"She's been meeting with Jason," Spencer says, first words out of her mouth after storming into Hanna's room.
"I'm sorry, what?" Aria says.
Okay, that was maybe not the clearest start to this conversation. It's not Spencer's fault she's already had it in her head three times on the way over. It's definitely not Spencer's fault she got started on a fourth when Mrs. Marin opened the door. She's got a lot on her plate.
"Melissa. I think Melissa's been seeing Jason. She's been sneaking out in the middle of the night—they've both been sneaking out. Well, I guess he's not sneaking out if there's no one in his house he has to hide from. The point is they have to be meeting each other."
Hanna tilts her head. "Have you seen them talk?"
"I've seen them go off in the same direction," Spencer explains, widening her eyes to convey how telling this is.
"At the same time?" says Emily, frowning.
"With a tiny delay. He walks out and she follows him exactly two minutes after. Every time. It has to be deliberate." Spencer rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. "Mile high clubbers on my own front yard."
"Wow," Aria says, "that was a lot of disdain in very few words."
Replying to that would just sidetrack the conversation, so Spencer steels herself so she can rein in the topic.
"Well, you're on a flight with a lot of other people," Hanna pipes up before Spencer can say anything, "you don't hoard the bathroom."
Spencer lets out a sharp, frustrated breath through her nose. "Thank you, Hanna. Now if we could go back to the issue of my sister communing with sketchy neighbors, that would be great."
"Jason's not that sketchy," Aria chimes in.
"Jason is that sketchy," Hanna says. "Besides, if Melissa's doing anything with him, he's probably secretly a creep. No offense, Spence, but your sister has pretty questionable taste in men."
Spencer looks at her with a slightly raised eyebrow, a subtle piercing look she has perfected over the years.
Hanna raises her hands in surrender. "Fine, whatever."
"Do you think he's hiding something in his house?" Emily says. "He's alone there. It has to be a more convenient meeting place than the woods in the middle of the night."
"Middle ground?" Aria suggests.
"I don't think so," Spencer says.
"Can't you just ask her?" Aria says, shrugging apologetically. "I mean, can't you ask Melissa?"
Spencer drops down on Hanna's bed. She's been pacing the room since she got here, but it finally feels like she's gotten the worst of the anxiety out of her system. "I could, but I doubt she'd answer."
"Are you guys still not speaking?" Hanna says. She sounds like it's unheard of, someone giving someone the silent treatment for so long. Hanna doesn't really understand the concept of grudges.
"Well, she's not speaking to me."
"Maybe she will if you're holding something over her head," says Hanna. Spencer shoots her another incredulous look. "Not like—blackmail, or anything. Just, she's mad at you because she thinks you screwed her over with those Ian texts, so if she's done something equally terrible, then she doesn't have any right to not listen to you."
Spencer snorts. "That's not how Melissa's grudges work. Besides, I don't have enough evidence. If I just ask her if she's seeing Jason, she'll come up with some excuse. I need one of those questions that are so specific it's like you already—" Her phone beeps in her pocket. "—know," she finishes, the sentence just hanging there, and fishes out her phone. Caller ID unknown. Just what she needs right now. "Hello?"
"Spencer?" says the voice on the other end, and Spencer feels that rush of relief she always does when 'unknown' isn't A—at least until she registers the voice and the tone, the worried, shaken roughness to the word, and remembers Melissa switched phone numbers after Ian’s funeral and Spencer never had a chance to program the new one into her cell.
"What's going on?"
Melissa breathes loudly enough to be heard through the phone. "They found Wren's body. Wren is dead."
"Sure, why bother with small talk when you can just—" Spencer starts, and then registers what's been said. "What?"
"I—the police just called, I was out. Mom's yelling at an officer about town safety right now. I just got here. I don't—"
"I'll be right there," Spencer says, and waits for Melissa's breathing to even out a bit before hanging up the phone.
When she looks back to the room, everyone is staring at her with wide eyes.
"I— I have to go. I have to—" She looks at the phone in her hand and takes a deep breath. "Wren is dead."
"He what?" Hanna blurts out.
Aria stares at Spencer with her mouth half open, and Emily says, "What do you mean dead?"
"Dead," Spencer says, and she's vaguely aware that she's raising her voice but she can't do anything to stop it. "As in not alive. I don't know, but I doubt it was natural causes. The guy was in his early twenties." She's going around the room again, but this time it isn't completely aimless; she's picking up her bag from the floor, the hat she came in wearing from Hanna's desk. "The police are at my house," she says, feeling the front pocket of her purse for her keys, just in case, and heading towards the door.
"We'll come with," Emily offers.
Spencer wants to say no, that this is a family thing, that they barely even know Wren—knew, knew, except they still don't know him, so why should it be past tense?—but the truth is, if something happened to any of her friends' friends, Spencer would want to know what it was—if it was connected to A, to Alison's murder case. Besides, she may be too shocked right now to internalize what she just found out, but that won't last forever, and they're the only support system Spencer has that she can be honest with.
She nods at them, and they follow her out of Hanna's house.
Melissa comes back on a Tuesday, a week after they release Emily from the hospital.
The first thing Spencer says to her is: "Whoa, I didn't know cologne baths were a thing." In retrospect, it's not her brightest moment. It would be nice and decent-human-being-like if Melissa actually believed her about Ian's phone, but she doesn't, and all in all what Melissa does believe is a pretty solid reason to hate someone. Spencer doesn't need to make it worse by snarking at her sister without prompting.
The look Melissa gives her says, Really? That's the first thing you say to me after you pretend to be my dead husband? Meaningful angry looks must run in the family.
"Is that jasmine?" Spencer goes on, sniffing at the air and thereby digging deeper into her very own DIY hole.
When Melissa looks at her this time, it's—weird. There's something curious about it, like she's appraising Spencer's question, and Spencer's first instinct is to be outraged that her sister doesn't think she'd recognize jasmine by the smell. But that's not how Melissa's looking at her; she's not... she's not really judging her. Spencer masks her squirming by sitting on a stool. Melissa's eyes finally go back to normal—Spencer hadn't even realized they'd narrowed, not in as many words, but it makes sense—and she says, "Yes," dismissively before heading upstairs.
And that's not weird or anything.
Look, Spencer's used to not understanding Melissa. She's—well, she wouldn't say she's accepted it, because she keeps trying, but she's mostly made her peace with it.
Spencer calls out after Melissa, "So that spa didn't do a lot for you, did it." It's not so much a question as a jab. Melissa's shoulders tense slightly, almost imperceptibly, but she walks on, ignoring Spencer's question.
A few minutes later, when Spencer's revising History notes in her room, she realizes Melissa's baby bump is gone.
She must have registered it before, but somehow her brain is only processing it now. And instead of asking about it and offering support for whatever happened or at least letting Melissa know that she noticed and cares, she remarked on the fact that Melissa stank of jasmine.
Now it’s harder to ask. Spencer doesn’t know how she’d bring that up. She’s not sure how Melissa would take it, or if she'd even want to talk about it—about her dead husband's dead baby, and Spencer feels a pang of sadness in her stomach, her eyes unexpectedly tearing up—with Spencer, given Spencer's history with said dead husband.
She means to try, though, that night, when she's been tossing and turning in bed for hours and hears steps outside. She thinks maybe Melissa's come to the main house to get a glass of milk, or something to eat. Maybe Melissa can't sleep either—she'd have a good reason. But when Spencer gets downstairs, there's no one around, and a quick look out the back door shows Melissa walking off, wrapped in a dark coat, glancing around like she's looking for something.
Spencer realizes that something is Jason two nights later, from her bedroom window.
There's only one police car outside Spencer's house, no lights on, no sound. It doesn't look like they're arresting anybody, or there would be more of a commotion outside.
"Do you think they found the body in your yard?" Hanna asks in a whisper.
Spencer's voice comes out sharp, harsh: "I don't know."
"Sorry I asked," Hanna says, like she's accusing Spencer instead of apologizing. This is a stressful situation, okay? It may be stressful for Hanna, too, but she's not the one with policemen in her house and an ex splayed on a medical examiner's table in the morgue, stone cold dead.
And that's a great image, especially now that Spencer knows exactly what the morgue looks like.
"You guys should wait in the barn," Spencer tells them.
Aria raises an eyebrow. "Are you sure hiding is a good idea?"
"It's not hiding, it's waiting," says Spencer. She means it. "You can keep the door open if you want. I think we're still Wren's closest contacts in Rosewood and that's why we got a visit from the police. That or Garrett is trying to play nice and tell Melissa in person."
"Are you sure?" Emily asks, and Spencer nods for them to go. She doesn't want any more of a crowd in her house, especially if Melissa's there.
Garrett's not actually around; he's probably working the crime scene. Accident scene. Wherever Wren's body was.
Not Wren's body. The body. It's—it's just easier to think about it like this, like someone investigating the case would. She'll let herself absorb things later, when there are no strangers in the house and she's the only person in the room who had a relationship with Wren.
There's an officer talking to her mom by the kitchen island, and Melissa's curled up in the couch. From the kitchen door, all Spencer can see is the back of her head.
"Spencer." Her mom gestures for her to come over, extending an arm to give her a side hug. She keeps her hand on Spencer's back, comforting.
"I'm here," she says as she turns to the police officer. "What happened?"
The official story as it stands—and it may be the final one, if they don't suspect foul play—is that Wren was doing god knows what in the woods, something Spencer feels won't even affect the story as long as he was alone, and some big animal—a wolf, or a bear—jumped on him and... ripped out his jugular.
What is Spencer supposed to do with that? The officer eyes her like he expects her to crack, but there are people around. Is that what she's supposed to do, cry? Wren's no deader now than he was before Spencer had a clue what happened. Besides, Melissa's been sending weird looks in their direction while Spencer was filled in. It's hard to believe there's nothing else going on when Melissa's acting this rattled and suspicious. At least the charade she put on when Ian disappeared was fitting for her situation. Right now she looks like she's waiting for something, but Spencer has no idea what it could be.
Spencer is asked a few questions about Wren and gives honest answers: the last time she saw him was earlier this week, when Emily had a check-up appointment at the hospital. They talked about Emily's test results—the HRH issue, but she's not going to mention that; it's not like she told Wren anything important—in the hospital cafeteria and, when his break ended, Wren told Spencer that wasn't exactly what he was hoping for when he asked to have coffee with her, but it would suffice. She cracks a smile at that, and the officer frowns warily, like she's on the verge of a mental breakdown.
When the police leave, her mom turns to her, puts a hand on her shoulder and says, "Are you all right?"
"Honestly," Spencer says, eyes fixed on the collar of her mom's shirt, "I'm still trying to figure that out." It's just—she has Toby now. Wren fucked up with Melissa, and Spencer didn't have enough time to really get to know him. She liked him, she did, and there are things she can't tell her mom, things like how grateful she is to Wren for handling the Emily thing so well, and helping Melissa with Ian, and being the reason Spencer was there when they found Ian dead—when Melissa found Ian dead.
She tries to smile, and her mom pulls her closer, stroking her back while Spencer breathes quietly, just long enough to calm down, long enough to feel capable of dealing with things again. Aria, Hanna and Emily are still in the barn, waiting for news. Her mom has work to get to.
"You sure you're okay?" she asks when Spencer tells her to leave. Spencer nods.
Melissa's shuffling her feet on the carpet. She's wearing thick, brightly colored socks under her dress pants, even though spring is shining warmly outside. Spencer's surprised Melissa's not making more of an effort to appear composed and unaffected. In Melissa's world, those socks are the equivalent of a trauma victim wearing a blanket. She knows it, Spencer knows it, and from the concerned look she sends the way of the couch before she heads out, Spencer's mom knows it as well.
"Melissa..." Spencer begins, taking careful steps towards the couch.
"I'm fine," Melissa says. She doesn't even look at Spencer.
"Come on, I can see you're not okay. You can talk to me. I know what this must feel like."
For a long moment, Spencer thinks Melissa might talk to her, or that she's at least considering it. There's nothing that spells out doubt as well as silence.
Then, more sharply this time: "I'm fine."
Spencer stifles a sad sigh and goes out to the barn.
"I think there's more to it than that," Spencer says when she's done recounting the story.
Emily sits up. "Do you think it was A?"
"I'm not ruling it out."
"Guys," Aria begins, her voice thin, "I'm not saying there's no reason to suspect this has something to do with us, but there must be a reason they're saying it was an animal attack, too. Claw, or—teeth marks, I don't know."
Spencer closes her eyes and tries to breathe out the images flashing through her head. "There was a gun with Ian. And a suicide note. Murderers know how to cover their tracks."
"But why would anyone kill Wren?" Hanna asks, completely serious. "I mean, besides his connection to you and Melissa, he didn't have a lot going on in town."
"Do you think they'll question Melissa?" Emily says. "I mean, he—he cheated on her. Easy motive."
Spencer thinks about it for a second, and says, "Yeah, we're not going to the police with this."
"That and how they won't believe us," Emily says, deflating into her chair.
"And Garrett is there," Aria adds.
Hanna hums in agreement. "So what are we doing? We can't just leave it."
"Oh, we can leave it," Aria mutters under her breath, loud enough for Spencer to know she means them to hear it.
"Well, maybe you can, but I can't let things slide. Melissa was frosty in there. She was all wary and suspicious of the police."
"You're just going to ignore me if I tell you to ask her again, aren't you?"
"I already asked. She practically kicked me out."
"Well," Hanna says, "the guy she married and the guy she was engaged to both just died in mysterious circumstances. I'd be paranoid as hell if I were her." Her phone beeps, and she thumbs off a message dismissively. "I'm surprised A's not trying to frame her."
"Maybe this wasn't A," Emily suggests. "Do you think this has anything to do with Jason?"
"I have no idea," Spencer says. But there's one way to find out.
Melissa sneaks out again that night. Spencer wasn't sure she would, given someone she used to be close to just died, but Melissa sticks to her routine: Spencer first notices a shadow heading away from Jason's house at 2:32AM, and hears the front door snap shut at 2:34.
Spencer realizes she shouldn't stay up late enough to catch Melissa. Caffeine may keep her upright in the morning, but she likes to believe she's not actually dependent on it, and ever since the first time she noticed Melissa and Jason's little escapades, she has once or twice woken up so tired she had to use both hands to lift the coffee pot.
Besides, she's not getting anything done like this. She's only confirming, over and over, what she already knows. A few days ago she almost took a picture with her phone, but then paranoia and a screwed-up sense of loyalty got the best of her and she didn't. There was no way to ensure nobody would get hold of the picture and use it against Melissa—and now she's glad she put the phone away.
Not that she wouldn't—if Melissa was involved, Spencer would want her brought to justice. And technically it's not the first time Melissa's lied to her and snuck out to meet potential murderers, so Spencer's not entirely sure why she's so reluctant to believe Melissa has anything to do with Alison's murder or A. Melissa's smart enough—at least she used to be—and she has the time, she has the resources. But it's—it's Melissa. She's not nice, but she's Spencer's sister. Her behavior is baffling at times, but Spencer has known her all her life, Spencer shares a house with her, Spencer trusts her.
She has to. She'd sleep even less at night otherwise.
If things go well, though, this should be the last time she deliberately stays up.
She has half an idea where Melissa's heading, but the last thing she needs is to lose track of her and end up wandering aimlessly around town in the middle of the night. It's chilly out, so she pulls on a pair of flat boots over jeans, leaves her pajama top on and grabs a jacket on her way out. She huddles into it as she steps into the cold air.
It's not hard to spot Melissa; she's too far to have heard Spencer come out of the house, but close enough to make her out easily. The weather helps Spencer's purpose, too. It's pretty rough tonight, and the frantic rustle and crackle of branches and leaves as the wind swishes through them is louder than anybody's footsteps could be.
There's no sign of Jason. Spencer's too busy to look at her watch, but they reach the woods in a few minutes' worth of walking, and even then Jason's nowhere to be seen. Maybe he and Melissa are being thorough about not being seen together, but really? The woods? Who do they think is going to see them here? Who do they think is going to care?
The moonlight doesn't let up, but it does get darker as Spencer crawls deeper into the woods. There's less space and more trees; her range of vision narrows. She can feel Melissa more often than she can see her. It's not a complicated path they're taking, so all Spencer needs to do is stay on it and she won't get lost. Probably won't get lost. She hopes.
A thicket of trees gives way to a dirty clearing: the ground is damp and the few blades of grass and flowers are pretty thoroughly trampled on, half-buried into the earth. Melissa's pace slows down, so Spencer slows her own even further, hiding behind the wide trunk of a tree when Melissa stops on her tracks and begins to look around. As far as Spencer can see, there's no one around, but she's not sure Melissa's looking for a person. It occurs to her that maybe she got the whole Jason thing wrong. Maybe it was a coincidence that they both went out a few minutes apart every single night day after day after day—
Scratch that. It can't possibly have been a coincidence.
Melissa picks up a long branch from the ground and snaps a few twigs off the end of it. Spencer notices none of it touches Melissa's palms: Melissa holds on with just fingers. It figures she'd be careful not to dirty herself even on illicit trips to the woods in the middle of the night. She wipes her left hand on a black cloth hanging from the back pocket of her jeans and pulls something out of her jacket that Spencer can't make out; there's a gleam of metal, but it's quickly hidden by Melissa's body.
This is a bad angle. Spencer assesses her options and steps carefully past two more trees, going around the clearing until she has a cleaner view of her sister. Melissa's left hand is still obscured from view by her jacket, but at least Spencer can tell Melissa's digging at the earth with that branch, sticking it through a clump of bushes. She's being careful. She's being quiet. If Jason's around—maybe Spencer did get it wrong. Maybe Melissa and Jason aren't meeting each other; maybe Melissa's following Jason, much the same way Spencer followed her today.
Beyond that, Spencer's still lost, pretty much.
And then she sees it: conspicuously light-colored fabric sticking out of the bushes, being drawn along by the pointy end of the branch Melissa's holding. It's darker in places, much darker, and as Melissa lays it over the ground, Spencer realizes it's a trench coat.
A trench coat with blood on it.
The words rise sharply up her throat before she has a chance to stop them: "Oh my god, is that Wren's?"
Melissa snaps around faster than Spencer had any idea she could, and before Spencer knows it, she's pushed back against a sturdy, sticky tree. She knows it's sticky because she tries to soften the impact with her hands and gets a coating of resin on them for her troubles. Melissa's hands are surprisingly strong and sharp on Spencer's shoulders, and she dropped the branch, but she's still holding that metallic thing in her left hand, and now she's close enough for Spencer to make out what it is: a revolver.
"Where did you get that?" Spencer squeals, palming the space behind herself until she finds a clear stretch of tree trunk to rasp off the resin.
"What are you doing here?" Melissa whispers, her tone not any nicer for it, and takes back the hand holding a gun. She looks at it and back to Spencer and draws her finger away from the trigger guard, but keeps the revolver tightly gripped in her hand. "You shouldn't be here," she says, and gives Spencer's shoulder another shove before stepping back. Her expression remains cautious, and Spencer reads more than concern in it; she reads distrust.
Spencer presses her lips together until she's calmed down enough to speak quietly. "I followed you," she says, shifting away from the tree.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"What was I supposed to do? You've snuck out every night since you got back and now Wren—" Spencer points at the trench coat on the floor and lowers her voice again, whispering now: "Now Wren is dead. What do you want me to do, have a cup of tea while you go off and get killed?"
Melissa does something quick with the gun—was the safety off before?—and shoves her hand in her jacket pocket. "You need to leave," she tells Spencer, looking everywhere but at her—scoping their surroundings. Once she's satisfied, she glances back at Spencer. "Leave. Now."
Spencer steps into the clearing and shakes her head. "I'm not leaving without you. If this is dangerous for me, how do I know it's not for you?"
"Are you kidding me," Melissa says in a tight voice, and walks into Spencer's personal space before pulling something thick and pointy out of her back, the area where her jacket laps over her jeans. Spencer can't get a good look at it, but she guesses it's another weapon. "Leave. Right now. I mean it. We'll talk when I get home."
"How do I know you're coming back home? Wren got killed here last night!"
Melissa's expression softens a little, but she still sounds frustrated and angry when she says, "I will! I just will, Spencer. Go home."
They're whispering now. They're having a whispered conversation in the middle of the woods, in a clearing containing the trench coat Wren was wearing when he died, with Melissa carrying a revolver and god knows what other manner of weapons concealed on her person. Spencer's seen enough scary movies to know it's never a good idea to drag out conversations that are clearly going nowhere in a dangerous situation, even if she has no idea what that situation is because Melissa won't tell her.
"Fine," Spencer says, "but I'm not letting you off. I want to know exactly what you've been—"
Melissa's jaw tightens and she grits out, "Just go. Take this." She hands Spencer the pointy thing in her hand, which on closer inspection appears to be a—a stake. Okay. "And go."
Breathing in and burrowing into her jacket, Spencer blinks herself out of her stupor and heads back home. At various points she feels the urge to run—Wren got killed in the woods, and Melissa came here armed with a stash she can't just have come up with in one day, which means there's something fishy going on, something dangerous Melissa has accumulated weapons to fight.
Unless—unless she's the one who killed Wren.
A wave of nausea hits the back of Spencer's throat and she throws her head back, breathing in deep, pushing the nausea down. It's fine. Just keep walking. Running will only draw attention to her anyway.
It's not a long way to her house, but the second she walks in and closes the door, she instantly finds herself leaning back against it and shaking. She wasn't shaking before. She wasn't panting, she wasn't—she didn't feel like this. Another wave of unpleasantness rises up her chest, but this time it's not nausea; it's a need to sob.
She stifles the sounds and drags herself to the couch, falling face first on it as soon as she's close enough. She toes off her shoes and manages to get out of her jacket and roll over so she's facing the dark ceiling before giving up on moving. She should wait for Melissa to come home—and ideally she should wait up—but the couch is soft and even her bones feel exhausted.
It's fine. If Melissa drops by the main house instead of going straight to the barn, it will be enough to wake up Spencer.
It's not Melissa that wakes her up after all. Instead, it's her phone beeping straight into her ear and startling her. She sits up, breathing hard, and puts a hand to her chest; there's a muffled glow from the pocket of her jacket, squeezed between the armrest and a cushion, and she stares at it as she calms down, until it goes dark again. Between all the shifting overnight she must have grabbed her jacket off the floor and started using it as a pillow.
It takes a while for her eyes to adapt to the darkness. She fishes her phone out and waves it around like a flashlight, making sure she's alone before checking what it was that woke her up.
Unknown caller ID; of course it is. She opens the text anyway.
Tell your sister to keep her nose out of my business, or I'll make sure to drain the color out of it. -A
The first thing Spencer thinks is that at least A's not telling Spencer to keep her nose out of Melissa's business. There's nothing in that text blackmailing Spencer not to find out what's going on. Hell, maybe for once she'll be able to tell someone the truth about why she's interfering. The second thing Spencer thinks is that the text sounds defensive, much more so than A's ever sounded, and isn't that an interesting tidbit.
The backdoor blinds rattle and Spencer kneels up on the couch, one foot quickly slipping to the ground. Whoever comes in does it carefully, making sure the door closes quietly behind them.
Melissa jumps and covers her mouth with her hand. "Jesus, you scared me."
"I scared you?" Spencer says. Melissa's the one with the midnight forays into the woods and the secrets and—oh, let's not forget—the freaking weapons.
A resigned look from Melissa is all the answer Spencer gets; Melissa's already pulling various things out of her pockets—none of them obviously dangerous, but then she wouldn't leave a gun near a door that's been broken through before, would she? Or, like, around the house at all—and then taking off her jacket, leaving it neatly folded over the back of a chair.
"I'm just gonna go to bed," Melissa says, and Spencer would let her—she does sound tired—but Spencer also knows every minute that passes increases the likelihood of Melissa deciding to lie again. By omission or otherwise.
"No you're not," Spencer says. Her voice comes out higher than she means it to, but then she's in kind of a desperate position. "You gave me a stake." She bends over the couch to pick it out from under there, and when she straightens up Melissa's right next to her, snatching the thing from Spencer and holding Spencer's wrists back with one hand.
Melissa's palm drowns out the What the hell are you doing? Spencer screams into it, and then Melissa nods and takes her hand back.
Spencer scrambles back. "What the hell was that?"
"I had to make sure you—" Melissa bites her lip. "I had to make sure you weren't one of them."
"By trying to kill me?"
Melissa shakes her head. Spencer doesn't think she grasps the magnitude of the my sister just tried to choke me concept. "Don't be so dramatic. I wasn't going to let you suffocate. I was just checking you didn't burn when I touched you." Spencer cocks her head, waiting for an explanation. "I have this... powder. It's a long story."
"If you start telling it now, maybe you'll be done by the time I have to go to school."
"It's not that kind of story," Melissa says dismissively.
Spencer snorts. "It is if you want to make it."
Melissa watches Spencer's face carefully. Spencer lets her, making a concerted effort not to roll her eyes, or raise her eyebrows, or lift her chin or any of the other million confrontational things her muscles are itching to do.
"You're not going to believe me. It sounds like I'm clinically insane," Melissa finally says, her shoulders slumping as she leans back in the couch. Now Spencer does roll her eyes. "Trust me. I've been in your position and that's what I thought." Melissa presses her lips together. "At first, anyway."
"There's just so much—"
"Why don't you start with the stake?"
Melissa's eyes widen. "I meant to give you a knife." Her tone is apologetic, like the issue here is what kind of weapon she handed Spencer. "The message stakes give—I mean, stakes are widely known as—"
"Unless you're going to say 'widely acknowledged as weapons against vampires' I don't follow your logic," Spencer says, because there's nothing else stakes are widely known for, is there?
Melissa falls silent.
"What is it?" Spencer asks, and Melissa sucks her upper lip into her mouth, something Spencer identified years ago as a tell: a sign that there's something Melissa wants to say but isn't saying. If there's really some kind of universal truth or myth about stakes that Spencer is not aware of, she'd sure like to hear about it. Still, it doesn't explain why Melissa clamped up like that. It's hardly an emotional issue.
"Well, that's—" Melissa tries, and unhelpfully follows it up with a loud sigh, her eyes shutting tight for a moment.
Spencer patiently holds out for the rest of the sentence, but it doesn't come. 'Well, that's' what? True? Even if it's true, even if it is what Melissa was going to say, Spencer still doesn't see why it's relevant. Unless— "Wait."
"Now she gets it," Melissa says, and Spencer magnanimously refrains from telling her how much this is not the time to mock Spencer. Not when Melissa's implying—what? That she's a regular Buffy Summers? Maybe she should have given her more credit on that whole certifiable thing. "Look, I know it sounds bad—"
"I was going to say absurd," Spencer interrupts, "but sure, that works too."
Melissa goes on: "It sounds really, really bad, but I need you to stay calm and listen to me."
"Stay calm?" Spencer says, her voice cracking. She switches to hissing out the rest. "You just told me there are vampires. In this town. That you go out looking for in the middle of the night like some deranged geek with a death wish."
"I'm not deranged, I'm not a geek and I don't have a death wish," Melissa lists off quickly, like she wants to get that out of the way and move on to something more substantial. Like the way she didn't deny the rest of what Spencer just said. "And—" Melissa nods to herself like she's making a decision to pull out the heavy artillery. "—I know what happened to Wren."
Spencer's eyes widen, and suddenly she feels a lot more inclined to listen.
"I started doing this because of him," Melissa says. There really has to be a lot to tell if this is what she's starting with. "I— when Ian disappeared, when I called Wren. He told me what was going on. Ian did fall in the tower that night, and he would have died, you know. If he hadn't been already dead." There's anger in Melissa's voice, a bitterness that sounds fresh.
Melissa's face hardens, and she says in a rush: "Ian manipulated me into marrying him, loving him, and thinking I was pregnant. I was not. I had a— the only thing I can call it is a hysterical miscarriage." She snorts, but it sounds pained. "When I was in Philadelphia. I don't want to talk about that. And then I started taking archery lessons."
Spencer thinks it over, tries to figure out what the right question to ask is. She'd like Melissa to know she's here if she wants to talk about the miscarriage—the one thing that sounds true in this whole story—but Melissa should know that already. Spencer's told her before. And it may just make Melissa freeze up for good.
So, okay. Curiosity it is. "Do you know who killed Ian?"
Melissa takes a deep breath and lets it out before answering. "I have my suspicions. As did Wren, which is probably what got him killed."
Melissa hums under her breath. "Probably not. Ian's death was really clean, and Wren's was really messy."
"Well, if Ian was a vampire—"
"No, that's not it," Melissa says. "Ian was staked, and whoever did it kept the stake in until his circulation stopped and then took it out. The shot was just a prop. The blood was his, but the shot was a prop. I think a vampire did it, and took care of the coroner afterwards. Wren—there was blood all over. It wasn't just sucking it out, it was messy. There were a lot of wounds, it wasn't planned. The person who killed Ian would have waited for a better moment and covered their tracks."
More than ever, Spencer feels like she walked straight in the middle of a mystery novel. Like everything started without her. Melissa sounds like she's been aching to discuss this for a while. She's a lot less emotional now, like she's switched into investigation mode. Spencer can relate to that.
"Well, it's not like the police would look at a bloodless body and think a vampire did it."
"Yeah," Melissa agrees, "especially if they have one in their ranks."
