Emily's fingers ran the lightest touch across her cheek, so soft and tentative that Paige could almost have invented it, willed it into existence with just the wanting she felt stirring in her. She turned to face the girl kneeling above her, catching her dark eyes with her own lighter ones. There was something resigned in Emily's face—or maybe not that—maybe something deeply content and immovable. Something accepted. Paige had never seen that look before.
What was that look?
A thrill of frustrated craving ran through Paige as Emily withdrew her hand from her hair, her body keening at the loss of touch. Despite the lack, she could almost forget her frustration while she continued to watch Emily. The light from the pool cast shifting blue waves across the darker girl's face, lighting up her skin, catching the darkness in her eyes, and adding a flickering glow to her hair.
She was so beautiful.
Paige didn't understand how so much of her could ache for Emily, for wanting her, and another part of her could be too afraid to touch her; still be bound in a closet, terrified to make a sound.
Emily stood up slowly, pulling her tank-top off as she stood.
"Em?" Paige managed before she got lost in the sight of Emily's bare skin, the line of Emily's torso as her arms stretched upwards.
Emily unbuttoned her jeans as she walked to the end of the pool, pulling them down and stepping out of them in one fluid motion. Paige turned in the water to watch her, one hand still unconsciously gripping the side of the pool, knuckles whitening at the sight of Emily's flawlessness, of her incredible rarity.
Emily began her descent down the steps, the water reaching up to meet her as if it was as hungry for her as Paige was. As graceful as Emily was on land, there was still the realization that the other girl always looked like she was made for water. Paige swam like she was in a fight; Emily swam like it was a dance. Paige first fell in love with the way Emily moved through the water.
Emily waded towards her, stopping just out of the other girl's reach, the ripples from Emily's movement to her lapping at Paige. Paige shivered, felt the thrill running up her spine, and as the charge reached her neck she felt the fire that had been trying to catch inside of her finally flicker up, catch, crackle from her heart to her fingertips. Every desire she had worked so hard to let go, every nerve she had been so sure would never feel again after the silence beneath the pool, was ablaze with want.
She wanted the taste of Emily's skin on her tongue and the way her hips moved against her. She wanted Emily beneath her and her lips between her teeth. She wanted her hand a fist in Emily's hair and her fingers inside of her. She wanted Emily to buck, to moan, to kiss, to call her name. Paige wanted her.
She was finally brought back from the fire that had kindled in her ribcage by the knowledge that Emily was still standing in front of her, watching her, the moment of silence stretching out between them with Paige's distraction.
Emily looked at her, and in her eyes was a careful question, a need for assurance from the other girl that this—that she—was what Paige wanted.
Emily held her breath as she waited to see what Paige would do, whether the auburn haired girl could forgive, accept, and still want more of her.
She watched the moment of decision in Paige's eyes, willing the other girl to pick her, but trying to prepare herself for a loss, for a dimming of something bright and good. She tried to imagine the room inside herself that her love for Paige would live in; the possibility of having to lock that love away filling her with a wave of aching. The thought that she could realize this love only to lose it in the same minute was beyond her ability to imagine, to bear.
The very first time Paige saw Emily they were both underwater. She was 14 years old and it was the day of high-school swim team try-outs. Paige felt as focused as she had ever been, ignoring the chatter of her fellow hopefuls, adjusting her goggles and undoing the adjustment, just like she had a million times before.
She allowed herself to be nervous when she mounted the block; allowed that moment of blind panic and the sensation that she shouldn't be here, that she couldn't do this, that she wasn't good enough, before she squelched it down inside of herself, kept it captive for another day.
She had a perfect start—body already moving halfway through the sound of the whistle. There was a flicker to her left at the same time she dove into the water, but she ignored it, fell into the speedy rhythm of her first strokes. Her first length was solid. She could feel from the tension in her muscles and the number of breaths she had taken that she was right on target for her personal best. It was on the turn where things started to fall apart.
Paige powered up to the wall, pulled into a flip-turn, and in the middle of that moment of upside-down disorientation she caught sight of the girl in the lane to her left. She was tall and dark and she had a fantastic body and she was in the middle of a perfect turn. This girl was going to take her lead.
The first thing Paige had felt was rage. It was the second and third thing too, but as the girl to her left kept steadily pulling ahead, she couldn't help but be jealous of her skill, of the line she made through the water; like it wasn't so much a race but a dance. Halfway through the length of the pool, jealousy turned to admiration. Paige worked hard, she knew she was fast, but this girl was clearly beyond. Her obvious strength made Paige wonder if she could ever be that strong, made her itch to try. And perhaps it was lack of air, and perhaps it was her body being pushed beyond it's capabilities, and perhaps it was because she felt that just from looking at the way she moved through the water that she knew this girl—knew the love and joy and passion that made her up—but by the end of that length, as her hand touched the wall far behind the girl to her left's, Paige knew that she was in love.
