First up, sort of spoilers for the still-distant future of EA. My take on it, obviously, since I don't know actually how Box Hill will be adapted. It's pretty Emma-centric, but Knightley does crop up rather a lot, as he is wont to do. ;) Anyway, this should be compliant with all the episodes thusfar, but I wrote virtually all of it before Frank and the return of a certain state senator.

I started working on this during the hiatus because it brought me a lot of satisfaction. And because that is my super-healthy way of coping with stress. And I originally intended to finish it before the hiatus ended (and in some ways nearly succeeded), but the story just kept telling me it wasn't done yet. Thus it is the monster you see now. Honestly, most of this is me wanting to work out all of my issues with Emma as she has been and my issues with Knightley/Emma's relationship generally. But I kind of wanted to show a distinction between the real Emma and the Emma in front of the cameras. And I also just really, really, really wanted Emma to kind of look back on all her own words and actions and kind of do exactly the opposite of it all. So I kind of take her from one end of the spectrum to the other. Also pop culture references and snobbery and rich people envy abound.

Also I kind of combined two events because I wanted Emma's thoughts to be not motivated primarily from jealousy. I just find jealousy to be a rather boring motive.

I don't own EA or Emma (though the latter is public domain, so no one owns it, technically speaking), obviously. Or any of the TV shows, movies, actors, songs, etcetera listed. In which case obviously I would be far too busy with my money to write fanfiction.

I appreciate reviews, but they're more highly encouraged than mandatory, if that makes sense. Anyway, at the very least, I hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading!


Emma entered her apartment (a penthouse, naturally, in the nicest building in town) several hours later than usual. As always, her place was immaculate and flawlessly decorated in shades of neutrals and warm colors. Subtle gold, bronze, and crystal accents highlighted the many shades of white and beige. Expensive art—both abstract and modern—lined the walls. But Emma didn't pay attention to any of the splendor, not even to appreciate her own impeccable taste in decor. Far shakier on her feet than she would ever admit, she kicked her five-inch gold lamé slingbacks off with an almost childish vehemence that was quite unlike her. She dropped her purse carelessly, shrugging out of the uncomfortable beaded pastel blazer she was wearing and discarding it. Usually Emma was the kind of person who believed that everything should be in its proper place, but not today.

Today, Emma Woodhouse just did not give a damn. She didn't have it in her.

Emma yanked her hair out of its meticulously-styled ponytail, heading for the kitchen. The many windows and open floor plan meant her home was normally cheery and bright, filled with natural light. Unfortunately, today had been unusually cloudy and gray, almost like it was going to rain, so her apartment was gloomy and framed by stark shadows. She let out a sigh, making her way to the kitchen. She snatched up her homephone and immediately dialed the number of her favorite Chinese take-out place.

She wouldn't even admit it to herself, but Chinese had always been her go-to comfort food. Emma would also never willingly admit that she ate, much less liked this sort of food; it wasn't macrobiotic, organic, gluten-free, locally-sourced, or even healthy. The restaurant she'd called was one of those authentic but kind of dive-y Chinese restaurants—greasy food, MSG, but fast and cheap and so good. And Panda Garden was secretly her favorite, but she would never admit that either. It would ruin her image.

She rarely indulged herself, only when she was alone, having a terrible day, or if Alex begged. Emma stilled, pained at the thought of him. She was not going to think about Alex, not now at least. Emma ordered on autopilot. She had an embarrassing amount of the menu memorized from childhood and ordered an equally embarrassingly massive amount of food for a single woman lived alone and rarely ate large portions.

After the phone call concluded, Emma padded into her bedroom, unzipping her dress as she went and shimmying out of it. The formfitting dress, borderline-uncomfortable at best, had been digging into her ribs for hours. Her feet were still throbbing from the heels. Her neck and shoulders were tight from tension, even as she grimaced and attempted to massage her neck. Her hair had been pulled back so tight that her scalp still tingled. It had been an awful day, one of the worst in memory.

In some distant corner of her armoire, she found an old, slightly baggy t-shirt and a pair of navy flannel pajama pants she'd forgotten she owned. They were almost the worst clothes she owned, some of the most worn and unflattering, not even designer. But they were soft cotton and reminded her of a simpler, better time. She pointedly avoided looking in the mirror and made her way back out into the main living space, heading straight for her wine rack. She went straight for the red at the top of the rack—a particularly high-scoring vintage from a grateful client's vineyard. Emma only drank the best liquor, and she knew her wines.

She grabbed the bottle forcefully before reaching up into her cabinets for a big glass. She then proceeded to ignore proper decorum and fill the glass almost all the way to the top. Emma began to drink almost immediately, picking up both wine glass and bottle and moving into the living room. When she managed to sit down, the glass was almost half-empty.

And it was half-empty. Even Emma Woodhouse didn't have it in her to be quite so optimistic at the present moment, as rare as that was.

She exhaled into her wine, closing her eyes for a moment. Ever since she'd started working, she'd been so busy trying to be larger-than-life that, well... she sort of forgot to live and relax and well... be a regular person. Because Emma Woodhouse, Matchmaker Extraordinaire, was not a regular person. She was like Oprah and Martha Stewart and Dr. Phil and Vera Wang and Grace Kelly all rolled into one.

And she was maybe starting to forget just who plain old Emma was, underneath all the designer clothes, posturing and posing and pretending to be perfect. Had she forgotten how to live, how to just be? It was hard to tell since she hadn't been still in years.

With those disturbing thoughts vaguely lingering in her mind, Emma polished off the rest of the glass. She didn't take time to savor it as she usually would have. The silence suddenly seemed deafening, as it had been when Alex had left the room. He hadn't even stormed out like usual. No, he was almost polite about it, quiet even. He wasn't even angry... just disappointed, resigned. Which made it worse, of course.

Shaking her head to clear it of these depressing thoughts (she'd never been the sort who enjoyed being left alone with her own thoughts), Emma picked up her remote and turned on the television, seeking a distraction. She poured herself another glass of wine, flicking through the channels. Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Maury Povich Show, Judge Judy, Mob Wives, Sister Wives, Storage Wars... could there possibly be a trashier, less-Emma Approved range of choices? Not that Emma Woodhouse really had the time or inclination for TV unless the program was brief and educational. TV was for mindless, lazy drones who weren't actually out doing things.

She made a face and kept flipping through channels idly, finishing off her second glass. She'd settled momentarily on the Home and Garden channel when she got a call that the Chinese had arrived. Emma told the doorman to let the deliveryman up. Well aware of how unpresentable she was, Emma got up to go to her closet in search of a robe. When she found one of a suitable length, she wrapped it around herself, already planning to tell the deliveryperson that she was feeling ill. It wouldn't be much of a lie, really.

The doorbell buzzed. Emma took a bill out of her wallet before going to open the door. The deliveryman was unkempt, no more than fifteen, and very clearly in awe of her building and living space. His English skills were virtually nonexistent; he motioned to the nearest table, setting the food down on it, and then handed her the bill. Ordinarily she would be preening at the way he was gaping at her apartment or maybe worried he was casing her place, but tonight she just handed him a fifty dollar bill and told him to keep the change. He didn't exactly understand, but he got the message soon enough when she motioned for him to leave with an imperious flick of her wrist.

Emma still had enough presence of mind to go get plates and chopsticks, but not before she poured herself another glass of wine. She started to dish out the food for herself between sips, trying not to feel guilty for ordering too much or... sad... that there was no one to share it with, not that she would ever let anyone catch her eating food loaded with hormones and pesticides and MSG. The glass was empty again, and Emma's plate wasn't even half-full. She refilled her wine glass and finished making up her plate before sliding the food across the counter. Then she snatched up her remote and changed the channels to the first bad romantic comedy she could find.

Naturally, it was on the Lifetime Channel, and it was one of their terrible made-for-TV movies, though not the half that had some dreadful plot about being abducted, abused, or murdered. She'd always found those particularly distasteful and disturbing; did plebeians really have such a taste for soft-core torture-porn?

It was also the sort of movie that her erstwhile and ever-practical business partner, Alex Knightley, would hate. He'd once called Lifetime "television for idiots." She hadn't disagreed, mostly because the "heroines" of Lifetime movies generally were too stupid to live. Watching one of these movies always, without fail, made Emma want to step in and begin coaching them on how to make better life decisions. Also, apparently Lifetime had something against career women, since they usually proceeded to give up or sacrifice some facet of their career for, more or less, some underachieving "good guy."

He'd agreed but called her a snob and then said that his problem with Lifetime was the idealistic and incredibly unrealistic plots and love stories it presented. "They're divorced from reality, and they don't give people realistic expectations." He'd sounded a little bitter when he said it, a bit more frustrated than usual.

She'd bit down her questions but given him a look. "No one wants realistic expectations, Alex. No one but you. Life is full of that nonsense if you play into that. There's nothing wrong with wanting a little more or... wanting romance in your life!" she'd retorted, getting quite a bit more impassioned about it than she'd meant to. Who would watch for realism? No one but boring old Alex who didn't live vicariously through anyone. Then again, it just figured that his problem with Lifetime was the unrealistic expectations it perpetuated, and her problem was that she thought the protagonists always aimed too low. Alex didn't have a romantic bone in his body.

He'd snorted. "Do you honestly think any of those love stories would last a minute beyond the movie in the real world?" She didn't exactly, but she'd just shrugged. After all, she was the one who knew a thing or two about matchmaking, not him. He'd gestured almost angrily to the screen. "They skew little things like the facts so that they can get both the drama and the happy ending. But of course you wouldn't see a problem with any of that," he'd explained, already shaking his head at her. The look on his face (fond but a little exasperated and increasingly annoyed) haunted her.

She ate ravenously, but her thoughts as she half-watched the movie were still on her best friend. As much as Alex pretended to hate romantic comedies, he was secretly a sap and more of a hopeless romantic than she had ever been. Emma was so distracted that she swallowed wrong and choked a little on the wine and walnut shrimp. She sputtered and coughed until she could breathe again, soothing her throat with more wine.

She tried her best to focus on the movie and food, really, she did. She even tried being productive, texting Harriet to tell her that the office would be closed for the next few days for "restructuring and regrouping" or something similarly vague. She'd responded to a few emails and looked at profiles earlier, but her heart and brain really wasn't in it. The truth of it was that she'd been rattled, and she needed time. So Emma ate second helpings and thirds, more food than she could remember eating even during the holidays or Thanksgiving. It filled her up physically, but it did nothing else for her. It didn't even make her feel better or more relaxed.

She didn't know why she'd expected it to magically make things better. It was just food. She was the only one who could make things better, and Emma knew that better than anyone else. All she'd done was be a glutton, and now she felt gross, and of course all of that food would probably go straight to her ass or hips.

Emma frowned, putting her dishes in the sink and the rest of the food in the refrigerator sluggishly. Then she retreated to the couch, glass and bottle still in hand. She changed the channel until she found a sappy Nicholas Sparks movie. Truthfully, Emma hated Nicholas Sparks movies. The plots were boringly predictable, too dependent on absurdly random chance, full of clichés (who wanted their love story to be a cliché?), and so on. What Emma really hated about them, though, was the wholly unnecessary but inevitable death of one or more characters, usually in an accident or of cancer. Because most people died in mudslides or of leukemia, as opposed to more ordinary things like a heart attack or stroke.

Emma, of course, preferred classic films, Audrey Hepburn over Rachel McAdams, and happy endings. So she wrinkled her nose and hated herself just a little for watching The Last Song. Real-life couples, especially trainwrecks like Liam and Miley, were the worst to watch. She tried to watch in silence for about ten minutes, but rebellious Miley wasn't exactly holding her attention, even with the help of the wine. Emma shifted uncomfortably on the couch. How had she never realized before how blocky her ten-thousand-dollar couch was, how it had no give to it, not unlike cheap IKEA furniture? She fluffed one of the throw-pillows, putting it first between her back and the couch and then underneath her, but it did nothing to relieve her discomfort or make her less antsy.

So she got up and took the silky throw off of the pale peach vintage fainting couch. She wrapped the throw around herself, but it kept slipping off of her shoulders, much to Emma's frustration. She stood, polishing off the rest of her glass of wine, and headed to her bedroom for pillows like a small child building a fort. When she came back, she made the couch comfortable, but it still wasn't enough. Emma's thoughts were alternating between how she would mentor Miley Cyrus and set her up if she were a client (because you never know!) and... how Liam Hemsworth's stupid haircut reminded her of Alex's hair.

