Disclaimer: I do not own Pretty Little Liars in either of its forms. I'm just taking a few of them out for a short walk. I promise to polish them up before handing them back to their rightful owners.
Author's Note: This is going to be a relatively lengthy fic that follows Paige's side of the story as she weaves in and out of the lives of 'The Liars'. I'll be true to canon when it comes to the onscreen stuff, however her 'off screen' life is about to become my playground. The story will eventually contain spoilers up to Season 3 (potentially beyond). I'll do my best to give a heads up which episode I'll be dealing with so no one is unintentionally spoiled.
I don't have/use a beta, all mistakes are my own. I've had atrocious luck with getting scene breaks to take in previous fics, '***' doesn't seem to work, so look for '888'. Now that I've thoroughly bored you with the housekeeping, on to the story!
Comments and constructive criticism are always appreciated. Enjoy!
The texts had started out innocuously enough. At first, Paige had thought it was a prank, Pru messing around or one of her teammates trying to get back at her for something or other. The texts hadn't been much more than a few seemingly random prods at her day to day life. The texter asked if she had enjoyed her tuna salad at lunch. What did she like about the movie she had seen the night before. All things Paige had done in public, more than enough people around to slough off the odd texts as someone with too much time on their hands. But, somewhere along the way, the tone of the messages changed. It hadn't taken more than text, about a private moment, for the whole situation to go from curious to creepy.
Paige had tried to respond to the text then –for the first time- chagrined to find her text returned, the number blocked. Officially irritated by the breach of privacy and her inability to respond to her stalker, Paige had gone ahead and blocked any further incoming messages. Apparently, it had been a bad move.
Things had devolved quickly from bad to worse. No longer satisfied, the texter had found new ways to leave messages. Her locker in the natatorium had been rifled through, her car had been broken into and -in one admittedly ballsy move- her stuffed animals at home had been rearranged, her plush shark found belly up in the bathtub.
Paige had unblocked the number then, her phone nearly filled to capacity with mystery messages, each more unsettling than the last. The final message, left after she had reclaimed her shark from the tub, proved whoever was toying with her, wasn't playing a kids' game.
Even sharks can drown. -A
The day after finding her shark in the bathtub, Paige slid into her usual desk, three rows in and two desks over. Not close enough to the front to be constantly called on, nor far enough in the back that she was forced to deal with juvie rejects. Pru sat to her left, textbook and notebook open but mind clearly somewhere else as Mrs. Ellison droned on about covalent bonds.
Paige found herself similarly distracted as she rooted through her mind to come up with possible 'A's. At this point, everyone was suspect. It was someone at school, that much was clear, given how the texts had started. With over 400 students and 30 faculty members, it was anyone's guess as to who it could be. Paige looked over at Pru, taking a moment to study her friend, wondering if the girl had it in her to be 'A'.
Paige doubted it. Pru's sadistic streak could run a mile wide if provoked but she didn't seem capable of pulling it off. The girl wasn't stupid by any stretch but she was notoriously impatient. A long, drawn out game of cat and mouse wouldn't be her style. Plus, the tone of the 'A' game suggested some deep seated psychosis and Pru, for all her faults, didn't come off as crazy. Dismissing her friend as the source, Paige tracked her eyes through the classroom, trying to identify someone with a problem big enough to warrant the terror tactics.
Her gaze found the back of Spencer Hastings head, eyes narrowing at her former teammate. Hastings was certainly smart enough to pull off being 'A' and she was definitely a planner. They had butted heads more than once over the course of the field hockey season. Paige didn't think the incidents were enough to warrant whatever 'A' was planning but who knew. Hastings had been friends with Alison DiLaurentis and if there was one thing Ali was good at, it was holding a grudge.
Paige mentally checked Spencer as a solid 'maybe' on her list of 'A' candidates then quickly skipped over Hannah as too vapid and Aria as too doe eyed to pull off such a game.
She dismissed Emily before she even looked at her. They swam together but never had more than cursory contact. No reason to think her teammate had reason to harass her. Paige watched the foursome quietly giggle over some secret, lips pursed in annoyance. It was so easy for them. To be calm. To be happy.
