It’s a fact she’s long accepted about herself. Being a tribrid means that she’s immediately othered from her peers, and her natural ability to separate herself from a crowd only adds to that. She spends a lot of time alone, on the sidelines, on the outskirts of parties, in the backs of classrooms, watching people go about their business, rather than engaging in that business herself.
Ironically enough, it’s Lizzie who coins the correct word for it.
”Ew.” Lizzie shoves by her one day, when they’re on their way into Mrs. William’s classroom, hitting her shoulder unnecessarily. Josie trails meekly behind her. “You know, you don’t always have to lurk, Mikaelson.”
Maybe it should hurt—and in the moment, when everyone (except for Josie and timid, little Wade Rivers) laughs, it does—but Hope finds herself turning the word over in her head for a while, after that. It’s fitting, and not nearly as bad as Lizzie’s other insults.
Not in any public sense. Hope’s got no one to share her thoughts with anyway. But, in the privacy of her own mind, she starts to refer to what she does as lurking—first begrudgingly, silently cursing Lizzie for tossing the word into her mind, and then with a bit more ease, until she begins to do it unconsciously.
When she’s feeling particularly detached from the world and the people in it, she lurks.
When her classmates get too loud, made rowdy by a party or a football game or something equally as pointless, she lurks.
When she goes through the day with her parents’ faces glued to the backs of her eyelids, she lurks.
And, if that lurking starts to mainly take place in the vicinity of Josie Saltzman, then, well…
It’s all Lizzie’s fault.
They’re barely even friends the first time it happens. Hope’s not a people person, to say the least. She’s grumpy on the best of days, and a complete asshole on her worst. And, thanks to her family, she doesn’t have many interests outside of classic literature and art, which doesn’t appeal to any of the other teens around her.
Josie’s the opposite of that. She’s sunshine in a skirt, really, always ready to lend a helping hand or offer a friendly smile to those who need it. When Hope puts any sort of thought into it, she decides that they would either clash horribly or end up balancing each other out, the way Aunt Freya and Keelin do. She’s never gotten a chance at figuring it out though, with Lizzie around to ensure that there’s a six foot distance between them at all times.
Still, it feels kind of inevitable that she gets to know Josie a little, since they share all the same classes, even when they get into high school and Hope starts taking advanced courses.
Josie seems like one of the few people that’s eager to learn the material, rather than just tacking this class onto her schedule for a leg up, like all of the other students. She’s admittedly phenomenal at wordless magic, and even memorizes some of the incantations faster than Hope. So, Hope is forced to take note of her, purely as an academic threat to her spot as top of the class. But that’s not lurking. Not really. Even if Hope’s eyes begin to linger a little too long at times, she’s still permitted to see Josie inside of a classroom without being labeled a creep.
No. The real problem, the true beginning, starts with junior year and this stupid fucking play.
It’s Alaric’s idea, because of course it is. All three species intermingling, coming together to put on a production in the spirit of unity.
The wolves have become aggressive dickheads since puberty, usually only opening their mouths to start a fight or say something crude. The vampires are no better, but they think that they are, which makes them worse. The witches are fine, most days, but they’re very particular about who they let into their groups, and Hope is usually excluded before she can excludes herself. That’s probably why he does this whole thing: to get her to open up more.
”Auditions are mandatory.” She can feel Alaric looking at her when he says it. “Nine o’clock on Saturday, in the theater.”
Hope shows up on Saturday to avoid any pestering and delivers her lines stiltedly, hoping he’ll be forced to leave her out of this entirely.
She finds a spot in the back afterwards, ignoring Alaric’s disapproving glance, and puts her feet up. The seats surrounding hers seem to empty quite quickly after she sits, but she doesn’t mind it. Maybe if this were a better play, she’d be more tuned in, but this is something he wrote himself, so she’s pretty much checked out already.
The auditions are… fine.
Jed seems uncomfortable with having to deliver such heartfelt, emotional lines to an audience, and so does Wade, for entirely different reasons. Both boys mutter through their auditions, eyes to the ground.
Most of the attempts range from decent to downright awful, leaning heavily towards the latter.
Lizzie all but throws aside two freshmen on her way down the aisle and then proceeds to give a very, very enthusiastic reciting of her lines that has Hope snickering silently into her hand.
She thinks that maybe, if Lizzie was less of a bitch, they could be friends.
Naturally, Josie goes after Lizzie.
Hope isn’t expecting much, but she’s already paying attention now, so she figures that there’s no harm in watching Josie audition.
She sits up a bit straighter in her seat.
As it turns out, Josie is good. Actually, she’s not just good, she’s great. Josie’s usually quite timid, content to stay in her little box, but on stage, Hope couldn’t imagine her being contained in any sense of the word. Josie burns underneath the spotlight, all of her inhibitions melting away until she’s something bright and beautiful that Hope can’t take her eye off of.
When Josie gets done, she steps off stage quickly. Her shoulders are curling in on themselves, head lowering a smidge as she makes her way down the aisle, back to Lizzie.
Hope wants to reach out and touch her or at the very least, congratulate her on a job well done, but she doesn’t.
She stays silent.
Josie gets the lead role.
