Disclaimer: Who has two thumbs and doesn't own the rights to these characters? This gal!
Author's Notes: In 'Real Life' news, I've signed with Bedazzled Ink to publish my novel, 'Guardian: The Surrender'! Thanks for riding out the last few months with me and for all your words of encouragement, much appreciated. Also, check out my new fic 'Gotham Knights', right here on fanfiction dot net.
This chapter contains spoilers up to Season 2, Episode 24, "UnmAsked". As it's the 'Season Finale', this chapter is longer than the others, hope you guys don't mind. ;)
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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.
Paige pulled up to Emily's house just past nine, shouldering her messenger bag as she slid out of the car. It had taken no little amount of coercion to get her father to let her go to the party, convinced her evening would be better spent bragging her up to the others at the club.
Thank God for her mom.
She walked toward Hannah's house, the line of cars down the block showing that the team party was in full swing. She took a deep breath as she approached, knowing tonight would be a full test of her will. She had no doubt Maya would be there and while she was happy that Emily was happy, she wasn't particularly keen on seeing the woman she loved in the arms of someone else.
Steeling herself for the evening ahead, Paige turned up the walkway to the Marin house, ego almost immediately deflating when she saw Maya sitting on the veranda steps. An obstacle before they had even properly met. Wonderful.
Determined to play nice for Emily's sake, Paige walked up, giving a small wave to the seated girl. "Hi."
"Hi. You're Paige."
"I am," Paige confirmed, holding tightly to the strap of her bag for want of something to do with her hands. Two seconds in and the girls' laser like gaze had her fidgety. She fought the urge to rock back on her heels, the silence from her counterpart hanging heavy. "You're Maya."
"I am. I've heard a lot about you." The tone said Maya didn't like at least part of what she had heard leaving Paige with no idea how to respond. Figuring any apologies she owed were to Emily and not Maya, she chose not to rise to the bait.
Paige wasn't sure what the proper etiquette was in this circumstance. She had no desire for a confrontation, intending to make the potentially awkward night as stress free for Emily as possible. Something evidently had Maya in a mood and, without context, Paige had no idea if it was her specifically or life in general.
"Well, I should probably get in there," Paige took a step forward, hoping that they could resolve whatever differences they seemed to have without delving into drama. Maya stood but didn't move, the step giving her a height advantage she wouldn't have otherwise enjoyed. Paige was unthreatened by the tactic, long accustomed to people trying to intimidate her. "Look, whatever this is," Paige motioned between them, "I don't want to do it, all right? I'm here for my team."
"Right, it's always about the team with you guys." This was said with a frustrated eye roll, Maya's issues with her obviously ran deeper than just ex-girlfriend drama. "Like you guys spending all your free time together, that was all about the team, right?"
"We swim together. Period. I'm not making a play for your girl, Maya. Emily chose you, you win, okay? Swim season's over, she's all yours."
"You sure about that?"
The implication was evident and Paige shook her head, not really in the mood for a cat fight over a girl who had already made her choice. "Yes, I'm sure. Can I go in now? Did I kiss your ass to your satisfaction?"
Paige moved to step up, clenching her jaw when Maya refused to give way. She wanted to play nice, she really did, but this girl was testing what little was left of her patience.
"I get it, you know, why you're still hanging around. Em and I both dated other people while I was away, but she's… special. She's hard to let go of. You just need to understand that we're together now."
"I wasn't aware that was something I didn't understand," Paige rebutted. Who was Maya to talk down to her? Maya, who had bailed the first chance she got, blowing off the girlfriend who idolized her while she hooked up with who the hell knew up in the middle of nowhere. When it came down to doing the dirty work to keep Emily happy, to keep her safe, Paige had sacrificed.
"You hurt her."
The insult was akin to a slap in the face, the truth of the words an almost physical assault. Paige had hurt Emily, in more ways than one. She had her reasons but that didn't alter the consequences. She wasn't without company in that department.
"So did you. I'm not perfect, I know that. I was a shitty girlfriend and I got what I deserved when Emily dumped me. Don't make my mistake."
"I love her," Maya countered, as if that made up for everything that had gone wrong. Paige wished it did, that loving Emily made up for all the mistakes. If only that was it all it took to wash a slate clean.
"You're not the only one, Maya. I already picked up the pieces after you once, don't make me do it again." With that, Paige turned and walked away. It wasn't possible for them both occupy the same house without tearing it down to the foundations. Only Hastings had ever been so openly antagonistic toward her and Paige had always chalked that up to her innate need to protect those she loved. She didn't begrudge her old teammate that. Maya seemed to be taking Paige's mere existence as an insult. Pulling out her phone as she walked, Paige entered Emily's number from memory.
