“Do you believe in ghosts, Lili?”
The voice that Cole put on was ridiculous, and Lili rolled her eyes at him to indicate that she thought as much. He laughed as he grabbed her shoulder and pulled her in against him, kissing the top of her head affectionately. He’d been in a good mood ever since they landed - gleeful, even. As though by simply moving away from the confines of Vancouver, the context of work, he was immediately freed to be this - happy, carefree, relaxed Cole.
Luggage in hand, they looked up at the gaudy pink facade of the Queen Anne Hotel - apparently one of San Francisco’s most haunted spots, which looked anything but spooky in the garish light of day.
Cole turned to her. “You ready?” She nodded excitedly.
When he’d first suggested it for their weekend away, she was reluctant. Having been accustomed to their getaways in the wild woods of British Columbia, San Francisco felt like a strange, random choice. Throw in a haunted hotel, and it seemed downright bizarre. But Cole’s stubbornness, and his powers of persuasion, were the stuff of legend; he’d once spent three days locked in a bitter stalemate with Roberto over what breed Hot Dog should be, and lost, but just barely, and not for lack of trying.
While Lili was proud of the fact that she was less susceptible to Cole’s nagging (one of the advantages of being his actual girlfriend and being on the receiving end of his pleas all too often), she was certainly not immune to being swayed by a pair of piercing, pleading blue eyes and countless sleepy conversations in the morning while she was still enveloped in his arms. This, he knew, was totally unfair on his part: she was completely undone in his embrace.
“But it would be so good, Lils,” he said, nuzzling her bare belly with his nose, right where he knew it tickled. She giggled and kicked at him half-heartedly. He looked at her with a glint of mischief in his eye before biting down - gently, but firm enough to leave a mark - causing her to sit upright, cussing up a storm, before whacking him soundly with a pillow.
“Not cool,” she mumbled, rubbing gingerly at the spot where he’d bitten her, before lying back down. He smiled before bending down to kiss it apologetically, getting a sarcastic little pat on the cheek in return.
“Seriously, though,” he said, resting his cheek back on her stomach and looking up at her. “It would be intriguing, right?”
“I don’t know, Cole. I mean, why would I want to stay overnight at a haunted hotel? That’s just asking for it.”
“Asking for what, exactly?”
“Like, asking to be haunted, I guess?”
Cole’s head popped up as he gave her a skeptical look. “You don’t believe in that shit, do you?”
“Hey, might I remind you that your own brother believes in that shit? Remember when he freaked out at the Chateau Marmont?”
“Yeah, but that’s Dylan. Which reminds me, I need to send him my monthly text message asking him if he’s felt any more of that weird energy he was harping on about.” Lili smirked at that. Round infinity of the Sprouse Roast Battle. “As for you, though, I thought you’d be more of a skeptic about that sort of stuff.”
“Me?” Lili paused, chewing on her bottom lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I’d say that I have a healthy dose of fear and superstition. Like, say, if someone read my tea leaves or something and said that they saw misfortune in my future? Eh. Whatever.”
Cole grinned at her, the dimples over his top lip deepening in the laugh that threatened to spill out of him. “Alright, ‘fess up, Lils. Who read your tea leaves? Was it Mads? It was totally Mads, right?”
“No!” Lili laughed. “She’s a vegan, Cole, not some earth goddess.”
“Oh, come on, like she wouldn’t be reading your tea leaves.”
“Okay. First of all, no-one read my tea leaves. I was making a point. Secondly, you know I don’t drink tea. It’s basically —“
“Flavoured hot water, yes, you’ve said so a million times.”
“Exactly. And thirdly, leave my beautiful precious vegan bean alone.” Cole laughed and settled his head back on her tummy. “Anyway, that sort of stuff, I wouldn’t sweat. But staying overnight at a hotel that’s actually known to be haunted? Come on. That’s some serious, next-level insanity.”
“I’m just saying,” he mumbled, face down on her bare skin. “It would be interesting.”
Lili narrowed her eyes. “Okay. Out with it, Sprouse. What’s your angle? Why are you pushing so hard for this?”
“No angle.” Cole slung his arm over her waist and looked up at her. “Just, you know, a fun weekend with my girl. And the pictures would be cool, don’t you think?”
She pushed a lock of hair away from his eyes. “There are cool pictures to be taken anywhere, and you of all people should know that.”
“Okay, fine then. It would be an adventure. And you love adventures, don’t you?”
Lili smiled, still bashful over his reference to her birthday greeting. “Yeah, but to somewhere that potentially houses a ghostly presence?”
He sat up and stared at her levelly. “Wow. You honestly don’t remember?”
She racked her brain desperately. Nothing stood out. “Sorry. I’m out.”
“Come on. The abandoned mental hospital? Season 1 shooting in Coquitlam?” He looked mildly hurt. “I thought you would’ve made the connection, Lils. It’s coming up to a year.”
Shit. Of course. Lili wanted to smack herself in the face. Did she really forget? Wait. That didn’t sound right. She made the calculations in her head.
“Cole, that was in November. We’re planning for this weekend in October.”
Lili laughed. “It’s barely close!”
“It’s close enough. ”
“Well, you made me feel like shit for forgetting. And I didn’t.” Her eyes softened at the memory. “Come on. How could I forget that?”
Indeed, how could she? Riverview Hospital. Filming Episode 6. Cole, surrounded by the debris of a decrepit asylum, his hands cupping her face, the two of them emotional but also laughing at the absurdity of having a moment in the midst of an abandoned mental hospital, of all places.
As they now stood in front of the Queen Anne, his arm around her shoulder, hers wrapped around his waist, she recognised that perhaps it had slipped her mind momentarily because all of that felt like a whole lifetime ago. In that moment, as they lay in bed, caught up in travel plans and each other, those days of secrecy and second-guessing and sneaking kisses around the set seemed like ancient history.
It was his question, unintentionally, that brought it all back. It reminded her of the days when she was unsure about what she meant to him, or even what he meant to her. When he was nothing but an apparition that lurked in the corners of her mind and made her heart clench in its tender, invisible grip.
Do you believe in ghosts, Lili?
She sure did.
He was once one of hers.
It was at auditions for Riverdale that they’d first crossed paths. She’d been engrossed in her script, running over lines in her head with her earphones plugged in, barely conscious of the fact that some guy she had never met before had been nudging her foot repeatedly to get her attention. One last, hard nudge did it: she finally looked up, startled, as he motioned for her to remove her earphones.
“Hey, are you Lili?” She nodded and replied in the affirmative. “I think they’re calling your name.”
Her first thought was, oh, shit. She scrambled to get all her things together, willing herself to stay calm.
Her second thought, as she conversed briefly with Foot Nudge Guy, was, oh, hey. Kinda cute?
But she had no time to extend that thought as she hurriedly said goodbye to her friend Israel (who was trying out for both Archie and Jughead) and rushed off into her audition. It wasn’t until later when Israel came over to catch up and debrief over dinner that she realised who it was.
“You are bullshitting me.” She froze while rummaging in the kitchen drawer. “Cole Sprouse? Like, Cody Martin Cole Sprouse ? You’re telling me that he was the guy who was nudging my foot?”