That thought made her pour herself another glass of wine. But Emma's restlessness didn't go away. She changed the channel again, only to change it back when she landed on CNBC and one of their financial news programs. Boring and yet another reminder she didn't need of someone she was determined not to think about. And when Emma Woodhouse was determined to do something, she accomplished it, period, end of story. Since the tv-watching just wasn't cutting it, she got up, heading to her bedroom. She needed to do something with her hands to distract herself, and that scrapbook she'd half-started over the summer on a lark (part of a quest to become more "crafty") would do just perfectly. She found the albums and supplies she needed underneath her desk, picking them up, and heading back into the living room.

She seated herself on the very edge of her carpet—a handknotted ivory Isfahani rug patterned with vines and flowers with just the slightest sheen from interwoven silk—so that her backside rested on the relative comfort of the rug and her crossed legs were on the ebony parquet. She didn't want to accidentally ruin anything too priceless if she spilled some essential crafting supply, after all.

Emma started flicking absently through the pictures documenting her life. The scrapbook she was making was, of course, to be displayed at her Lifetime Excellence Award Reception—the private one, of course, for friends and family. She'd already made the brief yet tasteful powerpoint for the awards ceremony and the public reception ages ago. Emma had made her way through almost all of high school and started looking at college photos before Annie's wedding had taken over her life. Nonetheless, Emma found herself flipping through photos of family and friends, vacations and the day-to-day. They'd been catalogued chronologically (was there any other way?), so she watched herself grow, saw her father age, saw her sister turn into a woman.

No matter how hard she tried to look away or not notice, Alex was in about half of the photos. She couldn't pretend like she didn't know that. He was (usually somewhat reluctantly, as if he really were her brother) smushed in next to her, either cheek-to-cheek or similarly close. She let herself look at one such photo, and it felt like a vice wrapping around her heart. She quickly tore her eyes away from the photo, trying not to remember what it felt like to have Alex' arm draped over her back.

She was not going to think about Alex. She was not going to think about Alex.

Emma tried not to notice because that would lead to memories, which would undoubtedly lead to the downward spiral she was valiantly attempting to stave off. She just couldn't take that right now. But the further along she got, the harder it was to block it all out. Poor Emma was a goner from the moment she saw their prom pictures. He was the obvious choice, of course, fitting all of her exacting requirements: a mature, responsible, well-behaved, witty, and handsome gentleman who looked good in a suit, was urbane, a good dancer, opinionated enough to be interesting but not obnoxious, and capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation while also a possessing a sense of decorum and morals and a history of good judgment. Plus she knew him, so he wouldn't secretly turn out to be a creep, drug addict, or sexual deviant.

More importantly, of course, Alex knew what she wanted and expected, and he would deliver. He always delivered, and he always kept his word. Which she guessed was why she was so flummoxed by what had happened earlier.

Alex was older, but she'd managed to coerce him into being her prom date because he was obviously the most superior man she knew, as opposed to any of the rich (and questionable) mouthbreathers she went to school with. She hadn't wanted to accept one of those numerous offers out of politeness or, worse, desperation, and then be subjected to some subpar experience that would likely involve said date trying to feel her up or, ugh, renting a motel room, hoping to get lucky at the end of the night.

Predictably, Alex did not disappoint. He showed up early, despite knowing full well that she wouldn't be ready on time. He came freshly-shaven, wearing cologne and a cummerbund, corsage (white roses and red lilies) in hand. His tie even matched the exact pale lilac shade of her Givenchy dress. When he saw her, he said she looked beautiful, complimented her dress, and kissed her hand before slipping the corsage over her wrist. His hands weren't even cold. He paid for everything and didn't even complain that he was too old to find a high school prom entertaining or appropriate. She studied the inky black of his suit, refusing to look at his smiling face but forced to stare at her own. She looked happy, happier than she remembered, and she knew it was all because she'd gone with Alex.

Emma let out a heavy sigh, flipping past those pictures. But she couldn't escape the pictures of Alex. There he was at camp with her, giving her a piggy-back ride when she was little, rubbing cake into her face at an early birthday party. There he was at her graduation from high school, shouting her name in the stands with their families. There he was at her graduation from college, putting her mortarboard back on her head and telling her how proud he was of her, standing so close. And in just about every single picture, if he wasn't smiling at the camera, he was smiling at her and looking at her like... like Emma didn't know what, exactly, but she'd never noticed that before. The way he didn't seem to see anyone else when he was looking at her.

It didn't get any better even when she set the photo albums aside, shaking her head and telling herself she was being ridiculous and that she should keep it together, and she picked up her scrapbook. With shaking hands, Emma attempted to sort through the pages and cut-outs, trying to form the memories into some art she didn't have the eye for at the moment. And then she came to a set of pages clearly from her first year at Emma Approved.

There were all the usual pictures: one of her in her office, another of her next to the sign, a few of her in less glamorous clothes telling the workers where to put everything, her coordinating a few weddings. She thought nothing of it, even though there was this twisty feeling in her stomach that felt a lot like nausea. And then she turned the fateful page and sucked in a breath upon seeing his face everywhere on the half-finished pages. On the left, there was a picture of her and Alex shaking hands, right next to one where they were signing all those legal papers she'd found so boring.

A pang of terror entered her thought at the remembrance—what was she going to do about that if Alex really did leave? She was sure he'd take care of everything, of course, but breach of contract? Wait, could she sue him for that or something? Still nursing this thought, Emma brushed a finger over the partnership between photo-Alex-and-Emma, who both looked so damn happy it made her feel even more sick. The word "Partners" was staring up at her from the top of the page in mocking gold and silver sticker lettering. She swallowed hard, forcing herself to look at the next page.

There were three photos on this page too: a picture of them standing in front of their office building, a candid shot of them at their first Highbury Partners Christmas party, and a roll of four photobooth pictures from the same party. The photobooth had been her idea, of course, so she'd dragged a reluctant Knightley in there countless times. The printout on the very edge of the page was their best effort: serious, festive, happy, and silly. A little smile tugged at her lips for a moment as her eyes looked over the rest of the page.

In the first picture, his arm was casually around her shoulders. Emma shivered a little, adjusting the hemline of her shirt. In the second picture, she and Alex were talking to Annie. They were all laughing about something she couldn't remember, and close, so close, his hand resting lightly and protectively on her lower back. What's more—they were both actually smiling. As she stared at the picture wistfully, she found she couldn't really remember the last time she'd seen Alex smile like that.

That thought made her feel bad, so she tried to shake it off as always, but compartmentalizing didn't work here. So Emma sought to turn the page and found herself face to face with a loose picture of Alex she'd mounted and meant to add to the hole on the other page. It was some ridiculous glamor shot she'd made him take for their website or his LinkedIn, to make him look more professional. She didn't know what it was about the photo, if it was the angle or the fact that it was in black-and-white or the lighting, but it made Alex look so... classic and perfect... that Emma had squirrelled it away when she'd seen it. She'd meant to do something with it, though she'd forgotten what, exactly, that was.

She picked the photo up gingerly, just pinching the edge. Then she took a deep breath, forcing herself to turn back. Emma set the photo down, reaching into the box of supplies and searching blindly for a glue stick or other adhesive. Her hand made contact with a rumpled piece of paper, which she pulled out curiously. As she unfolded and flattened it as best she could, she immediately recognized it as one of the many draft copies of her Lifetime Excellence Award acceptance speech. The beginning started like any other acceptance speech, with her thanking God, her father, and the nameless award givers and presenters, as was the custom.

Of course Emma had a vague memory of writing it, though she often forgot what words she wrote when she had a sudden idea for the speech of her life. She knew who came next: Alex, Annie, Miss Bates... even Harriet and various clients in later iterations. But she wasn't quite prepared to see what she'd written.

As grateful as I am to everyone else for helping me win this award, I owe more of this to Alex Knightley than anyone else. Thank you, Alex, for keeping me grounded, for reigning me in when my ideas get a little too crazy and disorganized, and for always telling me the truth, even when it isn't something I want to hear... and, most importantly, thank you for always believing in me, no matter what. I literally couldn't do any of this without you. Alex, you are the best business partner a girl could ever have, but more than that... you're my best friend, and there's no one I'd rather share this with.

Her eyes, however, were drawn to the one phrase in all of this that she'd crossed out. It was still visible underneath the strikethrough line: I'm not sure I could believe in myself so much if you didn't believe in me first.

Emma swallowed hard but couldn't manage to swallow over the lump in her throat. She dropped the note as if it were about to self-destruct, attempting to focus on her half-assed task. But the photos once again attracted her attention.

It was the picture of them shaking hands, though, that finally made her cry. It hit her like a brick staring at the photo of their interlocked hands that Alex had always been there, like the ground beneath her feet. He'd been there for each and every important moment of her life, and she hadn't even had to ask. Why had she never appreciated his steadiness, his stability before? Or the quiet way he understood her, knew her like the back of his hand?

She'd taken him for granted, Emma realized. She tilted her head back, wiped her eyes furiously with the palms of her hands, but that did nothing to abate the tears. Maybe she'd forgotten what had driven her to partner with him in the first place—how there really was no one else she could envision herself sharing it all with. She'd needed his expertise and his connections, sure, but she'd also wanted to share her work with him. Once upon a time, she'd shared everything with him. In fact, there was no bigger or more important part of her life except her family. And Alex was her family too, in his own special way.

She'd thought for so long that Alex was boring, predictable, and uninventive. But maybe she'd been looking at it the wrong way. Maybe it was that they'd fallen into a comfortable pattern because that was what they were used to, and there was really nothing wrong with that, with being at ease with each other. With knowing someone like that, so completely. Maybe she just found it easy to dismiss him that way because she knew him so well and could usually predict his reaction. Or maybe it had been something else entirely.

Emma could feel that she was on the cusp of some sort of big realization, but she didn't want to think about it anymore. Expending energy on it was mentally exhausting, and she didn't need that right now. She needed to get a grip, to think clearly on the matter. Emma pushed herself up into a standing position, her knees wobbling dangerously underneath her. She bent down, briskly collecting the supplies and snapping the scrapbook closed. Then she willed herself to stop crying like an idiot and swiftly wiped all remaining traces of tears from her cheeks.

She was Emma Woodhouse, after all, and she was not going to be pathetic or mopey or anything at all like that. It just wasn't who she was or wanted to be, period. She'd always been the sort of person who snapped her fingers and got what she wanted immediately, like some sort of fairy godmother. But unfortunately, however, Emma couldn't just snap her fingers and make the feelings go away, as much as she tried to push them back and act like it didn't bother her.

It did, a lot. Staring at his number in the phone, wanting to call but not knowing what to say or if she could even say anything... it was weird. Not talking to him felt beyond strange, unnatural, even.

Emma shook her head vigorously, as if that would free her from these thoughts, and headed back into her bedroom. She deposited the scrapbook and supplies distractedly in a corner before walking over to the French doors that led to her private balcony. She stared out of the window panes down at the city. The sun had set a few hours ago, but some of the light lingered, either from the smog or the halogen lights of the city below.

She turned away from her view, eyes scanning her room dispassionately, the way she did when it was time to redecorate or organize. The fading light lit up the walls of her room, purposely painted in different shades of the sunset, ranging from pale apricot to hot pink to a deep indigo to a pale twilight blue. Her eyes darted from the dark, intricately-carved desk that had belonged to her mother with little cabinets containing priceless family heirlooms and memories to the full-length mirror next to her bathroom door then over to the periwinkle chaise longue next to her balcony. She turned, surveying her massive canopy bed, draped in white silk sheets and endless pastel throw pillows, the gold patterned bench at the base of it that doubled as storage, the matching frosted glass night stands on either side of the bed.

After a moment, she noticed that she'd left the light on in her walk-in closet, and Emma walked in. She was well aware that her closet was a source of envy. It was large enough to be a small bedroom. Shoe cubbies flanked either side of the entrance. One side was devoted to separates, the other to dresses. Purses and other accessories, like belts and scarves, rested neatly in fabric containers scattered about the room. A few hats and other supplies were on the very top shelf. A massive mahogany armoire was at the very back of the room along with Emma's vanity and jewelry armoire (all of which sparkled with the faint hint of jewels and shiny powder). Spotting her dress from earlier on the floor, she picked it up and hung it, hanging it on the rack with the rest of her clothes that were destined for the cleaner's.

Then she noticed the make-up and jewelry spread across the top of her vanity and decided it was time to put it all away, back into its proper places. After having done that, Emma decided to sort her clothes by color, and she only realized about five minutes into it, as she was in the middle of her pinks, that she was organizing the way she always did when she was upset.

Emma Woodhouse refused to be upset about something as trivial as a little spat with Alex. They fought and bickered constantly, but everything was right as rain the next day and back to normal. It was their thing. Sparing even a single thought on it, much less worrying, was a waste of her time and energy. He would come around, and everything would be all right again. It was as simple as that. So, shaking her head, Emma finished organizing the pinks and made herself leave the closet before she rearranged all of it. However, she couldn't stop herself from organizing and putting away the scrapbook and scrapbooking supplies before leaving her bedroom.

