Disclaimer: Who has two thumbs and doesn't own the rights to these characters? This gal!
Author's Notes: My apologies for the atrociously long wait between updates. As I mentioned a few chapters ago, I had a novel due to be published. My publishing house closed, leaving my novel in limbo and I've been somewhat chasing my tail trying to sort out my next move. I'm happy to report that two companies have contacted me to sign the book and by the next chapter update, I should be able to tell you what my new publishing house will be.
This chapter contains spoilers up to Season 2, Episode 20, "CNTRL: A".
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Thank you, everyone, for the faves/follows and reviews and for sticking it out with me. 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.
"Are you serious?" Paige stared, uncertain that her eyes and ears were trustworthy. No way it was that easy.
"I'm serious. I'm back."
"Oh my God, Em! This is amazing!"
Paige dropped her gear as Emily stood, throwing her arms around her neck, bouncing up and down in her excitement.
"Did one of you two win the lottery or something?" Vicky asked, tossing her bag on to the bench. Paige turned, showcasing Emily in her swimsuit. "No freaking way."
A hearty high five nearly deafened them in the quiet of the locker room. "We are going to rock this joint. Chloe is going to be so relieved to have you back."
Chloe had gotten used to starting but was by no means happy about it. The elated whoops of various teammates as they heard the news took up their fifteen minutes before Morgan walked in to call them to order.
Paige didn't miss the scowl directed at her and Emily, Morgan no doubt assuming she had a hang in bringing the other girl back. The team shuffled past the coach, excitement turned to muted murmurs as they headed for the pool.
Paige was the last to leave, stopped by the arm that crossed in front of her to block her exit. Turning to the coach, she raised an eyebrow in question.
"What did you, McCullers? Get your father to make Tamborelli an offer he couldn't refuse?"
Paige brushed past Morgan's arm, unable to keep her words back, tossed carelessly over over her shoulder as she passed. "What was that you said about teaching me to fail?"
"Does she always murder you before a meet?" Emily asked, face flushed from a rigorous practice as they walked down the hall toward class.
"I think you might have hyped up the homicide level a little," Paige admitted, rotating her shoulder to loosen it. "She's not happy with me either."
"Really? Here I thought staring daggers into your back was a sign of affection. What happened between you two?"
"Got off on the wrong foot when Coach Fulton left and we've been stepping on each other's toes ever since." It wasn't the whole truth but Emily didn't need any more guilt to carry. Knowing the animosity had only hit its fever pitch when Paige had gone to bat to for Emily wouldn't do anyone any good. "It doesn't matter. One more week of practice, state tournament and I won't have to look at her until fall."
"Such lofty goals," Emily said with a smile and a friendly hip check. Paige couldn't help but smile back, her companion happier than she been in months. "Buy you a coffee?"
Paige's eyes found Pru and Sean, the latter holding a tall coffee cup from the Brew.
"Looks like my caffeine needs have been met," Paige said, pointing to her friends. "Rain cheque?"
"Count on it." Another smile, a wave and Emily made her way over to Aria and Hannah.
"That was…chummy." Pru offered as Sean handed Paige her coffee.
"No cream or sugar. Meet day, right?" he asked, gamely holding Pru's books now that he had a hand free.
"They're going to raise statues in your honour. Between the floor and her snoring," Paige pointed at Pru, "I barely slept."
"I do not snore!"
"You're right, I must have completely imagined the chainsaw buzzing in my ear."
Sean's chuckle was quickly shut down by Pru's punch to his shoulder, Paige easily dancing out of range, her laughter ringing out down the hall.
The meet wasn't one of their best. While Emily was back on the roster, she hadn't been placed back on the line up, much to the team's chagrin. Chloe put up a good fight against her opponent but couldn't find her rhythm, lagging well behind all but one of the starters. Vicky made up some of the distance and Tanya kept pace allowing Paige to close the gap by a hair. It was enough to squeeze out a win but by no means a victory.
