Disclaimer: Who has two thumbs and doesn't own the rights to these characters? This gal!
Author's Notes: This chapter contains spoilers up to Season 2, Episode 14, "Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares". Song lyrics borrowed from 'Trouble' by KC.
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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, head on over to www dot teriasmcklay dot com to download it.
Her alarm went off, blaring the local music station at an obscene volume to ensure Paige wouldn't be in any danger of falling back to sleep. Grudgingly, she opened one eye to check the time, letting out a mild curse when she realized she'd set it an hour later than she wanted. Sean would be here any minute. Tossing the covers back with one violent swipe of her arm, she was up and on the move, singing along to the radio as she scoured her closet for her gear.
I think I'm in trouble, I'm in trouble again,
I've been a bad, bad girl and it's always the same.
Tugging on her workout pants and tank top, Paige jumped on one foot, pulling on her shoes as she hopped out of her room. She headed for the stairs, sliding around the banister and wrangling herself into her hoodie as she sprinted up to the main level.
Her mom met her at the top of the steps, offering two protein shakes as Paige passed on her way to the door.
"You're late," her father offered, holding up her duffel bag so Paige could slide into the strap.
"I know, I know, I'll see you at church though."
Sean pulled up to the bottom of the driveway just as she opened the door and she was on the move once more, sliding into the car seat and trading coffee for a protein shake as he threw the car into gear.
"Boxing or bootcamp?" he asked, leaving Paige to fiddle with the stereo as he drove. They took the short way, cutting through the park itself rather than around it to get to the gym.
"Both. I only did two hours in the pool yesterday."
"You're going to be the death of me."
"You'll thank me later. Pru likes her guys with stamina." Finally finding the right station, she cranked it, grinning at Sean as she tested the limits of his sound system.
I'm like a wild, wild child
That you just couldn't tame
Paige looked out the window, eyes widening at the orange jumpsuits. "Hey, isn't that..."
"Yup." Sean slowed for the work crew, the foursome unmistakeable in their community service garb. Her gaze zeroed in on Emily who was in the midst of an argument with Hastings before she walked away. Hastings took the opportunity to launch her garbage bag at Em, the response immediate as Emily turned and threw herself at her friend.
"Did you see that?!"
The guards were quick to tear them apart, a struggling Hastings pushing at whoever was audacious enough to hold her back. Like a proper Hastings, she went after Emily again, a panicked Aria trying to hold them apart and maintain peace.
"Geeze, I never thought I'd see that," Sean said, returning his attention the road.
"Yeah... me either."
I'm so cold hearted, like ice water running through my veins,
I'm in trouble, I did a very bad thing.
Paige readjusted her ponytail in her locker mirror, frowning at the way her bangs refused to cooperate. Why the hell she had let Pru talk her into growing the damn things out again, she had no idea.
"Oh, stop, you're beautiful. If I were a lady lovin' lady, I'd totally hit that."
"Moving on from extreme awkward." Paige closed her locker, eyebrow raised at an abnormally chipper Pru. "What's got you in such a good mood on a Wednesday morning?"
"Good night out with Sean." It was all the detail Pru would offer. Odd, considering Paige was privy to more than some of Pru's intimate moments. Whether she wanted to be or not.
"Coffee before class?"
"Uh, sure. Just give me a second."
"Why? Oh, surprise." Pru followed Paige's gaze to where Emily stood talking with Coach Morgan. "Seriously, you're still on that crazy train? I thought you'd come to your senses."
"Let it go, Pru."
"You let it go, Paige. She's playing you."
"She's not, playing me. We're friends. More importantly, we're team mates. I need to know what's up. I'll meet you in the cafeteria."
She pointedly ignored Pru's headshake, making her way past her friend and over to what appeared to be a disgruntled Emily. "That's not the face of a happy camper. Bad news from the doctor?"
"Good news. I'm cleared to swim, physically I'm perfect."
Paige bit down on the urge to say 'fucking duh'. "But…"
"But Coach Morgan isn't going to let me back on the team."
"What?!" All eyes turned to them, Paige pulling out the glare she usually reserved for Hastings to send them scurrying back to their own conversations. Grabbing Emily's arm, she tugged her into an empty classroom. "What do you mean she won't let you back?"
