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 19, "The Naked Truth".
Please, don't forget to tip your bards. If you take the time to read, do us authors a solid and take the extra second to review.
Thank you, everyone, for the faves/follows and reviews. Much appreciated! Comments and constructive criticisms are always welcome.
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.
Friday morning was oddly scheduled, Paige had practice with Keith but not the Sharks. Acting on a hunch, she pedaled over to Rosewood public afterward, a good bet considering she found Emily's Toyota parked outside. Her teammate was already in the water and Paige walked on deck, taking one of the children's floaties from the basket to bounce it off the water in front of Emily.
"What the... Paige?"
"Looking a little sloppy out there, Fields. Feel like some real competition?" Paige sat at the edge, letting her feet dip into tepid water as she kicked her legs. Emily swam over, pulling her goggles up as she tread water.
"What are you doing here?"
"Morgan's new schedule. We don't practice the morning of a meet." Paige hoped her eye roll illustrated what she thought of that adjustment.
"That's... weird." Emily hauled herself out of the pool to sit on deck beside Paige.
"Tell me about it. Seriously, no offence, but that didn't look pretty."
"It's not. My head's not in it right now. I kind of had a fight with Maya last night."
"Ah." Paige didn't offer any more than that, she didn't want to pry. She had obviously shot her idea of keeping distance all to hell but she wasn't going to actively dig into Emily's problems if the girl didn't offer.
"It's not a big deal. I don't think it's a big deal."
Paige wasn't sure which of them Emily was trying to convince.
"It's stupid." Emily's voice was a barely heard mutter, the gentle whir of the overhead fans nearly drowning the words.
Paige took a deep breath as she looked up the ceiling, nodding to herself in acceptance of her own weakness. "Do you want to talk about it?" Even as she spoke, she prayed Emily blew her off, that they could just get in the water and get to work. At least now she could be comfortable knowing she had made the effort to be a good friend.
"I don't want to make you uncomfortable."
"It's fine, Em, really. What's up? Did Maya get into a fight with your mom?"
Emily looked at her, confusion colouring her expression. "How did you..."
"I was the Grill last night, I saw you guys come in. You didn't look too happy when I left."
"I wasn't. Maya was baiting my mom and it was just, immature. It sucked, to be honest. Here I am, trying to tell my mom how great she is and how much she's changed, and Maya just acted like a brat."
Paige hoped there was a special karmic place for people who did this kind of thing. "Maya did get sent to True North, there's probably still some anger there. I'm not saying it's right." Paige held up a hand to quiet the argument she could see brewing in dark eyes. "But you kind of have to understand where Maya is coming from. She spent three months in the middle of nowhere, you'd still be pissed too."
"I guess. It wasn't just that," Emily admitted. "I found out some stuff and I'm not really handling it well."
"Maya dated while she was up a True North."
"So did you," Paige reminded.
"Yeah, I did. But I didn't date guys."
"Ah." Paige looked out over the water, unsure how to respond to that particular conversational hand grenade. She satisfied herself by lobbing it back to Emily. "Does it bug you that Maya is bisexual?"
"No." Emily was quick to answer, her tone betraying the statement to be at least part falsehood. "Yes. I... don't know. I don't know if that's what it is."
"Well, glad we got that cleared up." Paige's comment was met by a firm punch to the arm that she took in stride.
"You're not helping."
"Sorry, sorry. Did you really think Maya had gone all this time without seeing anyone? I thought you had your suspicions shortly after she got up there."
"I never thought it was a guy!"
"And that bugs you. I'm not sure I…"
"No," Emily said, gears finally beginning to turn. "It's not that it was a guy, it's that she's interested in both. I have to compete with the entire freaking world for her attention. At least when she was just into girls, I had a chance. I mean, how many lesbians are there in Rosewood?"
"Em, she's with you." Emily didn't look completely convinced and Paige decided to go for broke, taking her friend's hand in her own. "Trust me when I say, there is no competition."
Paige cleared her throat, letting Emily's hand drop back to the pool edge, retreating firmly back into 'friend' territory. "Maya made her choice, you're it. I don't think you have anything to worry about. Maybe you took some of your confusion in to the dinner and saw things through tinted glass."
"No. Maya was definitely rude but you're right. I think I blew it out of proportion, I couldn't really see her side because I trying to work through this." Emily sighed. "I should apologize."
