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slowly, and then all at once

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I fell in love the way you fall asleep:
slowly, and then all at once.
- John Green, The Fault in Our Stars


"You know, you're the only person I've ever met who actually wants their parents to split up," Becky says. Homeroom is boring and their homework is more or less done and Becky won’t stop talking about things that are none of her business. The teacher steps outside for a second and a paper airplane whizzes past her ear, and she can hear Colin laughing five rows back. "Boys," she mutters.

Emily just shrugs, pretending to read the page of her textbook that she's had to re-start three times already so far.

"I mean most kids want their parents to work it out," Becky continues, oblivious. "I remember a horrific argument my Mom and Dad had, but all I could think was please don't split up, please don't split up, please don't split up."

"An," Emily replies, without thinking.


"An horrific argument. Not a." Becky's looking at her like she's something to study, a half-smile twitching at the corner of her mouth in bemusement. "I'm going to the bathroom," Emily says quickly, and gets up.

To her relief, when she steps back into the room and retakes her seat, Becky is busy whispering with Claudia the next row over about Colin, and how if he'd just stop throwing paper airplanes at her face she might accept his invitation to go get milkshakes.


Emily can't help but wonder, every time she steps into the elevators at her Dad's work, who picks the music that worms its way into her brain and then stays there for the rest of the day.

She's so consumed with finding out who it is, or finding out which wire to cut behind the panel she's sure she could break into in the short time it takes to arrive at The Lightman Group floor, that she practically walks into Gillian as the doors ding open.

"Emily!" Gillian says, surprised, before looking around her, a guilty look on her face.

"Hi, Gillian," Emily smiles, an involuntary reaction she has no control over because she can still hear Becky's voice in her head and she can't help but wonder whether she really should be wanting her parents to work it out, and she's not blind; she knows that's probably never going to happen now that Gillian's in his life, married to someone else or not.

"Your Dad's not here," Gillian continues, quickly, an apologetic look on her face.

"Where are you going?" Emily fires back, a smirk beginning to form on her face because she may only be thirteen but she's picked up enough of her Dad's work and Becky's lies about not fancying Colin to know that Gillian is hiding something.

"I... well," Gillian tries, but she knows she's busted. A smile takes over her face, and Emily can't help but notice how innocently beautiful she is. "Oh, fine. I was sneaking out for a muffin."

Emily smiles, triumphant.

"Would you like to come with me?"


The terrible elevator music aside, the quick journey back downstairs and out into the fresh air passes without any of the awkwardness that Emily thinks should be there. The problem - if you can even call it a problem - is that there has never been any awkwardness with Gillian. Not even when they first met and her Dad was the quietest she'd seen him in a long while because he was too busy just watching his partner. Not for facial expressions or reactions or rises to anything he was saying; he was just watching her, openly, calmly, as if her simple presence was enough for him in that moment.

Emily knows these things because she's read about it in books and she's seen it on TV and she knows for a fact that unrequited love is a powerhouse when pitted against the ordinary day to day life and arguments that her parents call a strained marriage.

"Would you like one?" Gillian's voice pulls her from her thoughts, and she finds herself nodding along when Gillian points to a chocolate one the size of her hand, and she delights at the prospect of being allowed to eat it without being lectured as to the sugar content and how she should be grateful that she can eat such things without consequences while she still can. Zoe never has to squeeze herself into her killer two-piece suits, but she never allows herself the joy of eating an entire chocolate muffin all to herself, either. As Emily watches Gillian take a large bite out of her own muffin before smiling widely, her eyes closed, the word heaven muttered somewhere in amongst the crumbs, she thinks this must be the healthier way to treat life, and immediately feels guilty for the comparison.

"Is something wrong?" Gillian pulls her back to the present again, elegantly wiping her mouth in search of errant crumbs that aren't even there.

"No." Emily smiles. "Thank you for the muffin, Gillian," she says, before taking a bite of her own.


“Do you like her?” Zoe asks one evening, seemingly out of the blue but all Emily can wonder is whether or not she found out about the muffin.

She considers playing dumb, but doesn’t want to insult her mother’s intelligence. “She seems nice.”

Zoe sighs. “I think she probably is nice.”

It’s the one and only time for years to come that Emily hears Zoe admit this, but it’s enough to know that her mother isn’t made of stone. She feels even worse for comparing her to Gillian, and though she watched Cal’s eyes as he watched Gillian, she also listened to his words whenever he spoke to her mother.

“He loves you,” Emily says simply, and then wonders if maybe she shouldn’t have said anything at all.

Zoe just sighs again. “I know he does.”


She’s waiting in Cal’s office a few weeks later when Gillian comes in instead.

“Emily, I didn’t know you were here.”

“I’m happy to wait,” Emily says, quietly, as Gillian moves to Cal’s desk and rifles through the paperwork sitting there, clearly looking for something in particular.

“There it is,” she mutters, pulling a document from out of a pile. “Your Dad is many things, but good at paperwork he is not.”

Emily scoffs, without meaning to, because it’s the truest statement she’s ever heard. The school trip to the aquarium she wasn’t able to go on because he forgot to sign the permission slip still smarts, even if it was over half her lifetime ago now.

Gillian’s watching her get lost in thought again, so she clears her throat and pretends that everything’s fine.

It doesn’t work. Gillian comes around the desk to take the other chair beside Emily. “I’m sorry about your parents.”

Emily feels like asking, sorry because you’re sympathetic, or sorry because you’re responsible and this is your way of telling me? But she doesn’t, because she thinks she already knows the answer and it isn’t the second option.

“I’m sure it’s for the best,” she says, instead. “Perhaps they’ll be both be happier apart.”

“And what about you?” Gillian asks, kindly, and it’s the first time in a long time that Emily has either been asked or allowed herself to think about the answer to that question.

“How do you feel about it?” she asks, instead, and feels mean for putting Gillian on the spot when she sees her reaction.

Gillian’s quiet for long moments that Emily almost fills with apologies, but there’s a large part of her that needs to know the answer to her question. Needs to know whether she’s been reading Gillian wrong all these months. Needs to know whether she played any part in this.

“I feel sad that it had to end this way,” Gillian finally says. “I feel sad that sometimes, it seems, even love isn’t enough.”

There’s an openness and a vulnerability to Gillian, and a flicker of something in her eyes that Emily picks up on, files away for the future as something to remember because it’s the one and only time she sees it. Doubt. Fear. Empathy.

Suddenly, even if only at the back of her mind, Emily predicts that Gillian’s marriage will at some point fall apart, too. Because that flicker was a recognition of something buried deep, and these things have a habit of floating up to the surface.

Emily accepts, there and then, what she already knows to be true. That her parents were headed towards divorce before Gillian even came into the picture, and the fact that she might have sped up the process without even knowing it could well end up being something to thank her for, rather than hold against her.

Cal’s walking into the room, then, and Gillian’s eyes brighten momentarily. “Hi, Cal.”

“Hi, love,” he says as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps it already is. “Em, sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay,” Emily says, shrugging, before an idea comes to mind and she smiles. “It just means you’ll have to let me have even more ice cream.”

Whenever she stays at her father’s (if she’d known divorce meant ferrying between two houses, she might have tried harder to fix the broken ship), they curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and two spoons between them, and they never, ever tell Zoe.

Cal agrees, without reluctance; grabs a couple of files from his desk and is ready to go.

“Would you like to come for ice cream, Gillian?” Emily asks, just as they’re about to leave. She hates the sadness she still sees hidden in her eyes.

Gillian glances at Cal a second too long before smiling, indicating to the paperwork she still holds between her fingers. “Another time.”

Emily smiles.

Another time.