"Being on a team is a privilege, not a right. My being arrested, the community service, apparently it all reflects poorly on the school."
"That's bullshit! I know football players with DUIs who are still on the field."
"Go ask them what their secret is because Morgan isn't giving it up."
"Damn it." Paige sat on the desktop, knowing whatever platitudes she offered weren't likely to be well received. "Aside from this, how are you doing?"
"I'm fine." Emily's shoulder shrug indicated that was anything but the case.
"Really? The girls are freezing you out, Hastings took a swing at you on the weekend but you're 'fine'?"
Emily looked down, a frown colouring her features. "You saw that?"
"Em, I could have sold tickets to that. What is going on?"
"Spencer is being... Spencer."
"An unmitigated jackass?"
Emily didn't answer though the comment did earn the ghost of a smile.
"Look, I know this is more... Maya's territory now but if you need anything, let me know."
"I need back on the swim team."
"I'm going to work on that. Promise."
Emily nodded and Paige made her way to the door. "And for the record, next time you two have a throw down, I'd totally put my bet on you."
"Even without a knife?" Emily asked, a true smile coming to her face.
"Even with a knife." Giving a final wave, Paige left the room. She passed Hanna and Aria on her way to the cafeteria, staring coldly at the pair as they walked by. She was nearly to the cafeteria when she saw Spencer duck into the locker room, gym bag slung over her shoulder.
Finally, a problem she could solve.
Paige followed Spencer in, the other girl turning at the sound of her footsteps. Acting quickly, Paige used the strap of Hastings' bag to whip her against the locker, a painful thud echoing off concrete walls. She braced her forearm across Spencer's shoulders and arms, using her body weight to hold the thinner girl in place.
"Listen up, Hastings, I'm only going to say this once. I don't know what the hell is wrong with you guys, why you all blame Emily for what happened. That's not my business, you sort it out yourselves. But if you touch Em again, you and me are going to have that go around we've been fixing on for years."
"You have no idea what's going on, McCullers. You need to stay the hell out of my business."
"Emily is my friend, she is my business. If we have to have this conversation again, it won't be just talk." With that, she pushed off Spencer, leaving the girl to stare after her as walked away.
Pru already had their coffees, standing impatiently at the front of the cafeteria. "C'mon, Cyrano, we're going to be late."
Paige followed Pru to class, mind barely on her studies as she tried to work out why Morgan would keep Emily from the team. The woman definitely had a chip on her shoulder and she didn't seem to care for Emily on a personal level. Feelings aside, it didn't alter the fact that they needed Emily going into finals if they wanted a shot at the title. Securing a state championship this early in her career at Rosewood would solidify Morgan's position. She needed the win as much as the Sharks did. It didn't make sense for the coach to shoot herself in the foot by keeping one of their star swimmers on the bench out of spite.
The only reasonable explanation was that someone other than Morgan was pulling the strings. Paige wouldn't put it past 'A' but Emily's tone had made it sound more administration than alphabet.
"Hey, Space Cadet, you plan to eat lunch in here?"
"Wha..." Paige looked around, surprised to find the class standing up. Damn. "No, I'm coming. I just have to stop by Coach Morgan and speak with her about the meet tonight."
"A meet on a Wednesday? Isn't that weird?"
"It is. We have doubles from here on in because of all the rescheduling in September."
"Ouch. You up for that?"
"I'm always up for kicking ass. The girls are going to be tired though. My guess is that Coach'll be handing out curfews by week's end. Anyway, I'll meet you in the cafeteria."
"See you there."
Paige made her way to the natatorium, going through her arguments in her mind as she walked. The office door was open and Paige touched the stopwatch in her pocket, grounding herself before she knocked on the doorframe. Morgan looked up briefly before returning her attention to the paperwork on her desk.
"I don't want to hear it, Captain."
"You don't even know what I'm going to say."
"You're about to advocate for Miss Fields. I respect that she's your friend but you have to think about your team."
"I am thinking about my team. Having Emily back is our best shot at taking State, you know that."
