DISCLAIMER: South of Nowhere and its characters are the property of The N network, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a lot darker than my other ones. If it's not your thing, turn away now.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Darker Days of Us
By Aeryn Sun


Part 1

Spencer watched, wide eyed and shocked, from the doorway of the side-room of the club trying to comprehend what exactly it was she was seeing. She'd come to the club with Aiden at the last minute, desperate to get out of her house and get her mind off of Ashley. Lately she was finding herself thinking about her best friend more and more often and not in an entirely 'best friend' manner. Her thoughts were quickly heading towards the kinds of things you only saw on the channels her parents kept blocked from coming in. Things that Spencer knew were probably in those magazines that she was aware her brother Glen had hidden under his mattress. And while it was fun at times to entertain those thoughts, Spencer wasn't entirely sure where exactly that left her as far as feeling towards her best friend.

Ashley's behavior lately wasn't really helping Spencer to sort herself out any either. Since her confession on the beach that she thought that she might be gay, instead of being there to help her through it, Ashley had been growing more and more distant from her, not returning phone calls or willing to be in any room alone with her. It left Spencer feeling hurt and confused.

(I was trying to tell her that I liked her. Really like her in this totally confusing and scary way. But instead of being honest, I chickened out and now she wants nothing to do with me) she had thought while she pulled on an outfit before she left. Usually if she was going out with Ashley, she'd spend days picking just the right outfit hoping that Ashley would notice her. She hadn't realized that that was the reason why she took such care in choosing outfits when she was spending time with Ashley. At first she thought it was just her wanting to make Ashley think she was something more than some country bumpkin; it was later on that she figured out that it was because she wanted the beautiful brunette to notice her as someone attractive.

(Instead of talking to me about it, she went chasing after those stupid boys. Grrr, that annoyed me so much. But she had seemed so sweet and understanding afterwards that I thought we were ok. Now I can't even get her to talk to me unless Aiden or someone is with us. It's like she's afraid of me or something)

When she'd arrived at the club with Aiden, she'd disappointed the poor boy by refusing to dance and simply sat in the corner nursing a ginger ale. She knew that she was being unfair to the jock but couldn't bring herself out of her melancholy mood. She didn't care to dance if it was with Aiden. She wanted the chance to dance with Ashley. Even thought Spencer wasn't sure if she was gay, straight, or both, she knew that she liked Ashley. And anything else paled in comparison. She didn't even want to bother with pretending it wasn't either so she wasn't going to try. So eventually Aiden gave up and went to dance with someone else, leaving the blonde to stew in her own devices.

She was sipping her drink, cursing her cowardice and wondering if she should call her friend's cell phone when she saw a flash of familiar wavy chocolate hair. She looked closer and it was Ashley, grinding herself rather closely to some random girl on the dance floor, her face flushed and sweaty. To Spencer she simply seemed to glow as she moved instinctually with the beat. She swayed and flowed, her body pressing into the other girls tightly. Just the way Ashley was moving seemed to light a fire in Spencer's blood, making her pulse rate increase and her breathing quicken. She tried unsuccessfully to push down the white hot flare of jealousy that surged through her as she watched Ashley's dancing partner wrap her hand around Ashley's waist, caressing exposed skin in an intimate way.

(That should be my hand!) her mind screamed at her. (That should be my hair her hand is tangled in. My hand stroking her cheek. Damn it those should be my lips she's kissing!)

Nauseated by the show and what she missed out on, she tore her eyes from the dance floor and focused on her drink. She knew that if she watched, she'd only get more upset. Or, a small part of her wondered, she might go right on out there and push that other girl away so that she could dance with Ashley. So she decided to try and count the bubbles floating from the bottom to the top of the glass.

But like a moth to a flame, her eyes drifted back up moments later, searching out the girl that she knew deep down that she'd fallen for.

Ashley wasn't where she had been a moment ago and for a few seconds, Spencer wondered if she had simply imagined her best friend's appearance.

(Yay, hallucinations of Ashley making out with someone else. Great. Like I don't hate my life enough?)

But then she saw her again, out of the corner of her eye, heading with that girl off the dance floor and out a side door. The hair on the back of Spencer's neck was standing on end, her skin tingling in a strange fashion.

(Why do I feel like something's wrong? God, I must be going paranoid or something. Ashley's a big girl, she can take care of herself, and she's made that much clear. And she's made the fact that she doesn't want to be around me equally as clear.)

She sat, glaring at the door. Finally with a huff of annoyance at herself, she got up out of the booth and went towards where she had watched Ashley disappear to.

(I am not spying. I am not jealous) She told herself. (I just want to make sure she's all right)

The door was slightly open, letting Spencer peak inside. Which is where she now stood gaping in shock.

Ashley had the girl pinned to the wall, one hand pressed palm flat against the wall behind the girl's head and the other hand was somewhere under the strange girl's skirt. Spencer watched, transfixed as Ashley's arm seemed to pump in a steady rhythm where it disappeared under the fabric. Ashley's date had her head back against the wall, her blonde hair slick with sweat and clinging to her neck and face as she gasped and arched against the smaller brunette. Her arms were grasping at Ashley's back desperately and a leg was wrapped around the petite frame as Ashley moved inside her.

Spencer knew what was going on. She knew where Ashley's fingers were and what her friend was doing. Part of her was disgusted; not with the act itself but with the fact that Ashley was doing it where anyone could see, seemingly careless of being caught. Another part was jealous that it wasn't her blonde hair tangling with Ashley's brown as they kissed and pushed against each other while Ashley's arm sped up. Jealous that it wasn't her lip she was biting as she started to climax. And jealous that it wasn't her voice suddenly crying out as the orgasm slammed into her.

Upset, hurt, jealous, and acutely aware of her own arousal, Spencer backed away from the door as the two girls panted against each other. She didn't want to be seen, caught where she was, especially by Ashley herself. She started to head back to her table, her head swimming with the images of what she had witnessed and her blood pumping through her ears. The sounds that the two girls had made were still filling her ears, drowning out the loud music and other noises of the club.

Suddenly she felt claustrophobic in the club, the air so heavy and thick it seemed to be choking her. There were too many people, too many bodies surrounding her, closing in on her.

Turning away from her table, she instead headed out to the deck on the side of the building, looking out over the parking lot and part of the beach that the club overlooked from its place on the pier. She put her hands on the railing, lowered her head and tried to catch her breath while she attempted to push away the memory of what she saw.

It wasn't working. Instead she kept replaying the accidental show behind her eyes but with her in that unknown blonde's place. In her mind, she kept seeing herself against the wall, writhing against Ashley as the brunette moved inside her. She kept seeing her hips thrusting to meet each pump of Ashley's talented hands; her sweat beading on her forehead and dripping down to cover her in a light sheen. Her voice moaning and breath hitching, gasping as she sped towards release. Each time she replayed it, she saw another detail of how it would have been if it had been her.

"Oh God damn it," she whispered to herself, lifting her head to let the gentle breeze off the water ruffle her hair and hopefully cool down her temperature. She felt like she was burning up and she knew it was because she wanted Ashley; wanted to be with Ashley in that intimate way. And now, having accidentally spied Ashley in the middle of being with someone else, her desire seemed to grow. And so did her anger.

She was angry at herself for her doubts, her hedging, her over thinking of the situation. All over thinking ever seemed to bring her was unhappiness and more fear. She always thought things through, and then usually thought about thinking them through; followed by reexamining her thoughts and winding up a more confused mess than when she started. It was an annoying and useless cycle.

Now her pausing and waiting probably lost her an opportunity with Ashley. Ashley who she was also angry at. Angry that the girl pushed her away and didn't seem patient enough to wait for her to sort herself out. She was somewhat sure that her feelings for Ashley were returned by the older girl. She couldn't figure out why instead of making a play for her, Ashley was running away. That seemed odd.

(Then again, how can I expect her to come after me when she doesn't even know that I'm interested in the first place?) she wondered. (We keep giving each other mixed signals.)

She leaned in the corner of the railing, looking out over the dark waves, lost in thought.

(But what is she thinking? Having sex like that out in the open. What if it hadn't been me that caught her? What if it was a club worker or something? She could have been thrown out or arrested. The last thing she needs is to get into trouble. Or worse yet, what if someone who hated gay people caught her? God she could have gotten hurt. Why doesn't she ever think?) Shaking her head in frustration at her friend, Spencer sighed.

(And exactly who is that girl? I've never seen her before. She doesn't go to King High, I know that much. And it wasn't Kelly, thank God) she stuck her tongue out at her thought and shivered.

(Yeah, Kelly's attractive but her personality was somewhat lacking) she remembered. (No, I have no idea who that girl was. I wonder if Ashley even knew her) She shook her head.

(No, I should think better of Ashley. She's not just going to go into a club and pick up some random girl who turns out to be easy and just…do that. She wouldn't.) She couldn't help doubting her own thoughts though. She knew Ashley's reputation around school.

Everyone had warned her to not even bother with the rebellious teen, telling Spencer that she was bad news, a whore and a slut, at least according to Madison. But Spencer didn't think that was true; she still didn't. She knew that a lot of what people perceived Ashley as was a smokescreen that the brunette herself set up to hide behind. That way no one would bother to dig any deeper and maybe see the lost and scared little girl hiding underneath the false layers.

But Spencer hadn't listened to them and had seen right through the walls and sarcastic attitude, down to the real girl beneath. To the vulnerable, hurt and scared girl that sometimes gazed back at Spencer from behind beautiful whiskey shaded eyes. That was the real Ashley Davies, well hidden and concealed, but Spencer knew her. And that was the girl that she was falling, had fallen, for.

She stretched and looked back over the parking lot, movement on her left catching her attention. Even from where she stood, Spencer could tell that the staggering, stumbling and tripping person was the girl currently monopolizing her thoughts.

(Oh Ashley) she sighed again, watching Ashley try to maneuver through the rows of cars. She frowned, seeing Ashley's car several rows behind from where the brunette was currently bumping into vehicles.

(Maybe she's going home with that girl) she wondered. She scanned the parking lot looking for Ashley's dancing partner but she was no where in sight. Looking back over at her friend, she saw Ashley trip and finally fall, landing hard on her knees. The misplaced sound of Ashley giggling floated to her ears confusing her more. Realization dawned on Spencer as Ashley staggered back to her feet and turned around, finally heading in the right direction of her car.

(She's drunk! Oh for crying out loud, Ashley! What are you thinking?) She watched Ashley get closer to the SUV she was looking for. Inside, Spencer was arguing with what she wanted to do and what was the right thing.

(I should let her try and drive. It'd serve her right for her behavior…but if she were to get hurt, I'd die. Damn it)

She headed towards the nearby stairs that lead to the parking lot to catch up with Ashley before the drunk girl tried to drive herself home and ended up crashing.

(Oh this should be fun)

Ashley had arrived at the club early, wanting to lose herself in something else as fast as possible. That way she wouldn't have to think about what she was doing, the actions that she'd been taking lately or the hurt look in those beautiful soft blue eyes that she adored whenever they managed to make eye contact. Which was rarely.

She had been spending the last few long terrible days hiding from Spencer; making sure that she was never alone with the gentle blonde and avoiding most of the phone calls that Spencer made in her efforts to talk to her. It wasn't that Ashley didn't want to talk to Spencer or be around her; it was that she was afraid of what she'd say or accidentally do if faced with her.

She liked Spencer, a lot. Probably more than she'd ever liked someone before. And that scared her. No one had ever breached her walls and defenses or gotten so close to her, especially not as fast as Spencer had managed to. It seemed almost like it was effortless for the Ohio transplant to plow right through years of careful crafting of her image and see right through it at the person buried beneath. It was unnerving.

She thought her heart was going to either stop entirely or beat its way out of her chest at Spencer's beachside confession of thinking that she might be gay. As much as Ashley already liked Spencer and would have loved nothing more than a chance to be with her in a more substantial way, she hadn't been ready for that look of open admiration and want that shone so brightly in the blonde's eyes. Ashley knew what the subtle clues and hidden meanings in the things Spencer did and said meant. She knew that there was a strong possibility that that sweet girl liked her in particular. And that possibility, dangling right there in front of Ashley, threw her off her groove.

She'd been resigned to just being Spencer's friend; it never turns out well when you crush on a straight girl, especially one who came from a background as religious as Spencer's. So Ashley was prepared to simply steal and cherish as many surreptitious touches and knowing glances as she could. It would have to be enough since there was no chance that Spencer was gay, let alone that she'd be interested in someone with a reputation like Ashley's. A mostly fabricated reputation sure, but one that was the direct opposite of a sweet and innocent girl like Spencer.

So when Spencer had made her little confession, obviously hinting at more even as it carried a request for guidance, Ashley turned tail and ran. There was no way that it was for real or that she'd ever be good enough for Spencer so she ran to protect the both of them. And she didn't want to push the blonde or influence the confused girl in any way. Part of her hoped that if they ever did manage to talk it out and figure out where they stood, and that place was together, that Spencer would be able to stand strongly in the face of her parents and declare that it wasn't Ashley's influence that caused it; that she'd made her decision completely independently of her and therefore being gay couldn't in anyway be 'blamed' on Ashley herself. And then Ashley would know that being with her was really Spencer's decision and not something she pressured the girl into.

So she drank…and drank some more, hoping to chase the images and memories of Spencer Carlin from her mind. Empty shot glasses were quickly refilled, seemingly of their own accord. And Ashley continued to down them. Her head was swimming with colors and noise when there was a tap on her shoulder.

Turning, she saw some blonde girl standing there, asking her to dance with come-hither eyes and a knowing expression. Ashley sighed.