Morgan's speech was as encouraging as usual, most of the team sprinting for safety the moment the irritated coach headed for her office.
Paige was slower to move, forced to baby her arm as she changed out of her gear. Between the poor sleeping conditions, the aggressive over training during their morning practice and flooring it at the meet, she knew she was due for a bout of shoulder pain. It first presented itself as she tugged on her bra, sharp gasp pulled from her mouth before she could call it back. Vicky and Tanya looked over, concern evident as they shouldered their gear bags.
"I'm good, just a little sore," she assured. Vicky didn't look like she believed her but knew well enough not to push.
"Don't forget, pizza tomorrow. It can be a 'welcome back' party too." Tanya said pulling the conversation away from Paige. Emily smiled at the acknowledgement.
"Sounds like a plan, I'm in."
With twin waves, Vicky and Tanya took off, leaving Emily and Paige on their own to finish changing.
"You going to lie to me too?" Emily asked as Paige searched fruitlessly for a shirt she didn't have to pull over her head.
"Your shoulder. I can tell the difference between your 'workout' sore and 'damaged' sore."
There was no point in lying. As much as she needed to be strong for her team, Emily was the one person she was comfortable admitting weakness to. "It flared up on me when I was in the lake. Between sleeping on the tile last night and all the swimming, it's just acting up." Paige shrugged. "Truth be told, I'm not sure I really gave it a chance to heal after my bike accident."
"Can you last the week?"
"To destroy Jessup and Philly at state finals? I'll swim in a sling if I have to."
Emily smirked, motioning for Paige to sit. She obliged, quietly accepting as Emily took her shoulder through the familiar exercises to loosen the muscles around the joint.
"Are you training this weekend?" Emily asked, moving from stretches to massage with near clinical efficiency. Paige did her best to concentrate on the question, a task made considerably harder as Emily's hands capably plied at her shoulder.
"Sunday before church. I might beg off boxing tomorrow, I'll see how it feels in the morning."
"I think it's a good idea either way. Give it a chance to rest."
"Are those Doctor Fields' orders?" Paige asked, turning to face Emily as the massage tapered off.
"You bet. C'mon, let's see if we can't get you into your shirt."
"Typical. Women are always trying to get me to put my clothes back on," Paige quipped, earning a light laugh from her companion.
"Har har, McCullers. As if you wouldn't be a total lady killer if you tried."
Paige rolled her eyes at such a ridiculous thought and took a knee so Emily could help pull her tank top over her head. She stared balefully at her Sharks hoodie, no way that was going on. "Bad day to wear my pullover."
"Trade me." Emily unzipped her own hoodie, helping Paige get her arms in the sleeves before she tugged Paige's hoodie over head. "At least tell me you didn't ride your bike."
"No, I convinced Pru to pick me up after my practice with Keith yesterday because of Truth Up."
Emily shouldered her bag and Paige's, silencing the upcoming protest with a glare that would have sent even the iron willed Hastings scurrying for cover.
"Okay, okay, I give." Paige held up her hands in surrender, tugging on the door with her good arm to allow Emily through.
"That's what I thought I heard."
Sunday morning saw Paige at the club house for her usual session, hot pack in hand to soothe her arm. Her shoulder was nagging but functional and she hoped a workout would loosen up the muscles. She passed a familiar looking Toyota on the way in before sloughing it off, there was certainly more than one of Emily's car in town.
The locker room was deserted this time of the morning allowing Paige to change in peace. A shuffling somewhere behind her perked her ears and she gripped the keys in hand as she used her senses to search the room. A sniff of the air brought more than just the scent of chlorine and A535, the scent long imprinted in her brain.
"Okay, that was freaky. How'd you do that?" Emily asked, pulling back the curtain on a change stall.
"I sm…uh, saw your car outside." Paige covered. No need to increase the creep factor by letting Emily know Paige had her perfume memorized. "What are you doing here? Wait, were you going to jump out at me?" She asked, eyes going to where Emily had been hidden.
