Disclaimer: Who has two thumbs and doesn't own the rights to these characters? This gal!
Author's Notes: Thanks for the fic recommendations, I shall happily plow through.
This chapter contains spoilers up to Season 2, Episode 12, "Salt Meets Wound".
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Secondary Note: I've created an eBook style PDF, complete with cover, for 'Season 1' of 'Seven For A Secret'. Season one includes chapters one through fourteen, inclusive. If you'd like to have a copy, leave it in the reviews or PM me and I'll get you hooked up.
"Why am I here, Pru?"
"It's a shopping mall, ergo we are here to shop."
"Ergo? Since when did you start using your big girl words?" Paige shook her head at the top Pru held up, the floral pattern a better match for a couch than a blouse.
"Just because I don't try to sound like a walking dictionary doesn't mean I'm not listening in class. How about these?"
"For you? Isn't it a little... butch?"
"That's because they're for you, not me. Here." Pru shoved the plaid capris pants into Paige's hands before zeroing in on the rack of suspenders.
"I thought you dragged Sean shopping yesterday. Haven't you inflicted enough torture for one weekend?"
"The shopping is just the excuse, what I really want to hear about is the Emily situation. Here, take these too." A set of thin leather suspenders was dropped on top of the capris.
"What situation? There's no situation, Maya's back in town."
"Which means you have to move fast, yes? Before they go all OTP again." Pru pulled two t-shirts from the rack and piled them over the pants.
"Wha..? What the hell is an OTP and what in the history of our friendship makes you think that my making a move now is a good idea?"
"One true pairing? Destined to be. Fated by the gods. You know, like that leather chick and her blonde friend that you used to be all girl crush over."
"Hey." Paige pointed at Pru. "Back up off my Xena, that's my childhood you're traipsing over."
"Whatever, here, these boots too. You can be all leather, like your precious warrior princess." A set of knee high, front lacing, brown leather boots were tossed on top. Paige followed docilely behind her friend, there was no escape at this point.
"I just don't think it's a good idea to start barging in on her relationship. I'll end up coming off clingy, or worse, jealous and desperate. That's not exactly Emily's type."
"Or maybe you'll come off as a brassy, take charge kind of girl, which is her type. Don't be such a chicken. Now, go change."
Knowing resistance was futile, she ducked into a change room, stripping out of the simple tank top and jeans combo. Her cellphone beeped and she flipped it open, mouth tightening at the text.
You might be able to break up with Emily but not with me.-A
It was the third of such messages since yesterday afternoon. 'A' had contacted her shortly after she started cooking with her mother, the first text a dig at Maya's return. The next had been orders to read her email, which she hadn't, deleting the message and blocking the sender. Evidently 'A' was feeling neglected. Paige didn't care, she turned off her phone, showing it into her purse.
She was done. She was out to her parents, if necessary, she'd deal with the fallout of the Danby fiasco. Emily was off the team and Paige would reason her involvement for what it was, an attempt to keep her friend swimming for Rosewood. She was willing to pay for the things she had done if it meant freeing herself from 'A's grasp.
She tugged on the clothes, stepping out for Pru to inspect and earning a thumbs up.
"Perfect, c'mon, we only have a couple of hours before I'm supposed to meet Sean at the movies and we need to get you at least three more outfits."
"I don't suppose you trust me enough to let me pick out my own clothes?"
"Not on your life, McCullers, hop to it."
Three hours later, having shopped very near to the point of dropping, Paige reclined on her sofa. She had just settled in to a comfortable spot, textbook propped on her knees, when her mother called down.
"I need a hand."
Giving up the idea that she was going to get any work done this weekend, she walked upstairs only to be greeted by the sight of her mother hauling pots of food to the door.
"I have to wait for Alex to come collect the food for the soup kitchen. Your father needs these." She held up a sheaf of papers. Paige took the papers and the offered car keys.
"Church or office?" She asked, tugging on a hoodie and her new boots before she headed for the door.
"Office. Thanks, Honey."
"No problem." It was a quick drive to her father's office, taking Paige just to the edge of downtown Rosewood. Parking was scarce, the Church across from The Brew bustling with people. Paige vaguely recalled Emily mentioning that Hannah's dad was getting remarried this weekend. She fought the urge to sigh, wishing she had the chance to see Emily in her dress. Emily looked good in whatever she was wearing, but the few times Paige had seen her in something other than jeans or warm-ups had nearly left her heart stopped. Oh well. There was always Facebook.
