Chapter Six is here! I almost didn't finish this one in time. But I powered through and got it done. And look! I'm uploading it early because it seems like a good thing to take care of before I go to bed.

redgirl25 - I was glad that Emily got to show off her toughness, too. Paige can't have all the fun! Emily is untrained, so there's only so much she can do, but I try to involve her as much in the combat as I do in the emotional and intellectual drama.

saii79 - Jenna does have her reasons, though you'll learn them about the same time that our heroines do. Jenna's a woman of mystery and I don't think I would be doing her justice if I spilled all her secrets just yet.

Anyway, read and (hopefully) enjoy! As always, I don't own PLL or any of its characters represented herein.


Chapter Six
[The Cave]

They rode for miles without stopping, Pru's hooves thundering beneath them, their muscles tight and their minds alert. The day grew brighter and warmer, sunlight streaming through the canopy above, but the morning chill seemed to follow them no matter how far they traveled.

As Pru began to tire, they dismounted and walked at a slow pace. Words stuck in their throats, memories of death and fear locked behind their glassy eyes. The din of creatures and wind and leaves hammered in their ears. With the rising temperature, they rubbed at their exposed skin, wiping away the grime of humidity but missing the layer of guilt, particles of remembered horror clinging to their faces and hair and clothes.

Happening upon a stream, they stopped to wash and drink. Blood stuck between Emily's fingers, rust-red and dry. It speckled her face and clothes. She scrubbed at it, though she could not remove it wholly from the fabric. Trembling, fumbling, she ground her fingers into the stain, rubbing the skin on her fingers raw and pink.

Another hand clamped over hers, stilling her.

"Emily." The voice was low and firm. She ignored it, pulling her hands away. Paige insisted, her hands finding Emily's again, prying them away from the fabric. "Em, you have to stop."

Emily's eyes stayed fixed on the pink spot. "I killed a guy."

Paige squeezed the other girl's hands. "He would have killed you."

"But he's… he's dead because of me. He won't breathe again because of me."

The ranger rested her hands on Emily's shoulders. "Look at me." Emily lifted her eyes, meeting Paige's. "You can't think that way. Maybe he is dead because of you. But you're alive because of you, right? You saved a life today."

"My own life doesn't count."

"Don't say that! It does count. There are too many people who care about you. Your parents, Spencer…" Paige's eyes flitted away. "Me. You have to keep going for us."

Emily reached up a hand, pressing it over the one that laid on her shoulder. Her other hand traveled up, finding a strand of hair that had fallen loose over Paige's forehead. Emily brushed it away, her fingers trailing against the other girl's skin. Paige shuddered, letting her eyelids flutter closed, as her breaths grew short and shallow. The hand on Emily's shoulder crept inward, just brushing her neck, following it up to the curve of her jaw. Now Emily's skin tingled, Paige's fingers leaving a trail of shivers in their wake.

Paige lifted her hand from Emily's shoulder, taking the other girl's hand with it, pulling it towards her. Her fingers encircled Emily's wrist, her grip gentle. She leaned in, drawing the hand to her lips, laying a hesitant kiss upon the palm. Emily's eyes followed her, flowing down Paige's forehead, across the slight dip in Paige's brows, catching the way the golden light danced on the other girl's eyelashes that hid the wide brown eyes beneath. She traced the shape of the other girl's fingers resting against the back of her hand. Her own fingers stretched, spreading her expectant palm, exposing it to the soft brush of lips on skin.

Then she saw the blood caked in her own fingernails, brown residue hiding in the creases, dark and angry, and her lungs seized up inside her.

With a flurry of motion, she leapt up and away, rinsing her hands in the cool stream once more. Paige, resting on her knees, lifted her head to the sparkling patches of sun and sighed. She wiped the lingering taste of Emily's skin from her mouth and prepared to resume their trek.

They traveled for several days, falling into a daily routine of rising and resting with the sun. Their conversations were pleasant, but superficial; as often and as deep as she tried to probe, Paige could never elicit more than a cursory response. By the time they reached their destination, a little village nestled beneath the arcing boughs of the wood, their interaction had completely ceased.

Arriving in the village at midday, they made their way to the village elder's abode. He was happy to greet them, especially given Paige's status as a ranger. They were still leagues away from 'A'-controlled territory, where harboring a ranger could bring the witch's wrath down upon the entire village. Here, though, rangers were respected.

