The first night Emmett invited himself into Elle’s room, he’d only stayed long enough to snag a red bull from her shelf, dump all her magazines into the trash, and leave her standing there with her book in her hands. He only turned around once to make sure she was still speechless in the middle of the room and out the door he went with a grin. He’d never seen her speechless before. It was nice, if unsettling. Little Miss Woods, Elle seemed always to have something to say.
The next day, she sat in class, a laptop beneath her fingers. She didn’t raise her hand, but when Callahan called on her for a definition, she answered with wavering confidence and a flip of the hair. There were no snickers this time. Emmett hid a smirk behind his hand at Callahan’s blanching. He’d been out for blood and had found nothing but another shark in the water.
It was strange; Emmett thought he should be angry at how blasé Elle was about getting into Harvard. A goal atop the highest mountain his entire childhood, she’d laid as a stepping-stone to win back a man. Perhaps he was just an easy target to justify all the work she was putting in. But, the way she spoke about Warner had him scratching his head. The way she spoke to Warner had him wondering where Elle had gone inside that blonde head of hers.
The night before, he’d left his number on her desk while she changed out of that ridiculous costume he had a feeling Vivian had a word on, with a note that said I’m here if you need me. That night after class, a Friday night no less, he got a text when he was expecting radio silence. He headed straight over with his book and laptop. Elle opened the door in a pink blouse and jeans, a much more muted version of her public self. Her grin was still ever-present, her attention span just as fleeting, but there was something else. A fire there as she raked her eyes over page after page, as she paced the room while he tossed term after term at her. Most she got wrong. Some, though, she didn’t.
They had a lot of work ahead of themselves. Most of it was up to her.
A week in, she turned to him where he sat on the desk. “Why are you helping me? You could be going out or studying yourself.”
Emmett shrugged. How could he explain just how much he saw of himself in her? Overlooked, undervalued, burning from the inside. “You’ve got potential,” was all he said.
She accepted it at face value and she went back to reading.
On Thanksgiving when she’d made for the door with her bags in tow, he stopped her with a firm reminder of just what she’d be missing. Sighing, she put down her bags and called out a goodbye to Warner who didn’t even turn around. Emmett rolled his eyes.
She was distracted that night, staring at the door and her phone, back and forth. “Did you have plans?” Emmett asked. “Family?”
“No, no. My parents always do Thanksgiving at the golf course with the other members. I just thought maybe he’d call.” Her voice was soft, quiet. A little bit broken. He fought the urge to shake her, thinking the very idea of Warner would fall out and she’d realize she didn’t have to do all this to prove her worth to a mediocre man. Before he could respond, she turned to him. “What about you? Plans?”
He shook his head. “Can’t afford a flight home. Not if I want to try to make Christmas day.”
She was quiet a moment, kicking her feet in the air. “Favorite Thanksgiving food?”
“What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish? Mine’s honey-glazed ham. Or mashed potatoes. Don’t tell the girls, though, they’d freak if they knew I ate that stuff once year.”
Emmett mimed sealing his lips and thought over his answer. “You know, I’m not sure. All we ever had was grocery store turkey and oven rolls. My mom always did make a great apple pie, crumbled pieces on top and everything.”
“Alright,” she said, “let’s go.” She stood, sliding her feet into shoes and pulling Emmett’s sweatshirt back over her shoulders. He hadn’t gotten it back. He hadn’t really wanted it back.
“Go?” Emmett asked, watching her whirlwind through the room, tossing things into a purse she’d pulled from her closet.
“Yeah. Let’s go get us a Thanksgiving dinner since someone made me stay.”
Emmett was quiet. “I didn’t make you.”
“Shut up and get your coat before I leave you here with Bruiser.” He huffed, vowing to bring her book along with them so they didn’t lose any time while they ate. She directed them to a little diner at twenty-minute walk away that advertised a full Thanksgiving meal all week long. They ordered two meals and Emmett blanched at the amount of food that covered the table when the waitress finally carried it out. Mountains of turkey and ham, rolls and butter, buckets of gravy.