(She's na Spencer.) she knew. (But, Spencer's na here an' I c'n never have Spencer. I'm not gonna put my life on hold) she grasped the girl's hand and let herself be led to the dance floor.

They danced together, grinding and thrusting in ways that the back of Ashley's mind, the still sober part, told her was increasingly indecent. But she didn't care. She couldn't have Spencer, couldn't be with Spencer so she was going to make the most of whatever she could get. Besides, if she tried hard enough, maybe she could lose enough of herself so that the pain, fear, and hurt that were constantly choking her would fade into nothingness along with her. Maybe with enough effort, she could stop being herself for a few scant moments and simply exist.

So when the girl pulled her into the bathroom, flashing a bag of familiar powder and a handful of equally friendly pills, Ashley didn't think twice. It was what she knew, what she was good at and what was expected of her. It wasn't who she was when she was with Spencer; no, that was the real Ashley. But 'the real Ashley' wasn't strong enough to deal with the mess that had become her life. So the 'image Ashley' did it for her, kept her hidden and safe. And behind all the layers and haze she was settling herself into, the real Ashley wept for what she was becoming. And what she'd already lost.

She did whatever was handed to her with gusto. Somewhere in that bag was her salvation, her freedom from thoughts of Spencer and the reminders of what she wasn't and the things she didn't deserve to have. Somewhere under the burning sensation and the speeding heart rate was the quiet, the peace she was looking for. She was determined to find it.

After a while, the room wasn't spinning. Ashley could barely even see the room anymore. Everything was fuzzy, as if she was seeing it through a layer of gauze. And her body felt like it was both wrapped in that soft gaze and then at another moment, ultra sensitive to even the slightest touch. Even the air moving around her seemed to caress and tease her flesh, giving her goose bumps and making her shiver.

They danced and kissed although at that point, Ashley wasn't even sure she could hear the music anymore. She just let her body move with the flow that she could feel racing through her veins, leading her wherever it went.

The blonde dancing opposite her kissed her neck and let her hand slip up under her shirt, cupping her breast. Ashley looked into the eyes of the other girl, knowing what she wanted. Not really caring what she did anymore, she let herself be led to some side washroom off of the dance floor. The girl…

(God, I don' 'ven know 'er name) Ashley realized absently. Not that she wanted to know her name. That would make her an actual real person and Ashley didn't want that. She didn't want to see the girl as anything other than a thing, a fill in, substitute for Spencer. In her drug and alcohol filled fog, Ashley could almost pretend it was Spencer now pinned between her and the wall; that it was Spencer's voice begging to be fucked.

(Spen wud never say it tha way) she decided. Still if she ignored the foul language and the longer hair, it was Spencer. So in her mind, it was Spencer whose leg was wrapped around her waist and Spencer's core that she was thrusting into without any pretense of gentleness. To Ashley, it was Spencer's hips meeting each stroke of her hand and it was her wetness coating her fingers, not some stranger that had picked her up at the bar.

'Spencer' dug her fingernails into her back, raking across the highly sensitive flesh and making Ashley hiss. Ashley sped up, trying to get the girl she loved to climax, to give her that special, outstanding moment. She wanted Spencer to enjoy what she was doing.

When the girl came, Ashley was shaken from her fantasy by the higher pitch voice.

(Tha's na Spencer) she thought dejectedly, remembering where she was. She withdrew her fingers from the girl and separated from her, disgusted with herself. The girl leaned against the wall as Ashley backed up a few steps, trying to keep her balance as she did so. Her skin was on fire and her head spinning again.

She ran some cold water and splashed her face, taking several minutes to wash her hands. The girl walked up behind her and cupped her breasts from behind, causing a shudder of revulsion to rocket through Ashley.

"I'm not in the mood," she mumbled, looking at the girl through their reflection. The blonde frowned and pinched Ashley's nipples.

"Said 'no', bitch," Ashley snapped, pushing the offended hands away. The girl let them drop, shooting a dirty look at Ashley in the mirror.

"Just wanted to pay you back, baby," she purred. Ashley rolled her eyes.

"Fuck off, 'm na interested," she repeated.

"Fucking tease," the girl spat. Ashley spun to face her, an eyebrow raised.

"'Tease'? Bitch, you got wha' you want'd. You go' fucked. Wha' th' hell you complainin' 'bout?" The girl seemed to think this over before nodding.

"All right, you're right. If you change your mind and want a mind-blowing time, call me," she said quasi-seductively, handing Ashley a card. "And I'll blow more than just your mind, baby." She kissed Ashley one more time, ignoring the fact that the brunette didn't reciprocate the action and then left.

Ashley looked down at the card for a few moments before crumpling it and tossing it somewhere in the vicinity of the trash. She then glared at herself in the mirror.

(Who are you?) she wondered, not even knowing who that girl in the mirror staring back at her was anymore. She felt so lost. So empty. She washed her hands again. She then ran her wet hand across the mirror, blurring her image. She didn't want to see what a mess she was anymore.

She staggered out of the back room, fully feeling the effects of the alcohol and substances that she'd imbibed. She knew that she was in no condition to drive but then realized that she didn't care what happened to her anyway. But she didn't want to go home yet, so she headed back to the bar where the bartender set her up again this time with her friend Jose.

After a few more shots, Ashley was on automatic pilot; she finally reached that point where deep thought was impossible. A few people made passes at her, both male and female but she wasn't interested. If she'd been sober, she would have been both proud and shocked at her behavior. She was turning down people who wanted her, people giving her attention. But it wasn't their attention she wanted. Even without the ability to think clearly, she knew that what she wanted she wouldn't be able to find in that club.

Somehow she managed to still have her purse and rooted around in it for her keys before heading towards the door. The room kept tilting and making her have to scramble to keep her balance. She thought it was rather rude of the room to do that without warning.

She pulled on the door repeatedly, getting frustrated when it wouldn't open until she noticed the blurry sign that said 'push'. Laughing at herself, rather loudly although she was unaware of it, she gave the door a push and stumbled out into the parking lot. She walked through the lot, looking for her car.

(Fuck, where'd I park?) she wondered, slamming into the side mirror of one car hard enough to bruise. (I know I par'd here. Or else, how I git here?) She laughed to herself at nothing really in particular. She just found everything amusing.

(One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor! AHAHAHAHA) She finally lost her balance entirely and crashed to her knees. She giggled wildly at the swirling colored lights swimming in her vision. They looked like butterflies and flowers dancing around.


After a few moments of fumbling she managed to get to her feet, turning around to look for her car in the other direction. She weaved in between the cars and bumped into a few, laughing hysterically when the car alarm went off.

She spotted her car finally and stopped, blinking at the mirage standing next to it.

(Heh, looks like Spencer…it's prolly jus' th' girl from earlier. Maybe she has more X)

Getting closer to the figure, she saw that it really did look more like Spencer than that other girl. Right down to the disapproving expression on her face.

"Hiya!" she greeted her phantom cheerfully. The phantom sighed.

"Oh Ash…"

Ashley stopped a few feet away, looking at the figure who had just spoken in confusion.

(Cin 'lusions speak? Waaaaaaaaaaaait, tha can' act'ally be Spencer, cin it?)

She walked up closer and poked the girl in the collarbone, letting out a surprised yelp when she connected with her friend's soft flesh.

"Yer real?" she gasped. Spencer nodded.

"Yes, Ashley, I'm real. God, what have you done to yourself?" she asked, worried and concerned. Ashley was swaying on her feet, still trying to process the fact that it was really Spencer standing there. A few moments passed before she actually understood Spencer's words and she frowned.

"Ain't dun nuthin' t' mysel'," she protested. "Jus' havin' lil' fun, s'all."

"You are so drunk you can barely speak English," Spencer said sadly. Ashley shrugged.

"Whatever," she muttered. She was happy to see her friend and even happier that it turned out to actually be Spencer but the last thing Ashley was interested in was a lecture. She walked over to her car door and tried to put her keys in the door with little luck. She jumped when a warm hand covered her own and took her keys. She looked up at Spencer, confused.

"Wha' th' fuck?" she demanded. Spencer shook her head.

"There's no way that I'm letting you drive in this condition," the blonde informed her. Ashley pouted.

"'m fine!" she insisted, even as she started to fall backwards and Spencer had to dive to catch her.

"No, you're not," the younger girl retorted. "Let me take you home and put you to bed." Ashley wiggled her eyebrows.

"OOOOOO," she cooed. Spencer rolled her eyes.

"So not happening, Davies," she said sarcastically. (At least not now, not like this)

"Yeah, I figured," Ashley sighed. She let Spencer help her into the passenger side and fumbled to buckle her seatbelt with numb fingers. Spencer leaned over to do it for her, giving Ashley a good view down her shirt, much to the enjoyment of the brunette. She inhaled deeply, drinking in Spencer's scent and letting it envelop her.

As she went to stand back up and shut the door, Spencer was startled by the feel of Ashley's lips against her own.

(She's kissing me! Holy!)

However much Spencer wanted to kiss Ashley, she knew that the older girl was in no condition to realize what she was doing. She pulled away, reluctantly.

"Ashley, no," she said firmly. She licked her lips, savoring the tingling sensation currently lingering there. What Spencer didn't like was the thick flavor of alcohol that Ashley had transferred into her mouth. It reminded her of the night she drank Ashley's flask and vomited on the living room couch. Even now, she had to fight down a gag.

Ashley pouted from her seat and folded her arms across her chest but stayed silent. Spencer closed the door, taking a moment to lean her forehead against the glass and take a deep breath before she went around to the driver's side. She thanked God that she had her learner's permit even though technically she shouldn't be driving Ashley's car but at least she knew how to drive.

"Let's get you home, Ashley," she said as she started the car.

"Don' wanna go home," Ashley moped.

"Then where would you like to go?" Spencer asked, deciding to entertain her inebriated friend.

"Wherever ya take me," the brunette smiled brightly at her, her glazed eyes shining. Spencer laughed.

"All right then home you go," she declared, making Ashley huff and pout again. If it wasn't for her present condition, Spencer would find her adorably cute.

"Fine," she sulked. "No body home der anyway. Never any body home…" Spencer glanced at her friend as she drove, careful to keep her eyes focused on the road. Ashley sounded so lonely just then that Spencer felt her heart break.

The rest of the ride was quiet and Spencer wasn't surprised to see Ashley dozing in the passenger seat as she pulled into the driveway. She shut off the car and got out, going around to wake Ashley and help her into the house.

"Come on, Ash, you're home," she said softly. Ashley snorted and raised her head from where it was lulled. She let herself be led into the house and up the stairs, leaning on Spencer heavily.

"You smell so good," she murmured as Spencer helped her onto the bed. Spencer looked at her and smiled.

"Thanks. You smell like alcohol," she joked.

"I like when you touch me," Ashley whispered, leaning into where Spencer's hand was resting on her waist. Spencer felt herself tense and removed her hand. Sad doe like eyes looked at her.

"You don' like touchin' me?" she asked sadly. Spencer tilted her head.

"Ashley, you're drunk," she pointed out. She took a closer look at Ashley now that they were in proper lighting and felt her heart sink.

Ashley's eyes were dilated, the usual warm chocolate color nearly totally hidden by wide rounded pupils. She was covered in a light sheen of sweat and shivering. Spencer put her hand to Ashley's forehead, feeling the abnormally warm skin.

"Oh, Ashley, what did you take?" Spencer wondered, realizing that Ashley wasn't simply drunk. Her best friend was also high. Ashley scowled.

"Wha' do you care?" she barked angrily. Spencer shook her head.

"You know I do," she responded a little upset. She watched Ashley's jaw clench and unclench unconsciously.

(Let's see if I can remember that assembly on drugs we had last year in Ohio. Dilated pupils is most drugs, like cocaine and stuff. The sweating and high temperature, along with the jaw thing…crap ecstasy. That explains her overly touchy feely behavior. There's probably more too. Oh what were you thinking Ashley?)

"Stay here while I go get you some water," she sighed, standing up. She knew that she really didn't have to worry about Ashley trying to walk around; Spencer doubted that the brunette could even stand.

She returned a few minutes later to find Ashley had stripped off some of her clothes and was lying on her bed in her bra and panties. Rolling her eyes at the entire situation, Spencer approached the bed, knowing that glassy hooded brown eyes were watching her.

"Here's a few bottles of water and I managed to find a few tootsie roll pops in the candy jar in the kitchen," she put the water on the table next to the bed and unwrapped a lollipop (strawberry, Ashley's favorite) which she handed to the older girl. Ashley sniffed the candy happily.

"Mmmmm candy," she popped it in her mouth after a few aborted tries to get it wide enough.

(Just in time for lockjaw) Spencer thought sadly.

"Drink," she ordered, opening the cap of a bottle and handing it to Ashley. Ashley gulped the water greedily, right past the pop in her mouth. "Easy, don't choke."

Finished drinking, Ashley handed the bottle back and then cuddled up to Spencer's back.

"Mmmm, you're warm," she sighed. Spencer smirked.

"Again, thanks," she said, somewhat at a loss as to what to do as Ashley hugged and moved around her body, randomly embracing her.

"You're skin is so soft," Ashley breathed in wonder, stroking the side of Spencer's face.

"I would enjoy this so much more if you weren't drunk and high and actually remembered it in the morning," she said honestly. "Come on, let's get you into pajamas and into bed." Ashley shook her head.

"No! Too hot!" she protested, shivering as she hugged Spencer's back. The stick from the tootsie roll pop jabbed Spencer painfully in the neck.

"Ow, watch it," she grumbled. "Fine, sleep in your underwear but get under the covers."

"'m na' tired," Ashley pointed out.

(Oh this is so much fun) Spencer thought sarcastically.

"All right, finish your pop and then you are going to bed, understand?" Ashley looked at her quizzically.

