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Hi, everyone!

This unfortunately is not a proper update as of the updates of old. Ever since Fire posted about not finishing the Chandlers, I’ve been thinking and I’m in a similar position. I doubt I’ll open my game again at this point (although I will be keeping the files just in case) and I wanted to give the Apoc some closure. I had the general trajectory (four remaining episodes) planned out, and a lot of scenes written, which I will share here as a “final” episode.

Episode 25 would have been the first to really introduce generation 6. You can find BodyShop pictures of them here and a partial generation 6 post here, but here’s a group picture of the main players:

 photo gen6group_zpsdtpzv3c7.jpg
(left to right: Kristin Holm, Idina Holm, Saxon Fitzhugh, Cassie Fitzhugh, Simon Morgan-Doran, Susie Morgan)

Saxon and Cassie Fitzhugh would have lifted Art and Culinary respectively. (I liked the idea of giving the middle finger to Culinary by lifting it last.) They are the children of Elle Fitzhugh, my generation 5 heir.

Idina and Kristin Holm are Saxon’s best friends. They are the daughters of Elle’s cousin Michael “Mikey” Holm and Elphaba Uglacy.

Simon Morgan-Doran (son of Phil Morgan and Kahlen Doran) and Susan Morgan (daughter of Barbara Morgan and Trent Doran) would have been Cassie’s closest friends.

As I stated in an earlier post, Episode 25 was going to be two parts, covering the same amount of time (the second half of Winter) from two perspectives. Part A would have covered that time from Saxon’s point of view.

He, Elle, and Cassie return from a family vacation to Takemizu Village to find Harry in increasingly failing health. Idina tells Saxon that she and Kristin are going to visit their grandmother in another neighborhood, but first, there’s going to be a teen party at the Morgans’ because Phil and Barbara have some younger cousins visiting town. There, Saxon meets Donna Morgan and Nora Fitzhugh-Copur (The Morgan Legacy). While Idina and Kristin are out of town, he hangs out with Donna and Nora and gets to know them, developing a secret crush on Donna.

Meanwhile, at home, things are not so great: Harry dies, and the family grieves. Cassie is also growing increasingly frustrated with Elle, who, not wanting to go to court against her mayor ex-husband, has allowed him to see the kids once a week and thus opportunities for Tristan to express his eternal bitterness and jackassery to his sympathetic daughter. Saxon, who was a child at the time of the divorce, remembers how miserable Elle was and doesn’t get Cassie’s feelings at all. Cassie, who was barely a toddler, just wants their parents to get back together. Saxon’s time with Donna and Nora is the only thing that alleviates the tension for him.

The episode would have ended with Elle gathering her kids together to say: “I have something to tell you both.”

That something would have been the subject of Part B, most of which I actually have written >.> so here it is.

“Ellie, there’s something I need to tell you.”

Elle looked up at her cousin in surprise. “All right, what is it?”

Mikey looked her right in the eye, which was something she had always appreciated about him. “Stuart’s coming back to town tomorrow.”

She didn’t think she could have heard him right. All of a sudden, her heart beat uncomfortably fast. “What? Why?”

“They’re doing that big expansion project in the spring, remember? He’ll be doing engineering work.”

“Oh, right. Of course.” She inhaled, and there was a smile on her face by the time she exhaled again. Stuart could go wherever he wanted. It had nothing to do with her. She was happy he’d found such a great job. “Good. He’s brilliant. They could really use him.”

“That’s what I told him,” Mikey said. He was watching her face carefully.

She tried to ignore it. “Where’s he going to be staying?”

“Here, until he finds his own place.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Well.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. “Great. Um, when he gets here, please tell him I said hello.”

“You don’t want to tell him yourself?” he asked carefully.

Elle bit her lip. She hadn’t been expecting that question, and she didn’t have an answer. Part of her did, very badly, but even if he was willing to talk to her, things would never be the same between them. Nor did she want them to be. “I, ah…would he even want me to?”

“I think he’d rather hear it from you than me,” Mikey said seriously.

She swallowed. “Does he know that…Tristan and I…”

He nodded. “I told him.” He must have seen her panic in her expression, because he quickly added, “No details, Elle, I promise. Just that it happened. He’d have been furious if I’d let him find out from the paper.”

“Okay, good, thank you.”

“Of course, that’s your business. I know you don’t want people to know if they don’t have to.”