“Elle, this is too much. I, we, can’t eat all this.”
“Sure we can. My treat. Now, eat before it gets cold. There’s nothing worse than cold mashed potatoes except that manicure Stacy gave me back in high school on prom night. I swear she did that on purpose, don’t even get me started.”
Emmett snorted. He definitely wouldn’t get her started on that. Instead, he dug in. They traded stories of their families and past holidays and he found, despite their financial differences, they’d spent an eerily similar number of Thanksgiving meals alone. At the end of the meal, he found they’d demolished everything and still had room for pie, Elle scarfing down her fair share of the food. Of course she did. Everything she did was one hundred percent. Everything.
He flushed when she laid down her visa to pay for the meal, reaching to grab the bill before her, but she slapped his hand away, leaving more of a sting behind than he’d been expecting. “Nonsense. You’ve been helping me so much recently, it’s the least I could do.”
He realized on the way home they hadn’t cracked open the book once. He thought about opening on the way, but instead he left it clutched in his hands. He’d let today be something different. A celebration instead of a study break.
“This was nice,” he said as he walked her to her dorm room.
“Yeah,” she said, “yeah it was. See you tomorrow!”
He went back to his place grinning and it didn’t fall for hours. There was something about her that left him feeling full, and it wasn’t just the food.
The next month passed by quickly, the two of them spending more nights than not shut inside her room and chugging energy drinks to stay awake. They poured over the assigned reading together until, one night, close to Christmas, Elle was quoting entire sections of the book without realizing it.
Then Warner would come knocking and it would all pour out to the floor.
Now every time Emmett saw the man, anger pooled in his gut that he didn’t quite understand. It was irrational. Elle was choosing to act that way around him. Who was Emmett to care?
The week before Christmas, he found himself wandering around the store aimlessly, unwittingly searching for something to give to her. Nothing expensive. Nothing to show just how much he was starting to care. He settled on a 2 in 1 shampoo to make a joke out of the whole thing and headed to her place after wrapping it as best he could. The bow was crooked, but he did his best.
Elle’s friend Paulette was over when he arrived and he didn’t look at her as he held it out. “To save time,” he said.
He heard Paulette whisper something about hair care and keeping him around and she breezed past him on her way out with a goodbye. Elle wrapped her arms around him in thanks, and just as he settled into the hug, she jerked away. At the door was Warner, asking for his girlfriend. He didn’t even look Emmett’s way.
He lost it then, seeing the IQ points drain from Elle’s face as she pasted on a smile. She shouldn’t have to pretend to be that to get Warner’s attention. She shouldn’t have to pretend at all. Emmett liked the Elle that was in this room, the Elle at their Thanksgiving dinner. She was funny, whip-smart, unashamedly everything. When Warner left, he couldn’t help make a quip about just how low her IQ had to be to get his attention and it seemed he struck a nerve. She said he was right. She’d been doing it all wrong.
Hope lit beneath his skin before it came crashing back down again.
She said she’d been trying to get Warner back all wrong. She’d woo him with her intelligence instead. At least it was closer to her being true to the Elle Emmett knew. At least everyone else would be able to see that.
A pang of possessiveness shot over him, but he pushed it down, down, down. He had no claim to Elle, had no right to want to keep the qualities he’d found in her to himself.
He went home for twenty-four hours at Christmas and only wanted to get back to Elle. School, he meant. Get back to school.
Elle wooed the class soon after, shooting Warner down in an instant and winning her case to everyone’s surprise but Emmet’s. Callahan asked for her resume and he held it to his nose. Scented. Emmett bit back his laughter. Of course it was scented. How very Elle it was indeed.
“I guess you never can tell,” he said to Callahan with a shrug, all the while thinking of himself in the very same position not long ago.