"I still owed you for that scare at the lake. You took years off my life going into that water, McCullers. And I'm here because your Dad somehow got hold of my Mom. Apparently he won't let my 'lackadaisical training schedule pull down Paige's performance'."
Yeah, that sounded about right. "So... you're training with me?"
"Apparently. I'm not really sure what the hell happened. Honestly, I don't think my mom does either."
A knock on the change room door signaled they were late, Keith was waiting on them. Paige shrugged, motioning her head to the pool entrance. "Shall we?"
Monday morning found Emily parked outside Paige's house. Emily stared blearily over from the passenger side as Paige slid into the driver's seat of the Toyota. A compromise. Paige wouldn't risk her shoulder biking to practice and Emily wouldn't drive them into a tree in her zombie like state.
Paige hadn't even buckled her seat belt before her friend's quiet snores drifted through the car, Emily passed out against the passenger window. She smirked, tossing the Toyota into gear and heading for the pool. Ten minutes saw them outside the country club, the stutter of the engine shutting off rousing Emily from her nap.
"You're a machine or something. This is unnatural."
"It's not that much earlier than when we used to go in with Coach Fulton."
"That extra hour is precious, Paige. You're just immune to the torture." Emily pushed the door open, stepping out into the early morning. Paige sucked in a deep breath, filling her lungs with crisp air as she stretched.
"Smells like victory, Fields."
"It smells like a sleep disorder, McCullers."
"You gonna whine like this all week?"
"Maybe. Aren't you glad to have me back?"
"I'm always happy to have fresh ass to kick."
"Such a comedian."
Tuesday morning, Paige slid into the driver's seat, offering a mug of piping hot coffee to her sleepy companion.
"Oh god, I could kiss you."
Paige was tempted to call Emily on her bluff but decided deflection was the better part of valour. "Pru always says the same thing. I think you guys may have a caffeine problem. You should talk to someone about that."
"I guess we shouldn't talk about your carb addiction then," Emily retorted, pulling a paper bag from the dash.
"Uh, what's in there?"
"Oh, nothing. Hannah and I just tested out my mom's cupcake recipe last night." Emily opened the paper bag, the smell of coconut wafting through the car, mixing with the scent of steaming coffee. " But I'm sure you wouldn't want to break your regimen."
"Fields, if you're teasing me..."
Wednesday morning found Paige where she normally was, locking hate stares with Hastings as the perma PMSer shouldered into her on the way out of class. A run in with Morgan combined with a particularly brutal test had brewed a simmering tantrum that was begging to be unleashed.
And Hastings had officially tipped the scale of the shit she was willing to put up with.
Paige had already stepped forward, menace in her stance when Emily brushed past her, a hand on her bicep that pulled her away from Hastings. Traitorous body unable to resist the gentle touch, Paige followed docilely around the corner, at once amazed and frustrated with the ease Emily could pull her from the brink.
"Peacekeeping duty, Fields?"
"Spencer's in a bad mood and you look ready to kill; I'm conducting a public service. You two will tear the whole school down." Emily said, body blocking Paige's way around the corner as she reached into her bag. "Here, take a minute, eat this and cool off."
Paige eyed the cupcake dubiously as it was handed over. "Are you seriously trying to keep me from murdering Hastings by bribing me with a cupcake?"
"Depends, is it working?"
"Maybe." Paige said, dismayed to find that talking meant sacrificing precious cupcake crumbs. She had wanted to savour the treat and yet somehow she found herself suddenly licking her fingers clean.
"If I split the last one with you, will you at least attempt to play nice with Spencer?"
"For another of those, I'll kiss Hastings if you want."
Thursday morning saw Emily at Paige's kitchen table while she rushed to finish her oatmeal, a consequence of an unset alarm clock. Her mother had woken Paige up -twenty minutes late- easily shanghaiing Emily into sitting for fresh coffee. Paige did her best to ignore the cryptic smile on her mother's face as she shoveled the last of her oatmeal down. Her father showed up just as Paige shotgunned the last of her vitamins.