"When did you 'come so bossy? Bossy bossy bossy. Yer poopie when yer bossy." Spencer let herself laugh at her best friend's behavior.

"And you act like a sugared up four year old when you're drunk and high," she returned. She then sighed again. "Ashley, why have you done this?" Now sitting on the floor looking up at the blonde, Ashley crinkled her nose and sucked on the pop.

"Do wha'?" she slurred and then giggled. "Do wop shabbiddy ta bang ta bang!" Spencer winced.

"OK, hon, I thought you could sing," she teased making Ashley pout.

"I cin sing! I cin sing really well! My dad's a rock star, y'know," Ashley proclaimed. Spencer nodded.

"Yes, I know," she agreed. She eyed her drugged friend carefully. "Seriously, why did you do this? Why drink and drug yourself like the way you have?" She knew that it was slightly unfair to ask this when Ashley was in an altered state like she was and she also knew that there was a good chance that the brunette's answer wouldn't make sense anyway even if she did reply. But she didn't see any other opportunity to get the truth from Ashley any time soon.

Ashley flopped down onto her back and stared at the ceiling, watching her vision swim in and out. Sadly, in her opinion, conscious thought was creeping back into her mind and she didn't want that.

She shrugged.

"'s'fun," she slurred. In reality, it was her escape from the weight of her reality pressing down and suffocating her. And it really wasn't that much fun. Sure the drugs and alcohol chased away her demons for a while, if she was lucky it lasted until she passed out and she didn't have to deal with the thoughts and impulses that ran through her head until she regained consciousness. And then when she did wake up again, she could just repeat the cycle and hope to never have a moment of clarity outside the bubble created by those substances.

That was the reality of Ashley's existence until about a month before the arrival of Spencer Carlin. Up until that month where she spent a nice vacation in rehab, although everyone else thought she had mono. Up until that moment where she was found face down on the beach, water licking at her ankles as the tide rolled back in, barely breathing from a near overdose of something or other, even Ashley didn't recall the specifics. All she knew was that she had been beyond pissed that that early morning beach comber had even found her. Or she had been angry to survive to continue staggering through her sorry excuse for a life, trying to fool everyone into a false sense of normalcy that is until she met Spencer.

Spencer seemed to Ashley like a reason to wake up in the morning. She hadn't had one in so long that it had taken her several weeks to figure out why the task of rolling out of bed each day didn't seem like such a useless waste anymore. She wasn't sure for a while why she was willingly attending school or interacting with people until she realized that she was spending her time alone looking forward to seeing the blonde again, and that in order to see Spencer again, she had to wake up and function on a daily basis.

It didn't seem like such a chore to do so when she knew that her reward was that beautiful face and sparkling smile. Even if she was only ever a friend, Ashley knew that Spencer would be true to her, that Spencer really cared. But lately it was becoming more and more apparent that Spencer did a lot more than simply care. And that truth was something that Ashley knew she couldn't face.

There were too many demons, too much past chasing after the small brunette to ever let her have a moment's peace or an opportunity to try with Spencer. Whether it was Ashley creating the block between them herself or the harsh reality of the truth standing there, she wasn't sure and she didn't want to find out.

She didn't want to hurt Spencer, break her and destroy the loving and innocent girl with her darkness that she knew would consume Spencer like fire if she wandered too close. She didn't want to be responsible for damaging such a pure clean soul with her foul and polluted one. It wasn't fair to Spencer.

As far as Ashley was concerned, she'd done nothing in her life worth anything and certainly nothing to warrant a reward like Spencer. She knew that she was skating a thin line just maintaining the girl's friendship; she knew that she was so far beneath the Ohio native that she was barely visible beyond the dust and dirt that she constantly blinked away when no one was looking; the mud and soil that was so ingrained in her that she was surprised that she didn't sully everything she touched.

Reverse Midas touch, everything gold turned to shit whenever Ashley touched it. She knew that, had seen it enough to know that it couldn't all be coincidence. First it was her parents; she knew that they'd been happy at one point. Then she came along and fucked all that up. Her father always told her it wasn't her fault that it was bound to happen anyway given their personalities and lifestyles but Ashley didn't see it that way. She didn't at age eight and she still didn't at seventeen. She knew that it had been her fault.

The cycle continued into her teens, moving from family to friends. The list of lives that she felt she ruined or put a huge black mark on was as long as her arm, if not longer. Aiden, Madison, Maggie, Kelly…others whose names and faces were faded with the passage of time. All good people until they were twisted and perverted by her malevolence and wickedness.

She didn't want to spread her cancer to Spencer. No she wanted to make sure that the beautiful blonde stayed pure, white, and untouched, at least by her unclean hands.

"Doesn't look like fun," Spencer mumbled, startling the brunette from her dark musings. She had almost forgotten that that blonde was there, lost as she was in the hazy maze of interwoven thoughts and memories bouncing around her head.

"Is if ya do it right," she muttered back, pulling herself to her feet using her nightstand and then staggered a few steps before catching herself on her bureau. Warm arms were suddenly holding her as her legs gave up the battle to support her. Ashley allowed herself a moment of enjoyment there in Spencer's arms, absorbing the warmth and safety that they offered and drinking in the scent of the girl she cared so much for.

"I think you need to get some sleep," Spencer said sadly. She was upset that even altered Ashley couldn't be honest with her. She was beginning to understand that something was haunting the beautiful brunette and all she wanted to do for Ashley was hold her and chase away all the fears and demons that seemed to be clawing at the fragile girl.

Spencer had no illusions about who Ashley was; she knew that the older girl's past was checkered at best, a swirl of dark water and vicious undertow at worst. And she could see that dangerous tide beginning to overcome her friend, pulling her under and threatening to drown her completely. Spencer didn't want that; she didn't want to lose the girl she loved to those invisible phantoms. She wanted to protect Ashley from it all, whatever it was.

But Ashley wouldn't let her in; wouldn't share her pain and fear. Instead, the mercurial teen shut everyone, even Spencer out and let herself be swallowed by her inner demons. Spencer wasn't sure anymore if she would be able to reach Ashley in time.

And that scared her more than anything.

Spencer woke the next morning to the feel of Ashley trembling in the bed next to her. She'd let herself fall asleep once she was sure that the inebriated brunette was all right and sound asleep. She'd stayed after calling her father to explain that she wouldn't be home but that she was safe. He'd been so wonderfully understanding that Spencer was honest with him over why Ashley needed her. And he still didn't judge Ashley or think bad about her, only wanting her to be safe and healthy, understanding that Spencer didn't want Ashley to get sick in the night while she was alone to possibly die because of it.

He'd told her to call if she needed anything and he'd be right there for her and Ashley. Sometimes Spencer wondered how to adults like her parents, directly opposite in nearly every way, had ever found each other in the first place. She knew that her mother would have passed judgment on the drunken brunette and deemed her unworthy of attention or worry, leaving her to fend for herself. For someone who immersed herself in the word of the Lord, Paula was very unloving towards those she thought unfit.

So Spencer had watched Ashley sleep until well into the morning before she let herself drift off. Now she could feel tremors rocketing through the small frame beside her.

"Ashley?" she called quietly. She saw the other girl jump at the sound of her voice. She rolled over and looked at Spencer in the face.

"Shit, you're really here?" she rasped, her voice hoarse from her activities the night before. Alcohol always seemed to leave her throat raw the next day, not that that stopped her from drinking it. Somewhere in the back of her mind she kind of hoped that there would be no 'next day' for her to have to worry about suffering through. Especially lately given her realization that she would never be good enough for Spencer.

"Of course I'm really here," Spencer smiled. "Did you think you imagined everything?" Ashley sighed.

"Well, I could hope," she muttered, rolling away and trying to get up out of the bed. Honestly when she noticed that she wasn't alone in the bed, she had wondered what sort of filth she had brought home and was lying still in hopes that her night conquest would simply leave. She didn't remember much from the night before, only bits and pieces but enough to disgust herself with what she'd done and was becoming.

Now that she knew that it was Spencer lying beside her, she wasn't sure which she preferred; to have it be some stranger who she'd never have to, want to, or get to see ever again or for it to be the one person that made her feel safe and worth something.

She never wanted Spencer to see her at this dangerous low point; to know the truth of her lack of coping mechanisms and how easily she fell prey to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. But now it was too late to hide it from the gentle blonde. And the fact that Spencer had seen the whole thing and had stayed the night to watch over her, made Ashley hate herself even more than she had a few hours prior.

Spencer frowned, the hurt caused by Ashley's careless words making her feel physically ill.

"I'm glad you're OK, Ashley. I'll just go home now," she said softly, the tone of rejection and pain clear in her husky voice. Ashley sighed again.

"Spencer, I…" she stopped, unsure what to say. She wanted to say so much but the words got stuck in her throat and cut off her air. Fear of Spencer's rejection, fear of ruining the one good thing in her life stole away her words and left her opening and closing her mouth like a fish on dry land. After a few tries, she gave up and looked away, unable to continue looking at the hurt eyes behind the caring expression on Spencer's face.

"Ash, are you going to be OK?" Spencer asked. She'd seen the moment of vulnerability on Ashley's face a second ago; saw the look of need mixed with haunted fear drift across red rimmed chocolate eyes. It was another brief glimpse at the real girl under all the layers of cockiness, sarcasm, and bravado. It was brief, but very telling to Spencer.

"I'm hung over as hell, but I'll be fine," Ashley tossed back flippantly. Spencer shook her head.

"That wasn't what I meant," she said quietly. Ashley sighed. She knew exactly what the blonde had been saying; Spencer was watching her self-destruct and that wasn't fair to the poor girl. She was on the road to self-annihilation and it wasn't right to drag Spencer down the dark slippery slope along with her. If she did that, she'd only be proving herself right in the first place about destroying the innocent girl. Putting her face in her hands, Ashley tried to figure out what to do next.

"I think it's better if you leave, Spencer," she said, not lifting her head from her hands. She felt Spencer's hand rest on her shoulder and could have sworn that it was burning her.

"Is that really what you want, Ashley?" Spencer wondered softly. Ashley wanted to scream 'NO' and 'please don't ever leave me' but her pride blocked her from telling the truth.

"What I want…really doesn't mean a damn thing anymore, Spence. It never did," she retorted sourly. Spencer frowned, brushing her thumb over the nape of Ashley's neck.

"Ashley, it does matter…at least to me, it does," she protested gently. She wanted to reach through the walls that Ashley had built around herself and just hold her; to let the wounded brunette feel safe enough then to let down her guard and relax. Spencer wondered sometimes when the last time Ashley felt at peace or relaxed was. She knew that not even in sleep was Ashley free from whatever was chasing her. Spencer doubted that Ashley had felt free or relaxed or any sort of peace any time recently. At least not in the time she had known her.

Ashley shook her head.

"You don't get it, Spence," she sighed. "The last person that it should matter to is you." She stood up and pulled herself away from the blonde's touch; the simplicity of that sensation wreaking havoc with her equilibrium and creating small cracks in her barriers. Spencer stayed on the bed, watching the conflicting body language of the girl in front of her, her heart aching with sympathy for the pain that she knew Ashley harbored.

"I think I may be the only one it does matter to, Ashley," she said quietly, sadness lacing every word. "It's obvious that it doesn't to you."

Ashley wrapped her arms around her waist partially to protect herself from the truth she heard coming from Spencer. Hot tears prickled at the back of her eyes, threatening to spill not only salt but also her secrets for Spencer to see. And as much as she trusted Spencer, as much as she wanted Spencer and to be able to just sink into those warm arms, to let the younger girl cradle her and dry the tears that would inevitably fall, she couldn't justify it.

She didn't want her demons to get their claws into Spencer. They'd already claimed her; ripped her to shreds and tossed the pieces into the wind haphazardly. It left her feeling tired and pathetic. She was done fighting the indomitable swell that was speeding towards her, towering high and blocking her sun. But she wasn't going to let it pull Spencer under along with her. And if she let Spencer too close, that was exactly what would happen. Ashley didn't want Spencer to drown along with her in the dark waters that held her personal ghosts. Spencer deserved better.

"I'm gonna go grab a shower," she said hastily, trying to keep her voice from betraying exactly how close Spencer's words had hit. "Thanks for not letting me drive last night, by the way." She walked away, leaving Spencer frowning on the bed, unable to do more than watch. Once the bathroom door was closed, hiding Ashley from Spencer's view, the blonde shook her head in defeat.

"Oh, Ashley, I'm losing you," she whispered to herself. "And I don't know what to do to stop it."

Ashley turned the water on as hot as she could stand it before she climbed in and let the boiling water beat over her skin relentlessly. She ignored the flash of the rising burn as her normally tan skin started to turn red, instead opting to turn the water up hotter, hoping to scald away the dirty, foul feeling that filled her.

Maybe if the water was hot enough, maybe if she scrubbed hard enough she could wash away the feelings of worthlessness and insignificance that threatened to suffocate her. Maybe along with the dirt of the day, those feelings that left her hanging on to her sanity with bloody finger nails would be left swirling the drain in the floor. And maybe, after she shed the skin that trapped her in the vicious cycle of self-loathing and hollowness, she could stand tall in new shiny pink skin. Maybe then she'd be clean enough to feel worthy of Spencer.

She shivered despite the high temperature of the water, her body seeking to comfort itself after her night of debasement and abuse. She wondered vaguely, why she did these things to herself, pumped her young body full of toxins and chemicals in an effort to escape. There were quicker ways to find her release from the darkness that wouldn't take as long or involve as much effort. The right combination of pills, the right cut of a blade…image after image of possibility flashed in front of her eyes in a series of progressively more morbid pictures. It was the same lost and disconnected feeling that had haunted her every waking hour back before Spencer had entered her life. Back before the shining bright smile of the Ohio native brought back the sun to Ashley's life.