“No,” he agreed. “You never can tell.”
Elle came to him, asking him to tag along to give Paulette’s dog a birthday cake. He didn’t understand it, not all the way, but he agreed. She had asked so insistently, saying she needed backup in case. He knew she didn’t need it, but he’d go for support anyway.
At the door, as her shoulders fell and it felt like everything shattered with the slamming of the door, he grabbed her by the shoulders. “They lived together ten years,” he said, waiting for it to click.
“Emmett, you’re a genius.” She knocked on that door and fucking nailed it, mind his French. As they left, Rufus in arms, she was alive in a way he hadn’t seen in a long time. He used to see it when she talked about Warner, but that fire had disappeared, dimmed, simmer to nothing. Now, it was back and she was looking at him with a grin bigger than the Grand Canyon and he wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around her and keep that joy between them forever.
Someone interrupted them before he could give in, said Callahan had chosen four interns for a new case. They were ecstatic, Warner and Vivian both making the list. It all came crashing down when Warner knelt in front of everyone, ring in hand, the very picture of what Elle had wanted given to someone that wasn’t her. Vivian said yes and his heart broke for Elle and the way the fire went out in an instant.
Pushing past the crowd, he traced his finger down the list, hardly believing what he saw, but not surprised one bit. Elle had made it.
While she crumbled in front of him, he tapped her on the shoulder, willing her eyes to find his. If she could see she’d made it, if she could see how proud he was, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so bad. She slowly turned, putting the pieces of composure back together across her face. He saw her mask when she finally met his eyes and he pointed, watching her reaction. The mask was gone again, the fire was back. It was a sight to see, something he never wanted to forget. She was alive. One hundred percent.
“Let’s go celebrate,” he said. She shook her head.
“Not tonight. I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow.”
“I’ll walk you to your door, then.”
“Thanks,” she said, “but I think I’ll walk alone. Tomorrow, let’s get breakfast?”
“Yeah, sure. See you in the morning,” Emmett said, watching her walk down the hall and disappear. She still had that glint in her eyes, mumbling about how much better she’d be. He was proud. He was heartbroken. But, she’d recover, he knew it.
Instead of waiting until morning, he grabbed ice cream from the convenience store down the road and knocked on her door. He expected her to answer looking like she’d been crying, muted with sadness. But, instead, she was in a sweat suit the color of the sky, bright eyed when she opened the door.
He thought maybe she didn’t care as much about Warner as she thought she did. The show was gone; she was only herself there in front of him.
“Hey. I don’t have to stay, I just thought you might want some ice cream. Brought chocolate. Your favorite.”
“Emmett, of course I want you to stay, silly. Come on in,” she said, smile tugging the corner of her mouth.
They settled on the floor against her bed, each of them choosing to eat from the same pint of ice cream. He leaned in close, their shoulders brushing.
“Emmett,” she breathed, he looked up at her, inches away. He could feel her heart beating, feel it in the air. His own matched hers, her to his. Around them, the world softened.
“Elle,” he whispered back. He moved closer, close enough to feel her breath ghost his lips. He paused, giving her a moment to catch up. To make a decision. This was not something he wanted to come back from, not a line he wanted cross back over.
A door in the hall creaked and she jerked back, lowered her eyes to the ground. He sighed, sat back. He had imagined it all. A girl like Elle would never go for a guy like him.
Instead, she rested her head in the crook of his shoulder and he accepted it as enough.
“Thanks,” she said.
“For what?” he asked.
“The ice cream, being here. Believing in me.” She went quiet, the last sentence a whisper. “For everything that makes you, you.”
They fell into silence. They fell asleep.
She shook him awake before the sun was up, a crick in his neck from sleeping propped against her bed. Elle was rubbing the sleep from her eyes, but she looked wide-awake. He didn’t know how she did it. One hundred percent. Every time.