Hope watches it all happen from afar, just to stay on brand. She’s already checked the paper Alaric left stamped to the theater door for her role, so now she’s standing around as Josie does the same, albeit with a bit more enthusiasm.
She sees the exact moment it registers on Josie’s face. Josie’s eyes flit from right to left, once, twice, like maybe she doesn’t believe the words on the paper, and then her expression shifts.
Hope’s heart does an indulgent, happy little flip in her chest.
She’s screwed. She is so, so screwed.
It gets very embarrassing very quickly, after that.
Hope gets a small part in the play with only two lines. They come right around the start of it, too, so she’s permitted to leave after the first fifteen minutes of rehearsal, but she never does.
Instead, she sits in the back of the theater and hides in the shadows while she watches Josie run lines.
There’s something dangerous and intoxicating about being part of the audience, because it gives Hope the freedom to be silent and watch, two things that she already does in abundance. Two things that she does too much, maybe. She thinks she could fade away entirely into those comfy, worn-out seats, and get lost in Josie endlessly.
And it sucks because she can’t lie and say she’s there to watch Alaric’s shitty play.
She’s just really into Josie.
As an actor.
Josie’s got these big, brown eyes that convey emotion so well, and her voice is clear and loud, but never shouty, like some of the other cast members. She learns all of her lines within the first week, which isn’t a surprise, considering how quickly she’d picked up on those spells in class.
She’s got talent—real, true talent—and Hope is hungry, almost desperate, to witness it.
Hope arrives early to each and every rehearsal and stays late, lingering amongst the dedicated actors and the ones who are still struggling to get a handle on their lines. Sometimes, she brings her sketchbook with her, half so she can draw when bored and half so she can duck behind it whenever anyone looks at her too long.
No one ever looks at her too long.
Over the years, she’s just started to assume that she’s invisible, except for when it comes to the odd whisper about her father.
Then: “Excuse me?”
It’s said not rudely but gently, like the words are bouncing off of a pillow.
Hope looks up and meets those expressive brown eyes that she’s been drawing for the better part of an hour. She shuts her sketchbook hastily, but hopefully not quickly enough to be suspicious.
Josie smiles small. Her face is bare, free of makeup, and her skin looks that much softer because of it. “I just need my bag. You’re kind of blocking the aisle.”
”Oh.” Hope jerks into action, moving her legs from where they’re propped up on the seat in front of her. “Sorry.”
”No problem.” Josie has to lean over her to grab her bag, coming closer than she has in, well, ever.
Looking back at it, Hope thinks she should’ve held her breath or plugged her nose or done something, but she didn’t and she doesn’t, and Josie’s scent goes every fucking where.
”You were great up there.” Hope tries to make casual conversation in an attempt to hide how rapidly she’s launching into crisis mode. God, why does Josie smell like that? What the absolute fuck? “On stage.”
“Oh—thanks!” Josie’s smile stretches her cheeks now, bright but a little shy. “You, too.”
”I only have two lines.” Hope deadpans.
”And you did amazingly well with them.” She presses on with her compliment seamlessly. See? Sunshine in a skirt.
Josie lingers, then, not leaving even though the theater is beginning to clear out and their short interaction is meeting its end. She bounces on her toes and fiddles with the strap of her bag, which is clearly old, because it’s bedazzled and painted that blindingly bright yellow color that Josie adored when she was twelve. Hope thinks it’s cute that Josie still has it, and she can tell Josie is nervous (although she doesn’t know why), and she thinks that’s cute, too, but she’s certainly not going to say anything about it. For one thing, Hope worries that if she opens her mouth she’ll be forced to breathe, and that will lead to her doing something awful and embarrassing, like burying her nose in the crook of Josie’s neck, where she knows her scent is the strongest, and inhaling. And for another, Josie is the first person her age that she’s spoken to in a month, and Hope is just now realizing how well and truly she’s socially stunted herself.
Long story short, it’s awkward.
”Okay, well,” Josie makes a short, jerky hand gesture aimed vaguely behind Hope. “Lizzie probably wants me, so.”
Hope stays cramped up in that seat until she knows Josie is long gone, every muscle in her body tensed, her chest burning from lack of air. It’s probably not healthy to hold herself that way for so long, but she’s a tribrid, for god’s sake. What is she going to do? Die?
Now that she thinks about it, yeah, maybe she will. All of this—whatever this is shaping up to be—is enough to kill her.
So, here’s what’s up.
Hope has a type. Her crushes are few and far between, mostly because she doesn’t know how to have casual, breezy emotions, and they always end up lasting a ridiculously intense, ridiculously long amount of time. She spent a solid couple of years fixated on Hermione Granger, rewinding those old DVDs again and again, until she met Roman Sienna, and suddenly became preoccupied with sitting on the sidelines during the boys’ soccer team practices. Her crush on Roman didn’t turn out well, to put it lightly. In fact, it went as badly as a crush could possibly go, but it did teach her some things about herself.
She likes people who are intelligent, ambitious, and above all, disarming, in that way that leaves her helpless and floundering when it comes to her emotions. She needs someone to push her, head first, into her feelings, or she’s just not going to feel them at all.
