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The Ashes Left Behind

Chapter Text

Prologue

The fire blazed. Pacey held tightly to Joey's arms, forcibly restraining her from running back into the building.

“Come on, come on,” he muttered. His eyes were glued to the open, smoke-filled doorway, a doorway which remained stubbornly empty no matter how much Pacey willed his father and his friend to appear.

A loud, unearthly crack made them both jump and was followed by the entire Ice House roof collapsing in a barrage of smoke and dust and flame.

“No!” Joey screamed and leapt toward the wreckage.

Pacey's strong grip pulled her back. “Jo, Jo, you can't go in there.” She looked ready to shove him off and take her chances. Luckily, at that moment, they heard the first sirens. “They're on their way, Jo. They'll be here soon.”

“But what if...what if...” Her beautiful face was distorted by panic and grief.

“We can't think like that.” He pulled her suddenly passive body into a tight embrace. Her arms remained locked between them, but her fingers curled into his shirt. “We have to keep hoping.”

“Hope?” Joey said the word like it was a foreign concept.

The first fire truck arrived. While two of the men hooked up the hose, the third approached the group of teenagers outside the devastation. “I'm gonna need you kids to back up now.”

“My dad's still in there,” Pacey said, without moving or letting go of Joey.

“Mine, too. And my...our friend, Dawson.”

“We'll get them out, but I need you to move away.”

Jack led a dazed Jen back all the way to the pier railing. Pacey followed behind, pulling Joey by the hand as she continued to look back at the inferno.

More fire trucks arrived, ambulances, police cars, including Dougie's. After speaking to some of the first responders, he walked over to the tense and silent foursome by the water.

“They haven't pulled anyone out yet,” Joey said accusingly before Doug could say a word.

“They haven't found a way in yet. They're working on it, Joey. Trust me, we'll tell you when we know anything.” Deputy Doug's professional detachment stretched thin tonight. Pacey could see his brother was worried. “In the meantime, I need to know how the fire started. All of you were inside at the time?”

“I wasn't. Pop and I were out front when I saw the fire. Pop called it in, and we went to help. Everyone was in the back. Flames everywhere. Mr. Potter was trapped in the office.” Once Pacey started speaking, the words tumbled out of their own volition. “Jack pulled Jen outside. I grabbed Joey. Dawson stayed to help Mr. Potter. So did Pop. I should have come back. I should have—”

Doug rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Pacey, this is not your fault. You did the right thing, getting yourself and your friend to safety. If you had gone back, you'd be one more person for the firefighters to rescue.” With one last squeeze, the pressure of Doug's hand was gone, along with another burden Pacey hadn't realized he was carrying. “What about the rest of you? Did you see anything?”

Joey shook her head, and Jen looked too numb to process the question, but Jack spoke up. “We were studying in the front, but we heard glass shattering—maybe a window?—and smelled the smoke right away. Maybe it's my imagination, but I thought, I thought I heard a car speeding away, too.” He glanced apologetically at Joey.

She barely heard most of Jack's statement. She was craning her neck, standing on tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd to a disturbance at the front of the restaurant. Her fingers gripped Pacey's sleeve. “Have they got them? I think they've got them.”

Doug glanced over his shoulder at the hubbub. “Keep her here. I'll check what's going on.”

They watched Doug's progress through the crowd, felt hope flare briefly as a stretcher was pulled from one of the ambulances. But Pacey saw hands reach out to block Doug's path. With a sensation like plummeting off a mountain, feeling his stomach bottom out and still falling, he knew. Joey broke away from his weakened hold and ran forward. Pacey, in a daze, not thinking, not feeling, just reacting, took one slow step then another after her.

He passed Doug, who was retching behind a fire truck. He stopped to let two paramedics pull the stretcher past him. On it was a barely recognizable, charbroiled Mike Potter. They had hooked him up to an oxygen mask, so the thing he'd become was still breathing.

Joey followed the stretcher, wailing, sobbing, “He's my dad, please, please, he's my dad.”

Pacey reached toward her, then dropped his useless hands and turned toward the center of the chaos, the two bodies for whom there was no hurry about the stretchers. He only knew one blackened set of remains was his father by the tarnished shine of his sheriff's badge. Dawson, on the other hand, had been spared burning across most of his upper body. The clear imprint of a rafter beam could be seen across his smashed-in skull.

For the first time he could remember, Pacey followed his older brother's example. He threw up.

Chapter One

Pacey avoided looking at his face's reflection as he checked the knot on his black tie in the bathroom mirror. He chose not to see the black eye which was his father's final legacy to him.

He tightened the tie, though he'd rather have loosened it. He hated suits. They reminded him of Pop's re-election years when he was forced to attend boring, endless campaign events, impeccably attired, impersonating a perfect family for his father's adoring constituents.

Pacey inevitably did something wrong by the end of the night. The time he was two he didn't remember, but he had been told the story over and over again his whole life. He'd tried to take off his tie; when Ma stopped him, he threw himself on the floor and had a leg-kicking, fist-pounding, screaming fit—right in the middle of Pop's big speech. When he was six, he sneaked away during the speeches and helped himself to massive quantities of cake, without aid of knife, fork, or plate. Four years later, when a city councilman's wife asked him if he had any hobbies, he demonstrated his ability to burp the alphabet.

But the worst, by far, was the last one. After an evening spent choking from his godawful tie and from listening to the piles of glorious crap people spewed about his father, Pacey had interrupted Judge Hardy's panegyric toast to say, “That's Pop, all right. He'd be a saint, if he wasn't such a dick.”

Pacey had been black and blue for a month after that stunt, but it had been worth it for Pop's glowering promise to never have him present at another event. Turned out to be one of the few promises Pop kept. Pacey never would go to another campaign party. There would never be one.

But he was in another black suit with another constricting tie, trying to convince himself he had to leave this bathroom and spend the rest of the day playing the role one last time. Pop's perfect, loving family.

He owed it to his mother, if nothing else. Ma, who had shown up at the morgue in the middle of the night and demanded to see her husband's body, who, when Dougie told her there was nothing recognizable to see, had collapsed on the cold, tile floor and sobbed in front of complete strangers. Pacey's Ma, to whom “put on a happy face” was the guiding principle of life, whom Pacey had only seen cry twice before and only in the privacy of her own room, had wept rivers, snotty, humiliating, rib-cracking tears. At a loss for what else to do, Pacey sat beside her and patted her back. He hadn't been prepared for the way she flung herself at him, how she'd buried her face in his sooty shirt and continued to unravel. To be honest, it had fucking terrified him.

Maybe that was why he hadn't cried with her.

An impatient, insistent rap sounded against the door. “Come on, Pacey. It's almost time to go, and I need to fix my hair.”

Because it was Gretchen, his favorite sister, Pacey obediently opened the door. But he yanked on a strand of her wet tresses and said, “Yeah, there's no fixing that.”

“That's what the doctors said about your face when you were born,” Gretch returned in kind, as she breezed past him in a haze of fruity perfume. She looked beautiful and sadly formal in her black sheath dress.

“How you holding up?” he asked, leaning against the doorframe while she plugged in her curling iron and started pulling makeup out of the bag in her hands.

She gave him a sympathetic look. “Better today, thanks.”

Gretchen had arrived home two days ago, while the rest of the family was at the funeral home, picking out Pop's coffin and arranging his service. Well, Doug and Ma were. Kerry was repeatedly telling her kids not to touch anything. And Pacey was doing the same thing he'd been doing for the last fourteen hours—moving in a daze, trying to wake up from the nightmare.

When they got home, Gretchen was waiting for them on the porch steps. Pacey jumped out of the jeep before it stopped and ran across the grass to hug her. Weirdly, he hadn't been thinking about Pop, about why Gretch was there. He was just happy to see her. Which was why, for the second time in a day, he was the shocked recipient of a Witter woman's tears. She wrapped her arms around him, buried her face in his neck, and cried.

For some reason, she kept apologizing as she did. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm sorry.”

Pacey didn't know what she could possibly blame herself for, but he stroked her hair and told her, “Not your fault. It's not your fault,” until she quieted.

Maybe his confusion was why he hadn't cried then, either.

“I caught up on all the messages on the machine,” Gretchen told him, as she worked on the makeup which would mask her face from the curious, impertinent townspeople. Pacey almost envied her the camouflage. “Mostly condolence calls, but there was one for you. Girl named Andie? She said she missed you and left a number. I wrote it down and put the Post-It on your door.”

“Thanks.” Pacey's stomach turned over at the thought of Andie. Three days ago, all he wanted in the world was for her to call him; now, he was almost relieved to have missed it. What could he say to her? How could he possibly tell her what happened, when she was struggling to recover from her own experiences with loss?

“That's all I get? 'Thanks?' No explanation? Is she a girlfriend, ex, one-night stand? Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? I know I've been gone awhile, but I'm still entitled to know things about my baby brother's life.”

“Missed your window. A week ago, I wouldn't have shut up about her. It's...different now.”

Gretchen tested the curler and winced, whether from the heat or the thoughts Pacey's rough comment sparked. “Yeah. Most things are. Doug's got doughnuts and coffee downstairs. You really should eat something.”

“Not hungry.” But Pacey took his sister's words as the dismissal they were and headed downstairs. He narrowly avoided breaking his leg tripping over one of his nephew's baseballs on the stairs. He wished he had; it would have given him an excuse not to be there today.

He followed the voices to the kitchen where Kerry and her kids were eating breakfast and Doug was talking on the phone. He was inundated with a chorus of, “Morning, Uncle Pacey,” to which he tried to respond with his usual good humor. He knew he failed. Kerry ignored him, and he returned the favor.

“You have to come! You flew all this way, and now you're just going to—” Doug was cut off mid-sentence by the person on the other end of the line. “Don't you owe him something after everything—But—I can't believe—If that's how you—Fine. Don't come. You checked out of this family a long time ago.” He hung up the phone so hard it rattled.

“Let me guess,” Pacey said, “our prodigal sister has elected to remain MIA.” Pacey hadn't seen his middle sister since her high school graduation five years before. The rest of the family acted like Maddie was some great traitor for leaving town and never looking back. Pacey thought she was damn smart and had planned to do the same ever since. He supposed it didn't matter now.

“She got within twenty miles of Capeside and turned around. I don't know what I'm going to tell Ma.” Only someone who knew Doug like family would be able to see the toll the last three days had taken on him. His dress uniform was freshly pressed, hair crisply parted, shave perfect. Even the whites of his eyes were fresh and clear, while Pacey's were red-streaked from sleep deprivation and tears shed and unshed. But Doug's hands wouldn't still, and the practiced, professional calm had deserted him for a flash of Witter temper.

In the space of one night, Doug had become head of the family. The brunt of the responsibility for all the decisions which had to be made had fallen upon him, from calling the girls, to planning the funeral, to keeping Ma sober enough to function. He had left them only once, to check in at the station and process his bereavement leave, right after Gretchen arrived.

Ma sent Pacey out at the same time to pick up takeout for dinner. Pacey was the last person who should have been chosen for the errand. Unless the smell of charred flesh was wiped from his memory, he didn't think he'd ever be able to eat again. Nevertheless, he returned with the requested chicken bucket and sides.

It was a silent, unhappy meal. Pacey didn't eat a bite; his mother and sisters only pretended. Kerry's kids put it away, though.

Doug returned with more bad news. “Mike Potter died this morning. Before he did, he confessed to aiding in the distribution of cocaine and implicated a rival dealer in the arson.” He looked gravely at Pacey as he added, “Bessie and Joey were with him at the end.”

“Those poor girls,” Gretchen said.

“Good riddance,” said Kerry.

“What!” Pacey jumped to his feet, glaring at his oldest sister. “What did you say?”

Kerry glared right back, though she stayed in her chair. “I said what we're all thinking. Our dad and your friend are both dead because of that lowlife. Why shouldn't I be happy he's dead?”

“Because right now his daughters are experiencing the exact same loss we are.”

“Yes, we all know how much you love the Potter trash. You spent more time in that house growing up than you did in ours. And let's not forget, if you hadn't been there drinking or lighting up or whatever it is you do with that bitch, Pop wouldn't have been there, either, and he'd still be alive. So, really, it's all your fault, Pacey.”

“Enough, both of you,” said Ma.

“That's inaccurate, Kerry,” said Doug.

“Pacey, it's not true,” said Gretchen.

Pacey didn't say anything. He walked out of the dining room and out of the house.

He and Kerry hadn't spoken to each other since.

<><><>

The last time he'd been in this church had been for Abby Morgan's funeral. His primary emotion then had been worry for Andie; he hadn't given a damn about Abby. He remembered Jen's poisonous speech, the horror running through the crowd in its aftermath. Pacey had been one of the few people impressed by Jen's blunt honesty, but he had the discretion to keep it to himself.

He wished now he had a tenth of her courage. His job at the funeral was to sit in the front row, look suitably sad, wrap a comforting arm around crying relations, and keep his mouth shut. He wondered what they would do if he walked up into the pulpit and told the entire town about the kind of man John Witter really was. About beatings and drunken tirades, the list of nicknames his father had for his children, the daughter he'd terrorized so much she wouldn't return home even for his funeral. What if he told them where his black eye really came from?

Pacey wouldn't, of course. Even his family hadn't heard that story. None of them had asked. The charitable interpretation was they assumed he got it in the fire, but the Witter household had a long-established Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy when it came to personal injuries.

The one person who had asked, the one person he'd told was Joey.

After Kerry's nasty comments sent Pacey storming out of the house, he needed to be anywhere but there. Forgoing the Wagoneer in favor of the release of exercise, he grabbed his bike and sped off into the growing dusk. He was almost to Dawson's house before he realized that was where he was going. He slowed, but didn't change direction. The draw of the Leery home was too embedded in his psyche by now to change it. He wouldn't intrude on Mitch and Gail's grief, he decided; he would just sit on the dock by the creek and try not to think for a while.

Light poured out of Dawson's room. Pacey nearly tumbled off his bike. Then he noticed the curtains ruffling in the breeze of the open window. Oh. Of course. He leaned his bike against the fence and rounded the porch to the ever-present ladder. Pacey almost never used this form of entry to Dawson's room; he preferred the door, like a normal person. But he had no desire to disturb the Leerys tonight.

Joey sat at the foot of Dawson's perfectly made bed, in the middle of his spotless room. She wasn't crying, just staring, sightless, at the TV. It wasn't turned on. Her fingers played absently with Dawson's comforter. She was still wearing yesterday's clothes. Pacey would be, too, if Doug hadn't made him shower and change before the trip to the funeral home. From Joey's puffy eyes and dazed expression, he guessed she hadn't got any more sleep in the last twenty-four hours than he had, which was to say, none.

Pacey paused outside the window, hesitant to breach what suddenly felt like holy ground. He squatted outside on the porch roof. He should go. He should stay. He should say something. He made an undecided half-step towards standing, and his tired body betrayed him. He fell on his ass, but luckily not off the roof.

Joey stuck her head out the window. Her expression was panicked, but calmed and then saddened when she saw Pacey. “Oh. It's you.”

“Sorry. I'll, I'll go.”

“No, Pace, I'm sorry. You have as much right to be here as I do. Why don't you come in?” Without waiting for his response, she turned back into the room.

Pacey maneuvered his body through a window made for a much shorter person. Joey sat at the head of Dawson's bed now, headboard at her back, pillow pulled into her arms, for comfort or protection. He stared at the empty half of the bed beside her. Dawson's spot. He swallowed an uncomfortable lump in his throat. His eyes itched.

Joey gasped as Pacey took a step further into the light of the room. “What happened to your face?” She was on her feet, pillow thrown down, as her hands reached out to his tender, swollen eye.

Pacey winced and pulled away from her questing fingers. “Nothing. Just a little going away present from Pop.”

The look Joey gave him was one he remembered from years ago. But not on her face.

“Your mom used to look at me like that,” he said without thinking. “When I'd come over, bruised and battered, she'd give me that look, ruffle my hair, and offer me cookies. Got any cookies, Potter?”

Joey's face had clouded at the first mention of her mother, but his flippant ending made her roll her eyes. “As I recall, you took advantage of my mother's generosity, and half those battle scars were from stupid stunts you pulled with Dawson.” As though saying his name had been the trigger, Joey's eyes filled with tears. Her hands shook; her whole body trembled.

“Did you see him, Pacey?” she asked in a choked whisper. “Did you see his face?”

Pacey had, of course, but he would have died before mentioning it. He should have kept a better hold on her. Joey never should have seen that. “Try not to think about it,” said Pacey, who couldn't stop thinking about it. “Try, try to think, to remember him...”

He couldn't do it. Whatever trite, clichéd words of wisdom he would have offered died on his lips. He pulled her into his arms instead, clung to Joey as the tears which had been mysteriously absent all day poured out of him in a messy, overwhelming flood.

Joey's arms wrapped around his waist, her tears soaking into his shirt as Pacey's fell unchecked into her hair. He had no idea how long they stood like that, crying, holding onto each other for dear life. Time, whether from grief or exhaustion, had become indecipherable today. Hours disappeared without him noticing; minutes dragged by like years.

At some point, the tears slowed to a trickle and then dried. Pacey's throat ached, his eyes burned, his head felt foggy and overstuffed. He didn't let go of Joey.

“It's my fault,” he barely heard her confess. Her head rested on his shoulder, face turned away from him. “If not for me, he wouldn't have been there. If not for my father, your dad would—”

“Hey.” Pacey nudged Joey off his shoulder. He tipped her chin up gently between his thumb and forefinger. “Hey. None of this is your fault. You are not responsible for the choices your father made, or Pop, or even Dawson.” A spasm gripped Pacey's throat. He felt the need to confess, to unburden himself of the knowledge he'd carried inside him ever since the fire, but he couldn't do that to Joey. She had enough weight on her shoulders; she didn't need his as well.

Joey's hazel eyes were so dark they were almost black. The pressure of Pacey's fingers ensured she had to meet his gaze as she made one final confession. “Everyone I love dies.”

Pacey's aching, broken heart shattered along the fissure lines this day had made. He had nothing to say in response, no words to deny the truth of her statement. First, her mother; now, father and soulmate in one night. Pacey hadn't been able to help Andie in her grief, and he couldn't help Joey with hers. He was useless. His fingers lost their hold on her skin. His arm fell back to his side.

Dawson would know what to say, what to do. Dawson was the one who should be here; if he was, Joey's grief would be halved. Unable to hold the words back any longer, Pacey's truth tumbled out. “It should have been me.”

Joey's brow knit in confusion. “What?”

“It should have been me in there, not Dawson. I should have told him to get you out. I should have been the one who stayed.”

“Pacey, it's not—”

Pacey barreled through her attempt at comfort. “Kerry told me tonight it was my fault Pop's dead, and the reason I got so angry is because she got the wrong person. I couldn't have saved Pop. He was doing his job. He may have been a crap father, but he was a good cop. But Dawson...I could have done something about that, could have saved you—and Mitch and Gail—all this pain. I'm sorry, Jo. I should have saved him.” With the final words spoken, the final burden expressed, Pacey felt the full weight of exhaustion settled upon him. He could fall asleep on his feet, could sleep for days, maybe forever.

Joey's eyes swam with tears again. He didn't know where she summoned them from; he was dry as dust. She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Pacey was glad she didn't offer him false comfort. They both knew she would trade his life for Dawson's in a heartbeat. He would bless her right to do so.

Instead of lying words, she offered an honest embrace. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders, and she slowly, hesitantly, nestled her body back against his. After a moment, Pacey's hands reached up to splay across her back and pull her tightly to himself. Joey was built so differently to Andie and Gretchen, taller and with far less of their gentle curves. All her bony angles and the gawkiness he used to tease her for should have made the hug uncomfortable, but it wasn't. For the first time today, he felt...safe.

Joey must have felt something similar. Her body grew heavier in his arms. He softly jostled her. “Potter, hey, Potter, you're falling asleep.”

“Hmm?” was the sleepy reply.

Pacey half-walked, half-carried a stumbling Joey the few steps to Dawson's bed. He laid her down, pulled off her shoes, then pulled the other half of the comforter over her. Joey's body relaxed into sleep, but the stress and sadness stayed etched on her face. The puffiness from crying didn't help. He pushed an errant strand of her glossy, dark hair off her face. How he wished he could do something to help her. But he'd already done her the worst wrong imaginable. He had lived, when Dawson had died.

Pacey walked to the doorway to flick off the light. Gentle moonlight filtered in through the open window. He should go home, leave Joey to her own grief, be with his family in theirs. He pulled out Dawson's director's chair and watched the shadows play across Joey's haunted face.

“They have some nerve, showing up here.” Kerry's hissed whisper broke Pacey out of his reverie. He followed his sister's poisonous glare to the back of the church, where Joey, Bessie, and Bodie, holding the baby, had slipped unobtrusively into the last pew. “I have half a mind to—”

“Do not make a scene at your father's funeral,” Ma scolded. “Other people's bad manners aren't your problem.” Their mother refrained from giving the Potters a single glance, but her face was like ice as she stared straight ahead at Pop's closed coffin.

“Or maybe they're just here to show their sympathy,” Pacey muttered, but they both ignored him. He wished he had the option to sit with Joey and her family, instead of his own. He would do his best to intercept them after, keep them safe from Kerry's anger and his mother's coldness. For now, he contented himself with a small wave at Joey, a silent acknowledgment of her presence. She gave him a tight half smile in return.

Because he was turned toward the back, Pacey was the first to see the Leerys enter the church. A ripple of gossipy, hushed conversation followed their path up the aisle. All of Capeside pitied the parents of the other life tragically lost in the fire—as far as Capeside was concerned, there were only two victims when the Ice House burned down, their beloved sheriff and golden boy Dawson; that Potter trash had gotten what he deserved.

Pacey hadn't seen Mrs. Leery since the fire. She had her makeup on, hair done, the same armor Gretchen and Ma had donned for facing the world, but she clung to her husband's arm and stumbled over her own feet as though unaware where she was going.

Mitch helped her into one of the few empty seats left in the church. He looked even worse than when Pacey had last seen him yesterday morning.

Pacey awakened to a rough shake of his shoulder. “Pacey, Pacey, wake up.”

He stretched out, utterly disoriented, as he took in Dawson's room and Dawson's red-eyed father looking down at the chair where he sat. Pacey's gaze landed on the sleeping Joey-lump in the bed, and the events of the last two days settled on him again with crushing weight. “Hey, Mr. Leery. God, I'm sorry about this. It's not Jo's fault. It's—”

“Don't worry about it.” Mitch waved his apology away, bleak gaze on Joey, who started moving beneath the covers. “I understand why you two would want to be here.” The hand which had shaken Pacey pressed down heavily upon his shoulder. Mitch probably wasn't even aware he was doing it. “You're his best friends.” Mitch's voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. “Were. Were his best friends.”

As Mitch wandered around the room, randomly touching Dawson's things—his signed Spielberg portrait, assorted movie props, a stray sweater lying on the dresser—Pacey thought he'd never seen anyone so destroyed. Mr. Leery was vacant, empty, aimless without his son.

My fault, Pacey knew. He added this moment to the mental list of images by which he'd flagellate himself for years, right alongside Dawson's smashed skull and Joey sitting alone at the foot of his bed.

Joey pushed off the covers, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Pacey recognized the moment it all came rushing back to her. She sat up, bunching the comforter in her fists, and her eyes lighted on Dawson's dad. “Mr. Leery, I—”

She was on her feet and in Mitch's arms in moments. They both started to cry. Pacey decided the kindest thing he could do for them was leave. He shuffled toward the door.

“Pacey, wait.” Mr. Leery's urgent call stopped him.

“Yes, sir?” Pacey hoped Mitch wasn't going to hug him, too. He was pretty sure that would result in him sobbing like a baby, and Pacey didn't want to humiliate himself in front of one of the few adults who didn't think he was worthless.

“I woke you so I could ask...Dawson's funeral is the day after tomorrow. Would you, he'd want—would you be one of his pallbearers?”

If Pacey had managed to eat anything in the last day, the way his stomach clenched would have sent it all to the floor. “Uh, I, yeah, I'd be...” He was going to lose it if he didn't get out of here this instant. “Yes, sir.”

Pacey fled the room, took the stairs three at a time, was out the door, on his bike, and a block down the street when the tears caught up to him.

The six sheriff's deputies, all in dress uniform, carried out John Witter's coffin. Doug led them, face stoic, brave, solemn, everything a son should be at such a moment. He had asked if Pacey wanted one of the deputies to step aside for him, but Pacey had no desire to feel Pop's literal weight on his shoulders. The figurative burdens were heavy enough.

So Pacey's duty was to escort out his mother in the coffin's wake. She didn't lean upon his arm; she barely remembered to take it. All her attention was for her husband's body directly ahead.

Why do you love him? Pacey had always wanted to ask her. Now, it was too late. His mother's love for his asshole father, much like the reason for their disdain of all their children, save one, would forever remain a mystery to him.

They would be following the coffin to a small graveside service, for family and a few invited guests. Then they would join most of the town in a wake at Pop's favorite bar. Pacey didn't want to go. He remembered the last time he'd been there, missing the dart on purpose, his father unconscious on the beach outside. The only time he had the nerve to tell Pop how he really felt. Pop hadn't heard him then; he never would.

Pacey was glad the intermittent buzz in his brain, his rambling memory, and time's funny tricks had kept him from absorbing his father's eulogies. At no point in the service had he been tempted to burst into tears or to jump up and scream, “Lies, lies!” to all and sundry. Between the Leerys' entrance and the coffin's exit, everything was a blur.

Pacey wished that kind oblivion had lasted through the graveside ceremony, as well. The pastor droned on about death and resurrection and other things which would make Lindley see red, but to which Pacey was largely indifferent. But then he started on Sheriff Witter's legacy, praying for the beloved, grieving family left behind. He mentioned them all, adding a special benediction in each name, as if he knew anything at all about them.

“And for Pacey, Lord,” the minister prayed fervently, “I ask for him an extra measure of Your strength, as he faces these final years of adolescence, without a father's loving hand to guide him or wise words to instruct him. That he would grow to manhood keeping his father's sterling example before him, and that he would find in his Father in Heaven all he has lost in John Witter on earth.”

Pacey stopped bowing his head long before the pastor moved on to Kerry's children. He glared daggers at the blowhard hypocrite's head. His father's loving hand? Was that the hand which gave him this bruise on his eye, the scar on his cheek? The broken arm when he was seven, the cracked rib at fourteen? As for wise words, the only advice he remembered Pop ever offering him was not to be such a screw-up, a loser, an idiot. And, for God's sake, don't embarrass the family.

This was his sterling example of what a man should be. A raging alcoholic who patronized his wife, ridiculed his daughters, beat his son.

The coffin was lowered into the ground. One by one, the family were supposed to take a handful of dirt and scatter it into the grave. Pacey watched, unmoved, as his mother and each of his siblings cried during their private goodbyes.

When it was Pacey's turn, he bypassed the handful in favor of the shovel stuck in the dirt pile for the workmen. “I reject him,” he told the horrified pastor, while shoveling heaping piles of dirt into the grave. “I reject his anger and his bitterness. The way he looked at the world. The way he treated women.” There was something immensely satisfying about every pile of dirt landing on that shiny, pristine coffin. “The way he treated me.”

Pacey shoveled more, starting to sweat under the restrictive suit. “I reject you, you bastard,” he yelled down into his father's final resting place. Then he pointed the shovel at the minister's face and added, “And you. And if your god is anything like my father, I might as well reject him, too.” He threw the shovel onto the diminished mound and turned away.

Pacey saw the iciness in his mother's eyes, the disapproval hovering on Doug's lips, the pity radiating from Gretchen, and the bitterness swallowing Kerry alive. “I'm done here,” he said as he walked past them without stopping. They could stay by the grave as long as they liked. Pacey was never coming back.

Chapter Text

The wake was in full swing by the time the Witters arrived. Several of Pop's drinking buddies were well on their way to completely trashed, and their stories about what a great guy John was were getting louder and coarser. The bar reeked of beer and, worse, chicken wings and roast pork.

Pacey's empty stomach protested, the by-now familiar nausea gripping him. Since the fire, his appetite had almost completely disappeared. Common sense made him choke down what he could, an apple here, a piece of toast there. But the smell of cooking meat continued to cause flashbacks to the bodies by the Ice House. Pacey feared he had just become the world's most unlikely vegetarian.

He tried to block out the smells and the memories. He searched the crowded room for any sign of Joey or her family. He spotted the Leerys instead, by the bar, not saying a word to each other or anyone else. Pacey started forcing his way through the crowd to them.

“Pacey.” Mr. Milo stepped into his path. The guidance counselor looked up at him, solemn expression on his face. “I was hoping I'd get a word with you today. I'm so sorry for your loss. In light of everything that's happened, I've convinced your teachers to let you retake your finals, even the two before...well, before. You probably can't think about that right now, but, please, give me a call in a week or two. We need to schedule your exams.”

Vacantly, Pacey nodded. He knew Mr. Milo had done him a huge favor, wished he were able to appreciate it. But thinking about finals made him think about Andie, his father, the bruise on his cheek, the fire. One long chain of misery. An unrelated thought somehow found its way into his brain. “And Joey? You'll let her make up the tests, too?”

“Joey? Oh, Josephine Potter. Yes, of course, poor girl. I believe you two shared a few classes, but if you'd rather avoid her, given the circumstances, we could test you separately.”

“I'm fine testing with Jo,” Pacey said through gritted teeth. He was so damn sick of Capeside's attitude toward the Potters. The next person who spoke a word against them was going to feel Pacey's fist in his face.

“Hey, Pacey.” Jack's hand landed on his shoulder. Pacey turned to see his friend, with the much shorter Jen Lindley being jostled by the crowd. “How you hanging in there?”

Pacey shrugged. “Still breathing. Puts me ahead of the curve this week.”

Jack winced. His hand dropped away.

“I know we're not really friends who do this, but...” Jen stepped close to him and stood on tiptoe to wrap her arms around his neck and pull him into a hug. “You look like you could use one.”

Pacey hugged her back, surprised and touched by the gesture. “Thanks, Lindley.”

“Sorry to bring it up, when you're going through so much, but we need to talk about Andie.”

Pacey let go of Jen and stepped away. He turned to Jack, trying to keep his expression and tone neutral. “What about her?”

“I called Dad and told him what happened. He talked to Andie's doctors about it. They said in her condition she's not ready to hear about it yet. She's, she's still seeing Tim. But it's also news she can't be released without knowing, so they're asking Dad and me and you—we're the only people cleared for communication with her—to keep this from her for now. When they think she's ready to hear it, they'll let us know. I'm sorry, Pacey.”

“Yeah, no, it makes total sense. Gotta do what it takes to make her well, right? That was the deal.” Despite his flippant words, Pacey felt sick as Andie floated even farther out of his orbit. How were they supposed to maintain a relationship if he couldn't talk to her about something as life-shattering as this week had been?

He glanced around at the milling guests. The Leerys had disappeared. “Have you guys seen Joey?”

“I saw her at the funeral,” Jen said. “But I think her family went home after.”

Pacey nodded. It was probably for the best. They didn't need to be deluged with nasty Capesidians in the middle of their own grief. “It was good of you guys to come. You didn't even really know Pop.”

“Didn't have to. I know you,” Jack said softly.

“Mind if I ask a question? Why's your suit covered in dirt?” Jen brushed a muddy spot off Pacey's white shirt, while gesturing to the six inches of dust coating his shins.

“Made a bit of a scene at the internment. You'd have enjoyed it, Lindley.”

Jack groaned. “That's not exactly the most comforting of endorsements. What did you do?”

“What I was supposed to do. Said goodbye to my father.”

“And just think,” said Jen, “tomorrow, we get to do the whole thing all over again.”

A hush fell over the three of them in the midst of the noisy crowd. Pacey contemplated consigning his best friend to the earth. He wouldn't make it through; he was barely holding it together now.

“Mr. Leery asked me to be a pallbearer.”

Pacey grimaced. “Me, too.”

“My reputation must precede me, because no one asked me to deliver the eulogy.” Jen's joke fell flat.

“—and Witter said to me, 'Hell, Dave, that's what we call bait where I come from.'” Raucous laughter followed this anecdote.

Pacey was choking, gagging, stifling in this room of too many people, too many smells, not enough air. “I gotta—sorry.” With no better explanation, he rushed outside, away from his friends.

He made it as far as the darkened front corner of the building before the retching started. There was almost nothing in his stomach to be rid of, some coffee and water and bile. Dry heaves continued long after that was gone, until Pacey was on his knees, crying again. He didn't even know why, what he was feeling, grief or anger, humiliation or physical pain. All of the above.

“Here.” Gretchen held out a water bottle to him. “Drink this.”

Pacey took it, rinsed his mouth out, spat, then drank greedily. Slowly, feeling dizzy, he rose to his feet. “Thanks.” He didn't know what else to say.

“No problem. So. My day's been great, how 'bout yours?”

Pacey started laughing. Hysterical, mirthless laughter, which caused him to lean against a nearby car. He was so shaky, it was that or fall over. Gretchen pulled herself up to sit on the hood and waited for his fit to pass. It did as suddenly as it began.

“I want to wake up,” Pacey told her when he could speak again. “I want to wake up and have it all not be true.”

“We all do. Do you know I can't remember a single moment of yesterday? It's just gone. There's three days ago, when I got Doug's phone call; two days ago, when I came home; today, with the funeral, and yesterday...what happened yesterday, Pace?”

“Uh, yesterday was meeting the minister and the flowers and some other stuff. Why? What does it matter?”

Gretchen shrugged, shook her head. “It doesn't. None of it does. But it bothers me.” She slid back to the ground. “You know what I think? I think we've both done as much pretending as we can manage for one day. Let's go home.”

Home being less than a mile away, they chose to walk, rather than return to the party in search of a ride. Neither had the energy or spirits for words, but Gretchen leaned on Pacey's arm throughout, footsore after a day in heels. The touch comforted him, a reminder he wasn't alone in this.

Gretchen kicked off her shoes as soon as they walked in the door. “I'm gonna change, then get something to eat. You should join me, before you end up in the hospital for malnutrition.”

Pacey flushed. He'd thought his eating difficulties had escaped notice in the chaos of the last few days. “Sure.” He climbed the stairs to his room, making a wish his sister wouldn't expect him to eat anything which once had legs.

The Post-It with Andie's number on it stood out in bright neon orange against his door. Pacey left it there.

He shed his suit with relief, then surveyed its ragged state with a grimace. He pulled on a gray t-shirt, green Hawaiian-print over it, and some khaki shorts, then grabbed his filthy clothes and carried them downstairs with him.

“Hey, Gretch,” he called, as he headed toward the kitchen, “any chance you know how to clean this before tomorrow?”

Gretchen looked up from the peanut butter sandwiches she was making. She scowled at the wrinkled, filthy clothes. “Sure, Pace, you know I run a dry-cleaners out of my room.”

Pacey gazed blankly at the clothes in his hand. “What am I supposed to do about Dawson's funeral?”

Gretchen sighed. “Leave it on the counter. I'll see what I can do.”

“Thanks.” Pacey deserted the suit in favor of a sandwich. The peanut butter sealed his mouth shut, so he pulled out a couple of glasses and poured some milk. He handed one to his sister.

She nibbled at the edges of her own sandwich. “You know what I can't stop thinking about? That summer Dawson left those notes and presents for me.” Gretchen rubbed a finger around the rim of her glass. “I should have been nicer to him.”

Pacey snorted. “The main reason he had a crush on you was you were too nice to him.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Well, that, and—I admit this with a brother's deep-rooted aversion to an objective fact—you're hot.”

“Gee, thanks,” she said ruefully. They chewed in silence for a moment, before she added, “God, this must be so hard on Joey.”

Pacey tried hard not to picture her face, but he couldn't block out the echo of her words. Everyone I love dies. “I want to help her. I just don't know how.”

“Be there for her. Only thing you can do.” Gretchen frowned at her half-eaten sandwich. “Only thing any of us can do for each other.”

Pacey squeezed his sister's shoulder, then let go. “I'm gonna head to the Potters' now. Thanks for the food. Don't forget my suit.”

Pacey drove the Wagoneer the few miles down the road to Joey's house. Bessie answered his knock. He could see Bodie behind her, feeding Alexander at the Potters' small, multi-purpose table.

“Pacey! I didn't expect to see you tonight. How are you?” Without waiting for an answer, she pulled him into a tight hug.

He gave her a light squeeze in response. “Okay. I've been getting a lot of these lately, for some reason.”

Bessie pulled him inside and shut the door. In the light of the house, he could see the puffiness of her face, the dark circles under her eyes. She looked like hell. Unsurprising. They all did. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?”

“No thanks, Bess. Just ate. I came over to thank you all for coming to the funeral today. That can't have been easy, and I wanted you to know that not all the Witters were oblivious to the gesture.”

Tears swam in Bessie's warm eyes. “I'm so sorry, Pacey. For what my dad did. For what you lost. If there was any way I could make it up to you—”

Pacey raised his hands in protest. “Whoa. No apologies to me. You're not responsible for what your dad did, and the way I see it, you and Joey lost as much as I did, probably more. We're good.”

Bodie nodded his head in curt, masculine approval of Pacey's words and wrapped an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders.

“So, uh, is Joey here?”

“She took off as soon as we got home. Three guesses where, and the first two don't count.”

Pacey frowned. The funeral ended hours ago. It couldn't be good for Joey to spend all her time in Dawson's empty room. “Right. Guess I'll go check on her.”

After another hug from Bessie, Pacey headed back outside. He glanced at the jeep, but headed for the dock. Joey had taken the rowboat, but he could swim the creek faster than he could drive around to Dawson's. He left his sandals and Hawaiian shirt on the dock, reflecting that he hadn't been kind to clothes today. Then he jumped into the brook.

The slap of the cold water on his skin was better than multiple cups of coffee for fighting off the accumulated exhaustion of the last few days. Pacey swam as straight across as he could, given the pull of the current. He appreciated the exercise, the rhythmic motions, the minutes of not thinking beyond the next stroke. He was almost sorry to reach the opposite bank.

He came ashore a short jog downstream of Dawson's and kept moving, kept fighting against thought. He didn't slow until he was climbing the ladder and realized what a sight he must be. Clothes streaming water, shivering from cold and exertion, lungs heaving, muddy, bare feet. More likely to terrify Joey than comfort her.

This time, when he knelt by the open window, he saw Joey sitting at Dawson's desk, writing something. She was still wearing her black dress from the funeral. The wastebasket overflowed with wadded up paper.

“That better not be a suicide note.”

Joey didn't jump. She had no doubt heard him on the ladder. “It's his eulogy. Mr. Leery asked me to deliver it after you ran out of here yesterday.”

Pacey shifted his weight as he awkwardly squatted on the porch roof. “Sorry about that. I thought even your disgust for me might increase if you saw me sob like a baby twice in less than twelve hours.”

Joey swiveled her chair, allowing him to see her fully for the first time since he arrived. She gave him one of her sad smiles, but her face was swollen and almost unrecognizable from tears. “Don't be ridiculous, Pacey. Nothing could increase my disgust for you.”

He smiled at the barb, relieved she was capable of banter. “I wouldn't be so sure of that, Potter. You haven't seen what's under my bed.”

“And never will, if there's a God above.” She looked at Dawson's empty bed and added in a softer tone, “Something I'm less and less sure of these days.”

“I'm way ahead of you. Made a scene at the burial today which even Lindley would envy.”

“You didn't!” Joey walked over and knelt by the window. “What did you do?”

“I buried my father. With a few touches distinctly my own. They may or may not have gotten me banned from church, and I'm pretty sure Gretch is the only member of my family speaking to me.”

“She's the only one you like anyway.”

“True.” Growing uncomfortable in his cramped position, Pacey turned and sat, back to the wall. The sunny day had turned into a crystal clear night, with myriads of stars in the sky and a three-quarter moon shining down.

“Uh, Pacey, what's with the drowned rat look? Thinking of turning hobo?”

“It's not the worst idea. We could build a raft and sail it up the creek till we reach the mighty Mississippi. Whatcha say, Big Jim?”

“I say your geography is even worse than your literary references. This creek in no way connects to the Mississippi River.”

“Shucks. Guess I'll have to settle for rowing you home, then.”

Joey bit her lip, sorrow settling on her features like a shroud. “It's okay. I think I'll sleep here again.”

“He's not coming back, Jo,” Pacey said gently. “No matter how long you stay, he's not coming back.”

Tears bled into her hazel eyes. She swiped them angrily away. “You don't think I know that?”

“Knowing and believing are different things.” But Pacey had no words of advice after that. He couldn't bridge the gap for her, any more than he could for himself. He changed the subject. “So how's the eulogy coming?”

“You know what they say, forty-seventh draft is the charm. I wish Mitch had asked you. Bad enough trying to write it; tomorrow, I'll have to say it in front of everyone, without breaking down and making a fool of myself.”

“Mr. Leery made the right call. You know—knew—” Joey flinched at his verb tense. “—Dawson better than anyone. And if you get nervous, just picture me in my underwear.”

Joey snorted. “Maybe I'll picture you in my underwear.”

“Ooh, kinky.” Pacey waggled his eyebrows and shot her a lascivious grin. Joey punched his shoulder. “Ow.” He was only half kidding when he reached up to rub the spot. The girl always could throw a punch.

“Thanks for reminding me how much I loathe you. I almost forgot with you being so uncharacteristically nice.” Her voice quavered as she added, “I wish you'd stop.”

Those words hurt far more than the punch. “Why?”

“Because it makes me think about why you're being nice. About what I've lost, what we both have.”

Since kindergarten, Dawson had been both the rope Pacey and Joey tugged between them and the peacekeeping buffer zone in their wars with each other. It was impossible to be near her now without feeling his ghost hovering.

“It sucks you feel that way, Jo, because for me, you're the only person it doesn't hurt to be around.” Pacey frowned. That wasn't right; he'd said it wrong. “I mean, it hurts. I can't stop hurting...it's just anytime I've been near anyone the last three days, anytime someone even asks me how I'm doing, I get this buzzing in my brain, an itch under my skin. I want to punch and hit and scream at the top of my lungs, and the longer they stick around, the worse it gets. Whereas with you, I feel...sad, I guess. But the right kind of sad.”

He made a point of looking at the creek, not at her, while he made his confession. He heard her release a heavy breath when he was done.

“Since...it happened, I don't like being near anyone, either. But of all the people around, I guess you're the easiest to tolerate.”

“High praise indeed, Miss Potter. And on that note, it's time for me to be off before you open your mouth again and ruin it.”

“How could I, when you never shut up?”

Pacey smiled, then turned toward her to ask more seriously, “You're sure I can't persuade you to go home? Bessie's worried about you.”

“We're all worried about each other. That's the way it goes. But I need one more night here to...I just need one more night.”

“Okay.” Pacey jumped to his feet. “Guess I'll see you tomorrow.” He couldn't make himself say where; they both knew. On impulse, he leaned over and kissed the line where her forehead met hair. “Night, Jo.”

Her surprised, “Night, Pacey,” followed him down the ladder.

Pacey waved to her from the dock then took another cold plunge.

Chapter Text

All of Capeside turned out to say goodbye to Dawson Leery. As with Abby Morgan before him, the death of someone so young became a common tragedy which obscured who Dawson had actually been in light of what he represented. Lost potential. Youth snuffed out. An unjust world.

Pacey saw tears on faces of girls who wouldn't speak to Dawson when he was alive. Solemn looks on jocks who shoved Dawson aside if he stepped in their path. People Pacey didn't recognize, who had probably never heard of Dawson Leery before this week.

They're the extras, his friend's voice whispered in his mind. Just there to fill the scene. A good director would focus on the characters who matter.

The Leerys sat in the front row. Gail's sister Gwen sat beside her, holding her, while her shoulders shook with grief. Mitch gazed at his wife with a kind of hopeless empathy. All ability to act had been stripped from him with his son's death.

Pacey couldn't bear to look at them anymore, to see their heartbreak and know he could have prevented it, if only he'd been less selfish. It should have been me, he told the closed mahogany coffin of his friend. It should have been me.

Mrs. Ryan sat in the pew behind the Leerys. Surprisingly—or maybe not, given all that had happened—Jen and Jack sat beside her. Pacey hoped it presaged good things for them. Something good should come out of all this mess.

Unlike yesterday, the Potters sat prominently in the front row, across from the Leerys, directly in front of Pacey's family. Gretchen had hugged both girls when they entered, and Kerry had at least enough tact to keep her mouth shut. But both she and Ma were among the masses shooting cold looks at their backs.

Sitting behind Joey, Pacey had the absurd urge to wrap his body around hers and shield her from the scrutiny. She sat, oblivious, shoulders slumped, head bowed, through the early parts of the service. She jumped like someone coming out of a trance when the minister called her name.

Pacey couldn't resist reaching forward and giving her shoulder a supportive squeeze. Joey glanced back and forced a brave half smile before standing. Her legs shook all the way to the pulpit. The crackling of her unfolding speech was loud in the quiet, tense church.

“'If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
'”

Joey didn't lift her head from her paper until she finished reading the poem, and then it was to look over the mourners' heads, not at their faces. “I don't know if Dawson ever helped a robin, but by all the other measurements Emily Dickinson used, his life—however short, however unfairly taken—” She stopped a moment, a spasm playing in her long, slender throat. “—was not lived in vain.

“I know that better than anyone. I was one of the hearts, one of the lives, he saved. When my mom got sick, when she...died, when my father,” Joey's voice broke, taking Pacey's heart with it, “when he went to jail...Every crisis of my life, big or small, overblown teenage melodrama or genuine human tragedy, Dawson was there for me. Whether that meant listening to me rant, dispensing his own brand of rose-colored advice, or sitting beside me in silence while the world fell apart, he was there to 'ease the aching.'

“But it wasn't just me. Dawson's room was the preferred oasis of all his friends. When home was unbearable,” her eyes flickered down from the rafters to find Pacey's, “when you had nowhere else to go,” and Jen's, “Dawson's door was always open—and his window unlocked, for the more delinquent among us. And when you got there, maybe you'd discuss your problems in hyperbolic, polysyllabic terms, or maybe you'd watch E.T. for the two hundredth time. Either way, you'd feel better by the time you left. That's the kind of guy Dawson was.

“When I was writing this, I tried to think about what Dawson would say if he were here now, what advice and comfort he'd give me, what words of wisdom he'd want to be remembered by.” She took a deep, bracing breath. Pacey noticed Gretchen crying softly beside him and put an arm around her.

“I couldn't. I couldn't think of a single thing. My mind doesn't work the way Dawson's did. Even in the midst of unimaginable tragedy, he would find some silver lining, some reason to hope. Without him, I don't know how to do that.

“I'll miss a lot of things about Dawson—innumerable things. I'll miss his sense of humor and his practical jokes, though they were usually at my expense. I'll miss his extensive vocabulary, his love of movies, the way his hair caught the sunlight, and the way his hand fit in mine. But what I'll miss most, what is irreparable in his loss, is the way he saw the world. You can call it naive, or idealistic, or even foolish, but the truth is the world could use more Dawson Leerys. And my world needed this one.”

Joey rushed back to her seat without looking at anyone. Bessie drew her little sister into a hug. They both cried.

Pacey zoned out for the rest of the service, until it was time to join the other pallbearers by the casket. He was to stand at the front of the coffin, opposite Mitch Leery. Mr. Leery was the strongest man Pacey knew, but his arms shook as they lifted his son's coffin to their shoulders.

Pacey felt the weight of his best friend's mortal remains settle upon him, and at the same time—heavier—the weight of his legacy. Joey might not know what Dawson would have said to her, but Pacey could hear his friend's final request as clearly as if the words were actually spoken.

Look out for her for me, Pace? She's going to need someone.

She needs you, Pacey thought bitterly. But I'll do my best.

He had to. It was the last promise he made to a friend whose death should have been Pacey's own.

<><><>

“So do we think Dawson would have loved or hated this?” Jen sat on the window ledge of Dawson's bedroom, staring down at the assembled masses in the Leerys' yard.

“Hated it,” said Joey, at the same time Pacey said, “Loved it.”

Seated at Dawson's desk, Jack swiveled his gaze back and forth from Joey on the bed to Pacey in the director's chair. “Which is it?”

Pacey looked to Joey to explain her answer first. “All that hypocrisy, all those strangers out there, acting like this is their loss.” She spread her hands, as though the answer were obvious.

“Exactly,” Pacey countered. “If Dawson were here, he'd have escaped with us to his room and spent the night pontificating on human foibles. He'd have been amused in general, and knowing it was all for him would stroke his ego.”

Joey glared at him. “He'd have been disgusted and incapable of understanding behavior so far removed from what is right.”

“Okay, okay,” Jen said, still looking out the window. “For what it's worth, I think you're both right. Dawson would have loved and hated this.” She frowned as something below caught her eyes. “He would have been sick at what it's doing to his parents, though.”

A respectful silence fell over the group.

After a few minutes, Jack broke it. “One of the few memories I have of Tim's funeral is my dad sobbing on his knees by the coffin. I try to remember that every time I'm tempted to hate the man.”

Pacey's stomach knotted as he remembered his mother crying in his arms the night Pop died. What was it that made parental grief so much harder to bear than one's own?

“I think Mrs. Leery blames me,” Joey said softly. She bit her lip and twisted her hands in her lap.

“Has she said anything to you?” asked Pacey, instantly protective. He'd worked hard all day to shield Joey from his family, but he had never imagined he would have to protect her from Dawson's.

“No. That's just it. She hasn't said a word to me.” Tears swirled in Joey's hazel eyes—a rich, golden brown today.

Pacey tried to comprehend that kind of rejection from a woman Joey looked to almost as a second mother. He hoped it wasn't true. “She's mourning, Jo. I don't think she has words to say to anyone.”

When he arrived at the Leerys' this afternoon, he had hugged Dawson's mother and whispered the trite, ineffectual, “I'm sorry.”

Gail had held him tighter, told him, “Oh, Pacey,” and wept on his shoulder. He was almost getting used to being a depository for women's tears.

That had been his only direct interaction with Mrs. Leery since the fire.

“Pacey's right, Joey,” Jen said. “Gail's not handling it well, and who could blame her? But you can't take it personally.”

“I guess,” Joey muttered. “It's just a feeling I get.”

Pacey wanted to hold her, but Jack moved first. He deserted the desk for the bed and drew Joey into his arms.

“It's going to be weird and awful, living next door again and remembering every day that Dawson's not here.” Jen faced the gathering outside and perhaps missed the interplay between the others.

“You're moving back in with your grams?” Pacey wasn't unduly surprised after seeing them at the funeral today. “Poor Jack. Everyone deserts him.”

“Not me. I'm bringing him with me.” Jen finally faced her friends with a soft smile. “It was one of my conditions.”

“Unbelievable. She kicks you out for behavior unbecoming, and you're the one making conditions.” For once, there was no malice in Joey's comment to Jen. She sounded impressed.

“Mistakes were made on both sides,” Jack interposed quickly, “but I think it's good they're trying again. And that we'll both have a roof over our heads.”

“And on that note, we should probably head back to your place and finish packing.” Jen stretched out from the windowsill. She looked at Joey on the bed, pity and hope written across her expressive face. “Joey, I know it can in no way make up for what you lost, but, if ever you decide to row across the creek again, I'll leave a window open for you.”

Joey's face reflected her surprise. “Thanks, Jen. I'll...I'll think about it.”

Jack gave Joey another hug and Pacey a clap on the shoulder, and he and Jen said their goodbyes.

Silence fell as Pacey and Joey adjusted to the change. In the absence of their friends, the ghost of Dawson filled the room again.

Pacey sat at the foot of the bed, facing Joey at the head. “You gave a good speech, Jo. He would have loved it.”

“It still needed work. I ran out of time.” She must have worked on it all night, given the dark circles under her eyes.

“At least it's over now.” Pacey glanced out the window at the orange-tinted sky and listened to the muted sounds drifting up from down below. “Two down, one to go. When is your dad's funeral anyway?” He hadn't heard or seen anything about Mike Potter's arrangements since the death notice in the paper. He could understand why Bessie and Joey might want to keep it private, but he intended to be there to support them.

“We're not having one.” Joey pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms tightly around them. “We had him cremated. Bessie and I are arguing about what to do with the ashes. She wants them put at Mom's grave, but he doesn't deserve to be with her. I suggested dumping them outside his prison, but Bess got so upset I sorta wish I hadn't. Right now, they're on the mantle, but I can't handle looking at them, thinking about him, everyday. We'll probably just scatter them in the creek one of these days.”

As opposed to when she talked about Dawson and the loss threatened to swallow her whole, when Joey talked of her dad, she sounded hollow, empty. Pacey's father had been a different brand of horrible, but he could relate. Anger and bitterness clashing with grief and all the issues forever unresolved. It was exhausting. Easier to numb yourself and not feel any of it.

“What was it...” Pacey stopped, frowned, started again. “Feel free to tell me to shut up and mind my own business, but what happened at the hospital? Doug said you and Bessie were there.”

Joey was quiet so long Pacey thought she wasn't going to answer. He could hardly blame her. He kicked off his shoes, unknotted his tie, and lay down beside her. Joey didn't object, and the combination of exhaustion and grief made him unwilling to leave this room.

“Awful,” she whispered finally, when Pacey was half asleep. “It was awful. You saw what he, what he looked like after the fire. His voice didn't sound the same, and we couldn't touch him, and he started telling us and the police what he'd...all the time, practically from the moment he got out, he was back to the same shit that got him locked up in the first place.”

Joey's voice rose in volume and anger as she spoke. Tears dripped unheeded down her cheeks. “Even if he'd lived, he would be back in jail now, and we'd have lost him anyway. And because of what he did, you lost your father, and Dawson...Dawson...” She fought off a sob to add, “You know what the worst part was? He said he did it for us, that he loved us and wanted to give us a better life.”

Pacey sat up and pulled her against his side. Joey's hands didn't unlock from her knees, but she buried her face in his neck. He could feel her tears like raindrops landing on his skin. “People justify their actions however they need to. It doesn't make it your fault, Jo. Pop had reasons for beating me, too. To toughen me up, make me see sense, make me a man. Doesn't make it right.” He sighed, then admitted, “Doesn't mean they didn't love us the best they were able.”

Joey didn't respond in words, but she released her death grip on her legs and stretched them out beside his. Her arms wrapped around his waist, and her whole body seemed to shrink down into his, her head pillowed against Pacey's chest as she continued to cry. He held her close and stroked her hair, his mind awake and busy for the first time in days.

“Hey, Jo,” he said, when the plan was fully formed, “you know Pop's boat? How about if I took you and Bessie out in it. You could scatter his ashes at sea. I know it's a cliché, but...”

Joey pushed herself up from his chest, wiping her eyes. “No, no, it's fine, but won't your family mind? I mean, we can't be their favorite people right now.”

Pacey shrugged. “Technically, it's Doug's now, and he won't care. He's gonna sell it, anyway. Talk to Bessie, and if you both want to, you can meet me at the pier tomorrow at, say, five o'clock. That would give us time to be out to sea by sunset. And if it's not what you want, that's fine, too.”

Joey was looking at him in a quizzical fashion. Pacey squirmed under her scrutiny. “What?”

She shook her head. “If I needed more proof that the world turned upside down this week...Pacey Witter, bane of my life, is killing me with kindness.”

“Well,” Pacey laughed nervously, “since you're inoculated against my insults and you don't wear your hair in braids anymore, it is the only weapon left in my arsenal.”

Joey kissed him softly on the cheek, then settled down against him once more. She laid her head against his chest and yawned. “Don't get any ideas, Witter, but I haven't slept in two days, and you make a nice pillow.”

“Even I have to be good at something,” he joked.

Pacey shifted to accommodate her weight, as Joey's body slowly relaxed against him, her breathing evening, deepening. He felt relieved, pleased she trusted him enough to sleep in his arms. Then he thought about where they were, about the lifetime of sleepovers Joey had had in this room. Maybe with the familiar bed and the familiar room, she was able to trick herself into believing it was Dawson's arms around her, Dawson's heart thumping under her ear.

Pacey didn't begrudge her the illusion, especially not if it brought her much-needed rest. But as he buried his face in her hair and drifted off to sleep, trying to place the delicate, floral scent of her perfume, Pacey didn't imagine he was holding anyone but Joey.

Chapter Text

Everything about waking up was disorienting. The sounds—birds chirping, creek flowing, bees buzzing, instead of Kerry's kids yelling and doors slamming. The smells—like most people, Pacey was immune to the smells of his own room, but multiple, unbiased sources had convinced him they were noxious; this morning, his nose tickled with something pleasant and vaguely familiar—jasmine, maybe?

Eyes still closed, he moved slightly to take it in and froze at the tickle of long strands of hair against his face. He blinked, confronting Dawson Leery's bedroom ceiling and, with some adjustment, the most disorienting thing of all—Joey Potter sleeping, cuddled against his body.

Oh crap, he thought. Morning wood was an unavoidable reality in the life of a healthy teenage boy, but the average morning didn't involve waking up in bed with his best friend's girlfriend draped over him. Her black skirt had ridden temptingly high on her endless, golden legs, legs which were tangled far too intimately with his. Her even breath fluttered against his throat, stirring the hair on his neck.

Oh crap, he thought again. How did Dawson survive this every week?

One time, when he was thirteen or fourteen, Pacey asked Dawson if he ever felt Joey up when she was sleeping over.

Dawson's whole face had turned tomato red. “Gross, Pacey! I don't think of Joey like that!”

“Like what?” Pacey asked, clueless.

“Like a...like a girl!”

He remembered how he'd marveled, how he'd mocked Dawson for not noticing Joey was a girl. Pacey had always been aware of it. When they were five, and he teased Dawson for playing with her, because he might get cooties. When they were seven, and pulling her braids was his favorite pastime. When they were twelve, and he witnessed her embarrassment at getting her first period in the middle of history class. That same year when the sight of Joey Potter in a bikini gave him his first erection.

But now, if he was going to keep his silent vow to look out for her, Pacey needed to take a page out of Dawson's book and forget she was a girl. It would help if she had grown up less gorgeous.

In the immediate crisis, thoughts of Dawson and Pop and everything that happened tamed the morning beast.

Dawson's alarm clock read a little after seven. Considering the sun hadn't set when Joey fell asleep last night, she'd been out for a good twelve hours. Pacey was glad. She needed it. He felt refreshed, too, after his first full night of sleep since the fire.

His right arm, the one under Joey's back, was asleep. He wiggled it experimentally and felt the tingles. Would pulling it free disturb her slumber? Pacey didn't want to wake her, but he did want his arm back. And he had to piss. Gently, checking repeatedly that Joey stayed asleep, he maneuvered her away from him.

He headed to the bathroom, hoping his presence wouldn't scare or upset the Leerys. He needed to talk to them. After relieving his bladder and washing his face and hands, Pacey shook out the wrinkles in his suit, to no effect. Gretchen had performed some sort of miracle to make it wearable yesterday, but he despaired of the rental place ever taking it back now. Oh well. Once he got home and changed, he was done with suits. For life.

Pacey crept down the stairs. He smelled coffee in the kitchen, but didn't hear voices. Maybe one of the Leerys was awake. He peeked in and found he was wrong—both of them were. Gail sat at the kitchen table, already dressed and ready for the day, but staring vacantly into the coffee mug in her hands. Mitch was at the stove frying eggs and—Pacey's stomach rebelled—bacon.

“Morning, Mr. Leery, Mrs. Leery. Hope I'm not intruding.”

Gail pulled her gaze away from the mysteries of her cup to look at Pacey. She didn't smile, but she didn't seem upset, either. “Not at all, Pacey. I was hoping to see you before I left.”

“Want some breakfast, Pacey?”

“No, thanks, Mr. Leery. I'm, uh, not hungry.” Pacey took a seat at the table across from Dawson's mother. “You going somewhere, Mrs. Leery?”

“To Philadelphia. I took a job there, didn't you know?”

Pacey frowned. He remembered Dawson telling him his mom was thinking about a job out of state, not that she'd accepted one. “Congratulations, I guess.” Maybe the new job would be good, help her to think about something other than her loss.

Mitch slammed the frying pan down as he transferred the food onto plates. Obviously, he wasn't happy about his wife's move. Pacey tried not to speculate on the state of their marriage in light of recent events.

“Here.” Mitch pushed one of the plates in front of Gail and sat down with the other. “Joey still sleeping?” he asked Pacey.

Pacey felt a flush climbing up under his collar. “Uh, yeah. How'd you know we stayed over?”

“Saw you kids head up there. Jen and Jack came down; you two didn't.”

“I, uh, I think Joey's not ready to leave his room behind. It's always been her safe place.” Pacey watched the gloom settle over Dawson's parents and wished he'd said anything else. “I'm taking her and Bessie out on Pop's boat this evening to scatter their dad's ashes. They're not having a funeral, partly, I think, because they're convinced no one would come. But I thought it would be a nice gesture if a bunch of their friends showed up for this, you know, to offer their support.”

“That's a good idea, Pacey. What—”

“I won't be there,” Gail interrupted her husband to say. There was a chill in her tone which reminded Pacey uncomfortably of his own mother.

“Gail—”

“What, Mitch? I won't be there because I'll be in Pennsylvania by sunset. It's a perfectly valid excuse. You can give the girls my regrets if you so choose. But even if I were here, I would not have anything to do with this.”

“It's not Joey and Bessie's fault, what their dad did.” Pacey tried to moderate his voice, in deference to Mrs. Leery's grief, but his anger was rising.

“And what about what Joey did?”

Pacey frowned, confused. “What?”

“That girl spent the last year tying my son up in knots, treating his heart like it was her plaything.”

“Gail—”

“Oh, I know your opinion, Mitch. I've heard all about your opinion. And I acknowledge that were my son not six feet underground right now, I would be willing to forget it as normal teenage angst. But he is dead!” Gail screamed the last, tears streaming down her face. “My only son is dead, and that girl made the last year of his life a misery.”

A choked sound brought Pacey's attention to the doorway—and Joey's retreating back. He was out of his chair and after her without another word to the Leerys.

“Jo, Jo, wait up,” he called as she raced across the lawn to the dock. Pacey caught up with her as she stepped into the boat. He didn't try to dissuade her, just jumped in with her and grabbed the oars.

“Leave me alone, Pacey.” Joey's habitual scowl was undermined by the tear tracks on her face.

“Sorry, can't do it. For a girl who crosses the creek on a nightly basis, you suck at rowing.” He maneuvered the boat away from the dock and headed to the Potters'.

Joey looked out across the water, biting her lip, fighting back tears.

“She didn't mean it, Jo. She's hurting and desperate to blame somebody, anybody.”

“But she's right! I was horrible to Dawson. You saw it; you know.”

“What I saw was a girl trying to figure out her life. Look, did you give Dawson some rough times this year? Yeah, sure. But you also gave him some of his best times. Actually, go ahead and look back before this year, over the past ten years, and you'll see you were part of most of his best memories.”

Joey didn't look comforted at all. “I was a crappy girlfriend.”

“You were new at it, and you were getting better. Dawson was on top of the world since you've been back together. And yeah, it sucks that you had some hard times this year, but what you're really feeling—and Gail, too—is frustration because you should have had more years to make more memories and more mistakes. You were robbed of that.” Because of me, he added silently.

Joey was crying again, but that was better than her blaming herself. Pacey rowed in silence to the Potters' dock and tied off the boat.

“Were you still thinking to take your dad's ashes out on Pop's boat tonight?” he asked as he helped Joey up.

“Five o'clock, right?”

Pacey nodded.

“I'll talk to Bessie and let you know.”

<><><>

Doug was fretting about the boat being overloaded, but Pacey tuned him out, eyes scanning the docks. Everyone was gathered—he'd told them to be here by a quarter to five—except the guests of honor. By Pacey's watch, it was ten past, and he wondered if they'd changed their minds at the last minute. They were perfectly entitled to do so; he'd just have to think of something else.

He spotted Bodie first, carrying Alexander. Bessie was next to him with a simple black urn in hand. Joey trudged slowly along behind.

Pacey jumped onto the dock to greet them.

Eyes wide, Bessie lurched to a stop when she saw the loaded boat. Joey, not watching where she was going, almost bowled her sister over. When she looked up, her jaw dropped. “Pacey, what did you do?”

Pacey shrugged. “You didn't have a funeral. Some of us wanted to pay our respects.”

It wasn't an overwhelming crowd, but Doug and Gretchen had come along. Mitch Leery showed up alone. Pacey had invited Jack and Jen, and they had surprised him by bringing Mrs. Ryan, as well. Given that lady's contentious history with the Potters, Pacey had been worried, but she'd told him, “No one deserves to be orphaned,” and primly taken a seat in the bow.

Bessie put a hand to her mouth and fought back tears. Bodie gave Pacey an appreciative nod; he thought Bessie's boyfriend was starting to like him. Joey, on the other hand, took a step backwards, as though contemplating making a run for it.

Pacey took her hand and pulled her to the boat. “Come on, Jo. Suck it up, and let people care about you.”

Doug insisted on piloting. The lack of trust galled Pacey, but he let it go and joined the others. Gretchen asked to hold Alexander and started a conversation about his merits, which pulled in Bessie and Mrs. Ryan. Mr Leery took Joey to the stern, where he held her hands and spoke to her in a voice too soft to carry. He was probably apologizing on behalf of his wife.

“White Knight Pacey strikes again,” Jack said, as he and Jen took seats on either side of him.

“Whatever, man. Anyone could have done this.”

“Could have? Sure. Would have?” Jen shook her head, a smile tilting up the corners of her mouth. “You're gonna have to face it someday, Pacey. You're a really special guy.” She patted his knee.

“Hey, careful there, Jen. I've got instructions from my sister to keep him safe, single, and chaste until such time as she returns. Speaking of which, have you spoken to her since she left?”

Guilt squirmed in Pacey's gut. There had been another message from Andie on the machine when he got home today. “I'll call her tonight,” he promised.

Mitch wrapped Joey in a tight hug. Pacey breathed a sigh of relief at the gentle half smile on her face when the two rejoined the group.

Capeside was no more than a haze of lights on the horizon when Doug killed the engine. The sky was awash with rose and gold. They sat in silence as Reel Action rocked on the choppy sea.

“So how should we do this?” Bessie asked.

Pacey was uncomfortably aware of all eyes turning to him. “Uh...” He cleared his throat. “However you want, I guess.”

“Okay.” Bessie took a deep breath and stood, holding the urn cautiously in front of her. She walked to the rail.

“It is customary, dear, to say a few words over the deceased. Perhaps a prayer.”

“Grams,” Jen warned.

“Or some anecdote or reflection on his life,” Mrs. Ryan added.

“Great idea, Mrs. Ryan. Should I start with the time he cheated on my dying mother, or the time he was carted off to prison? Or, I know, how about that time he got my best friend killed?”

“Joey,” said Bessie, near tears, “please, don't do this.”

Joey crossed her arms and slumped down in her seat, but she did shut up.

“I have a story to share,” said Gretchen. Pacey turned to his sister in surprise. So did everyone else. “I remember one day, I must have been nine or ten. It was summer, and I was roller skating around town with my friends. I saw Bessie and Joey walking out of the ice cream parlor with their dad. You each had a giant, two-scoop ice cream cone and were walking on either side of him. Mr. Potter was laughing. And, in that moment, I remember wishing he was my dad.”

Joey sat up a little straighter, arms loosening.

“I still remember the day, oh, it must be almost twenty-five years ago now,” said Mrs. Ryan, “when Elizabeth Potter made her entrance into the world. It was a fairly recent development, then, having fathers in the delivery room. But your father was there through all thirty-six hours of labor. He caught you and cut the cord, and he cried with more joy than I had ever seen in a man's face.”

Silent tears rolled down Bessie's face, but she smiled. “I didn't know you were the nurse on duty, Mrs. Ryan.”

“She was there when Dawson was born, too,” Mitch said softly.

“And Pacey and Josephine. I have seen an awful lot of life come into this town. And leave it, too.” Mrs. Ryan wrapped an arm around Jen, who laid her head on her grandmother's shoulder. “What I have found to be most important in both those times is what you have here, a group of people gathered together to shower you in love and support.” She looked pointedly at Joey.

The breeze picked up. Joey walked to her sister, rubbing her arms against the chill. “I remember him carrying me around on his shoulders. How tall I felt, how fearless. The world looked so far away, but I knew I was safe, because my daddy had me.”

Bessie sniffled. “The night I had my first date, Mom had to work. It must have been a full hour Dad struggled to get all my stupid barrettes just the way I wanted them. Then he held me tight and called me princess and told me how much he loved me. I can't hate him, sis. I know he did terrible, unforgivable things, but I can't hate him. He's my daddy.”

“Mine, too,” Joey whispered.

Together, the Potter sisters spread their father's ashes over the water.

<><><>

A whirlwind of hugs and tears followed their docking back at Capeside. Bessie even hugged Mrs. Ryan, much to her surprise.

“Hey, Pacey, can I talk to you a minute?”

Pacey finished tying off the boat. “Sure thing, man. What's up?” He stood and faced Bodie. Alexander slept against his father's shoulder.

“Walk with me.” Bodie set out along the pier, away from their families. Small lantern strings and the waxing moon provided the only light. Pacey kept step with the other man, curious but clueless as to what Bodie had to say.

“You're a stand-up guy, Pacey. Arranging this for them. The way you've been looking out for Joey, the things you said to Bessie the other night...I appreciate it.”

“I sense a but coming.”

Bodie laughed. “Not exactly.” He stopped at the end of the pier and looked out at the ocean. “My uncle's got a restaurant in Hartford, and he's offered me a job there. I leave next week.”

Pacey's stomach bottomed out. “You're taking them with you?”

“I'd like to, but it's not going to happen. Bessie's working on the insurance stuff, and she won't leave her mother's house. So I'll be sleeping on my uncle's couch and sending every cent I can back here.” Bodie bent his head into his sleeping son's and kissed his hair.

“Can't you find a job in Capeside?”

“I've asked at every restaurant. No one's hiring. I would love to stay, but I have to provide for my family, and this is how I can do that.”

Pacey frowned. “That sucks, man. I'm sorry. But why tell me?”

“Because I have a favor to ask. We don't know each other that well, but it's not for me, it's for them.” He nodded back at the Potter sisters, who were chatting with Gretchen. Joey shot them a curious look.

“Anything. Just name it.”

Bodie's smile at his quick response was a little too knowing. “Thought you'd say that. Just...look out for them for me, yeah? Make sure they're all right.”

“You realize if either of them learn the substance of our conversation, we are both dead men. The Potter women, as they are quick to inform you, can take care of themselves.”

Bodie laughed again. “That they can. And yet...”

“And yet,” Pacey agreed. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I'll keep an eye on them. I would have, even if you hadn't asked.”

“That's what I figured. Like I said, you're a stand-up guy.” He held out a hand for Pacey to shake.

They walked back to Bessie and Joey. Bodie put an arm around Bessie's waist. “You ready to go?”

“Be there in a minute,” Joey said and let the others head to the truck without her. When they were out of earshot, she turned to Pacey, suspicion written all over her face, and asked, “What were you two talking about?”

“The Red Sox chances this year. God, Potter, when'd you get so nosy?”

“Right about the time you got so secretive.”

“Maybe it's not your business. You ever think of that?”

“Fine. Don't tell me.” Joey pouted, petulant and worried. She looked to the parking lot where Bessie and Bodie were buckling Alexander into his car seat. “I should go. Bessie wants to have an all-night heart-to-heart. At some point, we have to run out of tears, right?”

“Not if you keep properly hydrated,” Pacey teased, giving her arm a light, supportive squeeze.

Joey put her arms around his waist and hugged him. “Thank you, Pacey. This was...I didn't know I needed it, but I did.”

Pacey put a friendly arm around her and hugged her back. “Again, Potter? Hugs and appropriate displays of gratitude are becoming bad habits with you. You'd better watch it, or I might stop fearing your wrath.”

She pushed away a bit to smile up at him, but her hands remained wrapped loosely around his middle. “Do something to incur it, and it will descend on you with as much fury as ever. But you've developed a bad habit of your own lately.”

“Oh yeah? What's that?”

“I told you before. Kindness.” The momentary lightness fell away from her, leaving that broken girl he knew all too well. But her eyes were warm, green with flecks of chocolate in the lantern glow. “Night, Pacey.” She kissed his cheek, another new habit he wished she'd forget, then broke away to join her family.

“Night, Jo,” he said into the quiet night.

<><><>

Pacey sat on his bed, staring at the Post-It with Andie's number on it. He held the portable phone in his other hand and tried to convince himself to dial. It wasn't that he didn't miss Andie. He did. But before the fire, he was living in this delusional dream where Andie was the only person who mattered. That dream was in ashes now, like the Ice House, like Mike Potter's body. The world was wider and scarier and crueler than Pacey had known before.

The irony was Andie knew all about the world's cruelty. It was the reason she was in that place. If he could only talk to her about everything, he knew she would understand. Maybe she could even help. But Andie wasn't well and couldn't help, and the only way he could help her was by keeping his sorrow to himself.

Thus, the twenty minutes spent staring at the phone, playing out conversations in his head where he somehow managed not to tell his girlfriend the truth and not lie to her, either.

Andie needed to know she was loved, she was missed. He could do that. Pacey dialed the number.

“Mayfield Center. This is Janine speaking. May I help you?”

“Hi, I'm calling for Andie McPhee.”

“Who is calling, please?”

“Uh, Pacey Witter.”

He could hear the receptionist—or nurse?—typing on a keyboard. “Yes, Mr. Witter, I see you are an approved contact for Miss McPhee, but it is rather late. I'll see if she's still awake. Hold, please.”

Pacey listened to the elevator music and imagined the nurse walking to Andie's room and bringing her back. It seemed private phone calls were not allowed at Mayfield Center. Or maybe just not in Andie's condition.

“Hello? Pacey?”

All of Pacey's doubt and fear left him at the sound of her voice. He found himself smiling for no reason at all. “Hey, McPhee.”

“Pacey.” The relief in her tone echoed his own. “I've been worried sick! Did you get my messages? Why did it take you so long to call? Where have you been?”

Just like that, the sick feeling was back. He thought he would have a few more minutes before the verbal tightrope began. Keep the focus on her, he reminded himself. She's what's important.

“Sorry. Things have been cr—chaotic around here this week. But what about you? How are you doing?”

“All right, I guess. It's beautiful here, and some of the other patients are nice. But I feel like I'm being watched all the time, like the doctors don't trust me.”

“They want to help you get better, McPhee. We all want you to get better.”

“I know, I know.” She sounded irritated, not soothed, by his words. “So what kept you too busy to talk to me? I want to believe it was studying for finals, but, without me there to keep you in line, I have this nagging fear it was shenanigans with Dawson.”

“Shenanigans? Okay, Grandma.”

“Paaaacey,” Andie whined. “You know what I mean. You're not in any trouble, are you? How did you do on your finals?”

“Jeez, fifteen seconds ago, you were my grandma; now you're my mom. No, I'm not in trouble, ye of little faith. I'll have you know I was called a stand-up guy and a knight in shining armor just today.”

“Uh-huh. Right. And your grades?”

Pacey fought off a surge of anger. Why the hell did his grades matter so much? She doesn't know, he told himself. The interest Andie took in his academics had always pleased him. He had only tried for her. He couldn't resent her for it now. “Uh, not sure, haven't got my report card yet.”

“But how do you think you did?”

“I think someone is going through exam withdrawal and is trying to live vicariously through me. It's summer, McPhee. Can we not talk about school?”

“You're right. I'm sorry. So, you and Dawson have any big plans for vacation?”

Pacey winced. “Not really. Jack was talking about us driving down to see you once the doctors say it's okay.”

“Oh.” Andie sounded far less enthused than he expected her to be. “Oh,” she said again.

“What's the matter? You don't want us to come?”

“It's not that. It's just...I want to be better, Pacey. I want to be completely and totally well again and not have you see me as the mental patient you have to take care of, but just as Andie, your girlfriend.”

“Andie, I only ever see you as my sweet, sexy, lovable girlfriend.”

He heard her happy sigh over the phone. “I love you, Pacey.”

“I love you, too.”

“Janine's tapping her watch. I'd better go. Miss you.”

“Miss you, too.”

The receiver clicked as Andie hung up the phone.

Pacey turned off his extension and lay back on his bed. He thought about Andie. And Jack and Tim and Mrs. McPhee. He thought about Mr. Milo and the tests he needed to make up. He thought about Mike Potter and Dawson and Pop. About Kerry and Ma, Doug and Gretchen. He thought about Bodie and Bessie and Joey and Joey and Joey...

Chapter Text

He was searching for something, or someone, he didn't know what. He couldn't see through the smoke and flames on every side. He stumbled on blindly, unsure of his own direction.

A burning man stepped into his path. “Idiot!” the pyre screamed in Pop's voice, and a flaming hand struck him across the cheek.

Pacey whirled, the blow, the smoke, his burning lungs sending him to the ground...where Dawson's eyes stared at him, accusing, from within a shattered skull. Flames leapt up to devour his friend, but Dawson's eyes continued to burn their own mark through Pacey, as the smell of roasting flesh made his stomach revolt...

The nausea woke Pacey from the nightmare. He barely made it to the toilet before the few remnants of food in his stomach came back up. His body was covered in cold sweat, and he sat on the tile floor, leaning against the wall, waiting for the tremors to subside.

The scents invading his dream did not dissipate upon waking. Ma was cooking up breakfast sausage. Pacey knew his presence was required at the farewell meal before they loaded up Kerry and her kids and sent them home. But he delayed going down as long as possible. He took a shower, brushed his teeth again and again, even started cleaning his room.

“Pacey, get your lazy butt down here!” Doug called up the stairs.

Pacey groaned. He owed Doug for the boat yesterday. He had to go. By the time he trudged down the stairs, everyone else was sitting around the table, their gaze judgmental. He had a flash of Dawson's eyes in his dream and forced back bile. “You didn't have to wait.”

“We're a family,” his mom said. “We eat together.”

He slipped into the empty seat between her and Gretchen. As if it had been an unspoken signal, everyone dug into their food. Pacey took a biscuit without gravy and choked it down with the aid of large quantities of coffee. He wished he had nose plugs to block out the smell of the meat.

“Kerry, I believe you have something to say to Pacey?” prompted Deputy Doug from his new place at the head of the table. Doug and Kerry had been a team in the Witter household before the other children were even born.

Kerry sighed, turning to Pacey. “I'm sorry. I know it wasn't your fault.”

“Don't worry about it,” said Pacey, mind full of Pop and Dawson, real and imagined. “Most things are, right?”

The phone rang, a welcome distraction.

“I'll get it.” Pacey jumped to his feet before anyone else could. He went for the closest line, the one in the kitchen. “Witter House of Pancakes.”

“Hello, is this Pacey? This is David Olsen.”

Pacey was surprised to hear from his boss, as he had been granted two weeks off at Screen Play for a death in the family. “Morning, Mr. Olsen. It's me. What's up?”

“I was wondering if you'd be willing to come in today. I know it's late notice, but my youngest is sick, and I haven't hired someone new yet, and—”

“No sweat. Happy to do it.” Not a lie. Anything which got Pacey out of the house was by definition good.

“Thank you. You can open late if you want, but I'll need you to stay till closing.”

Pacey agreed once more before returning to his family. They'd overheard enough to realize it was work and not give him grief about leaving. He hugged his nieces and nephews goodbye, and he and Kerry shared a stilted embrace, as well. Then he took off.

Of course, the part his family didn't hear and that he had no intentions of telling them was that he didn't have to go in right away. He drove to the Potters' instead of work.

Joey answered his knock. She was wearing pajamas—a red tank-top with blue and red checked pants—and no makeup, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Despite the red-rimmed eyes, which Pacey was beginning to regard as status quo in everyone he knew, she looked beautiful. It was annoying how beautiful she was.

“Hey, Pacey, you realize it's summer, right? Aren't you usually in bed at this hour?”

Pacey shrugged. “Have to work. But I had some time and thought I'd stop by first. May I come in?”

She stepped back and ushered him into the Potters' comfortably cluttered front room, which doubled as Joey's bedroom. The fold-out sofa had already been put away, and Alexander played on the floor amid scattered toys. “You know, you've really got to stop doing this.”

“Doing what?” Pacey asked as he sat on the floor by Joey's nephew and started stacking blocks.

“Worrying about me. As you can see, life in the Potter household continues its daily grind. Don't you have people in your own house to fuss over?”

“'Fussing' is even less appreciated in Casa de Witter. Besides, did you ever stop to think I might be here on my own behalf?”

“You?” Joey sank to the floor, back to the sofa, long legs bending with thoughtless grace. “Need something from me? Not possible. And if it was, you'd die before you'd admit it.”

“Wrong on both counts.” Alex sent a car across the rug to Pacey, and Pacey rolled it back. “Turns out death in the family grants a stay of execution from the school board, but not a full pardon. So I need to reschedule and study for finals, and—as my favorite study partner is unavailable for the indefinite future, and you have to make up a lot of the same tests—I wondered if you were willing to join forces.”

Joey paled beneath her golden skin. She bit her lip and said nothing.

“Jo? Mr. Milo did tell you we could make up the tests, didn't he?”

Joey nodded, still looking shell-shocked.

“What's wrong? Too soon? We could maybe push it back to mid-summer, but—”

“It's the last thing we did.”

Her soft interruption confused him. “Huh?”

“Studying. It's what we were, what we all were, or were supposed to be doing when...”

“Oh. Right.” Pacey focused on Alexander and his yellow dump truck and didn't look at Joey. He was such an idiot. He'd spent the drive over here trying to think of a plausible excuse for spending time with her, and studying had made perfect sense. He should have realized the memories it would dredge up. “I'm sorry, Jo.”

“No, I'm sorry. I'm being stupid. I mean, we're in high school. We probably spend half our days studying.”

“Speak for yourself, Potter.”

He earned a slight upward tilt of her lips, victory enough for the moment. “The point is if I stopped doing everything that reminds me of, of him, I'd die of inertia. We need to study. It might help, actually, thinking about something else for a while.”

“Good. So, study buddy, when should we start? I'm at the video store all day, but we're never that busy if you want to come by.”

Joey shook her head vehemently, and Pacey winced. Of course she didn't. Dawson worked there. “No, that's okay. I promised Bess I'd watch Alexander while she meets with the insurance people and runs errands with Bodie. If you want, you could come over after work.”

“Are you sure? It won't be until after nine.”

“It's not like you'll be disrupting my sleep,” Joey pointed out. “But if you'd rather wait—”

“No, tonight's good. Thanks, Jo.” He awkwardly stretched back to his full height. “I guess I'd better get to work.”

Joey stood as well, to see him to the door. “See you later, Pacey. I am glad you stopped by. It weirds me out, but I may yet get used to it.”

“First tolerate and now get used to?” Pacey faked a swoon. “Why, Miss Potter, I declare, you surely know the way to a man's heart.”

“As if you have one,” Joey shot back and pushed him out the door.

<><><>

Pacey made a stop at the market before heading to work. He loaded up on snacks, both healthy—carrots sticks, grapes, an orange—and not—a bag of Doritos, a Coke, Snickers bars. He gave the butcher counter a wide berth. His goal for the day was simply to keep food down. Even by his standards, his clothes were becoming too baggy.

The long hours at the video store dragged by with little to do. Pacey wrote a letter to Andie. He thought it would be an easier form of communicating with her than on the phone where the secrets choked him. He kept the tone of his letter encouraging and light, focused on how much he missed her and all the things they would do when she was well.

He played movie after movie in the store's VCR, without absorbing any part of them. Even porn didn't hold his interest.

He thought about Dawson. He tried not to think about Dawson.

Late in the afternoon, Jack stopped by. “Got anything that would satisfy three tastes as diverse as a gay teenage boy, a New York sophisticate, and a conservative, religious grandmother?”

Pacey scrounged around a few minutes, then handed Jack a copy of The Philadelphia Story. “Here. Try this.”

Jack looked dubious. “Black and white's not really my thing.”

“That's for Grams. The witty repartee is for Jen. And for you, my friend, I'm told people find Cary Grant attractive.” Pacey shrugged. “Or you could just go with The Princess Bride. Everyone loves The Princess Bride.”

“As you wish,” Jack joked. “I'll take both. When you're done here, you should come over and join us.”

“Sounds fun, but I'm studying with Jo tonight. We have exams to make up.”

“Right. Well, if you guys need a break or company or a midnight snack, you know where to find us.”

Gretchen popped in a little while later on her way to work. She was staying in Capeside for the summer and had taken a job as a waitress at a local bar. “'Cause nothing makes a girl feel better about herself than being leered at by drunk townies for measly tips.”

“Careful. Those are my future people of whom you speak.”

Gretchen shook her head. “No way, little brother. You're going to do something fantastic with your life.”

“Uh, Gretch, what house did you grow up in? Because I'm pretty sure my lack of potential was an established fact by the time I tripped over my shoelaces on the way to getting my kindergarten diploma.”

“You're smarter than you give yourself credit for, Pace. But there are many different measures of success, and the qualities which make you great aren't ones you can learn in a book.”

His sister's praise made him uncomfortable, so Pacey responded with a glib, “Think you could convince Mr. Milo of that? Then I wouldn't have to waste my summer studying.”

“Why don't you ask Joey to help you?”

“Already did.”

Gretchen's mouth stretched in a knowing smile. “Of course you did.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Pacey asked, irritated.

“Nothing,” she said in an annoying, sing-song voice which meant the opposite.

“It's not like that. I have a girlfriend. Joey's my friend, our lives are both shit right now...” Gretchen's persistent grin made Pacey explode. “She's my best friend's girl, remember?”

He got what he wanted. Gretchen's smile vanished in an instant. “God, I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking. I know you both are grieving Dawson. It's good you have each other.” She pushed off from the rental counter. “I'd better get to work. I really am sorry for teasing you.”

Pacey bid his sister goodbye and chose not to think about her off-base suspicions. Even if he didn't have a girlfriend he was madly in love with—which he did—Joey Potter was off-limits, now and always.

<><><>

Pacey decided he should bring something with him when he went to the Potters. It was late for dinner, though, and entering a restaurant would probably cause him to fail his daily goal. But growing up in a house with three older sisters had taught him one valuable life lesson about women—it was never a bad time for ice cream. Or chocolate.

He made another quick stop at the market and picked up a pint of triple fudge brownie.

Lights were on at the Potters', but it was Bessie who answered his knock. She had worn makeup today—probably for the meeting with the insurance company—and her mascara had run from recent tears.

“What's wrong?” Pacey asked without preamble.

Bessie shook her head, threw up her hands. “What isn't? Joey's out sulking on the dock. She'll no doubt fill you in.”

Pacey passed through the house on his way outside, in order to grab a couple of spoons from the kitchen. He hurried his steps, wanting to be there for Joey, yet dreading some new catastrophe.

Joey sat on the end of the dock, staring out at the dark water. She wore a purple tank-top and cutoff jean shorts; her endless legs dangled over the water, half-hidden in the night. Without saying a word, Pacey sat beside her. He placed the pint of ice cream between them and pried off the lid. He held a spoon in front of her face until she deigned to take it, then scooped out a large bite with his own.

With a sigh, Joey followed his lead. “I thought you were coming to study.”

“Forgot my books.”

“Forgot your books, but stopped for ice cream?” Joey shook her head in disbelief. “How Andie made you an A student I'll never know.”

“Well, you'd best figure it out, Potter, since my academic success in the immediate future depends on you.”

Joey had a curious way of eating ice cream. She turned the spoon upside down in her mouth, then let it slowly slide out as the cold dessert melted off it. Like so much about her, it was disturbingly hot.

“For starters, bring your books next time,” she said, drawing Pacey's attention back to the conversation.

“Books. Got it. That's the kind of thinking that gets you the good grades.”

“How's this for proof of my deductive skills: last night, when Bodie pulled you away, he told you he was leaving town and asked you to look in on us.”

Pacey studied Joey's face by the flickering light from the porch and the moon. Despite their banter, she looked miserable. “Bodie told you about the job.”

“Yup. He picked a perfect time for it, too. Right after my sister listed all the debt we're in from Dad's renovation projects, but before she told me the insurance company is claiming the Ice House was a front for criminal activities so they're not obligated to pay.”

“They can't do that! Bessie paid for that policy, and she didn't know anything about what your dad was doing.”

“Proving that would take a lawyer and a court fight, and those things cost money, which we clearly do not have.”

Pacey was filled with indignation. He wanted to fix this for her, whatever it took. Even the unthinkable. “I'll talk with Doug about it. Maybe a visit from Capeside's finest will make them think twice.”

Joey snorted. “Deputy Doug can't intimidate his baby brother. You think he has a chance against heartless, soul-sucking, corporate misers?”

“Hey, he's Acting Sheriff Dougie now. Show some respect.”

“Right.” Joey looked across the creek, continuing to eat ice cream in her maddening way. “I imagine they'll have a special election to fill your dad's office. Is Doug going to run?”

Pacey shrugged. “Don't know. Haven't asked him. I hope not. Doug's got a few too many Judy Garland albums stuffed in the closet with him to go into politics.”

“You could run his campaign for him. You were pretty good at that during the whole student president fiasco.”

“So good my candidates resigned in disgrace and my girlfriend began the mental unraveling which has since landed her in the nuthouse.”

To his surprise, Joey let out a short burst of hysterical laughter. “Sorry, sorry. It's not funny, it's just...our lives really are the worst.”

“My rafting down the Mississippi idea is starting to look more appealing to you, isn't it?”

“Reassuring to know it's an option, anyway.” Her gaze drifted to the solitary light shining from the Leery house. “When I came out here, I was so upset about Bodie, and the money, and all of it, I did what I always do. I was in the rowboat and about to cast off, before I remembered.”

Pacey dropped his spoon in the melting, half-empty carton. He'd lost his appetite. “I'm surprised you didn't go anyway.”

“I thought about it. But at the end of the day, you're right. He isn't going to be there to give me answers, or listen to me rant, or be my safe place. Besides, I knew you were coming over and decided to save you another night swim.”

“Thanks for that. I'd have survived it, but I'm not sure about the ice cream.”

One side of Joey's mouth tipped up. “So. The ice cream is melting, and you have no books. Do we call it a night?”

“We could still put that rowboat to use. We've been invited to a double feature with Jack and Jen at Mrs. Ryan's house.”

“Not interested,” Joey said quickly, paling.

“For the last time, Potter, Mrs. Ryan is not an actual witch. This fear of yours was funny at seven; now, it's just pathetic.”

Joey elbowed him in the ribs. “It's not about that. Although now you mention it, I did once make a solemn vow never to cross the threshold of her abode of evil.”

“Then what is it? Jen? She legitimately wants to be your friend, Joey. You could at least let her try.”

“I'll pick my own friends, thank you very much,” she snapped, but afterwards deflated, shoulders slumping, as if anger was too strong an emotion to hold onto. “Anyway, it's not Jen, either. It's...movies.”

“Oh. Right.” Pacey kicked himself for his stupidity. Movies were Dawson's Holy Scriptures. The cinema, his temple. Hollywood, his Mecca. They must be anathema to Joey now.

“It's ridiculous. To think of going through my whole life never seeing another movie...Maybe it will fade with time, but the thought of them makes my palms sweat and my head ache. Bessie turned on a soap opera yesterday, just for the distraction, and even that...I felt like my ribs were in a vise, my airway constricted. I almost passed out, before Bessie noticed and turned off the TV. She thinks it was a panic attack. Stupid, I know.”

The shame-faced way in which Joey told the story made it easier to make his own confession. “The smell of meat,” he said, idiotically, as if that made sense at all.

Joey's brow, naturally, furrowed in confusion. “What?”

Pacey tried again, aiming for coherency, his macho pride be damned. “Anytime I smell meat cooking, it's like I'm back at the fire. I can't eat, I throw up, and I'm pretty sure I'm a vegetarian now.”

Joey was silent for several minutes. They listened to the creek flow past. “On the plus side,” she said finally, “I hear vegetarianism is beneficial for your long-term health. Assuming you actually start eating vegetables and don't exist wholly upon ice cream and potato chips.”

“When you think about it, movies and television rot your brain and consume valuable time you could be spending more productively,” Pacey returned in kind. “You were already one of the best students in school. Without movies splitting your focus, you could become the out-and-out nerd you've always longed to be.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “Bite me.”

“Name the time and place, Potter. But to return to our original discussion. Studying is out, movies are out. Drinking sounds more appealing by the minute, but we don't have any booze. Any suggestions for what a couple of wild and crazy teenagers could do on a summer's night like this one?”

“I am unacquainted with the 'wild and crazy' kids of whom you speak, but I think the best solution for the depressed, grieving people we are is just to go to bed.”

Unbidden, an image of himself and Joey entangled in the sheets sprang into Pacey's mind. He shoved it savagely away. Forget she's a girl. “Yeah, all right. I didn't mean to keep you up. See you tomorrow? I promise I'll bring my books.”

“You don't have to go. I mean, if you want to, that's fine. But if you want to stay, that's...fine, too.” It was impossible to be certain in the low light, but Pacey thought Joey blushed.

“You want me to stay here tonight?” Pacey asked as neutrally as possible. There was zero chance Joey meant that in any lewd or improper fashion, no matter how red her face was.

“Well, yeah, I mean, if you want...” Joey's stammering reply trailed off before she rallied and met his gaze as she said, “The truth is I haven't been sleeping since it happened, and the two times I did sleep through the night you were there. I'm aware that I may be confusing correlation for causation, but what the hell? It's worth a try, right?”

“Uh, right.” Pacey tried to follow her logic, while preparing himself for another night with Dawson's girl.

“Okay, then.” Joey grabbed the ice cream and spoons and headed into the house.

“Not a girl, not a girl,” Pacey chanted under his breath before following her.

She was putting the carton in the freezer when he stepped inside. “You want to fold out the couch while I brush teeth and change?”

“Sure.” Pacey obeyed her instructions on autopilot. This was not his life. Nothing which had happened in the past week made any sense. Obviously, when his father slapped him the last time, he had fallen, hit his head on something sharp, and was now living in the most bizarre, lucid coma dream of all time.

Pacey grabbed Joey's blankets from under the end table and started making the bed. Joey emerged from the bathroom in time to help straighten the comforter. Thankfully, her pajamas covered up more skin than her clothes had, being lavender flannel, perfectly cozy, unbelievably adorable.

“You want to borrow something of Bodie's?”

“Nah, they're already in bed. Don't bother them.” He wondered what Joey's guardians would think of this impromptu sleepover. But they'd never been bothered by her nights at Dawson's. Given that Joey's bedroom doubled as the living room, this was much less private than that. Besides, Pacey loved Andie, and Joey loved Dawson, so there was nothing to worry about.

Pacey went to the bathroom. Lacking a toothbrush, he put some toothpaste on his finger and managed as well as he could. He washed his face and looked in the mirror. Barely concealed panic stared back at him. He couldn't get Dawson's dead, staring eyes out of his head.

She's yours, D-man. I get it. I know, Pacey silently sent the thought out into the ether.

He waited a long time before returning to the living room. Joey was in bed already, curled up on her side, facing away from the empty space awaiting him.

Pacey slipped off his shoes and his over-shirt, then got into the squeaky, springy, uncomfortable bed. He lay on his back, but hugged the edge of the mattress, not wanting to invade her space. “Night, Joey.”

“Night, Pacey.” She flicked off the last lamp, leaving them in darkness.

Pacey folded his arms behind his head and stared at nothing. He tried to think of ways to help the Potters with their financial woes, not about one particular Potter lying two feet away from him.

Suddenly, it was a lot less than two feet. Joey turned over, moved closer, and laid her head over his heart. “Is this okay?” she asked in a small voice.

His answering, “Yeah,” emerged in a higher octave than he would have wished. He pulled his left arm from under his head and wrapped it around her, laying his hand gently on her back. “Yeah, Potter, this is just fine.”

Chapter Text

Breakfast smells roused Pacey from a surprisingly deep, long sleep. Pancakes or waffles—no bacon or sausage to smother his appetite. He opened his eyes to the endearing sight of Joey Potter snuggled against him with all the trusting innocence of a child. Her dark hair fell over her face and matted under her head. Her face, relaxed in sleep, made him feel ridiculously protective of her.

The thought of Dawson was an immediate and much-needed boner-killer.

Light filtered in from the Potters' kitchen, along with the low sound of an oldies radio station. Pacey disentangled himself from Joey, threw on his sandals and his orange over-shirt and made his way there. It was impossible his overnight stay had escaped Bessie and Bodie's attention, and he wanted to clear the air as soon as possible.

Bodie was making waffles, while Alexander wiggled to the music in his high chair. They both smiled at Pacey when he walked in.

“Hey, Pacey, can I interest you in some breakfast?”