After some small talk, Paige began to press him about Rivers, or more specifically, about the rumors she'd heard originating from the village.

"You're saying you don't know anything about Rivers." Paige watched the elder out of the corner of her eye as she swirled the drink he'd provided. They sat across from each other in his front room. Emily sipped her own drink, a local tea, as she observed the conversation, having nothing to add.

Stroking his gray whiskers, the elder shook his head. "Can't say I do. We're a pretty insular little village here, ma'am. Can't fathom why you'd think that rumor would be coming from here."

Paige shrugged. "One hears things, in the Wood. Sometimes they're true, sometimes they're not. I did hope this one would be one of the former, though." She smiled, finishing her drink. "In any case, thanks for your time and hospitality. It's much appreciated." She rose from her seat and Emily followed suit. Spindly legs shaking, the elder joined them and walked them to the door. As the two women filed out of the building into the warm afternoon air, he called after them.

"Ranger! Yes, just a moment, before you go. Sometimes there's a boy who comes through here… a peddler. He likes to tell stories, quite wild ones, too. You might try talking to him about this Rivers fellow."

"Is he here now?"

"I don't think so. But it's been a while since we've seen him, so I imagine he'll be coming through here, soon."

Paige gazed at him, the gears in her head turning. "How soon is 'soon'?"

The elder drummed his bony fingers on the head of his cane as he pondered. "I'd say within a fortnight. I can arrange for you to stay with one of the families in the village if you want to wait here."

Raising her eyebrow, Paige turned to Emily. "I don't think we have a choice. This was my only lead."

Emily pursed her lips as she studied her companion. Her eyes darted from Paige to the elder and back again. Noticing the motion, Paige gave the old man a warm smile. "Can I have a moment to talk to my friend?"

He returned the smile. "Oh, of course. I'll be right inside."

When he had gone, Paige took a step closer to Emily, reaching out a hand. It hovered beside Emily's arm, but she could not bring herself to make the contact. Letting it drop like a hot coal, she spoke in a low whisper. "What's the matter, Em?"

"What if I have an… an episode? Jenna said people don't take well to messengers. That's how she… you know." She gestured towards her eyes.

Paige scoffed. "Jenna was working for 'A'. Plus, she's a bitch, so I wouldn't blame whoever did that to her."

Her words, spoken in jest, had the opposite of their intended effect, drawing a scowl across Emily's face. "It's not funny, Paige. I'm really scared, here. You need to take this seriously."

"Hey, Em, I'm sorry." Paige reached out again, trying to envelop Emily in a hug, but the other girl pulled away, still fuming. "I get it. It wasn't funny, it was stupid."

"It was." Emily crossed her arms, but her expression softened as she saw the apologetic look on Paige's face.

"If it makes you feel any better, you know that even if you do have an episode, I won't let anything happen to you." Paige's expression had grown serious. "I'll protect you, no matter what."

Letting loose a sigh, Emily fought back the smile that threatened to betray her. "I know. Okay, let's stay here. If I have to camp in the Wood another night, I think I'll go crazy." She released the repressed smile, her heart skipping a beat when it spread to Paige's face.

Paige worked out the details with the elder and he showed them to another house in the village, introducing them to the woman who lived there.

"So nice to meet you. I'm Ella." She shook their hands, beaming at them. They returned the smile, following her upstairs into the room they'd be using. "I hope you don't mind sharing," said Ella behind them as they gazed at the single bed. "This used to be my daughter's room. It'll be nice to have some young faces here again."

Emily caught the brief look of melancholy that flashed across the woman's face before it was replaced by a smile again. She returned the smile. "Thank you so much. It's great."

Pleased, Ella left them and Paige flopped down on the bed.

"Oh, man." She let out a deep sigh as she sank into the mattress. "I don't remember the last time I slept on a real bed."

Emily giggled, sitting down next to Paige and leaning back. She, too, sighed as she felt each of her stiff and tired joints relax. "We probably shouldn't get used to it." She closed her eyes. "Once we find Lucas it'll be back to sleeping on the ground again."

"Right." Paige grimaced. "We don't want to spoil ourselves." She, too, closed her eyes, squirming and letting the soft sheets swallow her. "I'll get up in a moment."