"Garrett," Spencer blurts out, and Melissa frowns at her. "There's something weird going on with him. Do you think he's a—"
"A vampire, yeah," Melissa says, nodding slowly. She sounds relieved, and Spencer does a double take when she realizes she's fallen into this conversation and suddenly nothing seems so outlandish anymore. Nothing sounds unbelievable. Was she so desperate for an explanation that she's willing to buy this one? "He's the reason Wren wanted to move here in the first place. Probably why he proposed. I—" She bites the inside of her cheek; it looks like she's biting back something a little more insulting to Wren, which, hey, she's free to spew hatred as far as Spencer's concerned. Whatever was going on with him aside, it's not like he was a good fiancé. "He's—he was—a hunter. I'm not sure it was just Garrett he was trying to hunt down, but I have no doubt that it was Garrett who killed Wren."
Melissa's lids lower, and she looks up warily. "I saw the body. I think I saw Garrett, too. I'm surprised he didn't see me."
Outrage rears its head again. "And now you're venturing into the woods at night to make sure he does?"
"There's more to it than that," Melissa says, shaking her head like it doesn't matter at all that there may be a vampire out to get her. Well, that's just another thing to add to the 'Melissa needs help' list. "Jason's in on it somehow," she says, and Spencer realizes she hadn't even thought of asking about him even though it's all that's been on her mind since Melissa came back home. "And I think there may be another one."
"Another vampire," Melissa says condescendingly, like it should be totally obvious. "But I don't think that other vampire is their friend. I think she may be a nuisance."
"She," Spencer echoes.
"Or he," Melissa amends.
"But you said she," Spencer says. "And you said you suspect someone of killing Ian, and that person is neither Wren nor Garrett, so—"
Melissa drags in a breath, watching Spencer's face again for a while, and when she speaks, she speaks quietly. "I think it was Alison DiLaurentis."
They don't discuss Alison. Spencer has no freaking clue what to say, for one, and she's still not sure this whole thing isn't a figment of Melissa's imagination. It makes sense, is the thing, or it would if vampires were scientifically possible. If A were a vampire—vampires are faster than people, right? Stronger? They'd be able to get around stealthily. They'd be able to spy on Spencer and her friends without ever being seen. And it's not like Melissa's appealing to particularly spiritual people for proof. Wren went through med school. Melissa herself has always been all about empirical evidence, aside from that window of time she became Mrs. Ian Thomas, and this explains that, too.
A third option is that Melissa's just fucking with Spencer to get her back for those texts, but it's too cruel to even contemplate.
The sun begins to rise outside before they're done talking, so Spencer makes coffee for herself and tea for Melissa—Melissa is still planning to go to bed, and that explains her weird meal hours since she got back—and they sit at the kitchen island, talking about vampires like they're discussing the entertainment pages of the paper. Melissa doesn't know that much, but she's able to disprove some of Spencer's suspicions; apparently the reason she's been following—following, not meeting—Jason was in hopes of finding Alison through him, which apparently hasn't worked out so far.
Spencer reluctantly agrees to keep all this information to herself, at least for now, and tells Melissa good night.
No one would believe her anyway. She's not even clearheaded enough to reason it out; she hasn't gotten a good night's sleep in a week. Besides, she's not sure what she believes. Melissa hasn't showed her any proof. How did Wren even convince her that what he was saying was real? Maybe she's still the gullible person she turned into with Ian. Maybe this is all a huge screwball comedy for the entertainment of the universe and Spencer hasn't been let in on the joke.
But Melissa must have something right. Otherwise A wouldn't have sent Spencer that message, would she? If Melissa were delusional or lying, surely A wouldn't think of her as a threat.
"This is ridiculous," Spencer mutters to herself, and shoves her Biology textbook in her bag with more force than necessary. She should stop thinking about this. Melissa doesn't take kindly to being woken up, and Spencer's not skipping school for something they can discuss later. They've waited this long already. Another six hours should be bearable.
She just hopes nobody heard their conversation last night. Partly because it could speed up a murder spree and Spencer appreciates being alive, thank you, and partly because it would be embarrassing. If, well, if it was a lie. Which it probably was, Spencer, pull yourself together, she thinks, staring firmly at the mirror.
Her reflection is saved from an impromptu pep talk by the sound of her phone ringing.
"Have you seen Aria?" Hanna's voice says on the other end.
"Gee, good morning to you too," Spencer remarks, glad for the opportunity to pretend nothing's changed since last night.
"Whatever, she was supposed to come back before morning," Hanna says. "I tried her cell and all I'm getting is her voicemail. I'm starting to worry."
So much for a moment of peace. "Hold on, was she staying over? Why wasn't I invited? Where did she go?"
"Yes, because you said you were going to find out what your sister was up to, and Jason's. At least that's what she told us."
"Is Emily there?"
There's a pause like Hanna's questioning Spencer's intelligence and then, "Yeah? She lives here."
"That's not what I—never mind. What was Aria doing at Jason's?"
Hanna sorts. "According to her, he wanted to show her some box of Alison's he found. Pictures or something? I wasn't paying attention."
"Helpful," Spencer says.
"Well, at least I know she's not where she should be," Hanna says sharply. Then, "Seriously, though, she went there and I thought she might have gone to see Fitz later, but I called him and he didn't seem to know where she was."
"You called Fitz," says Spencer, incredulous.
"On some level he had to know we knew, come on," says Hanna. "She's not home either. I told her mom she'd just texted me while we were on the phone so she wouldn't worry, but maybe I should have let her call the police."
"No," Spencer says quickly.
Hanna groans. "Right, Garrett." There's a sound of a mattress creaking, and then Hanna sighs. "Should we go to Jason's?"
"That might not be the best idea," Spencer says, but doesn't elaborate. It's not like she can tell Hanna out of nowhere, on the phone, that she suspects Jason's a vampire. She can say: "There's something weird going on with him and Garrett. If we don't trust Garrett, we can't trust Jason either."
"Are you sure?" Hanna must put down the phone; Spencer hears her and Emily talking, but she can't make out the words. "Isn't that all the more reason to go see what's going on? What if—"
"We're not worrying prematurely. I'm sure Aria's fine. Maybe she just fell asleep at Jason's or something. I'll go check, okay? I'll see you guys at school."
Hanna doesn't sound convinced, but she says, "Okay," and doesn't drag out the conversation.
Spencer's parents have left by the time she walks downstairs, and Spencer gives herself a moment to figure out what she's going to say if she knocks on Jason's door and all that greets her is him. There's the obvious question she's been wanting to ask for weeks, but if any of what Melissa said was true, asking Jason what's going on with them would give Melissa away. Spencer's not going to put her sister in the line of danger deliberately. She could do the neighborly thing and ask for some sugar or milk or something. Maybe civility isn't a lost cause yet.
Another sip of hot coffee, and she's stopped from setting off in the direction of Jason's house by her phone ringing. Upstairs. Did she seriously leave her phone upstairs? Now, this—this is why sleep deprivation doesn't work for her.
It's probably nothing, but she still hurries, and picks up on the fourth ring without even checking who's calling. There's a surprised sound on the other end, like that fourth ring was the last one before giving up, and then, "Spence?" in a small, strangled voice.
"Aria," Spencer says, not even a question, grabbing the keys she also somehow managed to leave behind on her bed and heading down again. "What's going on?" she asks when Aria fails to answer.
"I—" the voice on the other end says, and oh, fuck, Aria sounds scared. This is not good. "I think Jason is a vampire." There's a quirk to the last word, like Aria smiled apologetically out of sheer disbelief.
Spencer flings the strap of her bag over her head and says, "Aria, where are you?" She makes sure to lock her front door once she's out, even though it hasn't been much of an obstacle for A or anybody else before. This house needs better security. And maybe a panic room.
"Wait," Aria says after a delay, "you believe me?"
"Yes." Spencer has no clue what she believes, but it's not the first time she's heard this today. Besides, it's either go with it or leave Aria somewhere to die, so sue her for picking trust over reason. "Where are you? I'm sending back-up."
"Did you know about this?" Aria says, her voice laced with hurt on top of the broken grittiness it's had since she called.
"Not really," says Spencer. "I'll explain when you're safe. Just tell me where you are."
"But I'm not—" Aria sighs. "I mean, he's not here. He left. I can't remember last night that well. It's sort of—blurry? But it's coming back."
Spencer watches the street from her open spot on the sidewalk and tries to figure out if all this means Aria is at Jason's, or if she should be heading elsewhere. "Aria," she says, firmly this time, and a little too loud, but thankfully there's no one out at this hour.
"Don't you see, it's not safe around me," Aria says roughly, desperately, and if that means what Spencer's clearly cracked-out brain thinks it means—oh, God.
"Aria, I'm serious: where are you? I'm coming there anyway."
A sob, and then: "I'm at Jason's?"
"Is that a statement or a question?" Spencer asks, but she's already walking in the direction of his front door.
Aria groans, and there's a long, unpleasant noise like a chair being dragged along hardwood. "Can 'the mailman is dead' be a question? Because that would be pretty great."
Jason's house is a mess. Aria lets Spencer in through a crack in the door, hiding behind it and wearing a big scarf over her mouth and a pair of sunglasses that would be big even on Jason. It's dark inside. All the curtains are drawn and there's furniture pushed around to cover some of the windows.
"Why are you still here?" Spencer asks, genuinely baffled. If she were Aria, even if—whatever's happened, if she were Aria she'd be out of here straight away. Or maybe call in a cleaning party. What if Jason comes back?
"I can't go out without burning," mutters Aria, crawling into an armchair. "Myth: 1, logic: 0." Spencer takes a step towards her. "Don't get too close," Aria warns quickly, and Spencer stops moving.
"Where's the—" Spencer begins, hoping Aria will catch her meaning, but Aria just frowns. "The mailman. Where is he?"
"Oh," Aria says, getting rid of the scarf and the sunglasses. "Right. He's, uh. He's in the bathtub. I'm getting up the courage to burn the body." There's blood on her mouth. There's more blood on the scarf, but there's blood on her mouth, traces of it, like she brushed her teeth but wasn't thorough about it.
"Do you want to talk about what happened?" Spencer asks, forcing a supportive smile.
"Not really," Aria says. "I just... I feel like I lost consciousness at some point. And when I got up I felt like shit and I was hungry and I couldn't find anything I wanted to eat." She snorts. "Until the mailman came by."
"That's not funny," Spencer says, but she cracks a smile. She hopes Aria's taking this lightly as a coping mechanism and not because she doesn't care. Vampires can—vampires can be decent people, right? Aria doesn't look like a killing machine. She looks like Aria. She's not even that pale, from what Spencer can make out in the near darkness.
"You're right, it's not," Aria says, but the corner of her mouth is still crooked. It's—kind of creepy, actually. "I'm sorry," Aria says, "this is just really weird. I drank blood and suddenly I remembered all this stuff that I didn't before, and I don't even know if it's all real and I'm just processing it and it's—weird. It's weird that it isn't weirder, too."
"Yeah," Spencer agrees, the word coming out like a laugh, a breath.
There's a crash, and both their heads turn to the bathroom. At least Spencer figures it's the bathroom, since that's the only place they know where there is someone. Jason wouldn't be so noisy if he came back; that's a vampire thing, right?
"I thought he was dead," Spencer says, running towards the door before she can stop herself.
Aria follows her. "I don't know. I threw him in there and locked the door and told myself that if I ripped it open that may draw someone's attention."
The guy's—the guy's definitely conscious. And properly alive, if Aria's gasp and subsequent sigh is anything to go by.
"Oh, God, I'm so relieved," Aria says, and the guy backs himself into a corner and slides to the floor, nearly breaking his head on the edge of the bathtub. "I'm so sorry," she says to him, kneeling before him.
"What are you doing to me," the guy says, his voice tight. He's pretty young; he can't be much older than Wren. He must be new, because Spencer doesn't recognize him, and it dawns on her that he could be dead and feels as relieved as Aria sounded. Except probably a little less, since Spencer wasn't worried she might have killed him.
"Look," Aria says, and lifts his chin so he's looking, however anxiously, into her eyes. "You lost track of your bike and crashed over the front steps. You were bleeding so I brought you in and called 911." She looks back at Spencer. "Call 911," she tells her, and looks back at the guy. "They'll be here any minute now. You'll be fine."
"Wow," Spencer says when she's off the phone. "That was—how did you know how to do that? The manipulation bit?"
"Jason's done it to me before. I'm never doing it again," Aria says sharply, leaving no room for follow-up questions. "And now we wait?"
"I suppose we do." Glancing surreptitiously at the mailman, who Aria just manipulated into not processing anything they say until an ambulance gets here, Spencer asks, "Are you okay? Are you hungry? Can you go out?"
Aria bites her lip in the middle of an awkward smile. "I don't know. I feel fine. I was really out of control but then I... well, fed. And that was like two hours ago and I'm still fine. The sunlight hurts, though. I don't want to have to hole up here forever. My parents are going to get worried if I don't show up all day and stop going to school."
"Since when is school a priority for you?"
"Since I don't want people to think I'm a blood-drinking freak," Aria says. "I have no idea what's going on with me, but I'm not going to let it ruin my life. This is mine to deal with. This is not like A and all the crap they've put us through."
There's a stretch of silence where Spencer offers the mailman some tea and tries to find a kettle in Jason's kitchen, which mostly made it through Aria's fit of insanity unscathed. Once she's back in the living room cradling her own cup of—truly atrocious, by the way—instant coffee, she says, careful not to spook Aria: "What are you going to do?"
"Besides kill Jason?" Aria says, smiling with resignation. "I don't know."
"Was it just the blood? Or did you want to—" Spencer presses her lips together. "Hurt him?"
"I think it was the blood." Aria's voice is high with concern. "I hope it was the blood. I don't want to go around nearly killing people."
"So," Spencer says, and thinks of something. "I've actually been meaning to volunteer at the hospital for a while. I could sneak you out some donor blood."
Aria looks up properly. "That's stealing."
"Well, it's better than killing," Spencer points out. Besides, she could apply to help out with the blood donation trucks. She can be very persuasive. It would make up for whatever blood she steals, and wow, when did this become a reasonable train of thought? Jesus Christ. "You can stay in my house until nightfall. Or until we figure out how to get around that sunlight thing. I'll call your mom and tell her you're sick."
"She'll want to check up on me."
"Is that a problem?"
"It is if she tries to drive me home."
"Just tell her I'll bring you your homework after class so you don't fall behind," Spencer says. "Which I will do. By the way."
Aria laughs, sounding somewhat relaxed for the first time since Spencer got here. "Thanks."
"I'll find a blanket or something you can hide under," Spencer adds, and Aria nods gratefully.
It turns out Aria does have to be invited in, and there's a pretty rough patch on the way upstairs where they walk by Melissa and Aria nearly chokes, which Spencer will have to ask Melissa about at some point, but Aria settles in Spencer's room okay and seems happy to be left alone.
School goes easy on Spencer. She gets through it on routine alone even though there's so much on her mind she can barely register anything her teachers say. She reassures Hanna and Emily that Aria's fine, just a little sick, and that's why she decided to stay over at Jason's last night. It's hard to tell how it would go over to tell them Aria is—well. It's hard even to think it explicitly.
And that's all the more reason to tell Hanna and Emily. What if something like this happens to them? What if Spencer's so distracted with all this vampire stuff that she misses something else, like she missed Aria getting close enough to Jason to be turned? But there's no proof to offer, other than Aria.
"How did Wren convince you that vampires existed?" Spencer asks her sister later that afternoon, while Aria's curled up in the couch watching some legal procedural. Melissa shushes her, and Spencer shakes her head. "It's fine, she knows."
"What do you mean she knows?"
"Jason," Spencer says.
Melissa glances over at Aria and back to Spencer. "This isn't supposed to be public knowledge. Even I didn't know he was a—is he?"
"If I tell you something, can you promise you won't kill anybody?" Spencer says.
Melissa reluctantly agrees, but just in case, Spencer takes her to the barn. There are probably more weapons there, but at least she can text Aria and give her an advantage if Melissa decides to shoot her, or stake her or whatever it is Melissa does.
Once they're both sitting down, Spencer opens her mouth, but Melissa raises her hand to stop her. "I think I know what you're going to say. You don't want me to know, and I don't want to know. Let's leave it at that."
Spencer frowns, and hopes Melissa's got the right confession there. "Okay?"
"She's not my problem. You believe me now, right?"
"Is that really worth what's happening to Aria for you?"
Melissa rolls her eyes. "It's convenient, yes. I could use some help."
"I'm surprised this is all it takes for you to trust me again," Spencer points out, and wishes she'd kept her mouth shut as soon as the words are out.
Thankfully, Melissa only says, "You've got that the wrong way around," which makes no sense whatsoever as far as Spencer's concerned, and then, "Look, do you want to help out or not?"
"That depends," says Spencer with a frown. "Is this going to get me killed?"
"Well, I'm shooting for nobody getting killed. That's the whole point of getting rid of this... problem."
Spencer tilts her head and smiles, amused at Melissa's poor attempt at subtlety. "Is this problem a person?"
"Of course it's a person."
"Is it..." Spencer starts, thinking on it. She's come this far, maybe she should tell Melissa about A. It couldn't hurt. Not if it's the same problem Melissa's after—or if it's a problem Melissa could plausibly go after. This is the closest Spencer's gotten to thinking she might someday soon find out who A is and what they want, and she doesn't want to let it fall by the wayside while she and Melissa focus on something else entirely. "You want to deal with Garrett, right?"
"And by 'deal with,' we mean 'stake.'"
Melissa snorts. It's not very Melissa-like, at least not like Melissa's been since the first time she got engaged, and it makes Spencer smile. "That's the general idea."
"I want to tell Hanna and Emily," Spencer says, and raises her voice when Melissa opens her mouth. "I don't want something to happen to them. And it will if they don't even know what they're supposed not to do."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Melissa says.
"No," Spencer says, "of course you're not sure, but I am," and pulls out her phone. She has a string of messages from A saved, and that's not even counting Emily's stash of pictures and stats on her iPad and all the information Spencer's been saving to remote servers online after the last of their video evidence against Ian disappeared.
Melissa looks stricken when she's done scrolling through the messages. For an instant, it crosses Spencer's mind that Melissa could be faking it; that it could still turn out to be her behind everything, behind the messages themselves. The last few months have made her so paranoid that she can't even discard the thought. She just sets it aside for the time being.
"Am I the first person you've told about this?"
Spencer shrugs. "Aside from my friends, yeah. We've all been getting this stuff."
"Since when?" Melissa asks, sounding shocked, scrolling frantically through the messages again.
"You didn't think to call the police?" says Melissa, and then catches herself. "Right, okay, that wouldn't have helped. If Garrett Reynolds is involved."
"Probably wouldn't help even if he wasn't," Spencer says. "A keeps us on a tight leash. And you remember what happened with Wilder."
"Yeah, that wasn't good," Melissa says thoughtfully, the corner of her mouth crooking. "You should—if they haven't let Garrett in, Hanna and Emily. You need to tell them to avoid that at all costs."
"How did Wren get you to believe him?"
Melissa looks down at the phone, and for a while she's silent. Then, she says, "He showed me Ian's body." She looks up. "In the morgue. But you can't—"
"I should talk to Aria," Spencer realizes. Aria's her best bet at proof.
"Who do you think this is?" Melissa asks, gesturing at the phone.
Spencer shrugs. "We don't really know. At first we thought it was Noel, but we ruled him out. Then we thought it was Ian, but it hasn't stopped. It could be Garrett. It seems unlikely that it would be Jenna, but maybe—maybe it's more than one person."
"Or it could be—you know—if she's still around."
"That's a new development in the investigation," Spencer says, cracking a rueful smile. What she doesn't get is how Alison could have gotten into all their houses when she's supposed to be dead. Garrett—and Jason, Spencer guesses—these are all people they've asked to come into their homes. But Alison? Wouldn't someone remember if they'd seen Alison after her death? Spencer doubts anyone would just say 'sure, come in' to some freak wearing a ski mask. "So what do you want me to do?"
"Learn how to shoot a crossbow," Melissa suggests. "Try not to go off on adventures by yourself."
"That doesn't sound like helping to me," Spencer says.
"Well, I'm the one with the weapons, so if you want to borrow any of them," says Melissa, and Spencer refrains from asking if she stole them all from Wren to begin with, "you're gonna have to lay low for now. Stay safe."
Spencer takes her phone back, and says, "Sure. Fine. For now."
"For now," Melissa agrees half-heartedly.
The next day, before last period is over, Emily winds up in the hospital again.
It's not as serious as last time; she was creeping around the pool and fell down and hit her shoulder on something. There are no witnesses and her shoulder is fine, so they're checking for a concussion just in case: she was passed out on the floor, and people don't just pass out from scrapping their knees.
It's another thing to add to the list of convenient accidents, because the first thing Emily says when Spencer walks into the room is: "I was bleeding."
"What?" Hanna says.
"I was bleeding. I fell down and I was bleeding, there was blood on the floor. I cut myself with something, I'm completely sure I did."
Hanna frowns. "But you're... fine?"
"That's the thing. I don't want to help people think we're all paranoid wrecks but I was bleeding. I saw the blood, and I was fine and then I just... passed out. I don't remember anything after that. And when I woke up I was here and there wasn't even a scratch."
"I don't get it."
Emily huffs a resigned laugh. "Join the club."
Leaning back against the wall with a large cup of coffee, Spencer watches Emily and tries to figure out how this makes any sense. If this was a part of A's deal or whatever, it wouldn't have turned out well. A likes to hurt them. Maybe the fall was A's doing and it was worse than A anticipated, so they stepped in to save Emily, but it still doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense that Emily would be hurt and then heal and not remember anything in between. Not unless there was significant blood loss, and there wasn't any blood on the floor where Emily was found.
"You called us," Spencer points out.
"I have you guys on speed dial, it was the easiest—" Emily blinks, and shakes her head. "Wait." A hand to her head, and she groans. "That doesn't—fit."
Did A drink Emily's blood? Does that even line up with the lack of wounds on Emily's body? Spencer's never seen fang holes on anyone, but it seems like it should leave some kind of mark if someone stuck their canines in you and sucked out your blood. Maybe there's a self-preservation mechanism that allows vampires to hide those marks, but that still doesn't explain why Emily remembers falling and cutting herself. If a vampire had modified her memory, there wouldn't be a gap, would it? They would have overwritten the pain and the bleeding so Emily wouldn't be confused upon waking up.
Spencer runs a hand through her hair and sighs, remembering that Aria's in her house and needs sustenance.
"I need to—" she begins, gesturing vaguely at the door. "I signed up for volunteer hours today. If you're okay, I should go check in."
"Sure," Emily says, reaching for her phone on the nightstand beside her. "I should call my parents anyway."
"My mom's been on the phone with yours since she got here," Hanna says. "I can tell her to come in."
Emily offers a small smile. "Thanks."
Stealing blood bags on her own actually feels kind of horrible, but Spencer reminds herself that Aria will kill someone if she doesn't have anything else to drink and that evens out the guilt. She stacks a few of them in a black oversized purse and hopes they won't seep through or something; the last thing she needs is a blood-stained handbag. The police would take notice of something like that, and Spencer's pretty relieved she's not a person of interest anymore.
She drops by Emily's room before leaving the hospital, just to see how she's doing, and does her best not to tell Emily she should stop hanging on to her swimming career because, the way things are with A, that's about the least efficient way to make a speedy recovery Spencer can think of. It's something Spencer will say eventually, but Emily's still recovering from a fall and a handful of memory gaps. She has enough on her plate without Spencer mothering her.
Spencer also tries her hardest not to sneak glances at her handbag every thirty seconds, but it mustn't work great because after a while Emily says, "Your eye is twitching."
Blinking, Spencer says, "Oh. Is it? I think I got something in there when I was in pediatrics." She rubs her thumb over the inside corner of her eye. There's nothing there, but it's actually soothing after all the blinking. "All better."
There's no answer. Emily just bites her bottom lip and keeps it there, cradled underneath her teeth. Her eyes flicker over Spencer's face and the hospital bed, and Spencer feels uncomfortable enough to swallow through the ensuing silence, just looking at Emily. She'd speak, but Emily looks like she's trying to say something, so Spencer stays quiet, gives her time to come up with the words.
"I," Emily tries. Her voice is rough; she clears her throat. "I swallowed something."
"That sounds incredibly filthy," Spencer says, because apparently her filter's taking a break from all the restraint she's exhibited today.
Emily laughs, though, and there's still a ghost of a smile when she goes on. "I think there was someone else there, and they fed me some... drink or something."
"Open your mouth," Spencer says, and places her thumb on Emily's chin. Emily looks at her like Spencer's lost her mind, but it's not really the time for personal space and Emily seems to get that enough to do what Spencer asked, at least.
"What are you doing," Emily asks, the questioning inflection lost in the o shape of her lips.
Spencer tilts Emily's chin up and looks in—the roof of her mouth, her gums, the surface of her teeth. It's all scrubbed pretty clean; Emily's breath smells like toothpaste. Spencer doesn't even know what she's looking for. Traces of something, but what? Blood? Whatever happened to Emily is not what happened to Aria. For one thing, Emily doesn't seem particularly hungry, and for another, her curtains are open and letting in a ton of sunlight to no ill effect.
Spencer needs to stop tracing everything back to vampires. Maybe Emily just had a weird dream while she was passed out.
"I'm sorry," Spencer says automatically, and lets go of Emily's face. "I'm kind of paranoid today."
Emily's still frowning, but she cracks a smile at that. "Just today?" Her tone isn't hurtful, though. Paranoia is something they both—and Hanna and Aria—have in common. Can hardly use a neurosis you share as real ammo.
"Maybe you're remembering a nightmare," Spencer offers. "I mean, I don't have the tools to be thorough in—inspecting your mouth." Spencer makes it through the words with her eyes closed. When she opens them, Emily looks like she's trying not to laugh, which—okay, as far as things sounding filthy goes: touché. "But maybe you're just, I don't know. Trying to find someone else to blame for ending up in the hospital again?" It's not such a wild theory, so Spencer adds: "It's not your fault. These things happen."
"I know," Emily says.
It doesn't seem like they're going to get anything else done by waiting around until Emily's test results come back, and Spencer does have some pretty urgent business to attend. She makes sure Emily has everything she needs and doesn't mind being alone, and then she picks up her handbag and hopes Aria's still doing okay.
Toby's car is parked in the driveway when Spencer gets home, and he's leaning against the back. He returns Spencer's smile as she walks by.
"Hey," she says, biting her lip, and, "You didn't have to wait outside."
"Your sister told me you weren't home yet," says Toby, "and it's nice out, so."
Spencer laughs. "So you thought you'd work on your tan?"
"Sure," he says, and reaches for her waist. Spencer goes willingly, tilting her head up into a brief kiss.
Pulling back, she says, "Hi," and allows herself to smile openly.
"We could go somewhere," Toby offers. "I have a couple of free hours. If you want."
"Yeah," Spencer says, grimacing apologetically, "I can't. I have—some stuff to do. Emily's in the hospital again, and Aria's sick."
Toby nods. "I thought I saw someone else in the kitchen. Looked too short to be your mother."
"You can come in if you want?" Spencer offers. It's not the best idea, but she could take Aria to her room or something. She rests her hand on Toby's wrist, stroking her index finger lightly over the bone there, and Toby watches her without saying anything for a second before pulling his hand away like he's been burned.
He rubs at his wrist with his other hand and says, "Sorry. I—fell on my wrist earlier. I think it's going to bruise."
"Okay," Spencer says slowly, nodding, and steps away so Toby can open the door of his car.
"I should get going," he says, and Spencer nods some more and heads for her front door when she hears him turn on the ignition.
Her first instinct is to think that was weird, but it's Toby, he's kind of weird by nature, and next to everything else that's happened today, an awkward conversation with her boyfriend doesn't even rank.
When Spencer finally makes it inside her house, Aria's still in the kitchen, sitting on a stool and lazily stirring a teaspoon around a cup of tea. Melissa's sitting on the couch, looking through a magazine, and the atmosphere isn't tense, but it is conspicuously silent.
"What's going on?" Spencer asks. Upon receiving no answer she leaves the handbag on the kitchen island and pushes it toward Aria. "Uh, there you go. I don't know if you have to—heat it up, or throw it in the fridge or something—"
"Mom's not going to be happy if she sees blood in the freezer," Melissa says, putting aside her magazine. She's reading the Economist, and Spencer has a sudden flashback to three years ago, when Melissa regularly trotted around carrying huge textbooks and read global newspapers whenever she was home long enough to stay for breakfast. "I can keep them in the barn. Unless Aria wants to take them home."
"No," Aria says quickly, looking up. She flinches, closing her eyes and touching her temples like her head hurts.
Spencer looks at Melissa. "What did you do to her?"
"I didn't do anything," Melissa says tiredly, and pushes herself up onto her feet. She heads for the backdoor, not even attempting to explain or responding to Spencer's half open mouth and outraged, palm-up stretched hands.
"It's fine," Aria says, and flinches again when the backdoor slams back against the frame.
"Obviously it isn't." Her voice comes out too loud for Aria, too. She lowers it, but it's not because yelling wouldn't be deserved. "What did she do?"
Aria shrugs and sighs. "She helped me. It was a fair deal. This should wear off in a few minutes."