It rang just as she was about to type up a message, Emily's number flashing in the display. She accepted the call, hoping the muted sounds of the party didn't carry across the line.
"McCullers! Where are you?"
"Em, hey. Listen, I'm not going to be able to make it. My dad set up this whole, celebration dinner for me and I can't get away."
"Paige." Her name was almost a whine, Emily's disappointment clear.
"I know, I know. I'll make it up to… everyone. I promise."
"I have this tie." Nick McCullers held up a silk tie, the arresting shade of purple no doubt a choice of her mother's.
"Okay… I have this pen." Paige held up the utensil in question. Her father's look said his comment was meant to have context but for the life of her she couldn't figure out what it was.
"Will it match your dress?"
"My pen?" She asked, wondering if she had walked out of conversation she didn't remember.
"Will the tie match your dress, Paige, for the Daddy/Daughter dance?"
"Oh." Paige drew out the word as understanding dawned. Crap.
"No, no, I didn't," she lied, pushing off the couch to take the tie from him. "I, uh, just need to check the pattern."
"All right, I'll leave it with you. Don't spill anything on it, your mother will skin us both." He went on walking for his office and Paige picked up her cell phone, pulling on her shoes as she dialled.
"What's the story, Morning Glory?"
"I… how many of those do you have?"
"What do you mean, Jellybean?"
Paige frowned, knowing Pru was being intentionally obtuse. "You home?"
"I'm going to Pru's!" Paige yelled out getting an acknowledgement from her mother before she closed the door. "Do you have a dress that'll match a purple tie?"
"What colour purple?"
"What? What do you mean? The purple that's purple."
A sigh on Pru's end. "Lavender? Lilac?"
"Why are you naming flowers?"
"Pru… help me." She whined, turning through the park to shortcut her way to her friend's house.
"Honey, I'm not sure that's even possible."
"Just get over here, I'll see what I have. Worse comes to worse…"
"Don't say it."
"I'm not going to a dance with my father in this," Paige said, not bothering to leave the dressing room as she forcibly arranged herself in the tight bodice.
"I look like a hooker."
"Street walker or high class escort?"
Paige hoped her silence indicated her lack of amusement.
"Paige, showing off a modest bit of T and A doesn't make you a hooker, now get out here."
Heaving a sigh that threatened to make unfamiliar cleavage burst from the top of the dress, Paige stepped out, rolling her eyes at Pru's wolf whistle.
"Looking hot, McCullers." Pru took a picture to add to the collection to choose from once they had gone through all the options. Paige's favourite had been a respectable dress four choices back that flared at the leg just below her knee.
"This is definitely my favourite."
"Shana thinks so too."
Paige blinked, words taking a moment to fully register. "Say again?"
"Shana." Pru held up her phone, a picture of the girl giving a thumbs up on the small screen. "Gotta give the girl something to look at. How else you going to keep her interested?"
"There aren't holes deep enough for where I'm going to bury your body."
"Can I get you another drink?" Her father asked, looking around the packed room of parents and daughters with something akin to discomfort.
"Thanks, Dad. That'd be great."
Paige watched him beeline for the drink area, meeting up with an equally awkward Dean McNab, his daughter having taken off with her friends. Pru's dad sidled up to the pair of men as well, Paige not turning to face her friend as Pru approached.
"I'm never sure who this dance is more embarrassing for, the dads or the daughters," Pru said, offering her lip gloss to Paige. "C'mon, reapply, we can't kiss and make up if you're all chapped."
Paige offered nothing, merely watched the crowd, wishing time would speed up.
"I'm sorry about yesterday, really," Pru said, tone indicating her genuine remorse. "I just thought I'd help the thing with Shana along a little since you stalled out. I just want you to be happy."
"I know," Paige conceded. They had gotten their shopping done, compromising on the dress choice, but the atmosphere had definitely been strained. Looking back on it now, it wasn't such a big deal. And it certainly wasn't the first time Pru had edged the limits of propriety. "We're good."
"Good." Emotional moment complete, Pru settled back into her normal self. "Speaking of good, I know someone who's appreciating your dress choice."
"If it's one of the Dads, you can keep that to yourself."
"…Gross. No, your little co-captain was totally hopping aboard the cruiseline when you walked in."
"What the hell does that even mean?"
"Emily checked you out."
Paige rolled her eyes. "Aren't you the only always telling me to move on?"
"Yeah. Just because she can appreciate a well shaped ass doesn't mean she's good enough for you but you never seem to believe me when I tell you how hot you are."