“Sure, why not? Thanks.” Pacey held his hand out to Alex for a high five—a skill Joey's nephew had recently acquired.

“Coffee's in the pot. Orange juice and milk in the fridge. Help yourself.”

Pacey pulled a mug down from the cupboard, finding it strange that Bodie wasn't wringing his neck. Maybe Bodie believed the condemned was entitled to a last meal. “So about my staying over, I want to assure you it was perfectly innocent.”

“I'm not the one you have to convince of that.”

At that moment, the Potters' backdoor burst open. “I took the damn walk, Bodie; now, I'm calm, cool, and,” Bessie's eyes narrowed to slits as they settled on Pacey, “ready to kill you.”

Pacey spread his hands in innocence and took a step back from the angry woman glaring up at him. “Bess, I swear—”

She reached forward without warning and grabbed his ear. “Come with me.”

Pacey had no choice but to follow her out into the early morning sunlight as Bessie dragged him by the ear. They were halfway to the dock before she let go.

“Nothing happened!” he spluttered, rubbing his sore, reddened earlobe. “Joey asked me to stay because she slept better that night...” He stopped, face flushing as Bessie's eyes widened in a new burst of anger.

“So this wasn't the first time you spent the night with my baby sister?”

“Nothing happened!” Pacey repeated. “Completely platonic.”

“That's not the point!”

“It seems like it should be at least part of the point. I mean, you never objected to her weekly sleepovers at Dawson's.”

“Dawson was her best friend. Dawson was her first love. And Dawson wouldn't know what to do with a girl if she stripped herself naked and said, 'Take me, I'm yours.'”

For the merest hint of a second, Pacey was tempted to laugh. Then he remembered Dawson was dead, dead before he ever started to live, and it wasn't funny anymore. “I would never touch Joey, Bess. You have to believe me. She was my best friend's girlfriend!”

Bessie crossed her arms and looked Pacey up and down, but some of the anger left her expression. “My sister is vulnerable right now, maybe more vulnerable than she's ever been. I gotta know I can trust you not to take advantage of that.”

Rage at the accusation mingled with habitual self-loathing. Bessie had known Pacey most of his life. Was that really how she saw him? “Joey asked me to stay,” he said again. “I did not and will not violate her trust. Whether you choose to trust me or not is entirely up to you.” Pacey stomped around the side of the house and to the Witter Wagoneer. He drove away without a waffle, a cup of coffee, or a goodbye.

<><><>

When he reached home, there was a small U-Haul parked in the driveway. Pacey thought for a moment it was the fulfillment of a reoccurring childhood nightmare—his family was moving away and leaving him behind. Then he saw Dougie emerge from the back, box in hand.

Pacey caught up with his brother, falling in step as they reached the porch. “Deputy Doug. What's all this?” He opened the door and stepped back to let his brother pass.

“I'm moving back in for a while. Ma needs the extra help around here.” Doug didn't break stride as he headed up the stairs.

“What are Gretch and I, chopped liver?” Pacey muttered under his breath. But he knew, as far as Ma was concerned, they were. “Moving in where, exactly?”

To Pacey's horror, Doug turned into his room. “Trust me, it's not my idea of an ideal living situation, either. I should have worn a gas mask cleaning out this garbage pit yesterday.”

Pacey's eyes bulged. All of his stuff had been rearranged to occupy only half the room, while Doug's bed, desk and dresser now took up much-needed floor space. “I don't get a say in this?”

“You might have, if you were around for more than two minutes together. As it is, between your townie days and absentee nights, you won't even notice I'm here.”

“Play any of that godawful crap you think passes for music, and trust me I'll notice.”

Doug deposited the box against a wall and headed back downstairs. “Says the boy whose favorite songs lack even the trace of a melody.”

Pacey tromped down the stairs behind him. “Seriously, Dougie, you don't have to do this. I can help Ma out more.”

“Please. Even assuming you remember that promise longer than five minutes, we both know you lack the initiative and the skills to follow through on it.”

Pacey froze in the doorway, everything he hated about both himself and his family rooting him to the spot. Any faint hope he had that things would be different with Pop gone was now effectively smashed.

Doug continued to the moving van alone, returned with another box, then sighed when confronted with Pacey blocking the doorway. “Look, Pacey, I'm sorry if the truth hurts, but name me one way—just one—in which you've been helpful since Dad's death. You're almost never here; when you are, you've got an attitude about it. You fought with Kerry, you made a scene at the graveside, and you've shown more concern for the Potters' grief than for your own mother's.”

Pacey didn't answer. Shoulders slumping, he stepped aside and let Doug pass.

“I don't mean to underrate what you've done for Bessie and Joey. Planning that memorial for their father was above and beyond. But couldn't you spare a fraction of that compassion for your own family?”

“Because this family has been just a font of compassion for me, right?”

Doug huffed a sound of derision as he took the stairs. “Your badmouthing Pop was rude enough when he was alive. Now that he's dead, you might at least respect his memory.”

Seeing red, Pacey charged up after his brother. “Which memory should I respect the most? The one where he cold-cocked me with his pistol for forgetting to take out the trash? How about the one where he showed up for career day at my school and told my fourth grade class all about his job arresting criminals, like I would one day grow up to be?”

Doug slammed his box down on the floor, then stood face to face with Pacey. “How about the roof he put over your head, the clothes he put on your back, and the three square meals you've eaten every day of your life? Isn't that worth a little gratitude?”

Pacey didn't back down. “That's what parents are supposed to do. It's the deal they make when they bring us into this godforsaken world. And if, at any time in the past sixteen years, any of those necessities had been augmented by a trace of love or kindness, maybe I would feel a little gratitude, a little grief. But you want to know the truth? I'm glad the bastard's dead.”

Doug's backhand sent Pacey reeling. He touched a hand to his lip and felt blood. He straightened, smiling viciously into his brother's stricken face. “Like father, like son, right, Deputy Doug? You should have aimed a little higher.” Pacey indicated his fading black eye. “I could have a matching set.”

“Pacey, I, I'm sorry I hit you, but what you said was so far over the line. You can't—”

“Pacey!” Ma hollered from the kitchen. “Your girlfriend's calling.”

“Thanks, Ma,” Pacey yelled back. “I'll take it up here.” He turned away from Doug's self-righteous excuses and picked up the portable phone. “Andie?” He threw himself onto his box-covered bed, sending them toppling onto the floor.

“Uh, no, sorry. It's Joey.”

“Jo, hey, what's up?” Pacey watched Doug leave the room then rose to close the door and lock it behind him. His room would remain his for a few more minutes.

“I wanted to apologize for whatever my sister said or did this morning. If it was anything like what she said to me, it must have been infuriating, humiliating, and utterly uncalled-for.”

In light of the last few minutes with Doug, the confrontation with Bessie faded to an almost pleasant memory. “She was just looking out for you.” Pacey glared at Doug's bare mattress. “You're lucky to have that.”

“It's a little late for her to start playing the overprotective prude, which I told her after you left.”

“Please don't fight with your sister on my account. It's not worth it.”

“First of all, it was on my own account, not yours, you arrogant jackass. Secondly, it wasn't so much an argument as a...strong difference of opinion.”

Pacey chuckled. “Yeah, I just had one of those with my brother. Hope yours didn't end in bloodshed.”

“Nope, ceasefire. Temporary cessation of hostilities. I seem to have a lot of those right now. Bess, Jen, you...”

“Is that what we have?”

“You got a better explanation?”

Pacey fell back on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. “I don't know, Potter. I think I'm raising the white flag. Unconditional surrender. Name your terms.”

Joey's breath hitched. “I'd rather believe you'll rise to fight another day.”

“Maybe I'm beginning to think fighting is overrated. Two this morning and nothing to show for it but a bruised ego and a fat lip.” Before Joey could ask him about it, Pacey added, “Anyway, you got plans today?”

“Bessie's going on some job interviews, but Bodie's got Alexander, so I thought, if you don't have to work, maybe we could have that study session we missed yesterday?”

Pacey smiled in his empty room. Of all the time they'd spent together since the fire, this was the first time Joey had sought his company. “Sure. An hour work for you? Gonna shower and settle some stuff 'round here.”

“An hour,” Joey agreed. “Oh, and Pace? Bring your books.”

Even as the line clicked dead without a proper goodbye, Pacey continued to smile. One short phone call with Joey and the morning's anger and frustration melted away. The grin only faded as Pacey thought about Doug. He owed his brother an apology.

Reluctantly, Pacey pulled himself to his feet and made his way to the door. Three or four boxes were stacked in the hallway outside, and a figure sat at the top of the stairs, coffee in hand. It wasn't Doug.

“For the first time since I've been back, it sounded like our house when I woke up. A morning isn't a morning without one Witter screaming at another.”

Pacey winced and sat down on the step next to his sister. “Sorry, Gretch, I know you had a late night. Didn't mean to wake you.”

She waved aside his apology. “Not as late as you apparently. You and Joey pull an all-nighter?” Nothing in her tone suggested a double meaning, but she hid a smile behind her mug.

He didn't feel like defending himself again. He changed the subject. “So where is Deputy Do-right?”

“Kitchen. I convinced him to take a break and have breakfast with Ma, instead of stockpiling more fire hazards here.”

“I should talk to him.” Pacey made no move to follow words with action.

“You know, Pace, we're all trying to get through this the best way we can. For Doug, that's taking on even more responsibilities, so he doesn't have time to think about it. For you, it's taking care of the people you care about, making your pain less important than theirs. The thing is, those two instincts? They're not actually that different.”

Pacey gritted his teeth at Gretchen's suggestion that he and Doug had something in common. He refocused the conversation again. “What's your coping mechanism of choice?”

“Haven't found it yet. I'm currently wavering between becoming a raging alcoholic or the town slut.”

“Why limit yourself? You're a talented girl. You could manage both.”

Gretchen thwacked him upside the head. “You're a prince, Pacey. Go fix things with Doug.” She took herself and her coffee to her room.

Pacey didn't follow his sister's advice. Not directly. He carried the boxes out of the hallway and added them to Doug's stack in his—their—room. Then he headed outside to the moving van and grabbed another box.

He was on his fifth trip, untangling a lamp from its blanket protectors, when Doug's shadow fell across the opening at the back of the U-Haul.

“What are you doing?”

“Questioning your taste in home décor for one.” Pacey surveyed the lamp with disgust. “I thought your people were supposed to have skill in these matters.”

“Pacey,” Doug warned.

Pacey carried the lamp past his brother with a shrug. “I'm helping unload. What's it look like I'm doing?”

Doug picked up a box and trailed Pacey inside. “I thought you were opposed to my moving in.”

“After a long and deep reflection—thirty seconds, at least—I changed my mind.”

“You did?” Doug's tone revealed his disbelief. “Now you want me for a roommate?”

“Oh hell no.” Pacey placed the lamp on Doug's dresser and faced his brother. “It's likely to end in fratricide, and, since you're the one with the gun, the death in question will almost certainly be mine. But it's not about me, is it? Ma needs you. She relies on you in ways she can't or won't ever rely on me. And I figure, since I've failed her in every way a son possibly can, I owe her this.”

“You haven't failed her. Her or anyone. You're a sixteen-year-old kid who just had a load dumped on him grown men would find it hard to stand under. Your only obligation is to find a way safely through it.”

Pacey felt better at his brother's surprising words of support. They made the next bit easier to say. “I'm sorry, Dougie. For what I said about Pop. You were right, it was over the line. I shouldn't have said it to anyone, least of all you.”

Doug's complexion paled, the lines of his face stark and gaunt. “Did you mean it?”

Pacey spread his hands in an I-don't-know gesture. “In the moment? Yes. In multiple moments since the fire? Yes. But in other moments, I miss him so much I'm sick with it.” He rubbed the fading mark under his eye. “I hate that I'll never get another chance to talk to him, to say I'm sorry, to even have the hope that someday things would be right between us.” Despite his best efforts, Pacey couldn't hold in all the tears accumulating in his eyes. To his shame, they dripped down his face in full view of his stoic older brother.

But Doug didn't look stoic in that moment. His limbs shook, and he sank onto his bed. He held a hand over his eyes to shield them from Pacey's sight. “I'm sorry, Pacey,” he said in a faltering voice, not uncovering his eyes. “I should have stood up for you more—or ever at all. I shouldn't have looked the other way or compounded the problem with my own behavior.” He brought his hand down, and Doug's eyes were liquid. “You're not the only one with regrets.”

Pacey rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the mutual display of emotion. “Uh, maybe we should bring up the rest of your stuff. I told Joey I'd be over to study in a bit.”

“Right.” Doug cleared his throat, once again in perfect control of himself. “Right.”

They went back to work. After a bit, Pacey remembered about the Potter sisters and their insurance trouble. He told Doug about it and suggested Doug pay the scumbags a visit.

“You can't possibly believe I would abuse my power as an officer of the law like that.”

You didn't have a problem pointing a loaded gun at my head on multiple occasions, Pacey thought but did not say. Their new peace was too fragile for that, and he wanted Doug's help. “There must be something you can do.”

Doug set down the last of the boxes, sweat dripping down his face and soaking his t-shirt. “I have a lawyer friend I can talk to. She might be willing to take the case on a contingency basis.”

“What's that mean?” Pacey flopped on the floor by his bed. He was thirsty, but too hot and tired to move at the moment.

“She would represent them without cost unless she wins a settlement; then she would get a percentage of the profits. Bessie probably wouldn't get the full amount of the policy, but something is better than nothing.”

Pacey nodded. “Thanks, Dougie.”

“No problem. Didn't you say you were headed over there?”

“Crap.” Pacey raced to the shower, all thoughts of exhaustion erased.

<><><>

“Sorry I'm late,” Pacey said as soon as Joey opened the door. “But look.” He held up his backpack. “Books. Maybe even a pencil or two.”

Joey looked causal and gorgeous. The second was unavoidable. She wore jeans and a green blouse. Her hair was pulled into a sloppy up-do, with escaping tendrils framing her swan-like neck. Her eyes were a muddy gray-green today and widened as they focused on his face. “You weren't kidding about that lip. What happened?”

“Oh.” Pacey put a hand to his swollen, tender mouth. “Brother thing. Don't worry about it.”

Righteous anger covered Joey's face as she opened the door wider to let him in. “If Doug is picking up where your father left off, I will worry about it.”

“It wasn't like that,” Pacey said, strangely pleased by Joey's reaction. “Dougie and I had stuff to say to each other. Sometimes words are superfluous.”

Joey clucked her tongue. But she dropped the subject as she sat down to the table, already cluttered with her own books and notes. And two plates with grilled cheese sandwiches, pickles, and potato chips. She pushed one towards the empty chair intended for Pacey. “I hope this conforms to your dietary restrictions. You're not going full vegan, are you?”

“I have no idea what that is, but it sounds awful.” Pacey's rumbling stomach reminded him he'd missed breakfast at two houses this morning. “Thanks for this.” He leaned his book bag against the chair leg and started scarfing down the food.

“I called Mr. Milo this morning and got our tests scheduled for two weeks from today. That should give us more than enough time to prepare.”

“Right.” Pacey didn't give a rat's ass about the exams. Studying was a reason to be near Joey. But maybe by the time the tests were done, she would have accepted him as an actual friend, and he wouldn't need an excuse to check in. “Where do you want to start?”

“Might as well begin with our mutual classes, so Economics, Spanish, and Biology.”

Pacey unzipped his bag and hefted his books onto the edge of the table.

“Uh, Pace, why'd you bring your history book? You took that one already.”

“Took it as in accepted the paper handed to me and put it on my desk? Yes. Took as in completed any question thereon? Not so much, no.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “Andie not calling, Pop lambasting my predictable failure, my dormant slacker gene awakening at exactly the wrong moment. D, all of the above.”

“You're lucky Mr. Milo's letting you retake it.”

“I think, in the grand scheme of things, I'd rather keep the F in history and undo everything that's happened since.”

“Yeah.” Joey pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I've lost track of how many deals like that I've tried to make. I'd give up my house, my grades, my future, my soul, if I could just have...” She looked away, biting her lip, fighting back tears.

“Clearly, we don't have God's priority number. Maybe we should ask Mrs. Ryan for a character reference.”

His desperate attempt at humor made Joey roll her eyes. “I shudder to imagine what that woman would have to say about me.”

“Oh, come on. Nothing too damning. 'Josephine Potter,'” he said in a terrible mimicry of Mrs. Ryan's voice, “'is a shameless wanton who climbs in boys' windows, sometimes neglects the wearing of a brassiere, and participates in Black Sabbaths in honor of her master Satan.'”

“Pacey Witter is a procrastinating buffoon who is going to deserve every lackluster mark he gets.”

Pacey sighed but cracked open his Economics text.

Studying with Joey was different than studying with Andie. Much less regimented. She didn't have corkboards of study plans, color-coded flashcards, or outlines of her outlines. She just went over the materials they'd studied, textbook, notes, and assignments. Joey was willing to let Pacey goof off—up to a point—and she didn't need as much convincing for a snack break. Sometimes, she initiated them.

But there was no cuddling or make-outs or gushing praise whenever he mastered a concept. And no planet existed in the universe where Joey Potter would reward one hundred percent on a practice quiz with a blow-job. For one second, Pacey pictured that in his mind, then cursed himself as a dysfunctional pervert who deserved to rot in hell.

Twice, passing references which to Pacey were entirely unrelated to Dawson triggered memories for Joey, and she broke down. Pacey offered what comfort he could—a hug, free of wisdom, advice, or cliché. She buried her grief again as fast as she could, faster than Pacey thought was healthy. But he wasn't her therapist, just the idiot trying to be her friend.

Bodie brought Alex home from their day out late in the afternoon. He put the baby down for a nap then announced he was starting supper. Joey whispered in his ear, and, whatever he'd originally planned, the menu suddenly featured vegetarian lasagna.

Bessie returned shortly before dinner. She kicked off her heels, and the dejected expression on her face kept Pacey from even thinking about holding a grudge from their morning's argument.

Bodie went to her and rubbed her shoulders. “Any luck?”

“Four interviews, six hours in waiting rooms, two sexual harassment lawsuits waiting to happen, and still no job.”

Pacey helped Joey clear off their mess and set the table. She set a place for him without asking if he was staying. He liked that.

Bessie changed from her business skirt into a pair of comfy sweats, and they all sat down to Bodie's delicious meal. “I'm not going to apologize for this morning,” Bessie told Pacey, “but, for the record, I do trust you.”

Pacey swallowed a steaming bite of pasta around the lump in his throat. “Thanks, Bessie.”

Bessie nodded curtly, not yet finished. “But I'm not so old I don't remember what it is to be a hormonally-driven teenager, which is why, whatever you both say, I think co-ed sleepovers are a dangerous thing. Even if you're just friends.” She turned to Joey, whose set jaw looked mutinous. “I'm not your mom, Joey. I won't forbid it; you wouldn't listen if I did. But as your sister who loves you, I'm asking you to think carefully, act slowly, and be safe.”

Joey's expression softened at her sister's plea. “I will, Bess. I promise.”

Pacey shifted awkwardly in his seat and ate his lasagna without comment.

The conversation changed, as the various members of the family caught up on each other's day. These were the moments Pacey marveled at whenever he was with the Potters or the Leerys. The flow of affection, the interest in each other's lives, no underlying tension or fear of saying the wrong word and triggering an explosion...

After the long day she'd had, Bessie wanted to veg in front of the television. Joey, with Pacey following, headed out to the dock. They sat for a long time without saying anything. Pacey listened to the crickets and the frogs and tried not to notice how Joey shimmered in the orange rays of the setting sun.

“This is a different kind of pain,” Joey said finally, not taking her eyes off the sky. Tears sparkled in her eyes, on her cheeks. “With movies or TV, it's all the memories I can't handle. Something like this,” she nodded toward the rose and gold masterpiece before them, “I wish he could be here to see it.”

“The irony being, if he was here, you'd be up in his room watching movies, and you would have missed it, too.”

Joey startled, as though that line of thinking hadn't occurred to her. “We didn't just watch movies.”

“I know,” Pacey rushed to reassure her. “I know that. I just meant...sometimes, you can be so wrapped up in someone, you fail to see the bigger picture. Take me and Andie. She pretty much became my whole life this year. Doing well in school, befriending Jack...it was all about Andie. So much so that when she went away—not even forever, not like—” He stopped, swallowed, tried again, “I didn't know how to function. Nothing else mattered.”

“And then the fire.” Joey knew how the story ended.

“And then the fire,” Pacey agreed.

Joey placed her hand on top of his on the dock. Pacey turned his over and laced their fingers together. They didn't say another word until the sun had set, the moon had risen, the stars began to twinkle in the sky.

“I should probably head home,” Pacey said, but made no move to do so.

Joey looked at him, perturbed. “You're not staying tonight?”

“Don't you think we've stressed your sister out enough already? Any more, and she's liable to send you to some all-girls boarding school.”

“Like we could afford it,” Joey scoffed. “Bessie should mind her own business. You and I, we need each other right now, or, or, at least I need you. It's wrong of her to suggest that's something sordid. But if it's uncomfortable for you, don't feel obligated.” Her hand slipped out of his. He missed it.

“It's not, well, it is kinda, but only because...” Pacey frowned, brows contracting as he tried to form words which would neither offend her nor humiliate him. “I'm not used to the platonic sleepovers. You and Dawson had a history of them, so to you, I imagine it's...comforting, and it helps you sleep. I don't mind that. Really. I can be a Dawson substitute. I can be anything you need. But it is an adjustment.”

It was Joey's turn to frown. She grasped the dock with both hands and looked at her dangling, swinging feet. “It's not like with Dawson,” she mumbled.

Pacey couldn't believe he'd heard right. “What?”

“When I stayed with him, there was his side, and there was my side. We didn't, well...” She trailed off, embarrassed. “You're not his substitute. No one ever could be. I wouldn't want there to be.”

“Then why—” Pacey couldn't finish that question, shouldn't have asked it in the first place.

“I don't know...I go through all my waking moments feeling like I'm dead, or like I should be. That I'm just the ashes left behind. But when you hold me, I feel...tethered. I remember that I'm alive, and that—as terrible as I may feel at this moment—it's a good thing to be alive.”

Pacey didn't know how he felt about Joey's words, didn't want to know how he felt. He didn't matter, anyway. Only Joey mattered, what she felt, what was best for her. He wrapped her fingers in his own again and squeezed. “I'll stay.”

Chapter Text

For the next two weeks, Pacey practically lived at the Potters. He returned home for an hour or two every morning to shower, change, hang out a bit with Gretchen and Doug if they were home, check in on Ma, and try to avoid a fight. Then he was off again, either to Joey's to study or to a shift at the video store.

Bodie left for his job in Hartford. It was another blow to the already depressed girls. Bessie got her own job, minimum wage employment at the K-Mart in the neighboring town, which meant Joey was babysitting Alexander from dawn to dusk. She complained about it less than usual. She was probably, like Pacey, grateful for anything which kept her too busy to think.

Even studying for their exams was busy work to keep their minds off Dawson, their dads, and the Potters' financial woes. Doug followed through on his promise to contact his lawyer friend; she met with Bessie and took the case. But it might be months before they received even a fraction of the money.

Pacey did what he could. He played with Alexander, changed his diapers, put him down for naps—he had a knack for getting the baby to sleep which left Joey both awed and irritated. He helped with chores around the house, took out the trash, mowed the lawn, unclogged the sink.

Upon receiving his first paycheck since the fire, Pacey cashed the whole thing and went to the market. He was amazed that the money, which had always been more than sufficient for buying video games and taking Andie on dates, disappeared so fast on basic necessities.

Joey gaped when she opened to his knock and found his arms loaded with groceries. “Pacey, what is all this?”

“I figured it wasn't fair to burden Bessie with a second teenage mouth to feed, so I stocked up on provisions.” He deposited the bags on the kitchen counter.

“So this is all for you?” Joey followed him in, arms crossed. Her tone reeked of disbelief.

“Sure. Get me a Sharpie. I'll mark it.” He picked up a bunch of bananas. “Property of Pacey J. Witter.”

“Right. And these?” She held up a package of diapers. “Even if you're having bladder control issues, I'm afraid these won't fit.” To further prove her point, she lined up several jars of baby food along the edge of the counter. “We don't need charity, Pacey.”

“It's not!” he protested. “It's not charity. It's pitching in and doing my part. There's so much I'd like to do for you and can't. This is nothing. Please, let me.”

“You shouldn't be spending your money on us. Save for college or use it to help your own family.”

“My family's fine. Pop's pension and life insurance were top-notch, Ma's got her job with dispatch, and Dougie moved home. You and I both know I've never saved a day in my life. You might as well accept it; otherwise, I'll blow my whole next paycheck on porn, booze, and candy.”

“Well, if it's in the interest of saving you from cavities and juvenile delinquency...” Joey sighed and started putting away groceries.

Pacey grinned, relieved at her capitulation, and hurried to help. They ended up side by side, stacking cans in the pantry.

Joey bumped his hip with her own. “Hey. Thank you.”

But that was nothing compared to Bessie's gratitude. When she came home from work and saw the full fridge and stocked cupboards, she burst into tears and threw her arms around Pacey. He knew he was forgiven the sin of sleeping in Joey's bed.

That strange domesticity repeated nightly. If it had been a bad day, Joey cried herself to sleep, wrapped around Pacey's chest. If it had been a good one, she slept in what he assumed was her more natural position—curled up, facing the edge—but she pulled his arm across her middle.

Those moments before sleep were full of tenderness and friendly concern, which reconciled Pacey's conscience to the appearance of betrayal. Less easy to rationalize were the mornings. He woke hard, aching, wanting her with a desperation which frightened him. Once his mind caught up with his body, he had a litany of thoughts prepared to kill ardor—thoughts of Dawson, and Pop, and what a perverted, fraudulent jerk he was for thinking of Joey like that.

On the occasions the mental flagellation failed, Pacey rushed to the bathroom to take care of the problem as swiftly and quietly as possible. He tried to visualize Andie during the act, even Tamara or the latest Playboy playmate. But, somehow, it was Joey's color-changing eyes, flyaway hair, or long, toned legs filling his vision when he filled his palm.

He was such a loser.

As if to make himself feel as guilty as possible, or maybe to remind his confused libido he was in love with someone whose name was not Joey Potter, Pacey wrote to Andie every day. Short notes of encouragement; long, racy love letters; rambling missives on work, life in Capeside, Jack and Jen. But he wasn't allowed to tell her about the fire, which made the letters feel like lies, no matter how many truths they contained. He called her once more, but it was more stilted, awkward, and unbearable than the last time. She didn't leave any more messages on the machine.

The way Jack watched him—hints of suspicion repeatedly pushed away as nonsense—only added to the guilt. Jack and Jen stopped by the Potters' almost every day at varying times. They brought lunch, or helped give a practice quiz, or tried—and failed—to convince Joey and Pacey to go to the movies or a party with them.

Pacey silently cheered Jen's persistent, gentle efforts to befriend Joey. In the short term, the results were mixed, with Joey sometimes kind, often wary, occasionally vitriolic, but Pacey could see the slow erosion on the walls surrounding Joey's carefully guarded heart.

Jen's first measurable victory came when Joey asked her to watch Alexander on the day of their exams. Lindley's quick acceptance proved how eager she was to be of help.

It was weird to be alone in the closed-up school. Pacey was reminded a little painfully of study sessions with Miss Jacobs. Mr. Milo was to be their proctor, and he took them to the English classroom which had been the center of so many horrifying events over the course of the year.

Pacey tried not to think about them as he took the seat Mr. Milo indicated, while Joey was led to one on the other side of the room. She sent him a reassuring smile before their first exam was handed to them.

He recalled her words from the close of their final cram session. “You know all this stuff, Pacey. The only reason you won't ace your tests tomorrow is if you choose not to. Your dad won't be there to tell you that you can't succeed, and Andie won't be able to say you will. Only you get to decide if it matters to you.”

“Does it matter to you?” Pacey had asked.

Joey shrugged. “It's a shame to think of all my efforts with your hyperactive, attention-deficient self going to waste, but, ultimately, I've known you when you were getting F's, A's, and every letter in between. As far as I can tell, you remain the same obnoxious, kindhearted doofus whatever your report card says.”

Pacey looked down at the unmarked paper in front of him, grabbed his pencil, and went to work.

<><><>

Joey had two fewer exams than Pacey, but she pulled a book out of her bag and read while he finished. It was probably practicality. Pacey drove them to school, and it was a long, hot, humid walk home. But he felt supported knowing she was there.

When they emerged into the late afternoon sunshine, Pacey groaned and stretched. “May I never see so many essay questions again in my life.”

“Oh, please, you BS your way through those just fine. A side effect of our old thesaurus game; I told you it would come in handy someday. Teenagers throwing around five-syllable words always sound more profound than they really are.” Joey threw her bag into the sun-baked Wagoneer after Pacey unlocked it. “It's the true or false ones which get to me. Sadistic teachers and test makers trying to trip you up with one misplaced word.”

Pacey laughed as he slid into the driver's seat. “Now who's being disingenuous? You, Josephine Potter, are the least trusting soul I've ever met. You'd second-guess the Pope if you met him. I'm sure you had no trouble seeing through those dissembling bastards who make us suffer for the crime of being young.” He turned on the engine and cranked up the air conditioning. “Our scholastic endeavors being now concluded for the next ten glorious weeks, what do you say we celebrate?”

Pacey expected Joey to shoot him down outright, but the end of their exams must have been a relief to her, too, because she gifted him with an exceedingly rare, full, radiant grin. “What do you have in mind?”

“Ice cream? The beach? Anything cooler than the ninety degrees outside and less expensive than the twenty bucks in my pocket.”

“Mmm, both sound nice, but we should probably get home and check on Jen and Alexander. We may have been stuck in a classroom all day, but she was cooped up alone with an infant, and I know from experience how traumatizing that can be.”

“You know, someday, Potter, we're going to wake up your sense of adventure.” But Pacey drove back to her house. He took it as a good sign that Joey picked Jen over ice cream.

Alexander was napping when they returned. Jen was on the couch, book in hand, but the way she shot up, blinking repeatedly at their entrance, made Pacey suspect she had dozed off, as well. She rubbed her eyes. “So how'd it go?”

“Good, I think. How about here? Was Alex okay for you?”

“Well, he spent the first hour screaming because you left, but after that, he was ready to crawl around and open every cupboard. He kept me busy, but it was fun.” Jen smiled. “He maybe even started to like me a little.”

“See? Nothing to worry about,” Pacey told Joey. “We could have taken ten extra minutes for ice cream.”

“Ooh, ice cream? Count me in.”

Joey threw Pacey a withering look. “We need to wait now until Bessie gets home. She has Alexander's car seat in the truck.”

“Here's an idea. You guys are done studying, right? Cliff and his Ivy League-bound girlfriend broke up, so he's throwing one of his massive beach parties tonight to prove he's over her, and he invited me and every other girl he's ever spoken to. Jack and I are going, and you two should come with us. Spend one night acting like actual, irresponsible teenagers.”

“I can't think of anything less appealing than watching Capeside's student body drink themselves even stupider than they already are.”

“Joey's all confused from the test overload. What she meant to say is thanks for thinking of us, we'd be happy to attend.”

“Like hell I—”

“An adventure, Potter. You need one. Granted, it's no rafting getaway, but you take what you can get in an armpit town like ours.”

“Great! Jack and I will pick you up at seven. See ya later.” Jen grabbed her book and purse and had the sense to flee before Joey could rescind Pacey's acceptance.

Joey glared at him over crossed arms. “You and I have no business going to parties. Do you really want to spend your evening overhearing people gossip about our latest tragedies while faking sympathy to our faces?”

“No, but I wouldn't mind getting drunk enough to forget said tragedies for a few hours.”

Her hands went to her hips, so he was in for it. “That's why you want to go? To get drunk? Why don't you just pay some townie by the liquor store to buy you beer? Unbelievable!”

“It's not about getting drunk—not just about that. It's about what Jen said, about feeling like a normal kid for one damn night. We live in this cocoon of grief, and I hate it. I know you miss him; I miss him, too. Constantly. Every time I breathe or speak, every time I do anything, I think about Dawson.” Pacey's shoulders slumped, anger dissolving into defeat. “And getting drunk at a party probably won't change that. I can call Jen, tell her we're not going.”

“No, no, it's okay, Pacey.” Joey swiped tears out of her eyes. “Maybe you're right. Maybe we need this.”

<><><>

Bessie was surprisingly happy about their evening plans. She thought it was good they were participating in a normal teenage activity and would be interacting with other human beings.

Jack and Jen arrived promptly at seven. Both came to the door. They said hi to Bessie, and Jen told her, “I'm going to try and convince Joey to sleep over at my place tonight, so don't be surprised if she doesn't come home.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “I'll be home by eleven, Bess.” She walked out the door, not seeing Jen shake her head in contradiction.

“Okay, what you don't realize,” said Jen as they walked across the lawn to Jack's car, “is I'm your alibi for when you get too drunk to come home.”

“I'm not getting drunk. I did that once before. I made an idiot of myself, forgot most of it, then I threw up and had a terrible headache the whole next day. Never again.”

Jack drove; Jen sat in the passenger seat; Pacey and Joey slid in the back.

“That's fine, but if you change your mind, I want you to feel free to indulge. I promised Grams I wouldn't drink, so I'm the designated driver.”

“And since Miss Metropolis over here doesn't drive, I'm the designated driver's designated driver,” Jack teased as he headed for the beach. “She and I have already discussed this. We're looking out for you, and you two deserve to have a night without a care in the world.”

“Don't have to ask me twice,” Pacey said.

<><><>

The bonfire on the beach was growing blurrier with each successive beer. But if the point of drinking was for Pacey to forget and have a fun time, it was an utter failure. Someone was barbecuing, so he was throwing the stuff up almost as fast as he chugged it down. Jack hovered near and kept asking if he was okay, until Pacey told him to fuck off. Jack still kept guard, but now he did so from the other side of the fire.

Pacey felt guilty for being a dick to his friend. He added it to the list, behind bigger guilts like letting his best friend die in an inferno much like the fire before him. Also, being a terrible son, a lousy brother, and a bad boyfriend.

“Hey.” Joey fell on the sand beside him with a giggle. Her shirt rode up a bit, exposing her flat belly and the deep indent of her navel. Pacey wanted to slide his tongue inside it.

And lusting after Dawson's girlfriend. Let's not forget that one. That's got to be at least number two on the list.

“Hey,” he said, tearing his eyes away from her to stare at the crackling, disquieting blaze. “How'd you ditch your chaperone?”

“The gorgeous meathead started flirting with her, so I made my escape. I like Jen. I think. I didn't mean to, or want to, but I do. But I don't like her watching me drink. I keep wondering am I doing it wrong? drinking too much? not enough? what? Speaking of which,” she pulled the plastic cup out of Pacey's hands, “I'm thirsty. Ugh, you smell bad.”

“Repetitive vomiting will do that to a guy.”

“From the drinking?”

“Nope, not really.”

“Oh? The hot dogs, right. If it makes a difference, I'm not sure hot dogs should be classified as meat.”

Pacey watched the fire.

“Come on, wasn't that even a little bit funny? I thought you came here to have fun. All you've done is sulk. Smile for me, Pacey.” Joey reached over to pull up the sides of his mouth with her fingers.

He was too aware of the feel of her skin against his lips, of the golden sparkles the fire's reflection left in her eyes, the drunken flush in her cheeks, the smell of hops in her delicate exhales.

He wanted to kiss her. Badly. Would have done it, too, if he hadn't caught sight of Jack watching them. Pacey swatted her hand away instead and stood on unsteady legs. “You're right. I should cheer up.”

“Yeah!” Joey tried to jump to her feet and fell over instead. She laughed. Limbs tangled and outstretched, hair splayed about her, golden and alive and laughing against the sand. Jesus, she was beautiful.

“I'm going swimming,” Pacey decided. The water would do him good, sober him up, cool him down.

Joey stopped laughing. “Swimming?” she asked as she struggled to her feet.

“Swimming.” Pacey grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the water. “Come on, Potter. I promised you an adventure.” He walked into the surf without stopping to kick off his sandals.

Joey shrieked when she entered the water. “It's cold.”

“That's the point.” Pacey let go of her hand to dive in. He started swimming. It was like that night swimming across the creek, except better. This time, there was no opposite bank, no end point. He could keep going, one stroke after another, forever. No more thoughts, no more guilt, no more grief. Just him and the water as far as the eye could see.

“Pacey!” Joey's screams reached him as if from a dream. “Pacey! Come back! You're too far. Come back!”

He turned. The inferno had shrunk to the size of a campfire. He could see the silhouettes of people lined up before it, staring out at the idiot in the ocean. And halfway between him and the beach was Joey, treading water and screaming her head off.

The madness left. Pacey was instantly, painfully sober. He swam back to her.

“Jerk!” She started hitting him as soon as he was in range of her arms. “Idiot! Asshole! Don't you ever, ever...” Joey hit him again and again, uncaring how it disrupted her efforts to stay afloat.

“I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” Pacey pulled her into an embrace, her hands trapped between them.

Joey made one more halfhearted effort to slap him, then dug her fingers into his shirt, clinging to him. “Don't leave me,” she begged.

Pacey put a hand on the back of her head and drew her closer. “I won't,” he promised. Rivulets of salt water streamed down their faces, ocean spray indistinguishable from tears. “I won't, Jo. Not ever.”

<><><>

Once again the humiliating center of attention at one of Cliff's beach parties, Pacey and Joey were more than happy to be bundled out of there by Jack and Jen and the aid of a couple borrowed towels.

“In retrospect, my get drunk and let loose plan had some fundamental flaws in it,” Jen admitted as Jack drove them back to Mrs. Ryan's.

“Has this kind of plan ever ended well for you?” Jack observed.

“Not that I recall. Though, to be fair, I blacked out at some point during most of them.”

Mrs. Ryan was awake when they got home. Pacey thought she probably waited up to make sure Jen had kept her word and her sobriety. Convinced of that, the old lady was unfazed by Joey and Pacey's sodden states. She instructed Jen to get them dry clothes and warm blankets then went to bed.

“Was I so drunk I missed the part where she called me a lush and a whore?” Joey asked in disbelief, staring after Grams' retreating form.

“Grams wouldn't do that,” Jack said.

Jen made a noncommittal noise. “Grams is trying not to do that, anyway. Jack, I think you'd better grab something for Joey as well as Pacey. Our bodies are sadly dissimilar.”

“She means I'm flat and too tall.”

“Actually, I meant I'm busty and too short,” Jen laughed.

“You're both perfect, and I'll get the clothes.” Jack took off up the stairs.

“Jack's gay, his opinion doesn't count, and we both know Pacey's weakness for buxom blondes, so my point is proven.”

“What point would that be?”

Joey leaned her head on her arms and her arms on the wall. “I'll let you know when the room stops spinning.”

<><><>

Joey was sharing Jen's room for the night, while Pacey bunked on the couch. It wasn't a fold-out one like the Potters', but, without springs digging into his back, it was more comfortable. Between the swim and the booze, he conked out fast.

He awakened suddenly a few hours later. The creaking hinges of the porch door opening then slapping shut convinced him the noise which had pulled him from dreamless, drunken slumber was the front door closing. Only one person would leave this house in the middle of the night. And there was only one place she would go.

Pacey disentangled himself from the blankets with a curse and rushed out the door himself. He didn't bother looking for his sandals. Neither had Joey, whose bare feet climbed the ladder while Pacey pushed through the Ryans' gate.

By the time Pacey's head was level with the porch roof, Joey was using her full body weight to pry open Dawson's window. To no avail. She slapped the glass, crying, screaming.

“Potter.” Pacey approached her cautiously. “Potter, calm down.”

“I can't get in.” She slipped to her knees—bare against the unforgiving surface—and kept her hands pressed flat against the window. “It's locked. I can't get in.”

Pacey didn't know whether she sounded more mournful or appalled. “I'm sorry, Jo.” He lowered himself onto the roof beside her. It was cold through the thin material of Jack's sweats; he couldn't imagine what it was like for her in only a gray t-shirt and shorts. He should have brought a blanket.

“I can't get back.” She clenched her right hand into a fist and banged once more against the glass, hard enough to make the pane rattle. “It's gone. It's gone. He's gone.” Sobbing, she leaned her head and torso against the window, as close to the barred paradise as possible.

Tears smarting in his eyes—for her grief or his own, he wasn't sure; it didn't matter—Pacey put his hands on Joey's shaking shoulders. He didn't attempt to pull her away. She had a right to cry wherever she wanted. After a few minutes contact with the comfortless glass, she turned into Pacey's arms. They held each other tight.

Eventually, Joey's sobs trailed off into tiny hiccups. She continued to tremble, however, and it entered Pacey's sorrow-numbed brain she was cold. Without saying a word, he took her hand and pulled her toward the ladder. Joey descended and walked back to Mrs. Ryan's without protest.

But she didn't ascend the steps to Jen's room when Pacey left her at the bottom of them. Instead, she waited until Pacey lay down on the couch then followed him there.

The sofa was barely wide enough for Pacey and several inches too short. “Jo,” he warned, “Mrs. Ryan won't—”

“Please, Pacey.” Joey didn't beg, whine, or nag. She asked, face splotchy with tears, vulnerable as a child.

He lifted the blankets to let her in. As much as he shifted back to give her room, there was no escaping the fact that Joey was lying more on top of him than not. Her hair tickled his nostrils, breath teased his throat. He could feel the press of her breasts against his chest and was sure she could feel the answering thrum of his heart. Her fingers gripped his sides, and he was acutely aware of every inch of her legs entwined with his.

Pacey focused on the stale linen smell of the blankets and not on the sea salt and jasmine scent of the girl in his arms. He thought about Dawson's locked window and willed himself to sleep.

<><><>

“Pacey! Pacey!” The insistent shaking of his shoulders did more to drag Pacey back to consciousness than Jen's low hiss.

“What?” He inched open one eye. The dim, gray, predawn light made his head throb. He wrapped his arms tighter around the comfortable weight covering him and tried to reclaim sleep. “Go 'way.”

“If you say so. But a few hours from now, when you're fumbling your way through explanations to Jack and listening to Grams lecture on the joys of abstinence, don't say I didn't warn you.”

Pacey yanked his heavy eyelids open, wincing at the answering fire in his brain. “We didn't do anything.” He wondered how so much of his life had become about denying sexual intercourse with Joey Potter. Then she shifted, a soft exhale and a drop of drool landing on his shirt. Oh yeah, that's how.

“Of course you didn't. So how 'bout carrying Sleeping Beauty there upstairs and saving your honor from such besmirchment?”

“Besmirchment?” Pacey struggled to find a way to sit up and transfer Joey to the couch without both of them ending up on the floor. “Pretty sure that one wouldn't pass muster in Scrabble.”

Jen stepped forward to accept Joey's weight while Pacey wriggled off the couch. He bumped a knee on the coffee table and got as far as “Motherf—” before seeing Mrs. Ryan's crucifix on the wall and biting it back.

Jen let Joey's unconscious body flop back on the vacated sofa. Potter barely stirred, alcohol rendering her sleep deeper than usual. Pacey hobbled off the sting in his knee then returned to the couch to bundle Joey's ungainly weight into his arms.

“Jesus, Potter,” he groaned as he lifted her. “How can a body with no fat be this heavy?”

Jen stifled a laugh, amusement sparking in her eyes. “Now why don't Disney princes ever make comments like that?”

“Too out of breath,” Pacey huffed as he headed for the stairs.

“Second door on the right. Door's open. I'll start a pot of coffee.”

Every minute of his slow trek to Jen's room, Pacey expected to see another door pop open and all this effort to be for naught. But they stayed closed, and he safely deposited his burden onto Jen's rumpled covers. He paused, catching his breath, and watched Joey sleep. He didn't understand why he never tired of the sight. A tendril of hair had fallen over her eye. Pacey gently brushed it back then left, shutting the door and tiptoeing down the stairs.

Jen was waiting for him in the kitchen with a glass of water and two aspirin. The coffee machine dripped behind her. “You hungry? I've always found eggs go well with a hangover. Or there's cereal in the cupboard.”

Distrustful of Lindley's blasé attitude, Pacey nevertheless opened the indicated pantry. He gaped at what he found. “There's six different cereals here.” Pacey had grown up with four siblings, and they never had more than two kinds at once.

“Horrifying, isn't it? That's the last time I let Jack do the shopping on his own.”

Pacey took full advantage of the situation by pouring a handful of each into one bowl, much to Jen's disgust. He laughed upon finding three varieties of milk in the fridge. Jen joined him at the table with her sensible bowl of corn flakes.

“Okay. I've got sustenance.” Pacey lifted a spoonful in proof. “Let the judgment commence.”

“I find hypocrisy to be an unflattering look on anyone, so you'll get no judgment here. I meant what I said yesterday. After everything you and Joey have been through, you have a right to anything that helps. Illicit late-night snuggling is about the least destructive option I can imagine.”

“But?” Pacey prompted. Unspoken thoughts clouded Jen's expressive face.

“Jack's worried about his sister.”

Pacey glared down at his cereal smorgasbord. “I love Andie. I never want to hurt her.” He heard the equivocation in his own words. A few weeks ago, he would have said, I would never hurt her.

“That's what I keep telling him. But brothers.” She shrugged. “I'm told they're a protective lot.”

Pacey imagined what he would do if he found out a boyfriend of Gretchen's was spending his nights with another girl. Jack was a model of restraint, given that Pacey wasn't in a hospital bed right now. “I'll talk to him,” he promised.

He could reassure Jack of his love for Andie. He could list all his reasons for spending time with Joey. But he had to hope Jack wouldn't ask the right questions, like are you attracted to Joey? If he did, Pacey might yet be making a trip to the ER.

Chapter Text

Work gave Pacey the excuse he needed to avoid Jack that day, and for several days thereafter as Mr. Olsen had him training Dawson's replacement. Dennis was a stoner burn-out who thought Cheech & Chong's Next Movie was the height of cinematic excellence and if he knew any words of more than one syllable, could not be bothered to use them. Dawson would have hated the guy, so Pacey resented him in his friend's absence.

Following the party and Pacey's growing awareness of his attraction to Joey, he spent a few nights at home. He checked on the Potter sisters after work, helped out a bit around the house, and fled before he could be tempted to stay.

More time at home translated into more opportunities for conflict. Without going into the whys of it, Pacey told his mother he wasn't eating meat anymore. She took it as a personal insult, a moral failing it was her duty to correct. Ma grilled steaks his first dinner home, mocked and badgered him into eating one, then belittled him as an “ungrateful pansy” when it came right back up. After that, it seemed prudent to stay at the Potters' through the evening meal.

Sharing a room with Doug was its own minefield. They fought over stupid things, like what station the radio should be on, and important ones, like whether Doug had inherited the right to tell Pacey what to do. Trading Joey's breathy sighs for his brother's room-rattling snores was a definite downgrade.

Pacey made more of an effort to call Andie. He was improving at directing the conversation away from forbidden topics, but Andie asked fewer questions about Capeside and his life in general. She sounded more positive about the facility, had grown to like her doctors, and had befriended some fellow patients. She was always the one to end their calls, off to some group activity or other. Pacey was happy to hear her happy, but began to feel the distance between them wasn't entirely his doing.

Pacey's brief attempt at space from Joey fell apart within a week. Her sniffles in the aftermath of their moonlit swim and midnight wanderings turned into a full-blown cold. He defected to the Potters', to watch Alexander and take care of Joey. He made her stay in bed and rest, took the baby outside to play, brought her lots of orange juice, hot tea, and chicken soup from a can. Joey slept and read and slept some more.

He could have—should have—left when Bessie got home. But she invited him to stay for dinner, and there was a wobbly railing on the porch that needed fixing. Before he knew it, Bessie was bidding him goodnight as she stumbled off to bed. Joey, having slept most the day, was wide awake, reading by the light of an end table lamp.

Pacey stood halfway between her bed and the doorway. He should tell her good night, let her know he'd be back tomorrow. “Whatcha reading?”

Joey placed a finger between the pages to mark her place and held up the cover for his inspection. “Little Women.”

“Again? How many times you read that, Potter?”

“It's my favorite,” she said defensively.

Pacey nodded. “'Cause your mom read it to you, I know.”

Eyes wide, Joey hugged the volume to her chest. “You remember that?”

“Sure.” She looked pitiful and young, with her nose red and lips cracked from illness. Unconsciously, Pacey took a step toward her. “You know, I've never actually read it.”

“It was assigned reading in eighth grade!”

“Come on, Potter. Even Dawson faked it by watching the movie.”

“The book is better. The book is always better.”

If Dawson were here, he would probably argue that point. But Pacey didn't care, so he just shrugged. “Yeah? Prove it to me.” He kicked off his sandals and hopped onto the bed beside her.

“You want me to read Little Women to you?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Uh, because it's a book about four sisters written over a hundred years ago. How will your testosterone levels survive?”

“Hey, they survived living with three older sisters. I doubt hearing about them is going to suddenly finish the job.”

“I'm warning you now, Witter, if this is all an elaborate ploy to mock my favorite book, I'm not too sick to do physical violence upon you.”

“Promises, promises. Just read the damn book, Potter.”

Joey flipped back to the beginning and brought Pacey into the world of the March family at Christmastime. It wasn't a book Pacey would ever have chosen to read for himself, but he liked listening to Joey read it, hearing the changed inflection when she read favorite lines. He could see why she loved it, this normal, loving family doing normal family things, the perfect mother who Joey conflated with her own.

At the end of the second chapter, she shoved the book at him. “Here, your turn. I'm getting too phlegmy.” She grabbed a tissue from the box and hacked up a lung.

Pacey was surprised and discomfited. The last time he'd read aloud was fifth grade. He'd been a slow, uneasy reader all the way to high school, and the snickers and laughter of his classmates as he fumbled over words had never left him. But Joey had sat in the front row of that classroom and hadn't even stifled a giggle. She'd told Abby Morgan—the worst offender—to stuff her head in a toilet and listened attentively until Pacey was done.

He cleared his throat and started reading. “'Jo! Jo! Where are you?' cried Meg at the foot of the garret stairs...

Joey drew closer as he read, until her head was on his shoulder, and her eyes followed along the page with his. Pacey read to the end of the chapter, then passed the book back to Joey. His arm crept around her waist. Sometime during Pacey's second reading, Joey fell asleep, head drooping forward onto his chest.

Pacey set her book on the end table. He should separate himself from her, get up, turn off the lamp, leave. He kissed the top of her head, closed his eyes. “Night, Jo,” he whispered into her hair.

<><><>

“Hey, Pacey, glad you could make it.” The hug Mitch Leery gave him was a little too tight, a little too long. Pacey felt guilty for not checking on him more often. It wasn't noon yet, and Dawson's dad reeked of booze.

“Wouldn't have missed it. Fourth of July isn't Fourth of July without a party at the Leerys'.” He had been dreading the holiday and all the memories it would bring and had been shocked to get Mitch's phone call the day before. Without Gail, without Dawson, Mitch had decided to throw the party anyway.

“Hi, Mr. Leery,” said Gretchen, stepping forward to receive her own hug. “Ma and Doug send their regrets. They're both working today.”

“That's a shame, but it's good to see you again. Everyone's out back, food's out, and Bodie's manning the grill. Make yourselves at home.” Mitch walked off, hollering a greeting to friends who had just pulled up.

Every year since Pacey could remember, Gail Leery threw two massive parties, one around Christmas, the other on Independence Day. Half the town would show up, along with Leery relations near and far. They were fabulous and memorable occasions, highlights in the drudgery of life.

The sight which met Pacey's eyes in the backyard bore about as much resemblance to them as a cockroach did to a hummingbird. One picnic table with food from the deli, some scattered lawn chairs, a few dozen people carrying on hushed conversations with somber faces.

To top it off, the aroma of grilling meat struck Pacey's nose immediately. And he was there again, outside the Ice House, staring down at the charred bodies, smelling...

He ran to the side of the house and the cover of bushes before losing his breakfast. Once his stomach was empty, Pacey slumped against the wall. The smell of his own sick distracted him from the memory triggers for the moment. He rested his head against shaking hands and tried to breathe.

“Hey, man, you all right?”

Pacey laughed bitterly and looked up at his concerned friend. “Today is not going to be a good day.”

Jack lowered himself to the ground beside Pacey—on the further side from the vomit. “What you're going through, it seems like nobody could possibly understand it, and, in a way, that's true. Every person's experience with grief is uniquely their own. But not that long ago, I lost a brother, too, and I'm here if you need to talk about it.”

Pacey flinched. “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.” He rested his elbows on his knees, wrapped his hands behind his neck. “But there's nothing to say. It just sucks. Everything about it sucks.”

“Yeah, it does.” Jack plucked a blade of grass and played with it, not saying anything else.

Since he already felt like crap, Pacey decided to man up and have the conversation he'd been dreading. “Jack, I want you to know I'd rather throw myself under a bus than hurt Andie.”

“Don't do that. I'm pretty sure you getting hit by a bus would hurt her, not to mention what it would do to you. What brought on that sentiment?”

“Jen told me you'd been worried about her. Me and her, and the time I've been spending with Joey. Potter and I...we've been through the wringer this summer, but I'm in love with your sister. That hasn't changed.”

Jack yanked up more grass and studied it with a frown. “Andie is the most important person in the world to me. When you two started dating, one of the reasons I was happy about it is the way you treated her, the way you looked at her, I could tell she was that important to you, too. Sometimes, now, I catch you looking at Joey that way.”

“It's not the same! Joey...she's...I'm...” Pacey fumbled for a way to express his concern for and attraction to Joey in a way which didn't make him sound like a total asshole.

“All due respect, man, I don't think you know what you are or how you feel. And that's okay. Honest. Most of us don't, and that's without all this other shit to deal with. Andie is my sister, and I don't want her to get hurt. But I haven't forgotten and won't forget how you were my friend when most people wanted nothing to do with me, or the way you helped Andie and our whole family this year.”

Pacey smiled, relieved in ways he couldn't express. “You are a paragon of virtue, my friend.”

Jack grinned back at him as Jen and Joey came round the corner.

“Oh no!” Jen raised a hand to her mouth in mock horror. “Don't tell me Pacey's switched teams. I guess it's true what they say, all the good ones are gay.”

“Yes, they are. Which is why this one,” Joey held out her hand to give Pacey a lift up, “is as straight as they come.”

As he stood, Pacey shot her a lascivious smirk. “Now, when you say come...”

She backhanded him in the stomach. “Pervert.”

“Do you get the feeling our presence just became superfluous?” Jack said to Jen.

“These two? The only solution is to seat them at the children's table.”

“I never understood why that was supposed to be a punishment,” Pacey mused. “At the kids' table, no one talks politics, and you can make all the fart jokes you want.”

“Which, in Pacey's case, was always one that made everyone laugh, followed by a dozen which did not.”

“Fart jokes are never funny,” said Jen.

“Fart jokes are always funny,” said Jack.

They headed back to the party, Jack telling a suitable joke, and Jen covering her ears, pretending not to hear. Pacey and Joey followed more slowly.

“Hey.” She bumped his hip with hers. “You gonna be okay, with...” She gestured to the grill where Bodie—back in Capeside for the holiday—was barbecuing for a line of guests.

“Not really. But it's not like there's anywhere to escape to today. Maybe Canada. Fancy a road trip, Jo?”

“You want to go to Canada on Independence Day? Traitor.”

“This coming from the girl who wrote that Civics paper in defense of communism?”

Joey shrugged. “That was to piss off Mr. Sewell. He was such an ass.”

“Agreed. But you maybe shouldn't have told him so to his face.”

“Someone had to keep you company in detention after that stunt in the lunchroom.”

“And Dawson got so upset we were there without him he tried to pull an Ally Sheedy and sneak in.”

Their smiles both grew and died together.

“I miss him,” Joey said. “Especially today.”

Pacey put an arm around her shoulders. “I know. Me, too.”

<><><>

It was the worst party Pacey had ever been to, and that included six of his own birthdays which could earn him a guest spot on Oprah. Conversations ground to a halt at the mere hint of Dawson and Gail. Jokes fell flat; laughs were few and quickly stifled with guilty looks from the perpetrators. Mitch Leery kept up a steady alcohol intake which would awe even Pop. Guests less devoted to the Leerys found excuses to leave early. Long before the sun set, fewer than twenty remained.

Pacey ate nothing and drank only water. Even that was hard to keep down as barbecues up and down the creek left him fighting flashbacks of collapsing roofs, charbroiled bodies, and dead friends. He wanted this day to be over.

As twilight fell, Mitch wobbled to his feet. “I want to thank you all for coming today. There were no doubt happier places you could have been.” His words were slightly slurred, but surprisingly lucid for as much as he'd drunk. “Gail always planned these things. But I wanted you all here, because I have an announcement. You see this house?” Mitch's back was to the creek, and he gestured broadly in front of him at the Leery home. “This is the house I brought my baby boy home to. There's the ladder Joey climbed to reach him. I hung the shutters myself. There's not a room inside it where I didn't make love to my wife.”

One of Mitch's friends cleared his throat and put a hand on his shoulder. “Great speech, buddy. How 'bout we go inside, get some coffee?”

Mitch shook him off. “Get your hands off me! I haven't made my 'nnouncement yet. I am selling this house. There, I said it.”

“What!?” said Bessie.

“You can't!” protested Joey.

“Talked to Gail 'bout it. She signed off. It goes on the market tomorrow. Thought you should hear it from me before the sign goes up.”

“Are you moving to Philadelphia?” asked Mrs. Ryan. “To be with Gail?”

Mitch snorted and took another swig of beer. “And what, live off her charity while she fucks the weatherman in the next room? Gail and I had one thing left holding us together, and he's gone. He's gone.” Mitch sank into his chair, weeping openly.

Mrs. Ryan, whom Pacey assumed would be gone as soon as Mitch dropped the F-bomb, rose gracefully and walked to her neighbor. “Jennifer, I think Mitch could use that cup of coffee, if you don't mind.” While Jen went to grab it, Grams knelt in front of Mr. Leery and pried his fingers loose from the bottle. She put it to the side then wrapped his trembling hands in hers. “Not a sparrow falls, but the good Lord knows of it. How much more must He treasure a boy as loved and loving as Dawson. He is safe in God's hands. As are you, Mitchell Leery.”

Pacey could see by the play of emotions on Mitch's face that he didn't put any more credence in Mrs. Ryan's words than Pacey did, but he was touched by the old lady's gesture. “Thank you, Evelyn.”

Jen handed Mitch a cup of coffee, and Mrs. Ryan patted his knee as she stood. “Now, what do you say we send these fine people home? I'll stay and clean up, and we can have a nice chat.”

“Right. I apologize for, well, all of it.” He shrugged helplessly.

The remaining guests bid awkward goodbyes. Jack and Jen started clearing up. Pacey and Gretchen stayed to help. So did Joey, though Bessie and Bodie rowed Alexander across the creek to put him to bed.

Mrs. Ryan, along with Gretchen and Joey, put away food. Jen and Jack threw out the trash, and Mitch and Pacey stacked chairs.

“I'm sorry, Pacey,” Mitch told him, while they carried the lawn furniture to the shed.

“For what? Getting drunk and causing a scene? It's hardly news to you that I'm used to that. For moving? I can't tell you how many times since the fire I've wanted to get in the car, keep driving and never look back.”

“I can't help but feel like I'm abandoning you. You and Joey. I watched the two of you grow up, right alongside Dawson, and with your dads gone...” They emerged back into the night. Mr. Leery glared at his house and the lights streaming from it. “But I can't stay here anymore. It will drive me mad.”

“I get it, Mr. Leery. Really I do.” Pacey watched the house himself, stared at Dawson's dark window. “Life won't feel the same, though, without the Leerys of Capeside.”

“Life isn't the same.” Mitch led him inside to join the others in the kitchen. “Thank you all for the help. Before you go...I start packing tomorrow. I wanted you kids to have the option of picking out some of Dawson's things first, to remember him by.”

Joey wrapped her arms around herself, shaking her head and biting her lip.

Pacey spoke for her as much as for himself when he said, “We couldn't do that.”

“Of course you can. Dawson would rather his things went to his friends than to Goodwill.”

“Goodwill?” Joey shrieked. “You can't just give his things away!”

“I can't take them with me,” Mitch said in a broken voice. “Looking at them every day, like a shrine, pretending...I'll save a few things, for me, for Gail, but most of it will go.”

Joey ran up the stairs and into Dawson's room, slamming the door behind her.

“Even money says she barricades herself in,” said Pacey, trying to hide his concern.

“I'll go talk to her,” Jen said. “I think I understand how she feels.”

“Why don't you all go up? You can talk to Joey and, while you're at it, pick your mementos.”

Nobody wanted to root through Dawson's belongings, but no one wanted to say no to Mr. Leery, either. So Jen, Pacey, Jack, and Gretchen trooped up the stairs, while Mrs. Ryan shared more coffee with Dawson's grieving father.

Jen tapped lightly at Dawson's door. “Joey? May we come in?”

“Suit yourself. It's not my room.” Her bitterness was apparent through solid wood.

They filed in silently. Joey was curled up by the headboard, clutching Dawson's E.T. doll.

Jen sat down next to her. “Gramps was barely in the ground when Grams gave his stuff to charity. I was furious. It felt like she was saying he didn't matter anymore; I accused her of not loving him. Only recently have I been able to see the truth; it was because she loved him so much. She couldn't stand to see his things every day and be reminded he wasn't there.”

“My mom went the other route,” Jack said. “She held on to every single thing of Tim's. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but we all know how that turned out.”

“I know you're both trying to help, but I cannot be rational at this moment. Mitch is moving, he's going away, and—” Joey cut herself off, hiding her face behind the ugly toy.

“And what?” asked Jen.

“And leaving her,” Pacey said quietly.

“Just one more person to add to the list, right? Mom, Dad, Dawson. Gail, Bodie, now Mitch. And he's taking the last traces of Dawson with him.”

“No, he's not,” said Gretchen. She picked up a framed photo of Dawson and Joey with their arms around each other, smiling. “There are pictures. Our house is full of them; I'm sure yours is, too. And there are memories.”

She replaced the photograph and walked around the room. “I remember the last time I was up here. I didn't come very often, usually just to drag Pacey home, but the Christmas party when I was sixteen, Dawson was so excited. He insisted I come upstairs and see something. I thought it was some juvenile stunt to get a girl alone in his room and make a pass. But it wasn't. He wanted to show me the signed photo of Steven Spielberg he'd gotten in response to a fan letter he wrote.” She picked said photo up off Dawson's nightstand and shook her head fondly.

“Guess you found your memento, Gretch.”

Gretchen blushed and hastily replaced it. “Oh no, I couldn't.”

“Why not? It means something to you. Isn't that the point?”

“I still have Tim's letterman jacket.”

“Grams saved Gramps' leather-bound classics for me.”

“You should take it,” Joey said. Her face was pale but determined.

Gretchen reached again for the autographed headshot and folded it into her chest. “Thank you.”

“Well, if we're really doing this, I know what I want.” Jen hopped off the bed and opened the closet door. She carefully removed the movie poster for Always. “The first time Dawson brought me up here, he showed me this, said he kept it up to remind him we learn more from our failures than our successes.” Tears clouded Jen's eyes, and Pacey wondered, not for the first time, how deeply Jen had cared for his friend. “I'll never forget that.”

“I didn't know Dawson that long, and he didn't like me for most of it,” said Jack. “But if it's okay with you guys, I'll gather up his video footage and the movies he made and make copies. That way, you and Dawson's parents can each have all of it. No one goes without.”

“That's cool of you. Let me know if I can help with that.” Pacey grabbed a couple boxes of tapes from the closet, while Jack sorted out more from Dawson's film collection.

“Guess that leaves you two,” Jen pointed out.

“I wouldn't know what to choose.”

Pacey unearthed an old movie prop from the back of the closet. “Well, I could always commemorate the day I finally murdered Joey Potter.” He held up the mold of Joey's head from the sea monster movie.

“No! Not that,” Joey insisted. Her face was flushed. There was a story about that head she wasn't willing to share. “Anything but that.”

“Okay then.” He returned the prop to the closet. “In that case, I think Jen was on the right track. What better way to remember our favorite movie aficionado than with his posters?”

“You're right,” said Joey.

“I get Jaws,” they both said at the same time.

“Why should you get Jaws?” Joey protested. “Did you do line by line reenactments in Dawson's closet?”

“Happy to say I did not, you freak. But I am the one responsible for filching it from my older sister's slumber party and allowing us all to see it at such a young, impressionable age.”

“Pop made me pay the late fees on that,” Gretchen said. “You owe me nine bucks.”

“Stealing a tape for one viewing does not compare to the countless hours I spent reliving it over and over with him.”

“What about the pain and suffering I went through during that viewing, huh? My arm still has scars from the dents your nails made every time you got scared. I demand recompense in the form of that poster.” Pacey didn't care that much about the poster—although it was undeniably the best one—but he was having a surprising amount of fun fighting with Joey again.

Joey jumped off the bed and pulled the poster off the wall. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Tough luck, chum. And by chum, I mean shark-bait.”

“Nicely played, Potter, but where you gonna hang it? Your room is public domain, and that poster doesn't exactly gel with Bessie's design scheme.”

“Wherever I hang it, let's face it, you'll see more of it if it's at my place anyway.”

Pacey opened his mouth to retort, realized he had nothing to say, and closed it again.

Jen laughed. “I believe that's called check and mate.”

Chapter Text

After Mitch's announcement, Joey entered a new phase of grieving. She slept till noon, leaving Pacey to watch Alexander. Even upon waking, she lay in bed or sat at the kitchen table staring at nothing. Pacey worried about her and Alexander whenever he was at work. He and Bessie both tried to break Joey out of it, to no avail. He continued to read Little Women aloud to her, though she showed no reaction, not even when Beth died.

Pacey lasted ten days before he snapped.

He was up at six, fixing breakfast for Alex, while Bessie got ready for work. Still in gray sweats and his undershirt, Pacey sipped his coffee and stared at Joey's sleeping form. Alexander played with Cheerios in his high chair.

“I'm off,” said Bessie, breezing through with a kiss for her son on her way out the door. “Thanks, Pacey. Try and make my sister clean the bathroom today. A shower wouldn't hurt her, either.”

Pacey grunted a goodbye. They both knew the only way that bathroom would get cleaned was if Pacey did it himself. As for a shower...and that was the moment Pacey lost his mind. Without pausing for thought, he marched to Joey's bed, threw back the covers, and pulled her up and over his shoulder.

“Pacey?” Joey's voice was blurry from sleep and muffled against his back. “What the hell are you doing?”

He stomped toward the bathroom, hands clamped firmly on the bare thighs below her pajama shorts. “Bessie says you need a shower. I agree.”

“Pacey!” Joey began to struggle in earnest. “Put me down. Stop it!”

Pacey fought to keep his hold on her while using one hand to throw back the shower curtain and turn on the water. He tipped Joey onto her feet in the bathtub and held her shoulder against the wall while ice-cold water pelted down on both their clothed bodies.

“Knock it off,” Joey spluttered, pushing water off her face. “What's gotten into you?”

“You can't check out on me, Potter.”

“It's too hard, Pacey.” Even under the shower spray, he could tell Joey was crying. “I need him.”

He pushed sopping strands of hair out of her face and held her cheeks in his hands. “I know. I know you do. But I need you.” Joey's eyes widened in surprise. He ignored the question in them and pulled her into an embrace. The soaked fabric molding to skin between them reminded Pacey of their drunken, moonlit swim. “I promised I wouldn't leave you. Don't you leave me.”

Joey didn't answer in words, but, as she cried, he felt her nod against his shoulder. After a few minutes, the tears slowed to sniffles. She pulled back, biting her lip. “Uh, Pace, think we could turn the water off now?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.” He let go of her to shut down the shower. They stood shivering in the close confines of the bathtub while water dripped off their clothes and ran down their skin. Pacey's gaze followed the progress of a solitary droplet down the slope of Joey's throat, but he refused to let his eyes drift further down.

“Towels.” Joey absentmindedly pulled his stretchy, white undershirt away from his abdomen and then smoothed the wet fabric against his skin. “We should get towels.”

“Towels. Right.” Pacey's fingertips skimmed up and down the goosebumps on her arms. He was too aware of Joey's dark hair—almost black when wet—clinging in clumps to her cheeks, the sides of her neck; of her eyes, dark green and luminous from tears; of her lips, parted just a fraction, as if in invitation.

An anguished wail made them both jump. “Dodo! Dodo!” Alexander cried his name for his aunt.

“Guess he's done with breakfast,” Pacey said, jumping out of the tub so fast he banged a shin on the edge. “I'll get towels.”

<><><>

With the loss of studying, new projects were essential if Pacey was going to keep his mind off Joey and both their minds off Dawson. The mindless comfort of swimming made Pacey crave, for the first time in his life, the exhaustion of exercise. So every morning, he forced Joey to wake up before the summer heat became unbearable; they loaded Alex into his stroller and went running. Despite her initial reluctance, Joey took to it even more than Pacey did. She said it cleared her mind and helped her think, while Pacey numbed his own brain to everything but the rhythm of their footfall, the inhale and exhale of each breath.

He saved a little out of his paycheck from household expenses, so he and Joey could go out with Jack and Jen. Bowling, roller skating, mini-golf, tennis—Pacey didn't care what they did, as long as it required perpetual motion. He was terrified of the combination of Joey Potter and stillness.

On days when Pacey didn't work, they rowed Alexander over to the Leerys' and helped Mitch sort and pack. Unlike with the exercise regimen, Pacey could not turn off his mind or emotions then. The hours reliving every moment of the past were painful in the extreme, but he owed it to Mitch to see it through. Dawson's father suffered too much alone. Joey couldn't pack so much as a coffee mug without crying, but she kept at it, as unwilling as Pacey to abandon the closest thing to a father they had left.

No matter how hard he pushed himself during the day, at night, Pacey was left with quiet and stillness and Joey by his side. He filled that silence with the written word.

'Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!'” Pacey frowned as he shut Joey's favorite book for the last time.

Joey looked up from her spot nestled against his shoulder. “What's that face for? You didn't like it?”

Pacey's expression mostly reflected his worry at how they were going to fill the nights now. But he had problems with the book, too. “I don't get it. The book convinces you Jo and Laurie are made for each other then marries him off to her twit of a sister and Jo to some old professor who's not even in the story until the end.”

To his surprise, Joey smiled. “That was my reaction the first time Mom read it to me. But she told me that was one of her favorite parts of the book, the twist ending, because it proved your first love didn't have to be your true or only love, that life is about growth and change.”

“You believe that?” Pacey had heard Joey and Dawson spout raptures about soulmates too often to buy that she would ever love anyone else.

Joey bit her lip, twisting a lock of hair around her finger as she considered the question. “I don't know. But I do believe this ending is more realistic than books where the hero gets the girl and they live happily ever after. Life doesn't work like that.”

Pacey winced, thinking about Joey and Dawson, Mitch and Gail. Him and Andie. “Maybe it doesn't. But that's all the more reason why it should happen in fiction. Fiction is about escape, and don't we all want to pretend the happy ending is possible?”

It was Joey's turn to flinch, as she pulled away from him.

“Jo? What's wrong? What'd I say?”

“Nothing. It's not your fault. It's...one of the last conversations I had with Dawson. We were fighting about happy versus sad endings, and I had the audacity to predict we would get the happy ending. Guess I got what I deserved.”

“Hey.” Pacey put his arm around Joey's shoulders and drew her back toward him. “It wasn't your fault. You know that.”

“Do I? Let's face it, Pacey, I'm a jinx. You should probably run far, far away before you develop some freak genetic disorder or drown in a flash flood.”

“I'll take my chances, thanks.” He changed the subject. “So what should we do with our nights now that Little Women is finished?” When Pacey's brain caught up with his mouth, he wanted to kick himself for how that sounded.

Luckily, Joey took the comment at face value. “Well, what's your favorite book? It's only fair I suffer through in return.”

“Promise you won't laugh?”

“Pacey, you read Little Women with me. That earned my restraint, if nothing else.”

The Sword in the Stone.”

To her credit, Joey hid her laugh in a cough. “Isn't that the cartoon with the witch who turns into a cat?”

“As I recall, that witch scared the crap out of you when we were kids. Besides, to quote a wise woman I know, the book is always better.”

“Fair enough. So why is it your favorite book?”

Pacey shrugged. “Fiction as escape, remember? It's about a boy who meets a wizard and turns into different creatures and sees how they live. Kinda dumb, sure, but it was funny, and it was one book I couldn't stop turning the pages.”

“Color me intrigued. Let's read it.”

<><><>

Pacey went home the next afternoon to grab the book, do some laundry, and pack new clothes. The memorable morning after the shower with Joey, when he'd been forced to wear a pair of Bodie's old sweats, she'd suggested he store some clothes at her place. So now Pacey had a week's worth of clothes crammed into his duffle, and his returns to the Witter residence had become even greater rarities. The growing distance between him and his family left him feeling guilty, but also relieved.

Doug was on the roof when Pacey arrived, making the repairs Pop had been promising to make the last two years. He walked to the edge when he saw Pacey drive up. “Hey, Pacey, care to lend a hand?”

“Sure. Just let me throw a load in first.” He held up the stuffed bag as proof.

“There's mail in the kitchen I think you'll want to see.”

Pacey tried to feel excited about his weekly letters from Andie. He continued to write to his girlfriend daily. She wrote him twice a week. But it was hollow, perfunctory. The well-intentioned lies of omission about the fire had grown in scope until Andie seemed removed from all the realities of his life. There were days it was hard to believe she wasn't a beautiful dream he'd invented in the midst of his nightmare existence.

Two envelopes—one pink, one purple—were resting on the counter, addressed to him in Andie's adorable cursive. But they were placed under a third, typed letter, already opened. Pacey's report card. He should have remembered it would be here, given Joey had received tidings of her perfect 4.0 two days ago. The fact that his family had seen fit to open his grades without him present killed any interest in learning his scores. Pacey stuffed all three envelopes in the deep side pocket of his shorts and headed outside to confront Doug.

Doug didn't give him an opening to complain. He put Pacey to work laying tar as soon as he climbed the ladder. The job was hot, exhausting, and filthy—exactly the kind of physical labor Pacey had been seeking the last few weeks. Once he got into the rhythm of it, though, he was able to converse and approached the subject of his discontent by a sideswipe.

“Where are Ma and Gretchen?”

“Mom's working dispatch. Gretchen's out with friends.” Doug worked twice as fast as Pacey, a fact Pacey acknowledged with more irritation than surprise.

“So which one of you went snooping in my mail?”

Doug's motions ceased as he glared at his brother. “You might be playing house at the Potters' this summer, Pacey, but you're still a minor. Your mother has the right—and the duty—to check up on you. Besides, after all the nasty reports our folks have gotten from your schools, shouldn't you be happy to finally get one like this?”

“Like what?”

Doug laughed so hard Pacey was afraid he'd fall off the roof. “You didn't check your grades? Sometimes, little brother, you really are a moron. Even if your report card says otherwise.”

“And with that remark constituting the Witter family equivalent of a compliment, is it any wonder I'd rather keep the news to myself?”

Doug sighed and shook his head. “Fine, Pacey. Don't allow your family to enjoy your accomplishment. But, in my opinion, you owe that girl of the colored envelopes one hell of a thank you.”

Pacey worked on without reply. If his grades were as good as Doug implied, he did owe Andie a tremendous debt of gratitude. But there was plenty of that to go round, and the person he wanted to share the moment with was Joey.

<><><>

After finishing the roof, the laundry, and a shower to kill the tar smell, Pacey repacked his bag—not neglecting the book he'd come for in the first place—and headed back to the Potters'.

Bessie was enjoying her day off by playing outside with Alexander, while Joey fixed dinner, a typical Potter blend—boxed macaroni and mixed frozen veggies simmering in tomato sauce. Pacey knew it was on his account ground beef hadn't been added to the meal.

“So I got my report card.”

Joey's back was to him, but she'd heard him enter, because she didn't jump. “I figured. I assume you passed and won't be subjected to an additional year of academic slavery?”

“No idea.” Pacey drew out the wrinkled, white envelope from his pocket and nervously smoothed it with both hands. “Haven't looked at it yet, though my family felt no such compunction and opened it in absentia.”

Joey turned off the stove and moved the pan to another burner to cool. “Given no one has called to rake you over the coals, you must have done well.” She wiped her hands on a tea towel and faced Pacey, mouth turning up in a hopeful smile.

“Witters are dependable that way. Successes fall by the wayside, but failures never go unremarked.” He looked from Joey to the envelope then handed it to her without opening it himself.

She didn't bother to ask if he was sure, just pulled out the paper inside. Pacey watched her bite her cheeks in an effort to remain expressionless.

“Well? Do you enjoy keeping me in agony, Potter?”

“Highlight of my day.” Joey carried the report card to the fridge and placed it under a magnet, right next to where Bessie had posted Joey's grades. “Congratulations, Pace, half of high school complete, and you still have more options open to you than pumping gas or clown college. Not that you wouldn't excel at both those endeavors.”

Pacey looked over her shoulder to read his name and the descending lines of A's and a few B's. It was far and away the best report card he'd ever gotten. “Thank you, Jo. I'd never have done it without you.”

“Of course you would. I didn't suddenly make you smart, Pace. Neither did Andie. Any more than your father calling you an idiot made you stupid. You need to believe in yourself more.”

“Sorry, I must have heard wrong. Aren't you the same Josephine Potter who calls me cocky every other day?”

“Yes, but on the other fifty percent of days, you're completely self-effacing and riddled with doubt. If you could stop the pendulum from swinging so far in both directions, there might be the makings of a decent person in you.”

Pacey smiled ruefully. “Wasn't a chance I was going to impress you with those grades, was there, Potter?”

“They're just grades, Pace,” Joey said with a shrug. “When you called to say you would miss lunch because you were helping Doug fix the roof? That impressed me. Every time you get Alexander to sleep without thirty minutes of lullabies, you impress me. But right now, begging for compliments?” She swatted his stomach. “You're just pathetic. Set the table, while I call Bessie in. See if you can impress her by putting the silverware on the right sides this time.”

Laughing, Pacey set the table.

It was two days later before he remembered to read Andie's letters.

<><><>

Jack arrived at the Potters' on a Tuesday in early August with two boxes of Dawson's video footage. Pacey and Joey had been playing Battleship while Alexander napped.

“As promised,” Jack said, as Pacey took the top box before it toppled over, “one set for you, one for Joey. Jen and Grams are taking the originals and a third set over to Mr. Leery right now. I wanted to make sure I finished before the move.”

Joey cleared a spot for her box by the entertainment center. For the moment, Pacey set his down with hers; he would take it home on his next trip. They both thanked Jack for his efforts.

“You willing to lend a hand on moving day? We could use the extra pair of arms,” said Pacey. “Potter can't lift more than a pillow.”

Joey threw a couch cushion at him.

Pacey dodged and grinned. “Kinda proving my point there, Jo.”

“Bite me.”

“Please, Josephine, not while we have guests.” He gestured elaborately at Jack.

Jack laughed. “I, uh, I,” he coughed at Joey's sour look, “I'd be happy to help. Next week, isn't it?”

“Yeah. Monday. Goodwill is sending a truck in the morning for the furniture and big items, but we need to load it, and Mitch is getting a trailer for the stuff he's keeping.”

“Does he know where he's going?”

“Philadelphia that first night,” Joey said quietly. The weeks of packing had inured her to Mitch's leaving, but she wasn't any happier about it. She glared daggers at the SOLD sign every time they entered or left Dawson's old home. “He's dropping off Gail's things, but insists he won't stay long.”

“He's talked about a job offer in Vancouver and a buddy in California,” Pacey added.

“So, basically, as far from Capeside as he can get,” Jack translated.

Alex woke with a wail. Joey went to get him, while Pacey put their game away. He wouldn't want the little guy to choke on the pieces.

“End of H. That's where her damn dinghy was hiding,” he muttered.

“Hey, Pacey, I've got some news.” Jack's low, serious tone clued Pacey into his subject matter.

“About Andie? Is everything okay? She all right?” He ran over the contents of her last few letters in his head. He hadn't noticed anything amiss, but he knew first hand how much could be concealed in a letter.

“She's fine. She's doing really well, actually. Her doctors have told Dad she's ready to hear about the fire. And Dad's decided the news would play better from me and you. He's abrogating responsibility the way he always does, but given that he never knew Dawson, this time he's probably right.”

Pacey stood frozen. Tell Andie? For weeks, that was all he'd wanted to do; now, the thought of it was paralyzing.

“Seriously, Pace, that was my fifth time in a row changing him,” Joey said, as she entered the room with her nephew on her hip. “If I have to do it again, his next diaper will be your Bruins jersey.” She noticed their expressions, and her playfulness fled. “What's wrong?”

Pacey pulled himself together. Joey didn't need to worry about this. “Nothing. Jack just gave me the glad tidings that we're going to pay Andie a visit.”

Something flashed across Joey's face too quickly for Pacey to identify it. He blinked, and she was smiling with painful brightness. “That's great! When?”

“Whenever Pacey here pulls his jaw off the floor and tells me his next day off.”

“Uh...” Pacey's mind was blank.

“Thursday, isn't it, Pace?”

“If you say so. You know me, I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on so tight.”

Joey gave him a look which said, what the hell are you talking about? But she didn't call him out in front of Jack. “Look again. There's a screw loose in there somewhere.”

“So Thursday?” Jack kept to the subject at hand. “I'll let the facility know. We'll set up a time; I'll drive.” He frowned as he studied Pacey. “Unless you don't want to go?”

“No, no. I want to see her. I just...” He spread his hands in frustration. “Telling her. It's going to pull off some fresh, bloody scabs. For both of us.”

Jack nodded, shoulders relaxing. “I get that. It's going to be rough, reliving it all. But, hey, look at the bright side. After that, no more lies.”

“One could only hope,” said Pacey.

<><><>

Pacey grabbed his book off the end table. One or two more days should finish it. To his surprise, Joey seemed to like it. She laughed at all the right parts and waxed prolific on the totalitarian ants. “You starting, or am I?”

Joey was staring at the boxes of Dawson's videos and worrying her lip. She didn't answer.

“Or we could shelve the Wart for tonight and watch those movies,” he suggested.

“No,” was Joey's quick answer. She shook her head and pulled her attention away from the box. “No, let's read.”

“It's okay if you want to watch the footage, Jo. That's why Jack went to all that trouble.”

“I can't watch the Home Shopping Network without breaking out in hives. You honestly believe I could make it through the filmography of Dawson Leery?”

“Yeah, I do. The reason you can't watch TV or film anymore is because he's not with you, right? But he would be with you in his movies.”

Joey's gaze returned to the box. She threaded folds of her bedsheet between her fingers. “Part of me wants to, like it would be a way to feel close to him again. The rest of me is terrified.”

“Of what?”

“The same thing you told Jack today—pulling at the scabs. Only for me, it's worse than scabs. It's sutures. Losing Dawson has slowed to a steady seeping of my heart's blood. But it could so easily become a hemorrhage.”

“Vivid imagery there, Potter.” Pacey followed the flippant words with a supportive hand rubbing circles on her back. “If you're not ready, that's fine. The tapes can wait. But whenever you are ready, I'll be right here. My first aid is a tad rusty, but I can dial 911 with the best of them.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “With my luck, your mother would answer and opt to let me bleed to death.”

“That's Ma, no compassion for figurative hemorrhages.”

Eyes dark in the lamplight, Joey studied his face. Pacey had no idea what she was looking for or whether she found it. After a moment, she asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“About what, melodramatic ways to die? My mother? The complicated reasons why Sword in the Stone is my favorite book?”

Joey snorted. “They're not complicated. It's about a little boy who's run down and abused by everyone around him but turns out to be more special than he ever dreamed.”

“Hey, we haven't gotten to that part yet!”

“It's the name of the book, Pace. Hardly counts as a spoiler. And quit deflecting. Andie. Your forthcoming visit. Do you want to talk about it?” Joey said the last sentence slowly, as though speaking to someone with a minimal grasp of English.

“You were here. Jack's got it covered. What's there to say?”

“How you feel about seeing her again. What you're going to say when you do. What you're going to wear. Whatever you want.”

“Well, I was considering wearing—don't get too exited now—clothes.”

Joey swatted him. “Fine. I pour out my heart and soul and endless misery to you on a daily basis and was happy to have a chance to finally return the favor, but, if you'd rather be an ass, go ahead and read.”

“You're there for me plenty, Jo. And about Andie...I don't know what to say. I feel sick to my stomach just thinking about it. Nervous, excited, scared.” Guilty, he thought, as he lay in t-shirt and boxers in Joey's bed, with only her similarly scanty pajamas and a thin sheet—in summer, Pacey rejected all covers—separating them. How was he supposed to explain this to his girlfriend?

“I haven't thought much about Andie this summer. Too wrapped up in my own drama, like the selfish cow I am. You must have missed her a lot.” Joey's long, slim fingers continued to play with the sheet in distracting ways.

“For once, you get a pass on the drama card. And, to answer your question, yes, I have missed Andie. But there were days I nearly forgot her, too, and I have no excuse for that.”

“Everything since that night at the Ice House has been a deep descent into darkest hell.” Joey's gaze was on her hands as she added, “Except you. I'm sorry you and Andie have been separated, but I am grateful for the way you've been here for me. I...I'm not sure I'd have made it this far without you.”

Pacey's stomach turned over again. The choking feeling made it difficult to speak. “Don't get sentimental on me now, Potter. But, for what it's worth, ditto.” He pulled her hand free and replaced the pleated sheet with his fingers.

Their hands remained clasped as they drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

The drive to Providence was mostly a silent one. Their thoughts were full of the visit ahead, and efforts at conversation were short-lived. Luckily, Jack's taste in music was a thousand times better than Doug's, and they cruised down the highway to a mix of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica.

Pacey was antsy. He wanted to move. The passenger seat felt confining. He should have insisted on driving. He shouldn't have skipped his run. His foot tapped out the same quick rhythm against the floorboard, no matter the song.

When they reached the Mayfield Center, Pacey didn't know whether he wanted to jump out of the car and race in to see her or turn around and drive home as fast as humanly possible.

“Well, here we are,” Jack said unnecessarily as he killed the engine.

“Indeed, we are.”

Jack cast him a sidelong look. “You ready for this?”

“Guess we'll find out.” Pacey opened the door. After the cool, air-conditioned car, the humidity outside was suffocating. He could feel the air pressing on his skin, stealing his breath. The clouds overhead forecast a late summer storm. Pacey refused to view the oppressive gloom as an omen.

He followed Jack inside to the reception desk. Upon giving their names, they were ushered into a surprisingly bright, open room. Mahogany bookshelves lined one wall, with a cozy reading nook set up beside it, while round tables and chairs were scattered around the rest of the space. Large windows looked out into a secluded garden, and the walls were painted a cheerful, pale yellow. A petite, middle-aged brunette sat in a corner loveseat, lost in a John Grisham novel, while a fresh-faced nurse in spotless white nodded encouragingly at them from a small desk by the door.

Pacey sat on one of the well-padded chairs and tried not to slump or sprawl. He felt called to his best manners, as if visiting his grandmother.

Jack didn't sit. He leaned against the back of a chair, fingers drumming against the cushion. “So we've put this off as long as possible. Who's telling her, you or me?”

Pacey frowned. His foot resumed its relentless tapping. “I don't know. How's your bedside manner?”

Jack shrugged. “Flip you for it?”

Pacey shook his head. “My dad, my best friend. I'll do it.”

Jack's spine relaxed, while Pacey felt his gut tighten further.

Pacey couldn't sit any longer. He jumped to his feet and walked back and forth between the sitting area and the door. He couldn't believe after three long months, he was going to see Andie again. Putting aside the confession he dreaded, he was, in those first few moments, going to see her beautiful smile, smell her hair, hold her close.

And all his confused, trauma-induced feelings for Joey Potter would disappear in the reality of his love for Andie McPhee.

The doorknob twisted. Pacey froze. Jack stepped up beside him. A stocky, Hispanic man in a white uniform opened the door then stepped back. Andie rushed past him, squealing, and threw herself into her brother's arms.

“Jack! I've missed you so much!” Andie looked luminous, her hair blonde again, her skin shining peaches and cream. She wore cutesy little barrettes in her hair, the way Pacey remembered, and a pink and blue sundress he thought was new.

Jack swallowed his sister in a giant bear hug. “Missed you, too. But it's good to see you smiling.” He pulled back, and the siblings grinned at each other.

“Sorry to break up the Hallmark moment, but can I get a little piece of this lovefest?”

A blush rose in Andie's cheeks as she disentangled herself from Jack. “Pacey.” Her voice was soft, loving, but she didn't throw herself at him with abandon, as she had her brother. She stepped into his open arms tentatively, hands sliding around Pacey's waist, slowly bringing her head to rest against his chest. Then she sighed and relaxed, her momentary bashfulness or discomfort vanishing.

For a moment, Pacey was shocked at how short she was. Then he remembered the curves of her body, how he'd wanted to protect her and save her from the very first time he held her. He pulled her tight with his right arm, while his left hand stroked her hair. “Hey, McPhee.” He ducked his head to kiss the top of hers, but stopped short. “New shampoo?”

Andie pulled back, laughing nervously. “Yeah. I ran out, and Linda got me the wrong bottle. Mark said he likes this better, and Sylvie agreed, but if you don't like it, I can—”

“Who said I didn't like it? I just noticed it was different. Maybe you should be happy that after three months, I remembered you always smell like lemonade on a summer's day. But this is nice, too. Still fresh and clean, but different. What is it?”

“Cucumber.”

Jack laughed. “Cucumber, really? Only women would ever think it's attractive to smell like a salad.”

Andie pushed out of Pacey's arms and headed toward one of the circular seating areas. “Says the boy who most often reeks of a combination of CK One and sweaty gym socks.” She perched on the edge of a straight-backed chair, hands folded, ankles crossed.

“So now that you're here, are you finally going to tell me what's happened?” Pacey could hear Andie's anxiety in her voice, see it in the whiteness of her clasped knuckles.

“What, what makes you think something's happened?” Jack asked, with the guiltiest face in the world.

“Please, I'm crazy, not stupid. Whenever I ask questions about Capeside, you both turn cagey and try to change the subject, and it's taken most of the summer for you to come visit. So what is it? Is it Mom?” Andie's face blanched, hands gripped her knee. But she sat, brave and quiet, sane and strong.

“It's not Mom,” Jack hastened to assure her.

Andie relaxed a fraction. “Good. I know it's not Dad, since I just got off the phone with him. Is it Aunt—”

“It's Dawson,” Pacey blurted out, unable to stomach twenty questions. “Dawson and my dad and Joey's, too. They were killed in a fire, not long after you left.”

“What—I don't—but—how long after I left?”

“About a week.” Pacey started toward her, to comfort her, but Andie stood and retreated from him, horror growing on her face. “I wanted to tell you, but the doctors said you weren't ready. They were afraid—”

“I need to see Mark,” Andie said, rushing to the door. “I need Mark!” Hysteria bubbled in her words, in the lines of her body. The nurse at the desk rose to her feet, but before she reached Andie, the girl fled the room.

Pacey listened to the fading click of her shoes across the floor. He felt numb, unable to move, unable to speak.

“Wait here, please,” the nurse instructed them. “I'll check on her.” She left the room, shutting the door quietly behind her. A minute later, another white-frocked nurse took her seat at the desk, with an appraising glance at the woman still lost in The Client.

“Sorry,” Pacey muttered to Jack. “I didn't handle that well.”

“Ya think?” Jack snapped at him, before taking a deep breath. “It wasn't your fault, Pacey. We never should have kept it from her in the first place. She's much too smart for that kind of deception. I'll go back to the front desk, find out where she is, see if we can talk to her.” He left the room, and Pacey, behind.

Pacey ignored the inquisitive gaze of the new nurse and headed to one of the windows. A few patients milled around the flower-lined paths, while others worked in a vegetable patch. A recognizable blonde blur hurried across the grass and into the arms of a surprised, worried dark-haired boy. He held her close, whispering into her ear, one hand buried in her hair, as Andie's slender shoulders shook with weeping. After a moment, Andie pulled back slightly, said something to the young man—Mark, Pacey assumed—and then, following his response, dived right back into his arms.

The scene was piercingly familiar and separate at the same time. He had been there, in Mark's place, before. Now, he was on the outside, looking in.

The brunette nurse who had followed Andie walked up to the entwined pair a minute later. Andie stepped out of Mark's arms, but held tightly to his hand. She listened to the nurse, listened to Mark, but responded with more tears, a rapid negative shake of the head, and a string of words which included the easily decipherable No at least four times.

Pacey didn't wait for the nurse's return with Andie's refusal. He left the visitors' room, passed through the corridor, and back into reception. “Let's go, Jack,” he said to his friend as he passed him at the front desk. He didn't wait to see if Jack followed.

Clouds dark as pitch hovered overhead. Distant streaks of lightning illuminated Jack's waiting car. Thunder boomed like a gunshot. Pacey tried to open the passenger side door. It was locked.

“Goddammit!” Pacey kicked the tire once and then once more. It didn't help. He leaned against the side of the car, resting his elbows on the roof, his head in his hands. Uncounted minutes passed as he numbed himself to thought, to feeling, to everything, as the heavens opened up and poured down upon him.

“Pacey! Are you okay, man?” Jack ran up to him.

Pacey laughed bitterly. “We could take inventory of the multitude of ways in which I am not okay, but during the time that would take, I would probably be struck by lightning. Twice.”

“Andie asked us to come back next week, told the nurse she's not ready to talk to us yet. But we could go in and wait, if you want. She might change her mind.”

She doesn't need me, Pacey thought, but aloud said only, “Let's go home.”

Jack unlocked the car, and they piled in. Given the deluge, Jack, being the responsible driver he was, drove at a crawl. A mile down the road, he turned down the radio and said, “You shouldn't read too much into it, the Mark thing. He's just a friend. They've gone through a lot of the same things, but...you shouldn't be jealous, Pacey. She doesn't love him.”

Pacey watched the rain splatter the windshield in blinding thickness. “She never mentioned him to me. Not once, in any letter or phone call. I've heard about Linda and Sylvie, Vincent and Tomas, Dr. Bennet and Nurse Janine. Until today, I didn't know Mark existed.”

“Maybe she felt weird talking about him to you. They've been helping each other through this, like you and Joey. You haven't exactly been forthcoming with Andie about your new best friend, either.”

“I couldn't because I wasn't allowed to tell her about the fire. What's her excuse?”

“Same as yours,” Jack shot back. “She's recovering from trauma, however she can. Don't be a hypocrite, man. Or a jealous ass.”

Pacey was self-aware enough to admit he was jealous. But more than that, he was pissed. He was mad at Andie for lying to him, and at himself for lying to her. He was bone-deep furious at his father for a lifetime of telling him he wasn't good enough, and at himself for proving Pop right. At the Leerys, for leaving; at Doug, for staying. At Mike Potter, for being the idiot who started the whole damn mess. He was pissed at Dawson for dying, which didn't make any sense, and at himself for living, which was messed up on a whole other level. He hated this Mark guy he'd never met for being the arms Andie ran to and hated himself for not caring enough to run after her. He hated a fucking fortune teller he met for five minutes one day because she was right about Andie and right about him, and he was so sick of watching the remnants of his fragile happiness crash to the ground.

Worse than all the rest, he hated that never, not for a moment, not when Andie ran into the room, not when he held her close or saw her smile, had he forgotten the shifting shades of Joey Potter's eyes.

<><><>

Pacey had Jack drop him off at home, not the Potters'. He didn't trust himself around Joey, not with how today had gone, the way he was feeling. He didn't mention that to Jack, but he thought Jack knew anyway. The storm had followed them all the way, and Pacey was soaked in the short run from Jack's car to his porch.

Gretchen was the only one home. She was in the dining room, surrounded by boxes, piles of sorted papers spread out on the table. “Pacey! This is a rare honor. Between the look on your face and going out in this weather, I'm guessing fight with Joey?”

“Good news: you can safely cross detective off your list of career choices and spare the world another Witter in law enforcement. Haven't seen Joey since breakfast. My friend Jack and I went to visit Andie.”

“She of the desperate phone messages and pastel envelopes?” Gretchen gave him a sympathetic look. “Want to talk about it?”

“Almost as much as I want a red-hot poker shoved in my eye.”

“Ouch. Got it. But for the record, I'm fantastic at sisterly advice, and it's a limited time offer, since I'll be back at school soon.”

Pacey felt a pang of regret at the reminder. He should have made more effort to spend time with his favorite sibling this summer. But he was in no way tempted to change his mind with regards to Andie. “What's all this?” He gestured broadly at the controlled chaos. “It looks like H & R Block threw up in here.”