“Yeah, it was definitely him. They called his name out and everything,” replied Israel. He laughed suddenly. “Everyone in the room was falling all over themselves to get a glimpse of him, and you were literally the only person he spoke to, and you barely noticed him.”
Lili shrugged sheepishly. “Well, I was prepping for my audition.”
“Fair. Also, I think he might’ve been auditioning for Archie as well. Just my luck.”
“Aw, come on. You totally should’ve just psyched him out, Izzy. Stared him down, or pushed him as you walked past or something.”
Israel laughed. “Fuck, dude. Like I’m really gonna psych out Cole Sprouse. The guy’s been acting since he was in diapers.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lili paused thoughtfully. She thought of the guy that she saw at the audition - completely unassuming, determinedly normal - and felt a pang of sympathy for him, an actor who was just trying to book a job, but with all the added pressure of everyone staring and speculating and wanting a piece of him. “I wonder what drew him back to acting.”
“Who knows? Didn’t he and his brother go to college for a while?”
“That’s what I heard.”
Just then, Israel’s phone buzzed on the table. He gave Lili a nervous glance before picking it up. He read it quickly, then his face fell. “Shit. My agent. I didn’t get the part.”
“Aw, Iz.” She walked over and consoled him by patting his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Israel visibly relaxed. “Actually, you know what? This is good. I don’t think I told you - I auditioned for this other film, which went really well, and I was kinda nervous that I’d have to pick between that and Riverdale if I got this one, too.”
“That’s awesome. So I guess the universe made that decision for you, huh?”
“And, you know, worse comes to worse, you’ve always got my famous curly fries to give you solace.”
“More like your frozen bag specialty curly fries.”
Lili beamed as the oven timer sounded. “Hey, don’t hate. Haters don’t get curly fries.”
She was pulling the fries out of the oven when her phone rang. Israel glanced at her. As working actors, they knew what a phone call meant, as opposed to a text message.
“Yep. I know.” Lili took a deep breath and held her phone in her hand as it kept ringing. She faced away from the room, keeping her face close to one of the kitchen walls. Inhale, exhale. Repeat. She finally answered the call. “Hi, Lili here.”
The next few moments were a blur, out of which she could only remember the most mundane details. The heat emanating from the open oven. The tired, pale pink paint of the wall she was facing. The distinct smell of fries. And the way she looked down at her shirt to check if it was puffing out from how hard and fast her heart was beating.
She hung up and turned to Israel, tears in her eyes. He knew. And she would remember what he was about to say to her in that moment for a long time. She would mark it as the veil that divided her life into Before and After, foreshadowing not only Riverdale, but everything else - Vancouver, the long days and nights of shooting, the thrill and loneliness of her sudden skyrocket to fame, the comfort of unexpected friendships.
And, of course, Cole.
“Lils,” Israel said in a half-whisper. “I literally just watched your life change.”
That was the beginning. Back then, Cole had been a half-formed spectre that dipped its toe into her head every now and then, making the occasional ripple.
And then she took his jacket home by accident, and things started to change.
Roberto had called her not long after her agent did, warmly congratulating her on getting the part and looking to arrange a meeting with her and the guy who booked Jughead’s role.
“We haven’t confirmed it with him just yet,” Roberto said, laughing. “So we’ll hold off letting you know who it is for now. It’ll be a good surprise on the day.”
Despite the uncertainty, Lili was excited. She knew that the show had only been green-lit for a pilot episode at that point, but the prospect of working on a potentially big project - one that could mean a new life as a full-fledged working actress - thrilled her. And she was also excited to meet one of her future castmates.
Walking into the production office that day, Lili regretted not bringing a cardigan. It was an unusually hot spring day in LA, and as a result, the building was blasting its air conditioner at full strength. She’d dressed carefully for the meeting, mimicking an outfit she saw on Betty in one of the special edition Betty comics - a red, strappy sundress with yellow flowers printed on it. She found it at a thrift store, and couldn’t believe her luck. She knew that Roberto, being the creative director of the comics, would recognise it immediately and appreciate the reference.
What she wasn’t expecting was the fact that the guy playing Jughead would recognise it, too.
Or that said guy was Cole Sprouse.
What. The actual. Fuck. She recognised him and silently cursed Israel for getting the guy’s audition details wrong. He said Cole was auditioning for Archie! How am I supposed to deal with this now?
Cole was already seated and reading (she caught a glimpse of Hemingway on the book spine), and suddenly she feared doing something stupid or awkward as she walked into the reception area. Somehow, she managed not to trip over herself, or make a strange noise, or stare longer than necessary, and for that she quietly congratulated herself.
She couldn’t help it, though - she stole a quick glance. Lili realised that she had only been partially right about him seeming normal. Because while he did look the part - dressed as he was in dark khakis, a plain white shirt, worn tan jacket, with a large backpack sitting at his feet - her keen eyes recognised that he carried with him the aura and glow of difference, of being just a little more special than everyone else. It was in his eyes - they were bright, active, perpetually amused. They carried the playful air of a prince pretending to be a pauper.
Lili sat down two seats away from him, unsure whether she should initiate a conversation. As it turned out, she didn’t need to worry - he spoke to her first.
“Betty comics, number 12, 1994,” Cole said, startling her out of her apprehension. She looked up, and he was looking at her with a subtle, half-formed smile. “Right?”
“Uh, excuse me?”
“Your outfit. It’s Betty’s. From the special edition Betty spin-off.” He looked away and chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully. “Or maybe it was number 11?”
“Number 13, actually. ‘Paper Caper.’” Lili smiled at him. “But good try.”
“Ah, damn it. Knew I should’ve crammed for the impromptu Archie universe quiz.” Cole leaned over and offered his hand. “I’m Cole, by the way.”
She took his hand and shook it. It was warm to the touch, and his handshake was firm while the skin was smooth, though slightly calloused at the knuckles. A craftsman’s hands. She remembered that he was a photographer now. “Hey, Cole. I’m — “
“Lili, yeah. From auditions. I remember.”
What the hell? He remembers me? She masked her surprise by laughing at the memory. “That’s right, I think I have you and your foot to thank for getting me to my audition in time.”
“Damn straight. My foot will now take a small cut of all future earnings as a token of your gratitude.”
She laughed. “Sweet. Does it take AMEX?”
“This is a cash-only operation, kid. Sorry.”
“Cash-only, huh? And here I was thinking this was completely legit.”
“Whoa, hey. Cole Sprouse, Foot and Co is a totally legitimate outfit.”
There it was. His name, his famous, well-known name - though couched within a joke - was now released into the ether. She felt it hanging in the air between them - an unwanted phantom reminding them that they weren’t just two random strangers who managed to hit it off immediately, that his fame made it a little more complicated than that. She could tell that he knew it, too, and that, like her, he was regretting the awkward halt to their spitfire banter. She decided to change the subject. “So... you know comics, huh?”
Cole beamed. Lili was touched to see his relief at the distraction. “Oh, yeah. I worked at this huge comic book store on Sunset Boulevard for a while.”
“You mean Meltdown?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.” His eyes lit up. “You know it?”
“I do,” Lili said. “I, um, actually have this thing for special effects make-up, and I’ve been there a few times to pick up some inspiration.”