Paige nodded, instinctively tensing when his eyes cut over to Emily who had her cup up to her lips, dark eyes widening as she looked ready to bolt.
"Good morning, Miss Fields."
"Good morning, Mr. McCullers."
"I trust the lessons with Keith are going well."
"Yes, very well, thank you."
"If Paige is going to be the best, she needs the best. The best coaching, the best training and the best teammates." He left it at that, walking past them with a brief squeeze to Paige's shoulder as he passed on the way to the kitchen.
"Wow, that was…"
"I know, right?" Paige said, somewhat dumbfounded by the downright friendliness of it all. Maybe she could drop the news now, casually, no big deal. Something for Emily to chew on. And then she checked her watch. "Crap! We're late, like, late late."
"Then I'm driving, today. You drive like my grandmother, McCullers," Emily said, pushing up from the table.
"Yeah, well you drive like a… like a…" Paige fumbled as she searched for the right word.
"Go ahead; you keep thinking, I'll be in the car waiting. Don't take too long though; I only have half a tank of gas."
"Damn it, Fields, you wait until this caffeine kicks in!"
Friday morning was slightly more relaxed. Neither the Sharks or Keith had practice and the first heats of the state tournament didn't start until eight.
Paige stretched as she got out of bed, grimacing as her shoulder voiced its discontent. Ignoring it as best she could, she tugged her hair back and prepared for the day.
Her parents were both at the table when she made her way upstairs, clad in her Sharks warm-ups, Emily's hoodie zipped over. She couldn't help but smile, the soft sweatshirt still smelled like her teammate.
"Morning, Mom." She kissed her mother as she passed, taking a seat next to her father who put his paper down.
"How you feeling today?"
"Ready to win, Dad."
He smiled, clapping her on the shoulder. "This is it, what we've worked for all season. I hate that we can't be there today."
"You'll both be there tomorrow, today is just about weeding out the weaklings."
"Get it done." The words were said in encouragement, a far cry from the flat out order for victory that used to be his way. This was what Paige wanted, sharing their competitive nature, fighting against someone else rather than fighting against each other. "Dad. What you did for Emily…"
He cut her off, raising a hand to silence her thanks. "It wasn't about her, Paige, it was about you. You need someone in the water you can count on, work with. I won't lie, I wish it were…someone else, but it's Miss Fields. I'll do whatever I have to, swallow whatever pride I have to, if it means helping you succeed."
She hugged him, leaning into his strength, trusting in his faith in her. "Then I can't fail."
"Anyone seen Chloe?" Paige asked, pulling off her warm ups. Emily scanned the locker room, evidently coming up short, just as Paige had.
"She's heaving her cookies in the bathroom," Tanya offered, walking from the stalls with a decidedly green tinge to her face.
"Damn it. Em, make sure all of senior squad are set up. Vicky, Tanya, you're on JV duty."
Her teammates gave her the loose salute they had grown so fond of before heading out to corral the others.
"Chloe," Paige knocked on the stall door, tamping down on her own stomach's urge to rebel at the sound of unproductive dry heaves. "Is there anything left in your stomach?"
"I'm not even sure my stomach is still in my stomach."
"You going to open up or do I have to slide under the door?" The stall door opened, revealing a gaunt Chloe. "Nerves?"
"I'm a sophomore, I'm a JV and I'm not a starter. I've never been a starter, I don't like being a starter and now Morgan's got me starting Senior level at States. I'm not ready for this."
"Sure you are. You've been doing fine."
"I've been getting my ass kicked up and down the pool by girls with twice the experience. I'm going to tank us. I can handle taking my own heats but I can't bring the squad down with me."
"You won't. Chloe, you're just as capable as anyone out there. Coach Morgan wouldn't have put you on the line up if she didn't think so," Paige said, hoping she hadn't just made herself a liar.