She flopped indelicately back down onto her couch. Another Nicholas Sparks movie had just started playing, as if this channel was having some sort of unfortunate movie marathon. She scowled, getting up and going to her refrigerator. If she was going to watch this, then she'd better have some ice cream—well, homemade chocolate-chile gelato, but still. After a few minutes of attempting to watch the movie while eating ice cream, Emma sighed and changed the channel.

She found another chick-flick and settled in on it because it had Hugh Grant and seemed considerably less mopey. She didn't quite forget about her troubles, more like set them aside temporarily, but as she went on watching Sandra Bullock run around frantically after her boss, well, it felt familiar. Something unpleasant was slowly swirling inside of her, and Emma only realized what it was once Lucy quit her job. Her stomach twisted violently, and she felt downright sick to her stomach. She understood George a little too well, understood how... lost he felt, how dependent. She got why he was running after Lucy, why he was trying to change her mind, because she'd attempted to do the same thing and had the same result.

And it wasn't going to be all right. She would have to get used to life without him and, oh God, find some sort of replacement... And just like that it all came crashing down on her. The walls she'd been so careful to build up just crumbled like sand, and she was feeling it all... reliving it all, each horrible moment like a film on loop.

Unfortunately, the events of the work day were firmly engraved in her memory like her initials were engraved in her favorite necklace. It all came rushing back to her like a horrible dream (or, heaven forbid, if the film of her life were a horror documentary à la the Blair Witch Project or Ghost Hunters). All Emma remembered for sure was that it had begun with Alex scolding her about Maddy Bates once more. She'd just been having a little bit of fun, and dealing with the Bateses was really mentally and emotionally taxing. And what, she couldn't flirt with Frank and enjoy herself for once? Hadn't she earned that much with all the good work she did to make other people's lives better? But of course boring by-the-book Mr. Knightley didn't understand any of that. The argument went on like that for some time, and it was familiar enough for Emma to almost dismiss it entirely... but then Alex got kind of weird for seemingly no reason.

Really, Emma didn't understand what she'd said to set him off. She didn't really think she'd done anything that different from things she'd done before, but apparently she had because he started shouting. "Enough, Emma!" he barked, going very red in the face. She almost jumped, taken aback by his tone and volume. The Alex Knightley she'd always known was mild-mannered, reserved even.

Knightley started pacing, gesturing dramatically with his hands. Emma was too busy rolling her eyes at his dramatics to notice, but he was unable to look at her as he spoke. "You always were a little... pushy, a little too insistent on always being right, but... I didn't think you were cruel." The word stung. It was the verbal equivalent of pouring a bucket of ice water over her head—stinging and cold and a wake-up call. Upon hearing it Emma automatically looked up at him and stood up a little straighter.

For a moment she just stared at him, genuinely confused as to what he was referring. There were so many things Alex liked to scold and criticize her about that it was sometimes hard to keep them straight. His brow crinkled the way it did when he was particularly annoyed. It took a minute of her frowning at him before she finally connected the dots back to the Bateses. "It was just a little joke, Alex. Lighten up," she attempted to counter, reaching out to stop his restless motion. She shook his arm a little, but Alex didn't budge, just stared at her accusingly.

Emma released his arm, huffing out a breath. She hated this about him. He always had to make her feel bad about little things because he always knew better and had to make sure she knew that too. The whole thing was wearing a bit thin, really, when she'd done nothing but be capable and driven the past few years. She wasn't a little kid he had to watch out for anymore. It wasn't like Maddy Bates even understood, or like Emma had really meant it to be hurtful. She gave him a look when he went to protest openly. "Like you've never made a joke at Maddy Bates' expense? She was practically asking for it!"

Alex chanced a glance down at the arm she'd grabbed, guiltily, almost as if checking for injuries. He then exhaled heavily, running a hand down over his face. He was so tired of all of this. Maddy Bates was a good person, and she hadn't deserved mockery, especially from Emma. She'd been like a mother or beloved aunt to the girl for so much of her life, only to be treated so poorly. The poor woman already had so little going for her, what between caring for her sick mother, being shut up at home all day, and barely making ends meet, and she'd worked so hard all her life... she shouldn't have to put up with Emma's derision on top of all of it.

The more he thought about it, the more furious it made him with Emma. But even he could admit her treatment of Maddy Bates, while appalling, wasn't the real problem here. It was just the catalyst for this argument that been brewing inside of him for months. He'd been biting down the words for weeks, walking on eggshells, trying not to ruin a good thing, trying to keep what they had, but he just couldn't do it anymore. It just didn't seem worth it anymore.

Emma made a face; she recognized the long-suffering expression as the exasperated and somewhat embarrassed look he wore sometimes when he thought she was wrong or particularly maddening. Alex paused for a moment, taking his hand away from his face and toying with the buttons on his sleeves. "While I could say a lot about your treatment of Maddy Bates, Emma, both on the professional and human levels..." he began coolly, if not a bit pointedly, in that stodgy business voice she hated, "like the fact that Maddy Bates has never had a mean word for anyone, that she's known you since you were a child, that she's tried to be a mentor to you, or even the fact that she was your first investor aside from your father... This isn't about her."

His stare was indicting like a grand jury. Emma bent her head, having the grace to feel bad about the things she'd said and done (as much as she hated that Alex had gotten to her and was right). "I know, Alex, she's like... the sweetest, nicest lady on the planet," Emma conceded, almost apologizing. He looked a bit gratified at her words, and in other days, perhaps, that acknowledgment might've been enough... but Emma made the mistake of continuing to justify herself. She reached out abruptly, curving her fingers around the joint of his elbow. "But you know better than anyone how she can just drive you crazy with all of her questions and comments! The woman does not know how to shut up!" Emma replied, flailing her arms and hands.

His entire face fell, and Emma got the feeling that she'd just completely missed the point. She hated that feeling. While Emma was right to a certain point, Alex just shook his head. Did she ever listen to a word he said? He didn't know why he felt so disappointed, so crushingly disappointed by her behavior. It wasn't anything different than usual, than the way she'd acted in the past year or so. She'd certainly been more smug, more obnoxious before. But yet this was fast becoming the straw to break the camel's back. Alex drew in a breath and said in a carefully measured tone, "And, like I said before, this isn't about you blowing Maddy Bates off for the nth time."

Emma's eyebrows shot up in a confusion he might've once found amusing or endearing but now found infuriating. Sometimes Emma was serious about all the wrong things. "It isn't just your treatment of Maddy Bates," he clarified a moment later. Emma gave him an expectant and increasingly impatient look. Alex licked his lips, pausing to find a way to put what he'd been feeling lately into words. Words that, very importantly, left his feelings entirely out of the picture. "It's everything you've done lately."

He'd almost cringed a little as he said it, at the artless way it came out. It wasn't like he wanted to say these things to her. Alex didn't say these things to hurt her or bring her down (well, maybe a little), but someone had to say it! It was his job to tell her the truth, even if it wasn't easy, even if she didn't want to hear it... because that was what a real friend and partner did. She wouldn't listen if it came from anyone else (not that anyone else would say it), but maybe he could get through to her.

Emma seemed utterly unaffected (as she was, it seemed, by anything he did), but his words had hit her squarely between the ribs. If her shoulders slumped slightly, well, that was her business and she sure as hell wasn't going to let him notice. Even clenching her hands into fists, practically grinding her teeth, Emma challenged him. In other circumstances her moxie might've made him smile. "What did I do that was so bad?" she demanded abruptly, crossing her arms over her chest and tapping her heels against the ground. The staccato beat of her heels was the only visible sign of her mounting aggravation.

Ordinarily he would've risen to her bait, but not this time. It's what you didn't do that's the problem, Alex thought glumly. Instead, Alex just sighed. For a moment he was silent, his face solemn. He stared at her like it was the last time. Alex hated being mad at Emma, but he felt the suppressed frustration he'd been feeling for months start to bubble up to the surface. After everything, she still had no idea why he was mad, no idea that she'd even done anything wrong. "For someone who thinks she knows everything about everyone, you can be so blind when it comes to those closest to you." The bitterness and disgust in his tone hit her in the face out of nowhere, but she knew better than to react. Alex shook his head almost incredulously, throwing his arms into the air, unclenching his fists. "You only see what you want to see, and nothing else exists to you!"

She blinked, taken aback by this sudden about-face. He didn't usually raise his voice, but he wasn't really arguing with her either. Emma had never known Knightley to back down from a fight like this. A prickle of worry went through her; at least when he was getting angry and scolding her, she knew he cared. She didn't exactly know what to do with him when he was like this. There was nothing worse in the world than Alex being disappointed in her. "Alex," she began, unsure.

Emma didn't like that feeling; she'd always delighted in being utterly certain, in predicting the way others would act. She did her best to keep the waver out of her voice, but she almost didn't finish her sentence. A part of her was afraid of the answer. "What are you saying?"

He forced himself to look at her despite knowing every bit how painful it would be. "I'm saying..." He took a deep breath, trying to muster up the courage to say what needed to be said. He didn't want to do this, didn't want to do any of this, but, well, this was what was best for everyone. The pregnant pause stretched on so long that Emma almost thought he wasn't going to say anything, but the room remained unnaturally still. Emma even stopped breathing, afraid that any sound from her would set him off more.

Knightley sucked in an even deeper breath, wishing he could shake off the feeling that he was drowning. Then he set his shoulders, and Emma saw a kind of cool resolve hardening in those dark eyes. "I don't think us being partners is such a great idea anymore." He wanted to close his eyes as if bracing himself for a blow, but he forced himself to look at Emma's face. As much as he hated to cause her pain, they both needed this. Emma didn't visibly react at all; she was too stunned for that.

Alex continued talking to clarify his point, thinking maybe he could salvage this and prevent it from devolving into some sort of knockdown drag-out emotional brawl. "Things have been off with us for a while. You know it too." The tension is unbearable, he thought but didn't say. There were so many things he both wanted and probably needed to say, but he couldn't. His personal feelings for Emma played a role in his choice, but they ultimately had little to do with his decision. She didn't need to know about that. The last thing Alex wanted was to ruin their friendship entirely and burn that bridge, or, worse, to make her feel uncomfortable. If he kept his mouth shut, he could save her the pain of rejecting him and him the agony of knowing Emma's feelings for certain.

The last thing he wanted was a brush-off in favor of Frank Churchill (which was, frankly, inevitable).

Emma was still attempting to process what he'd said, running through his recent behavior in her head. Sure, he'd seemed a bit more frustrated and short with her, but she'd thought that was just because it was tax season. There were no warning signs of this. How had she not seen this coming? Harriet and James Elton were one thing, but Alex Knightley was her oldest friend! They were supposed to be partners. He was supposed to talk to her about things... and yet, she couldn't help but feel like this was the first real conversation they'd had in months. Had she been so preoccupied with business that she'd failed to notice whatever was bothering Knightley?

She shook her head, still attempting to get her thoughts in order. Any way she sliced it, she still felt completely blindsighted. "Where is this coming from?" she asked, utterly lost. She uncrossed her arms so that she could put one hand on the side of her head. She was unable to keep the surprise from her voice, but she was at least able to tamp down her growing hysteria. Emma teetered a little in her heels, feeling like she wanted to collapse a little, to sink down into her couch. Alex was the steadiest, most reliable person she knew, and he'd just knocked her off her feet.

Alex wanted to reach for her to steady her, but he refrained. He didn't need any more engagement with her than planned right now when he was trying to do the right thing and just leave. He pursed his lips, trying to think of a way to phrase it that wouldn't encourage an argument. Emma could be like a dog with a bone, and this was something he needed her to accept right away, lest she guilt him into leaving. He thought about it a bit too long, given how sharp Emma's expression turned. "We have different ways of doing business, and we want different things. We tried, but I don't think I'm the right fit for your company anymore," he offered up diplomatically, clasping his hands together in front of his chest to restrain him from doing anything stupid like touching her.

She just stared at him like he was a fish out of water, not quite gaping but close. Despite his best attempts, something that he'd said did hurt her. He had said your company instead of our company when it had previously always been theirs together. Emma tried not to think about what that meant, that he was distancing himself already. She was still trying to wrap her head around it all. "Why not?" she asked, cringing the moment she said it. She sounded like a whiny, confused child, upset that a playmate had to go home for the day.

Alex sighed, clutching his hands together a bit tighter. He really hadn't wanted it to come to this, but he would always tell Emma the truth, and she deserved that much from him now. He bit his lip, briefly glancing heavenward as if searching for guidance. He needed to say it just right so that she would both understand and not hold it against him. The compulsion to look at her (or, rather, the inability to look away because she was always the brightest thing in the room) returned, and he dropped his gaze back to her face.

