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Three Times Under the Mistletoe

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Only Spencer would attend an after school science seminar for “extra credit” on the last day before Christmas break.

That wasn’t entirely true. Andy came along, too. So did Paxton. And Melinda. And Emily. Altogether, they were five out of the ninety kids in her eighth grade class at Rosewood Junior High School.

As soon as the teacher wrapped the seminar up, Andy, Paxton and Melinda practically rushed out of the classroom. They excelled at science, but they wanted to be normal kids, too. Spencer observed Emily zipping her backpack up before putting her coat, scarf and hat on. She adjusted the hat - red plaid with furry earmuffs - and looked up, meeting Spencer’s eyes.

“Oh,” she said shyly. “What are you still doing here?”

“You live in the house around the corner from mine, don’t you?”

Emily nodded.

“Do you want to walk back together, then?” Spencer asked. “Unless your mom is picking you up afterwards -”

“No, no, I can walk with you,” Emily told her. “I was going to walk anyway. It would be nice to have a buddy in this weather.” She gestured at the window. The roads were dusted with snow, but it was meant to get heavier as soon as the sun sets.

Spencer put her coat and mittens on, and off they went. The wind outside was biting, so she pulled her coat collar close against her neck. She kicked herself for not packing a scarf like Emily had. “So,” she attempted to make conversation, “your dad’s in the military, right?”

“Yeah, he’s an army major stationed in Afghanistan,” Emily replied.

“Do you miss him?” Spencer backed off. “Sorry if that’s a bit too personal.”

“It’s fine,” Emily said, waving it off. She meant it too, judging by the kind smile on her face. “When people find out that my dad’s in Afghanistan, they give me these looks, like they feel sorry for me or something. But it’s fine. He’s a good soldier. He’s gonna be okay.”

“Okay.” Spencer was impressed with what she was finding out about Emily. She saw Emily as a naturally timid girl who mostly kept to herself. Of course, they had never talked much before, perhaps with the exception of class, so she didn’t know much about her except that Emily wanted to be a surgeon. When she first heard this, she decided that Emily was the opposite of a Hastings - ambition in such a non-threatening package.

Spencer tried imagining Emily in scrubs, scalpel in hand, cutting open a sick person. Spencer swallowed. She didn’t know if it was just the wind, or the thought of this quiet girl doing something so badass with such confidence, but she felt goosebumps erupt across her the base of neck and her shoulders.

“Your parents are lawyers, aren’t they?” Emily asked.

“Hastings and Hastings, that’s right,” Spencer said in a singsong voice. She caught Emily giving her a strange look. “Sorry, I’m proud of my parents, I just find it incongruous that they think they’re doing an honest day’s work when really they’re helping our other rich friends not pay taxes.”

Emily’s expression descended into bewilderment. “Incongruous?” She chuckled. “Are you one of those old women stuck in a thirteen-year-old’s body?”

“Hey, I’m turning fourteen in February!” Spencer protested. “And I got that word from my big sister. She likes holding vocabulary quizzes with me for her SATs.”

“That’s lucky.” Emily looked at the ground. “I wish I had a sister. Or a brother. A sibling, really.”

“No, you don’t,” Spencer said. She loved Melissa, worshipped the ground at her feet, but living with siblings required especially thick skin, developed in the worst ways possible. Something she didn’t want to wish on this girl she barely knew.

They stopped in front of a driveway. “This is my house.” Emily pointed at her front door. “Thanks for walking with me. It was nice to have someone to talk to.”

Unwittingly, Spencer followed Emily to her porch. The Fields family had their Christmas decorations up, and this included a wreath on the door… and a mistletoe, hanging right above where they were standing. “Oh,” Spencer breathed. She looked at the other girl, who was staring at the object curiously as well.

Before Emily could say anything, a small dollop of melted snow slid off the mistletoe and onto Spencer’s forehead. She yelped as the cold slush trickled down her nose. “Oh my god!” she gasped. “So cold!” She reached up to wipe her face with her mitten, but Emily stepped forward and dabbed at Spencer’s face with the end of her scarf.