“You're more right than you know. It's Pop's papers, from the den and the attic. Apparently, the man never threw away a receipt. I've found ones from before he and Mom were married.”

“Does that surprise you? We all got the lectures. 'Always get a receipt, and a man will never have to—'”

“'Take you at your word.' Yes, I know. I just don't know who this man is that's going to care how much Pop spent on a roll of toilet paper and a pack of bologna in 1976.”

“Why are you going through all this, anyway?”

“Told Dougie I would. Mom won't touch it, and it needs to be done.” Gretchen shot him a sly look. “Don't suppose I could bribe you to help with sandwiches, popcorn, and a constant supply of soda, could I?”

Pacey considered his limited options for spending the afternoon. “Throw in a Snickers bar, and I'm sold.”

“Never go into finance, Pacey. You're a pushover, for which I thank you from the bottom of my soul. Okay, so any receipt over five years old, automatic trash. More recent ones, I have in folders with the tax returns from those years. Legal papers are in this file, medical here, insurance and other financials here.” She patted the stacks in turn. “I've come across some of his notes on cases and set them aside for Doug; they're on his chair. Pop saved a bunch of news clippings about his cases and career; for now, they're in this box. But I'm thinking of scrapbooking them for Ma before I leave.

“And this pitiful pile,” she pressed one in the middle of the table less than half the height of the others, “is family memorabilia. Most of it is stuff about Doug. There are some letters from Ma when they were dating. Those are...disturbing, I do not recommend. In case you're wondering, the only visual proof I've found that you and I exist are our birth certificates, which I put in the legal pile, and a receipt for a Barbie Dreamhouse Santa brought me when I was seven.”

Pacey was too busy trying to keep his sister's instructions straight to be more than distantly disappointed his father saved no mementos of him. “That figures. Anyway, what of mine would he treasure, my first detention slip?”

“How about those handprint Father's Day cards we made him every year?” Gretchen sounded angry, but the puffiness around her eyes said she had cried at least once today. “They might not have been high art, but they should have been more important to him than,” she grabbed a paper slip at random out of a box, “the memory of buying a bunch of bananas, a gallon of milk, and two dozen eggs in 1992.”

“If it helps, we did exist in '92 and probably contributed in some way to the consumption of said items.”

Gretchen wadded up the receipt and threw it at him.

<><><>

Leaflets proclaiming Witter for Sheriff. Articles about budget increases and community policing. Receipts for groceries, for gas, for car parts. These were the remnants of John Witter's life.

Nothing about this chore was fun. Before an hour passed, Pacey knew why Gretchen was both frustrated and teary; he felt the same himself. Every stupid, meaningless scrap of paper was proof their dad had once been alive and now wasn't. But there were no mysterious notes from beyond the grave, no deep secrets which suddenly enabled them to comprehend the man who had raised them.

The closest Pacey came to a revelation was when he found an old letter rejecting his father from the police academy. It was saved alongside the next year's acceptance letter. “He might have mentioned this one of the thousand times he was giving me shit for being a failure.”

“What's that?” Gretchen was tying off another overflowing trash bag.

Pacey handed her the letters. “In case you were at risk of believing Pop was a perfect man.”

She read them then gave them back to Pacey. “Here. You should keep them. They're as much closure as you're going to get.”

Like most things in life lately, closure felt hollow.

Gretchen left for work shortly thereafter. Pacey kept sorting. He had nothing else to do, and he'd done little enough to help his family since the fire. But the effort was more depressing alone, without Gretchen to joke with.

Pacey's eyes burned. The print blurred. He pressed his fists to his eyes again and again. He would not cry over the bastard again, damn it. Not over a bill for fishing tackle, or memories of countless fishing trips which ended in humiliation and despair.

The sound of a key in the door could not have been more welcome. Pacey went to the kitchen and grabbed a bag of chips and a new soda. By the time he returned and found Doug studying the papers on the table, he had pulled himself back together. Enough to be the glib smartass his brother expected him to be.

“Deputy Doug, home from another day protecting Capeside's upstanding citizens from the dark and dastardly criminal element. What say, brother, catch any repeat jaywalkers today?”

Doug gave him the stern, official stare. “What are you doing home? Bessie finally come to her senses and throw your slovenly butt into the street?”

“For your information, I am here on a mission of mercy, saving our sister from the tedium of sorting through Pop's nearest and dearest possessions.”

Doug's expression softened, posture relaxed. “It's good of you to help, Pacey. I'm gonna go change and heat up some chicken marsala I made yesterday. There's enough for two, if you'd like some.”

“No, thanks.” Pacey held up his recent acquisitions. “Got all the sustenance I need right here.”

“You ever happen to notice how sugar and salt are the smallest area of the food pyramid, little brother?”

“Relax, Mom. Gretchen made me something earlier. She also put aside some of Pop's papers for you. They're on your chair.”

“I'll take a look after dinner.” Doug went upstairs to change into his civvies.

Pacey went back to work.

When Doug warmed up his dinner, the spices in the sauce masked the smell of chicken, for which Pacey was grateful. Joey had suggested the week before he try reintroducing meat to his diet in baby steps, maybe cold cuts in a sandwich. Pacey acknowledged the sense of that—sliced turkey would hardly trigger memories of charred flesh—but there lingered a quiet revulsion at the idea of eating something once alive, now dead. God, how Pop would have lambasted his squeamishness.

Half an hour later, Pacey was down to the last box, and Doug was going through their father's notes and casefiles. They didn't share jokes or tell stories like he had with Gretchen, but they weren't fighting, either, which was new for an evening alone with Doug.

He heard a sniffle and looked up to see his brother hunched over in his chair, trying to hide his tears. Pacey froze. He didn't know if he should sneak away, pretend not to notice, or try to help. Which would Doug appreciate? Which would offend him? Pacey didn't know his brother well enough to decide; he could only follow his own instincts.

“Hey, Doug, you okay?”

A shudder wracked Doug's body. He swiped roughly at his face. “I don't know what to do without him.” He held up the pages he'd been reading. His expression begged Pacey to understand. “He taught me how to be a cop, how to be a man. Everything's so easy for you. You set out on your own path a long time ago. But everything I know—good and evil, right and wrong—I learned from him.”

“Have you ever considered that maybe a value system which makes you hide everything you are isn't one you should be living by?”

Doug's eyes were granite. “For the seven hundredth time, I AM NOT GAY!”

Pacey spread his hands in protest. “Who said you were? You spend a lot of time talking to Pop about musicals? Make him your chicken marsala? Give him one of your weird decoupage boxes?”

“Stop right there. Pop and I had a great relationship. Don't you dare try and poison it with your skewed view of family history.”

“Nobody's arguing you weren't the golden child, Dougie. He saved your damn attendance records, for God's sake. But you just gave him credit for your entire being, and, personally, questionable taste in hobbies aside, I think that's selling yourself short.”

A small smile peeked through Doug's stony features. “Reading between the lines, you just said you like me.”

Pacey scowled. “I said you have a personality, not that I admire it. Give me one of your frilly boxes, and I'll chuck it in the creek.”

The phone rang. Doug rose to answer it, his smile wider, showing teeth. “Whatever you say, little brother.”

Pacey hid his own grin as he ducked over the last box.

He heard Doug's formal greeting, “Witter residence, this is Doug speaking. May I ask who's calling, please?”

Seriously, what was wrong with a simple Hello?

“Yes, of course, Joey, he's right here.” Doug held out the phone. “For you.”

Pacey felt a flutter of trepidation as he took the call. “Hey, Potter, what's up?”

“You jerk! Have you noticed this storm? How could you not tell me you were back?” He could hear the worry under her anger.

“Sorry, Jo. Guess I didn't think about it. We've been going through Pop's papers, and it's making all of us kind of a mess.”

Doug snorted agreement, as he eavesdropped while looking over some newspaper clippings.

“I'm sorry, Pace. I didn't know. Anything I can do to help?”

“Nah, kind of a family thing, you know? Almost done, anyway. With the papers, I mean. Witter family dysfunction will continue for generations to come.”

Doug gave Pacey a Look. Pacey smirked. That statement had been for his brother's benefit.

“Are you coming over later? Want me to save you some supper?”

Pacey fought off a wave of longing for the warmth of the Potter house and Joey's crooked smile. The fact that he wanted it so badly was precisely the reason he couldn't go. “I think I'm going to stay here tonight. But, rain or shine, I'll be over early tomorrow for our run.”

“Make me run in the rain, and I'll shove your ass in the first mud puddle, run straight home, and lock you out.”

“To which I say: you push me, I'll pull you, and we'll see who makes it home first.”

Doug's raised eyebrow made Pacey worry that had sounded too flirtatious.

“Forewarned is forearmed.” Her response was a teasing promise. He could almost see her rare, full smile, tongue poking out between her teeth.

Pacey felt warm, flushed, happy for the first time all day. All the anger and frustration melted away at the sound of her voice. That relief must be showing because Doug quit pretending to read and stared at him in an annoying, pitying way. “Uh, Potter, I'd better cut this short, but I'll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“See you tomorrow, Pace.” The phone clicked off.

Pacey turned his back on Doug to hang up the extension.

“Anything you feel like sharing?”

“Me? Come to you? For advice about women? No offense, Dougie, but that's like if JFK asked the Pope what to do about Jackie and Marilyn.”

“Suit yourself. But for me, I'd take Jackie any day. Class, beauty, brains—everything you could want in a life partner. Marilyn had problems he couldn't fix, and, despite what the movie says, I've always preferred brunettes myself.”

“But that's what you miss, my repressed brother. Jackie's the full package, sure, but Marilyn's got the sex appeal.” Pacey chose to keep the subject on historical hotties and ignored any subtext—intentional or not—on the women in his own life.

Ma got home a few minutes later. She yelled at Pacey for the mess in the dining room and for going through Pop's things. Doug defending him was new and unexpected and almost made it worth it.

<><><>

The next day dawned bright and beautiful, which was probably for the best, though Pacey felt some regret that Joey wouldn't be able to follow through on her threat. He threw on a t-shirt and gym shorts, grabbed an apple to eat on the way, and headed to the Potters'.

Joey was ready and waiting for him, with her loose track clothes and her hair pulled back in a ponytail. It was sick how happy he was to see her, to hear her, “Morning, Pacey,” and watch the corners of her lips turn up in greeting.

They piled Alexander, still in pajamas, into his stroller, with a piece of toast and a bottle of milk to keep him happy. Pacey pushed the kid, and they set off, stride for stride, in a rhythm they'd perfected over the last month. They ran along the creek road, always away from Capeside, and he didn't have to be a shrink to figure that one out. Usually, they refrained from talking, saving their breath for the run. Usually, Pacey zoned out, listening to their feet fall on the pavement, the rattle of the stroller wheels, Alexander's meaningless babble, and the cheerful songbirds.

Today, they were barely out of the Potter driveway when Joey asked, “So how'd the visit with Andie go?”

Pacey stumbled out of rhythm, more from the surprise of her speaking than the content of the question. “Quickly. I doubt she was in the room for more than five minutes. She took off when I told her about the fire.” He didn't mention Mark. He wasn't sure if it was embarrassment, pride, or the whisper of a thought that it wasn't Joey's business.

“Oh. I'm sorry, Pace. That must have been rough.”

Pacey grunted in response, and they lapsed into silence.

He had just about cleared his mind of thoughts of Andie and Mark and Joey, when the latter again disrupted the quiet. “Did she look well?”

Again, Pacey lost his footing and struggled to recover. “Andie? Yeah, she looked...good. Blonde again.” She smelled different, she felt different, he did not say.

“They say gentlemen prefer it,” Joey offered with an impish smile.

And now he was thinking about that stupid conversation with his brother last night. This was the least relaxing run he'd ever taken. Including time tests in P.E.

Joey waited a moment for him to respond. When he didn't, she said, “I worried...when you didn't come home yesterday...I wondered if Andie didn't approve of you being around so much. I mean, we're just friends, obviously, but...when I put myself in her shoes, I realized how much I would hate it, so if you feel like—”

“You didn't come up,” Pacey said shortly. “Maybe next time.”

“Next time?”

“Jack and I are supposed to drive up again. Maybe then she'll stay ten minutes and make it worth the trip.”

A pause. A blessed minute of quiet jogging, then, “Even so, if you feel it's going to cause problems—”

Pacey stopped by the side of the road. Alexander cried as he dropped his toast. “You want to end the sleepovers, is that it? Fine by me. They were your idea in the first place, remember?”

“I remember,” Joey mumbled. She didn't look at Pacey but knelt by her nephew. She soothed him with his milk, with soft words, with a touch on the hair.

With Alexander pacified, she stood and faced Pacey from the opposite side of the stroller. Her eyes were golden-brown and blazing, the set of her jaw stubborn in a way only Joey Potter could be. “I didn't sleep last night. Not a wink. And I don't know how many more nights it would take for me to get used to you not sleeping beside me, so no, I don't want to push you away. But you're not a security blanket, Pacey. You're my friend, and—after all you've done for me—I don't want to mess up your life any more than I already have.”

God, she was brave and honest and so beautiful his heart ached.

“I slept,” Pacey admitted. “But I had nightmares.”

“The one about the fire?” Joey asked, face softening in sympathy.

Pacey nodded. “And you weren't there to talk me through it. Don't get me wrong, Dougie's all for cuddling, but he snores like a hibernating bear.”

Joey smiled her crooked smile, the prize Pacey had sought. “So do you.”

“Do not!”

“How would you know?”

“I wouldn't go around casting aspersions on a man's character, Miss Wakes-in-a-Pool-of-Drool.”

“Have you never heard of gentlemanly discretion?” She reached over the stroller to tweak his ear. “Take that back.”

Pacey ducked out of the assault and took off, Alexander squealing happily at his speed. “Catch me first.”

“This is imbecilic and childish, and I hate you,” Joey said, running after him despite her words.

Pacey grinned. He had never felt less hated in his life.

Chapter Text

Nothing more was said about putting distance between them. Pacey stayed over that night, and the next, and the next. And in the way weeks worked, it was Monday again. The dreaded Monday.

“You ready for this?” Pacey asked as he rowed them across the creek.

Joey held Alexander tighter. “I'll never be ready for this.”

The trailer was hitched to the back of Mr. Leery's SUV when they arrived. Even after the weeks spent helping him pack, Pacey found it hard to swallow that everything Mitch was keeping from his entire life would fit in that small space.

Mitch carried his first box out the door before Pacey and Joey could walk in it. “Hey, kids, thanks for coming. The Goodwill truck should be here in about an hour. You know where the stuff I'm keeping is, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Great. Mrs. Ryan promised to bring coffee in a bit.” He passed them on the porch steps.

Joey looked crestfallen at his abruptness, but Pacey was grateful. Goodbyes were hard enough without dragging them on for hours. He grabbed a box and went to work.

True to her word, Grams soon appeared with coffee and doughnuts. She kept the work crew supplied with refreshments throughout the day and surprised Joey by offering to watch Alexander. Mitch's friend Steve brought the charity's van, and the three of them, plus Jack, did the heavy lifting, while Jen and Joey carried lighter items.

Even with everyone working full tilt, it was mid-afternoon by the time they saw off the truck and Mitch stood near his car, saying painful farewells. He thanked Jack and Jen for their help and wished them well. Jen, holding Alexander, looked a little teary. Mrs. Ryan hugged Mitch close and said a short prayer for him. He thanked her for being such a good neighbor all these years and for her care over the past few months.

Then it was Pacey's turn. Against all his resolutions, he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. “Let's not draw this out, huh?” He hugged Dawson's dad tight. “Bye, Mr. Leery.”

Mitch squeezed him so hard he was surprised his ribs didn't crack. “You're a good kid, Pacey. You'll be a good man. Don't bother with what anyone else says, you hear me?”

Crap. Now the tears weren't just in his eyes. They were on his cheeks and dripping down his nose. “That means a lot, coming from the best man I know.”

One more hug like a vise, and Mitch let go and turned to Joey. Pacey was too busy pulling himself together to follow the whole conversation which went with their embrace, but he heard Mitch say, “Like a daughter, Joey. Like my own daughter. Always.” They both cried.

They all watched and waved as the last Leery left Capeside behind.

<><><>

Jen was too wise and too kind to leave Joey and Pacey to wallow their day away. She insisted they all take Alexander to the park for some fun. Once Bessie got home from work, they dropped off Joey's nephew and went out for dinner and ice cream, Jack's treat.

It was almost eleven when Pacey and Joey returned home. Joey looked depressed. Despite the well-meant attention of their friends, she needed time to grieve her newest loss.

“Stay here,” Pacey told her outside the doorway. “I'll be right back.”

“What are you planning, Pacey? It's late, and I'm tired, and—”

He didn't hear the rest of her excuses because he shut the door in her face. The house was dark and quiet, Bessie and the baby both in bed. Pacey tiptoed to the kitchen, opened the fridge and grabbed a carton of orange juice. By the appliance's light, he also found two plastic cups. He eased the refrigerator door shut and left as quietly as he entered.

“Orange juice?” Joey was incredulous at his plunder. “You have a new and sudden terror of scurvy?”

Pacey ignored her outburst. “Here. Hold this.” He pushed the items into her hands and walked to the Witter Wagoneer where he retrieved the bottle of vodka he'd stashed under the back seat after his last trip home.

“Alcohol? That's your stellar plan? Do you happen to remember the last time you got drunk, when you damn near drowned yourself?”

“So we won't go swimming,” Pacey shrugged. He headed toward the dock, carrying the bottle, a spluttering Joey right behind. “But it occurred to me,” he stepped in the rowboat, “we never had a proper wake for our friend Dawson.” He held up a hand to help Joey in. Despite her protests, she took it. “And with the new owners arriving in a couple of days, this might be our last chance.” He settled the bottle between his feet and cast off.

“The window's locked, remember?”

“I jimmied it open today. Don't think anyone noticed, but if they did, I'm not above a little breaking and entering. It's been too long since I disgraced the Witter name.”

Joey didn't object, which meant the idea was growing on her.

The Leery house was dark, utterly deserted, but Joey's ladder still leaned against the porch, the one object no one had been callous enough to touch. They struggled up with their contraband. The window was cracked open. Joey pushed it wide and entered with the ease of long experience. Pacey stumbled over behind her.

Joey flicked on the overhead light, exposing bare green walls, faded around the areas where Dawson's posters had been. The floor showed indents where his bed, dressers, and desk had sat for years. “I hope Mrs. Ryan doesn't investigate the light.”

“If she does, we'll offer her a drink.”

Joey rolled her eyes and sat against the wall, in the same spot where she used to sit on Dawson's bed. “This room feels eerie now. Empty. Haunted.” She shivered.

Pacey sat down across from her. He placed the cups between them. “I know what will help with that.” He glanced at the almost full bottle in his hands. “Technically, for a wake, this should be whiskey, but there wasn't much left. I think Ma's been hitting the hard stuff again.”

Joey winced. “I'm sorry, Pacey.”

He shrugged and poured a shot's worth in each glass. “We're not here to talk about that.” Pacey capped the bottle and set it down. He raised his glass in salute. “To Dawson.”

Joey reluctantly did the same. “To Dawson.”

Pacey downed the shot in one. He felt the bitter burn of the alcohol sliding down his throat, but recovered in time to watch Joey follow his lead.

She choked and gagged, her expression so disgusted it made him laugh. “Ugh! What is that? It doesn't even taste like anything. We might as well drink rubbing alcohol.”

“Just wanted to see if you'd try it. Well done, Potter.” He filled their cups again, but this time he diluted the shot with a double portion of orange juice. “Here, this is better.”

Joey eyes the glass doubtfully. “Why should I believe you?”

“Suit yourself,” Pacey said and took a swallow of the tart, refreshing drink.

Joey watched to make sure he didn't grimace before taking a small sip herself. Her eyes lit up. “That is better.” She took another drink.

<><><>

“...and I had to ride the whole way home in wet pants. First and last time I went camping.”

Pacey couldn't stop laughing.

Joey glared at him. Or did her best to while her eyes were crossing. “Real nice, Pace. Fair is fair. Your turn.”

“My most embarrassing Dawson memory?” Pacey didn't have to think long. It had been his question after all. “You should remember; you were there. Saturday detention. Telling him what I did to get there.”

“Oh, yeah.” Joey giggled. She poured herself another drink. Pacey didn't mention the splash on the carpet. That was the new owner's problem.

“'Kay, Jo, your turn.”

“My turn?” He saw her trying to get the wheels of her brain spinning. Eventually, she shrugged and took another drink. “Keep it simple. Your all-time, most favorite Lawson Deery moment.”

Pacey snickered. “I don't know who this Lawson guy is, but for my eleventh birthday, my friend Dawson and I hitchhiked all the way to Six Flags. I had been grounded, and my parents canceled my party, but D-man had just seen Stand By Me and decided we could make it alone.” He still felt awe remembering those two days. “We rode every roller coaster, ate nothing but cotton candy, and spent every dime we got from selling our baseball cards and comic books. Not even the thrashing I got from Pop when he found us ruined the epicness of that.”

“I was pissed as hell at you guys for not taking me with you, not least 'cause your dad grilled me like a criminal and recu—refude—didn't believe I knew nothing about it.”

“And you, Miss Josephine?”

Joey blinked at him. “Me what?”

“What's your favorite Dawson experience?”

Joey smiled sadly into her cup. “When I was eight, my dad kept promising he was going to take us to DisneyWorld for spring break. Over and over, all year, we were going to DisneyWorld. I must have told everyone I ever met. Two weeks before spring break, my parents sit me down and apologize, but they can't afford the trip. I was so upset, so, of course, I get in my little rowboat and head over here to cry about it to Dawson. He tells me he's glad I'm not going, because he's going to his Aunt Gwen's cabin, and he was really, really hoping I would come, too. It was the best week of my life. We painted and rode horses and swam and hiked and sang karaoke. But it was more than that; he was taking care of me, you know?”

Pacey did know. He had always been jealous that Dawson never invited him to join them on their yearly excursions up the mountain, how he had to suffer through a torturous week with nothing to do or an even more horrifying Witter family vacation while his best friends were off having a blast without him. So maybe a little niggle of resentment was at play when he said, “Your least favorite Dawson memory.”

Joey's brow furrowed. “Least?”

“Yes, least. We're not nominating the man for sainthood, we're having a wake. Somewhere, sometime, in the last fifteen years, Dawson Leery pissed you off. I want to hear about it.”

Joey had a surprisingly ready answer. “His movie. The last one, about us, where he made me such a bitch.”

Pacey snorted. “In his defense, you were kinda acting like one.”

Joey tried to hit him, but her coordination and balance were askew from the alcohol. She fell on top of him instead. Their glasses spilled, leaving Pacey's calf and shoulder soaked. He wasn't tempted to get up, though, not with Joey's body flush against his, the skin of her back warm under his fingers where her shirt had ridden up.

“Your turn.”

Pacey attempted to make sense of the words emerging from her deliciously parted mouth. He wasn't helped by the fact that Joey made no effort to move, her hands pressed to the floor on either side of his head, face scant inches away from his own. “What?” he said, grip tightening around her waist.

“Least favorite Dawson memory,” she prompted. “Go.”

“Uh...” Pacey tried to think. The double fuzz of alcohol and lust made it difficult. Joey helped slightly by rolling off him, but she snuggled into his side, fingers playing with his shirt, breath tickling his ear. Thinking was still pretty hard. Everything was hard, damn it.

He picked a memory at random. Maybe it was the worst. Maybe not. Who cared? It was a memory, and it sucked. “I went to Dawson's once after another run-in with my dad. He took one look at my messed-up face, sighed this exasperated sigh, and said, 'What did you do this time?' It was just a moment, you know, but it made me feel like I deserved it. I mean, if even my best friend thought I had it coming, maybe I did.”

“You didn't.” She brushed a kiss against the side of his face, right by his ear. It did nothing to help Pacey's blood-flow problems.

“Uh, okay, next question,” he said in a voice too high to be his.

Joey laid her head against his shoulder and didn't answer for a while. Pacey thought she might be falling asleep and was really fucking grateful for that. Then, in a near whisper, she said, “Biggest regret?”

Deciding vodka and Joey Potter were a good mix sprang instantly to mind, but his slow brain caught up and he remembered they were supposed to be talking about Dawson. Dawson Leery, the dearly departed, Pacey's best friend, and undisputed soulmate of the girl lying next to him. Right.

Pacey blocked out Joey's closeness and thought. “For Dawson's twenty-first birthday, we were going to road trip to Vegas and stay there until we woke up rich, married, or in jail.”

He almost felt Joey rolling her eyes. “Know which one of those I think most likely?”

“Even with my limited imagination, I'm sure I can guess. But you asked my biggest regret; there it is. All the things we'll never get to do.”

Joey stiffened at his side. “That's mine, too. Not Vegas, obviously. But the things...” She sucked in a pained breath. “One thing in particular we never did.”

Shit, thought Pacey. I'm too drunk for this. I'm not drunk enough for this. Shit.

“He wanted to. And I said no. I said wait. I said we had all the time in the world.”

Joey was talking about Dawson, thinking about Dawson, but it was Pacey's body she was clutching. Pacey didn't move, didn't speak, could not look at her. He stared at Dawson's bare walls.

“I was obsessed with waiting for the right time. And now, I'll never know what it would have been like with the right person.” She laughed bitterly. “They don't do us any favors, you know, teaching us virginity is some priceless treasure we have to protect.” She levered herself up, leaned on his chest and looked down at him. Pacey's mouth went dry. “Maybe you had the right idea all along, Pace. Find someone who knows what they're doing to teach you what to do.”

“If you think that's what I was thinking,” he rasped with what breath he could get, “you're giving me far too much credit. It was more along the lines of, please, God, let me stick it in.”

If he'd hoped to disgust Joey into moving away, he failed. She giggled, cheeks flushing, and now was not the time to notice how dark her eyes were, how wide her pupils had grown.

“Hey, Pace,” she said, after a moment, eyes on his lips, “do you ever wonder what it would be like to kiss me?”

All the time, he thought, and, Tell her no. “I did once, remember?” It was impossible to draw in enough oxygen. Any moment now, her leg was going to wander over a little too far and make a discovery which would render further questions obsolete. “You didn't like it much.”

“The timing was wrong,” she said, without mentioning the why, the presence all around them, infecting the air Pacey struggled to inhale. “You could kiss me now. If you wanted.”

Pacey groaned. If he wanted. Only every other moment of every single day. But—“We're drunk, Jo. I don't want you to do something you'll regret.”

Joey nodded like she understood. Then she kissed him.

Her lips brushed his, once, twice, gently curious. The last thinking part of Pacey's brain shut off. His left hand sank into her hair and pulled her closer, deepened the kiss, his right traced the tempting curve of her spine. He learned her mouth, its texture, its taste.

Joey's lips curved upward before she broke the kiss. “Regret that?”

He grinned up at her. He couldn't help it. Joey Potter had just kissed him, and it was impossible to remember why that was a bad thing. In answer, he pulled her back down and kissed her again.

Pacey could kiss Joey for the rest of his life. She kissed like she lived, with trembling vulnerability and surprising defiance. He followed where she led, unable to believe his good fortune, unwilling to risk it by trying for more. But she brought her tongue into play; she opened her mouth, discovered his secrets, revealed her own.

To touch her skin—any skin, her cheeks, arms, back—was to be blessed by the gods. She was Diana, virgin of the hunt. Athena, wise and pure. Pacey's hands shook, afraid of profaning something sacred. She was the one who straddled his lap, who took off her shirt, brought his hand to her breast and whispered, “Touch me.”

So he did. He learned where her ticklish spots were and how to make her breath hitch. He sat up to help her pull off his shirt, and suddenly there were infinite new connections of skin to skin. Sensory overload. Thought impossible.

Joey's hips rolled against his, unpracticed, searching. Her reactions made him braver than he thought he could be. His fingers skimmed over her abdomen, traced the top of her shorts.

Pacey's eyes stayed locked on her face, even as his hands hovered over the button. “May I?”

Joey's teeth dragged across her bottom lip, her eyes focused on the wall behind his head, but she nodded acceptance of her body's demands. Pacey loosened the fastenings and slid his hand inside. Tamara had guided his efforts with instructions and curses; Andie fell apart with screaming abandon. Joey held in her reactions, as if the slightest noise from her would alert the ghost which haunted them both.

Pacey took his cues elsewhere, from the shallow rapidity of her breathing, the press of her fingernails in his shoulder, the way she bit her lip till it turned purple. Finally, that moment when her body tightened like a bowstring, a whimper escaped her mouth, and tears rushed from her eyes, a dam released. He continued to touch her, to kiss her, to bring her body down slowly from the heights, until she collapsed against him.

For the first time that night, Joey hid her face from him. Pacey eased his hand away, embarrassed. “I'm sorry.”

Joey's head jerked up. “What?”

“If I hurt you. I didn't mean to make you cry.”

“You...no...” She swiped at the tears lingering on her face. “It was...good, good tears, I mean...I felt, you made me...” Joey fumbled, cheeks burning. “I've never felt like that before.”

The awkwardness was catching. A flush rose under his own skin. He felt the discomfort of his erection against Joey's leg. Even in light of what happened, it seemed wrong to ask her to help him with it. “I, uh, need to go to the bathroom, Jo.”

She startled, looked down, and blushed deeper. “Oh, yeah, right. Sorry.” Joey stumbled out of his lap, grabbed her shirt, and turned away to pull it on.

Pacey hobbled to the bathroom. After what he'd just experienced, it didn't take long. He half expected Joey to have fled while he was gone, but she was still in Dawson's room. Completely dressed, but hair askew, skin golden and glistening with drying sweat. Devastatingly beautiful. Her long, slender fingers traced the lines of Dawson's missing posters on the wall.

Pacey felt sick to his stomach. Too much vodka. Too much sensation. Not enough sleep. He silently gathered up the spilled glasses, the empty juice carton, the depleted vodka bottle. He cleared his throat. “Should we, uh, should I take you home?”

“Probably a good idea. Sun will be up soon, and I should shower before Bessie wakes up.” There was guilt in the final look Joey threw around Dawson's room before she turned off the light. Guilt, with regret shortly to follow.

Fuck, what was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry, D-man, I'm sorry.

They left the room much as they found it, save for the orange juice stains in the carpet. Pacey tossed the evidence in the Ryans' outdoor trash on the way back to the boat. Joey stepped in without waiting for him. She didn't look at him on the ride back. Her focus was only on the disappearing Leery house.

Just the short row across the creek left Pacey in a cold sweat. Joey hurried into her house, but Pacey didn't make it much past the dock before his body expelled the contents of his stomach. Why had he thought drinking was a good idea?

He stumbled up to the house. The foul taste in his mouth made him long for toothpaste, but Joey's shower was already running. He washed his mouth with water from the kitchen sink, refilled the glass and drained it with a couple of aspirin. Four in the morning, and in that awful transition state where he felt both drunk and hungover. Fuzzy as all hell, lucky if he could get two hours' sleep before the kid woke up.

Pacey sank onto the couch and closed his eyes, not bothering to turn out the bed. Just a few hours' sleep before he had to face the consequences of his actions.

<><><>

“What the hell were you thinking?” Bessie shook him hard enough to wake the dead. Which Pacey's screaming skull made him wish he was.

“Leave him alone, Bess,” was Joey's weary defense from further away. The kitchen maybe.

“I most certainly will not! I trusted you, Pacey. Let you stay in my house, supervise my child, and you bring my baby sister home at God knows what time in the morning, drunk as a skunk.” She whacked him upside the head. He might have seen it coming if he could open his eyes. “Don't think I don't know you're awake. What do you have to say for yourself? Huh?”

Pacey slit his eyes open. Bessie's furious face was all he could see. He winced. “Nothing. I'm an idiot. I'm sorry, Bessie. It won't happen again.”

“Damn straight it won't. If it does, I won't just kick you out of my house, I'll call your brother and report you, swear I will. Count yourself lucky I don't do it right now.”

“Poster boy for teenage sobriety from this day forward, I promise.” Pacey slowly sat up, a move he instantly regretted as the spinning room and too bright lights threatened to dislodge anything left in his stomach.

Bessie made a sound of disbelief. “See if you remember that longer than the average dumb kid. I have to get to work. Either of you capable of watching Alexander today, or should I call Jen? Or was Jen part of this bacchanalia, too?”

Pacey flinched, his eyes flitting to Joey in the doorway between rooms. She shook her head. No, Bessie didn't know all of what they'd done.

“We'll be fine, Bess.” Joey had Alexander perched on her hip, but she looked as rough as Pacey felt. “Just go.”

“I'll be calling to check in every chance I get. And when I get home tonight, we're going to discuss what extra chores you two will be taking on as a result of this stunt.”

“Extra chores,” Joey muttered after her sister left. “Who does she think does all the work around here now?”

“Speaking of work, I'm supposed to open today, so I'm going to hop in the shower, if that's okay.”

Joey turned into the kitchen with a shrug. “I'm gonna make Alexander some breakfast. Want anything?”

“Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.”

Pacey grabbed his duffle and hightailed it to the bathroom. The first thing he did was brush his teeth, after which he felt almost ten percent human. Usually, they ran before he showered, but his limbs were leaden, sore from the move yesterday, brittle from dehydration. The common hangover metaphor of a sledgehammer to the head wasn't quite accurate; it was more like an army of tiny dwarves with a thousand tiny axes chipping away at every part of his skull.

The water pressure at the Potters was never very good. Pacey turned it up as high and hot as he could and stepped under the spray with relief. He stood for a minute as the water rained down on him, loosening his muscles, waking him up. He grabbed the soap and scrubbed off the dirt and grime of yesterday's move, the inescapable sweat of a humid August day, the sticky drink spill.

Bam. Just like that, he was there. The taste of her lips, the softness of her skin, the look on her face when she came undone, these were things Pacey knew now. Alcohol hadn't made him forget. He doubted anything ever could.

But Joey had been drunk. She'd been thinking about Dawson, about missing their chance. They'd even been in Dawson's room. Pacey would have to be a bigger fool than he was to believe what happened had anything to do with him.

If he needed further confirmation of that theory, he got it when he emerged from the bathroom, showered and changed, and found Joey curled up on the sofa watching old home movies of Dawson from the set Jack made for her. Alexander played with toys between his aunt and the screen, but Joey's attention was fixed on the towheaded boy running around with a little girl with long brown hair and a crooked smile.

“Decided to brave the tapes, huh?”

Joey shrugged without moving her gaze. She wasn't panicking or crying, but she looked pale. Sick, and from more than a hangover. “No time like the present. Coffee's in the kitchen.” She held a mug in her hands, but made no move to drink from it. Little Joey on the screen pushed Dawson down, and the Joey watching winced.

Pacey didn't know what else to say. He went to the kitchen and poured himself some coffee. He took a swig and burned his tongue, which felt about right for today.

For the hour or so before he had to leave for work, he played quietly on the floor with Alexander. He tried not to focus on the images playing out on the TV screen, but it was impossible to block them entirely. Dawson playing catch with his dad. Dawson and Joey and Pacey at the beach. Dawson's seventh birthday party. Their second grade talent show, when Dawson made them reenact a scene from E.T. to the confusion of the general audience. Dawson and Joey at his Aunt Gwen's cabin, singing karaoke. Dawson and Joey at the science fair. Dawson and Joey in the spelling bee. Dawson and Joey, Dawson and Joey, Dawson and Joey.

I get it, he wanted to scream. Alive or dead, you're Dawson's girl, and last night I betrayed the best friend I ever had. Point proven. Just end the Chinese water torture.

Instead, he said, “I gotta go to work. You gonna be okay while I'm gone?”

Her eyes, muddy brown at the moment, flickered toward him then back to the screen. “Why wouldn't I be? I am capable of functioning without you, you know.”

“Right.” Pacey knew that tone of voice. A woman trying to pick a fight. He ignored the bait, kissed the baby goodbye, and stood. “Guess I'll be off, then. The new guy's supposed to be in at five, so, assuming he's not too high to remember, I'll be back for dinner.” It seemed important to remind Joey he wasn't abandoning her. Not that she cared.

“See ya,” she said, still not looking at him.

Stone cold sober, he wanted to march over and kiss her. She'd probably punch him, maybe knee him in the balls, but at least she wouldn't be able to ignore his existence.

“Bye, Jo,” he muttered and left.

<><><>

After opening the store, the first thing Pacey usually did during the slow morning hours was write a letter to Andie. He had spent hours feeling guilty for betraying his dead friend; this was the first moment he thought about how he'd betrayed his living girlfriend.

While this second wave of guilt flooded over the first, he recognized the widening cracks in their relationship. Andie should have been his first thought. She should have been reason enough to stop it after that first kiss, before that first kiss.

She had not even crossed his mind.

He could blame it on the alcohol. But that didn't account for the months of wanting Joey, prioritizing Joey.

Before Andie left, Pacey had promised her she would never lose him. He had told Dawson he never wanted to screw up their friendship and vowed at his funeral to look after Joey. He had promised Bodie he'd take care of her, and Bessie that he wouldn't touch her.

Of all the names he'd been called over the years—and Pacey could run the whole alphabet in insults from Pop alone—he'd never been called a liar. Never thought he'd be one.

Pacey stared at the blank paper in front of him, knowing he wouldn't write Andie a letter today. He had lost the right to say anything.

<><><>

Dennis was almost two hours late for his shift. For once, Pacey didn't mind. He wasn't in a rush to return to the Potter women. Bessie was no doubt still pissed about them getting drunk; if Joey told her about the rest of last night, even odds said she'd castrate him as soon as he walked through the door.

That was nothing compared to facing Joey. He didn't know how to fix it. He could—and would—apologize abjectly for taking advantage of her while drunk, he could reassure her that he knew her heart belonged to Dawson, but he couldn't forget the way it felt to kiss her, to touch her, to hold her. Worse, he didn't want to.

Lights were on at the Potters', Bessie's old blue truck in the driveway, when he finally got home. Time to face the music.

Joey was on the couch, watching more home movies. If it wasn't for the pile of discarded tapes on the floor and the Dawson onscreen now being a gawky eleven, Pacey might have just stepped out for a minute. Alexander wasn't on the floor anymore, though his toys were spread among the tapes. Distant giggles and splashing water meant Bessie was giving him a bath.

“You're late,” Joey said. No venom, no eye contact, no interest. “There's a plate for you in the fridge.”

“Sorry. And thanks.” Pacey should be hungry. All he'd eaten today was some stale popcorn at work. But his stomach twisted at Joey's bleak, distant expression. Wallowing in Dawson memories all day had done her no good. She looked more wrecked than when Pacey left. He wanted to hold her, but he couldn't do that anymore. Alcohol and hormones had cost him that privilege. He tried to divert her attention instead. “So what's the sentence from Judge Bessie?”

“We're cleaning out the attic on our next however-many-it-takes Saturdays.” She clutched a throw pillow to her chest and watched the TV.

Against his better judgment, Pacey sat on the opposite end of the couch and started watching as well. For Dawson's twelfth birthday, Mitch gave him his first video camera. After that, Dawson was behind the camera more often than in front of it.

Joey and Pacey were in Dawson's room, Pacey almost entirely hidden in a wrinkled, slippery, brown costume he remembered as once being a sleeping bag.

“What are you?” an overacting Joey said to Sleeping Bag Pacey.

“E.T. phone home,” the sleeping bag intoned then burst out laughing as Joey huffed and rolled her eyes.

“That's not the line, Pacey!” Dawson—voice a prepubescent soprano—whined from behind the camera.

“It might as well be.” Pacey pushed his head out of the costume. He was red-faced and sweaty, his hair—longer then—plastered all over his face. “At least admit you ripped off the whole plot.”

“It's not a rip-off! It's an homage!”

“Potato, pa-tah-to.” Pacey shimmied the rest of his costume to the floor. “It's a thousand degrees in there. I demand ice cream, or I go on strike.”

“But we haven't finished the first scene yet!”

“Oh, let him, Dawson.” Joey glared over crossed arms at his younger self. She was taller than him, had been until puberty spurred a growth spurt at fourteen. She had used her height advantage at all times, whether in physical brawls or looking down her nose at him. “You know he won't stop till he gets what he wants.”

“See, Potter, you're trying to sound superior, but all I hear is you want ice cream, too.”

“Pacey Witter, you are a total—”

Whatever he was, they didn't hear it, as Dawson quit filming.

“I could finish that sentence for you if you like.” Bessie scowled down at him. Alexander, freshly scrubbed and pajamaed, cuddled in his mom's arms.

“Which one of my siblings taught you the Witter family's favorite party game? Though I warn you, Dougie's got a trademark on 'moron.'”

“Nuh-uh. You don't get to bypass me with the sympathy card today. You screwed up big time, and you pulled my sister in with you. I get to be pissed for a while. And you're going to clean my attic till it shines, got it?”

“Loud and clear. For what it's worth, I am sorry.” Pacey didn't have to pretend to look miserable.

Bessie shook her head, but her expression lightened a bit. “Go on. Give Alexander his good night hug then.”

Pacey grinned. He reached for the soap-and-powder-scented tyke and gave him a cuddle before passing him on to Joey. She squeezed him tight and pressed a kiss into his hair. “Night, baby.” They handed Alexander back to Bessie, but Pacey thought the brief interaction had cheered Joey a little bit.

Pacey tidied up Alex's toys and the rest of the room while Joey remained lost in the tapes. She watched with intensity, as if attempting to pull Dawson out from the screen and into the room with her. Pacey avoided looking at her by eating his leftover dinner. But that didn't take long, and Joey's marathon continued.

With nothing else to do, Pacey sat back down and got dragged along through their early adolescence.

Now that they had entered Dawson's filmmaking days, Jack put each finished project first, followed by the various takes and bloopers. The short films were exactly what one would expect from a teenage boy obsessed with Spielberg. Pacey felt little connection to them, aside from a vague musing if Dawson's continuous casting of Pacey as the hero in these cinematic adventures might have something to do with the white knight complex everyone said he had.

But the rejected footage—all the laughs and jokes, squabbling with Joey, Dawson's mounting frustration, Pacey's disinterest after repeated takes—those all brought the moments back to life. Dawson seldom appeared onscreen anymore, but somehow he was even more present. He was behind the camera, choosing the shots. They were seeing the world as Dawson saw it.

Bessie went to bed, with a worried glance at her sister and cautions against staying up too late. Pacey, head thick after two long days with little sleep, was only too willing to oblige, but Joey barely noticed Bessie's words.

As the hours dragged on, Pacey wondered if Joey was waiting for him to leave. It would make sense, after last night, if she didn't want to sleep beside him. But he didn't want to take the initiative, didn't want to walk away and abandon her as everyone else did. He could ask her if she wanted him to go, but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth at the thought. Her every word and action today, her body language now—curled up and defensive—said she didn't want to talk about it.

So Pacey sat and waited and watched, while the Joey beside him focused all her attention on the screen and the Joey on the screen watched Dawson behind the camera with progressively gooey eyes.

They reached last summer's sea monster movie around the time the clock struck twelve. Watching the finished project was the first time Pacey felt a pang for what the world had lost when Dawson Leery died. Yes, the special effects were low-budget, Pacey had no illusions about his nonexistent acting skills, and it was clearly the work of a kid in his backyard. But a talented kid, who knew how to make his camera capture the anger living an inch below Joey's skin, the broken beauty of Jennifer Lindley, Pacey's frustrated desire to be different, better than he was. He understood now why Dawson had won that prize and wished like hell he'd lived to win more.

They sat in silence as the film ended and the takes began. It was unnatural for Joey Potter to sit so long without voicing an opinion. A day ago, Pacey would have called her on it. A day ago, he wouldn't have needed to. Joey would have been talking his ear off, analyzing every moment of film. But Pacey was excluded now from the workings of her mind. He'd give up every precious memory of last night to get that back.

On the screen, Pacey leaned in to kiss Joey. Joey beside him leapt to her feet and rushed to the VCR as the immortalized Joey ducked away.

“What? What!?”

“Sorry, Dawson, he's just too repelling.”

Joey finally succeeded in stopping the tape. The scrambled static of the television set filled the room, illuminating the blush on the small part of Joey's cheek Pacey could see.

“It's late,” she said without turning around. “I'll finish these tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure. Good idea.”

Joey fled to the bathroom, not looking at him once.

Repelling, Pacey thought as he pulled the cushions off the couch. Repelling, as he tugged out the bed and laid the sheets. Repelling, as he grabbed the pillows and threw them on the bed. He stared at the mattress, unsure what else to do.

Joey returned from the bathroom. She skirted wide around Pacey as she headed for her side of the bed.

“Do you want me to leave?”

She raised her gaze to his for the first time all night, a flash of panic showing. “Do you want to leave?”

Pacey spread his arms wide in an I don't know gesture. “I want you not to be uncomfortable. Look, Jo, I'm sorry, about last night—” Joey winced and looked down at the bed, straightening already wrinkle-free sheets. “—I never should have taken advantage of you like that, and I'll apologize forever if that's what it takes.”

Joey's cheeks were warm and glowing in the lamplight. “It wasn't your fault. I mean, we were both drunk, weren't we?” She glanced up just long enough to catch his nod. “Right. So it was a mistake, it will never happen again, and we should both try to forget it happened in the first place.” Joey lay on the bed under the sheet, but belied her words by curling up on the edge, back to Pacey, as far away as she could get.

“Forget. Sure.” Pacey knew, however successful Joey might be in that effort, he never would. Just like he knew the right thing to do was to head home tonight and every night after. But he lay down on the bed, on top of the sheet, fully clothed, and stared up at the ceiling. He didn't reach for her, didn't cross the invisible line in the middle of the bed, but he couldn't leave. If she didn't make him, he never would.

Chapter Text

They spent the better part of the next day pretending nothing had changed. They ran and ate breakfast together in the morning, took care of Alexander, did chores around the house. Pacey went to work in the afternoon. He had no way of knowing if Joey finished watching Dawson's movies while he was gone, but they were all boxed up when he came back that night. Joey didn't mention Dawson, the tapes, Mitch leaving, or their indiscretion. It was as if the last two days had never happened.

Until it was time for bed.

Joey grabbed Wuthering Heights off the side table—they had finished Sword in the Stone, and it was her turn to pick—and flipped to their playing card bookmark. Same as usual. But she read from the other side of the bed. Three days ago, she would have cuddled close to him; they would have read over each other's shoulders.

Pacey tried to concentrate on the words Joey was reading and not the slippery shoulder strap of her pajamas. He wouldn't do anything to aid their return to normalcy by replaying memories he shouldn't have in the first place.

“'...If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it.'

Listening wasn't any better. The book reeked of sorrow, soulmates, love, and death. Joey had found another way to wallow in her grief. She was entitled, but Pacey wished he didn't have to listen to it. Maybe he should start going home at night.

Home. Home was a funny word. Technically, it was the place where you lived, but there were other connotations, as well. Family. Love. Belonging. To Joey, at least since her mother's death, home had been the Leerys' house. Home had been Dawson. Without him, she was floundering.

Pacey wasn't sure he'd ever had a home. The Witter house had never been a place to run to, but rather from. He loved Dawson and the Leerys, but he'd always remained conscious that he wasn't good enough to be there. With Andie, as much as he loved her, he was often playing a part, the perfect boyfriend, the guy she wanted him to be. And wasn't the definition of home somewhere you could be yourself?

He had come closer to home these past three months with the Potters than ever before in his life. Amid tragedy and grief, Pacey had found a niche for himself in their little family. Helping with bills, baby, and chores. Looking out for Joey and Bessie, letting them look out for him.

But it was never his place to claim. Dawson should be the one mowing the lawn, changing Alex's diapers, lying beside Joey at night. And Dawson would be here if Pacey had only had the decency to push Joey into his friend's arms that night and tell him to get her out—

“Pacey?” Joey held out the book to him, looking worried. He wondered how long he'd spaced. “It's your turn. Were you even listening?”

“Sorry, Jo. Mind wandered.” He took the book, flipping absently through the last few pages.

“You don't like it?”

Pacey snorted. “It's melodramatic and depressing as hell. I can't believe anyone likes it. Except melodramatic, depressed teenagers, such as yourself.”

“Bite me.”

His eyes locked on the pulse in her throat. If only, he thought.

Joey must have read his mind because she blushed and looked away. “So what were you thinking about instead of the book?”

“Nothing much. That's why they call it wandering.”

“Do you want to keep going, or call it a night?”

“Might as well turn in. I'd like to get up early enough to get a run in before Jack and I head out tomorrow.”

Joey stiffened on her side of the bed. “You're visiting Andie again?”

“Yeah. I'd forgotten about it, too, until Jack stopped by the store today to remind me.” Pacey hadn't spoken to Andie since she ran out of the room last week, hadn't written her a letter since that night with Joey, hadn't been home to check if he'd gotten mail from her. He was dreading this visit more than he dreaded his birthdays.

Joey fisted her hands in the sheets, head down, eyes averted. “Are you going to tell her?” she blurted out. “I only ask because Andie is my friend. Is being a present tense verb which will instantaneously transform to past tense was should she ever hear about, about what we did.”

Pacey couldn't look at her, either. He became deeply fascinated by the dark TV screen. “I don't know what I'm going to say to her. About anything.” Joey. Mark. Dawson. Her illness. His grief. “Last week, we talked about her damn shampoo for half of the five minutes, so...” He shrugged. “I don't know.”

“Okay,” Joey said, then again, “Okay.” She turned and shut off the lamp, curling up on the far side of the bed. “Night, Pacey.”

Pacey fumbled to place Wuthering Heights in the dark. “Night, Jo.” He hugged his own edge and tried to sleep. The empty space between them yawned huge and terrifying.

<><><>

Andie was waiting for them in reception. She was wearing another pretty sundress, this one ocean blue, but her hair hung flat, brushed but not styled. Her face was bare of makeup, showing her pallor and the haunted circles under her eyes. She was antsy, bouncing on her toes, full of the jitters which accompanied her attempts to cover anxiety.

“Right on time,” was her impersonal greeting.

“Hey, Andie.” Jack pulled his sister into a hug, which she returned perfunctorily before pulling away.

“Hey, Jack. Pacey.” She gave him an odd, quick peck on the cheek then stepped hastily away before he so much as touched her. “I thought I'd give you guys the tour. Relieve your minds that Dad didn't lock me up in some padded wall prison.”

Jack frowned. “Sure, that'd be nice, but—”

Andie didn't stop to listen. She walked away, gesturing for them to follow. “I'll show you the common room first. It's where we go to watch TV, read, talk, whatever...” She kept up a steady tour guide spiel through common room, library, group therapy, gym, dining hall, kitchen. It was as though Andie was afraid to speak of anything more real and pressing than styles of wallpaper or where the sun's rays struck at any given point of the day.

Jack tried periodically to interrupt and refocus her, but Pacey held his tongue beyond a few sarcastic comments on the luxury resort this mental hospital was. His increasing worry for Andie added to the pile of burdens guilt laid on him. At the same time, he was selfishly grateful to put off discussion of the plethora of issues between them.

Andie was leading them upstairs to show them her room when she came to an abrupt halt, spine stiffening. Pacey, one step below, saw over her head the boy from the garden. He came to a blushing, awkward stop a few steps above them.

“Hey, Andie,” he said after a moment's pause.

“Hi, Mark.” Her voice was a shade off, a bit too determinedly carefree, as she turned to the side, either giving him room to pass or revealing her guests. Maybe both. “This is Pacey and Jack. Pacey, Jack, my friend, Mark.” Her look at Mark was pleading, desperate; her pale cheeks bloomed with color.

“Nice to meet you both.” Mark nodded to them as he hurried past. “Enjoy your visit.”

Pacey and Jack followed Andie in silence to her room. Pacey could feel Jack's gaze on his back, wondered if his friend was concerned for him or worried he would make a scene.

Andie's room was beautiful, something out of an antique bed and breakfast with its teak furnishings and ruffly, pink quilt set. There were photos everywhere: Andie with her family, with Jack, with Tim; Pacey and Andie, hugging, laughing, at school, at the wharf, at a dance; Andie with friends, a happy little girl he wished he'd known; Andie from this summer, in the garden, with nurses, with Mark. Framed Andies smiled at him from every angle of the room. The real thing stared at him with guilt to match his own in her eyes.

“So that was Mark,” Pacey said, with barely controlled nonchalance.

“Pacey—” Jack warned.

“No, Jack, it's okay. I need to tell him, or it's going to eat me up inside.” Andie quietly shut the door.

Jack walked to the window, feigning interest in the garden below, but keeping an eye on them both. Andie perched on the edge of her bed, patted the cover beside her.

“I'll stand, thanks.” Pacey didn't think he could move. He felt cemented to the ground. “Meet your fate on your feet like a man, Pop always used to say. I've wondered sometimes this summer if he stayed on his feet till the end. Doesn't actually matter, I guess, but I hope he met the Grim Reaper with his killer left hook to the jaw.” He was rambling and knew it, but once he stopped, Andie would tell him truths he didn't want to hear. Better to keep talking. Delay the inevitable. “Might have given the old bastard some satisfaction at the end there. I've started—”

“I had sex with Mark!”

Jack put his head against the windowpane and shook it back and forth.

“Yeah, I figured.” Pacey was surprised by how cold and unemotional he sounded.

“You need to understand, Pacey, what it's been like for me this summer. I was so alone and scared, and Mark...he understood in a way no one else could, because he's been through the same things. He became my friend, my rock, the one person I could depend on. I still loved—love—you, but you felt so far away, sounded so distant. Then, last week, when I found out why...I know it wasn't your fault, that you weren't allowed to tell me. I know that now, but, in the moment, it felt like betrayal—from both of you, all of you—and I ran to Mark. He seemed, in that moment, like the only true thing in the world. And I...we...it just happened.” Tears blurred Andie's eyes and ran down her ashen cheeks. “I'm so, so, so sorry, Pacey. Can you ever forgive me?”

Pacey felt too much, too many conflicting emotions to parcel them out. The ones Andie expected were there—rage, jealousy, betrayal—but also, ever present, his own guilt and regret. And, sickeningly, a kind of manic joy and relief that she had betrayed him, too.

Jack leaned against the wall, arms crossed. He gave Pacey an appraising stare. Was Pacey the man he thought or not?

The whole mess had begun with lies Pacey was forced to tell. The only way to unravel it was to tell the truth himself. “I understand better than you think I do.” He finally sat next to her on the bed. He took Andie's small hand in both of his; it was icy cold. “This summer hasn't been a walk in the park for me, either.”

“I know, Pacey, and I'm sorry I couldn't be there for you. I—”

Pacey waved her apology away. “Just let me get through this, all right? Then we'll sort out who needs to apologize to whom and for what.”

Andie's brow contracted in confusion, but she nodded.

Pacey paused a moment, searching for words. “My whole world went up in smoke this summer—parts of it quite literally—and the only person who could fully comprehend that, who was going through the same thing, was Joey.”

Apprehension replaced confusion. Andie's hand tightened its grip on his. But she kept silent.

“It's like what you said about Mark. We needed each other, depended on each other.” Pacey couldn't find words to tell Andie what he was unable to admit to himself. He skipped to the end. “Earlier this week, we got drunk, talking about Dawson, and we—we didn't have sex, but we fooled around a bit. I'm sorry, Andie. It never should have happened. I should have stopped it. But, please, don't blame Joey,” he added, remembering her fear at the thought of losing Andie's friendship. “She was wasted and thinking about Dawson. It was my fault. Entirely my fault.”

Silent tears continued to stream down Andie's face. Her fingers went slack in Pacey's own, but she didn't pull away. “So what now?” she asked in a watery voice.

“I don't know.” In a normal world, he would say mutual infidelity was more than legitimate cause to call it quits. But nothing about their situation resembled normal. Andie was mentally and emotionally fragile; the last thing he wanted to do was add another stress to her life. And, for himself, he was too damn confused to know what he wanted. Or maybe what he wanted was something he knew he could never have. “What do you want, Andie? Whatever you want to happen, whatever you think the right thing is, that's what we'll do.”

“The right thing?” Andie smiled sadly. “I don't think I've understood what's right for a long time. But I know I don't want to lose you, Pacey. I still care about you.”

“I still care about you, too.” He cupped her cheek with his left hand.

Andie leaned into his touch, eyes drifting closed. Then, she yanked away. Her eyes shot open. “And Joey?” she demanded.

Pacey frowned. He refused to start lying again. “I care about her, too.”

“More than me?”

“Differently than you. What about Mark? You must care about him, or you'd never have gone to bed with him.” Pacey couldn't hide the touch of bitterness there.

Andie hopped to her feet. “It was a mistake! I told you. Besides, Mark has a girlfriend.”

“And you have a boyfriend. And Joey has a fucking soulmate,” Pacey shot back as he stood. “That wasn't the question. Do you. Care. About. Him?”

“Yes!” Andie flung the word at him like a weapon, chin raised, defiant.

All Pacey's anger fled as the arrow struck deep, wounding him the way she'd wanted. “Okay then.” He took a step back, forced his posture to relax. “You're going to be here for a while. Maybe, maybe you should use some of that time to figure out what you want, without feeling any guilt or obligation to me.”

“Translation: you'd like permission to sleep around while your girlfriend's in the nuthouse.”

“That's rich coming from the one of us who actually did fuck someone else.”

Jack—half-forgotten until now—rushed between them. “Enough, okay? That's enough, from both of you.” He stared down Pacey and Andie in turn. “You're both angry and hurt and confused, but the most important thing here isn't your feelings or your relationship.” He turned to his sister, put his hands on her shoulders. “It's you getting well. All these other problems can wait till then.”

“Pacey won't wait that long.”

“I will, Andie.” The promise was easy to make. Jack was right. Andie's sanity mattered more than all this other crap. “After all you've done for me, everything we've been through, I owe you that much, at least.”

Andie looked unconvinced. “You'll call and write and visit? And you won't date other girls?”

Pacey raised his palm to swear an oath. “As long as Heather Graham doesn't visit Capeside, I promise.”

“What about Joey? Will you promise me to stay away from Joey?”

“Andie,” Jack warned with a shake of his head.

“I can't, Andie, any more than you can promise me to not see Mark anymore. When you're in a lifeboat with someone, you don't feed them to the sharks, and you don't jump overboard yourself.”

“What if it happens again?”

Pacey was certain it wouldn't, but as that certainty came from the conviction of Joey's indifference to him and not from any moral strength of his own, he didn't mention it. “Same thing it means if you and he do it again. We'd have our answer.”

“Not reassuring me here, Pacey.”

“Sorry. I don't have much assurance to spare at the moment. Everything in life I thought I could depend on is gone. What do you want from me?” The anger and hurt were building again. Jack's look advised calm, but Pacey couldn't stand much more.

Tears cascaded down Andie's ashen cheeks. “I want the last four months to have never happened. I want us to be the way we were before I got sick. You remember how it used to be, Pacey? The way you looked at me and held me and loved me?”

Pacey's throat felt raw. “That seems like a hundred years ago.”

“It doesn't have to. Couldn't we pretend none of this stuff ever happened? Just you and me watching Dumbo and studying for finals and planning our future.”

“I wish it were that simple, McPhee. But I can't erase this summer, much as I'd like to, and denying reality isn't going to make you better any faster. Jack is right. Get better. Then we'll talk about us.”

“I guess I don't really have another choice, do I?”

She looked so broken, so small, so alone. Pacey stepped forward and wrapped her in his arms. It took effort to make himself do that, when once it would have been natural as breathing. Andie clutched at his waist and sobbed into his chest. But she didn't relax in his arms, found no shelter there. Holding each other tight, they were still worlds apart.

<><><>

“You okay?” Jack asked as Pacey started the Wagoneer and pulled away from the Mayfield Center.

Pacey chuckled bitterly. “On a scale of what to what? My cheating girlfriend's in the asylum for the indefinite future. My never stellar sense of self-worth has taken even more hits as I've discovered I am, among other things, a liar and a cheat. My dad's dead, my family's crap, Dawson's gone, and Joey's...” He shook his head. There were no words to describe Joey. “The only bright spot in my day is I'm the one driving, so we'll get home sometime today and not just in time for school to start.”

Jack had one hand braced against the roof of the car, back tense against the seat. “Unless you kill us going 100 in a 30 speed limit zone.”

The speedometer was only at 60, but Pacey lifted his foot a little off the gas. “Wouldn't be the worst way to go out.”

“Nuh-uh. No way. I've already had to talk Jen out of that kind of crap. Not going down that road with you.”

“Wait. What about Lindley?”

“She's okay now, and it's none of your business. Besides, the last thing you need is another problem to solve.”

Pacey snorted. “I'd settle for one that has a solution. Sorry you got dragged into that back there.”

“In some ways, it was easier than when you're all lovey-dovey. No guy wants to see his sister being pawed at.”

“Or hear about her fucking mental patients?” Jack winced, and Pacey instantly regretted his words. “Sorry. Again.”

“Better out than in, as my mom once said to me. I had food poisoning at the time, but still...For what it's worth, I don't know another guy who would have handled that as well as you did.”

“I figured my own list of flaws was long enough without adding hypocrite to the list. Look, Jack, Andie's your sister, and I don't want to put you in the middle any more than you already are, but, at this point, it's hard for me to imagine ever being with her again.”

Jack scratched his neck. “I figured. Just...keep your word, okay? Wait till she's better. And you never know—you two were pretty great together. With time, maybe...” He shrugged. “It's not my business, man. I just want both of you to make it through.”

Pacey pulled onto the freeway. He rolled down the windows, blasted the stereo, and floored the gas.

“One more thing,” Jack yelled over the increased noise, “I'm new to the whole fag-hag relationship dynamic, but I think I'm obligated to tell Jen about you and Joey.”

Pacey swore under his breath. This day just kept getting better.

<><><>

After dropping Jack at Mrs. Ryan's, Pacey's first instinct was to hide out at his house, the way he had after his last visit to Andie. But he remembered how worried Joey had been and considered how awful it would be for her to find out about the trip from Jen instead of him. He drove to the Potters'.

Because Pacey absolutely could not catch a break today, his watch read 3:10 when he pulled into their driveway. Alexander was likely down for a nap, and Bessie wouldn't be home for hours. Not a thing to stop Joey from asking—

“So how was it?” She looked up from her book with a nervous smile at his entrance.

“Got any razor blades handy? Sleeping pills? A bottle of antifreeze? I'm not picky.”

Joey's smile collapsed. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. Pacey followed her wordless signal to sit on the now vacant side of the couch. “What happened?”

“I told her, Joey. I'm sorry. I had to.”

Joey bit her lip but nodded. “It's okay. I understand. How, how did she take it? Does she hate me? More accurately, how much does she hate me?”

“She has no right to hate you,” Pacey spat.

“Pacey, come on.” Joey's mouth tipped in her sad mockery of a smile. “I'm supposed to be her friend, and I...” She blushed, skipped ahead. “With her boyfriend. Being a Girl 101 means she wants to claw my eyes out right about now.”

“Well, given that I didn't put my fist in Mark's face, she can damn well keep her claws to herself.” Pacey hadn't meant to tell Joey about Andie's infidelity, but he couldn't stand seeing her blame herself.

“Mark? Who's Mark?”

“Andie's fuck-buddy.”

Joey drew in a sharp breath. “She cheated on you?” Her high, outraged shriek was the best thing in Pacey's miserable day. “Andie McPhee cheated on you?”

“See, when you say it like that, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but she was quite rational when she explained it to me.”

“And that's why you told her about...about what happened. To get back at her.”

“No. No! I told her so she would know I understand how you can get caught up in something, a moment, and...” Joey turned her flaming face away, but she was just as lovely in profile. Pacey ducked his head, tried not to look at her, but found himself studying her feet on the couch cushion. Joey's toenails were red. He couldn't remember the last time she painted them. Before the fire. Pacey wanted to kiss each crimson digit in gratitude.

“So you forgave her?” Joey's incredulous tone brought Pacey's attention back to their conversation.

He shrugged. “Not exactly. But I also can't exactly judge her, can I?”

“Why not? Was she drunk? Do her medications come with a promiscuity side effect?” Joey jumped off the couch and stomped back and forth across the small living room. “For the first time, I get why they locked her up. A girl would have to be crazy to cheat on you.”

Pacey smiled, warm all over from Joey's impassioned defense. “Aw, shucks, Potter, I didn't know you cared.”

Joey stopped dead in the middle of the room. “Well, I mean, you're an uncouth pain in the ass to the rest of the world, but you're a remarkably good boyfriend to her. I would have thought she'd appreciate it more, is all.”

“We hadn't seen each other in months, and she was with this Mark guy every day, and—”

“I'm sorry, are you defending her?”

“Huh.” Pacey waited for the rage to return, but Joey's display had somehow robbed him of it. “I guess I am.”

“So is this post-break-up nostalgia or protective boyfriend behavior?”

“Uh, neither. But if forced to choose, closer to the latter.”

“You didn't break up.”

He had to be imagining that note of disappointment in her voice. Or at least ascribing all the wrong motives to it. “We tabled that discussion for a later date.”

“You're going back next week?”

Pacey frowned. He couldn't imagine anything he'd enjoy less. “I don't know. Probably not. But Jack and I agreed it was more important for Andie to get well.”

“Jack! So he knows about—” Joey gestured between them “—too?”

Pacey thought about Jack's threat to tell Jen. He grimaced. “Funny story about that...”

<><><>

Alexander awoke before Pacey did more than give Joey a heads-up about Jen. Pacey volunteered to get him, partly to avoid Joey's wrath, but mostly because after the day he'd had, spending a couple hours with a baby who couldn't speak yet sounded like heaven.

Alex had pulled himself up to standing by the bars of his crib, and he grinned and babbled upon sight of Pacey.

Pacey smiled back. “Heya, kiddo. At least one person in this world still likes me.” He scooped up the baby and tossed him in the air, rewarded with squeals of delight. Taking care of Alexander had started as one more way to help Bessie and Joey, but now he loved the kid in his own right. Playing with Alexander was the only part of his life completely free of grief or guilt.

Going back to school in a couple weeks and losing much of that time would suck.

He entertained Alexander until dinnertime. Bessie asked about his trip to visit Andie. Pacey shrugged it off as much as he could and deflected with questions about her day. Joey said almost nothing and ate no better.

Bessie was pulling Alex out of his high chair for a bath and Pacey was clearing the table when the phone rang.

Joey answered. “Hello?...” Her eyes flickered to Pacey, then away. “Yeah, it's fine, just give me a second.” She covered the receiver and told them, “It's Jen. I'm gonna take it in Alexander's room.”

Nothing odd about that choice, as it was the only way Joey could have private conversations. Pacey put away any misgivings about the call and decided to be grateful Joey counted Jen as a friend now. Bessie took Alex to his bath, while Pacey did dishes and tried not to speculate on the girls' phone call.

Twenty minutes or more went by before he heard the nursery door open again.

“Hey, Potter,” he said, back to her, hands deep in dishwater. But he didn't get farther before he heard the outside door open and slam shut as well.

Pacey hurried through the rest of cleanup—Bessie would be pissed if he left it half-finished—before following Joey out into the night. The moon was a sliver, but the stars were bright and clear. Joey sat on the end of the dock, illuminated by the light, and stared off into the distance. Toward the pinprick of light across the creek shining from the house which used to be the Leerys'.

Pacey lowered himself beside her without saying anything. He wanted to take her hand, but didn't. For all he knew, she was pissed as hell at him.

“Jen met her new neighbors today,” Joey said after a while. “She thought I'd want to know as soon as possible, so I can prepare myself. Married couple. He's mid-thirties, lawyer in Boston. She's younger. They have a two-year-old son and are expecting another. They didn't want to raise kids in the city.”

“Maybe it's better...that they're nothing like the Leerys. We won't have to compare all the time.”

Joey nodded once curtly.

“Might be nice for Alexander when he gets a bit older to have kids close to his age nearby,” Pacey added.

Joey snorted. “With a lawyer dad and trophy wife mom? I'm guessing they'll grow up as country club snobs who look down on the trash from this side of the creek.”

“That's a lot of judgment on a boy who's still learning the alphabet and another without a functional lung system. Anyway, won't be your problem. By the time Alexander's old enough to row across the creek, you'll be long gone from Capeside.”

“Assuming I get accepted somewhere and receive the massive scholarships I'll need to afford it.”

Pacey smiled. He couldn't help it. Joey worrying about money and college was Joey as he'd known her for years. Joey pre-fire. It was better than the nail polish. “You'll make it, Potter. I know you will. And, if you don't, there's always my rafting project to fall back on.”

Instead of winning a smile from her, Pacey saw Joey's head sink low. She bit her lip and pushed her hair behind her ears. “Pacey, I don't think you should spend the night anymore.” She sounded sad, not angry, but determined.

“Is that Jen's advice?”

“No, Jen had...other suggestions.” Joey turned her head away, so he couldn't read her expression. “But I'd been thinking for a while...and everything with Andie and...everything...I mean, it was never supposed to be a permanent arrangement.”

Part of Pacey was devastated. He wanted to crawl back in time to a few weeks ago, before things had gotten so messed up between them. But a surprisingly large part of him was relieved. Lying next to her, not touching, listening to her breathe, while memories of that night in Dawson's room taunted him—platonic sleepovers had gone from strange but comforting to untenable. Plus, Joey was right. There was Andie to consider.

“So who gets the kid in the divorce?”

Joey yanked her head back toward him, only to be confronted with his teasing grin. Slowly, she relaxed and smiled, too. “I'm not kicking you out of my life, Pacey. Just my bed.”

“Blessing in disguise. It's going to turn cold soon, and you're a cover hog.”

She elbowed him in the ribs. “I warned you about discussing a lady's sleeping habits.”

“Right.” He rubbed the sore spot. “When will I learn to keep my big mouth shut?” Pacey flinched as he thought of all the ways he'd failed to do that today. “I really am sorry, Jo. About everyone finding out. I know it doesn't mesh with your forget-it-ever-happened plan.”

Joey shrugged, not meeting his eyes. “We'll deal. We've dealt with worse. Just...don't go talking about it in school restrooms, okay?”

“That is one lesson even a guy as thick-headed as me has thoroughly learned. But if I'm going home tonight, I should probably head out. Not a good idea to sneak into the room of a repressed cop with a loaded gun under his pillow.”

Joey's eyes went round. “He doesn't really, does he?”

Pacey chuckled. “Nah. That's a good way to blow off your own ear. It's in his nightstand, but still...” He jumped to his feet and helped Joey up.

It was harder than it should have been to let go of her hand.

Chapter Text

Fire and smoke. Dawson's dead eyes. Pop's charred corpse reaching for him. Running. Running and choking until stopped short by a circle of broken glass. Andie in the midst of it, pleading. Couldn't step over the glass. A blackened, burning hand grabbed his arm.

Pacey awoke, screaming, into the murky, gray light before dawn. His body was covered in cold sweat; his heart thumped painfully against his ribs. He looked to his right, for Joey, to reassure himself everything was okay, and found only his brother's empty bed.

Right. He was home. He'd returned to a deserted house last night. Gretchen was working at the bar, and Ma and Doug were on night shift. Pacey didn't mind. He'd avoided Ma's nagging and Gretchen's prying, not to mention Doug's judgmental stance on pretty much everything.

He looked at the clock. 5:32. Gretch was no doubt sound asleep. Ma and Doug would be getting home soon. Too early to call Joey. Too wired to sleep.

Pacey decided to go for a jog. If he timed it right, he'd reach the Potters' right around the time they were waking up, and he could convince Joey to join him for the second half of his run. Would mean a longer one for him, but that was all right.

He pulled on an old pair of sweats, scarfed a Pop-Tart and a banana, grabbed a water bottle, and headed out. The fear and unease from his dream slipped away as he settled into the mindless rhythm.

The sun rose slowly beside him, illuminating the road ahead. The road to Joey's house. He smiled for no particular reason when the little old house came in sight.

Pacey paused on the stoop. A day ago, he would have walked right in. He still had his key, hadn't thought to give it back, but it seemed wrong to use it. On the other hand, what if he knocked and they weren't up yet? He'd feel like a jerk.

From inside, Alexander let out a cry and solved Pacey's dilemma. He knocked.

A bathrobe-wrapped Joey answered the door. Exhaustion-ringed eyes widened at the sight of him. “Pacey? What are you doing here?”

“Come on, Potter. Didn't think you were going to get out of it that easy, did you?”

“Huh?”

“You know, our sparkling repartee really takes a hit when you're sleep deprived. Our morning run, remember? So get changed and pack up the kid.” Pacey grinned and snapped his fingers. “Time's a wasting, let's go.”

A smile grew across Joey's face. Her pretty, pink tongue sneaked between her lips. “Ten minutes. Five, if you'll help with Alexander.” She turned and ran to the bathroom, leaving the door open behind her, which was invitation enough for Pacey to step inside.

Bessie emerged from Alexander's room with the baby on her hip. He was still in his jammies, crusties in his eyes. Just like his aunt, he smiled when he saw Pacey.

“Morning, kiddo.” Pacey held out his arms, and Alexander willingly hopped into them.

“So, Pacey.” Bessie crossed her now empty arms. “You wanna explain the weirdness with you and my sister lately? Why didn't you sleep over last night?”

Thrown off-guard, Pacey headed to the kitchen to prepare Alex's morning bottle. “Given your previous stance on said sleepovers, shouldn't you be throwing a party right about now?”

“I would, if not for the lack of explanation. What's going on?”

“A run, Bess.” Joey appeared behind her sister in a ratty, purple t-shirt and shorts, hair pulled back in a high ponytail. “Just like usual. Right, Pacey?”

“Right. You ready?”

“Yep. You?”

“Got the kid. Got the bottle. Just need the stroller.”

“Great.” Joey kissed a suspicious Bessie on the cheek. “Have a good day at work, sis. See you later.”

“Uh-huh. When we will talk about this, Josephine Potter,” Bessie called after them.

Joey cringed as she buckled Alex into his stroller. “Oh, joy,” she muttered.

Pacey stepped up to push the baby. “Mind if we run back toward my house today? Figured I could shower and change there, then drive you and Alex home. Otherwise, my run is going to be four times as long, and I won't be able to lift a single box in that attic tomorrow.”

Joey tilted her head, surprised. “You're not staying here anymore, and you're still going to help with that?”

“It's not exactly disinterested on my part. I'm trying to score points with your sister. And let's be honest, this is one punishment I actually deserve.”

Joey blushed but didn't answer, just started running. Pacey, pushing Alexander, caught up to her and fell in step.

There it was again, that feeling of rightness, of silent communion with the girl beside him, the cool morning air, the whole waking world. Shutting out thoughts, worries, guilt, regret. Only the limitless road and the immediacy of the next step.

All too soon—though by then he was dripping in sweat, lungs heaving for air—they reached Pacey's house. They walked up the drive, cooling down, catching their breath.

“Everyone's probably sleeping,” Pacey warned on the porch, while Joey unbuckled Alex from his stroller. “But make yourself at home. I'll try and be quick. There's food in the kitchen. I think Kerry's kids left a box of toys under the window seat.”

Joey crossed the threshold cautiously. “I haven't been here since your ninth birthday party. Kerry called me trash, and you kicked her in the shins.”

Pacey grimaced. “Yeah, pissed Pop off, and he sent everyone home. With my presents. Your typical Witter birthday fare.”

Joey shot him a sympathetic, lopsided smile. She walked around the room, Alexander in her arms, surveying the pictures.

“Well, I should...” Pacey gestured awkwardly up the stairs.

“Go ahead. We'll be fine.”

Pacey hurried up the stairs, but tiptoed into his room and past a snoring Doug to grab some clean clothes. He took a lightning quick shower.

It was still too long.

“—of my house!” He heard his mother shriek as he stepped out of the bathroom.

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Witter,” was Joey's stricken reply. “I didn't know...didn't realize...we'll go.”

Pacey rushed down the stairs, but Gretchen was already stepping off them and spoke before he could. “Joey, don't be ridiculous. Ma, stop it. You've known Joey most of her life. She's Pacey's friend, and she's—”

“She's that man's daughter, and I will not have her in your father's house.”

Pacey grabbed Joey's arm to halt her retreat, but faced his mother as he said, “If anyone's being polluted right now, it's Joey, by having to spend even one minute in this house of horrors. See, she grew up in this weird home where the people in it love and speak kindly to each other. Twelve hours back, and I already remember why I didn't miss this hellhole.” He deflated, not feeling the satisfaction he thought he would, guilt rising at his mother's offended expression. “Come on, Joey. Let's go.”

Joey didn't say a word as they walked outside. Pacey grabbed Alexander's stroller off the porch, collapsing it as he trudged to the Wagoneer. Luckily, the baby's car seat was still there from their last trip to the park. Joey strapped him in the back before sliding into the front passenger seat. Pacey sat in the driver's seat, keys in the ignition, but didn't start the car. He glared at his parents' house.

“I'm sorry, Pace.” He heard the tears in Joey's voice. “Your mom must have got home late from work. I, I just said hi when she came in. I wasn't thinking. My dad got her husband killed, and I didn't even think about that as I walked into her home.”

“Hey, hey.” Pacey reached across the car and pulled her into a hug. “It's good that you weren't thinking about that. It's not your fault. None of it.”

He wrapped her tighter as she cried against his shoulder. Even amidst her sorrow, even with the scent of dried sweat on her skin, and the curious baby watching from the backseat, Pacey was grateful for this moment. Joey, in pain, sought and accepted his comfort, and neither of them had stopped to feel guilty or awkward. Whatever had been damaged between them that drunken night wasn't broken beyond repair. They could fix it.

<><><>

Pacey drove Joey and the baby home. He played with Alexander while Joey showered then hung out with both of them until he had to leave for work.

Once there, he pulled out a paper and started a letter to Andie. He wrote the date and Dear Andie across the top of the page. And stopped. Part of delaying any decisions about the state of their relationship was the supposition that Pacey would continue to write.

But his letters all summer had been half truths and evasions about his own life combined with rah-rah cheerleader encouragement for her. He no longer needed to prevaricate, but the idea of filling Andie in on the minutiae of his life—say, this morning's run-in with his mother—had lost all appeal. He didn't trust her anymore. He barely felt like he knew her. And she hardly needed him to will her better. Not when she had Mark.

In the end, he picked out a card for her during his lunch hour. Thinking of You, it said over a picture of butterflies, with a syrupy sweet sentiment inside. Pacey added a short note of his own.

Wasn't sure what to write, but wanted you to know you're in my thoughts. Whatever happened or may yet happen between us, I want nothing but the very best for you. Pacey.

No Love, no Yours, no Always. He was finished with lying.

<><><>

Whether he was more prepared to face Joey's sister or his own mother was ultimately less important than avoiding the awkwardness and pain of another evening goodbye with Joey. So Pacey went home after work.

He picked up pizza on the way—one cheese, one vegetarian—because no one turned up their nose at free pizza. He hoped it would serve simultaneously as a peace offering and a veil for his new eating habits.

A few lights were on, but no one was to be seen when he let himself into the house. “Hello? Anybody here and/or speaking to me?”

His only answer was the blaring of Gretchen's stereo. Pacey grinned. The wall-shaking volume meant his sister was home alone. He carried the pizza upstairs to her room. Her door was half open, light streaming into the hall.

Pacey's rap on the door pushed it all the way open, allowing him to see Gretchen's open suitcase on the bed and the disaster zone previously known as her room. Clothes, CDs, makeup and books littered every available surface. Gretchen was folding clothes on her bed, back to Pacey. She didn't hear him enter.

“Fleeing the scene of the crime?” Pacey yelled.

Gretchen jumped, whirled, relaxed when she saw Pacey; she turned the music down a few notches. “Hey, baby brother, that better be for me.” She glanced hungrily at the pizza boxes.

“All yours if you can find someplace to put it.”

Gretchen moved a stack of textbooks off her nightstand, and they set the pizza there.

“Seriously, what's with the packing?” Pacey asked as he helped himself to a slice. “I thought your school didn't start till after mine.”

“Doesn't,” Gretchen answered around a mouthful of cheese and tomato sauce. “But a couple girlfriends of mine have been trying to convince me to join them on an end-of-summer road trip. Between last night's handsy drunks and this morning's knock-down, drag-out with Ma after you left, I suddenly remembered everything I hate about this town and figured I might as well split. Sorry to leave you alone with the fallout, but given the list of grievances I laid at her door this morning, I'm not the most politic ally to keep around anyway.”

“Can't fault your logic, but I'm sorry for my part in it. Where you off to?”

Gretchen shrugged. “Doesn't matter. The fun's in the journey, not the destination.”

“How Psych 101 of you,” Pacey quipped, but then added, “Wish I had the means to do that. Hit the road and never look back.”

“Only fun if you have the right people in the car with you, Pace. Speaking of which, what are you doing home? Your speech this morning made it stunningly clear you'd rather be at Joey's.”

“Uh, she sorta kicked me out.”

Gretchen looked horrified. “Because of Ma?”

“No, because...” Pacey shrugged and spread his hands. “It's a long story.”

His sister grabbed another slice of pizza and sat cross-legged on her bed, over a mass of clothes. “I've got time. Tonight, anyway. Tomorrow, I'm gone, and so is my wicked good sisterly advice—until Thanksgiving, anyway.”

Suddenly, all Pacey wanted to do was unburden himself to someone who wouldn't judge, who had no stake in the matter, whose only concern was him. He'd never find that in anyone but Gretchen. But—“Where are Doug and Ma?”

“Mom's working, and Doug's out with friends.”

“Dougie has friends?”

“I was as shocked as you. Now, start talking, or I'll put you to work folding laundry.”

Pacey sighed and tried to think where to begin. “You know that girl Andie you asked me about?”

“How could I forget? We've had a steady stream of pastel envelopes all summer. Doug said she's your girlfriend.”

“She was. Is. She's...I don't know...she changed my life.” Pacey told his sister everything, from the time they crashed cars, to bonding over Dumbo, to getting his first A and realizing he was in love with her on the same day. About Mrs. McPhee, and Tim, and Jack. About the school election and “Brown” and talking her out of the shard-littered bathroom. How she was sent away and nothing mattered anymore, until the fire, when everything that mattered flipped upside down and inside out.

“I was wondering when we'd get to Joey.”

Pacey started throwing Gretchen's books into a cardboard box to avoid her knowing stare. “Yeah. Well, you know most of the rest. I wasn't allowed to tell Andie about the fire, and I was spending so much time with Joey...everything got kinda screwed up. To put the finishing touch on the sordid little drama, I found out Andie cheated on me with a guy at her hospital about the same time Joey and I got drunk and made out.”

Gretchen blinked rapidly. “You realize my biggest dilemma in high school was deciding which guy to ask to the Sadie Hawkins dance, right?”

Pacey's mouth tipped wryly. They grew up in the same house. He knew Gretchen had bigger problems than that, many of them stemming from the parents they shared, but he also knew comfort when he heard it. “Any sage sisterly advice to get me out of this mess?”

“Ask yourself this, Pace: what do you want most in life?”

Pacey snorted. “That's easy. I want this summer not to have happened. No fire, no death. Dawson and Joey unfolding the next act of their star-crossed-lovers' melodrama, while I snark from the sidelines and wait for a faithful Andie to come home. But wishing doesn't change shit.”

Gretchen folded and packed clothes with a perplexed frown. “Pacey, I don't doubt that you truly wish Dawson was still alive. We all do. But...do you really believe your feelings for Joey are all the product of this summer's grief?”

“Well, not just grief. There's a healthy amount of hormone-fueled lust mixed in there.”

“I'm sure. Just like I'm sure Andie is a terrific girl, everything you said she is, or she couldn't have impacted your life the way she has, but...” Gretchen touched his arm and waited until he looked at her, before adding, “When I found out Dawson and Joey were dating, I was shocked. Not because he had a silly crush on me when we were kids, but because I'd been watching you fall in love with her since you were eight years old.”

Pacey stepped back from his sister, wished he could step back in time to before she said it. “What!? Me and Joey?” He laughed, but it sounded strained even to his ears. “I think maybe the excessive noise levels you routinely subject yourself to are starting to hinder your cognitive abilities.”

“The first time I noticed,” Gretchen continued, as though he hadn't spoken, “was the Leerys' Christmas party. They did a Secret Santa that year. You wouldn't say who you'd gotten, but you saved up for weeks, wrapped the present yourself in your own...unique...way. I swear you blushed when you put it under the tree and blushed again when Joey opened that beautiful paint set you got her.”

“Cute story, sis, but one incident does not a love story make, especially juxtaposed to the joined-at-the-hip soulmates that were Dawson and Joey. Remember that? The way they shared every feeling and secret, while Joey and I shared a never-ending stream of barbs and resentment.”

“We come from a household where love and insults walk hand in hand. I don't think you could love someone and not pick fights with them. As for Dawson and Joey, by no means do I want to disparage what they meant to each other. But they always reminded me more of Doug and Kerry than Romeo and Juliet. Dating for a few months when you're fifteen and trying to sort out the hormones raging through your body does not mean you're fated to be together forever. If Dawson had lived, I think he and Joey would have realized that sooner or later.”

“But my giving her a paint set for Christmas portends eternal devotion,” Pacey scoffed.

“I said that's when I figured it out, not that it was my whole body of evidence. I listened to you fight and bicker for years. I saw the way you worried about her when her mom got sick, heard you mouth off to Pop when he arrested her dad—and bandaged your wounds afterwards. Your eyes light up when she enters the room, Pacey. I've been waiting all my life for a guy to look at me the way you look at Joey. And let's not neglect the most damning proof of all. The night of the fire, that horrible night, when you had a split second to decide what to do, you pulled Joey out of there. What would you call that?”

Pacey flinched. “Being a rotten friend.”

“What?”

“I should have pushed Dawson out the door with her and stayed to help Pop. It should have been me, not Dawson, inside that building when it collapsed. I've been hating myself all summer for that, and your suggestion that it was because I'm subconsciously in—” he could not say love “—fatuated with Joey makes it ten times worse. If you were right, and that were true, I'm not just thoughtless, I'm diabolical. You think I wanted my best friend—”

“You really think that, don't you? That it should have been you?” Gretchen's tone and expression softened as she searched his face.

Pacey shrugged, flipping absently through the pages of one of Gretchen's old textbooks. “Whose life would have been materially damaged if I suddenly wasn't in it? No one's. How many lives were destroyed when Dawson died? Joey, Mitch, Gail...and that's just the immediate fallout. There's also the reckoning for the world-changing films he was going to make, for which I doubt my life as an underachieving townie will make fair recompense.”

“First of all, I would have been gutted if you'd died. It's bad enough what happened to Pop, and I didn't even like him all that much. But you, Pacey? You're one of my top five favorite people in the world, easy, and I take offense at the suggestion that you don't matter. You matter to me, and to Doug and Ma and Kerry—however poorly they express it—and to Joey and—”

Pacey interrupted her with a disbelieving snort. “I understand you're doing that big sisterly support thing right now, but, please, speak only for yourself. I am by no means inclined to believe that love is universal even among those who share our surname. As for Joey, again may I direct your attention to Exhibit A? Joey loved Dawson; she needed Dawson. Who I, through either my reckless behavior or—by your estimation—villainous scheming, left for dead.”

“Whoa! I didn't say anything like that! Of course, you never wished ill on Dawson. It wasn't about him at all, and you've got to stop punishing yourself for it.” Gretchen sighed, a frown forming in the lines of her brow. “It's the kind of question you might get asked on a psych test. Your house is burning, and you only have time to grab one thing to take with you. What you choose doesn't mean you hate the things you leave behind. Far from it. They're pieces of your life. But what you take is what you value most, the treasure you can't bear to live without.”

Pacey couldn't meet Gretchen's pointed stare. He packed more books. “It doesn't matter,” he muttered.

“Of course, it does.”

“It doesn't. You're forgetting the salient point. Whatever I feel or don't feel is irrelevant. Joey Potter is in love with Dawson Leery.” He covered Gretchen's mouth with his hand to stop her immediate rebuttal. “Fifteen and hormones, I got it. But even if that were true—and it's not, they were soulmates, ask anybody—she never got the chance to discover it for herself. As far as she's concerned, she buried the love of her life three months ago, and the last person in the world Joey would ever consider dating is his best friend.” He released his sister and went looking for some tape for the box he'd filled.

“And yet didn't I hear you say something about making out with her?”

“While drunk. In Dawson's room. After talking about Dawson all night.”

“Oh, Pace.”

Pacey could hear the sympathy in Gretchen's voice. He shrugged it off, finding the tape under a stack of CDs on the nightstand. “Don't sweat it, Gretch. I didn't really expect you to solve the problem. It was cool of you to listen.” He changed the subject to her trip, places she might go, things she might see. He hoped he distracted her from thoughts of their previous conversation.

But hours later, after Gretchen had finished packing and Pacey had hugged her good night, he couldn't get her words out of his head.

He was reminded of that day—it felt years ago, but was only last fall—when he and Joey went snail hunting for biology class. Somewhere between the bickering and the wading through waist-deep water, the glimpse of her naked back and commiserating on escaping Capeside, he had realized he liked her. It hadn't been lightning out of clear sky, boom, he liked Joey. It had been the sun peeking through clouds, waking him gently to a truth he had known all along.

Gretchen's words felt like that. She had said nothing untrue—apart from Dawson and Joey not being soulmates—nothing he could refute, nothing he hadn't already been doing his damnedest to suppress. But now that it had been said aloud, Pacey's craving for honesty refused to let him bury it again.

He was in love with Joey Potter, had been for years, maybe most of his life. Gretchen pointed to the paint set at age eight, but Pacey remembered long before that. He remembered the day he met her, the first day of kindergarten, and how she'd had jeans with holes in the knees while all the other girls had worn dresses. The teacher had called her Josephine.

“It's Joey,” Joey had corrected her, with a withering stare which had only grown more deadly with age.

There had been an old maple tree at the edge of the playground. A bunch of kids took turns climbing it, even though they'd been told it was against the rules. Joey climbed the highest, while Dawson stayed on the ground and pleaded with her to come down. It was Pacey's traditionally bad luck to be the one up the tree when the teacher came to investigate. He was made to wait after school for his mother, and his reputation as a problem student was set from day one.

After the bell rang, all the other students poured out of the classroom, but Joey stayed in her seat. Two rows up, one chair over. Their teacher, surprised, said she could go.

Joey lifted that stubborn chin and said, “I climbed the tree, too.”

Maybe he had fallen in love right then.

But Dawson had always been there. The boy who didn't climb the forbidden tree, who never screwed up and never got in trouble. In Joey's eyes—and Pacey's, too—Dawson was forever and always a step above the rest of the human race. Joey idolized him, and Pacey understood why. Dawson was the best, and Joey deserved the best.

Except for that one mad day with the snails, he had kept his own feelings locked down tight. He probably would have continued to do so straight through Dawson and Joey's picture perfect wedding day and beyond, content to be on the periphery of their happiness, grabbing whatever of his own he could.

There had been happiness to spare with Andie for a while, happiness enough to make him believe he could have something more. But that house of cards had fallen with the pieces of the shattered bathroom mirror.

Then the fire. The vodka. His sister's words.

He was in love with Joey Potter. One more tragedy to add to the list.

Chapter Text

“Ladies first,” said Pacey as he steadied the ladder leading up to the hatch entrance of the Potters' attic.

Joey glared at him. “Fine. But I give you fair warning: I see anything small and furry scurrying around up there, and I will not hesitate to break your neck on the way back down.” Despite her words, she fearlessly scaled the ladder.

Pacey grinned up at her retreating backside. He had worried about coming over here in the wake of his new realizations, but he had promised he would help. So after saying goodbye to Gretchen this morning—he'd given her a long hug, and she'd whispered in his ear, Joey's a smart girl. She'll figure out how great you are one of these days—he had headed to the Potters'.

On his first sight of Joey in her yellow tank-top and blue jean shorts, hair pulled up in a messy ponytail, he'd nearly stumbled over both tongue and feet. Joey hadn't noticed, immediately ordering him to the shed for the ladder. Just like that, everything felt normal again. So what if he loved her? He always had. Knowing it wasn't going to change anything.

“Are you going to help or just stare at my ass all day?” Joey called as she disappeared into the attic.

“Is that an option?” Pacey said, climbing up after her. “Because I know which of the two I'd pick.”

The dust-ridden attic triggered a sneezing fit as soon as Pacey poked his head over the floor. Joey forced open a reluctant window, providing much-needed light and ventilation. The attic was filled with assorted boxes, discarded and broken furniture, a tacky, light-up Santa which had seen one too many Christmases, Joey's old dollhouse—Pacey remembered the epic saga they'd invented one summer where his Ninja Turtles had to save Joey's Barbies from Dawson's Skeletor—and other miscellanea.

Joey ran her fingers along her mother's old easel, coating them gray with dust. “I don't know where to begin.” She looked around hopelessly.

“Well, lucky for you, I've done something similar once already this summer.” Pacey picked up a nearby box at random. By its lightness, he wagered it held clothes. “Let's take a bunch down to sort and pray your parents saved fewer receipts than my dad.”

Joey snorted. “I can guarantee that. Bills are less fun when you can't pay them.”

Pacey headed down first and had Joey pass a dozen or so boxes to him before she followed. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen and handed it to her, handle first. “Honor's all yours.” He gestured to the top box on a stack.

Joey brought the knife to the edge of the box and hesitated. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her hand shook.

“Jo? Everything okay?”

Her eyes popped open, pained chocolate ringed with stormy gray. “Sorry. It's just...Bessie's punishment is a lot harsher than you realize. Most of these boxes have been up there since Mom died.”

“Oh. Right.” Pacey considered how raw the loss of Dawson and Pop felt. “Any truth to the rumor that time heals?”

“No.” One word, crisp and cold, and Pacey knew she was still the numb, bereaved little girl he watched and couldn't help at Lillian Potter's funeral. But she slit open the tape on the box.

It was filled with shoes. Multiple pairs of outgrown, worn-out, and discarded shoes from the whole Potter clan, saved for God-knew-what reason. Joey laughed on a relieved breath. Pacey helped her pair them up; they divided them into a pile for yard sale and those only fit for the trash.

The second box was harder. As soon as Joey opened the flap, they smelled stale linen and Mrs. Potter's perfume. Tears filled Joey's eyes as she stroked the blue floral dress on top. “It's been the defining event of my life.” Eyes and fingers devoured the inanimate remnants of her mother. “I stopped making friends after she died.”

“I know.” Joey had never been a social butterfly, but after her mom got sick and her dad went to prison, nobody got through that wall of rage she built.

“I decided nobody could truly understand unless they'd known me before, unless they'd known her. My world became very small that day. Bessie, Dawson, the Leerys.” Joey looked up long enough to give him a sad smile. “You. This summer, it got even smaller.”

“Dougie says nobody can ever really know another person, and you do them a disservice when you expect them to.”

Joey wiped her nose and started stacking her mom's clothes, one by one, in the yard sale pile. “That's remarkably philosophical for Doug. Do you buy it?”

Pacey shrugged. He helped fold clothes. “Sorta. I mean, look at Pop. Known him since the day I was born, and we never understood each other. Even now, I have no idea what made him...” He swallowed hard. “Whatever. But I knew Dawson. I know you.”

“So generation gap or shared childhood trauma?” Joey asked, half-teasing. But the lighter mood abandoned her as quickly as it had arrived. She stared, frozen, into the container.

Pacey peeked to see what had arrested her. Wrinkled, slightly yellowed white satin was spread across the bottom of the box. “Is that...”

“Mom's wedding dress. It's kept better than their marriage did.” Bitterness laced every word. Joey grimaced as she carried it over to the couch. “Guess I'd better ask Bessie if she wants it. She might get pissed if I burned it in the bathtub.”

“That Bessie and her lack of sympathy toward demented acts of arson.” Pacey sliced open the next box. “Halloween decorations,” he announced with relief.

Joey gave it a quick once-over. “That can go back to the attic. Tape is in the drawer next to the fridge, with the batteries.”

Pacey followed her instructions and returned a moment later with a thick roll of tape. Joey had already moved on to the next box, which was filled with papers of some kind.

“So where are Bessie and the baby?” Pacey asked as he taped the Halloween box and labeled it with a Sharpie. “Nice of her to keep the rugrat out from under foot while we do this.”

“Not for our benefit. She drove up to visit Bodie. They'll be back tomorrow.”

Pacey hated himself for the wicked thoughts which immediately sprang to mind at the prospect of twenty-four hours in an empty house with Joey Potter. Jesus, no wonder she kicked you out, you horny bastard.

He got another reminder of what a jerk he was when he realized Joey was sniffling over something she'd found. He looked over her shoulder and saw her holding one of those staged, department store family photos. A smirking Mike Potter stood with his hands on his wife's shoulders. Lillian sat with a posed smile, one hand holding a sullen, teenage Bessie's hand, while the other wrapped around tiny Joey, pulling her close. Joey was the only one of the family whose grin displayed pure joy.