"Wear off?" Spencer says, and she's ready to storm out into the barn when Aria grabs her forearm.
"She fed me, okay?" Aria says, sounding desperate. "I could have gone crazy if she hadn't drugged me first."
"You trusted her?" This time her voice is low for a good reason: she doesn't want Melissa to overhear. This is not about her; it's about Aria trusting her friends' siblings even— "After Jason, you still trusted her?"
Aria's eyes narrow like it hurts to keep them open, and once again Spencer has half a mind to go yell at Melissa. This kind of shit—she can do it to Garrett all she wants, but Aria's not available for hunting. Aria's not okay to drug.
"She's your sister," Aria offers as an explanation.
"Yeah," Spencer says, "not yours. I'm supposed to trust her. You don't have to."
Waving her hand vaguely, Aria says, "She didn't really give me any reason not to," and reaches for Spencer's handbag.
The idea of staying to watch while Aria sucks blood out of a plastic bag makes Spencer's stomach curl in on itself, so she figures that's the end of this conversation. There is a lot of other stuff they should talk about: how is she going to get out? She can't miss school every day and then hide out for the summer. Is Spencer allowed to tell Hanna and Emily about this, any of this? Aria's the clearest proof Spencer has that she's not lost her mind, but Aria is more than a piece of evidence. She should have a say about who knows what about her, and Spencer doesn't believe for a second that Aria would erase Hanna or Emily's memories if they reacted badly.
And they'd have all the reason in the world to react badly. If what Melissa says is true, all vampires have done in this town is torture them. They're the reason Alison is dead. They're the reason there is an A to contend with, whether it's Alison or not. They're the reason Aria's in Spencer's kitchen, with all the curtains tightly drawn, dizzy from whatever Melissa gave her and eating—stolen goods from the hospital.
She heads out to the barn and tries to stick to one train of thought. Her brain is currently divided in three: how to tell Hanna and Emily, how to deal with what's happened to Emily and Aria, and how horrible it is that Aria's willing to trust Spencer's sister more than Spencer does.
Yeah, definitely not thinking about that right now.
Spencer hesitates for a second before knocking on Melissa's door. She hears some shuffling inside, like Melissa's putting down a thick book or something else heavy on a table, and then the door opens and Melissa says, "What's up?" Her lips are tightly drawn and her expression is closed off, which hurts a little. Spencer guesses she deserves that.
"What are you doing?" Spencer asks casually, looking around Melissa. Small talk seems like the safest bet to start off, and Melissa's laptop is open on the coffee table.
Melissa's eyes scan Spencer's face and then she sighs, stepping aside to let Spencer in. "If you want to know," Melissa says as Spencer sits on the couch, "I'm exploiting Wren's hunter network."
"Wren has a hunter network?" Spencer says, incredulous. "Had. Whatever. A hunter network?"
"Wonders never cease." Melissa sits beside her and lifts the lid of her laptop, turning it so they both can see. "I met a couple of guys in Philly. They're pretty dedicated to the cause of keeping this whole thing under control."
Spencer raises an eyebrow. "I thought the point was to kill all vampires, not just keep the situation manageable." She would have thought the purpose of a group of vampire hunters would be to erase vampires from the picture.
"That would be a serious challenge," Melissa says, "and unfair to your friend Aria and people in her situation." She clicks a bunch of links and looks at Spencer while the tabs load. "I have to admit I didn't really see the point of making exceptions until now."
Spencer has no idea how to respond to that, but she's saved from trying by a new message notification on Melissa's browser. Spencer feels weird reading over her shoulder now that Melissa's turned the laptop so she can type comfortably, so all she glimpses is something about a ring and a few lines that look like an address.
"Oh, thank God." Melissa lets out a relieved sigh, the left corner of her lips curling up. "Can you hand me my purse?" she says, gesturing over Spencer, towards the table in the corner.
Spencer gives it to her, frowning as she says, "What are you buying?"
"Confiscated possessions," is all Melissa says, and then she shuts the laptop. "Should be here tomorrow. I'll tell you then. No point making promises until I can keep them. What did you want?"
It takes Spencer a while to remember why she came here. "What did you do to Aria?" Her voice is as gentle as she can make it. "You can't just drug my friends because they agree that it's fair."
Melissa rolls up her sleeve, revealing a clean bandage, and promptly covers it again. "I didn't drug her," she says. "I made it easier for her not to kill me." She rolls her eyes at Spencer, which is a little childish, and then she says, "And that's all you're getting. I'm not having this conversation."
"Why not?" Spencer asks, and then she gets it; her mouth opens. "Is this about Ian?"
Melissa presses her lips together, and when she opens them her expression is reserved again, nearing anger. "What did I just say?"
"I actually have work to do," Melissa says, standing up and urging Spencer towards the door.
"Work," Spencer echoes.
"Yes, work. I'm shopping for internships."
"Oh." Spencer bites her lip. "I actually wanted to ask—"
Sharply, Melissa says: "What?"
There's honestly a string of questions in Spencer's head. There's: Well, I have to tell my friends we're being haunted by the undead, how do I go about that? There's: Should I start going to those shooting lessons at the club Mom signed me up for? And of course, the possibly verboten in light of the way Melissa clammed up when Spencer pushed the subject toward Ian: Why are you helping Aria?
"Shouldn't I have some way to defend myself? I don't think a few years of field hockey will do much against a supernaturally strong creature."
Melissa's face softens slightly, barely perceptibly, and then she wets her lip and says, "I'll have a gun ready for you tonight." Spencer's confusion must show, because Melissa adds, "Wooden bullets. They help. You shouldn't shoot it at anything unless it's an emergency, though, at least until you get some shooting lessons."
Spencer nods, buying herself time to try and find a way to stretch the conversation, but she comes up empty-handed.
"Thanks," she says at last, and hopes she'll get a chance to talk to Melissa properly before someone else gets hurt.
Emily's released from the hospital late in the afternoon. Hanna calls to let Spencer know, and to ask if Aria's still at her house.
"Yeah," Spencer says, and steels herself. The words sound harmless, but she knows once they're out, she can't go back on them. She can't put off telling Emily and Hanna. She breathes in deep, and adds: "Can you tell your mom to drop you both off here? There's something we need to talk about."
"Sure." The word drags out like Hanna's torn between incredulity and amusement. Spencer did sound dramatic. "Can't you tell me on the phone now? We do not need any more crossed wires this week."
"I would," says Spencer, because Hanna has a point, "but you have to see this for yourself."
It's only when she hangs up that Spencer realizes she has yet to ask Aria's permission to be a piece of evidence. Aria saying no would actually be a dealbreaker here, and Spencer doesn't have any secrets big enough to give Hanna and Emily and pretend they are what she was going to tell them all along.
She reminds herself that none of this is Aria's fault and Aria is under no obligation to tell anybody that she is now a blood-sucking monster, not when she hasn't caused anyone any harm since she was turned, mailman situation aside. Aria can say no, and Spencer will cross that bridge when she comes to it.
"Hey," Aria says when Spencer pops her head in. "I should head home."
Once the door's closed, Spencer leans back against it with a sigh. "I have a favor to ask first."
Aria's eyes are wide when she looks up, not in the surprised way—all right, maybe there's surprise there, briefly, at first—but like Spencer has her full attention, or Aria's trying to give it to her anyway. The silence is an allowance, if it doesn't exactly prompt Spencer to continue, and Spencer takes the chance to cover the few steps from the door to her bed and sit down next to Aria.
There aren't many ways to ease into the conversation. Spencer licks her lips, trying to come up with just one, but when her mouth opens, she blurts, "I want to tell Emily and Hanna."
This time Aria's eyes do widen in surprise, just for a moment before narrowing slightly past normal. Spencer lets it sink in; she needs Aria to make her mind up fast, but a few minutes to think it over won't hurt any.
With a sudden frown, Aria asks, louder, "Today?"
"I know it's fast."
"I don't even know what I am," Aria blurts out.
Spencer nods, trying to be reassuring. It may not come out that way. She doesn't want to pressure Aria, but it is a time-sensitive issue for everybody, not just her. Not just them. If they're targets—if Spencer and Aria are targets, Emily and Hanna are targets as well. If they lie about it, all it will do is drive them apart, and Spencer thinks they can all agree that doesn't work well for them. Not when they're the only ones they each can confide in.
"I know," she finally says, "but I don't have any proof. And I think they need to know. They have to. If I'd told you sooner—"
"You knew for hours before I did," Aria says, shaking her head. "You can't blame yourself."
Spencer presses her lips together, failing to hold back a smile—the kind of smile she feels in her eyes like it's pushing at her tear ducts. She forces the need to cry back in. Someone has to be the rock here, and Spencer's the only one who's had time to process this and is still essentially the same person she was last night. Everybody else deserves an emotional outburst or two. She can afford to postpone hers.
"I'm not going to tell them if you don't want me to," Spencer says, back to her practical tone. "You're basically the only tangible proof I have, but you're my friend, and the last thing I want to do is use you, or worse, use this... situation against you. Not if it's not worth it for you."
"It's worth it," Aria says quietly, as though she's trying it out. She shrugs and repeats, "It's worth it for me."
"I know it's rushed—"
"It has to be. Doesn't it?"
It seems pointless to agree out loud, so Spencer offers the best comforting smile she has. Even that's more than she can manage, though, and a split second later she gives in to the weight on the corners of her mouth and just sits there in silence, telling herself whatever happens tonight can't be any worse than what could happen if she keeps her friends in the dark.
"Is that a trick?" Hanna says, looking between Spencer and Aria like she's waiting for the punchline. "It's way too late for April Fools."
"I wish." Aria sticks her lips out for a second. When she opens her mouth, her teeth are normal again. She looks around the room before settling on something—Spencer's desk. Melissa stashed most of the blood bags Spencer took from the hospital in her fridge, but she came by the house just before Hanna and Emily arrived and gave Aria the massive thermos that is currently sitting on top of the desk. Spencer's closer, so she gets it for Aria. "If you want to..." Aria begins, looking mostly at Hanna. "Turn around?"
Hanna just looks at her like she's still waiting for a twist, but Emily's eyes widen the second she realizes why Aria gave them the choice to leave. Neither of them looks away, though, and when Aria uncaps the thermos, she brings it straight to her lips as though she's trying to hide behind it.
The unconscious grimace on Hanna's face makes Spencer wonder if she should be grossed out. It's not like she can smell it or anything. It's not like she has to drink it. It may be true she's scarily good at compartmentalizing.
At least nobody faints. Spencer was genuinely worried it might happen. They've had a lot of stress recently, but they've never been in any situations involving flowing human blood. She had no way to know if any of them would faint or throw up at the sight of it.
"How dangerous is she?" Emily says, breaking the silence. She's looking at Spencer, and Spencer opens her mouth to answer before realizing she has no idea.
"I'm not sure yet," Aria fills in, bringing Emily's attention back to her. "I'd understand if you didn't want to hang out with me."
"Don't be ridiculous," Hanna says immediately.
"I don't want to pounce on you, if that's what you're asking," says Aria, "but I'm, uh." She gestures vaguely at the thermos she's still holding as she screws the cap back on.
Emily runs her fingers through her hair, looking to the side like she needs a break to process things. Hanna's standing with her hands on her hips, eyes flickering around the room as Aria leaves the thermos on Spencer's bedside table and Spencer sits down on her bed again.
"This isn't the worst of it," Spencer says. She should be giving information slowly—maybe that would make it easier to sink in—but there's so much Hanna and Emily need to know, and they need to know now. All Spencer's been able to tell them so far is that Aria's a vampire. She didn't even get to the part about how Aria was turned last night, or about how Spencer found her pretty much only because Hanna and Emily were worried about her.
Emily eyes Spencer warily, and Hanna takes a deep breath before spitting out, quickly, all 'tell me now, let's just get it over with:' "What's the worst of it?"
The rest of the conversation is less painful than Spencer expected. It's a lot to take in, and she's not sure Hanna and Emily believe all of it, but they go with it, or at least they let Spencer tell them everything she needs to—about Wren and Melissa, and Jason and Garrett. Sometimes they look relieved, relieved like Spencer felt when Melissa made sense, however strange and fantastic, of things Spencer had been trying to understand for so long. Spencer hadn't realized how deep the need for answers ran in all of them.
They don't even seem outraged when Spencer says she told Melissa about A. Something that would have been a huge deal a week ago is now just a single detail, the one thing they could have expected within the scope of their knowledge.
The first one to speak after Spencer is Emily, and she brings up the one thing Spencer forgot to mention: Alison.
There's not much they all can do right now, but Spencer's still surprised they're all on the same wavelength: if they can't prove anything, do anything, kill anything, they might as well find out more, make sense of more things than they already have. And of course the first person on all their minds is Alison.
"Melissa thinks she may be around, still," Spencer says.
"As a—vampire?" Emily asks, frowning like, out of everything she's found out tonight, this is the least realistic part. It must have crossed her mind already, too; she's the one who asked.
"I don't know how she could get away with it," Spencer points out. "Someone would have seen her at some point. People here know what she looks like. There are still missing person signs up."
"I thought there was a community service clean-up effort after the funeral," Hanna says. Spencer gives her a 'that's what you're focusing on?' look. "What? They should all be down. It's cruel to those of us who knew her."
"She's really fast," Aria pipes in, quiet but not so much so that they can't hear her. It spares them all the awkwardness of responding to what Hanna said. "If she's a—then she'd be really fast. When I was, when I did what I did this morning—I pushed myself from one side of Jason's house to another in like, two seconds flat. It was like I'd teleported."
"But I still had to invite you in," Spencer says.
"Maybe we did. All of us." Aria's staring at her nails now, flicking off spots of dry blood. There's still some on her teeth, too, which is probably why she keeps looking down instead of facing them. Spencer would tell her to quit it, they're all on her side here, but she feels like that would derail the conversation. "Invited her in, and then she made us f—" She swallows, and then looks up at Spencer. Something flashes in her face, realization, but it fades almost as quickly as it began. "Forget," Aria finishes belatedly, sounding faint.
"What is it?"
Aria shakes her head. "I thought I'd remember something. I remember—things, about Jason, that I didn't before. But not about Ali."
"Maybe it will come back to you," Spencer says.
With a one-shouldered shrug, Aria says, "Maybe."
"Do you guys think she'd do that?" Hanna says. Spencer doesn't have to look around to know she's not the only one who's nodding. "I mean, what's it to her? Why screw with us, then disappear, then screw with us some more? Doesn't she have anything better to do? She's a vampire, for hell's sake." When Hanna stops talking, Aria's staring at her with eyes that remind Spencer of the old tabby cat her uncle took home from the shelter last year. "Hypothetically," Hanna adds, like that helps matters at all, then presses her lips together for a second and looks at Aria. "Makes a lot more sense to stick around if you skip the disappearing act."
That seems to mollify Aria, who goes back to staring intently at her nails. Emily taps her fingertips on the back of Spencer's chair for a while before gripping it hard and pulling it out to sit. The silence that follows stretches for some time, thoughtful instead of awkward, one of those rare times they're all in sync and no one breaks the haze before the rest of them are ready.
Someone sighs. Spencer's not sure who it is, but they all look up. It's Emily who says, with an air of finality, "But Alison could be A."
"Yes," Spencer says. "Yeah, she could be."
Emily picks at a rip in the knee of her jeans, exhaustion audible in her next breath. "Do you guys think—" She trails off, then starts again. "If someone was there, when I fell. I know I was bleeding. If it had been a vampire, they could have—could they have made the bleeding stop? If they'd..." She swallows. "Drunk. My blood."
"They could have," Aria says. "Or they could have fed you theirs."
"That's new," Spencer says abruptly, turning to Aria. It's clearly the wrong thing to say, and she regrets blurting it out as soon as she says it.
Thankfully, it doesn't seem to shake Aria, who just says by way of explanation, "There's a whole lot of things still coming back to me."
"Why would they do that?" Emily asks. "As a healing agent?" Aria responds with a shrug and a half smile, which leads into another brief, comfortable lapse of silence. Finally, Emily says: "Do you guys think—if vampire blood could make my wound better, do you guys think that could have been Alison?"
"The same person who fucked up your swimming career?" says Aria. "I don't think so."
Hanna cocks her head. "A does like to keep us confused."
"It may still not be her," Spencer points out, looking at Emily until Emily meets her eyes. "Even if she's around, it may not have been her. And she may not be around at all."
The disappointed look in Emily's eyes tells Spencer she did the right thing voicing that possibility.
Out of the four of them, Spencer couldn't say who's the most hung up on Alison these days. For all she likes to think she saw through Alison first, she never broke up with her. Alison still managed to hold Spencer in her circle. For all Spencer believes she sees through what they knew about Alison now, not a day goes by that she doesn't think about her. A part of it is the disappearance, the alleged murder, the case now closed on the wrong suspect, the investigation A roped them all into, the things anyone who was as close to Alison as Spencer was would be affected by. Another part of it is the seeds Alison planted—the paranoia, Spencer's messed-up relationship with Melissa. Resentment runs no less deep than love.
Love, though—none of them felt about Alison the way Emily did, and Spencer's sure, in that inexplicable, visceral way, that Emily loved Alison the most vulnerably. Emily's grown so much, but it still flares up sometimes; it's there in the way Emily looked excited that Alison could still be around. Because if she's been torturing them all, that means she's still around: they can see her again. And if she saved Emily...
If she saved Emily, that means Alison still cares.
Alison doesn't care. Spencer's surer of that than she's sure Alison was wrong about her sister.
"What happens if she is?" Hanna asks in the calm tone Spencer knows to read as careful.
Spencer opens her mouth to say Melissa has plans to stake her, but Aria speaks first. "She's gone. This is not me speaking as—whatever I am now. I've been with you guys since we started getting those texts, and if that's Alison, I'm done with her. And honestly, if she's still around, there's no way it isn't her. One nice gesture doesn't erase all the bullshit she's put us through."
After an awkward moment, Hanna lets out a quiet laugh, and they all end up smiling at each other, a sort of relief spreading like amusement over the room.
"Okay," Spencer says, "Melissa will kill me if I don't give you guys a list of what not to do. I would have put it on paper and made copies but it felt like the kind of thing we shouldn't, you know, let people see."
"Everyone thinks we're crazy enough as it is," Hanna says.
"Why does this feel like a homework assignment now?" Aria says.
Spencer shrugs. "It's the best way I know how to handle things," she says. "Bear with me."
Spencer's mom is happy to find her an archery teacher the second Spencer mentions Melissa encouraged her to try it. In any other circumstances, Spencer would be jealous and angry that Melissa's opinion is so much more valuable to her mom than Spencer's, but she's pretty sure her mom's just glad she and Melissa are bonding over something. The fact that they're bonding over training to shoot things is irrelevant.
It's not that difficult, once she's doing it. She's in shape, she has the necessary motivation to learn, and she's used to manipulating her body in small ways to achieve certain golf shots or carry out difficult throws. Her aim isn't the best, but after five lessons she's already hitting moving targets. The edges of them, but hitting them all the same. The important part is that her instructor thought she was good enough to allow her request.
It takes her two weeks to start getting antsy; what are they going to do, anyway? Walk up to Garrett's house and shoot him? They're not exactly hoping to hunt an animal in the middle of the forest. And what if Melissa's wrong, anyway, or lying? Putting an arrow through a person generally kills them too.
In those two weeks, there are several times she tries to ask Melissa if she's cooking up some kind of elaborate plan. The first time she heads out to the barn, Melissa meets her halfway, and the conversation immediately becomes about the ring she bought for Aria: it's a pale silver ring, three wavy bands lacing and interlacing around a small green gem. It looks old, darkened by time and wear.
"Could have been an engagement ring in a different time," Spencer tells Melissa as they get into her car. "Or lifetime."
"I think your friend Aria will appreciate that it isn't anymore." Melissa starts the engine and speaks without looking at Spencer. It's natural, hardly icy, but something about it still makes Spencer feel guilty about bringing up Ian yesterday. It's not like Melissa needs any more encouragement to be a dick to Spencer. She manages fine on her own.
The ring is supposed to allow Aria to walk out in the daylight. The default explanation for the daylight rings that exist is a ritual involving human blood; Melissa refused to go into detail on grounds of not having enough information. The hunter who sold it to her is apparently investigating the nature of the alloy. "It counts as an academic pursuit if your field is folklore. Wren said he got a grant for it. Working real-life chemistry into myth."
The mention of Wren brings the conversation to a halt until they reach Aria's house. Melissa hesitantly gives Spencer a new full thermos and the ring, and tells her to test the ring before Aria leaves the house. "I know how to roll up a curtain," Spencer snaps, and doesn't have time to apologize for being rude before Melissa closes the car door on her.
Spencer's still worked up when she goes up to Aria's room, and in a way it helps her purpose. She gets it over with in a matter of minutes, instructing Aria to put the ring on and get out of bed. It works, which Aria realizes once she's not-burned enough to stop shielding her arms over her face.
"Oh, thank god," Aria says, falling back on her bed with her legs still crossed, "I was starting to think I'd have to fake my own death."
"Lying is hard."
"Lying is hard?" Spencer echoes, crooking an eyebrow.
"It is when you have to convince your parents to let you lie in bed in the dark and not call a doctor." Aria heaves a long sigh and props herself up on her elbows to look at Spencer. "Where did you get this?" she says, pointing her chin at her hand.
"Melissa bought it online," Spencer says.
"How did she—"
"She has contacts."
"You make it sound like it's a bad thing." The corners of Aria's mouth curl slightly upward, like she wants to respect Spencer's cynicism but she can't help but be amused by it.
"I'm sorry," she says. "It was an awkward ride over." She sits on the edge of Aria's bed and offers an apologetic smile. "You're allowed to like my sister."
"That's nice of you," Aria says with a straight face, "thank you," and then she snorts, which makes Spencer laugh too. Sobered up, Aria adds, "Tell her thanks for me."
Spencer nods quietly. It feels awkward, after, and all Spencer can think of to say is, "Don't kill anyone. She may shoot you if you kill someone." It feels like what Melissa would say if Aria thanked her for the ring: don't thank me, just don't use it for evil.
It's weird to think of Melissa as someone who'd exchange a kindness and a vote of confidence for a commitment to use it For Good, and Spencer's honestly not sure if that's because it's Melissa or if it's because she doesn't live in a Harry Potter book.
"I'll do my best," Aria says, and then her mom drops by and Aria returns to her impression of a very sick person indeed. Spencer's kind of impressed.
The drive back is less eventful. They start off talking about Aria and the ring, skipping over any touchy subjects like what Melissa's supposed to do about Jason, and then Melissa switches on the radio and they drift into a mostly companionable silence.
Maybe Spencer should have asked that time, because as the days go by, she finds it increasingly difficult to broach the hunting subject with Melissa. She has no problem talking about it to Aria, who's weirdly apologetic of Jason given he turned her into a vampire and she claims they haven't spoken since.
"He's not as bad as you guys always make him out to be. I don't think he planned this. He just lost control. I don't think he loses control all that often," is her main reasoning, and: "Besides, I'm one of them now. If there's a way—if there's some way for me not to be a danger to myself and others, we should extend that courtesy to people we don't suspect of having committed murder." Spencer raises an eyebrow. "I don't count."
Emily is mainly concerned about their safety, which is Spencer's first priority as well. The difference is that Spencer's focused on the fact that they will not be safe until they've gotten rid of Garrett—if he killed Wren, and actually Spencer's pretty sure he did, he could kill any of them any time he wanted. He could kill Melissa for the same reason he killed Wren. Emily, on the other hand, is focused on the fact that Spencer doesn't have any experience or knowledge about vampires for this whole enterprise to end very well for her.
"Even if it does, you're not just handing someone over to the police," Emily adds, her voice softer now. She leans forward, closer, with her elbows on her knees. "You're talking about killing somebody."
"They're already dead," Spencer points out.
"So is Aria," Emily says. Spencer looks down; it's harder to meet someone's eyes when you're determined to do something they don't want you to do despite agreeing with their reasoning. "That won't matter when they freeze up or turn to dust or whatever they do after you stake them." At Spencer's silence, Emily guesses, "You don't know what happens after you stake them."
Spencer looks up. "No, I do. You do, too. We all saw Ian's body. That's what a dead vampire looks like."
"I didn't come out of that wanting to see more of them," Emily says in a firm tone.
Hanna's view of the situation boils down to comfort over becoming weird supernatural huntresses who watch over Rosewood at night and go to school with huge bags under their eyes and unwashed hair and everyone's scared of them instead of thankful. "Look, I know you're trying to avenge Wren and everything—"
"I'm not trying to avenge anybody."
"Whatever. But Aria's fine. She's not hurting anybody. Maybe they're all fine, and Wren was like, a fluke. A hasn't even been pestering us lately. Can't we just enjoy the peace for a while?"
Spencer doesn't mention that the reason A's staying away is probably that she's realized there's someone out to kill her who knows how to kill her. Or him. Assuming it is a vampire, even if it isn't Alison.
At any rate, Hanna gets to enjoy her time of peace and quiet. Spencer's still training, and given the way Melissa's been not telling her anything, Spencer has no idea when or if Melissa's ever going to share her goals. That said, Spencer hopes everyone involved realizes she will make her own plans if no one lets her in on theirs. She's only giving Melissa this much time because she's not ready and life has calmed down.
And then Melissa sneaks out at night, and so does Jason. Spencer doesn't follow them, but she stays up until they both come back. They each walk off to their respective homes, but what draws Spencer's attention is that, up until the point they separated, they were walking, in the middle of the night, together.
"What the hell were you doing with Jason?" Spencer says when the door shuts behind Melissa, at the same time Melissa sees her and says, "I think Jason actually cares about your friend Aria."
"What?" Spencer says, closing the lid of her laptop and leaning forward on the kitchen island. Melissa hangs up her jacket and leaves the keys on the counter, pours herself a glass of water.
"He's—" Spencer begins. "So now he knows we know?" That goes against everything they've been working towards. Even if he does cooperate, it's counterproductive. Spencer hadn't realized Melissa was this stupid.
"He knows I know," Melissa says, calm and collected, like it's totally normal that she's fraternizing with a vampire. "I assume he's familiar with the consequences of what he did to Aria, but I didn't say anything about you or your friends."
"Gee, thanks," says Spencer.
"Look, we used to be friends. We were good friends. He thinks I've known since high school. This doesn't set us back. This gives us an in."
Spencer snorts. "Yeah, unless he's lying to you to sabotage your plans. Which, by the way, you haven't told me about. Or he could be planning to kill you in the woods, I don't know, just throwing that out there."
"He's not going to kill me," Melissa says, leaving her glass in the sink with a clinking noise. She turns around and palms the edge of the kitchen island, looking at Spencer. "Didn't Aria want you to give him a chance?"
"I didn't tell you that because it was a good thing."
"No," Melissa agrees, "no, you didn't tell me that. Aria did. She was worried when she didn't see him for a week."
Something in Spencer has an incredulous knee-jerk reaction. It's not that out there, Melissa's been helping Aria, but a part of Spencer, the part that takes over her mouth, can't believe what she's hearing. "Are you trying to get back at me?"
"What do you mean?" Melissa looks genuinely confused, but then the Ian fiasco showed Spencer they were both very good at lying.
"Are you trying to steal my friends now?"
Melissa opens her mouth, but no words come out. The look on her face is outraged, and it takes Spencer a good three days to believe it. She feels bad before then: betrayed, annoyed that things between her and Melissa have gotten even worse, hurt that Aria went to Melissa behind Spencer's back, but she doesn't feel guilty about overreacting until it's too late to apologize without making a speech of it.
This is why communicating matters, and she reminds herself that she's not the only one who's failed to reach out in this situation. It's not like Melissa told her about meeting with Aria or speaking to her on the phone or anything. They haven't been talking much at all.
Aria's been less communicative, too, but Spencer could understand if she was holing up with Fitz or hunting rabbits or something. She doesn't know if animal blood is something Aria can drink. She should ask, but her fallout with Melissa happens on a Wednesday, and by the time she thinks to ask Aria, it's Friday night and Aria's phone is off.
There's a knock on the door when she cancels the sixth call, and the sun's beginning to set outside. Her parents are out, Melissa's unreachable in her own way, still in the barn, and Hanna and Emily are both on dates.
Two knocks later, she realizes so is she.
"Hey," Toby says, "am I too early?"
Spencer smiles and pulls him in by his shirt. "You're fine. 'Whenever' is a vague term for a reason." She kisses him hello, thankful for the reminder that there is still a part of her life that's not caught up in Melissa drama and shooting lessons and trips to the hospital to volunteer blood bags for Aria into her purse.
Things go well until he heads to the bathroom while she orders in pizza. A minute later, he rushes down and out of the house, his skin quickly reddening until he's out in the night air. It looks painful, but by the time Spencer hangs up and goes after him, he's gone. It's not even that long. It can't have been longer than thirty seconds, in fact, by the timer on her cell, but he's nowhere to be seen.
Melissa's in the kitchen when Spencer walks back into the house. "Did Toby leave?"
Spencer quickly sheds the shock off her face and says, "Yeah," like they discussed it. Melissa doesn't need to know any more than that.
Curiosity doesn't weigh on her for long, at least; a call comes about the same time as her pizza, and Toby explains he had a delayed allergic reaction to something he ate and grabbed a cab to the ER. "I'm so sorry I didn't stay and tell you."
