For my dear Rooonie. Love you.
On the mornings that Paige still woke up at 2am, she would jog over to Emily's house, wait on the porch for the other girl to come out of the house with a blanket and two cups of coffee. Emily had the grace not to yawn, not to rub her eyes throughout the day even though Paige knew she must be tired. When Paige wanted nothing more than to disappear- to slough off the body like something that was already decaying- Emily would wrap her arms around her, hold her so tight that Paige had to focus on her breathing, had to remember there were things worth the pain of each inhale.
On the days that Emily's hands still shook, Paige would type up the notes she had taken in class, print them out, place them in a Rosewood Shark's binder, snap the steel teeth shut. When she could, Paige took care of all the movements that were beyond Emily—sent her to wait at a table during lunch while she got an extra tray, handled the fiddly bits of change when Emily ordered a mocha, texted Emily's agreements to meet Hannah for coffee, have a study date with Spencer, commiserate with Aria over some new Ezra dilemma.
Emily was her anchor, Paige was her hands.
Emily had learned to see the signs in Paige, the tics that told her Paige had clicked over; that her body and head were somewhere else, that Emily's touch on Paige's skin was not her own. Emily still daily fought the feeling of her hands being a separate entity, something out of her control, and when Paige's body further alienated them, it was almost unbearable.
And it was hard to watch Paige. Hard to watch everything essential in her disappear and leave behind just a body.
It was something Emily could see in her eyes, like a lense zooming out, the other girl falling further into herself. It gave Emily the strangest sensation, like she was still seeing Paige at the bottom of the pool, like if she just reached out she could pull her up, bring her back to the surface. She hadn't found the words to make that happen yet.
When Paige felt herself slipping back into that night with Nate she was overwhelmed with frustration and helplessness. She had hoped she could be done with this, that a single breakthrough was all that was needed. Paige had to learn that it was less like throwing herself through a wall and more like navigating a maze—not every surface could be slammed through; sometimes you had to take the long way around things.
Sometimes she found signposts along the way. Faded but hopeful markings that reminded her she wasn't alone. Sometimes Emily's voice gave her the strength to turn the next corner, to find her way out of the labyrinth of herself.
"Keep looking at me Paige."
"Don't go somewhere else."
"Stay here with me."
"I love you."
It was slow going at first. Love, like any language, being tricky to speak if it was out of practice, if it was left unsaid. The impulse was not to force the words, to stop saying them if they felt strange in your mouth, if they got caught somewhere in your chest. Emily struggled against that instinct—something telling her that saying I love you daily, hourly, every moment, was the paint she kept running over their cracks, hoping enough coats of it could fill them in, stop the pain seeping through the walls like water stains.
The physical was also difficult. Paige knew you didn't have to be made of tin to feel rusty at the joints, to feel like movement was forced.
It could be rough going between the girls some days. She knew there was no instant solution to pain, no two minute "just add love" instructions to follow, but even knowing that patience was needed didn't always stop the feelings of frustration at their slow pace in fixing their relationship, fixing themselves.
Some days they still touched each other with guilt—as if each application of pressure they were so careful about could make up for the touches that had hurt, that hadn't been nearly as well thought through. It could be exhausting to touch like that; for every contact to have to mean so much. It was almost enough to make them stop trying.
It was Paige who had to be insistent about touch; had to place Emily's hands around her when the other girl was too afraid or guilt-ridden to try.
That was how they got through it; with Emily saying I love you and Paige holding onto her.
Not everything was healing and recovery and rebuilding, though. Thank god, Paige often thought, otherwise she would lose the rest of whatever sanity she was holding it together with.
Sometimes it was her speakers by the pool and the swim team playing loud games of chicken in the shallow end—Emily and Paige's combination undefeated, the feel of Emily's calves in her hands as she held the girl up and the smell of her tan skin in the sun the only things she could remember when she closed her eyes that night, sundrunk and sunburned.