“What were you, six? I seem to recall you having that giant gap in the front of your mouth in our class pictures that year.”

“I don't remember,” she said in a choked voice. “I don't remember anything about the day this was taken.”

“Probably for the best.” Joey glared at him, but Pacey wrapped a friendly arm around her shoulders and continued, “I'm serious, Potter. Speaking as someone whose family endured this torturous ritual every year, I can tell you with authority that the picture perfect moment never reflects reality. Reality is fighting kids, stressed-out mom, bad-tempered dad. Here.” He reached into the box and grabbed a random Kodak. “Tell me about this one.”

Joey's expression both softened and cheered at the picture he held out to her. Joey, Bessie, and their mom—all similar in age to the posed photograph—stood under an awning looking into some kind of animal cage. Joey was perched on her toes, pointing at something out of the shot.

“Trip to the Franklin Park Zoo. It poured rain, the wind broke our umbrella, but Dad said we paid all that money for tickets, we weren't leaving until we saw everything. Bessie was cold and miserable, but I couldn't believe all these animals—giraffes and zebras and lions—were actually real. I thought maybe we'd find unicorns and dinosaurs, too.”

Pacey squeezed her shoulder. “See? Nothing wrong with your memory, Potter. You got all the important stuff down.”

Joey wiped tears off her cheeks. “It just sucks. There's always more reasons to grieve. Even...even for my dad. I shouldn't—”

“Of course you should! He's your dad.”

“But after everything he did—to my mom, to your family, the Leerys, to me and Bessie—I should be able to hate him. And part of me does. But another part...why do I miss him so much?”

“Same reason I miss Pop, sometimes.” Pacey shrugged. “Whatever he did, he's your dad. The only one you're ever gonna get.”

Joey turned into him, fisting her hands in the sides of his shirt, burying her head in his shoulder, and sobbing. Pacey held her tight, stroked her hair, whispered meaningless, soothing noises in her ear.

“I'm sorry,” Joey's watery voice emerged a few minutes later. “You must be as tired of me crying all over you as I am of crying.”

“Are you kidding?” Pacey loosened his hold in order to smile down at her. “Any time a beautiful girl drapes herself all over me, you won't hear me complaining.”

“She'd have to be beside herself with grief to even think of it.” Joey pushed playfully out of his arms, face averted with embarrassment.

“That's me. Pacey J. Witter, last refuge of the grieving and the mentally ill.”

Pacey caught Joey's wince before she returned to sorting through the memorabilia. “Have you heard from Andie since you've been back?”

Pacey opened another box rather than look at her. After confronting the full extent of his feelings for Joey, his promise to wait galled him. Not because anything would ever happen with Joey, but because it had become yet another lie between him and Andie. “Not yet. Only been a couple of days though. If I don't hear from her soon, I'll call her.”

“You're a much better guy than people give you credit for.”

“Yeah, I'm a real saint,” he said sarcastically.

“I wouldn't go that far. You've broken a few too many Commandments to pass the Vatican's muster. But most sixteen-year-old guys upon discovering their girlfriend cheated on them would key her car or spray paint 'slut' on her house, not spend time worrying about her mental health. Andie's lucky to have you.”

Pacey willed Joey to look at him after that last statement to no avail. He decided it was his own wishful thinking which infused her words with wistfulness.

<><><>

Pacey took an inventory of the boxes while Joey made the slow, painful journey through a lifetime's memories. He tried to help where he could—crying shoulder, flippant joke, jackass distraction—but mostly he transported stuff up and down from the attic or out to the Wagoneer for a trip to the dump.

The day didn't exactly fly by, but they kept busy, breaking a few times to eat. By sunset, the attic was more than halfway cleared, but downstairs was barely organized chaos.

Pacey examined Lillian Potter's easel as he brought it down the ladder. One of the legs was broken, snapped nearly in two. “Hey, Jo, I think I could fix this for you.”

Joey looked up to see what he carried. Her expression shuttered over. “That's okay. Add it to the trash heap.”

“What!? It was your mom's, right? I figure you could use it for your art assignments this year and forego the misery of checking out school equipment.”

“I'm not taking art this year.” Joey turned back to her latest box.

“Why not?”

“Let's be real, Pace. I can barely afford notebooks and highlighters, how am I supposed to swing art supplies?”

“I can help with that.”

Joey scowled at him. “No. Bad enough you're buying half our groceries. Anything more, and you might as well list me as a dependent on your tax returns. Besides, I kind of...lost interest.”

Pacey twirled the easel on one of its good legs while he studied Joey. Her shoulders were hunched, head bent over the box, while she avoided his gaze. “Answer me one question, Jo: is this sudden disinterest about your mom or about Dawson?”

“Who says it's about either? I haven't picked up a pencil all summer, and I feel fine. Art was just a...a hobby. I was never going to be good enough to make a career out of it. I should spend this year focusing on the subjects that really matter. Not to mention we've got SATs to prepare for, and I'll need to find a job—assuming anyone will hire the daughter of the nefarious Mike Potter—and—”

“It made you happy.”

Joey blinked at his interruption. Her throat convulsed. “What?”

“Art. Art makes you happy.” Pacey set the broken easel aside, focusing his attention on her. “After the crap we've been through, why shut out something that actually brings you joy?”

“Because...” Joey chewed on her lip, gaze averted, one shoulder dropping.

“Because why, Jo?” he pressed.

“Because Dawson hated it!” Joey threw her hands out along with the words. “You're right, okay? Like always. This is about Dawson and how I don't think I'll ever be able to pick up a paintbrush or a piece of charcoal again without thinking about how I spent most of the last six months of his life fighting with the boy I loved because of a stupid hobby.”

“Dawson hated it because, for the first time in recorded history, part of your life didn't revolve around him. And you fought because you had the revolutionary notion that you should be regarded as a fully-rounded individual in your own right and not as an outgrowth of Dawson Leery's being.”

“Wait a second. You were on my side during that whole thing?”

Irritated, Pacey waved her question away. “Of course not, Potter. You were being a bitch to my best friend. And he was being a shit to you. And I was way too caught up in Andie to give a damn about your melodrama. I'm only pointing this out now because...look, your life can't be all about Dawson anymore. And that sucks, and it hurts, and you probably hate me for even saying it, but don't turn your back on the one thing that was never about him in the first place.”

For a moment, he saw her waver. Then her expression hardened, stubborn chin jutted out, and she returned to her box. “Add it to the trash pile, Pacey. I don't want it.”

Pacey glared at the back of Joey's head for a minute, but she refused to turn around. So he grabbed the easel and carried it out to the Wagoneer. Instead of throwing it on the heap, he gently placed it to the side. He would deal with it later.

After that, it was back to the boxes. Sometimes, it felt like his whole life had become about boxes. He determined then and there, if the day ever came when he did make it out of this whitewashed prison of a town, he wasn't taking anything he couldn't fit in one duffle bag.

They kept at it late into the night. Pacey expected Joey to call a halt, to send him off until next week's torture session. But she worked on, oblivious to the passing time. So Pacey shrugged off his growing fatigue and carted more boxes.

It was after four, the sky had gone from pitch black to gray-tinged edge of morning when Joey stretched, blinked bleary eyes, and said, “Can't think anymore. I was hoping to finish this in one day, but it'll have to wait. Need sleep.”

Pacey ran his eyes over the boxes and piles scattered all over the sofa and the living room floor where her bed needed to spread out. “Okay,” he sighed. “I'll move some of this stuff around. Just give me a minute.”

Joey groaned. “Leave it. Come on.” She grabbed Pacey's hand and dragged him to Bessie's room. “We've earned the comfy bed tonight.” She flopped on the daisy-printed quilt and toed off her shoes.

Pacey's mouth went dry. A rush of adrenaline held off the creeping exhaustion. “You want...I should...maybe I....”

Joey gave him a withering stare. “Pacey, you can't form complete sentences, you shouldn't be behind the wheel of a car. Come to bed. I'm too tired to argue.” So saying, she flicked off the lamp and lay down on the bed, above the covers, fully clothed.

Her breathing had evened into the deep rhythms of sleep before Pacey left the doorway, kicked off his own shoes, and stretched out beside her.

<><><>

Pacey woke to afternoon sunlight streaming hot across his face. It took a moment to process where he was, to recognize Bessie's cheerful bedroom. Joey was gone, a wrinkled imprint on the other side of the quilt the only testimony to her presence.

He went searching and found her hard at work on the attic boxes. “Anyone ever tell you your work ethic is hyperactive? Thought this was supposed to be a Saturday project.”

“Decided I'd rather get it over with now,” Joey mumbled, flipping through a stack of letters. “We only have a week till school starts. I'll be needing my weekends for studying.”

Pacey groaned. “You sounded a little too happy about that, Potter.”

Joey flashed him a small smile, but kept sorting. “You should be relieved. After a summer spent distracting me from grief through any means possible, you're finally going to catch a break. The public education system is taking over.”

Pacey hadn't realized his efforts had been so transparent, but the last thing he felt at the thought of losing this new closeness with Joey was relieved. “You know, that report card on your fridge is really a curse. A lifetime of letting everyone believe I was moron, and now they're going to think I have that worst of all possible traits—potential. And if I'm to live up to said potential, I'm going to need a study partner. Preferably one with a hyperactive work ethic to combat my deeply-rooted slacker propensities.”

Joey laughed, but rolled her eyes. “Of course we'll study together, Pace.” She bit her lip, hands freezing in midair. “Until Andie's released, I mean.”

“Right. Just till...” Pacey didn't want to think about the decisions he would have to make then. “Anyway, we should get to work if we're going to have the disaster zone cleared by the time your sister gets home.”

As it happened, Joey had finished sorting their stuff, and Pacey had scrubbed the attic clean, but they were still hauling boxes back up to the attic when Bessie returned that evening.

She was suitably impressed. “If I'd known you were going to be this efficient, I'd have made you paint the house, too.”

“Paint the house?” Joey asked, brow crinkling. “With what money, and to what purpose?”

Bessie breathed a tired sigh and set a curious Alexander down among the remaining boxes. “I'd hoped to get a night's sleep before getting into this, but I guess it's my own fault.”

“What is? What's going on, Bess? Why do you want the house painted?” Panic laced Joey's tone, as she anticipated some new disaster.

Pacey rubbed a soothing hand along her back, though he felt his own shoulders tensing.

“In case we sell it.”

“Why would you ever sell Mom's house? The fact that it's ours free and clear is the only reason we've had a roof over our head some months. Or have you forgotten that?”

“You know I haven't. I also haven't forgotten that some of those months we had no heat, no water, no electricity.”

“And adding rent to the family budget would help that how?”

“If we moved to Hartford and lived with Bodie.”

Joey's eyes were round as doughnuts. She stared at her sister, tore her eyes down to her nephew playing by her feet, then glanced—pained—at Pacey for only a moment before darting out the door.

Pacey took a step after her, stopped, and faced Bessie. “Are you really moving to Hartford?”

Bessie spread her hands in a hopeless gesture. “I don't know, Pacey. I'm still thinking about it—which you can tell the drama queen when you catch up to her. I know Joey would hate me for it. She's lived in this house since she was born, but so have I.” Tears pooled in Bessie's eyes. “I don't want to leave it any more than she does.”

“Then why—”

Bessie laughed, harsh, bitter. “What else am I supposed to do? I'm working a minimum wage job, depending on what Bodie can send, on the hope of an insurance settlement, and on the generosity of a teenage boy.”

“I don't mind. I like helping out.”

“You can't help out forever, Pacey. And things are about to get even harder. With you and Joey going back to school, the only way I'll be able to afford daycare for Alex is by going on government assistance. At least in Hartford, Bodie and I could trade shifts looking after him. Plus, it might be nice for Alexander to see his father every day.”

Pacey couldn't deny the justice of any of Bessie's arguments. Despite the fact that it ripped a hole in his chest, moving might be the best thing for all the Potters—even Joey. “So what's there to think about?” He tried to sound more supportive than he felt.

“Besides the undying hatred of my sister and leaving behind my entire life?” Bessie fingered the pile of their mother's things Joey had left for her inspection. She paused when she reached the wedding dress. “It's...hard for us Potter women to trust. After everything we went through with my dad—twice over—can you blame me if I'm reluctant to gamble my family's future on a man's promises?”

Pacey swallowed hard and shook his head. He headed toward the door, stopped again, and told her, “I don't blame you, and I don't want you to leave. But for what it's worth, I think Bodie's one of the good ones.”

“Thank you. Hey, Pacey?”

Pacey paused in the open doorway. “Yeah?”

“So are you.” Bessie smiled and jerked her head towards the door. “Now go work that magic on my sulking sister.”

He didn't have to look hard for Joey. She was, predictably, sitting on the end of the dock, gazing across the water.

“So I've been thinking,” she said when she heard Pacey's footsteps on the boards.

“Not exactly a shocking revelation from you, Potter,” said Pacey as he lowered himself beside her. “Reach any conclusions?”

“We should do it.”

Pacey's hand slipped off the edge, and he sprawled on his back across the dock. “Say what now?”

Joey's expression of concern and bemusement turned into wide-eyed realization and horror. She flushed red and swatted his shin. Hard. “Not that, you perv.”

“Hey, I'm not the one using a pronoun without an object,” Pacey groused as he pushed himself up to sit beside her. “For a girl with such an extensive vocabulary, you can be infuriatingly vague, you know that?”

“Don't put this on me. You're the one with the filthy mind.”

“You say filthy, I say healthy and male.” But when Joey looked down at the water, squirming uncomfortably, he let her off the hook. “So if not the beast with two backs, what exactly should we do?”

“I was going to say we should head down the Mississippi, but I've changed my mind. I'd rather go alone than with such a foul cretin.”

Pacey grinned. “Come on, Jo, you know you'll need me. You can't row for crap.”

“Maybe you can come,” Joey relented. “But only for the manual labor. I'm duct taping your mouth shut.”

“Sure thing.” He swung his legs in the humid night air, watching the fireflies dance on the opposite bank. “I don't know, though. Seems pretty extreme to run away from everything you've ever known just to avoid—”

“Moving away from everything I've ever known?” Joey cut in archly.

“When you put it like that, I guess I'd better start gathering logs for this raft.”

Joey's hands gripped the dock. Her right foot brushed against Pacey's calf on every other swing. “You stayed to hear her defense. Any ameliorating evidence I should know?”

“Nope. She's a heinous, evil wench out to ruin your life.”

Joey glared at him. “If I thought you meant one word of that, you wouldn't leave this dock alive.”

Pacey shrugged. “Wanted to give you some perspective. What do you think her defense is? She's doing what she has to in order to keep your family together, Jo.”

“I know.” Joey sighed. “Honestly? My first thought, when she said it, was I can't leave Mom's house. My second was how great it would be for Alexander. My third was...” Her gaze flitted up to his then back to the water. “Never mind. But I ran out here and had a bunch more thoughts. About how I hate this town, about how I love this spot. About how great it would be to go to school somewhere anonymous, where the entire student body didn't know my sordid family history. About how terrifying and possibly devastating to my scholastic record it might be to complete my last two years of high school in a different state. About how Bessie might be able to get a better job and have a good life with the man she loves. Or how it could all fall apart, and we could end up living on the streets.” She watched the distant, glimmering lights of the former Leery house. “How it might be nice to live somewhere where everyone and everything didn't constantly remind me of him. But how that might feel like losing him all over again.”

Afraid of this silence, Pacey said, “Anyone ever tell you, you think too much?”

Joey wiped her eyes and shoved him. “Only you. But you make up for the lack of corroborating opinions by sheer repetition.”

“Someone's gotta keep you honest.” He nudged her with his shoulder. “Not to encourage this dangerous thinking habit of yours, but what was your third thought?”

“Same as my ninth and my twelfth and my twenty-seventh.” Joey collapsed in on herself, shoulders hunching, head ducking, eyes on her feet, as she mumbled, “I don't want to leave you.”

Pacey's heart thumped painfully fast from those few, ungraciously-spoken, torn-against-her-will words. He fought against the feeling. He had to think about what was best for her. “Flattering as that is, Potter,” he said lightly, “there must be a bright side to that coin, too. I mean, think about all the aggravation you'll be spared without me around to bug you. And after all these years, you might actually take the initiative to make new friends.”

“And you must be looking forward to having your time and paycheck all to yourself again,” she responded in kind.

“Don't do that.”

“Do what?”

“Act like there's a positive to you leaving for me. There's no Pro to that Con list.”

Joey pulled out of her slouch, face rising to his, relieved, and touched, and panicked. “You don't want me to go?”

“Of course not, but if it's what's best for you—”

“It's not,” she said quickly. Too quickly. And her face was too close to his, with the hypnotic sounds of the flowing creek and the chirping crickets cocooning them together.

He was suddenly aware, as Joey looked at him with hooded eyes, that if he kissed her now, she would let him. He didn't understand quite why, whether it was because of her fear of leaving, some vestige of their drunken, hormonal meltdown, or just a gift of the setting, but he could do it. He could kiss Joey Potter. God, did he want to.

But he had promised Andie. And he was sick of being a liar.

“How can you be sure?” Pacey didn't exactly pull away from her, but he kept his tone and posture light, pretended not to have noticed the moment. “You've been talking about getting out of this Podunk town since you learned to spell Podunk. You'll be out of here in a couple years anyway. What's wrong with a head start?”

“Studies have been done about leading causes of life stresses, and I've got enough boxes checked with death of a loved one, financial worries, SATs, school...I can't add moving to the list.” Joey snapped back to her normal, quick-talking self so fast Pacey wondered if he'd imagined the other.

“You know, your sister hasn't decided anything yet. If you feel all this, maybe you should talk about it with her. Bessie has a Pro/Con list of her own.”

“Which I would know by now, if I hadn't run like I always do,” Joey finished for him. She looked down the creek at the Leerys', a silent acknowledgment that her destination had been curtailed by recent events.

“Nothing wrong with running, if it works for you. Speaking of which, run tomorrow before work?”

“Sure.” Joey pushed to standing, taking Pacey's signal to call it a day. “See you then.”

Pacey watched her walk toward the house, as he slowly rose to his own feet. She was halfway there when he called out, “I'll do it.”

Joey turned, walking backwards. “Do what?”

“If you move to Hartford and hate it, you and me and the Mississippi, yeah?”

Her smile lit up the night.

Chapter Text

If ever I would leave you,
It wouldn't be in summer...

The offensive warbling of one of Dougie's godawful musicals greeted Pacey as soon as he walked in the door. Doug and Ma both looked up from the couch. His brother was the one with the tissues. Ma's mouth tightened at the sight of Pacey, before she returned her full attention to the TV.

“Hey, Pacey,” said Doug. “We're watching Camelot, if you'd care to join us.”

About a dozen quips darted through Pacey's mind in response to that invitation, but Doug was making an effort. Pacey would, too. “I, uh, actually was going to work on a project in Pop's shed. Just came in for the keys. But...thanks.”

“No problem. There's pasta salad in the fridge if you haven't eaten. Andie called earlier.”

“Andie?” Pacey abandoned his walk to the kitchen in favor of the stairs. “Thanks.”

As soon as he reached his room, Pacey picked up the phone. He dialed the institution without giving himself time to doubt or second-guess the decision. He had promised Andie nothing would change.

“Mayfield Center. This is Janine speaking. How may I help you?”

“Evening, Janine. Pacey Witter, calling for Andie McPhee.”

“One moment, Mr. Witter. I'll connect you.”

Elevator music played for a minute before he heard the click of the phone and Andie's perky, “Hello?”

“Hey, McPhee. They gave you a phone, huh?”

“Pacey.” Her tone warmed as she said his name. Pacey closed his eyes, unprepared for the wave of sweet memories that swept over him. “Yes, it's true. I finally earned the right to a convenience I've had since I was ten.”

“Look at it this way, it's one more step towards well, right?”

She sighed. “Right.” There was a short, awkward pause. “I, I got your card. Thank you, Pacey. It meant a lot.”

“You're welcome.” Another pause. Pacey broke it with a nervous laugh. “Is it my imagination, or was this once easier?”

Andie laughed, as well. The rich, throaty sound filled his ear. “You're not wrong. I remember nights when you'd drop me off at home, and I'd try to calculate how many minutes it would take you to get to your house, because I knew as soon as you were, you'd call me. And after spending all day together, somehow, we'd still have things to say.”

Pacey longed for the simple happiness of those days. Before everything got so damn complicated. “I remember, too. So. Since we didn't spend all day together, why don't you tell me about yours?”

“It was good. Fun. No therapy on Sundays, so we had a Scrabble tournament, which I won.”

“Naturally.”

“Then a bunch of us went horseback riding.”

Pacey bit back a query on Mark's presence at these events. Don't be an asshole.

“What about you? Doug said you were out when I called earlier. Where were you?” He heard her suspicion. His answer would do little to allay it.

“At the Potters'. Helping Joey clean out the attic.”

“The attic? Right. And it just had to be done this weekend, and she just had to have your help.” Neither sarcasm nor jealousy suited his hopelessly optimistic girlfriend.

“Actually, yes. It was our punishment from Bessie for getting drunk the other night.”

A long silence greeted his defense. Pacey knew Andie was imagining what else had happened between him and Joey, as surely as he was remembering it. The way her fingers twirled the hair around his ears...her pulse racing in her throat against his lips...that moment of perfect stillness right before she—

“I hate this,” a tearful Andie pulled him back. “I hate the distance between us, and I hate not trusting you—you, Pacey. After all you did for me and everything you promised me, how could you?”

Pacey pressed his fingers hard against his eyes, forcing away the images. “I'm sorry, Andie. I don't have any excuses, any explanations that will make it right. It just...happened.”

He heard her crying on the other end of the line and felt like the biggest jerk on the planet. But when she spoke again, her tone was more controlled. “I know we promised we wouldn't get into this yet. But sometimes I can't help thinking about you out there while I'm stuck in here, and my anxiety gets the better of me. Forget I said anything. So...last week of summer break. Gonna do anything special?”

“Uh, I think Lindley's planning a beach day, and your brother is making us all go golfing. Because he's secretly sixty-three years old.”

Andie giggled. “He has always loved Early Bird dinners.”

“I'm pretty sure I heard him tell the neighbor kid to get off Grams' lawn the other day, and he and Jen sit out on that porch swing at night, rocking away.”

“All they need is a cat.”

“Nah, they're dog people. It's Jo—”

Andie's laugh after his abrupt stop was forced. “A valiant attempt, Pacey. You went almost a whole minute without mentioning her.”

“Andie, I'm—”

“Sorry. Yes, I've heard. I'm kinda wiped. All that swimming with Mark today really took it out of me. Talk again soon?”

“Sure—”

She hung up.

Disgusted, Pacey glared at the receiver. “Low blow, McPhee.” She had dropped the Mark reference in retaliation for her hurt about Joey. A remarkably effective strategy. If he was in love with Joey, why did the thought of Andie with Mark make him sick?

The last thing Pacey wanted to do was sit around trying to sort his Andie feelings from his Joey ones. He reverted to his original plan for the evening. He went downstairs, past his mom and Doug—still engrossed in that Technicolor garbage—and into the kitchen. After devouring what was left of the pasta salad, he grabbed the shed key off the hook by the back door.

Pacey circled around outside to grab Mrs. Potter's easel from the Wagoneer. His steps turned tentative once he reached the backyard and saw his dad's neglected workshop. A lump formed in his throat. Every time he thought he was over this...

He used the key in the padlock. The door was a little tricky. He had to push from the bottom with his foot, while lifting up at the sides. Pacey had watched Pop do the same a thousand times. The smells hit him first—sawdust, gasoline, turpentine, and brine. He swallowed hard and pushed away the assaulting memories.

Pacey pulled the string of the single, bare bulb light. Doug had been here since Pop's death. Everything was neatly in its place, no dirty rag on the worktable, no stained newspaper on the floor. But Doug hadn't done more than tidy up. The same old calendar—fixed forever on April 1993—with the scantily-clad blonde draped over the fire red Lamborghini was tacked next to the picture of Pop holding his forty-seven-pound halibut. The little red cooler next to his workbench which always held a brewski or three when Pop was out here. The shining, polished tools with which Pacey's dad had taught him how to fix a bike, change the fan belt in a car, and build a table.

Constantly defeated by school and books, Pacey had always loved working with his hands. He had soaked up everything Pop taught, yet somehow, whatever he did, however hard he tried, it was always wrong. Lessons begun with eager smiles ended by biting back tears.

He knew how half a dozen of those tools felt when they collided with his skin.

Pacey didn't know how long he stood there, remembering, while tears dripped down his cheeks unchecked and his nose ran. A loon's haunting goodnight call broke him out of it. He wiped at his streaming face with his shirt sleeve. Time to work.

Pacey laid the easel down on the bench. He measured its legs and searched the woodpile for a piece he could shape to replace the broken one. He tried to focus on the task at hand, but his mind kept wandering. To Pop, to Andie, to Joey, to Bessie and the potential move.

By the time he finally went to bed, Pacey was exhausted but pleased with himself. He had made considerable progress on the easel, and, for one of the plethora of problems in his life, he had a possible solution.

<><><>

When Pacey pushed through the kitchen door early the next morning, his mother's face was the first thing he saw. She swiftly turned her attention out the window, gazing blindly from the small table in the breakfast nook, her hands wrapped around a mug Pacey hoped was filled with coffee.

Since her husband's death, the Witter matriarch had switched to the graveyard shift at the dispatch center where she'd worked since before she was married. It made it easier for her to avoid familiar people and associations. She also took on as much overtime as possible.

But according to Gretchen, she spent a lot of the time when she wasn't working at the bottom of a bottle.

Their mother's alcoholism had never been like their father's. John Witter was both a social drinker and a solitary one. Beer was part of his life with his buddies and his sullen silences at home. A couple drinks made him convivial, the life of the party; he saved the heavy drinking for home, and the terror for his family. His wife, on the other hand, would go weeks, months, sometimes years without touching a drop. Then she'd secretly down her liquid weight in gin in a day. Pacey learned young to avoid Pop in his cups; he was twelve before he learned the truth behind Ma's “migraine” days.

As he stood frozen in the doorway, surveying his mother's shaking hands, skeletally thin frame, and forlorn expression, he felt guilt assail him again, for how he'd avoided her this summer, for the words he'd spoken the other day, for how he still had no idea how to make things right with them.

“Hey, Ma,” he said gently, as he scrounged around the cupboard for a Pop-tart.

She didn't respond. Her bleak, ice blue eyes remained rooted on the door of Pop's shed.

Pacey knew she expected an apology for his outburst last week, and part of him was willing—even eager—to give her one. Another part or his brain acknowledged that he hadn't said anything untrue, and that she would never return the favor and apologize for the things she'd said to Joey. But it was too hard carrying a grudge against a person so obviously lost. Especially when that person was his own mother.

He shoved the pastry into the toaster and leaned against the kitchen counter, facing her, as he said, “I'm sorry I hurt you the other day. I shouldn't have said all that.”

For the first time since the incident, his mother looked at him. The whites of her eyes were streaked with red; they looked preternaturally round in her sunken face, with the dark circles under them. “Are you going to see her this morning?”

“If by her, you mean Joey, then yes, Ma, I am.” The toaster popped, saving Pacey from saying something deliberately hurtful. He tossed the hot pastry from one hand to the other, cracking it in two and watching the steam rise from the artificial strawberry filling.

“She's no good, Pacey. She's trash; the whole family is trash. Everybody in town knows it.”

Pacey's jaw tightened. He forced himself to hold back the words on the tip of his tongue—irrevocable words which might rob him forever of the only parent he had left. But he refused to let her accusations go unchallenged. “She's the best person I know and the best friend I have, and I love her, Ma.” He wrapped the cooling snack in a paper towel and headed for the back door. “And she's expecting me, so I'll eat on the go.”

His mother let him leave unchallenged, but Pacey felt her accusing gaze burning into him long after he had left her sight.

<><><>

After work, Pacey made an unusual detour on the way home. He took a breath before knocking on Mrs. Ryan's door.

“Pacey.” Smiling, Jack opened the door wide. “Come on in, man. You hungry? We're just sitting down to dinner.”

Pacey followed his friend and the smells of garlic, onion, and Parmesan to the kitchen. Jen was adding a fourth place setting to the table, while Grams dished him up a mouth-watering plate of spaghetti. “Wow. That smells divine, Mrs. Ryan. Uh, no meatballs, please.”

Mrs. Ryan smiled and handed him the plate. “How nice of you to visit, Pacey. Would you care to say grace for us this evening?”

Pacey squirmed as he slid into his seat. “I'm a little out of practice. Maybe you should.”

Grams sighed regretfully, but bowed her head and held out her hands to Jen and Jack on either side of her. Pacey found himself holding hands with Jen and Jack as well, though Jen—like Pacey—did not bow her head or close her eyes. Surprisingly, Jack did.

“Dear Lord, we thank You for the bountiful gifts You have placed before us, for the food to strengthen our bodies, and the fellowship of family and friends to enrich our hearts. May You make us truly grateful. In Jesus' name, Amen.”

“Amen,” seconded Jack, before digging in to his food.

Jen noticed Pacey's awkwardness and gave him a conspiratorial smile. “It's okay, Pacey. I never say 'Amen,' and Grams still lets me eat.”

Pacey gave a nervous laugh and took a bite. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled. “This is delicious, Mrs. Ryan. Thank you.”

She nodded and smiled. “I'm glad you like it.”

“So why have you honored us with your presence tonight?” Jen asked between bites. “Thrilled to see you, don't get me wrong, but I was starting to think your car was on a permanent loop to Joey's house.”

“I, uh, well, I wanted to ask a favor. Not for me. It's for Bessie. Joey, too, I guess, indirectly.”

“Ask away. You know I'll do whatever I can for them.”

“Thanks, Lindley, but you're not the one who can help.” He looked across the table at Mrs. Ryan.

The old lady's expression showed surprise. “Me? I find it highly doubtful those girls would ever ask me for anything.”

“You're right. They wouldn't. But that doesn't mean they don't need help all the same.”

“What kind of help?” Jack asked.

“You know Bodie had to move to Hartford to find a job and Bessie's commuting for work? Joey's been watching the baby all summer, but with school starting next week, she won't be home. Money's tight as it is, and Bessie's afraid she'll have to quit her job and go on government assistance.” Pacey felt guilty sharing the Potters' problems with Mrs. Ryan, but she needed to understand the gravity of the situation.

“Elizabeth Potter would sooner entrust her son to a stray dog than to me.”

“You delivered Alexander,” Jen pointed out. “She won't have forgotten that.”

“Nor the words I spoke about her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, I'm sure.”

Jen huffed an annoyed breath. “Here's a novel idea, Grams: apologize for that.”

“When I was clearly right? If Elizabeth had waited until she was in a more stable place in her life, she wouldn't be relying on charity to raise her son.”

“You're the most charitable person I know,” Jack said softly. “You gave a couple teenage misfits a home when no one else would. What's one adorable baby compared to that?”

Grams pressed Jack's hand. The love with which she looked at him took years off her age. “You are not a charity project, Jack. Nor are you,” she added, turning to Jen. “You're my family. But an infant...I haven't had the daily care of a toddler since Helen was small.”

Sensing she was weakening, Pacey leaned in for the hard sell. “Alexander's a great kid. Easy-going, sweet, he loves to laugh. You watched him that day we helped Mitch move. Wasn't he fun?”

“He's a doll. All those curls! And weren't you the one who said his cheeks were soft as marshmallows?” Jen turned pleading eyes on her grandmother.

Mrs. Ryan threw up her hands. “All right, all right. I can't withstand all three of you. You may tell Elizabeth that I would be happy to watch Alexander while she's working.”

Pacey grinned. “Thank you, Mrs. Ryan.”

But while Jen and Jack showered Grams in hugs and praise, Pacey's smile fell. Now the hard part: convincing Bessie to accept...

<><><>

“No.”

“Come on, Bessie. It solves all your problems of the moment, and it doesn't have to be forever, just until you work out something better.”

“No way in hell am I letting that bigoted, judgmental, Jesus-freak of a busybody watch my son. Not for so much as a day.” Bessie stomped to her room with the filled laundry basket. Pacey had washed, dried, and folded a load in hopes of buttering her up a bit. It hadn't worked.

Pacey groaned. He looked to Joey, who was feeding Alexander. “Can't you take a turn?” It was Tuesday evening, and he had spent every minute since Bessie got home endeavoring to make her see the beauty of his solution.

“I'd be a poor advocate, Pace, since I agree with everything Bess said about the old bat.”

“Ha!” was Bessie's triumphant shout from the bedroom.

“But Pacey's still right,” Joey shouted back.

Bessie appeared in the doorway, empty basket perched on her hip. She glared at her sister. “Traitor.”

“I prefer pragmatist. If you want to move us all to Hartford, I can't stop you. But if you want to stay here, you have to compromise somewhere. You've clawed and scrounged and worked yourself to the bone to keep us off welfare all these years, so I know you're too proud to give up now.”

“Ever consider that I'm too proud to let that woman make me a charity case?”

“Nope.” Joey opened her mouth into a comic O, trying to coax Alex to take a bite.

Alex—not a fan of mashed peas—kept his mouth stubbornly shut.

“Why's that?”

“Because you're a pragmatist, too.”

Alexander knocked the spoon out of his aunt's hand, spraying her—and his highchair and the floor—with green goop. Pacey stifled his chuckle at the look on her face. He wet a washcloth and handed it to Joey without comment.

Joey gave her nephew the stink-eye while cleaning peas out of her eyelashes. “Here's an argument Pacey hasn't used yet. Perhaps you should consider that watching Alexander is punishment enough in and of itself.”

<><><>

Thursday was Pacey's day off. To celebrate the end of summer, he and Joey gathered up Alexander and the hundred accessories necessary to travel with a baby and met Jack and Jen at the beach. Given that it was the last week before school, the shoreline was crowded with teenagers. Pacey and Joey staked out a patch of sand. Joey spread the blanket; Pacey put up the giant umbrella to shade Alex. Jen and Jack—lugging lawn chairs and a cooler—arrived while Joey was slathering herself and the baby with sunscreen. Pacey helped Jack set up their stuff and tried not to look at the miles of golden skin Joey's bikini revealed.

Jen, swimsuit covered with one of Jack's t-shirts, claimed a chair and grabbed a paperback from her bag. “Who else is terminally unready for school to start? There should be laws preventing it until the weather turns.”

“In my lifetime of asking, no one has satisfactorily explained to me the usefulness of school at all,” Pacey said. He threw himself on the blanket and rolled a beach ball back to Alexander.

Joey rolled her eyes. “Hey, Casper.” She threw him the bottle of sunscreen. “Lather up before you melt.”

Pacey obediently sat up, stripped off his shirt, and started rubbing in the lotion. Joey scooped up Alexander and carried him off to play in the sand.

“So a little birdie told me a certain someone has a birthday on the horizon,” Jack said in a low tone, eyes on Joey. “Think a party is in order?”

Pacey watched Joey playing with her nephew. She looked more relaxed than he'd seen her in a long time. “Speaking as one under a birthday curse, surprise parties give me hives. Let's just ask her how she wants to celebrate.”

“I second that,” said Jen. “Joey's not exactly a party girl at the best of times, and this year has been the antithesis of that.”

“Go ahead and ask,” Jack agreed. “But make sure she knows shutting out friends who love her is not on the list of options.” He shrugged off his shirt. “I'm for a swim. Anyone with me?”

“I'm sorry. Can't hear you. I'm on a beach half a world away, forgetting men exist in light of my own spiritual awakening.” Jen opened her book as proof.

“Be there in a minute,” Pacey said. “Gonna talk to Jo first.”

Jack jogged off into the surf.

Pacey approached the Potters. Alexander was squeezing sand through his fingers and watching in fascination as it fell. Joey was tracing something in the sand with her fingers.

Pacey squatted beside her and saw a rough etching of a sailboat in the bay. “Knew you missed it.”

Joey swiped her hand across the image. “Everyone doodles when they're bored.”

“Twenty minutes at the beach and you're bored? You have an unfathomable definition of fun, Potter. But if you want, I can hang with the baby. You could swim with Jack or read with Jen.”

“Tempting, but I'm good. You'd let him eat sand if the mood struck him.”

Pacey sat, stretching his legs across the beach. Alexander dropped sand on them. Pacey twitched his toes; the baby laughed like he'd done something hilarious. “How else do rugrats learn?”

“Traditionally, through instruction from people of greater maturity. Which disqualifies you.” Joey stretched out on the other side of Alexander and leaned her weight back on her palms.

Pacey kept his gaze glued to the child. He refused to notice Joey's endless legs or perfect breasts. “So your approaching rite of passage has not gone unnoticed by our friends.”

“Huh?”

“Sweet sixteen, Jo. Only happens once. And I have either robbed you of or saved you from a surprise party by insisting we ask you how you'd like to spend it.”

“Ignore it,” she said almost before he'd finished speaking.

“Sorry. Jack vetoed that one.” He turned to look at her, watched the sea breeze pull at her hair while her far-gazing profile hinted at her sorrow. “I know it can't be what you'd like it to be, because he won't be there. But whatever you'd like within the power of human achievement, I'll get it for you. I promise.”

Joey was silent for a long time, staring out at the water. Finally, she sighed and said, “I'd like to go sailing. Just you and me, Pace. Leave every problem and responsibility, and...just for one day.”

“Sailing it is, then.” He cleared the lump in his throat and jumped to his feet, raining Alexander's sand down on the beach. “Come on, kiddo.” Pacey grabbed the baby and put him on his shoulders. “Let's see how you like the water.”

<><><>

“So this is what you wild and crazy kids have been up to this summer.” Pacey lay on his back on the blanket, Jo to his right, Jack to hers, and Jen on the far end. He stared up at the multitude of stars visible from this neglected spot in a park on the edge of Capeside. “Scintillating.”

Joey's elbow poked his kidneys. “As opposed to our scandalous evenings changing diapers and reading books?”

Pacey rubbed his sore side. “Just saying, between Jack's killer golf game, Jen's knitting, and now stargazing, the thought has occurred to me they may be octogenarians merely posing as teenagers.”

“Who would ever be a teenager if they didn't have to be?” muttered Jack.

“Ooh! Did you guys see that?” Jen's arm rose in the air, pointing at the distant sky. “Shooting star.”

“Sorry to spoil the magic, but that was an airplane flying over.”

“Couldn't let her have this one, Potter?”

“It's all right,” Jen said. “The stars themselves are magic enough for me. You can't see them in the city. Tomorrow, when I'm back at school and wishing like hell I'd never come to Capeside, I'll think about these stars and how I never would have seen them in New York.”

Joey snorted. “So what are us country yokels who've seen them every night of our lives supposed to think about in order to survive the onslaught?”

Unseen in the dark, Pacey squeezed Joey's hand. “The airplane. Think about that airplane and how one day that'll be you up there, looking down on this tiny town as you fly off to Paris, Rome, or Sydney, Australia.”

“I'd settle for a bus ticket to Boston,” Joey scoffed, but she pressed his hand in thanks.

“You know—” Jack's words were cut off when the sprinklers turned on and flooded them with a torrent of water.

Spluttering, they all rushed to their feet.

“Every time,” Jen shrieked, gathering up the quilt and placing it on a bench out of reach of the spray.

Pacey laughed. “You realize they operate on a schedule, right?”

“Must be why no one's ever in our spot.” Jack pulled off his t-shirt and wrung it out.

Joey twisted her hair between her hands, a stream of water cascading from it. “A little warning might have been nice.”

Pacey was the only one still standing in reach of the sprinklers' rotation. “What's the big deal?” he said as another circle left his backside soaked. “It's just water. You used to love sprinklers, Jo.”

“Sure, when I was six. Some of us have grown up since then, Pace.”

“Ah, you're too old for fun now, is that it?” As he spoke, Pacey approached her slowly.

Joey realized what he was about to do a second before he pounced. “Don't you dare!” She took off running in the opposite direction.

Joey was fast, but Pacey's arms were long. He grabbed her from behind and pulled her, squealing and squirming, back into the water.

“Jerk!” She cupped her hands and splashed his face with the circling spray.

It was war. Jack and Jen joined them in a free-for-all that left them drenched, out of breath, and happier than they'd been in months.

<><><>

Pacey pulled into the Potters' driveway. His wet shorts were gross and uncomfortable against the Wagoneer's seat. The jeep's interior was soaked. If his Pop were still alive, he'd have skinned Pacey for it.

“So we're here.” Joey turned toward him. She looked half drowned, hair dripping around her face, goosebumps lining the skin along her arms. Impossibly gorgeous.

“Yeah.” Pacey was reluctant to say goodnight, and Joey must have been, too. She made no move to open the door. “So. Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.” He wondered if the grimace on his face matched the one on hers. Neither needed to elaborate on how much it was going to suck.

“Sure you don't want me to give you a ride?”

“We've been over this. It doesn't make sense for you to go out of your way like that. I'll row Alex to Mrs. Ryan's and ride to school with Jack and Jen.”

The arrangements had been made during the long conversation between Mrs. Ryan and Bessie where they—with Jen and Pacey acting as mediators—constructed a viable plan for watching Alex. Bessie would provide everything Alex needed—formula, food, diapers, wipes—and, to assuage her pride, a small remuneration from the money Bodie sent. But she didn't want Alex in Mrs. Ryan's care a moment longer than necessary. She vetoed Joey's plans for an after-school job and insisted she drop off and pick up her nephew. Riding with Jack and Jen made sense for Joey's schedule, especially since Pacey worked after school most days.

“I know. It's just...it's going to be weird not seeing you first thing every morning.”

“I was thinking the same thing. Don't get the wrong idea. It's not like I want you around or anything. It's just that you grow on one. Like a fungus.”

“See, with me, it's more that I'm afraid I'll get fat without that morning run,” he shot back.

“And when we'd almost cured all that baby roundness.” Joey was smiling, tongue between teeth, as she grabbed his chin between thumb and forefinger. Her eyes met his in the dim light from the porch. Her smile died. Her hand fell away.

Pacey wanted to grab that hand, restore the lost touch. He wanted to stroke the wet curls off her face and suck the water droplets from her skin. He grabbed the steering wheel, looking away. “Night, Jo,” he managed past the lump in his throat.

“Night, Pacey.” Joey pushed open the passenger door and jumped down. “See you tomorrow.” She didn't look back as she ran inside.

Chapter Text

For most of his life, Pacey had made an art of sleeping in. Only family pressure had kept him from racking up an obscene number of tardies. When it came to weekends and summers, he was often grabbing breakfast when everyone else sat down to lunch.

This summer had changed that, along with everything else about his life. If nightmares didn't wake him, the baby did. With the advent of their morning jog, Pacey had even begun to enjoy mornings.

The first day of the new school year, Pacey woke to Doug's alarm. He forced one bleary eye open. 5:30 a.m. No jog with Joey. No babysitting Alexander. Just good old Capeside High in his immediate future. He rolled over, put his pillow over his ears, and went back to sleep.

He emerged again to consciousness with the sun streaming in his bedroom window. The red numbers on the digital clock read 8:12. He glared at it until it read 8:15 before he forced his leaden limbs out of bed. His whole body felt weighted down, stomach twisted, mind sluggish. Maybe he was getting sick.

Pacey showered, dressed, ate breakfast, brushed teeth, as if he had all the time in the world. When he finally emerged from the house, all the family vehicles were gone. He had to pull his bike around. First period would be over and done before he got there. He didn't care.

The knotted stomach he woke with tightened the closer he got to school. Cold sweat, unrelated to physical exertion, beaded his brow. This feeling, it wasn't illness. It was dread.

Pacey braked his bike in front of the school's whitewashed front doors. What was the big deal? He had walked through those doors hundreds of times before. Been the subject of gossip, innuendo, ridicule, and survived. People sucked, a lesson Pacey learned long ago. This gnawing panic couldn't possibly be related to his Neanderthal peer group.

Wait a minute, Pacey. We stand on the cusp of a landmark moment. Once we step through those doors, we will officially and for the next quartet of years be high school students. This is...historic. Our journey to adulthood begins with our next few steps.

Pacey placed his hand around the back of his friend's neck. “That's great and all, D-man, but to actually be true, we have to take the steps.” He pulled Dawson inside with him.

Now, it was Pacey who stood paralyzed. How was he supposed to face the last two years of high school without his best friend? No Dawson to bitch with about the sub-par teachers or the lunch room's mystery meat, to drag out of the dream world and into some teenage recklessness, to restore his faith in humanity when everyone else acted like garbage. No getting out of papers by helping with D's video projects. No Friday the 13th full of practical jokes. There would never be a senior prank to put all others to shame.

Pacey was riding away without consciously deciding to do so. He had no planned destination, but he couldn't go to school today. He rode past the park where he and Dawson used to play Pee-Wee baseball, past the arcade where they'd spent too much of their allowance, past Screen Play and the burned out remains of the Ice House.

He was barreling out of town when he spotted the cemetery. And stopped. His bike fell unnoticed to the ground, while he stood, staring at the rows and rows of gravestones. His Pop lay under one of those, so did Joey's mom, and Jen's grandfather. And Dawson.

Pacey hadn't been back here since the internment. Horror struck him as he realized he didn't even remember where they'd buried his friend. He'd focused on other things that day. Joey. The Leerys. Gretchen. Anyone, anything, other than the reality of putting his best friend's body in the ground.

Pacey wandered among the rows, reading inscriptions. All those names and dates. Parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends. Nothing but loss and death everywhere he looked.

He stumbled across Abby Morgan's grave first. Her death had been a surreal interruption in their lives. Pacey had spent the aftermath focused on Andie, what she was going through. Not once had he stopped to think about the girl he'd known most of his life. He'd hated her, true, but he'd known her. One day, she had been young and pretty and evil and alive; the next, she'd been a body. Underground. Words and numbers carved in stone. There were fresh, white roses on her grave. Someone—her mom, maybe—loved Abby enough to bring her flowers.

Dawson's grave wasn't far away. Pop's was somewhere around here, too, but Pacey didn't look for it. He stopped by the white marble with his friend's name inscribed on it. In the movies, when people stood by graves, they usually talked to the person, as if they were listening. But Pacey couldn't associate the cold stone with who Dawson was. He wasn't sure if he believed in an afterlife or not, but he damn well hoped, if there was one, it wasn't spent hovering over your dead body, waiting to see if anyone came to visit.

Dawson wasn't here. Not at school, not at the Leery house or the Potters', not sitting on the dock by the creek he loved, or writing his next screenplay. Dawson wasn't anywhere.

The knot in Pacey's gut unraveled into a flowing river of tears. He sobbed, snotty, disgusting, humiliating tears, as he internalized the fact he'd been holding at arm's length all summer. Dawson was dead. It wasn't a nightmare or a bad joke. His best friend was dead and gone and never coming back.

At some point, he must have sat down, because when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, Pacey had to look up at his brother. He hastily scrubbed his face against the sleeve of his yellow and blue Hawaiian print. “Hey, Dougie. Fancy meeting you here.” He tried for nonchalance, but just sounded congested.

“Your school called Mom, and she called me.” Doug's work face was on, as he glared down at Dawson's headstone.

“You taking me in, Acting Sheriff Witter?” Pacey hopped to his feet. “I warn you, I won't come quietly.”

Expressionless, Doug looked from the grave to Pacey. He sighed. “I'll call the school office, tell them you're sick.” Pacey's surprised delight must have registered on his face, because his brother quickly added, “Just this once, Pacey. Do this again—for any reason—and I'll drag your butt to class in handcuffs if I have to.”

“Yes, sir, Acting Sheriff, sir.”

“Knock it off with the acting sheriff nonsense. I'll be glad when this election's over,” he muttered.

In spite of Pacey's worries and reservations, Doug had chosen to run for their dad's job. His campaign seemed to be going well, no scandals or secrets—of sexual orientation or otherwise—derailing what promised to be a massive sympathy vote win. Pacey was just glad he hadn't been dragged to any campaign events.

“Yes, sir, Future Sheriff, sir,” he saluted with a grin.

Doug ignored him, staring instead at the nearby grave of John Witter. “As long as we're here, we should pay our respects.”

The soft, broken part of himself, raw with grief over Dawson, hardened immediately. “Go right ahead. One graveside meltdown a day is my personal limit. See you later, Dougie.”

“Pacey.” Doug's irritated call stopped his retreat. “Hook your bike up to the car. I'll drop you at home when I'm done here.”

Pacey shrugged. If Doug wanted to save him a bike ride, fine. He collected his fallen bicycle, grabbed some bungee cords from Doug's unlocked squad car, and tied his bike to the trunk. Then he slid into the passenger seat to wait for his brother.

Unlike Pacey, Doug apparently did talk at graves. Pacey saw his brother's lips moving, but couldn't hear what was said. Truth be told, he didn't want to. Sometimes, it felt like grief was an unending avalanche, burying the living right beside the dead.

Doug wiped his eyes—who the hell carried a handkerchief around in this day and age?—before trudging back to the car. He started the engine and pulled away from the cemetery before asking, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nope.”

Doug looked relieved.

Pacey thought about spending the day alone in their empty house with nothing to do but think. “Hey, Dougie, mind dropping me off at Mrs. Ryan's instead?”

“Mrs. Ryan's? Why?”

“Alexander's there.” He wanted to check that the baby and the old lady were doing okay on their first day together. Selfishly, he also wanted to hold Alexander, play with him, soak in his tiny rays of unclouded sunshine.

Doug left him at the head of Mrs. Ryan's driveway. Pacey walked his bike to the house, leaned it against the porch, and rang the doorbell. He thought he heard muted crying.

Grams opened the door with a teary Alexander perched on her hip. The baby reached for Pacey even through the screen. “Pacey Witter! Why aren't you in school, young man?”

“That's a long story. May I come in for a minute?”

Mrs. Ryan opened the screen while trying to keep hold of the squirming infant. Pacey took Alex who cuddled right into his shoulder. He rubbed the baby's back as his shuddering whimpers subsided. “Rough morning?”

“He hasn't stopped crying since his aunt left.” Grams looked weary, if surprisingly unfrazzled. “All babies need time to adjust to new situations, but I hope he acclimates quickly.”

“Hey, buddy, you're okay,” Pacey murmured into Alex's ear. “Grams is good people. You're okay.”

“You have a way with him. You'll be a good father someday.”

Pacey shifted uncomfortably. He was way too young to be thinking about shit like that. And with his father's less than sterling example, he had doubts about his own capabilities in that regard. “Er, if you say so.”

Grams had a twinkle in her eyes which said she noticed his discomfort and enjoyed it. “If you're staying, no need to stand around the door letting in the heat. Come in, sit down. Would you like something to drink?”

“A glass of water would be great. Thanks, Mrs. Ryan.”

While Grams headed to the kitchen, Pacey carried Alex to the living room and sat down beside the box of toys Bessie had dropped off this weekend. Alexander reached for a truck, but he kept his other hand wrapped around Pacey's finger as if to make sure he was still there.

“Don't worry, kiddo. I'm not going anywhere.” He made truck noises until Alexander copied him.

Mrs. Ryan brought the water and sat on the sofa, watching them play for a while. “It was kind of you to check up on him, Pacey, but you should be getting back to school now, don't you think?”

“Uh, I'm excused for the day. Doug told them I'm sick.” Pacey kept his eyes on the baby and avoided Grams' searching gaze.

After a long, loaded pause, she said, “It must be difficult, returning to routine after such an unusual summer. You have been rather the man of the Potter house. It's natural you would feel some responsibility for the boy. But your first responsibility is to receive an education which will equip you to provide for your own family in the future.”

“It wasn't about—I mean, I do feel—but that's not...” Pacey trailed off, then shrugged. The only way to clear the misunderstanding was to tell the truth. “I went to Dawson's grave.” When Mrs. Ryan didn't respond, Pacey lifted his eyes and found her watching him with solemn pity. He quickly looked away. “Don't get me wrong. I'm fine. All things considered, I mean. Joey's the one who's really got things rough. And Bessie. Andie. Even Doug. I just...”

“You know, Pacey, I lost my best friend this year, too. For forty-six years, I had a partner, someone who knew all my secrets, the deepest essence which makes me who I am. Sometimes, I look at his chair and expect to see him sitting there. Or I'll be washing dishes and rambling about my day because I'm sure he's right behind me, listening. My faith is a great comfort to me in those moments, because I know I will see him again someday.” Her voice was gentle, as she added, “I can't imagine how you survive it without that hope.”

Tears were in Pacey's eyes again. He swiped them away before they could fall. “I don't want to talk about God right now, if that's okay, Mrs. Ryan.”

“We weren't talking about God. We were talking about loss, your irreparable loss. Give yourself permission to feel that, child.”

He thought of Andie, who had snapped because she refused to process her grief. For the first time in a long time, Pacey realized they had something in common.

<><><>

Pacey stayed at Mrs. Ryan's until Alexander went down for his nap. He played with the baby, fed him, put him to sleep. All the while, he talked to Mrs. Ryan. About Dawson at first. But somewhere along the way, he found himself opening up about Pop and his whole screwed-up family. Mrs. Ryan listened and sometimes lectured and sometimes proselytized, but Pacey felt oddly better when he left that afternoon.

He rode his bike home, showered, and got dressed for work. With time to kill, he called Andie.

“Pacey, what are you doing? You're supposed to be in school!” She sounded appalled.

Pacey chuckled. “Taking notes for you, you mean? Don't worry; the rest of our little clique is on it. I...took a personal day.”

“Why? Are you sick?”

“Not really. I just...I think I pushed my grief away so far it all caught up to me in one moment. And when I emerged from that stupor, I thought I maybe understood—for the first time—some of what you were going through last spring. So I decided to call and apologize for not being there for you the way you needed me.”

“Are you kidding? You were perfect. You...I wanted to say 'saved' just now, but they're big here on the idea that other people don't save us. We save ourselves, but we need other people to support us while we do. You supported me, Pacey. You gave me the strength I needed to save myself. So among the myriad of calamities you routinely blame yourself for, don't you dare add my problems to the list.”

Pacey felt another weight lifted off his back. He smiled into the phone. “How come you always know the exact right thing to say, McPhee?”

“Talk as much as I do, eventually you stumble onto something worthwhile.” She paused a moment before adding, “I'm a pretty good listener, too, if you wanted to talk about what you're going through.”

“You're a fantastic listener, but I already poured out my woes into the ears of one beautiful woman today. Not sure I could rehash it all again.”

“Oh.” Her voice lost its warmth. “And how is Joey?”

“I assume she's well. Haven't seen her today. I spent the morning with Evelyn Ryan.”

“Jen's Grams?” Andie let out a relieved laugh. “That was cruel misdirection, Pacey.”

“Hey, you said you wanted things to go back to normal. Me teasing you is normal.”

“Distance must have dulled your more irritating characteristics in my memory,” Andie sniffed.

“I'll do my best to remind you, then. So how have you been?”

“Good,” Andie said, too quickly, too brightly.

“But...?”

Andie sighed. “You don't want to hear about it, Pacey.”

“Sure I do. Not talking is at the root of most of our problems. Talk to me, McPhee.”

His plea worked. After a moment, she said, “I met Mark's girlfriend yesterday.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. 'Oh.' It was super-awkward, ridiculously awkward, literally the most awkward moment in my life full of awkward moments. Mark had mentioned me in his letters to her, I guess, but hadn't—still hasn't—told her about...well, you know...so she was really friendly and nice to me, which made me feel about two inches tall.”

“What, you're not already?”

“Ha-ha. You only think I'm short because you're unnaturally tall. I'll have you know I'm two inches above the average height for a woman.”

“Duly noted, and I'm sorry. I didn't know how to respond to the rest of it, so I went for the easy joke.”

“You shouldn't have to respond to the rest. It's my mess, not yours.”

“Well, I'm kinda involved, too. For what it's worth, I'm glad you told me the truth. As painful as it was, I'd rather have an honest mess than live in a lie.”

Andie hesitated before responding. “I don't know. She was so happy, Pacey. I think sometimes, if I didn't know about you and Joey, if I didn't have that image cluttering up my already disordered mind, I might be happier, too.”

And his old friend guilt came back to play. “My fault wasn't telling you the truth, Andie. Lying would have added to the pain when you found out. The wrong was in the act itself. I betrayed you, your trust, our relationship, and there aren't words enough in the English language to say how sorry I am for that.”

“I'm sorry, too. I did the same—ruined something vitally important to me. And I do understand about honesty; I couldn't lie to you, either, when it came to the point. But it doesn't change the fact that it's in my head now—you and her—and I can't get it out.”

Pacey thought about Andie and Mark sometimes, but he had only met Mark for a moment. He didn't know the guy. Oftentimes, Mark was replaced by a random, faceless boy. But Andie and Joey were friends. Had been friends. “I've fucked it all up,” he said, more to himself than her.

He heard her sniffle on the other end of the line. “It's okay, Pace. It really...we're getting through it, aren't we? We can talk about it now without it devolving into an argument. That's progress.”

“I hope so. I don't think I'd want to live in a world where you weren't part of my life in some way,” Pacey responded honestly.

“'In some way' or—” Pacey heard a muffled voice on Andie's side of the line before she came back on. “Hey, Pacey, I'm late for my session with Dr. Bennett. Thanks for calling. Talk to you soon?”

“Sure. Bye, McPhee.”

After he hung up, Pacey found himself thinking about what Andie had said, about them finding a way through the pain. In a way, she was right. The sting of betrayal had faded. Pacey knew he was in the process of forgiving her—maybe, in time, he could even trust her again.

But then there was Joey. Joey, who was not just one drunken night to him. Joey, his only remaining best friend. Joey, who was becoming the new axis on which his world spun.

<><><>

Pacey had been at work about an hour when the door chimed, as Joey pushed it open with her back, pulling Alexander's stroller in behind her. Pacey dropped his feet from the counter and flicked off Die Hard on the tiny TV. “What's up, Jo?”

Joey was red-faced and sweaty from the long walk in the humid afternoon. “You weren't at school today.” She sounded as pissed as she looked.

Hoping the heat was at least partially responsible for her mood, Pacey grabbed her a Coke from the vending machine. “Here you go. Have a seat, have my seat. Sorry about school. I didn't plan it.”

Joey did sit on his stool, but she continued to glare as she drank the soda. “Jen thought you might have caught a cold from the sprinklers last night, but she's projecting. She's the one with the sniffles.”

“Fit as a fiddle here, but guess that'll teach us to play in wet clothes.” Pacey forced his voice to a cheerfulness he didn't feel.

“Jack thought your reluctance to see summer end might have you playing hooky.”

“Has my semester of academic excellence done nothing to augment my reputation?” Pacey asked in tones of mock affront.

Joey rolled her eyes. “As I recall, last semester, you spit in a teacher's face.”

“Well, yes, but aside from that...”

“I was worried about you,” Joey confessed, not angrily but softly. “I didn't know if you'd been in some sort of accident, or if you'd had a fight with Doug, or...I didn't know. And then when I picked up Alexander, Mrs. Ryan said you spent most of the day there. What's wrong, Pacey?”

He felt guilty for making her worry and, conversely, pleased she cared enough to walk a mile in the heat to make sure he was all right. “I...I couldn't go in. I got as far as the front doors, but I couldn't go in.”

Joey's brow furrowed. “Why?”

“He wasn't there,” Pacey said simply.

Confusion faded into grief. Tears swam in her hazel eyes. She was off the stool in a moment and pulling him into her arms. “Oh, Pacey.” One hand caressed his hair, dragging his head down to rest in the curve where neck met shoulder. Her other moved soothingly between his shoulder blades.

Pacey wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her tight. “It's okay, Jo. I'm okay.”

Her hands pressed harder at his head and back. “It's not okay. All the times you held me together, and the one time you needed me, I wasn't there.”

“You're here now.” For all the progress he'd made talking with Mrs. Ryan and Andie, Pacey felt immeasurably better holding Joey in his arms. He'd always been a tactile person. The tension in his body melted away as he breathed her in.

Pacey might have stood there holding her forever—or at least until Joey objected, which she had yet to do—if Alexander hadn't emitted a frustrated cry. With a start, Joey disentangled herself and released her nephew from his stroller prison.

“You probably don't care,” she said, perching the baby on her hip, “but I picked up the classwork you missed today.” She nodded toward the backpack suspended on the stroller handles.

“Of course I care. As Mrs. Ryan pointed out time and time again, I'm in no position to return to my role as classroom dunce.”

“However well you played it,” Joey snarked.

Pacey let her statement stand unchallenged beyond an aggrieved look and unzipped her bag instead. “So you wanna stay and work on homework?”

“I would, but Alexander—”

“Will have more fun in this nice, air-conditioned building than another trek through that swamp outside, won't you, buddy? I'll get him a juice box to drink and some empty video cases to play with. He'll think it's an adventure.”

Alexander tried to grab Pacey's nose, which was agreement enough. They got the baby settled on the floor behind the counter; he promptly went exploring all over the store. Pacey decided not to inform Joey how long it had been since he'd vacuumed this carpet.

Pacey grabbed a second stool from the back. With only minor interruptions from customers renting and returning movies, they got to work. Joey didn't have much in the way of homework—it being the first day back—but she filled him in on what he'd missed in Trigonometry and Chemistry, their two classes together this year.

“I claimed you as lab partner,” she said. “I figure this way, if you blow up the school one day, at least I'll have advance warning.”

“I'm surprised they'd let two misanthropes like us team up. Some days, that explosion might not be accidental.”

Joey rolled her eyes, flipping through various notebooks. “I know they're here somewhere,” she muttered.

“What are?”

“Notes from your English and Spanish classes. Jack gave them to me.”

The cover of one of Joey's discarded notebooks arrested Pacey's attention. A phone number and name in a handwriting he didn't recognize. “Who's Eric?”

“Hmm?” Joey emerged from her search to look at Pacey's tapping finger against the scrawl. “Oh, that.” Her cheeks colored, though whether in embarrassment or annoyance Pacey couldn't decide. “New guy in my homeroom. His family just moved here.”

“And he likes you.” Pacey tried to sound interested and encouraging and not as if he'd been punched in the solar plexus.

She shrugged and kept searching for notes. “Like I said, he just moved here. Give him a week to hear all the stories of the scandalous Potter trash. He'll lose interest fast enough.”

“Or maybe he'll decide the real Josephine Potter is infinitely more beguiling than a bunch of malicious gossips. Is he nice?”

Irritated, Joey slapped a stack of paper in Jack's sprawling script in front of him. “How the hell should I know? I talked to him for all of five minutes between classes.”

“Ah, so we know he's persistent enough not to be frightened away by the infamous Potter scowl. I like him already,” Pacey lied. What masochistic side of him forced him to keep talking? “Is he cute?”

Joey turned that deadly scowl on him. “Why? Do you want to date him?”

“Not until I know if he's a looker.” When Joey continued to glare, Pacey raised his hands in surrender. “Fine. I just thought...I thought it might be a nice thing for you. To be admired.”

Joey snorted.

“What? You're a beautiful, intelligent, amazing woman.” Cool your jets, Witter, he thought and backtracked. “I mean, to anyone who didn't grow up knowing what a nagging pest you are. Of course guys are going to ask you out.” Damn them all.

Joey looked neither flattered by his compliment nor annoyed by the insult. She simply looked sad. “I did go to school today, Pacey.”

“I know. As we speak, I sit before a mountain of evidence corroborating that fact.” He spread his hands at the piles of books and paper in front of them.

“I went to school. And I passed by his locker and the AV room. I ate in the cafeteria and sat in classrooms and checked out books in the library. And everywhere I went and everything I did felt wrong. I didn't run or hide or cry about it, because I learned a long time ago to shut out the barbarian horde from what I feel. But to say that I wasn't thinking about crushes or dating is an understatement equaled only by the audacious stupidity of you believing I would be.”

Pacey looked at Joey, so brave, so broken, and thought, I am such an unmitigated ass. Never one to shy away from his flaws, he said it aloud, “I'm an asshole, Jo. I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, you are,” she said with a crooked smile. “But you're all I got. So you're forgiven.”

They finished their homework, but Joey made no effort to leave. She sat on the floor, stacking video cases into towers with Alexander. Pacey stayed at the counter to wait on the increasing flow of customers stopping by on their way home from work. In between, he watched Joey and her nephew play, the simple sight filling him with strange contentment.

During one lull, Joey looked around the room as if noticing it for the first time. “I've gone out of my way to avoid being here since the fire, but I didn't even think about it today.”

“You were pissed and hot, both extremely effective distractions.” He surveyed her warily, looking for signs of upset. “You okay?”

Joey sat for a moment as if searching internally. Slowly, she nodded. “Yeah, I am. Movies and Dawson are forever linked in my mind, but it's not like many of my memories are of this place. It's just where he worked. I've spent more time in here this afternoon than in all my life together.” She paused before adding softly, “Do you think about him while you're here?”

“Sometimes. A lot at first. Now, it's mostly when someone rents a Spielberg flick or something else he especially loved or hated. Or when Dennis is being more unbearably moronic than usual.”

Joey chewed on her bottom lip, an unspoken thought crossing her brow. Pacey helped a string of customers. When the shop cleared again, Joey's books were put away, backpack on the stroller, and she was buckling in Alexander.

“You're off?” He tried not to sound too devastated.

“I'd better be. I don't want Bessie to get home first and jump to the conclusion that Mrs. Ryan drowned us both in the creek.”

“Aw, come on. That might be kinda fun.”

Joey forced a smile, but it was weak. Her fingers squeezed tight around the stroller handles as she stepped behind them. “Are you going to school tomorrow, Pace?”

“Dougie's threatened to hogtie me and drag me through the streets if I don't, so yeah, I'll be there.”

She relaxed a fraction. “Good. But if, once you're there, you feel like you did today and you need to take off, promise me something? Take me with you.”

Pacey made a show of cleaning out his ears. “Sorry, I must have heard wrong. There is no way under the sun that Josephine 'Perfect Attendance' Potter volunteered to ditch school.”

Joey scowled. “It's not that I want to ditch. But you've been the one I've turned to at every rotten checkpoint of the grieving process. I just...I'd like...let me be that person for you, too.”

Pacey felt warmed from the inside out by her words, so, naturally, he had to ruin it with a joke. “Gee, thanks, Potter, but I'm not sure those scrawny shoulders of yours can bear my weight.”

“No one's disputing that you are an ungainly lummox,” Joey returned with a flash of a smile, which fell at once into a more solemn expression. “I'm stronger than I look. I can handle it, Pacey.”

“No one's disputing that, either.” Joey was the strongest person he knew. “Ideally, I'd like to avoid any further emotional meltdowns, but since I can't promise that, I will promise you can be my tear-catcher if it's that important to you.”

“It is. Thank you.” The bell chimed as a family of four walked through the door, already fighting about movie selections. “Bye, Pace.” Joey gave him a swift, one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek before pulling Alexander out the door.

Pacey watched her until she was out of sight.

Chapter Text

True to his word, Pacey showed up for school the next day. He set his alarm clock for the first time in months, just in case, but he needn't have bothered. The by now familiar—yet no less terrifying—nightmare of fire, smoke, and charred bodies woke him long before the beeping would have. Mrs. Ryan joined that night's roster of burn victims; he didn't know what that meant, unless it was simply a result of spending time with her the day before.

Doug loitered while Pacey got ready, utterly failing to disguise his intent to assure his brother made it to class. He insisted on driving. When he stopped in front of the entrance, Doug idled the car.

Pacey turned in front of the doors which so daunted him the day before and gave his brother a jaunty wave and a shit-eating grin. He could see Doug's glower even from the squad car. Chuckling, Pacey walked inside.

The smile didn't last long. Joey was right about how hard it was walking past all the places he expected to see his friend. Any time he was on the verge of not thinking about Dawson for two minutes together, some well-meant condolence, some nosy classmate, or overheard gossip brought him back in focus.

Pacey had never developed the thick skin necessary for ignoring that kind of crap. It was all he could do to limit himself to a verbal lashing of the worst offenders. No one who cared about him—a surprisingly long list now he came to think of it—would be pleased if he landed himself in the principal's office his first day back.

It helped that he had at least one of his friends in every class that year. He had the distinct feeling Joey had consulted with Jack and Jen about him. They handled him with kid gloves—forced cheerfulness, laughing at his weakest jokes—and ran interference with anyone making the grave mistake of badmouthing the Potters in his vicinity. His fists nearly flew when Matt Caufield asked him how it felt to fuck the daughter of his dad's murderer. Only a well-placed word and gesture from Jen stopped him.

When he was walking with Jen from Government to lunch, Pacey reached his breaking point. The stench of the cafeteria bore little resemblance to the roasted meat smell which unmanned Pacey, but his stomach clenched at the first whiff of food, and the buzz of an hundred conversations rooted him where he stood.

“You go on, Lindley. I'm not hungry.”

Jen eyed him sympathetically. “You don't have to eat, Pacey. Just sit with us.”

“Nah, think I need some air. See ya later.” It was all he could do to walk away and not run madly for the doors. Breathing freely once outside was not an option with this damn humidity, but he felt better, without people all around, without walls pressing in on him.

Pacey trudged across to the bleachers by the athletic field, abandoned in the sweltering heat. The sky was overcast. He hoped the storm would break soon and herald in the cooler autumn weather. Sitting in the middle of the bleachers, he propped his arms up on the bench behind him and closed his eyes. He tried to think of nothing.

The clang of footsteps on metal made him sit up. Joey climbed toward him, hands loaded with sandwiches and apples, two bottles of water folded under her arm.

She passed him an apple and a water bottle, taking a seat beside him. “Here. Lunch is on me today, but if you're going to turn hermit, bring a sack lunch tomorrow. My always limited funds are severely depleted.” She unwrapped the sandwiches and transferred all the ham on his to hers.

“You didn't have to do this,” he said. But he swallowed a third of the water in one swig.

Joey gave him a side-eyed glare. “Stuff it, Pace.”

Pacey grinned. He took a crunchy, juicy bite of the apple. “Yes, ma'am.”

Joey passed him his now cheese-only sandwich. “Jen said you almost took Matt Caufield's head off in class. Any particular reason?”

Pacey scowled. “He's an asshole.”

“An asshole who was talking about my family.”

“If Jen told you, why'd you ask?”

“Jen didn't tell me. You think I haven't heard all that a thousand times the last two days?”

“How do you stand it?”

“What else can I do? If I show them it upsets me, they win. If I lash out, they get something else to talk about, ergo they win. It's not like this is the first time I've been fodder for the rumor mill. Or you, either. Like I told you before, nothing to do but pray for another scandal to divert attention.”

Pacey remembered how she came to him in the wake of the Miss Jacobs affair and made him feel better when he thought no one could. Not unlike now. “It's easier to take when it's me they're talking about.”

Joey smiled crookedly. Her chestnut hair was frizzy and flyaway, slightly wavy from the humidity. It surrounded her elfin face like a halo. “That's because you're a throwback, Pacey. You want to be jousting in tournaments for your lady's token or crossing sabers in a duel of honor. But how 'bout we keep the tilting at windmills for after-school hours, huh?”

As if to reinforce her statement, the school bell rang.

<><><>

During the last class of the day—computer lab with Jen—a guy at the opposite row of computers slid his chair across the floor and said, “Pacey Witter, right? Are you Joey Potter's boyfriend?”

Pacey stared the interloper down. He had golden hair down to his shoulders, an aquiline nose, square jaw, and the kind of bright blue eyes which made Pacey's look muddy by comparison. Hard to tell how tall he was while sitting, but he had a swimmer's build—broad shoulders, narrow waist, no fat anywhere. Pacey had a pretty good idea who he was and hated him on principle.

He leaned back in his own chair, crossing his arms. “You the school paper's new gossip columnist? Because let me tell you, the things they get up to in the drama club would make Danielle Steele blush.”

“Don't be an ass, Pacey,” Jen chided, leaning over to smile brightly at the newcomer. “Hi, Jen Lindley. I noticed you yesterday, but thought you must be a mirage. No one so beautiful could ever live in Capeside.”

“Careful, you're drooling on my shoulder,” Pacey huffed, while the other guy laughed nervously.

“Eric Carter,” he said, shaking Jen's hand. “My family hopped coasts on me this summer. I'm from Carmel, California.” He eyed Pacey uneasily. “Probably should have introduced myself instead of prying like that. The thing is I've heard different stories from different people, and I'm not the kind of guy to hit on another guy's girlfriend, so if she, Joey, I mean, was—is—your girlfriend, I was going to apologize for asking her out yesterday. I'm new. I didn't know.” He was nervous and stammery and way too damn nice.

“You asked Joey out?” Jen sounded intrigued and pleased. Traitor.

Again, that disarming, awkward laugh. “Don't get too excited. She turned me down. Like I said, I'm sorry if I stepped in where I'm not wanted.”

Jen glared at Pacey.

Pacey reluctantly unfolded his arms. “Joey's just a friend. She can date whoever she likes.”

Eric's smile this time was ear to ear, revealing dimples and a gleaming set of perfect teeth. “Awesome! Thanks, man. Nice to meet you.” He rolled his chair back to his station.

“Hey, Carter,” Pacey called after him.

“Yeah?”

“Just...just tread softly, yeah? Joey's been through a lot.”

“I will, yeah, thanks.” Eric nodded, still smiling. Pacey wondered if the constant grin made his cheeks hurt.

When he turned back to his computer, Jen was staring at him. “What?” he snarled.

“Nothing.” She turned back to her computer, typing for a few minutes. Then he felt her small hand pat his back as she said, “You're a good man, Charlie Brown.”

<><><>

Joey's birthday fell on a Sunday that year, so Pacey didn't have to make her ditch to fulfill her wish. He woke her before the sun and rushed her, bleary-eyed and protesting, to get dressed and take a ride with him.

All Joey's protests died when they pulled up to the marina and she saw the sunrise glinting off dozens of sailboat hulls. “Seriously, Pacey? You found one? How?”

“Friend of Doug's.” He pulled her by the hand down the rows of docks. He'd loaded food and supplies last night, including the bag Bessie had packed with Joey's swimsuit, beach towel, and sunscreen. “It's brand new. The hurricane totaled his last one. Offered to sell me the wreck cheap and let me fix it up, but, alas, no money, no time. Still, an alternative to remember if our Mississippi raft capsizes.” Pacey kept up a cheerful ramble all the way to the berth where New Horizons waited.

Joey's eyes shone as she surveyed the sparkling twenty-foot craft. “I can't believe you pulled this off.”

“Learn to have some faith in me, woman.” Pacey jumped aboard and pulled Joey up after him.

They busied themselves in casting off, navigating through the marina and into open waters where they could raise sail. Pacey and Joey were both good sailors. Mitch Leery had taught them, overjoyed they both had the enthusiasm for it which Dawson lacked. He had taken the three out every summer from the time they were eight years old. Mitch's boat had also been wrecked during the last hurricane—along with the rest of his life. He had never bothered to replace it.

As if Joey's thoughts had been running down similar trails, she said, “Mitch called me last night.”

Pacey swung the boom around before answering. “And where did old Mitch finally end up?”

“He was in Alaska, about to board a fishing trawler. He's got a job deep sea fishing. But he remembered my birthday and wanted to call.”

Pacey could tell from Joey's tone that Mitch wasn't any better than when he left. Talking to him had stirred up Joey's own grief. “Not even out of the Cape, and you're already breaking your own rules,” he chided.

“What rules?”

“You said, I quote, you wanted to 'leave every problem and responsibility' behind. That means no more talk of Capesidians past, present, or future.”

Joey smiled her sad, off-kilter smile. “Aye, aye, Captain.” But she leaned into the breeze, eyes devouring the rose, violet, and golden sunrise. The wind whipped her dark hair around her face.

Pacey watched as, minute by minute, her broken heart was eclipsed by wonder at the majestic sight. He wanted to imprint this moment on his memory. So someday, when he was old and gray and taking inventory of whatever happiness he managed to accrue between now and then, Joey Potter Watching Sunrise would shine like a beacon.

Joey didn't turn away from the rail until the last trace of color had faded from the clear blue sky. She noticed his scrutiny and blushed. “What?”

“Nothing.” Pacey forced his eyes away and made an unnecessary adjustment to the sails. “So where to, birthday girl?”

“Mmm. Shangri-la? Avalon? The mythical land of Narnia?”

Pacey chuckled. “Wouldn't you know it? They forgot to mark those on the maps.”

Joey sat on a bench in the bow and raised her face, eyes closed, to the sun. “Doesn't matter. We'll find them anyway.”

“I did, however, bring a book.” Pacey descended into the cabin to grab it.

Treasure Island?” Joey laughed as she took it from him.

“It seemed appropriate.”

They headed north, following the rugged North Atlantic seaboard. They took turns reading and manning the sails. Pacey made Joey fall over laughing at his piratical voices. Joey remembered some sea shanties her grandpa used to sing and shared them, her breathy voice ringing like a Siren's against the endless roll of the waves.

They anchored for lunch in a small cove, protected by tall cliffs on either side. Afterwards, they dove in, swimming and playing like children in the salty ocean water.

Joey was shivering when they finally pulled themselves back on deck. Pacey wrapped a fluffy, green beach towel around her, chafing his hands up and down her arms to warm her further.

“Sorry, Potter. Guess we shouldn't have done that.”

“Are you k-k-kidding?” Joey managed through chattering teeth. “That was the most fun I've had in forever. I wish we never had to go back.”

Pacey lifted an eyebrow. “Who says we do? We could become oceanic nomads. Sail up and down the coast, put in for supplies, take odd jobs when we needed. Live on the sea.”

“Sounds perfect—until we're arrested for grand theft sailboat, that is.”

Pacey spotted the half-finished copy of Treasure Island. “So we'll become pirates, sail to the Caribbean, rob tourists of their Hawaiian shirts and travelers' checks, and establish our hideout on a deserted island.”

Joey's eyelashes sparkled with saltwater remnants from their swim. Pacey couldn't stop staring at them, or at the bright green of her eyes. He quit rubbing her arms as her chills subsided, but he left his hands where they were.

She smiled wistfully at him. “You'd never believe how tempting that scenario is to me. Must be that corrupting influence everyone warned me about.”

Far too tempting, with his hands against her skin, her eyes sparkling laughter, her mouth spouting off about corruption and influence...

Andie. You promised Andie.

Besides, Joey was genuinely enjoying herself. He wasn't going to ruin that. Pacey dropped his hold on her and stood with a wink and a grin. “On that note, we'd best turn for home before we talk ourselves into multiple felonies.”

“If we're caught, you kidnapped me.” Joey adjusted the sails while Pacey raised anchor.

“And when they ask why you aided and abetted?” Pacey gestured pointedly at her skilled maneuvering of the boat.

“Stockholm Syndrome. Obviously. They'll believe me since they'll be tempted to let you go after five minutes' conversation with you.”

“But of course. Who can resist Captain Pacey's devilish charm?” He leered at her.

Joey snorted. “Your overblown ego's pretty resistible.”

“I'll get one of those swoopy pirate hats to cover that. And you can have a parrot sit on your shoulder.”

“And crap all down my back? No thanks.” After a pause, she added, “But I could learn to use a cutlass.”

“Now you're talking.”

They spent the voyage back thinking up ridiculous buccaneer names for themselves and their friends, spinning adventure yarns about their daring raids, and debating whether, in the end, pirates were heroes or villains.

Joey's good mood lasted until Capeside appeared on the horizon. She quit joking, her face settling back into tired discontent.

“If the effects of our hometown are this blatant, maybe you should move to Hartford.”

“Don't even joke about that. I just...the sun hasn't set yet. Couldn't we stay out a while longer?”

“Sorry, no can do, Potter. I promised Bess I'd have you home by six.”

Joey eyed him dubiously. “Why?”

Pacey tried to project an air of innocence. “How would I know? But one would assume she wants to spend part of her little sister's birthday with said little sister.”

“You said no surprise party, Pacey.”

“Who said anything about a party? Now are you going to sit there playing twenty questions, or are you going to help me dock this lady?”

Joey's suspicious look only deepened as they brought New Horizons into the marina to the soundtrack of Pacey's rambling monologue. He never stopped talking throughout the drive home. Her suspicion changed to certainty. That was fine by Pacey. He'd promised Bessie he wouldn't tell, and he hadn't. Word kept.

He pulled to a stop in the Potters' driveway and killed the engine.

“Thanks for the ride home,” Joey interrupted him to say. “I guess you'll be leaving now, and I'll be entering my house to spend a quiet evening alone with my sister and nephew, right, Pace?”

Pacey unbuckled his seatbelt and dropped the keys in his pocket with a sigh. “Okay, you win. But try to remember two things, all right? One, not my idea. And two, those people inside love you.”

Joey opened her mouth to retort, then abruptly—and much to his surprise—closed it. She nodded. “Fine. Let's get this over with.” She opened the passenger door and hopped down, but trudged slowly up the walk, arms crossed, fingernails digging into her own skin.

“Hey, relax.” Pacey rubbed a hand over the small of her back. “I'm the one with a birthday curse, not you.”

“I just don't want anyone to spoil—” Joey turned toward him, uncrossing her arms and resting one hand on his right bicep. “Hey, whatever happens in there, I want to say thank you for today. You know I was dreading my birthday, sure I was going to spend it thinking about, about him. But I made new memories today, instead of wallowing in old ones, and I sort of think he would approve of that.”

“I think he would, too. You know, when we were expounding our swashbuckling saga, I felt, for a moment, like maybe he was there, taking notes for a new screenplay.” The sensation had been partly reassuring, partly creepy—which he also felt Dawson would approve—but Pacey hadn't wanted to break the rules by mentioning it on the boat.

Joey's soft smile kept him from regret for telling her. “I hope so. Though it's hard to imagine he likes sailing any better now.”

Pacey chuckled as they resumed walking to the door. “Remember that time we brought that rubber fin and I swam around the boat while Dawson convinced you it was a great white?”

“Remember it!” Joey shrieked and shoved him. “You're lucky that boat didn't have a harpoon on it.”

“Oh please. You were too busy screaming your head off to turn Buffy on me.”

“I meant after you got back on the boat.”

The short walk down memory lane distracted Joey enough that she gave a convincing leap when Pacey opened the door and everyone yelled, “Surprise!”

It wasn't really a party. At least, so Jen insisted; a party, by her reckoning, had to consist of at least fifty people. Jack and Grams were far more conservative, but even by their dozen, it wasn't a party. Just a nice dinner for family and friends. In addition to the guest of honor, there were only Pacey, Jen, Jack, Grams, Bessie, Alexander, and—

“Bodie!” Joey rushed to give Bessie's boyfriend a hug. “I can't believe you came!”

Smiling, Bodie held her tight. “What? You think I'd let your sister cook for an important event like this?”

“Hey!” Bessie swatted him and stepped forward to give Joey a hug of her own. “Happy birthday, sis.”

Joey accepted the well wishes from her friends—even Mrs. Ryan—before they moved on to dinner. Since he was cooking for teenagers, Bodie went for fun in the meal, a make-your-own fajita and taco bar. Pacey loaded his with enough beans, peppers, and salsa to compensate for the lack of meat.

Bodie's gorgeous red velvet cake was accompanied by sixteen candles and an off-key rendition of the birthday song. Before Joey could make her wish, Jack leaned over and kissed her swiftly on the mouth.

“And a kiss to grow an inch,” he said.

Joey looked startled. “I've never heard that before.”

“Really? My mom always did that to us, before...” Jack shrugged. They all knew the before.

“So did mine. But in her case, it was a pinch to grow an inch,” Bodie said.

“Pinch or kiss, I don't care. If it works, you'd all better give me one on my birthday,” Jen threw in. “How else am I going to compete with you giant freaks?”

Everyone laughed, and Pacey ruffled the hair of his tragically short friend.

“Okay, okay, no more stalling.” Bessie was poised to take a picture of the pivotal moment. “Blow out those candles, Jo, before the whole place burns down.”

Bessie's thoughtless comment sucked the air from the room. Laughter died; smiles faded; everyone froze. The color drained from Bessie's face. Joey sat, stricken, bent half over the cake.

All Pacey could think was, Not now. Not when it's been such a perfect day. “Make a wish, Jo,” he said softly. Personally, he was wishing like hell to turn time backwards thirty seconds.

“What?” Joey blinked at him.

“Make a wish,” he repeated, with a coaxing smile.

“Yeah, go on, Joey,” Jen took up the plea. “Make a wish.”

Quiet murmurs around the table encouraged her. At this rate, they were going to be scraping melted wax off their frosting. Joey closed her eyes. They waited several seconds for her to open them. She blew out the candles; Jack helped with the last one. Joey hid her face as she wiped her eyes.

“Okay, it can't be a birthday without presents,” said Jen, as soon as the cake was done. She pulled a festive, tissue-paper-filled bag from under the table by her feet.

Pacey helped Bodie clear the dishes, so it would be less obvious when he slipped outside to grab his gift for Joey. But he stuck around long enough to hear Joey's excited squeal about the CDs Jen had gotten her. He sneaked out while Joey was stumbling over strained thanks to Mrs. Ryan for some Christian novel.

Pacey made his way to the Potters' shed, where he'd hidden his surprise this morning before waking Joey. He found it, along with the other item Bessie had promised to leave for him. He carefully maneuvered his present inside the front door.

Joey was hooking a silver chain with a seashell pendant around her neck. She froze when she saw Pacey. Or rather the object he was setting up in the corner of the living room. “Pace, is that—”

“Look, Jo, I know you said you didn't want it.” Pacey locked the legs of her mother's easel in place. It looked better than new. One leg replaced, hinges oiled and polished, wood sanded down and revarnished with a rich mahogany glow. “Maybe you won't ever paint again, but maybe you will. And whether you do or not,” he grabbed the canvas he'd rested backwards against the sofa and displayed it against the easel, “this was part of your mom, which makes it part of you.”

Without a word, Joey rose and walked over to the easel. Her eyes devoured the portrait in watercolors of an eight-year-old Bessie, dirty blonde hair over deep brown eyes, holding on to a peacefully sleeping baby. The baby could have been any baby, except for a crooked half-smile which was oh so recognizable. Joey's fingers traced her mother's signature in the bottom right-hand corner. Slowly, she ran her hands along the base of the easel, up the smooth leg, almost to the apex. Only then did she look at Pacey, dark eyes swimming in tears.

For an instant, he felt monumentally guilty. Pacey Witter screws up yet again.

“You did this,” she said in a voice that shook.

“Jo, I'm really—”

But she threw her arms around his neck and sobbed, “Thank you,” into his ear, so maybe he did the right thing after all.

<><><>

Joey played one of her new CDs after presents, and Jen and Jack made gentle fun of Mrs. Ryan's distaste for the music. Bessie put Alexander to bed, while Pacey helped Bodie with the cleanup in the kitchen.

“Pacey, I wanted to thank you.”

Pacey put away the I Hate Mondays mug in his hand and grabbed another off the dish rack to dry. “After that amazing meal? It's the least I can do.”

“And it's much appreciated,” Bodie said, elbow-deep in soapy water. “But I meant in a broader sense. Bessie's told me some of the ways you've helped out around here. Today, I saw with my own eyes. The lawn was mowed; the washing machine runs without overflowing; even the gutters are cleaned.”

Pacey ducked his head, uncomfortable with the notice. He put another dish away. “Just doing what I can.”

“When I asked you to look in on them, I didn't dream you'd take on so much. Don't get me wrong—like I said, I'm grateful—but I'm looking forward to the day when I'll be the one taking out the trash, you know?”

Pacey forced a laugh, while his stomach churned. Maybe burritos and cake weren't the best combination. Easier to blame that than think about the fear Bodie's words stirred up. “So it's official then? Bessie agreed to move to Hartford?”

Bodie scraped tomato ends off the cutting board, into the garbage disposal. “Not yet. But I gotta hope.” He was silent a minute while the disposal ran. His usually cheerful face looked tired and distant. “Alex didn't want me to hold him when I got here today. He hid in Bessie's shoulder, like he didn't know me.”

Recalling how Alex had leaped into his own arms earlier tonight, Pacey winced. He took all the pain the thought of Joey leaving gave him, doubled it, and imagined that was a drop in the bucket compared to what it was like for Bodie without Bessie and his son around.

“You guys will figure something out, I'm sure of it.” Pacey tried to encourage the older man, but stopped short of wishing Bessie would move. He wasn't a total masochist.

Jen wandered in a few minutes later to dispense hugs, thanks, and goodbyes. The Ryan clan was heading out. Pacey threw the dishcloth over his shoulder and went to say goodnight to Jack and Grams, as well. Joey walked them to the dock, while Pacey stayed inside. He should head home soon himself, but he wanted to finish helping Bodie.

He was drying the last of the pans when Joey returned. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her lean against the kitchen doorway. She wore a soft, amused smile as she watched them work. “Now this is what I mean by equality of the sexes. If only we could find a way to make you menfolk carry the babies.”

Bodie grinned at her. “While you ponder that dilemma, I'm gonna go have a peek at Alex.” He threw the washcloth into the sink with the ease of long practice and gave Joey's shoulder a squeeze on his way out.

Pacey hung the pan from its hook and wiped his hands on the towel. He leaned back against the counter behind him. “So that wasn't too bad, was it, all things considered?”

“It was lovely, thank you.”

“Don't thank me. This one was all Bessie. I just RSVPed.”

“Thanks for that, then. I know birthdays are anathema to you.”

“I don't hate birthdays in general. Just mine in particular.”

Joey frowned, brow furrowing. “I don't think I even got you a present for your birthday this year.”

Pacey shrugged. The less said about that day the better. “You were not alone. As I recall, the one present I did get that day ended up in the Atlantic, so...” He shrugged again.

“That's awful.” She pulled herself up to sit on the counter beside him, frown deepening, as her gaze traveled inward. “Do you remember Dawson's last birthday?”

“How could I forget?” Dawson, drunk, had made an idiot out of himself, verbally skewering everyone in the vicinity. He had accused Pacey of trying to be him, a charge Pacey had found baseless at the time and easy to shrug off. Not as easy to push aside now, not when he knew it should be Dawson standing here having maudlin, post-party conversations with Joey.

“He was miserable. I made him miserable.”

“Hey, hey.” Pacey ducked his head, rested his hands on her shoulders, and forced her to meet his gaze. “We've been through this. You did not make him miserable, Joey. You were the best thing to ever happen to him. Take it from someone who knows.” She was upset enough his wry double meaning would go right over her head.

Joey laughed, a choked, bitter, disbelieving sound. “Not that night I wasn't. Not for weeks and weeks on either side of that night, I wasn't. It was his last...the very last one and...” She crumpled in on herself.

Pacey drew her into a hug, let her cry against his shoulder. He tried to think of something comforting to say, but his thoughts followed hers down that dark path. The last one. God, she's right. Next year, we'll turn seventeen, and he won't. Then eighteen. Nineteen. We'll grow old, while those dates on his tombstone never change.

Panicked, he tried to think of something—anything—to keep himself from crying. “Well, look at it this way,” he finally said, “at least we know getting drunk wasn't on the list of things Dawson never did.”

Buried against his chest, Joey made an outraged sound of protest. “You're terrible.” She smacked his arm.

She didn't sound like she meant it, but Pacey knew it to be true. Here he stood, once again usurping his best friend's role with Joey. In love with his best friend's girl. Somehow, the fact that Dawson was dead only made it worse. He wished Dawson was still alive. There were no conflicting feelings there, not like with Pop, nothing but grief and love for his lifelong friend.

But Pacey found himself wondering sometimes now what he would say to Dawson about Joey if he were to suddenly appear in Capeside High one day. He wasn't sure anymore that he would give up his new place in Joey's life without a fight. The thought horrified him.

“I'm sorry.” Joey pulled back, scrubbing her nose. “Really. I thought today would be an ordeal; instead, it was wonderful, which made me feel guilty, so I dredged it all up again. How screwed up is that?”

“You just described almost every day of my life, so I guess the answer to your question would depend on how screwed up you think I am.”

“Heaven help me,” Joey said. But under her red-rimmed eyes, she cracked a lopsided smile.

Pacey's arm encircled her waist. Though Joey had pulled back, her palms rested flat against his chest. She smelled of salt and sea from their ocean voyage, and he was too aware of her, too damn aware of her all the time now. He missed his own ignorance.

Forcing himself to let her go, Pacey stepped back with a comforting smile. “So I'll see you tomorrow?”

Joey nodded. “Sure. Maybe we could take a run? I kind of miss it.”

As always, Pacey's happiness at any indication she enjoyed time spent with him was out of all proportion to the words expressed. They made plans. Pacey said goodnight to Joey and her family.

Driving to his house felt, as it often did, like leaving home.

Chapter Text

Pacey had feared the advent of the school year would result in the end of his new closeness with Joey, but it merely changed their routine. They sat next to each other in Trig, were partners in Chemistry. Joey always paid attention in class; proximity made Pacey follow her example. Math was Pacey's worst subject—it was impossible to bullshit your way through—but, with her help, it wasn't going as badly as he'd feared.

On days between the raging autumn storms, they met at the track bleachers for lunch. Jack and Jen usually joined them. They all took to brown bagging it. The way they traded food back and forth reminded Pacey of simpler, younger days with Joey, Dawson, and his old friend Will Krudski.

After school, if Pacey didn't have to work, he'd go with Joey to the Ryans' to pick up Alexander. They'd stick around and study with Jen and Jack, or they'd row back to the Potters' to snack, study, and talk. On the days Pacey did work, weather permitting, Joey would walk Alexander to Screen Play. Pacey grew to hate rainy afternoons at work, doing homework alone, with only periodic calls to Joey if he needed help with something. Or because he missed the sound of her voice.

They jogged on the weekends, when they could. Even in the rain, if it wasn't a full-fledged nor'easter. The rain pelting Joey's running clothes, leaving them clinging and often transparent against her glistening skin, was either the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen or the worst torture ever devised. Probably both.

He continued to mow the Potters' lawn, buy groceries, help out where he could. Bessie hadn't mentioned anything more about moving, for or against. But they did have a yard sale one weekend.

The new school year was also, strangely, helping his relationship with Andie. He had things to write to her again. She cared more about school and extracurriculars than he did, so Pacey wrote her about the new principal—Green seems cool—and the new English teacher—I hope I can get through the year without getting this one fired. Three in two years might be setting a dangerous precedent. He told her the gossip about students she knew, passed on kind messages from her friends—trust you to make more friends here in half a year than I have in my whole life—and let her know how his classes were going—not Harvard-bound like you, but Mr. Milo believes there's reason to hope for not one but two diplomas in my future.

He called her once a week. Instead of stilted, five-minute conversations, they'd talk for an hour, sharing anecdotes, memories, laughing. She mentioned Mark, he mentioned Joey, and somehow even that felt right. These people were part of their lives now, part of the fabric of whatever their relationship had become.

The awkwardness of their nebulous status was only apparent on the couple of Sundays Pacey drove up with Jack to visit. A hesitation before she hugged him back. A last-second turning of his face so she kissed his cheek instead of his mouth. The way she bounced on her heels, sat on her hands, and kept looking nervously at the door while they chatted in the common room. His running, rambling monologue about God-only-knew-what when Jack stepped out to grab them sodas.

Their third visit, on the first drizzly Sunday in October, went differently. Andie greeted them with a million-dollar smile.

Pacey caught it and mirrored it back as he gave her a hug. “Hey, McPhee.”

“Jack,” she scolded her brother over Pacey's shoulder, “you didn't tell him, did you?”

“Not a word, I swear.”

Pacey pulled back, searching Andie's face for some hint of her news. “Tell me what?”

“That this is going to be your last trip up here. I'm being released next week!”

“Are you serious? That's fantastic!” Pacey pulled her into another tight bear hug, leaning back to lift her feet off the floor. He couldn't remember the last time he felt so relieved, so overjoyed. “Finally, some good news.”

“I'm pretty pleased myself,” Andie said when he let her go. She led them up to her room.

“So that's it? You're better now?”

“Bipolar disorder isn't the flu, Pacey,” she lectured in the tone which made him believe she'd be President someday. “You don't just get over it. But my medications are working for me, and I feel like myself again. I talked it over with Dr. Bennett, how I think I'm strong enough and how much I want to return to school and my life, and she agreed.”

“That's not even the best part,” Jack said, grinning every bit as widely as his sister. “Tell him the rest.”

Andie's smile turned shy. “Well, since I was on a roll, I talked to Dad, too, about how important Capeside is to me—you and the friends I made there. He agreed to sell the house in Providence instead. I'm being released on Wednesday, going to spend a few days helping Dad finish packing and visiting some old friends. But by this time next week, I'll be home.”

There was nothing for him to do but hug her again. “That's amazing, Andie.” He chuckled into her hair. “You'll get home just in time for the PSATs. Sure that won't cause another breakdown?”

She pushed him away, stomping her foot like a frustrated child. “I'll have you know I've been studying for that test practically since I arrived here. I'm fully prepared and have every intention of outscoring all of you and receiving a National Merit Scholarship.”

