The first thing Josie notices when she enters the grand hall is the lights—soft golden and glittering, casting little patterns all over the walls. The talisman hangs heavy around her neck, and the ballet-pink dress from her sixteenth birthday swishes around her legs as she moves; she hadn’t really gotten to appreciate it at the time, but when it’s not covered in dirt, it really is beautiful.
The balloons are all on the ground and there’s no music playing anymore: the night has long since finished, and everyone else has already left. The dance floor is empty, save for a figure in a sleek, dark red suit. Josie wonders what happened to the dress she’d been wearing that night. It’d been a similar elegant shade of ruby-red.
“Didn’t really fit the new me,” Hope calls out, as if having read her mind. “Too… sweet. Loved the color, though.” She runs a hand over her suit jacket, fingers brushing over the hem. On second thought, the red of her suit looks less like rubies and more like blood.
Josie swallows, shifting from one foot to the other. She’s wearing flats this time instead of strappy heels, and in a way, it makes her feel more grounded. She doesn’t move.
Hope tilts her head to the side. “Don’t wanna keep me waiting, do you?”
“No,” Josie says, and makes her way down the stairs one by one, feeling like she’s living out the world’s most twisted take on the whole “girl in teen movies who dramatically descends the staircase” thing, the only soundtrack being the quiet clicks of her shoes. Hope watches her closely, eyes sparkling in the lights.
“I figured you’d save me a dance,” she says when Josie reaches the last stair, gingerly stepping out onto the floor. Hope offers her hand. “You were a bit preoccupied your last birthday.”
“Sorry,” Josie tells her. “I guess I was too busy trying to kill you.” But she takes the offered hand anyway, resting the other on Hope’s shoulder. Hope smiles. Up close, it’s easier to see the glazed-over lack of emotion in her expression—she looks more like a predator stalking her prey than the girl who’d embraced Josie when she returned from that prison world just a few months back, told her later that week in a stolen moment I’m just happy that you’re here, voice overflowing with sincerity. Josie wonders if maybe her subconscious had been trying to protect her ahead of time when she’d almost impaled Hope on a wooden stake.
“Well, that has its own intimacy too, doesn’t it?” Hope adds. “Knowing exactly what soft spots to hit. Which cuts go the deepest.”
“I guess,” Josie says. Her feet continue to move of their own accord, like they know the box-step better than she does. I don’t even think she likes you, she’d told Hope in that fighting ring. There was a certain understanding in that statement, itself.
“Speaking of, how’s Lizzie doing?” Hope asks casually, her hand heavy in Josie’s. “I mean, with your dad out of commission and all…”
Josie tries not to stiffen at the thought; showing a reaction to Hope’s provocation would only end badly. “Not well,” she says, “but you know that. She’s feeling it more than enough for the both of us.” Hope raises her eyebrows. “I don’t mean it like that. Maybe a couple of years ago I would’ve, but not now.”
“Sure,” Hope says, like she doesn’t really believe it. Josie moves her hand up further on her shoulder.
“No, I’m serious. I’m not… holding it against Lizzie that she’s hurting, or anything. I’m just upset that there’s nothing I can do to help. And I don’t want to add to that with my own worries. It’s all... a lot.”
“Don’t you have, like, a girlfriend you can open up to about all those problems?” Hope asks, her tone mocking. Her arm tightens around Josie’s waist in a move Josie might be inclined to call possessive.
“You mean the problems you created?” No response. “And Finch is trying. Like, really trying, but some things aren’t meant to be shared. I don’t want to burden her, either.”
Hope scoffs. “From what I hear, Finch is begging you to let her in, and you just won’t,” she says. She spins Josie into her chest and dips her, low. Hope’s just as beautiful as the day Josie slipped a note under her door, and the day she told Josie she missed her, and every other day besides that; put-together and poised like nothing has changed. But she looks into Hope’s eyes and sees nothing behind them.
“I could find a way to kill you,” Josie whispers. “Lizzie probably will, if you don’t stop. If you don’t come home.”
“A threat? Coming from you?” Hope laughs quietly, her breath ghosting over Josie’s lips. “Bet you won’t do it.”
Josie hesitates; inhales and exhales, slow and trembling. Hope’s right: she won’t. They both know that. No amount of simulated encounters with Hope will change what Josie knows deep down—that she doesn’t think she’d be able to bring herself to hurt her. “When I was at my worst, you refused to even consider giving up on me,” she says instead. “I’d be a hypocrite if I did that to you.”
“Endearing that you think you have a choice, really.” Hope lifts her back up and pauses for a moment, tucking a strand of Josie’s hair behind her left ear. “You’ve got such a pretty face. Shame I’m going to have to… well.” She places her hands on the sides of Josie’s head and twists.
Josie snaps awake, sitting bolt upright in her chair. MG glances up as she does, flipping the lid of the therapy box shut.
“How’d it go?” he asks. “You learn anything that will help us with Hope?”
Josie glances around—Cleo is staring off into the distance, lost in thought, while Ethan is writing something down so empathetically it can only be his way of proving his usefulness.
“No,” she answers. “Maybe next time.”