Slipping out of the car, Paige walked into her father's office, holding up the sheaf of papers in greeting.
"Oh good." His relief seemed a little over the top and Paige idly wondered what kind of paperwork she was holding. Meh. "Thanks. Your mother getting the meals ready?"
"Yeah, I think Alex is running behind schedule today."
"That boy needs to learn how to take his responsibilities seriously."
The complaint was a familiar one and Paige simply nodded, knowing no response was required on her part. Her phone buzzed and she tapped the screen to check the text as her father shuffled through the stack of papers she had given him.
"Is that everything you need, Dad?"
"That's fine, Paige. I'll see you at home." He waved her off without actually looking at her, attention already back on his work as he walked to his desk. Dismissed, Paige made her way back to the car, picking her path through the litany of well dressed wedding attendees. She slid into the driver seat, turning over the engine before she noticed she wasn't alone. To her credit, Paige didn't scream, though she was certain her startled jump nearly put her head through the roof.
"Because that's what I needed, more Chucky nightmares." Thoroughly creeped out by the porcelain doll that was occupying her backseat, Paige threw the car into park. A reach back and she had hold of the toy, pulling into the front seat. Her inspection showed nothing out of the ordinary, save a pull string in the back of the neck. "You're a creepy bitch, you know that?"
A tug on the string and the doll began to speak, its high pitched saccharine voice doing nothing to endear it to Paige. Nor did its message. "Drive."
Paige raised an eyebrow at the instruction, eyes flicking to her GPS. She clicked on the screen, pulling up the last address, some random point that was arguably in the middle of God's good nowhere.
She didn't have to do this anymore. Play 'A's game. She was out. 'A' had nothing left to taunt her with. The Danby letter, Ali's fashion show, it wasn't worth keeping them under wraps if it meant being pulled back into the 'A' game.
The doll stared at her, the blue and white colours of its necklace unfortunately familiar. Unclasping the bracelet from the doll's neck, Paige knew what it was before she was able to fully read Emily's name. Damn it.
Paige dropped her head against the steering wheel, a heavy sigh leaving her lungs. 'A' had to be kidding. She had finally gotten out from under their thumb, the dust had barely settled on her coming out and now this. The bitch really did know how to wield a knife.
Flipping on her turning signal, Paige pulled on to the road that would lead her to whatever 'A' had planned. It was a good hour out of Rosewood, densely packed neighbourhoods giving way to fields and farmhouses. When the final turn off was a mile ahead Paige pulled to the shoulder of the road, to contemplate her next move. As much as she wanted to help Emily, it was probably better to have a plan other than 'rush in, get killed'.
Paige reached under the passenger seat, pulling out her mother's book of road maps. It had taken the better part of a year to teach her mom how to properly use the GPS and the directionally challenged still wasn't comfortable with the technology. Small graces.
Cross checking her location with her destination, Paige found a county road just ahead that ran parallel to wherever 'A' was sending her. It wasn't much, but it might buy her some kind of element of surprise.
Paige flipped off the GPS' voice to silence her nagging and turned off the main highway. The farming road was little more than sparsely gravelled dirt ruts, the occasional crunch making Paige wince as the car bottomed out on the rough terrain.
When the locator on the screen indicated she was across from her destination, Paige rolled to a stop and shut down the engine. Flicking on her hazards, Paige scanned the area, forest to her left, farming fields to her right. Whatever 'A' was up to would have her hiking through the trees. Perfect.
"Nothing like a casual stroll through the Forbidden Forest while hunting a psychopath who's threatening my ex-girlfriend. I remember normalcy. Vaguely."
A quick push and she was out of the car, circling to the back to check the trunk for anything she might be able to use as a weapon. The best she managed was a tire iron, gripping it tightly as she headed into the woods. It was a relatively steep decline, Paige forced to pick her way carefully down so she didn't go ass over tea kettle to the bottom. Twenty minutes saw her in view of the address 'A' had given her, the woods abruptly ending. She knew she had made it when she caught sight of Emily's car, parked outside a large barn that ate up a good section of a clearing.
Pulling out her cell phone, Paige held it up to check the signal. A few bars, maybe enough for a phone call, if she could get near some metal. She shoved it into her pocket, moving carefully through the last of the trees. She had no idea what she was supposed to be doing or what the hell she was going to tell Emily when she showed up. That was something she would have to figure out on the fly. Descending the small hill, Paige kept her eyes open for anything out of the ordinary.