“I have no doubt you will,” he said and meant it. Though he also had his fingers crossed for Joey, with whom he'd been studying for the test and who needed scholarships much more desperately than Andie.

“I hope you've all been taking excellent notes, though, because I'll have six weeks of classes to catch up.”

“Yeah, but you'd be bored without a challenge.”

“Deciphering your handwriting is challenge enough for anyone,” Jack teased.

They talked more about school and the things Andie was looking forward to most when she got home. Pacey was so genuinely happy at the fulfillment of all his prayers and wishes for Andie's recovery that it wasn't until he was walking out to Jack's car that other, less pleasant thoughts had a chance to penetrate his thick skull. By the time he slid into the passenger seat, every trace of a smile on his face had been washed clean.

Jack glanced over at him while putting the key in the ignition. He grimaced. “Wondered when it was going to hit you.”

“What was?”

Jack looked over his shoulder and double-checked the rearview mirror before backing out of the parking lot. “That with Andie better, you've got some decision making ahead of you.”

“Jack—” Pacey wasn't sure whether to apologize or explain.

Jack waved his response away. “Talk to Andie about it, not me. Just be gentle, okay, man? I've got my own bubble-bursting to do with her.”

“Huh? What about?”

Pain flickered across Jack's face. “She thinks we're going to be one, big—well, not big, not anymore—but a reasonably normal, reasonably happy family. But my dad thinks it's best—and I one hundred percent agree—if I keep living with Jen and Grams.” A second spasm contorted his friend's expression before quickly being covered over.

Pacey knew that feeling, that rejection from the people whose love was supposed to be unconditional, better than anyone. All he said in reply was, “Parents suck.”

Jack's answering laugh was bitter.

<><><>

“So how's Andie?” Joey asked between bites of her sandwich. Well, technically, it was Pacey's. She'd traded half her peanut butter and jelly for half of his tomato, lettuce, and cheese.

It was just the two of them enjoying the mild, breezy day out on the bleachers. Jack had a meeting with the guidance counselor, and Jen insisted eating outside in the wind would make her cold all day long. It being Monday and their first chance to talk since Pacey's trip, he wasn't surprised by Joey's question. She asked after Andie pretty regularly, always with a kind of guilty hesitance, as though she wasn't sure she had the right.

“Top of the world. She's getting out this week.”

“Out? Out as in released?”

“What else could I mean?” Pacey flicked another potato chip into his mouth.

“The way you said it, it could have been a prison break. But that's great news, Pace.” She forced a smile. “I'm really happy for her. And for you.” She looked away, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth.

“Hey, Jo.” He squeezed her shoulder to bring her attention back to him. “I've told her it wasn't your fault. She knows we were drunk. She doesn't hate you.”

Joey snorted. “I'll believe that when I see it.” She sighed. “I'm sorry. I'm being selfish. I really am glad Andie's better.”

“Me, too.” Andie getting better had been Priority One for so long. Now it was real, and Pacey was happy, but the list of life problems somehow felt even longer.

“Hey.” Joey put a hand on his knee, and Pacey realized he'd been spacing out. “How do you feel about it?”

“About Andie getting released? Thrilled. About her being in control again? So relieved. About seeing her again every day? Excited. And weirdly nervous. About confronting all the issues we sidelined until A, B, and C were realities?” Pacey shook his head, making a noise somewhere between a chuckle and a groan. “I have no idea.”

Joey nibbled at her sandwich. She took her time, set it down on the napkin Pacey brought her—she always forgot them and then wiped her hands on her jeans—and sucked a spot of jelly from her thumb.

Pacey had never been jealous of preserved fruit before.

Finally, she asked, “No idea how you feel, or no idea how to confront it?” Joey sounded like a curious, concerned friend. Utterly oblivious to how hard it was to sit next to her like this, talk to her every day, and pretend he didn't want to kiss her till their lips went numb.

“Uh, the latter. I know how I feel.”

Joey jumped, pulling her hand off his knee.

Pacey wondered if he'd sounded too pointed. But it was true. These last few weeks, being able to see beyond the anger, the guilt, and the betrayal to the special person Andie was, remembering everything she meant to him, had also given Pacey a startling clarity. He had loved Andie McPhee desperately. But he wasn't in love with her anymore.

He hoped she would understand. Often, lately, he'd thought the feeling might be mutual. She was sweet, kind, happy to see him, but that unique bond they used to share was gone. Hanging out with Andie now didn't feel that different from hanging out with Jen. Except, of course, he'd never seen Lindley naked.

The bell rang. Pacey and Joey grabbed their trash and headed back to class. Not until hours afterwards did he realize Joey never asked him how he did feel.

<><><>

Everything went well with Andie's release. She called him from her house in Providence on Thursday night. She was in high spirits, having spent most of the day with an old friend named Kate. She and Mr. McPhee were driving down to Capeside on Sunday afternoon. As Pacey had to work that day, he wouldn't see her until next Monday at school.

“So did anyone else get the homeroom lecture on taking time off the PSATs to de-stress?” Jen asked as she slid her lunch tray onto the table commandeered by their little group on rainy days.

“First time I can recall a teacher telling me not to study,” Pacey said, filching one of Joey's fries. “Advice I intend to honor all weekend.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “They said one night, Pacey, not all weekend.”

“I heard what Pacey heard,” Jack said. “Can't say my time off will be that fun, though, since I need to reopen the house this weekend, get it ready for Dad and Andie.”

“So what about tonight? We haven't cut loose since school started. Let's do something fun.”

“Wish I could, Lindley. Work.” Pacey had been taking on as many extra shifts as he could at the video store, so he could help more with the increasingly strapped Potter household. With Dawson's replacement being unreliable, his hours were adding up.

“I'm game. Assuming anything fun can be found to do.” Jack glared out the window at the drizzly, gray sky.

Jen smiled at the brunette next to her. “What about you, Joey? You in?”

“I wish,” Joey muttered. She speared the limp, wilted lettuce which constituted a cafeteria salad with her fork, but only smeared it in dressing without bringing it to her mouth. The operation required her full attention. “I, uh, kinda have a date.”

“A date!” shrieked Jen. “That's great, Joey! With whom?”

Pacey knew the answer before “Eric Carter” stumbled out of Joey's lips.

“The new hottie?” Jen's grin widened. “I knew he liked you, but how did it happen? How'd he get you to say yes?”

In contrast to Jen's enthusiasm, Joey looked like she wished the ground would swallow her up. She slouched in her chair, scowling, and dismembered her chicken surprise with disgusted alacrity. “He asks me out pretty regularly.” Her cheeks flushed, and she continued to avoid eye contact with all of them. “I always say I'm studying. When they made that stupid announcement in homeroom today, he said I was under orders not to study, so he'd pick me up at seven. He walked away before I could think of another excuse.”

“Smooth,” Jen approved.

“Controlling,” Jack countered. “She's rejected him before, and he didn't give her an opportunity to say no.”

Pacey could have kissed Jack for that. Figuratively, anyway.

“No way! He was being charming, something you, my romantically-challenged friend, know nothing about.”

“Jen, the sheer number of skeevy, questionable losers you've dated precludes your opinion of men from carrying any weight when it concerns their underlying motives.”

Joey picked up her tray and slid her chair back, metal feet scraping against the tile floor. “Don't mind me,” she said as she stood. “Debate this amongst yourselves. I have class.” She stalked off to dump her barely-touched meal in the trash.

“See you later, guys.” Pacey rushed after her, leaving an abashed Jack and Jen in their wake. He and Joey had Chemistry after lunch; they usually walked there together. But the bell wasn't due to ring for another eight minutes.

Joey had realized that and trudged with snail-like slowness toward her locker.

Pacey fell in step beside her. “I could beat him up for you.”

Joey turned to him, expression bemused, eyebrows lifted. “Which one, Eric or Jack?”

“Either. Possibly both together. Although Jack's pretty wily, and one can't discount the notion that Jen might throw herself into the fray if I touched her BFF.”

Joey laughed, but with a shake of her head which indicated she was humoring him and he wasn't that funny. “Thank you, but I'm reasonably confident the situation can be resolved without resorting to physical violence.”

“How do you intend to resolve it?” he asked carefully.

Joey shrugged. “Go on the date, thank him for the lovely evening, send him on his merry way. Then make up a suitably lurid story for Jen.”

“Maybe you won't need to make one up.”

“What do you mean?” It was Joey's turn to sound cautious.

“Maybe it will go better than you expect. He's a good-looking guy, you're a beautiful girl, he obviously likes you...” Pacey spread his hands. “Need I go on?” She'd better not take that rhetorical question literally. His insides were so twisted up, he couldn't follow that image any further.

Joey reached her locker, yanking it open more forcefully than necessary. “I wouldn't count on it. I'm still wearing my widow's weeds, remember?”

Pacey looked at the pictures in her locker while she grabbed her books. One of her mother, before she got sick; one of Dawson at fifteen; one of the three of them—Dawson, Joey, Pacey—grinning like fools at a county fair when they were ten. “Maybe you should take them off,” he said.

“What?” She slammed her locker shut.

“Your mourning ribbons. It's okay to miss Dawson, Jo, but that doesn't mean you have to stop living your life. If you like this Eric guy—”

“I don't.”

“—or anybody else,” Pacey went on as if she hadn't interrupted, “there's nothing wrong with that.” He dropped his voice low as the hallway started to fill with students. “It doesn't mean you don't love Dawson.”

Joey blinked up at him, before shaking her head and starting toward his locker around the corner. “I'm not ready.”

“That's fine, too, Potter.” Pacey fumbled through his locker combination. It popped open to reveal his own memorial wall—him and Andie at a dance last year; him and Dawson at the Canadian border the weekend after his sixteenth birthday; him, Dawson, and Joey sprawled out on the beach at fourteen. He directed his last mumbled comment to the hollow metal space. “But seventy years is a long time to be a widow.”

<><><>

It was all well and good to acknowledge the healthiness of Joey dating again in the abstract. But that night at work, when the clock struck seven, Pacey's philosophical detachment deserted him. He couldn't stop picturing it, Joey off who-knew-where doing who-knew-what with that too-handsome face, too-toned body, too-ready smile. His hands fisted of their own accord.

He imagined Joey in her prettiest dress—turquoise with a low back and barely-there shoulder straps and it floated around her slim body like currents in the ocean—smiling as she walked down the steps. That interloping surfer putting his hand on Joey's bared back as he led her to the car. Telling her how gorgeous she was as he drove to some overpriced French restaurant. Feeding her bites of delicious delicacies and letting his fingers linger on her plush, berry mouth.

Pacey was going to unravel if he thought about it anymore. He gave himself a task—sorting all the videos Dennis had misplaced during the week. Desperately, he focused his rage on his co-worker's incompetence and not on the jackass who had the temerity to take Joey on a date.

Eight o'clock. They would be finishing up dinner, maybe. What next? If the night was fine, Carter would no doubt suggest a moonlit walk along the pier. But, in a rare piece of luck, the rains from the day continued to fall. So a drive up to some obscure make-out point. The Ruins. But the guy was new. How could he know about them? Would Joey tell him?

Suddenly, Pacey was laughing. Because as hard as his imagination tried to paint the worst possible scenario, he could fathom no reality where Joey Potter let a first date take her to the Ruins.

He was still chuckling when the door chimed. And there stood the object of all his waking dreams and nightmares. She was wearing, not the turquoise dress, but the same fuzzy, yellow sweater and dark blue jeans she'd worn to school. Her hair was down, flat and plastered to her skull with rain. She leaned back against the door, trembling, breaths rapid and shallow.

Pacey's smile died. He closed the distance between them in four long strides. “Jo? What's wrong?” He touched her face, the back of her head, her hands and arms, as though searching for injury. “What did he do?”

Joey shook her head, quickly, in denial of his accusation. But her chattering teeth and gulping after air didn't allow for speech.

At a loss what else to do, Pacey pulled her into a hug, cradling her neck, massaging her spine. But his eyes searched the darkness outside for some trace of that asshole Carter. He saw only an elderly couple hurrying under one umbrella and Mr. Lewis from across the street walking his dog.

After a few minutes, Joey's shaking subsided, her breathing evened. The arms which had been wrapped tightly around herself clung to him instead.

Pacey eased away, stooping to look into her eyes. “Tell me what happened, Jo.”

She broke out of his embrace. “It was stupid,” she said, as she walked from the doorway to the stool he always left out for her. “Eric took me out for pizza, and it was...nice. I almost felt like a normal teenager on a normal date, instead of some cursed figure out of a Greek tragedy. To be around someone who didn't know or care about my multiple levels of baggage...” She pushed her hair behind her ears, teeth worrying her lower lip.

“What happened?” Pacey coaxed her.

“After dinner, he wanted to go to the Rialto and watch a movie.”

Pacey winced, foreseeing the ending.

“It had been so great being normal for once. The last thing I wanted to do was tell him that thanks to my dead boyfriend watching movies has become the mental and emotional equivalent of poking hot needles into my eyes, so, like a dope, I said okay and decided I could handle it.” Joey's shoulders folded forward as she sank into herself. “I couldn't handle it. No sooner did the previews start than my palms were sweating. After a few minutes, headache, tunnel vision, couldn't breathe. You know, the usual.”

“What did you do?”

“Muttered something about the bathroom and took off. All I could think about was getting away. I was halfway down the block before I realized this was where I was headed.”

Pacey, kneeling in front of her, took her hands and searched her fresh-washed eyes. “But you're okay now?”

Slowly, Joey nodded. “Yeah, it's passed. Sorry I'm such a freak.”

“'Freak' is hardly—”

The bell chimed as a customer walked in. Pacey gave Joey's fingers a reassuring squeeze before rising to help Mrs. Roberts. Joey sat silently until she left, then whispered, “My first date with Dawson was to the Rialto. The old one.”

“I know.” Dawson had told Pacey every detail of that night. Pacey remembered being annoyed about it, something he put down at the time to the disaster with Kristy Livingstone; in retrospect, he wondered if there hadn't been something else at work in his distaste for Dawson and Joey's romantic highs and lows.

“I ran out on him, too. Jen crashed our date, and I got upset. He tracked me down, though. At the swings.” Joey stopped talking, a faraway, wistful look on her face.

“Well, since this Eric guy doesn't have Dawson Leery's affinity for all places relating to Joey Potter, do you want me to give you a ride back?”

Joey jerked back to the present. “To the Rialto? Did you not hear me explain the psychotic break I almost had there?”

“I wasn't suggesting you finish the movie, Jo, but your date is probably out front worried sick about you.”

“I can apologize on Monday, tell him I got sick or something.”

“Potter, the guy asked you out every day for a month. Don't you think he deserves better than that?” Pacey couldn't believe he was speaking up for the Ken doll, but if the situation were reversed, he would be going out of his mind with worry.

“I don't want to tell him about all this, Pacey. Better he think I'm a bitch than become yet another person feeling sorry for poor, little Joey Potter.”

Pacey shrugged. “So lie. Tell him you had an overpowering desire to walk in the rain, or you remembered something from Chem. class you had to tell me. Trust me, a guy will put up with any amount of eccentricity for a girl as hot as you.”

Joey snorted, picking at one of the fuzzies sticking out of her sweater. “Hot. Right. About as attractive as a wet dog at the moment.”

He would never for the life of him understand how a woman as stunning as Joey got it into her head she was unattractive. On the other hand, her total unconsciousness of her beauty added yet another dimension to it.

“He'll just be happy to see you, Jo.” His voice was a little huskier than he'd have liked. Joey gave him an odd look. Pacey cleared his throat, rummaging around the desk for the 'Back in 5' sign. When he found it, he headed for the door. “Come on, Potter. Let me give you a lift, before Boy Wonder calls in a missing person's report.”

Joey groaned, but slipped off the stool and followed him. When he opened the door to let her through first, she muttered, “I'd rather stay here with you.”

Pacey replayed those words in his mind during the two block drive to the theater and again when that Carter guy met her in the lobby, grabbing her arms, grinning and talking excitedly. They almost made it bearable.

Chapter Text

After a stormy weekend, Monday morning dawned clear and bright with only a touch of autumn in the air. Pacey was up long before the sun from nightmares surrounded by burning bodies, while outside the flames Eric Carter's friendly grin transformed into a devilish mockery.

Unable to get back to sleep, he decided to use some of his extra time to surprise Andie with a ride to school. His stomach was in knots, part dread, part anticipation, at the thought of his first time alone with her in almost five months. He hoped she wouldn't head straight for the big questions.

Whether she did or not, it was a reunion he'd prefer to have in private and not in front of Capeside High's nosy population.

Andie answered the door in a white blouse, plaid skirt and matching sweater vest, knee-high socks, and saddle shoes. “Pacey!” She smiled and threw her arms around him with abandon. “I didn't think I'd see you until school.”

He chuckled, hugging her back. “I don't associate school with good things, and seeing you again, McPhee, is a very good thing.”

“You, too.” She released him with a pat on the arm. “Come on in. I just need to grab my bag. Do you want any breakfast? Coffee?”

Waking at four, he'd already downed enough coffee to make sitting still in class a near impossibility. “I'm good, thanks.”

“Okay.” Andie grabbed purse and book bag off a chair. “I'm ready, then, and Jack's not here.” For the first time, her bright smile faltered. “He was here to meet us yesterday, but he's decided to stay with Jen and her grandmother.”

Jack had apparently left out their father's role in that decision, something Pacey understood too well. He'd spent years excusing and covering for his family's treatment of him. “You'll still see him every day, and they got a good thing going over at the Ryans'.”

Andie continued the conversation as they walked to the Wagoneer. “Jack invited me over to study after school. Will you be there?”

“I don't have to work today, so yeah.” He opened the passenger door for Andie, before going around to the driver's side. “It's become the study locale of choice.”

“Well, we would need a new nexus since—” Andie stopped abruptly, shooting Pacey a panicked, apologetic look.

Pacey pretended not to notice as he put the car into drive. But he knew the ending to that sentence. Since the Leerys are gone. A thought he'd had two dozen times since the school year started. Every time he went to Jen's and almost turned in a driveway too soon.

Andie's soft cry drew his attention. He glanced over to find her staring out the window at the empty lot where the Ice House used to be. “I knew it had happened, but somehow I didn't think...” Eyes swimming with tears, she placed a tentative hand on his arm. “I'm so sorry, Pacey.”

He shrugged off both her pity and her touch. “I've passed by it enough, I don't even notice anymore,” he lied. “What about you? Are you okay?”

Andie was silent for a block or two. “I spent a lot of my time away learning to process my emotions, especially grief. Getting through the pain of losing Brown almost killed me, but it made me stronger. So, once I got over the shock of it, I mourned Dawson with all those tools I'd learned. Yes, I'm okay. The changes will just take some getting used to.”

The changes weren't readily apparent when they walked into school a few minutes later. Being so early gave Andie time to sort out some paperwork and scheduling in the office. Pacey, with nothing else to do, stayed with her, though he kept an eye out for their friends.

Andie greeted all the office personnel by name and was deluged in concerned questions and well wishes from them. More students arrived, and Pacey found himself pushed farther and farther away by the crowd of friends, acquaintances, and gossipy sheep welcoming Andie back.

He'd forgotten how much of a people person Andie was. Without her around to drag them to school events, their misanthropic little group had become even more insular. As if his thoughts had summoned them, Pacey spotted his friends turning the corner. He forced his way out of the crush and over to them.

“What the big excitement?” Jen asked.

“Free doughnuts?” Jack added hopefully.

“Better. Somewhere in the midst of that horde is your sister.”

“Andie! Great, I was hoping to see her before class. Come on, Jack.”

“Why? I've seen her, and, personally, I'd rather avoid the mosh pit.”

Jen grabbed his elbow and dragged him off anyway. “Because I must use your height to batter a path for me.”

Shifting his weight, Pacey glanced at Joey. He was jittery from the coffee. “Did you want me to clear a path for you?”

Joey's mouth tipped in a bitter half smile. “I think that's a reunion Andie and I will both be glad to put off as long as possible.”

“It won't be like that. I took full responsibility. She doesn't hate you.”

“We'll see.” Joey sounded unconvinced. She hefted the bag on her shoulder. “I gotta visit my locker before the bell.”

Pacey frowned at her retreating back. “Hey, Potter!”

She looked back over her shoulder. “Yeah?”

“I, uh, I'll see you in Trig.” Imbecilic thing to say. Of course he'd see her in Trig. But he felt he was trying to reassure her of something more important.

It might have worked because she gave him a soft smile. “See ya, Pace.”

<><><>

Jen and Pacey made their way from History to their lockers, grabbing their bagged lunches before heading outside. Pacey's worry that Joey's avoidance of Andie would extend to skipping lunch was assuaged when he spotted her curtain of chestnut hair among the bleachers. Grinning, he unthinkingly hurried his step.

“Hey, Potter, what'd you bring me today?” He sat backwards on the bench directly below hers and tried to steal a peek in her brown bag.

Joey pulled it out of his reach. “Why don't you ever pack a lunch you like?”

“This way's more fun,” Pacey shrugged. He spread out his own lunch. “Got a chocolate pudding cup here with your name on it, Jo.”

“Gross.” Joey wrinkled her nose. “Just because I liked something when I was five doesn't mean the love has endured.”

“I've got to figure out a way to make Grams remember that, while Jack lives for egg salad sandwiches, they make me gag.” Jen looked at her revealed lunch in dismay.

“I'll trade you, Lindley.” Pacey handed over his peanut butter and banana to his friend, each convinced they got the far better end of that deal.

“Look who I found in the bedlam otherwise known as the school cafeteria,” Jack said as he and Andie joined them.

Pacey felt a pang of guilt for not telling Andie about their lunch spot. She carried a school-bought sandwich, apple, and milk carton, shivering without a jacket. Once she was seated, Pacey took off his own and draped it over her shoulders. She shot him a grateful smile.

“So why do you guys choose to freeze out here on a daily basis?”

“The company,” Jen said with a smile.

“Or lack thereof,” Joey added dryly. Then she looked, panicked, at Andie and dropped her attention to her own lunch.

“Hey, Pacey, my chips for your Cheetos?” Jack waved a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips enticingly.

“Deal.” They threw the bags at each other.

“How's the first day back?” Jen asked Andie.

“Good. I'm not as overwhelmed as I thought I'd be, thanks to all the notes Pacey sent me.”

“I just paid the postage. Lindley, Potter, and your brother did most of the work.”

“Pacey's contributions can be distinguished by the appalling penmanship.”

Pacey flicked a spoonful of pudding at Jack. It landed on his friend's sandwich, but Jack ate it with a shrug, ignoring Jen's horrified protests.

While Jen and Andie compared stories of Jack's disgusting eating habits, Pacey leaned over and snatched a carrot stick from Joey. She rolled her eyes, but didn't protest. He grinned as he took a deliberate, crunchy bite.

“I almost forgot. Grams made oatmeal raisin cookies this weekend.” Jen pulled a Tupperware container out of her bag. She grabbed one for herself before offering more to Jack and Joey, who each took one. Jen extended the box to Andie.

Andie frowned at the solitary cookie remaining. “That's okay, Jen. I think that one was meant for Pacey.”

Four voices rang out simultaneously.

“No, it wasn't,” said Jen.

“I don't want it,” said Pacey.

“He hates raisins,” said Jack and Joey together.

They all laughed as Andie accepted the final cookie. She eyed Pacey speculatively. He realized he was still leaning on the bleacher by Joey and sat up.

“I never knew you hate raisins.”

“Not really a subject that comes up in everyday conversation.”

“But they all know.” Andie sounded almost accusatory.

“Only because of the cereal smorgasbord,” Jack soothed his sister.

“The what?”

“It's this stupid snack ritual Pacey and Jack go through when they study together,” Jen explained. “They combine an obscene amount of different cereals, but Pacey never puts Raisin Bran in his, because he hates raisins. I don't know how he could even taste them in that mush.”

“It's not about the taste. It's because of Will Krudski.”

“Potter, you should stop talking unless you'd like a chocolate pudding dressing on that salad.”

Joey met his glare with an amused smirk.

“Who's Will Krudski?” asked Jen.

Joey took one more bite of her salad, before pushing it towards Pacey as if inviting the fulfillment of his threat. “A friend of ours when we were kids. One day, we were on a field trip, and Will somehow got hold of Pacey's little box of raisins—you know the red kind—and he put a beetle inside it. Pacey pulled them out one at a time to eat them, so he reached in and—”

Pacey's hand clamped over Joey's mouth. “And that's enough of that particular stroll down memory lane.”

“You might as well let her tell us, man. We'll all imagine worse otherwise.”

Joey pushed at his hand with her arms, while sliding her face away. “Trust me, it's worse. He pulled out the beetle, and—”

Pacey lunged, and Joey ran. She tried to continue the story, but, between giggling and dodging around the bleachers, she only managed a few more incriminating words before the warning bell rang.

“Never have the words 'saved by the bell' been so accurate,” Jen murmured.

Pacey was suddenly aware that he had Joey by the waist, her feet dangling six inches in the air. She had been kicking at his shins, but her gaze struck something—or rather someone—over his shoulder, and she stilled, face paling.

Pacey lowered Joey to the ground and released her. Slowly, already knowing what he'd see, he turned around. Andie, dwarfed under the weight of his brown corduroy jacket, watched them both through tear-swirled eyes.

<><><>

Andie was in the same computer lab in last period as Pacey and Jen. When she asked him to give her a ride to the Ryans' and to wait first while she collected some of her catch-up work for various classes, Pacey felt obligated to agree. Even though he usually drove Joey over on the days he didn't work.

He looked to Jen, a silent plea. Jen nodded in agreement. She and Jack would take Joey back with them.

Irritated and resentful and hating himself for feeling that way, Pacey walked Andie out to the Wagoneer. Her backpack and both their pairs of hands were loaded down with her folders, books, and binders. Andie was almost giddy with the responsibility.

Once they were on the road, there was a distinct lack of conversation. Pacey kept picturing her face at lunch and knew he couldn't put this off any longer. “Andie, we should talk about—”

“Please don't, Pacey,” Andie burst out. “I know we said we'd talk about this once I was better and home, and I am home, and I think I'm better, but I don't want to test that theory too completely all at once. Please, can you give me a few more days to acclimate to all these changes before...before you say anything? Maybe, maybe after the PSATs, okay?”

Pacey was divided between a cowardly relief at the reprieve and annoyance at letting this situation continue to drag on. But Andie's health and well-being came first. “Yeah. Of course. No sweat, McPhee.”

Andie smiled, relaxing back against her seat, and filled the remainder of their short drive with stories about her day. He'd never in his life met anyone who loved school the way Andie did. Even Joey, who worked hard and got stellar grades, saw school mostly as a means to an end—her ticket out of Capeside and into a better life. But Andie wanted to know everything about everything, and she wanted to learn it faster and more comprehensively than anyone else. Her drive was one of the most lovable things about her.

Pacey smiled as he turned down Mrs. Ryan's driveway. He always looked forward to this time of day, to Mrs. Ryan's teasing inquiry if he'd stayed out of trouble, to Alexander's outstretched arms, eager for a hug. He helped Andie lug her stuff to the stately old cottage. Arms full, he used his elbow to ring the doorbell.

“Pacey Witter, up to no mischief, I hope?” Grams' eyes twinkled with mischief of their own, as she held the door open for them. “You've brought your young lady with you, I see. Hello...Andrea, is it? Your presence here is an answer to many prayers.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Ryan. And it's just Andie.”

Pacey chuckled and shook his head at Andie's naive belief that she could convince Grams to use a nickname. He made his way to the kitchen and dropped her books on the table with a thud. They filled the empty middle between Jack and Jen's spread papers. Surveying the missing elements, his smile died. “Where are Joey and the kid?”

Jack kept his head buried over his homework, but Jen looked up, something like pity reflected in her expression. “She took Alex and rowed home as soon as we got here. Said Bessie had some chores for her to do.”

Pacey knew the methods of the Potter household backward and forward. While Joey had to pitch in far more than the average teenager, in Bessie's book nothing was more important than her schoolwork. Chores were an excuse to avoid Andie, to distance herself from the group. Jen's face and Jack's avoidance confirmed they knew it as well as he did. “Guess I'll go see if she needs help.”

“But you're supposed to help me with that paper on the Articles of Confederation for Government,” Andie reminded him, setting her second stack of books beside the one Pacey had left. She gave him a tremulous smile. “And I need to go over some of the assignments I missed with you.”

“You've never needed my help with school a day in your life.” But he hesitated at the sheer enormity of her workload.

“There's a first time for everything.” She pulled a second chair up beside hers and dropped her bag to the floor.

After all she had done for him last year, how could he refuse? Pacey sat. To justify himself, he said, “Okay, for a bit. Jack and I need to study for a Spanish quiz, anyway.”

Andie glowed with accomplishment, but she opened her books and went straight to work.

Lost in Andie's studies and his own, Pacey didn't note the passing time until Mrs. Ryan asked him if he was staying for supper.

“Uh, no, that's okay, thanks. I need to head to Joey's. Still have Trig. homework.” He jumped to his feet, stuffing papers in his backpack.

“I could help you with that, Pacey,” Andie volunteered. “I took Trig. last year.”

“Thanks, McPhee, but I've got Chemistry, too, and Joey's my lab partner.”

“But we haven't even started on the PSATs yet! Besides, how am I supposed to get home?”

“I'll drive you after dinner, Andie.” Jack made eye contact with Pacey before jerking his head toward the door. Letting him know he could leave. Andie was covered.

Pacey didn't need to be told twice. He said his goodbyes, blocking out Andie's abandoned expression.

“Hey, Pace,” Jen called when he was at the door.

“Yeah?”

“Tell Joey I'll call her later.”

“You got it, Lindley. Night.” Pacey smiled softly as he walked to his car. Joey might try to pull away and hide, but judging from what he'd seen and heard in there, he wasn't the only one of her friends who wasn't about to let that happen.

The annoyance Pacey always felt at having to drive all the way back through Capeside to reach the bridge and cross the creek when he could see Joey's house from the lawn was aggravated by anger at himself for staying so late. Joey had no doubt spent the afternoon thinking all of her friends—including him—had picked Andie over her, when she was the one passive-aggressively removing herself from the group. Of course, Andie had shown some devious behavior herself, with her attempts—successful and not—to keep him at Grams' house.

Just when his frustration reached a boiling point, Pacey redirected the blame to the real guilty party—himself. If he'd done the right thing, kept his hands and his lips to himself, Joey wouldn't be afraid to be in the same room with Andie, and Andie would have no reason to feel insecure. He'd damaged the two most important relationships in his life by thinking with the wrong head.

You idiot asshole, was the litany in his brain when he finally reached the Potters'. Bessie's truck was missing, so he'd have at least a few minutes to fix things with Joey. Lights shone through the kitchen windows, warm and inviting. All the layers of guilt and recrimination sloughed away as he approached the place where she was.

Pacey was smiling by the time he rang the doorbell, a smile echoed on Alexander's face, if not his aunt's, when Joey answered the door.

“What do you want?” she said with a scowl.

Alexander, perched on her hip, reached out for Pacey. “Pay-pay!” he squealed. They hadn't decided yet whether that was Alex's word for Pacey or play, because he seemed to equate the two.

Pacey scooped the baby up with a toss in the air. “You know, little man, you could teach your Aunt Jo a lesson in the proper way to greet a guest.”

Joey's scowl remained entrenched on her face, but she opened the door wider. “You might as well come in.” She left him and the baby to follow and returned to the kitchen, where she had macaroni and green beans simmering in two pots on the stove. Alex had recently made the transition to solid foods.

Pacey closed the door behind him and placed Alexander down by the pile of pots, pans, and wooden spoons Joey had been using to entertain him. He leaned against the counter by the oven, unavoidably placed in Joey's peripheral vision. “So turns out it's impossible to do chemistry homework when your lab partner takes off with all the notes.”

“Sorry,” Joey muttered, not sounding apologetic at all. “They're on the table.”

Pacey glanced at her stacks of books and probably finished homework. “You realize you just made more work for yourself, because you'll have to go over Trig. again a second, maybe even a third, time—you know how dense I can be—or risk me losing that hard-won B average.”

Joey turned off the burners and carried the pasta to the sink to drain it. Not once did she glance in his direction. “Why didn't you have Andie help you? That was the deal, right? We were a temporary fix. Andie's home now, so it's probably for the best if you and I go back to being simple sparring partners.” She poured the macaroni in a bowl, turning to the fridge to grab milk and butter.

Pacey intercepted her, hands on her shoulders, bending his knees to put himself in her eye-line. She turned her head away. “Jo. Joey, look at me.”

She shook her down-turned head, and it was only then Pacey realized she had tears in her eyes. “Listen to me, Potter, and if you never believe another word I say to you, believe this: we are not temporary. You're the best friend I have left in this world, and that's not going to change, not for Andie coming back, not if you move to Hartford, not when you become a world-famous artist and I'm the bum living outside your fence. You're stuck with me. Always. You got that?”

Joey nodded, liquid brown eyes stumbling into his for only a moment before she moved forward to hide her face against his shoulder. “I'm sorry, Pace. I don't know why I get like this.”

Pacey wrapped her in a tight embrace. “Weird to think I know the answer to a question you don't. You do it because it's easier to push people away than fear they might leave you. But I promised you already, I'm not going anywhere.”

“Took you long enough to get here,” she said, a hint of sulky jealousy in her tone.

Pacey laughed. He cupped her neck in his hands, forcing her to look at him as he pulled back. “You're the one who bailed, Potter. There was studying to do, and, as you know, I am a most devoted scholar.”

Joey rolled her eyes and swatted him away, but the corner of her mouth turned up. “One good report card, and he thinks he's Steven Hawking.”

He helped Joey finish making dinner. Bessie arrived in time to eat, then took Alexander while Joey aided Pacey with his homework. Together, they reviewed for the PSATs. He had studied much more for these damn tests than he ever thought he would for anything—let alone for an exam which didn't even matter. But every minute he spent in scholastic hell was one Joey gained in her journey out of Capeside. She was getting those scholarships she needed, if Pacey had to lie, cheat, or...study to make it happen.

As promised, Jen called a little after nine to talk to Joey. With Alexander and Bessie already in bed, Joey had no choice but to take it in the living room. A true gentleman, Pacey thought ruefully, would have left at that point, but he had things he wanted to say to Joey, so he tried to make as much noise as possible doing dishes in the kitchen.

Even so, fragments of her conversation drifted through. “...sorry...no...still here...No! Jen, no...” An adorable little giggle made Pacey smile to himself. A bunch of talk about school which he tuned out. It wasn't hard to do. Awake since four, studying all day, and the extra dose of personal drama, all had him dragging.

He was washing off the stove when Andie's name caught his attention again. “...Andie in the same room is not a good idea....Of course I feel guilty, wouldn't you?...It's more than that, though. Every time I look at her, I feel so—”

Pacey hit his shoe against the oven base, causing a metallic clang to echo through the house. He cursed his own feet.

“Hey, Jen, can we talk about this later? I think I'd better go....Okay...See you tomorrow. Night.” He heard Joey's soft footfall as she padded back to the kitchen. “So how much of that did you hear?”

When he turned to face her, she had her hands on hips, one eyebrow raised. Not a good sign.

“Uh, only as much as I couldn't avoid.” Pacey fumbled the sponge as he rinsed it out.

Joey sighed. “I guess eavesdropping is unavoidable in a house with no privacy. But it's getting kind of late, maybe we should—”

“What do you feel about Andie?” Pacey could have kicked himself for asking the question. He wasn't Dawson, needing to know everything Joey felt and thought, and about this, especially, he wasn't sure he wanted an answer. “Never mind. Sorry. Objection sustained. Question withdrawn.”

Joey went to the table and started separating his books from hers, stuffing papers in folders and folders in backpacks. Silently, Pacey joined her.

“Angry,” Joey said finally. “I feel angry, like I want to assault her with a tray in the lunchline.”

Pacey's jaw dropped. Of all the answers he'd imagined, that one wasn't on the list. “Much fun as I'd have refereeing a Potter-McPhee mud fight, mind telling me why?”

“Because, because of what she did to you,” Joey blurted out. “And yes, I'm aware of how ridiculous that is in light of what we did to her, and, given that you seem to have forgiven and forgotten, it's irrational of me to carry a grudge, but this isn't the first time in my life I've noticed it's easier to forgive wrongs done to me than things which hurt people I...care about.” She stood there, shamefaced, but dark eyes lit with fury.

Every time he thought he couldn't want to kiss her more, she had to go and prove him wrong.

“I get it,” he said slowly, instead. “Like how I wanted to tear Matt Caufield limb from limb for talking shit about your family, but the constant barrage of insults toward me roll off my back at this point.”

Joey nodded, relieved he understood. “Right. And I'm not telling you this to stir up issues you've put behind you. If you think the two of you can fix your relationship, that's...that's great. I'm not trying to make you feel stuck in the middle, either. Honest. I just wanted you to understand more of the reasons why Andie and I can't be friends right now. On either side.”

“Okay.” He understood. His life was going to become immeasurably more difficult, but he understood. “I work the next three days after school. You'll come study, won't you? No Andie, I promise.”

Joey's nod was reluctant, as if worried to find Pacey choosing their friendship over his girlfriend.

But Pacey hadn't thought twice before extending the invitation, and that change in priorities told him all he needed to know.

<><><>

As the week progressed, Pacey continued to give Andie a ride to school in the morning, but that was the only time he spent alone with her. They both filled the time with mindless, shallow ramblings and banter, shying away from personal discussions. The gang gathered for lunches, but Joey sat in Jen's shadow and said little.

She kept her word, though, making the mile-long trek to Screen Play with Alexander. Studying with her felt easy and right. Even if he was occasionally mesmerized by a ray of light striking her chestnut hair and giving it the luster of bronze, or struck dumb by the green and gold flecks in her chocolate eyes, or found it hard to breathe because of some insignificant motion of her fingers. Every time she bit her lip, he wanted to bite it for her.

But Pacey was becoming expert at ignoring those moments. Joey didn't want or need him as an admirer, just as a friend. So a friend he would be. He'd had a lifetime to reconcile himself to wanting things he couldn't have.

Toward the end of Thursday afternoon, he brought up plans for the next day. “Do you feel comfortable staying at Jen's for one last PSAT cram session? Jack and Jen want you there. But if you're not cool with that, we can head straight to your place.” It would piss off Andie, but Pacey was willing to bet the PSATs would claim too much of her attention for her to dwell on it.

“Um, actually, I have a date with Eric tomorrow night.”

“Oh.” Aware he sounded—and probably looked—like she'd killed his puppy, Pacey forced a smile. “That's good, Potter. Clear your head before the big day. Real good thinking. Where you going? I assume movies are out.”

Joey was giving him a concerned look. His supportive friend act must need work. “Just dinner. Maybe a walk by the beach. I don't want to be out too late with the test in the morning.”

“Right. Sure.” Pacey decided Alexander, playing happily with the cars Joey brought for him, was in dire need of attention and threw himself down on the floor with the baby.

“Maybe, maybe you should take a night off from studying, too, Pace. You and Andie haven't been out since she got back.”

Pacey pushed around the tiny, red fire truck. “Great idea, Jo. I'll be sure to do that.”

He did nothing of the sort, of course. Promising Andie to defer talking things out was not agreeing to resume their romance, and several hours of uninterrupted alone time with her was an invitation to drama. Drama Andie didn't need the night before the PSATs.

So while Joey rushed home with Alexander after school on Friday to get ready for her date, Pacey stayed at Mrs. Ryan's for a final PSAT round robin with Andie, Jen, and Jack.

Andie was especially pleased with this arrangement and wished Joey well on her date—the first time she'd spoken directly to her since coming home. Joey had responded with a tight-lipped, “Thanks.”

Jen sent more pitying looks his way than Pacey liked, but he ignored them—and thoughts of Joey—and focused instead on Andie's elaborate study system.

They finished about a quarter to ten. Andie asked Pacey for a ride. He could hardly refuse, since he had to drive home anyway and Jack was already in his pajamas. But Pacey had nothing to say for himself once they headed out into the dark night.

Andie was silent at first, too, merely looking out the window. As they were passing by the public beach, she did a double-take. “I think I just saw Joey and her date.”

Pacey's hands tightened around the wheel. He refused to look back. “Yeah, she said they might head there.”

“He's in my physics class. Seems like a nice guy. How long have they been dating?”

Pacey shrugged, shoulders tight. “A couple weeks.”

“She's not letting any grass grow under her feet.”

The Wagoneer jolted to a more abrupt stop at the intersection than strictly necessary. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Just...Dawson's only been gone, what, five months? I was surprised to hear she's dating again so soon. Although, after what—” Andie stopped talking.

Her unspoken words lingered in the air between them. After what happened between you and her. After that night.

Pacey expected and accepted those little barbs of hers without comment. She had every right to resent him. What he couldn't accept was her painting Joey as some sort of inconstant slut because one night she got drunk and twice she had dinner with a guy who asked her.

“Joey's going to mourn Dawson till the day she dies. But she's not doing anything wrong by moving on with her life.”

“Like how I was wrong for holding on to Brown so long?”

“What!? No! I wasn't saying that. I wasn't even thinking that.”

“You weren't, were you? You're never thinking about me at all!”

Pacey braked in front of the McPhee mansion with a tired sigh. “Andie, you're the one who wanted to put off talking about us, and I've honored that. If you want to get into it now—ten hours and counting before the biggest test of our lives thus far—we can. Or you can accept the fact that I'm entitled to my own thoughts, and we can deal with the rest later.”

Her eyes were luminous with tears in the dark confines of the jeep. He sat watching her wordlessly until she made a decision.

Andie leaned forward and kissed him, softly and swiftly, on the mouth. “For luck,” she said. She hesitated a moment more, waiting for him to react.

“Night, McPhee. Good luck on the test, not that you'll need it.” Pacey kept his hands on the wheel and his lips to himself.

Grimacing, Andie unlocked her seatbelt and opened the door. “Night, Pacey.” The slamming of her door was thunderous in the quiet night.

Chapter Text

Months of studying culminated in three hours of filling in bubbles and listening to the clock tick. And to think, next spring, they got to do it all over again. Only then it would count. Pacey didn't care about the PSATs—beyond his high hopes for Joey and Andie—but the real thing scared him shitless. One test to determine whether he made it out of this town or whether he was the idiotic failure Pop always said he was.

He tried to put that out of his mind and focus on the immediate evil. The test was every bit as difficult as he'd been told, but the side effect of so much studying with Joey was Pacey knowing or solving a surprising number of questions himself.

Still, he was beyond relieved when he finally emerged onto the school steps, where his friends gathered in spite of the brisk fall breeze.

“What did you get for question 14 on the math section?” Andie asked Jack.

Jack groaned. “No more, Andie. Please, I am begging you, no more math, no more words. No more thinking for the next twenty-four hours, all right?”

“I think we should celebrate,” said Jen. “Let's go out to lunch, yeah?”

“I don't think I can, sorry. Bess needs me to do some stuff around the house.”

“Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow,” Jen insisted. “Besides, you don't have a choice. Pacey drove all of us here, and Pacey is driving us all out to eat. No detours or exceptions permitted.”

Pacey raised his eyebrows at Jen's imperious tone, but didn't object. He was in favor of forcing Joey to interact with the group. “As the designated chauffeur, any chance I could be told where we're going?”

“Home, Jeeves,” Joey muttered under her breath. In an instant, Pacey visualized her wrapped in a blanket—and nothing else—smiling shyly at him on that day they both realized there was more to their relationship than bickering. Only Pacey had caught on to a few other things as well.

“How about Giovanni's?” Andie named Capeside's best pizzeria. “I've been craving the house special for months.”

No one objected, so they all piled into the Wagoneer. Pacey drove them to the old-fashioned, hole-in-the-wall establishment. They weren't the only celebrating juniors to arrive. The place was packed, but they were given a round table for five near the kitchen.

They ordered the house special—a mouth-watering, everything-your-taste-buds-could-desire extravaganza—and a vegetarian for Pacey. He said cheese would work just as well, but Joey and Jen said they'd join him on the veggie one.

Andie waited until after their order had been taken to say, “I don't get it. You're the one who introduced me to the house special. Since when don't you eat meat?”

An awkward silence descended, accompanied by much examination of the tablecloth. Jack played with the pepper flake shaker. Joey glared at Andie.

“Since Dawson.” Pacey shrugged, fingers tracing patterns on the red-checkered surface. He shut out the images of bodies on the ground, forced back the rising bile.

“Oh.” Andie frowned as if she still didn't understand, but wasn't going to press it. “I'm sorry I brought it up. I just didn't know. You've changed so much since I went away.” Apparently, it was her turn to glare at Joey, who dropped her eyes with a guilty flush.

“Okay, can we address the elephant in the room before it's allowed to trample everyone's toes even further?” Jen sat between Joey and Jack, almost lost in the dim lighting, but her voice was strong and determined. “Mistakes were made by all three of you, but whatever romantic debacle you've entangled yourselves in, the most important bond—between all of us—is friendship. I've made few enough real friends in my life; I don't intend to lose any over something so stupid. So, Joey, quit avoiding the group. Andie, quit trying to make us choose sides. And Pacey...” Jen trailed off, searching for an admonition for him.

“Don't be an ass?” suggested Joey.

“Chew with your mouth closed,” chimed in Jack.

“Don't talk with your mouth full,” added Andie.

“Quit drinking straight out of the carton.” Joey, again.

“If we're on the subject of my flaws, we could be here all day,” Pacey groaned.

Suddenly, they were all laughing. It felt natural, easy, almost—not quite, but almost—the way it should be.

Later, as lunch was winding down, Andie invited them to her house. “Dad's in Providence this weekend. We've got movies, board games, and a couple bottles of wine he won't miss. I'd like it if you came. All of you.” She gave Joey a tentative smile.

Joey didn't smile back, but she nodded. “I'd like that. Thank you, Andie.” Her words were forced, her tone stiff, but there wasn't a hint of resentment lurking there.

Pacey threw an arm around Jen's shoulders as they left the restaurant. “Lindley, you are a miracle worker.”

Jen shrugged away from his touch with a mock glare. “Careful there, Pacey. I'm pretty sure two women are already more than you can handle.”

Pacey winced, looking at Joey and Andie waiting on either side of the Wagoneer. “Tell me something I don't know.”

“Albert Einstein's eyes are stored in a safe deposit box in New York City.”

“Get in the car, smartass.” But Jen was right. He hadn't known that, and the thought would haunt him. Why exactly did he surround himself with so many women smarter than he was?

<><><>

Andie's first game suggestions—Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit—were vociferously voted down. They debated other games without attaining a majority until Jack's discovery of the stash for upcoming Halloween led to the idea of a poker tournament played for candy. The resulting argument over the relative values of M&Ms, Skittles, and Milk Duds was at least as entertaining as the game itself.

Andie was, by far, the worst poker player. She insisted on bluffing, but blushed and stammered so much in the act that no one was ever fooled. Jack was the opposite; he never bluffed, folded when he had nothing, called on mediocre hands, and only raised when he was convinced of victory. For several hands, Pacey studied Jen until he deciphered her tell. She tapped her fingers against her cards when she bluffed.

Joey was his real competition. For as long as he'd known her, Pacey had never been able to tell when she was lying. She could scowl, giggle, or look at him through angelic eyes, and he only had a fifty-fifty chance of calling her bluff. He folded two kings and lost to her pair of deuces; he trusted the strength of his full house until the moment she proudly unveiled a royal flush. His one consolation was that she failed as completely to read him.

Their piles of candy grew while their friends' shrank and finally disappeared. Then the mountains of cavity inducers shifted back and forth, neither able to hold the upper hand for long.

“I'm bored,” Jack lamented, draining another glass of wine.

As the designated driver, Pacey was not partaking. (“And you're terrified of Bessie,” Joey had annoyingly and truthfully stated.) Andie, citing fears of drug interactions, was teetotalling as well. But Jack and Jen were well on their way to utterly sloshed. Joey had ignored all of Pacey's veiled warnings and flat-out pleas and was on her third glass. His winning the tournament would be overshadowed by Bessie murdering him if she thought Joey's drunkenness was in any way his fault.

“I'm not,” said Jen, avidly watching Pacey and Joey play. “How'd you guys get so good?”

“My sister Gretchen taught us in the second grade,” Pacey said as he scooped up the latest pot.

“Third,” Joey corrected. “Christmas break. We were at your house because Dawson was going through one of his intermittent crushes on her.”

“That's right.” Pacey chuckled at the memory. “But he lost every hand, until he got so mad he made that speech about justice and fairness and how he was proud to be bad at a game built on lying.”

As though Joey worried Pacey's words carried some slight on Dawson's character—they didn't; he had nothing but respect for his friend's moral fiber—she added, “He always had a highly developed sense of right and wrong.”

“Black and white,” mused Jen, staring into the dregs of her glass. “And heaven help those who failed to meet his standards.”

Upset by Jen's melancholia and wanting to divert Joey's attention, Pacey said, “Clue was his favorite, right, Jo? Methodical examination of evidence with a hint of the macabre.”

Joey smiled wistfully as she dealt the next hand. “Yeah. He was always good at the dictionary game, too.”

“Pictionary?” Jack asked, perking up. He had made a long, ultimately futile argument in favor of that game earlier in the day.

“No. Dictionary with a D. I don't know if that's the real name or not, but that's what we called it. You know, where one person looks up a word nobody would know, then everyone else writes a fake definition. You get points for guessing the real definition or for making someone guess your fake one.”

“Ugh, sounds like school.” Jack poured himself another glass.

“Sounds like lying,” Jen observed. “I'm surprised it passed Dawson's moral muster.”

“I mentioned that a time or two,” said Pacey. “He pointed out there's a difference between lying and imagination.”

“And it's no wonder you have such extensive vocabularies,” added Andie. “It sounds like fun. We should play it.”

“Can we not?”

Jack's was the only dissenting voice, so Joey and Pacey called the poker tournament a draw. Andie gathered a dictionary, paper, and pencils.

Before they started, Pacey insisted they call Bessie and Mrs. Ryan and tell them everyone was spending the night at Andie's. “There is no way I'm facing both Bess and Grams with this trio of lushes.”

Jack and Jen objected to the label. Joey just giggled. Andie made the calls.

Andie was infinitely better at this than poker. Half the time, she wrote down the correct definition and got the mythical three points for it; the other half, she guessed the right one. Pacey usually got suckered in by Joey's fake definitions; years of playing, however, had earned him the ability to write convincingly technical bullshit, and he fooled Jack and Jen about as often as Joey did.

The phone rang in the middle of their fifth round, and Jack—bored, drunk, and grumpy—answered it. “McPhees.” A pause, during which his eyes flashed to Pacey, then he held the cordless out to his sister. “For you. Mark.”

Pacey felt Joey's eyes on him, Jen's as well, but he watched Andie as she, blushing, took the call.

“Hey, Mark, is this important? I'm kind of busy right now....No, no, it's fine. Calm down. Let's talk about it.” She gestured for them to continue without her, before heading upstairs to the privacy of her room.

“Well, come on, Jo,” Pacey said, after a moment of uncomfortable silence. “You can't expect me to go the rest of my life not knowing the meaning of banausic, can you?”

Joey snapped her attention back to the game, and everyone kindly left the matter alone. They played several more rounds without Andie until Jen caught Jack nodding off.

“Hey, wake up, Belvedere.” She slapped him on the arm. “You gotta show us our accommodations.”

“Huh? What?” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Yeah, all right. You girls okay sharing one of the guest rooms? We've only got two. Unless one of you would be comfortable sleeping in Tim's room.”

It had never actually been Tim's room, of course. The McPhees hadn't moved to Capeside until after Tim was killed. But Mrs. McPhee had set up an exact copy of his room in Providence, and, so far, none of the other McPhees had dared change it.

“No, that's okay,” Joey said quickly. “We can share.”

Jen nodded agreement, and the two girls started to follow Jack up the stairs.

Joey stopped when she noticed Pacey still sitting on the couch. “Pace? You coming?”

“Nah. Think I'll wait up a little. Don't worry, I know my way around here.” He said the last with a sardonic smile.

She glanced up the stairs at their disappearing friends then took a step back toward Pacey. “Do you want company? 'Cause I could—”

“Thanks, but no thanks, Jo.” If Andie did come back down, the last thing he wanted was Joey caught in the middle.

“Okay. I'll be right upstairs if you want to talk or whatever.”

Pacey chuckled. “Potter, you're going to pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow, but I appreciate the sentiment.”

Joey gave him a lopsided smile. “Night, Pace.” She hesitated once more, then headed—a little wobbly—up the stairs.

With the room deserted, it was easy to see what a mess they'd made. Pacey decided to put his time to use, tossing out candy wrappers and paper scraps, rinsing wine glasses, straightening cushions. He envisioned a dozen different conversations with Andie, but none progressed the way he hoped they would.

Clean-up finished, Pacey started turning off lights. He resigned himself to waiting yet another day to resolve this when he heard swift steps descending the stairs. Andie paused, cordless in hand, when she spotted Pacey standing below her. He wondered if she was remembering the same thing he was—the last time she stood on those steps looking down at him. Hair brown, heart broken, mind unraveling. All he'd wanted to do was protect her, help her, save her, and he hadn't known how.

He didn't know any better now. “Hey, McPhee,” he said gently.

“Pacey.” She looked at the phone in her hands almost guiltily. “I'm sorry about the call. Mark's girlfriend broke up with him, and I left, and his parents are—well, you don't care about that. He needed someone to talk to.”

“And he called you.”

Spine stiffening, Andie stalked past him to place the phone on the receiver. “You can't be mad at me for that, Pacey. Given how I'm supposed to accept that Joey is your new best friend? You have no right to—”

“I'm not angry, Andie.” Pacey raised his hands in surrender. His tone was as conciliatory as he could make it. “Honest, I'm not.”

“Are you jealous?” Andie sounded almost hopeful.

Pacey had been asking himself the same question ever since he felt those looks from Jen and Joey when the phone call came. “I was jealous,” he answered carefully, but honestly. “This summer, when I found out about the two of you, I was so jealous it made me sick. But tonight, when I heard you talking to him, I felt...I was glad you have someone in your life you can talk to like that. Someone who misses you enough to want to talk for hours, who understands what you're going through and who can help you—and that you can help him. And I was sad because that person's not me anymore.”

“Pacey.” Andie's eyes were sapphires of tears, spilling over. His name was both denial and plea on her lips. But she didn't say anything else.

Pacey cleared his throat, blinking back his own tears. “You changed my whole life, McPhee. You were the first person who ever saw something special in me. You challenged me and pushed me, drove me, uplifted me, all-around shaped me into a person I never thought I could be.” He forced a self-deprecating laugh, but his throat closed around it. “More than that, you made me so happy. I don't know if you've noticed this, but happiness isn't exactly overflowing around here. But with you, I was. Filled to the brim with joy, every time you were around.”

“You made me happy, too. I love you, Pacey.” The words emerged in a sob.

Pacey's own tears pushed past the barrier of his eyelids as he pulled Andie close. He stroked her hair and let her cry into his chest. “I love you, too, Andie. I love you too much to pretend to feel something I don't anymore.”

“But how do you know you won't feel it again. We were apart for five months. Shouldn't we try longer than a week?”

“I don't think it's about trying. It's about that feeling, that feeling I used to get every time I looked at you. When every beat of my heart felt like it was pounding your name.”

“And now it's beating to a different rhythm.” She laid her hand against his chest and looked up at him with a watery, bitter smile. “Joey. Joey. Joey.”

Pacey dropped his hold on her and stepped back. “This isn't about her.”

“You've done such a good job at not lying to me tonight. Don't start now.”

Slowly, Pacey nodded. “Okay. It's about Joey. And it's about Mark. But it's also not about anything except me and you. Because Joey and Mark never would have happened if you and I truly belonged together.”

“You believe that?”

“Yeah, I do. There are as many different kinds of love in this world as there are people in it. And I'm so grateful that I fell in love with you, Andie, that my first love was transformative and beautiful and inspiring. But I'm also grateful I can stand here now and love you and see you, just as beautiful, just as inspiring, without needing my life to revolve around you.”

“And what if my world still revolves around you?”

“Andie.” He shot her a knowing grin. “Your life never revolved around me. You're way too smart, way too ambitious, and not nearly Capesidian enough to sink in those co-dependent waters.”

Andie giggled softly, a sound he blessed. She put a hand on his cheek with a fond smile. “Pacey Witter, what am I going to do without you? Even while breaking my heart, you make me feel so good.”

“You're not going to be without me. I made you a promise once, remember? I want to stay your friend, McPhee. For life, if you'll have me.”

What was it with him and girls with sad smiles? Andie's variation in that moment almost floored him. “It may take me a little time to recover, but, in the long run, I think that's way too good an offer to refuse.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “Good night, Pacey.”

He gave her one more tight, swift hug before letting her go. “Goodbye, McPhee.”

Andie reached the stairs before turning back. “One last thing. I promise I'm not trying to be spiteful, but I care about you too much to let you wander blindly into heartbreak, so if I'm overstepping, I'm sorry, but I gotta say this even if—”

“Just say it,” Pacey interrupted her rambling preface.

Andie took a deep breath, pained eyes locked on his face. “She is never going to love you the way she loved him.”

Pacey nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

<><><>

After finding his room, turning down the sheets, and stripping to his boxers, Pacey lay awake far into the night. He stared at the shadowy walls of the McPhees' smaller guest bedroom and worried about Andie. Could he have been kinder? Did he speak too soon? Would they be able to maintain a friendship? At the same time, he felt relieved to be free. Not of her, not even of the relationship, but of the false position, the duplicity, being torn in two.

He wondered if Jack would hate him for this.

Mostly, inevitably, he thought about Joey. Andie's parting words had only put voice to a truth Pacey had known since he'd realized he loved her. Since long before. Probably since first grade, when Pacey received a packaged Scooby Doo valentine, like the rest of the class, while Dawson was given an elaborate, homemade card.

Joey was always going to love Dawson, and that was okay. That was the right and true center of their universe. But where did that leave him? Was he supposed to be her crying shoulder for the rest of his life, burying his own feelings and pining away for her? Or should he date some girl he didn't care about because it was preferable to loneliness?

Pacey didn't think he was cut out to be a monk or a martyr. But the idea of turning his back on Joey, of giving up on her, made him ill. Trying to picture being with another girl—be it Andie, Kristy Livingstone, or Heather Graham—left him cold. Given enough time, a year or five, he should be capable of either suppressing his feelings again or getting over them altogether. Until then, he'd continue what he'd been doing for months, being the best friend to her he could possibly be.

A door was thrown open, and Pacey heard footsteps rushing down the hall. Light flooded under his door from the bathroom across the way, followed by the unmistakable sounds of someone puking into the toilet. And he was pretty sure he knew who the someone was.

Guess it's time to see how good a friend you really are, he thought with a grimace as he forced himself out of bed and across the hallway.

The bathroom door was open. Uncovered bulbs around the vanity bathed the room and the expensive, white marble tiles in unforgiving light, exposing Joey's bare feet and her long, slender legs to Pacey's appreciative view. As if to torture him further, she wore nothing but baby blue cotton panties and a white t-shirt, with a tempting inch of creamy skin exposed between the two. But her head lolled over the toilet bowl, face hidden by the swaths of hair falling in all directions as she continued to retch.

That alone was enough to keep Pacey from obsessing over a sight he had no right to witness. “Easy there.” He gathered her chestnut locks, pulling them up and away from her face. The bottom two inches on the right were dripping with vomit. Carefully gripping her hair at ponytail height with one hand, he rubbed the other in soothing, clockwise circles over her back. “You're gonna be okay.”

Joey groaned, her position causing the sound to echo. After one last dry heave, she lifted her head, wiping vomit from the corners of her mouth. “I find that impossible to believe. Remind me, why did I think drinking was a good idea?”

Pacey helped her sit back against the claw-foot tub behind her. He refused to notice her transparent shirt and lack of a bra, turning away to rummage the cabinets for toothpaste. “Because it feels so damn good in the moment.” He found a bottle of mouthwash and figured that would do. He poured a capful and handed it to her.

“Cheers.” Joey lifted it in an ironic salute. She gargled then spit in the toilet, before flushing the acid waste. “Thanks for not saying I told you so.” She leaned her head back against the tub rim, too wiped to move.

Pacey shrugged. “I figure any day you end with barf in your hair, you've probably suffered enough.”

Joey lifted portions of her hair until she found the offending section. “Gross.” She glared at the sink three steps away as though reaching it was an ordeal for which she had to prepare herself.

“Here. Let me wash it for you.” Pacey pulled a decorative gray footstool over for Joey to sit on then turned on the tap in the bathtub and let the water warm. When the temperature felt right, he knelt by the tub and cupped the back of Joey's neck with his hands. “Lean back, Potter.”

“You're not going to drown me, are you, Witter?” Joey asked, bemused. But she closed her eyes and did what he said. He felt the weight increase as she relaxed into his touch.

“Damn, you've uncovered my dastardly plot.” Supporting Joey's head with his right hand, Pacey used his left to draw her thick, dark hair under the stream. At first, he concentrated on washing out the stinking residue, but he soon became lost in the rare intimacy of the moment. Her closeness, her absolute trust, the feel of her silken tresses between his fingers.

A bottle of herbal shampoo stuck out of a bath basket suspended from the side of the tub. It was labeled Sea Mist, whatever that meant. It wasn't one of Andie's usual scents, probably kept here for guests. Pacey couldn't resist. “Sit up a second, Jo.”

Joey's eyes fluttered open, widening in surprise when she saw him squeezing shampoo into his hands. But she didn't say a word in protest. Expression indecipherable, she watched his hands lathering up.

“Lean back,” he said again.

This time, she did so without a sassy remark, just bent her head backwards over the tub and stared up at him with unfathomable dark eyes. Brown irises were almost swallowed by the black pupils.

Pacey kept his eyes on hers as he gathered up the trailing ends of her hair and worked shampoo into them, drawing the soapy tendrils ever closer to her head. When he'd centered it all, he began massaging her scalp with his fingertips, wondering why this felt like the most erotic thing he'd ever done with a woman.

Slowly, Joey's eyes fluttered shut again. Her lips parted. Her breasts brushed her t-shirt with every breath, revealing peaks tight and straining. Pacey remembered how they felt in his hands and redirected his attention to her hair. He pressed his fingers along the contours of her skull, learning its shape.

Joey moaned, body arching toward his touch. Her eyes flew open, a flush of shame suffusing her face.

Pacey cleared his throat, pretending not to notice as he restarted the water. He tried to stay detached as he rinsed off the shampoo. He listed off the table of elements in his head in order to kill his raging hard-on before Joey sat up and noticed. His approval of Joey Potter in her underwear had distracted him from his more than equal state of undress. Wasn't much chance of hiding an erection in an old pair of boxers.

The Noble gases are Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, he thought desperately. Krypton always made him think of Kryptonite and Superman, comic books and ridiculous men in tights with their underwear on the outside. The distraction worked, and Pacey finally felt it safe to turn off the water.

“Uh, wait here a sec. I'll grab you a towel.” The tall cupboard by the door had guest linens. He took a medium-sized, lavender towel for Joey.

Contrary to his instruction, Joey stood while he was gone, but leaned forward, letting her hair drip in the tub. And in the process gave him a phenomenal view of her ass which threatened to undo all of Dr. Mendeleev's good work. “Here.” He draped the towel over her head, careful not let any part of his body touch hers.

Joey lifted her hands, twisting the towel into some elaborate contraption Pacey had seen on his sisters' heads from time to time. She straightened, though her eyes locked on something the height of his elbows and forty degrees to his right. “Thanks, Pacey. Night.” She raced past him—her fingers brushed the back of his wrist, and he felt it like a burn—down the hall and into her shared room. The door shut firmly behind her.

“Night, Jo,” Pacey breathed to the empty room.

He thought, as he headed back to the other guest room, he might need to revise his timetable for getting over Joey. Twenty years, maybe, or fifty. Maybe when he was so old his dick didn't work, his nose couldn't distinguish the scents of jasmine and a sea breeze, his fingertips had lost sensation, and his heart had all it could handle continuing to beat—maybe then he'd forget her.

Or maybe not.

<><><>

When Pacey woke the next morning, the sun was streaming in the window. The shadowy walls of the night were revealed as a pale blue—a blue which reminded him far too viscerally of Joey Potter's panties. The memory of last night played before his eyes. Almost he convinced himself it was a dream, the product of his dirty mind. But if he'd dreamed it, he damn well wouldn't have let Joey out of that room unkissed.

No, it was real. And now he was going to have to go downstairs and face her like nothing had happened. With all of their friends watching.

Oh God. Andie. She couldn't be happy about facing him, either. He hoped like hell she had slept through the night. At least through the interesting parts of it.

He couldn't hide here forever. It wasn't even his house. Besides, he had to drive everyone home, and he had work this afternoon. Pacey forced himself out of bed. He pulled on yesterday's discarded clothes then made a quick pit stop at the restroom. Refusing to look at the tub, he relieved himself and washed his face and hands.

Not an inch more comfortable in his skin, he descended to the McPhees' ground floor. The smell of fresh coffee drew him toward the kitchen. He found Jack and Jen in the dining room. Jack had pushed away the pancakes and coffee in front of him and laid his head down on his arm, flung long against the table. Jen had her elbows resting on the table, her forehead vised in her hands as she glared down at her own breakfast.

“Morning, sunshine,” he greeted them both with a bright grin.

Jen's glare transferred instantly to him. “I hate you.”

Pacey chuckled and kissed her hair. “Aww, Lindley, you sure know how to brighten a fellow's day.”

“Seriously, hate you.”

“Next time we do this, I'm pouring a bottle of wine down your throat,” Jack said. The threat was undermined when he covered his eyes with his hand to shut out the light.

“Sounds like fun. Andie or Jo up yet?”

“Andie's in the kitchen,” Jen muttered. “Joey's still in bed.”

“Okay. Think I'll see if I can find some aspirin for your heads.”

“You're an angel.” Jen acknowledged no discrepancies between that and her previous statements, before laying her head down on folded arms.

Pacey remembered the McPhees' stash of communal medicines being in the cupboard next to the refrigerator, which meant braving Andie. But he'd rather see her first alone. That's where the coffee was, anyway.

Andie was making more pancakes when he entered. He didn't want to startle her, so he made plenty of noise approaching. “Are you kidding me? Morning after I dump you, you're making me pancakes? You're too good for this world, McPhee.”

She turned long enough to shoot him a small smile. “Who said any of these are for you?”

“You forget I'm passing math now. I know you can't eat a stack that high, and if Joey's anything like Nick and Nora out there this morning, she won't be a lot of help. So either you've got more people stashed away in this labyrinth, or you really are aiming to add World's Best Ex-girlfriend to your trophy shelf.”

Andie added the last flapjack to the stack before turning off the burner. “Fine. Take some. Despite the fact that you've mentioned dumping me twice in less than a minute.”

Pacey winced. He'd been trying to disarm the situation with flippancy, but now he felt like an ass. “I'm sorry, Andie.” He rubbed one arm lightly. “How are you, really?”

Andie pulled away from his touch. She busied herself with fixing a plate of pancakes, taking three for herself and drizzling a commercial-perfect amount of syrup on them. “Surprisingly okay, I think. Part of me knew it was coming back in the summer, and the rest of me realized it the first day I got back. Everything was so different, you know? I just didn't want to face it.” She stepped back to allow Pacey room to fix his plate. “Because you were the best part of my life this past year. You were one of the best parts of my life ever. And it's hard to let go of that.” For the first time, she sounded a little teary.

Pacey put down his breakfast and turned toward her. “Andie—”

“No, it's all right, Pacey. I spent a lot of time last night thinking about this, and I've reached some other conclusions as well. Firstly, I'm not sure I believe any one person can be the 'right' one. I think there are right people for different times in our lives. You were that person for me then, you're not now, and, whether you ever are again or not, I need to move forward with my life, not dwell in the past. I have six weeks of school to catch up on, SATs to prepare for, and extracurriculars to expand. College will be here before we know it, and I have no intention of slipping behind the curve over a high school romance gone bad.”

Pacey smiled as he watched Andie's indomitable spirit rise again. “I'd say that sounds just about right, McPhee. What's the second thing?”

“Oh. When news of this gets around, I dumped you, capisce?”

“That's how I remember it,” he agreed and held out his hand for her to shake.

She did; then their grips softened. They both looked at their joined hands, recognizing the end of something precious.

“Oh.” Joey stumbled in the doorway. “I'm sorry. I didn't know. I'll just—”

“No, it's fine.” Andie dropped Pacey's hand. “We're done here.” She gave Pacey one last, sad smile then grabbed her breakfast and headed for the dining room. “Help yourself, Joey.”

She meant to breakfast, but Pacey wanted to sink through the floor at that last remark. He turned to the cupboards, grabbing two mugs and a bottle of aspirin. “Coffee, Jo?”

“Yes, please. I'm really sorry, Pace. I didn't know you were in here. Jen said coffee, and I—”

“Don't worry about it. How you feeling this morning?” Pacey poured them each a mug from the McPhees' state-of-the-art machine. Joey took hers black, as did he.

“I thought I'd been run over by a truck, but then I saw Jack, and now I think I was only hit by a sledgehammer.”

“Well, this should help.” Pacey held out the coffee in one hand and two aspirin in the other.

“Thanks.” He hoped it was his imagination that she took extra care not to let their skin touch while retrieving the items.

“No problem. I promised some to Jen ten minutes ago, so I should probably get out there. Take some pancakes. They'll be good for you.”

Pacey carefully balanced his breakfast, coffee, and the painkillers as he headed back to the dining room. Andie was lecturing her brother on the recklessness of intoxication.

“Who provided the wine?” Jack griped. He quickly swallowed the pills Pacey handed him.

“I assumed you could be trusted to drink responsibly. Guess now we know once and for all which of us is the older, more mature sibling.”

Pacey coughed something that sounded suspiciously like, “the blues.”

Andie ignored him.

Jen downed her aspirin, but wrinkled her nose at Pacey's massive stack of pancakes. “God, are you really going to eat all that?”

In answer, Pacey cut off a bite through all six flapjacks and stuffed the laden fork in his mouth. “Mmm.”

Joey joined them, though she took a seat at the far end of the table. She only had one pancake, but, unlike Jack and Jen, she started eating it. “Thanks for breakfast, Andie.”

“You're quite welcome, Joey.” The stilted formality lingered between them. Pacey hoped, with time, that would disappear, and they could be friends again.

“You two slugs better perk up soon,” Pacey told Jen and Jack. “If Grams sees you like that, you'll be saying Hail Marys for a month.”

“Grams isn't Catholic,” Jen protested, but weakly.

Jack glared at Pacey. “You're not making me face her before I've recovered, man. I'm supposed to be Jen's good influence. Grams likes me.”

“That's 'cause of your consistently cheerful disposition.” Pacey grinned at his friend's misery. “But you have one hour to make yourself pretty for her; then the bus is leaving. Some of us have to work today.”

Jack groaned but pushed himself up out of the chair. “Gonna go shower. If any of you lovely ladies chooses to murder Pacey while I'm gone, please take pictures for me.”

<><><>

An hour later, a moderately recovered Jack, Jen, and Joey piled into the Wagoneer with Pacey. Jack invited Andie to the Ryans', but she declined. She wanted to delve into her makeup work.

After leaving Jack and Jen at their house, Pacey drove a silent Joey home. Bessie was out in the yard, raking leaves for Alexander to jump in. Pacey couldn't resist taking a flying leap into the nearest pile. Alexander laughed as Pacey showered him with leaves.

“Just so you know, you're the one who gets to rake all this up again.” Bessie looked both amused and irritated.

“No problem, Bess.” Pacey lounged in the leaves, breathing deep of the pleasant, earthy smell. “My next day off. I'll clean out the gutters, too.” He swept Alex into the pile in a barrage of tickles. When the toddler squirmed away, he jumped to his feet and headed for Joey. “Your turn, Potter.”

Joey shrieked, taking refuge behind her sister. “Thought you had to get to work?”

“Not till one. Just had had enough of Curmudgeon Jack.”

“In that case, we probably have time to do our chemistry assignment before you go.” Joey swept wide around him and into the house.

“So instead I'm stuck with Killjoy Potter,” he muttered to himself. But he abandoned the baby and the leaves to follow her inside.

Most of their teachers had been sparing in homework this weekend because of the PSATs, but they did have a short set of questions to work for chemistry. As Pacey's supplies were at his house, he had to borrow paper and pen from Joey and share her book. Which meant sitting close enough to smell the Sea Mist shampoo in her hair. Torture. Being friends with this girl was pure torture.

Joey noticed his antsiness—he couldn't sit still, pulling away, drawing in closer—but misattributed the cause. “Are you hungry, Pace? I could fix you lunch before you go.”

“No, thanks. Ate too many pancakes.”

“What then? Do you have to go to the bathroom? You're a little old for the potty dance.”

Pacey jumped to his feet, stalking around the room. “I think I'm just wound up, you know? Between the test and the games, I've been sitting on my ass all weekend. Maybe I should take a walk or something.”

“Okay. I'll go with you.” Joey reached for her jacket without a word of reproach about their unfinished homework. Maybe he was rubbing off on her a little.

Pacey slipped on his own jacket as they headed back outside. Joey told her sister what they were doing, and Bessie waved them off. They turned as one down the road they used for their jogs.

“It would be nice if we could run. Winter will be here before you know it.” Joey kicked a rock by her feet.

Pacey wondered if she was thinking of the first winter without Dawson, but was unwilling to ask. “Yeah. Maybe next weekend.”

Her gloved hands were right there by her sides, inches away. Pacey shoved his into his coat pockets.

“Pacey, I wanted to say again I'm sorry about this morning. Whatever I said about Andie, she's a great girl, and I'm really glad you two were able to work things out.” The words burst from Joey in one long breath.

Pacey laughed. “Uh, thanks, Jo. But we broke up.”

“What!? When?”

“Last night, after her phone call. We both kinda knew it was over, so we talked things out and decided to be friends.”

Joey stopped mid-stride, gaping at him. “Just like that? You break up last night, and this morning you're holding hands and smiling? I don't think you comprehend how breakups are supposed to work.”

“Wailing in sackcloth and gnashing of teeth doesn't hold much appeal for me.”

Joey resumed walking, but she shook her head in disbelief. “When Dawson and I broke up, we could barely be in the same room together without biting each other's heads off.”

“That's 'cause you're dysfunctional,” Pacey teased.

Joey shoved him, both hands pushing his arm, knocking him off-balance for a step. “Like you're the poster child for functional relationships. Jailbait.”

The sideways dig at his affair with Tamara made him smile. “All I know is I care about Andie, and I'd rather be her friend than her enemy. I hope she feels the same; I think she does.”

“Suddenly, I realize why Jack was so irritated with you this morning. Who is this mature adult, and what have you done with my friend Pacey?” But she smiled as she said it, so there was no sting.

“Hey, who's the one who wouldn't jump in the leaves?” Pacey bumped her hip with his own. Somehow, in that swift moment, his hand left his pocket and caught hers.

Joey kept walking. But she didn't pull away. When they turned for home, her fingers were laced with his.

Chapter Text

All things considered, Pacey decided he should stop by the McPhees' Monday morning and see if Andie wanted a ride to school. But he was relieved when there was no answer to his knock. He spotted her Saab in the parking lot at school when he arrived.

Andie had been completely serious in explaining the shift in her focus. In the ensuing days, Pacey never saw her without books or notes in hand. Even during lunch, though she continued to eat with the gang, she was working.

Jack watched his sister closely but, for the moment, didn't seem too concerned with her drive. Pacey took his cues from Jack and chose not to worry either. On learning of their breakup, Jack's only response had been a hand on Pacey's shoulder and an, “I'm sorry, man. But maybe it's for the best.” Apparently, Andie had told him her altered version of events. Pacey was too grateful to have his friendship with Jack intact to tell him the truth.

Joey's animosity toward Andie evaporated overnight. She sometimes dropped her gaze or stopped mid-sentence with a guilty flush, but she made no further attempts to avoid the group. Andie, lost in her studies, treated Joey with the same distracted friendliness as she did everyone else.

With the end of the PSAT craze, Pacey started noticing the Halloween decorations plastered across town. Everywhere he went, jack-o'-lanterns and skeletons grinned at him. Witches flew over houses; ghosts hung in trees; spiders and bats clung to rafters. Each sight of them tightened a knot in Pacey's belly which had nothing to do with fear.

Halloween had been Dawson's favorite holiday. The celebration always started mid-afternoon with a visit to the haunted house in nearby Pocasset. When they were kids, Dawson designed a map of the perfect trick-or-treating route—one which took them to most of the houses with name-brand candy and avoided all traces of pencils or religious tracts. As they got older, he planned stunts and practical jokes for them to play on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters to the Leery house. The night ended with Pacey and Joey staying over for a horror movie marathon. Joey's terror and Dawson's love of scary movies meant staying up until dawn and calls in sick to school the next day. Even Pacey's parents hadn't ever thought to scold him for treating November 1st as a second holiday.

Now, for the first time, there would be no tarantulas climbing on children's shoulders, no convincing Joey they really did hear footsteps on the stairs, no zombies rising from the leaf piles to send the bravest kids running. Pacey wanted to rip down all those decorations, smash every damn pumpkin. Halloween without Dawson shouldn't exist.

Joey became quieter and sadder as the days went by. Pacey didn't need to ask why. But their friends couldn't be expected to understand the sacredness of that day; Jen had spent only one Halloween in their midst, and the McPhees hadn't moved to Capeside until after that. They spent several lunch periods debating costumes or no costumes and whether to go to a party. Pacey and Joey didn't contribute.

A few days before the dreaded one, Jack slid into a seat between his sister and Jen—the cold weather had driven them to the cafeteria till spring—and announced, “I've got the perfect Halloween plan. Turns out there's a giant haunted house every year in Pocasset. What do you say we head down there, scare ourselves silly, and get up to some mischief and mayhem where no one we know is any the wiser?”

Jen's eyes lit up. “I'd say if you'd only agree to be the angel to my devil, it would be the perfect night.”

“Sorry, Jack,” said Andie, not looking up from the essay she was writing. “But I'll pass. It's a school night, remember?”

“Every night's a school night with you,” Jack muttered, but brightened as he looked to the others. “Joey, Pacey, you in?”

“You could bring your hot surfer along if you want,” Jen urged Joey.

“I'm not seeing him anymore, and I can't go anyway, because I told Bessie I'd hand out the candy this year.”

Pacey shot Joey a look, but she was picking at her mystery meat and didn't meet his gaze. Why hadn't she told him the Ken doll was history?

“Pacey?”

Pacey pulled his attention across the table to Jack. “Huh? What?”

“You coming with us or not?”

“Oh. Not.”

“Why not, man? This seems right up your alley.”

“Uh, well, Andie's right, it is a school night, and, anyway, we're getting a little old for Halloween, don'tcha think?”

Joey shot up from the table, grabbing her tray and hurrying out with only a mumbled, “Excuse me.”

Pacey winced. He'd said whatever came to mind to get out of the event, but he should have thought first. His stupid mouth. Always and ever, him and his stupid mouth.

“What was that about? Is Joey all right?” Jen asked.

“No,” was all Pacey said before he wadded up the remnants of his lunch and headed after her.

He didn't find her before the bell rang, which led him to believe she'd taken refuge in the girls' bathroom. She arrived late to Chemistry, eyes red and puffy, ignored Pacey's whispered attempts at conversation, and took off as soon as class was done.

She would have ridden to Mrs. Ryan's with Jack and Jen, though she knew Pacey had the day off, if Pacey hadn't grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her toward the Wagoneer.

“Everything okay?” Jack asked, watching Joey pull against him.

“Everything's fine, man. We'll be right behind you.”

“Joey?” Jen asked from the front seat of Jack's car.

Joey stopped fighting, glared at Pacey's impassive face, and sighed. “We're good, Jen. See you in a few.”

Jack started up his car while Joey marched angrily to Pacey's. She hopped in without waiting for Pacey to open her door.

“Wanna tell me what that stunt was all about, or are you simply devolving to your Neanderthal origins?” she spat as soon as Pacey slid into the driver's seat.

“You were avoiding me, and I wanted a chance to apologize.”

Joey snorted. “By manhandling me? Charming.” She looked out the passenger side window as Pacey drove out of the school's parking lot. “Apologize for what?”

“For what I said at lunch. I know how it must have sounded, implying I didn't care about Halloween. I didn't want to drop another load of angst on our friends when they're all set to go out and have a good time. But I haven't done anything this week except think about Dawson and all the things we'd be doing if he were here.”

“Me, too,” Joey said softly. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap.

“I know. I guess maybe we should have talked about it, huh?”

She looked at him then, one half of her mouth quirking up in a joyless smile. “What is there to say?”

“I don't know. We could talk about that year Dawson disappeared in the haunted house then attacked us in the clown room.” Pacey chuckled. “You nearly peed your pants.”

“We could talk about that time Kristy Livingstone told you two off for scaring her little brother. You moped around like a beaten puppy for weeks.”

Pacey winced. “I take your point.” He saw the Ryans' driveway approaching and made an abrupt subject change. “So why didn't you tell me you broke up with that Eric guy?”

“It didn't come up.” Joey shrugged and bit her lip, before adding, “I wouldn't call it breaking up, anyway. We only went out twice.”

Pacey stamped down an uncalled-for sense of elation. “What happened?”

“Nothing happened. I just told him I didn't think we were a good fit.”

Pacey parked but didn't turn off the engine or make any attempt to leave. “Because of Dawson?” he asked gently.

“Well, yeah, I mean, obviously, that was part of it, but also...” She groaned. “This is going to sound stupid.”

“You realize you're talking to the King of Stupid here, right?”

“Fine. He smiles too much.”

Pacey nearly laughed as Joey echoed his first impression of Eric Carter. He realized his own grin was splitting his face and reined it in. “Too much smiling? Awfully high standards you got there, Potter. What's next? His earlobes are too big?”

“See? I said it was stupid. But it's...smiling doesn't cost him anything. We were walking on the beach, and he was telling me about himself. Not being self-obsessed or anything, just answering my questions. Anyway, he was talking and smiling, and the worst anecdote he had to relate, his saddest life event, was moving out here and having to leave behind his swim team. Even with that, he was able to see a silver lining, how he'd met me and he still lived by the ocean and he was making new friends. I stood there, watching him smile, and realized he would never understand anything about my life. And that I didn't want him to.”

“Jo...” Pacey didn't know what to say. Selfishly, he was glad she'd kicked Mr. Perfect to the curb, but his heart broke for her loneliness, her estrangement from the world.

Joey smiled at him—that crooked half-smile which cost her so damn much every time. “Don't worry about it, Pace. Somewhere in this world, there's gotta be someone as screwed-up as I am, but I'm not in any hurry to find him.” She jumped out of the car and ran into Jen's house.

Pacey sat a moment longer, reflecting that if a fucked-up life was her criteria, he certainly fit the bill. But whatever Joey thought, she deserved better. She deserved someone perfect, someone better even than Eric Carter. She deserved Dawson Leery.

<><><>

Halloween arrived. The festive atmosphere infected even the jaded halls of Capeside High. Pacey and Joey were the only ones not feeling the excitement. Their friends noticed and associated it correctly with their loss, without pressing for details. They moderated their spirits accordingly, but Jack confirmed he and Jen were going to the haunted house that night. Pacey hoped they had a blast. Dawson would want them to.

It was that thought which finally reached Pacey in the midst of his depression. His original plan for Halloween night—go to bed as early as possible and pretend it wasn't happening—did nothing to honor Dawson's love for the most theatrical of holidays. They couldn't celebrate it the way they used to. Pacey had no heart for practical jokes, and Joey was still on a movie blackout. But that didn't mean they should do nothing.

By the end of the school day, Pacey had a plan. A simple plan, but one he believed Dawson would approve, while blending with the changed nature of his and Joey's relationship in their friend's absence. He told Joey he forgot something at home and sent her to the Ryans' with Jen and Jack to pick up Alexander. Their friends would be changing into costumes and heading to Pocasset, while Joey was in charge of preparing Alexander's early dinner, before Bessie got home to take him trick-or-treating.

Pacey, meanwhile, made a quick trip to the market, where he loaded up on junk food—caramel apples, microwave popcorn, spiced cider, those vampire teeth filled with disgusting sugary goop, anything else that caught his eye. Then he made a quick stop at home for one last item before driving to the Potters'.

Bessie's truck was parked outside. Pacey was glad she'd been able to get off early the way she'd wanted. She didn't get enough chances to have fun with her son.

Pacey slung his backpack over his shoulder and carried his bag full of treasures to the door. He hit the doorbell with his elbow. “Trick-or-treat,” he said when Joey answered the door with a bowl of candy.

With a raised eyebrow, she opened the screen for him. “As I recall, you never said that without adding the juvenile, 'smell my feet, give me something good to eat.' The first I decline emphatically. For the second, I can try to interest you in tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“Sounds good.” He couldn't see Bessie or Alex, but the light was on in the nursery. “Bess putting his costume on?”

Joey smiled, her first of the day. “Yup. He's going to be the least fierce lion you've ever seen.” She eyed the paper bag in his hands. “What's that? We don't need groceries, Pace.”

Pacey shifted it out of her reach. “This is your treat. But work before play, and dinner before dessert. So feed me, woman. I'm starving.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “With manners like that, you should prepare yourself for a long life of bachelorhood.” But she warmed him some soup and grilled another sandwich.

Pacey hung his backpack on the chair and shoved the sack under the table near his feet. They didn't have much homework tonight, but there was always a little. He pulled out his trigonometry book, hoping to get through the problems while eating.

Suddenly, he heard Alex's swift steps across the Potters' squeaky, old linoleum. He turned in time to catch the toddler when he threw himself at Pacey with a high-pitched, hilarious, “Rrawwr!”

“Looking good, kid,” Pacey said, as he surveyed the brown felt lion costume with the maned hood obscuring his black curls. Bessie had painted a golden nose and silver whiskers on his dark face. “But the roar needs some work.” He gave his own version, a roar so loud it made Alexander jump and stare up at him in wide-eyed wonder.

They exchanged roars for a minute, while Bessie snapped pictures. Then Bessie took Alexander off for his first trick-or-treat experience. Pacey and Joey sat down to dinner and homework, interrupted only a few times by costumed children begging for candy. It was early yet.

“So,” said Joey, closing the last of her books a little after seven, “again I say, what's in the bag, Pacey?”

Pacey produced it with a flourish. “Nothing much. Just our new Halloween tradition.”

“Oh.” The eager light in Joey's eyes died. “I don't think I'm up to that.”

“Didn't think I was, either, until I heard Dawson's pesky voice in my head, in that lecture-y tone he does so well, berating me for ignoring the best of all days. He'd want us to enjoy today. You know he would.”

Joey reluctantly nodded. “What's your grand—”

Another ring of the doorbell stopped her short. While Joey dispensed candy, Pacey put a bag of popcorn in the microwave. When he turned around, Joey was peering in at the groceries.

“All that's in here is junk food. How is eating ourselves sick different from any other year?”

“The difference, Miss Josephine, is this.” Pacey reached into the small front pocket of his backpack and pulled out a battered paperback.

The Shining?” She bit her lip. “Really, Pacey? That movie scared me witless.”

“I think my arm has the nail scars to prove it. But, see, that's why this is a good choice. It's scary, a must for Halloween, but we've seen the movie, so we're prepared.”

“How do you know it's not massively different? Movies take liberties, you know, and sometimes chuck their source material in a blender. Have you read it?”

“When there was a movie to watch instead? Please, who do you think you're talking to? But it must be pretty good. This copy was Gretchen's first, but it made the rounds of the Witter household, and—let's face it—we're hardly the most voracious of readers.”

“Or the most discriminating.” But Joey made no more protests. She grabbed the finished popcorn and shook it into a bowl.

After spreading out the rest of their unhealthy feast, Pacey took the first reading. The movie in no way prepared him for the book. Not for the creepy, slow-building intensity, nor for the direct hit to the daddy issues. If he'd foreseen that, he'd have grabbed Carrie instead.

The trick-or-treating interruptions were welcome breaks from a book scarier than any slasher flick Dawson ever made them watch, although several times the doorbell made them jump. When Bessie let herself in, Joey screamed.

“What the hell?” Bessie asked, as Alexander raised his sleepy head from his mom's shoulder.

“Sorry, Bess. It's Pacey's fault.” Joey was seated sideways on the couch and used one of those long legs of hers to kick Pacey at the other end of the sofa.

Pacey grabbed her foot to stop it from happening again. “I am not to blame for you being a skittish kitten.” He tickled her toes, and Joey yanked her foot away.

Bessie laughed. “I don't even want to know. But I'm glad you two decided to snap out of your funk and enjoy the day. I'm putting Alex to bed then gonna watch a movie or something.” With Joey shunning all visual media, the television had been moved to Bessie's bedroom. She placed Alexander's pumpkin bucket of candy down on the couch between them. “Help yourselves. Especially to anything hard or nutty. Alex can't have those yet.”

“Thanks, Bess,” said Pacey, unwrapping a sour apple lollipop. “Happy Halloween.”

“To you, too.” Bessie left them both with a fond smile.

Joey resumed reading. The stream of trick-or-treaters slowed and finally stopped, but they kept reading. They were both too freaked to think of sleeping—Joey insisted she would never sleep again—and abandoning the book was inconceivable.

Without external interruptions, they found themselves commenting on what they read, to get a breather, and that sometimes led into long conversations. At one point, Pacey admitted how Jack Torrance's unraveling spoke to his own deep-rooted fear that turning into his father was inevitable.

“That will never happen,” Joey protested. “You're nothing like him.”

“I never knew my gramps, but, from what I've heard, he was as hard on Pop as Pop ever was on me. Harder. And Doug...things have been better lately, don't get me wrong, but sometimes, when he pulled his gun or called me an idiot, I'd swear Pop was looking out at me through his eyes.”

Joey shivered. Probably not the best observation, given their reading material.

“I can't help but wonder if there's a switch in my brain that's gonna flip someday, and I'll be the one calling the name or wielding the strap.”

“I think we all wonder if we can escape our parents' legacies. Every day, I'm afraid I'm going to be stuck here all my life, going nowhere. Some days, I think about dying young. Getting cancer, like my mom. Or...since Dawson...something more abrupt.”

Pacey grabbed her hand and held on tight. A world without Joey was a more terrifying thought than any they'd read tonight.

“But I believe in destiny less now than I ever did—and at my highest point, I mostly had faith in Dawson's faith, if that makes any sense. You won't end up like your dad for the same reason I'll never sell drugs, because you make choices every day which keep you from his path.”

Pacey was smiling when he started reading again, though Tony wiped that grin away within two pages.

They talked about other themes, as well. About isolation and dysfunctional families and the inability to truly understand one another—all topics they'd discussed before and ones they knew quite a bit about. They talked about less important things, like whether they believed in ghosts (neither was willing to commit either way) and plans of action in case of a horror-type emergency (“Grab a weapon and get the fuck outta town,” was Pacey's Plan A) and the possibility of ESP.

“When I was nine or ten, I read the Wrinkle in Time books and spent weeks trying to kythe with Dawson.” At Pacey's blank look, Joey clarified, “It was like a type of telepathy. I'd try and send him thoughts with my mind for hours on end. But he never heard any, and I never got any back, so if it exists, I clearly don't have the gift.”

“Andie believes in all of it—fortune telling, ESP, ghosts—and I think that's awesome. To have such limitless belief.” Pacey smiled sardonically. “Must be what made her see potential in a loser like me. But for me, life, the provable reality, has enough crap to bring you down. Searching outside it...if there's nothing there, it's a waste of time. And if there is, let's be honest, I'm more likely to bring additional trouble into my life than anything else.”

“So if someone could tell you your future, one hundred percent guaranteed to come true, you wouldn't want to know?”

Pacey considered it. He thought about the fortune teller at the fair last spring. Her predictions for both him and Andie came true. Andie, who believed hers, had only made herself more upset, anticipating disasters to come. Pacey, who hadn't, resented the woman's words and their fruition. For every chance he'd be told he would travel the world, marry a beautiful woman, and have a perfect family, there were about a dozen he'd learn how he would fail to make anything of his life and die an angry, bitter alcoholic.

“Nah,” he decided easily. “I want to take life moment by moment, same as everybody else. What about you, Potter? You want your fairy godmother to look into her magic mirror and find your glass slipper?”

“Your fairy tales are muddled, my friend. As for the question...” She twirled a tendril of hair between her fingers as she thought. Pacey tried not to think about how that same silky hair had felt sliding over his fingertips. “I guess I would like it if I could have the answers to the questions I asked, but not a word about anything else. I do not want to know the day I'm going to die.”

“Yeah, that would suck. So what would you ask?”

Joey opened the book to read again, and Pacey regretted stepping over the line. But she gave him an answer. “If I'll be alone when I do.” She started the next chapter without letting him respond.

The hours sped by. The horror and tragedy accelerated, drawing Joey ever nearer to him for protection. For the last few chapters, she refused to read, curled up at Pacey's side, practically in his lap. Her nails dug holes in his shoulder and back. She hid her face in the crook of his neck. Though Pacey's own pulse pounded in fear, adrenaline spiking, he wouldn't be human if he didn't find some pleasure in having the woman he loved plastered to his body.

When he reached the epilogue, Pacey found it difficult to voice the words. Hollaran's speech made tears flow like rain down his face. As he finished the book, he was sobbing. He turned into Joey's arms, clinging to her with as much force, though with different emotions, as she had to him.

His head was pillowed against her breasts, arms gripped tightly around her waist. Joey's cheek rested on his hair, one hand playing with the curls at the nape of his neck, while the other rubbed a soothing circle on his back. She whispered soft, comforting words to him. “Shh, Pacey. I know. I know. Just let it out. I'm here. I've got you.”

Embarrassed by the outburst, Pacey pulled away. He forced a laugh, scrubbing at his face, shoving the base of his palms into his eyes to stop the flow. “Shit, Jo, I'm sorry. Don't know what got into me there. Must be exhaustion. What time is it, anyway?”

“Pacey, stop. Look at me.” She pressed on his chin, forcing him to meet her gaze. Joey's face was far too close to his. Close enough he could dive into the fresh-washed pools of her gray-green eyes and follow the tear tracks down her cheeks. “You think I don't know what that was about? You think it didn't make me cry for my dad, too? I'm glad you did. I'd have felt pretty stupid crying alone, and I told you—I want to be there for you in this. Who else do we have?”

Pacey hugged her close, breathing in jasmine and sugar. For every way she made him weak, there were two in which she made him strong. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” Joey's head rested on his shoulder. She fit in his arms like she belonged there. “But, Pace, next year? Let me pick the book.”

He chuckled and pulled her in for one more squeeze before reluctantly letting her go. “Yes, ma'am.” He caught a glimpse of the clock, little hand on the five, big hand between the two and three. “Holy crap, it's morning.”

Joey turned to check the time but was smiling when she faced him. “Guess some traditions don't change. Recovery Day still a recognized holiday in the Witter household?”

“Have to call and find out.” Pacey didn't hold out much hope. Doug had specifically warned him against skipping school, and Ma wasn't likely to condone time spent with Joey Potter. But the thought of eight hours of school after a sleepless, emotionally-draining night made him try anyway. Pacey wasn't sure which family member to hope for as he listened to the dial tone.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Ma.”

“Pacey? Where are you calling from? What trouble you in this time?” She sounded weary, likely just off work—a night shift at dispatch on Halloween—unlikely to be in a congenial mood.

Pacey took a deep breath and smothered a harsh response. “No trouble, Ma. I'm at Joey's. We, uh, we celebrated Halloween like we always do, an all-night horror fest. You know, the way we used to at Dawson's?” His friend would forgive the guilt-inducing usage of his name. “But, uh, I was kind of hoping you'd call in sick for me. Please?”

He heard his mother taking a deep breath of her own. “You're not having sex with that girl, are you, Pacey?”

Even knowing she couldn't hear his mother's side of the conversation, Pacey shot a panicked look at Joey. She was clearing away the remains of their food binge, oblivious. “No, Ma, nothing like that. We read The Shining.”

“Fine. I'll call.”

“Really? Thanks. That's awesome of you.”

“This one time. Because of the occasion.”

“I got it. Understood. Thank you.”

“You know, Pacey, whatever you think, I'm not your enemy.”

Pacey's happiness fled at his mother's hurt tone. “I know that.”

“I don't think you do. I'm your mother. I love you, and I want you to be happy.”

Sometimes he believed that, just that they had vastly different ideas of what would lead to his happiness. Sometimes he found it impossible to comprehend how she could stand aside, approving everything his father did, continually favoring Dougie and the girls, and still claim to love him. But he was in a mood to cherish people in his life, not start fights. “Love you, too, Ma.”

