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now

Crockett’s gymnasium hasn’t changed, not even a little bit, so when Amy steps through the gym doors into the class of 2019’s ten year reunion, nostalgia crashes over her like a wave. She knows Molly ran herself practically ragged trying to replicate the decorations used for their prom senior year; some garishly decorated carpeting more home in a bowling alley, accentuated by bright neons and inexplicable graffiti plastered on the wall. There was a night where she phoned Amy in a low frenzy, the way she usually is when she’s upset, babbling something incoherent about the chairs not being right. They had resolved it eventually, but there were some real sleepless nights involved.

At least she can say all the hard work paid off.

Amy almost didn’t go to prom. Neither had Molly, but they did, in the end. Here, ten years later, the scene is so vivid Amy can almost feel the pink taffeta of her dress—really gunning hard for that nineties cliché—and her adolescent desperation, wondering if Ryan was going to ask her to dance. She never did, and now Amy knows she was never going to, but it still ended up being a fun night. She danced with Molly and they got tipsy on punch they didn’t realise was spiked.

“Molly and Nick did a really good job,” Hope says, cutting through her thoughts. She squeezes Amy’s hand, and raises an eyebrow. Are you okay? her face says.

Amy squeezes back. “I’m okay, just thinking about prom. Everything here looks so close to what it looked like, it’s freaky. Do you remember—oh, wait. You didn’t go to prom.”

“Well, technically I went.”

“You know, I don’t think coming two hours late, staying in a corner for five minutes, then leaving to get high in the front parking lot really counts as you going to prom.”

Hope snorts. “I mean, I was there. Five minutes counts. And I was there long enough to see you in that terrible pink taffeta dress. Didn’t it have like a little bow—”

“And that’s where this conversation ends!” Amy interrupts, not wanting to rehash her terrible fashion choices in high school, of which there were plenty. She tugs Hope forward. “Come on, we need to find Molly.”

They find Molly by the makeshift stage on the other side of the gymnasium, engaged in serious-looking conversation with Nick, who holds a clipboard. They watch as Nick uncaps a pen, writes something on the clipboard, and grins when Molly nods approvingly. 

Amy wasn’t really part of the organisation process—her and Hope were in Kenya for a stabilisation mission for the better part of the year, and therefore indisposed—so Molly was forced to find greener pastures for her reunion committee delegation. Nick was an odd choice, and an unlikely one at that, but he had organised prom, after all. 

The story, as Amy has been told, goes like this: apparently Nick had messaged Molly on Facebook out of the blue, asking about the reunion planning process and inquiring if he could help in any way. Turns out Annabelle had let it slip during their bi-monthly Skype calls with Tanner and Theo that Molly was looking for event planners for the reunion, but was dubious about expending money from the budget for something she could simply do herself.

They had talked, and Molly quickly found out that Nick had relocated to Los Angeles again, living there full-time, seemingly done with the east coast. It made him the perfect middleman to start the ball rolling while Molly tied up all her loose ends in Washington before shipping back out to LA.

“It’s so weird,” Amy remembers Molly telling her over the phone, “he’s like, fully organised and whatever. His competency is kind of sexy. High school me is living right now.”

“Amy! Hope!” Nick says, flipping the blue-tinted sunglasses that rest on the top of his head down onto his nose, looking like every inch the devil-may-care jock he was in high school. “Good to see you guys!”

“Nice to see you too, Nick,” Amy says, finding Nick’s grin infectious. She gestures to his Baja hoodie, and can't help but be a little bit tongue-in-cheek. “Love the outfit.”

Amy can see his eyes roll behind his sunglasses. He draws back, mock-stung, holding a hand over his heart. “I can’t believe anybody let me wear this in high school,” he says, tugging on one of the drawstrings. “It’s so ugly it’s sacrilegious. Can’t say it’s not comfortable, though.”

“Oh, speaking of sacrilegious outfits,” Molly says, sounding delighted. She points at Hope, eyes glinting with the absolute pleasure of someone revelling in another’s misery. “Hope! Your cowboy jacket! I thought you locked that godforsaken thing away, dumped it in the ocean, and melted the key down into a little blob.”

Hope, predictably, rises to Molly’s teasing without hesitation. “Oh fuck off, ass president. You know exactly what you did, making the clothing theme ‘the last day of high school’. You forced me into this box.”

Nick barks out a laugh, tucking the clipboard under his arm. “Well, if you ladies don’t mind, I’m going to go check out the snack bar. Holler if you need me, Mol,” he says, before walking off.

“We found the jacket folded in a box in her closet at her mom’s house,” Amy grins, grinning wider when Hope slices a gaze at her, looking utterly betrayed. “There’s some sentimentality for it in there somewhere.”

“How sweet!” Molly coos.

“I hate the both of you. And you know what?” Hope lifts her arms up, letting the dozens of tassels swing dramatically in the air. “This jacket is not as ugly as you guys make it out to be!”

“It looks good on you, babe,” Amy says placatingly, rising upwards to sketch a brief kiss against Hope’s cheek. “Just as a seperate entity, it’s kinda… eh.”

Molly howls, delighted. Hope looks like she’s just aged five years.

“Where’s Annabelle?” Hope asks, trying to pivot the conversation elsewhere. 

“Talking with Tanner and Theo,” Molly says, knowing exactly that Hope’s trying to deflect but letting her teasing lie. There’s always tomorrow, after all. She turns and points towards the other end of the gym, where the tables are set up. 

Amy follows her arm to catch Annabelle sitting at a table by the dance floor, plate of food tucked between her elbows. She talks to a round table of familiar faces: Nick, Theo, Tanner—and Ryan.

“Ah,” Hope says, almost involuntarily. Her voice takes on a teasing lilt, and she presses her shoulder into Amy’s side. “You should say hi.”

“Screw you,” Amy laughs, crossing her arms. She reaches up to absentmindedly smooth one of the patches on her shoulder, thinking suddenly, again, about who she was. “Nostalgia is one hell of a thing, huh?”

“Agreed,” Hope says, curling an arm around Amy’s waist, smiling when Amy responds to her touch in kind, comfortable. Neither of them are really that big on PDA, but nobody watches them here except Molly.

“Aaaand I’m going to head over there,” Molly says, pointing to where Annabelle is. “You’re free to follow when you’re finished doing… whatever you’re doing.”

As she leaves, Hope says, “Bet you she’ll make it under ten seconds,” referencing the long walk between where they are and the banquet tables. It’s the entire length of the gymnasium.

Amy turns to her, eyebrows raising. “You have something in mind?” she says. They only ever make bets for the consequences.

“Yeah, I have a good one.”

“Okay,” Amy says, drawing out the o, chewing on her bottom lip in thought. “If I win… you have to keep on complimenting Molly for the rest of the night.”

Hope purses her lips. “She’s gonna figure out it’s a bet. And then she’s going to exploit it.”

“Yeah, I know,” Amy grins, “that’s why.”

“Wow, okay.” A laugh. “If I win, you have to tell Ryan you had a crush on her in high school.”

“Oh, shit. Oh my god, that is a good one.”

“Thank you.”

They watch as Molly strides across the gym to reach Annabelle in record time, who greets her with a kiss on the cheek. The intensity with which Molly walks has always been a point of fascination for the both of them: Amy likes to call it her lawyer stride, which is a pretty apt description.

“Fuck,” Amy mumbles, as Hope whoops and ducks down to press a victorious kiss to Amy’s cheek. “The walk looks so much longer than ten seconds.”

“It’s your little legs,” Hope smirks, laughing when Amy elbows her. “So, are you going to do it?”

Amy smiles, tilting her head towards Hope. She likes how she always asks if Amy’s okay with the bet when she wins, even after all these years. A reminder that she’d never force her to do anything she didn’t want to do.

Pausing, Amy searches within her for any kind of fear, any kind of embarrassment. Anything screaming at her to do absolutely anything else. There’s trepidation circling somewhere in her gut, but that’s to be expected. She feels nothing terrible. It relaxes her.

“Yeah,” she says, looking right at Hope, smiling, almost smug. “I’ll do it.”

then

Hope arrives in Botswana jetlagged and sweaty, dead on her feet, trashed to hell by her thirteen hour flight straight from Munich. She’s practically nonverbal, though she seems to brighten up as she sees Amy waiting for her in the international arrivals bay. They don’t do much on the first day she arrives except sleep, Hope on a futon next to Amy’s bed. Amy doesn’t mind this, though Hope seems pretty apologetic about not being good company.

“Asleep people aren’t really good conversationalists,” Hope says, but she slurs her way through conversationalists and her eyes look like they’re trying their best to weld themselves shut.

“Go to sleep, Hope,” Amy laughs. She throws Hope a spare blanket and a pillow from her own bed. “I’m going to be at work, so it’s cool. Get some rest.”

Amy had fully intended to request the day off, but Hope looks like she desperately needs the sleep and Amy’s not selfish enough to take that away from her. She watches, just for a moment, as Hope settles into the futon, sighing lightly, hair fanned out against the pillow.

Swallowing, looking away, Amy laces up her converse and moves to leave the room, thinking about what to say her supervisor when she calls and tells her that she’s not going to take the day off, after all. Before she does, though, Hope manages to grab her hand as she passes by.

“You’re gonna come back?” Hope asks. Amy furrows at the question—some real mixed messages leaving Hope in the bedroom of her host family’s house all the way in Botswana, after all—but then she squints and she realises Hope’s barely conscious.

“Yeah, of course,” Amy says, squeezing Hope’s hand.

“You gotta come back.”

“I will, I promise.”

“You better not be lying.”