"I—no, that's—that's perfectly understandable, don't worry about it," Spencer says, and settles down for a night of being alone with her pizza. And a movie. Her night is too depressing to even contemplate without a movie to make it better.
Saturday she takes easy, but that was her plan all along. She plays some tennis with the daughter of one of her parents' friends at the club, then nicks a recipe off the Internet and teaches herself how to make quiche lorraine. Her taste buds declare it a job well done, although by the time it's out of the oven, she's been snacking for half an hour and isn't hungry anymore.
She takes a quick shower and drops by Hanna's with leftovers and some extra study material Emily missed when she was in the hospital. Caleb's on his way out, talking to Hanna in the foyer, when Emily opens the door. Spencer waits until he's gone to ask, "Did I pick up some awkward vibes there?"
"More like nervous vibes," Hanna says, pulling out some plates and cutlery and setting them on the kitchen table. "We fell asleep last night."
Spencer frowns. "Like, after—" She raises her eyebrows meaningfully.
"No! No," Hanna says, "Emily's here. Besides—"
"You can sexile me for a few hours," Emily says, "I would understand that." She pauses. "Just air out the room before I'm supposed to go in there."
"No, besides, I'm not sleeping with anybody here if I don't have a very clear window of time I know my mom won't be home. We fell asleep on the couch and my mom woke us up. It was—awkward. For him, mostly. I made him stay for breakfast so I could talk some of the awkwardness out of him." Hanna scrunches up her nose. "He's kind of cowardly for a criminal."
"Your mom's pretty imposing," Spencer mentions. Mrs. Marin may not be as imposing as Spencer's mom, but she's still up there.
"And he owes her a lot," Emily adds.
"How's," says Spencer, measuring her words, "how's the thing with his bio mom going?"
Hanna smiles then, warm and bright. "He's sticking out the school year, and then he will fly out to meet her. In the summer." Her expression sobers then, and she continues talking in a matter-of-fact tone that fails to hide her concern. "Doesn't make him any less likely to leave for good, but I want him around for a while longer, with everything that's going on."
"Wouldn't it be less dangerous for him if he left?" Emily asks.
Hanna cuts out a slice of quiche and digs her fork into it, presses her lips together. "Hmm," she says, "no."
"But you thought of it?"
The look on Hanna's face turns serious, quiet. "Yeah," she says. "I thought of it." Before the shift in mood can halt the conversation, she grins again and says, "So! Let's try this thing."
While they eat, Spencer takes the chance to give Emily the copies of her notes and explain the outline she drew up for her. Emily's phone rings when Spencer's mostly done, and Emily leaves the room to talk, which means it's either one of her parents or one of her girlfriends. She's smiling widely when she comes back.
"Samara's coming over tonight," she tells them. She turns to Hanna. "Your mom said it was okay—"
Hanna nods enthusiastically. "Yeah. Definitely." They eat some more in silence, and then Hanna makes a pleased noise around a mouthful of quiche. "My mom and I aren't really into homemade food," she says. "Between you and Emily I'm starting to reconsider."
"You're not not into homemade food; you're not into making homemade food," Emily points out.
Hanna swallows and lifts another forkful to her mouth. "Same diff."
They're relaxing in Hanna's living room with a movie when Emily's phone rings again, with a text this time. She fishes it out of her pocket comfortably, assuming it's Samara, but her face falls when she accesses the text. Spencer presses pause on the remote and says, "What is it?"
Emily's mouth opens and closes, opens and closes, and then she seems to give up on explaining and just holds up the phone for them to see.
Careful who you let in. Make it the right one. -A
"Maybe she's just invested in your love life," Hanna offers, then catches herself. "He. They. Whatever."
"So they threw in a vampire reference?"
Spencer shrugs. "Well. It could be a coincidence."
Emily gives her a sharp look. "I thought you were the paranoid one."
"Realistic one," Spencer corrects, "and I am, but... Samara?"
"Is that what you think this is?"
"Well, you made plans with her," Hanna says. "I'm not planning to invite anyone in today. If Caleb or my mom or, hell, even Wilder are vampires, it's a lost cause now." She glances at Spencer. "Right?"
"Yeah," Spencer replies perfunctorily, shaking her head and thinking about something else entirely, "you only have to say 'come in' the one time. Why is A warning you about Samara?"
"To freak her out?" Hanna suggests.
Emily's eyebrows rise. "Well, it's working."
In her best reassuring tone, Spencer says, "She wouldn't warn you if it were true."
"Maybe she's possessive about torturing us," Hanna says.
"I'm canceling," Emily says, and pushes herself off the couch and heads over to the next room. Spencer can hear some of Emily's side of the conversation, Do you want to meet somewhere else, and, No, don't pick me up, I'll see you there, and, There's nothing wrong with the house, I just want to... Forget it. "That didn't go over well," Emily says as she walks back into the living room.
Spencer sighs. "Didn't have any plans for tonight. We'll—" Hanna shakes her head, and Emily laughs. "I'll stay with you."
"We can get some homework done, I guess," Emily says, sinking back into the couch, and picks up the remote.
Night's fallen by the time Spencer gets home. The air is cold for a spring night and draws goosebumps along her bare arms. She even hears crickets chirping for the first time in a long while, which makes her wonder if she's been so absorbed in Alison and A and finding answers lately that her ears now block outside noises without her consent.
The house is quiet, much the way she left it in the afternoon. There's no light in the barn, either; Melissa's probably out. Spencer's first instinct is to check if Jason's home, but then she thinks better of it and decides to try Aria's cell again.
Aria picks up on the first ring. "Hey," she says quickly. She sounds breathless.
"'m kind of busy," Aria interrupts. "Did you need something?"
"No, I just wanted to— check in—where are you?"
Aria's silent the way someone who's trying to stall would be silent, breathing like she's going to speak on a couple of occasions, and then there's a booming crash upstairs and the call switches off. She's not even sure which one happens first, but some part of her immediately decides to prioritize finding out what the hell is happening in her house over calling Aria back.
She throws the phone in the couch and rushes upstairs. A light pops on in the bathroom before she's even halfway up, so she heads there, trusting someone who wants to kill her wouldn't draw attention to themselves that way.
Melissa's standing on the doorway with a stake—a clean stake, Spencer notes—in her hand, pointed inwards. There's a groan from inside, and a less loud crash—but still a crash—and for a moment Spencer stands still where she can only see the light coming out the door and Melissa and little more.
"Do I want to know?" Spencer asks. It's a practicality, she tells herself, not interfering if Melissa's got the situation under control. She can be stubborn and impetuous, but she's also rational, and she knows the following: it's a pretty small bathroom, Melissa's armed and she isn't, and they're both terrible at working in a group, especially if it's imposed on them.
That's the main reason she asks, if anyone needs to know, but yeah, okay, it's late, she's tired, and she's fed up with dealing with A's bullshit. If she's not the target here, delegating is by far the most appealing option.
"You kind of do," Melissa says, her lips curling bitterly in that way they do when she thinks Spencer's feigning a cute attitude and wants her to stop. Spencer frowns, and forgoes asking in favor of stepping over to the door.
Her eyes widen when she gets there, and she freezes for a second, incapable of understanding why Toby's lying on the floor, against the hard marble bathtub, clutching his arm and wearing rapidly healing wounds all over his hands.
"What the," she begins, then bites her lip and rushes into the bathroom, kneeling beside Toby. "What happened?" It's him she asks, but she turns to look at Melissa, too, not caring who explains as long as someone does.
"Your boyfriend's a vamp," Melissa says, spat out like she blames Spencer for it.
"Spencer," Toby chokes out.
"What did you do to him?" Spencer says, the words turning into a hoarse cry; she feels helpless like this, not knowing how to help Toby or even if she should, and, if she shouldn't help him, what she should be doing instead.
"It wasn't me," Melissa says, and Spencer turns to Toby for confirmation, but Toby's trying to sit up and he groans instead, pulling—oh, god—a pencil out of his arm. "That was me," Melissa allows. "But the burns were not. My theory's he wanted to know what caused his 'allergic reaction.'" She doesn't make finger quotes, but they're audible anyway. "So he came back to check."
Spencer looks around until she figures out what Melissa's hinting at, and eventually finds it. "The petal baskets? Is that why you smelled like you'd drowned in perfume when you came back from my Philly? A vampire thing?" Something else occurs to her, and her mouth falls open. "Is that why you almost choked me the night I followed you?"
Melissa nods, looking dismissively impressed. "That's about the gist of it."
"It's not what you think," Toby says, his voice still rough, though his skin looks better. He's sitting up against the tub, mostly upright, and not making any moves to leave. He could, if he wanted to. They wouldn't even notice until he was gone. But he's still there. "It's effective. I usually find that stuff diluted, it's barely an itch."
Melissa relaxes just to ask Spencer, her face the definition of nonplussed, "You're dating a masochistic vampire?"
"I didn't know he was a vampire."
Melissa frowns like she's about to ask if Spencer knew he had masochistic tendencies, which Spencer so does not want to get into with her sister before she's even talked to Toby about it, but Toby saves them by asking Spencer, "Are you breaking up with me?" There's a half-smile on his face; it reads as though he's trying to find humor in the situation, in the fact that there's a hunter at the door giving serious thought to killing him. The fate of their relationship seems almost silly in comparison. But Spencer knows Toby well enough to know it isn't, for him, not even if he's a vampire. Not if he's anything like Aria.
Spencer laughs all the same; it's not an answer so much as a way to let out the pressure of her emotions. She allows herself a few deep breaths, and then she looks back at Melissa.
"I'm not hurting him right now as a favor to you," Melissa says. All her composure is in her voice; there's none of it in her posture or her face. She looks worried, in part, and unnecessarily confrontational.
"Like you're not hurting Jason because of Aria?" Spencer says, eyebrows raised to meet Melissa's stance.
"Yes," Melissa says. "Actually, yes. Exactly like that." She leans back against the door, lowering her hand. She's still holding the stake tight, ready, but she looks less like she's about to stab someone with it. "I don't know his story. I don't know much about how you feel about him, either, but vampires are dangerous. They feed on human blood. They hunt, and they kill. You can't give them all the benefit of the doubt from the start. You can't just hand out chances. Chances are dead bodies."
"That's," Spencer starts, but Toby interrupts her.
"She's right." He forces himself off the floor. Spencer offers her help and he takes it, but he doesn't seem to need it anymore. He looks barely hungover now, not in real pain anymore. "I'm with you. I want to get rid of Garrett. He's a threat."
"To who?" Melissa asks, her back upright again, standing tall.
"To everyone," Toby says. "To the town. To hunters. To Jenna."
Spencer sits on the edge of the bathtub, feeling faint now that the rush of being shocked is fading, and says quietly, "But Jenna..."
"Jenna," Toby says as he sits next to her, his face earnest, "has done things I haven't forgiven." He sighs, and touches Spencer's hand. She lets him hold it. "She wanted me to turn her. She thought if I fell in love with her, then... I'd consider it."
"Quicker healing," says Toby. "I had an accident, when she first moved in. I lost control, and I bit her, and I didn't want to make it worse by making her forget. And then Alison did... what she did, and Jenna decided if she became a vampire she'd, you know. See again."
"Oh, jeez," Melissa snaps, and looks at Spencer. "So what do we do? It's your boyfriend. It's your choice."
Toby's not very helpful. It would be nice, maybe, if he had the decency to beg for his life or something instead of just stand there waiting for Spencer to make up her mind. Surely he wouldn't just let Melissa stake him. Does he trust Spencer that much?
She swallows. "How many people have you killed?"
"Four," he says, and she's thankful he doesn't add anything else to downplay it, like why or how or when.
"Since I turned," he says, and this time he adds, "Two years ago."
"Oh, dear god," Melissa sighs. "Is there anything I need to know here? Because if you're going to just confide in each other, I can give you some space."
"I wanted to poison Garrett next time he came over," he says. "He's still seeing Jenna. I thought that would make him weaker, and then I could... I don't know. Scare him."
"Scare him?" says Melissa, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Yeah, okay, why don't you leave that to me, Toby? We'll be better off that way. Trust me." She turns on her heel and walks off, though not before asking Spencer to throw a potpourri basket at him and scream if she feels like she's in danger; Melissa will be downstairs.
"Is there anything I can say that will make you trust me?" Toby asks once Melissa's gone.
"I don't know." She sighs. "I don't know."
"I haven't hurt anyone in a while," he says, careful, like she's gauging Spencer's willingness to hear him defend himself. She appreciates that. "In a long while, a year or longer. I feed on animals and blood bags and—Jenna, sometimes. She likes it. I know it sounds shady, but—"
"Trust me: it's the least of my concerns right now if you're faithful to me."
"But I am," Toby says, and before Spencer can tell him to shut up again, he changes the subject. "She hasn't told anyone about me. Garrett doesn't know, nor does Jason."
"You can't know that for sure," she points out.
"I can't," Toby says, "but they would have talked to me otherwise. Four vampires is too many vampires for one town. Garrett and Ian and Jason, they—they're old. They worry about things like being inconspicuous. Four vampires would lead to an insanely high body count."
"Who killed Ian?"
Toby frowns. "I assumed it was a hunter." He tilts his head. "Actually, after the other day, I thought it was your sister."
"She thinks it was someone else."
Alison, she thinks, and says, "She doesn't know for sure yet. Look—it's late. We really need to talk about this more, but for now, could you—"
"Leave?" He smiles at her. "Yes, I can leave. You deserve some time to think."
She shakes her head quickly, instinctively. "Don't do that. It sounds like you're manipulating me when you do that."
"I'm," he says, frowning, "I'm sorry."
"Will your sister try to shoot me if I go out through the front door?"
"She definitely will if you sneak out," Spencer says, and Toby heads for the stairs.
There's no sign of Melissa having silently staked anyone when Spencer sees her in the kitchen, which is a relief.
"He left," Melissa says, and Spencer nods. "Can I warn you against him? I know that's not what we do, but—" She sucks in her upper lip and leans forward on the kitchen island, looking at Spencer with bright eyes.
Spencer can't remember the last time she saw Melissa look concerned like this. It makes her pause, stay instead of go to bed like she'd meant to do.
"I've heard some serious horror stories," Melissa goes on, "from Wren and the people I met through him. It's not pretty, Spencer. Creatures—people like Toby, they're unpredictable. They'll turn on you; they turn on themselves. You haven't been seeing Toby for long. It would be much easier to cut ties now than it will be if you stay with him. You'll start tolerating what he does, making up reasons and excuses for him. I don't want that to happen to you." Spencer opens her mouth to protest, but Melissa's not done yet. "You saw what happened to me. With Ian. I was manipulated, yes, but I wasn't brainwashed. I genuinely believed in him even when you piled up evidence against him. I chose him, over and over, when I shouldn't have."
"I'm not you," Spencer says, "and Toby's not Ian."
"You don't know that," Melissa says. "You can't."
"I trust my gut."
Melissa sighs, shaking her head. "I'm not saying that's a bad thing. And at least Toby's left your mind alone. But at the end of the day, it's the same instincts. They both need blood. They both can make you forget they took it, they can make you think and feel anything. And they're stuck. They can't grow old with you—"
"We're pretty damn far from that bridge right now, don't you think? It's not even in sight."
"And what happens when it is? You'll be attached. Much more than you are now. You'll both be. And what happens then? You become a nomad? You hide him from people? That's assuming he even wants to date you when the wrinkles start popping."
"You were right," Spencer says, pacing the room just for something to do, "there's a reason we don't do this."
"There's so much you don't know about him." She stops and sets her hands on the back of a stool. "About me. You can not trust his instincts all you want, but at least trust mine. Trust me to make the right decision."
"I wasn't trying to make it for you," Melissa says.
"No, you were," Spencer says, "that's what you do, isn't it? Know best? I know what Toby is now. He didn't make me forget. For all we know, he never does. He let Jenna know! He let people think he'd killed Alison and hate him and whisper all kinds of shit at him when he could have gone up to a cop and have the charges dropped."
Melissa leans back in her stool, the warmness fading from her eyes. "Maybe it didn't occur to him. He doesn't seem like the brightest crayon."
Spencer snorts, she actually snorts because there is no other valid answer to that argument. "Are you kidding me?"
"Listen, I'm only saying—"
"You're saying I should stop dating him. It doesn't matter why to you, does it? Because you just said I shouldn't see him because he's dangerous, but then not doing anything illegal makes him bad for me, too? Is that the argument I'm supposed to believe?"
"I'm sorry, Spence," Melissa says. "Just forget I said that."
"I know him," Spencer repeats.
Melissa breathes in deep, and then says, careful, "Because he got caught."
"He talked to me, you know. He didn't deny it. He didn't run."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"What do you think it's supposed to mean?
"We're not comparing boyfriends," Melissa says, firm, standing up abruptly. "This isn't about them. This is about us. This is about you being safe."
"Like I was safe with Ian under our roof?" It's unfair, it's unfair and Spencer knows it but it's all rushing out and she can't stop it; she has to say it. "You just said not everything you did was because of the brainwashing. You could reason. You knew I was afraid and you did nothing, but now I'm important?"
Melissa's silent for a moment, then shrugs as if explaining were superfluous. "Yes."
"Are you serious?"
"Yes!" Melissa says. "You don't know what it's like, Spencer. It's this feeling like you know you could have chosen better but you're stuck with this and you should be happy, everything in your head is telling you to be happy but bad things keep happening. And you can't stop them. It's a constant 'what if?' And now that I've gotten out, now it's a constant why. Why didn't I see it before, why did I believe him for so long, why did no one tell me, why did Wren never tell me? I don't want that for you."
"Well, tough luck," Spencer said, stepping away and fully intending to head upstairs.
It's only Melissa speaking again that stops her. "You used to listen to me."
"It isn't my fault I stopped," Spencer says, turning around so fast she feels lightheaded.
"Was it mine? We both did things we regret. Can't we get past them? Can we really not get past them?"
Spencer scoffs. "Do you really think you can just waltz in with a crossbow and all will be forgiven? You haven't been there for me. I lost a friend and you weren't there for me. You've blamed me for everything that's gone wrong in your life in the past two years." Her throat is beginning to hurt, her voice coming out high and uneven. "I started getting those texts last year and you never even noticed anything was wrong. I was terrified to live in the same house as Ian and you didn't care."
"That's not fair."
"Isn't it?" Spencer asks. "You lied to my face about him. Was that even the mind control? Was he even around to keep that up? You lied to me, and you expect me to just trust you when I had to follow you into the freaking woods in the middle of the night before you told me anything that was halfway true." She takes a deep breath, tries to lower her voice. "Look at us. Every time I reach out to you, it blows up in my face."
Melissa snorts. "Join the club."
"No." Spencer's head is shaking impulsive, uncontrollably. "No, you don't get to do that. I haven't done anything to hurt you. I've felt like a horrible person for— for years now about kissing Ian, and Wren, and I'm not going to do it anymore. They were two kisses, and I didn't start them, and I didn't go back for more. That is all I've done to you. You've lied and gone behind my back and been horrible to me—" Her eyes are welling up. Her eyes are welling up, fuck. "And I don't trust you. You've made it that way."
"You don't trust me. Trust me to what? To know what's best for you?"
Spencer stays silent, her lips tight together. She presses her eyes closed every few seconds, trying to calm down.
"You don't trust me," Melissa repeats; her face is hard, disbelieving. If Spencer weren't so angry—but she is. She is, and seeing that kind of shock on Melissa's face feels right. It feels like she finally gets it, like Spencer's finally managed to make her point. "That's why you've been so difficult about Aria and Jason and everyone, isn't it?" Her voice is soft, even, but it doesn't sound forgiving or reassuring at all. "You think I'm going to turn on her. Do you think I'm conspiring against you, too?" Spencer's silence and slight self-conscious shrug is enough for Melissa to decide, "You do." She runs a hand through her hair, keeps it on the back, stroking her scalp. "I can't believe this. Do you— The reason you didn't show me those texts from the start; did you think I was her?"
"We didn't show anybody those texts," Spencer says firmly. "It was a group decision. It had nothing to do with you."
"But you have considered it was me," Melissa says, and Spencer doesn't deny it. Melissa laughs incredulously, throwing her head back, looking away. "You've... Wow, you really, when you turned on Ian, did you think I was involved too? All this time, have you been worried that I was involved in Alison's murder? That's all you thought about Ian, and I lied for him, so of course I am—"
"That's not true," Spencer says. "I never thought you were— It may have crossed my mind, but look at you, even now you're deflecting! What do you want me to think?"
There's a screechy noise when Melissa pushes her stool back and grabs something off the back. "Nothing," she says, stepping around the kitchen island. "Absolutely nothing."
Seconds later, Spencer's alone.
Morning comes too early and too brightly, making Spencer bury her head under the pillow and consider chanting some sort of spell to turn back the clock. It's not like she has anywhere to be. It's Sunday morning. Her parents are gone, Toby will give her all the space in the world until she says otherwise, and the odds that Melissa will drop by the house today when Spencer's in, let alone talk to Spencer, are slim to none.
She peeks out from under the pillow and sunlight blinds her again. She can't sleep. It's almost eleven. She hardly ever sleeps past nine. There's always something to do, and it's always harder to fall asleep at night if she stays in bed too long in the morning.
With a groan, she forces herself out of bed, determined to enjoy a long hot shower and spend the rest of the morning working on an essay that's due next week. She brings her phone downstairs with her, settles in the kitchen with her laptop, a steaming cup of coffee and a cheese-smeared bagel that was fresher yesterday morning.
The phone feels like it's staring at her as she drags out her research over the kind of time she'd normally need for three papers like this, not one. There are three paragraphs and about five non-linear unfinished sentences in her file when she concedes the phone's victory.
Toby picks up on the second ring, sounding rushed when he says, "Spencer, hey. Hi. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Spencer says. She smiles against the receiver. It's nice to know he cares enough about her to make sure she gets through to him, despite what happened and despite the fact that she doesn't think this conversation is going to end on a very happy note. "I wanted to see how you were doing, after last night."
"That was going to be my line," Toby says, and Spencer catches herself before she laughs. It's going to be so much harder to ruin the mood if there's a mood to ruin.
"Sorry," she says instead. There's a tired breath on the other side of the line, fairly audible, sounding necessary; she should ask Aria why she breathes, if she still needs to, if it's instinctive or if she does it for show. Toby said Garrett didn't know about him, so there must be a disguising attribute, something that masks up the oddness, the deadness.
She could ask Toby, right now, but that's hardly the conversation she's aiming for here. It's unfair to him, too: here she is, wondering how much information she can squeeze out of him before she decides what to do about their relationship. Or worse—thinking about the things he knows that she doesn't instead of about how viable it would be for them to keep dating. If it would be worth the risk.
Of course, thinking about that makes her want to be contrary and do something rash just to spite Melissa, so this is not a good moment to make that decision.
"I'm okay," Toby says. "I'm... resilient. I'm glad we've kicked a few secrets in the butt. I'm more worried about you."
"Shouldn't be. I've been in a constant state of shock this month. Nothing fazes me anymore." She laughs, soft and resigned, and then clears her throat. "Anyway, I wanted to say—"
Toby gets it right on the first try: "You need some time."
"Yeah," she sighs. "It's not—"
"Please don't say it's not me. Or that it's not personal."
"Well, to be fair, it's more about the secrets and lies and the fact that every time we drank coffee together, you would have preferred to be drinking blood. Human blood." She's trying to lighten the mood, keep her tone casual. It's too early to wallow in self-pity—in the day and in their relationship and since she found out he was a vampire. It's just too soon.
"I do like coffee," says Toby. "It just doesn't keep me alive like it does you."
Spencer laughs again, the sound turning into a frustrated groan. "You're making this really hard." It's the perfect way to hit an impasse, and she wants to kick herself for it; now he'll mouth off something trite like It's not supposed to be easy and they'll get caught up in an endless labyrinth of pleasantries.
What he actually says, in an earnest, sincere tone, is, "I'm sorry." It's even worse. It prompts silence.
What was supposed to come next, anyway? She doesn't even know if she's asking for a break or breaking up with him. Melissa would prefer the latter, probably, but it's not fair to just write him off. He hasn't been a vampire that long; he hasn't been around that long, even as a person. That matters to Spencer. But it doesn't mean she wants to be in a relationship, give herself a chance to fall in love with someone who carries the death of several innocent people on his hands.
There's a difference between redeemable and desirable: redeemable only means he could be dead and he isn't. Redeemable is what Garrett and Ian and maybe even Jason, by all accounts, aren't. Especially not if they've had a lifetime to adapt and not bothered with it.
It's not that Toby is undesirable. He may not be. That's why Spencer needs time. Aria was a given; Aria is a friend Spencer loves dearly, and Spencer was there from the start. Becoming a vampire may not have been Toby's choice, either, but she doesn't know how he went about dealing with it. She can forgive the lie, but she can't pretend she doesn't want a full narrative of his past, and she can't ask for it right now. Not yet.
"Spencer," Toby says, pulling her out of her thoughts. She rubs her eyes with the back of her sleeve and wakes her laptop, cradling the phone between her ear and neck.
"I'm working on something. I should go. I'll— I'll see you at school?"
"Yeah," he says, and she hangs up.
Rounds at the hospital are less stressful than Spencer expects when she walks in. A sense of dread ruins her walk over, but it's only a few minutes before she's comfortable again. That's what small talk is good for, apparently: putting you at ease when you're worried someone may accuse you of stealing blood.
She's stacking up a cart with freshly washed sheets when her phone vibrates, courtesy of Melissa. The text is concise: Assuming you went to hospital: Aria supply won't last through week. Spencer was going to call Aria before taking off her candy striper uniform, but this eliminates the possibility that Aria's phone is off or she's otherwise out of reach.
It would be nice if Aria talked to Spencer about her absence. It's perfectly understandable that she's having some kind of undeath crisis, or I-want-to-eat-my-friends crisis, but there's always that nagging feeling at the back of Spencer's head telling her maybe she should be worried.
Borrowing blood is easier this time. There are never as many people around on a Sunday; the floors that house more specialist offices than rooms are ghostly quiet, and Spencer hasn't set foot in the ER since Melissa's car accident. When Emily collapsed—both times Emily collapsed—Spencer only found out once Emily had been moved into a room elsewhere.
She gets home late in the afternoon and goes to the barn first thing, not bothering with any middlemen. She had a key in a drawer in her room; she doesn't carry it around to avoid the temptation, but it would be ridiculous if she couldn't access a part of her own house. Melissa's not around, so she stores away the blood bags she stashed in the separate inside compartment of her gym bag. Then she goes back to the main house, clears out the bag, changes into loungewear and picks out a DVD. Her mom should get home within the next hour or two.
"We're done," Emily says when they sit down to lunch a few days later at school, eying the phone in her hand. She puts it away when it goes dark. "Samara's not into not being wanted. We're done."
"Wanted or trusted?" Hanna asks. Aria's picking at her food beside her, and Spencer's not entirely sure she's listening to the conversation at all.
"Both," Emily says. "Probably both. She says we should take some time off until I feel comfortable hanging out with her again. So she probably wouldn't take great to me explaining that it's not about wanting to be with her, it's about thinking she may kill me in my sleep."
"Vampires are likelier to kill you when you're awake," Spencer says. "If they're going to kill you at all. They like the hunt. No offense, Aria."
Aria waves her off. "Doesn't apply."
"Plus," says Spencer, turning back to Emily, "if you're sleeping, that means you're in your house and they can't get there unless they're inv—" Emily's look turns to just this side of a glare. "Sorry, sorry. Go on."
"I'd just like to know for sure," Emily concludes. "If she's—" She looks around and lowers her voice; she probably changes her phrasing, too.
Spencer should have maybe done that, but she's sure anyone listening in could be persuaded to believe they're talking about vampire mythology. Worst-case scenario, Spencer can pass it off as a conversation about the things Twilight does weird.
"If she's not the right person for me," Emily goes on, "then I can acknowledge that and move on. And if she's fine, I can..." She raises her shoulders in an almost shrug and sighs loudly. "I can try and patch things up. Lie to her some more." Spencer didn't know you could dip fries sullenly in ketchup, but that's exactly what Emily proceeds to do.
"I still don't see why A would help you out," Hanna says, raising the volume of the conversation significantly. "I mean, I know she's our frenemy or whatever, but mostly she's a jerk. I don't do jerks. Not anymore."
"But what if it's—" Emily says, giving Hanna a meaningful look.
"It's not," Hanna says. "That's a half-assed theory—hell, it's not even a theory. It's not even a hunch. Dr. Sullivan would tell us we need to deal with our grief and stop projecting. Besides, we're not doing ourselves any favors thinking a dead person is, what? Undead? That just makes things easier for A."
Emily mumbles, "Dr. Sullivan doesn't know what we do."
"Hanna's right. This just makes us more vulnerable."
"Look, I'm sorry I don't want my girlfriend to eat me," Emily says, then shuts her eyes tight. "You know what I mean. If there's a chance I saved Hanna's house from being a monster den, I'm glad I took it."
Hanna leans forward over the table. "And Hanna's house thanks you for that, but Hanna still thinks this is stupid. You think it's her because you want to think it's her. I do, too. Last night I caught myself thinking it would be awesome to solve this entire thing by having Alison back. I mean, that's what we're doing here, right? Trying to piece that riddle, and once we're done we're going to be completely aimless. Alison's just going to be gone. But if she's not gone, then... then it should be easier."