Now she seemed to be losing that guiding light; not because Spencer wasn't there but because Ashley herself was turning away from her. Instead of reaching out to the sanctuary that she could see being offered in the honest blue eyes of her best friend, she was closing the door and shutting the younger girl out of any hope of reaching the tattered remains of her heart. A heart that she knew already belonged to the blonde but Ashley herself felt wasn't worth anything anymore. She didn't want to give Spencer such a worthless empty thing.

She slid to the floor, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them, curling into a tiny ball and ducking her head down. She started to rock back and forth under the blistering spray, letting her tears fall to join the water running in rivulets around her. Both were hot and stung where they hit flesh but Ashley didn't notice anymore. She knew that she as too far gone now to feel anything anymore.

Spencer sighed and got ready to leave, not knowing what else she could do to reach through to Ashley. Part of her worried about leaving the unstable brunette alone for fear that Ashley would be gone permanently by the next day. If that happened the guilt that she'd left Ashley would eat her alive, sending her to join Ashley not that long after, of that she was sure. The other part of her insisted that she not crowd the wounded girl and give her time and space to regain her balance. And an angry phone call from her mother on her cell also told Spencer that if she wanted to be able to be there for Ashley if she were needed and not grounded until the end of time she had best go home and check in with the domineering woman.

She found a scrap of paper and wrote Ashley a quick note, hoping that her carefully thought out words would be enough to break through the walls of despair that were surrounding Ashley and make Ashley see the truth of what was right in front of her.

Biting her lip in worry, Spencer left the note where she knew Ashley would see it and went downstairs at the honk of her mother's horn. She glanced behind her one last time before opening the door to leave, hoping that she wasn't making the biggest mistake of her young life.

My scars are yours today

Long after the water had run cold, Ashley finally uncurled herself from her protective stance and got out of the shower, toweling off and then staring at herself in the mirror. Even after a long shower, all she could see were the imperfections, the perceived flaws and invisible dirt that marred her appearance. Anyone else would see a beautiful young woman full of possibility just starting her life. But all Ashley saw was a liar, a cheat, a whore and an empty shell of someone who maybe had mattered once but no longer did. Someone who was just taking up precious space and people's time.

She stared into her own dark eyes, seeing the sinister gloom swirling in those pools, knowing that it was simply a matter of willpower that was keeping that evil at bay. That if she should slip or relax for even a split second, it would escape and destroy everything in its path before she could even attempt to stop it, if she even tried to. And its first victim would be Spencer Carlin.

She glared at the tan girl looking back at her, hating the person she saw and wanting to destroy her. Her eyes were drawn to the razor blade on the back of the sink, the simplicity of her choice obnoxiously clear. She giggled, a low sad sound as she picked up the plastic and metal tool, turning it over in her hand, examining it from all angles. One cut, long and clean and it would all be over. No more hatred, no more empty chasm where her heart should be, no more pretending to be something, someone she wasn't. One flick of her wrist and there would be no more guilt roaring in her ears, screaming obscenities at her about what a piece of shit she was. One small movement and that was it. Red would drip into the sink and she could close her eyes safe in the knowledge that she wouldn't hurt anymore, couldn't hurt anyone else again.

Couldn't hurt Spencer.

She popped the protective cover from the edge of the blade, watching the light of the bathroom glint off the silver. She moved it around, almost able to see her reflection in its surface. She pressed it against the red and wet surface of her wrist, taking a deep breath to steal herself from the pain she knew was about to follow. But it would be worth it; a little bit of pain and then there'd be no more.

"Ashley, please don't," a soft voice pleaded from behind her. Ashley's hand began to shake. Tears dripped down her face, falling into the sink and disappearing down the drain.

"I have to…" she whispered, voice thick with fear, guilt and remorse. "You don't understand." She looked at the beautiful face reflected back at her in the mirror, blue eyes bright with unshed tears.

"No, you don't. You only think you do because you're scared. Please, Ashley, don't," Spencer repeated, her voice still calm and full of understanding.

The razor clattered to the floor, followed by Ashley as she collapsed in tears, harsh sobs ripping from her throat.

"Spencer, I'm sorry…so sorry," she sobbed, wishing that the blonde were really there to hold her and chase away the demons that were tearing at her. The fact that her mind showed her a vision of Spencer to stop her from committing suicide wasn't lost on Ashley. The disappointment that it might cause the blue eyed blonde if she went through with it was the only thing that stopped Ashley from running the sharp blade over her soft skin.

She curled up on the floor of the bathroom, ignoring the cold tile on her overheated skin, closing her eyes in hopes of stopping the tears and shutting out the loud reality screaming at her. She just wanted to close her eyes and fade away.

Spencer redialed Ashley's cell, worry that something had indeed happened to the other girl since she left her creeping up and giving her chills. She'd called the familiar number around a dozen times since she'd returned home, after a tense ride in the car with her judgmental mother. There was nothing that Spencer could say that would please that woman so the blonde teen had decided not to even try.

Listening to Ashley's voice on her voicemail as the phone kicked over again did nothing to relieve the compressing anxiety that was swelling in her chest and giving her a rather intense case of heartburn. She knew something was horribly wrong; she didn't know how she knew but she did. It was the same prickly uncomfortable feeling she'd had when she saw that strange girl leading Ashley off the dance floor. It was thick, it was real and it scared her.

She got up from her bed and walked to her window, the one that Ashley had stood beneath that morning that they skipped and went to the beach,

(The beginning of the end) Spencer sighed, chewing on her thumb as she thought. (I loved spending the day with her and finally being able to be honest with her about how I was feeling. But if I'd known that I was gonna lose her by doing that, I would have kept my big mouth shut)

She let out a frustrated growl and flopped down in her desk chair, turning on her laptop to check her mail. She sorted through the junk and porn mail.

(Thanks Glen) she snorted as she deleted a few interestingly phrased emails and then surfed to a few sites before she grew bored and stared at the screen. She hated that she always thought of something to look up on the internet only to forget what it was when she got there. Deciding to amuse herself, she called up Google and then typed in Ashley's name.

Aside from a few sites for Ashley's father, Danger Davies, nothing of any interest popped up. Shaking her head, Spencer typed in the symptoms that Ashley had suffered from the night before so that she could know what her friend was damaging herself with.

(Cocaine…ecstasy, ketamine? Christ Ashley, what where you thinking? Meth too? I bet whatever she took was a combo of all that. And enough alcohol to kill an elephant.)

"What are you running from, Ashley?" she wondered out loud to herself. She knew that it was a good thing she saw Ashley when she did. She didn't want to think about the damage Ashley could have done to herself and others if she'd been allowed to drive in such a state. It turned Spencer's stomach to think about, further adding to the nausea and heartburn.

"Are you running so hard from…me?" she bit her lip, heartbroken to think that it was herself that was chasing Ashley into such a dark place. She only wanted to hold and love Ashley. The more she saw of Ashley's inner darkness, the more she realized that her caring for her friend was indeed the one thing she hadn't wanted to face; she was falling in love with Ashley. While she had watched Ashley sleep the night before, battling demons even in her sleep, Spencer was overcome with emotions; fear of losing Ashley, love for her, fear of her family's reaction to her being…gay. All of it and more had bounced around her head as Ashley was curled up on her side and slept on unaware.

"I only want to help you, Ashley," Spencer whispered into the silence of her room. "Why won't you let me?"

Ashley swallowed the last drop of the vodka in her glass and shivered, the burn of the alcohol traveling down her throat to settle rather uncomfortably in her stomach. Not a good breakfast, she knew, but she also knew that the best cure for one of her headaches was more alcohol. And the handful of her mother's Oxycontin that the vodka had chased down her throat wouldn't hurt either.

She didn't want to think about the letter tucked into her pocket, scribbled on the back of a photo of her and Spencer. Didn't want to hear the blonde's gentle voice reciting the words that were written in purple ink in familiar writing. If she didn't think about it, it wasn't there.

She grabbed her keys and headed out the door with no clear idea where she was going. But driving around the city endlessly sounded a hell of a lot better than sitting in that empty cavernous house alone.

(Alone, just like I always am…just like I'll always be. God my life is so fucking pathetic)

She pulled out of the driveway and started driving, smiling to herself as the calm warm fuzzy feeling of the Oxy finally started flowing through her veins, taking the edge off of everything else. Her headache faded under the strong pull of the drug, as did the pain of her loneliness and it stopped the thunder of her dark thoughts from filling her mind. For awhile, she simply existed.

This was what she missed; she missed the warmth that drugs like Oxy granted her; the body buzz of heroin that blocked everything from bothering her. While she enjoyed the way things like Special K and X made her feel, she enjoyed the detachment that the harder drugs afforded her.

In the back of her mind she knew that she shouldn't be driving; that she was taking a big risk and could end up hurting someone. She didn't care if she herself was injured but a small part of her worried that she'd accidentally wipe out a family of six and have even more reasons to hate herself. Unfortunately, that little concern did nothing to stop her from steering the several ton vehicle down the streets of the city.

The incessant buzzing of her phone finally broke through her haze about two hours later. Stopping at a stop light, she pulled out her phone and stared at it blankly. Spencer's number blinked back at her from the Caller ID screen. Sighing, she tossed the phone behind her to land wherever in the backseat. She didn't want to talk to the blonde; not now and a part of her, not ever. She didn't want to deal with the look of disappointment she knew would reflect back at her from those deep ocean blue eyes. She didn't want to hear the worry and concern that she felt was wasted on someone like her echoing over the phone on the dulcet tones of Spencer's voice.

She just really wished that she'd never met Spencer; as special as the Ohio native was to her, Ashley wished that she never set eyes on the beautiful girl. Then she wouldn't constantly be reminded of how tainted she was, how dirty and soiled she was when compared to someone like Spencer. No, not 'someone like' Spencer; Spencer all by herself because there was no one else like Spencer. If she had never met Spencer, then maybe she could have continued living in her pocket reality where she wasn't so empty, so hollow and broken as her feelings for Spencer reminded her she was. She could keep on pretending that she wasn't dead inside and nothing more than a shell of something once beautiful but now reduced to dust and sand like a castle washed away by the tide.

(Never enough…I'm never going to be good enough, clean enough for her. I'm just a drag on her…casting shadows and dirt on her. I'm filth. FUCK!)

The light turned green and Ashley pushed her gas pedal to the floor, turning off sharply and vaguely hearing a few angry beeps. She was on some side road in the suburbs, trees reaching up to the sky in a way that Ashley felt was insulting. Why could they reach up and warm themselves in the sun while she was damned to the cold of the dark, beneath the streets to be walked on and forgotten. It wasn't fair. She pushed the pedal down harder, hearing the engine rev and watching the scenery fly by in colored blurs.

Flashes of Spencer smiling at her, touching her, laughing; the sound of that laughter dancing across her skin and making her feel worthy for that moment in time, all played across Ashley's mind. Even the tears now streaking her cheeks did nothing to stop the flow of images, the sobs falling from her lips failed to drown out the memory of Spencer's voice and laughter.

Ashley screamed at the top of her voice, throat burning and lungs straining and slammed on the brakes. She kept screaming as her SUV sped down the street towards the blonde currently filling her thoughts. She was heading directly for Spencer who was standing there in the road. Ashley knew that there was no way that she could stop the car in time. Spencer looked up at the oncoming car, innocent expression on her face, further killing Ashley inside as her brakes screeched and the smell of burning rubber filled the car. The brunette jerked the wheel to the side in desperation, closing her eyes in horror as she slammed into the girl who held her fragile heart so completely.

As the SUV tilted dangerously onto two wheels, Ashley let go of the steering wheel, not caring anymore whether she lived or died. If she just killed Spencer, she didn't want to live anyway.

The loud sound of metal scraping against asphalt and shattering glass filled Ashley's ears, temporarily drowning out her screams of terror and fear while the car slid on its driver's side down the road a few feet before finally coming to a quick and painful stop against a tree. The front airbag exploded, colliding hard with Ashley's face and knocking the wind from her lungs while the side airbag impacted with her ribs.

She sat, stunned and breathless for a few minutes, unwilling to open her eyes to see the truth of a reality without Spencer. A reality where she herself ended that wonderful girl's life.

"Are you all right?" a voice asked softly. Ashley's eyes flew open to see some strange man looking in at her from the shattered driver's window. Panic overwhelmed her; she knew she had drugs and alcohol in her system and she'd just killed an innocent girl. Scrambling frantically and after a few seconds of fighting with her seatbelt, she finally managed to get it undone and slid out the open window, ignoring her body's painful protests as well as the glass that bit into her.

"I think you should stay still and not move," the man suggested. "You're bleeding and might be badly hurt." Ashley stood up shakily, scanning the area for the horror that she didn't want to admit but had to see.

"Where…where is she?" she whispered, wandering a few feet away and into the street. There was no sign of Spencer anywhere.

(Did I miss her? Oh please God…)

"Where…" she breathed again. The man put his hand on her shoulder, startling her.

"You're on Maple Street. Don't worry, the ambulance is on the way." Ashley shook her head, wincing when it made her dizzy.

"Where's Spencer?" she asked, confused. The man frowned.

"Who? Was there someone else in the car?" he looked back to the crumpled vehicle but it was empty.

"She was right there!" Ashley pointed to the road. "I hit her! Where is she?" She was bordering on hysterical and knew it. But she didn't care; she was so afraid that she'd just killed the other girl. The whole situation wasn't making any sense to her.

"I saw her!" she screamed.

"There was no one there, hon. You didn't hit anyone. I saw the whole accident. There was no one in the road." Ashley's heart rate felt like it tripled. Pushing the man away, she staggered further down the road.