Sometimes it was movie nights with Emily—Hoosiers and Remember the Titans when Paige got to pick, Sharknado and Cabin in the Woods when Emily picked. It was fishing for the popcorn Emily not-so-accidentally dropped down the front of her shirt, and quietly watching the way smiles formed on her girlfriend's face when some new stupidly gruesome death happened on screen—how her eyes would crinkle and her mouth turned up even before it happened, how she'd lose herself to laughing, how her laughs would turn to moans when Paige couldn't resist her upturned neck.
Sometimes it was a shopping trip with Hanna and the pleasure of joining Emily in a changing room to "help" her with zippers, the astounding way Emily could put on something that would make Paige hungry to taste her, just from the way her body moved against the fabric. It was coffee and study dates with Spencer where the angular perfectionist would look over her trigonometry homework and sigh—the almost amiable frustration Paige felt for the other girl a welcome relief to her more formless negative emotions. It was reading with her head in Emily's lap while the other girl made supportive sounds on the phone with Aria as she detailed some new Ezra drama.
It was her mother making banana pancakes Sunday morning and her father nodding in approval when she told him her times. It was fixing the chain on her bike and the end of a run and the smell of autumn beginning, feeling the shift of seasons in her own body. It was function returning, and the knowledge that even in the moments that felt suffused with fear, when fear felt like the only thing her lungs knew how to breath, there were moments she could point to in the darkness, like streetlamps stretching ahead of her and growing closer and closer together- moments of light and warmth and safety that she could say were still coming, were worth staying for.
Emily and Paige both started to see a therapist, and the school counselor would smile awkwardly at them in the hallways, but Emily found her true confidante in Coach Fulton. The older woman took the opportunity to institute weekly meetings with her anchors, though Emily suspected her hour long Tuesday afternoon talks with the coach were much longer than anyone else's. They didn't talk about Nate, or about her times, or about Emily's scholarship opportunities. Mostly the coach spoke about her own experiences in high-school; the difficulties of being a minority in an often underfunded sport, how she handled having a social life and having a dream, how she had to watch that dream change when she understood that her times were simply not good enough to keep her in the world of competitive swimming. Hearing how her mentor had found her own way- had become a woman with grace and strength- comforted Emily greatly. It helped her understand that there was no brokenness that irreparably destroyed someone, no mistake that could reduce the meaning of a life even in part.
On the days that the shaking in her hands made even the most basic tasks unmanageable, Emily breathed slow and closed her eyes, reminded her body that it could move with the confidence of someone who deserved to be in the world.
It was something they danced around for months, kisses pulled like punches, hands scrupulously avoiding certain areas like they were fifteen again. They kept doors propped open without being asked and although they could taste the want in each other's kisses, they kept themselves on short chains, the feel of pulling against the restriction part pleasure and part fear.
It was Paige who asked Emily over on a night when her parents were on a Christian couple's retreat. It was Paige who had awkwardly wheeled a cart with a broken wheel around Target looking for tea lights and a new picnic basket—her old one thrown out in a fit of frustration when Emily broke up with her the first time. It was Paige who greeted Emily at the door with a bottle of champagne Spencer had liberated from her inattentive parent's stash, and it was Paige who led Emily to a picnic blanket spread in the center of her living room, pulling the darker girl through the maze of candles surrounding it.
Sometimes the body can heal the mind. Sometimes movement can rewire the frayed connections between need and action, lay new tracks to avoid the darkened stations, to allow someone else onboard for the ride. Paige willed her mind to click off, to allow her body free reign for once, to let Emily's touch and Emily's kiss be the only thing her skin could remember. She tried so hard that she didn't notice she was shaking until Emily asked her what was wrong.
Paige gasped, surprised by the sudden catch of tears in her throat, "I'm scared."
It was Emily who held Paige while the auburn haired girl's fear worked through her body, shaking every part of her. It was Emily who laid Paige back down on the blanket, pulled her close to her and held her. It was Emily who murmured loving words into Paige's hair, long after either girl was conscious enough to fully understand what she was saying; both lulled into a warm half-sleep by the candles and the softness of each other's bodies. It was Emily who pulled the corner of the picnic blanket around them.