"I don't think that would work like that," Aria says, still not looking up. She has a reporter notebook out now, but Spencer's too busy to try and decipher tiny handwriting upside down.
"I know it's not going to be." Hanna shrugs. "Just, I have those fantasies too. But then I realize that, if this is Alison, I don't want her as my friend. I don't want her around. If she could have helped us and she didn't—"
"What if she did?" Emily suggests. "She sent me that text. And that day at the pool, I swear I was bleeding. Someone must have stopped it."
Spencer sighs and sits up in her chair. "Alison's not the only person who could have helped you. We have no idea who else is a you-know-what in this town, but I can think of a hundred people more likely to help you than Alison is."
There's a stretch of silence, and then Emily slumps in her chair and says, "I know. I just keep thinking— but I know that. And I'm over her, I swear."
"It's okay if you're not," Spencer says.
Hanna adds, "You don't owe us an explanation. We all have Ali baggage."
"Oh, by the way," Spencer says, trying to lighten the mood or at least give Emily's misery some company, "on the topic of break-ups, I'm kind of done with Toby. For now, at least."
At that, Aria's head shoots up. "What? Why?"
"No particular reason," Spencer lies. This is not the place to talk about it. Then again, she's had opportunity to tell them all week and this is the first she's mentioned it. It's just... weird to talk about something that's not resolved. They're not dating, but they're not not dating. Spencer hasn't written him off, and Toby sent her a text the other day reaffirming his willingness to tell her anything she wants to know. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to lie to her friends about it. "That's not true. There is a reason. I just can't tell you guys right now."
"Can it wait?" Hanna asks warily.
Well, Toby's not going to kill anyone between now and tonight, is he? Maybe she should take him up on that tell-all. She never even asked him when he killed the people he did—when the last time was. "Yeah," Spencer sighs, "yeah. It can wait."
"Okay," Hanna says, suddenly cheering up. She pulls out her phone and types in something quick, clicks send. "Noel's throwing a party tomorrow night." She lifts her hands before anyone objects. "I know we hate Noel, and he hates us, but he totally hates us in the way that he's not going to throw us out. Plus, a party's a party, and there will be booze, and we all need the distraction. We'll meet at my house before, Spencer will tell us everything about Toby, Aria will—show up all fed and stuff—" Aria cracks a smile at that. "—and we'll dress up and have fun. And that's final. And I mean final because I just canceled my plans with Caleb and uncanceling dates is really awkward. Everyone in?"
There's not a lot of enthusiasm, but nobody says no either. Spencer shrugs. A party with people her age might be a good way to take her mind off things. She knows Toby well enough to know he won't even walk by; he hates parties. She wonders if it has anything to do with being around dozens of hot-blooded young things, but Aria seems happy enough about going.
"Okay," Hanna says, "great. And see, we have a plan now. It's not literally life-altering, but it will do."
What vampire movies don't dedicate a lot of time to is the time spent sitting around, waiting for plans to gel and people to go where you need them to go and skills to be as honed as they need to be. It's not like Spencer's life stopped the night she followed Melissa into the woods. And Spencer's glad it didn't; there are many things she wants to do with her life and she's pretty sure hunting vampires is not her calling. Maybe she would have considered it if she'd thought she was the only one doing it, but there must be a sizable amount of hunters out there for Wren to have met a few.
Plus there's no way Melissa would call his contact list a 'network' if it was just four or five people. Melissa's not the intimate group of friends type when it comes to networking sites.
Not dealing with things right away always makes Spencer restless. It divides her attention, and uselessly at that: however often her mind goes to the very present danger they could all be in, it doesn't mean Melissa will plan faster. It doesn't even mean that danger will walk up to her and make her deal with it. Spencer's found bad things seldom do; you have to put yourself out there and... well, in this case, vanquish them.
Put a stake through their heart, technically, but that phrasing fills Spencer with worry. She can do it—maybe not in cold blood, but once she's up in the personal space of someone who's trying to kill her, she doubts hesitance will figure in her emotions. It's still weird; like Emily said, whatever happens to their bodies—and she should ask Melissa sometime, when they're on terms that allow for more than terse texting—Spencer will have caused someone's life to leave them.
Spencer is all for doing what has to be done and not giving it much thought, that's why she makes a good hospital volunteer; she doesn't get queasy. But she's not a psychopath, and the idea of stabbing an alive-looking person is a pretty fucking dreadful thought.
She doesn't even enjoy working ahead on homework; flashcards and outlines and recaps are all things her brain can do even while she's numb, but it's usually fun. Even when it's not a particularly interesting subject, there's still the satisfaction of seeing things take shape and cross them off her to-do list. She cleans out her inbox and then cleans out her room, and by the time her mom comes home from work, she's considering doing a couple of hours at the hospital before the party.
She has a cup of coffee with her mom instead, and for a while she actually manages to just listen and focus on something. Her mom's work stories are usually really good; there's no embellishing and no confidentiality breaches, but that doesn't take away from them. There's just something pleasant, almost relieving about them—she likes the reminder that someone in her family is a smart, capable professional who talks level with Spencer and is willing to discuss things with her, regardless of whether Spencer offers any good, usable help. Spencer likes to think she's, at worst, a good sounding board. More people should take advantage of that.
Her phone rings upstairs when she's on the third cup; one look at the clock lets her know she's late, and Hanna's text confirms it for good measure. "Shit," she murmurs, then gets her clothes ready on her bed and steps out into the hallway. "I'm going to take a shower!" she yells in the general direction of downstairs, and she thinks she hears her mom laugh.
Hanna grabs Spencer's bag and dress when she opens the door and says, "Blow-dryer's by the sink," pointing upstairs. Spencer thanks her wordlessly—her hair's still damp; she figured she might as well get to Hanna's first and deal with that later—and goes.
They skip the tell-alls and head straight for the party; they factored in a good half hour when deciding what time they'd meet, but they're late, and it's spring, so Noel's house is at, like, eighty percent capacity already. Someone from several of Spencer's AP classes opens the door, and Noel waves briefly at them from the staircase. Spencer's not sure he even sees them; she would have thought he'd take the chance to gloat. She was looking forward to rolling her eyes at him. With Melissa avoiding her and her friends still wrapping their heads around the existence of vampires—in Aria's case, around being a vampire—she's been holding back a lot lately. Her face could use the exercise.
Emily makes a beeline for her swim team friends after they get drinks, saying, "Just because A made it so I can't get near a pool doesn't mean I can't talk to them." It's a sentiment Spencer can't fault her for. Aria downs a cup of beer in one go and makes a face—one that seems slightly different from her usual 'this is gross' face.
"There has to be better alcohol in this house," Aria says, her nose still wrinkled. "I'm going to need something stronger. Can we raid the upstairs kitchen?" Hanna and Spencer shoot Aria worried looks, and Aria shakes her head as if to dissuade their concern. "I'm dead. I'm not going to get alcohol poisoning. Being drunk helps with the cravings."
Spencer takes a look around them—at the people coming in and out of rooms, strewn over the house and the garden out back—and holds Aria by the elbow, sticks to her, saying, "Yeah, let's find something else." Hanna's footsteps catch up with them after a short delay. They walk by Noel on the way up; he seems like he's going to say something, but then his pocket lights up. He glimpses at his phone without taking it out, frowns and heads outside through the garden door, with the composure of a security guard.
It's only surprising because Noel's not really the careful, overseeing host type; he's more the let's-talk-to-everyone-and-have-some-fun type. Spencer assumes his parents can afford any damage caused to their property, and the crowd that usually gathers isn't the kind that causes damage to private property outside of Halloween and targeted pranks.
"Best guess, booty call," Hanna says tiredly, and Spencer takes a moment to mouth In the barn? before she realizes how plausible that is. It probably has a lock, for one, unlike the bedrooms upstairs.
The upstairs kitchen doesn't have a lock either, and a handful of people go in and out, closing the door behind them. Spencer recognizes all of them as Noel's friends—actual friends, as opposed to people who were just allowed to show up. There's a sign hanging from the knob that claims it's out of service and points to a bathroom further down the hallway, and apparently everyone's just the right amount of drunk that they're able to read the sign before barging in but unable to question the validity of it or why some people keep going in there anyway.
It's weird to think that Noel told Ali about this. Back when Alison was alive, Spencer got used to her finding things out on her own and feeling entitled to them, but Spencer knows for a fact she and Noel were friends. She knows, but that doesn't make it any easier to picture. They were both so self-absorbed their words must have ricocheted off each other.
Near the small window, sitting in a duffel bag, there's someone from the track team nursing a glass of something on the rocks and smoking a cigarette. She's talking in hushed tones to one of Noel's teammates, who's leaning with an elbow on the sill and bending over to listen to her. They both look up for about a second before proceeding to ignore everyone who isn't each other. The room is empty aside from them, and Aria takes the silence as permission to inspect the cupboards and the fridge. She surfaces from her quest with a full bottle of Scotch, a half bottle of Madeira she hands off to Spencer, and real glasses.
"We shouldn't advertise we've been here," Spencer says, taking some red cups out of her bag and tipping some wine into one.
"Oh, this isn't going to make it out." Aria fills her glass with smashed ice and pours Scotch into it, enough that it nearly flows over. She finishes it almost as quickly, which makes the two people in the corner give her a look. "Just thirsty," Aria says, and tops up her glass again. "I'll transfer this one. Give me a cup?"
Hanna eyes them both weirdly, arms crossed over her stomach, and then says, "I'm a little scared."
"There's worse things I could be drinking," Aria points out, her tone self-depreciating. Hanna gives her a small smile.
They meet Emily downstairs; she's killing at pool, and Spencer sits down to watch, feeling as out of place as the pool table Noel must have dragged in from elsewhere. Hanna spots a girl from yearbook—the one who dated Lucas, Spencer thinks—and goes off to dance with her, and Aria hangs around, taking frequent walks outside to "get some fresh air."
It's kind of boring. Spencer's usually better at mingling than this. Spencer usually cares about mingling more than she has lately. Being the town's poster girl for paranoia will do that to a person.
"Spencer," a cheery voice says from her right, and Spencer looks up from her phone.
"Mona," Spencer says, trying to mirror the giddiness and fizzling out before the full word is out.
Mona looks around, probably more for show than anything else. "Have you seen Hanna?"
"She went out to the garden." Spencer turns her attention back to her phone. She has nothing against Mona. She just doesn't like when people usurp her position as chair of an event without even telling her. Spencer's not revengeful, exactly, and her grudges last a hell of a lot less than Melissa's, but her resentment takes a while to fade.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Mona open her mouth, but whatever she's going to say is drowned out by Emily's phone ringing and Emily glancing worriedly back. Spencer springs off her chair, saying, "Excuse me," because politeness is ingrained in her about as much as dropping everything the second a phone rings appears to be now—who needs military training when there's an anonymous asshole terrorizing you right at home?
Spencer wraps a hand around Emily's elbow and leads her out. Aria's just pocketing her phone when they reach her, and Hanna's shuffling her feet in silence next to her.
"What's going on?" Spencer asks, keeping her voice low because it feels like the situation requires it, whatever the situation is. There's no commotion that she can see; everyone seems at ease, unaware of anything weird around them.
"Noel," Aria says. "He's in the barn, but I don't— think he's enjoying himself." She grimaces, presumably at the phrasing.
Hanna shrugs. "Sometimes people make noises during sex that sound like they're in pain." Spencer frowns at her, and Hanna adds, "I'm just saying, I don't want to rush in there and see Noel Kahn naked and fucking some freshman."
"Is this a—you-know-what thing?" asks Emily, glancing at Aria.
"Yeah. My hearing's getting sharper." Aria's eyes narrow. "I thought it would have all at once, but it's— weird, I don't know. Guys, seriously, I think there's something wrong going on."
"You-know-what-type wrong?" Hanna asks, smiling briefly at Emily.
"I don't know. There's a lot of silence. It's weird. And I would have heard if he'd left."
"So what do you want us to do?" Spencer says, pulling herself upright. If they're going to spring into action, she might as well be ready for it.
Aria's shoulder lifts sheepishly. "What do you want us to do?"
"Go check? Stop it?" Spencer says. "I—I don't know, I've never done this before. I haven't gotten into the habit of carrying weapons either. If—" She lowers her voice. "If Garrett or someone is in there, I'm pretty much helpless. I'm not selfless enough to sacrifice myself or any of you for him."
"I run fast," Aria says.
"You have no fighting experience."
Emily groans. "Nobody here does. Whatever we're going to do, we need to do it now. I don't think anybody's waitin—" She's cut off by Aria raising her hand, and then disappearing like a mist in the direction of the barn.
Spencer looks at Hanna and Emily, registers Emily's nod and heads off to the barn herself, not running—too conspicuous—but walking as fast as she can. Emily follows, but Hanna stays behind, biting her lips and crossing her arms again, which is much smarter than what Spencer and Emily are doing, heading into a potentially dangerous situation with absolutely zero back-up.
They're Aria's back-up. That's the point of it. But Emily's been resting for weeks, and Spencer didn't think to throw a stake in her bag just in case. All she has is—well, pencils.
"Here," she says, handing some off to Emily, who frowns at her. "For stabbing. You can go back if you want."
"Are you kidding?"
They go around the barn—the door closest to the house is locked, and it doesn't show signs of having been forced recently. Aria must have gone in through a window, if she has at all. There's a low one in the back, the latch snapped in half the way only someone with actual tools or supernatural force could have done, and Spencer climbs in, trying to rest her weight mostly on the structure rather than on Emily's helping hand. "You're going to hurt yourself," Spencer whispers, and this time Emily nods, and waits.
Unlike Spencer's, the inside of Noel's barn looks more like a warehouse, small, unfurnished rooms spread around a hallway. There's a narrow staircase and footprints on the rug covering it, recent ones that look like Aria stomped on upstairs. Spencer follows them until she spots Aria hiding behind a column, submerged in shadow. The room as a whole—a larger one, the proportions to the ground floor like a basement's to the rest of a house—is dark, the visibility vague and due to large open windows lining up one of the walls.
Aria shushes Spencer with a finger over her mouth, and Spencer stays silent where she is, near the top of the staircase, obscured from view by a cornering wall.
Of course, that also means she can't see anything beyond the right half of the room.
A light thump echoes through the floor, and when Spencer looks up, Aria has vanished. She steps closer to the outer wall and moves as silently as she can through the shadows, hoping they'll hide her better than she'd be if her head stuck out beyond a corner. As she moves, her field of vision reveals Aria, first, holding onto a wooden broomstick, and the back of someone's body, after—a man's, kneeling over something, not moving but not quite still.
Spencer doesn't even register movement before something snaps, hard, and the man turns, walking right into the half stick Aria's holding in her hand. She wrenches it in harder, looking shell-shocked, and the angle on the guy is good enough now for Spencer to recognize Garrett. She covers her mouth to hold back a gasp, pressing hard as she notices Noel slumping on the floor, bleeding and looking like he's about to pass out. Garrett, at least, seems distracted enough to miss Spencer's presence: he grabs onto the broom and pulls himself back, piling on strength until it comes out, dark and bloody.
Aria's still holding onto it, and Garrett faces her; Spencer can't see his expression, but his posture is confrontational without really hoping for a fight. She's not sure what he's hoping for until he grabs the stick and lifts it in the air, throwing it across the room and standing upright, looking at Aria.
This is about the time Spencer should do something, but she has nothing of value. If a broomstick isn't enough to deter Garrett, a bunch of pencils aren't going to do any good. She tries to not be a distraction, instead. She tries not to sigh when Garrett doubles over as he steps closer to Aria, tries not to scream when he pushes her aside, tries not to move when he jumps out the window, his speed only slightly hindered by the bleeding—still significant enough that his trajectory is a blur.
She'll worry about that later, how she's planning to hunt down a creature her eyes aren't quick enough to follow; right now it's a lot more important that Aria just got smashed against a wall and there's blood all over Noel's neck and shirt, and Emily's outside and Spencer needs to make sure Garrett doesn't try to eat her next. She shouldn't have left her alone.
She looks out one of the windows, says Emily's name as loud as she can without yelling. It takes a few seconds, but eventually Emily steps away from the house, into Spencer's line of vision. "Oh, thank god. Are you okay?"
Emily nods. "Was that—" she begins, pointing at the fence—one of the pickets is torn on top, a board hanging off it.
"Yeah. Go back to the party—actually, call 911 first."
Again, Emily nods, and Spencer turns to survey the situation. Aria doesn't seem badly hurt; she's standing fine, and there's some blood on her arm, but it heals visibly fast when she yanks a few splinters out of her lower back.
"I'm already dead," Aria says, in that tone that means stop worrying about me.
Spencer lets out a loud sigh and looks at Noel, who's trying to sit up against a column and failing, groaning all the while.
"Did she just say," he mutters; whether his voice is feeble because of the bleeding or for some other reason, Spencer doesn't know. She walks over to him and kneels on the floor, rummaging in her bag for bandages. There has to be some in there; she started carrying them after Emily fell by the pool.
"She's concussed, it's fine," Spencer says, as soothingly as she can when she can't muster any sympathy for the person she's trying to reassure. Noel didn't deserve to be bitten or anything, but he still borders on insufferable, and the fact that he's still popular boggles her mind. "Here." She soaks up the blood on his shoulder and presses a new bandage against his neck. He's not bleeding profusely—must be a vampire thing—but the wound is as real as they come, and it doesn't heal the way Aria and Garrett did before.
"Should I—" Aria begins. "Before the ambulance comes, I should make sure he doesn't—" She's looking at Spencer for advice, and it takes Spencer a second to realize what about.
"Yeah," she says. "Yeah. We can't afford someone else knowing about this. Especially not him."
"What the fuck are you girls talk—" Noel begins, but Aria cuts him off with a hand over his mouth.
"Look," she says, looking into his eyes, "we just found you here. You tripped on a loose floorboard, and fell on a..." She trails off, clears her throat pointedly.
Spencer looks around until she finds something that could have slashed his neck like this. "Corkscrew." There's one on the floor, which, god only knows what it's doing here. She reaches for it with one of the discarded bloody bandages, careful not to leave anything remotely resembling fingerprints on it. She leaves the bandage on top of it; if the paramedics see it like that, they may think she used it to clean off the blood instead of to paint the corkscrew red.
"You fell on a corkscrew. Freak accident. I got a headache at the party, so I took a walk around here and I heard you scream. Called Spencer first because she's the one with the first-aid training. You got it?"
Noel nods slowly, entranced, and snaps out of it when Aria lets go of his face. "Thank you," he says, eyes narrow like there's something hard to believe about all this. Spencer doesn't blame him.
"Try not to pass out," Spencer says, and then there's the noise of doors opening on the floor below and a team of paramedics rushing in.
The party clears up before the ambulance leaves. Hanna takes it upon herself to check every room and usher out any stray guests who somehow missed the blaring sirens and the sudden silence in the house.
Aria puts her phone away when Hanna heads upstairs. "I called Melissa; she'll be here in a few minutes."
"You called Melissa?" Spencer sputters. The last thing she needs right now is a lecture from her sister. Melissa loves educating people on things she wasn't even around to witness. Spencer's hands itch to steal Noel's parents' car keys; she doesn't know where they are, but she's sure she could find them.
"We can talk about what happened if Melissa's driving us," Aria says. "My mom gets out of her thing in an hour; I don't want to rush her out if there's a better option. I don't want her to worry. There's a thin line between worrying and detecting."
"I think we're all familiar with that line," Emily says.
It's—okay, it's a fair point. Spencer scoffs, but doesn't say anything else about it. Melissa's closer than Mrs. Montgomery, too, which means Spencer can tell herself it's not worth starting to clean up the house if she's leaving in less than five minutes.
She could tell herself it's not her house, but she doesn't think that would work. She needs something to do with her hands.
"I'm up for a massage if you can swing one," Aria says, smiling crookedly.
"I thought you'd healed already."
Aria shrugs. "Doesn't mean I'm not sore." As if to prove her point, something creaks when she rolls her shoulders back.
"Here," Emily says, and walks around Aria, sets her hands on Aria's shoulders. "The swim team got a crash course in this sort of thing. We're supposed to wait for a physical therapist to show up in competitions, but it's still—" She does something with her thumb over Aria's shoulder blade that causes another crack of her bones; when Aria rolls her shoulder back again, though, it's smooth going.
"No problem," Emily says, looking down. "At least I got something out of—" She lifts her chin abruptly. "No, no, never mind. No wallowing."
"You're allowed to wallow," Spencer says.
Hanna comes down the stairs, saying, "You're allowed to want to punch someone in the face, too, if the situation presents itself." She rubs her hands together when she reaches the ground floor.
"You guys are ridiculously transparent," Emily says, "just so you know."
They wait outside until Melissa pulls up to the house. Spencer takes the co-pilot seat out of habit and because it's easier to not look at Melissa if she's sitting next to her. She doesn't want to spend the whole ride to each of their respective homes staring at the back of her sister's neck. Melissa grabs a blood bag from her purse and hands it to Aria when Aria climbs in the backseat.
"Thanks," Aria says, uncapping the valve and sucking on it. Spencer refrains from commenting; she can't believe it didn't occur to her that Aria would be hungry after watching Noel nearly bleed out.
"You're going to have to remind me where you all live," Melissa says, glancing back as she pulls the car back out of the driveway.
"We could just go back to your house," Aria suggests, leaning over Melissa's seat.
"My mom's not even home right now," Hanna adds.
Melissa puts her foot on the brakes, engine on, and looks at Spencer as well. "I don't mind."
The first thing that crosses Spencer's head is I don't care if you mind, they're my friends, but that kind of kneejerk instinct to offend Melissa is what put them back on icy terms to begin with. "That's—yeah, that's a good idea."
The car starts moving again. Melissa keeps her eyes on the road and doesn't say anything for a while. As silences go, it's pretty awkward; Spencer feels like everyone's waiting for her to speak up, but she has a feeling whatever she says is going to be met by an I told you so from Melissa, even though rationally it makes absolutely no sense that Melissa would say that. It's not like Spencer consulted Melissa on whether she should go to a freaking party or not. That's none of Melissa's business, and even the thought of Melissa acting, again, like she knows what's good for Spencer better than Spencer does makes her blood boil.
"So what happened?" Melissa says at the first red light. Her tone is somewhere between businesslike and what passes for reassuring when the only reason Melissa sounds like she cares is that she thinks she should.
"Garrett," Spencer mutters. Melissa frowns at her via the rearview mirror.
"Garrett what? Was there? Did someone call the cops?" Melissa asks, and that's when Spencer realizes Aria didn't tell her what happened. She just asked Melissa to pick them up.
And bring a blood bag.
"Maybe we should have this conversation when you're not driving," says Spencer, and to her surprise, Melissa's response isn't to push but to speed up when the stoplight flickers to green. Which is still dangerous, but whatever, Spencer will take it over the possibility of fighting on the road.
The first thing Spencer does when they get home is turn on the coffeemaker; she's going to need some caffeine to get through the rest of the night. Hanna calls her mom to let her know where she and Emily are, and Aria stretches her shoulders some more, staring at the couch for a while before choosing proximity to her friends over taking a nap.
"You guys want some?" Spencer asks, grabbing the pot when there's a sufficient amount of hot enough coffee in it to pour herself a first cup. She sets out some mugs on the kitchen island.
"I don't do caffeine after 5PM," Hanna says, an amused look on her face. Spencer fills the cup Aria pushes towards her and returns the pot to the coffeemaker. "Do you have hot chocolate?"
Melissa comes back from the barn then and says, "Sure," and they all sit around in silence while the saucepan simmers. The coffee and the scent are enough to put Spencer at ease; she leans back against the counter and lets the hot liquid wake her throat and relax her muscles. By the time Melissa pulls out a stool and sits down with a steaming mug cradled in her hands, Spencer almost feels ready to talk to her without screaming.
"So what happened," Melissa says again, this time without any questioning inflection whatsoever, like she only asked for the first time two seconds ago.
Aria glances at Spencer, and Spencer shrugs for her to go ahead and take the bulk of the explanation. Spencer would do it, but Aria had a better angle, was there longer, and—well, she has first-hand experience with these matters, unlike Spencer.
"Garrett tried to—" She frowns, and the rest of the statement turns into a question that she directs at her friends rather than Melissa. "I hadn't questioned this before, but why would Garrett try to eat Noel at his own party? I mean, if you're going to feed at a public event, at least pick someone who won't be missed."
"He did what?" Melissa asks.
"He tried to eat Noel," Spencer says. "We stopped him before Noel bled out. Well, Aria did."
Melissa gapes for a second before composing herself. "I thought you'd decided to leave early because he was making you guys uncomfortable."
"Why would he do that?" Emily says carefully, glancing at Spencer.
"I told her we thought he was A," Spencer says. "I didn't explain why. Don't worry about it."
Melissa raises an eyebrow. "Is there something I should know?"
"There isn't," Aria says. "It doesn't involve Spencer. Or vampires. Well, aside from me, but this was before Jason came back."
"Okay," Melissa says slowly, frowning for a second before she seems to decide whatever Aria's talking about isn't a topic worth pursuing at the moment. "Is there something special about Noel? That would draw Garrett to him?"
"Not in the middle of a party," says Aria, shaking her head. "I guess maybe if he likes challenges. Noel's no match for a vampire, but he's popular. People love him. If he really resents Rosewood or he really hates his job, Noel's kind of an obvious target."
"But Garrett's been here for years," Spencer chimes in. "He's never drawn attention to himself before."
"Maybe he got hungry on patrol," Hanna suggests. "A party probably looked like a deli to him. No off—"
"Don't say that," Aria interrupts her. Hanna tilts her head, frowning. "It makes me feel like you're lumping me in with Garrett. I'm not some weird creature you've never seen in your life. I'm your friend. Give me some credit."
There's a brief, awkward silence. Emily's the one to break it. "Maybe he wanted to ruin one of Noel's parties. It's not like anybody knows he was there. He could make anyone who did forget."
"It's still a really conspicuous thing to do," Aria says. "It would still be reckless to drive out and do something like that somewhere else, but here..." She trails off, looking confused. She glances at Spencer, first, and Melissa, who continues to drink her hot chocolate until suddenly her eyes go wide and she puts the mug down.
"He's leaving town," Melissa says, turning her head to the side almost completely, her chest heaving for a moment before she turns back to Aria. "This is bad. If he's leaving, there's no reason for him to hold back. He only has to be careful enough." She stands up, fingers loosely holding onto the edge of the table, like she wants to run out but realizes it would be tremendously inconsiderate of her. She'd never let that sort of instinct shine through if she were in a room with people she respected.
Spencer makes an effort not to roll her eyes. "You don't know that for sure. And you're being melodramatic."
"I do, actually," says Melissa, "it's their pattern. Their little 'we see all' deal. They do this every time."
"How long have they been around?"
"Long enough to be notorious."
Spencer snorts. "You mean long enough to be a coveted hunting prize."
"That would depend on who you ask," Melissa says.
"But," Aria says, and now that someone else is talking, Melissa smiles at Spencer—barely for a second, barely half of her mouth moving, but it's. Nice. Weirdly nice. It makes Spencer forget, just for that moment, that they're cold-warring right now.
She's sure their mom would love this, finding out they only get along when they're talking about hunting human beings. Or creatures who were human beings once. How is this our life, she mouths at Melissa, and Melissa shrugs and smiles again before turning her attention on Aria.
"But," Aria repeats, "how come they're still around? If they're that bad, somebody would have managed to get them by now."
"It's not that easy. And their process—it lulls hunters into a sense of security. Look at Garrett now—he's a police officer, his record is clean. If a hunter's even a little open-minded, they'd give him time. If there was reasonable doubt."
"You're not open-minded," Aria remarks.
"I could have colder blood," Melissa says curtly. "Now: I'm talking to you about this because Spencer trusts you, but I don't want you going off and doing anything stupid."
"You can't tell them what to do," Spencer says, but she doesn't push it when Melissa ignores her. It's true that they shouldn't. Aria can't afford to be found out, Hanna's not really into the active fighting thing, which Spencer envies sometimes, and Emily's supposed to be resting. Spencer... Spencer's hoping to be let in on Melissa's plans. But that doesn't count as going off on her own, does it?
"You should vamp-proof your house," Aria says suddenly, looking at Hanna.
Aria shrugs. "This house is safe. As safe as it can get without killing me, at least. Yours isn't."
"You want me to... make it harder for you to be there?"
"If standing around Melissa in this house hasn’t killed me, I don’t think anything you do to yours will." Aria leans towards Hanna. "I want you to be safer. If Garrett's doing away with subtlety, I want you and Emily to be as safe as you can."
"But you won't be able to—"
"I will. If I know what to dodge, it would just take some extra effort on my part not to get burned. And even if I did, you guys aren't after me. You'd let me heal."
Oh, god, Toby. Spencer hides her nose in her coffee mug; she can't believe she hasn't told them about Toby yet. She needs to do that. Preferably soon.
Hanna looks at Aria for a while, her forehead scrunched up like she's waiting for the other shoe to drop, but eventually she lets out a long breath. "Okay. How do I..." She waves her hands around.
"I'll help you out," Melissa offers, and Hanna nods, looking placated.
