Author's Note: This plot bunny has had me in it's grips forever. So I had to finally write it. I researched some of the details. Errors are mine.
Disclaimer: I do not own Pretty Little Liars.
Spencer Hastings found the sun to be shining too brightly. She blinked and then shielded her eyes with her hand. She made a note to buy a pair of sunglasses, as soon as she could afford to. Logically, she knew that this was the same sun that had shone down on her when she was at Muncy, but the freedom to be outside was suffocating and made the sun all the more intense.
The bus she was waiting for came and she got on. It would be her first day of what the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Corrections deemed "gainful employment". Watching scenes of the city pass by through the tinted bus window, the same scenes she had ignored when she was driving her own car, she had to wonder what her sixteen-year-old self would think if she could see her now.
A rueful smirk spread across her face. She had already been making plans for college and law school since she was eight. She had a career path mapped out. Those plans had room for her to marry a like-minded husband, and have children, who would have the same childhood she had, grow up the way she did. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
Right now, 33-year-old Spencer Hastings would be unrecognizable to her sixteen-year-old self, and to her friends. Wearing jeans and a white shirt that came from a pack of three that were a far cry from the designer outfits she had worn her junior year, she looked at her opaque reflection in the window. She was older to be sure, especially around the eyes and mouth. Her nose was slightly off center, after getting broken by a stray punch that hadn't been meant for her during a fight in the common area. The prison physician had been in a hurry to get home for the day, so he had done a rushed job when setting it. Another ruin to be mapped on her face was the faint scar on her upper lip where her lip had been split open her first year in general population and stitched back in a crooked line by the same physician. There were other scars, not all of them visible.
Then there were the tattoos taking up permanence on her skin. Spencer had been of the opinion that tattoos were for hipsters and ex-convicts. Well, she could be considered the latter now. Each one had it's own special meaning, either a remembrance or a regret there on her skin for everyone to see. She wasn't ashamed of the sleeve of ink on her left arm. People would avoid her, and she was okay with that. She wanted to be invisible.
Getting off at the spot her new boss told her to use, Spencer shoved her hands in her pockets and walked swiftly, a habit left over from when she had a limited amount of time to do things in. She scanned the storefronts for the given address, and finally found it in between a place that was called Adobo Joe's and a grocery store. She found it hard to believe that places like these still existed, that not everything was a franchise chain.
Opening the door and stepping inside, Spencer was assaulted by the intense smells of baked goods and coffee. The smells on the outside were stronger, sometimes she wanted to gag. But it was comforting, that smell of brewed coffee, and something that felt familiar. She closed her eyes and took another breath.
"Hey! Tell me you're Spencer or order something. You're kinda freaking me out just standing there."
Spencer opened her eyes and found herself face to face with a tiny brunette with tan skin, wearing an apron and an amused smile on her face. "Yes. I'm Spencer."
"Awesome. I'm Karolina. Welcome to "Cupcake-a-Coffee". You're early, but I'll let Nina know you're here." She nodded to the Asian guy behind the register. "Hey, Solomon. This is Spencer. She's new." They then continued behind the counter and through a door that leads to the kitchen.
The kitchen looked pretty sterile and more like an operating room. The white tiled walls and steel counter tops didn't look welcoming, but the smells drafting around the room were a warm hug. There were racks of desserts cooling and mixers, bowls, and rolling pins. And a tall blonde singing while icing cupcakes and a black woman bobbing her head as he pulled a tray of brownies out of an oven were in the center of it all, livening up the place.
"Nina! Eli! Your new girl is here!" Karolina announced and waved her hands in Spencer's directions.
The black woman racked the tray of brownies, and removed the oven mitts from her hands, while the blonde went back to the cupcakes. "Spencer. Welcome, welcome. I'm Nina. It's nice to finally meet you in person." Nina put her hand out for a shake.