She sprinted across the clearing, a check of Emily's car yielding nothing. It was unlocked and Paige reached in to pop the trunk, steeling herself for whatever she might find. It was a wasted effort, the trunk holding only Emily's gear bag, a spare tire and questionable bag lunch. She closed the trunk, slowly scanning the clearing for what might out of the ordinary. Only the barn was left.
"And the winner for this week's 'Too Stupid To Live' award goes to…" Paige gripped the tire iron, holding it to her shoulder like a bat as she approached the barn, ignoring every bit of common sense that screamed at her to run. This far out of Rosewood, it would take too long for the cops to get to them. If Emily was in trouble, Paige was the only one on deck to help her.
The barn door was padlocked and Paige gave it a cursory tug to make sure it wasn't dummy locked. Going for broke, she put her ear up against the door, surprised to hear the gentle thrum of a car engine. Who the hell left a car running in an enclosed area? Unless… oh, no.
"Em? Emily?" Paige pulled on the door, throwing her shoulder against it to get it to budge. "Em! Can you hear me?" No response. If fresh air wasn't getting in and the car was running, there was no telling what kind of condition her friend was in.
"Emily!" Paige tugged violently on the handle, padlock holding the door fast. "Shit." She drove her shoulder into it again, neither the door nor the hinges courteous enough to give way. "Screw this." Shimmying the tire iron into the 'U' of the lock, Paige braced against the door. A sharp tug, bolstered by her weight, snapped the pins holding the lock in place. She tossed the tire iron to the side, pulling the lock off before grabbing hold of the door to slide it open.
The sunlight behind her streamed into the barn, lighting up the form of a passed out Emily, the stench of exhaust threatening to make Paige's stomach revolt. The toxic air instantly made her eyes water, obscuring her vision as she went to her friend. She held her breath as she knelt down, brown leather boots digging into the dirt as she wrapped her arms under Emily's and pulled her free. They were quickly clear of the worst of the exhaust, Paige breathing deeply of the fresh air to clear her lungs of poison.
"Please be alive, please be alive." Paige laid Emily down, too full of panic to properly find her pulse. Instead she rested her head over Emily's heart, listening for a beat as she watched for the rise and fall of her friend's chest. It was shallow, her heart beating more sluggishly than Paige thought was normal. She had taken first aid before she had no idea if artificial breathing would help at this point. Maybe if she forced clean air into Emily's lungs, it would help get the carbon monoxide out. Tipping Emily's chin up gently, Paige pinched her nose, forcing a breath into Emily's lungs as she inhaled. She breathed in tandem with Emily until she was near dizzy herself, her friend finally beginning to stir.
Emily didn't seem to be conscious but she was breathing more ably on her own and Paige sat down, propping Emily's head on her legs as she fumbled with her cell phone to call 911. She had no idea how she was going to explain anything that had happened but getting Emily to an ambulance took priority over everything. She would figure out what lies to tell later. Her fingers were on the 'send' button when the sound of an approaching car stole her attention, eyes focused on the driver. She knew that SUV and that scowl, Hastings. Shit.
Crouched next to an unconscious Emily who had been locked in a barn and left to die of asphyxia, not exactly the best place to be. Hastings would rip her throat out before Paige had a chance to explain.
Paige looked down, Emily's eyes slowly moving beneath her lids as the girl began to stir in earnest. "Sshh, Em. It's going to be okay."
There was no way to explain this, no way to tell Hastings that she'd gotten Emily kidnapped for her obstinence. Emily had no doubt called Hastings for help and the cavalry was just late to the party. Damn, damn, damn. She still had a chance, between the brush and the barn, Hastings wouldn't have a good line of sight on her yet.
Paige tugged her hood over her head, dropping a kiss to Emily's lips, along with a whispered apology. She sprinted, low to the ground, grabbing the tire iron as she passed. The line of sight between her and the SUV was momentarily broken as it around the curve. She took the opportunity, sprinting flat out for the tree line and ducking into forest. She kept going, hauling ass up to the hill until her legs and lungs burned from the exertion. When she was comfortable she wouldn't be seen, she looked down, the girls surrounding Emily who had begun to sit up.
Emily was all right and with Hastings at her side, it wasn't any better than Paige could do. Nodding to herself, she kept moving, headed for her car. Sweaty, angry, and more than a little terrified, she flung open the driver side door and dropped into the seat. A quick check of the rearview let her see the empty seat behind her.
Her phone vibrated and she flipped it open, unsurprised by the sender.