"Yeah, me too." A drowsy haze began to press in at the edges of Emily's consciousness. "Just a moment…"

Before long, they had both drifted off to sleep, legs dangling off the edge of the bed as their snores filled the room.

The sky was painted the purple-blue of twilight when Paige was jerked awake. Head heavy, mind groggy, she sat up, taking stock of her surroundings. "Wow, night already?" Her mumbled voice seemed loud in the quiet of the evening. She glanced at the girl beside her, still prone on the bed. "Em. Hey, Em." She reached out, shaking the girl's shoulder.

A moment later, adrenaline coursed through her like fire as she jumped from the bed and flung the blanket over Emily's face. She darted to the door, slamming it shut, leaning back against it with her hand on the doorknob as sweat trickled down her face.

Her heart threw itself against her lungs as she watched her companion and it leapt into her throat when she heard a knock at the door.

"Girls? I've brought you some nightclothes. Can I come in?"

"Don't." Paige's voice was barely more than a hoarse whisper. "Don't come in." She managed more volume this time, too much, and she ended up shouting. She glanced at Emily, aware that 'A' could hear everything happening now.

"Is everything okay?" The doorknob wiggled under her hand as Ella tried to come in. "What…? Girls, what is going on?"

Closing her eyes and grinding her teeth, Paige turned about and opened the door a crack. "Everything's all right. Nothing to worry about. We were just…" Paige cursed. She hadn't taken the time to come up with a suitable excuse. "Uh, Emily fell asleep and I don't want to wake her." Okay, that could be legitimate.

Ella pursed her lips, studying Paige's face, and Paige was sure they'd been found out. The hand that was obscured behind the door began to clench and unclench itself as her nerves ran wild. She almost lost the ability to stand when Ella's questioning stare melted into a small smile.

"I understand. You girls looked so tired. You still do, dear, so you join her and I'll have breakfast ready for you in the morning. Can I give you these?" She held up the small stack of nightclothes.

"Yeah. Yeah, thanks." Positioning her body in the open doorway, Paige took the clothes between her palms. Before she realized what she was doing, she'd raised the crisp white fabric to her nose and inhaled. The tension in her muscles faded instantly, assuaged by the fresh scent of laundry and the tones of nostalgia carried by that scent. She gave Ella a smile before shutting the door and leaning against it again. Her legs finally gave way and she slid to the floor, finally coming to rest with her knees bent in front of her. Clutching the sweet-smelling clothes to her chest, she waited for Emily to wake.

Emily, meanwhile, was engaged in a battle of wills. Pain beat a sinister rhythm in her temple as she stared down the still-hazy form of 'A'. The witch forced herself forward, inching closer and closer to fully integrating herself with the unconscious girl's mind. Emily fought as hard as she could but her resolve was slipping, eaten away by fatigue and the monstrous shape of the woman in front of her.

A yelp burst forth from her throat as 'A' broke through, though it turned into a tiny giggle as the other woman stumbled just a bit. Taking a deep breath, she composed herself as much as possible before 'A' began to apply her psychological pressure.

"You've been learning, I see."

"Your minion taught me well." Emily gave the veiled woman a cold smile.

"Yes, well, she had appearances to maintain, didn't she? Spies aren't useful if they're not believable. She served her purpose. You, now, what are you thinking, running away from me again?" The venom in her voice was apparent. "Don't you care about your darling mommy and daddy?"

Emily grimaced, but did not respond.

"Ah, Emily. You realize it's no use, don't you? Now that your dear Steward is dead and her rangers scattered, you have no hope of escaping me forever. There's no one left to protect you."

Emily flinched. Spencer, dead? There was no way.

"That's right. Isn't that great news? I've been after that woman for years." The witch shook her head. "Now, let's get down to the purpose of my visit." She reached her glove hand into the pocket of her skirt. "I had something to share with you. I wondered if perhaps you didn't believe me the last time we spoke." When she drew forth her hand, she was cupping an object. She tilted her head as if observing it, keeping it hidden from Emily's view. "Can we both agree once and for all that your parents really have decided to drop in for a visit?"

