Disclaimer: Oddly enough, still not mine.
Author's Note: Boy howdy, that was a long wait! My apologies. Between sports, my business and final preparations for the release of my novel I only had time for sleep (and barely time for that).
This chapter contains spoilers for Season 3, Episode 1, 'It Happened "That Night"'.
As always, comments and constructive criticism are always welcome. If you're still with me after that unfortunate hiatus, it's all the more appreciated.
If you take the time to read, don't forget to tip your bards and take the extra second to review.
Paige started as her phone vibrated, not relishing the idea of 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
5 Months Later:
Paige flipped mindlessly through the channels, unwilling to waste her brain power on most of the offerings summer prime time television presented her with. She finally settled on a rerun from Shark Week, attention captured by she the powerful underwater predators who hunted in the ocean. She nudged the popcorn bowl over with her toe, determined to enjoy her final days of gluttony. Next week she would return to her training in earnest and the week after school started, official swim practice would begin.
The salt on her snack made her mouth dry and Paige eyed her water glass, leveling a baleful stare at its emptiness. Grudgingly giving up her comfortable position, she slid the blanket off her shoulders, bare feet touching cool hardwood floor. Picking up her glass, she adjusted her tank top, tight fabric riding up.
She paused as she passed by the door, an unfamiliar sound catching her ear. Eyes closed, she focused past the din of the TV to pick the noise out of the cacophony. There it was again, it sounded like someone coming up the steps. Paige looked at the coffee table, her phone silent and dark. It wasn't her parents, they weren't due back until after twelve and she would have seen the lights as her father pulled in.
Paige approached the door cautiously, hand reaching out to the umbrella stand where she kept her field hockey stick. She pulled it from its place, hands wrapping easily around the familiar weight as she tip toed toward the door. She flattened her back against the heavy wood, leaning over to peak through the curtains of the side window.
Paige didn't know what she expected to find but had she been given a choice, Emily Fields probably wouldn't have even made the list. Tossing the hockey stick back into the bucket, Paige flicked the locks to get the door open, nearly tripping over the threshold in her haste.
"Emily?" Paige stepped outside, bare arms wrapping around her own body to ward off the late night chill. Her excitement at seeing her friend, long missed, was quickly kicked to the backburner when she registered Emily's state. "Em, are you okay?"
It was a stupid question and Paige knew it the moment it left her lips. Emily was sitting on her doorstep at eleven o'clock at night, head in hands. Something was obviously wrong. When had Emily even gotten back to Rosewood? Last Paige heard from the others, she was still building houses in Haiti.
"Paige?" Emily looked up, seeming somehow confused to have found herself on Paige's doorstep.
Paige walked over, bare feet padding quietly against the porch as she approached.
"I'm here, Em." Paige sat on the step beside Emily. The girl leaned over, her shoulder supported by Paige's body as Emily dropped her head against Paige's. It wasn't hard to smell the booze on her, vodka practically oozed from her pores. Paige turned to face her friend, hand moving of its own volition to lightly brush the hair from Emily's face. A quick glance into glazed brown eyes confirmed what Paige already knew, Emily was hammered.
Emily's skin was cool to the touch, evidently she had been wandering for awhile without a jacket on, arms bare.
"You must be freezing, come one, let's get you inside."
It didn't matter that Emily was drunk. Nor that she hadn't heard from the girl directly in months. Emily was her friend and Paige had sworn to them both that she would be whatever the other girl needed. It seemed what Emily needed right now was a babysitter.
Paige stood, taking Emily's hand in hers to pull the drunken girl up. When that proved fruitless, she knelt down, bringing herself face to face with her friend. She fought the urge to wince at the smell of liquor as she looked Emily in the eyes.
"Em, I'm gonna have to get a little closer to get you up, okay?"
Emily nodded agreeably, holding her arms up as Paige closed the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around Emily's waist, feeling Emily lock her arms around her neck, holding tight. Ignoring the instinctive trill of pleasure that ran up her spine at having Emily so close, Paige powered up from the deep squat. Her quads protested the extra weight and she made a mental note to up the ante on her leg routine.
Satisfied that they were moderately stable, Paige released her grip, eyebrow going up questioningly when Emily didn't do the same.
"Uh, we have to get up the stairs," Paige said, clearing her throat as if it could clear the sudden tension between them. Wrestling her emotions back under control, Paige reached back, unlocking Emily's arms from her neck. She slung one arm around Emily's waist, hand in her belt, the other holding tight to the railing as Paige walked them up the steps. Emily clung tightly to her, hand covering Paige's and threading their fingers together as they stumbled across the porch into the house.