'Vamp-proofing' apparently means, according to Melissa, spending a whole evening putting together pretty bowls of decorative potpourri, spraying jasmine-based liquid on furniture and linen, and having a long, fruitless discussion on how to make Hanna's mom aware of the weapon sitting by the key dish without making her aware of why it works as a weapon.
"Maybe we should put something heavy in it," is Hanna's last suggestion. "She could hit intruders with it. Pretty standard warfare."
Aria shakes her head. "Unless she can't lift it. It's not like you can put a handle on a wicker basket. And the glass jar would just shatter, which—"
"—would be more helpful than nothing," Melissa says, which decides that, because apparently someone put her in charge when Spencer wasn't looking.
"What about Caleb?" Hanna asks.
"Is he a vampire? Someone you want to protect from vampires?"
Hanna looks at her lap, lacing her fingers together over it. "He's my boyfriend. He's not a vampire."
"Can't really help you with that," Melissa says, and looks up at Spencer, unwittingly reminding her that her friends still don't know about Toby.
Okay, okay. Fine. She takes a deep breath. "Guys. There's something I need to tell you," she begins, and waits to feel all eyes on her, because of course that would make it easier. Bad idea. Okay. Here she—
Her phone rings.
She stares at it. It's a text, so as interruptions go it could be worse—and it's from Toby. She opens it; if Toby's texting her, it has to be important. It prompts her to check her e-mail, and there she sees a message from him that just says Does Emily know? I think she should see this. It includes a video download—password-protected, rare format, enough hoops that she's going to need her laptop to see it. And her laptop's at home.
"I forgot to do laundry," Spencer blurts out, grabbing her things and throwing them carelessly into her bag. "I have nothing to wear tomorrow. I have to go." It sounds like a lie, she knows, but she has to see it. Toby hasn't been speaking to her at all lately. He's given her plenty of space. If he's contacting her by e-mail of all things—be more hackable, Toby—and talking to Spencer about Emily instead of going directly to Emily, it may be urgent. It may not be, but the possibility is enough to make her worry. Better safe than mourning.
She runs out into the hall and picks up the rest of her things, taking long enough for Hanna to catch up with her. "Spencer—"
"If you're going to tell me I'm being ridiculous, don't," Spencer warns.
"No, I..." Hanna shakes her head, and reaches a hand into the outer pocket of one of the coats hanging from the rack. "I'm not sure what you're doing, but here." A set of keys comes out in her hand, and Hanna singles one out with her pinky. "Take my mom's car."
"Are you sure?"
Hanna shrugs. "You're a responsible driver. Also, I'm your friend and I support you." Spencer nods, hoping the look in her eyes conveys her gratefulness, and then Hanna adds, "And I expect an explanation when you get back."
"You got it," Spencer says, then grabs the keys and heads out.
Her first idea is heading to Toby's house. She doesn't know for sure he's there, but if this is an emergency and he is in danger, she feels obligated to look for him first. Only why would he be sending her videos if he's in danger? There was no SOS in any of the messages she saw. So she changes directions.
First stop has to be her house—boot up her laptop, change out of her skinny jeans and high heels into tennis shoes and jeans that allow her to move. She turns off the screen and uses it as a mirror while Toby's video downloads, braiding some of her hair and pulling it all back into a messy bun. At 40%, she looks outside the window to make sure Melissa didn't follow her here. At 62%, she realizes she's getting ready for battle, but she has no clue what kind of battle that is.
Still, just in case, she breaks into the barn—hairpins in her hands, faster than getting the keys from upstairs—and rummages in Melissa's drawers until she finds her stash. Melissa being Melissa means Spencer has her work cut out for her. The stakes are lined up by size, the impediment arrows all together in the small compartment of a container that covers the depth of the drawer. The other compartment is filled with thicker arrows, tiny, rounded versions of the stakes nearby. There's equipment Spencer doesn't really understand and so ignores—tiny grenade-like balls, several constructions made out of straps that look like they'd go around your wrist. She'll ask Melissa about it later, if Melissa can get past the fact that Spencer lied to her and practically broke into her room and stole one of her—if she can find it—
There are only three of them, all in a third drawer. She grabs the smallest because it seems easier to handle, less conspicuous than the rest, and the structure looks the most like the bows Spencer's been using at archery practice. A crossbow can't possibly be that much different. A test shot at a tree in the garden hits the trunk maybe an inch off her target point, which is already good enough for her purposes. Two more tests wield even better results, so she recovers the arrows and adjusts the strap to her body.
Heading back inside the house, she tries to come up with an explanation to give Melissa if anything bad happens, to justify why Spencer didn't tell her or ask for her help. Nothing bad's going to happen. That's the best, least bullshit explanation she has. Just because Spencer's on edge and has this weird hunch that the night isn't going to end when she watches whatever Toby sent her, that doesn't mean she's right.
The video opens slow—two possible explanations for that: emergency, had to be sent without editing; or Toby's more technologically challenged than Spencer gave him credit for—and shows a blue surface. Spencer zooms out until she recognizes where that surface is, what it is: a swimming pool. By the look of the surroundings, the one at school.
Emily. Toby asked if Emily knew, Toby said Emily should see this. Not Spencer. The problem is, he sent it to her. Off the top of her head, Spencer can think of four reasons why Toby may have done that—not scaring Emily, giving Spencer time to tell Emily about everything, giving Spencer time to figure out the best way to show this particular video to Emily, or something simpler like this is really time-sensitive and Spencer's the only person who can help that I have on speed dial. Either way, Spencer should watch it first.
But she has no idea what she's watching until she sees Emily, walking close to the pool, and a shadow by the bleachers. It's daylight outside, bright enough to see, but every light in the room is off, and the pool is submerged in that feeling of disuse all classrooms take on over summer.
A ruffling sound comes from the bleachers, and Emily turns on her heel, says, "Hello?" It's probably just a tree from outside casting shadows over the bleachers, Spencer thinks, and hopes Toby didn't send her this video to scare her. What should Spencer be scared of here, anyway? The dark?
"Hey," a voice says, casual and normal, and a man walks down the bleachers until Emily—and the camera—can see him. "The principal called me to make sure all security measures were in order."
"And are they?" Emily asks. It's casual, too, polite, like she's smiling a little, but the lines in her back are tight.
"It's all good," Garrett says, and takes a step towards Emily. Spencer leans forward; is this what happened to Emily? The things she couldn't remember? Something doesn't quite fit—not even when Garrett lurches forward and sinks his teeth in her wrist, drinking calmly, Emily not screaming or making any sudden movements, but still incredibly tense, like she's afraid to make any sudden movements—like she couldn't even if she tried.
"Good girl," Garrett says, and stands upright. He produces a cloth tissue out of his pocket and covers Emily's wrist with it. "As always, a pleasure," and then he looks up, touches Emily's chin so she'll meet his eyes, "and as always, you were frustrated and punched the railing and a screw sank in your wrist."
Emily nods, devoid of—anything, and the video flickers and flickers and flickers off into white noise.
It's only when the window closes that Spencer notices the file name in the playlist—standard security footage, yyyy/mm/dd, file numbers, everything pointing at the day Spencer already had in mind except for the month: it says 05 instead of 04.
She goes back to the video file, the folder where it unzipped, and realizes there's another one, and this one says 04. She has to zoom out again to get the full picture, but this one starts earlier: Emily's already there, one hand stroking one of the short ladders that lead into the pool. There are no shadows at first; she takes off her shoes and sits down, lowering her feet slowly into the water. The first touch elicits an ouch, but she's not deterred.
Spencer's heard the rest of this story, so she looks out for the memory gaps: someone may have been there, but Spencer can't see anyone: no shadows, no strange noises underneath the security cam, nothing. She fast-forwards until something in the image isn't the same anymore, and presses play again. Emily's moving, feet out of the water, trying to stand, and— there it is. She slips, falls, and hits her shoulder on the edge of the stone path below her, skin lifting as it drags along the stone. The only reason she doesn't fall into the water is that most of her weight falls flat on the floor.
Spencer fast-forwards again, not feeling any desire to see Emily prostrate and bleeding, until a blur enters through the door. Upon pressing play, the blur continues to be a blur as it crosses the room in a matter of seconds, and it's obscured from view when he—or she—leans over Emily, turns her body around and drags it a little farther from the water.
There's the muffled sound of slapping, like this person is trying to urge Emily to wake up, to no avail.
Then, he sits up—and it is a he this time, and fuck, Spencer knows exactly who it is—and slashes his own wrist with his teeth. With a hand under Emily's head, pulling it up, he presses his wrist to Emily's mouth, and tells her to drink.
Spencer fast-forwards again, and eventually he's gone, Emily's lying on the floor, and there is barely any blood on her person. The wound on her shoulder is gone like it never even existed.
You stole footage? she types into her phone, and sends it to Toby. The response is in immediate: Not me. Garrett did. Got it back.
Under any other circumstances, Spencer would bother to point out that stealing stolen security footage is still stealing security footage, but there are two other thoughts running around her head that won't let her focus on anything else. The first one is: it wasn't Alison.
She tells herself she's not disappointed. She tells herself Toby saved Emily; that should make her happy. She's only disappointed on Emily's behalf, because Emily wanted so bad to believe Alison still cared, even if Ali was a vampire and had kept them in the dark about so many things.
Maybe so did Spencer. They were young, and a certain faith in Ali is ingrained in all of them. Alison made sure of that. This doesn't disprove that Ali is around, that she's a vampire, and it doesn't truly disprove that she may still care about Emily, but it feels—it feels like it does.
She doesn't get to dwell on it for long, though, because seconds after Toby's last text, her phone rings again. "Hello?"
There's no answer, but there isn't silence on the other end, either. As if from a distance, she can hear people talking, but she can't make out the voices or the words.
The noise shuffles, and when it comes back, it's clearer. "This wasn't our deal," a girl's voice says. "I've been helping you. You swore you'd do it at the end."
"You don't know what you're getting yourself into," a man's voice says, and Spencer recognizes that one as Garrett's, and belatedly realizes the girl is Jenna.
"I know it perfectly well," Jenna says, and her cold certainty sends a shiver down Spencer's spine.
The lid of her laptop has the decency to shut down silently, and, phone plastered to her ear, Spencer begins to walk out of her house, car keys in hand. There's no one around, thank god—it would have been hard to explain the crossbow, not to mention inconveniently distracting—and Spencer's in the car in no time. She puts on the safety belt and holds her phone, stretches her neck, leans back. She could hang up the rest of the way, or find out if Hanna's mom keeps a handsfree kit in her car, or be an irresponsible wreck and speed with one hand on the wheel and the other on a glorified bug.
All she'd heard on the way to the car was Toby muttering Jenna's name several times, like he was trying to stop her doing something stupid. The closeness of the voice let Spencer know it was him calling, him who was holding the phone somewhere—his pocket, maybe, or his hand under a table. There's no way for Spencer to know what the situation is if all she gets is an unexpected hearing connection smack in the middle of it. There's no way Toby called by accident, not after he texted and e-mailed her, but they could just be having a nice dinner. Toby can take care of himself and Jenna if Garrett tries something. Spencer's nobody's security guard. Spencer is—
"Of course you do," Garrett says, and here comes the second thought running through her head right now: Garrett knows about Toby, and Jenna knows about both of them, and they're all together, and Toby felt the need to call Spencer and have her witness half of a conversation she hasn't figured out the beginning of just yet.
Spencer is Toby's friend, one of maybe two real ones he has, and he's never hurt her. If he needs help, Spencer's there.
Only right now she's here instead, the engine still off, sitting in the pilot seat of a car that doesn't even belong to her. If a cop pulls her over and asks for her documentation, she's screwed.
She breathes in deep. She's armed, and she has a vampire on her side. This is what she's been training for, isn't it? Melissa's goal was always to get rid of Garrett. It was Wren's goal before her, and god knows how many other unsuccessful hunters'. And here Spencer has an in, and no back-up, and a crossbow that also doesn't belong to her strapped to her back.
She revs up the engine, and she's glad it takes a while when she hears a loud thump on the other end of the line, a scream from Jenna, and Toby finally talking into the receiver, saying, "Spencer, where are you?"
"I'm coming right now," Spencer says, and hangs up, which she regrets two streets later. She heaves a sigh of relief when Toby picks up, sounding very much confused but also alive and unimpeded. "What happened?"
"I think Jenna poisoned him," he says. Spencer can picture his face—mouth agape, forehead wrinkled into confusion.
"Who did Jenna— Garrett?"
Toby takes a while to answer. "I guess. I don't know. They were—planning to skip town, together. Jenna told me last week. I mean, I didn't understand what she meant until now."
"Is she there?" Spencer says, switching her phone from ear to ear. "Can I talk to her?"
Toby muffles the receiver, which seems ridiculous given he just let Spencer spy on Jenna, but whatever. Spencer's pretty sure she hears Jenna say no, no way, and something about getting some fresh air and hoping the mess is dealt with when she comes back.
"What mess?" Spencer asks, but Toby mustn't be holding the receiver to his ear yet. She repeats the question, yelling this time.
"Sorry," Toby blurts out. "I'm sorry. There's a dude passed out on my floor, I'm still—processing. What am I supposed to do?"
Spencer huffs. "You're a vampire! You have got to know what to do." She pulls into Toby's street then, thankful for a visual, even if all she can see from her position is a standing house with a few lights on. "There's no way you have less experience with these things than I do."
"I'm seventeen," Toby says. "I've never deliberately killed anyone. The people I did—I wasn't in my right mind. Jenna spent months asking me to turn her and I couldn't do it. How am I supposed to—"
"But this isn't a person," Spencer says, inwardly thanking her lucky stars for the three consecutive parking spaces in front of Toby's house. She's pretty sure the car overlaps two of them, but she's too wired to stop and position her car better. "Just grab something wooden and pointy and stick it in him," she says, climbing the steps to Toby's front door and knocking harder than necessary.
"I can't," Toby stammers as he opens the door. He puts his phone down. "The only dead vampire I've ever seen was my mother."
Spencer stares, because that is—fuck, really not what she was expecting to hear.
Toby spares her having to follow that up. "I'm not expecting a heart to heart right now. Just come in." He leads her into the kitchen, which looks the way it's always looked except for the broken chair by the oven, the crack in the table, and the heavy body lying face up on the floor, eyes closed, groaning and bleeding on the carpet where his burning skin touches it.
"What did Jenna use?" Spencer asks, staying safe at a distance. It's been a while since Jenna left; he could have regained his strength already. Spencer pats her pocket; she grabbed one of Melissa's little ball things, but she's not sure how they work. If they're like grenades, she'd have to kick Toby out before using it, and she doesn't want to do this alone.
What Toby picks off the floor is a long vial, and Spencer remembers the word Toby used on the phone, and the connotations 'poisoning' holds: drinks, drugs, ingestion.
She takes the vial from Toby, trying not to wince when a burn blooms on his fingers as the vial slides off them. He'll heal. The vial isn't empty yet; she could... "Toby."
"Hold his mouth open."
"What?" Toby says, but thankfully Garrett starts to thrash, trying to get up, and Toby's forced to do things now and ask questions later.
"Hold it open, come on," she says, and he sits on Garrett's moving knees and opens his jaw so Spencer can slip the last of the vial in it. She blocks his nose so he'll swallow, despite not being entirely sure if that will work on someone who doesn't need to breathe, but Garrett is weak and unintentionally cooperative for it.
Spencer stands and grabs one of the remaining complete chairs, sits down. She trains her eyes on Garrett, making sure he doesn't move or try anything else. She tries to collect her breathing, just calm down. This is not about cold blood. She's seen enough of Garrett to know this is the right thing to do: getting rid of him is the right thing to do. He hurt Emily, he hurt Noel, he probably killed Wren, and he's been around long, long enough that whatever Spencer does right now, she won't be cutting his rightful lifetime short. She'll only be ending one of many.
After fiddling with the strap across her chest, she finds herself holding the crossbow, right there on the table, stroking it like a genie may pop out of it.
"I want to call Melissa," Spencer blurts out. "She's done this before."
"We don't have time," Toby says.
"You could do it. Replace the old memory. You're strong enough. Don't even need a bow." She picks one of the arrows out of their bag and hands it to Toby, who doesn't make any move to take it.
So she drags her chair back and leans forward, just close enough to Garrett to stick it comfortably into his thigh. "And that's for Emily." She grimaces when she feels it sink in, and fights off a light wave of nausea.
"Oh god," Garrett mutters, and it sounds a surprising amount like condescension. Spencer draws herself up to her feet and disengages the crossbow from its strap. It's better from a distance. She's a lot better at this from a distance. It's what crossbows are designed for, after all. So she takes a step back, and another, and gauges just how far into the hallway she could go while maintaining a straightforward trajectory from her bow to Garrett's body. "What are you," Garrett begins, but the words come out as groans and he starts coughing before they're all out. Spencer could feel worse than she does, for him. Spencer could feel pity. That's probably expected of her.
She's sure it will catch up with her.
For now, she draws the string back and releases an arrow straight into Garrett's chest.
It sinks in, right where she looked, not half an inch off. It sinks in, and the raspy, heavy sound of Garrett's breathing fades off, his skin pales even more, taking on a purplish tinge she never noticed on Ian, dark as that night was, and his feet and hands go still.
Spencer drops the crossbow to the floor, then drops to the floor herself, leaning against the wall and drawing up her knees.
Toby's still, too, glancing between Spencer and Garrett, and Spencer wonders what she'd like best for Toby to do. He's never deliberately killed someone before, has he? Not a lot of advice he could give her. If he wants to get rid of Garrett's body—well, it was his sister who put Garrett there; he wouldn't be doing Spencer's dirty work. Call it teamwork.
Individualistic teamwork. She snorts, her chest tight like it could benefit from some more laughing, but Spencer has a feeling if she laughs hard, at one point it will turn into crying. She's not crying over Garrett, not in Toby's hallway, with Jenna about to come back, Hanna's mom car badly parked outside and Melissa ready to have a yelling match about doing stupid shit without consulting anyone.
She'd be right this time. Spencer's not giving her the satisfaction of agreeing to her face.
She leaves, though not before telling Toby he should wait for Jenna before he does anything else. He nods. It's difficult to look him in the eyes, so Spencer's gaze drops to his hands, and she notices an old ring there, sturdy-looking in a subtle way. If that's his daylight ring, it's a good one.
With a glance back at Garrett's body, she determines he wore his on a pendant hanging from his neck. It's sitting on his collar now, away from any skin, like it was made to repel death.
"I don't know," Toby says, and Spencer shifts her attention back to him. "I'm not sure she'll tell me anything. But..."
"Worth giving her a chance?" she says tiredly, strapping the crossbow to her back again. Toby doesn't answer, and Spencer doesn't look back to assess his face. All they could offer each other is comfort, and it's not time for that yet.
Garrett must have been assigned this neighborhood for the night, because Spencer's car is right where it was, no tickets, no scratches, everything as it should be. She climbs in, starts the engine and tosses her phone on the co-pilot seat, stares at it while the car warms up. There are only two missed calls from Melissa, which could mean anything. Maybe she called Spencer to tell her to throw something of hers in the laundry. Maybe she called twice and, since Spencer didn't answer, assumed Spencer wanted space.
Maybe she thinks Spencer ran out for a booty call. It's not like they've talked about the situation with Toby. It ranks pretty high on the list of conversations Spencer rationally believes are necessary but finds perfectly justifiable not to have. Either way, that idea will leave Melissa's mind as soon as she realizes someone stole from her weapon stash. If Spencer had taken a bunch of sharp pencil-like stakes, yeah, maybe Melissa would have missed that. But Spencer took a crossbow.
She's nearing the corner around which her street begins when her phone lights up beside her. She slows down—there's no one behind her, no other cars on the road at all, so the only downside is she's wasting gas.
WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU? It's all in caps, and from Melissa, all in caps from Melissa, and for a moment Spencer wonders if the space-time continuum has been torn.
She blinks and types in a quick I'm fine; she doesn't want anyone to worry any longer than necessary.
When she walks into her house, Melissa's sitting on the couch, cradling an empty scotch glass. She's the only person there. Spencer expected... She doesn't even know what she expected. She was steeling herself to tell the girls about Toby. She hopes this means it can wait the night.
Melissa looks up at her. Before she can open her mouth, Spencer says, "Don't," and tosses her keys on the counter, letting them make that horrible clinking sound her dad's always telling them to avoid, because it scratches the marble.
"You stole my crossbow," Melissa says, quiet like someone who's trying hard not to yell. The crossbow's loose this time, so she only has to pull the strap over her head to get it off her. She walks closer to the fireplace and leaves it on the coffee table by the couch.
"Gave it back already," Spencer says.
Melissa shakes her head. "You know that's not the problem."
Spencer presses her lips together and tells herself she doesn't have the energy for this, for a discussion, for a fight, for anything. She forces her eyes to stay open, because she doesn't have the energy to feel anger or frustration, or throw up the hole she feels in her stomach. Intensity is off the table.
"What did you do?" Melissa says, quiet again, but this time it's the quiet of worry and concern, none of the judgment, and Spencer's chest starts heaving before she falls to her knees on the carpet, next to Melissa's feet.
"Garrett," she chokes out, hiding her face in Melissa's knee. "He's not going to be a problem anymore."
"Oh," Melissa breathes. A second later, there's a soothing hand stroking Spencer's hair, and Spencer lets out a loud sob and starts crying, loud and messy and shaking, crying because it feels like the only thing that will get rid of the crushing weight in her chest.
Morning finds Spencer in bed, bright and early, and brings a knock to her door. For a few seconds, Spencer thinks it's summer, the last days of vacation before class, when her mom wakes her up before going to work with pastries from Spencer's favorite store in town. Then she opens her eyes and remembers it's Sunday, and it's May, and it's the Sunday in May after the Saturday she put a stake through a beating heart, however faintly it beat.
That's just fantastic.
"Your friends are here," Melissa says, the door open just a crack, enough for her voice to carry in unfiltered.
Spencer yawns and brushes her hair with her fingers. "Thanks," she mutters, and listens to Melissa's footsteps until she's halfway down the stairs and Spencer can't hear them anymore.
She took a long shower before bed last night, willing her body to react after being curled up on the floor for what felt like an hour. She feels thoroughly rested, clean, even satisfied. This is her favorite time of morning to wake up, too, when it's bright outside but the sunlight's only beginning to shine, when she's at her most aware. She just—she feels good. She feels really good, and she doesn't wish she didn't, but she wishes it felt healthier.
It can't possibly be a good thing to be this calm and happy after practically killing someone. It can't be. There should be a mourning period, or... She wishes she could ask Melissa, but for all Spencer knows, Melissa's never gone as far as Spencer did last night. Everything Spencer's learned from her sounded academic, like research and hearsay.
She makes her way downstairs after washing up and putting on a simple pair of jeans and t-shirt, fresh clothes she finds folded in the laundry room when she goes there in search of a missing sock. She doesn't wonder who did it, but she does wonder why, and when. If it was before Spencer came home, or during that span of time Spencer's pretty sure she was asleep on the couch. Melissa's kind of like Spencer in that she likes to have something to do with her hands. Assuming she stayed around to make sure Spencer didn't have another breakdown, Spencer wouldn't be surprised if Melissa had spent that time folding laundry.
It's only Hanna and Emily downstairs, having coffee on the couch. Spencer's stomach twitches at the idea of having this conversation twice. Maybe Aria has some kind of vamp power that means she already knows. God, she doesn't want to have this conversation even once.
"She had to drive her brother somewhere," Emily says. By the sound of her voice, Aria didn't disclose the location either. "She'll be here in a bit."
Oh, thank god.
"If you're going to tell us 'something,'" Hanna says, making air quotes around the word, "and it's not that a giant werewolf robot is about to crash through that window, I vote we wait for her."
"That's probably for the best," Spencer agrees. There's no immediate hurry. They're not going to split before they get a chance to talk about things. It's a justifiable delay.
In fact, it's not much of a delay at all: two minutes later, the blinds over the back door rattle and Aria comes in, saying, "Sorry I'm late," and carrying a... map. And a necklace box. Both of which she drops unceremoniously on the coffee table by the couch before practically falling next to Spencer on the chaise.
Spencer stares at her.
"You're not the only thief anymore," Aria says by way of explanation.
Spreading the map over the table, Emily says, "Is this a security blueprint?" Hanna sits up then, peering in at the mention of security, and her eyes go wide. "Of the hospital?"
Aria shrugs. "People keep weird things around."
"People, as in..."
"So Spencer," Aria says loudly, turning to her, "what did you want to tell us?"
You don't get off that easy, Spencer opens her mouth to say, but actually, she's glad for the segue, poor as it is, so this time, Aria does get off that easy. "Let me get my laptop," she says. She sets it up on the coffee table, facing the couch, then moves herself to the couch, dragging Aria along in between Hanna and Spencer. "We're all scarred enough that this doesn't need a warning, right?"
"Did A send you something?" Hanna asks.
"Not exactly," Spencer says, and opens the first video. She flagged several points so she could skip from one to another instead of making Emily watch the whole thing, but Emily grabs her wrist the first time Spencer tries to fast-forward.
"I want to see this," Emily says.
Spencer swallows. "We can leave if you want to just... I already watched this, but—"
"It's fine," Emily says quickly, leaning back on the couch. It looks difficult, like she had to force herself to do that.
"Are you sure?"
"I want to see."
The room is appropriately silent when Spencer closes her laptop. Hanna looks outraged, her eyes wide and her mouth a thin, serious line. Aria's looking at her hands, fiddling with her daylight ring. And Emily—
Emily says, "How long have you known Toby's a vampire?"
"Of all the— that's your first ques—" Spencer sputters, then stops herself. "About a week. I meant to tell you earlier."
"But you didn't," Emily says, but doesn't follow it up with anything else.
"Is that what you were trying to tell us last night? Before you blurted that weird excuse about the laundry?" Hanna asks. All Spencer can manage is a nod. "Well, you owe me the full story. I did let you borrow my mom's car."
"I would have told you anyway."
"Would you? Really?" Hanna says, but she's smiling.
Spencer's nerves fade as she starts talking. She thought it would be a really emotional conversation, but it turns out to be more of a monologue with pauses for answering questions. It's not a speech format Spencer's unfamiliar with, and it's easy to pretend the facts don't affect her.
"So he's... dead?" Emily says, glancing at the laptop. Her voice comes out quiet and uneven. It's probably wishful thinking on Spencer's part, but she sounds like she's willing to forgive Spencer for not letting them in until now.
They sit in silence for a long time after that. Spencer and Aria move back to the chaise, and Spencer checks her e-mail and distracts herself by skimming articles on the New York Times website. Aria takes a book out of her bag and starts reading, Hanna spends the whole time texting, and Emily just lies back, absently fidgeting with her rings.
Spencer gets up a couple of times to refill her coffee, and finally grabs the pot and something to act as a coaster and sets it on the table. Her dad drops by at one point with a stack of files and fresh bagels, but he doesn't stay to eat them. Melissa drops by, too, but all she does is grab the map and the necklace and go back to the barn. Aria doesn't even look up from her book.
It's nearing noon when Hanna gives Spencer back her laptop and breaks the silence. "Does this mean we're done? If Toby's okay and Jason's not a threat and Garrett's... gone. Does that mean it's over?"
Taking a deep breath, Spencer says, "I don't know."
"Have you guys gotten any messages from A lately?" Emily asks. "I haven't since Samara broke up with me." Nobody pipes in to say they have. "So... was it Garrett?"
Spencer slumps with her side to the back of the chaise. "I don't know that either."
Aria's blood stock is fine, so Spencer puts off volunteering at the hospital until Friday, after her Trig exam.
The beginning of the week goes well. If Spencer stays in the moment, she can almost pretend her life is normal, and the only tragedy she's gone through is the untimely death of a best friend. Of course, that murder isn't properly solved, and that best friend may not be one hundred percent dead.
And then there's the fact that her sister is spending a lot of time locked in the barn, coming out with scratches and making weird crashing noises. Spencer wonders what their parents would say if they were around to hear it. They'd probably chalk it up to Melissa using aggressive sport training to get over her dead killer husband and her miscarriage.
Come to think of it, they might even be right.
Noel's even more of a legend on Monday. Rumor has it he ended up in the hospital after fighting a wild wolf that snuck into his barn when he was there with Mona. Noel, being Noel, is surfing that rumor like a pro—hell, he must have planted it—and Mona's happy to hold onto his arm, nod along and occasionally reenact a swooning that never happened for an audience. Spencer doesn't know why Aria even bothered to come up with a cover story.
Jason settles back in his own house at the beginning of the week, acting for the whole world like he never left. He walks straight by Spencer's front door a few times, heading for the barn. They run into each other once or twice, and he asks after Aria with a guilty look on his face. It doesn't make Spencer any more willing to lie to him and tell him Aria's doing great, but she does tell him Aria's getting by.
"You should talk to her yourself," Spencer suggests. Jason's hands dig deeper into his pockets.
"Would she— Do you think she'd..." He trails off, and honestly, Spencer's not going to answer a question if he doesn't even have the guts to get it out.
Not like she has an answer for it, anyway. Yes, she'll forgive you feels the closest to the truth, but it's also the one that makes Spencer want to staple her mouth shut the most. He doesn't deserve it.