Holding forth her palm, she waited for Emily's reaction. Emily, for her part, bit back another yelp as she saw what 'A' held: her parents' wedding rings. The witch took a step towards her. "Take them." Turning her hand over, she giggled as the rings slipped and began to tumble, spinning in the air. Now Emily did yelp, dropping to her knees and reaching out her hands to catch them. They felt tangible as she cocooned them in her curled fingers. "Your parents still have the fingers that wore those rings, Emily. Next time they may not be so lucky."

Leaving the girl kneeling in the darkness, she turned and flounced away. Emily stared at the rings in her hands, wondering if they would stay with her when the vision began to fade.

Her question was answered as they began to disappear before her very eyes, becoming less and less corporeal with each passing second. A flash of indignant anger blossomed in her fate and as the world around her began to fade just like her parents' rings, she reached into it, sweeping away the fog with one hand while she seized 'A' with the other, preventing her from severing the connection. Her vision filled with the same scene as always but it was clearer this time. A blond woman stood in front of her, blue eyes peering into her. The woman's lips moved but she heard no sound. As the moments passed she saw the woman reach out to touch her, her face a mix of confusion and restrained hope.

Just as she was getting her bearings and beginning to look around the room, Emily felt her body jerk as 'A' cast her out. Coming to, she stared at the ceiling and caught her breath. For a moment she forgot where she was; when she remembered, she rolled on her side and found that Paige was no longer on the bed beside her.

"Paige?" Emily bolted upright, letting out a heavy sigh when she saw Paige leaning with her back against the door. "Is everything okay?"

"I think so. Ella… Ella almost caught us. But it turned out okay." She smiled and held up the bundle in front of her. "Pajamas?"

They got ready for bed, undressing and pulling on the nightclothes with their backs turned to each other. Emily took the nightgown and Paige found herself with an over-sized set of long underwear. As they turned back to each other, both burst out giggling at the sight, for it hung off of her body at strange angles, giving her a sack-like appearance. Their giggles soon gave way to yawns and they slid into the bed.

Paige drew up the covers and all idle conversation ceased. Invisible in the dark, each girl flushed, for the bed was small and every little motion brought with it some brushing of feet or hands against legs or arms or chest. Though each touch quivered its way through them, they feigned ignorance, refusing to call it out or acknowledge that it had happened. By the end of the night they had settled on opposite sides of the bed, curled on their sides facing apart, each listening to the soft cadence of the other's breath, feeling the tug of the covers as the other's chest rose and fell. Before long, the breathy rhythm had lulled them to sleep.

When she woke in the morning, eyes fluttering open, the first thing that Emily saw was the top of Paige's head. They had rolled over in the night, Paige's head sliding from her pillow to nestle in the open space between Emily's chin and chest. As Emily stretched, their knees knocked together and she winced, glancing at Paige's relaxed face for any sign that she'd woken her. But Paige's muscles remained as loose as ever, her lips hanging open and her hair pressed to her cheek. Emily smiled, reaching out to tug the wild strands away, brushing them behind the other girl's ear. Paige stirred and with a sudden snore, rolled onto her back, smacking her lips. Emily managed to restrain a giggle, then ran her fingers through her own hair, frowning as they tugged against little tangles.

Scooting to the edge of the bed, she padded across the room to the dresser that sat there. Opening the top drawer, she found a hairbrush; she remembered that this had been Ella's daughter's room. Her eyes studied the room as she brushed the snarls from her hair. It was small and simple at first glance but she found little hints of its original occupant's personality. The furniture bore little patches of hand-painted pictures and the curtains and bedsheets had been embroidered with delicate needlework. There was a unified aesthetic to the place, the sense that it had been designed rather than thrown together, and she wondered what had happened to the girl who had lived there.

As she contemplated, she heard a stirring from the bed and smiled as Paige raised herself to her elbows.

"Morning." Paige returned the smile as she rubbed at her eyes still heavy with sleep. "Sleep okay?"

"I did." Emily laid down the brush. "I'm surprised. I don't usually sleep well after an 'A' visit."

Paige swung her legs over the edge of the bed, swinging her feet and letting her toes brush along the floorboards. In her baggy underclothes, kicking her feet, she looked like a large child and Emily couldn't help but smile at her. Paige blanched as she realized what she was doing and she crossed her arms and her ankles. The action drew a laugh across Emily's lips. "Oh, don't stop. You were cute."