"I don't, actually." The woman finally put down her pen, leaning back in her chair to look at Paige. "She's proven herself unreliable. She took months off early in the season, her attendance has been slipshot and now her health concerns coupled with the arrest... it reflects poorly. A team is not a one person show with bit players in the background. Everyone needs to pull their weight and frankly, she hasn't been pulling hers."
"Her records say otherwise, she's been right behind my times..."
"A month and half ago. Has she been able to train since then?"
Paige foundered, unsure what Emily was looking at in terms of performance. With everything that had happened, Emily hadn't been able to attend the public practices.
"Do you think she's capable of performing at her usual standard after being out of the water for so long?"
Paige rallied, unwilling to give ground so early in to the fight. "The last time Emily came back, she put the hammer down. She was back in form within weeks."
"Good. Maybe next season she'll be able to try out for a slot again."
Morgan's steely gaze promised she wasn't going to be swayed, she had made her decision and Paige wasn't going to move her.
"Why are you doing this? You know she's good, you know she's sorry for her mistakes. I can work with her and get her back to where she was. Why won't you let us try? Winning State isn't just good for us, it's good for you."
"I see now what Coach Fulton meant about your dogged determination. She saw that trait as something admirable. I, on the other hand, don't see it as a positive. I see it as stubborn obstinance. You're unwilling to change and when you don't get your way, you dig in. That makes you hard to teach."
"I don't get what you're trying to teach here. Or why whatever lesson you're trying to give us, you're using Emily as the example."
"It's that we can't always get what we want, Captain. I'm teaching you how to accept failure. Whether it's getting a teammate back or taking State, I'm showing you that you can't always win."
"You're right, Coach." Pursing her lips, Paige locked eyes with the woman in front of her. "That's not a lesson I'm willing to learn."
Paige walked away, hand clasping the stopwatch to keep herself from letting loose with the full breadth of her anger. Her first instinct was to dig in and start swinging, just as her coach had observed, but Morgan was the type to stonewall. Paige needed something else, leverage of some kind, to push Morgan in the right direction. Letting the thought simmer in the back of her mind, Paige headed for lunch to sit down with Pru, Sean and the others. She caught eyes with Hastings whose stare was particularly hate filled.
"Seriously? Give it a rest already." Pru poked her arm with a plastic fork. "She's already running around in an orange jumpsuit, picking trash off the highway. That trumps whatever you could do to her."
After the dustup at lunch, the day passed easily, Paige foregoing her usual session with Sean to save her strength for the meet. Rollins High wasn't a particularly competitive team but they had a match up with Lincoln on Friday. That was going to be a dogfight that she needed to save herself for. She bumped into Emily just after last class, the other girl pulling her books from her locker.
"Hey, where are you going?"
"Uh, no, you're going to go watch the meet."
"Coach Morgan banned me, remember?"
"No," Paige drew out the word. "Morgan banned you from practise, she can't do anything about you watching a meet. Em, you're not going to get back on the team by going gently into that good night. You need to remind everyone that you exist. You need to make some damn noise, Fields." Paige shoved Emily on the shoulder, trying to gauge if there was any spark left. It got her the first glimpse of fire she had seen in over a month, Emily nodding her agreement.
"Good, I'll see you in there."
"Kick some ass."
"I always do."
Leaving Emily to her books, Paige headed to the locker room where she went through her pre-meet routine. She checked her suit, cap and goggles before tugging on her warmups. Next was tracking down the team, everyone unusually on time and on track for getting in the water. Vicky and Chloe were with the Tanya and Piper, talking the freshmen down from their anxious ledges. Coach had been gunning for them both over the last week and if the pair didn't show well, there was going to be hell to pay.
Paige held her watch, closing her eyes as she repeated the words etched into the metal, thumb brushing against the words. "Be you best version, McCullers." Nodding to herself, comfortable with her preparedness, she corralled the last of her team. They had started assembling early, wanting to speak with one another without Morgan standing over them.
"All right, we know this team isn't great in the standings but that's no excuse to get lazy or sloppy. Think of it as practice to get us ready for Lincoln on Friday. Emily's in the stands tonight too, let's give her a good show."