Can't con a con.-A
A second message beeped revealing a photo of Paige dragging an unresponsive Emily from the barn.
Son of a bitch.
Paige grabbed the wheel, knuckles whitening as the reality set in. There was no escape from this. 'A' had intentionally put Emily in danger to drag Paige back into their web. She took a deep breath, two, a third before her tenuous hold of her temper fractured completely and struck at the steering wheel until her hands were nearly numb.
Tantrum complete, Paige calmly flipped off the hazard lightss and threw the car in reverse, backing easily down the gravel road to the main highway.
She was back on the highway for nearly ten minutes when a string of cop cars sailed past her, lights flashing as they headed in the direction of the barn. At least proper help was finally on the way, Paige could relax somewhat.
'A' had sent her to Emily, Paige had no doubt she'd thrown a wrench in their plans by not driving straight to the barn. She would have been cornered there with her car, Hastings bearing down on her. That would have been a bloody mess. Literally.
Failing a full on Hastings vs McCullers, Clash of the Titans, 'A' had still managed to get enough leverage on her to keep Paige dancing to their tune.
The drive home was filled with self recrimination, her attempt to free herself from 'A's game had gotten Emily hurt. There seemed to be no limit to the lengths 'A' would go to keep her under control.
The sky had darkened by the time she pulled up the driveway, almost three hours after being sent on her small errand. Her mother was dozing on the couch, her father evidently still at his office.
"Where'd you end up today?" her mother asked, pushing herself sleepily from the couch as Paige closed the door.
"I took the papers over to Dad and then I just went for a drive, it was really nice out. I'm sorry I didn't call."
"S'okay, Honey. If I'd been worried, I would have called."
"I filled up the car and topped up the oil, you're supposed to do that on occasion, you know. I could barely see it on the dipstick."
"That's why I have you and your father," her mother reasoned, tossing her blanket from her legs to stand. "You hungry?"
"Starved but I'm going to grab a quick shower first."
"All that driving get you grimy?"
"Yeah, something like that." Paige went downstairs, turning on the shower to its hottest setting, hoping to wash away the entire atrocious day. Emily had nearly been killed. 'A' wasn't running girls off their bikes or threatening to out people anymore, this was getting serious. Paige was certain 'A' had meant for her to save Emily. That the whole damn thing had just been one bait after another to prove to Paige that -no matter how she tried- 'A' wasn't loosening their grip. But so many things could have gone wrong.
What if Paige hadn't gone? What if her car had broken down or she hadn't found a way in? The thought gave her chills. She wanted to text Emily and make sure she was still all right but doing that would raise more questions than it answered. She had no idea what Emily knew. Had she heard Paige calling? Had she recognized her voice at all, begging Emily to come back? It was impossible to tell.
Pushing the thoughts down, knowing they would haunt her well enough at night, Paige stepped out of the shower. Calling upon her best game face, she went upstairs to supper, she and her mother eating on the couch in a rare show of casual dining. It was nearly eleven when her father returned home, looking weary from a long day.
Her mother got up to get him a plate of food and Paige shifted over on the couch to make room. He patted her knee as he sat. Paige switching over to the channel that would play the local eleven o'clock news. He was mid meal when the headline showed up, footage from a helicopter camera shining down on Emily and her friends in the woods, the girls covered in dirt, holding a shovel. The anchor mentioned something about the girls being held by police for evidence tampering in the DiLaurentis murder, charges would be pending.
What the hell had happened after she left?
"If it's not one thing with those girls, it's another."
"Paige, I don't want to hear it. I understand she's your friend, I can even understand why. But you can't deny that there's something those girls are into that they're not sharing."
"I... yeah," Paige admitted reluctantly. "Yeah, I think there is. Am... am I banned from talking to her, again?"
He heaved out a sigh, his eyes finding her mother who seemed equally torn. It was no longer about Emily being gay, it was about her being in the police spotlight twice in as many months. Things with Ian Thomas had been cleared up with his confession but it didn't alter the fact that no matter how the foursome tried, they were always smack dab in the middle of trouble.
"You're well raised, I trust your judgement." Her father led with. "We trust your judgement. I don't like it, I don't think she's a good influence, but I won't tell you not to see her. For now."
That was reasonable. All things considered, it was the best she could have hoped for.
In the end, it didn't matter, Paige barely saw Emily. Finals started just after their arrest, news of the girls community service making its way quickly through the high school grapevine. Rather than accompany the Sharks to their Rosewood Public practice, Emily had been forced to pick up garbage on the side of the road, clean graffiti, whatever crap job the town wanted of them.