"I can't do it, Paige. I can't."
"You can. It's just nerves. I promise it'll disappear once you're on the block." Paige wanted nothing more than to tell Chloe it was okay to quit. They had a built in replacement with Emily who hadn't even been put into a relay team. But it wouldn't be fair to Chloe. The girl had worked hard to hold the fort, going way out of her comfort zone to help the team. Emily would get to compete in the individual heats and still contribute to the teams' overall points. Chloe deserved a chance.
"What's going on?" Morgan appeared as if from nowhere, staring at the pair of them as Paige rubbed Chloe's back.
"Chloe's just having a bit of a…" Paige closed her eyes as she heard the other girl turn and drop. Apparently her stomach's ceasefire had been temporary. "…moment. I'll get some water into her."
"First relay heat is in twenty minutes."
"I know, she'll be fine." Paige backed into the stall and closed the door to give Chloe some modicum of privacy. Holding blonde hair back, she rubbed Chloe's back soothingly hoping the girl's body would give her a break. A bottle of sports drink was rolled under the stall, hitting Paige's foot.
"I found it in her bag, she needs to rehydrate," Em said. "She okay?"
Paige popped the top on the drink, handing it to a slowly standing Chloe before she slipped out of the stall. "I don't know if either one of us will ever eat again but I think she'll be fine. Any more electrolytes kicking around? I think she'll need more than one bottle."
"I'm fine," Chloe assured, stepping out of the stall and handing off the empty bottle to walk on deck on wobbly legs. Paige and Emily looked at one another, frowning.
"There's a couple more drinks in her bag."
"All right, keep an eye on her. I'll go grab them and bring them on deck with us."
"Meet you out there."
Paige headed for her locker, plastic bottle cracking in her grip as nerves attempted to take hold. A sick starter was not an auspicious beginning. She hadn't come this far just for bad luck to drag them down. Speaking of luck.
Paige pulled open her locker door, slipping her stopwatch into the pocket of her long jacket. Her phone vibrated, skipping across her locker shelf. Pru no doubt, wishing her luck for the millionth time today. A quick flip to open her phone left her lips pursed as Paige read the message.
Poor Chloe, labels are for her safety. –A
The door burst open and Chloe pelted across the floor, the sound of a half litre of electrolyte hitting the toilet echoing through the room. Paige's gaze fell to the empty bottle in her hand, twisting it to read the label.
"Do not consume if seal is broken." She tossed the empty bottle to the side, unzipping Chloe's bag to pull out the remaining six pack of electrolytes. She carefully twisted off the top, eyes catching the tiniest pin prink on the aluminum wrap. "Son of a bitch."
Paige scooped the remaining bottles from Chloe's bag, tossing them into the garbage just as Morgan rushed past her, headed for the stalls.
Paige followed, clamping a hand over her mouth at the mess as her own stomach jerked reflexively.
"This isn't nerves," Morgan said, disgust evident as Chloe clung to the toilet bowl. Paige forced herself to bite back the 'no shit' that nearly fell from her lips.
"I haven't felt right since breakfast," Chloe admitted between heaves. "Maybe I got some bad…" The rest of the sentence was cut off by a particularly violent expulsion.
"Go tell Fields to warm up and pray whatever the hell this is, isn't catchy."
Paige nodded, handing Chloe her own electrolyte drink.
"That didn't stay down so well." Chloe eyed the drink as though it had set out specifically to make her stomach revolt.
"It's mine, it's higher quality than yours. It shouldn't be so hard on your stomach," Paige lied. She had been sipping at it all morning with no adverse affects, at least she knew she wasn't about to poison the girl.
Paige left Morgan to deal with the puke, secretly glad the aloof woman finally had to get her hands dirty.
The Sharks were on deck stretching, a litany of teams gathered around the crowded area.
"Change of plans. Em, you're starting."
Friday's meets went smoothly enough. Both sets of JV teams made their way through to finals while one of the Senior relays were cut after the third round.