It was the smoke detector that woke them up. Paige stuttered to her feet immediately, body all reaction and mind still blurred from the smell of Emily's warmth and the slide of the other girl's skin against hers. Emily sat up in a daze, huddled in the mussed picnic blanket, watching as Paige skittered across the floor blowing out candles. When Paige finally finished and collapsed in an adrenaline ball next to her, Emily laughed and kissed the other girl. Maybe it was just waking up, or her heart slowing down from a near disaster, or maybe it was just how much and how easily she felt love in that moment, but Paige's body bent under the kiss, pliable under Emily's hands and in that moment, fully trusting.
Emily felt the shift in Paige's body too, felt the muscles in the other girl go loose, losing their constant strain for the first time in months. Emily had almost forgotten how soft Paige could be. Paige pulled Emily on top of her, and they kissed until everything was heat and softness. Paige licked at Emily's neck, and kissed hard just below her jaw line, the sensation making Emily gasp and twist her hand in Paige's hair.
Paige licked her lips and shifted against Emily uncomfortably, the other girl pulling back instantly and watching her eyes with concern, all the warm looseness in Emily's body turning to tension. Paige smiled and shook her head and sat up with Emily, ran a hand up and down the other girl's arm.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Paige looked down, "It's just."
She took a deep breath and looked into Emily's eyes, took her girlfriend's hand and tugged them both to their feet. Emily looked confused for a moment, and Paige blushed, kept her hand in Emily's as she pulled her towards the stairs, watched understanding cross Emily's face- along with desire and fear.
Emily followed Paige up the stairs, her arm still awkwardly caught in Paige's hand, the stairway too narrow for her to do anything but be pulled along behind, trailing nerves and concern and doubt like kite-tails the whole way.
Paige felt as nervous as if it had been their first time. She knew it was ridiculous to be this anxious, for her mind to be racing like this, for the sparks that were arcing along her arms to be less about lust and more about a sort of charged apprehension. She pulled Emily into her room and onto her bed before she could let her fears crackle into full overload, outage, out-of-commission.
Emily looked almost as nervous as she felt. It was the concern in Emily's eyes- the way the soft brown of them was darting to each side to take in all of Paige, to make sure she was safe and protected and not hurting- that finally made Paige sink into the want of her own body, allow herself to feel the friction of Emily's leg between hers and the prickle of pleasurable sparks where Emily's hand was at her neck. She grabbed a fistful of Emily's shirt and pulled her down, hoping to convince the other girl of her readiness with her mouth.
Emily sighed and closed her eyes at Paige's tongue running along her bottom lip, then pulled back, biting at the same point and open eyed, "We don't have to do this, you know?"
"I know." Paige replied, and ran her tongue up the line of Emily's throat, "I want to."
Emily had spent so long unintentionally hurting Paige because of the silence between them- the other girl didn't have the words to put to her pain, the language that would let Emily know how to help her- and Emily was still terrified. Her fingers curled in, balled into frightened fists at the enormity of how badly she could fuck this up. She looked at Paige beneath her and tried to apologize.
"I'm sorry- I don't know what to do with my hands."
Paige looked at Emily, took in her fear and her love and her desperation to do better. Emily had so much to be fearful about- A, her swimming career, her trauma, her friend's safety, her strained family- but Paige could see she was most afraid of herself. Paige had always been ready to protect Emily; had vowed to kill anyone who might hurt her, but Paige had never felt more protective of her lover than she did now. Paige took Emily's hands in her own, held them to her lips, uncurled her fingers one by one.
"Let me show you." Paige kissed Emily's fingertips, her palms, her wrists, ran her tongue along them, pulled them into her mouth. Emily whimpered while Page sucked on her fingers, wishing desperately that she was inside the other girl. Paige's eyes sparkled with a suppressed grin as she watched Emily unravel above her, giving her fingertips a last flick of her tongue as she said,
"Touch yourself for me."