Paige kicked the door shut, foregoing the locks in favour of getting Emily to the couch. She would get her friend settled then phone Hastings to figure out what the hell was going on.
"Thanks," Emily murmured as they shuffled across the foyer. She seemed somewhat more alert now that she was on her feet and on the move. She tucked herself tight against Paige's body, sadness evident in dark eyes.
"You're welcome." Paige pressed a kiss to Emily's temple, wanting only to reassure her friend that she wasn't alone. That she would take care of her. Emily turned in the embrace, her hand reaching up to cup Paige's face.
She closed her eyes on instinct, leaning into the gentle touch. She knew she shouldn't enjoy it. That she should step away before she let Emily do something that they would both regret later. It wasn't her that Emily wanted. She was just reaching out for contact, trying to replace what she had lost.
When Emily's lips touched hers, for a fleeting moment, none of that mattered. Logic, reason, it all disappeared. There was only Emily, soft lips pressing against Paige's as gentle hands threaded through her hair, freeing it from its ponytail. Emily pressed up against her, grip growing stronger as she pulled Paige in.
Paige tried to believe it was real. That this was truly what Emily wanted and not some lonely attempt at intimacy. She couldn't do it. Couldn't take advantage of her friend. Emily was vulnerable and hurting and this -as much as Paige wanted it to be truth- was a mistake.
Paige took hold of Emily's wrist, gently pulling the girls hands from her body as she stepped back. Every part of her protested the move, Paige's admittedly weak self control barely holding as she stared into hurt and confused eyes.
"I thought…" Emily started, then stopped. "Don't you still want me?"
"Not like this, Em. You'll thank me in the morning, promise."
She led the girl over to the couch, wrapping her discarded throw around her shoulders. "I'm just going to grab you a glass of water, be right back."
She squeezed Emily's shoulder and headed for the kitchen. She grabbed the largest cup she could find and ran the tap, wondering what to do next. Should she let Emily sleep it off here? It would mean more than one awkward question in the morning. Her mom was cool and her dad had definitely chilled out but she was certain keeping Emily overnight bordered on pushing the boundaries. And Emily's drunken adventure would definitely make it back to Mrs. Fields.
The others would know what to do. She would grab Emily's phone and call Hastings to set up a plan.
"Em, do you want something to eat? How about some coffee?"
There was no answer and Paige sighed. It was closing in on 'above and beyond the call of duty' for the universe to ask her to fish through a passed out Emily's pockets for her phone.
"Em?" She called out again as she walked out of the kitchen, cup in hand. The breeze hit her first, eyes tracking to the open door, her blanket left at the threshold.
"Shit." Leaving the cup on the table, Paige pulled on her sneakers, phone and keys in hand as she closed the door. "Emily?" She looked up and down the street eyebrow quirked at the disappearing act. Emily had been barely standing, how the hell had she ninjaed her way off a deserted street?
"Emily?" Paige paced the length of the block, searching the lawns in case the girl had collapsed somewhere. She dialed Emily's number, hoping she would be able to hear the ring. No such luck.
"Damn it, Emily." She disconnected the call and jogged back to her house, collecting her bike from the garage. She pedaled through the park, scanning for any sign of the other girl. The park was the easiest short cut to Emily's house, if the girl had gone home, chances were she'd come through here.
She produced nothing on the first and second sweep nor when she pedaled past Emily's house. She dialed again, hoping against hope that Emily would pick up or at the very least, show signs of life in her bedroom.
When the second call went straight to voicemail, she clicked it off. Emily probably didn't even know it was her. After the incident with 'A', Paige had blocked her number to outgoing lines. With Emily down south for the summer, she hadn't thought to add her friend to those who could see it.
Paige searched the contacts in her phone, hoping she had somehow gotten hold of Hastings' number or either of the others. She knew it was false hope but she was a few breaths shy of full blown panic. Her next step was to call information requesting the number of all three girls. Unsurprisingly none of them were listed and despite her pleading, Paige couldn't get the operator to cave.
Frustration mounting, she was tempted to simply walk up to Emily's house and knock on her door. Normally a drunken night wouldn't mean much but Paige knew some form of 'A' was still lingering in the shadows and she didn't trust that Emily's disappearing act had been completely under her own power.
"Fuck it." She could swallow this much of her pride if it meant making sure Em was safe. She hopped on her bike, pedaling for all she was worth to Hastings' house. She was relieved to find the main floor lights on, at least there was some kind of good luck tonight. She crept around the back, not wanting to wake the whole house by ringing the doorbell.