A lifetime of being drilled -to perform to a standard that was no less than perfect- left Paige chronically anxious. Each move had to be calculated, planned, no screw ups. Keeping tight control was the only way to keep everyone from realizing she was once step shy of a full on meltdown. The moment she went off book, opened her mouth without planning what to say, acted on impulse, things went bad.
Those girls, the pretty ones, didn't have that problem. It all came so naturally to them. Well, maybe not Spencer who seemed destined to live her life in hyperdrive. Definitely Emily though. The moment she walked into a room, her calm smile and easy charm captured whoever was lucky enough to be interacting with her. If Emily had a psychotic nature hiding under her girl next door façade, she deserved an award for her acting.
Dismissing the foursome, Paige searched the rest of the room. Mona, Noel, Jenna, a few guys from the swim team and some randoms whose names she had never bothered to learn. Nothing. No one she had any meaningful contact with. Certainly nothing to warrant the type of personal attention 'A' was so kind to lavish her with.
Paige's phone vibrated in her pocket and she pulled it out, lips pursing in a tight line at the blocked number.
One class down, three to go. Catch me if you can. -A
Paige searched the class, seeking out anyone with a phone in hand. Nothing. The bell rang before she could sweep the class a second time and Paige looked down, somewhat surprised to find a blank page where her notes should have been. She hadn't managed to put one streak of ink out in over an hour. On the day before a test, no less. Was that 'A's plan? Distract her to the point of failure?
"Paige, you coming?" Pru was already standing, her books shoved under her arm as she stared at Paige expectantly.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm coming." Paige pushed herself from her desk, snapping her textbook shut. It was going to be a long day. She followed her friend from the classroom, acknowledging Hastings with a curt nod when the other girl stared her down as she passed.
Definitely an avenue worth exploring.
They made a quick pass by their lockers, exchanging chemistry books for math. Pru made her way to Math 20 while Paige split off, heading to advanced algebra. She only knew these classmates in passing, most of them moving in the academic rather than athletic circles. Paige had made a point of filling her schedule with rigorous classes but when it came to associating with people, she was far more comfortable around the jocks than the brains.
She was more so comfortable with the guys, where she wasn't forced to keep a leash on every look, every touch. She wasn't in a constant state of awkward anxiety that made her seem aloof an unapproachable. She didn't have to be afraid that she would somehow tip her hand, let her eyes linger longer than they should.
Paige shook off the thoughts, tucking them away for later contemplation. She had more important things to worry about than her lack of social skills. She scanned the room, eyes falling once again on Hasting and Emily though Hanna and Aria were notably absent.
Paige caught Emily's eyes, the other girl offering a tentative smile and a small wave. Paige returned the greeting with a tight lipped nod. Her feelings about her team mate could only be described as mixed.
When Emily had gone AWOL -early in the swim season- Paige had alternated between being grateful that her stiffest competition was no longer in the running and pissed off because losing Emily meant an immediate slip in their standings.
While Emily had been off dealing with her 'American Teenager' moment, Paige had been left trying to hold a quickly fracturing team together. Last year's captain, a no nonsense senior, had graduated and gone out of state. None of their current seniors -a trio of cliquish athletes- had stepped in to the leadership vacuum. Emily -as one of the more experienced and approachable members of the team- had fallen into a defacto captaincy. Freshmen naturally gravitated toward her guidance and even the seniors seemed happy enough to follow her quiet lead.
Paige had been grateful for the girl then, pleased that she hadn't needed to step into another leadership role when she was laden down with so many other responsibilities. Then, Emily left. Their team, barely tethered together by their shared sport, had started to slide. They had become a collective of individuals, each working for themselves. Coach had been at her wits end and Paige hadn't any choice but to try and step in. She wasn't Emily and she knew it, she couldn't hope to replicate the calm, empathetic leadership style that Emily fallen into. She had tried to force cohesion instead, scheduled dinners, extra practices, tactics which failed more often than they succeeded.
Now, with Emily back, Paige found herself hovering between holding a grudging admiration for someone who so easily took command and irritation that the girl thought she could drop them and pick them up whenever she felt like it.
What was more frustrating was that Emily had not just reclaimed her spot on the team but in the water. Weeks out of the pool hadn't stopped the other girl from sliding through the water like she was part fish. Less than two weeks back and she was dogging Paige's every move, cutting their margins razor thin.
