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Against Promise

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The first time Emily kissed Alison, she was thirteen and she didn’t know any better.

It was the year before Ali took Hanna under her wing, and Aria was still fairly new then, still Alison’s favorite. Emily stood at the island in Spencer’s kitchen, counting the seconds between pops of the popcorn in the microwave and listening to Ali’s laughter from the living room, sharp like a pinprick.

Ali was playing with Aria’s shoulder-length hair. “Your hair is gorgeous, Aria. You should grow it out. It would be as pretty as Emily’s.” She looked over her shoulder at Emily and grinned. Emily looked down at the marble, rolled her coke can between her palms.

Aria was Emily’s friend first, and Emily didn’t know who she was jealous of - if it was Ali for the way she had to take over everything, center herself so no one could see anything else, or if it was Aria for the way Ali looked at her, intrigued and captivated. It caught low and tight in Emily’s throat, and when she looked up Spencer was watching her sympathetically.

(When she complained about feeling left out, Spencer shook her head. “You haven’t been replaced, Em. Aria’s just new. And everyone loves Ali.” Later, when Emily remembered that moment, she’d remember something bitter, and a little lost, in Spencer’s voice, like she couldn’t quite figure out the hold Ali had on people. Spencer was Alison’s oldest friend, and her hold had been on Spencer the longest).

“Em!” Ali called, with the inviting lilt to her voice that she hadn’t quite perfected, that wasn’t quite as dangerous as it would be. “What’s taking you so long? You’re missing all the fun. Aria just admitted her crush on Noel.”

Aria’s crush on Noel was visible from space and Alison knew it, but Emily came the rest of the way into the living room, sitting cross-legged in front of Spencer’s chair and looking up at Ali where she was perched on the couch behind Aria.

Alison tugged on the sleeve of Aria’s shirt and Aria leaned forward, “Truth or dare, Em,” she said, smiling and unaware. Emily leaned back against the chair and swallowed. She hated the game, but it was Alison’s favorite, and truth always seemed like the more dangerous of the two options.

“Dare.”

Aria paused to think, her eyes flashing mischief. “I dare you...to kiss Alison.”

Emily coughed on her popcorn, but Ali just laughed, delighted, and said, “Come up here, Em.” Emily maneuvered her way around Aria to sit awkwardly next to Alison, nerves throbbing at her pulse points. She’d never kissed anyone. There were no boys at school she wanted to kiss. Ali was looking up at her through her lashes; Emily’s mouth was dry, and sometimes truth and dare were the same thing. She leaned in carefully, barely brushing her lips against Ali’s. Ali leaned into the kiss and, still smiling low and warm, squeezed Emily’s wrist when she pulled away.

Emily turned to Spencer and dared her to prank call the principal. She spent the rest of the night trying to rub the memory of Alison’s fingertips off of her skin.

***

The second time Emily kissed Alison she was fifteen, and she knew better but didn’t care.

Afterward, she remembered the summer sunlight through the library windows, the way it caught in Alison’s hair and softened her eyes. It had to be the light because there was never really anything soft about Alison. She was gentle sometimes, though, with Emily, when she remembered how much power she had. That was worse for the way it made Emily forget herself. It made her think about sunlight and happy endings, and not about how well she knew Alison. By then the lilt in Ali’s voice was perfected, and her smile was always a warning.

When Emily kissed her, Alison went still, tense where they were pressed together, and Emily startled back, nerves like a pit in her stomach and embarrassment heating her body in a rush. Alison was staring at her with wide eyes, one hand coming up to touch her lips; she didn’t look upset, but she did look surprised. The moment was frozen and Emily felt breakable. She managed to choke out, “Ali, I’m sorry, I didn’t...” before she noticed that Ali was smiling beneath her hand.

“I didn’t know you had it in you, Em.” Alison’s voice was playful, and dangerous, because for Ali the one always lead to the other. She leaned forward, the softness gone out of her eyes, and pressed her lips against Emily’s. Her lips were warm and eager and she kissed like she did everything, with bravado and self-assurance, like Emily was hers for the taking. Emily gasped against the short, breathy noises Alison made as she reached up to cup one hand against Emily’s cheek, parting her lips and letting Emily in.

Alison kissed her. That became important, later, when Ali watched her across the lunch table, cool and untouchable, when she brushed her fingers through Emily’s hair or down her arm, when she pressed her hand against the small of Emily’s back and Emily’s heart pounded in her chest until she had to look down just to breathe.

***

The third time Emily kissed Alison, they were standing in the locker room and Emily was waiting to fall off a cliff.

She threw herself off instead; that was how she managed to work up the nerve to step up behind Ali and press her lips to her neck. Ali was smiling at her, laughing bright and wide, flirting like it was nothing, and Emily itched to reach out for her. Ali smelled like chlorine and lavender body spray, and Emily didn’t think she’d noticed so distinctly the way anyone smelled until Alison, but she could smell Ali across a classroom. It distracted her in the hallway. She started writing, and abandoned, a dozen letters and emails, all of which started with some variation of I can’t stand to be in the same room with you without you touching me.