Nodding, Spencer looked at her new boss's hand before shaking it. "Yeah. It's nice to finally put a face to a voice." She had done an interview for this job over the phone. It was one of the few jobs that the parole agent had let her know about. She had really wanted to start working as soon as possible, and this was the only place that didn't dismiss her after finding out she had checked the criminal history box on her applications. She really had no choice. She needed the job. At least she could get decent coffee again.
"Good, good. Let me tell you what you'll be doing. I'm afraid you'll be doing a lot of the dirty work around here at first. Washing the bowls and such. Clean up duty. And there will be some heavy lifting, but by the looks of you I'm sure you can manage." Nina grinned as she took in Spencer's arms. When she wasn't working on her correspondence courses, times spent working out in prison gym kept her frustrations at bay, and her muscles defined.
"Then we can get you started on making drink orders." Spencer was watching the blonde, Eli, decorating cupcakes. Nina took that in as well. "Do you bake?"
"Not since before," Spencer trailed off. She looked at Nina, who in turn gave her a sympathetic look.
"I understand. If you like I can teach you. I find it very relaxing. And it really helped Eli."
At hearing her name, the blonde looked up from her work at her boss and new co-worker. In Eli, Spencer recognized that same hole of losing years of your life that takes up residence in part of your being. The lines on her face. The look in her eyes. And Eli knew that Spencer was the same.
"Right then. Let me give you the tour." Nina clapped her hands together.
"I could do that, Nina. I'm done with this batch." Eli nodded her head at the batch of yellow cupcakes that were iced pink, purple and blue. "And the tour shouldn't take too long."
"Alright then. Spencer, I'll leave you in Eli's more than capable hands." Nina waved them off, and brought the tray of cupcakes out to the front.
"This is the kitchen. And then here is where we keep the ingredients." Eli walked towards a set of shelves next to a large refrigerator. "You know milk, eggs, flour. All that."
Spencer kept quiet as the other woman showed her around the kitchen. There was a three-deck oven. The instructions were easy to understand, and she felt somewhat beneath her. But she had pulled kitchen duty before.
"Here's where you'll be washing the pans and bowls." The moved on to a large and deep sink basin. Eli pointed to shelves when an assortment of pans and bowls. "Rack them up here when you've dried them. Easy enough right? I'm sure you've pulled kitchen duty before."
"Yes. I have." Spencer crossed her arms. The two women were quiet, just staring each other down.
Eli smirked as she broke the silence. "You don't give too much away, do you? Well listen up. I don't care what you did to land yourself in Muncy. Yeah, I know you were in Muncy. But you do anything, drugs or drinking, anything, to hurt this bakery, you'll regret it. Nina is taking a shot on you. So don't mess up. We clear?"
"Yes." Spencer clenched her jaw. She could understand where Eli was coming from, that fierce loyalty that made you defend things you loved. But she didn't like being threatened. The last time she had been threatened, she had given in. And that was it. She given up so much to protect her friends, and this was were she had ended up. 33 years old with not much to her name, a complete stranger to herself.
"That being said, I've been where you are. You may think you can, but you can't do this alone. If you need help, don't be afraid to ask. If you don't have family or friends, Nina is great with this stuff. " Eli grabbed an apron and tossed it to her. "You can get started on those." She nodded at the sink.
Spencer put the red apron on then pulled a hair tie out of her pocket to put her hair up and got to work. This was a task that most people abhorred but she found herself doing a lot of thinking when she did the dishes. And right now her thoughts were occupied by about what Eli had said.
Things were different now. Time had marched on and left her behind. She was going to have to learn how to be around people again. She shouldn't have brushed off Eli's earlier attempts to talk to her. Just as she had been right about Muncy, Eli was right about her having no one.