Paige looked up, cheeks immediately burning that she had been caught unawares. A quick glance showed Spencer eyeing her with a somewhat satisfied smirk while Emily's gaze seemed to border on concern.
"Yes?" Paige turned to the teacher who looked at her expectantly, chalk in hand.
"Perhaps you'd like to solve the equation?"
Paige scanned the problem, lips shaping into a frown at the litany of Xs, exponents and signs that littered the board.
"Perhaps we want to pay a little more attention and do a little less daydreaming, yes?"
"Yes, Mr. Peterson." Paige dutifully took notes through the rest of class, forcibly pushing out thoughts of 'A', Emily and whatever distractions tried to pull her out of her thoughts. It was almost calming, solving abstract problems, it was nice to know that some mysteries weren't beyond her.
The lunch bell eventually rang and Paige shut her books, beelining for the door. She stopped in her tracks when a gentle hand gripped her wrist, her eyes finding Emily's.
"Uh… hey." Paige hated unplanned conversation, this was where her natural ability to speak took over. An ability notable only in its absence.
"Are you okay? You looked a little out of it earlier."
"No, I mean yeah, I'm fine. Good. I'm good, actually." Ah yes, this was what sixteen years of speaking and over a decade of formal education had netted her. A conversation worthy of scholars, truly.
"Okay, if you're sure…" Emily seemed to be genuinely concerned and it took all Paige had not to rip her wrist away from the other girl. This kind of attention wasn't something she was equipped to handle and it was only going to send her into a tight, downward spiral of awkwardness.
"I'm sure." She twisted her wrist, just enough to free herself of Emily's light grip without it seeming like she was ready to make a break for Mexico. "Thanks."
She was out the door before Emily could respond, though she heard a mutter from Hastings that sounded suspiciously like a dig. Ignoring it, she continued on. She wasn't looking forward to lunch, or being in a crowd, there were too many people, too many variables. Too many chances for 'A' to stir up shit. Still, stubborn to a fault, she refused to allow 'A' to alter her routine. It would be a cold day in hell before she let herself get punked by one of the Neanderthals passing as students. Paige tossed her books into her locker and grabbed her lunch, meeting Pru along the way to head to a table.
They sat in their usual group, Pru and her boyfriend, a few periphery friends that Paige knew through Pru but didn't really interact with. Her teammates were scattered through the cafeteria, the seniors sprawled across a raucous corner, the freshmen huddled close at the other end of the room.
Emily was already at her table, the usual foursome tucked tightly together at one table. It still struck her as weird sometimes, seeing only four of the original quintet. Their former Queen Bee, Alison, had made a point of sitting in the middle of her subjects, blessing each of them with some tidbit of conversation.
Paige had never been close to Alison. Gut instinct had told her early on to keep her distance from a girl who made a point of targeting anyone within striking distance. She was nervous enough around people without having to deal with harassment on the level Alison dealt out. Unfortunately, giving the girl a wide berth hadn't protected Paige as well as she hoped. She had been on the business end of Alison's sharp barbs more than once. When it came down to it, Paige's obstinate nature hadn't let Alison push her around. Problem was, Alison liked a challenge more than anything and fighting back only made the girl sink well manicured claws in deeper. Paige had learned as much and after a few scuffles, she went out of her way to avoid the blonde and her court. Alison had eventually tired of baiting her with no success and set her sights on easier prey.
Alison's disappearance, Paige was ashamed to admit, had brought relief with it. Not relief that the girl was dead, more that someone who was particularly skilled at ferreting out weakness wouldn't be nipping at her heels anymore. That she wouldn't have to go through high school judiciously avoiding anything Alison came near, just for safety sake.
"Hey, where are you today?" Pru nudged her with her shoulder before following Paige's line of sight. "Would you stop hate staring Hastings? It was months ago. Besides, isn't having a penalty named after you kind of a good thing, intimidation tactics and all that?"
Startled from her thoughts, Paige turned away from the chatting quartet, nodding at Pru. She tried to pull her focus back to the table but her thoughts wouldn't shake loose from Alison.