He went home to change and found Elle waiting at the doors to the office dressed in navy, the first one there but the janitor. He laughed as he walked up and they waited together for Callahan to come unlock the door.
When she stayed behind at the prison and got the alibi, he couldn’t help the burst anger that appeared. This was their shot. There were lives on the line. It was only a moment, until it fell into nothing but pride for her morality. But, he was angry. And he did snap at her.
She knew he didn’t mean it, though. All she said was her word was worth something and she knew his was too.
He never asked her to spill the alibi again. He knew she didn’t break her word and he was proud of her for it. It would make their work harder, but it could be done.
She took him shopping. She bought him new clothes. She said he looked like Warner and his shoulders sagged. That’s what she wanted, then. A replacement for her heart to mend around. At the end of it all, he said it was still just him inside.
“That’s the best part,” she said and he felt her eyes on him, warm at his side. “That’s the best part.” He thought maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe she knew just how often appearances made opportunities. And how often they took them away.
She cracked the pool boy case, getting the information they needed to make everything he said into a lie. He was worthless as a testimony. The other side was scrambling. They went back to the office to celebrate.
“To Emmett,” Callahan said. Of course he did. Never one to give credit where credit was due.
“To Elle,” Emmett said, raising a glass. She was beaming at him across the office as they all clinked glasses to the two of them.
“You two sure do make an unstoppable pair,” Enid said as she left for the night. Emmett couldn’t help but agree.
Emmett went home soon after, leaving Elle behind to talk to Callahan. He sat down on her steps to wait for her to come home. He wanted to congratulate her, to thank her for everything. The court took him seriously. For once, they acted like he was one of them. He wanted to see her, just the two of them. To thank her.
She came walking down the sidewalk and he beamed at her as she approached. But, something was wrong. She’d been crying. All that fire beneath her eyes was waterlogged.
She said she was leaving. He didn’t understand.
She said Callahan kissed her and his hands turned to fists at his sides. That pig. He’d heard stories, of course. But, he never thought it was real. If Elle hadn’t been closing the door on him, he’d be pummeling the man into the ground.
“What about love,” he said into her door. He wasn’t sure he heard him, but the door would hold his words forever. Maybe while she was sleeping his words would find her and then she’d know. Know just how much he wanted her to stay.
She was the best thing about this place. Now she was leaving.
He talked into the door and prayed it would find her. Prayed she’d realize Callahan was wrong and come back swinging. She always did. Even if she came back to someone else but him.
A few days of pacing and worrying, Emmett got a call. Meet them at the court. Elle was coming back. He threw on his new suit and slicked back his hair, hardly able to keep the smile from his face. His heart was beating and it was for her. He’d get to see her again. If that’s all that was, it would be okay. As long as she was back, as long as she knew she deserved every morsel of respect for what was inside her brain. As long as she knew just how much she was worth, with or without a man.
“Did you really think I’d let you get away?” he whispered against her ear. She smiled and smiled and slaughtered the court with her wit. They won. She flung her arms around him and he couldn’t help but spin her around, sighing against how right it felt to have her there. He let his eyes follow her around the room, seeing how her eyes found his just as often.
Warner appeared on the outskirts as the court emptied around them and for some reason, there was no resentment there when Emmett pointed him out to Elle.
“I’ll see you later,” he said. He knew he would. There was no doubt in his mind. It was her eyes and the way they lit up when she looked at him. He thought he’d been imagining it until he’d seen her look at Warner again. They were dull. Devoid. He had nothing to worry about.
She came to find him after, arms outstretched. That night he kissed her on her doorstep, unable to resist, her lips star soft against his own. She invited him inside. They sat against her bed, sharing ice cream and cold sugar kisses.
“You are the best thing about this place,” he said. “And every place.”
“Funny,” she said. “I was going to say the same about you.”
At graduation, when Elle proposed in front of everyone, of course he said yes. He would always say yes to her. One hundred percent.