Paige shrugged, unable to argue. It was different with friends, just like parents, weren't they somehow obligated to tell you how beautiful you were?
"Tonight isn't the time, but you're going to tell me who put all this self loathing crap in your head and we're going to have Sean beat the hell out of them."
Paige laughed, trying to deflect attention away from her insecurities. Pru had never understood the true extent of Ali's torture, Paige too afraid to show weakness as Ali planted the seeds of insecurity. The blonde's relentless tactics had turned typical teenage awkwardness into damn near full blown psychosis. Paige shared some of the blame, she had allowed herself to be sucked in, nurtured self hatred until it had been the norm. That had changed, slowly. Her self awareness had led Paige steadily away from darkness but it didn't keep old ideas of worthlessness from rearing up on occasion.
"Hey, c'mon, turn that frown upside down, Dad attack is imminent."
Paige accepted Pru's quick hand squeeze as reassurance that no matter the darkness that edged at her, she wasn't alone anymore. It was more than Ali had said she would ever have.
Paige smiled, the best revenge was a life well lived. As far as she was concerned, dead and gone, DiLaurentis could still kiss her well shaped ass.
As the dance wound down, Paige's dad collected their coats. Paige motioned toward the bathroom, heading over after her father's acknowledging nod. She opened the door, tempted to back right out again when the sole occupant turned away, a muted sob reaching her ears.
Wait a minute, she knew those shoulders.
"Paige, hey." Emily didn't turn, sniffles proving her emotions hadn't come under control.
"Hey. You okay?"
"Right. I love crying in the school bathroom too, totally relaxing. Very zen." Paige approached her friend, reaching out to touch a silently shaking shoulder. "Whoa, hey, I'm sorry. It wasn't that bad of a joke."
That at least got a mild hiccup before Emily cleared her throat, turning to face Paige with red eyes. "It's my dad," she admitted. "They're sending him back overseas."
"Shit." The word was past her lips before Paige could call it back. Real reassuring, McCullers, way to go.
"What if something happens to him over there?"
"Nothing's going to happen to him," Paige said. "You've met your dad right? He'd bare knuckle brawl his way through an army to get back to you and your mom."
"It's not just that. Maya and I got into this stupid fight, I spent all day looking for her. I wasted my last day with my dad trying to track her down."
Paige pursed her lips, teeth grinding on instinct at Maya's callous behaviour. Emily had worked herself up with her explanation, near hysteria as she wrung out a paper towel. Paige put her hands on Emily's, tugging away the much abused towel to stop the fretted movement.
"It's going to be okay, Emily. Your dad is going to be fine and things with Maya, they'll work themselves out however they're meant to." Paige couldn't find the gumption to say the words 'make up'. Emily deserved better than the way Maya was behaving but those words served no use here.
Considering their ever changing boundaries, Paige was somewhat surprised when Emily stepped into her body, lean arms wrapping around her waist. Paige responded in kind, unable to stop herself from kissing Emily's temple as the other girl's weight sank against her.
"It's going to be okay, Em. You'll see."
"I'm sorry I'm always falling apart on you."
Paige smiled at the apology, simply returning the tight hug. "Joke's on you, Fields. I've got my nervous breakdown scheduled for senior year so enjoy it while it lasts."
Three days later, Paige was knee deep in planning for the final team dinner and awards ceremony, reluctantly pulled in despite it traditionally being the senior's responsibility. Two more days and she would be free of swimming commitments altogether, a freeing, if not slightly terrifying thought.
She looked up from where she was working with Tanya to create the seating arrangement, finding Emily staring blankly into her laptop screen. It was obvious she needed something to get her mind off her father's leaving and whatever troubles were still brewing between her and Maya. Satisfied Tanya was fine to continue the seating plan, Paige walked over and planted her butt on the desk in front of Emily.
"I'm going to walk around town later, try to get store owners to buy some ads for the program. You want to come?"
"I'm not really good at asking people for money."
"Please," Paige waved off the deflection. "You're the star of the team, who could possibly turn you down?"
Emily smiled, Paige winking at her before heading back to Tanya, glad she had gotten her friend to engage a little. The afternoon found them wandering downtown Rosewood together, making a point of hitting up the shops and restaurants the Sharks regularly frequented. It didn't seem to matter who they asked, once Emily flipped on the Fields charm, chequebooks started opening.
"Hey, look over there." Paige said, eyes zeroing in on an ice cream truck.
"Paige, I doubt the ice cream man is going to donate to a high school swim team."