She folded her arms over her chest tightly, almost hugging herself, but not quite. She felt pathetic and hated it, even though it was only Mikey, whom she trusted.

He seemed to be waiting for her to speak. Finally, she did. “Is he married?”

Her cousin shook his head no. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up, though.”

“I won’t. I’m not. That’s not why—" She stopped, took a breath, and sorted out her thoughts before she tried explaining again. “I just don’t think I could face him if he were with somebody else. Not right now. That’s hypocritical of me, I know.”

“I don’t think that makes you a hypocrite, necessarily,” Mikey said.

Elle gave him a look. “Don’t baby me about this.”

“I’m not. Maybe it’s not fair to Stuart, since you married Tristan, but you’ve been through a lot of shit since you took heirship. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable feeling for anyone who’s dealt with everything you have.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not my fault.”

“You losing Stuart might be. Tristan doing what he did to you isn’t.”

“I know that.” It had taken her a while to really accept that idea. Even now, some days were easier than others, because she was still healing. She did understand that Tristan’s treatment of her was no one’s fault but his own, however.

Surprisingly, Mikey smiled. “You have no idea how good it is to hear you say that. You’ve gotten so much better.”

“Thanks.” Elle shrugged, but gave him a small smile in return. Then, making a fast decision, she said, “I would like to see Stuart, if you think he’d be okay with it.”

“Tell you what—we’ll have a ‘welcome back’ dinner for Stuart tomorrow night. The kids are having that party at Barbara’s—oh, wait, Cassie’s not old enough to go, is she?”

“No, she’s going. Barbara invited her to keep Susie and Simon company.”

“Okay, then. Your kids will be out for the evening; so will mine. I’ll invite Phil and Riku, too.”

Elle had to grin. “Mikey, that is the least subtle guest list ever. Your roommates and Stuart’s ex? Come on.”

He laughed. “Yeah, well, it’s the best I can do with the rations the way they are. We’ve got a lot of friends, but I can’t feed them all. You okay with my plan otherwise?”

“Yeah. Just…tell him, first, okay?”

“Of course I will.”

There was Stuart.

He was talking to Phil, and hadn’t seen her yet, so she had a moment to try to calm the wild pounding of her heart. For a moment, she felt strongly tempted to just run back out the door before he noticed. She made herself stay put, swallowing hard. That was what college-aged Elle would have done. She was not college-aged Elle anymore. She had to face her fears. Besides, she wanted to see him. She had to get closure to stop the “what ifs” for good. She didn’t hope for anything more at this point.

He looked good, she thought. A little older—but then so was she—and wearing different clothes, but as handsome as ever. He still held himself with ease and smiled the same way. He even laughed when Phil told him a joke. Elle couldn’t believe he had changed so little.

Then he glanced toward the door and saw her. Phil looked her way, too, grinned, and punched Stuart lightly in the arm before making his retreat.

Stuart’s eyes did not leave her face, though for a moment, he didn’t move. Neither did she. Then, a small if honest smile came to his face, and he walked toward her—not with the same purpose he had when they’d met, but he certainly wasn’t dragging his feet. “Hello, Ellie,” he said.

She tried to calm her nerves. “Hi. It’s been a while.”

“Yes, quite a long while. How have you been?”

“Fine,” she lied. If she said otherwise, he would ask why, and she couldn’t tell him. Not now. He knew she was divorced, and that was good enough for the moment. “What about you?”

“Well enough,” he said, without enthusiasm.

Elle bit her lip. It was her turn to speak, but it took her a moment to come up with something else she could say. “I, uh…Mikey told me about your new job. Congratulations, it’s perfect for you and I’m glad you got it.”

He nodded his thanks. “I’m glad to have it. I only regret that it won’t start until the spring. I am quite looking forward to the challenge.”

“It’ll definitely be different work than it would be in Regalton,” she agreed.

“Quite so, but that’s the charm.”

“Oh, is it?” She smiled.

A peculiar look crossed his face. “What do you mean by that?”

“Just that, um, I thought you’d been missing light bulbs and computers,” she said, a little startled by his reaction.

Stuart chuckled, relieving her. “I did very well without those things until I came here for university, thank you.”

“That doesn’t mean you didn’t want them at least a little when you went back.”

“A little, perhaps,” he conceded. “Which, of course, begs the question of how you might get on if you suddenly had to go without.”

