The Matchmaker

Story by StormDancer

Chapter 34


Emma


The music still pounded around us. People still yelled and laughed and danced and cheered. Normal life was flowing on its accustomed path. But for me, the whole world had focused onto a single face and the four words that it had declared, words that I had dreaded and expected ever since our first meeting, just under a year ago. Emma, you're the Matchmaker…

Then, just as quickly, my panic receded and the world returned with a blast of sound loud enough to stun me. Darien was staring at me, incredulous revelation warring with anger in his face as his own shock lessened. My brain was working on hyper-speed, the adrenaline of the confrontation to come already rushing through my body and making it tingle with anticipation. I couldn't let him explode here, where everyone could hear it. With any luck, I could contain this information, though my luck had apparently run out. Fast as lightening (or at least, faster than him) my hand was around his wrist and I was dragging him out of the party, up the stairs and away from the people who could be so fatal for my alter ego. Stuck in the paralysis of his surprise, he let me pull him into the den- the den where, only a few weeks ago, we had so nearly kissed- but when my grip loosened he shook off my hand instinctively, like it was contaminated. Hmph. He wasn't objecting to my touch twenty minutes ago.

"You're the Matchmaker," he repeated slowly, as if connections were still being made n his mind as the whole, hateful web spread out in front of him in all of its fateful glory.

There was no point denying it. Not after seeing Rhi, not after all I had told him in my stupid vulnerability, and certainly not after my too telling reaction. "Yes," I stated calmly, perching on the arm of the couch in carefully tense relaxation. He already had a height advantage over me; I wasn't about to sit to give him a larger one. "I am." I kept my voice resolutely even, not belligerent.

He looked like too many thoughts were going through his head to voice any of them. I braced myself for a furious yell, or a hurt plea, or some sort of indignation. What I didn't expect was for him to say, in a voice so tight that I was half waiting to hear it snap like an overstretched rubber band, "Do you know what you've done?"

The assumed condemnation irritated me. "I helped dozens of people find their match? I gave some people who wouldn't normally have it hope that there was somebody out there for them? " I inquired sardonically. I had done nothing wrong; he would not put any blame on me. I had done absolutely nothing wrong. "I added a bit of mystery to the prosaic high school life?"

"You ruined lives?" he spat back, light reflecting weirdly off his blue-white eyes and making them burn with caged lightning. I refused to be provoked. I had always known he would react like this, known how much he hated the Matchmaker, although I still didn't know why, I would probably find out very, very soon. But if I was so damn omniscient, why did his fury hurt so much?

"I've done no harm," I firmly maintained, standing my ground. I would not retreat, not now. To show weakness would be to be destroyed. Or, at least, destruction for the Matchmaker.

"No harm!" for a moment, he was lost for words, his fists clenching and unclenching with ominous control. "You've broken hearts!"

"So have you," I replied easily, leaning back against the couch. My disinterest was maddening him, I could tell, but I didn't care. In fact, I relished this fight: the fight to end all fights. It had been building for too long, had simmered to a boil. By the end of this, all would be decided.

"Yes, but-" he gestured futilely at the air in front of him, grasping at nothing in a desperate attempt to articulate what seethed inside of him. He should have looked ridiculous. He didn't. "Those were… honest heartbreaks. You don't even have the courage to man up to what you did!"

He didn't. He didn't just go there. For a second, I let loose the bonds of my own anger at being unfairly accused. "Honest? What the hell do you know about honest?" I asked with lethal, mocking sarcasm, my eyes never leaving his. "I know when I've messed up, and I try to set it right. You, you- you've broken more hearts than the Matchmaker ever could. Has even one of them mattered to you? Have you ever looked at the pain you created?" I hadn't moved from my lounging pose, but Darien stood straighter, resisting a blow, "Have you ever realized that you've caused Brock's heartbreak in far too many innocent girls, just because you were bored and they were there?"

I had touched a nerve. Darien took a step closer, a tiger stalking his prey. "Those girls never cared about me like Brock did Rhia-"

I laughed, a cold, contemptuous laugh that set my own teeth on edge. The voice that came form my mouth wasn't that of Emma, the girl who had a crush on Darien and who depended on her friends. It was that of a different Emma, who had graduated from the school of life with blood as her gown and tragedy as her diploma, and she neither cared nor needed anyone. And never would again.