“No kidding. You got any pictures of your work?”
She felt shy all of a sudden. “Yeah. Did you wanna see them?”
Cole got up and settled into the seat right next to her. “I do, actually. I’d love to.”
She unlocked her phone, opening to the album containing all of her work before leaning over to show him. This close, she caught his scent; a mix of pine, laundry soap, and the faint undertone of cigarettes. She wasn’t sure why, but she consciously committed it to memory.
“So, um, these are a few that I did on some friends…”
She swiped through, showing him pictures of cosplay makeup she had done during Comic Con season, some prosthetic work (which fascinated Cole the most), and some Halloween looks she had experimented with. She was in the middle of showing him her 2D Wonder Woman look when he paused, seemingly intent on something, before gently placing his hand on her forearm.
It was a jolt to her senses. It was so sudden, yet so innocent and unassuming. She looked up at him, and their eyes met. They were close enough that she could take a closer look at him, count the freckles and moles that formed a constellation on his face.
“Goosebumps,” he announced matter-of-factly. “You’re cold.”
“Um, yeah,” she conceded. This close to him, she could barely think straight. “It’s freezing in here.”
Cole stood up and shrugged his jacket off. “Here, put this on.”
“What? Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly --”
“Lili. Honestly, it’s fine.” She felt a small, unexpected thrill at the sound of her name coming out of his lips. It sounded both foreign and familiar, as though he’d known how to say it his entire life, and she was hearing him say it for the first time today. “Besides, I’ve been numbed and hardened to the cold by many a bitter New York winter.” As he said this, he put on an old man voice, which cracked her up. “This jacket is purely for aesthetic purposes.”
She took the jacket from him and put it on. Aside from the extra bulk, it felt like a second skin - warm, well-worn, comfortable, protective. She looked down at her outfit. “Not much of a Betty now, though, am I?”
Cole shrugged and smiled. “Still looks good.”
Lili froze while her mind went overdrive. Was that a compliment? Wait, is he flirting with me? Are we FLIRTING? But before she had time to think this through, a door had opened and a PA was inviting them to step in. Cole picked his bag up and gave her a bemused look before gesturing ceremoniously towards the door.
“Well,” he said. “Shall we?”
The meeting was fairly casual, with Roberto wanting his first two co-stars to meet each other properly and to get a glimpse into the planned narrative arcs for their respective characters (if the pilot was successful). The entire process was fascinating to both of them - Cole had obviously been out of acting for a while, and Lili had never worked on anything as large-scale as Roberto was planning for Riverdale to be. A whirlwind of storyboards and script teases and sketches made time pass quickly, and soon Lili found herself being ushered back out to the waiting area with Cole. Both of them were buzzing with anticipation.
“Well…” Lili started. The sentence trailed off and finished in a grin. There was no other response, no words for how excited she felt about working on Riverdale.
“Yeah.” Cole nodded. He seemed to be in a daze as well. He caught her eye and she couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing. He did, too. Out of pure mirth. As if they couldn’t believe their luck.
“This is crazy, right?” she said.
“Absolutely fucking crazy.” A short pause settled into their conversation as Cole seemed to mull something over. “Hey, you doing anything right now?”
Lili’s joyful mood dissolved as it gave way to nerves. Is he…? No. Don’t be ridiculous, Lili. Anyway, you’ve got something on. Gah. “Um… I am, actually,” she said. “I’m catching up with a friend over dinner. I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“Ah.” Cole nodded. “You live around here though, right? LA?”
“Yep. I’m an Ohio girl, though.”
“Awesome. We should hang out sometime.”
It was a statement, not a question, and from anyone else, at any other given time, it would’ve sounded arrogant. But not from Cole. Because Lili knew, as well as he did, that he was just following through to the natural conclusion of the afternoon they just had - the banter, the ease, the strong, natural pull between them. It was beyond chemistry. It felt… spiritual. Supernatural.
Still, given who he was and how closely they’d be working together in the next few months, she was naturally hesitant. And so she was surprised to hear herself replying:
“Yeah, we should.”
Lili knew, from the moment they exchanged numbers, from the way she watched the deft movement of his fingers as they entered her contact details into his phone. She knew when he pulled her in for a hug before saying goodbye and felt her body melting into his. She knew when she jumped into her Uber and realised, with a surprise, that she was still wearing his jacket. And that he didn’t ask for it back, either.
She knew . It was a foregone conclusion.
She was haunted by Cole.
The next few months passed by in a golden blur. Slowly, Lili’s days filled up with preparing for Riverdale. And with Cole. He texted her often, and called most nights. She met Dylan, as well as Cole’s entire social set from the West Coast, and soon became friends with them as well. He took her around to where he was staying in LA - at Debby’s - where they’d watch sunsets and pet her cats while talking about everything and nothing at all. He gave her unnecessarily detailed lectures on how to use her camera. She sent him memes.
At first, it was fine. She figured that whatever she felt for him at the production meeting was a fluke and would eventually dissolve with time. Except... they didn’t. Instead, she could feel something taking root in her heart. Whether it was infatuation or love, she couldn’t quite tell just yet. But it was there. And it made her panic.
When he told her how he felt for her, his confession whispered in the early hours of morning as they lay together on the couch at Debby’s place, that panic was replaced by euphoria, which was only heightened with each frenzied kiss, each extended ‘good night’ over the phone. They kept things between them for the time being, wanting to preserve and protect this still-undefined thing that they had, away from all the noise. They carefully avoided any talk of the future, living day to day just as Cole had promised: tomorrow, he had said. Tomorrow, you’ll still have me. And, faithfully, Lili held onto that.
But with each day that passed on the Riverdale set, the harsh black and white of reality slowly seeped into the technicolor dream that was her world with Cole. The hours were long, the schedule was gruelling, and she found herself mentally and physically exhausted by the demands of playing Betty Cooper. She started feeling more moody and brooding, despite Cole’s best efforts to make her laugh, as well as his constant insistence on pulling her into some unknown corner on set to sneak in a secret kiss. At first, she put it down to simple fatigue, and took naps whenever she could. But as the weeks wore on, she felt essentially the same, and it worried her.
One morning, after a night of tossing and turning, Lili turned up early to the Riverdale stages, where they were filming for the day. She’d woken up at 5 after finally drifting off to sleep only four hours prior to that. Frustrated at having gotten so little sleep, she threw off her covers and picked up her phone to check the time, and saw that she missed a text from Cole.
“KJ still shredding his guitar at 2 am. He claims that the apartment is sound-proof but clearly it’s not inconsideration-proof. Tempted to call cops on ourselves. Live with me? Please? KENETI SUX (don’t tell him I said that).”
It should have made Lili smile. Except that she noted the same strain of worry tugging at her, making her feel anxious. She tried to shrug it off, but as she got up to get ready for the day, she felt it sticking to her ribs and crowding her lungs.
“Lili?” Madelaine walked into out into living room, bleary-eyed and still in her pajamas. The two girls were sharing an apartment in Vancouver, which Lili was grateful for. They were both homebodies, happy to bunker down and watch old episodes of Friends while everyone else was out partying. “What the hell? Are we due on set this early?”
