It's almost four in the morning when the gas light comes on.
Spencer is wide awake behind the wheel, her foot hovering over the brake pedal as they coast along the freeway, the inky nothingness of the desert and a few scattered buildings rushing past outside. The moon is a bright, waning gibbous up ahead, letting her know that they're still heading west, and from horizon to horizon, the sky is one huge expanse of stars. It's beautiful, admittedly, but it also makes Spencer feel exposed—she's used to being in the cradle of rolling green mountains after all.
Not that she misses Rosewood.
Her real home is right here with her anyway. Aria fell asleep in the passenger's seat hours ago, but her fingers are still limply intertwined with Spencer's, and if Spencer looks in the rearview mirror, she can see Hanna's head resting on Emily's shoulder, both their faces peaceful in slumber.
Soft indie music trickles out of the stereo, courtesy of Aria's road trip playlist, and Spencer taps her fingers as she turns her blinker on, gets over in the right lane so she can get off at the next exit. She pulls alongside a gas pump at the nearest 24/7 station and gently untangles her fingers from Aria's.
Aria stirs, sleepy hazels blinking open. She yawns, looks at the GPS and then out the window before clicking open the glove compartment. She grabs the small can of pepper spray Emily's mom gave them and passes it to Spencer. "Be careful, babe."
Spencer's stomach twists, but she nods, pocketing the can. "I will."
Because they’re still just four teenage girls, driving across the country all alone. Anything could happen. There’s not suddenly a shortage of creeps and pervs and criminals out in the real world just because ‘A’ is gone.
Spencer slips out of the car, the sound echoing across the empty parking lot as she shuts her door, and her footsteps are loud as she crosses to the building, scanning her surroundings vigilantly. The door chimes when she enters, and immediately she sees the sign—one laminated sheet of yellow paper taped to the counter.
Smile! You're on camera .
She glances up at a monitor hanging from the ceiling, her own figure on screen, staring back at her. She looks small, grainy and pale and decidedly uneasy.
She swallows the lump in her throat, tries to act casual, and slides a fifty dollar bill over to the clerk.
"Forty on number two," she says, voice embarrassingly unsteady. She eyes a display of lighters, the enclosed shelves of cigarettes, and makes an impulse decision. "And a pack of Marlboro Reds, please."
He grunts and starts ringing her up, not even bothering to card her. She glances over her shoulder at the empty store, the harsh smell of cleaning chemicals overwhelming in her nose, and spies a wet floor sign in one of the aisles. The fluorescent lights hum menacingly at her. She feels like she's doing something wrong. Which, a recovering addict buying cigarettes isn’t exactly good news, but it’s not like she’s committing a crime. Hands trembling, she pockets her change, the cigarettes, and her new lighter and goes back outside to pump gas.
She gets back in the driver’s seat a few silent, paranoid minutes later, laughing nervously to herself because of how violently she managed to jump when the pump stopped. Aria notices how she’s still shaking, reaches across the center console to grip her hand again. “You okay?” is all she asks.
“Not really,” Spencer says, squeezing her hand tightly.
Because they made a promise—a promise not to lie to each other. Not anymore.
Spencer wakes up sweating, choking on unshed tears. She takes a deep breath, but she doesn’t smell the stench of iron. It’s just faint notes of perfume—Emily’s honeysuckle and Aria’s bergamot and Hanna’s coconut. She looks at her hands and they’re not covered in blood, and she remembers where she is, in a motel room somewhere west of Amarillo.
She slips out from between the cheap, scratchy sheets, careful not to rouse Emily, who’s sharing this double bed with her. Aria and Hanna are in the other, mostly because they’re both quite active sleepers, murmuring and rolling around too often for a light sleeper like Spencer. Meanwhile, Emily sleeps like the dead—Spencer shivers as she thinks this; maybe a different simile would’ve been more appropriate, considering—and she doesn’t thrash around if she has a nightmare. It’s a blessing.