"I'm not happy anymore."

He shrugged a little as he said it because there really wasn't anything else he could say.

Of course, he also should've predicted Emma's reaction to such an announcement. "What do you mean you're not happy?" she snapped, her hands migrating to her hips, elbows sticking out at sharp angles. Her voice sounded a little shrill even to her own ears. She didn't show it, but she was internally searching her mind for any possible source of his recent unhappiness, already looking for a way she could fix it. Hadn't she made him happy? Had she not done enough? How could she have missed that?

He was her best friend. Shouldn't she have noticed if he was so supposedly miserable? Looking up at him now, though, it did strike her that his expression was a bit sad, a bit pained, though whether or not that was from the mysterious cause of his sudden ennui or from having to tell her this was a bit of a toss-up.

Alex tilted his head to the side a little and gave her that knowing look he always wore when she was being deliberately obtuse or passive-aggressive about something. He wasn't going to go into the far too personal details. He couldn't even if he wanted to. They'd drifted in the past few months, had been drifting, really, since starting up the company when work complicated their relationship. Working together had meant he'd always had to be the enforcer, the realist, the dark cloud, that he couldn't simply enjoy her presence the way he'd used to, and a part of him hated playing that role, as necessary as it was.

But he would be anything for Emma, anything she needed.

And that was entirely the problem.

He'd tried, had tried so very hard, but it wasn't enough anymore, just being her business partner, her friend.

She huffed out a sigh, feeling restless. She wanted to move, to pace, to rage, but she was unable to do so. "So, so... what? You want out, is that it?" she asked sharply, running a hand through her hair agitatedly. Emma was too wound up and pissed to care about something as trivial as ruining her hair. She was also too lost in her thoughts to notice the way Alex flinched at her question. How dare Knightley just leave her like this, complaining about something out of the blue? He was probably just being dramatic about some minor slight, and she was just sick of it, of never meeting with his approval! She threw a daggered stare at him, eyes narrowing slightly. "You never told me you were unhappy-"

Alex heard the accusation in her voice, and it might've affected him, but he knew that she was just trying to emotionally manipulate him. The same way she had for years, guilting him and pressuring him into doing things he didn't want to do. He'd finally heard the anger he was both fearing and expecting, and he knew it was only a matter of time before she came up with a plan to get what she wanted. "Oh, did I have to tell you?" he retorted, knowing that would get to her. He paused just a second to catch his breath before continuing, "You never asked! Just like you never asked Harriet how she really felt about James Elton or Annie why she felt like calling off the wedding or... anything outside of your own life! It's like no one's opinion matters to you but your own!" He was gesturing like a mad person, pointing and throwing his hands in the air and this close to pacing. Only the woman before him could make him this crazy.

He'd all but roared that, and for a moment Emma just blinked, unable to believe he'd unleashed that. Sure, their fights could get a bit heated, and they could say things they both regretted, but it had never been like this before. She tried not to worry about that, but something in her gut said that this was different and wouldn't end with Alex ultimately caving to her will. She straightened her spine a little, forcing herself to relax at least one arm. It wouldn't do for Alex to see that he'd actually gotten to her with the last one, that he was right about her not knowing everything. "And that's ever stopped you from saying something I didn't want to hear?" she retorted smartly, giving him a pointed look.

His jaw tightened, his eyes darkening a bit more. Emma still didn't seem to grasp that this argument wasn't like the others. He wasn't playing a straw man with flimsy arguments, and she couldn't just disregard this and him, not today. He took a few steps towards her, his expression forbidding, but Emma just held her head up a little higher, stubbornly meeting his gaze. She wasn't at all afraid or intimidated, and she had no reason to be.

"Fine, Emma," he forced out, trying to take deep breaths, to contain his frustration. It wasn't working very well. He'd gone over this conversation in his head what seemed like hundreds of times in recent months, imagined every single possible permutation of it. A part of him had known it would eventually come to this despite his best efforts. He thought he was prepared, thought he was on-script, that he could perfectly anticipate her responses and keep the conversation within bounds. But the reality of it felt quite different, and he didn't feel in control at all.

He was clenching his fists at his sides, restraining himself as much as he could. "You want the truth... You want to hear things I know you don't want to hear, then fine, that's what you're going to get!" He smothered the things he wanted to say about how he'd tried to spare her feelings, how he'd tried to make this easy, but she'd just insisted on fighting him. At least she could never say he hadn't been honest with her, right?

Emma merely raised her brows expectantly. She looked all prim and proper and perfectly put-together, between the smart pastel blazer, the clingy cocktail dress that was just a few inches too short to be work-appropriate, the five-inch sparkly heels, and the red lipstick that never failed to make him want to kiss the living daylights out of her. He kind of wanted to smear all of that perfection. "I can't do this anymore, okay?" he snapped, gesturing frantically between them. He made the last word pop like a piece of bubblegum. "I'm not doing any good here... and neither are you," he continued, staring her directly in the face.

She didn't move a muscle, but something in her eyes changed. He could tell she wanted to argue with him about that assertion, but he wasn't going to give her the time to interrupt him once he'd finally gotten started. He was going to say what he needed to say to her, all of it, and he wasn't going to let her derail it. He flung a hand out into the air irritably. "You think you're making other people's lives better, but you're just trying to make them over in your own image!" he snarked, making a face. "You don't even bother asking them what they want. God help anyone who wants something that isn't Emma Approved!" He said it thinking of all the things he wanted that he couldn't, shouldn't want, things Emma would never understand even if he decided to tell her.

She'd never heard his voice like that, so bitter and... almost resigned. A grin painted his lips, but she knew the difference between a real smile and a self-deprecating one. Emma's expression remained deliberately blank. She wore that fake expression she put on for the cameras, but she was seething inside. Here was her business partner, whom she could supposedly trust, badmouthing her work to her face, and he wasn't letting her get a word in edgewise!

Emma inhaled a few quick calming breaths the way her yoga teacher had taught her and counted to five in her head. It didn't exactly lessen any of the feelings swirling around in her mind, much less her steadily-growing rage, but it gave her a moment to collect herself and find the perfect words. She moved towards him, her every movement precise and controlled. Alex recognized her preternatural calm for what it was—overcompensation. Because heaven forbid Emma Woodhouse be anything less than perfect and poised. "You don't get it, Alex," she said, flicking her hair over her shoulder. She spoke to him slowly, as if he were a child. Her patronizing tone only served to make him angrier with her.

Emma was doing her best to take deep breaths so as to not seem agitated or as out of control and confused as she felt, but it wasn't quite working. It felt like the ground was shifting beneath her heels, only this was an earthquake she would never be prepared for. It was as if he couldn't see all the good she'd done for others, for their friends and family! She'd changed lives for the better! Why had he even gone into business with her if he doubted her motives, if he didn't believe that she could help anyone?! She'd always known Alex didn't really understand what she did, but she thought he at least saw the value in it and recognized her skills. But maybe she had been wrong about that too. With this thought, she couldn't hold back anymore. "I help people!" Emma interjected loudly, a bit more emotionally than she'd meant to. Who was she trying to convince here, him or herself?

Then she thought back to all she'd done for other people the past few years and was more convinced of her own rightness. Her clients were healthier people—they exercised regularly and ate better because of her. They were successful and well-off, benefiting from her and Alex' professional and financial counseling. They were happy people because they loved themselves and had found someone to share their lives with. They probably even lived longer. Surely all that was something to be proud of. It wasn't something you could quantify, and she probably spent far too much money and got paid far too little for it, but... at the end of the day, she made someone's life better, and that was really all that mattered, not Alex' stupid bottom lines and fiscal solvency and whatever else it was he was always going on about. "I help them become their better selves. I help them achieve their dreams, have the happiest days of their lives, find the one person they want to spend the rest of their lives with, build the self-confidence to do anything they want!"

Alex stared at Emma, taking in her wide eyes and bouncy hair. Her voice rose in the familiar cadence of a debate. His stare was fonder than Emma would've expected in that moment. It was easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm. She was so passionate and active and charismatic in a way that just made you want to follow her to the ends of the earth, not unlike a cult leader. He wasn't quite swayed, but he felt himself getting distracted, wanting to give in like always. "People need me! They live better lives because of me!" she insisted, pressing a hand to her chest as if to back up her point. He tried not to look down, tried not to imagine how her skin felt.

It was considerably easier to do when her words finally registered. Emma's confidence and self-assurance sold her brand and made her seem so trustworthy and competent. Unless you knew her as well as he did, and you knew that so much of it was just covering up for Emma's various inadequacies. Her charm couldn't camouflage every mistake, nor could it make up for her inattention, her hubris. Unfortunately, other people (including Emma herself) didn't know well enough not to buy into it.

Nothing was ever good enough, improved enough, approved enough, for this new iteration of Emma. Not Harriet, not the real Emma, and certainly not himself. Why couldn't she accept that some things were just better left alone, that she didn't—and couldn't possibly—make everything better? Everything didn't need to be better, and some things were just fine the way they were! He scoffed, gesturing to her dismissively. "You go around acting like you know what's best for everyone, like you're always right and perfect..." Emma opened her mouth to argue, retort ready on her tongue, but a stern look from Alex cut her off. He jabbed an index finger in the air to punctuate his statement. "But you don't always know best, Emma!"

Emma winced; that, more than anything he'd said so far had felt like a rebuke. It shouldn't have, since they'd been having some lesser variation of that same argument for nearly as long as she could remember, but something was different now. She closed her mouth dumbly, grasping for the right response—hopefully something that would shut him up so she just wouldn't have to listen anymore to him saying these mean things, knowing just where to hit to leave a scar. It chafed at her to let him get the last word on anything, but she was tongue-tied, and words were pouring out of him like water.

Alex took a few steps back, running a hand over his face. He needed distance; he'd been so close he could smell her—the maddening, intoxicating strawberries-and-jasmine scent of Miss Dior Cherie. He rubbed his eyelids wearily. "I... thought I saw a future here." He swallowed hard, trying to avoid saying that he thought he'd seen their future here, a happily-ever-after that could only ever happen in his dreams. He'd been a fool to think it could be like that, that he would ever be anything more than her best friend and business partner.

Alex shook his head, dragging his hand down his face. It wouldn't do to think about things that could never be. He was wrong to expect that things would magically fall into place, that this crush he'd nursed for years would finally materialize into a relationship. He thought he'd become indispensable to her, but he'd only become disposable, another tool for her to use to get what she wanted. "I thought I believed in you and your brand, and I wanted to be a part of that..." Emma heard the regret in his voice and wondered how long he'd been having these second thoughts. He didn't see a future here anymore? Was that it? Had he just decided to cut his losses here with her? Every word was like a knife. She didn't feel betrayed so much as wondering how he could've hidden all of this. Had she really been that bad of a friend?

She'd always thought she knew boring, old predictable Alex inside and out. She thought she could predict his every move, his every disapproving thought. He got angry with her sometimes, sure, but never really like this, never with so many words. She never thought he was capable of something quite like this, much less a veritable outpouring of emotion from nowhere.

He peeked over at her and hated himself for it, for his damned inability to take his eyes off of her. But he couldn't make himself look away as hard as he tried. "...But I was wrong about who you are. You're..." Emma lowered her eyes as he faltered for words, seeming to lose steam a little. It hurt to look at him now. She felt like she'd failed him, not that it wasn't a familiar feeling. Failing Alex was almost worse than failing herself. "I don't know what the hell you're doing, but it certainly isn't helping people! Controlling their lives, maybe, gratifying your own ego, sure..." Alex licked his lips. This was getting off-track. He needed to end this as soon as possible before he said something he would really regret.

"You're the one who's wrong here, Alex Knightley!" Emma snapped finally, striding towards him and wanting more than anything to make him just shut up. She blinked a little too hard, hating that her eyes were starting to sting already. She couldn't, however, think of anything to say beyond that. She was too angry and overwrought to really think clearly, but she opened her mouth to talk and say God knows what anyway. Emma was secretly a little relieved that Alex broke the silence, cutting her off before she could say a word. She wrapped an arm around her waist protectively, knowing that anything she came up with would've been awful.

"You know what, Emma?" His jaw tightened, and Emma silently watched the muscles in his jaw work, a little bit mesmerized by the movement. He managed to hold her gaze but took a step or two away from her, hoping she didn't notice. Her eyes were wide and dark and wet, like some kind of beautiful woodland Bambi creature staring timidly out at him from the woods—but that was all wrong. Emma wasn't timid, and the way she was looking at him shouldn't make him feel as lousy, as predatory as he did when his dad took him hunting.