Amy bites her lip, trying to stifle a laugh. She kneels down next to her, avoiding placing her shoes on the futon. With a confidence only born out of Hope being practically gone to the world, she learns in closer than she would otherwise and says, “Hand over my heart, I will come back, Hope.”

“M’kay, good,” she slurs, and promptly passes out, which seems to be the end of it. Who knew sleep deprived Hope was so clingy.

Amy returns a little after dinner to find Hope propped against her bed, legs crossed, reading a really beat up looking copy of Into the Wild. She’s wearing glasses, tortoiseshell, kind of big, though they suit her wide eyes and angled face. They begin to slip down her nose—Amy watches as Hope pushes them back up by the bridge using her knuckles. She didn’t even know Hope wore glasses. 

They look good on her.

“Hey,” Hope says, as she catches Amy staring at her by the doorway. She wipes the corner of her mouth, a little self-consciously. “What? Do I have something on my face?”

“Uh, no, nothing,” Amy says, feeling her ears burn. She unlaces her converse and toes them off.  With a strange surge of confidence, she decides to sit down next to Hope on the futon, close enough that their shoulders are almost touching. 

Amy clears her throat. She has no idea what to do next.

“I think I kinda accosted you before you left,” Hope says, slotting her bookmark into the book and placing it next to her.

Amy smiles at the memory. She couldn’t stop thinking about it through work. Her supervisor commented on the distant look on her face at one point—it was embarrassing as it was a reality check. “Um, yeah. It’s okay though.”

“I didn’t embarrass you too bad, did I?”

Amy looks at her, offended. “Excuse you, I handled the situation very well. And why aren’t you more embarrassed?”

Hand over my heart, I will come back, Hope,” Hope recites, teasing. “Such sincerity.”

“You have absolutely no shame. I—fuck—” Amy can’t even work through her mortification fast enough to get words out.

Hope just laughs. “And now you’re choosing to feel awkward?”

Amy finds that the sound of Hope’s laughter eases her. “I don’t know!” Amy says, laughing. “You were barely lucid before! It was different.”

“And now?”

“And now… now you’re awake, I guess.” Amy pauses thoughtfully. “And here. In Botswana. With me.”

“Well, no take backs.”

Amy smiles at Hope’s childish tone of voice. “As long as I don’t get too awkward on you, I think we’ll be fine.”

“No promises for good company,” Hope says, sounding a little too serious to have any real levity to it. Amy frowns at this, and wonders what she means by it—if she’s talking about herself, or Amy. “But I think we’ve talked too much over the past month for this to be awkward.”

Amy relaxes, nodding. It’s true, though. Her days have felt incomplete without a message from Hope. It’s nice to see her, and not just through Snapchat. “Okay. It won’t be awkward then.”

“Sounds good to me.”

A beat. Silence.

They look at each other, and laugh.

“Okay, restart,” Hope says, holding up a hand. She leans back and gestures to a stack magwinya donuts on a plate on her other side, previously unnoticed by Amy. “Your host mom made me donuts. They’re fucking amazing, by the way.”

“Aren’t they?” Amy says, excited. She reaches over Hope to grab one off her plate, ignoring the thumping of her heart as her arm brushes the front of Hope’s shirt. “They’re so fucking good. Dunkin Donuts can eat dust.”

Hope grins. “Strong opinions.”

“Only for donuts,” Amy says, feeling proud when Hope laughs. “Hey, um… do you want to go somewhere? How long have you been awake for?”

“Just an hour or so. And, nah. I can stay in.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. You know this is the first time I’ve gotten a full eight hours of sleep since I left LA?”

“Oh, geez. That’s not good.”

Hope nods, then shrugs, like—yeah, I know. “I’ve just been travelling near constantly. I don’t mind, because I want to see as much as I can, but.”

“Well, you can relax, here,” Amy says. “You could stay in my bedroom the whole time you’re here, if you want to.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you?”

It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Amy flushes almost immediately, reaching up to press a cool hand to her quickly reddening face. “I—ugh—I didn’t mean it like—”

Hope looks entirely too satisfied with herself. “Yeah, I know. I’m just fucking with you.”

“Ugh,” Amy groans. Then, “I am being serious, though. You don’t—we don’t—”

Hope’s smile is slow and languorous. She knows exactly what she’s doing. “We don’t…?”

Amy shushes her. “I can’t—stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

“That!” Amy gestures to Hope. 

“You just gestured to all of me.”

“Exactly! Stop it!”

Real amusement from Hope, then, smile genuine and maybe even a little bit endeared. Hope turns her hands upwards towards the ceiling in surrender. “Alright, okay.”

Amy breathes in. “We don’t have to… to do anything. I didn’t invite you here as like a… booty call,” regretting her word choice, cringing, nose scrunched, “I mean I would like to—but that’s not all I—ugh. Okay. I’m done.”

Hope looks at her, then. Really looks at her. And Amy looks back, because she feels like she can’t look anywhere else. Hope’s eyeglasses are completely devoid of prints or smudges—Amy can imagine her meticulously wiping them clean after every use. She never thought that Hope really cared about the little things, like that. Maybe she has a lot more to learn.

She’s silent for a long moment, before she takes her glasses off and holds them in her hand. Amy looks on, confused, before Hope says: “You want to kiss me, Amy?”

Amy’s mouth goes completely dry. “I—”

“Amy. Yes or no.”

“I—yeah. Yeah.”

And so Hope kisses her, leading with her free hand on Amy’s cheek and moving forward, fingers curved faint around Amy’s jaw, thumb pressing lightly against her skin. It’s strangely soft—softer than Amy was expecting with Hope, anyway, and delicate. Different, good different, from their heated, rushed kisses in the bathroom of a house party, cold tiles and muffled music encouraging urgency and desperation.

When Amy imagined kissing Hope again, little daydreams tucked in between brushing her teeth and getting into bed, she never would’ve imagined this.

Hope deepens the kiss, and Amy feels her toes curl. It’s so good. Kissing is so good. Everybody talks about how fantastic kissing is, but it never really hits until you’re there, breathing another person in. 

Amy understands why Molly had wanted her to kiss somebody else so bad. You’d want to share a feeling like this, too.

As Hope gently urges Amy’s mouth open with her own, the hand on her cheek moves lower, dragging down the side of Amy’s neck before sliding around cup her nape. Amy shivers, half by the ticklish feeling it gives her and half by just the touch itself, and Amy thinks about how she could’ve waited forever for this, this contentment. 

Eventually Hope moves away. “You breathing?” Hope asks. She knocks her forehead into Amy’s in a strangely sweet gesture, before pulling away completely.

“I—wow. Um, yeah. I’m breathing.” Just barely, though.

“Good.” She pauses. “This is where I’m at. I don’t care if you called me over here for a booty call or not.”

“Well, I didn’t—”

Amy,” Hope interrupts, exasperated, “not the point.”

“Right,” Amy concedes. “Uh, well, the bedroom door doesn’t lock.”

Hope pauses, then barks out a disbelieving laugh, eyebrows shooting upwards. “Wow? Just like that?”

Amy wants to crawl inside a hole and perish there. She barely manages to stop herself from straight up just standing and leaving, so instead she forces herself to groan lightly and place her head in her hands. “That is not what I meant.”

Amy feels the simple pressure of Hope’s hand between her shoulder blades, which, again, surprises Amy. She braced for relentless teasing, but not this. It makes her feel inexplicably safe.

“I just meant, like, my host parents could literally walk in at any moment. They don’t really knock.”

Hope hums. “I can see how that may be a problem.”

She raises her head to look at the wall across from her, not quite brave enough to face Hope yet. Hope moves her hand away. The absent feeling on the back of her neck is a feeling that she does not have the time to unpack. “But, uh, you came at a good time. They’re leaving to visit family in Francistown tomorrow. So.”

“Wait, so when you told me to come on the fourteenth specifically, you were really just—”

“—I think!” Amy interrupts, not wanting to face the reality of her extreme embarrassment further. She looks at Hope, then, and ignores the burn of her ears. “I think the less we think about this, the better.”

“I don’t think you’ve said those words, ever, but sure.” Hope slides her glasses back onto her face. “What should we do, then?”

Amy considers this for a second, before she gives Hope a shy shrug. “What are you reading?”

now

The table’s enraptured in conversation, so Hope and Amy take a seat without much fanfare. They’re reminiscing, because of course they are—Annabelle’s in the middle of a vivid retelling of the time Tanner showed up to class hungover and utterly unprepared for his English oral final, so he improvised a speech with his hoodie drawstring as a prop, and ended up getting a 92.

“It’s my natural charm, bro,” Tanner smirks.

Annabelle just stares at him. “How did you get into Stanford, again?”

“I had two brain cells that I could just,” he presses his thumb into the pad of his forefinger, “rub together real well.”

“Aw, buddy, what do you mean had?” Nick says, reaching over to ruffle Tanner’s hair, laughing as he ducks away. “You still do.”

“Maybe Miss Ventura had the hots for you,” Theo says, sounding pretty serious.

The entire table erupts in groans, Annabelle knocking her shoulder into Theo’s, Tanner throwing his beanie that was in his hands at him, Nick muffling a laugh into his hand.

Amy watches Ryan. First of all, she has to try and figure out how she’s going to tell Ryan that she had a crush on her in high school without making it… weird. She can’t just go out and say it. She’ll figure it out somehow. For now, she just watches.

She looks pretty much the same. Her dyed blonde hair is gone and her hair is kind of longer, reaching the tops of her shoulders. She seems to have pierced her ears to hell and back, from helixes and industrials, to a painful looking captive bead ring piercing on the innermost cartilage fold of her left ear.