“There we go.” She tucked the scarf back into her coat. “Don’t worry,” she spotted the frown on Spencer’s face, “it’s meant to go in the laundry after this anyway. I don’t want you to go home with damp mittens. Not in this cold.”

“I feel like my nose has fallen off,” Spencer groaned, gingerly touching it with her fingertips. Emily was watching her with an amused look on her face. “What?” she asked self-consciously. “Is there any more slush on my face?”

Emily burst into giggles instead. When she caught her breath, she moved towards the door, “Do you wanna come in for a hot chocolate? It’s the least I can do to make up for our mistletoe dropping a slushy on your face.” She began to laugh again.

The sound tickled Spencer’s belly warm. Unable to resist Emily, she agreed.

For the third time that day, Emily rearranged the books in her new locker. It was the second day at Rosewood High School, and she was still getting accustomed to everything being bigger. Bigger hallways, bigger classrooms, bigger people, bigger lockers. She was glad that the school decided to group the freshman lockers together, because the last thing she wanted was to be sandwiched between two scary seniors in between classes.

“Hey,” a voice to her right spoke. Emily sought out its source. Four lockers down from hers stood Spencer, who had an open locker in front of her, too. The lockers at Rosewood High were organised in alphabetical order. “You’re not in any of my classes this year?”

“Bio, actually,” Emily said, trying not to chuckle. “And homeroom.” Spencer sat at the front while Emily preferred the middle rows, and the girl was too absorbed in whatever’s happening in front of her to ever turn around casually and see her.

Spencer’s eyes widened. “Really?”

Really,” Emily repeated. Her eyes held Spencer’s newly bespectacled ones for a moment, before she took in the whole of the other girl’s body. Spencer had grown taller over the summer, but she was skinny too - skinnier than Emily - giving her a gawky appearance. Her hair was in two plaits dangling over her shoulders, and she was wearing a light summer shirt dress with cap sleeves. The dress ended just below her knee, as per school regulation, but it didn’t fail to show off her smooth, toned calves. Aware that she was going to be caught staring anytime soon, Emily blurted out, “Maybe we’ll sit together next time.”

“Yeah.” Spencer was smiling. To Emily’s relief, her face was showing no other signs of awareness that she had been checked out. “That would be really nice.”

Someone tugged on Emily’s arm. “Hey, let’s go, we’re gonna be late for gym!” It was Alison. The pretty, tanned blonde had befriended Emily midway through the summer after they had bumped into each other while Emily was getting ice cream, and they had been inseparable since. Alison nudged her playfully. “We’re swimming today.”

Emily grinned. “Yeah, let’s go, I’m super excited.” Swimming was her forte, and the thought of seeing Alison in a onepiece swimsuit didn’t hurt. She internally blanched at the last thought. That was two girls in less than five minutes. What was happening to her? Composing herself, she shut her locker door and readjusted the straps of her bag.

“Come on.” Alison linked their arms together and practically frog-marched Emily to the natatorium, not even acknowledging Spencer in the process. “Who was that girl you were talking to?” she asked Emily as they turned the corner. “She looks familiar.”

“That’s Spencer Hastings,” Emily replied. “We did extra credits in science back in eighth grade.”

“Spencer Hastings?” Alison raised an eyebrow. “Any relation with the Hastings that live in that big house next door to mine?”

“She’s their youngest daughter.”

“Seriously?” Alison demanded in disbelief. “That’s Melissa Hastings’s little sister? I can’t believe it. Talk about being the runt of the family.” She scoffed. “Melissa’s friends with my brother Jason and she’s too cool for him.”

“Ali, don’t be mean,” Emily said, but not with the conviction she hoped. She felt bad for Spencer. “If you think she’s so uncool, why don’t you be her friend and make her cool?” She knew that this would puff up Alison’s ego.

And she was right. A wicked smirk spread through the blonde’s face. “Yeah! Then maybe she can introduce me to Melissa! Jason never lets me talk to his friends, but I know Melissa and I would get along.”