Paige pulled out a bill, waving it at her friend. "No, but I bet he's willing to help me on my road to summer gluttony, come on." She didn't give Emily a chance to refuse, taking her hand and bodily pulling her down the sidewalk. She would cheer her friend up if it killed them both.
Laden down with far more ice cream than was appropriate for two people, they sat on a nearby bench.
"What are you going to do with all your free time now that you're not busy taking over the swimming world and plotting Morgan's downfall?"
"Oh, you know, something relaxing, might take up knitting." Paige said, gleefully powering down an obscenely large spoonful of mint chocolate chip. Emily's laughter was music to her ears, her friend far too subdued these last few months with everything that had gone on. "What about you?"
"Catch up in class, I let things slide a little getting ready for the championships."
"I'm sure Hastings is all too willing to bludgeon knowledge into you if you need help."
"Paige," her name was a light chastise, the effect negated by Emily's laugh as she shouldered her. "You guys compete on the same teams, you have the same 'do or die' mentality, you should be best friends."
Paige's bark of laughter nearly choked her as she inhaled a chocolate chip. "The day Hastings and I play nice is the day the I also become a ninja and save the world."
Emily rolled her eyes, digging in to her melting ice cream. "I, uh, heard from my dad yesterday."
"Yeah, how's he doing?"
"Good, he said they stationed him somewhere a little more quiet than last time. More peace keeping than peace making."
Paige reached nudged her friend's knee with her own. "That's good to hear."
"Yeah, it doesn't stop me worrying but it's nice to know." Emily looked down at her ice cream, suddenly downcast. Unsure if there was anything she could say to actually make Emily feel better, Paige settled for distraction.
"Trade me. Don't think I don't notice you bogarting all the coconut, Fields." Paige held out her ice cream, waiting expectantly.
"If you wanted coconut, you should have ordered coconut," Emily countered, gamely trading her ice cream anyway. They sat there in quiet company, long enough for the uneaten remainder of their desserts to turn to soup.
"I need to get back to the school, I have to put these ads in today if they're going to make it into the program," Paige said, pushing herself out of her seat.
"I'll walk back with you, I should attempt to work off at least part of that ice cream."
"Good luck with that." It was short work to get back to the school, Emily flipping through the cheques as they walked down the hallway.
"The Grill, a hundred, The Brew, twenty five."
Paige stepped back, allowing Emily to enter the classroom first.
"Fiddler's Café, a hundred. Ed's Pizza, fifty."
"We make a good team." Paige said, mentally tallying their total somewhere near five hundred dollars. Her phone rang and she picked it up, expecting to see Pru's number. "Hey, Mom. I'm still at school, just finishing up with Emily."
"Oh, is this good news?" Her mother asked, smile evident in her voice. Paige rolled her eyes at the tease though she was glad her mom felt comfortable enough to joke with her.
"No, Mom, she's just a friend."
"Of course, Honey."
"I'll be home in an hour." Paige hung up, eyebrow raised at Emily's questioning look.
"Just a friend?"
Oh, that. Paige shook her head, all the build up, waiting for the right time to tell, and it was an offhand conversation with her mother that set it in motion. Figured.
"I came out to my parents." There, it was done. The news sat at their feet, a conversational bomb dropped in the empty classroom. Paige did her best not to read too much into the genuine excitement in Emily's eyes.
"You did? How did they take it?"
"Freaked out, a little." Paige admitted. It had been a long road from there to here. "Some tears, some screaming but nothing like I thought it would be."
"Wow, that's so great!"
Paige looked down, happy for the acknowledgement.
"Well, not the screaming part but great."
"I have you to thank for it."
"What did I do?"
Paige stared at her friend, unable to believe that Emily didn't understand it was her courage that she had drawn from. Emily had set out a path, an example, for Paige to follow. She never could have walked it on her own. "You handled coming out so well, it just made it seem possible for me to do it too." It hardly seemed enough to say to the person who may well have saved her life, but it was all she had.
"I don't know about that."
"I do. I've watched you." Watched the quiet courage that had bolstered Paige when her own was failing. The admission was too much, Emily ducking her head to diffuse the somewhat awkward moment.
"Thanks, I'm glad you were able to talk to your parents."
"Me too, I just wish I'd done it sooner." Paige let it hang there, hoping her meaning was clear. She knew she had messed up and she had worked hard to fix her mistakes, all because she hadn't wanted to lose the girl in front of her. It was too little too late, but it didn't stop it from being truth.
A beep broke their stare, Emily peering down at her phone and frowning. "I'm sorry, I gotta go."
"Is that Maya?" She had no idea why she asked. Maybe to cautiously take the temperature of Emily's relationship, figure out if their fight had been more than a simple spat.