Paige's cheeks flushed and she let her head fall, though she relaxed and let her hands fall to her side again. Looking up at Emily from under her eyebrows, she matched her smile. "Past tense?" She lifted her head and grinned, arching an eyebrow.

Now Emily flushed, but she recovered, fixing Paige with a knowing gaze of her own. "Definitely, especially now that you're being fresh."

Paige opened her mouth to speak again, but a knock at the door startled them. It was Ella, asking if she could come in. Paige glanced at Emily, who nodded and called out to invite Ella inside. The woman obliged, opening the door and just peeking through. "I just wanted to let you know that I have tea and breakfast downstairs when you're ready. Feel free to come down in your nightclothes; we don't stand on ceremony, here."

The two thanked her as she retreated, their smiles falling. Ella had said "we", but they had neither seen nor heard another soul in the house since they'd been there. Emily saw from the look on Paige's face that they were wondering the same thing: what had happened to the rest of the woman's family?

Breakfast was pleasant enough, though Emily was eager to head back upstairs, for she realized she hadn't shared the witch's most recent message with Paige. After returning to their room, while they changed with their backs to each other, she recounted the tale. She heard Paige's sharp intake of breath at the mention of the trick with the wedding rings, though she was quiet at the mention of the Steward's supposed death.

"I think she's lying," said the ranger, turning around as she braided her long hair.

Emily nodded. "I think so, too. We saw Toby carry her away. But why lie?"

"To mess with you." She shrugged. "Do you think you could message Spencer and find out?"

Considering a moment, Emily nodded. "I think so. I'd like to try right away but I don't think it's a good idea to try while we're here."

"Maybe we can take a walk outside the town, find a secluded spot and you can try there. If Lucas isn't in town, that is."

Agreeing on that course of action, the two of them bid farewell to Ella and headed into the town. They greeted the villagers, asking about Lucas and Rivers, but as the elder had indicated, no one knew anything about the latter and the former hadn't been seen in a while. Satisfied that their quarry would not show that day, the two wandered out into the Wood, enjoying their freedom to just meander. Though the thought of her parents in the witch's clutches scratched in the back of her mind, Emily knew that there was nothing she could do about it, at least not until they found Rivers. Following several strides behind Paige, she felt truly relaxed for the first time in ages.

Paige glanced over her shoulder, smiling. "The Wood's not so bad when we're not hiking non-stop, right?"

"It's lovely." The ranger turned her eyes away. Emily fixed her eyes on the girl, tracing her profile, the shape of her jaw, the way her braid hung down her back. "It's a lovely place."

As the sun rose in the sky, sweat began to bead across their skin and Paige drew to a halt. "This looks good to me."

They'd come to a shady cave, a deep, jagged tunnel snaking into the earth. Emily glanced from Paige to the dark gash and back to Paige again. "It looks a little… dark."

Paige laughed. "Oh, come on. It'll be fine. We'll stay right at the entrance. It'll just make it harder for anyone to sneak up on us. And remember, I'll protect you."

"Paige, if you keep protecting me, I'm never going to be able to pay you back."

"Wait, you're still clinging to that? Em, you stopped Jenna from killing me. I think that makes us even."

Emily shook her head. "I didn't do anything. You did most of the fighting. Besides, even if that did make us even, after last night, the balance has tipped in your favor again."

"Last night?"

"You kept Ella away, remember? Who knows what would have happened if she found out what I am." Emily looked down at her shoes. "Not to mention, you talked me out of that dark place before. You know. After I… after I killed that man."

"Em, you don't owe me for that. That's not fair."

Emily stomped her foot. "I told you before, I get to decide when I've paid my debt, okay? That still stands. I'll let you know."

Frowning, Paige acquiesced. "Fine. Let's just get this Spencer thing over with." She stormed into the cave, finding a spot that seemed level and clear of debris, with a clear view of both the entrance and the inky depths of the crevice. Emily laid down, crossing her hands across her stomach. Closing her eyes, she let out a low breath.

Paige watched the other girl settle in, her stomach churning. With a groan, she dropped to her knees beside Emily. "Em, wait." Emily's eyes snapped open.

"What?" Her voice was harsh, but she bit her lip as the word scraped out, catching Paige's eyes with her own.