“No, babe. Go back to sleep. We’re due in at 9.” Lili got a mug out and starting spooning coffee granules into it. “I just woke up early, that’s all.”
Madelaine gave her a look as she eyed the coffee container in Lili’s hand. “Uh, Lils? You don’t drink coffee.”
“And that’s my organic, shade-grown, vegan-certified coffee.” She considered Lili carefully. “Are you okay?”
Lili picked up the container and looked at the label. “Huh. Didn’t realise. Should do me fine, though.”
Madelaine walked over to her. “Hey, look at me.” Lili turned, and Madelaine gasped in fake horror. “Okay, whoa, we are gonna need some face masks tonight because those eye bags are killing me, girl. Those are Cole level eye bags.” Lili gave a short, humourless laugh at that. “Honestly though, are you alright? You haven’t been yourself these past few days.”
“I know, Mads. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, don’t be sorry. That’s you, and that’s how you feel. Doesn’t matter what it’s about. Don’t apologise for that.” Madelaine rubbed her back, and Lili felt tears welling up in her eyes. She was tired and worried for no apparent reason, and Mads was being so kind and maternal, and it took all of her energy and willpower not to burst into frustrated tears. She turned to her and gave her a quick hug.
“Thanks. I’ll be okay. And, um…” Lili looked pointedly and regretfully at the mug of unmade vegan coffee.
Madelaine rolled her eyes and laugh. “Yep, I’ll get rid of this.”
Lili smiled and headed out the door. “Love you, Mads.”
“Love you too, Lils.”
Lili drove in to the studio lot. There was hardly anyone at the stages when she walked in. Britta, one of the series writers, waved at her happily and came over. “Hey, Lilibeth,” she said, using the crew’s favourite nickname for Lili. “Shit, what time is it? I didn’t know you guys were due to come in already.”
“Nah, you’re fine. I got up early, actually.” On cue, Lili stifled a yawn. “Thought I might as well come to set, get some prep work in.”
“Yeah, well, don’t work yourself too hard just yet. It’ll probably be a while before we start shooting. Have a walk around for now. Hair and makeup should be getting set up soon.”
“No problem. Oh, and hey, is Cole around?”
Lili went still. Why was she being asked about Cole ? Did they know? For some reason, this bothered her more than it should have. “Um, no...? Why?”
“Oh, I’ve just got something on script he needs to check. No biggie. I’ll catch you later, okay?”
Lili picked up a hot chocolate from craft services and walked around the stages, stopping to chat and say hi to people here and there. As sleep-deprived as she was, she was enjoying this - seeing the cameras rolled out across the floor, the set designers hard at work adding little details to each interior, the script supervisors flipping through the scripts and marking things off their lists.
This was the life she had chosen, since age 14. There was no Plan B for her - she decided that for herself a long time ago. It was going to be acting or nothing. And now here she was, in the midst of a dream come true, and yet something was niggling at her, and she couldn’t figure it out.
As Lili walked past the Cooper house stage, she slowed down.
She and Cole would be filming there the next day - their first onscreen kiss. She remembered, with a smile, how they had received the script and read over it together in her apartment, kiss included and all. He played the role of director too, joking that each kiss wasn’t good enough (“Come on, I’m just not FEELING it, Lili.” “Shut up, Cole.” “Make me.” And she did).
Standing here now, though, she felt none of that pure elation and only felt… apprehension. They had joked about it all week since reading the script, but now that they were coming up to it, Lili felt more and more nervous, almost as if…
Hang on .
She stopped in her tracks. The truth finally crashed over her.
It was simple. So simple she couldn’t believe that she hadn’t seen it coming. Her reaction to Cole’s text that morning, Britta’s innocent query regarding his whereabouts...
She was running scared.
It was staring her straight in the face, literally, as she faced the exterior of the Cooper house stage. Here, her work, her dreams, and all the sweat and toil she had invested into them, were about to intersect with a relationship that was still taking its first, tentative steps.
And she had no idea what was going to happen.
Because this wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. Not in her mind. Not when she started out on this path. She had landed the biggest role of her career and the trajectory of her life was meant to be straightforward and predictable from then on.
Cole, however, was an unexpected twist in the tale. She didn’t see him coming, and now that they had collided head-on, she was reeling from the impact.
The questions came to her mind, fast and unbidden.
What if we hold each other back?
What if this doesn’t work?
What happens when people find out?
What happens when we fight?
What if he loses his focus?
What if I lose mine?
And, most painful of all. What if I lose HIM?
Lili walked up the steps to the Cooper house in a half-daze, and she sat herself down on the doorstep to collect her thoughts. The euphoria and afterglow of being with Cole had kept all these questions at bay, but now, as reality was setting in, they were being unleashed, and she was powerless to stop them.
Suddenly, everything she took for granted in the past few months was overshadowed by the cold sting of fear.
Suddenly, she wasn’t sure she wanted this kiss to happen.
Lili felt out of sorts for the rest of that day. Thankfully, it was a light day, shooting-wise - just a few filler scenes before they got around to the heavier sequences over the next few days.
Cole arrived on set later in the afternoon, just as Lili was finishing. He was on his way out of the makeup trailer when she stepped in for her clean-up. She was so lost in her thoughts that she bumped into him on the steps leading up.
“Whoa!” he said, laughing as he steadied her by the shoulders. “Has someone been drinking the acetone?”
“Cole,” she breathed out. She felt spooked seeing him, as if her thoughts had materialised this apparition standing in front of her.
“Yeah.” Lili racked her brains for something, anything, to say. “So, ah, you’re shooting today?”
Cole gave her a funny look. ”Yeah. I work here, Lils. Not just a pretty face, you know.” He smirked at her, eyebrows raised, lips slightly puckered - a deliberate ‘pretty’ pose. Despite the fact that it was so ridiculous and put on, it still melted her.
“Of course, yeah. Stupid question.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You sure you’re alright?”
“Totally.” She forced herself to smile. “Oh. Hey. I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your text earlier.”
“KJ shredding guitar at 2 am. Hang on, you sent me another one?” She slipped her hand into her pocket, looking for her phone.
“Yeah, just a few hours ago. I figured you’d be filming.” He chuckled at a sudden memory. “Oh, and as for KJ, I ended up throwing a carrot at his head. Not my most impressive enactment of a visual metaphor - because ‘carrot top’, of course - but it got the message across.”
“You guys actually have carrots at your place?”
Cole rolled his eyes. “KJ juices.”
“Oh. Right.” Despite herself, she giggled at the mental image she had conjured of KJ chopping up vegetables and throwing them into a blender (“Carrots. Pineapple. Ginger. Legends.”).
He smiled at the sight of her laughing. “Hey, so, the text I sent you. Apparently, this place we’re shooting at in two days? Is haunted as fuck. ”
“Really?” She slid the lock button on her screen to open his message, and there it was - a screenshot of an article he’d been reading on Atlas Obscura. She looked at the description and read it out loud. “‘Riverview Hospital, historic insane asylum… what untold stories could be uncovered from the relics of an institution that has witnessed the torment of so many personal demons?' Holy shit.”
“Right?” Cole looked as though all his dreams had come true. “So you in?”
“Am I in? For what?”
Cole gave an enigmatic little grin. “A little urban exploring adventure.”