Emily blushed, unbuttoned her jeans, her hand disappearing as she did as she was told. She watched as Paige practically jittered with tension, the want in her eyes growing, the intensity of her stare between lust and obsession.
Paige tugged at the bottom of Emily's shirt, an urgent demand in her eyes, and Emily smiled, stretching slow and sensual and she pulled the shirt above her head and tossed it to the side. Once one piece had been removed, the rest quickly followed, Emily audibly sighing at the pleasure and comfort of so much skin against skin.
They kissed, the warmth of Emily's mouth intoxicating, the smell of her skin dizzying. Paige broke away long enough to push Emily back a few inches, the other girl immediately beginning to complain at the loss of contact.
"Wait," Paige said, "I want to see you."
Paige had worshipped at the temple of Emily's body for years; a silent believer in Emily's perfection since the moment she set eyes on her. When her prayers for entrance had been answered, Paige's adoration had only increased; she was certain the lines of Emily's body were far closer to divine than any in a holy book.
Paige leaned forward, holding herself up on an elbow as she hooked her other hand through Emily's hair; kissed the girl who was, and would continue to be, everything she wanted. She took Emily's hand and placed it back between her legs, insisting that Emily keep using her hands for Paige's viewing pleasure.
Paige pressed her fingers into Emily, steadied her lover above her with a hand on Emily's hip. She could feel the pull of Emily in her hands, the pressure of Emily's body against Paige's steadying hand, the tightness, the heat, the rightness, around the fingers inside her lover. Emily rocked against Paige's fingers, the sexiest sliding dance Paige had ever seen. She moved along Paige's fingers like they were the only thing keeping her in this world, like she might kaleidoscope into sound and light if Paige wasn't anchoring her.
Paige slid another finger into the warmth of Emily, hissing with pleasure at Emily's moan. The girl above her went still for a moment, head hung low as her whole body tensed around Paige's fingers, her hand still. Emily's tongue ran across her lower lip as she panted, hair falling across her dazed eyes. After a long moment of collecting herself, her brown eyes finally flicked up to Paige's.
"Make me come." She said.
Paige lunged forward, catching Emily to herself and pushing deeply into her lover. Emily arched on Paige's fingers, hips lifting, back a perfect curve, head thrown back.
Emily came hard around her fingers; her tightness around Paige turning her on even more, the heat of warm wetness sliding down her hand. When the movement around Paige's fingers died down to tremors, and the girl in her arms finally stopped shivering, she pulled her lover down to rest on top of her. Emily lay her head at the dip in Paige's shoulder, kissing the line of her collarbone and tasting the salty warmth of Paige's exhausted lust.
Paige must have fallen asleep at some point, her heart beating slow and steady against Emily's own, but Emily was charged, coming for Paige always a power surge, her whole body still sparking. She ran her fingers up and down Paige's arms, her sides, across her cheek and down her neck, twirled her auburn hair. She pulled away from Paige slightly, only to take the sleeping girl's nipple in her mouth, tonguing and nipping at it gently, Paige making half coherent sounds of her name.
Emily wondered if this was how Maya felt their first time—protective and careful and aching to unlock something for the other girl. Before, Emily would have felt the subtle sting of guilt for thinking of Maya when Paige was underneath her, but she'd learned that the people she loved weren't content to stay locked in separate rooms of herself, visited only in the secret dark—if you carried someone's love with you, it should be worn as obviously as possible, as ostentatious as a red flower, or a blue ring.
New lovers weren't the next chapter of a story- each building on a chosen theme until the destined heroine finally shows up. No life was as linear as a chapter book, and no love deserved to be just a footnote.
Emily didn't need to keep visiting the locked door inside her where Maya lived; she could bulldoze the walls, let the loves of her life inhabit a space together.
This wasn't a story where Maya was in the past and Emily could stop loving her, or Paige was her future but a part of Emily would always be kept from her—loving enriched the lives of whoever it touched, and Emily had never felt so loved.