Paige checked the clock at the far end of the pool, it was still quite early. "You could make it before school if you leave now."
"But you came all the way over here..."
"It's fine, your head won't be in the pool until you sort things out with Maya. Get going."
"Thanks, Paige." Emily stood, pausing for a moment to squeeze her shoulder before walking off deck.
It was hard -harder than Paige realized- to push Emily away, knowing she was shepherding her into the arms of a girl she didn't think was worthy. Paige wasn't sure she believed her own words but revealing her true feelings would only make her seem like a jealous ex trying to shove a wedge into Emily's relationship. Damned if Paige would let that happen. Maya would show who she was, one way or the other, and so long as Emily was happy, she wouldn't -couldn't- stand in the way.
Paige walked into school, passing zombie like students who crowded around their cellphones, chattering in hushed whispers. What the hell was going on? She met up with Pru and Sean beside her locker, the pair of them staring at Sean's phone.
"Okay, did I miss something? Why is everyone acting like a freak?" Paige snagged the phone from Sean's hand, eyes widening at the picture on the screen. "Yikes!" She averted her eyes, turning to Sean. "What the hell, Ackard?!"
"I didn't do it! Hannah sent it to me," Sean defended.
"Looks like she sent it to more than just you." Paige scanned the hallway, no less than twenty students with eyes glued to their phone screens.
"Hannah must really have a hate on for her stepsister," Pru said. "New kid should have known better than to piss off one of Ali's girls."
"Hannah's not like that," Sean defended. "I don't think."
Paige shook her head, deleting the picture before handing the phone back to Sean. Figured, one drama down and some new fresh hell with Emily's friends. She had overheard Hastings threatening the new girl, Kate, in the locker room the day before. Hastings had warned Kate off going after Hannah in some kind of vendetta and Paige had no doubt she would make good on the threat. The girl was a loosely leashed rottweiler at the best of times.
It was sloppy work though, sending the picture from Hannah's phone, that didn't seem like Hastings at all. Shrugging it off as someone else's problem, Paige pulled her textbooks from her locker.
"We've got to get to class. Say goodbye, Pru. I'll be over there getting coffee." She waved to Sean and walked away, having absolutely no desire to watch her two best friends macking on each other in the hallway. She ordered her coffee and Pru's, catching sight of Ali's former foursome huddled together, whispering in a tight group.
There were days, today in particular, where it felt like Ali was still around. As though she were running them all like a giant puppet show, the world dancing to the tune in that bitch's head.
Coffee in hand, Paige headed back to Pru, hoping she had given enough time for the couple to sort themselves out. Emily broke away from the group as Paige passed, sidling up beside her as she walked.
"Hey, everything okay?"
"Yeah, better than okay, it's great." Emily's smile told Paige more than she wanted to know. "I just wanted to thank you for listening this morning."
"Em, it wasn't a big deal."
"It was. I needed a sounding board and you were there for me, I really appreciate it."
"Don't worry about it, really. I'm just glad you're okay." Paige needed to get out, get away from a conversation that was the equivalent of a shiv being driven into her ribcage. "I better get this coffee to Pru, she turns into a Hastings if I don't keep her caffeinated."
"Oh, okay." Paige did her best not to notice the slightly crestfallen look of her friend. "I guess I'll see you?"
"You bet." Paige tipped her cup in salute and walked away, forcing herself not to break into an escape sprint. Pru was waiting for her at the class door, accepting the coffee cup with thanks.
"Coffee first thing and I didn't even have to ask. Maybe I should be dating you."
"I think you're a little high maintenance for me," Paige countered, following her friend in to the room.
"Considering who you dated last time around, I'm the easiest girl in the world."
"You know, I might have heard that from someone." Paige stuck her tongue out, earning a smack on the arm from Pru for the insult.
"Haha, McCullers. You doing this 'Truth Up' day?" Pru pointed to the posters that had been plastered over every free surface in an attempt to pump enthusiasm for the event.
"If we do, I think it counts for twenty four volunteer hours. You would only need to do another seventy six to get out your hundred for the year."
"Whose idea was it to make volunteering a requisite for graduating?"
"I think they're trying to teach us community involvement, Pru." Paige had more than enough hours from volunteering at church and helping with the Sharks sports teams. Pru, however, was way behind and Paige knew the other girl wouldn't volunteer to stay overnight without some back up. "Is Sean doing it?"