"Oh, keep telling yourself that," I chuckled without mirth, icy eyes boring into Darien's, who met ice with the fire of his own gaze. "You don't know anything about them. Maybe it was all puppy love, or hero worship. Maybe Mia Smith going anorexic and depressed after you dumped her was a coincidence." Darien opened his mouth, but I overrode him. I would have bet he had no reply to make, anyway. He couldn't argue with fact. "Or maybe," I continued, leaning in closer with my voice lowering to a sibilant whisper, "Those girls liked you in the way of teenagers, like Brock and Rhi, and you devastated them by using and tossing them away."

"I did not-" he began to insist, but then thought better of it. He was too adept at this battle of words to let himself get trapped on the defensive. Attack, as my sensei always said, no one ever wins by defense. "Whatever I did or didn't do is immaterial. You- and Rhianna," the hatred in his voice as he snapped her name almost made me shiver. This ran deeper than a mere grudge against a girl who had stolen his best friend away from him. "The two of you broke Brock's heart. You nearly destroyed him."

"You think I meant to do that?" I demanded, my icy calm melting a little despite my best efforts. I might have been many things- liar, manipulator, coward- but he had no right to accuse me of that. None at all. "Do you think, even for a second, that Rhi wanted to leave? She was as attached to Brock as he was to her- how could you even conceive of her wanting to leave?"

"Then why'd she go without a word?" he retorted. He had no pretense of his usual control; his temper, so rarely roused, had blazed into a raging fire. He had passed over the quiet, harsh anger that he usually indulged in- or maybe he just hadn't reached it yet. That was the part I dreaded. Ice could put out fire, but it had no power against something as frozen as itself. "Why'd she leave him to find out she had fucking moved to England by a fucking letter?"

"I don't know," I shot, vaguely sardonic contempt. I wasn't Rhi's keeper, after all- and that decision had never made sense to me, for all she could say about wanting to protect him from knowing about her engagement. I wasn't going to make her choices for her. "Why don't you ask her? Maybe she didn't want Brock to know her parents had gotten her engaged. Maybe she thought that would hurt even more. OR maybe she was just a coward. I hate to break it to you," one of my lips twitched in an expression that was part sneer and part snarl, "but people who aren't as perfect as you make mistakes. We're awfully fallible creatures, humans; sometimes mortals fuck up. Not that you would know that- you couldn't deign to err." My irritation at his arrogance, buried for the months of friendship, come out in a rush of scornful sarcasm.

"Well, forgive me if I don't make mistakes that demolish people," he growled, taking a step closer, one hand running through his hair in distracted fury. "But you don't know the cost of your mistake. You didn't have to put your best friend back together again from scratch!"

"What makes you think I haven't?!" I was on my feet now, my hard-won calm overwhelmed by rage at his persistent, idiotic blindness. How dare he suggest that? He knew nothing. "Rhi didn't leave on purpose. It was her parents- rich, aristocratic, stuck up people like you- who forced her into it. For the good of the family, they said—tell me, McGavern, would you rather have had Rhi throw her prospects to the dogs, for something that would have inevitably ended? Tell me," I glared up at him, challenging him to actually think for once, "What would you have done?"

He didn't take my up on my dare. Of course. He could criticize me for my alter ego, but a bit of self-introspection and he shied away like a dog from its master's club.

"I sure as hell wouldn't have run away! I wouldn't have ditched my boyfriend without explanation. Do you know what the worst part of it was, Matchmaker?" If I had thought there was hatred in his voice when he uttered Rhi's name, it was nothing to how he spat my own moniker. The absolute disgust contorted his handsome face into a trollish mask. "It was the not knowing. It was the constant paroxysms of doubt, of wondering why she disappeared, what he had done wrong. Tell me, Matchmaker, does that seem like a good match for my friend?"