He swallowed hard, feeling his resolve weakening again. "You could stand to be more like Maddy Bates!" It came out full-throated, like he really meant it, and coupled with the angry way he swiped his hand through the air, it made quite the impression. His next sentences were raspy, quieter. He had to almost force them out, but he had to say them, had to make her see. "At least she genuinely wants to help other people. She always thinks of others and puts them first. That's more than I can say for you." Emma stared at him in numb disbelief, feeling every bit of the shame he'd meant to send her way. He was more right about that than she was ever willing to admit.

He hadn't been kind by any means, but he hadn't been as mean as he could've been either. Emma was motionless and not saying anything in his silence. He wasn't even sure she was listening, but he had to continue, to see this to its natural conclusion. Maybe some part of her was hearing this. He took a breath, flexing his tense fingers and rubbing his hands on his pants. This time when he spoke, his words were subdued. The disappointment, however, was even more evident in his voice. "I can't keep pretending that what I'm doing here... for you... actually means anything."

Emma looked up at him, blinking back tears but hoping he didn't notice. She leaned her head back slightly, doing her best not to sniffle. She could be an island if she wanted to be. It struck her then that Alex looked tired, and he was, both emotionally and physically. "You don't treat me like a partner," he began, pronouncing the word ironically, "You make decisions without consulting me and just expect me to go along with it." Alex paused to draw in breath, wondering why he felt like he'd just finished swimming laps, as if he couldn't suck in enough air.

Then he turned around and actually started pacing, running a hand through his hair distractedly. "You don't even try to understand what I do, much less take an interest..." He'd dismissed that for too long now. He was tired of being boring Alex, tired of her just taking it for granted that he would always find the money for her to do what she needed, no matter what he had to do to make that happen. More often than not, she acted like a philanthropist rather than a businesswoman. Alex was tired of the inequality of their relationship, of putting in so much work only to get so little in return, of trying so hard to broaden his horizons and stretching to understand her. She made no effort to understand his side of things, no effort to anticipate his needs, and it hurt.

He shook his head angrily, all but baring his teeth, when Emma reached for him, futilely trying to pacify him. "You don't listen to me anymore. You don't tell me anything. You no longer trust my opinion. You sure as hell don't respect me... and," he recited, his voice starting to pick up a little, "with the way you've been acting since we got those damn cameras installed, I'm not sure you even like me!" He gestured violently at the cameras that were no doubt still recording their every move.

He no longer knew when the cameras were on and off. Maybe they were even automatic. Domino did have some filter to magnify the drama, right? Not that it needed it; this would be great fodder for Pemberley's cameras and viewers... he was sure of that. Just the sort of exposure Emma had always wanted.

He used to be able to tell the difference between regular Emma and the version of herself she was putting on for the cameras, but not anymore. Maybe she finally was the better version of herself she'd tried to convince the cameras she was. But that Emma wasn't... she wasn't his Emma, and seeing her change, well, that hurt most of all.

What did it say if even the real Emma Woodhouse wasn't Emma Approved or good enough? What did that say about him, that it was time to stop holding her back and trying to make her something she wasn't?

As much as he'd been trying to make Emma feel the weight of her own actions and misperceptions, he was the one who had been stupid. What did he think he was doing here? He'd found stupid little flimsy excuses to touch her hand or sit too close, so that their shoulders were brushing. He hovered outside of her office almost a fourth of the time he was there, just listening to her talk like some kind of lovesick puppy, inventing a reason to walk down the hall and talk to her. He watched her all the time, drawn in by her drive and magnetism, convincing himself it was just admiration for her skills. Worse even than that, Alex had seen things that weren't there, imagined little moments between them in awkward silences... silences that were clearly awkward because of his own unrequited feelings. He was even more blind (selective, as Emma would say) than she was. Love was the worst blindness of all.

At this last comment, Emma snapped out of the mini pity-party she'd been throwing herself. How could he even think something like that? Before Alex could say another word, she was protesting. "Alex, that's not true!" She grabbed his arm, flailing a little but catching his wrist. For a moment, she thought she had him. She attempted to pull him closer, imploring him with her eyes, but then he gave her a look that shook her to her marrow. The look said that he didn't believe her. How had they gotten to this point? How had it gotten this bad in the matter of a few hours? He shook her arm off easily, like she was a dog with fleas, and Emma let her hand fall to her side.

She felt kind of, well... defeated. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but this blindness was worse than even the whole State Senator James Elton fiasco, which she'd previously thought was a particularly low-point in her life never to be replicated again. She swallowed hard. Apparently karma thought differently.

Alex felt like his arm was burning (and, for that matter, so were his eyes, but he wasn't about to cry, to give her that satisfaction of seeing how much she'd upset him) where she'd touched him. He did his best not to touch it, though his wrist was still singing. He took a few steps back from her, so that he was far away from her that he'd have to move to touch her. He couldn't think straight when she was close enough to touch. "Is it?" he asked, raising a brow. Emma wanted to protest, but all words died on her lips when she saw the look on his face.

To be honest, Alex was well aware that all of this had been building up inside of him for a while. It was probably more or less inevitable, not that that made him feel better about the whole thing or how ugly it had happened. He couldn't wait around for Emma forever, hoping that she'd realize he was everything she'd ever wanted. But he'd never thought it would hurt this much.

She was... everything to him, and she just took him for granted. He was good old dependable boring Alex to her, the dependable back-up. He loved her and had always loved her, and she just saw him as an annoying older brother type who spat on her dreams. She didn't take an interest in what he did, didn't even pretend, even though it was all for her. She certainly didn't appreciate him or ever say thank you, much less acknowledge that she needed him. She never seemed to realize that he did this because he believed in her, that their partnership was a labor of love. He'd sacrificed other things to spend time with her, not that she noticed or cared. As much as he loved her, he couldn't continue to put up with so much for so little reward. He had his own life to live, and maybe it was best if he get space from Emma, as much as it would kill him to do it. He couldn't be partners with someone who didn't respect him or his opinions.

He held his hands up in a surrendering position. "You ask too much of me, Emma," he said solemnly, not backing down, even though his tone was conciliatory, "It's not fair. I can't always be here. I'm done." I have to be done, he thought, or I'm going to lose what's left of my mind. Emma's logic had warped his life enough already. He wiped his hands in front of her to reinforce his words. He sucked in a breath afterwards, scarcely able to believe he'd gotten all of that off of his chest. He felt surprisingly better about it than he should, but he'd been keeping that in for far too many months, sucking up the resentment and stewing.

Emma pressed a hand to her breastbone. She felt, not wrongly, like he was trying to wash his hands of her. Like it was that easy for him, like he could just leave her in the lurch like this. The feeling stung. But she cast her confused emotions aside for a minute, drawing herself up to her full height and putting on her best pokerface. Alex thought he could just be done with her, just like that? He hadn't seen anything yet. Emma Woodhouse did not give up without a fight just because some feelings were hurt. She forced a smile and clapped politely. "Way to drop a truthbomb, Alex. Is there anything else you're holding back from me?" she quipped sardonically, polishing her nails on her dress idly.

Had none of that sunk in? His shoulders sagged a little. In reality, he should've expected that. Emma still only heard what she wanted to hear. She moved a little closer, unsure why she was risking approaching him. She was still formulating a plan, though she was still a bit too emotional and keyed up to think of something suitable for the occasion.

Seeing the way his eyes shot open when she came near, Emma wondered if maybe she hadn't caught onto something. Alex could never resist when she asked him for a favor, so maybe if she gave him the pout and puppy-dog eyes... maybe that might work. Maybe then he wouldn't leave. For once, Emma didn't know much about the moment or what to do in crisis-mode, but she knew that Alex couldn't leave. He just couldn't. She couldn't let him—no, better yet, she wouldn't.

Alarmed at her proximity, Alex took her up on her offer. "Yeah, actually!" She looked up at his words with wide eyes, having not expected more from him. You have no idea how much, he thought. He gestured at her angrily. "I'm done deluding myself that you're more than the perky caricature you want the cameras to see!" With each step he charged towards her, letting his rage lead him. He'd never been angrier in his life, and he didn't know if he was more furious with her or himself. Her mouth dropped open in offense, but he ignored it, averting his gaze purposefully. He couldn't look at her lips, couldn't soften, not even a little.

He wasn't just going to give into her this time like always. His voice was softer but full of exhaustion and disappointment. "You've changed, Emma, and I don't like what I see anymore. It's like I... can't even recognize you anymore." He exhaled heavily, running a hand through his hair shakily. Then he deliberately turned his back on Emma, shaking his head sadly, his fingers tracing the back of his skull. Distance, he reminded himself, distance. "I can't stand to see who you've become." He screwed his eyes shut for a moment; he literally couldn't bear to look at her anymore.

This time Emma's shoulders did slump despite her best attempts. So she decided to go on the offensive, trying to get him to argue with her. She could handle that. She was used to that. Though a part of her wanted to say that he didn't have to look, that he didn't have to stand for it, she didn't want to drive him to leave either. This was Alex, after all. She could just talk to him and get him to see her side of things after he cooled off. He always came around in the end. "Well," she sniffed, "you've obviously been thinking about this a while." There was no mistaking the accusation in her voice this time or the guilt-trip. But today Alex was immune.

He opened his eyes and turned halfway around, but he didn't glance at her. "Too long," he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. He looked older than his years, and Emma wondered if she'd done that to him, if she had taken that much out of him. She felt a prickle of something unpleasant. Alex sighed a long, rattling sigh, half-murmuring under his breath, "I wanted to see..." He trailed off, wearier than he thought, unable to finish the sentence. He'd caught himself just shy of saying too much.

Naturally it followed that Emma would seize on this momentary weakness and do her best to exploit it. He really expected nothing less, so Alex put his shields back up. She hinged forward, hair bouncing, moving to invade his space. "You wanted to see what?" she asked eagerly, hoping this was something she could work with.

"Never mind," he said dismissively, shaking his head no vigorously before she could say anything more. He had been going to say if things could change, but they couldn't. He knew that now, but once he'd thought—or, rather, hoped—that was possible. The resignation in his tone was somehow worse than the dismissal and his failure to open up.

Emma tilted her head to the side, reaching out to touch his arm. He jerked away before she could, feeling the phantom traces of her fingers in the air by his skin. It was all Emma could do not to flinch. She could feel this newfound chasm between them widening, and she didn't like it. "And there's absolutely nothing I can do to change your mind?" she drawled in a voice that was almost pleading (but not quite because Emma Woodhouse does not beg). He recognized that lilt of her voice, that tilt of her head, the faint pout of her lips he tried not to look at. She still thinks they can come to some sort of agreement, but he's not playing ball with her, not this time. It would almost be cute if the whole thing wasn't so damn sad.

He snorted. "You should know better than to think your tricks would work on me." He'd meant it to be bitter, but it didn't come out that way. He knew every last trick, and he'd built up an immunity to her schemes (like they were poison). Alex could be quite stubborn once he'd committed to a track, and he'd committed to this, to leaving. There was something almost fond in his voice, though, so Emma thought she might finally be getting some traction with him. He hadn't answered her question, after all. A pity, then, that she didn't realize it was nostalgia instead of a concession. "No. There's nothing you can do," he said matter-of-factly.

Her shoulders sank, her pout deepening, but Alex was like stone, utterly immovable. His jaw was tight.

She should've left it there, respected his choice perhaps, but of course Emma wasn't accustomed to taking no for an answer or not getting her own way. He really should've expected this kind of resistance, but he hadn't thought she would care quite so much. Him leaving wasn't in her plan, and maybe she would miss him, but Emma hated nothing more than when plans went awry. Annie's wedding had demonstrated the extraordinary lengths she would go to to get the conclusion she favored. "You sure I can't-" she tried again, wheedling.

His frustration finally boiled over. Words burst out of him unthinkingly. "I can't work with you anymore!" Knightley found himself shouting, his voice harsh. No one who knew him would've recognized him in that moment. This time Emma actually did flinch, taking a full step back. He met her gaze for a moment and saw something there—not fear or whatever he'd been looking for, but wariness. He weakened a little, dropping his voice back to a normal level. "I just... I can't, okay?" His voice, already more hoarse with emotion than he'd like, cracked midsentence. Alex closed his eyes shut tight so that he wouldn't look at her again. He was too spent to continue this conversation much longer.

Seeing him cowed a little bit, Emma grew more confident. She recognized his exhaustion, his vulnerability in the moment. She knew he didn't really want to leave, and now was the time to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. She strode towards him with a little bounce in her step. "There's really nothing I can do?" she asked skeptically, already reaching for him. His eyes opened a second too late; she had already touched his shoulder. He felt marked by it.

Alex shifted away a few moments too late, and he didn't miss the slight, triumphant upturn of Emma's lips. She moved in closer, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I mean, we can talk, Alex." She licked her lips, peering up at him through her lashes. Alex is no stranger to the way she flirts a little, using charm to get what she wants, but she'd never directed it at him. She prefers to use other tactics on him: their friendship, their shared history, their business, her pout and puppy-dog eyes, leverage, reasoning, a good classic guilt-trip. He's furious and hates it, and yet, damn if this little seduction of hers isn't working just a little.