"Nope. Pastor's son, totally had all of his done over the summer. Jerk."
"Don't be bitter, you'll wrinkle. I'll sign up with you and you can knock off a bunch of hours in one shot, deal?"
The exaggerated eye roll was more for show than anything. Pru had nothing against helping other people but she had the reputation of a semi-rebellious teenager to maintain. When class was over, they went to sign up, Paige grimacing a little to see that Hastings had signed on as well. The girl had to have a million hours banked from her internship with the mayor, why the hell would she bother showing up to this touchy feely crap?
"Why do you look like you sucked on a lemon?" Pru's eyes found Spencer on the sign up sheet. "Oh. Well, look on the bright side. Now you have the opportunity to murder Spencer in her sleep. Or you know..."
"Pru..." The girl's name was a warning, her best friend laughinga touch maniacally as she walked away.
"This is ridiculous," Paige said, three days later, a sleeping bag slung over her shoulder. The 'workshops' were meant to help students and teachers get more in touch with one another's views, which was fine. She just had no idea why she was being forced to sleep on a cold tile floor when they could have all gone home after the fact. "I knew those twenty four hours were too good to be true."
"You talked me into this, no way you're bailing now," Pru said, her own sleeping bag and pillow tucked under her arm.
"I didn't say I was bailing, I just..." A particularly jarring bump from behind sent her forward and Paige turned to glare the student into submission. "Em? What are you doing here?"
"Hannah got roped into it and Spencer was already doing it so Aria and I signed up for solidarity."
"Hastings made you, huh?"
Emily's silent smile told her all she needed to know and Paige shook her head, turning her attention back to Pru.
"Coach Morgan actually let you guys skip practice for this? Did you have to offer your firstborn?"
Paige smirked at Pru's question, motioning her friend forward when a line cleared. Pru was sorted into a line off to the left, leaving Paige and Emily together while they waited for the next spot.
"Sounds like you're not getting along so great with Morgan," Emily offered, obviously trying to engage Paige in conversation after their awkward interaction earlier in the week.
"Not particularly, no. Neither are the others. She's ruffled a few feathers and everyone is still stinging over the way Coach Fulton left."
"Have you heard anything?"
"Nothing. Dad either."
"That sucks, why wouldn't she tell us?"
"I'm sure she had her reasons, Em. Coach always does." Paige's hand went to her ever present stopwatch, its heavy weight a comfort. "How about you, any news on getting back on the team?"
"Nothing. It's not just Morgan holding me up. Tamborelli doesn't want me on the team either."
"What? Why? He hates to lose." 'A's words passed Paige's lips before she realized she had spoken, startling herself that she was blindly taking a psychopath's observation as fact.
"Apparently that's the problem. He's got a sponsor lined up and he's worried a 'tarnished player' will put it at risk. I overheard the secretaries talking when I went in to ask him about going back."
"That's dumb, why would he put one opportunity at risk for another? If he had let you swim, we could have taken State." Paige pursed her lips. If both the coach and the administration didn't want Emily on the team, her only recourse would be to take it to a higher level and the season would be over by then. "I'm sorry, Em. That sucks."
"It's not your fault." Emily shrugged, evidently accepting the fact that there were some things she couldn't change. "I'll try out for the team again next year, maybe by then all of this will have died down."
Further conversation was cut off as Paige was called forward to a line, waving goodbye to Emily as she went to collect her registration packet and group assignment. She wasn't with Pru, which was a bummer, but she didn't end up with Ben or Noel Kahn, which brightened her mood considerably. Trying to sleep next to the kid with the Joker smile was liable to give her nightmares. She did find herself in Emily's group for one of the sessions, nodding at her teammate before she headed over to Tanya and Vicky. Mona smiled at her as she walked by, a bright grin -that Paige had no idea how to read- on her face as she passed.
"Hey there, Paige McCullers."
"She's kind of weird, isn't she? Whenever she says your name it's like she's about to break into a song about you or something. Anyway, how many people do you think showed up to practice today?" Vicky asked while Tanya went off to fill their water bottles.
"I've seen at least half of us here so I'm guessing not many. Morgan's going to be pissed."
"Who cares? We'll have practice tomorrow morning, before the meet, like we're supposed to."