“Touché, sir,” she said, smiling. “Probably not well. My handwriting is illegible at best.”

“I remember. If you had to write by hand more often, I am certain it would be better,” he said innocently. “I suppose we could find you a typewriter, although they’re not laid out like the keyboards you’re used to, so that would be something new to learn.”

“I’d be up to it,” Elle said confidently. “I have maxed skills. I’m sure I could figure it out.”

“I have no doubt. Of course, there are other differences as well. I had almost forgotten how many until I stepped off the train this morning.” He glanced out the window. “Things have changed quite a bit since I was here last, as well.”

“The zoning laws are gone. People can have actual houses now. They’ve been popping up everywhere.” She looked around at her cousin’s living room. “Mikey’s the only one on our street who hasn’t renovated yet.”

“I noticed. He hasn’t mentioned why, though.”

“He hasn’t said anything to me, either, but it’s easy enough to guess,” she said, with a shrug. “He just lost his parents and he’s sentimental. He’s probably not up to dealing with it yet.”

“I had heard, yes. The news of his mother’s death was in his last letter. I am very grateful that he offered me a room despite that.”

“It’s Mikey,” said Elle. “Are you really surprised?”

“Not at all. He’s always been very generous. Still, the past while hasn’t been very easy for him.” Stuart looked at her. “Nor for the rest of you, or so I’ve gathered.”

Elle shrugged and looked at the floor, unable to reply to that right away. She didn’t want Stuart to pity her. She’d made her own choices. Very little had actually gone right since she’d broken up with him, and while she really believed that not all of that was her fault, none of it was his. He had come back not for her, but for a job. It was better not to go into it. She couldn’t think of anything else to say, though.

Fortunately, her cousin saved her with a timely announcement: “Food’s ready, grab it if you want it.”

Elle and Stuart turned wordlessly toward the counter, where Mikey had left the serving platter. As they walked, she leaned over and whispered, “You probably didn’t miss the endless chef salad, huh.”

His lips twitched. “It was new and exciting when I first came here. I grew up on my Kasaan’s cheese toasties. She could barely cook much else, so they were about as common in our home as chef salad is here. They were certainly not as popular as the canned drinks, though.”

She had to grin, at that, but hearing him refer to his stepmother that way sparked something in her mind. She had known that to be a Takemizan word, and that Mrs. Legacy had come from Takemizu, but had not given that much thought before. “Speaking of your stepmother,” she said lightly, “I don’t suppose Mikey told you I’ve been to Takemizu since I saw you last.”

Stuart’s eyes lit up. “Have you really?”

“Yes, twice. Once alone and once with my kids.”

She couldn’t tell if he did it deliberately or not, but he didn’t go near the topic of her divorce or her children. “I do hope you enjoyed it,” he said instead. “I would happily go again myself. What were your impressions?”

They sat down at the table together as she told him her general feelings about the place. She didn’t dare go into the more personal things—it had been too long—but both trips had done her an incredible amount of good and she had no trouble speaking favorably of them. She loved the culture, the sights, the food, and the calming quiet that seemed to surround the area. She had seen at once why her sister and Dominic had been so drawn to it.

Another thing she had deeply appreciated on the second trip was the opportunity for her children to have a taste of the arts education they could not have in Sierra Plains. She had been able to get piano lessons for Saxon and painting lessons for Cassie. She hoped to be able to find them something similar on their next trip abroad, which would be a birthday present for her daughter when the time came. It was not enough. She had been able to tell that right away. But it was better than nothing, and she hoped it would do them both plenty of good even so. Saxon was already talking about becoming an Art major and trying to do something about it.

Elle carefully left that part out of her conversation with Stuart, however. It didn’t seem right to go into that immediately.

If he noticed, he said nothing. He blithely continued on with the conversation, relating his own memories of visiting Takemizu as a child. He’d had a completely different experience, but he remembered it well, and comparing their impressions of the area kept the exchange going smoothly. Mikey and Elphaba were sitting at the table with them and contributed when they could, which made it a little easier.

“Well, we might have to take a little trip ourselves while the girls are in Veronaville,” Mikey said to his wife, as they cleaned up the dishes.

Elle grinned to herself. Maybe a little time away would help them, too. They were managing perfectly well, but the past couple of seasons had been rough and she was sure they could both use a break.

