A/N: This takes place after 1x09, before 1x10, so spoilers for the majority of all aired episodes!
don't know how lovely you are
Hanna tackles her first.
It's a text message, you + me = mall today. And then Hanna's in her house, running up the stairs and bursting into her room, a whirl of blonde hair and perfume and a short white dress.
"Em!" she says, bright smile and soft eyes.
She looks like Ali.
Hanna sits on her bed. "You ready for this?"
Emily blinks, startled, one of her eyebrows arching. "Ready?" she echoes faintly.
And Hanna rolls her eyes, reaches for both of Emily's hands and tugs her to her feet. "The mall, you idiot," she says fondly, hooking one of her arms through Emily's as if this is the same as any other day of their lives, as if the past year and last night's confession never existed at all.
She finds herself laughing. "Ready as I'll ever be," she says, and Hanna grins.
She loves Hanna in that moment, and through that day – loves her enthusiasm and the smell of her shampoo. They spend the whole day at the mall, window-shopping until Emily's feet are aching in her flats. Hanna makes her try on clothes, dresses and jeans and sweaters and shoes, and in the most crowded stores they share a dressing room like they used to, laughing and tossing clothes at each other to put on.
Despite all the time they spend there, Hanna doesn't buy a single item of clothing, but she does grab Emily's hand and drag her toward the food court and buy them both smoothies and pretzels.
Hanna proposes a toast when they leave the mall, smoothie held out grandly, her hair glittering in the sunlight. "To us," she says with a sweet smile.
Emily returns that smile with a soft one of her own. "To you," she replies quietly. To Hanna and her friendship and her genuinely innocent (completely inaccurate) belief that everything Emily feels for Maya is exactly the same as everything she felt for Alison.
With a bright burst of laughter, Hanna bumps Emily's hip with her own and agrees, "I will totally drink to that."
Aria's approach is quieter. She comes over late in the evening, toting movies and nail polish, and they sit on Emily's bed with the curtains drawn and Gone With The Wind playing on her laptop, Rhett and Scarlett's voices the only noise in the room while they paint their toenails.
"Pretty colour," Aria comments. Her chin is propped on her bare knee; they're already in their pyjamas and the moment is lazy and comfortable.
With a nod, Aria tells her, smiling, "Your toes are the last thing people see when you dive into the water. You've gotta make sure that they look good."
Emily elbows her. "I move too fast for people to get a good luck at my toes."
"Precautionary measure, Em."
They're quiet for a moment and Emily considers her friend, thinks about what might've happened in the year Aria was away, wonders about the boy in Iceland that Hanna keeps talking about and her parents' separation.
"Are you okay?" she asks softly.
Aria glances up at her, obviously surprised, putting the cap back on her bottle of nail polish and tossing it aside. "Are you okay?"
Emily tilts her head, gives her a look that Aria returns.
Laughing quietly, Aria flops back on the bed, her head on one of Emily's pillows. "Tonight is all about being okay," she says firmly, lifting her feet so that she can look at the polish on her toes. Her pyjama shorts are pink and printed with Care Bears, obviously old and worn-in, and something about those shorts and the way this feels like they're living in a memory, it fills Emily with a rush of affection.
She flops back, too, smiling at the ceiling. She doesn't say anything. She doesn't need to.
But Aria does. Her voice is hesitant but purposeful when she murmurs, "I wish you'd told me, Em."
She fidgets a little, blowing out her breath. The only light in her room comes from the screen of her laptop, falling onto the bedspread between their bodies. "It was…hard."
Aria nods, shifting a little closer. "I know."
"And then…and then she died, so…" Emily closes her eyes and shrugs. "It doesn't really matter anymore."
"Em." Aria's voice is a gentle hum. "It matters."
Emily rolls onto her side and looks at Aria, searches her face with her eyes. "Yeah?"
Aria's blinking slowly, clearly halfway to dreamland. She curls up next to Emily – she sleeps like she always has, at every sleepover, her body small and warm and close enough just to know that she's there, enough to ward off nightmares.
Through a yawn, she mumbles, "Love you."
Emily bites back a smile and pushes back thoughts of Ali lying on her bed, blonde hair splayed over white sheets, her mouth red, her fingertips teasing Emily's skin.
"You too, A," she murmurs back, too tired to edit herself.
Spencer takes her to the club.
They drink virgin margaritas at the bar and Emily sits patiently for five minutes while Spencer and Alex flirt and kiss and make plans for tomorrow.
"Sorry," Spencer says, when Alex goes back to work.
Emily shrugs. "No worries."
"No, Em." Her voice softens and get heavier. "I'm sorry."
She lifts her eyes to Spencer's face and takes a deep breath. "Me too."
Spencer purses her lips, a pensive expression on her face. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Do you want to play tennis?"
Emily laughs. "Not really."
Spencer smiles. "Do you want to sit here and be awkward?"
Crossing her legs, Emily swivels on her stool, moving back and forth. "What are my other options?"
Spencer sighs; her eyes are the deep, dark colour of an apology. "She knew, Emily."
"She knew…" She trails off, looking at Spencer curiously, longing for whatever comes next but also dreading it.
"That you loved her."
Emily swallows. "But my letter."
"She knew," Spencer says confidently, in the same voice she uses to recite definitions and explain pre-calc. "Ali knew everything."
With a tiny smirk, she agrees, "That's true."
Spencer reaches across the bar and takes her hand, tangling their fingers together – the way Ali used to hold her hand, each of their fingers woven together, secure and unbreakable. "I don't want you to feel awful about this forever."
"Not forever," Emily agrees wryly.
"Be happy. With Maya, with whomever."
Emily smiles gently. "Take your own advice, Spence."
Spencer lifts her chin and dares, "Take it with me."
She sticks out her tongue and they both giggle. Carefully, she pulls her hand away from Spencer's, releasing her fingers – the first step, she figures, in the process of letting go.
Ali's in her dreams.
And in her closet, in the clothes she borrowed in the weeks before she died, and in her room, staring at her from photographs, and in every classroom, where she used to sit only a desk away.
She's in the library, hiding between bookshelves, impish smiles and great expectations; in the locker room, wet hair on her shoulders, skin still holding the tangy taste of her body wash.
Emily writes her notes. They're on post-it notes, small and discreet but still colorful, the perfect size and shape to slip from one hand to another in the middle of a classroom, grinning at each other afterward, basking in success and secrets.
She tucks them in all of the places Ali still lingers – one in her pillowcase, another in the library's only copy of Great Expectations, another in an empty locker.
I (love) loved you.
Leave me alone.