If the girl had been alive, there was no doubt she would be at the top of Paige's 'A' list. Alison didn't need a reason to terrorize someone. She was a pit viper in heels at the best of times and Paige had seen her tear down more than one person with her merciless tactics. Maybe she had trained some sort of apprentice.
Sighing at her own muddy thoughts, Paige took a bite of her sandwich, half of her attention on Pru's mindless conversation, the other running 'A' potentials through her mind. When the bell finally sounded to end lunch, Paige stood, waving her goodbye to Pru before making her way out of the cafeteria. She had a spare period after lunch that she dedicated to working out. She had fought with her father over that. He had wanted a full load of classes, considered a spare period a waste of time.
She had talked him into it over the course of the summer, one of the few times she could actually get Nick McCullers to budge. The tradeoff had been two extra courses over the summer but it meant not being up at four am to hit the gym before morning swim practice.
Her routine was timed to the minute, allowing for an intense workout and shower with just enough time to sneak in a protein shake before pelting for her afternoon classes. Paige was quick to change and hop on the treadmill, earbuds in, speed set to pound out three miles in her twenty minutes of allotted cardio time. Running was Paige's opportunity to let her mind to wander. Her feet knew her rhythm and the rest of her body, long tuned to the brisk pace, acted on autopilot.
Sometimes she planned out her homework, mostly essays, picking from ideas that seemed to materialize from the ether during her run. Usually, she reserved the time for her herself, a brief twenty minute span where she thought about whatever she wanted. It helped to have a few minutes every day dedicated to herself, it made it easier to box her feelings the rest of the time. She could get through most challenges, knowing she had a few minutes of respite in an imaginary land where she didn't have a father with mile high expectations. Or a coach. Or a team.
Paige could be herself, without the awkward moments or the constant need to compete and prove herself over others. Where she pretended she could live the life she wanted, not the one that had been laid out for her. She had started off with vague daydreams, just something to pass the time as her body set out a punishing pace. She lived somewhere other than Rosewood, maybe attended a university of her own choosing rather than those her father was feeding her to. Hell, sometimes she skipped university altogether, taking a year off to travel and find herself.
The tone of her daydreams hadn't changed much over the years but the past few months, the vague visions had taken sharper form. It had started with a passing glance.
Paige caught Emily's eye in the hallway, shortly after the other girl had taken leave of the team. Paige had been prepared to all out shun Emily for her desertion when her eyes had skittered over to the person beside her. Maya. The pair had been shoulder to shoulder, fingers linked as they walked by. It hadn't been a moment of instant clarity but Paige felt something shift, as though a jagged piece of her personal puzzle had dropped into place. The vague sense of being unsettled by seeing the two of them together had pushed Paige toward some much loathed self reflection.
Why had seeing Emily with another girl bothered her so much? Despite her father's rather conservative views, Paige didn't harbor any bad feelings towards gays. She had watched enough TV and surfed enough internet to balance her views.
When she dove a little deeper, Paige had come up with jealousy as her only answer. That the two girls could be so open, so free and happy together. Even as gay teens, out in a small town, they had felt comfortable enough in their own skin to be open with one another. Paige could barely handle kissing a boy in private, let alone public displays. Her few intimate moments with the opposite sex had felt awkward and forced, to the point that Paige stopped trying, satisfied to simply be in her own company.
The realization that followed on the heels of that train of thought had literally thrown Paige off her stride. She had nearly face planted on the treadmill, flailing madly to press the emergency stop, as if that could keep her suddenly chaotic thoughts at bay.
It was a though a dam in her mind had broken, the slowly crumbling bricks that held her carefully constructed wall in place finally giving way. It suddenly made sense. Why she had never felt quite comfortable with the advances of boys. Why she turned into an awkward turtle whenever a pretty girl would pass by, one girl in particular. That ridiculous crush she had on her first grade teacher.
She couldn't say it out loud but everything had changed that day. Pieces of herself that never quite fit no longer grated against each other the same way. The realization that she was gay had brought with it some modicum of peace. It didn't change anything in the grand scheme of things. Given her family, she wouldn't -couldn't- act on the realization. But having finally dropped that piece of the Paige McCullers puzzle into its proper place had been a relief.