The party broke up soon after that. Phil was the first to go, claiming he had a date. Riku started to make his way out shortly after. “If I get home too late, it wakes up the kids and then there are three sobbing toddlers and three pissed-off parents to deal with,” he said, looking extremely irritated at the very idea. “Those gremlins of Billy’s are the worst. Set one of them off and no one gets any peace for hours.”

“I thought you and Liam were going to get a new place and let the marrieds have a house to themselves,” Elle commented, unable to help feeling amused.

“Believe me, we’re working on it. Winter’s just a hell of a bad time to build anything.”

“That’s understandable.” She sighed and glanced toward the door. “I should go, too. I’d better be home before the kids get back.”

“Always the responsible one,” said Riku, with a roll of his eyes. He poked her in the side—which was as fond as he ever got—and then left to say good night to Mikey.

Stuart appeared at her side as soon as her cousin was gone. “May I see you home?” he asked quietly.

She blinked. “Uh, I’m just across the way, but by all means.”

He flashed her a grin and went for her coat. “A considerable distance, at this hour and in this weather. I could hardly let you go alone.”

“You are too kind, Mr. Legacy,” she said, unable to help a little chuckle.

They left the house together and skipped across the street quickly. Stuart had been right about the weather. Sierra Plains got bitterly cold after sunset, during the winter. For several seconds, neither spoke. It was only after they reached the porch that he broke the silence. “I like what you’ve done with your hair.”

It had been so long since she had cut it that she had forgotten he’d never seen it. She curled the end around her finger self-consciously. “Thank you.” She tried to think of a compliment she could give him in return, but something else occurred to her. “You’re the only one who’s said that.”

“Am I really?” he asked, looking shocked.

She nodded. “Well, most of my family did, eventually, but it wasn’t the first thing. Their reactions were more, ‘oh my plumbbob what have you done.’ I’m not sure how many of them really like it.”

“I think that’s a bit much. It’s not as if you had it dyed purple or something else of that nature.”

“There are people who can pull that off, but I don’t think I’m one of them,” she agreed, smiling.

He returned it. “It suits you. Besides, I remember your saying once that you didn’t care for long hair.”

“You have a good memory,” she said quietly.

He hesitated, then said, “I try.” He hastily went on, “It was good to see you again. I do hope to have the pleasure of meeting you again very soon.”

“Yes, me too,” she said sincerely. “You’re welcome here any time.”

Harry’s death happens at this point: Elle wants to tell him about Stuart, but doesn’t get the chance because Harry tries to fit all of his living relatives in, knowing it’s his last day.

The doorbell rang. “I suppose one of us should get that,” said Mya, beginning to put her book aside.

“I’ll do it,” Elle said quickly. She got up before her mother could protest and went to the door.

Stuart stood on the other side, a rose bouquet in his hands. She stared at him, completely astonished. “Good morning,” he said, with a small smile.

“G-good morning,” she stammered. “It’s…I…what brings you here?”

He offered the flowers. “I was very grieved to hear of your father’s death. I thought I would come and inquire after you.”

She took them. “Thank you, that’s very nice of you. I’m all right.” He seemed more concerned, if anything, so she quickly added, “Really. I’m not just saying that, I…Dad had been sick since before his elder birthday, and it was getting worse, at the end. We do miss him, very much, but…at least we know that, wherever he is now, he’s not sick anymore.”

Stuart nodded in understanding.

Elle wasn’t sure what to say next. She didn’t like feeling tongue-tied around Stuart, when it had been so easy to talk to him before. Something fell on her face, and she looked up to see that it had begun to snow. That jolted her into action. “Good grief, where are my manners? Please come in.”

“If you’d rather I didn’t,” he began.

“No, please stay. I’d like you to. It’s just me and my mother at home right now. The kids are at school and Gabriel’s out doing a sweep of the businesses, he won’t try to come home for several hours if the snow really starts coming down.”

She put the flowers on an end table in the hall while Stuart shed his coat. “Gabriel is the Servo you mentioned while we were at university, isn’t he?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s him.”

“I admit, I’m rather curious about him. You gave me the impression that he was a metal man.”

“Was and is,” said Elle, turning to grin at him. It was a bit feeble, she thought, but any lightness was welcome just then. “He runs on a built-in energy core that recharges in the sunlight, and has a form of artificial intelligence installed that gives him certain skills and lets him function a lot like a Sim. But he isn’t one, he’s a machine.”