Landon had been good about that. For a bit. He was adamant on taking her to every party there was (and there was a lot, more than Hope could handle, since he was best friends with Raf, the king alpha) and on not letting her shut down whenever she tried to crawl back into her box. At first, it was really nice to have someone to make her stay present, but after a while it felt more tiring than fun to have to constantly extend herself. He always wanted her to do more, to watch the next obscure film, to learn the rules to the next game, to open up about every painful detail of her life all at once, and a lot of the time, Hope just wanted to rest. Sometimes, she would push back, and they would argue, but other times she would just trail along, exhausted, yet happy that someone was still around for her. She was so very tired of people leaving.
Painful breakup aside, Landon was similar to all the rest. He got straight As without putting in much effort, he once stayed up for three days in a row for a D&D campaign (which, admittedly, wasn’t the most attractive of things, but it did show ambition), and he was about as threatening as a puppy, so, yeah, he was disarming.
And then Josie…
Hope feels stupid for not noticing it before.
Because now that Josie has tried to kill her with her acting skills and her scent (her wonderful, earthy, vanilla-y scent), all Hope can do is notice.
”It’s saurdor root.” The answer is simple enough, and it falls from Josie’s lips without much thought, but it comes before the rest of the class, or even Hope, can figure it out.
”Very good, Ms. Saltzman.” Josie ducks her head and smiles secretly at her notebook. Cute.
To her credit, Hope hasn’t been the most active participant in class lately. She usually pays enough attention to keep up, but her thoughts have been scattered this week, and she knows that they’ll probably stay that way for the rest of the day. She knows because she finds herself more enamored with the curve of Josie’s neck and the soft press of skin where her thighs meet than the lesson.
Her mind is elsewhere and, apparently, so are her hands, sketching a tiny image of Josie into the margins of her paper. She can’t help it, really. It’s just one of those things that happens naturally. Her brain’s got a direct tie to her pencil.
Not that Hope has any plans for her drawings. She’d light herself on fire before she let anyone, much less Josie, see them.
So far, the school year has been blissfully quiet for Hope, and she’s content to keep it that way. It seems that Lizzie has lost some of that childish resentment that she used to aim at Hope relentlessly during their younger years, or she’s simply matured past the need to spread rumors about Hope burning down multiple orphanages and stealing candy from babies in her free time. Either way, they came to an unspoken truce sometime around the middle of last year, when Hope stopped spending so much time around Alaric and Caroline started visiting the school more. Still, it’s taken several years to get to a point of Lizzie not actively attacking her, and Hope knows their civility is fragile, knows it could come apart at the slightest tug. Lizzie would throw her across the room in a heartbeat if she heard half the thoughts Hope has been having about her sister.
Hope would probably deserve it.
She’s boarding on the side of gross at this point, but she can’t help it. Every time Josie opens her mouth to answer a question or to giggle or (and this is the one that’s really getting Hope) to bite at the end of her pen, Hope wants to crush her lips to Josie’s and coax out all of those pretty sounds she just knows Josie would make. Josie’s already got this pouty set of lips, and Hope wonders what they would look like bruised red and kiss-swollen.
She already knows, actually, which is another one of her problems. She’s had the displeasure of seeing Josie kiss lots of other people, and is only just now identifying the odd, displeased feeling that had curled in her chest during those moments. Jealously. Hope really needs to get a grip. She forces her eyes down to the semi-blank notebook in front of her, one line of notes written there before she’d given up and started obsessively drawing instead. She sighs, adjusting her hold on her pen, and…
A hesitant hand taps her on the shoulder.
”Hi. Can I sit?”
Hope is too bewildered to put much thought into it. She kicks out the empty seat beside her, watching with wide eyes as Josie slides into it, her backpack dropping at their feet. A quick glance around the room tells her that everyone else is pairing up as well.
”Are we…” Hope’s embarrassed to be asking. She should’ve been paying attention. “Are we doing a project or something?”
Josie takes out several things from her bag: a set of colored pencils, her History of Supernatural Creatures textbook, and some blank sheets of paper.
Hope is lost.
It must show on her face because Josie smiles good-naturedly before leaning closer, explaining, “We’re supposed to be picking a monster, writing down its attributes, and then drawing it.”
”Oh.” Well. Hope can do that.
”I figured we could pick the monster together, then you could do the drawing and I’ll do the details. That way we’ll know we’ll get an A.”
”Sounds good.” She pauses, thinking. “Wait, how do you know I’m good at drawing?”
The edges of Josie’s cheeks color. “I always see you doing it during rehearsal.”
”But how do you know I’m good at it?”
”Are you saying you’re not?” Josie sets down her pencil and turns to face Hope, their knees bumping together beneath the table. There’s something tugging at her mouth, like a smile. She thinks Josie’s amused. “Because I could do it, but it’s going to turn out a stick figure.”
”Nothing wrong with stick figures.” Hope tells her, hoping that’ll push her half-smile into full force.
It doesn’t. What crosses Josie’s face is something slight and curious. “What do you draw, anyways?”
”I don’t know.” Hope responds, inconspicuously (hopefully) hiding her drawing of Josie beneath her carefully placed arm. “A little bit of everything, I guess.”
Josie is still watching her, so she adds, “What about you? What do you draw?” When Josie raises her eyebrows, she says, by way of explanation, “I see you doodle in class from time to time.”