Peter Hastings had paid so much money to keep suspicions off his family and their secrets in the dark, but when Spencer's confession came to light, he was done with her. As far as he was concerned, he only had one daughter. Melissa Hastings, only child, had sided with her father. She had loved Ian Thomas, and to know Spencer was involved in his murder was too much to give forgiveness. She knew she didn't even have Jason DiLaurentis, who have been thrown out of her trial for contempt of the court. He had snarled and screamed at her, when she had taken the stand. The betrayal of losing one sister through the actions of another. The court police had to drag him out of the courtroom yelling the last thing he would ever say to her. "I trusted you!"
Her mother was the only one to stay with her. She had visited Spencer at least once a month. The visits had been tense at the start, Veronica unable to understand why her daughter would ever align herself with Garrett Reynolds. But she had become resigned to this, and would often fight with her husband before her visits to her youngest at Muncy. For six years, during these visits mother would try to talk to daughter about life in Rosewood, with updates on how her old friends were doing since Spencer would not bring up how she was doing in prison beyond the vague, "Fine."
She remembered thinking that Veronica Hastings had picked up this information from Ashley Marin and Ella Montgomery, not their daughters at all. That her mother would run into Ashley Marin around town. They'd get to chatting.
Spencer had wanted nothing to do with Hanna Marin and Aria Montgomery, and she was sure they felt the same way. Hanna had written her off completely. A clean break. Aria had attempted to write her, but when Spencer didn't respond she must have given up and the letters and emails stopped coming.
Then there was Emily Fields. She seemed to actually keep in touch with Veronica Hastings, enough for her to chide her daughter to let Emily visit her.
"She asks about you all the time."
She did not tell her mother that she thought about Emily Fields all the time. Back then it was ruminations on how she was doing, who she took to prom, where she had applied to college and then where she had decided to attend. She wondered what Emily had decided to major in and if she was still swimming. She hoped Emily was happy. Safe. If A was still keeping to their part of the deal.
The other girl had tried to visit her multiple times, even though Spencer refused to see her. The other girl kept writing to her. Spencer refused to answer. Her thoughts were torture enough. To see Emily would be the end of her.
But then Veronica Hastings had gotten sick. Stage IV breast cancer. She had kept visiting until the chemotherapy made her too weak to get out of bed.
They had said goodbye and hugged longer than another other visit. Mother and daughter knew that his would be the last visit.
"I'm so sorry, Mom." Spencer cried hot tears for the first time in years. From the moment she had confessed, and every day in Muncy, she had not cried, no matter how hard things had gotten. She had sacrificed so much and mother had ended up paying for it.
"Spencer, I love you so much." Veronica had started crying as well. A guard had come to let them know they have five more minutes, and it made Spencer want to hold her mother longer. "You take care of yourself, okay? Please."
"I love you, Mom."
The applications to see her mother in the hospital had all been turned down. She hadn't even been allowed to go attend the funeral. Her mother's death was probably being blamed on her as well, another reason for her father to hate her.
After her mother had died she received a book in the mail. When she had complained that most of the fiction books in the prison library were beneath her, Veronica Hastings had began to send her some books every once in awhile. Different authors, different genres. This last book was a copy of "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", on the inside cover the name "Emily Fields" was neatly printed by the other girl's own hand.
"You should have this. Talk to her," was all that was written on her mother's note.
Spencer paused in her scrubbing, and tried to rub at her eye with her sleeve. She finished on the last bowl and went about putting all the pans and bowls away.
"Spencer!" The bubbly brunette that had first greeted her was calling her name. Karolina gave her a friendly smile. "Eli asked me to check up on you. Is something wrong?"
"Just got some soap in my eye." Spencer answered with a weak smile. "Uh. What's up?"
"Oh. Eli said you could come out front. Be social. It's kinda slow right now, so you can get a cup of coffee and see what we sell here." Karolina looked excited at having another person to get to know at work.
"You already have a cup of coffee or two?" Spencer asked dryly as she washed her hands.
"You're funny. I'm perky and I know it. No apologies." Karolina grinned. "Come on."