“What do you think is the difference?” Stuart asked, plainly intrigued.

She had never thought about it before, and had to pause to think. “I was going to say he doesn’t feel emotions in the same way we do,” she said slowly, “but I don’t think that’s completely true. He acts like he feels some things. I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we were first starting the businesses there was one time when a kid came in and started harassing my brother. Gabriel went up to the guy and told him to leave. No one asked him to, he just did it when he saw Billy was in trouble.”

“He sounds very loyal.”

“He is. He loves talking to my sister, too. Whenever she visits, he can’t drop what he’s doing fast enough. And he’s invariably devoted to my mother and her needs.” The last sentence sparked a new idea in her brain. “Actually, I’ve heard that Servos carry a little impression of the person who built and activated them—that that just happens as a natural consequence.”

“It seems that Gabriel might be proof of that theory,” said Stuart. “Your father built him, yes?”

“He did.” She led him into the living room. “Mom, this is Stuart Legacy. You remember I told you he was back in town. Stuart, this is my mother.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Fitzhugh,” said Stuart, offering a hand to her.

Mya made no move to either get up or hide the fact that she had been listening in on their conversation. Elle tried not to feel embarrassed about this—it would have been impossible for Mya not to hear. She did seem interested in meeting Stuart, though, so there was that. “You as well, Stuart,” she said amiably. “Please have a seat.”

He took the chair, and Elle sat next to her mother. “I hear you’re in town for the expansion project that will be happening in the spring,” said Mya.

“Yes, I’m quite looking forward to it.”

“We all are. It’s encouraging to see Sierra Plains looking more like a real town again after all this time. Hopefully, we’ll be able to encourage more people to come here.”

“I think that might be very likely. I’ve seen some of the plans for the project and I can’t wait to get started. It will be of great benefit to the business sector as well as the residential area.”

Mya smiled genuinely for the first time since losing Harry. “Yes, I’m counting on it. We could stand to see a boost in revenue, although we’re not doing badly.”

“Are all your businesses still running?”

“Yes, they are, although I haven’t been to see them all season. We have managers now and Gabriel handles things on-site when necessary. I would like to be there myself, but the cold bothers my knees too much.” She didn’t seem terribly bothered by it, though. “Which is actually fortunate, because if I were there right now I wouldn’t have been home to meet you. Will you stay for lunch?”

“I’ll be happy to, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. We’d love to have the company, wouldn’t we, Elle?”

Elle nodded her agreement, and Stuart smiled. “Then I will accept the invitation,” he said.

“Wonderful.” Mya levered herself to her feet with some effort. “I’ll get started on the sandwiches then.” She left the room with a nod to each of them.

“She likes you,” Elle whispered to him, once she was gone.

He smiled faintly. “I wasn’t certain, but I suppose you would be able to tell that better than I could.”

“Are you kidding? You brought us flowers and talked about one of her favorite topics. You’re already good in her book.” With a grin, she added, “And I didn’t even have to tell you ahead of time.”

“Well then, I can add ‘impressing mothers’ to my long list of useful talents,” he replied, more at ease now.

She smiled, then sobered. “Dad would have liked you, too. I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet him.”

“Tell me about him,” Stuart prompted gently.

“Well, he didn’t have an engineering degree like some other people I could mention, but he was good with tinkering. He wrote books for a living—he wrote the one Mom was reading when you came in. He loved it, but it was always secondary to his marriage. He wanted more things for Mom than he ever did for himself. He backed her completely when she started the businesses.” It was hard to say anything about him that wasn’t praise, now that he was gone. Harry had had his faults, as all fathers did, but that didn’t change the fact that she admired the things he had done well. It was better to remember those and not dwell on the others. “And he loved all of us very much.”

“As a father should,” he agreed.

“He was really…dedicated to the family,” she said. “He wanted to be heir so badly. He really wanted to do a good job.”

“Did he, do you think?”

She hesitated. “In some ways. He…didn’t do everything right, but…when he was wrong, he admitted it. Maybe that’s more important. I haven’t decided.”

“It sounds as though you’ve been thinking about it quite a bit.”

“Well, I am the head of the family now.” She looked at the wall. “It’s really surreal. I never thought this day would actually come. Now it has.”