Just like that, Alison took Spencer under her wing, and along with Emily and two other girls, they formed the strangest clique in school. The two other girls were Aria, a creative type who did her own pink highlights in her hair, and Hanna, who liked food and fashion in equally great amounts. Spencer enjoyed being part of a group for once, and thought that her hanging out with Alison had even impressed Melissa. Anything to impress Melissa.

“That,” Hanna placed her finger lightly over a photograph in the magazine that Alison was reading, “is one of the best outfits that I’ve seen Beyoncé wear.”

The five of them were sitting in Alison’s room eating vanilla wafers and poring over magazines when she noticed Emily inching ever so closer - consciously or subconsciously, Spencer couldn’t tell - next to Alison. “Lemme see,” Emily said. “Oh yeah, but Bey always looks great in anything that she wears. It’s her, not the outfit.”

Alison turned to Emily with a nasty expression on her face. “Of course you would say that,” she said snidely. She used the side of her hip to nudge against Emily’s. “Can you move over a little bit, Em? I’m getting suffocated here.”

Eyes dropping down to her lap, Emily obliged. “Sorry about that,” she said softly.

But Alison’s attention was already back on her magazine. “Yeah, whatever.”

Spencer couldn’t handle the way Alison acted sometimes, especially towards Emily, but she never said anything about it. She valued the security of being in Alison’s good books too much. But Emily was nothing but sweet, and if Spencer didn’t know better, she would have suspected that the girl harboured an unrequited crush on Alison. Spencer sighed quietly, so that no one could hear. Alison didn’t deserve Emily’s attention. But she still got it, more than anyone else in their circle of friends.

It was to be expected. Even in their circle, people divided up into pairs. Emily and Alison seemed to be the best of friends, despite how Alison treated people. Hanna’s partner was Mona, who didn’t hang out with them because Alison disliked her, but their friendship remained strong anyway. As far as Spencer knew, Aria didn’t have a partner. Except maybe whatever book she had her nose in that day.

Books? Spencer liked books. She sidled up next to Aria. “What are you reading?” she asked.

Aria looked up. For the first time since Spencer met her, her big round eyes lit up, as she began to talk animatedly about the finer points of the novel she held in her hands.

The loopy penmanship made with ballpoint ink on the glossy postcard surface had become smudged with tear stains.

Joyeux Noël, Emilie. Je t’adore! Bisous, Alisonxx

Wiping more of the tears welling in her eyes, Emily turned the postcard over. It was the Eiffel Tower, illuminated at night, dusted in snow. Their French teacher had them in surplus during the first semester of freshman year, so she handed them out and encouraged everyone to write their classmates and friends Christmas messages in the language.

This was the first and the last Christmas card Alison had given her. And she only got it almost a year later.

Emily and the other girls knew that Alison had older friends, but they didn’t know that these older friends partied until late at night. Alison was able to get away with it, until she wasn’t able to anymore.

There was a car crash early in the morning after Labor Day celebrations. Everyone killed was sober. The severely inebriated occupants of the other car, on the other hand, were not. With Kenneth and Jessica DiLaurentis breathing down his neck, the district attorney managed to convict the survivors of vehicular manslaughter. But the satisfaction of that sentence couldn’t bring their daughter back.

In turn, Emily was never getting Alison back.

All of a sudden, Spencer was standing over her. A tall cup of coffee was in her hand. “Em,” she said. “Are you all right?” She glanced at the pink shoebox next to Emily. “Can I ask what that is?”

“Alison’s mom met with me here. She said she found a box of stuff that Alison had left, and some of it was named for me, so she said I should keep it,” Emily explained thickly. She placed the Eiffel Tower postcard back in the box, then put the lid on top of it, not wanting Spencer to see. “I better go home. My mom must be wondering why I took so long.”

“Let me walk you,” Spencer offered.

Emily looked into her pleading eyes, and saw a hint of something else in them. Pain? Defeat? She didn’t want to upset the other girl even more, so she packed the box away in the bag Jessica DiLaurentis had carried it in, then slung it on the crook of her arm. “Let’s go, then.”