"Why isn't Brock mad at Rhianna, then?" I demanded. That had always struck me as the one false note in his smoldering anger at the Matchmaker. Why was he so keen for revenge when his friend, the one who was wronged, wasn't? I had always felt like there was something more than the righteous anger he claimed, something more primal than that: envy at her influence, maybe? Fear of her power over him? "Why didn't he take part in your plot to get back at the Matchmaker? By the way, what was your plan? What were you going to do to her? Break my heart?" I snorted. "A bit too late for that." Like I was stupid enough to let myself get attached to anyone again. I had been taught the lesson of a closed heart in a vicious school. I had just forgotten for a while. I swallowed, and I could feel the walls around my emotions rising once again with a strength that wasn't as satisfying as it had once been.

His face turned a deeper red than his fury warranted, and I knew I had guessed right. An ugly smirk spread over my face. He needed to be brought down to earth, to realize he could be touched and defeated by us mere lesser people; that he wasn't on the top of the world. And I was delighted, with that nasty, fey streak that sometimes manifested in me, that I had taught him that. I laughed, cruel with all the snubs of everyone he had ever walked over.

"Oh, grow up Darien! You aren't a god, you can't just use peop-"

"No, you grow up." he cut me off, the icy fury that meant his rage had reached its truest, most dangerous form, finally appearing. At least that anger made him almost terrifyingly logical. I could argue with that anger. "The world isn't a storybook, a stage with you as the director. You can't manipulate everyone around you; you can't play with their lives and loves like they're only toys." He advanced and, cowed despite myself by the force of his conviction, I took a step back, though I still met his burning eyes boldly. He didn't know- he didn't know anything. But, then again, he knew everything that mattered.

"You've complained, again and again, about how arrogant I am. Well, at least I let people make their own decisions. I grant them free will. I don't force anyone to do anything, through strength or intimidation or manipulation. You, you don't bother to let them live their own lives. The Matchmaker- you, sitting on your cloud of mysteries and dramatic, story book past- is nothing more than one more tool for you to control anyone, for all you say about how much you value you your own independence and choices. Borck was undoubtedly happy with Rhianna, but maybe he would have been happier with someone else. I don't know- but I would have let him choose, make his own mistakes. You don't allow anyone enough intelligence to do that. And frankly," his eyes blazed with electricity and power, "I'm done letting you manipulate my life. I get enough of that at home."

He spun on his heels and stalked to the door. I stood immobile behind him, glued to the floor by his fiery words. I had never thought of anything like that- he couldn't be right. I was seized with a sudden, desperate desire to make him understand, to force him to see how he was- had to be- wrong.

"Darien," I called as his hand reached the doorknob and turned it. He didn't react; the proud set of his back didn't change. "Once I won a favor off of you. I'm calling on it now."

He froze in the doorway, his hand still clenched around the handle.


Darien


"What?" I spat, my voice as taut as my body. More than anything, I wanted to leave this room, to leave her ad all the unspoken promises she had broken, but I couldn't. I had given my word, and now I was bound by it as securely as if it had been a rope around my neck.

"Stay," she was speaking in that damned reasonable, seductive voice that, without the fire of my rage, would have convinced me without the collar of my honor. My fingers tightened convulsively around the doorknob, knuckles white against the polished wood. "Stay, and listen. I don't expect you to understand. I don't even expect you to believe me, but- I just want you to know." Excruciatingly slowly, I released my grip and turned, face expressionless against the vague bemusement of her face. What right did she have to sounds reasonable? I didn't want to Matchmaker to be reasonable; I wanted her to be the unlikable, despicable creature I had always imagined her as.

"Fine." I faced her, emotionless as I could possibly be. She would not get a reaction out of me; she didn't deserve it. She wasn't even looking at me, her eyes staring into the air behind me like she saw something no one else could. I glared. If she was going to keep me here, damnit, she should at least look at me!

"It started when I first came to this school." It wasn't like the last time she had shared her history, so long ago in the warm, charged gloom when I had had my fatal revelation that was all a lie. It all was. She was nothing more than another facet of the Matchmaker, and the Matchmaker destroyed lives and controlled people. "I didn't know anyone except Rhi- we've been friends forever, even with the demographic differences, and I came in late that year, still on crutches and given up on therapy. I was ready to change, to be someone other than Dan's girlfriend, to put him behind me." I snorted. It was always about him, wasn't it? That level of obsession was contemptible. For someone so compulsively defensive of her independence, she sure spent a lot of time letting other people define her.