Tuesday afternoon, Emily barges in with her laptop before Spencer's even moved aside to let her in. She opens it on the kitchen island, tips it towards Spencer, turns to face the back door and says, "Please delete that. And empty the trash. And block the address."
Spencer did tell Emily she'd regret having the security footage from the pool on her own laptop, but it would be a dick move to point that out, so she does what Emily says: makes sure Emily can't access those videos again. Not easily, anyway. She's working on blocking the download site on all of Emily's browsers when Melissa swings by the kitchen and takes a box of juice out of the fridge.
With the volume all the way up, Spencer empties the trash on the computer, lets the sound ring around the room. "All done." Now that there's no imminent danger she'll interfere with Spencer's goal if she can reach the laptop, Emily sits down.
Melissa looks at them, eyes flickering from one face to another, a small frown knitting her eyebrows close. She opens her mouth like she's going to say something, then bites down on her lip.
"What?" Spencer snaps, more harshly than necessary.
"It's just," Melissa says, holding one of her palms up, floundering. "I don't, uh..." Seemingly noticing her hand, she shoves it into her pocket. "Are you still getting those texts?"
When Emily nods at her, Spencer says, "It's been a couple of weeks since the last one, but that's not that irregular."
"I want to call Samara back," Emily says.
"Are you sure?"
Emily shrugs and throws her hands. "What's the worst that could happen? If it's done, it's done, and if it isn't— My phone's ringing." It is. It's ringing from Emily's bag, on a stool, and Emily stares at it a good while before picking it out of the front pocket. "Speak of the devil," she says.
Emily rolls her eyes. "The actual devil," she says, and it doesn't sound entirely like she doesn't mean it. She holds the phone up to Spencer.
Don't be so naive. It's not over until I say it is. -A
"Could that be a copycat?" Melissa offers. She looks like there's something she doesn't want to deal with, if it isn't a copycat. Spencer puts her hands on her hips. "Okay. I'm going to talk to Aria."
"But why?" Spencer says, scrunching up her cheeks, but Melissa's gone already. She turns to Emily. "Do you have any idea what's going on?"
"I really don't," Emily says. "Do you think you could teach me how to shoot one of those things?"
Spencer narrows her eyes. "What things?"
"You said you used a crossbow—" Emily frowns as Melissa rushes back in with what looks like several copies of Aria's blueprints and a case of cartography tools under her arm.
"A gun would be easier to teach," Spencer says, forcibly returning to the conversation while Melissa spreads three of the maps over the back of the couch. "And a lot more subtle." Melissa stands back to observe her work, and Spencer can't help addressing her. "You're not at an art exhibit."
Melissa just waves a dismissive hand at her. "I don't have enough space in the barn." She makes a considering noise.
"Do you want lessons?" Spencer asks Emily. "I can hook you up."
"I'm not sure."
"I'll help you out," Melissa says, in the same bored tone as before, and Spencer has to wonder why those words never crossed her lips when Spencer found out Rosewood was home to several blood-sucking assholes with a weird connection to her and her friends.
Emily's surprised, too, but probably for different reasons. "Really? Thanks."
Screw it, Spencer thinks, and walks over to Melissa, until she can get a good look at what Melissa's looking at. "What are you doing?" Melissa doesn't answer immediately, but at least she acknowledges the question. Sort of. She looks at Emily, who just looks confusedly back. "What?" Spencer drags out the word.
"There's another one," Melissa says. "Aside from Jason and your boyfriend."
"He's not my boyfriend anymore," Spencer says quickly, before she can change her mind. Melissa is silent for a second, but—thank god—doesn't say anything about it.
"The thing is, I don't know who it is, Wren didn't know who it is, and Jason isn't sure who it is. He also doesn't know where they are. Which makes him kind of useless."
"Who does Jason think it is?"
Melissa opens her mouth, but before she can say anything, Emily breathes, "Alison."
"Jason's been doing... He's been patrolling, I guess, I don't know what to call it. He's been following a trail—putting it together," Melissa goes on, unaware of Emily's tone and why it spells out capital-B-and-T Bad Things. "We don't know it's her for sure. Jason hasn't seen her since she disappeared."
Spencer nods. "When I asked Toby about Ian, he said he thought a hunter had killed him. So I don't think he's aware of Alison either."
"So why do you think it's her?" Emily asks. She's looking at Spencer, and her eyes are so intense Spencer has to fight the urge to close hers. "You've told me why I do, right? I mean, I was in love with her. I've been looking for her. And Jason—even if Alison wasn't his real sister, he still lived with her for a while. But you—"
"We've all been looking for her, Em," Spencer says, careful with her tone.
"It really may not be her," Melissa repeats.
Spencer turns to Melissa. "Actually, now that she mentions it, what is your lead here?"
"What do you think it is?" Melissa says, head cocked like it's a superfluous question, and Spencer doesn't say her relationship with Ian out loud because she can agree that it is.
Emily starts training the next day, in a way that Spencer's pretty sure would get Melissa banned from teaching if she were getting paid for it. Spencer gets home from a special meeting of one of her AP classes to find Melissa hanging a dummy from a tree and telling Emily to shoot it.
"Shouldn't you teach her how to aim a gun properly?"
"That would take a while," Melissa says. "I already taught her the basics."
Emily laughs, and shoots. The gun has a suppressor on, and her aim is not that bad: the bullet grazes the dummy's ribcage and sinks in a tree trunk a little further back. "She thinks I should be ready to shoot a vampire in the face as early as this afternoon."
With a shrug, Melissa says, "I'm being practical. She can go to a shooting range when we've sorted this out," and heads into the kitchen. Spencer follows her.
"You mean you have no idea how to shoot a gun right," she ventures.
"I really don't," Melissa says dryly, going through the kitchen cupboards until she finds two full packets of flour.
Spencer throws her bag in the couch and sits on the arm of it. "What do you mean by 'sort this out'?"
"Find the rogue vamp, figure out their deal, stake them. Or not. Make a decision."
Spencer doesn't follow her out to the backyard, but she watches from inside the house as Melissa sets up a table with an eclectic line-up of hand-sized things as far from the barn as she can within Hastings property. Once she's satisfied, she walks back to the barn. Her example shot bursts a scratched-to-oblivion ceramic mug into pieces right after she says, "I'm going for the branch," which would be funny if the only branch in that line-up weren't the one painted on said mug.
Then, she hands Emily the gun. "Now you do it."
"Wow," Emily says, staring at Melissa's hand without moving. "I'm not sure this is really—"
"Trust me, it's worth it. You want your girlfriend back, right? You'll be safe if there's any truth to those threats."
"It's probably too late to talk to Samara anyway—"
"Stop," Melissa snaps. "She's not dead. You can get her back."
Emily stares some more, and then she grabs the gun and makes a hole in the table surface.
"Close enough. Try again."
Eventually, Melissa lets Spencer borrow the maps she and Aria have been working with. The three she spread over the couch are the hospital blueprint Aria got, a plan of Rosewood, and a geographical map of the county. There are black sharpie x's scattered all over them, all accompanied by a unique number to refer to in a notebook where Melissa's been detailing suspected vampire activity.
What gets Spencer the most is the level of thoroughness in Garrett's tailing; Jason must have given up more information than Spencer thought. If Spencer had been in Melissa's place and she'd received a list of victims—most of them just hurt, but there are a couple of covered-up murders—she doesn't doubt that she would have given Jason a chance, too.
Earlier in the notebook, there's another list of people, but it's in Wren's handwriting—Spencer recognizes it from Emily's files the first time she was in the hospital. It's all patients with blood loss and prickling wounds, presumably people Wren suspected had been bitten by vampires, and the place they each were found. Once Spencer has that, she begins to see the maps in a clearer light: the clusters of activity, the clusters of unsolved activity—red rather than black—and the trajectory there: all dots are dated beside the map, a numbered list, and there's a line of red marks that starts in Rosewood, runs to Philadelphia, piles up, and comes back to Rosewood.
The first Rosewood cross dates back to Alison's funeral: the week her body was found, the day the texts from A started. That doesn't necessarily mean it's Alison, but it has to be A. It can't be a coincidence.
It can't be a coincidence that the patient is Marshall, J., either.
It only takes sitting down with Thai takeout at Toby's dining room table for Spencer to realize she's ready for the conversation he promised she'd get, if she wanted it. For once in all the time they've been positively acquainted, Jenna's not a problem: she's not around, and won't be for another week.
"I think she's sorting herself out now that the vampire option is... not an option anymore," Toby says. He tells Spencer about Jenna's history with vampires, and it turns out it's not that telling that Jenna was the first person A fed on when they came back to town.
"It does kind of explain why she acted so weird back then, though. If she knew why we were so suspicious."
"Jenna may have known there was something going on, but that doesn't mean she knew what—what was this person doing to you? I don't get it," Toby says, which launches Spencer into a monologue about A.
It's weird to let it out; all the while she's talking, she feels like she shouldn't be, but it's different from the time she told Melissa. She's not wary of letting Toby in. She's wary of... something else. Letting it out, maybe. Being heard, being taken advantage of. It makes her feel uneasy, not knowing what she's afraid of, but she plows through. It can't get any worse now.
When she's done, Toby says, slowly, "That explains—" His eyes widen. "—a lot."
"But you still can't help," Spencer says. "Not even call Jenna?"
"I can't reach her. She left her cellphone. And I think she told her dad not to pick up the phone if I called—the landline's not doing anything either."
Spencer nods, impressed. "Convenient."
"She probably wouldn't talk to you anyway. I still don't have a clear explanation for what happened with Garrett."
"Crime of passion?" she suggests.
"And she just happened to be conveniently carrying vampire poison in her pocket?"
"Maybe she was safer with Garrett than you thought," Spencer says. Toby eyes her curiously.
"You have darts up your sleeve, don't you."
She grins. "How did you know," she says, and it's as much of a question as his was.
Aria's MIA again, hopefully not eating anyone; Melissa doesn't have a straightforward answer about how long Aria's been helping her out with this undisclosed-vampire investigation, but it sounds like it's been some time. It sounds, in fact, like Melissa traded her blood in for Aria's skills, which is a horrifying thought, even more so once Spencer realizes she would have done the same. Of course, Aria is her friend, so it would have been framed in a more friendly light. You do favors for your friends. You make blood deals with your acquaintances.
"That's a really creepy way to put it," Melissa points out, and then their mom comes downstairs, so Spencer doesn't have time to mention that it is a creepy thing to do before changing the subject to dinner.
Her mom leaves for an interview-slash-drinks with a potential hire for her firm's paralegal department around seven; the second she's out the door, Melissa's demeanor changes from exhaustion to what Spencer can only call action figure, going from the house to the barn and back again, all the while tossing things into an oversize designer bag, including but not limited to: stakes, pens, a notebook, a number of arrows Spencer didn't see a bow to throw them with, and a wrist sheath filled with pointy wooden things that she adjusts as she climbs the stairs for the fourth time in the last eight minutes.
Spencer watches, wondering if she's supposed to ask before Melissa tells her where the hell she's going. She's doing it in full view of Spencer, so surely it's not classified. Maybe she should get the gun from her room, or sharpen some pencils or something. Change into all-black gear. Melissa doesn't look particularly thief-like, aside from the look on her face that gives Spencer the impression she's getting ready for a casino heist. Melissa doesn't do things halfway.
"Here," Spencer hears, and tries to focus on her surroundings. Melissa's stopped moving and is now standing in front of Spencer, holding a crossbow in her hands like a— like an offering. Spencer raises an eyebrow. "Take it. You can use it, so take it. I have a couple extra and I like guns and close staking better anyway. Doesn't take as long to aim."
"It should," Spencer points out, because the last thing she'd expect someone to half-ass is a gunshot. Melissa makes a moue of distaste, and Spencer takes that as her cue to grab the crossbow before it's taken away. "Thank you."
"Don't sound so surprised," Melissa says, and turns to leave.
"I don't even know where we're going!" Spencer yells at her back, and Melissa turns, tilting her head.
"We are not going anywhere," Melissa says. "I'm going to Hollis for a lecture."
Spencer scrunches up her face. "A lecture on what? Carving weapons out of wood?"
"Not exactly. We think the rogue's been taking victims from night classes at Hollis. I'm hoping I'll see them there."
"Do you have to register?" Spencer offers, making it sound like the ridiculous reason to keep Spencer out it would be. "Why can't I come with?"
Melissa stares at her for a while, her frown growing tighter. When Spencer shrugs, she says, "You have class tomorrow," and Spencer snorts.
"Seriously? That's—" Spencer gapes, tries to pick a question; there are so many, from 'what does it matter that I have class if a vampire kills me in the meanwhile?' to 'oh, you noticed?' to 'do you really not realize I'm ahead enough I could call in sick for a week and miss nothing?' What comes out of her mouth is: "Since when do you care about that?"
"Since when do I care about that?" Melissa says, and her frown stays, but this time it's not just confusion; the shape of her lips, barely open, and the wider set of her eyes—it makes Spencer feel guilty. "What do you think this is all about?"
"I don't know," Spencer says. "We don't work... well. Together."
Melissa shakes her head, instinctively more than like she's denying anything. "No. We haven't done anything together in years, so that's hard to tell," she says, her voice low, getting that out of the way before adding something that matters more to her. "Do you really believe I've been keeping you out out of spite?"
"Well," Spencer begins, drawing up her shoulders, "haven't you?"
A few seconds go by, in which Melissa's face grows increasingly baffled, and then she breathes, "No. It's dangerous. You're sixteen years old, you have no idea what you're doing—"
"And you do?"
"I have more experience, yeah," Melissa says darkly. It's not very specific, but Spencer stops doubting if Melissa's killed anyone yet all the same. "And I have a lot less going on in my life."
"That's not true," Spencer offers.
"Don't," Melissa says. "The crossbow's a protection measure, don't do anything stupid," and that's that.
For the first hour or so after Melissa leaves, Spencer camps out in the backyard with her new—for a meaning of 'new' that should really be 'newly belonging to her'—crossbow, aiming at trees and fences and, once each, a bird and a squirrel. She doesn't shoot. She's never seen the appeal in hunting her own food and she's not going to start now. But it's an interesting exercise, aiming at a target whose movement you can't predict, unlike the ones at the shooting range.
The thing is, Melissa's probably right. The thing is, even if Melissa doesn't know what she's doing, that doesn't mean Spencer does. She killed Garrett Reynolds, but she had help, so much help—Jenna did most of the work, and Toby called her. It was nothing like a hunting trip. Garrett was literally laid out for her. The only reason she finished him instead of Toby is they had vastly different relationships with the single vampire each of them had previously seen dead.
So Melissa's probably right, but that doesn't make Spencer feel any less uneasy about having nothing to do or about the knowledge that Melissa's putting herself out there on her own. She highly doubts Melissa would ask Toby for help, and from the look of things, Jason is home—vampire or not, she's pretty sure that precludes him from being elsewhere at the same time.
She gives up after a while; the chances Melissa will get anything done tonight can't be that high. She's sure she'll get a chance to help out some other time, and if not, well, it wouldn't be the first time she's disappointed by Melissa's decisions. At least this one is rooted in something like good intentions. So she heads upstairs, takes a quick shower, towels off her hair. She watches a couple of episodes of The West Wing; she's too lazy to blow-dry her hair right now, but going to bed with it any wetter than damp always gives her a horrid headache.
She's settling in to sleep when she sees a shadow in her window. She sits up fast, feet slipping quickly into a pair of untied tennis shoes while her eyes adapt to the darkness. Her heart's racing as she grabs the gun from her bedside drawer—too long, she shouldn't have locked it so her mom wouldn't find it, that was such a bad decision, that was the wrong decision—and turns, backing herself against the wall.
"I'm—I'm sorry," the person says, stepping out of the shadows, in very much Aria's voice, and Spencer breathes loudly in relief, her body bending low enough that she can leave the gun silently on the bedside table.
"God, you scared me," Spencer says, flicking on the lamp.
"I know," Aria says, "I'm sorry." She bites her lip.
"What is it?"
Aria scrunches up her mouth, like she's reconsidering her visit, or talking to Spencer at all. "It can wait until morning."
"No, that never works for us," Spencer says, dragging herself away from the wall until she can grasp her bed and sit there. "What is it, Aria?"
Aria takes a deep breath, still biting her lip, and says, "I found Alison."
In the kitchen, wearing actual shoes and jeans instead of pajama pants, the situation seems only slightly less ridiculous.
"What do you mean you found Alison?"
Aria presses her lips together thoughtfully for a second, and then says with a shrug, "She showed up."
"Showed up where?"
"I was having dinner with Jason," Aria says, quickly adding, "this is not the time to judge, he feels guilty and he lets me drill him with questions—please don't say anything about innuendo."
"I wouldn't dare," Spencer says, washing a couple of cups and heating water for tea. She's on edge as it is, and aware enough to tell when her body can't take any more caffeine. It's still tempting to say screw it and get some, but she has a feeling whatever's going on will wake her up, and she wasn't even sleepy to begin with. Just tired enough to lie down and let gravity numb down her brain.
Aria licks her lips like she's willing time to stop. When it doesn't, she says, looking outraged, "She threatened me."
"She what?" Spencer says, and suddenly the significance of the situation dawns on her. This isn't speculation anymore. Aria saw Alison. Ali's around, has been around for two years, torturing them and letting them think she was gone, and all this time she could have just... showed up. She could even have threatened them to their faces. Spencer would have preferred that to A's games and the way she made sure none of them would let go. The way she kept them holding onto the possibility that she wasn't dead, that the autopsy or someone had gotten something wrong.
"Do you need to sit down?" Aria asks, and Spencer tries, drags out a stool, but she can't. Her heart is racing and she wants to scream and she wants to know what happened. She grabs some tea bags from the cupboard, sets a cup in front of Aria, and paces the kitchen while cradling her own, warming up her hands even though they're already warm enough from wanting to hit things.
"I'm sorry," Spencer realizes, "do you need blood?"
Aria's eyebrows raise minimally, her mouth a thin line. "I'm good," she says, sounding like she means it and also can't believe why Spencer's so... worked up. "We've been talking about this for over a month. Actually, for—years."
"But we hadn't seen her," Spencer shouts, startling herself. She takes a deep breath and a drink of her tea, manages to sit down. "I'm sorry."
"No, I am." Aria smiles sadly. "You're right. I've—I've had more of a chance to get acquainted with that idea."
Spencer doesn't ask what that means because it's so obvious now: Aria's a vampire, Aria's strong, Aria doesn't need to sleep, Aria has all the time in the world. If Spencer had needed help tracking down a vampire and had to choose between her hypothetical little sister who is human and her sister's best friend who recently turned into the thing she's trying to hunt—well, it's a no-brainer. It doesn't make it hurt any less, but it lines up with Melissa's reasoning. It's still frustrating, but the idea of having to accept some sheerly illogical strategy on top of being shut out of it makes Spencer's lips twitch.
She looks up from her tea, working to steady her breathing and stop her nostrils from flaring too much. "What happened?" she asks, overly quiet because the only other option is overly loud.
"She just... swept in," Aria says, voice rough like she's still measuring the words. "And told me—well, us, I guess? Told me to stop digging. Or we'd get hurt."
"That's weird," Spencer says, because it isn't weird—because it's what A's been doing all along.
Aria nods, quick and jittery. "I know. Why would she suddenly show up to tell us? Why not just text like normal? It's just... odd. We weren't even sure it was her. She must have known that."
"Maybe she didn't," Spencer offers, her mouth twisting. "Or maybe suspecting it was enough. If we're— We are a lot closer than we've ever been before."
"She could have tried to stop us before we got this far."
Spencer laughs ruefully. "Alison never thought very highly of any of us," she says quietly, letting the words slide into silence, her stomach heave more minutely. It's not a thoughtful pause on her end; there are no real words in her head. All she's trying to make heads or tails of is what she's feeling, process it, and there's never a reasoning that accounts for all of it.
"We should tell Emily and Hanna," Aria says after a while, and Spencer nods and grabs Melissa's car keys from the tray by the fireplace—she must have taken their dad's car. There's a sweater of Melissa's on the couch, which saves her a trip upstairs; she throws it on over the white t-shirt she wore to bed.
"Do you want to call first?" she offers before they leave.
Aria shakes her head. "It's going to be bad enough having this conversation twice."
They're not even all the way down Spencer's street when Aria asks Spencer to let her drive. Spencer would be offended, but she may have been going too fast, and it would be pathetic if she accidentally offed herself before Alison gets to her.
"It's easier to shake the death wish when you're responsible for someone else," Aria says.
"I don't have a death wish," Spencer says, voice too high; she doesn't have to look at Aria's raised eyebrow in the rearview mirror to know she sounded unconvincing. It's just hard to lie when you're thinking about something else, and even harder when you're trying to lie to someone who shares your instincts. Spencer's pretty sure the only person she knows whose self-preservation instincts overpower their desire to get to the bottom of things is Hanna, and Hanna is not here to drive Melissa's car.
But Aria is, and she's right. It's harder to be careful if the only other person in the car literally can't die.
Spencer takes the chance to try to get hold of Melissa, but Melissa's phone is off, which strikes Spencer as irresponsible until she remembers Melissa's in a potentially dangerous situation and doesn't need any distractions. It's still irresponsible—what if she needs to call for back-up quick? What if someone attacks Spencer? That could happen, and—it gives Spencer a little self-satisfied thrill that Melissa thought Spencer could handle herself in a situation like that. She must have taken that into account when she decided clarity and focus outweighed communication with the outside world.
It's Emily who opens the door when they get to their destination. Hanna's apparently honoring that outstanding date with Caleb, the one she canceled to go to Noel's party.
"She left at least an hour ago," Emily says, leading them into the living room. "She hasn't checked in since then."
Spencer raises an eyebrow. "Is that reason to worry?"
"Well, she usually texts me at some point, but it's not one specific, established point. Just when she gets distracted or she's alone for longer than thirty seconds."
With a nod, Spencer sits down. She looks up at Aria. "Do we tell her now, or should we wait for Hanna?"
"Tell me what?" Emily asks. "Did something happen?" Aria shuffles her feet, looks around uneasily, like she's searching for a way out. Eventually she sits down, patting her dress over her thighs. "Okay, now you have to tell me," Emily says, but it's definitely one of those things that's easier said than done. And easier done carelessly than taking the Emily of it all into account.
"You know how we've been looking for a rogue vampire?" Aria says.
Emily's brow wrinkles, and she says, stretching the word out, "Yeah?"
"And we thought it was Alison, well, it is." Aria's voice gets higher toward the end, the words rushing out of her mouth.
"I'll call Hanna," Emily says, getting her cell phone.
"That's a good idea," says Spencer. It's the safest reaction—the safest angle to latch onto, for Emily and for the rest of them.
After a while, Emily says, "She's not picking up." She stays on the line for maybe thirty seconds, clutching the phone tight to her ear before she puts it down.
"We can try again later," Spencer offers unconvincingly.
"Yeah," Aria says, "she could just be... busy." Her eyes flicker from Emily to Spencer and back again, the expression on her face shifting as an uncomfortable silence washes over the room.
Just then, the doorbell rings.
"Well, that's not ominous," Spencer says, and watches Emily walk towards the entryway.
It turns out a weirdly timed doorbell ring is a lot less scary than hearing Caleb's voice at the door, asking for Hanna. Spencer hears Emily say, "I thought she was with you," and in the silence that follows Spencer can picture him shrugging, hands in his pockets, and Emily looking conspicuously anxious, even though she can't see that far around the open living room door.
Spencer shares a look with Aria and stands, peeks around the frame. "Hey," she says, waving, and Caleb nods in her direction. "Didn't you come pick her up?"
"She was supposed to meet me somewhere." He's frowning now, head cocked, hands deep in his pockets, and Spencer realizes how weird it must seem that they're all here—and that none of them know where Hanna is.
Looking at Emily, Spencer says, "Do you think she could have run into her mom?"
"I don't think so. There were no messages when I got home. She always leaves a message. I had to stop her from putting up a white board on our bedroom door just to leave messages."
"That sounds kind of cool," Aria says. When Spencer looks back, she sees her leaning against the back of the couch.
"Wait," Caleb begins, eyes narrowing, "should I be worried?"
Spencer looks to Emily, because hey, if any of them has interacted with Caleb enough to know how to handle him, it's her. Emily blinks quickly, twice, and then something in her shoulder seems to unravel, and she smiles.
"No," she says, sounding relieved, "no, it's fine. I just remembered she, uh—had a job interview. She forgot about it, too. That's probably why she didn't cancel. Plus she still felt bad about Friday. So yeah, we're fine. Just—" She crowds into his space, grabbing the edge of the door until Caleb takes the hint and steps back. "Just go."
By the time Emily moves to close the door, he's got a hand up on it, holding it open. His expression hardens before he says, "What's going on?"
"Wow, we're terrible liars," Aria mutters behind Spencer, and snorts.
Emily gives her a sharp stare. "I'm under a lot of pressure."
"Again I ask," Caleb says, "what the hell is going on?"
"Well," Emily says, "we can't really tell you."
"As we don't actually know for sure," Spencer adds.
"Aside from other things." Emily lets go of the door, though, and moves aside to let Caleb in, closing the door behind him instead of on his face like she originally intended. The latter would have been a lot less of an inconvenience, because with Caleb here, they can't talk, and they can't exactly tell him what's going on if Hanna's off somewhere with someone who can hurt her. It's not the kind of conversation that's over in two sentences. That would require far too much suspension of disbelief on Caleb's part, or a willingness to indulge his girlfriend's friends' delusion, or prior knowledge on the subject of vampires.
Yeah, Spencer's not about to work on the assumption that any of those things are true of him.
"When was the last time you heard from her?" Emily asks.
"I don't know," Caleb says, "three, four hours ago? She called from here."
Emily shakes her head. "Doesn't really help."
"Help with what?"
"Listen," Emily begins, but she's cut off by the sound of a phone ringing.
It's Aria who sprints to her bag and puts the phone to her ear before the second ring's all out, mouthing It's Hanna at them and saying, "Hey, where are you? You've got us worried— Oh." Her face falls. "Hello yourself," she adds, her tone as stone cold as anything.
"Is it Alison?" Spencer mutters, and tries not to look at Caleb, tries not to worry about that right now.
Aria holds the phone out for Spencer, says, "She wants to talk to you."
"Well, that's great," Spencer says cheerily, grabbing the phone. "Hey, Ali. Do I need to tell you we missed you or do you already know? You know, from all that surveillance you've got us under? I've never felt safer."
The person on the other end of the line tsks and says, "Now, it's not very smart to play games when you're behind. In fact, you're so behind you can't even see me from there, can you?" It's so unmistakably Alison's voice—and tone, that sultry, mysterious thing she always liked so much—that something rises in Spencer's throat.
"I don't presume to be able to change your mind, at this point," Spencer says, resigned but not devoid of anger.
"You always gave yourself too little credit."
Spencer chooses to ignore that remark. Alison can play with her self-esteem some other time. "Where's Hanna?"
"Hanna," Alison begins, "is right here," and follows it up with a noise like tape being torn off skin, which—Spencer hopes it's just for show. Spencer hopes Alison didn't actually tape Hanna's mouth shut. "Say hi to your friends," Alison adds, for Hanna's benefit, and all that comes from her is a robotic, "Hi," like—well, much like Alison just manipulated her to say it.
One day she needs to ask Aria to order her to do something, just to see how it feels—how much of her consciousness she's able to retain throughout. How much she should hate Alison for this.
"What are you trying to accomplish here?" Spencer says. "Haven't you tortured us enough already?"
Alison laughs, soft and breathy. "Wouldn't put it like that. It's been a fun ride, hasn't it? Besides, I already told you: I decide when I'm done. Surely, you're smart enough to know I mean it."
Spencer closes her eyes, rubs a hand over her mouth until she's holding her chin between her thumb and forefinger. She feels like she should hold onto something, but she doesn't want it to show—both because of Hanna and Emily and Caleb, and because Alison's not above truly having them under surveillance as they speak, and Spencer doesn't want her to know how much she's getting to her.
"Oh, I know," Spencer says. "And surely this call has a point."
"Don't tell me you're not pleased to hear my dulcet tones," Alison says, and it sounds more like the Alison Spencer was friends with—sharp, amused anger bubbling underneath the mocking tone. "Here's a clue," she says, and hangs up.
Spencer looks at the phone, but there's nothing there. No new texts, no information, no videos or pictures or hoops to jump through. "Fuck." She looks up. "Hanna's fine," she says quickly, "or mostly fine. She'll be fine. But she's with Alison."
"Isn't Alison dead?" Caleb asks.
Emily looks pleadingly at Spencer, like she wants desperately for someone to take over the lies; Spencer hopes she's interpreting that right. "She has a twin. We just found out about it. She was—locked away. But not anymore."
Caleb's eyes go wide, understandably, and he steps towards Spencer, holds himself off by grabbing the edge of the door frame. "Where is she?"
"Yeah, that's the part I don't know," Spencer says, letting the frustration shine through, finally—not because he's not asking questions, but because Hanna's well-being is almost as important to him as it is to them, and everything else can wait, and Spencer doesn't even know how it didn't occur to her before that he wouldn't care what was going on as long as Hanna was safe.