Spencer smiled at her, almost gratefully.

Sweet Spencer, always trying to protect the things she love. Emily knew she was one of those people. Spencer, who clashed with Alison more than anyone else, but stubbornly refused to leave their circle of friends to keep sticking up for Emily. Emily didn’t even know she needed someone to stick up for her. But it was nice, anyway.

Their lives were different now. After Alison’s death, Aria and her family moved to Iceland so her father can conduct a visiting professorship there. Hanna, on the other hand, fell back to Mona and her former group of friends. Emily still spent time with Spencer, though most days she went home straight after swim practice to think about Alison.

She knew that Spencer felt like she had failed in some way. Alison enjoyed embarrassing Emily about who she truly was, but Spencer made her feel like it was okay, even if Emily couldn’t tell her the truth. Spencer shielded her. Lifted her up. But she couldn’t do that when Alison committed the grandest betrayal of all. Death.

The snow from yesterday had melted with the fine weather, and it made the pavement slippery. Emily momentarily forgot about this and turned around a corner too fast. Her boot lost traction on the asphalt and she could feel her leg going underneath her.

“I’ve got you.” Spencer’s hand was under her free arm, holding her up until she found her balance. Then the hand slid down to her hand, and they locked fingers. Spencer must have noticed her questioning look, because she shrugged. “Hey, this way, if either of us fall over, the other one does, too. Saves on the embarrassment,” she joked.

No one cared if two best friends were holding hands in thirty-five degree, post snowfall weather, right? Emily relaxed her shoulders and found herself enjoying the feel of Spencer’s palm against hers. It had been warmed by the coffee. “This is nice,” she murmured.

“You think?” Spencer asked. Emily wondered if the peculiar note in her voice was one of hope.

They reached Emily’s house. “Should I come in?” Spencer asked as they stepped on the porch. “Are you going to be okay?” She hasn’t released Emily’s hand.

“I should be okay,” Emily said. “I’ll text you if I need you though.”

“And I’ll just be right around the corner.” Spencer’s voice was low and soothing.

It was only a handful of days before Christmas, so the house, as per usual, was covered in decorations. Instinctively, Emily looked up. The mistletoe was hanging directly above them. “Mistletoe,” she said simply. For a split second, she lost control of her impulses and leaned forward, ready to press her lips against Spencer’s.

A hand on her shoulder pushed her back gently. Emily’s eyes flew open and locked with the other girl’s. “I’m sorry, Em,” Spencer said. “No. Not now, not like this.” She smiled at Emily sadly, before turning on her heel and bounding down the porch. Despite the icy pavement, she disappeared around the corner from Emily’s sight in record time.

Somehow, Emily knew that she wouldn’t be hanging out with Spencer again any time soon.

Holding onto the grip-taped handle of the hockey stick was making Spencer’s hand perspire like crazy. She straightened up from her shooting stance and held the stick in between her knees as she wiped her hands on the skirt of her jersey. Tryouts for the field hockey varsity team were in a week, and since Spencer was the only sophomore to make first string last year, it would be a shame if her game slipped up and she didn’t make it this year.

After shaking her shoulders out, she gripped the hockey stick once more.  In front of her was a row of five balls, all at different angles to the goal. She stepped up to the first one and resumed her stance. She squinted at the goal and angled her stick to where she thought the sweet spot was. And then she swung.

But the ball missed. Instead, it shot straight into the bush behind the goal. Then there was a squeal and some rustling.

Spencer craned her neck and saw that the bush was moving. Fearing that she might have hurt someone, she dropped her stick and jogged over to it. “I’m so sorry!” she cried out. “I didn’t know you were in -” Her jaw slackened when a petite girl with wavy black hair emerged, leading Emily out by the hand. They looked unharmed, but their clothes were rumpled and when Spencer looked hard enough, she noticed that their lips were a little swollen.

“Spencer!” Emily exclaimed, with the slightly dazed tone of someone high on endorphins.

The short girl turned to her. “You know her, Em?” She looked at Spencer. “Great shot!”