”It’s just that. Doodles.” Josie lifts and drops her shoulders in a shrug. Then, she bites her lip, as if considering something. “Most of the time, it’s…”
Instead of explaining through words, she scoots closer, pen poised in the air. She gets close enough to touch Hope’s skin, to grab her hand. Hope stiffens up out of instinct. She thinks she and Josie are on two separate ends of the touch spectrum, with Hope only accepting physical contact from her family during her holiday breaks, and Josie handing out hugs as hellos and goodbyes.
Josie holds her gently, more gently than anyone has since she was a baby and her father cradled her to his chest. It makes Hope go pliant and soft, letting Josie flip her hand palm-up without even thinking about it. Josie etches something delicately into the meat of her palm, and Hope can’t dream of moving, can’t think of anything other than their sudden closeness.
It’s a lopsided smiley face.
(If Hope goes back to her room and doesn’t wash that hand for the rest of the day, that’s her business.)
They’re given two class periods to finish the project, but since Hope and Josie complete it within a quarter of their allotted time, there’s a lot of room leftover for them to fill with conversation.
Thankfully, things don’t get too awkward. Josie has a variety of topics to talk about and isn’t shy about sharing them. Hope is less chatty, but Josie seems pleased with the small bits of conversation she offers, never giving her funny looks or responding harshly.
Friendship unfolds over them like a warm blanket, and Hope doesn’t even realize it until she’s already succumbed to the soft embrace.
She finds that Josie is there more often than not, and when she says she’s there, she’s means she’s there. Josie continues to sit next to her in class, even when Lizzie returns from her brief break (apparently, she had a cold), even when Lizzie shoots them sulky, mean little looks throughout the period. Josie seeks out Hope in the hallways and insists on walking her to class. Josie half-skips, half-jogs off the stage when she’s done with a scene, all so she can plop down in the seat beside Hope and throw her legs into Hope’s lap.
”Uh.” Hope’s hands hover awkwardly, unsure of what to do with all the skin placed in her lap. She’s sure putting her hands on Josie’s bare legs would be entirely inappropriate. “Comfy there, your highness?”
”Yep.” Josie wriggles around without a care.
Hope rolls her eyes and puts her hands somewhere safe, splaying her arms out across the backs of the seats. She looks around the theater and sees that most of the actors are taking a break, some of them snacking on granola bars and chips while others chat. A group of them is composed of Lizzie and some of the witches that the twins usually hang out with.
”Hey, uh.” Hope clears her throat, thinking of a way to say this without coming across as an asshole or a total loser. “Why don’t you hang out with Lizzie and the others anymore? It seems like they want you there.”
Josie gives her a funny look. “Well, I want to be here. Do you not want me here?”
Something warm rolls in Hope’s stomach.
”Yeah, Jo. I want you here.”
After that, things change. Hope stops questioning why Josie would want to hang out with her and just accepts that she does.
Hope isn’t good at friendship. Most of her close relationships are with her family, bonds that had been forged when she was too young to understand the significance of them. There had been Landon, but he was her boyfriend, never her friend, and that had been different.
Despite Hope’s feelings and Josie’s tendency to accidentally send her into a lust-filled spiral, their relationship is platonic before it’s anything else. It’s late nights going over lines and early mornings splitting breakfast together (Josie gives Hope her sausage, and Hope gives Josie her eggs).
Hope isn’t good at friendship, but she can try.
“People are always telling me about what they need, what they want. What about…” Josie pauses, setting her script down. “Hope, are you even listening to me?”
No, she’s not.
Josie had invited her over to help her run lines, and then proceeded to answer the door in some of the shortest shorts known to man, along with a tiny, spaghetti strap top that exposes a sliver of her tan stomach. Hope hasn’t heard a single thing since then.
”You promised you’d help me with my lines.” Josie complains, bottom lip jutting out, and that really isn’t helping anything.
Josie drops down onto the edge of her bed sullenly, jostling the outrageously large collection of purple and pink pillows she has on there. They look awfully comfortable, but Hope wouldn’t know, hasn’t taken the offer to share a bed with Josie out of fear of Lizzie slitting her throat in her sleep. The blonde is gone tonight, off on a date with some guy, leaving them alone. Josie’s legs are spread wide, looking every bit like an invitation, enough space there that Hope could slip between them easily.
She wants to. God, does she want to. Josie’s legs are slim, like every other part of her, but they look crazy soft. Hope worries that if she gets any closer to her, she’ll end up dropping to her knees in front of her and sucking a bruise into the high of her thigh. She’s never wanted to worship someone so badly before.
Instead of giving in to her fantasies, Hope steps carefully towards Josie, holding out her hands. Josie takes the offering, allowing Hope to pull her to her feet. She’s still pouting.
”I’m sorry, okay?” Hope gives her hands a gentle squeeze. “Let’s start from the top.”
”Promise you’ll listen this time?”
”Promise.” Hope presses a kiss into each of Josie’s hands, slow, because if she’s quick about it then she might overwhelm herself.
She only does it for Josie’s benefit, honest.
Josie visibly cheers up, her mouth spreading a little wider, her cheeks getting a little darker. “Okay.”