"No. No. Here." Emily handed her the cheques, eyes meeting. "I'm really happy for you."
"Thanks." With that, Emily was gone, on her way to parts unknown.
Paige sat back reviewing the entire conversation in her mind, it had been somewhat… anti-climatic. She hadn't expected Emily to drop Maya and throw herself into her arms but that was it? Really? All their talks, everything they had been through and that was it? A pat on the back and a brush off? Did she have to get herself kidnapped before Emily would notice her?
"Hey, there you are."
Paige turned, Pru sidling up to the desk. "Why do you look like someone killed your puppy?"
"I… it's nothing." Paige waved it off. As much as she wanted, craved, Emily's attention, she didn't need it. Didn't need Emily to validate the choices she made. The proof was in her life now and all the positive changes that had come from her honesty.
"So the fact that Emily just hightailed out here doesn't have anything do with your space cadet routine?"
"I told her I was out."
"And, now it's out that I'm out." Paige shrugged again, admittedly a little hurt that Emily hadn't taken more interest in the news. But it had never been Emily's battle to fight in the first place. Che sera. "What's up, why are you still here?"
"I came back to kidnap you. Want to go shopping?"
"We went shopping last week. I think I've satisfied my monthly torture allotment, thank you."
"Don't be such a martyr. We need new outfits for the masquerade."
"No? 'No' what?"
"No masquerade." Paige stood, heading out of the empty classroom. "I went to the Daddy/Daughter, I'm good for the rest of the year."
"Paige, you're going."
"Pru, I'm not."
"I'm not going to wear that. No way in hell."
"You have legs! Show them off a little, you big prude."
Paige made no move to take the dress, crossing her arms in a childish attempt to dig in her heels.
"Fine." Rolled eyes showed Pru was irritated but hadn't crossed over into full on frustration. Yet. "I have to meet Sean to go coordinate his outfit but don't think this is over. Want a ride home?"
"Nah, I'm going to grab some supper at the Grill. Dad's in Scranton and Mom's got a dinner meeting."
"Tomorrow, Paige. You're not getting out of this."
Paige waved her friend off, walking out of the store to head to The Grill. She had just finished texting a reply to Pru's threat when she bumped into someone, the other person bouncing soundly off a well built shoulder. She reached out, hands grabbing arms to stabilize the person she had hit.
"Oh, Emily. Hi."
"Hey." The greeting was one of Emily's most subdued, her friend's wounded look definitely about more than being bulldozed on the sidewalk.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Glassy eyes and red cheeks spoke otherwise.
"No, you're not." Paige called her on it, after everything they had been through, Emily didn't need to lie. "What's wrong? Em, talk to me."
Emily looked away, obviously uncomfortable parting with her problem which told Paige all she needed to know. Maya.
"Maya and I got into a fight the other night at the party. I haven't talked to her since. I don't know if she's breaking up with me or she wants to work it out. I don't know anything 'cause she won't call me back."
Paige pursed her lips, internally seething at the way Emily kept being yanked around like a dog on a leash. It was enough, she couldn't sit back and be a supportive friend any more. This was crap and Emily deserved better. It was totally frustrating to see one of the people she cared about most allowing herself to be pushed around. "Don't you see, Em? This is who she is. Things get tough and she bails."
The slight look to the side let Paige know she had been heard and even the ever loyal Emily couldn't find it in herself to disagree.
"I know you really care about her but what you really need is someone you can count on."
"Thanks." Emily stepped forward, wrapping her arms around Paige, head leaning against her chest for a brief moment. Emily pulled back, a lost look in her eyes that Paige couldn't stand to see.
She couldn't, at that time, say why she leaned down to kiss her friend. One of her socially awkward impulses come to the fore. An asinine attempt to somehow comfort Emily. Maybe a desire to quiet the inner voice that had nagged at her months to simply 'kiss the girl'.
Evidently Disney had steered her wrong.
Whatever her internal reasons, it was obviously unwelcome on Emily's end, her friend alternately surprised, confused and it seemed somewhat hurt a she pulled back.
"What are you doing?"
"I... I don't know."
"I'm sorry if I made you think..."
"No. No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to."
Emily didn't even respond to her apology turning and quickly heading down the street.
"Em," Paige called out, a last ditch effort to get her friend to stop. Emily turned for a moment before continuing on.
Paige could have beat her head against the stop sign as realization set in.
Months of work building a friendship, of trying to be someone Emily could count on, and she'd sent it up in ashes in a matter of seconds.