They cheered and made their way out, Paige breathing deeply of chlorine heavy air as she looked over the stands. She found Emily easily, she always did, her friend sitting front row centre, eyes focused on the water. Paige walked over, pulling her stopwatch from the pocket of her warmups. She was leery of leaving it anywhere, afraid 'A' or some random thief would think it was worth taking. Giving it to Emily was the next best thing to having it in her hands.
"You might not get this back this time," Emily warned, a smile tugging at her lips as Paige wordlessly handed her the watch for safe keeping.
"I know where to find you, Fields."
With that she was padding back across the deck to prepare for her first heat. It was, as Paige predicted, an easy win all around. Tanya and Piper's performance in their individual heats gave them the confidence they needed to go into a set of relays that Rosewood dominated. Paige fared equally well, putting her opponents in their place without overstraining herself. She needed to keep some gas in the tank for Lincoln.
Emily was on her feet cheering at the end of it, the team accepting her congratulations and voicing their wishes that she return soon.
"You did great, although I don't think you quite put the hammer down," Emily said, walking beside Paige as she headed for the locker room. "What's the matter, McCullers? You slowing down without someone to keep you on your toes?"
Accepting the good natured ribbing, Paige bumped shoulders with her friend. "You wish, Fields. I just didn't want to scare you away. I'm a hard standard to measure up to."
Emily shook her head, pulling the stopwatch from her neck. "Are you talking about your ego? Because I'd totally have to agree there."
"Oh, har har, you're so funny." Paige accepted the watch, Emily's hand resting on hers, a sadness in dark eyes that made Paige's heart break. "It's going to be okay, Em. You're going to be back in the water in no time."
A quick, one armed hug and Paige split from Emily, catching up to the tail end of her team as they walked into the locker room. The debrief was mercifully quick, the small issues Morgan had seen were left to be corrected in the water in the morning. The unimpressed look Morgan shot Paige's way let her know she wasn't thrilled about Emily coming to the meet. Paige couldn't have cared less. Morgan had thrown down the gauntlet and Paige was a McCullers. She wasn't about to knuckle under because this woman thought she needed a lesson in comeuppance.
Paige left the locker room, passing by the milling students who had stayed to chat after the meet. She heard Emily's name more than once, finally stopping to listen in on a conversation about Spencer and the others tag teaming Emily over something of Alison's.
"Jesus, what now?" She loved Emily, she did, but the girl really needed to dial down on the drama. Pulling out her phone, Paige sent a text off to Emily to make sure her friend was okay. Her Dad picked her up outside the school, her bike in the shop for service.
"How'd it go?" He asked as she slid in to the passenger seat.
"Good. Lincoln on Friday?"
"Yep, these next couple of weeks are full speed ahead."
"How are the sessions with Keith? Do you want taper them off?"
Paige gave the question its due, touched that her father thought enough to ask rather than dictate. They'd been working on their communication and it seemed the tree was finally bearing fruit.
"No, I think I can handle it." She was finally back in the groove of her early morning practices with Keith after the two weeks off. She was going to lose the slot after the season finished to the swimmer who had broken her arm. She might as well ride out the last bit and take a proper break once the season was over.
"All right, keep and eye on it, we don't want any over training at this point in the game. This is where we can't afford to slip up."
Paige nodded, she knew as much. These last few meets were crucial to set up their standings for the two day State Finals. A miss from this point on had the potential to kick them into the lower pools where they'd have to fight for every point.
Her mother had supper ready when they got home, bowls stacked high with lean proteins and fresh, raw veggies that wouldn't turn her stomach after the rigorous workout. When the meal was done, she went to shower and finish her homework, load still light so early into second semester.
She was in bed at her usual time and up again, her body on autopilot as she went through her morning. Driving to Keith's practice was a welcome change, Paige borrowing her mom's car while her bike was in the shop. It also made getting to the Sharks easier, even leaving time for coffee beforehand. Practice was what she expected, Morgan harping on the freshmen for the mistakes she had talked about the day before. Paige and the seniors were mostly left to themselves, the assistant coach giving them a list of drills before wandering back to help Morgan manage the J.V. squad.