With morning practice, studying for finals and organizing team sessions -whether with Keith or just the Sharks- it had taken most of Paige's spare time. She had texted of course, to make sure Emily was alright after everything had hit the news. The short phone call that followed led Paige to believe that Emily had no recollection of her being at the barn, a welcome lucky break.
It was the last of anything more than cursory contact over the next month. After finals, courses had switched and Paige found all her classes woefully devoid of Emily. She had even managed to piss of her karmic gods enough to land three classes with Hastings. By the end of most days, she had a headache from glaring at the girl across the room. Rumours were Hastings, Aria and Hannah had split from Emily, ostracizing her from the group.
Two weeks after the new semester, she finally bumped into Emily, nearly running the poor girl over in the washroom. Pru was beside her, her friend making an immediate about turn to head out of the bathroom.
"What was that about?"
"I have no idea, she's a weird chick sometimes." Paige rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I'm glad I finally caught up to you. I've barely seen you since before finals."
"Come to get your picture taken with the convict?" Emily asked, her tone sarcastic.
"Hey, c'mon now. You know me better than that." Paige leaned against the counter. "I'd at least wait until you're in your little orange jumpsuit."
Emily let out an unexpected laugh at the admittedly lame joke. "Thanks, Paige. That felt good."
"No problem. Can you tell me why the others are treating you like you're contagious or is that information enough to kill me for?"
"I guess they blame me for the whole thing, I'm the one that led us there with that stupid text saying Dr. Sullivan was in the woods."
Paige wanted to confess, tell Emily that it was her fault. That she had gotten that fake text about Dr. Sullivan and been trapped in the barn because Paige had tried to assert her independence. But she couldn't risk it. What if she told Emily and 'A' decided that one or both of them were too much risk to be left out in the open?
"That sucks, Em. But it'll pass, you guys are tight. It'll just take time."
"I don't think so, this is different. Spencer was already a person of interest and now I've thrown us all back on the police radar."
"You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't hurt Alison."
"Why do you believe that and the police don't?"
"Because I know you," Paige said, taking Emily's hand. "I know what you're capable of, you couldn't kill someone. Not someone you cared for as much as you cared about Ali. They'll figure it out."
"Yeah, maybe." Emily pulled her hand away, looking uneasy.
"Oh, uh, I'm sorry. I didn't meant to make you uncomfortable." Paige tucked her hands in her pockets to keep better track of them.
"No, it's okay. It's just..."
Emily looked at her, obviously surprised that Paige was aware of Maya's return. Paige found that odd, it was Rosewood, not Philly. People couldn't sneeze in this town without a whole neighbourhood catching cold.
"Sean got it from Hannah, I got it from Sean. I've known for awhile. I wanted to say... I wanted to tell you… I'm happy for you." Paige hoped God didn't strike her dead for such a blatant lie. "I was going to talk to you earlier but then all that… stuff happened and I didn't want to add to the stress level."
"I'm sorry, Paige."
"For what? For having the guts to go out and get what you want? Don't apologize for that, Em. Not ever. I'm a big girl, I can take it."
"I should have told you myself, though. You shouldn't have had to hear it from someone else."
"A heads up would have been nice but you don't owe me anything. I'm over it. Promise." The bell rang and Paige hitched her bag on her shoulder. "Any news on your stomach?"
"Nothing yet. I go in for a test next week to see what's going on. I've been feeling pretty good lately and I even managed a few workouts from Hannah's bootycamp DVDs."
"Hannah has home workout videos?" Paige raised an eyebrow.
"From the way they look, I think she mostly uses them as coasters. Anyway, keep your fingers crossed for me."
"Toes too," Paige promised. "Let me know if you want a training buddy when you're ready to get back in the water, I need some competition."
Paige left her friend to complete her routine and pushed open the bathroom door, unsurprised when she nearly whacked Pru in the chest with it. "Could you be more obvious?"
"I could have stayed in there with you," Pru said as they walked toward class.
"I wouldn't put it past you."
"So… she's still kicking it with Maya?"
"Yep." Paige pursed her lips, something in her unhappy frown telling Pru the conclusion she had come to.
"You're thinking it's time to call it a day."
"Yep." "A' making Emily a target was her only concern. Samara she could have handled, if nothing else, Paige would have waited that relationship out. But Maya, Emily's first, the golden girl.
Paige couldn't beat that hand. She'd have to fold.