"I'm sorry. We'll be even when you decide we're even." She laid her hand just beside Emily's.

"Good." Emily moved her hand over Paige's, giving it a squeeze. Their smiles faded as they regarded each other, a few thick heartbeats counting the time. Then, shaking the stiffness from her muscles, Emily closed her eyes again, loosing Paige's hand. "I'll be back soon."

With that, she slipped into the world of visions.

She had never initiated contact before. Either Spencer or Jenna had always come to her first. Both of them had explained the theory to her, however, and between them she had a good idea of what needed to be done.

Reaching out, she probed the darkness. It was not a blind exercise; she knew what Spencer felt like, on the most basic level, and she felt like a bloodhound on a scent trail, picking up little particles of Spencer-ness drifting in the ether. Before long, she had a solid trail and it grew stronger and stronger as she barreled towards her target. She was bodiless, just a consciousness hurtling through the void as fast as she could think. A soft prick of light appeared ahead of her ans she raced toward it, flinging herself into it.

Sitting beside Emily, Paige snapped her head as a sudden sound from within the cave snapped in her ears. She scrambled to her feet, drawing her sword as the air filled with low growls.

Emily was met with resistance immediately. "Spencer, it's me!" She grit her teeth - did she have teeth to grind? - as she realized her friend probably could not hear her. Pushing, she found that Spencer had thrown up an impenetrable wall. No matter how hard she pushed, she stayed at a constant distance from the glowing light ahead of her. She circled it, looking for a chink in her friend's armor but found none.

Spencer could have no way of knowing she wasn't 'A', and she wasn't doing anything to convince her otherwise. 'A' would push and push until she got what she wanted or until she was forced away; she would never let anyone else win. Emily nodded to herself.

Taking a deep breath, more to reassure herself than anything, because she was still an incorporeal spirit, she backed up just a bit. Spencer's force filled the void, and Emily pushed back, regaining her previous spot. She backed off again, letting Spencer rush in against her, though the reaction was slower. She could almost hear the cogs in Spencer's brain turning. Another push. Another retreat. Spencer almost didn't push back, that time, and Emily knew she had her. With all the strength she could muster, she flung herself against the barrier and felt a rush as she realized she had broken through.

Holding her sword in front of her, Paige felt her stomach sink as she saw a pair of eyes appear in the darkness. As the long snout and furry head appeared, another set of eyes materialized behind it. A low howl echoed through the cave. She gulped, but inched forward, standing across Emily's body. The lead wolf snarled, exposing long, threatening teeth. She ground her teeth together, dropping into a crouch.

The wolf lunged.

The warped sky above her told her that she had succeeded, though the world was dark. If Spencer was still with Toby, he would have covered her to prevent 'A' from seeing their surroundings.

"Spence!" She wrapped her arms around the other girl, jumping with joy to find her alive.

"Em! I hoped that was you!" They pulled apart, grinning. "'A' told me you were dead."

"Yeah, she told me the same thing." Emily grinned. "I knew you weren't."

"I did too. Where are you?"

"We - Paige and I - are just outside a village. I don't know where." Emily grimaced. "This Wood robbed me of all sense of direction. Where are you?"

"Toby and I fled for another ranger camp that I knew of."

"There are more? I thought your group was it. You're the Steward, right? The leader?"

Spencer laughed. "Em, there's thousands of us. I may be the Steward but you can't keep that many people together in the Wood without 'A' hearing about it. We spread out. I have deputies leading the other groups."

"So what will you do now?"

Spencer crossed her arms. "We're going to send word to every ranger. We're going to get together and challenge 'A' outright." She snarled. "It's gone on long enough."

Emily smiled. "Good. It's time someone took her on. Spence?" Her face fell as she noticed that Spencer had gone stiff, eyes wide. "Spencer?"

"Em, something's happening on your end. You have to get back!"

"What? Spencer, what's happening?"

"I don't know! I think Paige is in trouble. Go!"

As soon as Paige's name crossed Spencer's lips, Emily had already begun to withdraw. In moments she was coming around, the cave coming into focus above her.

Paige's cries were the first thing she noticed. Scrambling upright, she saw the girl on the ground, a giant wolf above her, its teeth sinking into the flesh of Paige's forearm. There was at least one dead wolf on the ground, and the one that held Paige had a deep wound in its shoulder, but it snarled and tugged at its prey and Paige screamed, driving her heels into it over and over.