It wasn't Paige's favourite way to work but they made it happen, each person taking a turn every four laps to climb out and time the others. The morning was even less eventful, thankfully, though Spencer looked as if she were trying to set Paige's head on fire every time their eyes met. Lunch was usual except for Emily's foursome eating together, no sign of their month long feud evident as they conversed at their table.
"Wonder how many babies Emily had to sacrifice to Lord Hastings for that to happen," Pru muttered, following Paige's curious gaze. "I heard they almost had a thrown down in the middle of the school, right after your meet last night."
"I texted Emily after it happened, she didn't get back to me but I guess she's okay."
"The drama from those girls could fill a book. Or ten."
"Yeah, but who'd read the trials and tribulations of a bunch of pretty little liars?" One of the other girls asked, earning a laugh from her end of the table.
Paige caught eyes with Sean who frowned, obviously unhappy with the direction of the conversation but unable to refute that, in some ways, the foursome had brought it on themselves. They weren't Ali's chosen any more. They didn't have their alpha standing guard to protect them from gossip, now as vulnerable to rumours as everybody else. As much as Paige didn't want people talking shit about Emily, if the girl would just stay out of trouble, it would be much easier to defend her.
"I hear they got busted for evidence tampering but the cops think one of them killed Alison."
"It was totally Spencer, those two were duking it out to be top dog."
"No way, Hannah was all over that. I mean, look at her, she totally took Ali's place, at least until loser Lucas and the five oh dragged her down."
Paige let out a sigh, hoping the ridiculous theorizing would run its course quickly.
"I hear Emily killed Ali because she was in love with her and couldn't have her."
The last had come from Ben and Paige barked out a sharp, "hey! That's enough."
"What's the matter, Paige? Gotta defend the lonely lesbian's honour?"
"She said 'that's enough', Ben," Sean warned, blue eyes icy as he stared across the table.
"Whatever, what do you care? Or are you just pissed off 'cause you're still hung up on Hefty Hannah over there?"
Paige had never seen Sean raise his voice -much less lose his temper- taken by complete surprise when he launched across the table to grab Ben by the front of his shirt.
"What the hell?" Ben broke the grip, pushing Sean back across the table by driving his palms into his chest. The shoving match quickly escalated, both boys rounding the table, fists already balled. Pru sat back, mild panic in her eyes as Paige stood, pressing her hand to Sean's chest to hold him back. He looked down at her, jaw clenched, nostrils flaring before his eyes went back to Ben.
"Stop." It wasn't so much an order as a plea. The last thing any of them needed was to get into trouble by letting themselves be sucked into the foursome's drama. Paige had enough to worry about as it was. Ben stepped forward but Paige didn't move, pressing her hand more firmly against Sean as he tried to move in. "You don't want to do this, Sean. Walk it off."
He flicked his eyes around the crowded room and back to Paige before nodding curtly, grabbing his backpack before he stalked out of the cafeteria.
"You're an ass," Paige said, glaring at Ben as she swiped her bag from the floor. She didn't even spare a comment for the rest of them, brushing past the table to follow her friend. She found him in the courtyard, pacing back and forth, evidently trying to burn off some of the adrenaline.
"You should have just let me hit him."
"Why? So you could break your hand on his smug little face? What kind of friend would I be?" Paige sat on the table top, watching him pace.
"You got to hit him."
"Yeah," Paige admitted, flexing her hand. "It wasn't a great idea when I did it either."
"He's such a jackass sometimes."
"Only sometimes?" Paige smirked, the comment earning a returned smirk from Sean who finally sat on the seat beside Paige, nudging her leg with his shoulder as he looked up at her.
"I'm sorry for losing my temper."
"You were standing up for me, you don't have to apologize for that. I'm perfectly capable of fighting my own battles," Paige reminded. "But it's really cool to know there's someone I can count on for backup." Paige squeezed his shoulder, truly grateful to have made such a loyal friend. They sat in companionable silence before a few minutes before Sean spoke.
"Next time I get to hit him."
Paige chuckled, accepting that this was one of the rare times she had let her admittedly hot temper not get the best of her. "Next time, I'm probably going to hold him down."