"I didn't mean for it to get this big- never would have expected it, even if I had wished it," she continued in the same measured, dispassionate voice, like she was telling a vaguely interesting story about someone she barely knew. "At first, it was because two of my acquaintances liked each other and wouldn't admit it. I didn't tell anyone it was me because- well, I didn't tell anyone." Of course she wouldn't, with her need for secrecy that went deeper than the bone. "And that worked really well. So then I tried again, with people I didn't know so well, people with whom I really only had my own skill to work with. And they're still happy together." She fixed me with a sharp, challenging gaze, but I didn't bother to respond. She had compelled me to listen- I wouldn't expend my energy more than necessary. I was standing tight and out of place, just inside the door, strained as a bear in the center of a circle of dogs about to attack, my uncaring eyes never leaving her.

"So the mystique spread- through rumors, and gossip, and the undeniable truth that the Matchmaker existed. I didn't start any of the talk or create it; the most I did was finding her locker." It was always her, I noticed. She never talked about the Matchmaker in the first person; why couldn't she just be honest and stop denying that the Matchmaker was her? She certainly wasn't ashamed of it, in her overweening pride. She wasn't even bothering to accept my anger as valid; those wide, bland eyes had stared at me as I was railing at her, apparently not even comprehending why I was yelling- but I didn't trust it. She had demonstrated very well how she could hide a snake behind a fascinating façade, and everyone knew how well she could lie. "The Matchmaker grew because of everyone else- your peers, the people you say that you're speaking for, made her. So, tell me, how do I have control issues if I had barely anything to do with it?"

A part of me, small and growing smaller by the second, noticed how amazing she looked with her cheeks flushed angrily but with a totally impassive face: a calming figure in the middle of the room with the air of a fight about to happen. But most of me, the furious part that raged against the wrong done to my friend and the power of the Matchmaker, saw only an emotionless, detached girl, too closed off to care about anyone: the Matchmaker. And that vision of her, of the girl I had met in front of the Matchmaker's- her- locker, not the friend she had become, was quickly overwhelming any lingering fondness I had for her.

"You started it; you didn't finish it," I informed her, voice steely. Even as she receded into the faceless, malicious creature, I could feel myself shifting back into the person I had used to be - I usually was - the person who took orders from no one. "You could have walked away and saved people a world of hurt when your so called 'perfect match' went up in smoke."

"And why would I do that?" Angry now, defensive of the Matchmaker as she had never been about anything else, be it her friends or family. "Why do you refuse to see that the Matchmaker is a good thing? Sure, she doesn't have a 100 success rate- but who would? I make people happy; they like her. You're the only one who has an issue with her, who can't get it through his thick skull that the world isn't fucking prefect, and that people will get hurt, and that you have to learn to get a helmet. Who knows?" and now her voice had a cruel, primal quality in it, a sadistic delight that rejoiced in other people's suffering. "Maybe I did Brock a favor. Now he won't be so easy to hurt a second time. Because there's going to be another time- there always is."

"Well, excuse me for not having a sob story in my past," I shot back, lips clenched as tightly together as I could and still speak. "But just because my boyfriend didn't die doesn't mean I don't know that life isn't all roses and bells." Maybe it was harsh; but it was deserved. "My life isn't perfect either; I have issues. I just don't go pushing my control issues and cynicism on everyone else-"

"Oh, boo hoo," she laughed, anger no longer in her voice but only cold mockery, each note an icy dagger thrown to kill. "Poor little rich boy with his toys and whores and mansion. I'm soooo sorry for you." There was a wild, feral look in her eyes, like that of a captured tiger, caged but ready to strike out at her captors.

"You can't talk- or are you a deprived child, Miss Lexington?" Honestly, I was tired of her always using my money as a trump card. Yes, I had never really known what it was to want something and not get it. But that didn't mean I was always content. I knew money couldn't buy happiness; she was the only person who hadn't figured that out yet. "At least your parents care about you."

"Your parents care about you more than you think," she retorted, "You just can't see it because you're too wrapped up in what you want to see, too blindly convinced that you're some sort of tragic, neglected figure. Is that why you're such a promiscuous cad? Because the girls, at least, give you attention?" she tapped her chin, face thoughtful except for her eyes, which glinted like sunlight off a glacier. "I'm sure Freud had something to say about that."