She, frankly, still looks like a lesbian.

Amy holds in a laugh.

As she does this, she catches Molly’s eye from across the table. Their nonverbal hand and eye semaphore goes like this: a raised eyebrow, accompanied by the very unsubtle darting of eyes towards Ryan. A grin and a shaken head. The pinching of eyebrows, then pursed lips. Another grin and shaken head; more insistent this time. An accepting nod, before turning back to the conversation.

Hope leans down to talk into Amy’s ear. “You know I still get freaked the fuck out when you and Molly do your weird ESP thing.”

Amy turns her head to talk back. “It’s a gift, what can I say—”

She moves to say more, but then Nick reclines in his seat and throws his arm around the back of Ryan’s chair. Okay. They’re still together. At least that tells Amy why she’s sitting here with Nick and not with her other skater friends. 

Nick seems to notice her looking, which he apparently takes as a cue to initiate conversation. “How have you been, Amy? Hey, you know I saw your feature about the water shortages in Nairobi in Nature Conservancy. Great stuff.”

Amy blinks, surprised. “Oh, yeah. Well, I’m not really a journalist, but I was in Kenya for a while to assist in UN’s environment programme, and a friend there suggested I write something about the crisis. Helped me pitch it to the magazine and everything. It was fun, I’m glad you liked it. How did you find the article?”

Nick crooks a smile. “Can’t a guy read Nature Conservancy for fun?”

Amy grins. “I mean, fair enough, but do you?”

“Nah,” he laughs, shaking his head. “You linked it on your Twitter. Besides, I’m more of a The Economist type of guy.”

“Ugh, classic Wall Street yuppie,” Annabelle groans, pausing in her conversation with Tanner and Theo to interject with her vehement distaste for capitalists. She goes back to talking after she says this.

“Hey, ex-Wall Street yuppie. You wound me!” Nick says, throwing a hand over his heart. “I have seen the error of my ways.”

There’s probably a whole story there that Amy doesn’t know about, and thus probably be wildly inappropriate to ask about here, as curious as she is. Everyone else on the table except for Hope seems to know what he’s talking about, though. Maybe she’ll ask about it later.

“You follow me on Twitter?” Amy asks instead, trying not to let that particular detail slip through the cracks. Suddenly, Hope scoots their chairs closer together, close enough so their shoulders are touching, and takes Amy’s hand. She doesn't say anything, so Amy doesn't, either.

“Yeah! Molly told me to follow you.”

Amy turns to give Molly a look.

“I was excited to share your achievements, Ames!” Molly says, sounding completely unapologetic. “Your first article and it’s in Nature Conservancy, no less! That is no small deal.”

“It’s true,” Nick shrugs. “But I was already following you before Molly told me to, anyway. I’m trying to, uh, become more politically conscious? You keep the folks updated. And I knew you from high school, so. Trusted source.”

Amy doesn’t quite know what to say. “Wow. Thanks.”

“No biggie, Amy. It’s wild how you’ve been doing this shit since high school and I had no idea.”

Ryan’s talking, now. “Nick made me read the article too, you know,” she says, leaning backwards into her chair so her back touches Nick’s arm. “I had no idea you did any super serious activism shit in high school! Well, I knew you did that stuff with the gender neutral toilets. Super dope, by the way.”

“Oh, there’s a lot of things you didn’t know about Amy in high school,” Hope interjects, grinning. She gives Amy a raised eyebrow. Jesus Christ. She makes it sound like she did weird sex things and enjoyed it.

Amy knows what she’s doing, though. Hook, line, and sinker, and all that. 

“Yeah,” Amy agrees, nodding. She makes sure she’s looking directly at Ryan as she says her next words. “You know I had a crush on you in high school?”

The whole table goes silent.

Okay. Wasn’t expecting that.

Molly looks at her with her eyebrows raised, before she sees Hope turn her head to the side, shoulders shaking, trying desperately to mask her laughter. She presses her fist to her mouth and makes a few fake coughing noises. Her grip on Amy’s hand is tight, but not enough to hurt. 

Molly mouths ah and rolls her eyes, probably knowing it’s one of their bets.

“Oh,” Ryan says, mouth pulling into a frown. “Oh, dude, I had no idea.”

Amy just smiles. “It was a long time ago. Little baby Amy really liked you, though.”

Ryan snorts, expression turning from perplexed into delighted. “This is so cool! I mean, I don’t swing that way, but if I did, I would totally date you, Amy.”

Amy’s gotten that from a few straight girls, before, but Ryan sounds totally sincere. It makes her feel a certain affection towards Ryan. Not romantic of any sort, but that kind of softness you feel for someone in the wake of honest kindness.

“Bro, that was kinda killer how you just said that,” Tanner says, laughing. “Just tellin’ her you had a crush on her like that. Bad ass, Amy. Bad. Ass.”

“Don’t go stealing my girl, now,” Nick jokes, slinging an arm around Ryan’s shoulders and pressing a kiss to Ryan’s cheek. Amy catches the flash of his wedding band on his hand as he does this. She forgot they got married, holy shit. Annabelle went to their wedding like five years ago.

Amy looks down at her and Hope’s linked hands, smoothing a thumb over the crook in Hope’s hand that never went away after she broke her thumb when she was eight, courtesy of the first and last taekwondo lesson she ever attended. She thinks about being in love.

then

Amy probably should’ve migrated to her own bed by now—the futon is right next to it, so it’s not like she’d be going particularly far from Hope. But she stays, firmly put, against her better judgement. She worries over it for a few frazzled moments, scared about encroaching on Hope’s personal space or being a general nuisance, but it’s not like Hope seemingly wants her to move, either, considering the way she’s laid down and thrown her legs over Amy’s lap, trapping her. 

Hope holds her copy of Into the Wild over her head, arms outstretched. They’ve been reading various passages from the book for who knows how long, just to give Amy an idea of what it’s about, and then stopping to talk between each passage. 

“On the other side of the page, which was blank, McCandless penned a brief adios: I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless us all. Then he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him and slipped into unconsciousness.”

Amy furrows her brow. “Those were Christopher McCandless’ last words?”

Hope shrugs. She puts down the book. “I guess so.”

“And then he just… starved to death?”

“Yup.”

Amy heaves out a sigh, raking a hand through her hair. “That’s… wow.”

“Depressing?”

“Kinda?” Amy scratches the back of her neck. “He did say he had a happy life, so maybe that makes up for it a little.”

Hope shakes her head. “He went out to prove to everybody that living off the land without material connections was the most honest way to live, and then he just starved to death. Everyone had all these opinions about what he should and shouldn’t do and he hated it. But he died anyway. It’s like everyone’s opinions about him were proven right.” 

Amy opens her mouth to make a comment on this, but Hope keeps on going.

“You know, every time I read it I hope he doesn’t die. And then he does. And then I get mad at him for dying like that, for wasting the chance to prove everybody wrong. I get angry. Like I’m reading it for the first time. It’s so stupid.”

Hope pauses, pursing her lips. Amy recognises the expression; it’s the one where you realise you’ve probably said more than you meant to.

Amy’s had her hands awkwardly by her sides this whole time, not quite sure what to do with them, but as she figures Hope’s trying to tell her something important, she moves them to rest on Hope’s calves, hoping her touch is comforting and not unwanted.

“It sounds like a really good book. I’ll try to see if they have it at any bookstores around here.” Amy says, trying to take on a smooth, unbothered lilt to show Hope she’s not going to be weird about her unintentional vulnerability.

Hope seems to relax. A thoughtful pause, then: “You can have this copy, if you want to. I’ve read it like a million times and I have another version of it at home.”

Before Amy can argue, Hope hands it to her. It’s pretty worn around the edges.

“Seen better days,” Amy jokes.

Hope rolls her eyes. “I usually take good care of my books, I promise, this has just been rattling around in my backpack.”

Amy opens to the front page. Written in faint pencil on inside of the front cover is an inscription, in Hope's deliberate cursive: property of Hope Carlin. if you have found this book, please get it back to me at this number, then her phone number underneath. Amy smiles at the little please, then turns the book around to show Hope her writing.

“Ah. I forgot about that,” Hope says, trying to sound nonchalant but failing to mask her embarrassment. “I just don’t want to lose that copy, that’s all.”

Amy grins, flicking through the book to find hundreds of annotations and highlighted passages. It’s like looking into Hope’s brain. No wonder she would want this book back. It looks like years of work, considering how many various different pen colours there are, all at different levels of opacity.

“How do you know I won’t lose it?”

Hope just shrugs. “I know you’ll take care of it.”

Amy blushes, not expecting the sincerity. “Um. Okay. Cool.” Is this flirting? Does this count as flirting? Does giving a girl a book you treasure count as flirting?

Shrugging again, Hope paws for her backpack next to the futon and reaches into the already open zip to take out her glasses case, which she pops open. Amy watches as she slides out the cleaning cloth and begins to methodically clean her glasses, rubbing circles around the lenses.

Amy thinks about flirting back. “I, um, didn’t know you wore glasses,” Amy starts. Okay. That's a good start. She has the next sentence on the precipice of her lips—they look really good on you—where they’ve been for the past… who knows how long. From the very little experience she has, she knows complimenting Hope technically counts a flirting, even if it is completely unsubtle. She would do it more often, but she’s just so unskilled handling whatever Hope throws back at her. Flirting, teasing, sincerity, whatever. It’s all the same interpersonal nightmare.

“Yeah, I don’t like wearing them at school,” Hope says, still cleaning her glasses. She’s not looking at Amy, and she doesn’t know if that makes it better or worse.

