't want people to see her like this, not once she got back into her right mind. I was astonished she had even let me see her.

I mused on that as I scrounged around the kitchen for something for Emma to eat. Did this mean we were back where we were before, just friends? Or something more? She wouldn't have acted like this two months ago, but I had never known anyone to act like she did now. And as for me, well yes, she was the Matchmaker, and I doubted that was going to change, for me or for anyone else. But she was right. Life was too short for it to matter, with something very wrong with Lex and her looking like she was going to collapse at any second. Rhianna had been a fluke, after all; I couldn't even manage to credit either with malicious intent towards Brock. Not when I had seen how lost Rhianna looked without him during their interminable two-day separation. To hurt Brock was to hurt Rhianna, that much was obvious, and whatever her faults, Emma didn't hurt her friends. And although I still didn't trust her, I could no longer believe that Rhianna had the capacity to conspire to break Brock's heart. Not when I had seen, three days ago, the tenderness she had used to handle an Emma who had looked as lost as she had appeared on my doorstep, had seen Rhianna listen to a quiet murmur from her friend and then without a word lead her to a car and drive away. The Matchmaker- who was she, really? Just a phantom. And now all my former affection- never really destroyed, despite all my efforts to hide it as deeply as I could- had once more reared its head. I still wanted her; that much I knew. But like usual, I didn't know what she thought. I reentered my room bearing a tray with a glass of water, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a bowl of soup; offerings that seems rather paltry when Emma glanced up at me from my bed, wearing my clothes, and appearing quite comfortable there. She looked good there, in my bed- I cut off those thoughts, shifting tensely. Those thoughts rarely led anywhere safe. She took the tray with a half-hearted smile of thanks and, without word, began to inhale its contents. She wasn't lying, about not having had any nourishment. Idiot.

I hovered around the door, not sure if I should leave or not. It didn't seem right, Emma being so needy, even if taking care of her did- but I wanted to make sure nothing bad had happened to her. After a few minutes (the soup was already gone, and the water mostly so), she looked up at me. "I would invite you to sit, if it wasn't your room," she observed with a good attempt at her usual wry grin, though there was still tightness in her jaw and grief in her eyes, "I'm not contagious, you know. Unless insanity's catching," she amended, with a mock thoughtful glint in eyes that were already looking less bloodshot. I grinned and sat down on the bed beside her. There was the Emma I knew and- I knew. "Are you o- are you going to be okay?" I asked, almost tentatively. I wanted to know what was wrong really badly, but I didn't want to disturb whatever equilibrium she had achieved and set off another sobbing fit. Crying girls made me feel awkward. She thought a second, the not-really smile dying. "I will be," she finally allowed, eating as she talked. "If Allan li- is okay." She sighed, and the terrified, feral look returned to her eyes. "He got into a car accident, you know." Finally! I was going to learn what had happened! But the blandness in her voice scared me, because it showed just how frightened she was. It was the sort of voice she used to disguise the depth of feeling beneath it. "He's in the ICU now, has been for days. Bleeding in the brain or something- his condition's very unstable." Her grip around the cup tightened convulsively. My eyes widened. What did one say to that? I hadn't thought it would be that bad. "If he dies too- God, I don't know what I'll do." It was a statement, not a plea, but I could hear her desperation beneath it. So, "You'll manage," I assured her, trying to convey all my conviction despite the awful fear for my friend that gripped my heart like a vise. Dammit, Lex had to get better! He just had to, because I said it was going to happen! "You'll grieve and then learn to live with it, because that's what you do and you're the

strongest person I know. No one else could have dealt with all the shit you've been through." She smiled at me, sadly, regretfully. "I'm not strong, Darien," she told me, and that admission worried me more than anything else I had seen or heard today. It drove in the point of just how bad this situation really was. But also, the fact that she was confessing that to me it was a good sign, right? "And I never dealt with anything. I just buried it all beneath a lot of secrets and cynicism and alter egos. I decided to stop going to therapy; I shouldn't have. Maybe if I had kept going, I would be saner right now. I don't know. But I'll try to find her again, no matter what." She sighed, but this was a sigh of relief. "I think, though- I think I've finally got rid of his ghost. I can- I can move on now." She had finished eating, and she was looking right at me now with all the intensity of her burning gaze. I gulped with something I refused to acknowledge as nerves. "Dan came and swept me off my feet. I was a little girl, wanting to be older and a princess, and he came to be my Prince Charming," she said, and somehow her hand had found mine and gripped it gently. "But I never really believed in fairy tales, and you- you're different. You're real and my best friendnot to be clich or anything- and you challenge me and make me stronger and all that junk that sounds really mushy." No. No it didn't. Not when I had been waiting for her to say this whether I knew it or not since I had bumped into her in front of the Matchmaker's locker. She bit her lower lip gently. "I know I have issues that aren't going to go away and I'm hard to get along with and all that, but I like you. Like in the way of boyfriends and girlfriends. I- I won't be the best girlfriend in the world, and I'm not giving up the Matchmaker, butthat's it." She raised her arm as if to say, here I am, do with me what you will. A long moment passed, where I couldn't speak and she stared at me out of eyes afraid for more than just Lex. Then I leaned in, close enough that I could feel the heat coming off her flushed cheeks. "I don't want the best girlfriend, and I don't care that you're the Matchmaker and have issues and stuff," I murmured,