"Whatever you want," she all but purred. Her fingers skittered across the inside of his wrist before locking into place, her thumb planted firmly over his pulse. He felt it again, that little frisson of electricity he'd spent years trying to convince himself he'd imagined. As usual, he struggled to contain his very visceral reaction to her touch, doing his best to keep his face impassive. Emma rubbed her thumb into his wrist in slow, light circles, biting her lip a little like she knew just how maddening this was to him.

Emma did her best to suppress a smile. He hadn't jerked his wrist away this time, not yet. She smelled blood in the water. Alex was hers. It struck her later on that it was a strange thought, but the triumph of being right, of being in control, was kind of the defining feeling of her life, so it didn't seem strange at time. Alex' pained gaze dropped to her lips for a microsecond and then back up before Emma could notice or wonder. She never noticed when he darted little looks down at her mouth, even though it wasn't something friends did. "I'm willing to discuss anything," Emma continued sweetly, sliding her hand down into his.

Her thumb glided across the inside of his palm, and he very nearly started at the intimacy of the feeling. He was breathing a little faster, a little heavier, to his own shame. For a moment they just stared at each other. Alex took in the dark, shiny hair, the way the light gleamed off her golden skin, the softness of her face, the even softer crimson curve of her lips. She was so lovely without even trying. How could any one person be so lovely and yet so... full of flaws that had an almost endless potential to drive him certifiably insane?

They did say, after all, that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Which is what he had been doing with Emma.

Emma looked at him, really looked, for the first time in a while. His face was so familiar to her: warm, dark eyes, the strong line of his jaw, the furrow of his brow, the hint of a five o'clock shadow on his cheeks. But it seemed somehow different today, almost foreign, rather than comforting. Maybe she never really knew Alex Knightley either. The thought made her stomach turn.

"All options are on the table," she added a moment later, her eyes feverishly bright. She was just a little too pleased with herself, her mouth a little too close. That and the businesslike way she'd said the last phrase snapped him out of whatever temporary spell he was under. Alex pulled his hand away abruptly, taking a full step back. He still felt her touch, though, like a stinging brand. Emma frowned a little, her smile faltering, but she still held her open hands out as if welcoming him back into the fold. "Come on, Alex..."

As if it were that easy, as if he were that easy. He shook his hands as if to lessen the sting. It was easier to focus on the fury this time, to be mad at her for that, for playing with him, rather than at himself for falling for it when he knew it didn't mean a damn thing. Couldn't she see that it was too late? Why couldn't she just let it rest? There was no salvaging this. She can't just fix this or sweep it under the rug the way she's accustomed to, without even saying sorry or being held accountable to anyone. For the last time, Emma had to see, to understand that she couldn't just control how everyone else felt!

"Badly done, Emma!" he scoffed. How odd that three words could sum up all of his pent-up feelings, all of the tiny disappointments and injuries she'd caused him. Was that really her best attempt? He was a little insulted she hadn't put more work into it, that she'd gone at him like he was some ordinary faceless man who would do what a pretty face told him to, regardless of how empty her promises were. His face was even more thunderous than he imagined, enough so Emma was a little taken aback by it. "You can't manipulate me into doing what you want. You can't lie, bribe, or persuade me." His voice, which had been firm and steady, not betraying his extreme agitation, rose in volume involuntarily. "You can't make me change my mind! I'm not one of your little projects, Emma!" he roared.

By this point, Emma had finally had enough. She was tired of Alex not cooperating and refusing to see her point of view. She couldn't handle one more backhanded insult, not from him. So she perked up a little, rising up on her toes to her full height, taking offense. Her pose mirrored a boxing stance. "And I'm not one of yours, Alex!" she countered with a blistering swiftness, finding herself screaming back at him. Emma Woodhouse most certainly did not scream, but she was too far gone to course-correct.

She'd had it up to here with Knightley's opinion being the only one that mattered and was worth anything, and she was tired of listening to his complaints. Like she was really so awful all the time and he was some kind of saint for putting up with her as long as he did! As much as he criticized her for taking people under his wing, for trying to make them conform to her ideas, he was just as bad about doing that as she was... only he just badgered her about it, constantly trying to undermine her achievements and make her feel inadequate for no good reason! This, from her supposed "best friend!" Her best friend and not her father or sister or life coach or therapist or trainer.

Alex drew back, feeling the truth of what she said come crashing down on him even through the fog of his rage. She jabbed her index finger into the air, pointing it at him menacingly. "I'm sorry if the reality of who I am disappoints you, that I'm not perfect, that I'm not you... but this is who I am, and you knew what you were getting into, so take it or leave it!" she snapped, pressing her other hand hard against the flat of her chest. The sarcasm made her voice bitter like black coffee.

But Emma was a sight to behold like this. Her cheeks were flushed with anger, her chest heaving with desperate breaths, her eyes hard like diamonds, all of her features sharp enough to cut glass, her elbows jutting out into the air, one hand grounded on her hip, digging into the flesh there. He could feel the heat radiating off of her skin. A part of him wanted to crush her to him until she went limp in his arms. His eyes lingered maybe a second too long on her chest, so it took a few moments more for the words to sink in.

When they did, though, remorse started flooding back in, creeping in and intermingling with his ire. He sought immediately to correct her. "That's not i-..." he attempted to argue before realizing it was pointless. She stared back at him defiantly, now crossing her arms over her chest defensively. He rubbed his forehead irritably, letting his shoulders sink once more. It doesn't matter what he says, and he's not convinced it ever has. So what's the point anymore?

Why can't she see that this isn't her? This isn't the Emma Woodhouse he fell in love with (for that matter, this isn't him either, but he can't turn it off or pretend it doesn't matter anymore, not even for her). She made a wrong turn somewhere down the path. It's his job to course-correct for her, even if she can't see it.

It took him a few minutes to realize just how close they were standing, chests still heaving, staring at each other with eyes that burned deep into each other. He took a breath and took a few steps back guiltily, trying to clear his head. He hated how drawn he was to her, even when he was trying not to give into it. This time he was the one to look away first. Alex exhaled deeply, trying to regain his composure. He needed to end this and end this now on a good note. His cheeks were hot, and he felt acutely ashamed of himself and his conduct. He'd known this was coming, had been thinking about it for several months, but he wasn't supposed to get heated, to let out everything that had been buzzing so close to the surface for what felt like forever now.

"Look, I..." He licked his lips, hesitating. Fortunately he failed to see the hopeful look Emma shot him, as if she thought he was just going to declare all of this a fit of temporary insanity. That probably would've served to make him pissed all over again. "I'll stick it out until the end of the month." Alex swallowed hard, only looking up when he felt like he'd mastered himself. "I..." He looked down; maybe he wasn't ready for this. It probably wouldn't do to tell Emma that he'd asked John to take a look at all the legal stuff a while back. When he looked up again a little later, Emma was still staring, very clearly hanging on his every word, her jaw just a bit slack.

He took another deep breath, trying to smile a little. "Well, I might as well tell you anyway..." Emma raised a brow in question. Neither his pathetic attempt at a grin nor the sympathy in his gaze was going to soften the blow. "Some other places are interested in me and my work, and I got a few offers," he began a little hurriedly, keeping it as vague as possible. He wouldn't put it past Emma to sabotage him to keep him around, especially given the way her jaw tightened at the mere mention. Honestly, part of Emma just shut down when he said that. She wrapped her arms tighter around herself, feeling suddenly cold.

Alex wiped his hands on his pants again nervously. "I have a lot of interviews to do and get ready for, a lot of things to think over... It's probably best if I'm not around for the next two weeks." He said the last sentence with a bit of a question, almost a bit of an apology in his voice. He clearly thought he was doing the both of them a favor by giving them time to cool down. Emma merely nodded stiffly. She didn't want to even seem like she agreed, but what else could she do? He'd made up his mind, and he'd made it perfectly clear that there was nothing she could do to change it.

His expression brightened a little, even though Emma's face said he wasn't getting off easy by any means. Then he reached inside his jacket pocket, pulling out a piece of paper. He offered it to Emma wordlessly at first, taking particular care not to even brush fingertips with her. She looked from him to the paper dumbly, and he sought to explain before either of them did more damage. They both needed some space, but ultimately, after the dust settled... the masochist in him did still want to be a part of her life. Maybe a part that wasn't as important or big or unhealthy, but something, nonetheless. "Any one of those people would be a suitable replacement," he said, gesturing to the list.

Emma once again looked from the list to him. The names on it meant nothing to her. They certainly couldn't replace him. It was just more proof now that, even when he was leaving, he still wasn't leaving her totally in the lurch. She stared up at him, stricken, and Alex hated himself already. He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. He missed her already. He attempted a smile and once again failed massively, reaching out to tap the paper lightly. "If my advice still means anything to you," he said with a little shrug. If it was at all possible, Emma's face crumpled even more, displaying something that looked a little like despair. Alex forced himself to look away again.

As much as she wanted to make him feel bad, to make him realize what he was doing to her, Emma was glad he wasn't looking. She felt the tears pooling in her eyes again, the corners stinging. But she wasn't going to cry like an idiot in front of him. As Alex was averting his gaze, trying to think of a way to extricate himself from the painful situation, Emma's resolve was hardening. She would find a way to make him see. Emma Woodhouse did not surrender or concede defeat. She would give the both of them time and figure out a way to keep him here, right where he had to be. He belonged here.

Once again, Emma tilted her head back, blinking back the tears until most of the moisture went away. She tossed her hair, fluffing it a little to try and cover up that she'd been trying not to cry. Alex wasn't quite convinced. "I'll... uh... schedule a meeting with you before I go to talk about your investment portfolio." She perked up slightly, and he lurched forward awkwardly, wanting to say goodbye somehow. He reached an arm out towards her shoulder but stopped before it touched her. Emma watched dispassionately. Thinking the better of it, Alex went in for a hug. Emma would've hugged him back and probably clung to him a little too much, but he judged that a bad idea too.

He stepped back, rocking on his heels a little, his hands still awkwardly in the air. Then he thought about it a moment longer and decided to kiss her on the cheek. It was something he rarely ever did, some unwritten boundary of their friendship, but now that he'd crossed the Rubicon, what was the point in maintaining that? He wasn't going to see her for weeks, so he might as well make the most of it while she was still here. Alex leaned forward, tilting his head to the side, pursing his lips slightly.

This time Emma actually stared at him with a mixture of confusion and horror, her emotions that naked on her face. So Alex promptly felt like an idiot all over again, mortified that she probably thought he was going to kiss her lips, which led to him once again drawing back. Emma rolled her eyes at him. A part of her was secretly pleased that this wasn't as easy for him as it had seemed. "What are you waiting for, Mr. Knightley? A polite goodbye?" she taunted. This time she said the title and last name like an insult, like he was really that much of a stranger to her.

Alex tensed right back up again but didn't give in to the bait. He merely raised an eyebrow in response, frowning a little. Emma stepped away from him, motioning to the door with a sweeping hand gesture. "If you want to leave, then just leave! You know where the door is," she sniped, pointing at the open door. She'd certainly seen him walking out of her office in a huff more than enough times to imagine him leaving just like this. It sounded more juvenile and emotional than she'd meant it, but she wanted to make sure he knew she wasn't happy about this and was only grudgingly accepting it. At least Harriet wasn't in for the day to hear this. He just stared at first, unable to process the sudden hostility. Then his gaze slid over to the open door, which represented his future.

Alex had known that they'd been drifting for a while. He'd always known he would eventually lose her, at first in the general way, in the way you lose everyone. And then, later, in the specific way, when she found someone to spend the rest of her life with, and he was just second-best, and nothing was the same anymore. He'd never imagined this. He'd even realized sometime between Thanksgiving and this conversation that he was losing her, and had, in fact, lost her, maybe even for good. But it hadn't really sunk in until this very moment, when everything felt so final.

He couldn't remember a time in his life when Emma wasn't a fixture. He couldn't remember a time before her. How was he supposed to move on from that?

His eyes darted back to her. She could see the longing written on his face, but Emma was past sympathy. A part of her broke seeing that look on his face, but she didn't let it show. He was leaving her. Him, of all people! He didn't deserve a proper goodbye, like they could just wrap this conversation up neatly after everything they'd both said. Emma would've stormed out on principle if this wasn't her own office. Alex shifted uncomfortably, ultimately holding his hand out to her to shake. She gave him a disbelieving look and, for the first time in recent memory, did not take his hand. "Don't get hung up on goodbyes."