“You'll be here tonight?” Her tone was thirty degrees warmer.

“Save dinner for me.” He said his goodbyes and hung up.

Since Bessie would be up soon and they needed to take Alexander to Mrs. Ryan's before getting some shut-eye, Pacey and Joey made waffles for breakfast. Bessie was suitably grateful and more than happy to call the school office for Joey.

Joey got Alex changed and dressed while Pacey did the dishes. Pacey rowed them across the creek, but Joey insisted he stay in the boat. “Mrs. Ryan has finally started to believe I'm not a wanton whore. I don't want her questioning why I have a boy at my house at seven in the morning.”

“I'd be happy to provide several interesting explanations for that.” Pacey waggled his eyebrows and faked a leer.

Joey ignored him as she headed inside.

Pacey yawned and pinched himself to stay awake. The early morning chill had a distant unreality to it. His brain was fuzzy; he needed sleep. Finally, Joey exited, head close together with Jen's. Probably telling her they were skipping, another detail she wouldn't have provided Grams. Jen nodded, grinning, and waved at Pacey before pulling Jack away to the car.

“Everything go okay?” Pacey asked as he helped Joey back into the boat.

“Aside from Jen wanting to cut with us? Fine. I convinced her we wouldn't be robbing banks or crashing parades, just sleeping, so she left.”

“Anytime you want to take a Ferris Bueller day off, let me know.” A giant yawn belied him. “Just not today.”

It wasn't until they were back in Joey's house that the reality struck him. Here they were, about to share a bed again, and he no longer had any faith in his ability to do that platonically. “You know, I should go home. I'll swing by this afternoon sometime.”

“Pacey, it's fine. Stay. I'll nap in Bessie's room. You can have the couch.”

“Right. Good plan.” He kept nodding his head like an idiot. Why did he want so desperately to pull her into his arms? A few minutes ago, he'd been tired enough to fall over; now, all he wanted was to fall into her.

“You know where everything is.” Joey was moving toward her sister's room. “I'll set the alarm for noon. Can't sleep all day, or we won't sleep tonight. Get some rest, Pace.” With one quick smile, she shut the door, blocking him out.

His brief spurt of energy deserted him with her disappearance. Not bothering to fold out the bed, Pacey kicked off his shoes, grabbed a pillow, and went to sleep.

<><><>

Room after empty room, each one alike and impersonal. Spotless bed, nightstand, lamp, chair, table, television. Hallway after hallway, every door leading to the same, and never finding what he sought. Somewhere water was running. Rain? A bathtub? A sink? He could find no trace of those, either.

“Come on, Pacey.”

Yes, that was it. That was what he was looking for.

“Come on, Pacey. Wake up.”

A rough shake of the shoulders, and Pacey started back to himself. He opened his eyes.

Joey stood in front of the couch, hands on hips. “On your feet, lazybones. I already let you sleep an extra half-hour.” She was freshly showered and seemed fully rested, though Pacey felt tired enough to sleep for a day and a half. Joey wore jeans and a dark green turtleneck sweater. Her hair—he had to stop thinking about her hair—was pulled up and secured at the back with a claw.

“I'm up.” Pacey pulled himself to sitting, rubbing a hand across his face. “I don't suppose there's coffee?”

“Sorry. Would a Coke do the trick?” Joey sat in the armchair, pulling on a pair of black, heeled boots.

Pacey loved that, with all her insecurities, Joey never shied away from her height. To stand five foot ten and have the audacity to wear heels spoke of confidence and strength of which nothing in her life could rob her.

But she never wore shoes inside.

“Going somewhere, Jo?”

“Uh, well, I was kind of hoping you'd take me somewhere.”

Her hesitancy put him on guard. “Where?”

Joey finished tying her laces before she responded. “To the florist. And then to the cemetery.” She pushed non-existent strands of hair behind her ears, but met his gaze steadily. “I'm ready to see him.”

Slowly, Pacey nodded. His own trip to Dawson's grave had been unfulfilling, but Joey's grief was not his. Her healing process was her own. “Okay. No problem. Just give me a few minutes to get ready.”

The instant tension in his gut made skipping lunch an easy choice. But he went to the bathroom, brushed his teeth, washed his face. After a day and a half in the same clothes, he looked like hell and probably smelled worse, but it wasn't like Dawson would notice. And Joey would be too focused on Dawson to care.

Although, when they headed out, she rolled down her window, despite the biting wind, so she maybe cared a bit.

At the florist, Joey picked out a bouquet of lilies for her mother and a single daisy for Dawson—judging by the misty look on her face, some history accompanied that.

“Did you want to get anything for your dad?”

“Pop? He wasn't really the flower sort. I'd buy him a bottle of whiskey, but I'd get carded. Really don't need another Sheriff Witter lecturing me on responsible behavior.”

His attempts to deflect made Joey huff and roll her eyes, but she bought her flowers without further comment.

When Pacey pulled up at the graveyard, Joey sat and looked out the window for long, silent minutes.

“Jo? Are you sure you want to do this? We could come back another time.”

“I didn't visit my mom's grave until after Abby's funeral.” Joey focused on the lines of cold, gray stones. “I told Dawson I hoped if I didn't actually see it, maybe God would give her back to me someday. But I was there when they put him in the ground, and I know...” Her voice broke. She swallowed and soldiered on. “I know he's not coming back. I just want to see that he's...I need to do this. I can't explain it.”

“You don't have to explain anything. Do you want me to come with you?”

For the first time, Joey looked at him, tremulous hope in her eyes. “Would you mind?”

Pacey shook his head, not trusting himself with words. He got out of the car, crossing to help Joey down. She carried her flowers in either hand. Pacey rested his hand between her shoulder blades as they walked into the cemetery. It was the only way he could think to show support.

She walked first to her mother's simple grave. Not any kind of monument there; the Potters could only afford a flat stone in the ground. Joey knelt before it, carefully placing the lilies above her mother's name.

“Hi, Mom,” she almost whispered. She didn't say anything else, but she sat a long time, one hand pressed to the stone. Emotions flickered and changed so often on her face Pacey wondered if she was attempting some kind of “kything” after all, sending silent messages to her mother's spirit.

Pacey remembered Joey's kind, soft-spoken mom. Lillian Potter had been kicked in the teeth by life so often it astonished him she had never turned bitter. Instead, she radiated peace and joy up to the very end. She loved books and art and watching the tide roll in. Mostly, she loved her daughters. While Bessie was a daddy's girl, Joey had lit up around her mother in a way she seldom had since her passing. Her interests, her tastes, had all been formed by Lillian's—and some of them, like art, avoided after her death. If her mother had lived, Pacey thought, even if all that other shit had gone down, Joey might have held onto joy, too.

Eventually, Joey stood. She walked the path toward Dawson's grave, twirling the daisy absentmindedly in both hands. Pacey shoved his into his pockets, too guilty to touch her in front of that cold marble.

Again, Joey knelt and deposited her offering. She ran a finger along the letters of Dawson's name, but said not a word. Then, her shoulders collapsed, and she almost fell against the stone, keening in long, wordless wails. Pacey stood frozen, torn between his first instinct—to hold Joey when she cried—and his fear of disrespecting this place.

When he finally knelt and used his hands to turn Joey's shoulders toward him instead of the grave, Pacey felt as if those lifeless, etched letters were judging him. But Joey was sobbing, and the living trumped the dead.

“It's okay, Jo. Let it out. I got you,” said Pacey, unconsciously echoing some of Joey's words to him earlier in the morning.

Joey cried until there were no tears left. She shuddered with every exhale, though Pacey held her close. Finally, she tilted up her tear-stained, puffy face and pushed off his knees in an attempt to rise. Pacey helped her up; his own legs were stiff from squatting so long in the cold.

Joey took his hand and, wordlessly, started to pull him along. Not back to the jeep. The other direction.

Pacey halted, resisting. “Uh, Jo, where do you think you're going?”

“To visit your father.”

He dropped her hand as if stung. “Have fun with that.”

“Pacey—”

“No. I said when I buried him I wouldn't be back, and I meant it.” He headed back toward the car.

Joey sped past him and stood in his path, two hands to his chest insuring he stopped. “Pacey, you don't want the things you said that day to be your last interaction with your father. I always thought so; after last night, I know it. Go to him, and I'll go with you. Or don't, and find yourself back here in a year or five or ten with it all so bottled up inside you've got nowhere you can escape it.”

Pacey grimaced. “Such a cheery picture you paint, Potter.” He sighed but turned back around. “Come on, then.”

As they walked back—Pacey dragging his feet the whole way—Joey slipped her hand into his and squeezed. But the time was far too short before he found himself facing Johnathan Witter's black granite gravestone.

Beloved Husband and Father.

Pacey snorted. “They couldn't have put Public Servant? At least that would have been accurate.”

Joey didn't respond, but he could hear her voice in his head—or maybe it was Gretchen's, or maybe it was his own—insisting he had loved his father. He did love his father, or it couldn't hurt so damn much.

You grieve for your daddy, and when you feel you have to cry over what happened to him, you go into a closet or under your covers and cry until it’s all out of you again. That’s what a good son has to do. But see that you get on. That’s your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what.

Those were the words of the book which had sent Pacey over the edge, and they returned to him now, standing by his father's grave.

Tears pooled in Pacey's eyes and dripped down his cheeks. When was it going to stop? When was he finally going to process it so the misery could end? His father, the bully, the drunken lout, the abuser. His father, who taught him to play ball and fish and whittle. How was he ever to reconcile those images? Maybe they couldn't be reconciled. Maybe he had to let them both go.

Keep love alive and get on, Pacey told himself again and again.

He knew then the words he had to say if he wasn't going to spend the rest of his life, wherever he went, shoveling dirt in his father's grave.

“I forgive you, Pop.” Even meaning it, the words choked on the way out. But having said them, he felt about fifty pounds lighter. So he said them again. “I forgive you.” He laughed suddenly, the sound terribly out of place in this gray landscape. He didn't care. “Give 'em hell, you old bastard,” he said affectionately.

Joey slipped her hand back into his. Together, they left the graveyard behind.

Chapter Text

Joey Potter never managed to dodge Capeside's rumor mill for long. Hot on the heels of learning she was dating again came the equally shocking news that she had dumped the California dreamboat. Whether spurred by her turning up her nose at the unattainable or the entire male population waking up to a fact Pacey had noted years before—namely, that Josephine Potter was drop-dead gorgeous—the race was on to be her next date.

Joey was alternately bewildered, bemused, and insulted by the steady stream of offers. In chemistry, Pacey witnessed the gentle way she rejected Class President Kenny, while in trigonometry she publicly eviscerated Matt Caufield. He tried not to think about all the boys in all the classes they didn't share.

But by now, he should have known life was crueler than that. Only a few days into November, Elliot Blakenship, honor society president and descendant of Capeside's founding fathers, asked her to dinner and dancing in the middle of the cafeteria. Joey wavered. Pacey kept his expression blank; he dropped his hands to his knees, so no one would notice his fists clenching and unclenching. Jen nodded, grinned, winked, did everything short of shoving Joey into Elliot's GAP-clad lap. Even Andie took her nose out of her history book to watch.

Joey looked from Jen to Pacey before saying uncertainly, “Okay. Sure.”

Jen withheld her speeches of approval until Elliot walked away. Pacey finished his lunch in silence.

“You can wipe that look off your face, you know,” Jen told him later in computer lab.

“What look?”

“That 'the world is out to get me and my friends have turned against me' look. I'm not a traitor for wanting Joey to go out and have a fun time with a nice guy.”

“Never said you were.”

“Your face did.” Jen gave him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “After everything with Dawson, it's such a big step for Joey to be dating again. She's not ready for anything serious yet, Pacey, and I, for one, think you deserve better than to be the transition guy.”

His expressions must not have been as shielded as he thought if Jen could read him so easily, but he didn't bother trying to deny it. Her comforting words had more obvious flaws to dispute. “You suffer from two grievous misconceptions there, Lindley. A, the idea that Joey will ever get over Dawson at all. And B, the notion that she would ever, in a million years, stumble round to me.”

Jen smiled her annoying I-know-better-than-you smile. “We'll see, Pacey. We'll see.”

<><><>

Pacey refrained from asking Joey about her date. If it was obvious to Jen how he was feeling, he would give Joey as few opportunities as possible for noticing. He half feared, half hoped she would tell him about the guy of her own volition, but she mentioned no more than the time and place of their date and that reluctantly.

But it must have gone well because she agreed to a second date. And a third.

The third date was on a Friday night while Bessie and Alex were out of town visiting Bodie. Pacey had a shift that evening at Screen Play and spent too much of his downtime frightening himself with images of Joey, Blakenship, and an empty house.

Time he didn't waste on idle, jealous jackassery was given to debating whether to head to the Potters' after work. He had a perfectly valid reason for being there. Their old furnace had given out. Pacey, with some help from Doug and by consulting books at the library, had found the faulty igniter weeks ago. The new one he'd ordered had finally arrived.

The furnace needed to be fixed, and Pacey had a key. But what if Joey and her date were there? What if he saw with his own eyes the worst, most lurid of his imaginings? Or what if they came home while he was there and Joey decided he was spying on her?

But the weather report prophesied freezing temperatures tonight. He couldn't expose Joey to that. He would have to go and to hell with that nasty voice inside insisting he was glad for the excuse.

When Pacey arrived at the Potters' shortly after ten, there were no cars in the drive, and all the lights were off. Wishful thinking made him hope Joey was already home asleep, but there was no answer to his knock. He let himself in, flicking on the porch light so Joey wouldn't have to walk up in the dark. She would know he was here from the Wagoneer outside, so at least her canoodling with the prepster wasn't something he'd have to witness, whatever tongue-lashing he suffered afterwards.

Thinking about Joey's tongue was not conducive to productivity.

He pushed thoughts of her aside and focused on the furnace. This kind of repair work wasn't something he'd done before, wasn't something he would dare attempt if he didn't know Bessie couldn't afford to call a handyman. He carefully read the relevant portions of the furnace manual, the instructions which came with the part, and a library book he'd brought with him, but he still found himself praying he wouldn't blow up their house. His efficiency was not aided by his constant efforts to hear a car in the drive or his occasional trips to peer out the living room curtains.

Eleven o'clock struck before he heard the tell-tale sounds of tires slowing on gravel. Pacey remained in the mudroom with the furnace—he thought he was about finished; he just had to relight the pilot and keep his fingers crossed—but he stopped working to listen. The bad insulation which made a working furnace a necessity also made eavesdropping that much easier.

At first, all he heard were steps on the walk and muffled voices. Then Joey's key in the lock.

“I believe this is the moment where you invite me in for a drink.”

Pacey's hand tightened around the socket wrench.

“Afraid not. This is the moment where I say good night and try to sneak in without waking my sister and baby nephew.”

Pacey let out a relieved breath. Smart girl, to lie about Bessie being home.

“Well, I guess I'll have to get my good night kiss here and now then.”

If there was a kiss, it wasn't much of one. Nothing Pacey could hear, and the door shut within seconds. He heard the lock twist and was on his way to the living room even before he heard Joey call, “Pacey?”

“Hey, Jo.” He realized his hands were covered in grease and wiped them ineffectually on his jeans.

“What are you doing here?” She surveyed his appearance, the socket wrench in his left hand. “Friend with a power drill supposed to take the place of daddy with a shotgun?” She sounded amused, not pissed.

“I, uh, I got that part for the furnace, and I thought you might need heat tonight. You're just in time for the test run. Though you might want to wait outside.”

“I'll risk it.”

Joey followed him to the furnace, where Pacey opened the gas valve and lit the pilot. The furnace made a clanking sound then roared to life.

“Way to go, Mr. Vila,” Joey said with a tired smile. “Thank you.”

Pacey smiled back. This had all gone much better than expected. “No problem. I mean, what else is yours truly going to do on a Friday night?”

Joey tilted her head in consideration. “That's pretty sad, Pace. When did we switch places and you become the loser with no social life?”

“According to widely held belief, I've always been a loser and my social life questionable at best. After all, I hang out with you.”

“Appalling taste, Mr. Witter,” Joey said in a laughably bad impression of the yacht club set. “Have you no class at all?”

“Yeah, eight of them. At school, Monday through Friday.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “Seems the furnace isn't going to explode immediately, so I'm gonna change and get out of these shoes.” Intricately strapped black heels peeked out beneath her long winter coat. “You're welcome to stay and hang out for a while if you want.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” An evasion because he knew he should go and knew equally well he would stay. “I need to put stuff away and clean up a little first.”

While Joey went to the bathroom to get ready for bed, Pacey packed up the tools and diagrams he'd used, then scrubbed his hands in the kitchen sink until only the most stubborn grease remained under his nails. He'd get that tomorrow.

With the heat only now kicking in, the house held a distinct chill. Joey bundled up in red and blue flannel pajamas and thick wool socks. She didn't pull out her bed, but grabbed a comforter and curled up on one side of the sofa.

Pacey sat on the other end, but Joey lifted the blanket, inviting him closer. “I'm freezing. Warm me up.”

He ignored the warning bells in his brain and scooted over beside her. She tented her legs over him, her heels touching his right thigh, while her own slim thighs brushed his left. She wasn't exactly sitting in his lap, but when his hand squeezed her knee and was allowed to remain, he didn't give a rat's ass about the distinction.

Stifling a yawn, Joey reached for a red, hardcover book on the end table behind her. “Read to me?”

“Sure.” Pacey looked at the cover. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Despite Miss Jacobs teaching it, after Ethan Frome Pacey would have been happy to never read that particular author again, but he flipped to Joey's bookmark. He didn't care about missing the story; he only wanted to stay near her.

The book was one of those classic novels of which Pacey never saw the point. It was all about symbolism, reading between the lines, and the things characters didn't say to each other. He hated it.
But he didn't hate the way Joey cuddled into his chest, or the way her thumb slipped back and forth across his collarbone.

As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.

Pacey thought Joey was falling asleep until he felt the force of her chocolate eyes upon his face. He stopped reading, mouth gone dry as he realized how temptingly close her lips were. This was the moment to make a glib comment, a weak excuse, run away. Instead, he lowered the book and stared back, straight into her eyes.

Joey's gaze faltered first. But it fell only to his clavicle. Her eyes followed the progress of her fingers, one more sweep across the collarbone then dragging up along his jugular—his pulse pounded beneath the feathery touch—under his jaw, and then up, once again, to rest on his lips.

Dropping the forgotten novel onto the quilt, Pacey reached for her. His hands cradled the back of her neck, brushing a thumb across the soft swell of her bottom lip. “Joey,” he breathed, lips pursing to brush a light kiss against her fingertips.

Her eyes sped up to his, confused, afraid, but dilated with desire. As if with one accord, they moved toward each other. Pacey couldn't have said later whether it was a split second or a minute before their lips met. But he could recall with perfect clarity the sweet pressure of her mouth moving against his, the faint remnants of her berry-flavored lip gloss and the minty taste of her toothpaste.

There were multitudes of reasons why he shouldn't be doing this, but it was impossible to remember them when Joey Potter's mouth opened to his. Her pert little tongue, the one he admired so much whenever it darted between her teeth, darted between his own. The thick cascade of hair he'd washed with reverence tangled and flowed between his fingers. A breathy, muffled moan rewarded the gentlest of nips to her plump bottom lip. So he did it again.

Joey's hands pressed deep into his hair. Pacey wasn't sure if she was pulling him down to her, or he was pushing her into the cushions. It didn't matter; the result was the same. Joey's head came to rest on the arm of the couch, body stretched full-length across it, legs across his thighs near his rapidly hardening length. Pacey's chest covered hers, mouth unwilling to abandon Joey's for an instant, even as his hands started to wander. Light, almost innocent touches along her arms, legs, ribs; the merest brush against the side of her breast. He shifted his weight in an attempt to stretch out beside her.

The House of Mirth crashed onto the coffee table.

Joey's whole body jumped. She tore her mouth away from his. Her hands pushed against his chest, a barrier when moments before she'd been pulling him closer. Chest heaving, she turned her face toward the treacherous book.

“Jo?” Pacey carefully removed his weight from her hands, but didn't pull away further. He sensed her perched on a razor's edge and was as afraid of withdrawing too much as too little.

“I need you to leave, Pacey.” Her voice emerged little-girl scared. She kept her face averted.

“Jo, I'm—” What? Sorry? Never in a million years. Horny? Obviously, but she knew that already. Head over heels in love with you? Yeah, like she wasn't terrified enough already.

Joey didn't wait for him to work out what he wanted to say. She swung her legs off the couch—off of him—wrapped the blanket around herself like armor, and headed for the door. “You need to go now.” She didn't sound pissed, just determined, with pissed to follow if not obeyed.

Pacey would have obeyed even without that threat. He grabbed his coat off the back of a chair and held it before the evidence of her effect on him. The door Joey held wide open confirmed the night frost.

Stopping in the doorway, he tried again to say something, anything. “Joey, can't we—”

“Please, go. Please.” A quaver in her voice and tears brimmed in the eyes she refused to raise to his.

He was the biggest asshole on the planet, and he didn't know what he'd done wrong. “Night, Jo,” he said and walked out into the dark, frozen night.

<><><>

Pacey didn't sleep much that night, too busy replaying events with Joey in his head, trying to pinpoint what his fuck-up had been this time. He must have taken advantage in some way, but when? How?

Joey had invited him to cuddle under the blanket, but he knew her too well to consider that an invitation to anything else. This was a girl who had been having platonic, co-ed sleepovers most of her life. Even the nestling and touching could be explained away as tired absentmindedness and her high comfort level with him. But she had touched his mouth, which didn't fall under any friendship category Pacey had ever heard of. She had looked at him with those irresistible eyes of hers radiating desire. And confusion. And fear.

Damn it, he'd seen it. He'd seen it, and he'd ignored it, because he wanted her so much. Jen was right. Joey wasn't ready for anything as serious as they would be. As they would have to be with so much shared history. Maybe he was right, too, and she never would be, but she certainly wasn't yet.

Crazy how that little word yet caused his heart to pound. Because whoever started it, she had kissed him back tonight. Not drunk, not drowning in memories of Dawson and using him to fill the void. Joey Potter had kissed him, Pacey Witter, and enjoyed it. Until the fear came rushing back.

Despite all the repair work to do the next day—work he imagined would be more difficult than fixing the furnace—Pacey finally fell asleep with a smile on his face.

<><><>

A crystal sheet of frost coated the ground the next morning when Pacey headed outside. The sky above was pale blue, with hardly a cloud to be seen, but the air held the steamed-breath-inducing chill of winter. Pacey could only remember two Thanksgivings in his life without snow on the ground and wouldn't bet money on this year's becoming the third.

Dressed in sweats for his run, he'd thrown on his jacket and a stocking cap. His nose reddened from cold in the short walk to the jeep. He'd considered calling ahead to see if Joey still wanted to run this morning, but he knew she would back out if given the slightest chance. In person, his charm might be effective enough to avoid a door slammed in his face. Provided she was willing to listen, he was prepared to beg forgiveness for last night. He would even agree to another forget-it-ever-happened deal; Joey's friendship was too important to lose.

A flannel-pajama'd, bathrobe-swaddled Joey answered his insistent knock. Bleary eyes with circles under them indicated she'd slept even less than he had. “What do you want, Pacey?”

“Correct me if I'm wrong, but do we or do we not have a weekly appointment with the fastest road out of here?”

“I'm too tired for calisthenics this morning, physical or verbal.”

“See, right there was a beautiful spinning of words which lets me know you're as quick on your feet as ever.” He gave her his best puppy-dog eyes. “Run with me, Jo.”

Joey groaned. She bit her lip and looked away, but finally nodded. “Give me five minutes.” She shut the door, leaving him outside while she went to change.

Pacey stared at that closed door. If he arrived before Joey was ready, he had always been let inside to wait. To visit with Bessie, play with Alex, maybe do a few chores. Bessie and Alexander weren't home, but that wasn't the reason for the closed door. Last night was the reason.

Pacey sat glumly on the steps while he waited for her. He should stretch. Certainly would be warmer—his ass was liable to freeze to this stoop if she took too long—but he felt robbed of all energy.

In less than the promised time, Joey was back. She wore a ratty brown sweatshirt over a white turtleneck and black leggings, her hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Beautiful. Always so damn beautiful, even when she scowled. “Ready.”

“Great. How's the furnace? Did it last the night?”

“It's fine,” she said sharply. Her cheeks reddened, and she took off so fast Pacey had to sprint to catch up.

When he did, Joey slowed to a jog, but at a faster pace than they usually ran. Pacey wondered if she was trying to get this over with as quickly as possible or keep him too winded to speak. They hardly ever did speak while jogging. He usually loved the silence, enjoying the exercise, the morning, her presence. But the tension between them now made every step feel like running on rusty nails.

“Jo, about last night—”

“We're moving,” she blurted out.

Pacey stopped dead in the middle of the street. “What?”

A few steps beyond, Joey also stopped, turning to face him. “That's why Bessie went to Hartford this weekend. She has two job interviews, and she and Bodie are looking at apartments. I didn't tell you because I was hoping, somehow, it wouldn't happen. But that's hiding my head in the sand. We're moving. So there's no point in discussing what, whatever happened when I won't even be here much longer.” Without waiting for a reply, Joey whirled and took off again.

Numb, Pacey followed her. He allowed her to maintain the fifteen feet of distance between them. Joey was moving. So much time had passed since the move had first been proposed with nothing said about it that Pacey had allowed himself to bury worry about the possibility. A fool's mistake. His entire life was a case study in Murphy's Law.

Joey was moving. Since kindergarten, Pacey had never gone longer than ten days together without seeing her. His best friend, his oldest friend, now Dawson was gone, and she was leaving the state. Moving to Hartford, where she'd finish high school, enter the Ivy League, then jet off on her inevitable rise to greatness. He would never see her again.

Panic gripped his chest with claws icier than the winter frost. He doubled over, hands on knees, as he gulped for air. The blistering speed of the run was only half the cause.

He felt a gentle hand on his back. “Pace? You okay?”

Still breathing hard, Pacey straightened enough to yank her into his arms. He held Joey tight as a second skin. Rivulets of sweat dripping down his chest plastered his sweater unpleasantly to his body; he didn't care. Joey's skin glistened with her own sweat, tendrils of hair had slipped out of her ponytail and stuck to her face. He soaked it all in, the sight, the feel, the smell of her. No perfumes, no makeup, no fancy clothes. Just her. Just Joey.

“Pacey, have you lost your mind? What the hell do you think you're doing?” Joey wriggled against him, not returning the embrace. She pressed against his chest with both hands. “Let me go, doofus.”

He released her only insofar as he took hold of her shoulders and pulled back to look in her eyes. “Never gonna happen, Potter. If I have to live on your doorstep or in the dumpster behind your new apartment, that's what I'll do. But the day you move to Hartford, so do I.”

Joey's eyes widened in astonishment, her jaw started to drop before she clamped it shut with a shake of her head. “Clearly, you were oxygen-deprived in that run and lost your few remaining brain cells. There is no way you can move to Hartford.”

“Why not?” Pacey felt infinitely better since he'd reached that decision. Which was in the moment he said it. It came upon him suddenly and felt right, like all the best decisions of his life.

“Because! Because of your family...and school, and, and family,” Joey spluttered. “Capeside is your home.”

“Capeside is the shitty little town where I was born. You're my home.” There, he'd said it. The most soul-bearing, nauseating, sentimental piece of tripe he'd spewed in his life. Every word of it true.

Joey's head drooped, but not before he'd seen the tears gathering in her eyes. When she spoke, her words ignored his admission. “Pacey, you can't. Where would you live? What would you do?”

“Well, I hope I've built up enough good will with your sister she'd offer me a patch of floor to throw a sleeping bag on, but if not, there's always the dumpster idea. As for what I'd do, I have a reasonable belief that they have high school and mind-numbing, minimum-wage jobs in Hartford, so I imagine I'll do pretty much the same things I do here.”

“Your mother would never let you move to another state and live with Potter trash. We'd have an officer at our door in a week arresting us for kidnapping.”

“Dougie'll talk her into it. All I'll have to do is remind the Sheriff how much better his life will be with a room of his own.” Pacey shrugged, much less concerned about a life without Witters than a life without Joey.

Joey raised her face again. It sparkled under the wintry sun, sparkled with sweat, with tears, with joy. “Every time I think I've grasped how wonderful you are, you blow my mind again.” This time, she was the one to wrap her arms around him and hold on tight. “You shouldn't do this, you really shouldn't, but, God help me, I want you to. Thank you.”

Pacey hugged her back, smiling into her hair. “I do believe that's the first time I've ever been thanked for a completely selfish act, but you're welcome, Potter. You're most entirely welcome.”

<><><>

Joey chose to spend most of the rest of that weekend with Jen. Pacey tried not to take it personally—he had to work, anyway—but he felt Friday night's impromptu make-out session hovering over them. He was almost positive moving to Hartford wasn't the reason she'd kicked him out that night, just a convenient excuse for not talking about it.

But if Joey was that reluctant to address it, Pacey wouldn't pressure her. Not with so much upheaval in her life already. He could pretend to forget it, if that was what she wanted.

The first snowfall arrived on Sunday afternoon. Pacey went to the Potters' after work to shovel the driveway. He was still working at it when Bessie returned home. Questions about her job interviews led to clipped answers. One was for a waitress position at a bar, the other a cashier at a gift shop. She wasn't thrilled about either and wouldn't hear back for a few days. Asking about the apartment search was worse. She snapped his head off while disparaging realtors, Hartford, and the entire state of Connecticut in a few expletive-laden sentences.

“I'm sorry, Pacey,” she said after her diatribe, her shoulders drooping with exhaustion. “Guess I'm having trouble leaving this behind.” She gazed sadly at her home—her mother's house. “I'm supposed to meet with a realtor here on Wednesday. So much for a happy Thanksgiving, huh?”

Pacey didn't mention his plan to move with them. In Bessie's mood, he doubted she would be receptive.

<><><>

Monday at school, Elliot Blakenship let it be known that he had nailed Joey Potter and she was every bit as trashy as everyone always suspected. By third period, Pacey had denounced him as a liar and introduced that aristocratic nose to his blue-collar fist. He was pretty proud of his first detention of the year, both the cause for which it was earned and the fact that it was the longest he'd gone in a school year without a detention since third grade.

His friends were less congratulatory.

Joey raked him over the coals for daring to defend her honor. “As if such a nebulous concept needs defending, especially from the asinine bovines in this cesspool. And if I considered it a matter worth contesting, I'm perfectly capable of throwing a punch myself.”

Jack thought Pacey's hero complex was in overdrive again, and violence was never the answer.

Andie worried about his academic future. “Principal Green could have suspended or even expelled you for that! Did you stop to think how that would look on your permanent record?”

Jen agreed with all of them, but mostly thought a crooked nose wasn't adequate punishment for Blakenship. So she started the rumor—with a couple of Elliot's ex-girlfriends backing her up—that he had a mini-gherkin. Pacey had to admit Jen's revenge was more effective. At the end of the day, Blakenship, not Joey, was the school's center of ridicule.

Detention meant giving up a shift at work and a long lecture from Doug about growing up, learning to think things through, and not being such a reactive moron.

The one and only bright spot of Pacey's day was Gretchen arriving home. She had the whole week off school—longer vacations one of the thousand ways she insisted college was better than high school—and, for once, was spending it all in Capeside, instead of gallivanting off with her friends and latest asshole boyfriend. Pacey was sure her extended stay was partly concern for Ma during their first holiday season without Pop, but part of it was paradoxically finding it easier to be around without Pop breathing down her neck. Witter family gatherings had never been joyous occasions.

After Doug ran out of ways to tell Pacey what a loser he was, Pacey escaped up to Gretchen's room with her. It felt like old times. Once Kerry moved out, the girls' room had been his hideout of choice when he absolutely had to be home. Pop almost never set foot in there, driven away in fear of makeup, Cosmo, and his daughters' underwear. Gretchen was kinder to Pacey than anyone else in his family, and even Maddie—before she took off—had tried to protect her annoying kid brother from Pop.

“So why'd you get in a fight?” Gretchen asked once they were alone. A question which hadn't concerned Doug from his self-righteous high horse.

“Asshole was talking trash about Joey.” Pacey grabbed the small, pink, bouncy ball off Gretchen's nightstand and tossed it at the ceiling while he settled himself on the floor by her bed. “Don't worry, I've been assured by everyone from the damsel herself to the strong arm of the law down there that it was a stupid thing to do.”

Gretchen smiled fondly at him. “Maybe. But every bit as noble as I'd expect from you. Speaking of Joey, how are things with the star-crossed lovers of Capeside, Mass.? Any progress there?”

Pacey watched the neon pink blur hit the ceiling and fall back into his waiting hand several times. It had, of course, been a massive mistake to confide in his sister. Now that she knew, she would never accept being shut out of any part of the story. “Andie and I broke up,” he confessed.

“I don't know whether to say 'good' or 'I'm sorry,' so I'll just ask how you're feeling about that?”

Again, Pacey took a long time before answering. “Okay. I mean, I'd better be okay, I'm the one who ended things. We're doing all right, trying to be friends even though it can be awkward as hell. Andie's doing better health-wise, and that's the most important thing.”

“Why do I sense there's a 'but' hidden in the middle of that?”

“But,” said Pacey with a rueful twist to his lips, “sometimes I miss how easy it was with her. Even with her family issues and her mental struggles, we were happy, you know? I loved her; she loved me. Simple. Case closed.”

“Whereas Joey is complicated.” Not content with seeing straight through him, Gretchen grabbed the ball on its descent and started passing it in little arcs from one hand to the other.

Pacey observed its progress. He could steal it back easily enough, but didn't make the attempt. Instead, he sat there and told his sister all of it—well, almost all of it, he left out the hair-washing; it was too personal—every insidious way Joey had smuggled herself deeper into his heart, every crushing moment he'd been reminded how much she loved Dawson, all the self-loathing which accompanied falling for his best friend's girl, the jealous impulses which gripped him every time she had a date, and yet how proud he was of her for continuing to live her life, the thousand and one perfections and imperfections which made her everything he could ever want. Compared to all that, the practicalities of the upcoming move seemed like minor details to Pacey.

Not so to Gretchen.

“Whoa, slow down, buster brown. You're moving to Hartford? What do Ma and Doug think about that?”

“Haven't told them yet. Was thinking to mention it during the pumpkin pie, because it can't possibly be a Witter family Thanksgiving if blood isn't shed.”

“Funny. Almost as funny as thinking you can move to a different state on your own in the middle of your junior year of high school. Have you asked Bessie if she's willing to act as legal guardian to yet another mouthy teenager? Because without a guardian, you'll be hard-pressed to go to school or find work.”

“I haven't thought it all out yet,” Pacey admitted grudgingly.

“As far as I can tell, you haven't thought at all.” To punctuate her statement, Gretchen bounced the ball off Pacey's forehead.

Pacey caught the ball with one hand, rubbing his head with the other. “I expect this crap from Dougie, not you. Aren't you the one who's into chasing dreams, finding your own path, and all that other New Age shit?”

“You wanna chase a dream, Pace, God bless. But you wanna chase a girl? At least let your upper brain do a bit of the planning.”

“That's rich, given some of the losers you've dragged home. What charming specimen can we expect for dinner this year, by the way?”

Gretchen shifted uncomfortably. “Nick's spending the holiday with his family. And that's beside the point—”

Au contraire, sister mine. I have a vague recollection of you being the Pandora who opened this box in the first place, telling me I loved Joey, that you wished someone loved you the way I love Joey. Now you think I should chuck it in over a minor geographical complication?”

“I didn't say that. I just said think it through. My God, Pacey, you're sixteen years old, and you've both been through enough trauma this year alone to keep you in therapy the rest of your natural lives. Maybe some time and distance would be good for both of you.”

Everything Gretchen said was reasonable, and he knew she was looking out for him, like always. But it didn't matter. “She's the only thing that makes sense.”

“What?”

“My whole life...the whole fucked-up world...trying to find a point to any of it...” Pacey frowned, failing to produce the words to clarify his meaning. He gave up, shrugged his shoulders, and said again, “She's the only thing that makes sense.”

His sister stared at him for a long time, before chuckling and shaking her head. “How the hell did a family as screwy as ours create someone like you?”

“I think you just answered that yourself.” Only a family as screwed up as his could create as epic a screw-up as he was.

“If you think that, you have, as usual, failed to understand the question.”

Pacey tossed her ball back as he stood and headed for the door. “That also sounds very like me. But I'd better hit the hay. Some of us have school tomorrow.”

“Try to remember to keep your hands to yourself,” Gretchen chided.

“But everything's less fun that way.”

The thump of the ball hitting the door followed Pacey out.

Chapter Text

Dusk was falling when Pacey returned home after his second day of detention—he'd been assigned a week, but he had some hopes of negotiating down to these three days before the Thanksgiving break—to find the only other car parked was his sister Kerry's minivan.

Kerry and her spawn weren't supposed to arrive until the following night. Pacey had no desire to play nice with her or the sergeant-major. His oldest sister was the least known and least loved of all his siblings. Pacey was only in kindergarten when Kerry, just sixteen, found out she was pregnant. The Sheriff had settled it all with alacrity, forcing her eighteen-year-old boyfriend to the altar and into the military. Kerry and her increasing brood sometimes stayed with the family while Jerry was out of reach. But mostly she followed the asshole around the globe. Most recently, he'd been stationed at Fort Devens, the closest to Capeside they'd been in years.

Pacey often wondered what brain defect made Kerry choose a man just like Pop.

With a muttered profanity, Pacey let himself into the house. The expected clamor of Kerry's four kids demolishing the house did not materialize. Only one lamp was on, and the hellions were cuddled together on the couch watching TV. The eyes they turned on him as he walked in reflected a worry and fear he recognized too well.

“What? No hugs for Uncle Pacey?” He deliberately kept his voice light, kneeling to accept the string of shy embraces. Steven, the youngest at age four, wrapped his arms around Pacey's neck and didn't let go.

“So where is everybody?” He hugged Steven tight, but addressed the question to nine-year-old Victoria. Her height—inherited from her grandmother, like Pacey's own—and her weary eyes made her seem years older.

She shrugged. “No one was home. Mom let us in.”

“Where is your mom?”

“Upstairs. Resting. She doesn't feel well.” A lie, judging by the way her eyes flickered to her younger siblings.

“Tell you what, I'm starving, and I bet you lot are, too. Vic, how 'bout you and I go make some dinner and let the kids here get back to Power Rangers?”

Victoria nodded agreement. By way of a dizzy spin and a giggle-filled drop, Pacey convinced Steven to let go and join his brother and sister back on the couch. Victoria trailed Pacey to the kitchen and helped him put together a simple meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and carrot sticks. Victoria was Tori to everyone who knew her; naturally, Pacey called her Vic. She let him get away with it, like most other girls on whom he bestowed masculine nicknames.

“So, Vic, where's your dad?” Pacey spread a generous serving of peanut butter on bread before passing it to his niece to add the raspberry jam.

“He's at the base. Mom said he might come for Thanksgiving.” Victoria sounded petrified at the possibility.

“I don't think I've ever heard one of you kids as quiet as all of you are being tonight. Wanna tell me why that is?” he asked gently.

“I told them not to wake up Mommy.”

Mommy. A small child's name for their mother. It had been years since he'd heard it on Vic's lips. Pacey managed not to look at her, to continue buttering bread. “That was nice of you. Is your mom feeling okay?”

Victoria's head shot up, panic flaring in her blue eyes. “Y-y-yes.”

Pacey nodded, as if that was the answer he expected. He washed his hands and dried them on a dishtowel. Then he took the girl's hands in his and led her to the small breakfast table in the corner. “Did I ever tell you the story of how I got this scar?” He gestured to the deep indent on his right cheek.

Eyes wide, Victoria shook her head.

“I was just about your age. I went out to play with my friends and left my bike in the middle of the driveway, where your grandpa liked to park. He was so mad. He ran over my bike a couple times and smashed it up; then, when I got home, he yelled at me. Real loud. The walls shook.”

His niece nodded solemnly as if she understood. No doubt she did.

“He got so mad he threw a bottle at me. It hit the wall over my head, but it shattered. One shard spun off and cut my cheek.” Pacey took a deep breath. He'd never told anyone that story. “And that's how I got my scar.”

“I'm sorry, Uncle Pacey.”

“It's okay. I'm all right now.” He squeezed her hands. “But I'd have gotten better a lot sooner if I'd told someone the truth and asked for help. Vic, what happened to your mom?”

“She and Daddy were fighting,” Victoria confessed in a whisper. “Last night. I heard it through the wall. I was supposed to be asleep, but I can't sleep when...there were noises.” Haunted eyes said she knew what those noises meant, even if she was unwilling to say. “Mom cried. This morning, she didn't take us to school. She drove to Grandma's instead. Her face doesn't look right, Uncle Pacey. And she sounds funny when she breathes.”

Dread curled like an adder in Pacey's gut, but he forced an outward calm for the kid's sake. “Thank you for telling me, Vic. Do you think you could serve Mary and the boys this delicious dinner while I check on her?”

Victoria nodded. Pacey gave her a hug before letting her go. He wanted to promise her everything would be all right, but he had grown wary of promises he couldn't keep.

While the kids gathered in the dining room, Pacey heated chicken soup from a can and put together a tray to take upstairs. The entire time, he prayed for a door to open, for Ma, Doug, or Gretchen to come home. He was unequipped to handle this, in addition to being the last person Kerry would want to see.

No last minute reprieve was granted. Carefully, Pacey carried the loaded tray upstairs. During most of Kerry's visits, Pacey was forced to give up his room for her or her children. Doug's presence protected him from that indignity this year. Gretchen was the one being displaced to the couch.

He knocked softly on the girls' bedroom door. “Kerry? I brought you something to eat.”

“Not hungry,” came the muffled reply.

“I'm coming in anyway.” He grimaced as he tried the door, relieved to find it unlocked. The room was dark, save the fading light through the window, by which he discerned the person-sized lump in one of the twin beds. “Gonna turn on the light,” he warned her.

“Don't!” Her objection came too late.

Before Kerry could bury herself under the blankets, Pacey had a stomach-churning glimpse of her mangled face. Nose, lips, eyes, all swollen. A red-stained gauze bandage on her left cheekbone. Who knew what else he failed to see.

Pacey shut the door behind him and made his way to the bed. “Sit up, Kerry. I already saw, and I need to set this down.”

Surprisingly, his sister obeyed him, though he thought she was glaring at him behind the disfigured mask her face had become.

“I wasn't sure what you'd be up to, so there's soup and crackers, apple, sandwich, water. I can make you some tea or coffee, if you'd like.”

“This is plenty, Pacey.” Kerry nibbled at a cracker, ducking her head.

Pacey sat in silence for long minutes, watching his sister eat. He had no clue what he was supposed to say.

“Isn't this the part where you gloat?”

“Gloat?” Pacey couldn't imagine anyone who would crow after seeing their sister like this. For himself, he was torn between calling Doug to report a crime, dragging Kerry to the hospital, and driving up to the base to tear the dickhead apart.

“Oh, come on, you've never liked Jerry. Or me, come to think of it. So isn't this what I deserve for marrying a man like him?” Victoria was right. There was a catch in Kerry's breathing, more obvious when she talked.

“We should get you to the hospital. I think you've got a broken rib.”

“No!” Kerry shrank back under her covers. “No hospitals!”

“Kerry, it's dangerous. You could puncture a lung or something.” He let out a frustrated breath at her continued refusal. “Look, you can tell them you fell off a bike like Ma did when Pop cracked my rib, but you have to get checked out.”

“I knew it!” Kerry shrieked. “I knew you were dying to compare him to our dad.”

“Fine. Pop whaled on his kids, while his wife looked the other way. Jerry whales on his wife, while his kids pretend not to notice. They're completely different people. Now, will you let me drive you to the hospital, or do I need to call an ambulance?”

Tears fell from Kerry's swollen eyes, all the more pitiable from the lopsided trail they took down her face. “I don't know what to do. I'm scared. All the time. I'm so sick of being scared.”

Pacey's anger evaporated at his sister's broken words. “File charges, Kerry. Doug will help. We'll protect you. You and the kids can stay here.”

Kerry made a disbelieving sound, not quite a snort with her broken nose. “Right. With Ma lecturing me every day about being a good helpmate, a submissive wife, how I've failed my husband and my children, and how a woman is nothing without a man.”

Pacey blinked in stunned disbelief of his own. Was that how Ma talked to the girls, or was Kerry exaggerating in her fear? “If she says that, she's an idiot,” said Pacey bluntly. “Your only duty here is to protect yourself and your children. Get away from that asshole.”

Kerry hissed, a sound of mixed pain and denial. “I have nothing, Pacey. No job, no skills, no money. God, I don't even have a high school diploma. How the hell am I supposed to support four kids on my own?”

“That's what family is for. Ma's only one person in this house, and I think you'd have a hard time convincing the rest of us to let you go back to that creep. I'm gonna go call Doug—”

“No, you—”

“He'll find out sooner or later, unless you lock yourself in here for the next six weeks. And he'll break the door down before he lets you do that. So. I'm gonna call him. He can take you to the hospital and the station. Don't worry about the kids. They're eating dinner, and I'll wrangle them up a place to sleep.”

Tears continued to drip freely down his sister's face. Pacey handed her the tissue box from the nightstand.

She grabbed a Kleenex and patted at her tender skin. “I'm so sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. He's the asshole who—”

“Not for that. Not for this.” Kerry grimaced as she gestured to her swollen features. “For...I looked the other way. I pretended not to believe you. I knew, and I looked the other way, and now you're...” Her tears became choking sobs.

Pacey wanted, for one of the first times in his life, to hug his sister. But he was afraid of worsening her injuries. He patted her dishwater blonde hair instead. “Hey, it's okay, it's okay.” He knew his words were insufficient. Damn, he wished Doug would show up. “It's nothing. You're my sister.” When Kerry's tears did not relent, he shifted his weight awkwardly. “I'm going to call Doug, okay?”

She nodded before burying her face in the pillow. Pacey transferred the mostly full tray to the empty bed, in case she wanted it later, and crept out of the room.

Pacey put up a reassuring, jocular front for the kids when he passed them downstairs. But he wasted no time calling Doug at the sheriff's office. A few words sufficed to apprise him of the situation and send him running for home.

He had just hung up the phone when Gretchen walked in the front door. “Where the hell have you been?” Pacey directed his worry and frustration at the nearest available—and decidedly wrong—target.

Gretchen recoiled from his aggression. She didn't answer, instead greeting her beloved nieces and nephews with kisses and cuddles. They all relaxed once Gretchen was there. The noise level crept to a recognizable pitch, as they competed for their aunt's attention.

Pacey had to pry them off her in order to apologize and clue her in on Kerry's situation. Gretchen went upstairs to check on her while Pacey washed sticky hands and faces and cleaned up supper. Victoria confirmed they had brought overnight bags, but they were still in the car. Pacey found Kerry's keys on the mantel and headed outside to bring in their stuff.

Doug was marching in when Pacey stepped off the porch. “Where is she?” he asked, face tight.

“Girls' room. Gretch is with her.”

With a single jerk of the head, Doug went inside. Pacey retrieved the backpacks and duffles before going back himself.

Gretchen came down a few minutes later and snuggled with the kids in front of the television. After another interminable twenty minutes, during which Pacey sat in Pop's recliner, unable to stop his leg from jiggling, and lamenting the fallen state of children's programming since he was a boy, Doug brought Kerry downstairs. She kissed her kids goodnight and assured them everything would be all right before heading to the hospital with Doug.

Gretchen and Pacey distracted the kids with baths, pajamas, and brushing teeth. They were less than enthused about bunking down in the basement, so Pacey bribed them with a giant blanket fort. Gretchen brought out her old lamp, which cast dancing fairies on dark walls, and bewitched them with fairy tales their grandma used to tell her.

It was almost ten o'clock before the last of the kids drifted off. Pacey and Gretchen made their way back upstairs.

In the kitchen, Gretchen poured herself a glass of wine. “You want one?”

Pacey shook his head, slightly surprised she'd offered. “After a day like today, one wouldn't be nearly enough, and I have school in the morning.”

“I'm almost envious of that. I foresee a long day of babysitting in my immediate future.”

Pacey grabbed a 7-Up before joining Gretchen at the small kitchen table. “You love those kids, and you know it.”

“I do.” Gretchen stared into her wine, frowning, as she absentmindedly ran her index finger along the rim of her glass. “I'm breaking up with Nick when I get back to school.”

“Good for you. What brought that on?”

“Pregnancy scare,” she confessed without a trace of embarrassment. His sister's refusal to recognize boundaries in sibling discussions was both endearing and disquieting. “And ten years from now—if we managed to make it that far—I don't want to be where Kerry is.”

“So Nick's a dick?” Fury raged through Pacey. Bad enough what happened to Kerry. If anyone laid a hand on Gretchen, Pacey would murder him. Without regret.

Gretchen laughed with a rueful shake of her head. “Nick is more the philandering, verbally-reminding-me-of-my-inadequacies type. But that's still too close to...Even Freud got a few things right. As girls, we absorb the way our fathers treat us, and we don't aim higher. But that's self-defeating crap. I have a brother who shows me better.”

Pacey's smile crept up on him. Uncomfortable with the praise, he cleared his throat and changed the subject. “So what did you do today, he asks, in a conversational, non-judgmental, undemanding way?”

Gretchen grinned. “Nicely done. I went to visit Joey and Bessie.”

Pacey's stomach bottomed out. “Wh-what? Why?”

“Oh, to play Joey the tape recording I made of your grand love confession. That, of course, being after I showed her your baby pictures, but before I offered her a bride price of twelve goats and a camel.” At Pacey's mulish expression, she laughed. “Would you relax? You told me they were moving, and I've always liked the Potter girls. I wanted a chance to visit before they go.”

“You didn't tell Bessie I'm going with them, did you?” He could only imagine her immediate reaction to that proposition. Elizabeth Potter, much like her sister, required careful handling.

“Not my place, though I'm pretty sure she'll notice the addition of a six-foot-plus, hormonally-driven, constantly-hungry teenage boy to her household. Just a guess.”

Pacey breathed a sigh of relief. “I'll tell her. I'm just working on the right way.”

“Not that I'm encouraging this madness, but I don't think you can speak a wrong word in that house. Bessie seems only slightly less enamored of you than her sister.”

“Joey talked about me?” The sly smile on his sister's face was a clear indication Pacey was falling into a trap. But it was too tempting a trap to resist. “What did she say?”

“It was more the way she said it.” Gretchen measured her words, feeding off Pacey's impatience. “That beautiful, dusky flush to those perfect cheekbones. The averted, embarrassed smile. You know, I've heard you called a moron a million times, but it never sounded like a term of endearment before.”

Pacey's spreading sails of hope dashed upon the rocks. “Nice, Gretch. Thanks for that.”

“Oh, come on, Pace. I was teasing. You know I'm not actually going to tell you what Joey said, right? Any more than I told her what you said about her.” She gave him a pointed look. “I will say that girl thinks you're the farthest thing from a moron. If I told her you painted the sky blue, she'd believe it.”

Again, that pesky hope tried to rise. She's messing with me, he told himself. And squashed all hope like the parasitic insect it was.

<><><>

“Howdy, stranger,” said Joey pointedly as Pacey slid into his seat beside her.

He'd missed first period entirely and almost been late to trig, helping Gretchen keep Kerry's kids occupied and away from the scene between Ma, Kerry, and Doug. “Long story,” he muttered under his breath as their teacher called the class to order. “Tell you later.”

He didn't feel like unfolding the tale at lunch, especially as the others were excited about Thanksgiving tomorrow. Even Andie put down her books for once.

“You're sure you can't make it?” Jen asked Pacey.

Her grandmother was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for the McPhees and the Potters. Mrs. Ryan had extended an invitation to the Witters, as well, but Ma had declined, much to Pacey's relief. Bessie and Joey didn't deserve to have their holiday ruined by his mother's spite. And that was before this mess with Kerry.

“Sorry, Lindley. The Witter clan is keeping its dysfunctions to itself this year. Save me a piece of pie, though.”

Walking with Joey to chemistry, Pacey finally got the opportunity to bring her up to speed. “Doug got her to press charges against the son of a bitch. They were sent on to the military police on his base. Supposedly, he's in custody, so at least we shouldn't have to worry about him showing up tomorrow. But Ma is pissed about 'airing our dirty laundry' or some shit like that, and—for the first time in living memory—Doug told her off. Needless to say, we're overflowing with the holiday spirit at my house.”

Joey had listened without comment to his tale. But as they slid behind their counter in the science lab, she placed a hand on his leg, squeezing his knee in support. “I'm sorry you've had another load dropped on you, Pace. But I'm proud of you—and Doug and Gretchen—for standing by your sister.”

Ridiculous, disproportional joy swelled in his chest at her simple words.

Their teacher arrived, then, but only to announce, with the long weekend starting tomorrow, class would be spent cleaning and organizing lab equipment.

So while he and Joey scrubbed out beakers, Pacey asked, “What about you? Any word on Bessie's interviews or the housing situation?”

“I assume so. Bess had a bunch of meetings these past few days with the realtor and stuff. But she won't talk about it. She's being annoyingly mysterious and says she'll tell me tomorrow.”

“That's probably good, though, right? No one saves bad news for Thanksgiving.”

“Sure, but who's to say what qualifies as good news? Having an immediate buyer for our house, for instance. That would be good, but also so terrible I'd never stop crying.”

Pacey grimaced. “Point taken. Bodie still coming down?”

“Yeah, just for the day, though. He arrives on the early train tomorrow and has to leave Friday morning. He couldn't get more time off work.”

“That sucks. It's gotta be nice for Bodie, knowing you're all going to be there soon.”

We're going to be there? Should I take that to mean you've abandoned your mad plan to stow away with us?”

“Nice try, Potter; you're not getting rid of me that easy. But I figure my being there is a matter of indifference to Bodie.”

“And of vexation to the rest of us.” The sparkle of her smile gave the lie to Joey's words.

<><><>

As long as he could remember, Thanksgiving had been a day of dread to Pacey. Pop home all day, drinking from an early hour as he watched the ball games, while Ma and the girls expended hours of effort on a meal Pop would ultimately end by disparaging, in between drunken rants about his disappointing younger son and reminiscences of his army days with his sullen son-in-law.

Even Dougie had never been quite comfortable in the Witter house on Thanksgiving. Maddie once told Pacey it was because of the Macy's parade. When Doug was little, the Macy's parade was his favorite thing. He woke super early in order to see all the Broadway shows perform at the start. According to Maddie, that was where Doug's love of musicals began. But as Doug got older, Pop's remarks about the “fruity” parade took their toll, until Doug stopped watching altogether. Since Doug moved out, he never came over until late Thanksgiving afternoon. Pacey assumed he spent the morning watching the parade at his apartment. In peace.

This Thanksgiving would, naturally, bear no resemblance to past years, for which Pacey could only be grateful. But there was no way of knowing whether the changes would be for the better. Doug had vanquished Ma on the Kerry issue, but that had resulted in Ma getting wasted and waspish last night. Kerry had spent most of yesterday second-guessing her decision to report the asshole, needing to be talked into holding fast again and again by Doug and Gretchen, while Pacey monitored—and ofttimes spurred—the chaos caused by his nieces and nephews.

Not an auspicious beginning.

But when Pacey came downstairs Thanksgiving morning and found Doug, Kerry, and the kids snuggled on the couch, eating cereal and watching the parade in their pajamas, he started to get a different kind of feeling about the day.

He went to the kitchen and found his mom already hard at work, though sporting the pinched face and blurry eyes of the hungover. “Is there anything I can do to help, Ma?”

Pacey had offered the same every year since he was eight. Whenever Pop overheard, he was mocked or cussed out for wanting to do “women's work.” Even when Pop wasn't around, Ma invariably told him—

“No, that's fine, sweetie. Your sisters and I will handle this. You just enjoy the game with your f—” She stopped short, wincing, paling. “—brother.”

“They're watching the parade, actually. And truth be told,” Pacey took a deep breath before he made his scandalous confession, “I don't like football.” Probably because he associated it with Pop and this damn day.

Ma blinked at him as though he'd spoken Cantonese. All of a sudden, she laughed. Great, barking, shrieking guffaws as she leaned forward and rested her hands on her knees.

“Ma? You okay?”

She shook her head, slowly drawing breaths to calm her hysterics. “One son who would rather watch the Rockettes and another who hates football altogether. Where did we go wrong?”

Pacey felt slightly uncomfortable being lumped in with Doug and more so at the idea that there was something inherently wrong in disliking football. It wasn't like he hated all sports. He enjoyed basketball and hockey, but football...there was too much standing around between plays. He got bored. “If it makes you feel any better, Gretch loves football.” His sister spent her Thanksgivings peeling potatoes at the dining room table where she could see the television or sneaking out of the kitchen to check the score.

Ma rubbed her eyes with her thumb and index finger, shaking her head in increased dismay. Finally, she turned to the counter and grabbed her recipe tin. After a minute flipping through index cards, she pulled one out and handed it to Pacey. “Here.”

“What's this?”

“Your grandmother's Jell-O salad. If you can make that without flooding the kitchen or setting it on fire, maybe I'll let you help with something else.”

The expectation of his screwing up stung, but was counterbalanced by actually being allowed to do something. Pacey read the recipe in his hand and decided to focus on the positive.

<><><>

Doug watched the parade, Pacey made Jell-O salad, and Witter family tradition was turned on its ear. After the parade, Doug, who was a far better cook than Ma, joined them in the kitchen to try a new cornbread stuffing recipe he'd gotten from a friend. Gretchen and Kerry watched the game on the couch, while Pacey peeled potatoes and made the green bean casserole. Luckily, Victoria asked her grandma to teach her how to make pumpkin pie before Ma had a stroke.

It was the best Thanksgiving Pacey had ever had. He tried not to think it—the idea was treacherously close to being glad Pop was dead—but as the day went on, with no screaming, no reek of stale beer in the air, surprisingly little stress, only the lightest of teasing among his siblings and the mildest rebukes from Ma, the truth became impossible to ignore. This was the greatest Thanksgiving of his life.

Pacey and his nephews were setting the table when the doorbell rang. Kerry rose from the sofa, terrified eyes darting to the door. Gretchen grabbed her sister's arm. A quick peek out the window assured Pacey it wasn't Dickhead. Two strange women stood on the porch.

He opened the door and sized them up. One was short, willowy, with cornflower blonde hair hanging in a braid down to her waist and a warm smile on her wide mouth. She was wearing a peasant blouse and a loose, pumpkin orange skirt which reached her ankles. Next to her, holding tightly to her hand, was a woman whose black, spiked boots made her almost as tall as Pacey. Her raven-black hair was shorter than his. With hoops all the way up her left ear and another in her eyebrow, she'd never pass muster in this town.

“May I help—” Pacey stopped, caught by the round blue eyes under the distracting jewelry. “Maddie?”

The woman gave a start. Her eyes—a reflection of his—widened. “Oh my God! Pacey!? When'd you get so tall, you little booger?”

Pacey laughed in delight at the old insult. “Couple o' years after you left. C'mere, Madster Badster.” He pulled her into a tight hug. “Welcome home,” he said into her dyed hair. He remembered it as red-gold and teased to the sky.

“Thank you.” She squeezed him back for a moment, before letting go. “Not sure everyone will say that.”

“Sure they will.” To prove his point, Pacey let her go and introduced the boys peeking around his legs. “Steven, Bobby, this is your Aunt Maddie.”

Madeline stared down at the boys but didn't squat to talk to them as Gretchen would have. “Wow. Bobby was just a baby last time I saw him. And Steven—he's Kerry's, too?”

“Yup. She's still the only Witter foolish enough to extend our gene pool, unless there's something you'd like to tell us.”

Maddie laughed much harder than the quip deserved. “Oh, I've got things to tell you all right.” She took the other woman's hand again. “Pacey, this is my girlfriend Lara,” she said almost defiantly.

Pacey smiled and held out a hand for Lara to shake. “Nice to meet you. About time one of my siblings brought home someone worth looking at.”

Maddie looked stunned, but Lara's smile widened further as she took Pacey's hand. “I think we're going to get on fine, Pacey Witter.”

By the time Pacey ushered them into the house, the rest of the family had gathered in the living room. The kids hung back, shy, but Gretchen threw herself on both Maddie and Lara, laughing and crying at once. Kerry was more subdued, happy to see her sister but looking askance at the stranger. Ma was more bothered by Maddie's piercings than her girlfriend, though Pacey suspected she didn't understand what Maddie meant by that.

Only Doug refrained from welcoming the lost sheep back into the fold. He stood, hands on hips, granite policeman's face watching the reunion. When Maddie turned to him, he said a curt, “Glad you could finally make it,” before pivoting on his heel and heading back into the kitchen.

“Don't mind him,” Pacey said in response to Maddie's wounded expression. “They put that stick up his butt when they gave him the badge.”

Maddie continued to stare nervously at the kitchen door. “Better to confront him now, or let him process for a bit?”

“Eat first,” advised Gretchen. “Men are so much easier to handle when their bellies are full.”

“You would know better than I.” Madeline grinned at her sister. Pacey remembered a thousand times Gretchen and Maddie exchanged a single look like that before locking themselves in their room to share secrets.

“Tori, set two more places for dinner,” Ma ordered, as though Victoria had been the one setting the table before the interruption.

Pacey rolled his eyes and helped his niece finish the chore.

<><><>

Thanksgiving dinner was remarkably free of indigestion without Pop's tirades against everyone and everything. They caught Maddie up on life in Capeside and asked questions about her life—except Doug, who glowered and sulked. She lived in Oregon now, managed a record store in downtown Portland—she and Gretchen digressed a while into favorite bands—which was how she met Lara. Lara worked at a shop next door which specialized in homeopathic remedies and aromatherapy.

Pacey had never heard of most the stuff she mentioned, but apparently it was a growing industry. If Lara was the face of it, he could see why. Seated next to Pacey, she glowed with health and smelled like a forest meadow in spring. She was also perhaps the kindest person he'd ever met. Surrounded by Witters cracking jokes at one another's expense, Lara had nothing but gentle words for everyone. She offered to bring Kerry some ointments to help with the pain and swelling on her face.

It was the first mention of Kerry's situation, and the table went silent.

“I'm sorry. Should I not have said anything?”

“No, no, it's fine,” Kerry said, forcing a smile at the blonde. “I would appreciate that, thank you.”

Pacey was rather proud of his sister.

“So what hap—”

Gretchen elbowed Maddie and mouthed, “Later,” with a telling glance at Kerry's kids. Maddie changed the subject to the glories of West Coast living.

By the time dinner was over, snow had covered the ground in a blanket of white. The kids bundled up in hats, gloves, and boots and headed outside. Pacey knew he should help with cleanup, but shirked to join them. Mary wanted to make angels, but the rest erupted into a snowball fight, where Pacey's height was a distinct disadvantage. He was the biggest target.

His nose was red and running by the time Gretchen poked her head out and yelled, “Pacey! Phone! It's Joey.”

Pacey left behind his nephews' disappointed groans and entered the house in the middle of Doug's verbal explosion.

“...selfish are you? I had to track my own little sister down through the DMV just to tell you he was dead!”

As he continued to vent, Gretchen whispered in Pacey's ear, “Wouldn't be a holiday...”

“Without one Witter screaming at another,” Pacey finished the old joke. “Guess I'll take the call upstairs.”

Gretchen handed him the portable, and he ran up the stairs, ignoring the scene below. He shut his bedroom door, muting the noise, before raising the phone to his ear. “Jo? You still there?”

“I'm here. Is everything okay? Sounded like someone was yelling.”

“Someone is, but, for once, it has absolutely nothing to do with me. How 'bout you? Spend today giving thanks, or did your childhood nightmares come to life when Mrs. Ryan served her witch's brew?”

“Today was good. Really good. Surprisingly, overwhelmingly good. I was hoping you could come over, so I could tell you about it—I saved you a slice of Bodie's pecan pie—but if there's family stuff, I can—”

“On my way.” Pacey hung up without another word. He didn't know whether he was more pleased about pie or good news, but if Joey wanted him there, there he would be.

“...abusive, patriarchal asshat who made me regret ever being born!” Maddie was the one screaming now.

But as Gretchen and Lara were both standing aside, expressions sad but not worried, Pacey felt sure the fight was still in-bounds.

“Going to Joey's,” he told Gretch as he passed her.

She waved him off, attention all for their squabbling siblings.

Kerry had taken Pacey's place outside with the kids. They were trying to build a snowman. He could have told them it wasn't the right kind of snow, but why ruin their fun? He waved as he jumped into the Wagoneer.

<><><>

Joey pulled him inside before he could knock. She was the only one in the living room. The doors to the nursery and Bessie's room were both shut. Sounds of a heated conversation filtered through from under Bessie's door.

“Thought you said good news, Potter? If I'd wanted to witness a fight, I had a front row seat for Doug and Maddie's.”

“Maddie!? She's back?”

“Yup.” Pacey grinned at Joey's astonished look. “And she brought the world's most perfect girlfriend with her. It's been a fun day.” Surprisingly, he wasn't being the least bit sarcastic.

“It's about to get better.” Joey led him to the kitchen table and pushed a plate in his direction. “Bon appétit.”

Pacey dug into the pecan pie and its melting roof of vanilla ice cream. He chuckled at the first bite. “Would you please tell your sister not to piss off that man? We need his food in our lives.”

Joey bit her lip and stared, worried, at her sister's closed door. “That started after I called you. Bodie was putting Alex to bed then.”

“Any idea what it's about?”

She nodded. “I imagine my good news doesn't sound too good from where Bodie's standing.”

Pacey ate another mouth-watering bite and waited for Joey to continue.

“Hope you didn't have your heart set on Hartford, Pace, because we're not moving.”

Ice cream dripped off Pacey's fork, frozen halfway to his mouth. “What? Why? How?”

Joey snickered. “Excellent interrogation technique there. Maybe you should go into law enforcement after all.”

Pacey gave that suggestion the disgusted glare it deserved and finished his fork's journey. News was not more important than pie.

“The insurance company settled,” Joey explained. “Bessie met with our lawyer on Tuesday. She got them to honor our policy almost in full. We'll be able to pay off our debts and have some left over. Bessie wants,” Joey's eyes danced, “to put some aside in a college fund for me. And we can keep the house, and she's—”

Bessie's door was yanked open, and Bodie strode through, walking quickly toward the front door.

“Obadiah Wells, get your ass back here!”

Bodie stopped and turned, but his face was torn by hurt and frustration. “What's the point, Bess? I thought we were building a family, but you made your own plans, and they don't have room for me.”

“They don't have room for Hartford,” Bessie countered, erasing the distance between them. She grabbed the collar of his shirt in both hands. “This is my home, and I don't want to leave it. But you are my family, and all my plans include you. Marry me, Bodie.”

Joey made a shocked little squeak. Pacey grinned around another bite of pie.

Bodie didn't notice either of them. His eyes were only on Bessie as anger melted into wonder. “Is that a question or a command?”

“Whichever gets you to the altar quicker.”

“I see.” Bodie wrapped his arms loosely around Bessie's waist. “Any other plans swirling in that head of yours?”

“Plenty. I want you to get a job closer to Capeside, so you can live with us, even if you need to commute. And I want to start taking night classes at the community college. It'll be slow and hard, I know, with work and Alexander, but I think I'll make a kick-ass nurse someday.”

“Well, taking care of people is what you do best.”

Bessie grinned impishly, snuggling closer to her boyfriend. “Is that a yes?”

“To you becoming a nurse? Absolutely. To the other...” Bodie lowered his face toward hers, but stopped a breath apart, and said, “that's a conversation we should finish without the brat pack watching.”

Bessie turned toward Pacey and Joey, blushing, as if only now aware of their presence.

Joey rushed forward and threw her arms around them both. “I am so happy for you! And for me. This is just...wow.”

“Thanks, Joey.” Bodie kissed her on the forehead and stepped back, allowing the sisters to continue hugging. There were tears in their eyes, smiles on their faces.

“Guess this is my cue to clear out,” Pacey said, quickly rinsing his plate in the sink. He stepped up to Bodie and held out a hand. “Congratulations, man.”

“To you, too,” the older man said as he took it. At Pacey's confused look, he added, “I can't imagine you were too thrilled about Joey moving away.”

“Oh. Right. That would have sucked big time.” Pacey felt a strange pang of regret that he wouldn't be moving someplace new, starting all over again with her. But it was small, buried under the mountain of relief and joy.

He gave Bessie his best wishes, as well, before saying good night. Joey grabbed her jacket and scarf and headed outside with him.

“Thanks for the call, Potter. A-plus entertainment value. Wouldn't have missed it for the world.”

Joey was luminous under the porch light. Large, silent snowflakes fell around her, sparkling in her hair. “I'm speechless. Bessie and Bodie...I mean...” She shook her head, still processing.

“Well, I was talking about the pie, but that was pretty good, too.”

“Pacey!” She shoved gently at his chest.

Pacey caught her hands and, without pausing to second-guess the impulse, kissed the back of her knuckles. The sharp sound of her in-drawn breath made him release them. “Happy Thanksgiving, Jo,” he said lightly as he straightened. But he couldn't quite meet her eyes.

She cradled her hands to her chest, rubbing them anxiously. “Happy Thanksgiving, Pace.”

Pacey forced himself to walk away before he did something to panic her further. He was around the jeep and opening his door when she called out, “Would you really have moved with us?” Joey was haloed in the flickering beams of light, a flowing curtain of white surrounding her.

He grinned at her over the hood of the car. “Oh hell yes.”

Joey shook her head, smiling nervously, crookedly, back at him. “You're insane, you know that?”

“I've had a hunch. Night, Potter.”

He checked the rearview mirror as he shifted into drive. Joey remained on the porch, arms wrapped around herself, watching him drive away.

<><><>

The lights were on downstairs when Pacey arrived home. Knowing today had been too good to be true, he braced himself to enter the war zone. But the only sound to greet him upon opening the door was laughter. His four siblings and Lara were gathered around the dining room table, drinking, grins plastered on each face which turned toward him.

“Hey, Booger, where you been?”

“Visiting his lady love,” Gretchen teased with a wicked smile.

“I'm no longer certain I'm happy you came back,” Pacey told Maddie as he shrugged out of his jacket. “You bring out a nasty side of Gretchzilla I haven't missed at all.”

“I can't believe my baby brother's old enough to have a girlfriend.” Maddie took a long pull at her beer.

“She's not my girlfriend. She's a friend who happens to be a girl.”

Gretchen snorted over her drink. “A friend you want to fu—”

Pacey pretended to cover Doug's ears. “Careful, Gretch. Not in front of the virgin.” He swiped a beer from the stash in the middle of the table.

Doug pulled it back. “Don't think so, Pace.”

“Oh God, my baby brother's old enough to have sex,” Maddie mumbled, draining her beer.

“You let Gretchen drink!” Pacey protested. Her twenty-first birthday wasn't till March.

Doug grimaced as Gretchen giggled. “A lapse I'm already regretting. Here.” He grabbed a root beer and held it up for Pacey. “I believe this is more your speed.”

Pacey released an aggrieved sigh but accepted the soda. He pulled up a chair between Doug and Maddie. “Ma and kids asleep?”

“If I know my kids, they're poking, prodding, wrestling, and otherwise torturing each other, but they're in bed, at least.”

“Cool. Turns out I need to thank you, Dougie.”

“Uh-huh. What crude joke at my expense are you setting up now, little brother?”

Pacey raised his hands, assuming an expression of complete innocence. “No trap, I swear. You're the one who got Bessie that lawyer, and she got the insurance company to settle in the nick of time. So truthfully, unironically, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

Doug's stunned face was worth forcing out the words. “Well, you're welcome, then, though I had very little to do with it.”

“So does this mean you're not moving?”

Pacey shot Gretchen a warning glare to which she was oblivious. For once, he wished Doug had kept on his sheriff's hat. When drunk, Gretchen had no filter.

“Moving? Where are you moving?” Maddie looked lost by the whole conversation.

“That's just the question I was going to ask.” Amazing how quickly Doug's brotherly affection could harden into self-righteous disapproval.

“Nowhere,” said Pacey.

“Hartford,” said Gretchen.

“You're in serious jeopardy of losing your status as favorite sibling here, Gretch.”

“I'm confused,” said Maddie. “What's in Hartford?”

Pacey groaned. “Is anyone else starting to miss the old days when we never spoke to each other?”

Kerry raised her hand.

Doug pulled it down. “Quit deflecting, Pacey. What's this about you moving?”

“I'm not moving, okay? Bessie was looking at moving to Hartford, so I told Joey I'd go, too. But the money came through, so the Potters are staying, and so am I.”

Before Doug could unleash a lecture, Maddie exclaimed, “Joey Potter!? That's who you're in love with? Aww, that's so sweet.” She turned to Lara, placing a hand on her girlfriend's arm. “Joey's this little tomboy from down the creek. She and Pacey and Dawson Leery were inseparable growing up, but she and Pace fought all the time.” A frown flickered across her brow. “Damn it! I owe Gretch twenty bucks. I always said it would be Dawson and Joey, but she called it.”

“Maybe we should call it a draw,” said Gretchen, with a nervous glance at Pacey.

“Why?” Maddie looked around at the solemn faces around her before it reached her tipsy brain. “Oh, Dawson. Right. I forgot. I'm sorry, Pacey.”

Pacey shrugged, as if it didn't matter. Maddie had been gone five years and had never known Dawson that well, anyway. His loss would pale next to Pop's for her. But it felt like a punch to the gut. And Doug wouldn't let him drink and still looked prepped to read him the riot act. “It's okay. Think I'm going to call it a night, though. Will you be around tomorrow?”

“Yeah, Lara and I are staying at a place up the coast, but we'll drive down.”

“I should probably take us there now, make you some ginger tea before the nausea hits.” Lara ran her fingers across Maddie's brow.

Maddie smiled softly. She took Lara's hand in hers and kissed her knuckles—in a not dissimilar manner to how Pacey kissed Joey's earlier. Watching it planted the horrific thought that it was a genetic propensity and their father might have done such a thing to their mother. A mental image he did not need.

Apparently, neither did Kerry. She squirmed in her chair, though her train of thought was probably different from his. “I, uh, should go check on my monsters.” She didn't quite run for the basement stairs, but it was a near thing.

Maddie watched her sister's retreat sadly, but didn't let go of Lara's hand. “Okay, babe, let's head out.”

They exchanged hugs and farewells. Doug studied the couple's departure intently. Pacey grinned as he ran upstairs. Maddie's return might be better for Doug than for anybody.

He rushed to brush his teeth and change into pajamas. Turning off the light, he slid between the sheets. With any luck, he'd either be asleep or a convincing counterfeit by the time Doug came to bed.

Luck rarely kept company with Pacey. Doug walked in not five minutes later and was not the least taken in by Pacey's snores. A long harangue ensued on subjects Pacey knew by heart—his irresponsibility, his disregard for his family, his recklessness and stupidity.

But, at the end, Doug added a new refrain. “I know you're growing up, and soon you're going to be moving out and moving on with your life. But don't you dare do what Maddie did, you hear me? I don't think I could make it five years without my little brother.”

“Really? I thought that would be an answer to prayer for you.”

In the room's silence, he heard the hiss of Doug's wounded breath. “I guess you would.” After a short pause, he added, “I may not show it well, Pacey, but I love you. Very much.”

Pacey was grateful for the darkness which hid the flush of embarrassment and pleasure his brother's words gave him. “Uh, thanks, Dougie. But even if I played for your team, it would be too wrong. We're related.”

“Sometimes it's like you want me to murder you.”

Pacey chuckled. But after a minute, he said, “I wasn't going to skip town. I was going to tell you. Just hadn't found the right words yet. And I suppose, even if it's not always fun rooming with you and your Felix Unger propensities, I'm glad not to be leaving you behind quite yet.”

Doug didn't respond, but he didn't lecture anymore that night.

Chapter Text

The Potters and the Witters weren't the only families in Capeside who emerged from America's annual celebration of gluttony with unexpected good news. Mr. McPhee and Andie issued a joint invitation for Jack to return home, which was heartfelt enough to overcome his misgivings. On the other hand, Jen's mom's impromptu arrival had thrown a pall over her holiday.

Maddie spent much of the rest of her stay introducing Lara to the people and places of her hometown, usually accompanied by Gretchen. But they invited Pacey and his friends for dinner on Saturday, Maddie's treat. Lara won the girls over at once, with gifts of aromatherapy candles. But Jack was the real winner of the evening. Maddie's tales of high school life in the closet and its accompanying self-loathing and suicidal impulses—aspects of his sister's life Pacey had never contemplated and which horrified him—reinforced the belief that Jack had done the right thing coming out, while Lara's stories of bullying and harassment made Jack's paltry in comparison. But Pacey hoped Jack's takeaway was the fact that they were now both well-adjusted, happy people in a loving relationship.

He hoped Doug took it to heart, as well.

December arrived, cold and brutal. To Pacey, the change in weather seemed almost a personal assault. Three feet of snow on the ground and icy roads meant no more afternoon study sessions with Joey at Screen Play, no more runs on weekend mornings. In the ensuing weeks, he hardly ever saw her and never alone. The weather was an easy target for blame, but he had a nagging fear she was avoiding him. Well, not him, exactly. She always seemed happy to see him at school or with the group. But never alone, never a time or place they could talk.

Those late-night kisses lingered between them. Pacey would like to reassure her he didn't expect anything, but to do that he would have to bring it up in the first place, which became ever more impossible the more time slipped past. Pacey began to wonder if he hadn't dreamed the whole thing.

Bodie got a job as sous-chef at some fancy place halfway between Capeside and Boston. He bought a junky, old Volkswagen to get him there and back. Keeping it running gave Pacey some excuse to drop by the Potters', since Bodie had leapt back into many of the roles Pacey had been filling.

Bodie didn't need to leave for work until ten, so he spent his mornings with Alexander and dropped the baby off at Mrs. Ryan's before he left, thus opening one opportunity for quality time with Joey, with Pacey offering to drive her to school in the morning. An opportunity Joey quashed by inviting Jen to row over and ride with them, in Jack's absence. Pacey could hardly resent Joey's friendly overture towards her former rival or Jen's ineffably enjoyable presence. But it increased his disquieting notion that Joey was hiding from him.

To top it off, Christmas was coming. The first Christmas without their fathers, without Dawson. With no Leery family party to open the holiday season and put them all in a festive spirit. Pacey's keenest memories of those events were loading plates full of cookies then camping out upstairs with Dawson and Joey. Dawson would make them sit through all the Christmas classics—It's a Wonderful Life was Dawson's favorite—while Joey and Pacey mocked (and secretly admired) him for his wide-eyed naiveté in the face of the crass, calculating commercialism which comprised most Christmas celebrations.

Somehow, cynicism lost its appeal without Dawson there to stand as counterpoint.

Jen had even fewer happy holiday memories than Joey and Pacey did, but she was the one who launched their new tradition. After seeing the easel Pacey restored for Joey's birthday, she declared they were all crafty enough, in one way or another, to make each other gifts instead of buying them.

Pacey didn't consider himself talented for knowing how to varnish an old piece of wood, but, in the interest of his and Joey's meager budgets, he'd agreed. He'd combed pawn shops and yard sales for interesting pieces for each of his friends and spent many freezing winter hours working on them in Pop's old workshop.

Joey's house once again smelled like oil paints, and her easel no longer bore her mother's painting, which had been framed and hung on the wall. Pacey wasn't allowed to see any of her work, but he almost didn't care about the finished projects. The true gift was Joey painting again.

Christmas at the Witter house was far less memorable an event than Thanksgiving had been. Gretchen flew out to Oregon to visit Maddie and Lara. Kerry took her kids to their paternal grandparents, with whom she maintained a tentative relationship, even as she pursued a divorce from her incarcerated husband. That left only Doug, Ma, and Pacey for a subdued tree-decorating, gift-giving, and, in Ma's case, overabundant eggnog-drinking on Christmas Eve. Doug and their mother both opted to work on Christmas, a choice Pacey could hardly resent, as he would have done the same if Screen Play had been open.

Mitch Leery called him first thing Christmas morning. It was good to hear his voice, though he sounded in lower spirits than Pacey himself. Mitch was back on land, renting an apartment in the Seattle area. He'd just got a job as weekend manager at a seafood restaurant. They didn't talk long or deep; the pall of Dawson's loss hung between them. Still, it was nice to know he was all right.

Pacey spent the majority of Christmas morning in Pop's shed putting the last touches on his presents and packaging them as best he could. Jack's was especially unwieldy; he wrapped it in butcher paper and called it good.

They were all supposed to meet at Jen's at three that afternoon. For once, Joey welcomed Pacey's offer of a ride, not trusting her canvases to the perils of moisture from a row across the creek. She had tied the three similar-sized packages and one smaller together with string for easier transport and also carried a small Christmas tin—cookies for Mrs. Ryan.

Pacey took the paintings to the back, while Joey retreated to the warmth of the Wagoneer. No new snow had fallen in days, and the piles on the ground were murky gray and muddy brown. Funny how movies and greeting cards always ignored that aspect of winter.

“So how was your Christmas?” Pacey asked as he slid into the driver's seat. He kept the question light. No need to infect Joey with his holiday blues.

But she was in no better spirits than he, if her dispirited, “It was all right,” was any indication.

He shot a glance at her, long enough to note her slumped position in her seat, staring morosely at the dreary scenery. “Missing Dawson?”

“And Mitch and Gail. And Mom. And Dad. Holidays suck.”

Pacey agreed wholeheartedly. Holidays were for making memories, maybe sweet for some, but increasingly bitter to him. “We should chuck 'em all.”

Joey's mouth curved in a joyless smile. “I'm thinking of becoming Jehovah's Witness for exactly that reason.”

“Boy is Lindley going to be happy she invited us.”

Pacey's sarcasm roused Joey to some effort at cheerfulness. She told how Alexander had spread tinsel all over the house and delighted more in tearing wrapping paper than in his presents. In return, Pacey confessed how his humiliation at buying a Patti LuPone CD was recompensed by Doug's gratitude at receiving it.

By then, they had reached Mrs. Ryan's. Joey grabbed her gifts and headed inside. Pacey was slower, carefully balancing his to avoid two trips. He managed, but had to knock with a kick of his boot. Pacey couldn't see around the packages to whomever opened the door.

As he stumbled through the entryway, Jen appeared at his side. She grabbed his neck, stood on tiptoe, and pulled him down for an extended, not altogether disagreeable kiss.

She grinned impishly as she pulled away. “Much better since the last time we did that. You trained him well, Andie.”

“I thought he trained me,” Andie returned from the living room.

Pacey headed that way to deposit his gifts under the tree. Jack kindly took a couple packages, restoring his full range of vision. “So Lindley's homemade gift is kisses? Wish I'd known that was an option before I wasted all this effort on you people.”

“That was not your gift, though I thank you for the compliment. That was me paying Grams back for having to go to church this morning. I hung mistletoe over the door.” She indicated the low-hanging bouquet with a grin. “And have been taking full advantage.”

“I could have lived without the tongue,” Jack griped.

“Me, too,” said Joey.

Pacey was glad he was in the process of sitting down. Maybe no one noticed how his knees gave way at that mental image.

Mrs. Ryan shook her head at her granddaughter's antics, but a smile lurked in the corners of her mouth. “There's fresh ginger cake and warm apple cider for you children. I'm going caroling with the church choir, but I trust you all not to defile the Lord's birthday with any indecent behavior.”

“I make no promises,” Jen teased.

Evelyn Ryan raised an imperious eyebrow, then turned to accept her coat from Jack and kissed him full on the mouth. While Pacey wondered how to go about bleaching his brain, Grams turned to a gasping, gaping Jen and said, “Greet ye one another with an holy kiss. First Corinthians 16:20. Merry Christmas, Jennifer.” She departed with regal dignity.

Jack gagged, wiping his mouth and rushing for cider. “Why did I have to be the object lesson?”

Jen recovered enough to laugh at the empty doorway. “I just figured out who in my family I take after. Terrifying thought.”

They helped themselves to dessert while catching up on their Christmases. Jack and Andie had gone to visit their mom, who now lived in a happy land of delusion within the confines of a mental care facility. Needless to say, they won the prize for worst day, while Joey and Pacey's general melancholia was put in perspective. Reading between Jen's words, her quiet Christmas with Grams had been altogether lovely.

“So looking ahead to New Year's,” Jen said, “I had an idea we could take a train to New York and watch the ball drop in Times Square. In my whole life as a New Yorker, I never did, so it would be a first for all of us.”

“Sounds fun,” said Jack.

“I, uh, I'm not sure. I'll have to see.”

“What my stammering sister is trying to say is that her friend Mark arrives tomorrow for a week-long stay, and she doesn't know if he'll be up for it.”

Andie blushed and avoided looking at her friends. She probably felt guilty and embarrassed over the past summer.

Pacey, somewhat to his surprise, was happy for her. “That's great, McPhee. We'll have to take him ice skating or something.”

Pacey was uncomfortably aware of all his friends' eyes turning on him. Andie looked surprised and grateful, Jack and Jen were pleased, but Joey's gaze was searching. She was the first to drop her eyes, cutting another bite from her cake.

“That would be fun, but you still haven't responded to my New Year's invitation,” Jen pointed out.

Pacey had no inclination either for or against. He looked to Joey for direction.

“It sounds amazing.” Joey's tone was yearning. “But I already promised Bess I'd watch Alexander. She and Bodie are going out for the first time since he's been back. I can't bail on them.” But she sounded like she wanted to.

“I could watch Alex for you.” The words were out of Pacey's mouth before he finished thinking them.

Joey's eyes widened, rushing to his. She bit her lip, considering, before shaking her head. “I couldn't ask you to do that. You must want to go, too.”

What he wanted was to spend New Year's with Joey; he didn't give a crap about location. But what he wanted more than that, always, was for Joey to be happy. “Nah. That many people in that small a space doesn't hold much appeal for me. I betcha Alex and I will have more fun on our boys' night in than all of you globe-trotting adventurers.”

“I'll think about it,” said Joey, which meant no and for a reason she didn't want to discuss in front of their friends. Money. “So I was under the impression there would be presents at this little shindig?”

They cleared their plates and gathered around the Christmas tree, decorated in old-fashioned and homemade ornaments, including a popcorn and cranberry garland. Andie insisted on taking a picture of it with their presents around the base before the unwrapping could begin.

Jen handed hers around first. Gift bags stuffed with tissue paper and curly ribbons. Each contained a knitted hat and scarf. “There would be matching gloves, as well, but I could never get the fingers right. So if any of you have a run-in with a wood chipper and find yourself short a digit, I'm your girl.” Her colors were well-chosen, an eye-assaulting orange for Pacey, rich burgundy for Joey, bright blue for Andie, and Jack's a brown to match his eyes.

“Jack knows what to expect,” Andie said as she handed around her rectangular packages, wrapped in perfectly creased, sparkly silver paper. “I give him one every year on his birthday.” Pacey unwrapped his to find an intricately designed scrapbook. “His are always about the year in his life, but a lot happened this year no one would want immortalized. So these are less about events, and more about what each of you has come to mean to me.”

Pacey skimmed the pages, finding his loaded with pictures and memorabilia of their time together. Movie ticket stubs, a brochure from the bed and breakfast where they'd first made love, petals from the rose he'd carried up her lattice, cutouts of Dumbo and a Dodge Viper. At the back, she'd enclosed a long letter.

Dear Pacey,
Whenever I think of you, the first word which comes to mind is love. Even though the nature of that love has changed and will no doubt continue to evolve, I believe, no matter how many years pass, I will always love you. And, cheesy song lyrics aside, I am so grateful for that love in my life, for the ways in which loving you and being loved by you have shaped me and strengthened me.

All around him, Pacey heard sniffles as his friends thumbed through their own books and read their own letters. He struggled to hold back tears as Andie, in meticulous detail, unfolded the story of their relationship from her point of view. The little he'd been able to do for her was magnified out of all proportion, while she failed to grasp the monumental, world-changing force she'd been in his life.

I'll skip over the summer. As important as it was for me, it's the Lost Era of our relationship. If I were a fatalist, I would call it the Beginning of the End, but I'm not. I will call it only the Beginning of the Change. Everything that happened this summer and in its immediate aftermath caused me to doubt I knew you as well as I thought I did. I've had months to revise my opinion. You changed this summer, so did I. Some changes life forced on us, some we chose for ourselves. Change is the nature of life, a thought I have found both paralyzing and empowering.
But as for knowing you? In essentials, Pacey Witter, you remain—Jane Austen will forgive my stealing a phrase—very much as you ever were. Funny, self-deprecating, kind, generous, intelligent, loyal, and true. With a heart so big and open it still holds a piece for a girl like me to hang onto.
With Love, Always,
Andie McPhee

Pacey cleared his throat, blinking back tears, to smile at his ex-girlfriend. “Thank you, McPhee. This is...this is, I mean...”

“Words won't do it this time, Witter,” Jen said, closing her scrapbook. “Come here.” Not waiting, she ran to Andie and threw her arms around her.

Pacey followed her example, so did Jack and Joey. Joey was the teariest of all. Pacey idly wondered what her book contained, without any real wish to see it for himself. Andie's words were private. Sacred.

No one wanted to follow that, but Pacey was forced to. Of all the gifts, his were the most disparate in size and shape, from the set of old, wooden skis for Jack—“Not sure how well they'll actually work, maybe just put them on your wall”—to the small, driftwood music box for Joey. He'd made the piece himself, except for the music mechanism. It played “La Vie en Rose,” her mom's favorite song, but also a connection to Dawson's view of the world, and, with any luck, Joey's future time in Paris. Pacey had carved a sailboat on the lid, with waves all around. He thought she liked it, though her thanks were quiet and choked. For Andie, he'd restored an antique teak lap desk, which he thought would come in handy when she was living in a Harvard dormitory room. He'd stripped a quirky jewelry box for Jen, with lots of tiny, hidden drawers, then refinished it with an eclectic mix of colors and given it a faux-weathered look.

Pacey had assumed Jack, like Joey, would give them paintings. He was wrong. They'd all been amazed by the miniature Capeside Jack created for Dawson's last movie; he put just as much detail into the models he made for them. Andie's was the Duomo in Florence, her favorite city in the world. There was a two-foot tall Eiffel Tower for Joey and a New York City skyline fitted perfectly to the length of Jen's desk.

Pacey's jaw almost hit the floor when he opened his gift. “Dude! The Death Star? Seriously? Greatest. Gift. Ever.”

The girls all rolled their eyes, but Jack grinned. “Yours was my favorite to make. It comes apart, so you can see the levels.”

When Pacey found the compressible trash compactor, complete with movable Han Solo and company, he faked wiping a tear. “You just get me, man.”

Joey went last, bashful and nervous as she passed out her gifts. The smaller one was for Andie. While the others were oil paintings, hers was a watercolor, a pastel-hued butterfly. Soft shades of blue, pink, lavender, and yellow stretched beyond the wings, creating an illusion of flight. Looking at it, feeling an uplifting mix of joy and energy, Pacey realized Joey hadn't drawn the butterfly for Andie as much as she'd drawn Andie as a butterfly.

Jack's was an abstract piece. The top half was precise lines and angles, bold colors, the bottom was bright and chaotic as the lines devolved into mesmerizing swirls. Pacey's wasn't sure he got it, but Jack's smile grew the longer he looked at it.

Joey seemed more nervous than ever as Jen tore the wrapping paper off hers. “I know it wasn't easy for you, moving to Capeside, and I didn't make it any easier, but I wanted you to know...you belong here now. With us.”

Jen carefully placed her picture on the floor, leaning it against her chair, before she rushed to hug Joey. “Thank you so much. You can't imagine what this means to me.”

Pacey turned his eyes from the embrace to the portrait. Jen was the clear and central figure, with Grams and Jack to either side of her. Joey, Pacey, and Andie stood behind them. Joey had arranged the poses, so they all appeared to be leaning into Jen, surrounding and protecting her. The background was undefined yellow light. Something was off about it to the left of Joey's shoulder. Pacey stared at it a minute longer before he realized she'd painted a misty image of Dawson's face there.

“Pace?”

Pacey yanked his gaze from Joey's portrait to Joey herself. “Yeah? Sorry. I love that one, Jo. You did a great job.”

Joey blushed. “Thanks. But I could have...” She shook her head. “Too late to fix it now. Anyway, your turn.” She gestured at the unopened package in his lap.

Pacey didn't know what he'd been expecting, but when he pulled the paper aside, his breath caught in his throat. Joey had used every square inch of this canvas to depict an immersive landscape. The black of night was disturbed by a waxing moon and an hundred twinkling stars. A slow, wide river crept along the length of the painting; muddy, shrubby banks hinted at the shorelines. Bathed in moonlight, the focal point was a raft sailing away, following the river. Silhouetted on the raft, a tall man controlled the long oar reaching into the water, while beside him sat a girl, features indistinct, who leaned back on her arms. The angle of her posture made it debatable whether she was staring at the moon or at the boy.

“Prophecy or fantasy?” he asked hoarsely, as he managed to tear his eyes from the painting to Joey's face.

He thought he'd win a smile for that, if nothing more, but Joey frowned instead, brow wrinkling. “I don't know. I couldn't decide what to paint for you, so I closed my eyes, and this is what I saw.”

“It's gorgeous, Potter. Perfect. The best gift I ever got.”

Jack feigned outrage. “Aren't you fickle? Two minutes ago, mine was.”

Pacey grinned, with a 'whatcha-gonna-do' shrug. “Sorry, Jack. I've gotten more great gifts tonight than in my whole life combined.”

“Funny,” said Andie. “I was thinking the exact same thing. Turns out homemade gifts aren't cheap. They're priceless.” She hugged Joey's painting to her chest.

“You did not just say that,” Jen groaned, while Pacey threw wadded-up wrapping paper at Andie for that bit of corniness.

“I don't know about the rest of you, but all this maudlin sentimentality is making me hungry.” Jack patted his growling stomach in proof. “If I know Grams, there's a fridge full of mouth-watering leftovers in there. Any objections to transferring all further Hallmark moments to the kitchen?”

They ate and chatted, laughed and cried. Andie made them take pictures with all their gifts, including one—after Mrs. Ryan returned to snap it—of all of them wearing Jen's hats and scarves in front of the Christmas tree.

“You're already planning next year's scrapbooks, aren't you?” Jack teased.

“It's never too early to start planning,” Andie sing-songed back at him.

Pacey and Jack carried Jen's model New York up to her desk, while she and Joey decided on the perfect spot to hang her portrait.

Jen stared at it wistfully once they placed it. “What do you think he'd have done if he were here?” She, too, had found the ghost of Dawson in Joey's painting.

“Video scrapbooks,” answered Pacey at once. He'd thought about it a lot while he was working in the quiet shed. “Music montages of footage he'd filmed of us. Either that, or we'd all have a copy of Creek Days forced on us.”

His friends groaned.

“When I was making the Death Star, I had the urge to make Dawson a miniature Jurassic Park.”

“Man, he would have loved that!” Pacey could almost visualize his friend's gleeful reaction to that unveiling.

“I wrote him a letter,” Andie confessed. “When I was writing all of yours. I realized I'd never told him what his friendship meant to me, so I wrote it down.”

“This one antique store I was in had one of those old-fashioned movie projectors. I stood there so long looking at it, wondering how I could fix it for him, the saleslady came over and tried to sell it to me.” Pacey shrugged, ducking his head.

One by one, they turned toward Joey, as if expecting her to add the finishing touch on Dawson's presents that weren't. Eyes on Jen's portrait, she ignored them. “It's getting kind of late. Mind dropping me home, Pace?”

“No problem.” Pacey frowned as he watched Joey head downstairs. He wondered what was going through her head. For once, her expression gave no clues.

They gathered their loot, dispensed more hugs and thanks, and headed for the door.

“Ah-ah-ah,” Jen's chiding stopped them. “Not so fast. I believe you two have found yourselves under the mistletoe.” While her tone was cool schoolmarm, her face when Pacey glowered at her was amused delight.

Jack and even Andie joined her in scandalized ooh's and prodding words. To argue would only encourage them, so Pacey turned back to Joey. She scowled at Jen a moment longer than he did, before also resigning herself to the inevitable. With their arms filled with gifts—Jack's were bulky—they had to awkwardly shuffle to the side of each other. But Joey displayed no hesitation raising her face to meet his descending one.

Neither was interested in putting on a show for their friends. They brushed lips and lingered. That was all. But Pacey's head spun from her jasmine scent, from the taste of cider which clung to her soft, yielding mouth. Resisting the urge to deepen the kiss, he broke it, slowly pulling away.