They start again. The play is long and ramble-y and contains a romance that’s concerningly unhealthy for being written by their adult headmaster, as well as incredibly boring. Josie puts some life into it, though. Hope, well, she tries, but she’s not made for a lead role, and she feels stiff and uncomfortable subbing in for her scene partner, even in the privacy of Josie’s room.
(If she’s honest, Hope is never truly at ease, not unless she’s back in New Orleans.)
What’s worse is that it’s a romantic scene, and Hope has trouble with the intimacy of it. For one thing, she would never say these sappy lines to anyone’s face, and for another, just being alone with Josie feels intimate. She doesn’t need another layer added to it, thanks.
Soon enough, they reach the part where they left off. That part. The kiss.
”People are always telling me about what they need, what they want. What about us? What about what we want?” Josie recites, not needing to read from the script to do it. “What about what I want?”
”What do you want?” Hope reads, glancing down.
”What I want? What I want is to be able to feel like I can breathe again. What I want is to wake up without this crushing weight on my chest.” She steps closer. “What I want is you.”
Hope doesn’t move, pinned in place by a lack of knowledge on what to do next and the sticky, charged energy that’s suddenly entered the room. It glues her feet to the floor.
Josie isn’t doing anything either, although it feels like by not moving she is, their faces and chests and the rest of them barely an inch apart.
”It says I’m supposed to kiss you now.” Josie tells her, fiddling with the forgotten script in her hands.
Hope goes very, very still.
She doesn’t realize she’s holding her breath until there’s a hand cupping her jaw, one soft thumb rolling tenderly over her cheek and then her mouth. There’s something about the gentleness of Josie’s touch that makes her want to lean into it, so she does, letting Josie’s thumb settle between her lips.
It takes everything in Hope not to dart her tongue out and steal a taste of skin.
“Hope…” Josie breathes out, and she’s never heard her name spoken quite like that, with such reverence and care.
Whatever semblance of dignity Hope had snaps like a toothpick at that and at the way Josie applies the tiniest bit of pressure, prying Hope’s mouth open ever so slightly. The pad of her thumb slips in, just a bit, and Hope sucks at it briefly, but it feels most natural to bite down, breaking the thin skin. They both gasp: Josie’s a mix of pain and a heady sort of pleasure, but Hope’s something else entirely. She feels Josie’s blood spread, hot and wet, along her tongue, and it tastes, it tastes…
The door clatters open.
Josie yanks her hand away, lightning quick, and Hope blinks rapidly at the floor, attempting to clear the red from her eyes.
Inches away from them, Lizzie and Sebastian are lost in their own form of intimacy, the dark-haired boy pinning her to the wall and consuming her mouth with a frightening hunger. Their loud, sloppy kissing noises kill all of the heat that had been gathering in Hope’s stomach.
”Sorry.” Josie snatches a pillow off the bed and chucks it at the couple. “Lizzie, quit it. I have company.”
Lizzie seems five seconds away from murdering her or continuing on with Sebastian uncaringly, both of which Hope wants no part of.
She clears her throat. “I think I’m just going to go. Bye, Josie.” She gives the other two stiff nods.
Out in the hall, Hope sucks in deep, staggering breaths.
Let it be known that Hope’s life is weird. From the moment she was born, she was an abnormality, and things never let up after that. There was her (quite literally) ancient family, a possession, a mud man that had it out for her, a flurry of monsters after that…
It’s safe to say that Hope is accustomed to weird, knows it as a permanent state of being.
She’s just not equipped to deal with this.
What is she supposed to say to Josie now that she’s done all of this? She’s not sure what to say or think or do. Their friendship has lasted all of two and a half weeks, and Hope has already fucked it up. She’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for Josie to tell her off for being a creep.
So, Hope avoids her.
It’s the only thing she can do to protect herself. She stops showing up to rehearsals since they don’t really need her anyways, and ditches the classes that she shares with Josie.
As a result, she’s in a bad mood all week. She wants nothing to do with Alaric and his clear disapproval over her disappearing act or with any of the other students that notice her low spirits. She’s wound so tight that she snaps at some of the younger years for being too loud, even though they’re only seven.
She has to resort to running through the woods to cope, pumping her legs and charging ahead until all of her problems fade into nothing.
(They never really go away.)
At breakfast, Hope hunches over her plate with her shoulders pulled up to her ears, sending off the strong signal that she doesn’t want to speak to anyone about anything. People listen.
But Hope listens, too.
”Dude, seriously? Lizzie?” A male voice questions in amused astonishment. “Man, hasn’t anyone ever told you not to put your dick in crazy?”
Hope shovels cereal into her mouth without pause, though her lip downturns. She’s never really liked Lizzie, but she wouldn’t talk about her like that. The table behind her continues to laugh.
”I’m just saying, if I was going to pick a Saltzman twin, it’d be Josie. The sweet ones are always easy. Hey, think she’d let me hit it if I bought her dinner first?”
Hope sees red and in an instant she’s shooting to her feet, whirling around with her lunch tray held high above her head. She slams it down hard against the back of the guy’s head without even checking to see who it is, and clambers on top of him, going for his neck. She can feel his friends grabbing at her, trying to pry her off, but nothing stops her until she hears Alaric’s clear, firm voice.