"Typical smooth move, McCullers." Paige flipped open her phone, dialling Pru's numbers. "Hey, I uh, might have just done something a little bit stupid. I think I need your help."
Four days later, Paige huffed as she tossed one of Pru's fashion magazines onto the coffee table.
"What's up?" her mother asked, returning from the kitchen with two mugs of tea.
"There is nothing in there that's even remotely appealing." Paige stated, accepting the mug with thanks. "This is entire idea is stupid anyway. Emily won't even talk to me, going to this masquerade isn't going to fix anything."
"Have you tried actually calling her?"
"Right after it happened. She was busy filling out police reports about Maya and said she would call me back. That was three days ago."
"I'm sure she has a lot on her plate right now, hon. Maya's running away… God I can't even imagine what her parents are going through."
Maya. Paige shook her head at the girl who had Emily and pissed her relationship away. Twice. Paige wasn't stupid, she knew there was another side to the story. There had to be something serious that had sent Maya sprinting for the exit. But Paige had been raised to stand her ground, fight back. Even at her worst, it had never been in her to turn and run.
Paige turned at the stalled sentence, raising an eyebrow at her mother. "Did I what?"
"When you were figuring things out, did you ever think of running away?"
Reaching out, she took her mother's hand, the physical connection steadying them both. "No. I mean, I didn't know how you'd react," she admitted. "I thought you might kick me out or send me to one of those camps, but it never crossed my mind to bail without explaining why. I wouldn't have done that to you or Dad."
A squeeze accompanied her mother's relieved sigh. "Good. No matter what our problems, we work through them together, always."
"I know." Paige leaned into her mother, sinking into her as an arm wrapped around her shoulders.
"Speaking of problems." Her mother reached for the forgotten fashion magazine, flipping idly through the pages until she came across the page she was looking for, holding it up for Paige's inspection. "I think I may have a solution for yours."
"What do you think?"
"I dunno, isn't it a little…butch?" Paige asked, turning in the full length mirror. The well cut pants hugged her legs and butt tightly without making her feel complete exposed like she did in a dress.
"Found another one, Mrs. McCullers," Pru said as she walked into the changing, area, tossing the jacket to the side once she saw Paige in the mirror. "But you're not going to need it. That is hot."
Cheeks already burning at the compliment, Paige felt her blush deepen at Pru's wolf whistle. "Dude, you totally have to start letting your mom dress you."
"I saw a shirt I think will match the blazer, be right back." Her mom headed off, Pru stepping closer to twitch the suit top into place.
"Nice butt, McCullers. If you don't score with Emily you've got to let me post your picture online."
"C'mon, Rosewood's like the lesbian utopia, you can't let Emily snatch up every girl from here to Philly."
"What if this doesn't work?"
Pru helped her settle the mask into place as Paige scanned the busy gym for Emily. "It's a simple operation, you'll go up, you'll apologize, she'll accept or she won't and then we'll know."
"Right. Okay. If nothing changes, nothing changes."
"Thatta girl." Pru sent her on her way with a sharp slap on the rear. "Make mama proud."
Leaving her friend to collect Sean from the drinks table, Paige began her walk through the crowd. It was two laps around before she finally caught sight of Emily, emerald dress shimmering under the lights.
Emily was by herself, Hastings nowhere in sight, a thankful blessing as Paige worked up the courage to for what came next. She settled her mask in place again, more a nervous attempt to buy time than actual attempt to correct her costume. A nervous twitch of her suit cuffs and a sudden hip check from a passing Pru finally got her feet moving in the right direction. Paige concentrated on a point just past Emily as she walked, a futile effort to calm herself. Her friend faced away from her and Paige took a deep breath, reaching out to touch a bare shoulder.
The pursed lips as Emily turned didn't do much to tell whether she was pissed off or just surprised Paige had approached.
"Hey." Paige stumbled, her planned speech flat out disapearing from memory at breakneck pace. "I wanted to apolo..."
"I'm sorry I didn't call..."
Paige looked down as they spoke over one another, lifting a hand to indicate Emily should go first. "I'm sorry I didn't call you back, with everything with Maya, it's been crazy."
"I know, I totally get it," Paige assured, walking toward a free table and sitting down, waiting for Emily to follow suit. When her friend had made herself comfortable, Paige pulled off her mask, wanting to do her apologizing face to face. No masks between them.
"I'm sorry about the other night."
"Let's just forget about it."
Paige had to admire her friend, everything she had done and there was Em, always trying to give her the easy way out.
"That's the thing, I don't want to forget about it. We have a connection, you can't deny that."
"We did." A pause. "But I…"
Paige mustered on, tamping down on the urge to run at the past tense. "I get it. I messed it up." Had she ever admitted that to Emily before? Told her she knew what she had done?