Paige topped out her own heats, Emily dogging her every step to allow Rosewood to clean house and make up the extra points they needed when Mel and Lisa's Senior relay team were ousted by an upstart team out of Scranton.
Between individual heat performance and the performance of the remaining relay teams, Rosewood managed to collect enough points to stay competitive, handily earning their way into the second day of competition.
Friday night, Paige gathered the team together at the Brew, an early meeting before she sent them home under strict orders to be in bed well before normal. They briefly touched on tactics, how the remaining Senior relay team was positioned to face off against the others.
With both JV teams strong contenders in their own division, it was more than likely they would medal out. It would take a strong day of individual performances to get the senior squad into finals, a challenge that Paige put to each of them. For all the months they had trained, all the crap they had put up with, they only had one more day to go.
Saturday morning saw the JV division wrapped up early, the Sharks claiming a silver and bronze in relays and second overall. Paige was glad when that was over, finally able to turn her full attention to the holding the senior squad together as their first sets of relays neared. She needn't have worried. Tanya and Vicky had brought every bit of game they had, flooring it from the word 'go'. So it was, that at the end of the second day, a somewhat underdog team, plagued with injury and bad luck, found itself in the final round of the State Championships.
Paige looked to the stands, her Mom and Dad were front row center, Pru at her mother's side, Sean at her father's. True to form, Pru had made a sign 'Full Fat Latte To The Winner', waving it madly in the air as Paige looked over.
"Pru sure knows how to motivate a girl," Emily said, shoulder checking Paige companionably as they stood together.
Mrs. Fields was closer to the starting blocks, video camera zeroed in on the starting blocks with Maya at her side. Paige slid out of her jacket, handing it to Piper before pulling out her stopwatch to hold.
"Oh my god, Paige, look!"
Paige followed Emily's pointed finger, easily picking out the familiar form of her mentor in the stands.
"Coach." She held up her watch, hoping the shine of the metal was visible in the crowd to let Fulton know she was on deck with them. The announcer began to call out the block lineups, the last eight teams shuffling to their lanes.
"You ready for this?"
"I was born ready," Paige replied, following her friend to the block. She grabbed Emily's arm, giving the girl a light tug to turn her. "Em, no matter what happens, this season, you… it's… it's meant the world to me."
"Me too. Don't worry about this, I got your back, Paige." Emily hugged her tightly, Tanya and Vicky joining in. They circled up, four heads tucked tight together as Paige spoke.
"This is it, everything we've worked for comes down to this. We all know who's in the stands. I promised Coach Fulton we'd win this for her. Everyone fights, no one quits, you dig for every inch and show these wannabes how winning is done."
A quick cheer and Emily was shuffled to the starting block, tugging her goggles down as Paige set her stopwatch. The shot went off and Emily was in perfect form, as though her time out of the water had been mere moments rather than months. Each stroke was calculated poetry, slicing easily through the water. Most of her opponents may as well have been standing still, a quarter lap behind by the time Emily made her first turn.
Emily's turn was as tight as ever, lean legs launching her down the length of the pool. She touched a half second before five of her opponents, the sixth and seventh still a quarter length away.
Paige clicked the watch, checking the time as Vicky went in, the Sharks egging her on. Even Morgan yelled as she knelt beside the block, stopwatch in hand. Paige squeezed Emily's arm briefly, handing her the stopwatch with her time as she took her place behind Tanya.
Her teammate muttered as she set herself, goggles in place, arms prepped. "Dig for every inch, dig for every inch."
"Dig deep, Tanya. You got this," Paige encouraged. Vicky was level with three of the others, a fourth passing her at the last second to claim first place. Tanya's slight twitch was her only acknowledgement of the lost lead before she threw herself into the water. Paige hopped onto the block, pulling her goggles down. A last look to her family, a determined Emily, her team, and finally, to the woman in the stands. The person who had believed in her when Paige had thought there was nothing to believe in.