“Yeah,” Emily said. She took the girl’s hand and together, they approached Spencer. “Maya, this is Spencer Hastings. She’s,” there was momentary hesitation in her voice, “an old friend.”

Maya extended a hand. “Hastings? We live next to each other. I’m Maya St Germain.” She beamed. “Sorry that I haven’t introduced myself before. Your family is a little bit intimidating,” she admitted sheepishly.

“I completely understand.” Spencer gave her a warm handshake. So this was the girl who moved into the old DiLaurentis house. “What are you and Emily doing here?” She vaguely gestured at the bush.

The two girls looked at each other before breaking out into peals of laughter. Emily managed to calm down enough to place a hand on the small of Maya’s back and look Spencer in the eye. “Spence, Maya is my girlfriend,” she said proudly.

“Oh,” Spencer said. It’s official, then. “I’m happy for you, Emily.”

“We better go,” Maya told Emily, who was gazing at her in adoration. “Your mom will be waiting for us at the Grille, and then she’ll grill us about what we’ve been up to.” She winked and nudged Emily, who giggled in response.

“It’s nice seeing you, Spencer,” Emily said. “We should catch up sometime.”

Since when did Emily learn how to say things as loaded as that? Well, it takes two to tango. “Sure, that would be great,” Spencer said cheerfully. “You should probably go now. Don’t want your mom to think that you were up to something.”

Emily and Maya looked at each other again and laughed.

Spencer watched them wave goodbye and walk away. She realised that if Alison was still alive, she probably wouldn’t have liked Maya. They were too alike in all the wrong ways and different in all the right ones, and already, Spencer knew that she was a better fit for Emily. Perhaps even a better fit than she is.

Images began to flicker through Spencer’s head. The image of Emily looking up at the mistletoe, then back at her. The dark brown eyes searching her face for something. And then the impulse overtaking the taller girl, which made her spring forward to seek out Spencer’s warm mouth.

Spencer wasn’t ready then. She still wasn't ready yet. But over several months, Emily clearly had become ready - with someone else.

Sighing heavily, Spencer leaned down to collect the hockey balls and place them in a bag. She had lost her focus; she’d have to practice another day. Damn Emily. Damn her.

Emily couldn’t help but moan when Maya’s hands snaked into her hair. They were lying on the couch, with Emily on top. They had been making out uninterrupted for a good thirty minutes already. First, Maya’s hands were on Emily’s lower back, and then they were on her hips, up her sides, then now they were in her hair.

And then she felt Maya’s hands move from her hair to the hem of her top. Gamely, Emily ground her hips against the other girl’s, and so Maya’s fingertips snuck under the bottom of her shirt and touch the skin. Emily hummed in pleasure. The other girl’s palms skimmed over her ribcage. The sensation it brought compelled Emily to move her hips once more.

The front door bolt clicked open. For a second, Emily wanted to pretend that it was a faraway noise, that no one was actually coming. She just wanted to enjoy herself. But then the door creaked open, so she pushed herself off of Maya and straightened her top. “Sit up,” she mouthed to the other girl.

Ashley Marin, Hanna’s mother, entered the living room and regarded the two teenage girls sitting on her couch. “Hello, Emily,” she said, smiling. “Maya.”

Emily had been living with the mother-daughter duo since the second semester of school. Her mother had decided to live with her father on the base in Texas on his new assignment training new recruits. Emily was about to go to Texas, too, until Mrs Marin offered to let Emily live with them when school was on. Not wanting to leave her life in Rosewood behind, Emily begged her mom to agree.

“Hi, Mrs Marin,” they chorused.

“I was thinking that we should have that stir fry noodles that you like for dinner tonight, Em,” Mrs Marin said. “If you cook the beef in the oil long enough, it’s sufficiently greasy for Hanna to enjoy. What do you think?”

Emily turned on the charm. “Well, do you like the stir fry noodles?”

“I love them. I’m partial to a homecooked meal, which I normally can’t execute myself.” Mrs Marin grinned. “Maya, would you like to stay for dinner?”

“No, sorry,” Maya replied politely. “I’m a vegetarian.”

