"So, did you and Shana ever..." Emily began, hoping Paige would finish the thought for her, knowing she wouldn't.
Paige shifted against her uncomfortably, the sensation of bare skin against skin sending a hum of sparks down Emily's still shaky body. It had been good, it was always good, but-
"Did we ever what?"
Emily twisted a length of Paige's auburn hair around her fingers, tightening it until she could feel the heartbeat in her fingertips, still so out of sync with the quick thump of Paige's own against her chest. She could feel the shorter girl's breathing change as she shifted again on top of Emily, kept her head under Emily's chin, her eyes out of sight.
Emily sighed, trying to make it sound less like concerned annoyance and more like...anything else.
"Did you and Shana ever-"
Paige looked up at her, eyes brown-gold, expression irritation-pleading.
"Do you really want to do this now?"
Emily blushed. She was ashamed, and shame made her want to lash out, made her want to say of course she didn't want to have to do this now- not when she was naked underneath her girlfriend, but then again, she'd prefer if she didn't have to do this at all, if Paige hadn't made this necessary. Emily knew this line of thought was irrational, which made her more ashamed, which made her angrier, which made the rough red rope of frustration and heartsickness wrap tighter and tighter around her body until all she could feel was her own pounding heartbeat, until she felt so completely apart from Paige, even when her heart was beating against Emily's chest.
What made Emily feel so powerless was the unanswerable nature of Paige's question. It was slow going trucks in both lanes of the moral highway- there was just no fucking way around it. Emily was aware that there were more appropriate times for this conversation, but they were only more appropriate, not appropriate by themselves. It was the kind of question that became too terrifying at any near-appropriate time- needed the recklessness of terrible timing and perhaps a little mean-spiritedness- otherwise it would get stuck in her throat on the way out; the exhale turning into the omission lie of I'm so happy or that was perfect instead. Emily knew she'd asked the question at the wrong time, that it was a wrong question entirely, but Paige's refusal to extend any grace on the subject towards Emily hurt. So it was irrational, and inappropriate, and none-of-her-business, and wrong but, goddamnit, answer it anyway, just give me this, what would it cost you?
Paige had gone back to curling her head under Emily's chin, but all sense of ease had left both of the girl's bodies. Emily was suddenly aware that her leg was falling asleep, that the angle of her arm was in that hopeless moment before it became uncomfortable, that Paige's hair on her still warm, still slightly sweaty neck, was too hot. Paige felt frozen on top of her, breathing too regular, muscles too stiff, as if she was holding herself up even though her weight was still on Emily. It was a discomfort no amount of moving about and readjusting would solve- their bodies needed to be apart.
"I'm going to grab a glass of water. Want anything?" Emily asked, already extricating herself from Paige, trying to ignore the swiftness that Paige moved away from her with, the relief she could feel in the shorter girl's limbs.
"Um," Paige cleared her throat, looked away, "yeah, water would be good."
Emily shrugged on a shirt, flipped disheveled hair out from under the collar, did the awkward jean shuffle that no one could make graceful. Paige fiddled with the edge of the sheets, wound a found strand of Emily's long black hair tight around her fingers, unwound it, wound it again. Emily knew the heartbeat in Paige's fingertips hadn't slowed down. This moment should not feel so interminable, Emily thought, reaching for the door knob gratefully.
Every step on the way down the stairs made her heart sink a little more, as if she were physically descending into the feeling of hopelessness she had begun to associate with these increasingly tense moments with Paige.
She knew this thing between them, this question and refusal to answer, this physical intimacy without emotional intimacy, was poison. But this one thing had taken on a life of it's own- come to symbolize everything that was going wrong between them. They couldn't speak to each other; the disarming honesty of their confessions of hurt and sadness to each other had dried up like water evaporating before migration season- it was time to find sources of sustenance, of life, of trust, elsewhere. Emily wished she could take the irritation blanketing her insides, fold it up and around and over itself again, and again, until it became small and avoidable. Its density would send it sinking down into her, down to someplace she couldn't reach, could forget she knew about, where it could sit and fossilize and some emotional expedition many years later could uncover it and wonder what purpose this strange artifact could have possibly served.
Emily walked into Paige's kitchen, preoccupation keeping her from the usual routine of checking around every door before entering a room. Her caution would have been unnecessary- Paige's parents were in Scranton for the weekend and although they would have been profoundly uncomfortable with Emily and Paige being alone in the house together, the McCuller's seemed to have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind policy with their daughter- so long as they received a good report, a perfect report, by the end of the day.
Emily had to try a few cupboards before she found the glasses; Paige's house, and, Emily thought with a frown, Paige herself, still held some unfamiliarity for her. The water was ice-cold and it chased away whatever residual warmth had been left from Paige's body on her skin. Emily shivered, took another long drink.
Emily's phone dinged and buzzed in her back pocket, nearly making Emily choke on her water- she'd forgotten it was in the jeans she'd pulled on. Dread started to creep through her, following the same icy lines through her body the too-cold water had. Emily flipped her phone open, clicked the message icon from an unknown number. The message was blank, but there was an attachment- a photo attachment. Emily looked out the kitchen window in alarm, spun around the island in the center of the kitchen to an angle she couldn't be seen from, heart beating as fast as it did during any race. She opened the attachment.
It was a picture of a smiling Emily Fields with her arm around Missy Franklin's shoulder, the Olympic swimmer having pulled Emily into a similarly exuberant side hold. Emily's phone buzzed again and she opened the message.
Thought you'd like a copy of this. You're lucky- my picture with Missy looks manic, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how smooth you are with the ladies. XO - Shana
Emily hit the reply button, thumbs hovering over the tiny keyboard, a thousand different tones she could take and all of them so imprecise over text. She clicked cancel.
Grabbing the glasses, Emily headed back towards the stairs, towards Paige. She made it halfway up before she had to sit down, the desperation to avoid what was waiting upstairs making the climb heavy, the air harder to breath. Emily tapped her glass and fiddled with her phone.
She opened the text, read it twice, typed thanks, erased it.
When A had started to harass the girls Emily had gone through a several months long binge where she devoured stories about serial killers and stalkers and murderers and arsonists and psychopaths. She had hoped it would inoculate her against fear, bravado inducing as a horror movie marathon; that daily doses of how terribly it could all go wrong would make whatever did happen with A seem harmless. It hadn't of course- second-hand fear is never the same texture or flavor as the real thing; as different from each other as watered down lighter fluid and napalm. What had proved instructive to Emily was tracing the flow and fall of these stories- the journalist's inevitable slog to find the beginning of things, the powder left from the match that had started the fire. In peeling back the layers of these people- these impulses of violence wearing the shapes of people- there was always some origin found; some pet tortured, a classmate harassed, an uncomfortable interaction with a neighbor. Whether these villain origin stories were true or manufactured- and Emily's opinion leaned more towards the latter- they were fascinating nonetheless. If it was true, if life did work like that, Emily wondered, did they know when it happened, these people and their formative moments? Did they realize, during the instant of it happening, what path they had set on? Was something sent back for them, some reverse echo from the future that let them know of the burning to come?
Emily saved Shana's number and swore she could smell smoke