"You need to wait for help!" he called after her. Ashley looked at him, fear and panic filling her. She looked from her car to the empty road, no sign of Spencer anywhere and then took off running as best she could, ignoring the pain of her injured body and the man's calls for her to stop.

Spencer vomited, repeatedly as her father stroked her back soothing her. Clay had just come home and told the family about a bad accident a few streets over that had filled the calm afternoon with loud sirens and flashing lights. An accident that had involved Ashley's expensive SUV.

He had driven down the road since it was a bit of a shortcut home as opposed to the main roads and had seen Ashley's familiar car lying on the driver side and pressed up against a tree. It had hit the thick trunk of the tree hard enough to crack it, and destroy the remains of the car. Clay stopped to ask if Ashley was alright, running the gauntlet of police and EMTs who knew nothing.

He came home to tell Spencer without knowing Ashley's condition or anything, saying that the witnesses on the scene were vague and only that she took off on foot. No one knew where she was or even if she was alive. Visions of Ashley staggering away only to collapse and die behind a building somewhere, scared, hurt, and alone filled Spencer's mind and she retched. Again.

She'd called Ashley's cell phone immediately but only got the voicemail. As the panic that Ashley was hurt and missing consumed her, she rethought her actions last night and that morning, cursing herself for her mistakes.

Fear and guilt were burning her alive inside, making her stomach roll. She wondered if this was her punishment, karmic justice for her hedging and hesitancy in telling Ashley the truth of her feelings. Was God telling her now that she had waited too long, lost her chance to know what it was like to be with Ashley as more than friends? Had her chance to experience being loved by the brunette just been destroyed?

(Why did she run? Is she OK? Oh God…Ashley) Spencer's mind raced. She kept seeing Ashley the night before, trying to run from something and finding her escape in drugs and alcohol. And then she saw her as she was that very morning, stretched too thin by circumstances and brittle to the touch. Spencer had been afraid to push her to talk, frightened that if she did, Ashley would shatter into a million little glass shards that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could ever put back together.

(I shouldn't have left her) Spencer berated herself. (I should have just told Mom that I'd be home later and stayed to make sure Ashley was all right because it's obvious that she's not. This is all my fault. I walked away from her)

"Oh God…" she groaned, leaning over the toilet again, her sides hurting from the exertion. She couldn't believe that Ashley was out there somewhere, alone. She had no one and Spencer had added to that. She was supposed to be there for the wounded girl, she'd promised herself and Ashley that she would be.

(I knew something was wrong this morning! Why didn't I trust myself, my instincts? If she's hurt, I'll never forgive myself)

"Spencer, honey, please you need to calm down," Arthur whispered, worried at the extreme physical reaction his daughter was having to the news. He knew that Spencer had feelings for the missing brunette; it was obvious in the way her face lit up at the mere mention of the older girl, in her voice when she spoke about her and her frown when she worried about her. And any doubt about it was gone now that she was sick with worry about where Ashley was and if she was all right.

"Spencer, if you calm down, I'll take you out in the car and we can go look for her," he offered, knowing that Spencer needed to do something before her anxiety ate her alive. Spencer lifted her head and sniffled, focusing her red rimmed, watery blue eyes on her father.

"You will?" she croaked. Arthur nodded.

"Of course. Now get yourself cleaned up and I'll meet you downstairs when you're ready, OK?" Spencer nodded so Arthur got up and went downstairs to call his wife.

"No, I checked when Clay called earlier, Arthur," Paula said over the line. "There are no accident victims or anyone meeting Ashley's description in the ER right now. If she went to the hospital, it wasn't this one."

"Thanks for checking, hon. I'll call if Spencer and I find her," he said.

"Art, she could be really badly hurt and should be brought in. If you find her…" Arthur nodded knowing Paula couldn't see him.

"I know; I will. Love you." He hung up the phone as Spencer walked into the kitchen, her face freshly scrubbed and hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. "Where to, hon?" Spencer bit her lip and thought a minute.

"The beach."

(Oh fuck me, this hurts) Ashley groaned as she lowered herself into the sand and leaned up against the pillar. This was where she and Spencer had spent that afternoon talking about being gay and where Ashley had tried to calm the blonde's fears. Fears that Ashley had yet to fully let go of herself.

The looks, the snide comments, the things she knew that the kids at school said behind her back chipped away at her soul a little more every day. Last year, in the space of less than a month, she'd gone from the heights of popularity, a cheerleader dating the hot basketball star to the scary nasty lesbian after her night with Maggie. Thanks to Madison telling everyone the secret Ashley had confided in her then best friend, the whole school knew that she'd slept with a woman and while she wasn't ashamed, she hated being looked at as different, dirty.

It hurt each time that she was glared at or jostled in the hallways; maybe not physically but mentally, knowing that these people she had considered friends could turn on her so quickly and without remorse. Although she'd never been comfortable with the accolades and peer worship, it was painful to be so roughly shoved from her pedestal and ground underneath the heel of the bitch climbing over her to reach the top.

The whole experience had taught her many lessons about trusting people, or rather, not to trust people. They all had their own agenda, their own motives for everything that they did and were never what they pretended to be. She took their dirty looks, whispered insults and harsh words without complaint, feeling herself torn to shreds with every uttered syllable but unwilling to let them see that.

But after a while she learned to ignore the sneers, deflect the stares and rebuild the walls that she let slip enough to let Madison close enough to hurt her. And each slur, every snicker that was tossed her way helped to add another layer of protection, another brick in her defenses until she was so hidden behind them that no one could touch her. No one that is, until Spencer.

"Ow…" she whimpered, pressing her palm to the bleeding gash at her hairline. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a few more Oxycontin's, swallowing them dry with barely a wince. Dry swallowing pills was a skill she developed long ago, in the early days of her using, learning early on that liquids weren't always readily available when you needed them.

She sighed, her eyes drooping shut from exhaustion, pain and emotional torment. She glanced to her side, seeing a piece of paper sticking out from the sand where it had fallen from her pocket. Reaching down, she picked it up and unfolded it, her heart constricting as she gazed upon Spencer's beautiful face. It was a picture of her and the blonde taken on her phone as they had lay on the bed together, giggling. Before that fateful day on the beach, before Ashley had run.

"So beautiful," Ashley whispered, running her thumb over Spencer's face, frowning when she smeared blood on it. She wiped it clean on the side of her jeans and stared at it again, wanting nothing more than for the real Spencer to be there with her right now; there to hold her and soothe her pain, both physical and emotional. She needed Spencer to tell her that everything was going to be all right. Maybe then she'd believe it.

She flipped the paper over, staring at the scripted words on the back, unable to prevent a few tears that slipped past stubborn eyes. Certain words and phrases jumped out at her, just as they had when she first read it.

Ashley…I have to go home or my mom will ground me and I won't be able to be here for you…I know that you need me…I'm not sure what's wrong but…I care for you so much, Ashley…more than you know…my everything…love…scared…gay…the truth…that day on the beach…please let me help you. Love Spencer.

She sat for a long time, waiting for the pounding in her head and body to recede and fade under the pull of the drugs. The beach was where she felt the calmest, the most at ease. Even having almost died there, sand in her hair, her nose, dirty and wet, it was still the safest place to her. There was something about the constant of the waves, ebbing and flowing in a never ending rhythm that soothed the sharp edges that she felt inside.

After awhile, she pushed herself up to her feet, the pain of the action barely registering through the drugs and started to stagger away. The picture that she had been clutching tightly until then fell from numb fingers and landed in the sand. Ashley stopped to look at it, wondering whether or not to pick it up again. She knew that unlike the picture, she couldn't just be brushed off and be alright again. It wasn't just moist sand that covered her, it was so much more. She was buried too deep now.

Shaking her head, she turned away, knowing that nothing she did would be good enough for Spencer so she might as well walk away. She realized then that she really didn't care anymore; about anything.

And that didn't bother her anymore.

Ashley walked along the beach, occasionally stumbling and almost falling until she put enough space between herself and the pier, THEIR pier and she could breathe again. She didn't like the surge of memories that had flooded through her as she had sat watching the waves. Too much Spencer, too much light coming from those deep honest eyes for her to handle.

Pain and nausea caused her knees to buckle and she fell onto her knees in the surf, the incoming tide lapping at her hands and knees where she sank into the wet sand. Her mind laughed at the irony of the situation, so much like the last time when she'd snorted and popped a few too many substances. She gasped for air, her lungs feeling like the oxygen wasn't reaching them but instead escaping from some unseen hole in her throat.

She drew in long rasping gasps, lifting her head to look out over the glistening ocean. She stared, letting her chest calm down captured by the innate wonder and beauty of the water. Then she closed her eyes against the sting of tears; it reminded her of Spencer.

Everything reminded her of the sweet girl, anything beautiful and clean, pure and innocent. There were so few things in her life that were any of those things. And then there was Spencer with her smile, her eyes that sparkled with genuine affection and a hint of well hidden mischief whom seemed to remind Ashley of everything good in the world; and everything she wasn't.

Getting her feet under herself again, Ashley stood up. Her legs started walking again, the water slowly rising over her shoes and up her ankles, the cold biting at her calves and pulling on her pant legs as she walked out further. She shivered as it reached her waist and her feet sank deeper. The salt stung at the untended cuts and lacerations caused by the accident, the water turning pink for a few seconds before her blood diluted completely, disappearing into the other colors.

When she was up to her chest, having trouble standing she stopped. She didn't turn back to the shore; she didn't want to. Instead, she took a deep breath and let herself sink.

Spencer cursed and screamed at the traffic that was keeping her and her father from reaching the beach. She was desperate to get there, knowing that it was where Ashley would go. She just knew it deep inside, instinctually. The moment she told her father to head to the beach, she felt Ashley there, in the hazy sunlight, needing her help. And every car and red light between them was agony to Spencer.

"Damn it get out of the way!" she screamed from the passenger side as her father tried to turn right despite a car stopped at a light going straight. Their car wouldn't fit, leaving them to wait for the light to turn.

"Spencer, honey, calm down, we're almost there," her father said softly. Spencer blew an impatient breath out between her teeth and nodded. Arthur turned his head to glance at his daughter; she was wound tight, her body language stiff and stressed. Her face was paler than usual, her eyes darting around searching.

He'd seen the same behavior many times before in his job as a social worker; families distraught about missing family members or in the families waiting for word on loved ones in the hospital. It was loving worry. He smiled to himself, despite the gravity of the situation. His little girl was in love, whether either girl realized it or not.

Arthur had no problem with homosexuality; he had enough life experience to realize it wasn't so much who you loved, as long as you were loved equally in return and happy. He saw the way Spencer and Ashley were around each other, at least up until not that long ago when Ashley seemed to have stopped being around. He'd meant to talk to Spencer about Ashley's absence, sensing his daughter's unhappiness with the situation, but every time he tried, Paula seemed to be right there, bad mouthing the brunette and chasing Spencer away.

He hated the way his wife was twisting Spencer's perceptions, doubting the teen's judgment and having no faith in her. He felt that as long as they weren't endangering themselves, at the age all three children were at, they should be supported in their decisions, guided but not controlled. But Paula sought to control Spencer in nearly everything, pushing the young girl into cheerleading, dating Aiden, even church, giving Spencer no time to make her own decisions. And when she did, choosing Ashley over cheerleading and being popular, Paula attacked her choices and Ashley.

As far as Arthur was concerned, Ashley was a good kid. She may not always make the best choices but he chalked that up to lack of structured upbringing and her trying to find her own way without support. He didn't blame her for her empty childhood that had left her somewhat wild; he thought, as compared to some of the children and teens he saw everyday at work that she had learned to cope rather well. He also knew that Spencer, with her sensible and sensitive nature, was exactly what the rebellious brunette needed to balance herself out.

"Spence, honey, can I talk to you about Ashley?" he asked carefully, finally turning the corner. Spencer looked over at her father for a minute before nodding.

"Dad, if this is about what I told you she'd done last night…" Arthur shook her head.

"No, hon. I'm sure that you're right and whatever happened last night was a result of something else bothering her and not a pattern," he said, hoping that he was right. As much as he liked Ashley, he didn't want Spencer getting caught up in that kind of scene. But he couldn't envision Ashley dragging Spencer into it, she cared too much about Spencer's welfare to do that.

"OK, then what about her?" Spencer wondered. Arthur frowned and tried to think of the right thing to say; somehow it suddenly seemed easier to do at work than to actually discuss such a thing with his own daughter.

"I know that you care about her," he started. He saw Spencer's head turn to him and panic flash across her face.

"She's my best friend, Dad. Of course I care, I wouldn't be that good of a friend if I didn't," she responded defensively. Arthur let himself smile fully at that reaction.

"That wasn't what I meant, Spencer," he chuckled. Spencer glared.

"If this is going to become another 'parental discussion' about the 'evils of homosexuality' and the bad influence that Ashley supposedly has on me, save it, Dad, OK? I get that enough from Mom." Arthur shook his head.

"No, Spencer, I wasn't going to say anything of the sort," he said seriously.

"OK, then what?" Arthur steered the car into the parking lot at the beach and turned off the car.

"Spencer, I know that you care about Ashley as more than a friend. She means a lot to you and you do to her as well…" Spencer got out of the car and fidgeted where she stood, chewing the nail of her thumb.

"Dad…uhm…where are you going with that?" she asked nervously. Arthur closed his door and smiled over at his anxious daughter.

"I'm trying to say that I like Ashley, Spencer. I think you're both good for each other," he said simply. He watched as the look of nervousness grew into surprise and then happiness. She ran around the car and hugged her father tightly.