Oh, fuck it. “They… uh… ah… look really good on you.”

Hope snorts, but her smile is genuine. She looks at Amy, then. “Thanks, nerd. Although I’m surprised you don’t wear glasses. What kinda nerd are you?”

“Um… one with 20/20 vision?”

“Dude, I am just fucking with you,” Hope groans, though she sounds more amused than annoyed. “You have to learn when I’m fucking with you.”

Amy presses a hand to her forehead. That's kind of humiliating, to be honest. Amy knows that she's not good at this whole flirting thing. She just doesn't have any practice. She fights the urge to grunt in frustration. After a few beats of wrestling with herself, she finds that she's so embarrassed that everything just comes spilling out. “I just—it’s just that sometimes at school, I had no idea when you were just fucking with me or being serious. So I just took you for being serious, because I didn’t want to question why you wanted to fuck with me all the time.”

Hope frowns at this. Carefully, she lifts her legs off of Amy’s lap and crosses them, before sliding her glasses back on her face. “Are you… being serious?”

Amy hadn’t meant to say all that, but it is true. She thought Hope had hated her, honestly. Amy never really got any shit from any of the other students at Crockett, mostly because Molly usually made herself the bigger target simply by being herself. But with Hope—with Hope, it was always about Amy. Molly was always the afterthought. It was never bad enough to make her doubt herself, or to make her self-conscious, but it hurt. Of course it hurt.

Her confusion from the last four years lodges in her throat, and she finds herself really annoyed. “Jesus Christ, of course I’m being serious, Hope!” Amy bursts, feeling gratification when her words are cutting and direct, and don’t shake at all. “You, like, wouldn’t stop giving me shit! It all felt so fucking unnecessary and strange. Like, I wasn’t even doing anything! And I guess now that I think about it, it doesn’t matter if you were being serious about the things you said or you were just having a laugh. It was still fucking weird. And rude.”

Amy realises they’re basically rehashing that argument they had in the bathroom at Nick’s party, except they’re talking for real this time. And maybe Hope is actually listening. It feels like forever ago.

Hope, to her credit, looks thoughtful. She doesn’t look like she’s going to say anything mean, anyway. “Okay,” she says, then, “do you remember what I said Nick’s party?”

They’re on the same page, then. “Yeah,” Amy croaks out. “I just don’t like meek people.”

“It was true,” Hope shrugs, and ow, that stings. “You were always following Molly around everywhere and she was always the one speaking first, not you. Sometimes you seemed like a little mouse afraid of its own tail. But. But,” and Hope actually looks hesitant, now, eyebrows pinching together. She shakes her head. “You know I follow you on Twitter?”

Amy frowns at the non sequitur, wondering where Hope is going with this. “Uh. No?”

Hope pauses for a second to take out her phone and pull up Amy’s Twitter profile. Amy looks at it—it’s her, on the internet, literally: @amyontheinternet. When Amy just stares, Hope makes a frustrated noise.

She points to her phone. “You have like, fifteen thousand followers. What the fuck?”

Amy still doesn’t know where she’s going with this, but she follows along. “Um, yeah. I think it’s because I got into an argument with that Kent State gun girl and it kinda went viral. Buzzfeed posted an article about it. I, uh, also meet a lot of people at protests?”

How does nobody at school know about this?” She doesn’t look frustrated anymore, just intent. 

“I mean, Molly knows about it—”

“—Molly doesn’t count, you know this. Come on, Amy. You have this whole drive and passion to you and no one at school ever even saw it. Ever even knew about it. Why?”

“Because I—” Amy pauses, and really thinks about the question for a second. She honestly doesn’t know. So she says, “I don’t know. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

Hope just throws her head back and laughs. “You’re a real mystery to me, Amy. Seriously.”

Amy swallows, unsure of how to respond to that. “How did you find my Twitter?”

“I just looked for it,” she shrugs. Her expression turns serious. “I didn’t like how you kept on letting everybody think you were meek and small when really, you’re this whole person. This whole person. It honestly pissed me off.”

“And so you took it out by being a bitch to me?”

Hope closes her eyes, pinches the bridge of her nose. “I know, I’m sorry,” she says. She sounds more annoyed at herself than she does at Amy. “I have… issues that I’m working through.”

Amy resists saying clearly, because that would be unnecessarily cruel. “Okay,” she says, wiping her palms, which have gotten sweaty, on her pants. “I’m sorry for kinda blowing up on you there.”

“No, I deserve it. It’s probably better we have this conversation now rather than later.”

They stare at each other for a second, before Amy says, “I guess I didn’t think it was a big deal because I didn’t think high school was a big deal. I honestly didn’t even know people saw me as meek.”

“Yeah, well, they did,” Hope says, sighing. She folds her legs to her chest, resting her arms on her knees. 

“So I guess you can forgive my obliviousness, then? I wasn’t letting them think anything.” Amy pauses. “I really hated high school.”

Hope smiles, then, resting her chin on her arms. “Oh, come on. You? Miss four-point-oh? Miss one million APs? Miss five million extra curriculars?”

“Oh, shut up,” Amy blushes. She clears her throat. “The learning, the studying, the late nights revising… that’s just one half of school, and usually the part that nobody cares about. No, high school is mostly about other people.”

“And parties.”

Amy laughs. “And parties. You know the only reason Molly and I were at Nick’s party that night was because Molly found out Annabelle got into Yale?” And also because Molly had a crush on Nick, but that detail isn’t really relevant to the point Amy’s trying to make.

“Shit, seriously?”

“She said it was our last night to have both studied and partied in high school. Said we got it wrong, or something. I didn’t really understand what she was saying at the time—really what she was saying—until after Nick’s party.”

“Yeah? What’d you realise?”

“That we did get it wrong. But back then, I didn’t really care that Annabelle got into Yale or that Tanner got into Stanford and that they bested us, or something, which was I thought Molly was saying. All I wanted to do that night was go back home, cozy up in bed, watch The Dust Bowl.”

“God, you nerd,” Hope says, full of affectionate disgust.

“I think why Molly was so betrayed after finding out Annabelle was going to Yale was because she put everything into school. Everything. For her, it was like, the thrill of being the only person to put their hand up in class, you know? Or being the only person who knew the answer to a complicated question. And I know that makes her sound a little insufferable—”

“It definitely doesn’t make her sound insufferable.”

Amy kicks Hope. Lightly. “But it was who she was. And it worked for her. She loved being that person, and I loved seeing her be that person, because it made her happy. But I never worked hard at school to ‘bust curves’, as one would say in Molly terms. I mean, I liked getting good grades. But mostly I just want to know everything.”

Amy pauses after she says this, looking down at her hands. She’s still holding Hope’s copy of Into the Wild, so she stares at it, trying to gather her thoughts. “I want to know everything because I don’t like being in situations where I can’t help in some way. Myself, or others.”

Hope is silent. Amy appreciates this—she still isn’t done trying to figure all this stuff out. This is the first time she’s said most of these things out loud. It’s almost cathartic. “So… I guess that’s why I didn’t really care about the kids at Crockett not really knowing who I was. I had nothing to prove to them. Just stuff to prove to myself.”

It hangs in the air between them. Breathing in the space. Suddenly, the four walls of her bedroom seem infinitely smaller. Just her, and Hope, trapped in this tiny box together.

“Fuck, I really was a bitch, huh?” Hope bursts out laughing. Amy follows, albeit with more nerves. “God, fuck. I didn’t mean to laugh there.” She sniffs. “I’m just—you kind of amaze me, you know that?”

Fuck—what to say to that? Amy wipes her sweaty hands on her jeans again. She’s perspiring like fucking crazy. “Thank you?”

Hope shrugs. Amy recognises it as her I’m trying hard not to care about this shrug. “I just feel like I have loads of shit to prove to people every day. And here you are, not caring at all.”

“I care, just not enough to let it rule me.”

Hope’s smile is crooked and self deprecating. “I can’t say the same, unfortunately.”

Amy suddenly remembers the anger in Hope’s voice as she talked about Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild, just a while ago—and then I get mad at him for dying like that, for wasting the chance to prove everybody wrong. Everything seems to click into place.

“Oh,” Amy says.

“You know, let’s just chill on the deep talks for now,” Hope says. She’s retreating back, but Amy doesn’t mind. She knows for certain that Hope will open up to her when she’s ready to.

Amy thinks about suggesting they listen to music together, but then Hope’s taking off her glasses and putting them in her case. And then she’s crawling forward, eyes startlingly intense. All words die in her throat.

“What time is it?” Hope says, voice low.

“Um—” Amy checks her wristwatch. Her eyes widen. “Fuck, it’s like one am. Have we really being talking for that long?”

“You think your host parents are likely to walk in on us now?”

“No, but I—ah—” Hope’s close, now, and she’s got a hand on Amy’s shoulder, pressing her back into the side of the bed. As she takes the book out of Amy’s hands and puts it on the bed behind them, she slowly, almost slyly, throws a leg over Amy’s waist, straddling her. Amy barely knows what to do with her hands, but she breathes out when Hope puts them on her waist for her. 

“You want to?”

“Yes! Yes,” Amy says, blushing lightly at the way Hope laughs at her eagerness. “I just—I don’t know how good I am at staying quiet.”

Hope grins. “We’ll figure it out.”

Chapter Text

now

“I can’t believe you did that, by the way,” Molly says, fiddling with the fishtail braid she’s tied into Amy’s hair. She tugs on it, gently, before huffing irritably and unbraiding it, and starting again.