He hauls her out of the dining hall and into his office, where he forces her into a chair and begins the standard angry pacing. Hope is still too busy buzzing from the craze of the fight to care much about him burning a hole in the floor, her blood roaring and her skin hot.
”I thought we were making progress, Hope.” He grits out, finally. “Real progress.”
Hope crosses her arms over her chest. “Sorry to disappoint.”
”What happened? You were making friends, doing well in all of your classes, and you signed up for the play—“
”Not like I had much of a choice in the matter.”
”And now you pull this.” He grabs the back of his desk chair, the muscle in his arms tensed. His knuckles are white.
Alaric’s scolding typically washes over her with little to no effect, but today she’s coiled tight from the fight and a week of avoidance. His words hit her more strongly than she thought they would. Her jaw clenches, but she pointedly looks away, giving herself the second to calm down before this escalates.
“Well?” He prompts sharply.
”Look, I know, okay? Fighting, bad.” Hope spits. “But you should’ve heard what they were saying.”
”I don’t care what they were saying. You attacked another student unprovoked.” He stares hard at her unwavering expression, then sighs. “I’m disappointed in you, Hope.”
Hope scoffs. “Don’t play Dad with me.”
”Trust me,” Alaric mutters under his breath, “I’m glad I’m not your father. Lord knows how difficult it’d be to be proud of you.”
For the last few months Hope has been running hot, too hot for her own good, but this single comment yanks her out of the heat and plunges her into ice cold water.
She feels as if she’s being held beneath the surface against her will, her lungs failing her. On unsteady legs, she rises to her feet slowly, walking directly out of the office without hearing what else Alaric has to say. Surely he calls after her, but she’s underwater now, and it’s muted.
She’s not sure when she starts shaking but it must happen sometime after she gets down to the end of the hall. The guy she fought flinches when he sees her, clutching the ice pack a little harder to his face, but Hope pays him no mind. She can’t right now.
Hope throws open the doors of the school’s entrance and runs, shifting mid-stride.
Lord knows how difficult it’d be to be proud of you.
She barely feels the breaking and melding of her bones as she changes, hasn’t felt it for years now, but she thinks it wouldn’t touch her even if it were the first time. Not with the state she’s in. She can’t breathe, she can’t think, filled to the brim with something nastier than anger and more vile than shame.
She throws herself into the woods and lets herself drown.
By the time Hope returns, she’s looser around the edges and close to exhaustion, but no less alert, shaky and off kilter. She yanks off her sweat-sodden shirt in one jerky movement and tosses it aside before collapsing onto her bed. She’s shivering too hard to sleep, still feeling it all, but she clenches her eyes shut anyway.
There used to be medicine she could take in times like these, but her body has been through more than a few upgrades now and wards off stuff like that. She’s forgotten all of the herbal remedies Freya taught her and isn’t about to call her. All she can do now is fight tooth and nail to force herself into a semi-pleasant slumber, gripping every bit of sleep in her clenched fists.
Sleep does come eventually, falling over her in a thin and unsatisfying sheet.
It’s ridiculously easy for her to be yanked out of it, and she is, not so long after she starts. At least, it feels as if it hasn’t been that long, even if the sky tells a different story, her room now bathed in a hazy blue.
Someone is knocking at her door.
Hope gets up and yanks it open without any hesitation, still too tired to think.
Her eyes feel scratchy and are half-crusted shut from a long sleep, her throat as sore as a bruise when she swallows. She should be thinking of all that and more, but she’s not.
”I heard about what happened.” Josie tells her when Hope wordlessly steps aside to let her in, not having the energy to hide her messy sheets or that smelly shirt she’s sure she threw somewhere. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Hope shakes her head.
”Okay.” Josie agrees, and Hope feels a great wave of relief. “But you’ve gotta get cleaned up.”
It’s said not rudely, but matter of fact. Hope’s got red etched into the lines of her knuckles and there’s dirt (actual dirt from the forest floor) caught in her hair, between her toes, and a host of other places. She’s messy. She’s never been this messy in front of anyone outside of her family, not even Landon, but Josie takes it in stride. In the bathroom, Hope leans against the sink and watches the other girl flit around, collecting a damp towel, sanitizer, and some scented lotion. Her brain is still so sluggish, caught somewhere else, and so she only realizes what’s going to happen until it’s happening.
”Hey, wait, you don’t have to do that—“
Only to have her reaching hands nudged away. “I know I don’t. I want to.”
Hope huffs, bewildered, her whole body sagging hard against the sink as Josie takes one hand and begins to clean it. She thinks she tries to protest once more, mostly because she feels she has to, but it never really leaves her mouth, not in any audible way.
There’s some awkward shuffling as Josie reaches around her to turn the sink on, holding the towel underneath the burning hot water that streams out of it. Hope very nearly falls off. Josie wrings the excess water out of the towel, twisting it until it drips back down the drain, and then applies the warm, damp material to Hope’s knuckles. The feel of it is nice, kind in its presence. The blotches of crimson there fade to pink beneath Josie’s care.
“Hope,” Josie asks softly, “You’re okay, right?”