On any given day, Lili would have jumped at the opportunity. But not today, not after her earlier revelation on the steps of the Cooper house. She wasn’t sure she could take some extended alone time with Cole right now. “Look. It sounds great. But honestly, I am way too much of a wuss for that.”
Cole scoffed. “You? Seriously? Come on. And anyway, I’ll be there. I’ll bring my camera and everything. It’ll be fun.”
“Cole.” Lili was starting to fret inside. She had to dissuade him somehow. This would be in two days. It was going to be the day after their kiss scene. She wasn’t sure how that was going to work, what the aftermath would be.
“What?” His face fell slightly. “You don’t wanna come?”
“Can I just… can I let you know closer to the day?”
Cole shrugged, obviously a little disappointed. “Alright then. Just let me know soon. I want you there, Lils.” He leaned in slightly, his voice dropping. “It won’t be much of an adventure without you.” He looked around quickly before swooping in to kiss her playfully on the cheek, and walked off in the direction of the stages.
Lili felt the outline of his lips on her skin as she watched him leave, and knew that it would stay there for a while.
Don’t do that, she thought. Don’t make me fall harder for you than I’m falling right now.
The morning drive felt like a meditation. Lili had woken up extra early to prepare herself for the scene, reading over her script again, reciting it out loud to herself, then repeating it without the paper in front of her.
But that was just a distraction. After all, she was always pretty good with memorising dialogue. On her drive to the set, she was focusing on an entirely different set of words.
It’s just another scene.
It’s just another scene.
It’s just another scene.
She repeated it to herself like a mantra as she drove, and if she had a little bit longer - an extra day, perhaps - she would have eventually believed it. But as she pulled into the parking lot, she felt her palms sweating on the steering wheel, her stomach filling with butterflies. She wondered whether Cole was feeling the same.
Come to think of it, he hadn’t messaged her that morning, hadn’t brought the kiss up in conversation in the past few days. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe it would be fine.
But as she slipped on her costume for the day - Betty’s usual jeans paired with a light, cream-coloured V-neck sweater - she became aware of the same questions plaguing her mind from the day before. What if we hold each other back? What if this doesn’t work? What if I lose him?
It was going to be a long day.
Cole was already at the Cooper house stage when she arrived, drinking coffee and laughing with some of the film crew. He caught her eye as she walked in, and he gave her a soft smile and raised his cup at her by way of greeting. Looking to avoid him, she gave him a quick nod and a wave before finding a spot on a couch on the other side of the room, lying down and closing her eyes.
She wasn’t even aware that she’d dozed off until one of the crew tapped her on the shoulder. She got up, had her ponytail fixed quickly, and nervously ascended the stairs to Betty’s bedroom.
She didn’t even get a chance to speak to him properly before shooting started. Steven, their director, was at the bottom of the ladder outside Betty’s window, talking Cole through the scene. He did the same with her earlier, and as she waited, she stared at the bits of duct tape on the floor that marked her blocking cues. They had blocked the scene fairly quickly, and in that time, she and Cole were both bristling with a nervous energy that prevented them from saying too much to one another. They both sensed the significance of the scene. Roberto, who had written the episode, was taking a rare break from working through scripts and was standing next to one of the cameras, eager to see how the scene would pan out. It was a big day for the series: the birth of Bughead.
The scene as it was scripted would be fairly simple: Jughead would knock on the window, wait for Betty to open it, and say his line. He’d climb through, they’d have their exchange and turn to face each other. After that, it was onto the kiss - bold, swift and immediate, just as Roberto and Tessa had written it in the script. She’d be startled, she’d remember Jason’s car, and they’d end it with their sleuthing dialogue. Easy.
Well, easier said than done, Lili thought.
Soon enough, Steven was standing behind the camera, and the scene was ready to be filmed. “Quiet on the set!” someone yelled. Lili sat at Betty’s vanity, fiddling with her necklace. A chorus of voices signalled the start of shooting.
“Roll it— ”
“Thirty-three, take one, and—”
A tap on the window. Lili turned around, performing her first beat perfectly. Cole stepped through into Betty’s room, and they moved seamlessly through their blocking - Betty walking ahead of Jughead, turning to him every now and then as they went through their dialogue.
Betty was meant to be distracted in this scene, and Lili played that up, making sure to avoid looking at Cole. But as he said the line “they’re parents, they’re all crazy,” she couldn’t help it - she looked up briefly, and noticed that his own eyes were downcast. That they seemed to be avoiding her.
Well, that’s different. In rehearsals, Cole usually delivered the line straight, with a confident, knowing smirk. Here, Lili could feel a different energy emanating from him, but she couldn’t name it, couldn’t be distracted, not now when was being swept up in the mood of the scene.
Well. Here we are. Jughead’s big line. The prelude to the kiss. She braced herself.
“What?” she replied.
She looked expectantly at Cole. He should have been kissing her by now. Instead, his gaze flitted anxiously over her, his eyebrows drawn together as though in confusion.
Oh my god. Did he forget this part? The air thickened with tension. Lili grew nervous as she felt the room weighing in on them, and she racked her brain desperately, trying to think of what to do as the cameras kept rolling. She decided to cue him in again. It was technically off-script, but never mind - he’d thank her later for stepping in.
She repeated her line, a little more forcefully. “What?”
And then, there . In that flash of a second, she saw it.
Doubt. Hesitation. Fear.
All in his eyes. All mirroring her own.
In that moment, it shocked her. Cole - confident, self-assured Cole - was standing here in front of her in such vulnerability.
And she saw the truth that had eluded her in these past few days, the one she would’ve guessed at, had she been paying attention.
That she wasn’t the only who was afraid.
That he was haunted, too.
But before she could process any of this properly, she was startled back into the present as he visibly switched gears, stepping in swiftly to close the distance between their lips, right when she least expected it.
It was unlike anything they had ever rehearsed or even done in real life. It wasn’t what the script called for. It started out like a cymbal crash, but turned tenuous and tender - a quiet question mark rather than the decisive full stops or passionate exclamation marks that characterised her kisses with Cole.
And she was hopelessly lost, enveloped in this secret part of him that he was unknowingly letting her into. It felt intimate, to be staring into this fissure that he had exposed. It didn’t scare her; it felt right. It threw her into blissful relief, to feel the tentativeness in that kiss, to feel her own uncertainty mirrored and marked onto her lips by his own.
As they parted, she smiled, purely out of reflex. Cole’s hand was still cupping her face, and he released a deep sigh that seemed to take up his whole body.
Steven’s voice was like a temple bell cutting through the transcendence of the moment, calling them all back to reality. Lili was confused. The scene wasn’t over yet. She turned to the crew and saw that they were all transfixed. Roberto’s eyes were misting over behind his glasses.
“Guys, that was….” He was momentarily lost for words. “That was it. That was the take.”
Britta, who was the script supervisor for the scene, cleared her throat. “Roberto, that wasn’t how you and Tessa planned it on the script here. You okay with that?”
“Am I okay with it?” Roberto shook his head in incredulity and turned to their director, who looked just as moved as the rest of the crew. “What do you think, Steve?”