It had taken some getting used to, her usual anxiety multiplied whenever she was around people. Now that she knew, could they tell? Could her parents? In the first few days she had all but holed herself up in her room, dashing from class to class with barely a look at Pru, lest her friend figure out what was up. She was in and out of the showers at practice before her teammates were even undressed, not wanting to give her eyes a chance to wander. It had been two weeks of intense stress as she tried to balance her self realization with the rest of her life.
It had been Pru's concerned questions that made Paige realize that acting like a hermit in hyperdrive was only liable to make her stand out more. She had forced herself to return to her regular routines pleased when things leveled off almost immediately.
Paige was comfortable enough with the reality now. It was just one more facet of herself that she hid behind the public mask of Paige McCullers. Thankfully, in her own mind, she no longer had to hide. She allowed her thoughts to roam to a Utopian future where she could have it all. A job she was passionate about, in a city she chose with a woman she loved. It couldn't be, Paige knew as much. But in these precious minutes when her thoughts were hers alone, it was wonderful to pretend.
Paige's watch bleated out the end of her cardio session, the end of her own time. She hopped off the treadmill, working her way through her upper body set, mind focused on form. It wouldn't do to injure a shoulder in the gym, her Dad would have her ass if she jeopardized her swim season. A quick stretch at the end of her routine and she was off, hitting the showers. Body rinsed, Paige was midway through to toweling dry when shuffling somewhere beyond the lockers caught her attention.
Paige tucked her towel in, eyes narrowing at the sound. She rarely encountered anyone in the change room at this time of day.
"Hello?" More shuffling, quick steps and the outer door opened and closed, leaving behind only silence. More than a little uncomfortable, Paige dressed quickly, ears searching for any sound that was out of the ordinary. When she was dressed, boots on, she felt considerably less vulnerable, confident she could defend herself.
Gathering her things, she shoved her locker closed, pausing as she passed the mirror. The steam from the shower had started to dissipate but not enough to erase the message written into the condensation.
Let's play a game. Simon says. –A
Paige pursed her lips. The level of 'creep' had officially hit an all time high. 'A' had been in the shower room with her, while she was naked. Whoever it was had balls and Paige was now determined to remove them one by one once she figured out who the hell she was dealing with.
A forceful swipe of her hand cleared the message from the mirror and Paige barreled out of the change room, officially pissed off. It was one thing to send text messages and she hadn't been particularly impressed by the stunt with her stuffed animals but this… this meant war.
She dropped by her book locker, needing to grab her essay for Mrs. Montgomery's class. A deluge of tiny boxes nearly buried her as she opened the door, raining down from the top shelf. A note fluttered to her feet, written in a tight scrawl that she instinctively knew she would come to dread.
Simon says it's time to be Captain. Whatever it takes.-A
Paige knelt down, ignoring the curious stares of the others students as she gathered the boxes in her arms and shoved them back in her locker. She opened one to find a small bracelet, 'Go Sharks' inset into the band. A quick count showed enough for her team.
Heaving out a disgruntled sigh, Paige collected her books and headed for class, mind going in circles as she sat. She gave Pru an absent nod in greeting, trying to figure out what 'A's game was. What was the point of pushing her toward being captain of the swim team? How did that help 'A' toward whatever their greater goal was?
Two classes later and she still had no clue what 'A' might be trying to prove. Paige was reasonably sure of only one thing, whatever 'A' wanted, she probably didn't want to give it to them. She made her way to the natatorium, passing Emily as she walked. Her teammate seemed a little down as she stared into her locker, playing with a bracelet on her wrist.
Paige wondered if Maya had given the bracelet to Emily. Maybe it was thoughts of her absent girlfriend that were responsible for the frown and furrowed brow. Paige knew Maya's story, at least the latest version that was making its rounds through the halls. Her parents had shipped her off to True North, a teen rehab for kids with some drug problem or other. Dope, coke, Ecstasy. Maya's drug of choice apparently changed to suit whoever was telling the story. That had to be hard on Emily.
Paige briefly debated approaching her teammate, returning the kind concern Emily had shown her earlier. She had no idea what to say, no idea how to even go about comforting someone in a moment like this. Hell, she could be reading everything wrong and Emily was just depressed she'd done poorly on a test. Either way, opening her mouth was bound to produce awkwardness of previously unknown measures. No. Best to steer clear and let the other girls in the fearsome four deal with getting Emily out of her funk.