Later that day Paige learned her name was Emily.
Every look they had shared since that first time had only served to convince Paige that she had been right about Emily all along—that this was a girl who could beat her and make her feel good about it, this was a girl whose gentleness could tame the roughest edge on someone and find their shine, this was a girl who would try to teach you how it felt to do something just for pure happiness again—this was the girl that she loved.
Now Paige looked at Emily like a whole life of looking would never be enough. She had spent years looking at Emily, hoping and praying, and now here was Emily, finally looking back at her. Paige couldn't bear the thought of letting fear, or darkness, or brokenness, dictate the time she did have with Emily any further.
Paige met the other girl's darker eyes and nodded slowly, reaching a hand out to pull her lover to herself.
When Paige nodded, held her hand out to her, Emily felt like there must be so much light in her body that even the darkness of the last month would be lost in its shine.
It was nothing compared to the light she felt in her chest when they kissed.
Emily was used to kissing. She was used to kisses that meant nothing, kisses that were for show. She was used to kisses that were unexpected, unconscious reactions of the body, a surprise to give and to receive. She was used to kisses of passion, of heat and desire and forgetting that your lips had any other purpose. She was used to kisses of comfort, of the way a kiss can tell you that you're not alone.
She was not used to this kiss.
This kiss felt like the moment that free-fall turned into flight.
Paige's lips met hers, and for the first time Emily felt confidence behind the other girl's movements, felt the pressure behind the kiss as she opened her mouth, felt the sweetness and heat of Paige's tongue.
Paige's hands were at the skin of her neck, running down the lines from her ear to her collarbone, sending waves of heat everywhere she touched. Emily leaned into Paige's embrace, let herself deepen the kiss, committed to it like she had never let herself before.
Emily ran her hands up Paige's arms, buried them in her hair, felt Paige's soft cry into her mouth. She ran her tongue along Paige's lower lip, pressed back into the shorter girl's mouth as she rocked their bodies together, every point of contact from their hips to their breasts tightening and aching with heat.
The girls finally broke the kiss, foreheads together and eyes still closed. Emily truly believed that if she opened her eyes at that moment she would be able to see their glow.
Paige watched Emily's face, watched the unconscious smile on the other girl's lips. She ran her thumb along that smile, and Emily sighed happily and opened her eyes.
The darker girl caught a lock of Paige's wet hair, twisted it around her finger once before tucking it behind Paige's ear, her touch lingering for a moment before she ran her hand down to the shorter girl's wrist, the contact making Paige's whole arm tingle. Paige had been so caught up in the fire of her want that she had let herself forget a few things—things like Emily's wrists.
Paige took Emily's hands in her own, holding them like a gift she was afraid she didn't deserve, one she was afraid of breaking. She looked at the lightening bruises she could still just make out on Emily's wrists, shame starting to fill her like flood water rising in a house, threatening to trap her under the flow.
"Em, I am so, so sorry—"
"Paige, stop." Emily said softly.
Paige hung her head, choking back tears with a shuddering sigh.
"Look at me."
Paige managed to drag her eyes up to meet Emily's, wishing she could convey the guilt she felt with just her eyes, because she didn't know if there were words remotely strong enough to contain it. There was so much softness in Emily's face, so much grace, as she spoke.
"I love you."
Some tightness inside of herself that she hadn't even been aware of, some troubled knot, finally unwound. Paige heard herself let out a sound between a laugh and a sob as she felt Emily embrace her, felt the darker girl hold her up as she cried so hard she thought it might never stop. Emily was holding her, tightening her arms around the girl to contain her trembling. She kissed Paige everywhere- her cheeks, her ears, her neck, her forehead, and through her own tears and shaking she could hear Emily telling her over and over between her kisses, "I love you. I love you. I love you."
Emily held Paige, rocked them back and forth in the water until the auburn haired girl's sobs finally died out, until her breathing stopped hitching and at last slowed, until she simply leaned into Emily and everything about the other girl felt warm and at last emptied.
Emily held her like that for a long time.
In that endless moment in Emily's arms, Paige began to feel like the terror she had been holding in her bones could recede, could pull back like low-tide and leave the rest of her washed smooth. She had a momentary vision of what that would be like, of how over time that night would start to shrink and fall deeper into her body's memory. One day she would stand on the edge of herself and see that night, like a penny at the bottom of a pool, the water moving over it so that even finding a clear image of it was impossible. There would be so much else besides that night to fill her, like water, like Emily, like love.