They’re sitting on the sidewalk by the parking lot near the entrance of the school, waiting for Jared and Gigi to arrive, mostly to make sure they’re not dead. Jared had sent Molly a worrying text around ten minutes ago—I think one of the bolts on Gigi’s Vespa just popped off—and it’s been radio silence since. 

“Well, I lost the bet,” Amy says, reaching up to pat Molly’s wrist, trying to calm her aggressive braiding. “I think you’re sectioning off the parts too thick. Try making it thinner.”

“I did that already,” Molly complains, but she drops Amy’s hair and begins to section off the parts of her hair again. “You and your bets. Frankly, I find it impressive you and Hope have managed to keep up this tradition of yours for this long.”

Amy smiles, suddenly feeling wistful. “I mean, It’s fun. It’s like a coin toss, except there’s more personal competition. And it’s never unnecessary.”

“Right. Going out of your comfort zone and all that,” Molly says, sounding very distracted. Amy feels another tug on her hair. “Fuck! It’s not even supposed to be that hard! What the hell am I doing wrong?”

“Maybe you should try again, but with a reference? Do you want me to pull up a video on my phone?” Amy suggests, turning around to face Molly. 

“Ugh, no. I watched videos until my eyes bled yesterday. Annabelle let me practice on her and she was all great about it, but just like now it was an unmitigated disaster. She didn’t tell me that, though. I saw it in her eyes.”

Amy places her hands on Molly’s shoulders, mouth pulling into a hard frown. “You know Annabelle’s going to love you no matter what, right?”

Molly pauses. “Of course I know that.”

“So why are you freaking out so much? Doesn’t her mom already love you anyway?”

Molly sighs. “I mean, she does, but that was before we were dating. It’s different now. I only have two days to lock this shit down, Amy! I gotta pull out all the stops.”

“Meaning hair cosmetology, obviously.”

“If this doesn’t get her little sister on my side, I swear to God!” Molly grouses, shaking her fist, a gesture reminiscent of a grouchy octogenarian scolding local youths to get off her lawn. 

They both laugh at Molly's awful impression of herself in about fifty years, before Molly’s face breaks out into something sour: “Oh my god, also, did I tell you I’ve been trying to keep up with football for her older brother? It’s so bad. Not football, I mean, just me. I hate sports. I never want to force myself to sit through another highlight reel again. If he ends up hating me, so be it.”

“I think you’re a little bit too busy to really get that stuff, anyway.”

“That’s true.” A pause. “I just really want them to like me, Ames.”

Amy wants to smooth all her anxiety way. “And they’re going to like you. But they’re not just going to like you just because you can do a fishtail braid. They’re going to like you because you’re funny, and beautiful, and so, so fucking smart—okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Molly says, quirking a smile. Molly takes Amy’s hands off her shoulders and motions for her to turn back around. “Everything you said was true, but I still want to nail this motherfucker. I graduated summa cum laude from fucking Yale and I can’t get this braid. Kill me.”

Amy laughs, shaking her hair out. “Do your thing.”

It takes another ten minutes before Jared and Gigi pull into the parking lot. They hear them before they see them; hailing with a sound that can only be described as a collection of heavy screws rolling around in a metal tumbler, some old factory machine in dear need to reparation.

Gigi’s Vespa is practically on the verge of falling apart—gritty and rusted, the paint dull and peeling, the thing actually creaks as Jared swings off it, Gigi following when she cuts the engine and kickstands it.

“That was,” Jared starts, then runs over to a nearby bush to dry heave over it. 

Gigi, sanguine, walks over to Jared and begins rubbing soothing circles between his shoulders.

Jared makes a few unintelligible noises, then, “Gege, I’m begging you, please get someone professional to check out your Vespa.”

“The old Italian man who bequeathed it to me told me to never let anybody else tamper with it, lest it anger the spirit living within the engine,” Gigi says, completely matter-of-factly. “And there is a spirit in there. I checked. It looks like David Schwimmer.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jared sighs, taking his visor helmet off. He turns his head to rub his eyebrow, looking pale and tired, but then his entire demeanour lights up completely as he catches Molly sitting on the sidewalk. “Molly!”

“Are you good?” Molly grins, cocking an eyebrow, fingers quickly wrapping a hair tie around the end of Amy’s braid. She doesn’t wait for a response as she stands up to pull Jared into a hug.

Jared laughs. “Way better now!” 

Amy smiles at the reunion, staying seated. Molly’s been harping about how much she misses Jared ever since he flew to Australia a few months ago—something about making the broadway scene in Melbourne more prolific. Amy isn’t quite certain. She missed a lot of the details. 

It had taken the both of them a few painful months to catch their footing after their break up way back when—especially considering they dated for like, three years and they were both each others firsts—but they’ve been best friends since. Well, not best friends. But close.

Amy’s so consumed by her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice Gigi taking a seat next to her, dumping her visor helmet onto Amy’s lap. It startles her enough that she jumps.

“That’s yours, now,” Gigi says. “I bought it precisely for you.”

Amy laughs, shaking her head. She likes to think she’s gotten used to Gigi’s antics after all these years, but sometimes it still catches her off guard. Amy’s tried to dissuade her from it, but Gigi seems to think the best way to bestow affection is with gifts. Still, as much as their cyclical discussions about the dangers of excess under capitalism titillate and educate them both, if Gigi comes around with a motorcycle helmet with Amy's name on it, Amy’s not going to be like, rude about it.

Inspecting the helmet, Amy runs a thumb over the glossy coating. It’s teal, like the Vespa, except on the helmet you can actually tell it’s teal first glance. Turning it over in her hands, an unbidden laugh bubbles up in her throat as she finds Amy embossed on the back in large, pink cursive.

“Have you just been wearing this around?” Amy asks, trying the helmet on. It fits pretty well.

“Yes. I have my own helmet, but I was afraid I would lose yours if I didn’t wear it.” 

“Well, thanks, Gigi,” Amy says, trying to figure out what the fuck she’s going to end up doing with it. Maybe she could convince Hope to start using it as her cycling helmet, just so it gets some use. She smiles at the mental image.

“A gas station attendant called me Amy the other day. I didn’t even want to correct him. Is having your name this liberating?”

“I have no idea how to respond to that,” Amy says honestly, before standing up. She holds out a hand to help Gigi up, which Gigi takes happily.

“Did she finally give you the helmet?” Jared says, grinning broadly. Both he and Molly have wandered over to them. Warmth has seeped back into his expression, though his hair still looks sweaty and flat. “I helped her pick out the colours. Do you like it?”

“Of course, I love it,” Amy says, tucking the helmet underneath her arm. “But you know I don’t own a motorcycle or a scooter or anything, right?”

“Oh, whaaaat.” Jared looks at Gigi. “Gigi! You told me she had a scooter.”

“Not yet,” Gigi dismisses, flippant, whatever that means.

“It’s okay,” Amy says, placating. “I’ll figure out something to do with the helmet.”

Gigi makes a triumphant noise. “And that’s why Amy’s the love of my life,” she says, not at all sounding like she’s joking. She throws an arm around Amy’s shoulders and begins to walk them towards Crockett’s gymnasium.

“How have you been, Gigi?” Amy ventures.

Gigi, on the other hand, seems to have no care for small talk. “Has Hope proposed to you yet?”

Amy jerks so hard she almost drops the helmet. “Uh. What?”

“Oh. I see. She hasn’t.” Gigi says, frowning hard. “I will talk to her.”

“What? Gigi, no—” Amy clears her throat, trying to keep it together. “Gigi, no. This isn’t—I don’t—we agreed a long time ago we wouldn’t get married until we decided to stop travelling around.”

“You’ve been asking your superiors about stepping down so you can take that visiting lecturer position at NYU,” Gigi points out.

Amy gapes. “How do you know that?”

Gigi waves her hand dismissively, which is not at all comforting.

It really doesn’t bother either of them that they’re not married. They’ve discussed it multiple times over the past few years and they’ve always settled on the same conclusion: it’s just not the right time. With Amy working at the UN and Hope working freelance, sometimes they travel to the same places, sometimes they don’t. There was no guarantee that they were going to be together, in the same space, on a consistent basis.

“Amy,” Gigi says, when Amy fails to say anything further. “Don’t worry, I’ll have a long and spirited talk with her. We are due to catch up on the finer details of our synchronous circadian rhythms, anyway.”

“What? Are your circadian rhythms actually synced?” Amy asks, before remembering what the conversation is actually about. She smiles, shaking her head, feeling oddly better. “You know what—never mind.”

then

Amy shuts the waist-high front gate as her host parents pull away from the house, disappearing from view. Amy watches the faint cloud of gravel kicked up by their SUV coalesce, then dissipate. She should probably go back inside, but she savours the cool morning air instead. Here she faces the reality of at least two days alone with Hope. She doesn’t know if she’s scared or nervous or excited or some nauseating melting pot of all three.

“They’re nice,” Hope says behind her, out of nowhere.

“Jesus fuck!” Amy yelps, jolting, before proceeding to jump with enough surprise that her right knee collides with the metal fencing of the gate. Hard. “FUCK!”

“Shit, Amy,” Hope says, concerned, stepping forward to place a hand on Amy’s shoulder, urging her gently to turn around. “Are you okay?”

Amy’s convinced she’s too embarrassed to turn around and face Hope, but at Hope’s gentle urging she finds that she does anyway. “I’m okay,” she says, though her knee throbs. She’s decidedly looking at the ground. “You scared me, that’s all.”

“That was the least convincing ‘I’m okay’ I’ve ever heard,” Hope says, looking utterly unimpressed. “C’mon, we’re icing this shit.”