The glass pane doors gave her a full view into the living room, relieved to find a somewhat muddy but otherwise healthy Emily wobbling in front of her friends. Paige let out a breath, dropping her hand from the door. Now that she knew Emily was safe, there was no reason to pry further. The other girls would make sure she was taken care of and Paige didn't want to embarrass Emily by showing up half dressed looking like she had just run a marathon. She snuck out of the Hastings' back yard, picking up her bike along the way.
It was quick work to make it back to her house, her dad's car in the driveway. Paige checked her watch. Two in the morning.
"Damn." There wasn't a good way for this to end. She was out past curfew. Paige rolled her bike into the garage, retying her ponytail and walking in the house with as much dignity as she could manage, half dressed in the middle of the night.
Both her parents were up, her father nursing a nightcap as her mother tidied the mess Paige had left in the living room. Neither of them looked particularly worried, they hadn't even gotten around to calling her cell phone yet.
"You know what time your curfew is."
Paige nodded, tucking her hands into her hoodie as she looked at him.
"Care to explain?"
"Emily's back." She thought she heard her father sigh. No matter his progress, he had never quite gotten over his idea that Emily was somehow to blame -despite Paige's protest that it was impossible to catch 'The Gay.'
"Why is it whenever I hear that young lady's name I think of trouble?"
"Nick!" Her mother admonished.
"She just dropped by to say hello, I didn't want her to walk home by herself," Paige said. It was close enough to the truth that she didn't feel bad for telling the lie. That was one thing 'A' had taught her over the last year, there were always shades of truth.
Her father nodded his acceptance of the story, holding out his free hand. Even if he believed her, it didn't mitigate the fact that she had broken curfew without permission. She pulled her purse off the hangar, producing the spare key to her mother's car.
"One week. You could use the extra biking anyway, we've got an important year coming up."
Paige nodded, knowing she had gotten off lightly. She headed for her room, sparing a glance for her mother who mouthed 'talk later' before taking Paige's cup to the kitchen.
Paige slid gratefully into bed, warm sheets a delicious contrast to the cool night air she had been biking through. Sleep, unfortunately, was completely elusive. Now that her mind wasn't frantically trying to think of places to find Emily, it had apparently settled upon the task of dissecting the entire crazy night.
Emily had kissed her. It hadn't been a 'just friends' kiss either. Given Emily's state, Paige wasn't sure how far her friend would have gone if her own common sense hadn't kicked in. The pleasure of the memory, silky lips moving against hers, was balanced out by the shame Paige felt for having let it get so far. Some instinctive part of her had known what Emily was going to do and she had let it happen.
It was wrong.
Emily was still grieving and Paige letting her emotions override her good sense -even for that tiny moment- no doubt jeopardized the friendship they had built. Paige couldn't stand it if her actions caused Emily to pull away any more than she already had.
And how had the others allowed her to get into such a state? Surely Hastings, at least, would have had the sense to cut Emily off well before she had gotten drunk enough to make a pass at Paige.
Paige closed her eyes, focusing herself on the sound of the calm ocean waves that poured out from her stereo. She drifted off, visions of her and Emily on a distant beach lulling her unconsciousness.
Paige spent the next day glued to her phone, waiting for Emily to call. She didn't know what she expected from the conversation, mind bouncing between her friend apologizing for her behaviour to lashing out at Paige for taking advantage.
What she didn't expect was total radio silence. Her phone hadn't so much as chirped at her since Pru's early morning message inviting her to the beach.
The later it got, the more anxious Paige became. Was Emily okay? She had seemed fine at Spencer's, drunk off her ass, but fine. Maybe she was angry. Maybe the kiss had been so horrible that Emily wouldn't even talk to her.
Paige worried herself in circles for the better part of the day, her only progress in managing to quite ably give herself a migraine.
Her phone lay on the table, the small piece of technology staring at her as though it's sole purpose for existing were to mock her. Paige picked it up, thumbing through her contacts to Emily's number. A quick text. What could it hurt? She would just make sure the other girl was okay and leave it at that.
Her fingers remained paralyzed over the tiny keyboard, body willing but mind weak. What if she made it worse? What if Emily really was mad and needed time to cool off? Paige tossed the phone to the far side of the couch, throwing a pillow over it for good measure.
She slid down, sprawling across the couch, the sounds of her mother puttering around in the kitchen overhead a welcome familiarity. One day. Emily had been back in Rosewood one day and managed to upend every sense of calm Paige had worked for over the summer.
Paige thought Emily being away from the summer would give her the opportunity to sort herself out. She could get her feelings under control and be there for Emily as a friend when she returned. Paige had planned on being comfortable in that role, her final grudging acceptance that she had blown her shot with Emily. It was a perfectly reasonable plan and Emily had stumbled up her porch steps and dismantled it in a total of ten minutes.