"If I haven't told you before, I should have I don't want you any differently than what you are." A grin split her face, one that made my insides flip over, although even it was still touched with sadness. Her grip tightened on my hand, and my smile must have matched hers because she was glowing too. I leaned in that final inch and. The tray fell off the bed with an ear-splitting crash. Tension dissolved, and we both stared at it for a second, before dissolving into laughter that did us both a world of good, though it sounded like more than a bit of hysteria on her part. Eventually, we sobered. "So," she asked without any of the shyness most girls would have, although she did not have her usual unassailable confidence on, "Are we together now?" My smile wouldn't go away, despite the worries about Lex that persisted in the background of the room, underneath the romance and exorcised ghosts. "Yes," I answered, unable to hide my glee, "Yes we are." She hadn't let go of my hand, but now that I looked down at it, I saw how pale it was and remembered just why she was lying in my bed in the first place. "But you need to sleep, now." She made a face at me, probably for destroying the romance of the moment, but I wanted her to go to sleep before she started feeling guilty for that very thing, being happy while Lex might be dying. I knew Lex would only be happy for us; I also knew that she wouldn't be so sure. "Oh, fine," she agreed reluctantly, lying back down. Feeling especially daring, I leaned over and dropped a kiss on her forehead as I drew the blanket over her body, then I gathered up the tray and left the room. She was asleep before the door closed. As I returned to make sure she was asleep, a phone vibrated on the bedside table. Confused, I checked my pocket. My phone was definitely there, but there was also a phone on my table I glanced at it. Emma's, and the caller ID read 'Mom'. Highly doubting that Emma I stopped the daydream sequence that

threatened to start at thinking that name (We're together! Finally!) had bothered to inform her mother where she was, I flipped open the phone. "Emma?" Mrs. Lexington's voice was filled with so many emotions that I couldn't begin to extract one. Where was she, at the hospital? Suddenly, anxiety for Lex overwhelmed all my other thoughts. "No, this is Darien," I replied. Could I ask about Lex? Why was she calling now? Had something happened? Had she only just now noticed Emma's disappearance? "She's at my house, but she's asleep. Should I wake her up?" "Oh, no," And now I could hear the relief in her voice, that seemed to emanate from her heart and something deeper even than that, and I had to admire this woman's strength of character to be that calm in the face of tragedy. "That's fine. But when she wakes up, can you tell her that Allan's going to be fine?" The vise of my terror released me; I could breathe again. Another specter floated out of the room and dissolved into nothingness. "Yes, I'll tell her," I assured Mrs. Lexington with a relief that nearly matched hers, and she hung up with a quick thanks for caring for her daughter like I needed gratitude for that. I glanced down at Emma, curled up in my bed, looking young and content asleep. A slight, peaceful smile had spread over her face, untouched by any nightmare lines, as if she had heard her mother. "Yes," I echoed to the still happiness of the room, "Everything will be just fine."

Epilogue

The Matchmaker has seen a lot of relationships throughout my time in high school. Some of them haven't needed her help. Allan and Candy, who are both heading off to college in Boston (her for clothing design and him for PR with

football no longer a possibility, he figured he was at least good with people), aren't officially a couple, like usual, but they'll stick together, always coming back to each other because of a friendship deeper than any romance. Maybe (probably) they'll end up together, maybe they won't; they're the sort of people who would be happy either way. Some relationships have needed the Matchmaker's aid. Brock and Rhi have decided to stay together although he's going to Boston College for football and she to McGill. They've made the long distance thing work before they told us, and I didn't have the heart to point out the holes in that logic. It might work, but even if it doesn't they've already made memories to last a lifetime. Even Darien and I needed the Matchmaker, if indirectly. Without her, he would never have deigned to notice me and I wouldn't have bothered to look past his arrogance. But now, when I set out for MacAllister and he to Amherst, at the very least it'll be on good terms. I'm not sure if we'll last, that far away and with tempers like ours; resisting temptations isn't always Darien's forte, and neither of us are big on being tied down. But whatever happens, he helped to drive away my ghosts and made my last years at high school the best I've ever had. And whatever he says, that's because of the Matchmaker. Darien said, in the middle of the explosion that cleared the air enough for something new to grow, that the Matchmaker tried to create love, to manipulate people into caring for others. But I've given it some thought, and I don't think (really, who would know better than me?) that he was right. She can't create that emotion; no one can. What she does, what I did, what Ellie will continue to do after I leave, is construct the setting for something more to grow. We bring people together who would usually never even consider each other, but it's up to them to carry it past the cold logic of person A and person B. That distance is the mystery of human feeling that I can't penetrate, no matter how much I try. It's the reason violet eyes are fading from my memory but will always live somewhere in my heart, still sending me into paroxysms of

hysteria. It's Darien holding me through those shaking fits. It's Mrs. McGavern eating dinner nearly every day at home with her sons now and my mother pampering her injured son. It's romance, family, and surrender; it's devotion, selflessness, and acceptance. It's something I can't name and don't believe in, but have seen: in my parents, in Brock and Rhi, Allan and Candy, even me and Darien. It's the enigma of locker 142, of a date appearing in your locker to sweep you off your feet. It's the phantom that is, was, and will be The Matchmaker.