“Hope, you don’t need to,” Amy starts, but then Hope grabs Amy’s hand to tug her towards the house and words lose all meaning. She wonders if it’ll always just be this easy for Hope to render her inarticulate. 

Hope practically bullies Amy into a chair by the dining room table, motioning for her to stay seated and setting off into the kitchen to find an ice pack in the freezer.

“Are you usually that jumpy or is it just the early morning?” she says over her shoulder.

“I thought you were asleep,” Amy huffs, prodding her knee gently. 

She remembers the way she woke up this morning, on her side, cheek pressed into her pillow, looking at Hope asleep on the futon next to her bed. They had agreed after… well, everything, that it would probably be best for them to sleep in separate beds, lest one of her host parents walk in unannounced and catch them in an undue position.

It was weird. Weird in the way that Amy, still warm and flushed and loose, crawled into her own bed and felt like she was walking home from a party hookup in the rising hours of the morning. Weird in the way that Amy wanted to stay there, on the hard futon, her arm around Hope’s waist and her nose pressed against the back of her neck, and just falling asleep like that. Weird in the way that she thought if she asked, Hope might even say yes.

Hope had switched the light off not shortly after. Amy stared at her, unable to sleep, though she was just barely looking at the faintest outline of a body. It was really too dark to see anything. Too dark to tell if Hope was looking at her back.

Amy hadn’t expected to feel so… complicated, after sex. Not in the terrible, running-first-chance-she-got way, but like there was a whole new thing for her to explore. A whole new thing opened—revealed, maybe—but still unknown, something still difficult to navigate. Most surprisingly, though, she finds herself unafraid by it. Maybe even braver for it.

Hope returns with a small handful of ice cubes wrapped with a tea towel, tied neatly with a knot. She swats Amy’s hands away as Amy reaches out to take it from her, brows creasing in a maybe-serious-maybe-not glare, and crouching down to press it into Amy’s knee herself.

“Good?” Hope says, not really smiling, but voice light.

“Good, thanks,” Amy says, fidgeting a little.

Hope stays like that for another beat, before motioning for Amy to take the bundle of ice cubes. She stands up, turns away a little too quickly to be interpreted as casual, and wanders over to a smattering of photographs of Amy’s host family on a nearby wall.

“I have a question,” Hope says, facing the wall. Amy can’t see her expression.

“Shoot,” Amy says.

“I noticed there’s a third bedroom.”

“Yes?”

“And there’s also a couch.”

“There is, too, a couch,” Amy jokes. 

She thinks she hears Hope laugh, but it’s so faint and tiny that she may have entirely imagined it. “Okay. Why am I sleeping on a futon on the floor next to your bed?”

Agh. Amy was half hoping she wouldn’t have to explain this. “Um, well.” Amy starts. “The third bedroom is for these two sisters coming from Melbourne in December. Apparently their academic year doesn’t end until then, so.”

Hope turns around, then, and leans against the wall. She’s smiling. “December is like, four months away. And I'm only going to be here for a few days.”

“Um, right. Not much we can do about that. And the couch, well... the couch doesn’t really look all that comfortable,” Amy says, gesturing to the couch. Threadbare, but with thin wooden armrests. A nightmare.

“Come on, Amy. Don’t play dumb with me. We both know you’re too smart for that.”

Amy sighs, shifting the ice cubes on her knee. She bites the bullet. “My host parents assumed we’d want to be sleeping in the same space since I told them we’re, um, best friends. Like, best friends best friends. Like, childhood best friends. Like, me and Molly—” 

“I got it,” Hope interrupts, holding up a hand.

“Right… sorry. Anyway, I made up this whole thing where you moved into the house across from me when we were little and we bonded over critical theory in Sesame Street. Keep in mind we are eight years old in this situation.”

Hope’s face is studiously blank. Amy, nervous, just keeps on fucking going.

“I didn’t know how else to explain to them why a girl I knew from high school was just coming over to Botswana because I’d told her in a fit of nervousness that she’d have a couch to crash on. Not that I don’t want you here! But I’m sorry. I should’ve asked if you wanted to sleep in your own space. Um, do you want to sleep in your own space?”

Hope reaches up to rub her temple, looking like she hadn't expected that to be Amy's answer but is not surprised by the news in the slightest, before an amused smile breaks out onto her face.

Amy looks at her, her own smile spreading against her will. “You’re laughing at me.”

“Maybe a little,” Hope grins, then, thoughtfully, “They think we’re gal pals.”

Amy makes some hysterical strangled noise, a halfway laugh. She sees Hope, sees the amusement on her face, and just starts laughing, pressing her hands into her eyes. After a moment of silence, Hope starts laughing with her, and then they’re both laughing like that, one with a bundle of ice cubes on her knee, shoulders shaking, and the other with her hand pressed against her face, eyes scrunched shut.

“Oh, fuck,” Amy giggles, threading her hands into her hair and leaving them there. “This is so weird.”

“Isn’t it?” Hope grins, pushing off the wall and pulling out a chair to sit by the dining table. Amy likes her like this: moving, constantly, kinetic. Amy hadn’t expected her to be so restless. “This is so fucking weird!”

“It is! This is so fucking weird!” Amy concurs. She feels like she’s going crazy, but in a way that makes her think she might let it happen. She presses her thumb into her knee, to ground herself. 

She wants to say what’s so weird, exactly: it’s weird because we’re having semi-awkward conversation in the home of my host family all the way in Botswana. It’s weird because my host parents think we’re childhood best friends but we had sex last night and I really fucking liked it. It’s weird because I don’t even need the sex, I want to kiss you more. It’s weird because I don’t even know you. It’s weird because I want to know you.

They both look at each other, long enough that Amy begins to feel shy again, before Hope reaches for the bundle of ice cubes.

“You still need this?”

“No, I think I’m okay. I don’t think I’ll bruise too bad,” Amy says. She pokes her knee again, pleased when it doesn’t complain too much at her touch, and begins to sit up, reaching towards Hope. “Here, let me put everything away.”

“In your dreams, Amy,” Hope says, stepping out of Amy’s reach. She’s already halfway to the kitchen. “Stop poking your knee.”

Amy makes a frustrated noise to mask the surprise that Hope had even noticed her chronic poking. “I think this is against the rules or something,” she says.

Hope laughs. “What rules?”

“You know—rules! House guest rules.”

“I don’t think that’s a thing.”

“It’s totally a thing,” Amy says, but she’s already slumping in her seat, knowing she’s lost this particular battle. 

She watches Hope dump all the ice cubes into the sink and fold the tea towel over the handle of the oven, to let it dry. At their shared silence, Amy says, “I was thinking we could go to the Gaborone Game Reserve today. The wildlife is kinda the thing people come to Gabs for, so it feels fitting.”

Hope raises an eyebrow, though she’s slightly distracted by straightening out the tea towel so it rests exactly in the middle of the oven handle. “Your knee okay?”

“I’ll live,” Amy says. “I didn’t break anything, so…”

“Hmm,” Hope hums, smiling slightly. She’s finished putting everything away, but she doesn’t look like she’s going to go anywhere. Amy had expected to her to move first, to go get ready or something. But she just waits.

“I’ll go ahead,” Amy says, standing up. “By the way, there’s no shower here. Just a bath.”

“Okay,” Hope says, still not moving.

“Cool,” Amy mumbles, feeling shy again. She tucks her hair behind her ears, and begins to move towards her bedroom, hoping to get a change of clothes to bring with her into the bath.

She glances back briefly, just to see if Hope has moved, but she double-takes at the expression on her face: something Amy can’t really name, but only because describing it would take a lot of assuming on Amy’s part. It’s a complicated expression. Warm eyes, but no smile. Crossed arms, but relaxed shoulders. Amy doesn’t know. She wishes she did. Maybe she will.

Hope smiles at her, a brief thing. Amy doesn’t know what she sees, or what conclusion she comes to, but she breathes in, uncrosses her arms, and moves to follow Amy. 

now

Curiously, Hope’s out the front of the entrance of the gymnasium, slumped against the wall, phone clutched—tight, Amy can see the white of her knuckles—in her hands. Amy isn’t sure of what’s going on, so she quickly slips out of Gigi’s hold on her, passing the helmet, and does that weird half-jog people do when crossing the road towards Hope.

“Hey?” she says, reaching out to touch Hope’s shoulder, then, dropping to hold her hand. “What happened?”

Hope tightens her hold on Amy’s hand, and suddenly breaks out into a massive grin that almost knocks Amy off her feet. Her voice is low, but excited. “I got it.”

“Got—wait. The gallery called?”

“Yes.”

“Holy shit?” Amy says, and then Hope’s pulling her into a hug, arms coming around Amy’s shoulders, cheek pressed hard into the side of her head. Amy laughs, half-hysterical, with her face buried into the crook of Hope’s neck, arms around Hope’s waist tightening as hard as possible without suffocating her.

“Holy fuck, more like,” Hope says, breathless, voice strained with joy, like she’s trying to keep herself from laughing. 

“Holy fuck!” Amy laughs, then, realising what she has to do, pulling away and planting a victorious kiss on Hope’s lips, both of them momentarily forgetting their little viewing gallery just a few feet away.

Hope leans into the kiss, but then she seems to lose a fighting battle, because she’s laughing, and Amy’s laughing, and the kiss falls apart. They grin at each other for a second, sharing the moment of joy, before Hope looks over Amy’s shoulder and pumps a triumphant fist at their group.

“The gallery called!” she yells, sliding a hand against Amy’s back when Amy pulls away.