“Well, that’s a shame.” The older woman adjusted the handbag on her arm. “I’m gonna go have a shower, girls. After this, we’re gonna go start on dinner.” She made for the stairs, but paused and turned around with a quizzical expression. “By the way, Emily, I’ve been meaning to ask - what’s up with your hair?” With an audacious smile, not unlike her daughter’s, Ashley Marin turned on her heel and walked up the staircase.

“Sorry about that,” Emily said, embarrassed.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I kind of miss your mother,” Maya said.

Emily had to agree. Her mother might be coming around to her being gay, but it didn’t mean that she wanted to do anything close to hinting that Emily was doing more than holding hands with her girlfriend. Mrs Marin clearly did not have the same boundaries.

“We should go hang out at mine for a change,” Maya said. “You could even stay the night.”

“My mom told Mrs Marin that I can’t go for sleepovers with you.” That sounded so uncool.

Displeasure flickered across Maya’s face. “But you’re allowed sleepovers with Hanna, Aria and Spencer.” Emily had started hanging out with them again after they all showed up to support her during first swim meet of the season. Spencer treated them to cheese fries at the Grille.

“That’s because none of them want to have sex with me.” It felt strange coming out Emily’s mouth. She didn’t even know if Maya wanted to have sex with her. Or if she wanted to have sex with Maya.

“Yeah right!” Maya laughed mirthlessly. “Have you seen the way Spencer looks at you?”

“What do you mean?” Emily’s brows knitted.

“You honestly don’t know?” Maya stood up and began to gather her things. “Sometimes, I catch you looking at her that way, too.”

Spencer found Hanna, of all places, in the Rosewood public library. Her headphones were clamped over her ears and she was absorbed in whatever was on her laptop screen. Spencer strode briskly over to her and stage-whispered, “Hanna!” The blonde didn’t respond. “Hanna!”

A librarian shushed her. Spencer glowered in response, then tapped Hanna on the shoulder.

“Spencer.” Hanna took her headphones off. She looked uncomfortable to have been caught in the library. “Hey.”

“What are you doing here? I tried knocking at your house but no one was home. And I tried texting you!”

“No one goes to the library during the summer vacation, and it’s hot out, so I figured I’d come here for the air conditioning,” Hanna explained. “And my phone’s off. Library rules.”

“You couldn’t have gotten air conditioning at the mall?” Spencer asked. She had gone there after going to the Marins house, and even got Hanna paged. Twice.

Hanna gave her a duh look. “It’s the day before payday, Spence,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Where’s Emily?” Spencer had gone looking for her first, wanting to have a conversation she believed was long overdue. Even if the four of them reunited a third of the way through their junior year, things were still tense between Spencer and Emily, and they never found reason or time to resolve it. This rift became even worse when Emily got serious about Maya.

“Spencer…” Hanna started gently. “Emily’s gone to Texas. She’s staying there for a couple of weeks before going to Haiti, remember? Her dad’s been called to tour in Afghanistan again, you know.”


The librarian shushed her again.

Hanna packed her laptop away. “Let’s have this conversation outside,” she suggested. When they were on the front steps of the library, she said, “Emily left the other day. She’s going to Haiti for a Habitat for Humanity build. She told me she did the rounds and said goodbye to you and Aria separately.”

“Oh, I haven’t seen Aria since she left for Boston yesterday,” Spencer said, concealing her dejection. “I’ll text to ask her about it.”

“Wait,” Hanna said. “You mean Emily didn’t say goodbye to you?”

“Maybe she just forgot.” Spencer shrugged, knowing full well that Emily didn’t. She didn't even inform her that she was disappearing for the summer. “She’s been upset and all.” Maya had broken up with Emily at the school year, because Maya’s family was moving to Denver. The girl told Emily that she “didn’t do long distance relationships”. Spencer thought that was a poor excuse. She’d fight tooth and nail to maintain her ties with Emily. That was why she wanted to see her.

The blonde knew that Emily didn’t forget either. “I’m sorry, Spencer,” she said. “Maybe you can text her about it. Is it urgent?”