He crushed his fingers inward into a fist. Alex suppressed a sigh when it became clear she wasn't going to say goodbye to him at all. A part of him still craved that finality, that closure. He wanted one last good memory of her, of them, as selfish as it was, but that had been too much to ask. He'd even thought, just for a moment, of apologizing. That thought died as soon as he saw how childish she was being. He had done all he could. He didn't owe her anything anymore. So Knightley offered her a half-hearted wave instead and said nothing. After all, what was really left to say?

Then Alex left, shutting the door behind him. It felt like the last time, and he had to force himself not to look back. He'd gotten what he wanted, but he didn't feel any better about it. He had to remind himself that it was best for himself, best for the both of them, but the words rang hollow. Alex certainly didn't feel as if he'd won anything. If he had, it was a Pyhrric victory.

She watched him leave, as always, though she wasn't staring at his ass, for once. She felt strange, almost like something from an artsy film. Him leaving didn't seem quite real, not near as final as she'd expected it to be. Emma, on the other side of the door, was still desperately trying to convince herself that this was all some awful nightmare, or, at worst, a temporary setback in their perfect partnership. She would find a way to fix it. Of course, that lasted only until she heard the front door open and close off in the distance, signifying that Alex had left, had walked right out the door. He wasn't coming back to apologize. Even she wasn't delusional enough to think that.

Faced with her thoughts or work, Emma poured over client files. When that failed, she started to organize things. She was still organizing things when the tears started pouring down her face quietly. Even when she was mentally and emotionally exhausted, Emma Woodhouse did not cry big ugly tears. She wept silently in perfect little streams. Eventually, she was able to cast Alex from her mind out of sheer force of will. It was only then that she was able to drive home, resolving to put him out of her mind.

But she didn't have Alex, so it wasn't really working very well.

Emma looked around her at the beautiful trappings of the life she'd painstakingly crafted for herself. Her apartment was perfect, as were her clothes—just the right melange of class, art, and function. Nothing but the best for Emma Woodhouse, after all. She wouldn't settle for anything less. Under other circumstances, she might've smiled, but she'd been feeling out of sorts all night. Now, as she brought her knees up to her chest, gazing at the familiar furniture and walls, Emma just felt cold. She felt an unfamiliar prickle at the back of her neck, something unsettling.

It took her a few more moments to realize what it was she was feeling: emptiness. What did any of it mean? Alex' words to her at Thanksgiving sounded in her head like a thunderclap: If you never ever settle, won't that make you forever alone? The shadows suddenly seemed to stretch on endlessly, and the open, airy floor plan of her apartment seemed suddenly cavernous, ominous almost. Being alone had never bothered Emma before. To be honest, she'd never really felt alone and never much thought about it until Alex had said all of those things. Even afterwards, it wasn't in her nature to ruminate, but she couldn't pretend those words hadn't cropped up from time to time as a painful reminder.

She'd denied what Alex had said for a long time, the same way she always did when she knew he had a point. Emma hadn't seen the point in it then, but she finally understood what he meant now. She'd made herself this flawless, neat little world that she loved, only there wasn't quite room for anyone else. Her apartment, full of abstract art and fragile furniture, didn't feel lived in. It was immaculate—or, rather, sterile and absent of any real warmth despite her best attempts to disguise it with glass and gold and big bay windows. Her life, like her apartment, was a little too perfect, a mess underneath the carefully-painted veneer.

For a long time, she'd convinced herself she was fine with that, that she really didn't want anyone else in her life. She didn't feel lonely or like she was missing out on anything, and she could buy her own dinner. Besides, she had ambitions beyond a mere relationship that would eventually come to its inevitable and predictably boring end. She didn't need anything to derail her from her future of lifetime excellence greatness. Love... didn't even rank in her list of priorities. And why should it when she already had everything she needed? She had the love of her friends and family, which was more than enough and far more steady than a fleeting relationship. She was never going to love a man better than her father, never going to find a man who loved her more than dear old Daddy.

She had a list of perfectly good reasons a mile long if anyone questioned her, and no one ever questioned Emma Woodhouse for long.

For one, she had impossibly high standards, and she'd never met anyone who measured up to her idea of an ideal future mate. Or even part or half of said ideal. Emma Woodhouse did not settle for second-best, and she refused to enter into a relationship for the sole purpose of being part of a couple, of sacrificing her standards to appease some ridiculous peer pressure. Why bother slogging through swamps and dating the unwashed masses if she already knew she wasn't going to find anything but frogs there? She was a modern woman, after all; she didn't need some man to "complete" her.

Surprisingly, Emma Woodhouse did not believe in "soul mates" or fate or anything like that. There were no coincidences, and she had everything planned out and matched people based on their personalities and compatibility. Maybe a tiny part of her whispered that she didn't think that she'd ever meet anyone who was made for her, that she didn't think she'd ever love anyone like that, the way they did in the movies. Maybe a little voice said that she wouldn't be good in a relationship, that she didn't know how to be anyone but single Emma, that trying to be a girlfriend was unfair to anyone else.

Furthermore, even if some man had managed to meet her standards, she rarely, if ever, even had a crush. It was unprofessional, and the only men she talked to were clients, in the same circles, or her father's friends. Hardly crush-worthy.

Feelings of attraction were fleeting, and her interest faded even faster than that once she got to know a bit about the man and discovered whatever facet of his personality that soon made him utterly repulsive to her. Alex had once accused her of actively looking for faults where there weren't any, like she enjoyed dismissing would-be suitors. She was a pretty heiress with her own business; she'd seen more than her share of tedious, unimaginative flirts. Alex pretended it annoyed him, but he did a poor job of hiding his amusement.

Up until her near-miss with the charming and almost perfect Frank Churchill, she couldn't remember the last time she'd met someone who had even sparked her interest, let alone made her feel fireworks. Even James Elton, despite his charm and power and good looks, had bored her very quickly.

Secondly, Emma had hopes and dreams and ambitions—the big kind that came first. She was too busy living and enjoying her life to feel any absence, not to mention helping other people find love (they say those who can't do teach, right?). She simply didn't have the time or energy for something as trivial as dating. It wasn't her style. Her life was her work, and that was the way she preferred it.

Finally, Emma was also self-aware enough to recognize her own selfishness. She didn't want some clingy man or boyfriend complaining about her behavior or taste, constantly seeking to distract her, always wanting something from her she didn't want to give. She didn't want to have to develop common interests or to pretend to like sports and tolerate his insipid friends with their (shudder) nachos and poker nights. Or, worse still, having to deal with someone who wanted her to change, as if the person she already was wasn't good enough—no, Emma was perfectly fine with never being in a relationship. Choosing the wrong man could ruin a good woman more effectively than any drug—legal or otherwise. For some people, love was the worst addiction, she supposed, but Emma Woodhouse was immune, and thank the nondenominational higher power for that!

Emma leaned back into the couch, doing her best to sink into it. It was still a bit too hard to do comfortably, but Emma released her legs, easing down onto her back and staring up at her skylight. Sometimes she debated installing a mosaic or having someone paint a mural on her ceiling, but she usually dismissed it as being a bit too classical and ended up lamenting that painters like Michelangelo no longer walked the earth. Plus, as beautiful as it undoubtedly would be, she knew Alex would call it impractical. Emma threw her hand over her eyes, sighing deeply.

There was another reason Emma had never been in love, not that she would ever admit it.

She'd never let herself fall like that. She couldn't. Emma Woodhouse always had to be in control, and she couldn't relax for a moment or just... let go... or she'd break and shatter all over the place like crystal. And all her efforts would be for naught. She couldn't do that to the people who depended on her for their happiness, not that she knew how to be like that anyway. Falling in love would require trusting somebody else with her heart, and that was just not something Emma was prepared to do.

She barely trusted other people with her clothes or clients, much less something as important as her own heart.

She wasn't about to fall, to be pricked and cut up by love because of someone else's carelessness. She couldn't trust someone else to be willing to work or think of everything, to put her feelings above their own. Emma had seen the mess that some people left in their wake after breaking up with someone they'd supposedly loved... before they left the former beloved behind like collateral damage.

As a restless Emma shifted on her sofa, she remembered Harriet's question. So you're okay with being alone... forever? She'd dismissed it at the time, but now the word sounded so final. Emma bit down hard on her bottom lip. At the time she'd answered, she had been, but now, well... now her answer had changed, hadn't it? All of her words had come back to haunt her.

And suddenly, just like that, she could admit to herself that there was maybe one more reason she'd been so okay with being alone forever. It was because she'd never really thought she would be alone, as in by herself, entirely on her own. She'd always thought she would be alone with Alex, never on her own. She had little reason to assume otherwise, after all. They'd been more or less joined at the hip since childhood and often joked about it. He'd never said anything to indicate that he had other plans, even if his eye had been drawn elsewhere lately.

Knightley dated even less than she did (usually reluctantly, and he always tried and failed to keep it a secret from her like he thought she would ruin it if she knew, and was he really that determined not to allow her to help?!). He was a catch, but he didn't know how to use it, and, well... he could be a bit of an acquired taste sometimes, as much as she loved him. The snark wasn't for everyone; hell, it was probably the most infuriating thing about him besides his seemingly incessant need to rain on her parade!

Still, she'd always imagined them happily discharging their roles as cool, single aunt and frowny-face confirmed bachelor uncle. She'd thought they could go on that way forever as best friends and maybe eventual neighbors or roommates when it was time for the nursing home. You couldn't be best friends for as long as they had without learning to live with each other, after all, and he was family, right? She'd seen nothing wrong with any of that until now when this whole satisfactory future was up in the air. Emma didn't quite know why (or when) this future had gone so quickly from being perfect and ideal to merely "satisfactory," just a step up from not-good-enough, but it had.

The thought of being alone or even the future of companionship she'd imagined no longer seemed quite so ideal. She doesn't really want to be alone. Alex, as always, it seemed, was right. She groaned at the thought; was she doomed or cursed to be forced to admit that to herself over and over again?!

It was lonely at the top—on her throne, pedestal, or whatever metaphor Alex preferred. After all, what was a Lifetime Achievement Award in Lifestyle Excellence worth if she had no one to share it with? What kind of celebration could she hold if no one was there to celebrate her success and joy with her? What did it say about her if she won the award but no one could bear to be around her when she wasn't helping them, if none of them appreciated her for who she was rather than what she could do for them?

And, really, what was any of that worth if she didn't have Alex there at her side, if she couldn't rub his face in her victory just a little and crow over being right? What kind of hollow, sad achievement would that be?

Emma hugged a beaded throw pillow to her chest, desperately trying not to finish that thought. Thinking about him so much felt like he was winning, and, God, she hated it when he was right, when he won. She got it now, what Izzy had meant about not wanting to fight. She let out an irritated sigh, releasing the throw pillow and changing the channel. She kept flicking channels until she got to something that didn't immediately remind her of him—a rerun of What Not to Wear.

She thought she was in the clear, well on her way to be distracted enough to sleep rather than stress-eating gelato almost like she was... wallowing or something dreadful. But then there was this Taco Bell commercial, and the guy in it looked just like Alex. That threw her, admittedly, but the next few commercials didn't have any familiar faces in them, so she wasn't losing it.

Or so she thought until she saw a phone commercial with a cute guy who looked just like him and talked just like him, and the stupid upbeat song in the background was just mocking her. Honestly, I just wanna see you be brave! It was the sort of song Emma would've loved ordinarily since she often gave people similar advice, but in that moment she hated it. What did that even mean? Emma had to change the channel when the next commercial, a KFC ad, also had a guy who looked and sounded just like Alex in it, like he had some sort of doppelganger who was an actor out there in commercials for awful retail chains and fast food restaurants (and he so would do that sort of thing just because he knew it got under her skin and went against everything she stood for!) or, worse still, she was actually losing it.

And she landed on that same phone commercial once again, which at least convinced her she wasn't insane but did absolutely nothing to make Alex look less appealing or make her want to call him less. Emma groaned and changed the channel until she landed on golf. It was a safe enough option since she knew Alex hated golf. But here she was, back to thinking about him and why couldn't she just turn it off?

Emma huffed out a sigh and went through all the channels again until she found a movie with Julia Roberts in it. Unfortunately, it happened to be My Best Friend's Wedding. Julianne's protestations of not wanting to lose her best friend and doing anything to stop it struck an unpleasant cord in her, but Emma found she couldn't look away. She watched numbly, eating the half-melted ice cream, as Julia Roberts realized she'd taken her best friend for granted, and she understood all too well.

She'd been so busy with her life and work and helping everyone else that she'd taken Alex for granted. She just assumed he would always be there, like her father and her sister always would be. Like family but not quite... something a little different. Honestly, Alex was... maybe the one person she could trust to always put her first. As much as she loved John and Izzy and her father, well... they didn't get her the effortless way Alex did. When was the last time she'd told him how much she'd appreciated that? When was the last time she'd really even listened to him or even hung out with him, just the two of them?

