A/N: I was writing a fanfic for a Cinco de Mayo challenge, but it was made irrelevant and outdated by today's new episode, so I am not finishing it.

--

Perception

--

At first glance, she looks a little out of it. She moves jerkily, in a manner consistent with the motion of a hyper five-year-old. Even when she's speaking, her head bobs up and down enthusiastically. A permanent smile is carved into her face. Her reddish hair flipped up at the bottom gives it a look of perpetual motion, and the degree to which her eyes are opened makes her look like she's overdosed on coffee.

Every color of the rainbow has somehow found its way into her outfit, which consists of layered shirts, belts, big skirts, whatever is loud enough. The many necklaces that curl around her neck are also multicolored, and all different sizes. Somehow, she's defying the laws of physics, because she's standing upright with all that jewelry and those clothes weighing her down.

Or maybe the wardrobe isn't to blame, she considers, as she looks down at herself, for the heaviness she feels. Every breath takes extra effort; every step is slower.

She knows he's supposed to be in love with her. But with every minute that passes she becomes more aware of the rift between them. She is his ragged-on-the-edges security blanket, the one piece of home that cared enough to fly cross-country to see him. Be with him. And with every subway ride to the Meade Publications building, that fissure gets a little bit wider, splits a little bit farther, and the pieces that used to hold it together tumble hopelessly down to the bottom of the very deep, very dark chasm.

As she closes the door softly behind her, she is greeted by, once again, the dark and empty apartment. She has grown used to the empty coat hook, the clean coffee table, the tidy desk. To making her own dinner and eating it in silence. To the quick "good night"s uttered from his tired lips to her tired ears at unreasonable hours of the night. To hardly actually seeing him—maybe at lunch, if she makes an appointment three days in advance. To the monotonous "I love you"s he mutters at the end of every one of their ridiculously brief phone conversations.

She knows he only says it because he's obligated to. The words are really nothing more than vacant decibels and vibrating air, without a hint of feeling attached. He used to say it like he meant it—but that was ages ago. If time really were measured in seasons of love, their relationship would be in a dead winter.

She hangs her multicolored woolen shawl on the lonely coat hook and sits on the purple couch. The cushions are pristine, every piece of stuffing securely in place. It's in mint condition, that couch. And she feels sorry for the couch, because no one ever sits on it anymore. When he gets home, he usually sits at his desk for a few minutes and then goes straight to bed. And when she gets home, she usually sits at the breakfast table and sculpts something.

Any other couple's couch would be welcoming. Soft from nights of falling asleep halfway through the evening news. Adorned with tiny popcorn pieces from mid-movie food fights. Stuffed with spare change falling out of its occupants' pockets as they adjust their positions to become most comfortable. But the armrests are stiff, the backrest unyielding. And as she tries to admire it, she realizes that she hates that stupid couch.

So she gets up and moves to the kitchen. Standing over the sink, she looks down at her reflection in the stainless steel bottom and examines her face. She knows his face all too well. Everything he thinks is shown on his face, and she can read him like a book. Every day is a new chapter, every expression a new page. When he looks up at her only briefly and then down, she knows that he's stressed. When he holds his head slightly down and to the right, a barely perceptible change in position, she knows that he is not in the mood for her touch. And when he looks her straight in the eye, she knows that he understands perfectly what's not going on between them. She choreographs her actions to the music written in the sacred text of his face, the dance becoming more complex each day.

Moving to the refrigerator, she sees the picture of them from their college days—both of them smiling, because they had no idea what was in store. She has grown unfamiliar with his smile, and she knows that he saves it for someone else. Jealousy wells up in her as she opens the freezer and removes a carton of organic soy-based ice cream. He gives her almost everything. She gets the words, the embraces, the material things she needs to survive. What she doesn't get is the emotion that those things should bring. No, she thinks as she gets a spoon from the drawer under the stove, that's saved for Someone Else.

Someone Else gets the small things—the secret, shared glances, the random facts, the conversations that mean something. The cute smiles that come when he pushes his glasses into position and shows teeth, not at all the close-lipped ones that she sees at home. The things that no one else would ever notice, but she does because they used to be hers. That is why the apartment is so empty—it's devoid of emotion.

She knows that it wasn't an accident when Someone Else let go of her hand in that subway station. When she emerged from a station down the line and saw Someone Else very close to him, she formulated a plan. None of her actions were accidental. No, she had waited, watched. She heard every word, each one a sharp pain in her heart. Her plan was perfectly executed—she came into view only when she was certain that he had nothing else to say, but just in time to stop the kiss. Her words were carefully chosen—the "I heart New York" thrown in there as a funny line to cover up her pain.

As she sits at the breakfast table and digs into the ice cream, she comes to grips with the fact that she grew increasingly jealous of the attention that she was losing to Someone Else. At her birthday party, she was careful to point out to him how cute Someone Else and the dentist were, and she thrived on the pain she read in his face. She realized quickly, however, that hurting him got her nowhere, and ceased the pleas for his attention. He had none to spare, anyway.

She learned gradually to accept her diminished position in his heart. All the embraces in the world are worth nothing if they are not accompanied by love.

Try as she might, however, she is unable to think of him as "the bad guy." She can only blame herself for this. If she had just stayed in Tucson, she could have never seen him again. But she took a plane to New York City and embedded herself in a very complicated network of relationships. This realization settles in with every spoonful of soy product.

When her spoon scrapes the bottom of the carton, she sets it aside and begins to do what she had planned to do ever since she had arrived on the Mode floor that afternoon. Hearing him tell Someone Else that he missed her, seeing the way he picked Someone Else off the floor and smiled, and reading his expression convinced her that her chapter in the sacred text of his face was over.

She retreats to the bedroom, removes her suitcases from the closet, and hastily packs her things. Returning to the kitchen, she peels a Post-It from the stack by the coffee maker and writes a quick note on it.

Henry,

I'm leaving. It was made clear today that you feel much more for Betty than you do for me. Don't feel guilty—this is my fault in the first place for coming here. I still love you, but most of all, I want to see you happy, and she makes you happier than I ever could. My love will fade with time. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. Tell Betty to stay unique. And try to eat healthy, okay?

Charlie

She closes the door of the apartment for the last time and walks to the lobby. Quickly she asks the concierge to get her a reservation for the next flight to Tucson, thanks him, hails a cab, and, as they drive past the Meade Publications building, blows a final kiss out the window.

On the outside, she may look a little out of it. But she's much more observant than she appears.