"So, you don't care that I'm…that I might be…" Arthur looked down at his daughter.

"Gay, Spencer?" She nodded. "As long as you are yourself, and happy, it doesn't bother me at all. You mean so much to me, honey, nothing can change that."

"I love you, Dad," Spencer said, hugging tightly again. She pulled away and looked out over the water, her worry for Ashley returning even stronger now that she didn't have to hide any of it from her father.

"Come on, Spence, let's go find your girl."

Spencer jogged along, her father a few feet behind, scanning the thin crowd of people on the beach, hoping and praying that one of them was Ashley. They'd covered nearly a mile of the sandy expanse, with no sign of the missing brunette. Spencer was starting to feel sick again.

"Dad! Where is she? I know she's here!" Spencer cried, frantic. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and she felt like she wasn't getting enough air.

"Spencer, calm down, you're giving yourself a panic attack," Arthur said calmly as Spencer put her hands on her knees and bent over trying to breathe. He rubbed her back as she tried to calm down.

"Is there anywhere else that she could have gone?" he asked. "Somewhere on the boardwalk or…"

"The pier!" Spencer exclaimed, smacking herself in the forehead for not thinking of it sooner. She took off in that direction, praying that she wasn't too late and then wondering what she'd be too late for.

She let out a frustrated growl when they got there to find no one in the spot that she had sat and shared with Ashley.

"GOD DAMN IT!" she screamed out at the uncaring waves, kicking at the sand. She looked into her father's concerned face. "She was here, Dad. I just know it." There was a certain feel to the place that told Spencer that Ashley had been there and not that long ago.

"OK, we need to think of anywhere else she could have run to," Arthur said firmly. He knew that if Ashley was indeed injured, her time was running out and she needed the hospital soon. He glanced down at his cell as it rang, seeing the number for the hospital on the screen.

"Spence, look around and see if she left anything here, I have to take this call," he explained, walking a few feet away. When he was far enough away, he put the phone to his ear.


"Hi, Art," his wife sighed into the phone. Arthur felt his chest clench.

"Is she?" he started, looking back at his daughter as she wandered around the pillars.

"I'm not sure," Paula responded vaguely. "Look, I have everyone in the hospital keeping an eye out for Ashley. I just got a page that there is a Jane Doe matching her description in the morgue. I'm going to go see if it's her. I just wanted to give you a heads up before I do so that if it is her, we can start to think about how to tell Spencer." Arthur sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"OK, thanks, hon. Call and let me know." He hung up the phone and looked back at his daughter. "God, if you're listening, please give my daughter and Ashley a break. Give them a chance to find happiness together. Amen."

Spencer, meanwhile, walked around looking for any sign of Ashley; her cell, her phone, purse, anything. But there was nothing. The memory of the afternoon that they'd shared sitting under this very pier played behind her eyes, showing her every small smile, every twinkle in Ashley's eyes in vivid detail. The older girl had been so understanding, so helpful making Spencer feel more at ease with the truth that she was discovering about herself. She'd been so calm that the feeling had carried over to Spencer.

She kicked at the sand again before turning around. Her eyes focused on a piece of paper poking up out of the sand a few feet away. She walked over and picked it up, her heart catching in her throat as she looked at a picture of herself and Ashley.

It had been taken on Ashley's phone on one of the many afternoons that they'd spent watching movies, talking and laughing on Ashley's bed. Ashley's arm even had the 'Myspace' curve to it as she had held the phone above them to take the picture.

Spencer smiled at the memory before noticing something sticky on the photo. She realized that it was the scrap of paper that she'd written her note that morning on and smiled.

(Ashley was carrying it with her...she read it)

She ran her thumb over it, gasping in horror as her finger came away red.

(Blood…Ashley's blood!)

"Oh my God…" she whispered, looking at the photo and seeing more streaks of the crimson liquid. "God, she's hurt." Closing her eyes to stop the tears didn't help. With a sigh, she opened them again, seeing something else in the sand. She picked them up, staring at the small white disks in disbelief.

(Drugs…damn it) She closed her eyes and her hand, crushing some of the pills in her palm. (She's out there, hurt and high. I am never going to find her in time, I just know it. I'm gonna lose her)

She liked it here, floating unchained in the cold dark. Suddenly all the noises, the yelling voices that screamed in her head in every waking moment, shouting slurs and doubts were gone, swallowed by the swirling blue mass of water. It was just her there, quiet, calm and still. The outside world couldn't reach her there, she was safe.

If the burning in her lungs wasn't so bad, she'd consider staying there. But her chest was starting to feel like it was going to burst and she knew her eyes were watering in that salty water.

(Just adding to what's naturally there) she figured. Then she thought about it. Somewhere in some science class, they'd discussed the theory of evolution; about how some scientists believed that man evolved from sea mammals or something. Ashley wasn't too clear on the specifics, it was science after all and therefore not really something that interested her. But then she wondered, as she somewhat floated beneath the surface of the ocean, if maybe she took a deep breath she would simply be completing the circle, connecting the beginning of man's existence with the end. Returning to where she had started from.

(The circle of life…it's a wheel of fortune…) her addled mind sung to itself, making Ashley giggle internally, not quite ready yet to let go of the air in her lungs that was quickly becoming carbon dioxide.

She opened her eyes, ignoring the way the salt water burned her. She was already ignoring the way it singed her injuries. It was not only quiet there, it was beautiful. Calm, peaceful, serene. She wanted to stay there forever in that quiet place where nothing could hurt her, where Spencer's voice didn't haunt her. Where she could be free of the darkness that threatened to swallow her much like the water was doing now.

She let a stream of bubbles out of her mouth, feeling it tickle her nose as it rose upwards towards the surface and open sky. She'd heard that drowning was painful but wondered which was worse, continuing to live the way she was, so close but never able to actually be with Spencer and living with the knowledge of her inadequacies, or just letting go. To take that one deep breath and free herself.

(Who would mourn me, anyway?) She wondered, releasing more air and enjoying the lessening of the pressure in her chest. (Not my family, what crap I have that is. I've got no friends, no one that cares. Other than Spencer that is and I just can't help thinking that this is better. I can free the both of us from this vicious cycle and stop hurting her.) More bubbles joined the ones that had already reached the surface and popped. (Just a little more and that'll be it)

Her instinct to panic at the lack of air was fighting with her desire to take a deep breath and greet the end on her own terms. Her body desperately wanted air while her mind wanted peace. She pushed the last of the air from her lungs and waited a few seconds, trying to gather the courage to open her mouth. Her head was getting fuzzy and her heart was pounding painfully in her ears, erasing the quiet calm that she had been enjoying.

She closed her eyes, feeling her vision starting to go grey while her body decided to shut down. She felt herself fading away and opened her mouth…

"Spencer, Oxycontin is a very dangerous drug," Arthur said as they continued to walk along the beach. They had decided to keep looking along the beach incase she had wandered that way, knowing that with the drug she had in her system, she wouldn't get far. Aiden was calling everyone he could think of that Ashley might go to right now and promised to call Spencer if he found anything.

"It mimics heroin…"

"I know what it does, Dad," Spencer snapped, scanning the horizon for a sign of Ashley and praying not to see her floating like a piece of driftwood on the tide.

"Do you have any idea why Ashley would be doing things like this to herself?" her father asked softly, not wanting to further upset his daughter. Spencer shrugged and jammed her hands in her pockets.

"Me…" she muttered. Arthur frowned.

"You? Honey what could you have done…" Spencer stopped and closed her eyes.

"It started here, Dad," she began slowly. "I skipped school with Ashley one day and came here. We had a really good time and I…I needed to talk to her about what was going on in my head." Arthur nodded and put his arm around his daughter's shoulder as they started walking again.

"To tell her that you thought you might be gay?" he asked, knowingly. Spencer looked up at him, surprised. He smiled at her. "Spencer, believe it or not, you didn't just 'become gay' once we moved to LA. The move, coupled with the difference in environment and becoming friends with Ashley maybe forced you to confront it, but it's not something new or not part of who you were."

"So you knew?" she asked, surprised. Arthur laughed.

"I didn't know, hon, I might have suspected but I didn't know for sure, I mean absolutely sure that what you felt for Ashley was anything more than deep friendship until Clay told us about the accident. When you got so sick…" Spencer nodded.

"It confirmed what you suspected, I get it," she said.

"So, what happened next?"

"I told her that I thought I might be gay and she naturally joked about it, I guess trying to make me feel less self-conscious about it," she continued. "Then I was trying to work up the courage to tell her that I thought it was her that I liked and she wandered off chasing a couple of boys."

"I bet that hurt," Arthur stated.

"I was pissed too," Spencer remembered. "I mean, here I was trying to tell her that I liked her and she totally flakes out on me."

"Sounds like she wasn't ready to deal with the possibility that you meant her," Arthur theorized. "Or she was afraid that you didn't mean her."

"Yeah," Spencer agreed. "Then I stormed off and she came and got me and we ended up under the pier. Dad, she was so sensitive and thoughtful then, explaining how hard it was going to be to come out and be looked at and treated different by people I thought I knew as well as strangers. It made me see how brave she really is to walk around like she does with her head held high, ignoring what the others say. And I also saw how much it hurt her to be so shunned. It scared me, Dad."

"I imagine it would," he sighed, hating the fact that that kind of treatment was no doubt in his daughter's future. As a parent, you never want to see your children suffer. It was the only thing about Spencer being a lesbian that bothered Arthur; the knowledge that she would go through life hated by people who didn't even know her.

"She dropped me off at home," Spencer wrapped up her story with a sigh. "And I thought everything was fine. Since then she doesn't seem to want to be around me at all, not returning my phone calls and avoiding being alone with me at school. Then I saw her last night at the club…"

"And that obviously didn't go well," her father said softly. Spencer hung her head.

"I didn't get a chance to talk to her. By the time I saw her she was already drunk and high, I know that now. Then after I took her back to her house she was all weird because of the drugs and it ended up being a long night."

"Did you try to talk to her this morning?" Arthur prompted trying to get the whole picture of what was going on. He knew more about Ashley's past than he had yet to tell Spencer, having called his office before they left the house for them to search for any files. His secretary had called earlier while Spencer was still under the pier and informed him of what they did know. It had made him worry even more about Ashley as well as Spencer.

"Yeah but…she just kinda shut down, told me not to care about her because she didn't. Tried to tell me that she what she wanted didn't matter anymore." Spencer looked up at her father, eyes watery with unshed tears. "She scared me, Dad, I mean really scared me. I didn't want to go home because I was afraid that something would happen but Mom was being her usual cranky self and dragged me home."

"God, this is all my fault," she decided, openly crying now as they had yet to find Ashley.

"No, honey," Arthur shook his head while inside cursing his wife's actions. She shouldn't have made Spencer leave Ashley when the young brunette was in such a state. Sometimes he wondered about Paula's lack of common sense.

"This isn't your fault, hon. Ashley…I like Ashley but she has problems, honey." Spencer arched an eyebrow at her father.

"Problems? Everyone has problems. Sure, maybe Ashley has more than most people…" They stopped and stared out at the water in silence for a few drawn out minutes.

"Spencer, she…she almost died," Arthur finally said quietly. Spencer's eyes widened in horror and shock.

"What? How? When?" she stammered. Arthur put his hand on his daughter's shoulder to calm her.

"Not long before we moved here," he started to explain. "She was found here, on this beach, near death."

"Dad, what happened?" Spencer asked, sounding lost and wondering why Ashley had never mentioned it to her.

(Maybe she doesn't trust me enough to tell me) she thought sadly.

"She was found face down in the sand by someone walking the beach around sunrise," Arthur continued. "She was rushed to the hospital barely breathing and unresponsive. She was fairly far gone, Spence. She'd overdosed on a cocktail of several illegal drugs and as far as the police report says, someone dumped her there."

"Dumped her? Like a piece of trash?" Spencer raged, anger that someone Ashley had thought as a friend or something had so callously thrown her to the side when she needed help the most. Arthur nodded solemnly.

"The doctors said that there was no way she walked out there on her own; someone had to have left her there. Whether they were with her earlier on the beach and just walked away when she OD'd or they took her there and left her after it happened no one knows."

"Fuckers," Spencer growled. She then looked at her father and blushed. "Uh…sorry." Arthur smiled.

"I'll let it go this time," he said kindly.

"So, why doesn't anyone know this?" Spencer asked, positive that if anyone did, it would have gotten to Madison and then the whole school would have known.

"She was sent off to a rehab center out of state," Arthur said. "Her mother must have covered it up. The only reason I know is because my office investigated Ashley's mother after it happened as a precaution since she's under eighteen. So I broke the rules a bit and got the info."

"Thanks," Spencer sighed, not sure how she felt now that she knew this piece of information. It made her guilt over leaving Ashley in the first place intensify.

"She returned to school shortly before you and your brothers started there," her father finished.

"And never told me," Spencer breathed sadly. Arthur looked at his daughter.

"Spencer, if it was you and you have just met Ashley, were in the process of making this great new friend, would you have told her?" Spencer rolled her eyes; sometimes she hated it when her father made a valid point. Before she could respond, she spotted something floating in the surf and frowned.

"What is that?"

Ashley gagged and choked, leaning against a concrete wall further up the beach, swearing at herself for her cowardice.

Just as she opened her mouth, she'd blacked out. Next thing she knew she was on the surface of the water gasping for air and thrashing around. Once she caught her breath, she's headed back inland, deciding that since she failed to do it once, it was a sign to get out of the water.

The light shirt she'd put on over her tee was tangling up in her arms so she shrugged it off and walked up the beach, soaking wet and feeling even more stupid and worthless than she did when she got there.