Emily shrieked, finding her dagger at her waist, and as she crawled towards Paige, another wolf leapt at her. It didn't have time to catch her, though, for she drove her dagger forward as it lunged, driving it deep into its ribs. The animal fell to the ground and she left it there, stumbling towards Paige, her dagger forgotten. She heard more howls; the pack was circling her now, ready to attack. The sound echoed around her but she did not hear it; her ears were full of Paige's screams, her eyes full of the pain on her face, her heart full of fear that the ranger might die.

She reached out, laying her hand along the wolf's neck; the action was involuntary, her hand guided by some impulse quivering in the subconscious part of her mind. The result was immediate; as soon as her palm pressed against the muscles that rippled beneath fur and skin, she exploded in the wolf's mind and the wolf exploded in hers, a melding of consciousness that left her breathless.

The animal loosed its - her - bite, turning to look at Emily. Their eyes met and a memory of Spencer holding Kingston bubbled forth; this was what the Steward had been talking about.

"Take your friends and go," said Emily to the wolf, and the animal tilted its head, peering at her. The breath caught in her throat. What if she was wrong?

But the wolf nodded her head and backed away, howling and slinking into the depths of the cave. Just as miraculously, the others followed, leaving Emily alone with the bleeding Paige.

Emily whirled on the injured ranger immediately, fretting over her condition.

"It's going to be okay," she reassured the other woman as she busied herself inspecting the wound. "You idiot. Why didn't you wake me up sooner?" Emily's look of concentration deepened into one of anger, her eyes blazing. "We're even now, okay? No more protecting me at your own expense. We're even."

"We're… not." Paige grimaced, pulling herself up unto a sitting position as she cradled her arm in her lap. She was drenched in sweat, hair and clothes clinking to her damp, pale skin.

Emily froze, eyes flashing. "What?"

"We're not… even." A wide smile passed across Paige's face as she leaned back against the wall of the cave, ragged breaths rocking her body.

Emily shook as she protested. "You're the one who said I should decide if we're even, Paige, and I say we're-"

She never finished her sentence. Paige's fingers, rough against her neck, drew her in, bringing their lips together. Shock exploded in her mind and she froze until the sensation of the other girl's mouth against hers spread through her like wildfire. In a second she came alive, hands finding Paige's face and cupping it, sliding across her sweat-stained skin to bury themselves in her hair. Her tongue tasted salt and blood and the sweetness of Paige's breath as their lips came together again and again. The cave echoed with the sound of their gasps and the shifting of their bodies as Emily leaned into the kiss, Paige's hand moving down over her shoulders to the small of her back, pulling her in. She burned, her nerves leaping like the plucked strings of a harp with every little breath and moan and touch.

Just as the tension began to overwhelm her, as the separation between them began to eat at her and she began to forget that they were in a cave in the Wood, that Paige was injured, that wolves lurked just beyond in the darkness, Paige pulled away. Emily's eyes fluttered open; Paige's were still closed, her mouth still hanging open, in awe or in refusal to admit that the kiss had ended, Emily was not sure. She watched as Paige opened her eyes, drawing her lips into a smile.

"There," said the ranger, trailing a finger along Emily's jaw. "Now we're even."


Yikes, that was a long one! Nearly 6000 words... that's actually the longest single chapter I've written for anything, ever, including the original manuscript I've been developing for the better part of a year.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading it. I finally got to write some romantic scenes. This is the first kiss I've written in ages, so hopefully I've done an adequate job pleasing your little shipper hearts.

Chapter Seven is... not in the works yet, but I hope to have it soon. I may have to switch to updating every other week, but I'm not sure yet. Rest assured it will take no longer than two weeks to write it but it very well may be longer than a single week. As mentioned above, I'm balancing this fic with an original work, and when I get into a roll working on that I can't afford to break from it until the steam runs out.

In any case, I have this story all worked out and it just has to get written. And it will get written. I won't let it be another story that starts out strong and then disappears forever.

Okay, enough yapping. Please give me all your comments and criticism; send me a private message or leave a review if you're so inclined. Anything you have to say is appreciated and is guaranteed to make me smile.