Practice passed without incident, save for a few snipes from the seniors about the coach adding extra laps for laziness. Paige kept an eye out for Emily who took the added fitness in stride, no complaints as she powered through the last few sets. She wasn't her chipper self and as Paige snuck a glance at Coach Fulton, she knew the woman could tell something was off as well.
When she had completed her extra set, Paige hauled her body out of the water, eyes still tracking Emily who came out of the pool shortly after. Coach Fulton offered Emily a towel, speaking to the girl in a low tone. Emily nodded once or twice, leaning in when Coach slung a friendly arm over her back, squeezing her shoulder in support.
Satisfied that her teammate was in good hands, certainly better than hers, Paige headed for the showers. She rinsed the chlorine from her body and changed quickly, her chemistry test was liable to kick her ass if she didn't get some serious studying done.
Emily was just peeling off her bathing suit as Paige tugged on her jacket, cinching her backpack high on her shoulder.
"Night," Emily said, eyes still harboring a sadness that made Paige's heart break.
She wanted to say something, anything that would relieve some of what Emily was going through. She just didn't have the words and she didn't want to make a bad situation worse. She settled instead for what she hoped was a smile, though it felt awkward and forced. Emily probably thought she had gas.
"Night," she finally got out. "See you tomorrow."
With that, Paige was off, making her way toward the school parking lot. Her parents were out of town for the evening, visiting her Aunt in Philly. Rather than attempt what was certain to be culinary disaster, she forewent cooking herself dinner and headed for the Apple Rose Grill.
She sat at one of the bar style tables, her books open in front of her, ordering her usual salad and wrap.
She was certain she would be seeing chemistry equations in her sleep at the rate she was going. Her crib notes just kept getting longer and she wasn't certain what, if any, information was sinking in.
She was midway through her meal when she looked up from her text book to see Emily wander in, headed for the take out counter. Emily didn't see her as she walked by and Paige took the opportunity to watch her teammate. Still clad in her athletic warm-ups, rich chestnut hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, the tendrils curling as her hair dried. Her gait was usually strong, posture erect. She was an athlete and carried herself as such, unafraid to show her confidence in what her body was capable of. Paige envied her, that Emily's comfort with herself came so easily. It had to help having friends like Hastings and the others, a strong bond with people you knew you could rely on. Hell, Hastings would probably put the first person who poked at Emily on a cross, just to prove a point.
Paige wished she had that. Sure, she had Pru and the girl had her back but Paige knew if push really came to shove, it was everyone for themselves. Emily didn't seem that type. More like she was loyal to a fault, going so far as to openly befriend Toby Cavanaugh, a kid who was on the hit list of damn near everyone in town.
Paige watched Emily hand over her money, a smile on her face for the cashier as they exchanged pleasantries. Paige found her teammate attractive, there was no denying that. Emily's warm up suit hid it well but Paige was more than aware of the lean body hidden underneath. But it wasn't just an attraction to her body, it was Emily altogether. The confident girl exuded warmth to nearly everyone she met, even when she was hurting. It made it impossible to hate her the way Paige knew she would hate anyone else who had left her in the lurch by bailing on the team.
Emily collected her food and Paige's eyes followed her as she left, gaze kept low in an attempt to be discreet. With no further distractions available, Paige turned her attention back to her studies.
She closed the Grill down, thanking her server with a generous tip and headed for her mom's borrowed car. The car beeped its acceptance of her key and she slid into the driver's seat, eyes narrowing at the unfamiliar envelope beside her. She knew whatever it was wouldn't be good but she opened the envelope anyway. She tipped the contents into her hand, reading the note first.
Simon says take the Captaincy or everyone learns how much you like the breast stroke.-A
The picture attached to the note was of her, no more than four hours ago, watching Emily in the Grill. On its own, it didn't mean much but coupled with the half dozen other images, there was no denying it for what it was. She was checking Emily out and despite her efforts, it wasn't with anything resembling discretion.
Paige leaned back, head hitting the neck rest as she blew out a curse.