“Texting doesn’t guarantee a reply,” Spencer muttered.

“What were you gonna tell her?” Hanna’s comforting hand was on Spencer’s tricep.

Spencer steeled herself. It was now or never. “I told my parents that I’m bisexual,” she declared. Not loudly and proudly, but firmly. Emily was the first person outside of her family that she wanted to tell. She wanted to lay low while she wasn’t here.

“Spence, that’s great!” Hanna said. She pulled Spencer into a quick hug. She was always the enthusiastic supporter. Spencer heard that she was the first to know when Emily came out. “Wait, how did you realise that you were…? And what does that have to do with Emily…?” Hanna’s eyes searched Spencer’s face, and the realisation soon dawned on her. “Oh. Crap.”

“Yeah.” Spencer couldn’t resist laughing. “I know!”

“What are you gonna do now?” Hanna’s eyes shone with sympathy. Spencer knew by the way the blonde was looking at her, the question she really wanted to ask was, “What if Emily didn’t feel the same way?”

“I’ll wait until she comes back,” Spencer said. “She’s worth waiting for.”

Christmas at the Fields’ became a grand affair now that Wayne was granted furlough in time to spend the holidays with his wife and daughter. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, they prepared Noche Buena together and talked about everything Wayne had missed out on while he was away - the latest season of Survivor, Pam’s new pie-baking business, where Emily was going to college…

“I thought Danby was your dream school,” Wayne said.

“But Stanford has a better team, and if I get into premed there and maintain my GPA, all the big medical schools will be begging for me,” Emily said. “Danby has a good swim program but it just feels too small.”

“I’m not sure if I’m okay with my baby going to college all the way on the West Coast.” But Wayne’s tone was good-humoured as he draped an arm around his daughter. “But med school, huh? You wanna become an army doctor, help your dad’s boys out?”

“Wayne,” Pam admonished gently. “Emily’s not going into the army.”

Emily sighed contentedly. It was comforting to have both of her parents around for what was supposed to be the happiest time of the year. It hadn’t been that way recently. Alison’s death was fresh in her mind the Christmas of sophomore year. Then on the Christmas of junior year, she found out that there was a possibility that she had to uproot herself from Rosewood to move to Texas. And while this holiday season was coloured by Maya’s absence - both from Rosewood and from her life - having her family complete for ten days saved it from being another bad Christmas.

A sharp rapping on the door got their attention.

“I’ll get it,” Emily volunteered. She rinsed her hands quickly before striding towards the door. She turned the doorknob and pulled it open. “Hey -” the words caught in her throat. “Spencer? What are you doing here?” Here not only being her porch, but here as in the twenty-degree weather, with snow piled up on the streets. Spencer hated the cold; she preferred drinking coffee indoors than building snow forts outside. Although, Emily couldn’t help but noticed how adorable she looked standing there in a snowflake-flecked wooly hat.

“I was just walking past.” Spencer was wearing every layer imaginable to keep her warm, but this didn’t stop her teeth from chattering. She laughed nervously, vapour emanating from her lips. “Well, I lied. I wanted to talk to you. Do you wanna step out?”

“Out here?”

“Humour me.” Spencer cocked her head in a way Emily found hard to resist. It was flirtatious. It was charming. It was a challenge.

Gamely, Emily reached for her duffel jacket on the coat tree right by the door, and shrugged it on. She fastened the clasps. “Mom, it’s Spencer!” she called out. “We’ll be on the porch swing!”

“It’s freezing!” Pam called back.

Spencer shot Emily a panicked look, but Emily was quick on her feet. “We’re building mini snow castles! We’ll be here the whole time!” she told her mother.

She could make out her dad saying something to her mom, and then a resigned sigh, “Okay, Emily. Make sure to put gloves on.”

“Thanks, Mom!” Sometimes it didn’t feel like she was turning eighteen in six months. She stepped out and shut the door behind her, then turned back to Spencer. “Porch swing?”

“No, I’m too cold to sit. Let’s move around.”