Spencer tiptoes over to an armchair that's been crammed in beside the door, slips her shoes on and grabs her cigarettes out of her jacket pocket. Bright morning sunlight is caught behind the heavy curtains, and she takes care not to blind any of her friends when opening the door. She leans against the railing outside in a pair of shorts and an ill-fitted t-shirt, and she smokes, not really caring if the family loading up their car in the parking lot below is staring at her. It’s already shaping up to be a warm day, and it’s nice to be comfortable for once. The nicotine calms her shot nerves.
Spencer hasn’t smoked since before everything with ‘A’ started. She and Alison shared a cigarette or two, just for the thrill of it, both of them holding back coughs and suffering through watery eyes to prove to the other that they were cool, grown up maybe. She finds her own competitiveness rather petty in retrospect, but she’s glad she had the chance to grow into a better person in the long run, even if the cost was much too high.
She thinks of Ali back in Rosewood, opting to stay behind to work on getting her G.E.D. over the summer. And to watch over Charlotte’s treatment, but Spencer doesn’t want to think about that. She does miss Ali, but she kind of likes how things are with just the four of them together, and she suspects Alison herself was aware that she might be a bit of a fifth wheel on this trip. She was definitely right; they’ve grown closer than they’ve ever been without ‘A’ or Ali or anything else getting in the way.
She thinks of Toby, how strained things had been with him. All their problems sort of rushed back in without ‘A’ and Spencer’s reassimilation back into society getting in the way. They eventually decided to put things on hold, at least until she got back from this road trip, which Spencer can’t say she’s not glad about now. She knows Hanna and Caleb did something similar, Aria and Ezra are over for good, and Emily had been single when they left. She’s glad it’s just them now, with no strings attached and no cyber stalker to worry about.
They all pair off so naturally, and Spencer finds herself contemplating just how much she loves each one of them.
She flicks ash away. It’s with her whole heart, really.
Hanna catches her smoking one night. They’re near Flagstaff, in yet another motel, and Spencer’s made it a habit by now to go outside and have a cigarette while everyone’s asleep. (Dr. Sullivan told her that establishing a routine is necessary for recovery, after all. Although smoking regularly probably isn’t what she had in mind.) She hears the door open behind her, and a heavy, disappointed sigh.
“I knew it,” Hanna says bluntly, closing the door quietly behind herself. “Your clothes have smelled like smoke since Texas.”
Spencer is about to jump on the defensive, but she doesn’t even get a chance to start. The blonde merely ambles up beside her and takes the cigarette out of her hand, putting it between her own lips.
Hanna shrugs, expertly sucking on the filter and then blowing her smoke up into the air. “Maybe you should stick to pot, Spence, but I have honestly been dying for a cigarette.”
Spencer’s eyebrows shoot up her forehead. “I didn’t know you smoked?”
“I don’t. Except for a few times with-”
Hanna nods. “Alison.”
They’re quiet for a moment, and Spencer feels an ache low in her stomach as she watches Hanna smoke. It’s not anxiety. And it’s definitely not the first time she’s had this feeling around one of her friends. They’ve already established just how much they love each other, so why not act on it?
Hanna hums, doesn’t look at her. She seems deep in thought, lost in her memories. Spencer wants to draw her out of them.
“Can I kiss you?”
The corner of her mouth that Spencer can see curves upward, and she says, tiredly, “Yeah, Spencer. You can kiss me.” Finally, she turns, stubbing out the cigarette, eyes glittering with something like mirth, a confidence that’s all Hanna, and Spencer would feel shy if she didn’t want this so badly. Spencer moves in, slowly, giving her time to back out, and then, well, they’re kissing.
Hanna’s lips are soft, is the first thing Spencer notices. Softer than any boy's. Her hands, which are delightfully moisturized, reach up to cradle Spencer’s face, tug her down further into the kiss. Spencer groans into her mouth, and it feels so right . So perfect. She grabs Hanna by the waist and pushes her against the railing.
Someone wolf whistles. They break apart.
It’s just Aria, but Spencer’s heart still pounds in her ears, wary of being caught.
“What?” Aria says, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. “None for me?”
That breaks the tension Spencer feels, and she finds herself laughing.