”I’m a tribrid.” She wiggles her fingers just slightly, as if to say see, I’m invincible. “I heal.”
”I know. I didn’t mean that.”
Hope opens her mouth and knows, right off the bat, that she’s planning to lie. Maybe not lie but to fire off an answer without thought, to say what keeps her safe and in her box. She closes her mouth and stares hard at her hands. They’re all clean now, thanks to Josie, and about to be butter soft if the lotion Josie’s squirting into her palms is any indication. It smells light and earthy, like pine needles. Hope has always liked natural scents the best.
Josie does this the way she does everything else, with the utmost care. She rubs lotion into the dry cracks of Hope’s palms and massages it between her fingers, not leaving an inch bare. She’s so kind and loving and unyielding in all of it, unafraid to treat Hope like a delicate thing. Hope feels tears prick at her eyes, all of a sudden, and swallows them, sending them right back where they belong.
“Yeah, Jo, I’m okay.”
In response, Josie gives her the kind of smile that could warm an entire state.
Later, Hope lays lazy and boneless in her bed, her head draped over Josie’s lap while Josie’s fingers card through her hair. She doesn’t do this type of stuff, but apparently Josie does, and so it’s easier. The room smells a little like Josie now, and Hope can’t tamper down her immense happiness at knowing that the scent is going to soak into her sheets.
“You’re not going to pick a fight with Jed again, are you?” Josie asks, mostly teasing.
”No.” Hope’s eyes are shut, but her brows furrow. “As long as he keeps his big mouth shut this time.”
Josie doesn’t ask her anything more about it, but Hope can feel the way her fingers twitch, restless and antsy, full of questions.
Hope sighs. “He just—he said some rude things about someone I care about.”
”Okay.” Josie accepts it. “Was that what got you so upset?”
”No, no it was…” Hope trails off, unsure of whether or not she should share this information. It’s Josie’s dad, after all. Her eyes crack open slightly in her frustration, and she sees that Josie is just looking at her, maybe a little sad but nonjudgmental. “It was nothing. Your dad just said something stupid about how hard it’d be for my father to be proud of me. I don’t know. I don’t even remember it.”
(Lord knows how difficult it’d be to be proud of you.)
It’s silent for a while.
Hope grows anxious in the silence, her mind flicking through all of the different ways that this conversation could go wrong.
Sometimes it feels like all Hope’s life can do is go wrong, like ever since she was born she was fighting against a system that wanted her to fail. She keeps those thoughts to herself.
”Hope, listen to me.” Josie swipes her finger along the span of Hope’s jaw with purpose, soundlessly indicating for her to open her eyes. She does. She’s shocked to see that Josie looks angry, but not at Hope. “He shouldn’t have said that. He’s an idiot.”
”He’s your dad.”
”And he’s an idiot. I can’t count the number of times he’s put his foot in it.”
”Yeah, but he was…” He was right. Hope knows Alaric is a lot of things, few of them positive, but he’d known her dad for longer than she had. Who is she to make assumptions about what he would’ve thought?
Josie can read between the lines well enough. “Oh, Hope, baby, no he wasn’t. It’s not difficult at all to be proud of you.”
”Isn’t it, though? I mean, I’ve been avoiding you all week…”
”That doesn’t mean anything.” Josie says firmly, then wavers. Her voice takes on a shy quality. “Why have you been, anyway?”
Hope tries not to fidget with her hands, unsure of how to answer now that she’s being put on the spot. She decides to just go ahead and bite the bullet. “It was a lot. I guess I just worried I made you uncomfortable.”
”You didn’t make me uncomfortable.”
”Okay, well.” Hope does fidget now. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable either.”
She loves and hates the way that Josie makes her feel, like her body just won’t settle. It’s more intense than she thought possible.
Thankfully, Josie glances away, and the odd tension is broken. “Did you get enough to eat earlier? I heard the fight was at breakfast.”
(In the background of her mind, she inwardly groans at the knowledge that everyone is probably gossiping about her now.)
”Uh, no.” She sits up slightly, realizing how physically empty she feels. “Just a few bites of cereal.”
”I have some granola bars in my purse.” Josie tells her, twisting at an odd angle to grab at them without dislodging Hope. “Lizzie usually goes through the cherry ones pretty quick, but I think I have some peanut butter ones leftover. Are those still your favorite?”
”Yeah, they are.” Hope doesn’t question how Josie knows this. Of course she does.
Josie manages to fish the bars out with the very tips of her fingers, then tosses one to Hope and keeps another for herself. They munch on them quietly. The peanut butter tastes good, better than it normally would, considering she’s barely eaten all day. Josie wordlessly hands her a second one once she’s done.
Still, it’s not enough. Her insides are full, but her body is restless and her throat is sandpaper dry, itching with a familiar urge. When was the last time she fed? She supposes that it was technically days ago, with Josie, but that hardly counts. It had only been a couple drops, not enough to satisfy her in any real way. She doesn’t need blood to live, but if she goes too long without, her mind scrambles and she can’t function quite right.
Josie seems to pick up on it, the way that she scarily picks up on everything else. Hope has never had someone become so in tune with her body in such a short amount of time. It’s strange, but nice, in a way. “Did you want another bar?”