"Oh, so now we're talking psychoanalysis?" She may have read more, but I could give as good as I got. Even if I had never before been the victim of her undiluted venom, her finely crafted words shaped for the sole purpose of penetrating every weak spot I had. I had seen her cut into Mann, mock my groupies – but it'd never targeted me before. And she knew how to hurt, but she hadn't counted on one thing: in her anger or annoyance, she hadn't realized that the crueler she was, the less and less I saw her with any affection. "My intimacy issues haven't been showing in a desperate attempt to keep everyone away with layer upon layer of secrets. I haven't been schizophrenic, being two people." I could hear her heavy, angry breathing now, eyes nearly closed as she tried to contain her rage. Unsmiling, untriumphant, "I didn't set up my best friend with someone she would ditch after a year."

"Do you think I wanted to?" she finally burst out, her voice soaring high and rough above my controlled hiss. "Do you think I would deign to set my best friend up with someone like Brock?" My nails dug into my palm. She took a deep breath, and then spoke again in a voice soft but all the more dangerous for that. "It's rather ironic, really." One long hand rested on the leather of the couch, and her eyes followed it, studying the contrast of white against brown with abstracted intensity. She couldn't even look at me. "My greatest failure and my highest success, all in the same couple. Failure, not only because she left, but also because I would never have done it. Success, because they were happier than anyone else." Suddenly hard, entreating green eyes darted up to meet mine, too fast for me to avoid. "I protested, you know, but Rhi insisted. She had liked him for forever after all, and had been nagging me about it since halfway through freshman year, when I finally got the means to help her. But I resisted. I wouldn't do it."

"Why not?" I inquired, because it was apparent I was supposed to and I was still bound to listen. I wasn't at all curious- what went on in that crazy, convoluted mind was no business of mine.

"Because he wasn't good enough for her." She stated each word with enunciated carelessness, offhand like it was a fact everyone knew. Her eyes were boring into me now, any desire for me to understand drowned by malicious glee at just how furious it was making me. "Because I saw him as stupid and thick and dull and earthbound, not fit for someone airy and delightful like Rhi. Because I knew, in all my experience, that it wouldn't work." She took a step forward. I refused to retreat. "I let her make her own decision- her own, Darien- and I capitulated, and you know the rest. I didn't control her; I let her do what she wanted, and you know what happened? Life happened- glorious, awful life. Why do you care so damn much about the inevitable?"

I didn't have to make excuses to her. I was in no way obliged to explain anything to her, who had evidently never told me anything honest about herself.

"Because he's my friend, Matchmaker, and he didn't have a fighting chance. You set him up with a girl who was going to break his heart. You did that, for all your excuses. And no one does that to me, or my friends." I was done here, finished listening to the pointless justifications of the girl who had messed with my friend. I pivoted and stormed out again, but once more her soft voice stopped me.

"Darien," she asked as I stood in the open doorway, her voice gentle and dispassionate and not at all belligerent. If anything, it was pleading and vulnerable. But I knew how well she could lie. "Are you going to tell people?"

I paused, considering. She had as much on me as I had on her- friends could always hurt you the most- but telling everyone the truth about the Matchmaker… It was a very tempting proposition. That would be a fitting revenge indeed.

"No," I decided, turning slowly, coldly to look at her, my face set into a contemptuous sneer, like something nasty smelling was beneath my nose. "You aren't worth it."

And then I was out the door and downstairs and through the party, ignoring Brock's concerned query of "dude, are you okay?" and Rhianna's pointed, concerned look (could she know? Of course she did, the partner and the asset). But I couldn't stay; the party was ruined for me, utterly and completely. I didn't stop moving, didn't start thinking until I was at home in my room, vaguely noticing Troy's wide eyes and Alfred's surprised eyebrow raise through the haze of anger and confusion and pure emotions that had covered my eyes since I had learned her dark secret. The veil had finally lifted- and right then, just for a second in my heart of hearts that I never had and never would reveal to anyone, I would have given anything to lower that veil again and forget everything I had seen beyond it.

"God, Emma," I moaned, throwing myself back onto my bed and staring up at my starry ceiling, "Why did you have to do this to me?"