“All right.” Emily nodded. “So, how have you been?” She and Spencer were in Honors English and Honors Chemistry together, and they still sat with Hanna and Aria at lunch, but they didn’t talk the way they used to.

“I’m okay. I handed in my early admission to UPenn,” Spencer said. She was shifting from one foot to another to generate warmth. “I thought I wasn’t gonna get it in on time but it worked out in the end.”

“That’s great!” Emily said. Unlike her, Spencer had her heart set on one school. And unlike Emily, she wasn’t in any danger of being rejected, with legacy admissions and money on her side. Emily frowned. “It’s so weird to think that the four of us are going to be apart by the middle of next year.”

Spencer chuckled throatily. “I know right,” she said. She was wringing her hands together now. Emily knew that habit wasn’t brought on because of the cold, but because of anxiety. Spencer had something else to say.

“So,” Emily stared at her friend, trying to read between the lines, “how’s Toby?” He was a guy Spencer started dating maybe a month and a half ago. Hanna often teased that they just sat and read together like the nerds that they were, while Aria confirmed that it was pretty much all that Spencer and Toby did.

Emily couldn’t help but feeling oddly relieved by that.

“I ended things with Toby a few days ago,” Spencer admitted. Her eyes were raised to meet Emily’s this time. “That’s actually why I came here.”

Emily blinked. “What?”

“I- I’m -” Spencer stammered. She aimlessly flapped her hands. “It’s always been you, Emily,” she blurted out.

“What?” Emily repeated. But she heard every word.

“It’s always been you,” the other girl said at a more regular pace. “From that moment when we walked back home together after extra credit science in eighth grade, when you were wearing that funny hat with the earflaps. From when you gushed about Beyoncé in freshman year. From when I saw you and Maya together. It’s you. I never saw anyone else like I saw you.”

“Saw me?” Emily let out a breath she didn’t even know she was holding.

"I just find you so, so, beautiful,” Spencer said. “Everything about you. You have a kind heart, you’re thoughtful, you’re smart without even trying, you’re amazing at swimming, and yeah, you’re… physically attractive.”

Emily laughed. “Physically attractive?”

“Very much so.” A deep red flush ran up Spencer’s neck. “Look, Em, we don’t have to do anything about it. I just wanted to be honest.”

Emily gazed at Spencer for a moment, which shut the other girl up. Her eyes ran over places she’s memorised over the years. The high forehead, the light brown eyes, the prominent cheekbones. Spencer’s lovely, wavy brown hair had snowflakes in it, too. The sight made it impossible for Emily not to smile.

“What?” Spencer asked. She touched her face bashfully. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Emily said. She breathed deeply. “I find you so beautiful, too, Spence.”

Spencer’s voice was small. Hopeful. “Really?”

Really.” Heedlessly, Emily stepped forward, narrowing the gap between her and Spencer. She slowly reached out and took each of Spencer’s hands in hers. “Do you ever feel,” she tilted her head, “like you’ve been waiting for this moment forever?”

The other girl just stared at her. Were those tears in her eyes?

“Because I do,” Emily said firmly.

Spencer didn’t respond. Her eyes flicked towards the porch’s roof. “Mistletoe,” she murmured.

“Yeah.” Emily looked up, too. Sure enough, the trusty mistletoe was above them. It appeared to be dry this time around. That had to be a sign. Third time’s the charm, and all. Not wanting to overthink it, she closed the distance between her and Spencer. She met the other girl’s lips, shy at first, then yielded to slow, yet enthusiastic, reciprocation.

Emily released Spencer’s hands. Her right slid up Spencer’s arm to cup her cheek, while her left wrapped around the small of her back, pressing their bodies right up against each other. In kind, Spencer placed her hands on either side of Emily’s waist, her fingers tracing light circles on the fabric of her coat.

They were out of breath when they finally pulled away. Spencer readjusted her hat. Her eyes were twinkling. “I do,” she said, still breathless.

“Do what?” Emily asked.

“I do feel like I’ve been waiting for this forever.” Spencer grinned at her, and she grinned back.

At last, they were there.