The door at the top of the stairs opened and Paige listened for the footsteps, the lighter step letting her know it was her mother. She watched her approach, tucking her legs into her body to make room as her mom walked over.
"Staring at your phone won't make it ring," her mother greeted her knowing smile drawing a disgruntled laugh from Paige.
"I'm not staring at it, I'm hiding from it." Paige lifted up the pillow to show the hidden device.
Her mom sat down in the offered space, tucking her feet up in a mirror of Paige's position. She offered her arm and Paige sank into her mother's smaller body, letting out a deep sigh as her mother wrapped her arms around her. "Emily still hasn't called." It wasn't a question.
"No. I mean, she's probably busy, she just got back." That bit was at least partially a lie, she had no idea how long Emily had been back in town for. It couldn't have been long, they ran in enough of the same circles that they wouldn't have been able to miss one another for long.
"That doesn't make it any easier for you."
Paige shook her head, leaning against her mom, sucking up the offered comfort. They didn't speak further, they didn't need to, Paige content to watch TV, letting the mindless programs pull her out of her own head. It wasn't until the eleven o'clock news came on that Paige realized she had worried the whole day away.
Her mother thumbed up the volume, always interested in keeping in step with the local news.
"In a shocking development in the DiLaurentis case, an unknown person or persons has exhumed the body of Alison DiLaurentis. Officials say the grave was disturbed sometime last night, the body removed without a trace." The newscaster cut to a clip interview with the lead officer, a Detective Wilden, and Paige fought back the urge to sneer at the familiar man. Five months later and the sight of him still made her skin crawl.
"Is that family ever going to get peace?" Her mother's question was rhetorical and Paige didn't complain when her mother pulled her tighter. She knew Alison's disappearance had shaken Rosewood parents to the core, their sleepy town no longer an untouched haven.
Paige looked at her phone, understanding creeping in. Emily wasn't intentionally avoiding her, in the inevitable shit storm that followed Ali's body disappearing, Paige had likely been low on her list of concerns.
Poor Emily. Paige knew how deep her friend's feelings ran for Alison. Now, after everything else, Maya, Mona, Emily had to deal with this. It was no wonder the girl hadn't contacted her, she was probably holed up with the rest of the foursome, battening down the hatches for the media maelstrom that was to come.
Paige woke for her first day of school, tossing on her bathing suit with practiced ease. She had made a point to keep her early morning routine in place throughout summer, a habit reinforced by the rigorous swim camp she had attended through midsummer. It had been an aggressive clinic with a private coach known for breeding Olympians who had spent four weeks correcting and refining Paige's technique. The six day a week training schedule had left little time for herself, especially given the daily train commute into the city. Still, the opportunity to refine her skills, without Morgan's constant harping, had been a welcome one.
The rigorous schedule had kept her mind off others things, Emily being chief among them. Her last month of school had been so busy preparing for finals that she had little time to think of her friend. But those first few weeks of summer, when there had been nothing but time, Paige found herself stuck on a loop, thoughts occupied by wondering how Emily was doing.
It had been borderline obsessive, her relief only coming when she had bumped into Aria at The Grill, near bullying the tiny brunette into updating her on Emily's status.
Paige shook her head at the memory, forcing herself to focus on the present. The coming year would be challenge enough without taking someone elses problems.
Her breakfast consisted of a quick electrolyte drink before she made her way into the pool, her phone set on the table to act as an alarm. Two hours later, she hauled herself out of the water to get ready for school, shivering in the early morning chill. A quick shower to rinse the chlorine from her body and she was back upstairs.
Her parents were up, her mother offering her a second breakfast and her lunch kit.
"Did you do your pull ups this morning?" Paige asked, looking at her father who was already half way through a cup of coffee.
"I did indeed," he pointed to the chin up bar they had wedged in the door frame of the kitchen, part of their summer fitness challenge to one another. The entire program had been set in place at her mother's behest, out of concern for some medical tests that promised poor health in her father's future if he didn't become more active. Sean was in on it as well, accompanying Paige and her father on their early weekend runs before the three of them attended boxing class. Speaking of her friend. "Sean and I are playing some street hockey after school, I'll try not to be too late for dinner."
"Take an extra protein shake."
Paige held up the barrel of protein mix in her backpack as answer, quickly kissing her parents before heading out to her bike. It was quick work to get to school, Pru already waiting at her locker as she walked up.
"Nice of you to finally show up, sleep in?"
"I've already worked out for two hours and rode over here. What did you do, toss on some makeup?"