"You weren't ready and that's okay."
Paige conceded the point, in the end, it had been losing Emily that had pushed her into readiness. "I wish I had fought harder for you."
"I'm sorry, Paige." Emily's tone felt like goodbye, as though Paige's feelings made it impossible for them to be even friends. If friendship was all Paige could have, she would take it and be grateful.
"I didn't tell you so you'd be sorry, I just wanted to be honest." For once, not to have secrets between them. "That I care about you, so I'll be here for you, for whatever you need."
"I think what I need right now, is a friend."
Friends. The idea both struck and elated her. Paige had hoped for more, for so long. All things considered, the stunts she had pulled over the year, friends was a far shot better than she deserved.
"It's official, we're friends," Paige said.
"That makes me happy."
The smile on Emily's face was worth her silent heartbreak, Paige looking down lest her friend see her grinning like an idiot to know that she hadn't broken them beyond repair. Satisfied that things were right between them, Paige stood and offered a hand to Emily to help her from the chair. Her hand was tentatively accepted, Emily offering a shy smile as Paige pulled her to her feet.
Their eyes met, for the briefest of moments and Paige knew no matter the cost to herself, she wouldn't ruin this. Emily's phone beeped from in her purse and she looked down, her desire to check the message evident. Not wanting to push her luck any more than she had, Paige released her hand, stepping back.
"I'll see you Monday."
"Okay," Emily smiled, her face betraying her nerves.
"Are you okay? Do you need me to stay?" Paige asked, worried she had done something to upset the other girl.
"No. I'm okay, I just need to get this," Emily held up her phone. "It could be…"
"Maya." Paige finished. "I understand." She truly did and she didn't want Emily to be uncomfortable. She turned to leave, stopped by a hand on her shoulder.
"I just wanted to say you look very…" Emily paused, evidently searching for the right word.
"Butch?" Paige asked with a smirk, knowing her style had evolved radically over the last few months.
"Dashing," Emily corrected. She leaned forward, pressing a chaste kiss to Paige's cheek. "Thank you for understanding."
"I'll be whatever you need me to be," Paige promised quietly, squeezing Emily's hand one last time before taking her leave. It was a fight to keep the tears back as she walked from the ball, chin held high. She was many things, a McCullers above all, and damned if anyone was going to see her cry.
Paige pushed open the door to the outside, sucking in a deep cleansing breath. It hadn't been the outcome she had truly wanted but that had been a one in a million shot. Having Emily in her life in any capacity was far better than not having her at all.
Paige tugged on the collar of her shirt, smiling coming to her face. Maybe she hadn't gotten what she wanted but she had been an adult about it. She hadn't thrown a temper tantrum the way she had with Samara or done something foolish like press after Emily like she had the week before. She could do this.
Her hand briefly touched her cheek, the skin still warm from the light kiss Emily had gifted her with.
She wasn't without hope.
She hopped into her mom's car and turned toward home, careful to keep her attention on the road. One car accident was enough for a lifetime.
She pulled into the driveway shortly after, the lights still on outside. Her parents were on the couch, her father snoring lightly in his chair, her mother sprawled on the couch, a knit blanket pulled over her shoulders.
"Hey, Mom." She spoke quietly, not wanting to wake her father. Her mother smiled at her, unfolding from the couch and motioned Paige toward the kitchen. She pulled out two mugs and set the electric kettle to boil as Paige sat.
"So, how'd it go?"
"It went… pretty good." Paige hedged, knowing from the outside it didn't look like she had won anything even though she knew better.
"What's pretty good?"
"She said I looked dashing," Paige said, unable to keep the smile off as she said it. Even the memory of it made her ears warm and she knew she was blushing. Her mother returned the smile, hand cupping Paige's cheek, widening as she brushed her thumb against her skin.
"I see Emily wears pink." It was a statement more than a question, her mother's eyes twinkling.
"How…oh." Paige blushed harder, hand coming up to cover what was apparently a lip mark.
"You really like her."
"I really do." Paige admitted. "But we agreed to just be friends for now. She's dealing with a lot with Maya. I don't want to put any pressure on her. I've made that mistake before and I don't want to do it again."
"Things will work out just as they're meant to, Sweetheart." The tea kettle began to shrill and her mother picked it up, pouring them a cup of tea.
"I know. Even if it never happens, I'm glad she knows how I feel. I'm glad she knows where I stand." Paige sipped at her tea, the chamomile a calming force as it slid down her throat. It had been an exciting and stressful night. Now that it was over, she could feel the energy start to drain from her. "Do you think Dad'll be okay if I hang out with Emily more? I know he's still a little leery, especially when swimming isn't involved. I think he still might blame her a little for me being…me."