Spencer followed the younger woman to the front of the shop. The front of the shop had a different mix of wooden chairs and tables along with comfortable looking couches and low tables. It was a very relaxing atmosphere, a place to go to study or get to know someone over coffee. There was some music playing but not loud enough to disrupt conversations or break someone's concentration.
Karolina stopped next to the espresso machine. "What are you having?"
"I'll just have a cup of the brewed."
Karolina nodded and grabbed a mug. "Go have a seat with Eli and Nina. I'll bring it over with some goodies."
Spencer nodded and found Eli and Nina chatting at a table. "Hey. There you are. It's your first day so we're going really easy on you. Let's have some time to chat before the afternoon crowd spills in. I like getting to know my employees. How's that sound?"
Nina had a warm inviting smile. Spencer looked over at Eli and found the other woman watching her, waiting for her reaction.
"That sounds great." Spencer was a little nervous at having Eli there, but schooled her face to not betray anything. Their conversation from earlier had made her uncomfortable.
"Well, why don't you start by sitting down?" Eli said. "Here take my seat. I'm going to get started on some cream puffs." She stood and left the table to go back to the kitchen.
"I hope Eli didn't say anything to scare you off earlier. She's fiercely protective of this place. And of me. You heard her. You really should sit."
"Yes. Sorry." Spencer didn't know why she was being so awkward as she sat down. She had mostly kept to herself in Muncy. She would play chess with one of the other women, but she didn't associate with the other prisoners. She engaged herself in solitary activities like reading and working out. She had been able to get her GED, and after that she had worked on various degrees through the prison. The only other activity she did that was close to being social was tutoring so she pursued teaching. She had a Master's Degree in Education, but it wasn't like a school would hire her. It had just been something to occupy her time.
"Here you go." Karolina had come to their table with a tray with two steaming cups and a slice of cake.
"Thank you, K." Nina took the cup that had tea, and Spencer retrieved the remaining cup. "You heading out soon?"
"Yeah, Boss. It was really nice meeting you, Spencer! Looking forward to working with you."
"Hey, you should bring the kid around more often. We love having her." Nina said.
"I should! I'll try to make it happen tomorrow." Karolina was practically buzzing with anticipation.
"Off with you, Little Hummingbird." Nina waved her off. The young woman saluted and spun on her heel to go into the kitchen.
"Is she always like that?" Spencer asked as she tested out the heat of her mug. Finding it to be just the right temperature, she held with the white mug with both hands. The warmth was something she missed. Like a lover's hug, she felt protected and safe.
"Yes. She is." Nina noticed that the young women across from her had brought the mug up to her lips to take a sip. But before she did, she took a deep breath and shivered. "You a big coffee drinker?"
Spencer looked sheepish. "I haven't had decent coffee in forever. When people say hospital coffee is awful, they haven't had prison coffee." When Veronica would visit Spencer, she would buy coffee from one of the vending machines.
"I'll let the doctors that come in here know." Nina plunged her tea bag up and down. She added some milk and stirred in some sugar. "There's a hospital a few blocks from here. And they like to take advantage of our delivery service, so that's another thing I'll be having you do."
"Okay." Spencer nodded. She could do that. The only doctor she knew was hopefully still practicing in Rosewood. Or not anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania. She took a sip of the coffee and let out a moan.
"You are going at that coffee like it's a beautiful woman taking you to bed." Nina teased.
Blushing, Spencer sputtered out a response. "I don't. I haven't-"
"Relax. I'm just messing with you. No judgment." Nina said.
"I don't even want to think about dating." The thin brunette set her mug down and peered into contents, searching for answers and comfort. "How do I explain where I've been for the last fifteen years? And why. Besides, who would want to be with this?" She pointed at herself.
"You'll find someone." Spencer gave her boss a weak smile. It was nice of her to believe that, but she herself wasn't going to hold her breath. "Do you keep in touch with anyone from home?"