"Hey, you think this much awesome comes easily?" Pru motioned to herself. Paige rolled her eyes, opening up her locker. "Want to hit The Brew after school?"
"Can't, I... have plans, with Sean," Paige admitted, looking at her friend to gauge her reaction.
"Yeah, sure, no big."
"Seriously, no big deal."
"You dumped him," Paige reminded. Pru spent little time in Rosewood over any given summer and her friend had made the call shortly after finals that she wasn't up to a long distance relationship.
"Yeah, yeah, rub it in, McCullers. C'mon, walk me to class." Pru hooked an arm through Paige's, leading them down the bustling hallway. "Since we're both dateless this Friday, care to take me to the movies?"
"It's only Monday, I have my doubts you'll still be dateless by Friday," Paige said, stopping in front of Pru's classroom.
"True but you're a better plan than some random guy. Crash at my place? C'mon, it's your last weekend before swimming swallows you whole again."
It was true, between swimming and field hockey, she wouldn't be coming up for air until well into the new year. And she had been missing Pru these last couple of months. "All right, it's a date. But I get the good pillow this time."
"You're all the pillow I need." Pru batted her eyelashes dramatically before ducking into her classroom, Paige shaking her head.
Paige's classes came at her full tilt, her teachers wasting no time in dumping chapters and future taste dates in their laps. Knowing that staying ahead would be key in her senior year, Paige already had ample study time carved out into her schedule. She had scouts checking her out from a number of schools and keeping a high grade point average would make her look like a well rounded candidate.
Paige had filled out her early admission packages over the summer, the forms sitting in her father's office, ready to be sent in as soon as they opened. Her job from here on in was to keep her times low and her marks high.
It was late in the afternoon that she finally caught up to Emily, literally bumping into her as she turned the corner to head out of school. Paige's hands shot out, reflexes quick enough that she was able stabilize her friend before her ass hit the tile.
"Wow, you're uh, you're solid," Emily commented, seeming surprised that she had bounced off Paige's body. Paige felt herself blush at the comment, completely irritated with herself that even a few words from Emily could send her into a tailspin. Old habits died hard.
"I've been working out," Paige answered. "Someone's got to keep you in line."
Emily smiled at the lame attempt of a joke though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "I was hoping to run into you, well, not literally of course."
"Uh huh, just trying to get me out of the competition, I know you're still bitter about those two tenths of a second. Nice try, Fields."
"No, I mean, you're not much competition so why bother?"
Paige was pleased that her friend didn't seem to be bearing any ill will toward her, feeling herself relax in Emily's presence.
"Smartass." Paige nudged the girl with her textbook, enjoying the surprisingly easy moment of camaraderie. This had been missing the last go around. Paige had been so anxious to hide herself and then so anxious to prove herself that she had never gotten the opportunity to just be herself.
"I wanted to come see you before school started," Emily said, turning to walk with Paige down the hall. "But then my flight was delayed by almost a week and then getting unpacked..." Emily petered off, shrugging her shoulders helplessly.
"You, uh, wanted to see me?" Paige asked, eyebrow raised in question.
"Yeah, I was going to drop by your place on the weekend but I headed up to Spencer's lakehouse and then with everything with Ali's grave... time just got away from me."
No, that wasn't right. Paige was about to correct her when she looked at Emily, finding no deception in her gaze. How drunk had Emily been that an entire chunk of her Friday night was missing? Her friend had been in bad way, yes, but there was drunk and there was dangerous. A complete blackout? What the hell had Hastings and the others been doing?
Emily looked at her as though Paige was meant to say something and she searched for an anchor point in the conversation. "That's okay, I understand. How was Spencer's lakehouse, did you get to relax a bit at least?"
"Yeah, we drove up Friday evening, went swimming. We were going to stay most of the weekend but with everything with Ali's grave..."
"You drove up Friday evening?" Paige pushed open the door to the locker room, holding it open for Emily as she passed.
"Yeah, it was fun. I've got to get going but I'll see you soon, okay?" Emily didn't meet her eyes as she spoke, continuing on toward the parking lot, Paige falling slowly behind.
Paige tried to work out the logistics, her brain immediately calling bullshit on the story. Emily might not remember being at her house but no way could she be missing an entire afternoon, the foursome hadn't left until well after midnight.
Emily had lied to her.
What the hell was going on?
Paige's phone chirped and she pulled it out, fully expecting a text from Sean about her whereabouts. Her body recognized the inherent fear before her mind fully comprehended what it was seeing, chills trickling down her spine. A photo gradually loaded, and there was no mistake. It was her and Emily in her foyer, kissing. A second beep heralded the return of the threat she feared most.
Welcome back to the gAme. -A