"I think being friends with Emily will help him see things as normal. You're still the same girl he raised Paige, he knows that, even if he has his moments."
"Thanks, Mom." Paige yawned, the tea doing its job.
"Bedtime, Baby, come on." Her mother put an arm her shoulder, holding them hip to hip as they walked to the basement door. "No matter the outcome, I'm proud of you tonight, Paige. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there, you were very brave."
A final squeeze and Paige headed down the stairs, tugging her jacket from her shoulders. She hung it up along with the rest of her outfit, sliding into a pair of sweats and a tank top. Snuggled in bed, she sipped at the remnants of her tea, flicking on the TV, hoping to find something worth falling asleep to. She clicked through endless channels, stopping on the local Rosewood station where a news banners caught her eye.
"Four Rosewood teens, involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse, have finally broken free of their tormentor."
"What the hell?" Paige sat up, all thoughts of sleep gone as she listened to the announcer list everything about Emily and her friends but their names.
"The girls, known to police for what was initially thought to be a fabricated story about Ian Thomas' death, have spent nearly eight months in a prison of lies. Their tormentor, initially known only as 'A' has been tentatively confirmed as fellow Rosewood High Student, Mona Vanderwaal.
Mona? Hannah's best friend. The poster child for the 'it' crowd. The girl didn't know the difference between prada and postal. That was her tormentor? Mona fucking Vanderwaal?!
She had to get to Emily, make sure she was okay. If 'A' had been tormenting her and her friends, there was no telling what condition she was in. Paige tugged on her sneakers, slipping her phone and keys into her hoodie pocket as she pulled it over her shoulders and sprinted for the stairs.
The living room was dark, her parents evidently in bed. She slid out the front door, leaving her bike in the garage not wanting to wake her parents and risk answering questions she didn't have time for.
She pelted across the street, vaulting easily over the four foot stone wall that separated her from Rosewood Park. Legs, long accustomed to eating up ground at a break neck pace, didn't fail her as she sprinted across uneven terrain. She took a running leap at the wall on the other side, sneakers finding grip on the rough stone to propel her up and over. She landed in a crouch, body pushing her forward before she had even registered she was back on the move. She whipped around the corner near Emily's block, sneakers sliding in the loose dirt on the curb. The long street, two blocks from Emily's house, left her with wide open road.
She pumped her arms, heels nearly touching her butt as she sprinted full tilt, all thoughts but Emily forced from her mind as she ran.
The lights were visible before all else, the red and blue lights stark against the pale yellow house. Next were the police cars, the ambulances and what looked to be a news vans. Paige didn't stop until she reached the outer edge of the mayhem, frantically searching for signs of Emily. How far had 'A' gone?"
Her heart nearly dropped from her chest when a gurney was wheeled from the back yard, a distraught Mrs. Fields following close behind.
Paige pushed through the crowd, shoving away anyone who tried to stonewall her. She scanned the crowd, her relief threatening to make her pass out when she found Emily with the others, standing at the far edge of the scene. The whispers through the crowd met her ears just as Mrs. Fields approached the group.
A dead body. A young woman. Resembled the description of a girl who had gone missing a couple of towns over. Maya.
"No." Paige shook her head, willing it not to be true. When she saw Emily collapse, keening wail cutting Paige to the core, she knew all she needed to know. Paige shoved through the milling people, moving through the masses on sheer will until she came to the shoulder of a police officer.
He stopped her with his arm, pushing her way from the police tape that barred her from Emily. Spencer had her arms wrapped tightly around the other girl, sinewy strength holding Emily on her feet. Barely.
"You have to let me through," Paige pushed against him, "she's my… she's my friend, I have to help."
"There's nothing you can do. The best thing for you is to just let us do our jobs."
Paige had the completely inappropriate urge to laugh. Do their jobs? Just like they had done with Alison? Rosewood PD had thus far proved themselves incapable of finding their asses with both hands and a map.
"I need to see Emily."
"And I'm telling you it's not going to happen. Go home."
Paige rankled at the dismissal, committing his short blond hair and cheap suit to memory. She had seen him at the school before, sniffing after Emily and the others. Sneering at him, Paige turned away, eyes falling on the body bag as it was loaded into the back of the ambulance.
Paige started as her phone vibrated, not relishing the idea explaining to her parents why she had bolted out of the house like a bat out of hell.
She flipped open the mobile, blood draining from her face at the message.
I always liked you better. -A