"No." Spencer traced her finger along the handle of the mug. "My father pretty much disowned me. My brother and sister hate me. And I don't have friends. Not anymore." She had burned those bridges long ago.
"I'm sure that's not true. You should get in touch with them. It couldn't hurt right?"
"I guess." She could never get in contact with anyone back in Rosewood. It could get back to A. Nina didn't know what she was asking Spencer to do. Emily's life was better off without her in it.
"Try the cake. It'll make you feel better." At Nina's prodding, she picked up a fork and took off the tip. "It's German Dark Chocolate."
"Damn. That is really sweet." Spencer gave a small grin. Another thing she would have to get used to was food having flavor.
"One of our best sellers. You can order it by slice, a whole cake, or in cupcake form." Nina had a proud look on her face, either from praise of her work or because she finally got the young woman sitting in front of her to finally smile. "So what does Spencer Hastings like to do for fun?"
"Haven't had fun in a long time." She took another small forkful of cake. "I enjoy running and reading." Those were both forms of escape she realized. But her life wasn't anything to stay for. "But I guess I have the option to do other things now."
"That's true." Nina said softly. "If you ever want to borrow books, I have a sizable collection. What do you like to read?"
"I might take you up on the offer. I only own two books right now, and it would save me a trip to the library." Spencer sat back in her chair, and she pursed her lips. When she left prison, she left wearing the clothes they gave her and her mother's copy of A Farewell To Arms and Emily's copy of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. "I like the classics. I've reread some of my favorites. Historical fiction as well. Biographies, and I guess I'll read anything if I find the subject interesting enough."
"You're in luck. We have similar tastes." Nina responded. "It'll be nice to have someone to pick their brain about Dostoyevsky or Vidal. But you know I'm sure you'd enjoy getting out. Catch a movie or go to a museum. Do you have a curfew?"
"I can't be out past 11 pm for the first four months." Spencer admitted. Her PO had sat her with down and explained all the conditions of her parole. She didn't have an alcohol restriction but she didn't want to risk it. She had to check in with her PO every other day. There would be surprise inspections. She had to maintain employment, live at the residence as approved by the Board, and she couldn't leave the state. She could recite back all she had to comply with word for word.
"Well, then we'll just have to have an early dinner sometime. There are great restaurants in this neighborhood. " Nina sipped on her tea.
"It's not really in my budget." Spencer looked down at her hands again. Most of the money she would earn would go towards rent and restitution. She clenched and unclenched her hand. She had to find clothes at a thrift store, and she was stretching out a bag of rice and cans of chickpeas. She was using a toothbrush and other toiletries that the DOC gave her when she was released. Her situation hit her in waves, and she felt so desolate. She had thought prison had destroyed her, but life on the outside was taking everything she had. And she had very little left to begin with.
"Look, you can do this." Nina reached for Spencer's hands and took them in her own. "I believe in second chances. Everyone deserves one. Let me help you."
"You don't even know me."
"No. But I know your story. My daughter went to prison young. She was on the track and field team. She was on honor roll. My husband and I gave Valarie all our support, but she got addicted to heroin." Nina paused in her story, collecting herself. "She went to prison for possession. There weren't that many support groups for her when she got out. It was so hard for her. She wouldn't let us help her. So she ended up back in when she tried to steal a laptop for money to buy more drugs. She couldn't handle a second sentence, so she took her own life. I'm a mother who lost her child. I just don't want anyone else to go through the same thing. Losing someone they love."
"I'm not your daughter." Spencer felt like choking on her words. This poor woman was only trying to help her. For a long time, she felt like she hadn't deserved anything.
"I know. And helping Eli, helping you doesn't bring her back. But I know that someone cares for you. They're out there, I'm sure of it."
"Besides, dinner's a tradition. Every time we get a new employee, we go out to dinner. Every birthday. Any reason to celebrate. Right now that's you. We're a family here. Welcome home."