Paige, now fully and pleasurably awake, watched Emily above her, the darker girl straddling her hips and running her fingers softly down the line of Paige's torso. Paige thought that line might never stop burning, like Emily was tattooing her skin with her touch. She watched as Emily tucked her hair behind her ear. A sudden rush of knowledge went through her body, finally settling somewhere heavy and warm at the back of her chest, and Paige knew that every gesture Emily made tonight, even the ones as insignificant as catching a stray lock of hair- every single soft and slow move of her body- would be locked in her mind forever.
Emily raked her fingers through her hair, pulling it to the side as she cocked her head, looking straight into Paige's eyes. She trailed her hand down the other girl's chest, Paige's heartbeat following the darker girl's fingers.
Emily leaned forward ever so slightly, soft hair falling over one eye, curve of her shoulders arched as if her body didn't possess a single straight line.
Emily slid one long finger inside of her and Paige gasped, body lifting upwards, the feeling of Emily inside her always a surprise, always something she didn't realize she was missing. Emily laid her other hand just above the shorter girl's hips, pressed her back down, kept herself deep in Paige.
Emily pulled herself out of Paige, the auburn haired girl unable to stop her soft cry of missing her, of a desperate humming loss that Paige needed filled.
Emily held her hand to her lips, finger gleaming with how much Paige wanted her. She ran her tongue along the length of it, caught the tip between her teeth, grinned slow.
Emily watched as Paige struggled to keep control. She could see the effort in how hard Paige was breathing, the hitching rise and fall of her chest, her slightly open mouth. She could see it in how tightly the other girl's hands were holding the sheets, as if she was afraid her body wouldn't know how to stop if she didn't step on the brakes, grab onto something solid. She could feel it in the heat of Paige's body against hers, the way it pulsed with heat, the way her skin was beginning to glisten.
Emily's hand still rested just between the space of Paige's hips. She slid her hand down, held the warmth of her lover in her hand, spread her palm and pressed against the other girl. Emily heard Paige's cry, saw her crumble, watched her completely lose the battle for self-control.
Emily loved it.
The heat and tightness in Paige's body felt unbearable, felt like everything might collapse into her center with the pull of her wanting. Then Emily's lips were on her clit, surrounding her, taking her in, her tongue heat and electricity.
"Oh, god, Em!"
Paige's hands were twisted in Emily's hair, hips shuddering, every breath hard because there was too much tension building up, something growing so thick inside of her that it was taking up all the space she needed for air, for thought, for consciousness.
Paige felt Emily's fingers slip into her a second before something cracked open inside of her, like ground splitting in an earthquake, a fissure that spilled out light. Paige knew that for some things there would be no words, no possible combination of syllables and sounds that could encompass an experience, but she had a vision in that moment. Inside herself was a great blackness filled with a thousand stars that hung like lamps. It was one of these stars that had shattered open at the insistence of Emily's tongue and hands, flooding the whole dark void with unbearable light, and even as it dissipated, melted back into the velvety safety of the dark, Paige could see the thousands of other lamps inside herself, just waiting for Emily's touch to split them open.
Their bodies tangled together, spent, and, forgetting where her limbs ended and Emily's began, Paige felt whole. Holding Emily felt like realizing all the broken pieces in her, all the jagged edges, had really been puzzle pieces. She had spent so much time trying to protect Emily from her sharp sides that she didn't realize that the other girl had already made space to accommodate them, that they already slid into Emily with the ease and slow building joy of newly realized completion.
Paige pulled herself away from the warm invitation of impending sleep long enough to look deep into the other girl's brown eyes, blinking herself awake and into seriousness, hoping every bit of sincerity in her own eyes was clear, legible.
"I love you."
Emily laughed. Paige cocked her head to the side at the unexpected reaction, Emily sliding into a slow sideways grin at the surprised look on the other girl's face.
Emily shook her head slowly, leaned forward and kissed Paige softly before whispering into her lips.
Thank you so much, dear readers, for your comments, messages, and kindness.