Paige squeezed Vicky's arm, the other junior was taking Fulton's leaving hard and was having difficulty adjusting to the new regime. "Just a couple more weeks. We'll get through to State and then we'll have the whole off season to figure out what the hell we're doing."
"I know, you're right, eyes on the prize. It would help if some of the seniors acted like they gave a shit."
"Erissa already has her scholarship locked and Mel and Lisa aren't swimming at university level. They don't give a shit. It's up to us. Now, c'mon, let's get this over with." Paige pulled her teammates over to where the group was assembling, Mrs. Marin at the front with a clipboard in hand. Paige frowned at the lines of tape on the floor, wondering what was up the teacher's collective sleeves this time.
"I'm surprised you volunteered for this, you don't really seem like the 'get in touch with your emotions' type."
"I'm not, I'm more of the 'bludgeon your emotions with a hockey stick' type but I did slug Ben so maybe I need a lesson on how to play well with others."
"I think it's Ben that needs the lesson but that'd be like trying to scream down a brick wall down."
The three of them stood beside one another, alternately taking steps as one or another of Mrs. Marin's questions resounded with them. Paige pursed her lips as she watched Emily take two steps, a silent protest that for some of the questions, one step simply wasn't enough.
Tamborelli evidently thought otherwise, calling Emily over as Mrs. Marin continued on. Paige frowned at the interaction, she couldn't hear what Tamborelli was saying but whatever it was, he was upsetting Emily. An elbow from Vicky pulled her head back in the game and Paige stepped forward, eyes never leaving Emily as the girl returned to her place.
When the exercise was over, they were given a fifteen minute break. Paige wanted to check on Emily but the girl high tailed it out of the room like she was on fire, a grim set to her mouth. Deciding it was best that her friend have a minute to herself, Paige took the opportunity to power down a shake her mom had made.
The rest of the evening passed in much the same manner, a class of active listening or secret sharing followed by short breaks. It was all a little new age for Paige, but then she had been off the rails back in her day, maybe it wasn't such a load of crap if it worked. Made the school a kinder, gentler place. Maybe 'A' needed some Truth Up therapy.
Paige was on her way back from the washroom when she saw Emily staring at the trophy case, the longing evident in dark eyes as she scoured the pictures from previous years. The last two years had been rebuilding seasons for the team, this year had been the one to win it. The Sharks had a solid lineup, they were used to each other in the water, perfect timing. And Emily was on the sidelines.
Paige sighed, ducking around the corner without approaching her friend. There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do to fix what was happening.
The cafeteria put on a late supper, the students were allowed to mingle with one another and Paige caught up to Pru who looked like she would rather be in prison. They ate together, the din of the group loud enough that Paige completely missed whatever the announcement on the intercom was. She looked to Pru who shrugged her shoulders, equally unaware. If it was important enough, they would say it again.
Paige went back to her supper, glaring balefully a string bean that had been soaked in butter. She put the fork down, unable to justify putting that amount of crap in her body this late in the season. Her vibrating phone pulled her attention away from her meal and she reached into her hoodie pocket, glancing at the message.
"Hey, that Sean? Tell him I hate him for leaving us here." Pru said, stabbing at the last of Paige's beans.
"Uh, no, just my mom checking up."
Want to reassemble the dream team? Distract Tamborelli.-A
Paige snapped the phone closed, pasting on her best smile for Pru as she looked around for anyone else with a cellphone. Whoever it was, they were doing a good job of hiding it. Her gaze shifted to the courtyard where Tamborelli was speaking with one of the chaperoning parents.
Obey or not to obey?
'A' never gave anything without reason and there was no way to figure out their logic. They had gone to every length to get Emily off the team, starting with Paige. Pulling Emily back in, 'A' had a motive, Paige just didn't know what it was. If she complied and Emily got hurt by being back, she'd never forgive herself. If she didn't, Paige had no doubt 'A' would find a way to take it out on them both.
There was no good choice. It was a risk either way and the price she paid later... there was no telling what it would be. And who knew how the hell 'A' planned to get Em back, what did distracting Tamborelli have to do with anything?
The only thing Paige did know was that Emily needed to be back on the team. Never mind the scholastic implications, her friend was meant to be in the water, Paige could see it. The water was her safe haven, her refuge, just as it was Paige's.
It didn't matter the price, it had to be done. Paige could never be Maya, could never be the person Emily wanted. But maybe she could be what Emily needed.