(I'm having a fucking fabulous day) she thought angrily to herself. (Almost slit my wrists this morning, crashed my car in the early afternoon and then nearly drowned. All before supper. Well, at least I accomplished…ok nothing but I wasn't bored at any point)

She leaned up against the concrete wall, letting her tired and sore body slide down until she was sitting in the sand. She pulled her knees up to her chest, wincing at the pain in her ribs and wondering whether or not any were broken. She couldn't be sure since the Oxy was still dulling her senses.

(I'm such a fuck up. I can't even successfully kill myself and I've had three chances today. O for three)

"Woot," she said hoarsely to herself. She felt too tired to speak, the very effort of pushing air past her vocal cords and making them vibrate at the right pitch to create sounds and words seemed to be an insurmountable task.

She sat, dimly aware that the pain from the accident that she had thus far successfully kept pushed away was steadily growing sharper. Her head was pounding and the cut on her forehead still bleeding. Her teeth stared to chatter together, making her wonder how she could possibly be cold.

But then she remembered that she was always cold; light and heat never seemed to register deep enough to her small body to warm the dark icy corners of her soul. Everyone at school felt that she was cold, aloof, never getting too close to anyone or making friends. Although this usually made her chuckle because none of them wanted her as a friend anyway so why would they bother calling her such things when it was them ostracizing her?

She knew that she was cold; she prided herself on being icy, untouchable. She always thought that nothing would ever be able to melt that exterior; that she'd never feel warm ever again. And then Spencer Carlin had smiled at her and everything changed.

"Fuck!" she spat angrily. This is what she hated about drugs. No matter how many she took, the haze never lasted long enough for her to forget. As soon as the fog lifted, all her thoughts came rushing back, usually heralded by a vision of Spencer smiling at her, twisting her heart with so many overflowing emotions that she wanted to rip the offending organ from her chest and throw it aside. Or maybe give it to Spencer. Maybe if she ripped out her own heart and showed Sweet Spencer how blackened and small it was, then the blonde wouldn't be interested anymore and the horrible reminder of what she couldn't have, didn't deserve would fade away.

She shivered again, this time harder, her teeth colliding almost painfully as she lay down on her side and curled up into a ball. She wrapped her arms around her knees which were still against her chest. Pain radiated from her body but she knew any pills she had left would have dissolved in the water so she was out of luck. Sand stuck to her, she consoled herself with the knowledge that it would be dusk soon so she could at least watch the sunset as she huddled there, cold and alone in between some garbage cans that belonged to the shops on the nearby boardwalk.

(Well, it fits. Garbage sitting with the garbage) she thought darkly. (At least no one's going to notice me sitting here) The pounding in her head grew louder, more painful, making her vision swim and lights dance before her eyes. With a pitiful whimper she closed her eyes hoping to make it stop. Unconsciousness roared up and swallowed her before she realized it.

Spencer dashed into the surf to retrieve the piece of cloth she saw before the tide tugged it back out to sea. She walked back to her father, sneakers squishing with sea water and tried to untangle the material.

"What is it Spencer?" her father asked as he watching his daughter fighting with the blue fabric. Finally she managed to get it unfolded and untied to take a good look at it. Her heart sank and her stomach rolled dangerously.

"It's Ashley's shirt," she whispered, scared. Arthur frowned.

"Spencer, that could be from anyone," he said logically. "How do you know it's Ashley's?"

"Because I was with her when she bought it," she replied sadly. She tried to fight the tears that were stinging her burning eyes. She didn't know how she could possibly cry anymore given how much she'd cried so far that day. But the tears were there, threatening to spill over her face.

"And she altered the sleeves when we got back to her house," she explained, holding up one of the cut and re-stitched arms. "Yes, I know, shocking, but Ashley knows how to sew. She likes to add her own flare to her wardrobe. Her own unique touch." A sob ripped its way out of her throat and Arthur pulled her in close for a comforting hug.

"OK, so it's her shirt. But that doesn't mean she's out there somewhere," he soothed. "She may have just left it…"

"Ashley doesn't just abandon her clothes," Spencer sniffled. "And the point is that she WAS out there, Dad. It's not warm enough to go swimming. She's hurt and shouldn't be in the water. God, what if she drowned, Dad? What if…"

"Spencer, don't think that," he said softly, sending a quick prayer to God that Ashley was alright. "Let's keep looking for her. The boardwalk is nearby so let's see if she wandered over there or if anyone's seen her." Spencer nodded and they began heading that way when Arthur's cell phone rang. Dreading looking, he glanced and swallowed hard.

"Hello?" he spoke into the phone, knowing who it was.

"It wasn't her," Paula said immediately and Arthur let out the breath that he'd been holding. He felt guilty being happy that the girl lying dead in the morgue wasn't Ashley and that somewhere a family was experiencing the loss of a child.

"Oh thank God," he said, seeing Spencer look at him in confusion as they walked.

"So you haven't found her yet?" Paula asked.

"No, we're about to try the boardwalk because we know she was here," he explained.

"You know, I'm starting to think that you're wasting your time and she's home hiding from the police," Paula said sarcastically. Arthur rolled his eyes.

"We'll call if we find her," he snapped, closing the phone before his wife could respond. He really couldn't believe some of the garbage that came out of that woman's mouth. Her distaste for Ashley was obvious despite the fact that Ashley had never done anything but be herself. He wondered what they were going to do once they found Ashley and she and Spencer finally figured things out. He had faith that they'd find Ashley in time; then he had every intention of keeping them together, not separating them like Paula would.

"Who was that?" Spencer asked as she turned up towards the boardwalk. "Was it about Ashley?"

"It was your mother, Spencer. There's no sign of Ashley at the hospital still," he explained, beyond happy that it wasn't Ashley in the morgue. He had no clue how he'd ever be able to tell Spencer that Ashley was dead.

"We'll start asking the shop workers and security patrols if they've seen her. You can use that picture of Ashley and you that you found to show them…" Arthur started planning, not noticing that Spencer had stopped walking and was staring at something further up the beach in confusion. She tilted her head, trying to make out what it was exactly she was seeing. As if on cue, the last fading rays of sunlight broke past the single cloud blocking them and lit up what she was looking at.

Her breath caught in her throat painfully.

"Ashley…" she gasped.

She took off running, feet slipping in the shifting sand and threatening to make her fall face first to the ground. She was getting annoyed; it seemed for every step she took, she stumbled three and Ashley only got further away. The brunette wasn't moving, huddled up as she was between trash cans and bags of garbage. Spencer felt her stomach rolling and then clenching painfully as she got closer to the prone form.

She could see what was clearly blood coating her friend's forehead, running down over one eye now and dripping into the sand turning it black beneath her. Spencer dropped to her knees in front of Ashley who didn't move and reached out a trembling hand to check for a pulse as her father caught up with her.

"Spencer…" he said softly as his daughter's fingers pressed down on the injured girl's neck. She silently thanked her mother for being such an obsessive-compulsive and sending all her children to advanced First Aid classes each summer.

"She's alive, her pulse is slow and faint," Spencer let out the breath that she had been holding as she felt the steady and reassuring thumping against her fingertips. It was going too slow but it was there, beneath cold and clammy skin. She could see Ashley shivering violently now, harsh pants accompanying the shuddering. The brunette's hair was still damp as were her clothes which were sticking to her and the sand. Spencer knew that this was not helping Ashley's low body temperature.

"I'll call for an ambulance," Arthur said taking off his light jacket and handing it to Spencer to drape over Ashley. Spencer shook her head.

"Wait, Dad, let's just see if we can wake her. I'd rather take her to the hospital myself than call for someone," she suggested, not wanting the police to find Ashley just yet. She knew that Ashley would be in trouble for fleeing the scene of an accident and was hoping to stall long enough to make sure that the drugs were out of the older girl's system first.

Arthur nodded, understanding and knelt down in the sand with Spencer to take a closer look at Ashley's injuries.

"She's torn up pretty bad, Spence," he pointed out, referring to the rips and gashes in her pant legs where blood soaked the material. Her arms and hands had obvious cuts and lacerations and along with the cut on her forehead, there was a darkening bruise on her cheek. Arthur figured it she must have hit her head on the side window during the crash. He hoped that she didn't have any injuries that he couldn't see.

"Ashley…Ashley can you hear me?" Spencer called gently. Ashley didn't stir, making Spencer roll her eyes. "Damn you, how many did you take?"

She wasn't actually angry so much as worried beyond her ability to cope with and it was making her feel like she was being pulled apart. Seeing Ashley lying there unmoving was triggering waves of uneasiness and despair that Spencer was having difficulty working past. She brushed some salt water and blood soaked hair away from Ashley's brow and on impulse, placed a light kiss on one small patch of clear skin there.

"Here, Spencer, the car's not all that far, I'll carry her there," her father said before carefully scooping Ashley's prone form into his arms and standing up. He was disturbed by how light Ashley was. She was a small girl to start with, Spencer was barely any bigger, but the brunette seemed to weigh nothing at all in his arms. It was like she wasn't really there but an illusion fading away in his grip.

Arthur's arms tightened around her form unconsciously and he headed to the car.

Ashley never moved or indicated that she was aware of Spencer and her father the entire walk to the car. She was nothing but a slight dead weight in Arthur's arms, lying limp and lifeless. It made Spencer sick to look at.

Arthur gently laid the unconscious teen in the backseat, propping up her head on his jacket. Spencer sat in the backseat with her, using the emergency first aid kit in the car to try and clean Ashley's cuts and scrapes. Paula insisted that all their cars have a fully stocked kit in them and right now, Spencer was glad that she did.

"Dad, some of these cuts have glass in them," Spencer said sadly as Arthur pulled the car out of the parking lot. "Should I pull it out?"

"If the cuts aren't too deep then yes," he answered, debating where to take Ashley. He knew that Paula was waiting for them if they arrived but he had a sneaking suspicion that she'd pull something underhanded and get Ashley arrested for fleeing the scene of the accident. He knew that she'd do it to prove a point to Spencer about Ashley being trouble and a bad influence; a point that Arthur felt was wrong and disagreed with. He knew that Ashley was vastly misunderstood by most of the people who knew her, even those that considered themselves her friends. He was beginning to see that the only person that knew the real Ashley underneath the image she fronted was Spencer.

Making a decision that he knew would end with him in the doghouse, he headed away from the hospital. He wasn't going to hand an opportunity to further her own narrow-minded bigoted agenda to Paula on a silver platter. He was a social worker and his job was to help people. Right now, he decided to help Ashley.

"Dad?" Spencer asked, looking up and seeing where they were. She knew enough about the area to know that the main hospital where her mother worked was in the other direction.

"I'm taking her to the clinic that we use at the office, Spencer," her father explained. "I'm just as worried about her getting into trouble for the accident as you are and if we bring her to the hospital, someone will call them. That's not what she needs right now. If we can keep her in secret for a little while, I might be able to talk to some of my buddies at the police station and smooth this all out."

Spencer smiled. She loved her father and right now loved him more than words could express.

"Thanks, Dad," she said sincerely. She turned back to the damp, bleeding, unconscious body on the backseat. "Let's get you cleaned up." She dabbed at the blood on Ashley's forehead, finding the source and wincing at what was a very painful looking gash.

"Gonna need stitches," she sighed, digging out a few shards of sharp glass and wiping away the sand that was stuck to the wound with congealed blood. Once that one was dealt with and a makeshift bandage placed over it to try and stop the bleeding, Spencer started on Ashley's arms, pulling glass from different places, cringing each time as blood bubbled up as she did so and she had to clean it off.

"Oh Ashley, what have you done to yourself?" she whispered. She hated seeing Ashley in any sort of pain, physical, emotional. But it seemed that lately, Ashley was only ever in some state of pain and refused all help that was offered to her. Spencer kept reaching out wanting to get closer but she kept being pushed away. She wondered what Ashley was running from and hiding from her.

(What could possibly be so bad?) Spencer sighed. (I thought I knew almost everything; her one night stands, the baby she and Aiden lost…now her near death. What could there be in her past, in her mind that makes her care so little about her health and safety and won't let me close.)

"I'm sorry," a soft voice cracked making Spencer jump. She looked to see glazed and sorrowful brown eyes looking at her. "I'm sorry for everything."

"Ashley…" Spencer tried to interrupt but Ashley kept going.

"I'm sorry that I'm not who you want me to be; who you need me to be." Tears streamed down Ashley's face, making tracks through sand and blood. "I'm sorry that I can't be…" Her eyes fluttered shut and Spencer knew she was out cold again. Spencer shook her head, not quite understanding what prompted Ashley to tell her things like that and wondering what the rest of the aborted sentence was.

"Ash, we're gonna figure this out, I promise," she soothed, continuing to wash and dress various cuts and scratches. She was relieved to see that while they had bled a lot, none of them looked that bad except the one on her forehead. As long as Ashley didn't have any internal injuries, she wasn't hurt all that badly.

"Well, that's something," she sighed. She caressed the side of Ashley's face, hating the way the brunette's skin was cold and clammy to the touch. She always equated warmth and light to Ashley; not this cold dark. She shivered, overcome by the chill coming from Ashley.

(At least she's not shivering so hard) she realized. (Please be alright, Ashley. I don't want to…can't stand to lose you. Please.)

In the silence of the backseat, Spencer prayed to a God she wasn't sure was even watching anymore; or at least she didn't think he was all that interested in her life or Ashley's if he let things like this happen. It didn't strike her as fair that Ashley seemed to suffer so much without explanation.

"We're here, Spencer," Arthur said parking the car. Spencer waited while he got out and came around to get Ashley. Once he had her, Spencer crawled out of the backseat and followed him in.