Steven looked over to Cole and Lili, taking them in thoughtfully, as though he was seeing them in a new light. “I know we still had a few lines to go, but I had to stop it there because I wasn’t sure how you’d play the next beat, and quite frankly, I wanted to make sure that we preserved that on film.”
“Preserved what?” Lili asked.
Steven smiled at her. “Magic.”
Before Lili knew it, the scene had wrapped. She was desperate to speak to Cole, but Roberto had already cornered him in what appeared to be a fairly intense conversation. She loitered around for a few minutes, but gave up after they sat down on the couch, apparently settling in for a long discussion.
It was her only scene for the day. Lili made her way back to the makeup trailer in a pensive daze, watching her feet as they measured out her steps. She had no idea how she ended up seated in front of the mirror, with Erin, the head makeup artist on the show, handing her a cotton ball soaked in cleanser.
“Alright, you beauty,” she said, smiling. “Let’s get you cleaned up and on your way home.”
Lili complied, methodically wiping the makeup off her face. She loved this. For her, it was an important part of her day, this literal stripping away of character. And she especially loved doing it with Erin, who had become a close friend to her in the months that they’d been doing Riverdale together, and who was one of the few people who actually knew about her and Cole. Often, she’d sit in the chair long after her makeup had been taken off, having long talks with her and sharing skin care tips and chocolate.
Erin busied herself with cleaning her brushes while Lili wiped off her eye makeup. “So. Everything go alright with the big scene today?”
Lili paused, the cotton ball poised over her eyelid. “Yeah. It went really well, actually.”
“Great.” Erin smiled warmly at her before turning back to her brushes. This was another reason why Lili loved her. She knew when to leave her be.
They were both quiet for a few moments, with nothing but the sound of running water echoing in the empty trailer. Erin tapped the brushes dry over the sink, then turned around and smiled at Lili through the mirror. “All done, then?”
Lili nodded. Erin took the cotton ball from her and threw it in the bin, before handing her a warm towel.
Lili dangled it loosely in her hand, thinking to herself. “Erin?”
“What do you do when…” Lili’s voice trailed off, and she pursed her lips, unsure of how to complete that sentence. Erin stood by, waiting patiently.
“What do you do,” she started again, “when you’re absolutely sure that you’re right where you want to be, and you want to move things forward, but for some reason… you’re just scared shitless?”
Erin pulled up a chair right next to her and sat down. “Are we talking about a certain young Jeep-driving photographer here?”
“Well… yes. Partially. But it’s to do with everything else as well.” Lili exhaled a long breath. “ Riverdale. Our careers. Everything.”
“Okay.” Erin nodded. “What do you think is making you scared?”
“I don’t know. I keep running through all these questions in my head - questions that maybe I should have been asking myself months ago, but didn’t. Or couldn’t.” Because I was crazy about Cole and still am and everything feels irrelevant whenever he says my name or his hands are on my skin. “Either way, I think they’re all essentially asking the same thing.”
“And what’s that?”
Lili turned her gaze on Erin, her eyes full of worry. “What if this breaks us?” she asked, her voice small. “What if it breaks me? ”
Erin sighed, and took Lili’s hands in hers.
“Lili, how did you get started on all this?”
“What, on Cole?”
Erin chuckled. “No, not Cole, honey. We all know how that started. The boy is very charming. And he was always nuts about you.” Lili smiled at that. “I mean acting. Your career.”
“Well… a lot of auditioning. A lot of getting knocked back.”
“I mean before that. Why did you audition? Why did you keep getting up, even when you got knocked back?”
Lili gave a short laugh. “Because it was the only thing I was good at?”
Erin swatted her arm lightly. “That isn’t even remotely true and you know it. Come on. Tell me.”
Lili paused thoughtfully. “It was the only thing I ever really wanted to do. It’s where my heart was. Or is.” She sighed. “It’s where my heart is.”
“Well.” Erin patted her hand. “Isn’t that your answer, then?”
“My answer? How?”
“Lili. Think about it. Your heart led you to acting. In that process, did it ever betray you?”
“Did it ever fail to warn you of danger? Or lead you to the wrong door?
“Did it ever leave you high and dry? In all those times when you were auditioning and failing and starting over, did it ever leave you short of passion, or tell you to give up?”
Erin leaned forward, making sure that she listened. “Then follow it, Lili. Trust it. It hasn’t led you astray yet, and it won’t start now.”
Suddenly, Lili knew what she had to do.
“Erin…” She had no words. She’ll just have to express her gratitude later. “I’ll be back.”
She stood up and hugged Erin fiercely, before running out of the trailer.
Lili ran to the parking lot, to check if Cole was still around. By sheer luck, she caught him just as he was opening the door to the driver’s seat.
He turned around, startled. She sprinted to his car, which was on the far end of the parking lot. She hadn’t run for a long time, and soon her legs and lungs were on fire. But she couldn’t stop. Somehow, her body was pushing her forward, propelling her to the only person that mattered right now.
But what was she supposed to say? Now, as she stood in front of him, out of breath, all coherent thought abandoned her.
“I, um…” She put her hand to her chest to control her breathing.
“Lils.” His eyes were wide as he took her in. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just… give me a sec… one moment…”
Cole was caught between looking amused and worried. Wordlessly, he took out a water bottle from his car and offered it to her. She shook her head.
Lili straightened up after a while. “Sorry. Were you leaving?”
He shook his head. “I was just grabbing something out of the car.”
“Oh. Right.” She looked him in the eye, and she was suddenly nervous. “Um. Are you still exploring the abandoned asylum tomorrow?
He looked surprised. “Yeah, I am.”
“Is anyone else going with you?”
Cole smirked. “Nah, I think it’s just me and the ghouls tomorrow. Why’d you ask?”
“Just… I would love to come.” She said it tentatively, worried that things had changed since their scene earlier. “Does my invitation still stand?”
Cole looked surprised at that. “Yeah, of course.” She breathed a sigh of relief. They were fine. Thank god. “But… Lils, I thought you were scared?”
“No,” she replied, smiling. “I’m not scared. Not anymore.”
Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam was a sprawling expanse of old, decrepit buildings that extended over a wide acreage of land. It had served many purposes since its inception as The Hospital of the Mind, but had been largely abandoned since the mid-1990s, and was mostly used as a filming location.
Many of the Riverdale crew had already worked there at one point or another, and all of them agreed: while it looked beautiful on film, it was definitely haunted, and none of them liked going anywhere near it.
“Place gives me the creeps,” said one of the lighting guys to Cole as he assembled his camera. “I have no idea why you two are so crazy about going in there. It’s dripping with ghosts.”
But nothing could dissuade Cole, and Lili had her heart set on following him. So as the crew set up the shoot, they went poking about the place, looking for an entrance. Cole was accustomed to urban exploring, while Lili was not, so he ran on ahead of her, rattling various doors and looking for windows they could climb through. Finally, he found one, and Lili felt a rush of affection for him as he poked his head from behind a loose door, his face spread widely into a grin, his hair dishevelled with bits of debris in it.
The entrance he found had a slightly precarious drop, as most of the staircases had crumbled away over time. As Cole took Lili’s hand to help her step in, he said quietly, “You know, there’s like a billion spiders in here.”