Emma set the ice cream bowl down on the table distractedly. She looked down at the t-shirt she wore, noticing the faded lettering for the first time. She squinted at the words—did it really read Math Camp? When had Alex even gone to that camp... when he was thirteen, before he'd gotten quite so tall? He'd come back regaling her with stories about learning fancy Excel functions and accounting methods, and it was the first time anything he'd said had ever bored her. She couldn't even remember how the shirt got into her possession (it wasn't something she would be caught dead in), but she stupidly found herself burying her nose in the collar, trying to see if any of his smell remained like some sentimental idiot. Realizing what she was doing, Emma pulled the collar away from her face, slumping back into the cushions as best as she could, even though it meant her neck was at a funny angle.

She tried to pay attention to Cameron Diaz, but the movie barely held her interest in those scenes. Before Emma knew what was happening, Julia Roberts was arguing with Rupert Everett, who had left in disgust, after professing her love for Dermot Mulroney (and, God, even as a child, Emma had known it was all destined for disaster then). While chasing him down in some sort of bread van in what was clearly the absolute low point of her life.

And that was when Emma realized she was at her very own rock bottom. It was, of course, far less dramatic but only slightly less pathetic since she was sitting on her couch watching sappy chick flicks, eating ice cream, and unable to stop thinking about her best friend... and great, was that a tear?! She was acting like the exact sort of cliché she hated and mocked—like one of her hapless clients before their life got Emma Approved!

Like a clap of thunder, she understood suddenly what she was feeling: nothing less than the full weight of her best friend's disappointment.

Now, Emma Woodhouse hated feeling like she'd let anyone down, both professionally and personally, but feeling like she'd failed Alex, her very best friend in the whole universe was... more than just embarrassing or painful. It was crushing. It was the sort of event that made her completely rethink the past months of her life and rehash every single decision she'd made involving him. Over and over and over.

She was always disappointing Alex in some small way, but those times had been recoverable. This time, well, he'd had enough, and she couldn't even blame him for cutting her out of his life. She'd been a horrible, blind, self-centered friend, and she didn't deserve him. Alex Knightley, the most patient man she knew, had finally given up on her. He'd said harsh things before, turned his back before, but he'd never just... walked away and given up for good, like he no longer expected anything from her. It felt so much worse than she would've ever imagined.

Emma found herself sympathizing with Julia Roberts' character, probably too much. As she watched, she knew that Michael was supposed to remind her of Alex, but she wasn't in love with him, and well... George was the one who was really there for Julianne all throughout the movie, the one who did anything for her, the one who told her unpleasant truths she needed to hear, and he was the one she ended up with. He was really her best friend. And for some reason Emma always associated the name George with Alex.

She shook her head, as if it would make her thoughts clear and sensible. She was drawing conclusions where there weren't any because she was overemotional, and... she really did want to end up with Alex in the movie of her life, didn't she? She couldn't picture herself dancing with anyone else.

And, just like that, the revelation she'd been putting off all night darted through her with the speed of an arrow—she was in love with Knightley, wasn't she?

The more she thought about it, strangely, the more it made sense. It shouldn't have, just like it shouldn't feel so natural or normal. For years she'd told anyone who could listen that Alex was just a friend, her best friend and business partner but nothing more, even when other people had raised eyebrows and given skeptical looks. Even when they'd made comments or assumptions like but you're perfect for each other or you have great chemistry or an awkward and sad oh sorry I just thought there was something there or a patronizing you don't see it? Emma was always ready with it's not like that and you don't get it and I've known him forever and it's totally platonic. She'd convinced herself that she thought of him as an older brother.

He's like a brother to me. How many times had she said that? Had she known even then that it was more than that?

But that was just the thing. Alex wasn't her brother.

She noticed him in a visceral way, had been noticing him for a while like that. For longer than she wanted to admit. She liked to look at him and looked her fill. She could no longer lie and say she was merely scrutinizing his appearance or general sartorial taste.

Emma noticed the way his shirt pulled across his shoulders when he moved, spared a thought on the muscles underneath. She noticed his forearms, how strong they looked when he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. She knew what each uplift of a brow or quirk of his lips meant. She enjoyed the warm weight of his stare on her skin—the only approval she'd ever truly craved in her life—and the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled.

She knew his hands as well as his every facial expression. And a tiny part of her wanted him to not be quite so careful and just touch her because he never did.

And of course she looked at his stupidly perfect ass every time he left a room. Emma always watched him walk away with rapt attention and felt unsatisfied in some way she didn't understand. She'd wanted more even if she didn't know what that was. And, yes, she stared a little too long, held his gaze a few beats longer and closer than a friend would've before something snapped her out of it. There had been too many awkward silences in the past year for her to pretend otherwise.

Friends didn't feel conflicted. Just friends didn't feel anything like that. They didn't have to tell themselves not to think these things or push whatever strangeness they were feeling to the side.

It wasn't just that, either. If it was just... aesthetic appreciation or lust or whatever, that would've been one thing. It would've been a crush, something that would've passed. Like the thing she'd had for Frank Churchill. She would've overcome that by now. Emma had tried to ignore it, to push it aside or pretend it wasn't happening, but she'd just confused herself and pushed him away.

Every little thing about Alex only drew her in more. She was always happy to see him, always ready with a smile or a face. He made her feel things that no one else did and knew just how to get under her skin. He balanced her, like some kind of other half. If that wasn't love, then what was?

You didn't feel possessive about your friends or family, did you? The thought of a brother or mere friend having a girlfriend shouldn't feel wrong or make her feel sick to her stomach, should it? After all, she'd never set him up on a date for a reason, and not just because he wouldn't let her or because no one was good enough.

Next thing Emma knew, she'd picked up her phone and was flicking through her contacts until she saw his face. All she really knew was that she had to call him and fix this somehow. She could let him go, maybe, but she couldn't stand not talking to him. She had to apologize. She owed him that much, at least. She couldn't stand to think that he still thought the worst about her. She could at least validate the good opinion he'd had once, to remind him that she was still the Emma he'd always known.

Even as she convinced herself it was the right and proper (and only) thing to do, her fingers slipped when she tried to dial. She froze, unable to follow through with her chosen course of action. Which was a flashing neon sign that something was very deeply wrong with Emma Woodhouse if she'd ever seen one. The more she thought about it, the more her heart beat overtime, like a hummingbird's wings, and threatened to burst out of her chest, doing all sorts of things she didn't think it could do outside of childhood cartoons.

It would've been laughable if it wasn't so pathetic, really. The Great Emma Woodhouse unable to call her best friend because of heart troubles and her feelings for him. Alex Knightley, the one person in the world she could tell anything, the one person who would understand. Yet she'd lost her nerve. Emma Woodhouse's heart touched—something she had never, ever seen coming, even though all the signs were there. She'd been such a fool all along, thinking she knew everything, and Alex had been right, as always, damn him.

But she could and would do this! She would! After all, she was Emma Woodhouse, and she didn't let anything stand in her way—not even herself! Emma closed her eyes briefly, inhaling a deep yoga breath and squaring her shoulders. And then she finally pressed the button.

It took her four tries to actually leave a message.

The first time she couldn't even finish the call, worried as she was that he was screening her calls. The second time she just listened to his voice recording and missed him so much she physically ached for it. It was strange, really, to be so affected by it. The sound and cadence of his voice was nearly as familiar to her as her own, even over the phone. There shouldn't have been any novelty in it. Still, she was so caught up in his voice that Emma barely remembered to hang up. The third time she fully intended on leaving a message, but she was attacked suddenly by a paralyzing fit of nerves and the knowledge that in that moment she just couldn't.

After a few minutes of alternatively cursing herself for her uncharacteristic cowardice and giving herself the sort of peptalks she usually gave clients, she managed to screw up her courage enough to dial again. Her breaths were shaky (she's still on the verge of hyperventilating), but everything was getting clearer. She tried to calm herself, closing her eyes and listening to the familiar voice message, letting his voice roll over her until the beep set her on edge all over again. "Hi, it's Emma." Her voice came out a bit too high, almost squeaky, enough to make her cringe.

But Emma licked her lips and continued talking, "I don't know if you're screening my calls now or what, but I wouldn't blame you. I mean, you know me best, right?" She let out an awkward, painful laugh, as if that would somehow lighten her discomfort. She tried to remind herself it was just Alex she was trying to talk to here, and not even really him just his phone, no big deal, but everything had changed.

She shut her eyes abruptly, hesitating for a moment but forcing herself to continue nonetheless. "Look, can we just talk?" It came out artlessly, but Emma supposed it was a small miracle she hadn't blurted out her feelings to him yet. She'd never had any problem keeping secrets from Alex before, not if they were things he was better off not knowing or worrying about. And her feelings, well, those were a pretty big unforeseen complication.

Emma held a faintly trembling hand out in a bracing motion, though her hand stilled when she remembered he couldn't see her. She kept talking quickly, so he wouldn't delete the message or simply stop listening. "I know what you're thinking, and you don't have to worry about that this time. I'm not going to try and talk you out of it," she said firmly. Contrary to popular belief, even Emma could recognize a lost cause when she saw one.

"You've..." She took a deep breath before pushing on. "...Made up your mind, and I respect that." She could force the words out and swallow over the hard lump in her throat, but that didn't mean she'd come to terms with everything. Or that she'd accepted it. But at the very least, she could respect his decisions. "Really, I do." Emma drew in yet another deep breath, hoping her voice wouldn't break. "It's just... I hate like the way we left things." She could feel her voice starting to break, getting just a bit raspier and more emotional, so Emma cleared her throat a bit too loudly in hopes of disguising it.

"Anyway," she continued with a false cheer, winding a stray lock of hair around her finger, "that's all I wanted to say, so yeah. Bye!" Already hanging her head, Emma then proceeded to hang up as quickly as she could. When did she lose the ability to say whatever she wanted to him? Why did it have to be so awkward now that she knew her own heart? At the very least, though, she hadn't said she loved him, though those words were just on the tip of her tongue. Words which once would've been casually delivered and taken for granted, words that had meant something very different up until this very moment.

And of course that brought back one final memory of Alex. His college girlfriend of over a year had just broken up with him, and he was at home moping. He'd seemed so much older and wiser than her at the time, rendered more interesting by his utter dejection. She'd tried to understand, but she just couldn't get why he was so sad, why he couldn't just bounce back immediately. He'd never been like this before when other girls had dumped him. Alex had noticed her impatience, of course, and he just shook his head. "I just need some time, Emma," he'd said, waving her off, trying to get her to leave him alone.

She'd protested, tried to get him to go outside with her, to make him stop sitting on the couch watching Clueless over and over again, practically tearing up. Even then she couldn't stand to see him like that, much less over some stupid girl who clearly wasn't worth the effort. He'd pulled away from her, sinking back into the couch, his expression weary. "You'll get it one day," he promised, popping a handful of popcorn into his mouth, "When you fall in love."

As always, her default opinion was to disagree with him. Emma had taken one disgusted look at him and vowed never to be as pathetic as he was in this moment. The same way she did whenever Izzy broke up with a boyfriend or cried over something stupid John had said. It was a good strategy that had served her well in life. If love was like this, well, then, Emma Woodhouse didn't want any part of it! "I'm never going to get letting yourself wallow in your misery and self-pity like a pig in mud, Alex," she countered sharply—a bit too sharply, really, at the time. He opened his mouth to make some comment, but she cut him off before he could. "And I'm never going to fall in love either!"

It came out so childishly and determined, even though she was well into her late teens, that Alex couldn't help but crack a smile. It quickly turned bittersweet, and then gallingly pitying, but, still, she'd gotten him to smile. He tilted his head to the side a little and just looked at her for a moment before he let out a weak chuckle. "Falling in love isn't something you choose, Emma." She scowled and gave him the same look she always did whenever he called her naïve or short-sighted or whatever it was this week. She was Emma Woodhouse, and she was in control and above such things. It had seemed so ridiculous at the time, and she'd felt so untouchable, so beyond schoolgirl feelings.

Alex had leaned over then, pressing a kiss to her forehead and stroking her cheek warmly. The sad look didn't quite go out of his eyes; it had settled and deepened, if such a thing was possible. "That's exactly what I'm afraid of," he murmured. It almost sounded like he was disappointed, but he was looking at her with a touch too much fondness for it to be that. Something in her chest had tightened, and even now she wasn't sure that feeling had gone away.

And in another of the continuing bitter ironies of her life, Alex was right yet again. So this is what love is. She finally got what he meant when it was too late to do anything about it.

And there was really nothing left for Emma Woodhouse to do now but eat her words (and more bittersweet ice cream).

- Loren ;*