Joey's eyelashes rested on her cheeks a second longer, before she opened those striking hazel eyes—rich and deep tonight, liquid as the molasses in Mrs. Ryan's gingerbread—and breathed. She pivoted toward Jen and growled, “Satisfied?” before stomping out the door.

“And to all a good night,” muttered Pacey as he followed her outside.

Snow was falling. A new half-inch tonight, judging by the buildup on the jeep. Pacey had to pull out the brush and scrape the windows before they could leave. He started the engine first, to defrost the windows and to keep Joey warm. She sat in the passenger seat, arms crossed, glaring at him the entire time he worked. Accusing him. As if he'd had anything to do with that setup.

The fact that he was ready to get down on his knees in gratitude to Lindley was beside the point.

Joey's cold stare combined with the cold outside froze all the warmth this day had stoked in him. By the time he threw the brush into the backseat, Pacey sported a scowl to give Potter a run for her money. He slammed the door shut and put the car into reverse. “You can quit giving me the evil eye any time. It wasn't my fault, you know.”

“Did I say it was?” she snapped back.

Pacey's hands tightened on the wheel, but he didn't respond as he pulled out of the driveway. Joey's crossed arms tightened further, but she left off glaring at him to glare at the darkness outside her window. He felt the silence between them like a living thing, putrid and noxious, growing exponentially every minute, choking the beautiful, fragile connection between them.

He jerked the wheel, pulling to the side of the road.

“Pacey, what—”

“This isn't about the mistletoe,” Pacey said, turning toward her, though her features were hidden in the darkness. “It's about last month, about the night we kissed. And I've tried to ignore that, tried to pretend like it didn't happen, because I thought that's what you wanted and that, with time, we could get back to normal, whatever normal even means with us anymore. But ignoring it isn't working. Not if you're pissed at me over some stupid mistletoe, and not if you feel like you can't be alone with me. So come on, Potter, talk to me.”

“And say what exactly?” Joey attempted cool disdain, but a tremor in her voice spoke most clearly of fear.

“Whatever you want. Whatever you're feeling or thinking. Whatever you need to say so we can be okay again.”

Silence. But pensive now, waiting. Non-toxic.

“I'm scared, Pacey,” she said at last in a small voice.

“Of what?” he asked just as softly. “Of me?”

“No. Yes. I don't know. I'm scared of what happened, that it could happen again.”

“Joey, nothing will ever happen between us if you don't want it to. I'm no saint, but I understand what 'no' means. I respected it that night, and I always will.”

“You don't understand,” was Joey's frustrated response.

“So explain it to me.”

“Don't you think I want to? I can't.”

Pacey realized suddenly that Joey's anger wasn't for him. Not really. She was angry with herself. He just didn't know why. “Sure you can. Admittedly, I'm pretty thick, but if you use small enough words, I'll catch on eventually.”

Joey's laughter held a hidden sob. “How can you understand when I don't...I'm sorry I've pushed you away. I'm sorry I got angry tonight. Can you, can you just accept that I'm going through something I have to work out on my own?”

Nothing was resolved, not really, but maybe having it in the open was enough for now. “Sure, on one condition.”

“What's that?”

“Stop avoiding me. I miss you, Jo.”

“I miss you, too,” she whispered. In a stronger voice, she added, “So if you want to hang around this week like the bothersome pest you are, I won't stop you.”

Pacey chuckled in sheer relief at her familiar teasing. He released the brake and pulled back onto the deserted street. “How could I refuse such a heartfelt invitation?”

He crossed the bridge to their side of the creek before he asked the other question burning a hole in his mind. “Hey, Potter, at the perilous risk of jeopardizing our newly restored friendship, why didn't you want to talk about Dawson back in Jen's room?”

Another loaded silence preceded her answer. “You were talking like everything would be the same. If he had lived, I mean. That we would still all be gathered together, exchanging those gifts, only Dawson would be there, too.”

“You don't think that's true?”

Joey snorted. “I know it's not. I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge, as much as I have come to value Jen's friendship, if Dawson were alive, I would still resent her and envy her and turn into an all-around, insecure, hateful wench every time I saw her face.”

Pacey winced. “Don't pull any punches there, Jo.”

She ignored his sarcastic advice, continuing as if he hadn't spoken. “And would I be painting again? I'd like to think so, but I didn't stop painting when Dawson died, Pace. I stopped when we got back together. Because I didn't want to have the fight again. And even assuming we'd worked through that, I wouldn't have painted that piece for Jen, or the one for—” She stopped abruptly as Pacey pulled into her driveway.

“Or the one for me,” he finished. “Because you and I would still be nemeses.”

Joey shuddered, though the jeep was plenty toasty by now. “We were never really enemies, were we?”

“Nah, but we were pretty damn good at pretending to be.” Pacey had needed to pretend, in order to hide, even from himself, what he felt for her. For a split second, he wondered why Joey had.

Everything would be different if he were alive,” Joey concluded. “So many things would be better, but some things wouldn't be. The longer he's gone, the more those changes multiply, the less I'm willing or able to play the 'what if' game. I miss him. That's enough.”

“Yeah.” Then, for lack of words, again, “Yeah.” He wanted to reach across the seat and gather her in his arms, but didn't. Holding her was a luxury he didn't trust himself with lately. “Want me to carry in some of that stuff for you?”

“I've got it. Night, Pace.” Joey opened the door, gathering her gifts—she was wearing Jen's—before carefully stepping down into the snow. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Jo,” he told her retreating back.

Chapter Text

Joey Potter was laughing. Head thrown back, cheeks red from cold and exhilaration, tongue caught between her teeth, as Jack whirled her round and round the ice. Pacey imprinted the moment on his memory, as he watched from behind the fence at Capeside's outdoor, seasonal rink.

“Hey, why aren't you skating?”

Pacey pulled his eyes to Andie as she skated toward the gate beside him. “Waiting for hot chocolate.” He gestured at the concession stand behind them. “Apparently, they're out.”

Andie frowned, brows pulling together in distress. “Out? How can they be out? Hot chocolate is the fundamental purpose of an ice rink concession stand.”

“I told them exactly that. Except louder. Now I think they're hand-grinding cocoa beans just to spite me.”

Andie giggled. Her cheeks were as red as Joey's, her elfin face charmingly framed by Jen's blue hat and scarf. She looked happier today than Pacey had seen her in a long time.

“So where's Mark? I was starting to think your skates were tied together out there.” Pacey's tone was light, and he smiled his approval.

“His lace broke; he went to get a new one. I was going to get us some chocolate, but if they're out...” Her face set in a determined expression as she stepped off the ice. “Maybe I'll just have a word.” She wobbled—it was difficult to walk on the snow in skates—over to the stand.

Pacey tuned out Andie's strident discussion with the poor kid running the snack bar, as he again found his eyes drawn to Joey. She was in the middle of a whip line now, Jack and Jen beside her, with Jen holding onto Eric Carter on her other side. Pacey had been surprised when Jen showed up today with the West Coast transplant in tow, but Joey hadn't. Apparently, it had been in the making for some time.

“So the machine clogged,” Andie said as she leaned on the fence beside him. “They had to clean it out, whole big thing. But she promised me it will be ready in five minutes.”

Pacey chuckled. “Did you get her life story while you were at it?”

“No, I just—” She waved at Mark, who was looking for her from the other side of the rink.

Mark grinned, waved back, and started skating to her, only to freeze—smile and all—when he noticed Pacey by her side. He signaled to Andie and joined the whip line instead.

“I didn't think I was that intimidating.”

“It's the height. And the guilt makes you loom larger.”

“Well, you can set his trembling heart at ease. In spite of my best efforts and the dictates of evolutionary biology, I don't hate the guy. He seems nice, and he's obviously crazy about you.”

“Yeah, well, he had a head start. He was already crazy when we met.” Andie's response was flippant, but she looked pleased by Pacey's approval.

Mark hadn't struck Pacey as unbalanced. He doubted the Mayfield Center would have released him if he was. He was quiet, a bit timid, slightly wary, but seemed kind and smart. “Just saying, if you had to have a boyfriend after me—and there is a fine nunnery in the area—you could have done worse.”

“He's not my boyfriend.”

“Really? It hasn't been so long I don't recognize that post-coital glow about you, McPhee.”

“Pacey!” Andie's face turned a stunning watermelon pink.

Pacey's laugh destroyed the innocent expression he tried to assume. “What?”

“That's so...I don't think I can talk about this with you of all people.”

“And here I was, thinking I was the best person you could talk to, the only one with the inside track, so to speak, on the rare privilege of being Andie McPhee's boyfriend.” Invitation given, Pacey returned to watching the skaters. Andie would confide in him, or she wouldn't. The important part to Pacey was that she knew she could.

“He lives in Cranston is the thing. And he'll be going to college in the fall. Even supposing he goes to Harvard, like we've talked about, that's a whole extra year over an hour away. You and I, we had a pretty strong relationship before I went away, and we couldn't survive the distance for less than half that time. Trying to start a relationship under those conditions is ludicrous. So, for now, Mark and I are just good friends.”

“With benefits,” Pacey snickered.

Andie's foot stomp was much less effective in slippery skates. “So what? Girls aren't allowed to have a fun night with a compatible, no-strings-attached partner? Or just me in particular? Because I have to say, Pacey Witter, I find the double standard implicit in that kind of—”

“Whoa, whoa.” Pacey raised both hands in surrender. “I wasn't judging you, Andie. Teasing you, yes. Mocking you, maybe a bit. But not judging. Whatever this thing with Mark is—or isn't—seeing you happy is good enough for me.”

“Oh. Thanks, Pacey. I'm sorry I—”

“Hot chocolate's ready!” the concessionaire called out.

Pacey and Andie led the line of cold, eager buyers, each purchasing two cups. They moved to the side table to put on lids. Pacey dared a sip to gauge temperature and taste.

“So how long has it been since you had sex, Pacey?”

Pacey spewed hot liquid all over the snow. Another patron heading for the lids stopped short. “Uh, they aren't kidding around with those heat warnings.” Pacey balanced the cups in one hand and pulled Andie back to the fence with the other. “What the hell, McPhee?”

She fluttered her lashes innocently while struggling to hold back laughter. “What? As your friend and ex-girlfriend, your well-being is very important to me. And a healthy sex life is a key component of general wellness in a libidinous adolescent male such as yourself. So—keeping in mind self-love doesn't count—how long has it been?”

Pacey was glad his face had long since gone crimson from cold. His embarrassment didn't show as clearly. “Lovely as this chat has been, I'd better get Potter her cocoa before she—”

“It was that night with Joey, wasn't it?” Andie's eyes went round in exaggerated surprise. “Pacey! That was almost five months ago!”

“Uh, actually, we didn't...well, I didn't...” He was torn between his desperate desire to not be having this conversation at all and his need to reassure Andie that his infidelity hadn't proceeded so far. “My last time was with you, all right? Happy now?”

Abruptly, Andie's mirth vanished, replaced by distress and pity. “Pacey, I'm sorry. I didn't realize—”

Pacey waved a Styrofoam-filled hand to shush her apologies. “It's fine. I'm a big boy, McPhee. I can handle it myself—figuratively and literally.” He laughed as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“Okay. Well, I, I guess I should get this to Mark.” She raised one of the cups in her gloved hands.

“And, as I was saying, I have no wish to face Joey's wrath.”

Andie carefully skated in Mark's direction. The boy intercepted her and pulled her to a bench on the other side of the rink.

Pacey spared himself the trouble. “Potter!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Hey, Potter!” When Joey looked in his direction, he raised the chocolate and jerked his head toward the nearest bench. His slow walk brought him there at the same time as her skates.

Showing off her flexibility and grace, Joey used her long legs to slide over the thigh-high fence. An image Pacey didn't need directly on the heels of Andie's sex talk. Unaware of Pacey's dirty thoughts, Joey snagged one of the cups from him. “Thanks. What took you so long?” She sank onto the bench, sipping at the warm beverage, wrapping the long, slender fingers of both hands around to soak up the warmth.

“They were out.” Pacey shrugged as he sat beside her.

“Incompetent fools,” scoffed Joey.

“I figure we can forgive them, since you were having so much fun out there.”

Joey smiled one of her rare, full smiles and nodded. “We should do this more often. I forget how much I love it.”

Growing up in New England meant you learned how to skate almost as soon as you learned how to walk. Joey, Pacey, and Dawson had made trips to this rink every winter since Pacey could remember. He was glad Joey was able to enjoy today, though, without memories clouding it.

“Yeah, maybe we should bring Alex down, put him in his first pair of skates, laugh every time he falls.”

Joey giggled. “Well, I'm watching him on New Year's, remember? So, if you'd care to join us...”

“Uh, actually, you're not.” Pacey fingered the envelope in his pocket. He'd intended to give it to her on the ride home, but now was as good a time as any.

“Yeah, I am. I told you, Bessie and Bodie are going to Caroline Lowell's party, and I'm—”

“Here.” He shoved the package unceremoniously into her hand. Jesus, he was bungling the whole damn thing.

Joey eyed the unmarked, white envelope dubiously. “What is that?”

“An envelope, Potter, obviously. Yet everyone insists you're the smart one.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, smartass. If we're being pedantically literal about things today, what's in it?”

“A present.”

Joey shook her head, trying to hand it back, as if she had a presentiment of what it contained. “You got me a birthday present and a Christmas present, which means we're square till next September.”

Pacey refused to acknowledge her outstretched hand. “But see, for being such an extra, specially good girl this year, you, Josephine Potter, have won yourself an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City.”

Slowly, Joey opened the envelope and stared down at the train ticket in her hand.

“I bought it when Jen got hers, so don't worry, you're with the group. It's non-refundable, so don't even think about weaseling out. I already cleared it with Bessie, too. She's given her consent to my watching the baby in your stead, so your sister is clearly a woman of unflinching courage and questionable judgment.”

Joey continued to look only at her ticket. “I don't understand...how...why?”

Pacey shrugged. “You wanted to go. And with your family's sudden leap to financial independence, I've had some disposable income burning a hole in my pocket.” He shifted uncomfortably. “It's no big deal.”

“Why do you always do that?” She sounded frustrated, but still didn't look at him.

“What? Buy train tickets? Pretty sure that's the first one I ever bought in my life. As for why, couldn't tell you. Either I really like you, or I have a burning need to ship you out of town.”

Finally, Joey looked at him. Her lips were pulled thin in annoyance, but her eyes were chocolate, warmer than the cooling cup in Pacey's hands. “Not the ticket. Everything. Over and over again, you just...you do these things, these amazing, unbelievable things—things no one else would even think of—and then you brush them off, like it's nothing. It is a big deal, Pacey. You...you're...thank you. Just...thank you.”

Pacey didn't know whether to be more pleased by Joey's gratitude or by leaving her tongue-tied for the first time in their long acquaintance. “You're welcome.” He drained what remained of his cocoa. “Now, how 'bout you and I go show these city kids how to really skate?”

<><><>

“Maybe this isn't a good idea,” Joey said for the umpteenth time in the last two days. “Winter storm warnings in the forecast, Y2K doomsayers predicting the end of the world. What if we get stranded?”

“Then it's a good thing you'll be within easy reach of all life's amenities.” Pacey kept his gaze on the hazardous winter roads as he drove her to the train station.

“We're completely unchaperoned. And given the kind of behavior which got Jen sent up here in the first place, frankly, I'm not sure she should be entrusted with our safety.”

Pacey chuckled. “That reminds me, did you pack a camera? If you get talked into doing anything illegal, I want pictures.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Joey's scowl and crossed arms. “Why aren't you even a little upset that all your friends are abandoning you, leaving you stuck in crappy Capeside babysitting the monster?”

“Couple o' reasons. First, compared to the swarm of devil spawn currently infesting my house, your nephew will seem one of the cherubim. Secondly, after seeing you almost every minute of the last week, maybe I'm ready for a break, Potter. Ever think of that?”

“I was sick of you a long time ago. You're the one who keeps showing up.”

“And finally,” Pacey continued, ignoring her retaliatory barb as he pulled into the station lot, “I think the girl who is one day going to wipe the dirt of this town from her feet might need some practice in venturing out into the wide world before that day arrives.”

Joey clung to the green backpack she was taking with her for the whirlwind trip and stared nervously at the waiting train. “Okay, I'm scared. How pathetic is that? All my big talk about getting the hell out of here, and, at the first opportunity, I choke.”

He pressed her shoulder. “You've only choked if you don't get on the train, and you're getting on that train if I have to throw you over my shoulder and carry you there. You'll be fine, Potter. You're going with friends, and Jen knows her way around—in a purely geographical, directional sense, and with no judgmental, moral implications attached.”

Joey forced a weak smile. Jen was on the platform, saying goodbye to Grams. Andie's Saab pulled in next to the Wagoneer.

“So what's it gonna be, Jo? You hopping out, or must I drag your ass over there?”

“I'm going, I'm going.” Reluctantly, Joey opened her door and slid to the ground. She paused when Pacey didn't do the same. “Aren't you going to see me off?”

“Not really a fan of the protracted farewell. Especially when I'll see you again in less than twenty-four hours. Sure you don't want me to pick you up tomorrow?”

“Andie's giving me a lift. We're getting in at a quarter to ungodly early in the morning. You might as well sleep, given that you're not going to miss me at all.”

“Now that's one lie I didn't tell today.”

Joey's face softened, but Andie called to her from the other car, warning of time. Joey waved acknowledgment.

“You'd better go. See ya next year, Potter.”

Joey swung her pack around on her shoulder. “See ya tomorrow, Pace.”

For all his professed indifference to the parting scene, Pacey didn't drive away until their train had left the station.

<><><>

After an afternoon trouncing his nephews at Street Fighter, Pacey was as happy as he'd predicted to trade them in for one sweet, little toddler. He showed up at the Potters' about half-past five, far too early if he judged by Bessie being in her bathrobe when she opened the door.

“Hey, Pace, Bodie's getting Alex his dinner. I'm running late, so he'll fill you in. Thanks again for doing this.”

“No problem,” Pacey told Bessie's retreating figure as she disappeared into her bedroom.

Alexander sat in his high chair, chowing down on fish sticks and cooked carrots.

“I know, I know,” Bodie said. “Not up to my usual standards. But I figured I'd save you the clean up on both child and kitchen. Bess gave Alex a bath this morning, so—barring disaster—he should be fine without one tonight. You know his night routine?”

Pacey nodded. “Unless it's changed drastically in the last few months, teeth brushed and jammies at eight, followed by stories and cuddles, light's out by eight-thirty.”

Bodie chuckled. “You sound like an old pro. There's plenty of food in the fridge. Feel free to help yourself. TV's in our bedroom, but it's fine if you want to watch.”

“Thanks. Hey, have you guys heard from Joey at all?” Pacey cursed himself for asking the question which had been looping non-stop in his mind.

“Yeah, she called Bess about an hour ago, just to let her know they got in safe. They were meeting up with some friends of Jen's.” Bodie gave Pacey an appraising look. “I'm surprised you're not with them. Mrs. Ryan could have watched Alex.”

“No, she couldn't. She's got some sort of all night prayer-a-thon at her church.” Pacey shrugged. “Doesn't really matter. At least Joey got to go.” The bedroom door opened, and Bessie stepped out in a slinky black dress. Pacey gave an appreciative whistle. “Bodie Wells, you are most definitely a lucky man.”

Bodie smiled at his fiancée. He kissed her bared shoulder while she struggled to put on her right earring. “Couldn't have said it better myself.”

Bessie rolled her eyes. “Knock it off, Pacey. Leering isn't worthy of you. Bodie, have you seen my black handbag?”

“No, but I can look for it.” He slipped into the bedroom.

Bessie sat on the couch to tie on her strapped black heels. “I expect to find both son and home unscathed on my return, Pacey.”

“Sure thing, Bess. Hey, Alexander's old enough for his first porno, right?” Bessie's glare would ignite plutonium. Pacey raised his hands defensively. “Kidding, kidding. Strictly a Barney environment, I promise. Although the amount of time those kids spend supervised only by a seven-foot, purple dinosaur is frankly worrisome.”

Bodie emerged with the purse. After another dozen last-minute instructions, he and Bessie headed for their party.

“Guess it's just you and me, little man,” Pacey told Alexander in the silence following their departure.

“Ho, ho, ho!”

Pacey laughed. He'd taken great pains to teach Alex that in the weeks approaching Christmas. With Christmas over and done, the kid refused to give it up. He cleaned Alex's face and hands, then spent the next few hours entertaining him with toys and filling the silence with a rambling monologue which far too often circled around a certain absent aunt.

“Whatcha think, kiddo? Think they're at Times Square yet? Your Aunt Joey was pretty scared about this trip, but I'm sure she's scowling like a native. After all, we've given her lots of practice, haven't we?”

“Rrawr!” said Alex, waving his dinosaur in Pacey's face.

With nothing else to do and no other company to be had, Pacey let bedtime slip a little. But by eight-twenty, the baby was rubbing his eyes and yawning, so Pacey bundled him into his pajamas, grabbed some stories, and took him to bed. Alex was snoring before nine.

Pacey raided the fridge, found some of Bodie's four-cheese dip, loaded up on chips, and headed for the bedroom to watch Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. It was the same, moronic blend of bad pop music, fake excitement, and endless advertising Pacey and his friends avoided every year. New Year's traditionally meant joining Dawson on his annual countdown of favorite Spielberg movies. This year, no Dawson, no Spielberg, and Pacey's only slim chance of seeing Joey was scanning the millions of bystanders in Times Square every time there was a shot of the crowd.

He was fully aware of the depths of his lameness.

When had he become this guy? His inability to think of anything but the girl didn't bother him. Since the onset of puberty, Pacey had had a one-track mind. He figured that was standard for adolescent males. But this waiting on the sidelines, incapable of action, was new and extremely frustrating. He could blame circumstances, but circumstances hadn't favored pursuing Miss Jacobs, and Pacey hadn't let that stop him.

But Joey...this was something different. She was something different. Pacey was petrified to the point of paralysis by the possibility of screwing it up. She filled too many roles in his life. She was his best friend, but she was also his best friend's girl. She was the woman he was in love with, but also the lonely little girl he wanted to protect. He wanted to lose himself in her lips, in her body; he wanted to hold her close and keep her safe.

Instead, he'd sent her three hundred miles away, where she would probably ring in the New Year in some stranger's arms. What the hell was wrong with him?

Disgusted with himself and Dick Clark, Pacey channel-surfed in search of the elusive better option, but eventually dozed off.

The phone's shrill ring brought him up fast. Pacey rubbed his eyes, checking the red numbers on the digital alarm clock. 12:08. He'd slept through the New Year. He fumbled for the phone. “Hey, Bess, Alex is fine. Sleeping, just like the last three times you called.”

“Good to know, but it's not Bess.” Joey was yelling to be heard over the chaos around her.

“Jo? Happy New Year, Potter. How's New York?”

“Crowded! And noisy. But really, really fun.”

“I bet. I looked for you on TV, but couldn't see you through the masses.”

“We're actually above the Square at a party. One of Jen's friends got us in. Better view, and a lot warmer, though not significantly less crowded.”

“So what are Jen's New York friends like?”

“Surprisingly nice, for the most part. Though I punched this Drue guy in the face a few minutes ago. His New Year's kiss was decidedly gropey.”

Pacey forced a chuckle, though he felt sick. “See? I knew our Potter girl wouldn't have any trouble looking after herself in the big city.”

“Yeah.” The conversation stalled, but there was no silence with the pulsating music and raucous celebrations in the background. “Well, my time's almost up. I just called 'cause...I guess I wanted to thank you again for this trip and to say you were right. I am glad I came. And to say happy New Year's, and I miss you. Which, before you mock me, yes, I realize is a ridiculous statement when I saw you this morning and will, no doubt, see you tomorrow, but I, I wish you were here, Pace.”

Pacey's throat constricted. “I wish I was there, too, Potter. I...I...” The words froze on his tongue. He chickened out. “I'll see you soon, 'kay?”

“See ya,” she whispered like a promise.

The line went dead.

<><><>

“Pacey! Pacey, wake up!”

Someone shook his shoulder, pulling Pacey out of a disturbing dream where he was both himself playing Street Fighter and the character on the screen getting his spine ripped out.

“Huh? What?” He started up to find Bessie leaning over him in the dim light of her room.

“Sorry to disturb you,” she said, sounding amused, not apologetic, “but I'm going to need my bed, and, unlike my sister, I don't let just anybody in it.”

“Right. Sorry. I'll head home.” He shook his head, trying to wake up enough to find his shoes.

“It's after two in the morning. You don't have to do that. Bodie's setting up Jo's bed for you.”

“Thanks, Bess.” Pacey stumbled out to the living room. Bodie was just pulling out Joey's pillow to throw on the mattress. “Thanks,” Pacey said again. He fell across the sofa bed, burying his nose in Joey's clean scent and, smiling, went back to sleep.

<><><>

Her body was draped over his, her lips painting a seductive, wet trail down his chest.

“Jo, Joey,” he groaned, squirming in his desire to be with her. “Joey, I love you.”

She raised her head, brown hair falling like a curtain around her frowning, perplexed face. She opened her mouth and wailed.

Not Joey crying. A baby's frustrated sobs. They went on and on and...

Still half asleep, Pacey swung his feet to the ground. Alexander's cries acted like a homing beacon.

“Stay put, Pacey.” Bodie waved him off as he headed from his room to the baby's. “I got it. Seems like you got your hands full already.”

Pacey emerged to wakefulness, to the gray light of pre-dawn trickling in through the window and the heavy weight across his back. The weight that felt and smelled and breathed like a sleeping Joey Potter. Carefully, he twisted onto his side, away from her, but her arm hung over his waist. When he moved, so did she, but she only nuzzled in between his shoulder blades and released a dreamy little sigh. A wet drool spot near his shirt collar gave him an idea where his dream had originated.

Taking her hand, which was dangling over his abdomen, Pacey laced his fingers through hers. “Welcome home, Jo,” he whispered.

Joey let out a snore.

Pacey smiled, closed his eyes, and sought in vain for his interrupted dream.

Chapter Text

“Here.” Jen passed a bright, colorfully-wrapped package over the seat rest as she slid into the back of the Wagoneer.

Pacey stared at it, astonished. Not even to school yet, and someone had already acknowledged his birthday. “Thanks, Lindley.” He pulled the shiny paper off to reveal Led Zeppelin's Complete Studio Recordings. “Zeppelin. You definitely should have.” He popped in the first cassette to listen to on the way to school.

Joey groaned as she fastened her seatbelt. “You should have waited until we got to school, Jen. Could have spared our ears the assault.”

“Can it, Potter. As you didn't deign to get me a present at all, you can consider this your punishment.” Pacey turned the volume to max as he pulled onto the road.

Joey twisted the sound down to a reasonable level. “I believe you still have a good sixteen hours of birthday left. You can't expect everything in the first ten minutes. Where's the fun in that?”

“If you say so. Hey, later today, when you're panicking and searching for a last minute gift at the Pump 'N' Save, don't forget I prefer Ho-hos to Twinkies.”

Joey sniffed and turned her face to the window, but not before Pacey glimpsed a secret smile which made him wonder if she actually did have a surprise in store.

“Let's turn the topic to something far more important,” Jen said, leaning forward between them. “Your birthday party. After last year, we owe you something pretty spectacular, but your cursed birthday, cursedly, falls on a Wednesday this year, the least acceptable party day. There was some talk about throwing you a surprise party last weekend, but, as you no doubt noticed, that didn't materialize for the fabulous reason that the elder Mr. McPhee is going to be in Providence this weekend. So, Master Witter, your presence as guest of honor is requested at the rager of the year, this Saturday, at the house of our dear friends Jack and Andie.”

“Yet, somehow, you're the one issuing the invitation,” Joey said with a roll of her eyes.

“I'm co-hosting. They're providing the venue and the food. I'll supply the drinks and entertainment.”

“Lord help us all,” Joey muttered.

Pacey grinned. Maybe, at long last, his birthday curse was broken.

<><><>

The day continued to be surprisingly pleasant. Pacey managed a B+ on his latest trigonometry test and an A on his book report for The Sun Also Rises. Jack and Andie greeted him with presents and redundant invitations to the party. Andie and Jen's significant looks when discussing said event were worrisome—they were definitely up to something—but not enough to dampen his mood. Joey had a cream-filled chocolate cupcake waiting for him at lunch.

He started to feel guilty about how good the day was going. His first birthday without Dawson should have been a record low. He remembered Joey expressing similar sentiments on her birthday. There was something inherently crappy about still being capable of enjoying life.

“Give me the keys, Pace,” Joey told him as they walked to the Wagoneer after school. “I wanna drive today.”

“Ha ha ha.” Pacey twirled the key chain around his finger. “You're very funny, Josephine.”

“I'm not joking.”

“You absolutely are if you think for one moment I'm entrusting my life on the one day a year when I have empirical evidence that the universe is out to get me to the driving skills of a girl whose two lessons thus far have resulted in a cumulative nineteen stalls and one case of whiplash.”

“If you don't let me drive, I can't give you your present.”

Joey made a grab for the keys, but Pacey pulled them out of her reach. He hoped she'd jump for them, thus pressing their bodies together, but she didn't.

“I'm remarkably good at following directions, Jo. Anywhere you want to go, say the word.”

Joey pouted, something he hadn't seen her do since she was about seven. Her lower lip came out, trembling, while she looked up at him from under lowered eyelashes. The effect was anything but childish. “But it will ruin the surprise. Please, Pacey?”

“What part of 'fatal automotive collision' do you not understand?”

She stepped closer, rubbed a hand up and down his coat collar, and stared at him with saddest, most pleading eyes in the world. “Pretty please?”

Pacey groaned. “Fine. But when we end this day in the ICU, I expect your public acknowledgment that the birthday curse is a verified phenomenon.”

Joey gleefully grabbed the keys and headed for the driver's seat. “Deal.”

“Shouldn't we wait for Jen?” Pacey asked when Joey started the car.

“She's riding with Jack.”

Before leaving the school parking lot, Joey managed to stall twice and only narrowly avoided a fender-bender. Pacey's palms started to sweat. He wiped them on his cargo pants.

“Jo, you turned the wrong way.” She also forgot to use a turn signal, but one thing at a time.

“I may suck at this driving thing, Pace, but I'm not idiot enough to get lost in my own hometown. We're not headed to Mrs. Ryan's.”

“What about the baby?”

“Alex is fine. Mrs. Ryan's going to keep him till Bessie can pick him up today.”

Pacey's brows rose in surprise. Joey was headed out of town. He wondered if his present was a road trip. That could actually be fun—he braced his hand against the roof, his boot on the sloped floor, as the Wagoneer lurched to an unplanned, unnecessary stop—if Joey wasn't the one driving. “So, uh, how far away is this present?”

“Not far.” Joey's earlier sparkle had been replaced by the scowling, tense expression she often assumed when dealing with people and always wore when driving.

They jerked and stuttered along the road another mile. Doug passed them in his squad car. Unbelievable. The one time Pacey actually wanted to get pulled over...

Joey turned down a gravel-paved side road.

Pacey frowned. There was nothing out here, except... “The marina's junk yard?” His confusion only deepened when he saw Doug leaning against his car, arms crossed, waiting for them. “Jo, what's going on?”

Joey brought the car to an inelegant stop, then breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled the keys from the ignition. Pacey quickly reclaimed them.

“I had an idea of what you might like for your birthday, but I couldn't afford it myself. So, technically, this is your present from me, Bessie, and Bodie. Doug helped me work out the deal, and his present is related, which is why he's here.”

“Don't leave me in suspense. What is it?”

“Come on.” Joey seemed nervous as she slipped out of the jeep.

“Hey, little brother. Happy birthday.” Doug straightened as Pacey walked up to him.

“Hey, Dougie, what's all this about?”

Doug shook his head with a smug grin. “Joey's gift first. Mine won't make sense otherwise.”

Pacey followed Joey around the weathered workshed and past any number of rusting, rotting old boat parts. She stopped beside the dilapidated wreck of a small sailboat.

“I know it's not a Mississippi log raft, but you did say it was an option to keep in mind,” she said.

Pacey's eyes bulged as he tried to wrap his mind around Joey's words. “You bought me a boat? This boat? You bought me this boat!?”

Joey nodded, bit her lip, shoved a lock of hair behind her ears. “Not me, specifically. Like I said, it's a joint effort from the entire Potter-Wells blended family.”

“Joey, this...it's too much. I can't accept it. Your family—”

“Is doing fine. Thanks, in no small part, to you. If you could buy us groceries for half a year and give me a trip to New York, I can give you a boat if I want to. Honestly, I thought you'd be a bit more—”

Pacey silenced her tirade by yanking her up into the air for a spinning hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don't know what else to say. You're insane, but thank you. What else can you say when someone buys you a boat?” He set her down, impulsively kissing the tip of her nose. “Danke schön.” He kissed her forehead. “Merci beaucoup.”

Doug cleared his throat behind them. “Before you head south of the border, mind if I give you my present?”

Face red—from cold or embarrassment, Pacey wasn't sure—Joey pushed out of his arms. “Right. Doug's present. It puts ours to shame.”

Pacey turned to see his brother holding out a bucket filled with sandpaper, tools, and cleaning supplies. “Uh, these are great, Dougie. I'm sure they'll come in handy, but Potter just bought me a boat, so...”

“And these are the first things I bought with your new account at the hardware store, which should allow you to actually make that boat seaworthy.”

Pacey sucked in a breath. “What?”

“It's not a blank check,” Doug warned. “There's a thousand dollar limit, so don't come crying to me if you blow it all on a gold-encrusted helm. But I'm hoping some of the maturity you've gained this year will enable you to make smart choices and you'll build something here to be proud of.”

Doug's lecture couldn't overshadow the amazing, unprecedented thing his brother had done for him. Pacey pounced on the sheriff, pulling him into a hug, willing or not. “Thank you, man. I'll do it right, I swear. You won't regret this.”

Doug patted him on the back a couple times. “Just don't start kissing me all over the face, yeah?”

Pacey chuckled and let him go, turning back to stare at his boat. His boat. His boat. Un-fucking-believable.

“I gotta get back to work, but you will be home for dinner, won't you, Pace? Ma's expecting you.”

Nothing like the mention of a Witter family party to drain the joy right out of a guy. He grabbed Joey's hand before facing Doug. “I'll be there. But tell Ma Joey's coming, too.”

“Pacey, I'm not sure—” Joey began softly.

“Jo, it's my birthday. Which means, for this one day, it's supposed to matter what I want. And what I want is for my family to sit down and have a civil meal with my best friend.” Pacey turned from Joey to give Doug a warning look as he finished.

Doug frowned, brows contracting, before he gave Pacey a subtle nod. He would make sure Ma and Kerry were on their best behavior.

Pacey nodded back in appreciation. “Thanks again, Dougie.”

Doug's smile was softer, less self-assured than usual. “You done good this year, little brother. Thought it was about time to show you it hasn't gone unnoticed. Enjoy your birthday.” He gave Joey a curt nod of farewell and left.

“I didn't imagine that, right?” Pacey said as he watched his brother walk away. “Sheriff Witter Jr. did just pay me a compliment?”

Joey flashed her teeth in a full smile. “In addition to giving you a borderline obscene amount of money? Yeah, he did. I would also point out that we arrived here in one piece, so adding up all the events of the day, I believe it's incumbent upon you to announce that the birthday curse, if ever you had one, is now lifted.”

“Let's see if we survive dinner with my mother first.”

Joey's smile disappeared without a trace. “Pacey, it's sweet of you to include me, but I don't want to be the source of any family tension, today of all days.”

“And I think it's sweet that you think I invited you out of kindness, when in reality, it's a defense mechanism.” Pacey could resist no longer and climbed up into his boat to look around.

“Defense against what?” Joey climbed the ladder after him.

Pacey stepped in her way and raised a pointed eyebrow.

Joey rolled her eyes, but complied. “Permission to come aboard?”

“Permission granted now and in perpetuity.” Pacey extended a hand to help her up. “Seriously, Jo, I can't believe you did this.”

“Well, as long as we're confessing our less than honorable motivations, I might as well acknowledge the selfish underpinnings of your gift. I mean, you've seen how I drive. If I ever plan to escape this town, I'm gonna need a getaway vehicle.”

Pacey grinned and faked a bow. “She's at your service. Or will be as soon as she can float.”

“Any thoughts on what to name her?”

He grabbed some sandpaper and headed for the bow before answering. “How 'bout the Josephine in honor of my benefactor?”

“In that case, she should be the Sheriff Doug or maybe the Bodie. But don't you know every good sailboat needs a name that is also a groan-worthy pun, like A Frayed Knot or Sail la Vie?”

“That is a sad misconception based on the fact that far too many boats are bought by dads in the thick of mid-life crises, and there is nothing fatuous white men like more than puns.”

“Except screwing their secretaries,” Joey threw in. She grabbed some sandpaper and knelt to work, unasked. Pacey watched her a minute, bundled in her black coat and burgundy knit cap, her breath misting in the chilly winter air.

“I could name her True Love.”

Joey's head shot up, eyes wide and panicked. “What?”

Had he really said that out loud? Stupid, stupid, stupid. “Uh, movie reference. It's Cary Grant's boat in The Philadelphia Story.”

Joey relaxed, brow furrowing in thought. “I think Dawson and I watched that one. With Katherine Hepburn, right?”

Pacey nodded. “And Jimmy Stewart. Good movie. Funny. Archaic gender notions, but,” he shrugged, “it was the '40s.”

“I remember now. Dawson hated it. He was pissed because Jimmy Stewart didn't get the girl.”

“That's not quite true. He ends up with Liz, who's awesome. I mean, when all is said and done, Katherine Hepburn is a high-maintenance broad. High-quality lady, too, no question, but those two attributes go hand-in-hand, and who would you trust more with that combination, All-American Jimmy or Mr. Debonair himself?”

“I see your point. Dawson always was more of a Jimmy Stewart guy. He did those Frank Capra movies.”

“Whereas I am everything suave, charming, and sophisticated. An obvious Cary Grant.”

Joey snorted. “In your dreams, maybe. I was thinking Groucho Marx—ridiculous, over-the-top, and, well, need I point out the physical resemblance?” She tapped her nose with her finger. Her smile made butterflies dance in his stomach, especially when that teasing tongue of hers slipped between her teeth.

“Harsh, Potter. And on a man's birthday, no less. Could you at least upgrade me to Bogart? Not the greatest looker, but a tough guy, a man's man, who still made the ladies weak in the knees.”

“Mmm.” Joey tilted her head, as if considering it. “Nope, sorry, Pace. Whatever edginess you think you have, you lost it the moment I caught you playing pat-a-cake with Alexander. I am willing to grant you certain Spencer Tracy-like qualities, but that's the best I can do.”

“Tracy, huh? Where do you get that?”

“Please. Working-class hero is written all over you. Throw in a round Irish head and blue eyes sparkling with mischief...It's almost too obvious.”

Pacey hid a smile. She'd been noticing his eyes, had she? “Fair enough. I accept your compromise.” He stopped sanding, resting back on his knees. “We haven't talked about movies in a long time.”

“I was just thinking the same thing.”

Joey's back was facing him, so he couldn't read her expression. Not that he didn't appreciate the view as she bent over to sand the hull, but he wanted to judge her state. “You okay?”

She raised her head and turned around, giving him a reassuring smile. “Surprisingly, I am. For once, the linked memories of Dawson and film felt sweet. Not saying I want to plan an evening at the Rialto any time soon, but it was nice for a minute, remembering.”

“That's good, Jo. So, before we side-wheeled into old tinsel town, you were shooting down my name suggestions. Don't suppose you'd like to venture one yourself?”

“You're positive you don't want a pun?”

Pacey threw a washrag at her head.

Joey shrieked and threw it back. “Okay, okay. How about...this all snowballed from your joke about rafting the Mississippi, so why not something to do with that? Big Jim or Huckleberry Finn or, oh, oh! You could name her Miss Sippy and get both a reference and a pun!”

“That is it, Josephine.” Pacey discarded his sandpaper in disgust and stalked across the boat toward her. “You have left me no choice but to torture you until you remember what funny actually is.” He squeezed her sides, tickling her, fingers moving dexterously to find her weak spots.

“Pacey, no! No! Stop!” Joey squirmed, squealing and laughing. She tried to pull away, but it was a small boat. She was already pressed to the stern. “Stop, please, stop.” Her shrieks and giggles continued, but her hands locked on his wrists, trying to push him away.

Pacey refused to relent. “No more puns. Promise me.”

“I swear. I swear! Just stop.”

He did. His hands stilled, loosely resting on her hips. Her long, artist's fingers covered his own. They stood close enough that Joey's recovering breaths brushed her chest against his. Her face was red, flushed from laughter, exertion, and cold. Her cap had been knocked askew during the struggle; a hat-flattened curtain of hair had fallen forward in front of her left eye. Without thinking, Pacey brushed it back behind her ear. Joey's eyes were mostly gray today, the same gray as the January afternoon sky.

In the quiet of the deserted boat yard, the only sounds were the soft exhalations of their breath and the ear-pounding thud of Pacey's terrified, exhilarated heart. He licked his lips, bent his head—

Joey sidestepped out of his arms. “You didn't answer my question earlier.” She grabbed another piece of sandpaper from the bucket, pretending that was the reason she'd headed to the other side of the boat. As far from him as she could get.

Pacey tried to clear his head. Difficult when her heady scent clung to his skin, clouding his mind. “Huh? What question?”

“About tonight's dinner. What am I supposed to defend you against?”

Joey had chosen her line of attack well. Nothing was more calculated to defeat Pacey's ardor than thoughts of his family.

He scowled. “You may think my birthday curse is a big joke, but you haven't had to sit through the yearly game of Pacey's Worst Moments as retold by his nearest and dearest. I figure if there's someone in the room they hate more than me, maybe we won't have to play this year.”

“Just for that, I hope we do. I could add so many moments to the repertoire. The Miss Jacobs tape alone has got to be worth, what, fifty points?” Joey sent him a crooked smile to assure him she was only teasing.

Pacey's couldn't force a smile back. He started calculating how many hours remained of his birthday and how many ways it could still go wrong.

<><><>

The early sunset and icy air of a harsh New England winter drove Pacey and Joey inside long before Pacey would have chosen to abandon the as-yet-unnamed boat to return to the dubious welcome of his family hearth. Joey mentioned the homework they needed to do, as if that was incentive.

Kerry's kids were bouncing off the walls when Pacey ushered Joey inside. Running without looking where he was going, Three-year-old Steven quite literally bounced off Joey's legs. He blinked up at them from the floor.

“Not sure how many of these monsters you remember. The gaping guppy on the floor is Stevie. These others are Vic, Mary, and Bobby.” Pacey placed a hair-ruffling hand on each head as he passed them. “This is my friend, Joey, and she is not to be bitten, punched, hit, kicked, scratched, pinched, or spat upon. You got that?”

Joey's eyes went wide, but the kids offered up a chorus of disinterested assents. Taking Joey by the hand, Pacey pulled her to the kitchen. Best to get the worst out of the way at once.

His mom was mincing garlic cloves, scraping them into a pan of squeezed tomatoes. Pacey was shocked. For the first time ever, she had remembered his favorite food.

“Hey, Ma,” he said, squeezing her shoulders. “Just wanted to let you know we're here.”

She smiled up at Pacey, though the expression froze when it landed on a nervously-shifting Joey. “Pacey, Josie.” Icy formality accompanied the second greeting.

“Her name's Joey, Ma.” But Pacey changed the subject rather than start a fight. “You're making spaghetti?”

“Doug insists it's your favorite, but I was sure it was chipped beef on toast. If you'd rather I switched, it's not too late to—”

“Nope. Doug's right. Thanks, Ma. Jo and I have some homework to do, so we'll be upstairs.” He rummaged in the fridge and pulled out a root beer for himself and a Diet Coke for Joey.

“I'd prefer if you studied at the kitchen table,” Ma sniffed.

“Among the wild things? Not until Kerry housebreaks them. Call us for dinner. It smells great.” He pulled Joey out of there and up the stairs before his mother could regroup.

Pacey ushered her into his room, closing the door on the ruckus downstairs. He dropped his backpack by Doug's desk and threw his jacket on his bed. Joey stood in the middle of the room, looking around.

Mildly embarrassed, Pacey grabbed yesterday's dirty clothes off the floor and threw them in the laundry basket. “If you think this is bad, you should have seen the place before Doug moved back in. There was talk of having it declared a federal disaster zone.”

“I wasn't judging, Pace. Just...observing. You know, we've known each other most of our lives, but this is the very first time I've been in your room.”

“Between our history of mutual disdain and my efforts to vacate the place as often as possible, that's hardly surprising.” Pacey took in his side of the room. Rumpled bed; tiny TV set with video games scattered around it; dresser with the second drawer broken, jammed halfway closed; random, crookedly taped posters of bands Pacey liked and cars he wished he owned; Joey's Christmas painting hung in pride of place over his headboard. “So what's the verdict?”

“Very Odd Couple,” she said, gesturing to the clear divide between Doug's side of the room and his. “Though, to be honest, I imagined there'd be more scantily-clad women around.”

“Took those down when Doug moved in. Lady parts make him queasy.”

Joey snickered, then blushed. Her gaze fell from the walls, to Pacey's unmade bed, to the floor.

Pacey cleared his throat and tried to clear his mind of the images which solidified there. Pulling Joey between those sheets and giving her something to blush about. “So...homework?”

“Yes. Homework. Great idea.”

Pacey gave her the chair at the desk, while spreading his own books out on Doug's military-corners bedding. His brother would be pissed about the wrinkles, but that was a small price to pay for setting Joey at ease.

They finished the next day's assignments before Ma yelled that dinner was ready. As it was Pacey's birthday, anything not due tomorrow could wait.

Kerry arrived home in time for dinner. She had found a job at the local market, which she hated, but Doug was helping her study for her GED in preparation for community college in the fall. She wrangled her kids to the table and met Pacey with a smile and a birthday wish. She didn't spare Joey a glance.

The silent treatment might be the best he could hope for from the Witter women. But Doug greeted Joey warmly, pulling out a chair for her between Pacey and Bobby. “How was the first day on the boat?”

“What boat?” asked Stevie.

Ma carried in the spaghetti pot in time to hear Pacey answer, “The boat Joey and Uncle Dougie got me for my birthday.”

“Cool!”

“Can I ride on your boat, Uncle Pacey?”

“Sail, not ride, and it depends how much you help me fix it,” Pacey teased his nephews.

Ma beamed at Doug. “Isn't it just like you to do something so wonderful and not say a word about it?”

“It was Joey's idea.” Doug nodded in her direction.

Ma sniffed. “Well, come on. Hand over your plates. No sense letting it get cold.”

Pacey stole a glance at Joey while the food was being dished up. She was quiet, but didn't seem hurt. She'd never had a relationship with his family, so there was nothing lost there.

Dinner didn't go as badly as Pacey had feared. His nieces and nephews monopolized most of the conversation, each outdoing the others to steal the spotlight. Their grandstanding culminated in Bobby's burping the alphabet.

Bemused, Joey told Pacey, “There's certainly no doubt he's related to you.”

Kerry chuckled. “Remember the time Pacey unveiled that trick at Pop's fundraiser?”

Here it comes, thought Pacey, spirit sinking.

Doug laughed. “Remember? To this day, I've not seen Councilman Gebhart so stunned.”

“The election before that,” Kerry could hardly speak for laughing, “when he destroyed the cake before it was even presented!”

Ma shook her head, giving Pacey her fond, exasperated, what-are-we-to-do-with-you stare. “Pacey's never done well unsupervised in the kitchen. I had a beautiful, giant wicker picnic basket and matching checkered blanket, strictly for use at the annual policeman's picnic. Five children I raised and not one of you thought to touch it. Till Pacey. I came home one day—he must have been twelve or thirteen, then, old enough to know better—and my kitchen was a disaster area. Every piece of food in the house spread across the counters, fridge door open, lemonade tipped over and dripping onto the floor. And there's Pacey and the Leery boy shoving the entire batch of peanut butter cookies I'd baked for John's poker game into my special basket. When I asked what they thought they were doing, Pacey pushed the basket into Dawson's hands and yelled, 'Run!' Dawson, being the angel he was, said something about how he thought I knew about it, and he was sorry, they were bringing a picnic to a friend in the hospital. But Pacey wouldn't listen to reason—like usual—and bullied Dawson out the door with my basket. As soon as his friend was gone, he faced me with that defiant look of his and said, 'Do your worst.'”

“That was you?” Joey's voice was soft with wonder. “I hadn't left the hospital in days. Mom was sick, really sick. Near the end. Everything about my dad had just come to light, and I didn't know which way was up anymore. Dawson showed up out of the blue, this giant basket loaded with food, and dragged me out into the courtyard for a picnic. It was more than the meal, it was that someone was thinking about me...I've always remembered it. And it was you all along.”

Pacey ducked, unable to meet that bright, shining look on Joey's face. The picnic had been his idea, but only because Dawson had mentioned how low Joey was. “Technically, it was both of us.”

“I never knew,” Joey whispered.

“Oh, Pacey's never been able to resist a grand gesture,” Ma said dismissively. “He got kicked out of summer camp when he started a revolt because he didn't like the food.”

It hadn't been about the food. Old Mrs. Boxhall, whom he'd loved, had been replaced by a bad-tempered, control-freak kitchen Fuhrer who treated kids on KP duty like slave labor. But that distinction had never registered with Pacey's parents.

“When the most spiteful girl in school was using the class elections last year to terrorize and bully her opponents, Pacey tricked her into revealing her true nature on the school intercoms for everyone to hear.” Joey flung the words at his mother like a challenge.

Ma blinked in surprise. They had all grown accustomed over the years to the litany of Pacey the Screw-up stories; Joey's did not fit the theme. Her eyes narrowed on Joey, as if sizing up a competitor. “When Pacey was three years old, he got into my make-up drawer and smeared cold cream over his entire body and every available surface.”

Joey shrugged. “What kid hasn't? In second grade, Grant Bodine and his cronies were ganging up on this boy Kenny every day after school. They would steal his shoes, throw them in the creek or on top of a roof. So that whole year, Pace walked Kenny to and from school to protect him.”

How did Joey remember that? Where had she even heard about it? Pacey had nearly forgotten it himself. “Uh, Jo, what exactly are you doing?” he muttered to her.

Joey's expression was all innocence as she turned to him. “Your family is bringing up old times, right? I'm joining in.” She grabbed Pacey's right hand with her left and held on tightly.

Ma glared at the joined hands on the table as if something putrid had been smuggled into her home. “Pacey was only nine years old the first time I caught him with a Playboy.”

Pacey couldn't believe his mom chose that story. Pop was usually the one to tell it—with much embellishment and laughter—while Ma tsked and shook her head and pursed her lips to hide how much she hated that the Playboy in question had belonged to Pop.

Joey didn't pull her hand away. She didn't even flinch. “After Pacey and Andie had a fight last year, he climbed the trellis outside her window to make up and give her a single, red rose.”

Pacey had never told anyone about that. Andie must have shared the story, but it was bizarre hearing Joey relate it.

Back and forth they went. His mother detailed every humiliating event, every painful screw-up and inadequacy of his life. Joey countered them all. Stories of good, happy times with her and Dawson, Andie, Jack and Jen. Stories where she—impossibly—made him seem like a hero, where she exaggerated what he'd done and made him appear kinder, braver, stronger than he could ever be. Somehow, she made spitting in Mr. Peterson's face a noble act.

Then Ma brought out the big guns. “One morning, Pacey decided to make us all pancakes.” Pacey groaned, hiding his face in his free left hand. “He lit the whole kitchen on fire. We were lucky to escape with our lives, and our beloved dog died of smoke inhalation.”

A moment of silence in remembrance of old Scraps always followed the recitation of this, the gravest of Pacey's sins.

Joey broke it. “He pulled me out of the Ice House,” she said softly. “Pulled me out and held me back. If he hadn't, I'd be dead.”

That last unbearable thought brought Pacey's head up, eyes needing the reassurance of Joey sitting beside him. For the first time in a while, she wasn't glaring at his mother; she was looking straight at him. Her hand pressed his gently.

Pacey waited for the rebuttal, for Ma or Kerry to point out he didn't do as much for his father, but none came. They simply watched him and Joey watch each other. It was almost a relief when the phone rang. Pacey dropped Joey's hand and gaze to answer it. Spell broken, Ma ordered Vic and Mary to help clear the table.

“Witter House of Pain,” Pacey said as he picked up the receiver in the living room.

“Hey, loser, happy birthday.”

Pacey smiled at Gretchen's affectionate tone. “I notice you had the sense to stay far, far away.”

“Unavoidable, sorry. Work today and an early class tomorrow. I sent you a present, though. Did you get it?”

“Not sure. We haven't gotten to presents yet.”

“Running behind?”

“A change in the regularly scheduled programming. Rather than saving the public evisceration for the grand finale, Ma served it up as the main event.”

Gretchen hissed an in-drawn breath. “Ouch. Sorry, Pace.”

“Actually, it wasn't so bad this year.” He watched out of the corner of his eyes as Steven pulled Joey onto the couch to read him a story. “Doug abstained, Kerry dropped out early, so it was just Ma.”

“Beating a dead horse? That doesn't sound like her.”

“Well, she had...” Ma emerged from the kitchen, carrying a chocolate cake. “Time for another round. Gotta go, Gretch. I'll fill you in later. Thanks for calling.”

“Enjoy your birthday, punk.”

The kids, naturally, had swarmed the cake before Pacey returned to the table. Ma led them all in a “Happy Birthday” chorus, as Doug, Kerry, and Joey gathered round.

“And Minnie More on Channel Four,” Bobby intoned tunelessly at the end.

“And Scooby-Doo on Channel Two,” the other kids joined him.

Soft hands took hold of Pacey's jaw, and Joey pulled his face to hers for a swift, gentle kiss. “And a kiss to grow an inch,” she mumbled as she hastily stepped back.

After that, it didn't take much thinking to make a wish.

<><><>

Joey had little to say for herself on the ride home.

If Pacey were smart, he would let it go, bask in the joy her words and actions tonight had brought him. But intelligence was not among the gifts people claimed he'd been born with. “Why'd you do it, Jo?”

Joey jumped, turning away from the window. “Do what?”

“Defend me. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it. It's just...no one's ever...”

“Shame on them, then.” Joey sat straighter, riled again. “How dare they sit there throwing your worst moments in your face! No wonder you never believe how great you are. And you are, Pacey. If your family won't tell you, I'll have to make it a point to correct their error.”

Warmth spread throughout Pacey, liquid light in his veins. But he answered flippantly, “In between telling me how much I suck, of course.”

“Well, I wouldn't want to inflate that big head of yours any more than absolutely necessary.”

Pacey pulled to a stop in Joey's driveway and unbuckled his seatbelt.

Joey paused, passenger door half-open. “Where are you going?”

“Inside. I want to thank Bessie and Bodie for the boat. Is that okay with you?”

She shook away the startled look on her face. “Yeah, of course. It's fine. But I think Bodie's still at work.”

“Bessie, then.” Pacey exited the Wagoneer and crunched through the snow toward the Potters' door. Joey skirted wide of him. He both marveled and fumed at her ability to do that—give him hope of her feeling something for him and then shut him straight down.

He said a quick, quiet thank-you to Bessie—Alexander was asleep—then hinted he should be off. School night.

“Bye, Pace. See you tomorrow,” said Joey from behind her sister's shoulder.

Pacey didn't blame her for not walking him back outside. She probably knew the truth as well as he did. If she had, he would have kissed her. He had lost the will to stop himself.

Chapter Text

When he stopped by the Potters' house early Saturday evening, Joey rushed out the door before he got halfway down the drive. She was nearly swallowed by her long, black coat. He thought it might once have belonged to her dad.

Pacey frowned as he changed direction to open the passenger door for her. “You didn't have to run out. I'd have rung the doorbell like a proper gentleman.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “I know, but I thought I'd spare us both Bessie and her camera. She's being ridiculous. I mean, it's not like this is a—” She shut her mouth abruptly.

Pacey had helped her into her seat, but Joey had not yet swung her legs around. Which put her on a perfect level for him to see the confused, embarrassed flush to her cheeks. “A date?” he finished with a gentle smile and a teasing lift to his eyebrows. “Of course not. This is just a guy driving his transportation-challenged friend to a party.”

Joey nodded, but bit her lip as she voiced an uncertain, “Right.” She swept her legs forward.

Pacey moved the edge of her coat inside, so it wouldn't get stuck in the jeep's door. His fingers brushed the smooth skin of her ankle. “Trust me, Potter. When I take you on a date, you'll know it.” He shut the door before she could respond, cursing himself for a fool for saying it in the first place.

Joey had no scathing response awaiting him when he slid into the driver's seat. She made quite a show of being cold and wanting the heat turned up and successfully ignored his comment altogether. She kept the conversation light on the drive to the McPhees, centering it around Pacey's boat and the mountain of work it would need.

“Before we can sail away?” he asked as he parked down the block from the already crowded house.

Joey didn't answer, letting herself out without waiting for his aid.

Pacey cursed under his breath. He had to get a hold of himself, or he was going to wreck this before it began. Joey picked her way carefully through the slush in her weather-inappropriate, open-toed heels. Her irregular steps allowed Pacey to catch up.

“What'd you wear those death traps for anyway, Potter?”

She glared at him. “Because some of us like to dress for an occasion, and the patriarchal oppression of our culture includes women's footwear which both accentuates our posteriors for your crude enjoyment and hampers our ability to run.”

“If I were the lunkish brute you describe, I would simply throw you over my shoulder and carry you inside, but as I aspire to be a little more evolved than that, here.” Pacey extended his arm, elbow bent, for Joey to hold onto.

She eyed it askance, but a misstep which left her foot dripping and her ankle nearly twisted convinced her. She slipped her arm through his. Pacey, flushed with a masculine pride Joey would surely mock if she sensed it, helped her navigate her way inside.

Jen, all smiles, met them at the door. “You're here! Great! Now the fun can really begin.”

Jack strode up beside her. “I can take your coats upstairs for you.”

Pacey turned to help Joey with hers. He froze with the sleeves halfway down her arms as he recognized the dress she was wearing. Long, thin shoulder straps descended to the small of her back before finally meeting the shimmering turquoise waves of fabric. She'd worn the dress. The dress. For him. Or at least for his party. His mind short-circuited.

Joey shrugged the rest of the way out of her jacket, turning to retrieve it from him. He must have had a ridiculous expression on his face, judging from the what's wrong with you look she shot him. Pacey snapped himself out of it and removed his own coat. The red shirt and black trousers he'd almost rejected as too fancy now seemed woefully inadequate.

“Wow, Joey, nice dress,” said Jen.

Pacey could have hit himself for not mentioning it first. Now any compliment he gave would sound forced. He paid her one anyway. Or tried to. “A sea nymph.” When Joey and Jen both stared at him, bewildered, he clarified, “In that dress, you look like one of those naiads—or is it dryads?—you know, one of those...beautiful...spirit...things.” He sputtered to a stop. God, what was wrong with him? He used to be good at complimenting women. Smooth-tongued, just the right amount of cheek. Why did Joey Potter turn him back into a fumbling, bumbling boy?

Joey tilted her head, causing loose tendrils from her up-swept hair to brush against her bare shoulder. “Thanks, I think?”

“Here.” Jen handed them each a slip of paper and a pen. “Write your name on these.”

Pacey was too dumbfounded by Joey to do anything but obey.

“Why?” Joey asked.

Jen took Pacey's signed slip and dropped it in a glass bowl full of paper on the stand behind her. “Part of the evening's entertainment. Consider it my modern twist on a classic. A gender-neutral, sexuality-indifferent four hundred and twenty seconds in the paradisiacal afterlife of your choice.”

Joey crinkled her nose. “We're playing Seven Minutes in Heaven? Isn't that kind of juvenile?”

“Very. But, in case it's escaped your attention, we are literally the definition of juveniles.” The doorbell rang, and Jen deserted them to welcome the next arrivals.

Pacey glared at the bowl, tempted to pull his name out. Not so much for fear of getting paired with a guy—though that would be awkward—but because he didn't want his name linked to anyone's but Joey's tonight. And he definitely didn't want hers drawn with anyone's but his. Well, maybe Jen's, or...

Joey dropped her pen on the stand. She glanced back at him over her shoulder and linked their fingertips, pulling him deeper into the house. “Come on. Let's see if we can find some less degrading way to pass the evening.”

As Pacey watched the swirl of Joey's dress around her legs and felt the pads of her fingers shift against his, he rejected even the possibility of Joey Potter and Kristy Livingstone. If Joey kissed anyone tonight, it had damn well better be him.

They skirted around the den, which had been cleared for dancing. Currently, there were only half a dozen people jumping around to some kind of ska monstrosity. Pacey was glad Joey didn't ask him to dance. He could never refuse her anything, but hell if he wanted to make an idiot of himself in his first ten minutes here.

They pushed through milling, flirting, gossiping teenagers—many of whom Pacey was sure he'd never seen before in his life—and into the kitchen. People were lining up with plastic cups by the keg, and a big bowl of spiked punch sat on the island amidst a beautiful display of cookies and treats—Andie's contribution to the evening. Joey walked directly to the cooler full of sodas. With a glance of regret at the keg, Pacey followed.

He cracked open a Coke. “So. What do you want to do?”

Joey shrugged, hunching up her shoulders as if to hide. Her dress made that an impossibility. “It's your party. What do you want to do?”

The first thought which came to mind—peeling that dress off her with his teeth—was clearly a non-starter, so Pacey shrugged as well. “Cards?”

They headed back through the mob to the cupboard where the McPhees kept their games. Pacey grabbed a deck. Jack helped clear a space for a card table. It didn't take long to get a game going. They played for low stakes, but Pacey thought both he and Joey would walk out of here richer than they walked in. Though if some of his opponents didn't stop ogling Joey, they'd start losing their teeth along with their money.

Once the flow of arrivals slowed, Jen gleefully began her sadistic mating ritual. She stood on a chair to make an announcement. “Before we get the love train started, people, listen up: No means No even in the closet. Should anyone forget that, there's a can of pepper spray on the shelf in there. I hope I don't need to explain how painful that would be in such close quarters.” She hopped down from the chair, grabbed two names from the bowl, and sent Belinda McGovern and Chris Wolfe off to inflict their awfulness on each other.

Pacey did his best to ignore the catcalls as each pair entered and left the McPhee coat closet, but his direct line of sight from the card table included it, so some things caught his eye. Everyone paying attention raised an outcry at the first guy/guy pairing, but the boys in question—Jeff Birdwin and Trey Carter—merely shrugged on their way in and blushed on their way out. Nikki Green and Mary Beth, the first girl/girl pairing, began and remained indifferent to both the hecklers and each other.

The first time Pacey knew for a fact Jen was cheating—he'd suspected a time or two before—was when she announced, “Jack McPhee,” immediately followed by, “Ben Street.” Ben was a gay kid from the next town over whom Jack had been instant messaging most of the year. Jen and Andie had both tried and failed to get Jack to date him.

Pacey wondered if Jack would demand to see those slips of paper, but he didn't. He did glare at Jen's smiling face his entire walk to the closet and mouthed, “Dead,” at her while she shut the door. But seven minutes later, when the timer dinged, Jack left the closet smiling, if red-faced to a degree only surpassed by the clear handprint on Grant Bodine's left cheek during his early aborted closet trip. The slap—from a girl Pacey didn't know—had been audible even outside the closet. Jen threw Bodine out of both heaven and the party.

The next time Pacey knew Jen was playing with the results was twenty-eight minutes later when she paired her homophobic ex-boyfriend Ty with her current stalker Henry Parker. Or tried to. Ty called her a plethora of names which brought Pacey to his feet, but Jack kicked Ty out the door before Pacey could leave the table.

When Jen finally called out, “Pacey Witter,” he knew what the next name was going to be before her hand touched the bowl. He wasn't upset. He might even thank her for it. That would depend on how the next seven minutes went.

“And Joey Potter,” Jen said with a grin and a wink for Pacey.

Joey jumped, poker chips falling from her hand. Her back was to the closet; maybe she'd done a better job than Pacey had blocking out the game. She swiveled to face Jen, before turning and reluctantly meeting Pacey's eyes. Pacey had not yet stood; he raised his eyebrows, silently signaling he would follow her lead.

The whistling, encouragement, and raucous suggestions faded to white noise when Joey stood and walked toward the closet. Pacey followed, surprised his legs didn't give out on the way. Joey didn't turn back once to acknowledge him and brushed past Jen into the closet without a word or glance. Pacey shuffled in after her.

“Play nice, kiddies. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.” Jen shut the door with a wicked grin.

The closet was dark, the only light flickering in by the crack under the door. The smell of mothballs and other people's sweat overpowered any trace of Joey's delicate jasmine scent. Outside the closet, music blared, people laughed and joked, yelled to be heard over the crowd. Pacey stood next to Joey, unseeing, not touching. Why had he thought this was a good idea?

“So...” Joey said into the darkness.

And suddenly, he was turning toward her. “So the way I see it, we have three options here. We can pretend this isn't happening and talk about something banal until the timer dings. We can waste the time debating the possible ramifications of following through on this ridiculous situation. Or...”

“Or?” The breathy, hopeful note of that one word decided him.

Pacey stepped forward, his hands seeking out her face in the dark, tilting her chin a notch higher. He leaned down and whispered his words against her lips. “Or we can spend seven minutes in heaven.”

He caught her sigh with his mouth, molded his lips to the curves of hers. Joey wrapped her arms around his shoulders and returned the kiss. It was all the permission he needed. Pacey opened his mouth, opened hers. Danced with her the one way he knew how.

The problem with this game, Pacey had decided earlier in the evening, was that kids tried to get too much done too fast, and everybody left unsatisfied. He was determined not to make that mistake. Not with Joey. Seven minutes was too short a time even to kiss her. Especially when he felt—as he did when her tongue twirled around his—that he could happily kiss her for the rest of his life. So, as tempting as those flimsy shoulder straps were, he kept his attention focused above her neck.

Okay, and a little bit on her neck. Not enough to leave a mark. But its swan-like curve had been tempting him for hours, every time she tilted it to look at her cards, every time a strand of hair whispered across it. He tasted the deliciously delicate skin, savored the smell of jasmine and sea salt which couldn't hide at this proximity, thrilled at the swift-moving pulse under his lips.

“Pacey,” she breathed. She had never said his name like that before. She had never, in any of their intimate encounters, said his name at all.

His exhilaration, his joy, expressed itself in a kiss as possessive as he hoped it was gentle. Though he had some doubt of it when her back hit the wall. The impact didn't faze Joey. Her hands found a way up under the hem of his shirt, and she pawed greedily at the skin of his back, pulling him closer.

Pacey wanted to tell her to slow down; they didn't have to rush this. But doing that would require separating his mouth from Joey's. Not worth it. Oxygen didn't seem as essential to existence right now as kissing Joey Potter.

Hands wandered of their own accord. He traced the exposed curves and lines of her back. Fingers dipped under those slippery straps. He didn't push them down. Not yet. Enough that he held them, that he could, that she would let him.

Joey's hands were everywhere. His back, the curls of his hair behind his ears, wrapped around his neck, sliding down along his arms. Heated fingertips grazed across his abdomen, and Pacey's whole body surged toward hers, hips thrusting in search of a home so long denied.

Even that didn't bring them to their senses. Joey tried to wrap a leg around him and groaned into his mouth when that gorgeous, infuriating dress impeded her efforts. Pacey helped, dragging the material up her legs, bunching it around her thighs. His hands shifted, taking hold of those slender thighs, lifting her against the wall. Joey wrapped arms around his neck, legs around his waist, and drew him into the cradle of her body. Their mouths moved together relentlessly, challenging, nipping, soothing each other. Irresistible instinct drove Pacey's hips against hers. Joey's needy whimper was swallowed by his lips. His answering groan felt pulled from his very soul.

“Ten...nine...”

People outside were counting. That was important for some reason.

“Eight...”

With a frustrated oath, Pacey broke that life-sustaining kiss. He lowered Joey carefully to the ground then fell back against the opposite wall.

“Seven...six...”

“Shit,” Pacey swore again. He hadn't meant to do that, to be just another collection of raging hormones. In a few seconds, that door would be flung open, and he and Joey would be fodder for the rumor mill yet again.

“Five...four...”

Pacey adjusted himself in his pants and rapidly went through a boner-killing litany. The crowd out there. Oh God, Andie was out there. And Dawson. Dawson was not, but, for all he knew, Dawson was in here with them, spirit denied eternal rest by rage at his best friend feeling up his soulmate.

“Three...two...one...”

Jen threw open the door. Pacey flinched at the bright light. He tried to ignore the wolf whistles and applause traveling through the crowd at their rumpled state. The impulse to shield Joey behind him was denied when she shot out of the closet, nearly running from the scene of the crime.

All concern for the reaction of others deserted him. The only person whose opinion of what happened in there mattered was Joey. He ran after her. “Jo! Joey, wait up!”

Joey shook off the hand he laid on her arm. She forced her way past various party goers, heading so far as he could judge for the McPhees' bathroom.

Pacey quick-stepped around her, blocking her way. “Come on, Potter. Talk to me.”

Joey's hair was mussed, nearly destroyed, her lips kiss-swollen, and her dress wrinkled. But her expression was cold, distant. “We don't have anything to talk about.”

“The hell we don't! What happened back there—”

“Was a game,” she cut him off, though her cheeks glowed brighter. “Time-out-of-time. What happened back there can't possibly exist in reality, ergo it doesn't. Just forget it ever happened.” Joey grew more agitated as she spoke. She brushed her hands down her dress in a futile effort to straighten it and didn't look at Pacey.

Months of frustration and denial boiled over. “What if I don't want to forget? What if I'm tired of trying to forget the unforgettable?”

“We have to,” Joey insisted in a voice that shook. She ducked under his arm and into the bathroom doorway.

Pacey stuck his foot in the crack. “But why?”

“Because of Dawson!” she screamed and shoved him back. She slammed the door and locked it. Pacey could hear her sobbing on the other side.

He stood outside, listening, raised a fist to pound on the door and demand—or plead or beg—for her to let him in. His arm dropped uselessly to his side. What was the point? Whatever Joey felt for him, whatever inroads he'd managed to make on her heart—or at least her hormones—couldn't compare to her lost love with Dawson.

His shoulders slumped in defeat as he slunk away from the bathroom. The least he could do was give her privacy in her grief.

Pacey wandered aimlessly from room to room until he found himself in the kitchen, where a group of enterprising young men were attempting to rig a beer bong to the keg. “Here,” he said. “Let me help you with that.”

<><><>

“Up and at 'em, Adam Ant,” the too-cheery voice was accompanied by the throwing back of curtains and a flood of loathsome light.

Pacey groaned, then wished he hadn't as the noise echoed in his skull. He pulled his eyes shut tighter, but that did nothing to stop the bars of blinding yellow behind his eyelids. He buried his head under the pillow. That worked somewhat better.

“Oh no, you don't!” That annoying, familiar voice sing-songed at him, right before the pillow was snatched from his grasp. “My guilt and pity were expunged the moment you threw up on my comforter. Go ahead and soak in every moment of this agony. You certainly earned it.”

Andie. It was Andie lecturing him. Despite her words, sympathy seeped through her tone, and she spoke softly. But softly was too loud today.

Pacey cracked one eye open long enough to get a sense of where he was. Desk piled with papers. Wall covered in trophies and ribbons. Andie's room. He closed his eyes tighter and laid an arm across them. God, his head. A throbbing, thrumming death march played on and on in his head. His mouth tasted like monkey butt. He suddenly realized he was clad only in boxers, with no covers. In his ex-girlfriend's bed.

He shot up, ignoring his protesting senses, grabbed her pink sheet, and pulled it across his lower body.

Andie nearly fell over laughing. “Now you acquire modesty? You don't have anything I haven't seen before, remember? Or do you think your vomitous, vertically-challenged, drunken self was so irresistible to me that I took advantage of your impaired state to have my wicked way with you?” She indulged in a second round of giggles.

Her amusement did nothing for Pacey's agony. Though he felt much relief to know he hadn't slept with Andie last night. “Uh, if you've enjoyed my humiliation long enough, mind giving me back my clothes?”

“Alas, they met the same fate as my quilt and are currently in the wash. I brought you some of Jack's stuff.” She gestured to a pile of sweats on her desk.

Pacey winced. “Thanks, Andie. I'm, uh, really sorry about your quilt.”

Andie frowned, brow constricting, as she studied him with a softened air. “That's all right. I consider it just recompense for my part in last night's fiasco.”

“Last night's pretty hazy, but I'm pretty sure you had no part in pouring that river of beer down my throat. I did that to myself. Or was at least an active and willing participant.”

“Oh, you behaved idiotically and brought this on yourself, no question,” Andie said, but then fidgeted uncomfortably, playing with a corner of the sheet. “But I meant in a broader sense. You see, the party was kinda my fault.”

“Fault? Throwing me a birthday party might be a foolhardy risk, but it isn't really a fault. I'm the one who screwed it up.” His foggy memory cleared enough to give him a picture of Joey's stricken face while he screamed and ranted on the dance floor. He winced and dropped his aching head into his hands.

“See, the screwing up thing...you know those cartoons where there's a tiny, little snowball at the top of a mountain which grows as it descends until it's a giant, destructive force with a bunch of characters screaming and scattered arms and legs sticking out of it as it keeps on rolling?”

“Huh?” Pacey's bleary brain failed to elucidate Andie's words.

“It's a metaphor. And in this metaphor, I'm the one who dropped the snowball. On the train to New York, Jen was lamenting the fact that you didn't come with us and how you never seem to have fun anymore—at least not in the wild and reckless way you used to. And I felt Mark watching me, worried about me and you and any lingering feelings there, and I just blurted it out, like I was trying to prove I didn't care.”

Pacey didn't get what any of this had to do with him getting wasted last night. He just wanted Andie to finish talking, so he could try to piece together what he had said to Joey. And swallow a bottle of mouthwash. “What did you say?”

Andie lowered her head in shame and mumbled, “He needs to get laid.”

“What!?” His shout was properly rewarded with a ringing skull.

“I told Jen you needed to get laid,” Andie repeated. “She teased Joey about it for a bit, but when Joey refused to take the bait, Jen decided we'd throw you a party to get you back into circulation. I knew it was a bad idea, but I went along with it, because, well, because I didn't want any of them thinking I still had a vested interest in you. Not that I do. Or, well, if I do, it's not something I would let rule my life or, or complicate yours.” Her crimson cheeks and averted gaze made Pacey uncomfortably aware of his near naked state in her bed. Andie rushed on, “But I swear I didn't know about Jen's game until yesterday, and I didn't know she was cheating until she made you and Joey go in there.”

That part of the evening was luminously clear in Pacey's mind. Every glorious second of it...right up until Joey's last words turned the dream into a nightmare and shredded Pacey's heart to bloody confetti.

He shrugged it off with a bitter laugh. “Nothing to worry about, McPhee. Even by that most convoluted of logic, it wasn't your fault. I absolve you of guilt.” He mocked a sign of the cross. “Go and sin no more.”

“But Pacey—”

“I said don't worry about it.” Pacey's tone cut short further discussion. “Would you mind clearing out so I can get dressed? I know, I know, you've seen it all before, and we're friends now, but I don't think we're sharing-a-dressing-room friends.”

“Sure. No problem.” Andie gave him a sad smile before leaving the room.

As he pulled on Jack's clothes, Pacey forced himself to remember the events of last night. Because of Dawson had repeated like a scratched record in his head, despite his best efforts to drown it in a sea of booze. At some point, he'd stopped drinking—or maybe been cut off. He remembered Jack trying to lead him away and shoving free, insisting he had to talk to Joey. He stood outside the bathroom, rambling nonsense about how much he loved her, until the door opened, and some other girl, some Not Joey walked out, skirting clear of the crazy drunk.

Pacey had gone searching and found her on the dance floor. Dancing. With someone else. Some no-name stranger who was Not Pacey and Not Dawson. He had pushed the guy away, screaming at him for not being Dawson.

Do you know who this is?” His drunken gesture encompassed Joey's whole body. “Do you have any idea who this is?” he demanded of the stranger. “This is Joey Potter. Dawson Leery's soulmate. Their love was written in the stars, penned by the fates. Now he's dead, the virgin martyr.” He turned back to Joey, seeing the tears in her eyes, and still he kept talking. “And she's untouchable. Sacrosanct. Us mere mortals must worship from a distance and be satisfied.” Despite his words, Pacey reached for her.

Joey shook her head, running from the room. Her dance partner shoved past Pacey on his way after her. Pacey fell on his ass and stayed there until recovered by the McPhee siblings.

Remembering only aggravated his headache, made the taste in his mouth more bitter. He went to the guest bathroom down the hall for some mouthwash. While rinsing, he caught the reflection of the claw-foot tub in the mirror. Three months ago, he had stood there washing her hair, wanting her desperately, but resigned to the futility of unrequited love. Sometime in the last three months, he had gotten dumber. He had allowed himself to hope.

Pacey spit into the sink. His mouth felt fresher, but the rest of him was weary, used-up, empty. He stared directly into his puffy-eyed reflection and said scornfully, “Idiot.”

Reluctantly, he headed downstairs. He expected to run into Joey down there, knew he owed her an abject apology, but wasn't sure he could face her long enough to make it.

Jack and Andie were in the living room, bagging up trash. Ben Street was helping them. Pacey turned an end table back right side up, but they waved his help away.

“Jen's got coffee in the kitchen,” Jack said with a sympathetic smile.

Pacey wanted to ask if Joey was with her, but couldn't force out the words. He didn't pass Joey on the way, though he did nearly trip over Henry Parker—a freshman whose borderline obsession with Jen had been the subject of many a joke this year—passed out on the dining room floor.

Jen wasn't alone in the kitchen, but it was Eric Carter, not Joey, helping her wash dishes. When Pacey entered, she sent Eric away with a few whispered words. Then she dried her hands on a dish towel and handed Pacey a mug of coffee and two aspirin, already waiting for him. “Here. How are you feeling?”

Pacey downed the pills with a gulp of coffee just the right side of scalding. “How do you think?”

Jen winced. “If it's half as bad as I feel, it's bad enough. I'm so sorry, Pacey. I had no idea that would backfire the way it did. I thought maybe it would be the Moment of Truth for you two, and, if not, at least it would be a memorable few minutes for your birthday.”

As badly as everything had deteriorated because of those pivotal few minutes, Pacey didn't blame Jen. In the moment, he had been ecstatic about her subterfuge. If he hadn't foreseen the fallout, how could he expect she would have?

“Don't worry about it,” he told the second penitent blonde in his life. “It wasn't your fault.” Pacey knew exactly where to lay the blame. Like always, the load went straight on his inadequate shoulders. He had been so overcome with love and lust, with treacherous hope, that he'd forgotten one of the fundamental laws of the universe. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. The moon pulled the ocean's tides. And Joey Potter loved Dawson Leery. Always.

Jen didn't accept his easy dismissal. “Yes, it was. But, I swear, from this day forward, no misguided matchmaking attempts from me.”

Pacey chuckled. “Appreciated. But I saw Ben Street out there with Jack, and they both looked plenty happy. Fifty-fifty doesn't sound like a bad start for a matchmaker.”

He succeeded in coaxing a smile from Jen. “They're adorable, aren't they?”

“Precious. Speaking of which, what's to be done with your stalker in the next room?”

Jen's mouth puckered with distaste. “We're letting him sleep it off. Then Eric is going to drive him home and explain a few things about personal boundaries.”

“You've got that one thoroughly tamed already, don't you?”

Jen grew another smile, this one secretive. “Let's just say it's progressing nicely.”

Pacey was pleased to see Jen happy, but, paradoxically, it only made him sadder. Anyway, he'd avoided the question as long as he could. “Uh, so where's Joey this morning?”

“Not here, if that's what you're worried about. She got a ride home last night after...”

“After I publicly humiliated her in every possible way?”

“You were drunk. And hurting. She knows that.”

“I was stupid and cruel in ways I imagine I'll be paying for for years to come.”

“Just apologize, Pace. Dawson said worse to both of you on his birthday, and you forgave him right away. What makes you think Joey won't do the same for you?”

“Precedent.” Pacey put down his mug and kissed the top of Jen's head. “Thanks for the coffee. See you later, Lindley.” He headed out the kitchen door without saying goodbye to the McPhees. He considered going home first, but that would just be delaying the inescapable. He drove straight to the Potters'.

Bessie answered his knock. Her warm, welcoming smile meant Joey hadn't told her a thing about last night. “Hey, Pacey. Come on in. Aren't you cold? Where's your jacket?”

Pacey looked down. “I, uh, forgot it.” He stepped inside. “Is Joey around?”

“Yeah, she's cleaning the bathroom, but I can get her for you.”

“That's okay. Not like I haven't seen that before.” He'd prefer apologizing to Joey in at least semi-privacy. He paused to high five Alexander on his way through the living room.

Joey was scrubbing the shower walls when Pacey entered. He partly closed the door behind him. “Hey,” he said to Joey's back.

She didn't react. She'd probably heard him talking to Bess. Joey returned a lackluster, “Hey,” and sprayed more bleach on the walls.

“Jo, I am monumentally sorry for every word I said to you last night. I could try and use extreme intoxication as an excuse, but that's all it would be. An excuse. And I don't deserve to be excused. What I said was moronic and hateful, and I'd completely understand if you never want to speak to me again. But whether you forgive me or not, I need you to know how sorry I am and will always be.” Pacey was grateful she never turned around during his speech. His words were true and heartfelt, but easier to say when he didn't have to look at her and think about everything else which had happened last night.

Joey kept swiping her rag across the shower wall, but it was perfunctory, not actual scrubbing. “I forgive you,” she said, voice thick. “And as for not talking to you, who else has the patience to listen to my narcissistic ramblings?” She didn't look at him, but she didn't sound like she carried any buried resentments.

Maybe it was as difficult for her to meet his eyes as it was for him to face her. But no, he had to quit assuming any of their emotions or reactions were comparable. Joey loved Dawson. End paragraph, chapter, story.

And yet, here Pacey remained, ever and always a glutton for punishment. So he couldn't have the relationship he wanted with her. Was it too late to salvage the relationship they did have? “So I was thinking we could try to finish sanding the hull today. What do you say?”

“This afternoon? I can't, Pace, I'm sorry.”

Yesterday, she'd talked about it like that was the plan, but, today, she couldn't. “If you don't want to, say so, Potter. Don't lie about it.”

For the first time, she whirled to face him. Her affronted anger didn't hide the dark, puffy circles around her eyes. Since he'd last seen her, Joey had done a lot of crying, lost a lot of sleep, or both. “I'm not lying! I can't go this afternoon because Bryan's taking me skating. I do still want to help on the boat, if you're still willing to let me.”

“Bryan? Who the hell is Bryan?”

“He's...he's...” Joey flushed and stopped, head twisted stubbornly to the side.

“He's your dance partner,” Pacey said with sudden clarity and just as sudden chill.

Joey nodded. “He's Jack and Andie's neighbor. He goes to a prep school in Andover. He drove me home last night and asked if I'd go skating with him before he heads back to school tonight.”

“Right. And you said yes, because him you're allowed to date.” Pacey should regret the iciness of his words, but with frostbite devouring his heart, it was hard to care about the extraneous parts.

“Pacey, it's not—” Joey stopped, frowned, dropped her eyes, and whispered, “This isn't easy for me, either, you know.”

If Pacey let himself feel sympathy for her now, he was lost. She said she couldn't be with him because of Dawson, but that didn't stop her from dating Eric Carter or Elliot Blakenship or Bryan No-Last-Name. So was Pacey's disqualifying factor that he had known Dawson or simply that he was Pacey?

That life-sucking cold swept into the marrow of his bones. He had to pry his frozen jaw open to speak. “Yeah, I'm sure. Have fun skating. See you around.” Forcing icy limbs to move, Pacey left the bathroom and the house. He pasted a smile on his face and waved goodbye to Bessie.

Joey didn't run after him. He hadn't expected her to.

Chapter Text

Pacey thought he couldn't possibly feel any worse. Then he came home, walked into the living room and saw his mother. Between school, sleep, their varying work schedules, and working on his boat, he'd successfully avoided her since his birthday. But there she was, sitting on the sofa, drinking coffee. No Doug, no Kerry, not even one of Kerry's little terrors to serve as a distraction.

“Hey, Ma,” he said wearily, heading straight for the stairs. A shower and sleep, that was all he wanted.

“Where were you all night? Out with that Potter girl, I assume?”

“Don't even start that today. I'm not in the mood.”

He managed two steps up the stairs before Ma's voice stopped him. “Pacey Witter, you don't tell your mother what to do. You've been raised better than that. Now, come sit down right here. We need to have a chat.”

For a moment, Pacey considered ignoring her and going upstairs anyway. But she'd probably call Doug and have him handcuff Pacey to the couch until she'd had her say. “Yes, ma'am.” He trudged to the couch on leaden legs. It didn't really matter what poison Ma spewed, after all. There was nothing left in him for her to hurt. He fell into Pop's recliner across from her, tipping his head back to rest on the top of it. “What now?”

“Mike Potter was trash. He was born trash, grew up trash, and died as trash.”

“I'm aware of the general consensus.” Pacey remembered telling Pop that Mike Potter was a better father than him. They were among the last words he ever spoke to the man. He wished he could have them unsaid, and not because of the black eye he'd sported for a week. After much reflection, he had decided John Witter and Mike Potter were equally, if differently, flawed.

“He's the reason your father died.”

Pacey didn't say anything. Ma was more right than not, but, in spite of everything, he refused to join the ranks of the stone throwers.

“I was so angry about that—I'm still angry about that—but it wasn't right to take that anger out on Josie.”

“Joey,” Pacey corrected automatically. He opened his eyes and lowered his head, staring at his mother in amazement. Was she actually apologizing? Not to the right person, but still...

“Joey,” she agreed, though her mouth pursed in distaste. “Her father was trash, but she's not. She couldn't be and love my boy so well.”

What!?

“I tried everything I could to send that girl packing, and she just held on tighter.”

Pacey's worldview tipped on its head. “So that comprehensive recital of my misdeeds the other night, you were trying to protect me?”

Ma nodded, as if that were obvious. “I showed her the very worst of you, and in return she gave me your very best.” Her expression turned mildly admonitory. “How come I had never heard any of those stories, sweetie? You should have told us.”

Pacey choked back a bitter laugh. He could have told his parents he'd rescued orphans and kittens from a sinking ship, and they'd have yelled at him for getting his clothes wet. But she was trying now. In her own, odd, ineffective way, she was trying. “I don't know. Guess it never came up.”

“Well, I hope you'll let me in more in future. And you should bring your...Joey around more often. But we need to talk about these overnights of yours. I don't know how much your father talked to you about, about sex,” she whispered the word. “But you're only seventeen years old. I won't have you getting some girl—any girl—pregnant, you hear me?”

At that, Pacey did laugh. Where had this concern been a year and a half ago when he'd been fucking his teacher? He wondered what Ma would do if he told her all he knew of sex, he'd learned from Miss Jacobs.

“Pacey Witter, this is no joke! Abstinence is best, but if you cannot control yourself, here.” She pulled a box of Trojans out from under a throw pillow and flung them on the coffee table between them. “And Joanna should go on the pill.”

He gritted his teeth against the humiliation of his mother giving him condoms. “I know about safe sex, Ma, and I can buy my own condoms.” Pacey could maybe have bypassed this conversation by explaining the unlikelihood of his ever having sex with Joey, but that was a can of worms he had no intention of opening right now. Especially with his mother.

“Well, take them anyway.” She made a shooing motion toward the box, as if it was offensive to her. “And put them somewhere Bobby and Steven won't find them.”

“Yes, Ma.” Pacey pocketed the condoms, mostly because it gave him an excuse to stand and cut this discussion short. “I'm gonna go shower, if that's okay.”

She waved him off, no doubt as eager as he was to be done with this.

Pacey headed for the shower, thinking bemusedly of his mother's explanation for his birthday roast. But his smile slipped when he considered her conclusion from that event. That Joey Potter was in love with him. He replayed Joey's actions from that night as he stepped under the spray. How she'd clung to his hand, how she'd defended him at every turn, how she'd remembered details about his life even Pacey had forgotten. How she'd looked at him and how she'd kissed him. Even knowing his mother was dead wrong, he couldn't call her crazy for making the assumption.

Joey doesn't love me, he reminded himself viciously as he toweled off. Right now, he wasn't even sure she liked him all that much. She couldn't, or she wouldn't be out with that Bryan guy.

Pacey's first plan had been to fall into bed and seek oblivion in unconsciousness. But now his brain was working, contradictory thoughts warring as he tried to decipher the enigma which was Joey Potter. He wouldn't be able to sleep; he had to do something, anything. He grabbed old jeans and a ratty blue sweater. There was one place he could go where there was no end of somethings to do.

He tried not to think about her as he drove to the junkyard. But once he stood in front of his unnamed boat, it became impossible to keep her out. She bought him a boat, well, convinced other people to buy him a boat. She bought him a boat, and defended him to his family, and held him in her arms when he sobbed like a baby. The girl who'd done all that, the one who didn't want to move away and leave him, who painted him the raft, who had grieved and healed with him the last seven months, she cared.

Maybe she didn't, or couldn't, love him the way he wanted her to. But he couldn't convince himself Joey was an unfeeling monster trying to hurt him.

And Bryan? asked an insidious little voice.

Pacey frowned, as he grabbed some sandpaper and went to work. Maybe skating with Bryan was to Joey what working on the boat was to him, a distraction, a way to stay busy. Maybe she'd been so hurt by Pacey's drunken tirade at the party she'd agreed to spite him. Maybe it was something else entirely. But he couldn't know unless he asked her, and he hadn't. He had frozen her out and pretended it was something she'd done to him.

On the heels of one painful apology to Joey, Pacey was starting to think he owed her another.

But Joey's mixed signals didn't start with Bryan. She'd kissed him in that closet, kissed him like she never intended to stop. Twined herself about him as tightly as a second skin. Maybe some girls got so lost in the moment, in the game, they would be that eager with anyone. But not Joey. The way she'd said his name...she had known it was Pacey with her, and she'd wanted it to be him.

The proverbial cold bucket of water that was the door opening had led to Joey running. Joey always ran. When life got too difficult, when she was afraid of being wounded, Joey—by her own admission—ran. She'd even run from Dawson a time or three.

Because of Dawson!” she'd hurled at him. Pacey thought he'd understood what she meant, but was he right? And even if he was, so what?

Joey didn't love him as much as she'd loved Dawson. But he'd never in his wildest dreams imagined she could. He'd played second best to Dawson in life; would it be so hard to do so now that Dawson was dead? Let Joey keep the Dawson shrine burning in her heart. Pacey wouldn't compete with his friend's ghost. He could be content with whatever love she had left to give.

He ignored the churning in his gut. It was indigestion, not jealousy.

Pacey pressed hard against the hull, taking satisfaction in each additional inch of flecked off paint. Maybe that was what Joey had meant. Maybe Joey, who doubted her worth to begin with, didn't think what remained of her heart would be enough for Pacey. He would convince her it was. If it wasn't too late. If he hadn't made too big a mess of things.

If he wasn't just constructing another dream castle of deluded hope and unfounded wishes...

The crunch of footsteps on gravel made him turn. As if summoned from his fantasies, there she stood. Protected from the cold by a thick black jacket and her red hat and scarf, Joey stopped walking once Pacey spotted her. Gloved hands wrapped defensively around her waist. “Hey,” was all she said.

“Hey,” he returned and then, before his brain could catch up with his mouth, added, “Aren't you supposed to be skating right about now?” Idiot. Self-sabotaging idiot.

“Yeah. I got halfway there and told Bryan I'd remembered a prior commitment and had him drop me here instead.”

“What if I hadn't been here?”

“Then I'd have had a long, cold walk home, and no one but myself to blame.” She looked so contrite, so afraid of being rejected.

The last vestiges of Pacey's anger melted away. He held out a fresh piece of sandpaper. “As long as you're here, I might as well put you to work.”

Joey breathed a sigh of relief, hands unwinding as she reached to accept it. “You'll find I'm a poor hand. Mutinous and prone to complaints.”

“True, but the wages fall within my price range.”

“I'm getting paid for this?”

“God, no. That's what I meant, Potter.”

<><><>

One step forward, two steps back. That was always the way with Joey.

After the disastrous party, they slipped back into their old routine. Pacey drove her to school; they did homework together. Weekend runs were replaced by work on the boat.

But he hadn't heard the last of Bryan. The persistent bastard managed to commandeer Joey's time every Saturday night thereafter.

Pacey didn't mean to let this détente drag on indefinitely. Every time he was away from her, he rehearsed speeches in his head. Wordy declarations of love. Subtle, prying questions about how she felt. Rash, all-or-nothing ultimatums. Every time he was near her, the words deserted him, as he was swallowed whole by the fear of losing her.

So Joey got what she'd asked for. If Pacey hadn't made any effort to forget what happened in that closet, his silence on the subject tacitly affirmed her prohibition. Making no attempt to repeat the incident allowed Joey to relax and trust herself with him again. But Pacey couldn't relax, didn't trust himself at all, knew it was a matter of time before he snapped.

Valentine's Day was made to test him. Stupid ass holiday invented by greeting card companies to link love and materialism. Yet he couldn't let it go by without doing anything for her. He got her a bouquet of pink roses, after the florist assured him they meant only friendship. But then he got scared Joey would feel singled out, so he bought pink roses for Jen and Andie, too. The girls were pleased with his offering when he handed them out before school that Friday morning. Pacey spent hours kicking himself for not adding a red rose or something else distinctive to Joey's.

Their friends were sickeningly excited about the holiday. Jen was going out with Eric, Jack with Ben, and Mark was traveling down to spend the weekend with Andie.

“I suppose you'll be keeping company with the future Fortune 500?” Pacey asked Joey at lunch. The question seemed safer surrounded by their friends, though he was not immune to the looks which passed among them.

“Actually, no,” Joey said, not looking up from her lunch tray. “Bryan agreed months ago to chaperon his little sister's middle school dance, so we're going out tomorrow night instead.”

“Probably for the best,” Jack said. “Valentine's Day is a lot of pressure for a new relationship. You don't want to rush into anything.”

Andie smiled at her brother. “Aww, look at you. Got your first boyfriend, and suddenly you're the love expert.”

“Nah, I was quoting one of Jen's many conflicting arguments as she talks herself into and out of her date tonight.”

Jen flipped the bird at Jack, before eyeing Joey speculatively. “So what are you doing tonight? Watching Alexander?”

“Nope. I offered, but Bodie has to work tonight, so he's taking Bessie out to lunch instead. But you are forbidden from using my dateless state as an excuse for bailing on Eric.”

“Hadn't crossed my mind,” Jen lied as her shoulders slumped.

“So just another Friday night?” Pacey asked, trying to sound casual, sure the whole senior class could hear the thudding of his heart.

“As the god of lonely souls intended.” Joey glanced up at him, looking a little scared, a little curious. “Why? Did you have something in mind?”

“Well, I hear Matt Caufield is throwing a raging anti-Valentine's Day party. Or,” he rushed on in the face of Joey's scowl, “since I don't work tonight, we could get a jump start on homework. Maybe some SAT prep if we're feeling crazy.”

They had entered SAT season, and the pressure made PSATs a fond and distant memory. All of them, not just Joey and Andie, had motives to excel, including—much to his surprise—Pacey himself. It wasn't about proving himself to Andie or Joey this time, or even about proving his family wrong. He wanted to see, once and for all, if he was more than the idiot he'd spent most of his life believing he was.

His suggestion was met with groans from their assembled friends—Jack chucked a celery stick at him—but Joey nodded approval, her nervousness dissolving into a warm smile. “Sounds like a plan.”

After lunch, they split off from the others and headed for chemistry. Joey made a deliberate effort to ignore the unprecedented amount of lip-lockage going on in the halls around them. Pacey fought down the urge to push Joey up against a locker and join the crowd. Class was interrupted by Barbara Johns receiving a delivery of four dozen red roses from her overcompensating boyfriend.

The thought continued to needle Pacey that he should have got Joey something better, something personal. They went their separate ways after chem class, Joey to AP English, Pacey usually to Spanish. Today, he skipped and headed downtown. He bypassed the florist and the candy store and targeted the row of seaside gift shops which did most of their business during the summer tourist season, supplemented by a flow of sheepish, red-faced men on days like today.

Joey didn't need a teddy bear, a seashell-shaped coaster set, or anything with Capeside, Mass. emblazoned on the front. She'd throw up on him if he bought her a pillow embroidered Live, Laugh, Love. Pacey couldn't afford diamonds, and they wouldn't suit Joey, anyway.