She knew the difference between teasing and invitation; she should have been less shocked when Ali’s bright, wide laughter turned low and mocking, should have remembered how well they knew each other.

Emily was quiet on the way home. She kept her hands locked at ten and two on the steering wheel, clenching her fingers tight to keep from shaking. She kept her eyes on the road, but she could see Ali out of her peripheral vision, alternately looking out the passenger window and tapping out messages on her phone. Emily was angry in a way that was hot and immediate, the kind of helpless anger that she only ever felt toward Alison. It made her want to be as cruel as Alison could be, do something that would finally make Ali stop laughing.

Alison spoke first, and Emily felt gratified.

“I like boys, Em.”

“I know. I see you with...I know.” She did. She saw Alison with all of them, but she also heard the way Alison mocked them behind their backs, gleeful and mean. She talked about them like they were toys to be played with. “They never seem to mean much to you.”

Alison laughed, the playfully amused one that was cold if you knew what you were listening for. “And do you want me to play with you the way I play with them?” She asked. When Emily looked over at her, Alison was watching her curiously, her head cocked to one side. She looked like she actually wanted an answer. Emily hated her and hated hating her and let the question hang between them until she pulled up in front of Alison’s house.

“You already do,” she said quietly, staring at the light from the streetlight dropping eerie shadows across the pavement in front of her as Alison got out of the car.

Alison leaned against the door. “Emily,” she said, hard and demanding. She never used Emily’s full name.

“What?” Emily said, refusing to look over.

Alison didn’t respond for a moment, waiting. When Emily didn’t look at her she said, softly, “I really don’t,” and turned to walk into the house.

That night, Emily wrote a letter she actually sent.

***

On that last night, Alison kissed Emily.

They were drunk. That was Alison’s new thing, one more thing to make her feel grown up and in control. It didn’t make Emily feel in control, though. The vodka burned going down and made everything hazy around the edges; it made her not trust herself and trust Alison even less. She picked truth in “Truth or Dare” and no one got her to admit anything good because the only secret she had left was Alison’s secret too.

Hanna dared Aria to kiss Spencer. Aria giggled and rolled her eyes, pecking Spencer on the lips. Ali met Emily’s eyes over Spencer’s head and laughed. Emily looked away, hugging her arms to her chest and watching the wind blow the tree branches through the window. Ali hadn’t acknowledged the letter. She’d been distant, though, distant and gentle, with only a few well-placed barbs like she couldn’t help herself; it left the ball of anger giving way to hurt coiled in the pit of Emily’s stomach, and she wished Ali would just be cruel.

It was strange, the things about that night that she didn’t remember later through the film of alcohol and shock. She didn’t remember lying down to fall asleep; she didn’t hear the scream. But she thought she remembered a whisper coming on the edge of her consciousness, low enough that it was meant only for her.

“Em? Are you awake? I have something to tell you.”

Her mumbled acknowledgment wasn’t enough for Alison, who sighed, still, always, sounding amused. “Fine, then.” She pressed her lips, quick and dry, to the corner of Emily’s mouth.

Emily woke up to panic in Aria’s voice and and Spencer’s wide, shocked eyes, and Alison was gone.

***

The first time Emily kissed Maya – or at least the first time she meant it, the first time for real - Alison had been dead for a year and Emily had been trying (pretending) so hard with Ben she felt like she’d been choking on it.

Maya tasted like fruit punch and her lips were soft and when they pulled apart, Emily felt like she was breathing easy when she’d been struggling for breath for so long she’d stopped noticing it. For the rest of the night Emily could still smell Maya against her skin - light, citrus perfume mixed with pot smoke. She didn’t want to be in a room with Maya without Maya touching her.

Later, lying on Maya’s bed in Alison’s bedroom, Maya asked her what she was so afraid of. She was trailing her fingers through Emily’s hair and looking at her like she thought this was the first time Emily had ever taken a risk. The fading sunlight falling through the window looked the same as it always had and Emily didn’t know where to start. She loved Alison, and hated her just as much, missed her desperately and forgave her nothing and was one of four people who could love her without pretending she was something she wasn’t. The comfort of Maya was that she didn’t know any of that and had never known Alison at all. She didn’t need to know she wasn’t the first chance worth taking.

The buzz of Emily’s phone on the bedside table was loud in the stillness and Emily flinched, catching Maya’s elbow to keep her from reaching for it. It would be A. It was always A. Maya looked down at her and cocked her head, eyebrows raised and one corner of her mouth quirking up, teasing but warm.

“Not of you,” Emily said, “what I’m afraid of. I mean…” She was maybe afraid of everything else. Maya nodded and bit her lip, searching Emily’s face.

“Emily, you can tell me if there’s something else.” Always “Emily” never “Em.” Maya’s voice was soft and insistent.

Emily’s smile felt tight. “I know,” she said, “I will.” The warmth in Maya’s answering smile made her hope she was lying and she’d never have to.