Lili yanked her hand away and smacked him on the arm. “Fuck off. I’m out. Seriously, Sprouse. I’m done.”
“Jesus. I was kidding.” Cole’s laugh echoed throughout the empty room. “Anyway, I thought you weren’t scared.”
“Cole, you know I hate spiders.”
“Alright, I’m sorry.” He smiled at her, and she cursed him silently for that smile - that perfect, heartbreaker’s smile that made everything immaterial in its wake. “Shall we?”
Together, they stepped into the room and were hit by the decades-old funk of pent-up dust and refuse and god knows what else. She knew she should have been scared, but somehow she only felt a heavy sort of sadness for what had transpired in the place - this was a mental hospital, after all. Cole seemed to feel it, too, as he suddenly turned quiet and pensive. He lifted his camera and started shooting as they delved further into the building.
They walked through the hospital, exploring long hallways and empty rooms. Cole shot some beautiful images, which he showed her.
“These are brilliant, Cole.”
“You think?” He examined one that he had taken of her standing in a doorway. “Ah. I can do better than that.”
“You’re too hard on yourself.” She gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. “Honestly, these are beautiful. As always.”
Cole shrugged to himself, and she followed at a short distance behind him as he kept shooting away.
Now or never. She took a deep breath. “Cole?”
“We, um… we never got to talk about our scene yesterday. The kiss.”
He lowered the camera, turning to look around at her. “What about it?”
“Well, for starters, that wasn’t how we rehearsed it.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, half-smiling. “Well, at one point we were rehearsing it on your couch, with you straddling my lap. So, yeah,” he laughed, “definitely not how we rehearsed it.”
She reddened and smiled at the memory. “You know what I mean. It was off-script. I had to cue you in twice, remember? I mean, it was definitely beautiful, and Roberto obviously loved it...” She crossed her arms. “But why? Why’d you play it differently?”
“I don’t know, I just...” He sighed and looked down. “It felt right, you know? It came out of what I was feeling at that exact, precise moment.”
“A whole fucking lot.” He laughed nervously while running his hands through his hair. “I mean, Jughead’s never kissed Betty, right? But you and me, we’ve kissed. We’ve done more than kiss. So, going into the scene, Steven and I were talking, and I realised that I had to access some part of myself that was in the same nervous, anxious place that Jug was at during that point.”
“And what place was that?”
“Can I be honest?” Lili nodded, encouraging him to go on. “It’s this. ”
“What, me and you?”
“It is, but it’s more than that.” He scratched his cheek, frowning. “Look, the way I see it, shooting that scene was like a metaphor.”
That wasn’t what she was expecting. “A metaphor?”
“Yeah. For us. And for Riverdale.” He sighed. “There’s me and you, and that’s obviously surreal and incredible. But there’s also everything else - all the pressures of a schedule, the artifice of the set, the scrutiny of everyone around us. You know what I mean? All the noise.”
Lili nodded. Of course she knew what he meant. It was the same thing she’d brooded over on the steps of the Cooper house stage.
Cole went on. “I guess I was just hyper-aware of all of that heading in. The noise became a distraction, and suddenly what was supposed to be a fun scene where I got to kiss this gorgeous girl that I really liked turned into this overwhelming commotion.”
Despite the gravity of their conversation, Lili had to look down to suppress a smile. He called me gorgeous. It never got old.
“That’s why I hesitated, why you had to cue me in twice. I was just caught up in my own head.” He looked at her, his eyes filled with a soft tenderness. “But your voice called me out of that, Lili. When you cued me in the second time, it was... like air. Like breath. And suddenly there was this clarity amidst all the doubt and fear that was clouding my mind.”
Fear. There it was again, that word, lurking over them like a watchful spirit, waiting to see who’d slip up first. The truth, which she had guessed correctly in those tentative seconds after their lips parted, was that they were both scared. They were both calculating the risk, aware that with each day that they found themselves in each other’s arms again, the stakes were being raised, and the questions were stacking up. Is this worth it? Will this stick? Will it stay?
And she was done with it.
Today, she had the answer to silence all her questions. Here, of all places, where fear lived, she was banishing hers.
She took a step towards him, closing the gap between them. “Cole, I need you to listen to everything I have to say without stopping me. Okay? Because if you stop me, I don't know if I can say it all.”
He nodded, and they were both silent. Lili brought her hand up to touch his chest, to feel his heart beating in the palm of her hand. It was strange to see him so still. Cole was always in motion, always talking, always on the move. His heartbeat - steady, constant and faithful - was a reminder of that. But right now, she needed him to stay put.
“When you first told me how you felt about me, back in LA, I was afraid. I was scared of my own feelings, afraid of how much I felt for you, and terrified of where that would take me.”
Cole nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on her.
“But I shouldn’t have been, because every day with you since then has been an adventure. You’ve made me laugh. You’ve given me the craziest stories to tell. You’ve taken me to some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.” She looked around them. “Except this. Honestly, this place is a mess, Cole.”
He laughed at that, and wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her closer.
“A few days ago, I was afraid again, for all the same reasons that you were afraid. Because suddenly everything became real, right?” Cole nodded. “Yesterday’s kiss wasn’t just an onscreen kiss with some random guy. It was a kiss with you. And yes, we were professionals about it, and the scene turned out amazing, but still - the fear was there because I didn’t want any of that noise to get to us.”
She exhaled and looked up at him. “But the noise is always going to be there, right? If it’s not Riverdale, it’ll be something else. And so it’s pointless to be afraid, to run scared. Otherwise, we’d be running this whole time.
“I don’t have all the answers to my questions. And I can’t say that I’ve resolved everything in my mind and that everything will be fine. But... I’m okay with that now. Because being with you has only made me bolder, Cole. It’s given me more courage to be myself, to pursue my passions, to dream bigger dreams. And if I follow where that leads - where my heart leads - I know that it won’t lead me astray. Because it will only lead me to you.”
Lili was tempted to tuck her face into his chest, to look anywhere but into his eyes. But she forced herself to keep her gaze on him - two pools of black, ringed by ocean blue.
“I love you, Cole.” She spoke it in one, swift sentence, and paused as she felt his breath hitch against his ribs. “I think I have for a while now.”
Silence. She could feel the weight of it filling the room to the brim, light driving out darkness.
“This isn’t a bribe, or an ultimatum, or a bargain. You don’t need to say it back. I just…” She shrugged helplessly. “It can’t be helped, and it can’t be kept in. I wanted you to know. You deserve to know.
“So there. I love you. Out of this uncertain but hopeful heart... I love you.”
Voices in the distance. They were due back for the scene. The moment was gone, the bubble had burst. Lili was a little disheartened, but grateful that she was able to express herself to him. Maybe it was best this way - to leave their little secret whispered into the walls of the asylum, never to be uncovered.
Except Cole had other plans.
He seized her hand, and before she could ask him what he was doing, they were sprinting down the hallway and further into the building, past rooms she had never seen, past crumbling walls of plaster, eerie chambers that echoed their racing footsteps, broken windows and splintered doors and emptied ceilings.
Finally, they came to a stop in the middle of a large, light-filled room. He turned to her, panting from the run, his ocean blue eyes raging with a passionate storm.