"Earth to Paige, calling Paige McCullers."
"Huh? Sorry. I just have to talk to Tamborelli about something, be right back." Paige tucked her phone in her pocket. "Watch my stuff?"
"Sure." The question was evident in Pru's eyes but Paige ignored it, heading for the courtyard. She had no idea what she was going to say or do. Or how long she had to keep his attention. Or why the hell she was going along with this in the first place. Every time she thought she had fought her way free of 'A's control, they found a way to drag her back in. First the picture from the barn and now this. She was only strengthening the chains that bound her.
"We few we happy few," she muttered as she came to a stop in front of Tamborelli.
"What can I do for you?"
"I, uh, just wanted to say... how much I've enjoyed the exercises so far." Paige hoped her well cultivated poker face didn't betray the blatant lie. "I think it's really great that you set this up, it lets us see one another in a new light. A lot of us are struggling with the same issues, maybe we don't all have to be enemies."
"I'm glad you're finding something positive with the experience. It's a good switch from the attitude you were carrying not too long ago."
Paige cleared her throat, strangling the desire to lash out at the jibe. She thought putting a bully is his place was actually a good attitude but violence begot violence and she was lucky it hadn't escalated further than it had.
"I'm trying to look at problems from... new angles now," Paige confirmed, long taking Coach Fulton's advice to heart.
"That's good to hear."
A buzz in her pocket and Tamborelli looked at her, unimpressed. No cell phones were allowed during Truth Up.
"It's just my alarm to make sure I take my vitamins," Paige lied, pulling her supplements from her pocket, packed neatly in a clear plastic. Figuring the text was 'A's signal that they had gotten what they needed, Paige nodded at Tamborelli. "I have to go get some water for these. Thanks again, Mr. Tamborelli." She didn't give him a chance to respond, ducking back into the hallways, flipping her phone open as she went.
Well done, Pigskin. You're totally on my A team.-A
Paige closed the phone, pursing her lips as she walked back into the cafeteria. Time would tell whether it had done any good. Her only hope was that if she had sold her soul to the devil, she had at least gotten a fair price.
Paige woke at her usual time, body long tuned to getting up well before dawn. She had no lesson with Keith today, cancelled because of Truth Up, so she was free to sleep a little longer. A sleeping bag on the floor of the cafeteria wasn't ideal but beggars couldn't be choosers.
Something on her side moved and Paige looked down to see Pru's arm slung across her hip, her friend lightly snoring into her ear. At least that explained why her back wasn't cold. It was an odd sensation, waking up next to someone. She and Pru had been friends for years but it was only recently that Paige was comfortable being physically affectionate. That had largely been due to Pru, who seemed to make a point of being physical if only to prove she wasn't scared of Paige. That their relationship hadn't been damaged by Paige's coming out.
Paige appreciated it, the strengthening of her friendship was one of the best things about her coming out. Still, as much as she loved her best friend, there were limits to how far she was willing to go and snoring in her ear was pushing it. Paige shifted a little, hoping that would get Pru to shift as well. It was just enough to get the girl to turn her head, saving Paige's hearing for the time being. She spared a look for Emily, her friend sandwiched between Hannah and Aria, body tucked tightly into her bag.
Satisfied that all was well, Paige drifted back to sleep.
The intercom system kicked in somewhere around six, blaring the reveille horn at an obscene volume that made Pru shoot up as though a bomb had gone off. Paige pushed herself up more slowly, stretching out the kink in her back as she looked over at her irritated friend.
"Rise and shine, ladies and gentlemen. Breakfast in thirty minutes, pack your gear in your lockers and back here."
The cafeteria lights flicked on, the sudden, harsh illumination making Paige wince as it hit her eyes. She sorted out her sleeping bag, waiting for Pru before heading for their lockers. She had no desire to eat the cafeteria breakfast, the pancakes and sausages a delicious temptation that she knew would only bring regret in the pool later. Instead, she grabbed the lunch kit her mom had packed and followed Pru back into the fray.
When breakfast was over, 'Truth Up' declared a success, they were dismissed to get ready for school. Paige headed to the locker room, leaving Pru to do her morning routine in one of the smaller bathrooms as she headed for practice.
She walked in, stopping in her tracks to see Emily on the bench, swimsuit on, cap and goggles in hand, grin stretching from ear to ear.
"Morning, McCullers. Miss me?"