“Heirship is difficult enough to deal with in a family like mine,” said Stuart. “I do not know how you bear it.” Oddly enough, his tone wasn’t critical—it was admiring.

She smiled faintly, but didn’t turn back to him. “If I didn’t have my family to help me, I couldn’t bear it.”

Elle then talks to her friend Liam Whedon (A Buffyverse Apocalypse) and her cousin Edie Pitts about Harry and Mya and her children and Stuart. The two of them and her brother Billy have become her support group since the divorce.

Stuart arrived promptly at ten, as he had promised. “It’s not very cold out today,” he observed. “Would you like to go for a walk?”

“I would like that very much,” Elle said, feeling a wide smile form on her face. “Could we go down to the new community center? I haven’t seen it yet.”

His eyes went wide, on purpose, she thought. “You haven’t?” he asked, taking a tone of gentle teasing. “But it’s a mere half mile from your house!”

“I’m kind of a shut-in,” she said easily.

“Well, we’ll have to rectify that immediately. Can I help you with your coat?”

They set off down the block, her arm tucked securely through his. It really wasn’t that cold, and Elle’s jacket kept her nice and toasty, but she was grateful all the same for the steadiness of her companion’s arm and the warmth of his hand over hers. Being around him was beginning to feel comfortable again. The past few days had proved that they could be friends, at least.

She snuck a glance at his face as he talked. Was that what he wanted? She couldn’t tell. She didn’t think he looked at her the way a friend would, but he hadn’t said anything about wanting more. It was probably still too soon. She wished they could just get that conversation out of the way, though. They would have to discuss it eventually, and the anticipation made her nervous.

There was no sense in pushing it now. She would bring it up herself if he didn’t, but it wasn’t necessary yet. Right now, she was enjoying getting to know him again, and she didn’t want to spoil that by jumping in before it was time.

“Here we are,” Stuart said, as they approached the building.

Elle liked it. It was small, but looked welcoming and warm after the walk. “Let’s go in.”

They spent about an hour there, observing the place and chatting with the cashier. The whole lot was designed more for the warm weather, as the little shop only took up a small portion of it and the rest consisted of a swingset and a picnic area, but Elle enjoyed herself and resolved to bring her family back in the spring to spend the day.

“Thanks for walking down with me,” she said to Stuart, as they turned back.

“My pleasure. It wasn’t a half-bad idea, as ideas go.” He smiled down at her. “Not to mention, the company was excellent.”

“You really are going stir-crazy in that tiny house by yourself, aren’t you?” she teased.

“Blast it all, you’ve found me out,” he said, with a good-humored laugh. “Yes, I’m afraid calling on you this morning was just an excuse to get away. I really believe there were ghosts out last night. I think they might take exception to my sleeping in the second-floor bedroom.”

“Uncle Lex and Aunt Rhi were awfully fond of their bed,” Elle said innocently, and grinned when he shuddered. “When are Mikey and the others coming back?”

“I believe Michael and Elphaba will be here tonight, and the girls tomorrow morning.”

“And how long will you be staying with them after that?”

“Not long. Riku has offered me a place with him and Liam Whedon, and I believe I’ll take it.” He smirked. “After all, I’ve lived with Riku before and survived. How bad could it really be?”

“You’re brave to want to live with him again after you got out safely the first time,” Elle joked. “Have you met Liam?”

“Yes, Riku brought him and little Devon over the other day to see how we might get along. I like them both very much.”

That relieved her, for some reason. “I’m glad. Liam’s a very good family friend. I hoped you two would like each other.”

Stuart stopped and looked at her with probing eyes. “A good friend?” he repeated.

“The best I’ve got, outside my family,” said Elle, with a frown. “He and Billy and Edie were my…support group, I suppose, right after I got divorced. I wouldn’t have gotten through it without them.”

He nodded, but didn’t reply. It seemed he was turning something over in his mind. Abruptly, she realized what that probably was and hastened to explain. “He’s like family, Stuart. I love him dearly, but it’s like we’re siblings. We’ve never been anything more than that. I just…don’t see him that way, and I’m certain that’s how he feels, too.”


She smiled a little. “Would you talk about other girls to one you were hoping to date? I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty good indicator.”

He laughed nervously. “I see your point. No, that would be…that would be needlessly cruel.” He cleared his throat. “Ellie, I…I was going to wait a little longer to bring this up, but I think we need to talk. About us.”