In the third store, on the verge of admitting defeat, Pacey spotted it. A black and silver beaded necklace, a close cousin to her mother's bracelet. Joey had found the bracelet when they cleaned out the attic and had worn it every day since. The saleslady gift-wrapped the necklace for him, a little frillier than he'd have liked, but what the hell? It was Valentine's Day.

Pacey made it back to school just in time for his last class. He slid into his seat in front of the computer between Jen and Andie.

“Where have you been?” Andie asked after Miss Boswell gave them their assignment and left them to it. “Jack said you weren't in Spanish.”

“Uh, had an errand I had to run.”

Jen snorted. “An errand that has you reeking of potpourri and with curled ribbon trailing out your pocket. Somebody's been shopping.”

Pacey pushed the present deeper into his pocket. He tried to focus on the PowerPoint he was supposed to prepare.

“Leave him alone, Jen,” Andie chided. “You promised your matchmaking days were behind you, remember?”

“What?” Jen said with an air of aggrieved innocence. “I merely pointed out our friend has been shopping. Perhaps that gift is for his mother. Or Doug. You're the one who's reading into things.”

Andie giggled. “Last Valentine's Day, Pacey got me roses, chocolates, a giant card, hair clips, and a truly noxious perfume.”

Pacey blushed at his own naive eagerness. “You said you liked it,” he muttered.

“Of course I did,” she soothed. “Just as I'm sure Joey will love whatever eleventh hour trinket you got her.”

“Hey!”

“What? You're a pro at the grand gesture, Pacey, but not so big on the planning ahead.”

“Speaking of planning,” Jen threw in, “make sure you go prepared. No glove, no love.”

They were both enjoying his misery far too much. Fuck Off he wrote for their benefit on his next slide.

Of course that happened to be when Miss Boswell walked by to check on his progress. She derailed Pacey's afternoon by sending him to detention. Andie gave Joey a ride to Mrs. Ryan's while Pacey caught up on his missed Spanish under the librarian's baleful eye.

It was after six when he was finally released, which meant Bessie was home and the Potters were sitting down to supper when he arrived. Bessie took his detention in stride but was appalled by their plans for the evening. “Go out. Be young. Homework will still be here tomorrow.”

“Matt Caufield's?” Pacey suggested to Joey.

“I'd rather walk on a bed of rusty nails and then eat it. We could work on your boat. I've got something to give you, anyway.”

Surprised, Pacey grinned. “Yeah? I've got something for you, too, Potter.”

Joey flushed, biting her lip. “I meant for the boat. Not for the...day.”

“I think you two should stop gabbing and get out of here,” Bessie scolded.

Joey grabbed a long, thin package wrapped in brown paper from the foot of her easel. She and Pacey both bundled up warm to brave the winter night.

“Have fun,” Bessie called after them. Thinking better of it, she added, “Legal, age-appropriate fun.”

“What was that last bit?” Pacey teased from the jeep. “Couldn't hear you.” He drove away from Bessie's further admonitions.

“So what's my present?” he demanded as he drove across town to the marina junkyard.

Joey clicked her tongue. “You're still a five-year-old at heart, aren't you, Pace? Gimme, gimme. Whatever happened to the thrill of anticipation?”

“Overrated. Gimme. Please.”

“Well, since you said please...” He heard the smile in her voice. “It occurred to me that she has gone too long without a name. Rather than continue to fight about it, I took the initiative and made a plaque.” Joey tapped the parcel in her lap. The paper rustled.

“Oh God, Potter, it's a pun, isn't it?”

Joey giggled. “No puns, I promise. I'll show you when we get there.”

With such incentive, it didn't take Pacey long to reach their destination. He had rigged up a generator and lights a few weeks ago, to allow him to work into the winter nights. He turned them on and helped Joey up into the boat. The presentation should happen there, though he found himself unaccountably nervous. What if he hated the name Joey picked?

A similar thought must have occurred to her. She bit her lip, fingering the parcel hesitantly. “If you don't like it, that's okay. It's your boat; you should name her.”

“Quit stalling, Potter.” He snatched the present from her hands. Turning his back on her attempts to reclaim it, Pacey tore off the paper. Against a dark purple, almost black background, Joey had painted Huckleberry Friend in white. In the bottom left-hand corner was a snoozing little boy, feet bare beneath too-short overalls, face shadowed by a wide-brimmed straw hat. In the upper right-hand corner gleamed a full, silvery moon.

“It's, uh, it's a double meaning. Or triple, I don't know. For our rafting joke, and for our friendship. It's also a song lyric.”

Pacey could almost hear it, sung in a breathy, gentle voice. From some old movie, one of Doug's musicals, maybe? “What's the song?”

“'Moon River.'” When Pacey leered at her, Joey rushed on, “Don't even think about it. Mooning wasn't funny at thirteen, and the older you get, the more demented it seems.”

“Okay,” Pacey agreed, “though I maintain you never comprehended the beauty of a successful moon. Why the song?”

Joey pushed her hair behind her ears, eyes on the plaque she'd made. “It's about dreaming, about wanting what you know you can never have.”

Pacey pulled freezing air between his teeth. He watched Joey Potter under the bare bulb light and the distant winter moon. “Well, that's certainly something I know a lot about.”

“Me, too,” Joey whispered.

He wished she'd look at him, confirm what he longed to believe—that she was talking about him. But that hope was ludicrous. He was hers for the taking and always had been. Joey meant Dawson and her mother and even getting out of this town, but not Pacey. Never Pacey.

“It's perfect, Jo,” he said through a constricted throat. “Thank you. We should put it on her. I'll get the drill.” He disembarked, cursing himself all the way to the shed for a fucking coward.

Joey helped him attach the plaque, and they both stood back to admire the Huckleberry Friend. A mountain of work awaited them, but she felt more complete, more real, with a name of her own.

“Just right,” Joey said with satisfaction.

“Speaking of, I mean, it's not a 'speaking of,' well, we were speaking of it earlier, it's just...here.” Pacey abandoned elusive speech to shove the tiny present in its gaudy red and white paper at Joey. “I didn't wrap it.”

“That much is obvious.” Joey's voice reflected her amusement. She unwrapped it slowly, peeling the tape instead of ripping the paper. When the necklace was at last revealed, the wrapping slipped from Joey's fingers onto the frozen ground. One hand fondled the bracelet around her wrist, reassuring Pacey he had been right about the match. Her fingers moved from the beads on her bracelet to those on the necklace, but she said not a word. In the uncertain light, her expression was indecipherable.

As the silence lengthened, Pacey shifted uncomfortably. “I, uh, thought it would go with...anyway, happy Valentine's Day, Potter.”

He wished she would look at him. One look to tell him whether to throw himself at her feet or over a cliff.

“I'm getting cold,” was all Joey said. She didn't look at him, but her voice trembled. “And it's pretty dark. Maybe you should take me home.”

Pacey sagged in defeat. He kicked a clump of slushy snow at his feet. “Yeah, okay. Just let me shut everything down here.”

Joey rushed to the Wagoneer while Pacey put away the drill and shut off the lights. Idiot. Moron. Why did he always have to push too far? He'd made her uncomfortable and scared her away, and he wasn't one iota closer to knowing how she felt about him.

Joey held her silence all the way to her house. For once, Pacey let her. He didn't know what to say. But before she exited the vehicle, she asked, “Want to come over and study tomorrow?”

“Can't. I've got work, and then you've got that date.”

“Right. How about Sunday? We can't afford to fall behind at this point in the year,” she added, as if she needed an excuse.

“Sunday's good.”

“Great. Good. And...and thank you. For the necklace.” Joey ran from the jeep without waiting for a reply.

<><><>

Saturday was unbearable. Pacey spent it at work, ostensibly trying to study for his SATs, while really replaying everything he'd said and done the day before, wishing he could do it over and dreading Joey's upcoming date with Mr. Prep School. Unlike Carter and Blakenship, Bryan hadn't been cut loose after two dates or even three. Pacey found that worrisome.

Jen popped into Screen Play late in the afternoon.

Pacey forced a smile for her. “Hey, New York, how was the big night?”

“Considering I have nothing to compare it to, I think it went pretty well. No mind-altering substances were consumed, no declarations of undying love made, no bailing in the middle to spend the rest of the night with his other girlfriend. He didn't even stick me with the check.” Jen's tone was as cynical as ever, but her glowing face revealed her happiness.

“Sounds like you caught a keeper for once, Lindley.”

“Lucky for me Joey tossed him back, huh?” Jen's smile faded as she watched Pacey's reaction. “I'm guessing your night didn't proceed as well?”

Pacey shrugged. “Don't know what you mean. We were just hanging out. We named the boat.”

“That's something.” Jen Lindley was far too empathetic. The look on her face made him want to pour out all his troubles into her listening ears.

He resisted.“So what can I help you with tonight?”

“Eric insists I have to see Point Break.”

Pacey burst out laughing.

Jen rolled her eyes with an embarrassed shrug. “Yeah, I know. But what can I do? Have you seen the man smile?”

Pacey went in search of the Patrick Swayze flick about surfing bank robbers.

“Seriously, Pace,” Jen said behind him, “inquiring minds want to know. When are you and Joey going to do something about all this sexual tension?”

He slammed the video on the counter between them. “The short answer to your question is never. The long answer is when only one person is feeling it, it's called pining, not tension.”

Jen blinked up at him. “You can't seriously believe...” She sighed. “You do. Okay, I'm going to tell you something which skirts perilously close to a complete betrayal of the sisterhood, so if you pass it along, you are dead to me, got it?”

Bemused and intrigued, Pacey nodded. “Loud and clear.”

“Joey's name wasn't in the bowl.”

“What?”

“She never put her name in the bowl. I had to keep track of the names I substituted, so I could exchange them later. But I went through the whole bowl and never found Joey's.”

Pacey shook his head to clear it of the ecstatic buzz which made it difficult to think. “That doesn't necessarily mean...maybe she didn't want to cause a scene or embarrass you.”

Jen snorted. “This would be the same Joey Potter who assaulted a boy in the lunch line and publicly asked if I was a virgin within seventy-two hours of meeting me?”

Despite himself, Pacey grinned, both at the memories and at the mounting proof that Joey had stepped into that closet because she'd wanted to. His first instinct—to desert the store and not stop running until Joey was in his arms—was quashed by the remembrance that even now she was heading off on her date. And perhaps her willingness to step into the closet was less important than the words she'd spoken stepping out of it.

Reading Pacey's indecision on his face, Jen shook her head. “If that can't convince you to make a move, I give up.”

As he rang up the movie for her, Pacey smiled. “You can give up if you want to, Lindley, but I'm not prepared to do that quite yet.”

<><><>

Pacey arrived at the Potters' house early enough Sunday morning to join them in Bodie's full spread breakfast. Bessie, Bodie, and the baby headed off afterwards. They were going to Hartford to discuss wedding plans with Bodie's family. A whole day with Joey all to himself suited Pacey fine.

Joey went right from a clean-up spent chattering about Bessie's approaching nuptials—the wedding was scheduled for the last weekend in April—to spreading out books and papers for homework. Pacey had no chance to raise a topic of his own. He couldn't decide if that was intentional on her part.

Joey dove deep into their work, but Pacey found concentration more difficult than usual in her presence. Her loose dark hair kept slipping into her face; over and over, she shoved it absentmindedly behind her ears. A tiny ink spot from a pen she fiddled with decorated her right cheekbone. Her voluminous gray sweater hid her curves, swallowed her hands down to her painted pink fingernails. Matching pink toes taunted him where they peeked out from under her slender legs, folded neatly criss-cross on her chair.

“Pace? Pacey, were you even listening to me?”

“No,” Pacey answered, unwisely but honestly.

Joey glared at him. “And why not?”

He pushed a tendril of her hair behind her left ear then let his hand slip down to cradle her jaw. “No idea.”

Joey pulled away, her chair scraping across the floor as she jumped to her feet. “Must be time for a break. You hungry?” She rummaged noisily through the pantry, despite the fact that they'd feasted two hours before.

Pacey watched her nervous movements and tried a different track. “So how'd your date go?”

Joey froze for only a moment, before pulling down a packet of licorice. “Fine. I, uh, I needed to talk to you about that.” Avoiding his eyes, she turned to a row of drawers beside the sink. She shoved clutter around the top drawer a minute longer before pulling out a pair of scissors and snipping open the licorice bag.

“I'm listening,” Pacey prompted when she didn't say more.

Joey twirled the red candy straw through her fingers without taking a bite. “Bryan's cousin Shannon is visiting next weekend, and he was hoping I had a friend we could double with.”

“What!?”

Joey's cheeks were almost as red as the candy in her hand. “She doesn't like his friends, I guess. Bryan says it's not her, his friends are assholes. She's a year older than us, but I know older women don't bother you, and my only other friend is Jack, which doesn't work for obvious reasons. Look, I know it's sort of a weird request, but you haven't been on a date since Andie, and I thought...I just thought I'd ask.” Joey looked like a strange species of turtle, trying to hide in her gray wool shell.

Hurt and confusion swirled inside Pacey, but they were drowned by an overpowering wave of frustration. “You want me to go out with another girl, sit and smile and talk to her, and ignore you across the table with another guy's hands on you?”

“I...I—yes.” Joey leaned back against the sink, head hanging down as if only now recognizing the foolishness of her suggestion.

“No,” Pacey said, clear and cold, which brought her eyes up to his. “I've done everything I can for you, Potter. I've looked after you and held you, watched your nephew and shared your bed. I've forgotten things you told me to forget—or at least made it so you could.” Joey squirmed uncomfortably but stayed trapped within his focused gaze. “I've dreamed with you, and of you, and for you, but you've finally found it.”

“Found what?” she squeaked.

“My breaking point.” Pacey walked to her, took her face in his hands and tilted it up toward his. He saw in her hooded eyes—half-terrified and half-willing—that she expected him to kiss her. But he didn't.

“I know you'll never love me the way you love Dawson.” Joey jumped, eyes round as saucers. “But I think I could make you happy, happier than Bryan, anyway, or Blakenship, or some other jackass who doesn't even know you. If you'd just let me try.” He let her head drop back down and brushed the lightest of kisses against her brow. “Please, Potter, let me try.”

Joey's body trembled. But when Pacey put his arms around her, she shook her head and pushed him away. “You don't get it. You just don't get it.”

“Then explain it to me,” he pleaded.

Joey stepped away from him, put the table between them. She looked down at the licorice in her hands and set it on the table, wiping empty, nervous fingers against her black leggings. “My whole life, I was so sure—everyone was so sure—I knew who I was supposed to be with. That last year, people kept throwing around the word soulmate, and I didn't even know what it meant, except that Dawson and I were bound to be in love forever.” She frowned, twisting and untwisting the hem of her over-sized sweater. “After...when he was gone...it was one of the few thoughts which comforted me. However much he'd missed in life, however badly I'd screwed up, at least Dawson knew love before he died. Bessie, Jen, Jack, even Mitch, all told me the same thing—Dawson found love, found his soulmate. As if that was some accomplishment to hold against the movies he didn't make, the children he didn't have, the life he didn't live.” Tears rolled unchecked down Joey's cheeks. She looked at Pacey as if he had the answer to a question she had not asked. “I can't take that away from him, Pacey. I can't.”

“I'm not asking you to. I told you, Jo, I'm okay with being the runner-up. Given my life, second best is almost as good as a win.” He smiled, trying to coax one from her.

Instead, she released a choked sob, shaking her head violently. “You still don't...” Joey took a deep, unsteady breath, scrubbed her face, and went on with more control. “The way I feel when you touch me, like my whole body is a live wire, Dawson never made me feel like that. When you kiss me and I never want you to stop, Dawson never made me feel like that. When I'm in your arms and it's not close enough, Dawson didn't make me feel like that, either. And I tell myself and tell myself that it's a physical response, that it's not surprising, given your,” Joey flushed to the roots of her hair, “experience, while Dawson and I were total innocents.”

Pacey tried to focus, to follow her point—which seemed to involve betrayal and pain—but it was difficult while hearing from her own lips that she wanted him like that. “So we have chemistry. It's not the end of the world.” He took a step toward her. She stepped away, grabbing on to one of the kitchen chairs like a shield. Pacey stopped and added softly, “It doesn't mean you didn't love him.”

Joey flinched. “The hormonal excuse is a good one. It works for me a lot of the time. Except when you're reading me a book, or playing with Alexander, or, or giving me a train ticket, or a dozen other times in any given day when I'm struck again by the incontrovertible idea that you're the best person I've ever known.”

Pacey felt a clamp tighten around his chest cavity cutting off oxygen, pincers at his heart needling him to believe the impossible. “So...what are you saying here, Jo?”

“I'm saying I can't, Pacey. However I, however I feel for you,” her voice broke on those words, and Pacey knew—he knew—how she felt, “it doesn't matter. It can't matter. It's all I can give him now.”

Pacey finally understood the emotions which made Joey pull him close and the twisted reasoning which made her push him away. To Joey, to love someone more than she loved Dawson—Christ, she loved him—was a betrayal as immense as if she'd never loved him at all. He wanted to pull her close, kiss her deep, bask in that love. He wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled, until her deluded ideas about love fell right out of that brilliant brain of hers. And, just to confuse matters further, he wanted to go with her to Dawson's grave, confess their sin, and beg for punishment.

Instead, he stood very still and asked clarification on one final, nagging point. “And Bryan?”

Joey shrugged deeper into her giant shirt. “He doesn't make me feel anything, so he can't harm Dawson. And he keeps—well, he was supposed to keep—you at a distance.”

“And that's where you want me? At a distance?”

“It's not what I want. None of it is what I want. But it's what's right. Can't you see that?”

“I can, yeah. I can see a lot of other things, too, including the flaw in your logic.”

Joey frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You say you can't be with me because you love me more than Dawson, and you can't betray him like that. Ipso facto, you're prioritizing your love for Dawson over your love for me, and, thus, you love him more.”

“That...that makes sense.” Joey seemed pleased by Pacey's words, pleased in a way which annoyed him, as if he'd confirmed she was doing the right thing.

“But all of that is predicated on the insane notion that love is a matter of more or less, and not something you can feel for more than one person, which is bullshit.”

Joey's expression turned mulish, but Pacey went on without letting her object. “And one more reality you should factor into your calculations,” Pacey said, leaning over the table into her space. “I'm in love with you, Potter, and, best friend or not, I have no intention of giving you up to a ghost.”

Joey's breath hitched.

Chapter Text

The problem—which all of Pacey's bravado could not solve—was that he had no idea how to win a fight with a ghost. How did one wage war against a memory? And did he really want to? Loving Dawson was part of what made Joey who she was; for that matter, knowing and loving Dawson had formed Pacey's personality and character since long before he'd been aware those things existed. He didn't want to banish Dawson's memory. He just wanted Joey, and a Joey who didn't feel guilty for loving him.

Pacey remembered the months of excruciating guilt he'd felt for loving her, for betraying Andie and Dawson. He still felt twinges of it when he thought of his best friend buried in the ground, while Pacey stood poised to have everything he ever wanted. But he'd had the facts pounded at him enough times even he couldn't escape it: it wasn't his fault. Trite, simple, but liberating in its truth. It wasn't Pacey's fault Dawson had died in that fire. It wasn't his fault Andie went to the Mayfield Center or that she met Mark there. It wasn't his fault he fell in love with Joey—and even if it was, he couldn't undo it. He didn't want to undo it.

But how to bring Joey to that same point of acceptance?

Maybe he couldn't. Whether he could or not, after a long night of manual labor on the boat and a longer one wrestling internally, he'd realized the only thing he could do was honor the promises he'd made. Be a friend. Stay. Love her.

So he showed up at the Potters' on Monday morning to drive her to school.

Joey looked surprised when she opened the door to him. She flushed, no doubt remembering his declaration and the flustered way she'd forced him out the door afterwards. “Pacey, what, what are you doing here?”

“It's not by choice, I assure you.”

“It's not?”

“No. Troublesome little organization by the name of Massachusetts Board of Education insists on 180 days of school a year. My vehement protests have all gone ignored, so here I am. Now, come on, Potter, grab your bag. Where's Lindley?”

“I, uh, told her I didn't think you were coming today. Jack's giving her a ride.” Joey paled at the realization she had robbed herself of her buffer zone.

Pacey grinned. “Someday, Jo, you need to start believing in me. For now, time's a wasting, and I'm freezing my ass off out here. Get a move on.”

“Two minutes.” Joey hurried away to grab her shoes and books.

She left the door open, which was invitation enough for Pacey to step inside and say good morning to Bodie and the little guy. Their father-son bond had solidified since Bodie moved back home, something Pacey was happy to see.

“Okay. Ready.” Joey breezed by him to the door.

With a quick wave goodbye to the Wells men, Pacey ran after her.

Joey practically hugged the passenger side door on the ride to school.

Pacey chuckled. “You don't have to do that, you know. I'm not going to ravish you here and now. Though if you threw yourself on me and smothered me in kisses, I wouldn't offer much in the way of resistance.”

Fury straightened Joey's spine. She jerked upright in her seat and glared at him. “In your dreams.”

“Every night, Potter,” he returned with a wink.

Joey flushed, but it was annoyance as much as embarrassment. “What exactly do you think you're doing, Pacey? Are we just going to pretend yesterday never happened?”

“No,” Pacey said, teasing manner dropping away. “That's your modus operandi, not mine. But before everything else got in the way, I was your friend, and I intend to continue being your friend, whatever else does—or does not—happen between us.”

Joey blinked rapidly. She fingered something around her throat. Pacey caught a flash of his necklace hidden underneath her blue snowflake sweater. “You're so different.”

“From Dawson? Well, yeah. You're just now noticing?”

Her glare and famed Potter scowl made Pacey laugh. “Of course I've noticed. It's just...with Dawson, we could only be friends. And then, a couple. And then, nothing. Until we were a couple again. Everything was monumentally important, larger than life.” As if frightened at her own criticism, Joey rushed to add, “Everything mattered so much to him.”

“I know. He was my friend, too, remember?”

Chewing on her bottom lip, Joey nodded. “I just don't get it.”

“Get what?” Pacey pulled into the school parking lot, but made no move to exit the car.

“Why you put up with me.” Joey jumped down onto the slushy ground and hurried toward the white front doors of Capeside High.

Pacey caught up and fell in step beside her. “Why I put up with you?” he said, as if casually continuing a conversation. “That is a puzzler. I mean, it couldn't be that your brilliant mind enraptures me, or that I'd rather match wits with you than anyone I know. It couldn't have anything to do with the fact that you're the most gorgeous girl I ever set eyes upon, or that sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe when I look at you.”

Joey reached her locker and buried her face in it, skin flaming.

“It definitely couldn't be that you're stronger, braver, and kinder than anyone I know.”

“Would you stop?” she hissed, as she slammed her locker door and headed for homeroom.

Pacey followed. “Or that being around you feels like home. I'm pretty sure it's not that you know me inside and out and somehow still like me. Gretchen says it's about a paint set when we were eight, Ma says it's about the way you defended me on my birthday, but, on reflection, after hours of serious deliberation,” he leaned in close as they reached her classroom doorway, “I've come to the conclusion,” Joey looked up at him, green-flecked chocolate eyes wide and round, “you're my conduit to Bodie's cooking.”

The bell rang. Pacey heard Joey laughing behind him as he ran to his own class.

<><><>

As he began, so he went on. He was, first and foremost, a friend to Joey. But he flirted with her to the point of danger—or until she shut him down, which she sometimes did—and he never backed away from his declaration of love for her. Surprisingly, Joey didn't deny hers, either; she just refused to talk about it.

The first victory of Pacey's campaign was the disappearance of Bryan. On the last Wednesday in February, Jen asked Joey if she and Bryan would like to double to a concert with her and Eric.

“You should ask Jack,” Joey said, double-checking Pacey's trig answers.

“She already did,” Jack countered. “Ben can't go. Family thing.”

“Oh.” Joey frowned then looked around Mrs. Ryan's kitchen table at her friends, dropping her eyes when they reached Pacey. “I'm not seeing Bryan anymore.”

“I'm sorry,” Jen said, while she and Andie eyed Pacey speculatively. “What happened?”

“Failed experiment.” That was all she had to say on the matter.

<><><>

After a fight with Mark, Andie gathered a reluctant Jen and Joey for girls' night bonding activities. The resulting loneliness made Pacey aware of how long it had been since he'd hung out with just guy friends. Pushing aside the scar tissue which was Dawson's loss, he dragged Jack out to play pool.

“This is possibly the most phallic activity I, a gay man, have ever participated in.”

“How sad for you,” deadpanned Pacey as he broke their first game.

But Jack had clearly spent too much time around women as well. They hadn't been playing ten minutes before he was asking Pacey when he was going to do something about Joey.

“I am doing something,” he said. “Eleven in the corner pocket.” He matched action to words.

Jack made a dismissive snort. “From what I've seen, what you're doing is the verbal equivalent of hair pulling. And that's hardly the way to woo a woman like Joey.”

“How would you know? You play for the other team.”

“Of the two of us, which one has actually been Joey's boyfriend?”

“Fair point.”

“I know.” Jack sank the number six ball.

“I'm working on it, my friend. It's just...” Pacey frowned as he tried to find a good shot. “You know fishing?”

“Our one trip together should have made abundantly clear that I do not.”

Pacey winced, reliving that devastating last father-son tournament. “Right. Sorry. My point is, when you feel that first bite, you can't jerk the line, or you'll lose the fish. If you want to reel in the prize-winner, you have to take it slow, know when to fight hard for every inch and when to loosen the line a little bit.”

“Given the trophy you came away with that day, I won't argue. But a word of advice? If you ever intend to 'land' Joey, never, under any circumstances, use that analogy in her presence.”

Pacey nodded solemnly.

<><><>

Pacey knew a day of crisis approached. He planned for it, prepared for it, was ready when it hit.

One bright, beautiful March morning on the cusp of spring, he was awakened by a phone call from Joey. “Pacey? Sorry if I woke you. I wanted to let you know I'm sick, so don't bother driving out here.” She sounded congested, but it had nothing to do with a cold.

“Okay,” he agreed. “Feel better. I'll call Lindley, see if she needs a ride.”

“Okay.” Joey sounded bewildered by his easy capitulation. “Bye.”

Pacey hung up the phone and stepped into the shower. He was tempted to have a good cry himself, where no one could see. Later, he promised. He dressed, gave Jen a call, grabbed his books and the project he'd been working on, and drove to the Potters'.

Bodie answered the door. He was unsurprised to see Pacey and stepped aside, letting him into the darkened front room. “She's still in bed. Her sister said to let her be.”

Pacey nodded, unsurprised in his turn. “Just give me a minute.”

Pacey leaned his project against the sofa bed. Bodie headed back to Alexander in the kitchen, while Pacey opened the curtains and pulled up the blinds.

Joey winced at the sunlight. She pulled the covers over her head with a muffled, “Go away, Pacey.”

“In a second. I've got a present for you first.”

“It's not my birthday.”

“No, it's his.”

Slowly, the covers descended, revealing her red-eyed, puffy face. “I wasn't sure you remembered.”

“Jo,” he chided softly, “of course I remember. Here.” He pulled the large, segmented photo frame up from the side of her bed. He hadn't wrapped it. It wasn't that kind of present.

Slowly, as her eyes traveled from one picture to the next, Joey sat up. She reached for it, blankets falling to her waist. “How...why...?”

In the center were two pictures, one of Dawson and Joey at age five, hugging, smiling for the camera, the other a mirror image, except they were fifteen. Branching out from these were other, smaller pictures—some Pacey's own, others he'd collected from Bessie. Dawson and Joey singing karaoke at his aunt's cabin, snapped from behind as they sat talking on his dock, looking up in surprise from his bed where they'd been flat on their stomachs watching a movie, dressed up as Luke and Leia for Halloween, walking hand in hand along the beach. Joey riding piggyback on Dawson's shoulders; Dawson staring adoringly at Joey before their ill-fated school dance; Joey asleep in the backseat of the Leerys' car, head pillowed on Dawson's shoulder; Dawson making Joey pose with him by the Jurassic Park movie poster at the Rialto with all their fingers displayed to indicate it was their tenth showing.

“How? Quite easily. It's just a picture frame. Why?” Pacey smiled sadly at the collection of images. “You loved him, Joey. That love was unique and irreplaceable. It should be remembered.” He wanted to say more, wanted to share something of what he and Andie had learned together, about the endless variations of love in the world, and how loving each other didn't detract from how they'd loved Dawson. But that was selfish and not for today.

He brushed back the tangled mat of Joey's hair and kissed the top of her head as he stood. “Bye, Jo. Call me later if you want to talk.” Pacey knew even as he offered that she wouldn't. They had faced all the milestones of grief together thus far, but Joey's guilt would keep her from reaching out to him this time.

Pacey drove to Mrs. Ryan's and picked up Jen. She was sympathetically silent on the ride to school. The whole school felt hushed that day. Dawson's disastrous party last year had made the date memorable. Pacey sleepwalked through his classes. It felt cowardly to ditch again, but he might as well have stayed home for all he learned.

After school, he got in the Wagoneer and drove. Not to the Ryans', the Potters', or even the old Leery house. He drove to a small woods on the far end of Capeside, a wood that was slated for demolition in the near future. Pacey had to hike in the last half mile to find what he sought. A ramshackle collection of crooked, rotting boards which had once been the pride and joy of his life. The No Girls Allowed fort which he and Dawson had built—poorly—with their own four hands. They had become blood brothers there, shared their deepest secrets, buried their greatest treasures.

Pacey ran his hands along every board, chuckling at the memories, weeping for the loss. He dug up the rusting box, combed through movie ticket stubs and baseball cards, read their signed pact. He gently removed a photograph which would have fit well in Joey's gift. Eight-year-old Dawson Leery with his arm thrown over Joey Potter's shoulders. Pacey ran a thumb over each young face.

“I'm sorry,” he said aloud, unsure whether he was speaking to the towhead in the picture or an unseen spirit hovering round, but believing in some way he hadn't at the graveyard that his friend could hear him now. “I'm so sorry you're gone, D, that I couldn't—didn't—save you. It's your birthday, and you're not having a party, and you're not a year older, and that sucks. It fucking sucks.” Words fell far short of how much Pacey resented the unfairness of the world, how much he missed his friend, so he stopped talking about that, let his falling tears and drippy nose speak for him.

But there was one other thing he had to say. He touched again the face of the dark-haired girl, frozen in time before sadness had come to haunt her eyes and shadow her smile. “I love her, Dawson,” he confessed. “I've always loved her, and I know you understand that better than anybody, because you did, too.” Another apology hovered on his tongue, but he fought it back.

Pacey could write paragraphs, essays, dissertations on the subject of his regrets. Loving Joey Potter wasn't among them.

<><><>

The next morning, Joey opened the Potters' door for him, dressed and ready for school, though dark circles under her eyes testified to a second restless night. “Hey, Pace. Come on in. Jen's not here yet.”

Pacey stepped inside, waving to Alex and Bodie in the kitchen.

“Come with me.” Joey grabbed his hand and pulled him into the nursery, or rather to the small corner of it filled with Joey's dresser and set aside for her personal use. She had hung the photograph collection there, right across from Dawson's Jaws poster.

“It looks good.” Pacey nodded his head in approval.

“I wanted to say thank you. I know I wasn't very expressive yesterday.”

“Didn't expect you would be.” He brushed a gentle hand down her arm. “You okay?”

Joey nodded, worrying her lip and keeping her eyes on the pictures of Dawson. “Yesterday was hard. I know you said I could call, but I called Mitch instead.”

“Yeah? So did I. Did it help?”

“Mostly we just cried, but, yeah, it helped.”

Pacey hesitated before admitting the rest, but couldn't keep it from her. “I called Gail, too.”

Joey's face showed curiosity and concern, but no resentment over how she and Gail had parted. “How is she doing?”

“Not well. Her job in Philly didn't pan out, but I don't think she cares. She's staying with her sister. Didn't sound like she gets out much.” Pacey didn't know how to describe the hollowness in Mrs. Leery's voice, the way she sounded like someone with nothing left inside.

Somehow, Joey picked up on the words Pacey hadn't said. “That could have been me,” she said, reaching out to run her fingers along the bottom line of photos. She dropped her hand and turned towards him. “If I didn't have you.”

Pacey's pulse quickened. His mouth went dry. “Jo, I—”

A knock sounded on the Potters' front door. Joey hurried to answer it. “That's Jen. We'd better go, or we'll be late.”

<><><>

Nothing existed over the next few weeks except the SATs. The entire junior class ate, drank, slept, and breathed SAT prep. Andie seemed on the verge of a collapse. When Pacey tried to comfort her by telling her how smart and prepared she was, and that if she didn't get the score she wanted, she could always take them again, she flew at him in a tizzy about how he thought she was going to fail. He kept his mouth shut after that.

Joey's was a more subdued, pessimistic panic. She pronounced doom upon herself, academic failure, not getting into the right schools or receiving sufficient scholarships and wasting the rest of her life waiting tables in Capeside dives. Pacey knew how to respond to that. Quick quips celebrating their mutual dead-end streets, followed by supportive, truthful words about her future success.

He drove her home from their final study session. Joey twisted her hands futilely in her lap, until Pacey reached over and wrapped her left hand in his right. She covered his hand with her right and clung on tight.

<><><>

The most draining, oppressive three hours of his life were over, and it was time to celebrate. Pacey, Joey, Lindley, and the McPhees piled into the Wagoneer—Eric Carter hinted a willingness to join them, but Jen shoved him off to his swim team, insisting this was her friend time—and headed to Giovanni's.

Lunch felt better than last time. Andie and Joey were friends again, with no awkwardness between them. Five months further removed from Dawson's death, teasing and laughing no longer felt out of place. With the SATs behind them, they could breathe again. Spring was here, summer and the end of junior year peeking brightly around the corner.

After lunch, they went miniature golfing, then headed to the McPhees where Jack finally got his long-denied wish—they played Pictionary. Mr. McPhee being in residence that weekend, his wine cellar remained undisturbed. But they all stayed over anyway, this time prompted by affection and contentment, instead of overindulgence.

Pacey and Andie lingered longest downstairs, first tidying up, then talking, reminiscing over times good and bad.

“I couldn't picture this six months ago,” Andie admitted. “For all that we promised to stay friends, it was unfathomable that I would ever reach a point where I could look at you and not wish you were mine.”

“But the day finally came when my roguish charm failed?” Pacey said with a leer and a waggle of his eyebrows.

Andie laughed. “Heaven preserve the Cape's female population from that day,” she teased back, before adopting a more serious tone. “No, it's just...I realized one day that my life is exactly the way I want it at this exact point in time. Which is slightly mind-boggling when you consider the deluge of tragedy which has dogged my steps the last few years. And terrifying, when I contemplate the inevitability of something going wrong. But for now, I have learned to enjoy the moment—don't snicker like that, Pacey! I know I was borderline about the SATs, but even in the middle of that chaos, I had a core of, of stability, I guess. Jack and Dad are both home. Mom is being well cared for. I enjoy whatever I have with Mark,” she waved a hand in indication of that nebulous arrangement, “without needing it to be more. I'm excelling at school and surrounded by friends, and it turns out, Mr. Witter, that you are just as adept at filling the friend role as, once upon a time, you were at being a boyfriend.”

“Aww shucks, McPhee, don't flatter me,” Pacey said flippantly to disguise his genuine pleasure. “I had my doubts about our friendship, too, at first. But once I stopped visualizing you with your clothes off, it all worked out fine.”

“Pacey!” She swatted his arm with mostly feigned outrage.

Pacey laughed. “Okay, okay. In all seriousness, I am honored to be your friend, Andie. It's a privilege I don't take lightly. But to me, the truly beautiful thing? Is watching you rise up even stronger than before.”

“The pills help,” Andie snarked in return.

The grandfather clock chimed one, finally sending them off to bed. Pacey found his way to the blue guest room. As he undressed, he couldn't help remembering what had happened the last time he'd stayed in this room and almost regretting that Joey's sobriety made a repeat excursion unlikely.

Five months gone. Five months since the PSATs. Five months since he'd lain in this bed, sure Joey would never love him. Five months since he'd accepted the impossibility of getting over her. Outwardly, not much had changed since then. He and Joey were still just friends. Their grief and the specter of their dead friend still hung over them. But Pacey had two things he hadn't had then—knowledge of Joey's reciprocal feelings and hope that someday love would triumph over guilt.

Pacey was tempted to laugh at himself. Years spent harassing Dawson for his romantic idealism, and turned out Pacey was the biggest sap of them all.

Down the hallway, a door quietly opened and shut. Stealthy steps brought someone to Pacey's threshold. He sat up, watching the door, wishing, willing, praying, scarcely breathing, as he waited to learn if she would actually knock. The floor squeaked as she turned and took a few steps away. Pacey was on his feet and a step away from the door; he would go to her if she wouldn't come to him.

She knocked right as his hand closed around the doorknob.

Joey jumped when he threw open the door. “Uh, hey,” she whispered, tugging nervously at her hair. The dim moonlight filtering through the guest room window was enough to illuminate her outline, if not her features. The white camisole she wore glowed against her darker skin, but the shorts covering her hips and thighs remained a mystery.

“Hey,” Pacey said eloquently, trying to sound as if Joey Potter knocking on his door in the middle of the night was an everyday occurrence and not the fulfillment of his deepest fantasies. He opened the door wider. “You want to come in?”

“No!” He could almost hear her blush. “Uh, no, thank you. I just...I couldn't sleep, and I was thinking about some...things, and I had a question. You, uh, do you remember that night you washed my hair?”

“Vividly.” Pacey couldn't help the husky note in his voice. “Would you like me to do it again?”

“No! Well, I mean, yes, but no, that, that wasn't the question...” She sighed and pulled herself together before continuing, “I was just wondering if, if that's when you knew.” Joey shifted uncomfortably. She looked cold, rubbing her hands along her arms. Pacey wished he could wrap her up, with his blankets and his body.

“Knew that I love you, you mean?” He wasn't seeking clarification; he just enjoyed making her acknowledge that he did. When Joey reluctantly nodded, Pacey leaned against the doorframe, nonchalant, settling in for a comfortable chat. “Nah, I knew before that.”

“Well, when?” She sounded annoyed that he was making her drag this out of him.

Pacey grinned at her frustration. “Mmm, tough one. I'd have to say I figured it out last summer, about an hour after Gretchen told me I did.”

“You fell in love with me because someone told you to?” The devastation evident in Joey's voice and posture was more encouraging than her earlier impatience.

“Not what I said. You have got to work on your listening skills, woman. You asked when I knew I was in love with you, but you should know better than anyone that when it comes to me, my brain's not in charge of the show. What you should have asked is when did I fall in love with you, a much more interesting question with a much more complicated answer.”

Pacey continued chatting in a conversational, musing tone, scarcely above a whisper, but he straightened from the wall, hands seeking hers, fingers intertwining playfully. “Maybe it was that night at Cliff's barbecue when you beat my ass for my impromptu swim. Or maybe it was the first night we read together when your head cold made you sound like a Looney Tunes character.”

His voice deepened, tone more solemn as he added, “Maybe when you were reading Dawson's eulogy, and all I wanted in the world was to protect you from that pain. Or before that, at your mother's funeral, when I knew there was nothing I could do to help.” Joey's fingers curled tightly around his.

Pacey resumed his lighter tone. “Could have been when I grabbed your ass while filming Dawson's sea monster flick, or when I caught a glimpse of it in the rearview mirror after the snail-hunting fiasco.”

“Unh!” Joey made a noise of outraged protest and shoved him. “Pervert!”

A tactical error. Pacey covered her hands with his own and held them against his bare chest, where she could feel his heart pounding and he could feel how she trembled. “Prude,” he retorted fondly. “But personally, I think it was earlier. Maybe in fifth grade when you told Abby Morgan to put her head in a toilet because she laughed at me. Or when Will moved away and you made me spend the whole next day roller skating with you because you knew how sad I was. Or when you were the only other kid in class who confessed to climbing the tree, too.”

“The first day of kindergarten?” Joey's voice dripped disbelief. “You couldn't possibly—”

“You wore a Rainbow Brite t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees.” Pacey let go of her hands and took hold of her arms, drawing her closer. “Your hair was braided, but strands kept pulling loose, and when it was your turn to climb the tree, you touched the very highest branch, because back then you hadn't learned how to be afraid.”

Joey shook so hard she almost vibrated in his arms. “Before I became such a coward, you mean.”

“No, you're braver now.”

“Oh yeah? Why's that?” Joey whispered the question almost against his mouth.

“Because now you have a fear of falling, and you're still here.” Pacey captured her lips, swallowing her soft mewl of desire. She melted like chocolate in his arms.

Too soon, Joey pulled away, and he was the one whimpering in frustration as he tried to follow after. “Joey,” he pleaded.

Her hands flat against his chest became an unbending wall. “I'm still thinking things out.”

“Okay,” he agreed and kissed her brow.

“You might be comfortable letting your heart hold sway, but I need my brain to be in some sort of accord with the rest of me.”

“Good idea,” he said and kissed her eyelids.

Joey's hands moved upward to grasp the curls of hair at the nape of his neck. “I need to go back to bed,” she mumbled and kissed the pulse in his throat.

“You should.” He kissed the curve of her jaw.

“'Cause I'm tired.” She kissed the corner of his mouth.

“And cold.” Pacey sucked her bottom lip between both of his.

“Five more minutes.” Joey wrapped her arms round his neck and buried her tongue in his mouth.

<><><>

The fact that Joey could not stop blushing and Pacey couldn't hide his grin at breakfast the next morning did not escape Lindley's observation. She glanced back and forth between the two of them several times, before ducking her own satisfied smile behind a coffee mug. But she kept silent until the three of them piled into the Wagoneer for the ride home.

Jen had the backseat to herself, but she scooted to the middle for the best view of both their faces when she demanded, “So did you two have sex last night or what?”

“No!” was Joey's horrified, blushing response. “Not by any definition of the term, no.”

“Well, something happened. You both look happy and guilty. In my experience, when happiness and guilt walk hand in hand, the answer to the riddle is usually sex.”

Pacey chuckled, but he left it to Joey to decide what, if anything, she wanted to share.

“There was some kissing,” she admitted, an understatement if ever he'd heard one. Joey's five minute deadline was extended four or five times before she finally ran back to the guest room. Pacey had gone to bed, feet frozen, dick aching, but happier than he could ever remember being.

At Jen's wordless squeal of delight, Joey rushed on, “But please keep it to yourself. We're not...I'm not...we still have things to figure out.”

“Speak for yourself,” Pacey muttered, earning himself an annoyed look from Joey.

“Like what?” Jen pried.

“Like how to reconcile what I feel for Pacey with what I felt...feel for Dawson. Like if I'm even capable of sustaining a romantic relationship.”

“What?” said Pacey, taken aback by this new objection.

“Think about it. With Dawson, I messed things up. My longest-lasting boyfriend turned out to be gay. And let's not talk about this year. Maybe I'm just not girlfriend material.”

“You're in luck, Potter, because I can produce glowing references to my superior boyfriend skills. For once, maybe I can teach you something.”

Joey rolled her eyes. “Oh, by all means, help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

“Maybe you don't need help at all,” Jen mused. “Maybe they were just the wrong guys.”

Pacey shook his head at Jen in the rearview mirror. He did not want her dredging up the Dawson guilt again.

But as he pulled into Mrs. Ryan's driveway, he heard Joey softly say, “Maybe you're right.”

“I give you two till the end of the school year to get your shit together,” Jen said as she slid out of the jeep. “Then I resort to Parent Trap-level shenanigans. You have been warned. Call ya later, Joey.”

They bid goodbye to their friend. Paradoxically, it became more awkward between them in her absence. Pacey drove back toward the bridge, fearing the silence but not knowing what to say. He didn't want to pressure or push her. He wanted Joey to be one hundred percent sure about them, but the waiting wasn't getting easier.

“There's one other obstacle I didn't want to mention to Jen,” Joey finally said. “The curse.”

“My birthday curse? Pretty sure you broke that one. Even if you didn't, I don't see why one bad day a year should keep us apart.”

“Not that, doofus. Mine. My curse.” Joey looked out the window and whispered, “I don't want anything to happen to you.”

Everyone I love dies, she'd said to him in the days after Dawson's death. Evidently, she continued to believe that was true.

“You're not cursed, Jo.” She opened her mouth to argue, but Pacey hurried on, “Two disparate events years apart, however tragic, do not a pattern make. The world's worst weatherman would back me up on that. And even if you were, I'd be pretty high on the hit list regardless. At least if we were together, I'd die happy.”

“Not funny.” Joey folded her arms, slouching sulkily in her seat.

“You're right. I'm sorry.” Death would never be funny, not between them. Pacey sighed. “I just want to be with you, Jo. Whatever happens.”

“I'm afraid, Pace.”

“Of what?”

Joey shrugged her shoulders, shook her head, gestured between them. “Of this, of what it means. Forgetting him, losing you, change. Everything.”

Pacey didn't have an answer. He pulled to a stop in front of the Potters' house, reaching to the floor of the back seat to grab his backpack.

“Uh, what are you doing?” Joey said, pausing with the car door half open.

“What we normally do on Sundays. Homework.” He raised a challenging eyebrow. “You said you were afraid of change.”

“No, yeah, I mean I did, and we do need to do homework, it's just...Bodie's at work, and Bessie was going to do some wedding stuff around town this morning.”

Pacey chuckled. “I'll keep my hands to myself. Scout's honor.” He made the salute as they walked to the porch.

Joey snorted. “As I recall, you got kicked out of the scouts because you wouldn't tuck in your shirt or tie that little tie.”

“It was a kerchief, and those were among the least of my many offenses. Your point?”

Joey had her key in the lock, but she shot him a coy smile over her shoulder. “My point is I don't know if I should trust you.”

Pacey reached around her to open the door and let her pass through, holding it wide like a gentleman should. “You can trust me, Jo,” he said, hoping she understood he meant more than in this one moment.

“I do, Pacey,” she returned in equal seriousness. Then, with a sparkle in her hazel eyes, she reached behind him to pluck out her key, brushing her whole body against his in the process. “Did you ever consider that maybe it's myself I don't trust?”

Joey hurried to the table and started pulling schoolbooks out of her bag. Pacey lingered to close the door and fight down certain bodily reactions. “I have now,” he muttered between his teeth.

But he sat down to homework without complaint.

They worked through trig and chemistry together then started on their separate subjects. Pacey was mucking through a Spanish translation when he felt Joey's eyes on him. He smiled softly at the pensive look on her face, pencil twirling between her fingers. “What?”

“It's not different. You and me doing homework together. I thought it would feel different, but it doesn't.”

“If you want, we could play footsie under the table, but I'm trying to be a man of my word.” He spread his palms in the air beside his head. “Hands off.”

Joey giggled, but shook her head. “No, that's not what I mean. I guess, I guess I've been worried about losing what we have, you know? That once we started something...else, all of our rituals and routines would disappear.”

“I like studying with you. Reading, running, working on the boat. Hell, even cleaning out the attic was fun with you. I'm not trying to take away the things which make us, us.” Pacey folded his arms on the table and leaned closer to her. “I just think it would be nice to add a few new activities to the mix.”

Joey rolled her eyes, but she leaned towards him, not away. “Yes, I know exactly what you'd like to do.”

“Hey, I make no apologies for wanting to kiss you, Potter,” he said, eyes on her lips. Damn his promise not to touch her. His fingers itched to trace her jaw, brush the hair back from her face. “But I meant other stuff, too. Take you out to a meal every once in a while, just the two of us. Walk along the beach in the moonlight. Sail off into the sunset—once our Friend is ready, of course.”

Joey's eyes—golden-green today—shone their approval. “Dancing?”

Pacey groaned. “If I must. Just don't expect anything fancy.”

“We'll work on that,” she promised. Grabbing the collar of his Hawaiian shirt, Joey pulled his face to hers and kissed him.

Pacey held the edge of the table so tightly he thought it might crack, but he'd said nothing about keeping his lips to himself. Or his tongue. And she had initiated it...

Distantly, his ears registered the sound of a key in the lock. Joey abruptly broke the kiss and pulled away, ducking her head over her studies.

Pacey glanced over his shoulder as Bessie stumbled in, arms laden with packages and her son. He rose to help. “Here, Bess, let me take those.” He grabbed a bunch of boxes and set them on the counter.

“Thanks, Pacey. Hey, Joey, how did the test go?”

“Test?” she repeated absently.

Bessie blinked down at her distracted sister. “Yes, test. Pretty major one. Something about scholastic aptitude?”

“Oh! That! Yeah, I think it went well. Not that I'll know for a while yet.”

Bessie clucked her tongue. “I think too much studying has finally fried your brain. I've gotta change Alexander; then I'll get started on lunch.” She dropped a pile of mail on the table before Joey. “RSVPs have started coming back. If you've any functioning brain cells left, mind making a list of confirmed guests, Jo?” She walked back to the nursery without waiting for Joey's answer.

Pacey put away their books, while Joey grabbed a letter opener and started opening the replies. She grabbed a pad of paper and jotted down names. Pacey decided to set the table. He grabbed a stack of plates from the cupboard.

Joey's stillness and slumped posture when he turned back around alerted him that all was not right. “Jo?” he asked as he walked up behind her.

She didn't respond.

Pacey peeked over Joey's shoulder and spotted two invitations spread on the table before her. With a sinking heart, he read the acceptance of Mitchell Leery and Gail Leery to the Potter-Wells nuptials. He ran a hand down Joey's hair.

Joey pulled away.

Chapter Text

“Hi.” Pacey produced his most charming smile for the petite, pretty black woman who opened the door. “I'm looking for Gretchen. Is she—”

The girl squealed excitedly, grabbing Pacey's arm and pulling him inside the house. It was an old brick two-story townhouse a few blocks off-campus, supposedly rented by Gretchen and her three best friends, but the floor was cluttered with enough textbooks, magazines, and lacy clothes for a dozen. “Lucy, Jess, come see! Gretchen's baby brother is here, and he's adorable!”

Within moments, Pacey was surrounded by an indefinite number of beautiful co-eds, not one of whom was the one he'd come to see, all talking a mile a minute.

“Aww, look at his eyes.”

“He's so tall!”

“What's your name again? Racer or something strange like that.”

“Is the sheriff anything like you? Gretch insists he's a closet case, but for a smile like that, I'd take the risk.”

Torn between amusement, flattered pride, and the passing fear that he was about to be mauled, Pacey was relieved to see Gretchen stumble round the corner. She was affixing an earring and trying to straighten her heel at the same time.

“All right, ladies, break it up. Why do you think I've kept him from you barracudas so long?” She swept through her friends to give him a hug. “Hey, Pace, look at you! You showered and everything.”

Pacey straightened the detested suit as he pulled back. His dress shirt was untucked and unbuttoned at the collar. Joey promised it was only a semi-formal event, but he had a tie in his pocket, just in case. “You smell like a fruit salad, but you look good, sis.”

Gretchen was always too beautiful for a brother's comfort. With her hair pulled up and wearing a knee-length, jade green dress, she nearly glowed.

“Pacey! That's his name.”

“So how long until you're in Boston on a more permanent basis, Pacey?”

“Oh my God, Kira! Shut up, he's just a baby.”

Gretchen rolled her eyes. “Come on. Let's get out of here, before these love-starved spinsters start examining your teeth.”

Pacey left laughing, amid a flood of insults for his sister and innuendos for him. “So they're...interesting.”

“They're the best people you'll ever meet most of the time. You just happened to show up in the middle of mimosa morning, after a month of horrendous break-ups.”

Pacey rushed ahead to hold open the back seat door for his sister. Hands on hips, Gretchen shook her head. “Nice try, loser. Baby gets the back.”

Pacey groaned, but obediently jumped into the back of the Wagoneer. “Bad enough I had to listen to this caterwauling all the way up here. Now, I'm relegated to the back seat of my own ride.”

“For the five hundredth time,” Doug said, leaning over to give Gretchen a hug as she slid into the passenger seat, “this is not your car, Pacey. You drive it around town at the forbearance of your family. Interstate journeys are beyond your maturity level.”

Gretchen laughed as she buckled her seatbelt. “Sounds like I've missed a fun trip.” She turned down Dougie's weepy cast recording. Doug let her. For that alone, Pacey decided she deserved the front seat.

Pacey snorted. “Oh yeah, a real blast. Doug's been asserting authority he doesn't have because he's pissed that Ma okayed my summer plans.”

“She did?” Gretchen turned around in her seat to grin at him. “I'm so excited! My little brother's first road trip!”

Doug's face was sour as he pulled back onto the interstate. “This jeep is in no condition to be traveling across the country and back, let alone in the hands of a bunch of young, inexperienced drivers.”

“Then we'll take Andie's Saab. Maddie invited us, our parents and/or legal guardians have all given their stamp of approval. You can't stop us, Dougie, so why get your panties in a twist?”

Pacey had been thrilled when his sister suggested he and his friends spend a few weeks of their summer vacation out in Oregon with her. What he hadn't expected was how quick everyone would be to jump aboard. Jack wanted to get to know Maddie and Lara better. Andie declared she'd more than earned a real vacation after this year. Bessie thought it was about time Joey saw some of the world. Even Grams was happy for Jen. Only Doug was being a dick about it.

“It's the summer before your senior year. You should be getting a job, saving up for college.”

“Sheesh, unwind a little, Sheriff Witter, sir,” Gretchen said, sparing Pacey the argument he'd already had a dozen times. “It's just a month; he'll have plenty of time to work. Let them be kids while they have a chance.” She watched their brother's square-jawed profile with something like pity. “You know, maybe you could fly out there and join them for a week or two.”

“What?” said Doug.

“Why?” protested Pacey.

“If you're so worried about their maturity or whatever, why not? Besides, when's the last time you took a vacation?”

Pacey caught a glimpse of Doug's eyes in the rearview mirror and sighed. Why did Gretchen see so clearly what everyone else completely missed? “You should come, Dougie. Maddie would love it, and...I guess I'd be okay with it, too.”

“Such a warm invitation, little bro. But I'll think about it.” It did the trick, though. After that, Doug relaxed a bit. As much as Doug ever relaxed, anyway.

Gretchen nodded, once, as if it were settled. “So how's Joey? And why are you here annoying your siblings when you could be kissing the ground whereon she stands?”

“She drove up yesterday with her family to get everything ready, and for the rehearsal and stuff. They stayed with Bodie's family. They're all in and around Hartford.”

“And the wedding's at a family restaurant?”

“His uncle's, where Bodie was working last year. But just the reception. The ceremony's in his grandmother's garden.” Pacey looked out at the flawless blue sky. Bessie nearly had a panic attack last week about what to do if it rained, but that wasn't going to be a problem.

“Wow. Bessie is definitely a selfless bride. Seems like this wedding is going to be all about Bodie.”

Due to his near-constant presence in the Potter house, Pacey knew more about the wedding than anyone not in the bridal party. “Joey and Alexander are Bessie's whole family. She loves that she's gaining Bodie's. Except for not having the wedding in a church, I don't think she rejected anything they suggested.”

Silence fell over them at the reminder of all the Potter girls had lost, but it wasn't a day for sadness. Gretchen soon had more questions. “What about after the wedding? Are they having any kind of honeymoon?”

“Three days at a friend's B&B in Vermont.” Being the off-season, it came cheap, but Bessie didn't have much vacation time.

“Ooh, that sounds lovely. What about Joey and the baby? Will they need a ride home?”

“Alexander's staying with his grandparents; they begged for some time with him. I offered Joey a ride back, but so did Jen, so she might ride with them.”

Gretchen caught something in his tone. “Uh-oh. Trouble in paradise?”

Pacey had made the mistake of telling his sister about Joey admitting she loved him. Since then, as far as Gretchen was concerned, they were on the road to eternal bliss. “The Leerys are going to be there,” he said, as if that explained matters. It mostly did.

“Mitch and Gail? They're coming to the wedding?”

“They both RSVPed. Separately.” Since the moment Joey saw their invitations and shied away from Pacey's touch, she'd done everything she could to avoid being alone with him. No more kisses, hugs, hand holding. She refused to talk about the possibility of them as a couple. She wouldn't even talk to him about the obvious freak-out she was having.

“So Joey doesn't want to flaunt your relationship in front of them?”

“Easy enough to avoid, since, according to her, we don't have a relationship.”

“Oh, Pace. But her only sister's getting married, and seeing Dawson's parents again...maybe you could try to be the one part of her life that's not a stress right now.”

Gretchen didn't say anything Pacey hadn't told himself a thousand times. But it was getting harder not easier to be patient now that he'd had a glimpse of what being with Joey could be like. They were so good together, and it hurt like hell that she shut him out at the first test.

It wasn't as if Pacey wanted to wound the Leerys. He could be as circumspect as necessary. But why the cold shoulder before the event? Had the mere mention of the Leerys revived Joey's need to immolate her own heart in memory of Dawson?

Weeks of stressing and countless attempts to draw her out had given Pacey no answers. He hoped after the wedding he and Joey might pick up where they left off, but he wasn't holding his breath.

He tuned out as Doug explained the plot accompanying the musical massacre playing on the cassette deck to Gretchen. Pacey stared out at the cloudless blue and tried to focus on the positive. Musical preferences aside, Pacey and his siblings were getting along. Bessie and Bodie were getting married. He was about to see Mitch and Gail again. Work on Huckleberry Friend progressed slowly but steadily. The school year was almost over, and the trip of a lifetime awaited him and his friends. Joey Potter, for all her neuroses and second-guessing, loved him. When he thought of it that way, life was pretty damn good.

But his arms felt empty, all the same.

<><><>

A couple wrong turns kept the Witter siblings from being among the earliest guests, which Doug's obsession with punctuality would have made them, but they arrived with time to spare. At Gretchen's insistence, Pacey tucked in his shirt, but he kept his tie stubbornly hidden.

A light-skinned black man in a blue suit stood by the open garden gate, guiding confused guests away from the house and into the backyard. Introducing himself as Bodie's cousin Jeremiah, he instructed Pacey and his siblings to have a seat anywhere. With so many in the Wells contingent, the bride's side would be woefully underpopulated if the guests were divided.

Even with Bodie's entire family in attendance, the wedding was small. Last count Pacey had heard was sixty-four. Bodie's brother Micah, Joey, and Alexander made up the entire bridal party. Bessie's guest list featured only half a dozen old friends from Capeside High and a few new ones from her job, in addition to the Witters, Leerys, Mrs. Ryan, Jen, and Jack.

This early in the year, the rose bushes were bare, but spring tulips in all colors raised their cheerful heads, interspersed with hyacinths, primroses, daffodils, and azaleas. The rows of folding chairs were festooned in cheerful yellow ribbons. Bodie and his best man had ties to match.

The Leerys were already present. Both sitting on the bride's side, if there had been a bride's side. But Mitch was in the front row and Gail in the back. Pacey wouldn't have recognized Dawson's mom if Gretchen hadn't greeted her with a hug. She had given up dying her hair, and it had returned to its natural brown, but with plentiful streaks of gray which he was sure hadn't been there a year ago. Her face bore lines of grief and care which tore the old pain open again.

“Pacey,” she said with a sad smile full of remembrance, before enveloping him in a tight embrace.

“It's good to see you again, Mrs.—” Pacey stopped short, embarrassed. He didn't know if her name was Leery any longer, and he couldn't remember her maiden name, if he'd ever known it.

“'Gail' suits me fine.” She pulled back, framing his cheeks in her hands. “Look at you! You're almost a grown man.” Grief flashed strongly in her face. She was thinking Dawson would be, as well, if he were here.

Pace gave her what he hoped was a comforting smile. “I'm really glad you came, and I know Bessie and Joey are, too.”

Gail's hands dropped, plucking at her shapeless peach dress. Dawson's mother had always been a thin, attractive woman, towered over by her husband and son. Without them, she looked small, bereft. “I hope so. I owe Joey an apology. Those things I said...”

Pacey didn't dispute that, but he told her, “She never blamed you. She knew what you were going through.” Pacey had blamed her, of course, but it was impossible to hold onto anger against someone so broken.

“I'm sure she did. Which makes what I said all the worse.”

Doug strode up to greet Gail then, so Pacey stepped aside. He saw Mrs. Ryan, Jen, and Jack entering the garden and waved, but headed toward Mitch instead.

“Pacey!” Mitch wrapped him up in a rib-cracking, back-slapping hug. Unlike his wife, Mitch Leery looked worlds better than the last time Pacey saw him. Not like he'd forgotten his loss or recovered from it, but—like Pacey himself—as if he'd found a way to keep moving forward through it. “How have you been?”

Before Pacey could begin to navigate through that minefield, Bodie signaled him over. “Excuse me, Mr. Leery. We'll talk later, yeah?” He approached the bridegroom, who had sweat beading on his brow. “You'd better not be getting cold feet, man.”

“Not me I'm worried about. Bess...well, she's not exactly late yet, but my gran just told me she hasn't left her dressing room, and she should be at the staging area by now. She seemed a little...jumpy when I left last night, and I wondered if you might check in with Joey, see how things are going in there.”

Pacey didn't think now was the time to mention his own troubles with a skittish Potter. He just asked for directions through the house.

He received a few stares as he made his way inside and back to the guest bedroom, but no one tried to stop him. “Excuse me,” he said awkwardly to the women talking in hushed voices outside the door. “The, uh, groom sent me.”

They stepped back and allowed Pacey to knock. “Hey, Jo. Can I talk to you a minute?”

The door opened far enough for Joey's scowling face to emerge. “Now is not the—”

“Is that Pacey? Tell him to get his butt in here.”

At Bessie's command, Joey reluctantly opened the door to let Pacey inside. She closed it directly after him, right in the faces of the curious women. Bessie sat on a cushioned footstool, lost in waves of satin, while Alexander—in a miniature replica of his father's suit—played quietly on the floor by her feet.

“Wow! So that's the dress, is it? Bess, you look good enough to stop—”

“Stuff it, Pacey. This is all your fault, you know.”

He stepped back from the force of Bessie's glare. “Whoa, Bess, I know most things are, but mind filling me in on what I've done this time and why exactly it's threatening to upset what is supposed to be the happiest day of your life?”

“All your talk about taking chances and how Bodie was worth the risk...what am I supposed to do now?”

Pacey didn't remember saying anything like that, but he probably had. His mouth spewed all kinds of dumb shit he forgot and other people remembered. “Uh, get married?”

“How? My knees won't stop shaking enough to stand, forget walking down the aisle. Alone.”

Suddenly, Pacey saw the problem. And it wasn't his stupid mouth or poor Bodie waiting out there. “You know, Bess, Mitch Leery's here. I know he's not your dad, but I'm sure he'd be proud to give you away.”

Bessie's eyes flooded with tears, but she scoffed, “Please. As I told everyone who suggested the idea, I have no plans to be given from anyone to anyone. I'm no man's damn property.”

“But you must have pictured it,” Pacey said softly. “Walking down the aisle on your dad's arm.”

A few of those tears flooded over, and Bessie swiped them away. “Crap, Pacey. Now my makeup's wrecked before it's even started.”

“I can fix it.” Joey sat on her knees to the side of the ottoman and performed some sort of emergency cosmetic surgery. “You know, Bess,” she said as she worked, “what you did with mom's dress was a miracle.”

Bessie had labored for months, first restoring the old satin, then altering the style—lowering the neckline, shortening the sleeves, removing lace—to make the perfect, gleaming white wedding dress. “So you've said. Look, sis, I know you mean well, but praising my dress doesn't make that walk any easier.”

“That wasn't my point. You took the broken-down remains of that dress and made something beautiful out of it. But that wasn't the first time. When Mom died and Dad went to jail, you took up the ashes of our family, and you built us a home. And this past year, when Dad died, you did it again. You sorted through the rubble, plucked out the necessary pieces, and started again. Much as we loved him, we don't need Dad to be a family. We haven't for a long time. But Bodie? I think you know we do need him.”

Bessie stared at her sister for a long moment. “Damn it, Jo, don't you make me cry again.” She looked up at Pacey, giving him her version of the famous Potter scowl. “You couldn't have worn a tie? You're going to look awfully stupid walking me down the aisle without one.”

“Me? But I thought Mitch...” He gestured wildly at the door behind him.

“Did you hear nothing my sister just said? I love Mitch Leery, but today is about family.”

Bessie wasn't scowling anymore; she was smiling. Pacey grinned back ear to ear. “I, uh, I have a tie.” He pulled the wadded-up red tie out of his pocket and held it out in proof.

Sighing, Joey took it and wrapped it round his neck. “It will clash, but it's better than nothing.”

Pacey smiled down at her as she fussed with his collar and worked at a Windsor knot. This was closer than Joey had been to him in weeks. He inhaled the scent of jasmine with a feeling almost like intoxication. “You're beautiful, Jo.”

Joey snorted. “I look like a giraffe,” she muttered under her breath, a not entirely unfounded statement. Her dress was pale yellow, with a brown sash immediately below her breasts. The high waistline on her already long, slender form did have the unfortunate effect of making her legs resemble stilts.

“I didn't mention the dress, Potter. You are beautiful, no matter what you wear.”

Joey blinked, hands stilling at his throat, as her golden-flecked chocolate eyes stumbled into his.

“Flirt on your own time, Pacey,” Bessie chided, reaching for his arm. “Today is my day.”

Bessie wasn't exaggerating about her shaky legs. Pacey felt her trembling, and she placed far more of her weight on him than he was expecting. Joey bustled around, attaching Bessie's veil—a small one, pulled back over her hair, not on her face, and surrounded by a circlet of daffodils—brushing off Alex's suit and handing him the yellow satin pillow with the rings attached. She retrieved the bouquets from vases. Bessie's was yellow daffodils and white tulips, Joey's yellow tulips. While making a final inspection, Joey added one of her tulips to Pacey's boutonniere.

Satisfied, they finally emerged. The lingering women rushed off to their seats. Joey carried her nephew out to the garden, with Bessie and Pacey following behind.

The music started up as soon as Joey put Alex down at the end of the aisle. “Just like we practiced, remember?” she whispered to him.

Alex managed only a few steps on his own before the crowd of cooing, smiling people overwhelmed him, and he scurried back to his aunt's protection. Joey took him by the hand, and they walked the aisle together.

Chest and throat constricting, Pacey watched their progress. You are an idiot, he berated himself. Haven't had your first date yet, and visualizing the rest of your life... It didn't matter. He saw the future he wanted as Joey's hand folded that tiny one in hers.

“Hey, spacey, that's our cue,” Bessie hissed. The music had changed to the wedding march, and the guests were rising to their feet.

Pacey stumbled forward, trying to remember the rhythm of the walk from his long-ago function as Kerry's ring bearer. Bessie kept him to the proper gait. She grew more steady, not less, as they progressed up the aisle and she saw Bodie smiling back at her.

Mindful of Bessie's position on giving the bride away, Pacey stepped back as soon as she released his arm. He found a seat open in the front row by Mr. Leery and slid into it as the minister—an old, old man, who had baptized Bodie as a child and was part of the compromise which kept Bessie's wedding out of a church—began to speak.

Pacey liked weddings, no matter how big a sap that made him. The love and joy inherent in tying two lives together...it was mystifying and foreign, but it filled him with a strange kind of buoyancy. Maybe the kind of happiness on Bessie and Bodie's faces right now was impossible to sustain, but it was nice to pretend for a day that it wasn't.

Pacey heard a lot of sniffling and some outright sobbing throughout the ceremony, but luckily none from Alexander, who spent most of the event watching in confusion from behind his mother's skirts. After they retrieved the rings from the pillow, Bodie picked up his son and held him for the short remainder of the rites.

Joey's back was to Pacey for the entirety of the ceremony, which was probably a blessing in disguise, as he wouldn't have been able to take his eyes off her and Mitch was right beside him. But he felt robbed, unable to see her reactions or share in them.

“You may now kiss your bride,” the minister announced with a beatific smile.

Bodie's kiss was sweet, gentle, and relatively chaste. But Alexander stole the show again, pursing his lips and leaning forward to demand a kiss of his own. The little family laughed as they made their way back down the aisle. Joey finally turned, sparkling eyes catching Pacey's and communicating her joy for just a moment before she noticed Mitch Leery. She nodded to Dawson's father, but her happiness disappeared like sunlight behind a storm cloud.

<><><>

Seating at the reception was no more formal than at the ceremony. A small table at the head of the room was reserved for the bridal party, but the meal was buffet style and the rest of the tables unassigned. Pacey caught sight of his sister and Mrs. Ryan chatting with Gail, but he took his full plate to join Jen and Jack at another table. Dawson's parents made him nervous. As happy as he was to see them, as much as he wanted them to know they were loved and missed, he was scared of saying the wrong thing, exposing himself—and especially Joey—to their judgment and condemnation.

“That wasn't planned, was it?” Jen asked as soon as Pacey sat.

Pacey, focused on Bodie's uncle's incredible food, was confused. “Huh?”

“You walking Bessie down the aisle. Joey never mentioned it to me.”

“Oh, yeah, no, totally last minute.”

“It was a really beautiful touch. I bawled from the moment I saw you two to the moment Bodie and Bessie walked the baby down the aisle.”

“Not an exaggeration,” Jack affirmed.

“Mind if I join you three?” Mitch Leery spoke up from behind Pacey. “I feel something like the specter at the feast.”

The honey-glazed carrots turned to flavorless mush in Pacey's mouth.

“Oh, please do, Mr. Leery.” Jen gave him a sympathetic smile. Jack pulled out a chair for him. “How have you been?”

Pacey forced himself to chew and swallow, chew and swallow, while Mitch talked about his fishing trips, his restaurant work, and the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

“How far are you from Portland?” Jack asked. “Maybe we could stop by and see you this summer.” He looked to Pacey for confirmation.

Pacey nodded. “Yeah, that'd be great.”

“You boys are headed to Oregon?”

“Not just the boys. Joey, Andie, and I are going, too. Pacey's sister Maddie invited us.”

“Maddie's in Portland? You'll have to give me her number, Pacey. I'd love to get in touch.”

“I don't have it on me, but I bet Gretchen does.” Pacey looked around for his sister. Still glued to Gail's side. No help there.

“Don't worry about it now. I'll ask her for it later. I'd really like to catch up with you, Pace. Jen mentioned Andie, but I haven't seen her today. How is she doing?”

Pacey hadn't mentioned Andie in any of his phone calls with Dawson's dad, not her health, not their breakup. He'd kept those conversations focused solely on Dawson and how Mitch was doing. “Really good. Her debate team made state, so she's in Boston today, probably arguing the governor into submission as we speak.”

Mitch chuckled. “I can just about see that. Give her my regards, would you?”

“Sure thing,” said Pacey, just as Jack said, “I'll do that.”

Jen and Jack both sent confused looks at Pacey, but Mitch didn't pick up on the oddness.

“So while your overachieving girlfriend has been conquering the state, what's my favorite underachiever been doing with himself this year?”

Pacey opened his mouth to talk about his boat, a subject he was sure could occupy Mitch for hours, but Jack spoke faster. “Pacey and Andie aren't dating anymore.”

“You're not?” Mitch frowned. “I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given the average length of high school relationships, but you two were so sweet together.” His eyes flickered to something behind Pacey's head. Pacey knew he was looking at his wife.

“Yeah, well, it's been a strange year,” said Pacey, then winced at the reminder of the event which led to all the rest.

Mitch grimaced with his own remembrance. “It has indeed,” he said softly. Bleak silence hovered over their table, until Mitch rallied himself, forced a smile, and asked, “So who's the new lady in your life? I can't imagine you going very long without a girl. No date today, though, so I'm guessing another of your unattainable fantasies?”

“Uh...” Pacey wished it were possible to disappear under the pile of his own misery.

“Pacey does have a girl with whom he spends a lot of time,” Jen said, ignoring Pacey's murderous glare. “But she'd have been an unwieldy wedding guest. Hard to see your Huckleberry on the dance floor, isn't it?”

Pacey laughed in sheer relief.

Mitch looked confused. “Huckleberry?”

“She's my boat.”

As Pacey had predicted, Mitch's face lit with interest. “You got a boat? What kind?”

“Twenty-foot sloop. Hurricane did a real number on her, but I've been restoring her in my free time.”

Mitch wanted specifics, and Pacey lost himself so much in boat talk that he forgot all his former unease around Dawson's father. He barely noticed when Jack and Jen got bored and drifted away. They hadn't come close to exhausting the topic when their conversation was interrupted by Bodie's brother rising to give the best man's speech.

All the wedding trappings followed, cutting the cake, throwing the bouquet and the garter, Bessie and Bodie's first dance. They opened up the dance floor, and Pacey found it impossible to pull his eyes away as Micah twirled Joey around the room. She was so graceful, so beautiful; it wasn't fair that he wouldn't get to hold her in his arms tonight, to make her smile or hear her laugh except at a distance.

“Guess that answers my earlier question.”

With a start, Pacey turned back to Mitch and found his friend's father watching him with a sad, knowing smile. “Sorry, what?”

“I'm not blind, Pacey. It's quite obvious which young woman has captured your heart.”

Pacey felt the blood rise in his cheeks. He fiddled with his fork and the crumbs on his plate. “I don't...I mean, I'm not...we aren't...” He shrugged his shoulders, sinking down in his chair as he gave up. “Obvious, huh?”

“To someone who's known you all your life? I would say so. You've always worn your heart on your sleeve. It's one of the best things about you. And I get why you wouldn't want to tell me, but I understand.”

Shocked, Pacey sat up straighter. “You do?”

“Sure. Losing someone the way we all did can tear people apart.” Again, Mitch's eyes were on his estranged wife. “But it can also bring them together. I saw how close you and Joey became last summer. The only real surprise is that the idea didn't occur to me before now.”

“And you're not pissed? You don't think I've, you know, betrayed him?” Pacey clenched his fork in his fist, unaware till now how much that worry continued to weigh on him.

“Seeing the beautiful, intelligent young woman Joey's grown up to be, it's hardly shocking that both the boys who knew her best would fall for her. No, I'm not angry. I have no right to be. As for betraying Dawson...do you think you have?”

“Sometimes, I guess. I vowed...at, at his funeral, I promised him I would look after her, because I knew that's what he would want. But I can't make myself believe he would ever have wanted me to fall for her.” His eyes sought Joey again; she was giggling as Bodie's uncle tried to teach her how to jitterbug. “I couldn't help it,” he muttered.

“There's your answer, then.”

Pacey looked back at Mitch, silently questioning.

“You can't help who you fall in love with. And maybe I think better of my son than you do, because I believe he would want his two best friends to be happy.”

“I'm sorry, Mr. Leery, I didn't mean to imply that Dawson wouldn't want us to be happy. It's just...she was everything to him.”

“Is she everything to you?”

Pacey didn't falter as he nodded and said, “Yes, sir. She is.”

“Then treat her like she is. Neither I, nor Dawson, nor anyone who loves her, could ask for more than that.”

<><><>

Jen bullied Pacey into a couple of dances, and Bessie used her bride's prerogative to snag one, but for the most part, Pacey sat out the evening. He approached Joey a few times, not to ask her to dance but to give her a heads-up about Mitch, but she swerved out of her way to avoid him. Later, he spotted her dancing with Mr. Leery, deep in conversation. Whatever was said wasn't enough to change her mind. She continued to keep her distance.

Unlike Pacey, Joey danced most of the night. With Jack, Bodie, a string of Bessie's new in-laws. With Jen, Bessie, and Alexander. She looked happy; Pacey tried to make that be enough. Joey deserved to be happy today. He shouldn't bring her down. But he still didn't dance.

Not long after the sun set, Alexander reached his breaking point. After a teary goodbye—on all sides—with his parents, he was taken home by his grandmother. Pacey wouldn't mind taking off himself, but the problem with a carpool was having to wait on the one with the keys.

Doug had attached himself early in the evening to Evin, a dashing young man in his early twenties. Evin was Bodie's third cousin and had sung in the wedding. Every time Pacey ventured close enough to listen, they were discussing music. He wondered if Doug would be frightened off from his new best friend if Pacey informed him Evin was openly gay, but knew that was his own bad mood talking.

The dance floor eventually started to empty, though traffic at the bar was going strong. Pacey's one attempt at getting a drink had ended in failure and a lecture from an irate Bessie.

Joey wasn't dancing anymore. She and Gail Leery huddled close around a table on the other side of the room. Pacey hoped fences were being mended, but had no desire to intrude.

“Hanging in there?” Jen said, sliding into a seat beside him.

“Barely.”

“I've got good news for you. Grams is wiped, so we're about to head out. Looks like Joey will have to bum a ride home from you.”

The corner of Pacey's mouth tipped up. “And how hard did you work to convince Grams she was tired?”

“Not my doing, I swear. Grams is on that weird old people clock, up before five and doesn't know how to exist past eight.” She gave him a slow, sideways smile. “But if Joey remains belligerent, I do have some plans in the works for our road trip.”

Despite his best attempts to remain surly, Pacey laughed. “Oh yeah, like what?”

“Mmm, picture this: three sleeping bags, one double bed. Jack, Andie, and I claim the sleeping bags, so you and Joey are stuck with the bed.”

“Points for the originality, but no one would buy that. Too contrived.”

“We have moved past the time for subtlety, my friend. Plan B: while stopping for gas, we send you and Joey in to buy snacks. Then we drive off, leaving the two of you to catch up on foot or by hitching. Hours alone, with no one to talk to or rely on but each other.”

Pacey winced. “I changed my mind. I don't want to hear any more. Leave me plausible deniability.”

“All right. I have to go, anyway.” She waved to Jack, who had her coat in hand. “But one last scenario for you to feast your lonely heart upon. You and Joey locked in the stockroom at Lara's shop. Mood music, aromatherapy candles, and scented massage oil.”

“Lindley, if your aspiring career as a village yenta doesn't work out, you could make a fortune writing porn.” He said goodbye to Jen and waved farewell to Jack and Grams.

As soon as they were gone, like a broken compass Pacey turned in search of Joey. Neither she nor Gail remained at their table. Much to his surprise and delight, Gail was dancing with Mitch. Not too close, but with the easy familiarity of a lifetime together.

“Pacey, there's something I've been wanting to ask you all night.” Joey leaned over the back of his chair, eyes dark and solemn. “Would you like to dance with me?”

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

She took his hand and led him to the floor. Pacey was under no illusions about his poor dancing skills. Luckily, it was a slow song. He wrapped one arm around Joey's tiny waist, took her other hand in his, and shuffled in a slow circle.

“I'm sorry, Pacey. For the way I've treated you lately.”

“'S okay.” As miserable as he'd been, it all became a distant memory the moment he held her in his arms again.

“No, it's not,” she insisted, pulling back to meet his eyes. “I panicked, Pace. I pictured seeing the Leerys again, and all the fear that I was doing something wrong by loving you came rushing back. So I pushed you away.”

He pressed her fingers gently. “You seem recovered now. Must have been a good talk with Gail.”

Joey nodded, gaze faltering as she chewed on her lower lip. “She apologized for what she said last year before she left. I tried telling her she was right, that I hadn't been good enough for Dawson. But she wouldn't listen. She kept defending me, of all things. I was so ashamed and embarrassed that it all came tumbling out—my feelings for you, how that scared me about what I'd felt or not felt for Dawson, how justified she would be in hating me forever. She, she told me we love different people in different ways at different times, but love is never wasted, or wrong, or insufficient.”

“So, basically, she told you everything I've been trying to convince you of for months.”

Joey had the grace to blush. “Well, yes, but she didn't have your incentive to lie.”

“I wasn't lying, Jo.”

“I know. I know that, Pace. It's just...happiness doesn't come easily to me. I'm not used to it, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm prone to doubting my right to it.”

“You're forgiven,” he said, drawing her closer. “You'll be forgiven every time. But, Jo, I'm gonna do whatever it takes to reprogram those instincts of yours.”

“Yeah?” Joey's off-kilter smile spread slowly across her face. “You promise?”

Butterflies swarmed through his stomach every damn time she smiled. “Promise,” he whispered in her ear.

Joey nuzzled her face into his neck. He had the lovely impression she was breathing him in. She freed her hand from his to wrap it with the other around his neck, threading her fingers into his hair. Pacey traced his knuckles along her exposed back and shoulders. Joey's skin was softer than the satin of her dress. He never wanted to go so long without touching it again. He was aware they weren't so much dancing anymore as they were hugging on the dance floor. But that was okay. This was far better than okay.

“Come along, kiddies,” Gretchen's teasing voice spoiled the moment. “Best get you home before we have to charge admission.”

Joey rested her forehead against Pacey's chest a moment, hiding her blush, but when she pulled back, she was smiling. “I need to say goodbye to Bessie first, but I hope that offer of a ride home is still good?”

“As long as you can bear the full Rodgers & Hammerstein collection, you're all set.”

“Sadly, he's not joking,” said Gretchen, with a rueful shake of the head. “Doug's taste in music makes Pacey's almost palatable.”

Pacey, Doug, and Gretchen joined Joey in congratulations and farewells to the bride and groom. Bessie drew Joey away for a private sisterly moment. Pacey waited for her while his siblings went outside to pull the car around. Pacey wanted to say goodbye to the Leerys, too, but they were still on the dance floor. He chose not to intrude.

When Joey returned, she looked a little teary. “You okay?” Pacey wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

For the first time in weeks, she let it remain there. “Yeah. Just the end of an era, you know? It's been me and Bessie against the world for years.”

“Even for the indomitable Potter sisters, those are pretty long odds. Can't hurt to add another player or two to your team.”

She smiled up at him from under her eyelashes. “You volunteering?”

“Did that a long time ago, Potter. Didn't you notice?”

“Oh, I noticed,” she said, shyly fingering the collar of his jacket. “You've been under evaluation.”

Satisfied with how she cuddled into him, one hand playing with the arm slung over her shoulders, he directed their steps toward the exit. “Really? So what's the verdict?”

“Mmm, I might keep you around. On a strictly probationary basis, of course.”

“Naturally. You wouldn't want to get stuck with me for life.” He looked at the various coats hanging on the long rack by the door. “Which one's yours, Jo?”

“Oh, none. I forgot mine at the house.”

Though it was a fine spring, the New England air turned chilly at night. Pacey shrugged off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders before they stepped outside. Doug had the Wagoneer waiting at the curb.

Gretchen stepped out of the passenger door. “Joey, you can have the front seat, if you want,” she said with a sly glance at Pacey.

“Buzz off, Gretchzilla.” Pacey slid into the back seat, pulling Joey by the hand behind him.

Gretchen and Doug spent the beginning of the trip back praising the wedding from start to finish. Joey occasionally chimed in with some behind-the-scenes detail. Pacey was content to sit in the darkness with Joey, their hands clasped together in the empty expanse between them.

After a while, Gretchen started yawning. Joey took it up. Doug turned on his snooze-worthy show tunes. With a little encouragement from Pacey, Joey lay down across the back seat, head pillowed on Pacey's thighs, shoes on the floor. Pacey spread his jacket over her curled up body. His fingers brushed a repetitive path through her hair until he felt her body relax in sleep. When he looked up, Gretchen was watching them. Smiling, she gave a satisfied nod.

Pacey must have dozed off himself, because he woke with a jolt when the Wagoneer came to a stop. Blinking dazed eyes, he recognized Gretchen's house.

The overhead light flicked on as Gretchen opened her door. “Thanks for the ride, Doug. See you later, punk.”

“Bye, Gretch.”

Before the light winked out, Pacey glimpsed Joey's eyes, wide open, staring up at him. “Hey,” he whispered as Doug pulled back into traffic. He ran his fingertips down the side of her face from brow to chin.

“Hey,” she whispered back.

“I thought you were asleep.”

“I was for a while. Then I was thinking.”

Pacey tapped the tip of her nose. “I've warned you about that bad habit of yours. What about this time?”

Joey half sat up, pulling Pacey's face down at the same time so she could whisper in his ear. “I was trying to decide when I fell in love with you.”

The darkness hid Pacey's grin. “Oh yeah? Reach any conclusions about that?”

Joey sat up fully, cuddling against Pacey's side. Doug proved he wasn't oblivious to goings-on in the backseat by barking, “Seatbelt,” at her. But when Joey buckled into the middle seat, he turned up the volume of his music, so they could talk—quietly, at least—without fear of being overheard.

“At first, I thought it was that night when you washed my hair. But then I remembered how jealous I was of Andie and realized it must have been earlier than that. So then I thought maybe it was that morning when you threw me in the shower and begged me not to leave you. But that thrill in my skin when you touch me started long before then, so that couldn't be right,” Joey nearly whispered from her place at Pacey's shoulder into his right ear. The tickle of her breath against his throat added to the warmth spreading through Pacey at her words.

“So I decided I was going about this all wrong, that maybe, like you, I should go back to the beginning. But the day I met you, you were just the screw-up who got caught when the rest of us didn't. Except I remember your sad, little puppy-dog eyes and how I couldn't leave you to face it alone. But after that, you were the annoying pest who kept muscling in on my time with Dawson. I mean, sure, you brought me a chocolate pudding snack to school every day, and you untwisted the tangles out of my kite, and you shoved Chris Wolfe off the tire swing when he called me 'Trash-heap Potter.' But you also pulled my hair, and said I had cooties, and told Dawson it was weird to be friends with a girl, so I couldn't have been in love with you then. Although any time I hit you or shoved you or kicked you, you never hit back. And whenever your dad hit you, you showed up at my house for Mom to make it better. But just because I wanted to hug you tight, and keep you safe, and never let you get hurt again doesn't mean I loved you then.

“Obviously, I didn't love you when we were filming Sea Creature from the Deep, because I couldn't stand the thought of kissing you. I couldn't stand it so much that my pulse raced every time I thought about it, so much that I dreamed about it once and woke up red-faced and panting and knew I could never, ever let that happen in reality. And I didn't love you when you stole a car and drove all night to a prison and bribed a guard just so I could have one of the few meaningful conversations I ever had with my dad.

“You're right about thinking, Pace. It's no help at all. After all my effort, I can only conclude that it's a paradox. I've never been in love with you. I've always been in love with you. Spot the fallacy.”

Impossible. Joey's words were impossible. But Pacey's starving heart swallowed them all and begged for more. Impossible, in the aftermath, not to kiss her, not to forget everything except the rightness of her lips melding to his, softening, opening, coaxing him deeper.

In the front seat, Doug cleared his throat loudly. “I feel I've been a remarkably discreet chauffeur, but there are limits.”

Joey bent her head in embarrassment, breaking the kiss, but she didn't pull away.

“A good chauffeur keeps his eyes on the road,” Pacey shot at his brother.

“A good sheriff has eyes in the back of his head,” Doug returned. Pacey caught the flash of a rare smile in the rearview mirror.

Pacey pulled Joey's legs across his lap and started rubbing her feet.

“While I have your attention,” Doug resumed, “Joey, Ma asked me to extend an invitation for you to have Sunday dinner with us, since she's convinced Pacey hasn't been passing them on.”

He could feel Joey's accusatory stare even in the dark. “It's hardly my fault. You're the one who's been avoiding me.”

“Since when does your mother want anything to do with me?”

“Since your Joan of Arc routine on my birthday. Nothing like a little righteous anger to win Ma's approval, even if it was in my defense.”

Joey sniffed her disbelief, but said, “Tell your mother I'd be pleased to join you, Doug. Thank you.”

Pacey tried to wrap his mind around the idea. Joey at a Witter family dinner. A notion which once would have inspired horror now only made him slightly anxious. Even that nervousness was tinged with pride. Joey Potter, being welcomed by his family. Joey Potter, his girl.

She'd slap him silly for the thought.

When they reached the Capeside turnoff, Joey swung her legs down, fumbling in the darkness for her shoes. Pacey already felt bereft without her. “So, uh, I'll see you tomorrow?”

Joey slid on her left heel. “You're not staying over?”

One simple question, and he went hot all over. “Uh, well, do you, um, want me to?”

Joey froze beside him, as though she, too, had just processed the implications of her words. “I didn't, um, mean like...I meant with everyone else gone...God, that sounds worse. I swear, I just meant—”

“Platonic sleepovers are not going to work for us anymore, Potter,” he growled low in her ear, delighted with the shiver which swept her body.

“N-no, you're right. Stupid idea.”

Pacey wondered how much of that Doug had overheard, but his brother's face was blank as he turned the jeep down the Potters' dark driveway.

“Thanks for the ride, Doug,” Joey said as she hopped down from the vehicle.

“Anytime, Joey. Well?” Doug prompted, staring back at Pacey.

“Well, what?”

“A gentleman, Pacey, always sees a lady to her door.”

Not needing further encouragement, Pacey scrambled out of the car.

Doug stuck his head out, calling after him, “A gentleman always leaves the lady at her door, too.”

Pacey flipped him the bird and hurried after Joey.

“Pacey?” Joey asked as he caught up to her on the porch. “Oh, right, your ja—”

He caught the rest of her words in his mouth, pushing her up against the locked front door. He kissed her deeply, thoroughly, the way he'd wanted to for weeks, the way he wanted to every second of every day. Moments not spent kissing her were wasted.

When he finally pulled back, Joey was trembling, breasts rubbing against his chest with every breathless rise and fall. “I said I understood about the sleepovers. You didn't need to prove it.”

“That? That was just good night.” Pacey kissed her once more, gently, almost chaste. “And I love you.” Another, just as soft, but he traced the seam of her lips with his tongue in promise. “And I'll see you tomorrow.” He forced himself to release her, stepping back to give her space to unlock the door.

The deep, shuddering breath Joey took before she turned away was gratifying. Almost as gratifying as how her hands shook getting the key in the lock. Finally, she opened the door, flicking on the light. “Good night.” She stepped across the threshold, but turned back in the doorway. “Hey, Pace?”

“Yeah?” He tried not to sound too eager, but if she invited him in, he had no intention of declining.

“We should start a new book soon.”

Senses clogged with awareness of her, Pacey couldn't process the subject change. “Oh? Yeah, okay, sure.”

“Yeah.” Joey nodded, eyes dark and glowing, slender, graceful form lit from behind. “I want to try one with a happy ending on for size.” With a swift, butterfly-inducing smile, she closed the door between them.

Pacey walked away, whistling.

Chapter Text

Joey laid the bouquet of daisies next to the white and yellow roses already there. Idly, Pacey wondered who had brought them. Jen? Mrs. Ryan? Andie? It couldn't have been Mrs. Leery. He had talked to Dawson's mother this morning. She was settling into her new home and new life with Mitch on the shore of the opposite ocean.

Of all the changes two years had brought, Dawson would be most satisfied by the reforged relationship of his parents, Pacey thought. They made it through, D, he sent to his friend, should he happen to be capable of receiving it. We all made it through.

Two years ago today, the Ice House burned. Two years ago today, the gravestone in front of him was given an end date. Pacey didn't come here often—left to himself, it would be never—but whenever Joey asked, as she had this morning, he accompanied her without protest. It wasn't that Pacey wanted to forget, but he could never escape the belief he'd had from the first—Dawson wasn't here.

When he wanted to commune with his friend, Pacey headed down to one of their old fishing holes—their fort was now buried beneath a development of summer homes. There, he'd think—he didn't fish, not anymore—about times they'd shared and imagine conversations he'd have with Dawson if his best friend sat again at his side.

If he had the chance, he'd tell Dawson they both had been right and they both had been wrong. The world wasn't the crystal and ivory movie palace Dawson had envisioned, with clear-cut heroes and villains, where good always triumphed and the wicked were duly punished. But it wasn't the dark, cruel nightmare Pacey used to see, either, where the only way through was with a healthy sense of humor, a pound of cynicism, and a strong left hook. The truth was more complicated than that. The world full of senseless acts of violence—like the one that robbed him of his best friend—was the same place where communities of friends and families gathered together to rebuild after tragedy.

He would tell Dawson about the strange, evolving nature of family. While Pacey had been walking around with that chip on his shoulder, stewing in how much his family hated him, he'd missed seeing how they were all just people as lost and alone and screwed-up as he was. He'd tell Dawson about Kerry and how brave she was for starting her life over again, about Maddie and how she'd shown him that the only version of your life which mattered was the one you created for yourself. He'd complain about Ma and her bad cooking and about Doug and his worse music, but he'd also tell about the tears in their eyes when Pacey got his first college acceptance letter. He would avoid talking about Gretchen, until Dawson with a red face and burning ears asked how she was doing, and then Pacey would say, “Oh, you know Gretch...” And he'd unfold a dozen anecdotes about his goddamn wonderful sister and her bizarre friends and her short-lived, loser boyfriends.

While Joey sat before Dawson's grave, thinking thoughts that weren't for Pacey to know, his gaze wandered over a few rows to where Pop was buried. Pacey would be back here this evening with his entire, complicated, beautiful mess of a family to leave their own flowers, pay their own tribute.

In the workshop, which used to be Pop's and more and more the family regarded as Pacey's, that's where he thought about his father. “I forgive you.” That was always how the conversation started. Because forgiveness wasn't a one-time deal. It was daily, over and over again, reminding himself not to resent the past, to let go. “I forgive you. You did the best you could. Who knows? Maybe you did something right, Pop, because me? I'm gonna be okay.

Joey and Bessie would have their private memorial for their father without a resting place. Capeside liked to forget about the fire's third victim; Pacey never could. Mike Potter had never seen him as anything but Joey and Dawson's annoying friend, and maybe, fearfully, as Sheriff Witter's boy. But Pacey had words he wished he could say to that man, as well, words formed in response to a confession he wasn't supposed to hear on a dark night outside a prison's gates. “She is loved, Mr. Potter,” he would say. “And she knows it. Bessie, Bodie, Alex, Jen, Jack, Andie...they show her love every day, in a thousand different ways. And so do I.

“He seems farther away every day,” Joey said, playing with the petals of a daisy.

Pacey didn't know the story behind the daisies she always brought to Dawson, but he didn't need to. It wasn't his to know.

He sat beside her in the grass, taking her hand in his, leaving them both in her lap. “He's not. He's in your heart, where he's always been. Where he'll always be.”

In none of his imaginary conversations with Dawson did Pacey tell about his relationship with Joey. Those stories weren't Dawson's to know.

After several more long minutes of silence, Joey stood, pulling on Pacey's hand. “Come on, Pace. Let's go home.”

Pacey brushed himself off before following her out of the cemetery. Joey glanced back once more at Dawson's grave then turned away. She pulled Pacey's arm across her shoulders, fingers laced with his.

“It might be a long time before we get back here,” he reminded her.

“That's okay.” They reached the truck. Instead of climbing in, Joey hugged Pacey tight, head resting securely against his shoulder. “Like you said, I know where to find him.”

<><><>

“You sure you've got everything you need?”

Joey gave him a side-eyed glare. “That is the third time you've asked me that. Yes, I have everything I need.”

Pacey grinned at her as he loosed the final mooring. “If you say so. But this isn't like that weekend at Bar Harbor where you forgot your jacket and could just borrow mine. Three months is a long time to lack the essentials.”

Yesterday, they had graduated from Capeside High School and celebrated with their friends and family. When autumn arrived, they were headed to Boston. Pacey would join Jen and Jack at Boston Bay, while Joey and Andie would enter the rarefied air of the Ivy League.

But this morning, while their peers slept off last night's excesses, Pacey and Joey were sailing away, taking Huckleberry Friend on a summer-long adventure down the Atlantic seaboard.

“You're one to talk. Spring break at Prince Edward Island, you forgot your toothbrush.” Despite their bickering, Joey snuggled down between Pacey's arms and the helm as Pacey deftly steered them out of the dock.

Pacey brushed a kiss against the curve of her neck. “It's a little late for you to complain about sharing my germs, Potter.”

Joey lifted an arm and ran her fingers through his hair without turning around. “I'm not complaining. But I packed an extra toothbrush, just in case.”

“And you brought a book?”

“Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.”

“Fairy tales? Aren't we a little old for that, Jo?”

“I was a cynic in my youth. You taught me romance in my old age,” Joey teased, peppering a row of kisses along his jaw. “Besides, I thought it would fit with our magic summer.”

As they cleared the port, they parted to unfurl the sails and catch the wind.

“A magic summer, huh?” Pacey asked when they were truly underway. “What makes you so sure?”

Joey leaned on the rail, eager eyes catching the first glimmer of sunlight as it cleared the horizon. “That,” she said breathlessly.

Neither said anything for untold minutes. Joey's attention was fixed by the sunrise, as the gray pre-dawn was swallowed by a fiery blaze of orange, yellow, and red. Pacey watched the sunrise, but he watched Joey more. The day would never come when he took either her beauty or her happiness for granted.

Finally satisfied, Joey turned from the rail and wrapped her arms around Pacey's neck. “That,” she said again, eyes a sparkling golden-green today. “And you.”

They sailed away in the light of the newborn sun.

finis