“Oh my god!” Molly yells back, practically running to throw her arms around Hope, pulling her into a celebratory hug. As she pulls away, she says, “Congratulations, Hope! Not that I had any doubt that you were going to get it, but I’m so glad.”

“Thank you, Mol,” Hope says, voice softening. Her expression changes into worry as she realises something: “Oh fuck, I need to call my mom.”

She turns to leave, but pauses instead, turning to Amy to place a hand over her heart, knowing precisely what the action means, and quickly jogging away.

“She’s excited,” Molly observes.

“It’s been a dream of hers for a while,” Amy explains, not looking at Molly but at Hope, where she’s found a bench to sit on. She’s strangely careful dialling her phone, which Amy can intuitively discern as Hope trying to tamper down on her excitement.

“I’m so happy for her,” Molly sighs happily, then, noticing how Amy doesn’t turn, “We’re gonna head in. We’ll wait for you inside?”

“Oh! Okay, yes, see you there,” straightening, clearing her throat, embarrassed at not paying attention to her best friend like that but grateful for Molly for just knowing. Amy smiles when Molly presses a kiss, brief, to her cheek, and disappears inside the gymnasium with Jared and Gigi in tow. 

Before Gigi disappears behind the door she turns to shoot Amy a wink, putting on the helmet and tightening it underneath her chin. Amy doesn’t know what to do with the wink, so she pretends to catch it and tucks it into her inner jacket pocket. 

Instead of catching up with Hope, Amy hangs back to watch her: how she moves, how her face slides from expression to expression. Even after all this time it still doesn’t get old watching Hope, what she does, in her all subtlety, never one to wear her emotions on her sleeve. Amy likes to think she knows how to read Hope; better than the average person, anyway. Not that the average person would have much luck reading her.

Amy feels an easing in her chest at the sight of Hope laughing into her receiver, finger wrapped around one of her very many beaded leather bracelets attained from her travels. Hope catches her eye; she makes a come here gesture.

“I can wait here,” Amy yells across the courtyard. “You guys can talk alone.”

Hope rolls her eyes and makes the gesture more insistently. Amy eventually gives in and jogs over to where she sits.

“She was asking about you,” Hope says as Amy slides into the bench next to her, fitting in close.

Amy laughs, feeling delightfully flattered as she does. “Why?”

“Yeah, mom, Amy’s right here with me,” Hope says into the phone, then, turning back to Amy: “she was just asking if I’d told you already. I mean, obviously, right?”

“You want me to speak to her?”

“If she wants—I’ll put her on speakerphone.”

“Hey, Mrs. Carlin,” Amy says as Hope turns speakerphone on, shuffling closer to Hope so they’re both close to the mic. “Don’t worry, Hope already told me.”

“Good to hear!” all motherly delight, then, “Are the two of you going to stay in New York for a while?”

Hope looks at Amy, trepidation leaking into the cut of her mouth. “I don’t know about the both of us, mom, we’ll have to talk about it.”

“Probably,” Amy interjects, “I’ve been thinking about staying grounded for a while, anyway. This is just a good opportunity.”

“Excellent to hear!” A pause. “Does this mean you’re finally going to get married?”

“Oh-kay,” Hope coughs, shifting slightly. “We are not talking about this again. I love you, I’ll call you later.”

“Love you honey! I’m so very proud of you. Thank you for calling your mother. You know how you leave me in the dark sometimes.”

Okay, mom, love you, bye.”

Hope quickly hangs up the phone. Amy, having held in her amusement until this point, dissolves into a fit of childish giggles, pressing into Hope’s side and leaning her forehead on her shoulder.

“Lately she’s been asking about marriage every time I call,” Hope laughs. “It’s honestly getting exhausting. We just have the same conversation over and over again.”

“We’ve been dating for like, how long? She’s probably going crazy.”

“Seven years? And I’m the one that’s going crazy,” Hope sighs, sounding affectionate in her own weird way. Her voice takes on a steadier, more serious cadence: “Are you going to accept that NYU position?”

Amy nods, tilting her head so her temple is resting against Hope’s shoulder instead. “I think so. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to do.”

“If you want to do it, I’m all here for it,” Hope says, curling an arm around Amy’s shoulders so Amy can nestle her head further into the crook of her neck. “Just, no pressure, right? I know how much you love doing your thing at the UN. Take the NYU job because you want to do it, not because you want to stay here with me. We’re basically pros at long distance anyway.”

Amy laughs. “To think our year long correspondence after you left Botswana all those years ago set the precedence for our entire relationship.”

“We’re just so good at texting.”

“And FaceTiming.”

“And phone sex,” adds Hope, solemn, earning a shove for her troubles. 

Anyway,” Amy continues, ignoring Hope’s sly smile, “I’ll email them tomorrow or something. It’s practically perfect, right? And maybe our apartment will finally get some use.”

“Done deal,” Hope says, turning her head to kiss the top of Amy’s head. “Does this mean we’re going to get married?”

That makes Amy pull away completely, distancing herself slightly, placing a slice of space between them. Is she—? What is she trying to—? She squints at Hope, attempting to gauge exactly what the fuck is going on. Unwittingly, her heart rate seems to pick up. “Are you proposing to me?”

Hope pales. “What? No!” she reassures. Her eyes flash, nervous. “No, holy fuck, no. I’m not proposing. I was just throwing shit out there.”

Amy raises her eyebrows. “Throwing shit out there?”

“Just with what my mom said earlier—”

“Hope, this is the worst proposal I’ve ever heard.”

“I don’t even have a ring!” Hope insists, holding up her hands, like she’s hoping to reach out and diffuse the situation physically. “I’m sorry! It’s not—I’m not—what the fuck is going on? I promise this is not the worst proposal in the history of man.”

Amy laughs, relaxing. Hope doesn’t get flustered easily, but when she does, it’s glorious. “Should I be offended you’re not proposing to me right now?”

Hope practically deflates in relief once she realises Amy’s just joking. “Oh, fuck you. I just had a fucking heart attack.”

“I forgive you for not proposing to me right now,” Amy says, laughing when Hope presses her hands to her eyes and shakes her head. 

A certain blissfulness, Amy finds, at being able to laugh at a conversation that should be so serious, a conversation so often fundamentally responsible for upending people’s lives for the best, or for the worst. There’s nothing to prove here between the two of them: no expectations, just love and words, a sense of sureness surely comforting. Amy feels composed. Not nervous. Just good.

“If I’m proposing to you, you’ll know,” Hope says, once she recovers.

Amy snorts, reaching to intertwine her hand with Hope’s. “Yeah?”

“Because you’d be crying.”

Amy laughs for real this time. “I’m going to remember that, you know.”

Honestly, Amy wants to be the one to propose. She doesn’t quite know how to say that to Hope at the moment, though, so she files it away for something to be talked about later.

Hope smiles at her, tucks an errant strand of hair behind Amy’s ear, and moves to stand up. “Let’s go back inside. Are you thirsty?”

“Yeah, let’s get some drinks, but—wait, hold on,” Amy says, tugging for Hope to sit down again. “You forgot something.”

“Oh?” Hope looks around, patting her pockets with one hand to check everything she needs is still on her.

“Yeah, this,” Amy says, then darts forward to press a kiss to Hope’s lips.

The kiss doesn’t last very long, though, because Hope snorts in the middle of it, forcing her to pull away as she muffles a laugh into her hand. “Oh my god. That was so bad.”

“Thank you, I’m here all week!” Amy says, spreading her arms out—hand still linked with Hope’s—and bowing like she just received a standing ovation.

“Ugh, what a nerd,” rolling her eyes, grumbling like a surly teen forced to speak at a family function, before looking out to the absolutely empty courtyard and yelling: “Amy Antsler is a nerd!”

“Fuck you, dude,” Amy laughs, full of love.

then

“Oh, I like that photo,” Amy points out. Gesturing to Hope’s viewfinder, the photo in question is a landscape of a terrifyingly large gemsbok mid gallop. “You’re really good.”

They’re sitting on the hood of Amy’s rental car, a little compact Suzuki Swift, parked in one of the popular picnic spots in the game reserve. They’re not sitting that close, exactly, but Amy’s leaning over a little to watch Hope flick through all the photos she’s taken so far, squinting against the glare of the sun on the DSLR.

“Mm,” Hope hums, non-committal, deferring to accept Amy’s praise for some reason. “I honestly got a little freaked out while taking the photo.”

“It freaked me out, too, with it’s long horns,” Amy agrees, protruding her two index fingers from her forehead to pantomime horns. Then, leaning in just a little bit closer, she points at the legs, at how they posit midair. “I like how the whole thing is blurry here. Kinetic.”

Hope turns her head to look at Amy, their shoulders brushing. Amy’s too nervous to look back, so she pretends to study the photo while being keenly aware of Hope staring at her. Eventually, Hope turns away. “I just used a slower shutter speed. And panning.”

“Cool,” Amy says, vaguely aware of what that entails. 

She watches as Hope continues to flick through photographs of various flora and fauna, each imbued with a kind of intent palpable even in it’s digital form. Hope really is talented. She opens her mouth to say this, but it seems to become irrelevant when Hope’s aimless flicking lands on a photo of Amy.

Hope’s thumb seems to stutter over the next button, like she wants to skip over the photo completely, but Amy quickly reaches out to stop her by placing a hand on her wrist.

“Hold on, I want to—can I see?”

A stretched out pause, then: “Yeah, okay.”

Hope’s very careful handing over her DSLR. Amy takes it with just about as much grace as she can, respecting the value Hope holds to it. The photo ends up being a simple portrait: her, in the drivers seat, shades pushed up to the top of her head, elbow sticking out the rolled down window, eyes intent on the beaten path in front of them. The lighting is subdued and unsullied, highlighting the gracious softness of the apples of her cheeks.