“Yes, I think we’d better,” she said, after a moment. Her voice stayed calm, although her insides churned uncomfortably.

“Would you rather do it indoors? We could wait, and walk back to your house first.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to have this conversation where my mother might hear.”

“Very well.” He scratched the back of his neck agitatedly. “Before I left Regalton, I had a long talk with my father. I was excited about the job opportunity, as I’ve said, but I felt anxious about the prospect of meeting you again. He told me that if I hoped to have any sort of reconciliation with you, I couldn’t be afraid to really talk to you…to tell you how I felt about you.”

Elle knew exactly what he was talking about, so she nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

“You see, I grew up thinking that when I fell in love, it would be easy. I thought that two people who truly cared for each other would understand the other’s feelings without words. My parents didn’t seem to need them, and they were so in love that a person would have to be both blind and deaf not to know it.” He grimaced. “What I didn’t know at the time was that, although he rarely did it where others could hear, Papa told Kasaan every day that he loved her. Every day. And she said it back to him, every time.

“Then when I moved back to Regalton I saw firsthand that my brother and his wife did the same. They could argue ferociously, but they were so free with their words that neither could doubt the other’s affection. Certainly, none of the rest of us did. My sister, too, is quite happy with her own husband, and while I know less about how they relate to each other, I know that they must have worked something out.”

“Unlike you and me,” she murmured, lowering her eyes to the ground.

Stuart carefully reached over and lifted her chin so she was looking at him again. “I didn’t know that was what you wanted,” he said softly. “I truly never meant to hurt or confuse you.”

“I didn’t say it, either.”

“You were afraid to because I didn’t say it first, weren’t you?”

Elle shook her head. “I should have pushed. We were together for three years, and we talked about everything but that. I should have said something a lot sooner, but I didn’t know any better than you did. My parents never had that kind of talk with me. My siblings figured it out, but…I never expected someone like you to want to be with me, and I thought it would ruin everything if I tried to confront you. And then I did, and we fought, and it did ruin everything.” She swallowed hard. She had dealt with her conflicted feelings about her ex-husband, and very nearly come to terms with them, but remembering college was still painful.

Edging her chin away, she went on. “And then I was the heir, and Tristan was there, and I never thought that you would want me back after what I said to you. And I…I had to go on, my family needed me. So I did.” She folded her arms defensively against her chest and looked away so he wouldn’t see that she was about to cry. “Letting him into my life was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done and I’ve paid for it. He didn’t love me, he was…controlling me so he could become Mayor. I was miserable the entire time I was married to him, and I thought it was my fault.”

He laid a hand on her arm, and she looked at him reflexively. It was enough encouragement for him to draw her into a hug. Surprised, she let him. Had he ever tried to hold her like that before? They’d slow danced a few times, but that wasn’t the same. There had always been at least six inches of air between them. Now there was none. His arms were solid around her, protectively holding her against his chest.

Abruptly, she realized she wasn’t returning it and clumsily slid her arms out so she could wrap them around his neck. His grip tightened in turn. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, close to her ear. “I’m so, so sorry. I should have been here.”

She shook her head quickly. “No, no, I didn’t tell you that so you’d feel sorry for me or blame yourself. If we’re…” Checking herself, she hastily put it a different way. “You deserve to know. Since we’re trying to talk about things.”

“I never forgot you,” he said, drawing back and taking her face in his hands. “Not for a moment. If I had known you were unhappy, I would have come back much sooner. Am I too late now?”

“You…you still want me? After all this time?”

His expression was enough, but he said it anyway. “Elle Fitzhugh, I’ve been in love with you nearly since we first met. I couldn’t help myself. You’re brilliant, beautiful, and so sweet. I’ve never met anyone else who made me feel the way you do. I would like to try again…if you’ll have me.”

“Of course I will,” she whispered, hardly daring to believe it.

It seemed that he couldn’t quite believe it either. For a moment, he just looked at her with a tender, hopeful smile. Then it widened a little. “Then…is it all right if I kiss you?”

A breathless laugh escaped her. “If you don’t, I’ll kiss you,” she warned him.

“I suppose that leaves me no choice,” he murmured, and leaned in.

At this point, Elle knows she needs to tell the kids, so she pulls them aside at the end of the season and explains that she and Stuart are dating. Cassie takes it incredibly badly and runs from the room, which ends the episode.

Part 2

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