"Be your best version."
It was slow motion. Paige had heard that once, important points, pivotal moments, seemed to pass at a fraction of their actual speed.
She could swear she felt the nerve bundles in her legs twitch as her brain relayed the order to dive. Muscles, made taught and toned over over hundreds -thousands- of hours of training, obeyed her command with vicious accuracy. She was in the water and halfway down the pool before her brain truly recognized she was off the block.
Every stroke was instinct, finely honed, each breath a calculation.
Her flip turn was better than everyone else, a hybrid of her old technique and Emily's that left everyone but Philly in her dust. The lanky powerhouse was dead even with her for a quarter length and then one mistimed pull set Paige behind. No. Damn it. Not like this. Not after everything she had gone through. This was it, the last inch in the miles she had run to get here.
It wasn't just about winning or scholarships, it was about her. A sudden moment of realization, a memory from months ago, an undeserved moment of kindness from the girl at the end of the pool that had set her on this path. She was swimming for herself. Finally.
And there was no way in hell that some red suited, big city, baby giraffe took her down in front of her family, her coach and her girl.
Everything burned, her shoulder, her hamstrings. Her lungs begged for air to make up for the extra exertion as she put the pedal down. Every stress, every frustration, every moment of joy, every tear she had cried. It was all getting left in this pool.
Paige pulled even with Philly and saw the hiccup, a hesitation as the other girl realized she wasn't going down without a fight. Determined to drop every ounce of energy in the water, Paige pulled ahead by a hand, an extra kick taking it to the length of a long forearm. An eighth of a length to go and she knew it was hers, felt it deep in the pit of her gut that she had made good on her promises. That, for once, she had finally lived up to the person she wanted to be.
Paige slapped the edge of the pool with such force that her arm shook, the cheer through the crowd a deafening roar as it echoed off the ceiling. She didn't even have the opportunity to haul her body from the water, her teammates grabbing her arms to pull her clear as every overtaxed muscle reared up in protest.
"We did it, we actually freaking did it!" Vicky grabbed her arms, shaking her like a maniac before wrapping Paige in a hug that suddenly included the whole team, most of them shrieking their glee. When she was finally released from the dog pile, Emily stood opposite her, holding up the stopwatch.
"Beat me by two tenths of a second." Emily said, smirk in place. "Just had to be the hero, didn't you?"
"What's the matter, Fields?" Paige slung an arm across Emily's shoulders as they walked across the deck toward their parents. "Haven't you gotten used to me kicking your ass yet?"
"Please, if I hadn't taken two months off to let you get yourself together, I'd have wiped the floor with you."
"We have all of next year for me to prove how wrong you are."
Emily laughed, turning under Paige's arm to pull her into a tight hug, the briefest of kisses dropped on her cheek. "You were awesome."
"So were you." Paige took the moment for all it was worth, closing her eyes as her senses took in the rowdy crowd, the hum of the air units, the smell of chlorine that clung to Emily's skin. Knowing Maya was close by, she let the moment go, stepping back to give Emily proper space.
"You're coming to Hannah's place later to celebrate, right?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
A final squeeze and with that, they split from each other, Emily headed for her mother and Maya while Paige walked over to her small entourage.
"That was so awesome!" Paige was startled as Pru pounded soundly on her back. "You totally rocked it!"
Paige accepted a more gentle hug from her best friend and one from Sean who threw in a solid fist bump for good measure.
Her mother hugged her next and her father last, his embrace tight.
"I'm so proud of you."
"I couldn't have done it without you, Dad." Paige looked over his shoulder as he hugged her, searching the stands for Coach Fulton. A look to Emily showed her doing the same, conversing absently with Maya while she scanned. Their eyes met for a moment, before Emily looked beyond her to the exit. Paige followed her gaze, Coach Fulton barely visible in the throng of athletes that were leaving the natatorium.
Her mentor turned, briefly, locking eyes with Paige. A smile, a nod and then, she was gone.