”No, thanks.” She’s kind of ravenous, now that she thinks about it, but no way is she going down there when everyone’s heard about her little stunt. She can’t handle stares right now, and that’s all they have to offer her.
Josie prods at her. “Come on, what’s up? You’ve got that broody look.”
”I don’t brood.”
”You do. All the time, actually.” Josie pokes her arm, and Hope fails to keep the scowl on her face. “What’s going on?”
”I haven’t fed in a while, that’s all.” Hope shrugs. “No big deal.”
”Few days, maybe.”
”It’s not like I’m going to die.” Hope huffs. She’s not used to anyone fussing over her, and she’s not sure what to think about it, even if this is the best she’s felt all year.
”I’m going to go get you a blood bag.” Josie starts to climb off the bed, but Hope won’t let her.
“No.” Hope snatches Josie’s wrist, not hard, but quick and firm, enough to have the both of them reeling. “Don’t—just, stay.”
”Okay.” Josie sits back down, very slowly. “But you still need…”
“I know. I’ll deal with it later.”
Hope closes her eyes and lays her head back, assuming that the issue is over and done with. But, she still feels Josie’s gaze hovering silently over her face, present as a touch.
”Maybe… maybe I could, I mean.” Josie cuts herself off, becoming awkward and unsure in a way that Hope has seen a hundred times before. Hope just stares at her, not knowing how to fill in the gap. “Well, you could—drink from me?”
The last three words come out in an embarrassed rush, merely a hurried jumble of sounds.
Now, Hope knows that this is a bad idea. She knows, okay? But she also knows that she’s spent the last few weeks operating as an absolute horny mess, so much so that the idea of getting close to Josie in any capacity is dizzying to her. And maybe that’s the exact reason why she should decline Josie’s offer, but the part of her brain that cares about that shuts off at the sight of Josie rolling up her sleeves, exposing a long, thin vein.
”Okay.” Hope swallows, too much saliva pooling in her mouth. She’s a goner.
Hope has several knives hidden in various places around the room, sharp enough for them to make this quick and clean. She could fetch one out from one of her hiding spots or just as easily tell Josie where to look.
She does not do that.
Instead, she wriggles around until she’s propped herself up halfway on her elbows, and opens her mouth an inch, a silent invitation. Doing it with a knife has always felt too clinical, a bit like a doctor making an incision, and Hope prefers the intimacy of doing it directly. It gives her a primal thrill. She’s not going to hurt Josie, she reasons, she won’t let this go on for longer than it has to and she can heal her right after and besides, Josie was the one to offer.
”Do I just…” Josie waits, unsure but not disgusted or fearful, her pulse jumping in her wrist that hovers just centimeters above Hope’s mouth. “Feed it to you?”
Hope nearly moans.
She’d thought that she’d have more control than this, be more composed, being a tribrid and all, but she’s really, really not.
She gives a short nod.
Josie complies, lowering her wrist the tiniest bit, but it’s enough for Hope to clamp down on it, more animal than girl in that second. She hears a shaky gasp come from above her, but she can’t think to ask if it’s out of surprise or pain, can’t think of anything past the flood of blood in her mouth; the danger and the sureness of bare skin against her tongue a creeping temptation that only makes her want more.
Hope drinks messily, making these deep, gulping sounds that she can’t find it in herself to be too embarrassed about. Josie tastes like slick copper and heat, and it’s utterly divine.
Some sense reaches her as she gets her fill, her brain working well and proper now that she’s fueled it, and she decides that she should probably stop. She goes to pull off, only to have her plan foiled by Josie’s hand winding into her hair, fingers scratching at her scalp.
Someone is making a low, rumbling noise, and it takes Hope a long second to realize that it’s her.
Hope lets her eyes blink open for the first time since this started, and now that she really pays attention, she can see how Josie’s pupils are blown, how her lower lip is battered and abused from continuous biting. Ragged, staggered breaths are coming from her mouth like they’re being punched out of her, and her heartbeat is a stop and start in her chest.
And Hope can smell her, slick and strong, between her legs.
It startles Hope enough that she lets go unexpectedly, the wet pop of her mouth deafening in the near-silent room. Hope’s lagging, her mind working separately from her body, and it’s a minute before she notices that Josie is trembling almost imperceptibly, still breathing hard.
Still bleeding. Fuck.
”Are you okay?” Hope goes full protector mode, panicking on the side of it being excessive. She doubts Josie would die from two tiny punctures, but either way, she’s not going to let it happen on her watch. “Here. I can heal you.”
Hope bites into her own wrist (an action that’s similar but far less satisfying) and feeds it to Josie, watching as she drinks through glazed eyes, in a daze.
Josie doesn’t say anything. She just sits, unmoving, looking lost inside of her own head.
”Everything okay?” Hope asks again, trying to think of anything but the pretty flush on Josie’s cheeks and the remnants of blood in her mouth. “You gotta tell me. If I hurt you…”
”You didn’t.” Josie bats away her anxious hands lightly. She smiles, small. “You don’t have to worry so much.”
Hope exhales in relief, falling back into her friend’s lap. Her heart plays out a one two beat in her chest as she gazes up at Josie, and Josie gazes right back, eyes honeyed brown.
She has quite a lot to worry about, actually.