"She called you? From Hanna's phone?" he asks, lowering his voice back to normal. Spencer nods, and he adds, "Give me the phone. I can trace it." Spencer bites her lip, hesitant, and he rolls his eyes, says, "I don't use that knowledge. I just know how her phone works," which is so not what Spencer was worried about, but she hands him Aria's phone anyway. "Give me five minutes," he says, and heads into the kitchen.
Spencer looks from Aria to Emily and back again, standing there in silence until Aria says, looking resigned, "I'll make him forget what we told him."
"Thank you," Spencer says, hoping it conveys how much it means to her that Aria would break her rules for a lie Spencer told.
Aria shrugs. "We're all in this."
"And we need weapons," Spencer adds, next order of business. "I didn't think I'd need them. And we don't have time to take a detour and stop by my house."
"Melissa gave me a couple of stakes. And I think Hanna has a gun," Emily says, and heads upstairs to get them.
There's barely enough time for Spencer to get the gun ready and everything tucked away where Caleb can't see it before he comes back. It's less than five minutes, and he looks rattled and so does Aria's phone—there's a scratch on the side, and the back isn't pieced back quite right, but it looks fixable—not like he broke it, but like he was in too much of a rush to care.
And even if it had broken, it's worth it when he shows them google maps on his phone and points to a spot there, zooms in, and zeroes in on the hospital.
"Isn't that—bad?" Emily says. "If I were—her, that would be the last place I'd go. There's people there. There's flowing blood."
There's no time for Caleb to be surprised, because Aria instantly puts her hands on his shoulders and looks in his eyes, saying, "I— I will explain," nodding as convincingly as she can, "later. I promise." He stares, unflinching, unfeeling, like Aria's promise put him in a trance, and then she repeats Emily's lie from earlier: Hanna was applying for a job; she called him to cancel but he missed the call, and she didn't get it, so it's a sore spot and he shouldn't ask about it. "Now go home," she finishes, stepping back, and he snaps out of it.
He shakes his head, blinking. "Okay," he says, still looking confused, "uh. Thanks," still looking around him, but it's only a second before he heads for the door.
Emily breathes out loudly. "Now what?"
"Now we go find Hanna."
"How are we going to know where Alison is?" Aria asks. "The hospital's not exactly the size of a house."
"Maybe you'll hear something?" Emily suggests, but Aria doesn't look convinced.
"Well," Spencer says, "if all else fails, there's one place she won't be distracted by blood," and realization dawns on Emily's face.
"The morgue," she whispers. Then, "This just keeps getting grosser and grosser."
Aria scoffs and opens the door. "Join the club."
Spencer calls Melissa again on the way to the hospital, but it goes straight to voicemail. She texts her where they're going anyway; she has a feeling she'll need back-up if things pan out the way they do in any and all of the worst-case scenarios rushing through her head.
It's late, so visiting hours are over by the time they get to the hospital. Aria forces open a locked door near the back, closer to the elevator and a lot farther from any overnight nurses and security personnel than the front door.
It's still disturbingly quiet. There's no one around as far as Spencer can see, like someone—like Alison—made sure no one would bother them.
"Where is everyone?" Spencer says, and Aria's eyes narrow in concentration.
"Not—here," Aria replies. "The place is deserted for a good two-room radius. All floors." She glances around. "I think Ali gave herself undisturbed access to the elevator."
"Is the morgue around here?" Emily asks, quiet to match the darkness of the hallway, but Aria shakes her head.
"We're standing over it, but I can't hear anything. Maybe if I get closer..." She heads for the emergency stairs and vanishes, the door swaying closed.
They wait for her, but their patience wears thin after just a minute; Aria can run, can dash, and she should be back already. Spencer heads for the stairs, then, with Emily close behind her, handing her Hanna's gun as they make their way to the basement.
It's eerily silent, no nurses here, no volunteers, no shifts ending at this particular moment and people rushing to change out of their clothes. It's just empty—but there is a light on in the morgue, and the door's cracked open just so—just enough to be inviting, but only if you know who's inviting you in. She remembers Alison explaining that to Spencer, like it made any sense at all, and it's—it's bizarre, looking at it and flashing back to two years ago, when Alison was actually alive, but making the same frustratingly arrogant decisions.
At first sight, the morgue seems deserted, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing different from the time Spencer snuck in with Aria and stole Alison's coroner's report.
And then there's a blur of motion across the room, and Spencer feels something cold behind her. It barely lasts two seconds, and it's only afterwards that Spencer closes her fist and realizes it's empty—that whatever ran behind her snatched the gun out of her hand.
Seconds later, a shot rings out and someone screams, quickly clipped but loudly enough to be heard. Spencer tries to follow the sound with her eyes, peering around the doorframe, not daring to walk further in yet. At first, she sees nothing; just shelves, tables, a trash can brimming with cookie wrappers. Then there's a dull metallic noise, like a knock, on the other side of a file cabinet, and a black heel—followed by the point of the shoe—edges out into vision.
"Aria," she whispers, and a groan echoes through the room. Spencer looks around, seeking some glimpse of Alison, but there's nothing, so she heads inside, runs the second half of the way towards that noise and kneels before Aria, who's crouching and clutching her stomach. "Are you okay?" Aria laughs, making herself wince. "Okay, stupid question. What do I do?"
The hand on Aria's stomach moves slowly aside to reveal a bullet entry wound, and she says, her voice hoarse, "Get it out."
"We're in a morgue," Aria grits out, widening her eyes meaningfully, "I'm sure there're tools."
Spencer goes for the nearest set of cupboards. There are files everywhere, notebooks, pieces of paper, and she looks behind and underneath them until she finds a pair of thin needle-nose pliers in the bottom of a drawer. She wipes the dust off on her jeans and hopes Aria being dead means she won't get an infection from this. Just in case, she asks Aria, who shakes her head and says she doesn't care, that Spencer should just get the bullet out, so Spencer gets to work. She curls a hand around Aria's waist to keep her in place and digs in slowly with the pliers. She's careful not to open them until she hits the lodged bullet; then, she fits the jaws around it as well as she can without creating any further damage, and pulls.
Blood flows out of the hole where the bullet was, but it stops quickly, and as Aria breathes in, her flesh seems to reconstruct itself, skin stretching slowly to cover the wound. Her stomach is still stained red, and so is her shirt when Aria tugs it down over it, but she has little trouble getting up.
"Thanks," she says, and Spencer nods, remembers she's still holding the pliers and tosses them into a nearby trash can. Emily's standing by with her arms crossed, brows furrowed in barely concealed repulsion, and Spencer grabs her arm before said repulsion can make it to her digestive tract or her nerves. They've made it this far; she doesn't want anyone to throw up or faint now.
"Did you see her? Where did she go?" Spencer asks, and Aria shrugs, opening and closing her mouth.
"Do you want to look for her?"
"Well, we need to find Hanna," Spencer reminds her, and Aria's mouth curls around a curse. She sets off first, towards the door, and Spencer and Emily follow her out and along the hallway and up two flights of stairs. Aria stops walking on the first floor, in the middle of a waiting room by the elevator. She stands there for a few seconds, looking around with her bottom lip half between her teeth, and then she spins around suddenly to face the door to the staircases.
Spencer hears Alison's voice before she spots her. "Leaving so soon?"
Seeing Alison is—it knocks the breath out of Spencer's lungs, floods her with shock, closer to whiplash, and hurt and relief and resentment. Alison looks not a minute older than the day she died; in fact, the way she wears her hair now—shorter in a bob that frames her face, and darker, reddish—makes her look younger. Her clothes are more modest than they used to be, not so eye-catching, but everything else about her is the same: the way she stands with her hips cocked and one hand on them, the way she tilts her head and drops her lids to speak, the dangerously sweet wash of her voice.
"Guys, your friend is hurt," Alison goes on, overdoing a concerned frown, "in a hospital. Isn't that convenient? Why ever would you leave?"
Aria steps forward boldly, her demeanor cold and resolute. "I'm fine. You know that."
Alison pouts for a moment, and then her lips form a long smile, the affectionate air of it betrayed by the delighted, amused look in her eyes. "Who said I was talking about you?"
There's another motion blur, like the one in the morgue, and when Spencer blinks, Alison's standing by the elevator.
The doors are open behind her, and Hanna's inside, curled into a corner. There's blood on her wrist and her collarbone, down the front of her dark blue dress. She looks terrified, and keeps glancing at Alison only to hide her face in her knees immediately afterwards. Spencer's first instinct is to run to her, but Alison's in the way, and there is no one in this room who will exercise caution if Spencer's the first to jump the gun.
"What are we doing here?" Spencer asks, modulating her voice as well as she can. She's out of weapons, Aria got shot, Hanna's shaking and stuck in an elevator that could close its doors automatically any second, and Emily—they all know A has no qualms about hurting her. There's going to be a confrontation, but right now, Spencer needs the time to slow her heart; and right now, as always, she's not opposed to getting some answers in the meanwhile.
"Isn't it obvious?" Alison says, waving her hand out. "We're old friends, aren't we? What do old friends do? Catch up over drinks?" She glances back at Hanna for a moment and offers Spencer a satisfied smile. "I guess that is it."
"We were never friends," someone says, and for a moment Spencer thinks it was her—it's certainly something she's thought many times, daydreamed about saying to Alison—but her mouth is still closed, and when she looks back, Emily's walking calmly forward, still talking. "Friends don't make other friends feel guilty about being led on. And they definitely don't drug each other's pain meds. Pretty sure about that one."
Alison raises her eyebrows, her smile fading. "Baby's all grown up," she says somberly.
"Baby's tired of being played with," Emily says, and oh, it would be so good if they hadn't lost the damn wooden bullet gun. That would have been a great time to shoot Alison in the foot. Spencer would have enjoyed it.
"I'll have to tweak my methods," Alison says, shrugging. "I do aim to entertain."
There's a cough from the elevator; Hanna's standing up, and she's not alone now—Aria must have run in with her while Alison was talking. She helps Hanna out onto the floor, and the doors close behind them after a few seconds. Alison doesn't move, just turns to look at them, the edge of her eyebrow rising slowly. Aria carries Hanna with an arm around her waist until they reach a string of seats where Hanna can sit down.
"That's entertainment?" Spencer asks.
Alison presses her lips together, the corners of them curling down for a moment like a resigned shrug. "It's certainly holding your attention."
"Hard to focus when you're bleeding," Hanna mutters, just loud enough to be heard, and it strikes Spencer as odd, the way she speaks—she sounds like she's in pain, but she also sounds like she's... like she's faking the extent of that pain. Spencer doesn't say a word.
"Hard to focus when you're hungry, too, but I deal," Alison says, her eyes sharp and cold. "We all do." Her mouth turns into a moue of disgust.
That's when Aria looks up. She says, "Don't," shaking her head, "no. You chose this." Her face breaks for a second as she says, "Didn't you?"
"I did," Alison says easily. "Who wouldn't?"
Aria laughs dryly. "I wouldn't. So don't complain about it. You have nothing to stand on."
"Hanna's being cooperative enough. Aren't you? She understands me."
Hanna's mouth opens slightly as she looks up, but she doesn't say anything, not at first. She clutches her hip instead, her thumb massaging the jutting bone through her dress. Alison takes the silence as approval—cowardice—and is facing Emily again when a muffled shot is fired and hits her in the thigh, Hanna saying, "I really don't," not having moved from her chair. She fires again as Alison falls on her knees, her hand, and this time she hits Alison's arm.
Alison clutches her arm, says, "Holy crap, Han, warn a girl," and before Spencer knows it Alison's got Hanna by the neck against the elevator doors, and Hanna's gun is on the floor.
Hanna's expression is wistful, though. "Find a penny, pick it up," she says, her mouth set in a dejected grimace even as her voice tries for smug. "You shouldn't just throw this stuff away. Someone could find it and hurt themselves." Alison lets go of her, letting Hanna's head hit the metal hard, and Hanna stays there, leaning back and panting heavily.
There's nothing in the set of Alison's body that explains how she could just do that, run like that after being shot, because she's still bleeding, still on the brink of doubling over in pain, her eyes set in a glare, her nostrils flaring.
"Alison," Spencer says, trying to reason, "Alison, please stop," but apparently Alison's in the mood to talk now—or growl, anyway, grit out her grievances.
"What do you girls think you're doing, looking for me? You're ruining the game."
"It's not a game!" Emily snaps.
Alison faces her harshly, but she doesn't yell. In fact, she lowers her voice to speak. "Oh, poor sweet Emily. You know the things I could do, if you provoke me?"
Spencer's phone rings quietly in her pocket, but nobody seems to hear it, or if they do they ignore it—and so does Spencer. Alison goes on.
"I could really make it so you will never swim again. I could out you, Aria, and your Mr. Fitz. I have more than enough proof."
"He's not my teacher anymore," Aria says calmly, refraining from engaging. Her eyes flicker from Alison to Hanna like she's gauging the distances, and whether she could get Hanna back somewhere she can sit without enraging Alison.
"But he was. He abused his power. He put himself in a position where that was an option," Alison says, and her smirk comes back slowly, satisfied, matching the glint in her eye. "Or, you know," she adds thoughtfully, "I could out you to your Mr. Fitz. How do you think that would go?"
"You wouldn't," Aria says, and Alison just shrugs and walks over to Hanna. She runs a finger down Hanna's cheek, and Hanna grabs Alison's arm to keep from falling. Alison's not looking at her, though, not even as she curls a hand around Hanna's neck, presses down. Spencer feels herself lean forward, but she can't—she can't run. It will make things worse. Alison's going to stop. She has to. "And our darling Hanna, she's about to lose consciousness."
Hanna's eyes flutter closed, her weight dropping, and Alison lets go, lets her fall to the floor. Hanna groans, but she doesn't try to get up. The wounds on Alison's arm and leg have stopped bleeding. She looks pale, paler than before, but not as weak.
Spencer runs to Hanna anyway; it's a chance she has to take. She cradles her face, mumbles, "Stay with me, come on, Aria will heal you, stay awake."
No one stops her, and no one runs. All Alison does is give each of them a sharp look and say, very clearly, very resolute, "Leave me alone." Then there's another motion blur, and Spencer's ready to breathe in relief when she hears a loud thump by the staircase door, and looks around to see Alison crumpled on the floor—with an arrow through her stomach.
Alison immediately reaches for it, but Spencer runs over to her, puts her hand on the other end, pressing it down and carefully looking up—though she doesn't need to look to know who shot that arrow. "I thought you didn't like to aim bows."
"There are always exceptions." Melissa's voice betrays no emotion but a hint of relief, and Alison groans underneath Spencer, wriggles unsuccessfully—between the arrow and the bullets still lodged in her limbs, every time she moves, it looks like the pain is stronger. More than that: it looks like it's spreading. Like there's jasmine on the arrow.
For a moment, Spencer closes her eyes. She swallows hard, steeling herself to look at Alison—to look at her face. She doesn't want to do this halfway. She doesn't want to look back and think she shouldn't have, that she was in a haze, that she didn't get the chance to make a decision.
Alison—Alison is exactly like Alison, and exactly unlike her. Spencer remembers how magnetic she used to be when they were friends, when she considered herself Alison's friend. By now, they've seen all the tricks, cleared up the smoke and mirrors, and all that's left is a girl who, if she's not lying, decided becoming a vampire was an acceptable trade-off for giving up her life.
With her eyes closed, Spencer thinks she'll see something beyond that in Alison's face—someone who regrets what she did, or someone who's terrified. But Alison's just there, unable to move, shaking, and there's only coldness in her eyes.
Hanna coughs again, and Spencer looks around herself. When she meets Emily's eyes, Emily nods at her, reaches behind herself, and sets a stake on the floor before pushing it towards Spencer, the uneven wood clattering over into arm's reach.
She draws the arrow out first, watches Alison convulse as blood flows out, the skin over her neck breaking out red as the jasmine spreads further. She watches because she can't do anything else, because this is what it's come down to and it would be unfair to look away and pretend she has nothing to do with it. Alison was missing for a year, dead for a day, and in and out of their heads for a year after that, giving them hope that maybe she wasn't really gone.
Alison was in and out of their heads for so long it feels surreal to see her like this, spitting out blood, her eyes dark and watery, her whereabouts clear and the condition she's in evident. No third-hand information, no misleading clues, no hidden messages. She was dead once, they thought, and now her lies are going to come true.
Alison's wriggling more now, almost strong enough to lift herself up onto her elbows, and Spencer's too close to her now to trust Melissa will come through with another successful shot if Spencer lets Alison get away. She clutches the stake in her hand, then both hands, lifting it up to put some driving force behind it. She mumbles, "I'm sorry," closing her eyes again, and she only opens them seconds after she feels the stake sink in Alison's chest, when Alison's head hits the floor with a clunky noise.
As soon as it does, Emily and Aria are carrying Hanna over to a row of comfortable seats and assessing how she's doing. Spencer vaguely registers Aria talking about how vampire blood would do more harm than good with Hanna as disoriented as she is, and Melissa grabbing a box out of her bag and tossing it at Emily—bandages. Then, Melissa stops being a blur out the corner of her eye and steps into Spencer's line of vision.
"I was hoping you wouldn't have to do that."
Spencer laughs, and it comes out sharp and pained, like the sound's been ripped out of her throat. "Who better to?"
"Anyone," Melissa says, and crouches down. "This is not some kind of thing where you're assigned people to kill based on how much they hurt you."
"It's just hunting," Spencer ventures, and Melissa shakes her head.
"It's about safety. There's no other point." She stands and goes to check on Hanna. Spencer would, too, but she's finding it hard to move, let alone lift her weight off the floor. Alison's completely still; maybe that has something to do with it.
Instinctively, Spencer reaches for her wrist—how fucked up is it that her instincts now apply to making sure dead bodies are dead? There's no pulse, for certain, not even the lingering trace she feels when she hugs Aria, not Toby's steady heartbeat underneath her ear every time she rested her head on his chest. She's not sure if that's normal, natural, or a way for vampires to go around unnoticed, or an involuntary thing their bodies grow out of doing as the years go by. Someday she will check Wren's journal for more information on that, or ask Aria and Melissa for practical anecdotage and vampire theory, respectively, but this is not the time.
Probably. It is a dearly held opinion of Spencer's that there's no bad time for learning, but she doubts her prospective teachers would agree.
Alison looks pale, paler than she used to be, and paler still around her arm. The outline of her veins along her palm has taken on a light purple tint, close to mauve, translucent as if there were a filmy sheet of white strewn over them. When Spencer holds the bones of Alison's wrist and turns her hand over, the weight surprises her; it feels nothing unlike a normal human hand. It has to, if they want to pass for human, but then Alison never struck Spencer as someone who would want to pass for human, not even when she wasn't dead.
A glint of metal catches Spencer's eye when she drops Alison's hand, and she clasps it again, thumbing at the knuckles.
"Oh, god," she says, and gives Melissa a wide-eyed, apologetic look, preemptively.
"Is that my wedding ring?" Her voice is low—surprised, definitely surprised, and she's not whispering, but something about it seems respectful of the silence and the fact that they're kneeling around a dead body. She looks up at Spencer with a barely perceptible frown. "She stole it? When did she—" Her lips scrunch up in confusion, and she changes the direction of her questions. "Did you know about this?"
"Yeah," Spencer says, smiling uncomfortably, "this story makes me look really bad."
Melissa raises an eyebrow, the other still furrowed toward her nose, like she's torn between skepticism and bewilderment. When she realizes Spencer's not going to be forthcoming about that story unless explicitly asked, Melissa glances around the room; her eyes settle for a while on Emily, who's sitting next to Hanna and holding a cup of water to her lips.
Melissa sighs and turns back to Spencer. "Tell you what: you tell me the story now, and I promise—unless you killed someone, I promise I'll forgive you."
"Yeah," Melissa says, shrugging. "You get one get-out-of-jail-free card for—killing Garrett and dealing with this. That's a lot more suffering that I could possibly cause you."
I wouldn't be so sure, Spencer thinks, but keeps it to herself. "Okay. Well, she didn't exactly steal it. I pawned it." Melissa frowns, so Spencer's forced to explain in spite of herself. "To buy Toby's truck. It was time-sensitive, okay? I couldn't wait. I was going to get it back, but when I went to the shop—"
"It wasn't there," Melissa finishes for her, the corner of her mouth crinkling up. Spencer's glad Melissa finds this amusing. "Do you still have the money?"
"There was something else under my name. I took it. I thought it would be a clue."
"A thousand-dollar clue," Melissa says incredulously.
"It was the only thing I had to go on if I wanted to find the ring," says Spencer.
For a few seconds all Melissa does is stare—judgmentally, Spencer guesses, though her face doesn't betray any emotion. Then, her shoulders fall forward, she sits back on her heels, and she takes a deep breath. It sounds a lot like letting go. "What was the clue?"
Spencer presses her lips into a line, steeling herself, and then says, "A horseshoe."
"Oh," Melissa says, and suddenly Spencer looks at Alison and remembers seeing Ian like this, blood down his neck and a gun by his hand, in a—in a stable. "What?"
"It was a clue," Spencer says, louder, and notices Emily and Aria turn to look at her. Hanna still looks pretty exhausted, like she's going to fall asleep the second she's given half the chance.
"What was?" Emily says.
"The horseshoe from the pawn shop," Spencer says. "It was a clue. Do you still have those pictures on your phone? From when we found Ian?"
"Yeah?" Emily says, reaching over an armrest for her bag. It only takes her a few seconds to find what she's looking for. Spencer stands up and walks over, trying not to be freaked out by the sight of her sister pulling a ring off a dead person's finger. It is Melissa's, after all. It's also really freaking weird.
It's also pretty weird that they never scanned the pictures from Ian's murder scene carefully enough to notice there was a horseshoe missing from the wall. Certainly reason enough for Ali to underestimate them, even if they—well, Emily—figured out A was there in a different way.
When she gives the phone back to Emily, Hanna's staring past Spencer, in the direction of Alison's body. Her nose is regularly crinkling and loosening, just enough to be noticeable.
Eventually, she says, "What are we going to do with her?"
At first, Spencer figures they're going to desecrate Alison's old grave and bury her there, but Melissa tells her she doesn't trust vampires further than she can kick them, and the only way she'll be confident Alison won't come back is if she's ash. She's heard a lot of horror stories about that, too, apparently. Spencer's had enough horror today to ask for any more of it.
Aria takes up the task of carrying Alison to Melissa's car—Melissa agrees to it on the basis that if anyone bleeds, she won't have to give explanations. Emily and Spencer hold up Hanna on the way to the parking lot, where Melissa's already closing the trunk while Aria stands by, tall as she is instead of leaning back, like she's keeping guard. When Spencer and Emily get there, Spencer hands over the car keys and she opens the door so Hanna can drag herself in.
"I can't believe you're the brawn now," Emily tells Aria.
Melissa laughs briefly as she climbs into the driver's seat, says, "Oh, she's so much more than that." Spencer can't tell if she means it in a good or a bad way; she doesn't say it tonelessly, but the touch of amusement there is hard to read.
Still, Spencer says, "She really is," and winks at Aria while Melissa starts the car, drives them all to the cemetery—according to Melissa that's the quietest, safest place for a human bonfire, and once she thinks that Spencer shudders, her skin crawling with revulsion. She opens her eyes wide and tries to focus on the road, the real, solid concrete, the bright traffic lights, all these familiar things that were there before tonight, before A, before Alison's disappearance, and will still be here now that Alison is gone.
There's not much fanfare to what they do. Emily and Melissa gather some thick branches off the further end of the cemetery and assemble them haphazardly over Alison's body. Aria finds a bottle of something flammable—a cleaning product someone must have left behind—and spreads it over the body, and Melissa holds out a lighter. "One of you should do it," she says quietly, "if you want. I understand if it's kind of—"
"I'll go," Hanna chimes in, grabbing it and lighting the end of a thinner branch. She groans as she leans over, still in pain, but no one tries to talk her out of doing this. Anger can be a powerful source of energy, and they can take care of Hanna later, when that energy crashes down.
It takes longer than Hanna expects, but she keeps at it even after she squeaks when she feels the flame on her finger, and gradually the fire starts and she drops the lighter to the ground. Spencer picks it up before it gets caught in flames.
Hanna stays still for a while, watching the fire spread much faster than it started when it hits alcohol, and then she stumbles and says, "I can't look, I think I'm going to throw up," and Emily wraps an arm around her and takes her away.
Spencer doesn't look for long, either, not past the moment Alison's shirt catches on fire, and Melissa follows her, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to make sure everything's fine. Aria's the one who stays the longest—Spencer doesn't know if it's because being a vampire has strengthened her stomach for these things or something else, but she looks wistful when Spencer starts walking.
They're almost back to the car when Jason shows up, too fast for Spencer to ever wonder who it is. He smiles sheepishly at Spencer and makes a beeline for Aria, and they walk a little ways away to talk. Spencer can still hear what they're saying, but she guesses that's private enough. Jason tells Aria he's leaving town. "For good. I'm sorry I brought so much trouble into your life."
Aria looks down, fingers fidgeting. Glancing back up, she asks, "Are you? Is that—can you be sorry?"
Jason's laugh is resigned, sad. "You can feel guilt, right?" he says, and Aria lowers her head. "Go home, I'll—" He eyes the dying fire, then looks back at Melissa. "I'll handle the remains." Aria nods slowly once, and doesn't move away when he leans in to kiss her cheek, his hand covering her wrist. When he pulls back, Aria gives him a small smile, and knocks their daylight rings together.
They make it back to Spencer's house in one piece and two cars. They stop by the hospital and pick up the car Melissa drove over there.
Spencer's mom is home, but she's heading to bed, and Melissa goes straight to the barn to get stuff to clean out her trunk and backseat. Spencer sits down around the living room with her friends, having tea—she's too wired for coffee, and desperately in need of a decent night's sleep—and cleaning and bandaging Hanna's wounds with her first aid kit.
Emily's the first to speak, cracking a smile and looking at Aria. "You're gonna be tiny forever." Aria grimaces but laughs despite herself, smiles back.
"You're also never going to be legal," Spencer points out, because someone has to say it, and this seems like a good enough time. "For Ezra or otherwise."
Aria doesn't seem surprised at all, just sighs and says, "Don't remind me."
"You'll be eighty years old and still dating teenagers," Spencer says, by now just thinking out loud, and Hanna hisses.
"Okay, gross. Stop." There's another stretch of silence, but it's a comfortable one this time, and Hanna's laugh is much calmer when she asks what Spencer's going to do about Toby.
Spencer shrugs. "I have a summer thing lined up. I think. Fingers crossed. I think I'll see how I feel about it when I come back. No rush, right?"
Aria nods, and Hanna reaches an arm around Spencer's shoulders and squeezes, breathing deep before straightening up. "I should go see Caleb."
"I kind of dealt with that already," Aria says, scrunching up her face apologetically, and Hanna snorts, which makes her wince in pain, but she plows through.
"All the more reason to check up on him."
"Are you going to be okay?" Spencer asks. "You guys can stay over if you want."
But Aria wants to check on her family and drop by Ezra's apartment on the way. Emily will take Hanna home, so they're covered. And Spencer... Spencer could use some alone time. Talk to Melissa, maybe. Catch up on sleep.
It's odd, knowing that she can do that—that she can relax. Her body hasn't processed it yet. Alison's really gone. That means so much more than going back to normal. It means Aria's going to have to adapt to normal life as a vampire if she wants to stay in Rosewood, and Spencer hopes she does. It means Melissa knows what happened with Ian now, and if anyone fucks up, it won't be anybody's fault but theirs. It means the police are never going to know what really happened, but maybe they'll stop looking, now that Spencer has no detecting left to do, no reason to put herself in questionable situations. Or maybe they won't. She'll cross that bridge when she comes to it, they all will; if worse comes to worst, Aria's on their side.
And it means—it means no more messages. No more emotional torture, no more anonymity, no more sneaking out in the middle of the night on a quest for the next clue. Nothing to distract them from grieving.
Melissa comes by the house after the girls leave, when Spencer's rinsing out the last couple of mugs. She waits in silence while Spencer wipes her hands on a dishtowel and puts the mugs up in a cupboard. When Spencer turns around, Melissa's leaning back against the kitchen island, her arms crossed loosely over her stomach, hands rubbing the inside of her elbows—not impatiently, but like she's just a little cold. Spencer mirrors her position with her hands curled around the edge of the counter, and sighs a breath.
"How are you?" Melissa says. "Are you okay to sleep?"
"I'm actually kind of beat, can you believe it?" Spencer says. She doesn't mean it as a joke, but it sounds like sarcasm, so she shrugs to soften it. "I'm on edge, but I'm actually exhausted." Exhausted enough to not think about anything too in depth, at least. Sometimes she gets paranoid before sleep, going over everything that makes her anxious like a rotating cycle where, whenever she smoothes her worries about something away, something else falls in to fill the empty slot. But A is gone. Alison has been for years. And everyone else—they're okay. Even Aria seems to be adjusting.
"Would it help if I slept in my old room?" Melissa's frowning like she's not sure why she's asking.
"Not really," Spencer says, offering a smile. It's just not necessary, though she appreciates the offer—understands the need to try to do something even when there's nothing you can conceivably do to help except wait.
Melissa nods, then says, "If you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Yeah," Spencer says, because it feels superfluous to say thanks—because for the first time in a long time, she knows Melissa's aware Spencer's glad to have her on her side. Grateful. "I'll be fine, I promise."
And she knows she will be.