"Hey, Mr. Carlin," a friendly looking man in scrubs covered in rainbows and teddy bears chimed when they came in. The man's happy expression fell as he saw that Arthur was carrying a young girl and he rushed over to take her from him. Arthur handed Ashley over gently.

"Hi Rick, wish I were here for a happier reason," he said sadly. "This is Ashley. She's…"

"Almost seventeen," Spencer supplied from beside her father. Arthur nodded.

"And was in a car accident earlier today. She…Rick," Arthur pulled the big man aside and whispered a few things to him. Rick nodded and smiled at Spencer.

"I understand. I'm gonna take her in back and have some nurses help me check her out and then I'll come right back, OK?" Spencer nodded, biting her lip, hating leaving Ashley's side but knew that she had to so that Ashley could get medical help.

"Spencer, I'm going to go with him and try to explain things. Plus I have few phone calls to make," Arthur said gently. "Will you be ok out here for a few minutes?" Spencer nodded again while she chewed on her thumb. He gave her a quick hug and then disappeared down the hall that Rick had gone down.

She paced, feeling weak and helpless in the situation and worried about Ashley. She knew that even if Ashley was physically ok, something had driven her to this point, to this dark place that she was trapped in. And no matter the number of bandages that were bound to be placed on the physical wounds of Ashley's flesh, none of them would help bind the real injury, the one that Ashley kept hidden. The one that Spencer desperately wanted to uncover and help fix.

(How can I help you if you keep pushing me away, Ashley?) she thought, wishing she could actually ask the upset brunette. But Spencer knew that if she tried to talk to Ashley about what was going on, she might retreat further into herself and the self-destructive tendencies that Spencer was now a witness to.

(God, you almost died…I can't even begin to wrap my mind around that. LA would be so different, my life would be so different if you hadn't been there for me to meet and get to know. I just know that my life would be so empty without you, Ashley. And I'm scared that if I can't get through to you that I'm going to find out the hard way exactly how empty it's going to be. And I think…no I know that losing you will kill me)

Spencer jumped slightly as her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out, a part of her sad because she knew it wouldn't be Ashley calling to talk to her, that the beautiful brunette was lying in pain on a stretcher and Spencer couldn't do anything to help. Sighing, she saw her mother's cell number on the display and opened the phone.

"Hi Mom," she greeted the older woman, unable to keep a tint of anger from her voice. In Spencer's mind, all this would not have happened if Paula hadn't insisted that she go home that morning. If she had just stayed with Ashley, been there to watch and take care of her, then Ashley wouldn't have crashed her car, wouldn't be wet and cold and bleeding a few rooms away. Spencer didn't want to put the blame on herself anymore than she already did; it was weighing her down and hurting her head and stomach. So she shared her anger at herself with her mother.

"We found Ashley, Mom," she snapped, before Paula could answer her greeting. "Alone, bleeding and unconscious at the beach. She's all torn and ripped up from the accident and it never would have happened if you had just let me stay with her this morning. I knew something was wrong and you wouldn't listen."

"Spencer, where…?" Paula tried to break in, confused.

"Do you have any idea how I feel right now, Mom? How it felt to see her lying in the sand, not moving and bleeding everywhere? It kills me to know that I could have prevented this whole mess if I'd stayed with her. But you hate her so much that despite me telling you that she shouldn't be alone, you took me home. I should have been there, Mom. Not sitting at the kitchen table eating some damn French toast and pretending to listen to you ramble about whatever stupid gossip is going around the hospital," Spencer spat into the phone, her fear and worry growing into rage at her mother and herself for Ashley's injuries.

"Spencer, calm down," her mother ordered, shocked at her daughter's tone.

"No, I won't," Spencer growled back. "Do you realize that you're partially to blame here?" She didn't care if she was right or wrong or overreacting; her chest hurt so bad, was so hot and tight that she hoped that by saying everything she was thinking and feeling the pressure choking off her air would lessen.

"You've never liked Ashley; you always look down on her and talk bad about her. I'm her friend, probably her only friend outside Aiden and just when she needs me the most, you make it so I'm not there. You know, Ashley knows how you feel about her and although she'd never say anything, I know that it hurts her. It hurts her that her best friend's mother thinks so little of her."

"Spencer, I…"

"She's never done anything to you; she's never been rude or mean. All she's ever wanted was to be my friend and maybe for you to like her, just a little. She hasn't got a good family life like I do and I know she's envious of me in that way. So she's been nice to you because you're the only other mother figure she has and you are so mean to her. You treat her like shit, a teenage girl and you treat her like garbage. Well guess where I found her, Mom. Lying on the ground amongst the trash. Pretty ironic, huh? Or you probably think it's fitting." She slammed her phone shut, not giving her mother a chance to respond.

It seemed like hours before her father and Rick returned to the waiting room although Spencer knew that it had been barely an hour. They both looked tired, worn around the edges and it made Spencer's blood pressure skyrocket. For a moment she pictured a life without Ashley in it.

She saw herself, going through the motions of every day but without any life behind her actions; without Ashley she simply didn't see a point. Some part of her screamed that that was wrong, that she had become too dependent on the brunette and could live her life just as easily without her. But Spencer knew that it was wrong; she'd be miserable and alone without Ashley as a part of her life.

The worry and fear must have shown on her face because her father pulled her into a tight hug.

"Dad?" she asked quietly, half afraid to ask and hear the news she dreaded. Maybe if she didn't ask, didn't move from that one single moment in time, everything would be ok. Ashley would be ok.

(What if there were internal injuries? We should have taken her to Emergency Room, they could have saved her there. Oh God, please let her be all right!)

"She's alive, Spencer," Arthur sighed. He hugged his youngest child tighter before letting go and pulling her by the hand to sit down. Spencer sat down and waited, expectantly. Her heart was thundering with relief as well as worry. Ashley was alive but, what now?

"She's banged up really badly, Spencer," Rick began, sitting down with them. "We stitched her up and she'll need to take care of the sutures until they come out. The muscles of her chest are bruised from the impact of the airbag, which also left a burn on her chin. That happens a lot with airbag deployment. They inflate so fast that the material burns the skin."

Spencer nodded dumbly. A lot of what was being said was sailing over her head as she swum in her relief. She couldn't get past the fact that she had come so close to losing Ashley and now was being handed a second chance.

(I'm not gonna screw this up, this time. Whether she wants me to or not, I'm gonna help her) Spencer vowed, determined. She was not going to risk losing the girl she was realizing she loved because said girl had a stubborn streak a country mile wide.

"Her ribs are bruised as well so she's going to be fairly sore for awhile. She's damn lucky though. It could have been a lot worse, especially since she didn't get immediate medical attention," Rick pointed out. "And she came dangerously close to overdosing. Oxy is a highly dangerous drug to try and take the way she did. A little more and well…"

Spencer felt her stomach roll uncomfortably at Rick's words, the thought of having found Ashley lying among the trash, dead from an overdose making her weak kneed and sick.

"God was watching her," Arthur said simply. Spencer wanted to argue the validity of that assessment given how depressed and lost Ashley seemed to be at the moment. Again, she didn't understood how God could make her friend suffer so much. But she decided that now was not the appropriate time for a theological debate.

"When can she go home?" Spencer wondered, then thinking to herself that being left alone in the Davies mansion was probably the last thing the fragile brunette needed.

"Probably tomorrow," Rick responded. "The nurses weren't able to get a hold of Ashley's parents…" Spencer chuckled humorlessly.

"You probably won't either. Her father is a rock musician and I think he's on tour on the East Coast. Her mother is…well I don't know what she does but she'd never home," she explained.

"Oh. Then I guess she'll have to stay until…" Rick began.

"We're going to take her to our house tomorrow, when she's released," Arthur broke in, startling Spencer. While she was thrilled to hear this discussion, she didn't want to be in the room when her mother found out that Ashley was going to be staying with them. Paula was bound to flip out and start screaming which was the last thing Spencer wanted to deal with right now.

"Thanks, Dad," she said, hugging her father again. He looked at her and smiled, nodding his head in understanding. She felt a rush of affection for the older man for his thoughtfulness and openness.

"Can I see her?" she asked, looking hopefully at Rick. Rick nodded.

"She's still unconscious and probably will be for awhile. And when she does wake up, she's going to be in a fair amount of pain but we can't give her anything with everything else that's in her system. I'm afraid Tylenol is the best we can do." Spencer nodded, understanding.

"Third door on your right, Spencer," Arthur said, giving her a slight push in the right direction. "I'll be there in a little while. I need to make a few phone calls first." Spencer was already half-way down the hall. She waved over her shoulder to acknowledge him and approached the door.

Suddenly she felt light-headed. She wasn't sure if it was from relief or what but it stopped her cold with her hand hovering a few centimeters above the cool metal handle. Ashley was behind that door, lying injured, scared and hiding from something she felt she couldn't share with Spencer. It made the blonde feel small, insignificant in the face of Ashley's demons.

She desperately wanted to brunette to open up and let her in, let her help guide the older girl out of the hole she seemed to have fallen into, or perhaps dug herself into, Spencer wasn't sure. But in the time she spent waiting for her father and Rick to return, she had come to the conclusion that it was indeed herself that was driving Ashley away. Not anything she really did so much as a simple possibility.

The pattern of Ashley's withdrawal and self-destructive spiral down into the depths of her own private hell started that day, on the beach when Spencer admitted to liking girls. For whatever reason, Spencer figured that she had set off something in Ashley, some fear that had engulfed the fragile musician and caused her to flee, literally and metaphorically. She felt guilty, in a round about sort of way, that her own personal discovery had created the rift between them. She knew that she was gay; that much wasn't in question any longer. And she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was in love with Ashley.

(I love her…wow it feels so great to admit that. Great and terrifying at the same time. I mean, I'm in love with a girl. Ashley told me that it wasn't going to be easy being who I am and putting up with the discrimination and whatever. But…I can do it; I could be strong enough if I have Ashley with me.)

She finally pressed down on the door handle, hearing the lock slide as it gave. She pushed open the door and gasped as she looked at Ashley lying still on the bed. She was pale; paler than even on the beach earlier, looking so small and frail under the dim lighting. She never realized how tiny Ashley really was; the girl's usual exuberant attitude made her seem larger than life. In reality, Ashley was smaller than Spencer and the blonde had never really realized it before this moment.

Ashley's normally shining locks were dry now but matted by salt water and sand, spilling in tangles on the pillow under her head. A large bandage covered the gash on her forehead, all ready showing spots of blood through it. Spencer hoped that the bleeding was going stop soon.

Ashley's arms were wrapped in various places from what Spencer could see as the brunette lay unconscious, her bruised face slack as she breathed. And yet, despite the bruising, redness, pale hue to her skin and bandages, Spencer thought the other girl was simply breathtaking.

Spencer quietly pulled up a chair beside the bed and grasped Ashley's limp hand, feeling relieved that it was warmer than it had been when they'd found her. She took a few minutes to examine Ashley's long fingers, some of them scraped and cut. Silently, she lifted the hand to her mouth and gently kissed each of the fingers, letting her own tears finally splash down. Spencer made no attempt to stop them or wipe them away, feeling that in many ways the falling water was cleansing, washing away the guilt and fear that had consumed her earlier.

She wasn't sure what to say, the myriad of thoughts and feelings getting clogged in her throat in their bid for freedom. They tripped over each other, leaving Spencer with nothing left to express herself with other than a heavy sigh.

She ran a trembling hand through her blonde hair, mussing it further than the wind on the beach had managed. She tugged on the end of it, a childhood tick indicating frustration and worry. Her stomach had started to churn again, making her mouth water uncomfortably. She desperately hoped she wasn't about to vomit while she sat there.

Ashley whimpered on the bed, drawing Spencer from her inner musings. She watched the brunette's head toss and turn as she continued to whimper. Spencer sat up slightly, bringing herself closer to the unconscious girl.

"Sshhh, Ashley," she whispered, finally finding her voice, however low and raspy it was. "You're safe here. I'm here." Ashley let out one more low whimper before becoming silent again, her fidgeting stopping. Spencer stroked at her hair, grains of sand separating from the mats and falling to the pillow.

(What haunts you so much, Ashley? Why did you almost die, not just today but the last time? What drives you to such a dark place…and why can't I seem to bring you out of it?)

She thought back to her father's story of Ashley's brush with death, trying to imagine what it would have been like if she'd been gone when they moved there. So many of her memories, most of them in fact, revolved around or involved Ashley in some way. From her first day of school, her first school dance, her first friendships, all of it, Ashley played a key role in it. It just seemed unfathomable to her to imagine Ashley not there for it.

(I'd probably still be a cheerleader…ew I'd be one of Madison's clone army, how horrible. Ashley freed me from that living hell. Because of her I was confident enough to quit the squad, despite Glen's yelling at me and Madison's condescending looks. If it wasn't for Ashley, I probably never would have seen that I could be strong, that I could stand independently without following the herd. I understand that not conforming is a good thing because Ashley showed me that)

She continued stroking Ashley's dirty hair, the action soothing herself as well as the brunette.

(I wonder what I would have done without Ashley to show me so much about myself? I'd probably still be my mother's 'perfect little angel'. I was starting to get annoyed with that back in Ohio but just wasn't brave enough to speak up for myself. With Ashley, you learn to be.)

She gazed into Ashley's battered features, her knuckles carefully stroking the bruises marring her skin.

(And I'd be dating Aiden, denying the truth even to myself. God, I never really realized exactly how much I owed her) She smiled warmly at Ashley.

"You helped me discover myself, Ashley. You've helped me so much, with adjusting here in LA to accepting who I am. But you've never asked for anything from me. You've done all these things without me asking, simply by being you and being there for me. I owe you so much for everything you've done. Now it's my turn to help you."

(You just have to let me)

To Be Continued

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