Hanna waves her over. “Get over here, short stack.”
“We should probably tell Em,” Aria says, stabbing boredly at her salad with her fork.
They’re at an empty McDonalds the next day, slouching in a booth, sipping at sodas, and Hanna’s just plopped down with a tray bearing the two twenty-piece nugget meals they’re sharing between the non-vegan three of them.
Emily picks up a french fry, pops it into her mouth. “Tell me what?”
“Good news, you’re officially not the only queer one anymore,” Hanna says chipperly. “We’re… what?”
The blonde nudges her with her elbow, and Spencer sighs, picking up a chicken nugget and wrinkling her nose at it. “I think polyamorous is the word you’re looking for.”
“Yeah,” chimes Hanna. “Anyway, we were wondering-”
“How you feel about… us?” Aria finishes for her. “Like, we love you, right? But maybe not the same way you love us…”
Emily holds up her hands. “Hang on. You’re asking if I love you guys romantically? Because of course I do. That’s what this trip’s about, isn’t it? Spending time together, thinking long and hard about our feelings?”
“Well, none of us planned to get this close,” Aria says.
“But we saw it coming eventually, didn’t we?” inputs Hanna. “Aria, you’ve been calling Spencer ‘babe’ since mile one. Spencer kisses us all on our foreheads before we go to sleep. I’ve been cuddling Aria in my sleep. Seriously, what the hell changed once we got out of Rosewood?”
They all sit and contemplate this for a moment.
“Exactly that,” Spencer decides. “We got out of Rosewood. No one’s watching.”
Spencer wakes up sweating for the third time in the span of a week. But this time it was not a nightmare. The opposite of one actually. Her subconscious has betrayed her, and with how easy everything’s been with her friends— girlfriends , it’s like something old and repressed has been unlocked. She dreamed of so many lips and hands and moans that her underwear is ruined .
She drags a hand through her damp hair, glances over at Emily sleeping soundly beside her, and considers getting herself off. It’d be so easy with how wet she is, and she’s desperate. Emily probably won’t wake up. It’s such a bad idea, but she does it anyway, slips a hand into her pajama bottoms and bites her lip to keep herself quiet.
She’s just getting into it when she hears Emily’s breath hitch.
“Spence?” she whispers. “Are you… doing what I think you’re doing?”
Spencer’s ears grow hot. She squeezes her eyes shut, going still. “Maybe,” she gets out, and all the proof is in the hoarseness of her voice.
“It’s okay,” Emily says, which does nothing to help her embarrassment. “I think we’re all a little wound up.”
“Wound up is an understatement,” Spencer says, letting out an awkward breath of a laugh, trying to break the tension that maybe she herself is creating. Emily seems… fine. So unfazed that Spencer wonders if it’s because she’s felt all these feelings before. Being shoved out of the closet can’t have been an easy thing, and she imagines nothing in the realm of sexuality is as daunting as that.
Spencer wishes she could have an ounce of that confidence. Men are… well, men are easy. But when it comes to women, Spencer has no idea what she’s doing.
“Em?” she says. “I mean, you don't have to, but could you…?”
Gently, Emily’s fingers grasp her chin, tilt her face over, and Spencer trails off. Emily is close, close enough that she's out of focus, and Spencer is aching to close the gap between them. Emily does it for her, kissing her softly, sweetly, and Spencer moans as she starts working her hand again. It doesn't take much before she's there , trembling with her release, and then Emily pulls back, brushes her hair out of her face as she catches her breath.
“Yeah,” she rasps, panting.
The bedside lamp clicks on. Hanna throws a pillow at them.
They get a hotel room in Pismo Beach, one with a king-sized bed, and Spencer has never felt more ridiculous—or loved—than when she’s crammed in on the mattress with them all. She’s nuzzled into Em’s neck, and Aria’s arms are wrapped around her, and she can hear Hanna’s soft breaths on Aria’s other side. She listens to Emily’s heartbeat, thinks of the waves crashing somewhere nearby, and falls asleep faster than she ever has.