“Lili.” There was something about the way he whispered her name, between ragged breaths, that stirred something deep and urgent in her.
Who started what, they couldn’t tell. But it was Lili who pulled him in by his shirt and Cole who pushed her up against the wall, one hand leaning for support, another flush against the skin on the small of her back. When their lips crashed in the middle, it was anything but tentative or tenuous. It was bold and bruising, frenzied and desperate. It was driven by a need that was both body and soul.
He brought his hands up to hold her face, and she felt him shaking. It startled her. She pulled back and he looked down at her in protest at the lack of contact. She took his hands in her own and brought his palms to her lips, soothing and calming him, wanting to say that it was okay, that this was where fear ended, that she loved him, she loved him, she loved him.
She tilted her head up, closing her eyes, wanting to kiss him again, but she was met with nothing. She glanced up at him.
“However long you’ve known,” he said, his voice barely a whisper, “double it. Triple it.”
She stared at him. “Cole, what are you --”
“One day, I promise, I will make it up to you, for not saying it when I knew. For not being as fearless as you are.” He paused to take her in. “Because I love you, Lili Reinhart. I love you with every fucking thing I’ve got.”
His words crashed into her like a wave, pulling her under the current. This time, she was shaking. And crying.
Their small, tear-soaked kisses would gradually deepen into a longer, more searing one, and they stayed that way for a while - oblivious to time, unheeding of the space they were in. Until it felt like there was nothing left to give. Until they had filled themselves with each other. Until the same voices from earlier echoed in the distance, calling their names, calling them back to reality.
They looked at each other. “Well,” he said, “what now?”
She smiled at him. “I suppose we have to go and film.” She kissed the tip of his nose, and he wrinkled it at her. “After that? I don’t know. We’ll see.”
He smiled back at her, and he took her hand, interlacing his fingers with hers.
As they walked back out, passing through the hallways of the abandoned asylum, she felt giddy like a teenager, wanting to etch their names into the walls. Maybe not their initials - too juvenile. But she understood the need: she wanted to mark this place as it marked them.
But what would she write?
Here lies fear, she thought. Here it lies, conquered by love.
“So, remind me again why we’re still awake at 3 am.”
Their room at the Queen Anne Hotel was darkened save for a small, antique lamp beside their bed, which illuminated Cole’s bare form next to her. He turned to face her, and as he moved, most of him became obscured by the shadows. But it didn’t matter. Lili had already memorised his face. In some ways, she knew it better than her own.
“Well,” Cole started, “besides the fact that someone wanted toast and eggs at 1 in the morning—”
“Which someone else also enjoyed, leaving me with only HALF of said toast and eggs.”
“True. But yes, besides that fact...” She could sense him smirking in the darkness. “Do I really need to provide a blow-by-blow account of what happened here?”
Lili rolled her eyes. “No, because you’re only going to be gross about it and I don’t want you to ruin my night.”
“Fine then, be boring,” he said. “But to actually answer your question - don’t you remember what I said yesterday? About the witching hour?”
Lili slid under his arm and closed her eyes as she settled her head against his hard, muscled shoulder. “No. Remind me.”
“You never listen to my stories,” he whined.
“Yes, I do. But the witching hour doesn’t sound like something I want to remember while trying to sleep in a notoriously haunted room.”
“Ha. Fair point.” He cleared his throat dramatically. “Okay, Lili, picture it. Prague, 2014. The days were glorious, and the dig was on—”
“And as much as I love a Golden Girls reference, I’m about to fall asleep and you’re about to lose me here.”
“Alright, geez.” He sat up, and forced her to sit up with him. She groaned, but complied. “So a guy I was working with on this archaeological dig in Prague, he’s from Ireland, right? Comes from an extremely superstitious family, whereas he was a little more enlightened. Anyway, on our last night in the lab, we’re both up until 3 in the morning bagging rocks--”
“Sounds like a real rock star lifestyle you had there.”
Cole paused. “Did you just… with that rock pun…? You know what, I’m gonna store that in the back of my mind and comment on its magnificence later. So we’re up at 3, in this dark, dank little lab, and he freaks out a little looking at the time. I asked him if he was okay, and he says to me--”
“Oh my god. Are you about to attempt an Irish accent? Please say yes.”
“Lili, no.” She giggled. “He says to me, ‘Sorry, man. I just get a little creeped out around this time - the witching hour, you see. My ma always went on about it. Kinda hard to get rid of the habit.’”
Lili yawned, but she was intrigued. “So what was it?”
“Apparently, the witching hour - between 3 and 4 am - was usually the most active time for witches, spirits and demons. Something to do with the absence of canonical prayers at that time. But I looked it up afterwards, and it’s a real thing - people swear by it. They say that most ghost sightings happen around that time.”
Lili could have slugged him. “So... you’re telling me... that you’re keeping me up at this ungodly hour... to see if we could sight a ghost ?”
Cole smiled sheepishly. “You were up anyway…?”
“Cole!” She was freaking out now. “This isn’t funny!”
“It’s not meant to be!”
They were half arguing, half giggling themselves silly. Lili dove underneath the covers, and Cole followed her in, tickling her mercilessly as she tried to wriggle out of his grasp.
A loud thump from the other side of the wall terrified them, and they both froze. A series of mumbled swear words from another disgruntled guest put them at ease. Not a ghost. Lili sighed in relief.
“Surrender?” Cole asked.
“Surrender,” she conceded.
They lay back down on the bed, still breathless from laughing. He turned to her, and took her hand in his, holding it against his chest.
“Hey. I love you,” he breathed out. “You know that, right?”
Lili turned to look back at him, and smiled. A year of this, and still it gave her a small thrill. What is it about us and saying ‘I love you’ in haunted places? To anyone else, it would have seemed bizarre. But to her, it made perfect sense. Because when they first met, Cole had been nothing more than an apparition that haunted her dreams - a vague half-entity that she knew so little of, that held no form other than the jacket he left her with.
But as time went on, the apparition put on flesh, and he became more real with each memory they created, each adventure they embarked on, each kiss that they shared. And then it wasn’t him that haunted her, but the fear of the uncertain, which they banished with finality at the abandoned asylum.
And now, here they were, in another haunted spot, celebrating a milestone while waiting for actual ghosts. We are the weirdest, she thought. And I love us.
She snapped out of her thoughts and turned to him. She brought her hand up to caress his face, marvelling that this was real - that it felt real to her beyond what her fingers could touch. That she could feel it in her lungs and in her heart and in her bones.
“Yeah, I know, Cole,” she finally replied. “I love you, too.”
He turned over so that he was looking down at her, then kissed her bare shoulder. “So you staying up with me for witching hour? Could be interesting, right?”
Lili chuckled. “I thought you said you didn’t believe in that shit.”
“I don’t,” he said. “But I’m a skeptic willing to be proven wrong. Just don’t tell Dylan.”
She laughed and nodded and pulled him down for a firm kiss. Why the hell not. “Sure,” she replied.
They snuggled underneath the covers, Cole rattling off anecdotes at random, Lili listening, willing herself to stay awake. Not to witness the supernatural, but to experience the tangible. To experience Cole.
Let the ghosts come, she thought, as he put his arms around her.
She had nothing left to fear.