Amy squints at the photo, leaning forward. She hadn’t even realised her freckles had become so prominent—she can see them dot her arms like an unsolved puzzle. Her cheeks are bright and ruddy from the sun, and her hair is kind of dry at the tips, probably because of the humidity. She thinks about Hope seeing her like this. Eventually she feels weird about looking at herself for so long, and hands the camera back to Hope.

“Thanks,” Amy finds herself saying, tentative. Thankful for what, exactly, she doesn’t know. “You’re, um, really good. Are you… doing anything with that? I mean, majoring in photography or whatever?”

Hope takes on a guarded look. “Yeah. I got into Tisch.”

“Oh… wow.” With all their conversations, Amy still hasn’t managed to ask where Hope is going next year. The fact that they’re going to be in the same city makes her head swim with possibilities. “That’s—wow. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Hope says, sounding strangely dismissive. “I mean, it’s no Columbia.”

“Shut up,” mumbles Amy, feeling her face turn red. “Tisch is like, a big deal, so shut the fuck up. You’re going to be so famous you’re going to be like, Columbia what?”

Hope plays along. “I knew a girl who went to Columbia once. I think she’s homeless now. Student loan debt got to her or something.

Amy actually giggles. “Okay, but really. Tisch. You should be proud.”

The way Hope’s expression smooths out again tells Amy that she’s merely fighting off embarrassment. Amy feels proud at being able to recognise one of Hope’s tells. “Yeah, okay, thanks, Amy,” she acquiesces.

 “So… what are you planning to do with your BFA in photography? Photojournalism?”

“The amount of times I’ve heard that question from strangers this trip, you would not believe.” Hope drags her hand through her hair, thinking. “I don’t know. Anything that lets me travel and shoot at the same time, so probably freelance. But I’ve…”

Amy watches as Hope trials off. “Yeah?” she encourages.

“I’ve kind of… always wanted to curate my own exhibition. Myself and other photographers. Portraiture, with a focus on big crowds.” Hope’s voice is quiet, now. “I’ve always liked looking at big crowds. The rush, the noise, the energy. The anonymity. They’re fascinating. I want to capture the essence of that somehow. Then blow it up on a disgustingly large canvas, and stare at it until my eyes become blurry.”

Amy doesn’t know how to properly verbalise all the thoughts in her head right now, so, like a fucking idiot, she says: “You’re very good at capturing essences.”

Mercifully, Hope just laughs. “Yeah?” quirking an eyebrow, “did I capture your essence?”

“I don’t think I even have an essence,” Amy replies, even though the question was obviously rhetorical and most likely a joke.

“Oh, come on, sure you do,” Hope almost scoffs, providing no further explanation. She begins to rifle through her oversized travel backpack, carefully setting out sandwiches wrapped in tin foil and other things they brought from the house. Both of them agreed they’d get some actual Botswana food for dinner.

Amy reaches inside her own—far smaller—backpack to pull out the bottle of iced tea they swiped from the fridge, making a mental note to replace it before her host parents get back. “If I had an essence it would be like,” pouring iced tea into two different paper cups and handing one to Hope, “protest chants and social ineptitude.”

Hope laughs, knocking her cup into Amy’s and taking a small sip. “If you had an essence, it would be co-dependency and ill-advised crushes on high school lit teachers.”

Amy blushes, trying to hide it by making sour face. She’s not even going to try to comment on the Miss Fine thing. “Molly and I aren’t co-dependent.”

“You’re practically glued to your international flip phone,” Hope points out, smiling in that way that makes Amy think she should be baring her teeth. “Either you’re waiting for a text from Molly, or you’re waiting for a text from your parents. And I doubt you have such an established rapport with your parents.”

I have an excellent rapport with my parents, Amy doesn’t say, lest she give Hope more ammo to strike her down with. Half-heartedly, she defends: “I talk to other people.”

“But not in the way you talk to Molly,” Hope points out.

Amy frowns harder, so much so that she doesn’t think very much about her next words: “I talk to you the way I talk to Molly.”

It’s not until Hope’s draining the rest of her iced tea and pouring herself another cup, tucking the bottle between her legs to screw the cap back on, does Amy realise what she’s basically implied. 

She’s talked to Hope so much these past few months that her days take on an unmistakably sour texture if she doesn’t wake up with a text waiting for her. Or if several hours pass by without a reply back. Amy’s specifically been trying not to think about it too hard, but it’s almost impossible.

“I—I mean—” she starts.

“It’s okay,” Hope interrupts, waving her free hand. Her thumbnail picks at the rim of her cup; she looks like she regrets having interrupted Amy.

Amy’s starting to see a pattern, here, in the way that they talk. There’s conversation and laughter and it’s good, really good, but then sometimes the both of them seem to realise the absurdity of their situation—because that’s what it is, absolutely batshit—and the reality cuts through like a knife in between their ribs.

Amy takes one of the sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, unwrapping it—carefully folding the foil into a neat square to reuse later—and handing Hope a triangular slice; a peace offering.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make things weird,” she says, dusting the crumbs off her hands.

“I think you just made it weird by apologising for being weird,” she laughs lightly, but looks marginally more relaxed.

Amy turns to look over her shoulder. There’s a gaggle of European tourists—Amy couldn’t possibly pinpoint from where—taking up two of the picnic tables nearby. They’re loud and joyous and the majority of the reason why Hope and Amy are sitting on the hood of her rental instead of at a table.

“Have you met a lot of people while travelling?” Amy asks, turning back around.

“Sure. All of us hipster backpackers have a group chat, you know?” Hope says, eyes flicking to the European tourists.

“Oh, yeah?” Amy prompts, grinning slightly. 

She’s gently ripping the crusts off her sandwich, creating a fine balancing act with her cup between her legs and placing each crust on an unfolded tissue on her thigh. Her parents always spoiled her like that. Economically, she knows that she should probably eat them, but she’s trained herself into hating crusts. Sometimes she likes to wrap them to feed to the ducks at the local pond.

Hope, seeing Amy deferring to eat her crusts, reaches over and plucks the crusts off of Amy’s lap, popping them in her mouth. Amy feels immeasurably thankful towards her for not making a comment on the fact that she doesn’t eat crusts. She takes a wispy napkin from her backpack and places the rest of her crusts on that, before pushing it towards Hope.

“I’ve met a few people, but I usually keep to myself.”

“Don’t want to get murdered?”

Hope laughs. “Yeah, something like that.” She chews pensively around her mouthful of bread crust for a second. “Well, I met this girl on the train to Vienna who tried to teach me a bunch of French phrases. You know French, right?”

Je ne parle pas français,” Amy says, grinning when Hope squints at her suspiciously. Then, “Wait, how do you know I speak French?”

“Didn’t you tutor Ryan during your free periods or something?” Hope says, pursing her lips together. How and why that’s a piece of information Hope knows is lost on Amy, and she can only pray Hope doesn’t know the details. Amy had looked forward to her tutoring sessions with unbridled glee. Now she just feels embarrassed.

Hope’s pulling out an A5 sized moleskin from her backpack, flicking through it with the singular focus of someone decidedly avoiding eye contact.

J’ai le cafard,” she reads out, slow. “I know my pronunciation is shit, don’t say anything.”

Le cafard? Cockroach?” Amy translates, confused. Then, frowning at Hope’s self-deprecation: “Your pronunciation isn’t shit. Don’t stay stuff like that.”

Hope looks charmed. “Okay. I won’t,” she concedes, before continuing. “Cockroach is the literal translation. It’s a phrase, remember? It technically means I’m feeling blue.”

“So it’s not I have a cockroach?”

“Not unless you want it to be,” Hope says, sounding oddly flirty.

Amy blushes, even though she definitely should not be.

“Here’s another one: je n’en crois pas mes yeux!” Hope continues, inflecting her exclamation mark with an almost cartoonish quality. “Written underneath: use every time you get a girl naked. Her notes, not mine.”

Amy snorts, muffling a laugh into the crook of her elbow. “I think if you used that on some unsuspecting French girl she would slap you in the face.”

“I mean, I can’t believe my eyes! isn’t that bad, right? You could use that as a compliment.”

“Not in the way that the phrase implies. You’re supposed to use it when you’re pleasantly surprised. Or dazzled? But still.”

“Ah,” Hope says, amusement lighting her posture. Her mouth turns soft. “Hey, you know, like, four different languages, right?”

Amy ticks off the languages she knows in her head: English, French, Spanish and Mandarin. Four. She’s trying to learn Setswana for the sake of things but she’s not really conversationally fluent yet, so she doesn’t count it. She looks at Hope curiously. “Yeah, four. How do you know that?”

“I paid attention to you in high school, remember?” she says, referencing their conversation from the night before, tucking her notebook away. She refills Amy’s cup with more iced tea, not noticing—or, at least, ignoring—the way that Amy seems to still completely.

Okay, here’s the thing: Amy likes to think she’s pretty smart. Not to toot her own horn or anything, but she does know a thing or two. She’s been around the block a few times. So it feels like a slap in the face to her own self-proclaimed intelligence when her traitorous idiot brain calmly sweeps into the abrupt conclusion of: oh my god, did Hope have a crush on me in high school? 

now

“You bitch!” is the first thing Annabelle yells at Hope, hounding towards her at a running leap and practically launching herself into Hope’s arms.

Hope, skinny and not exactly known for her athletic prowess, barely manages to keep herself from toppling over, staggering a few steps backwards.

“What the fuck—” she wheezes, immediately wrapping her arms underneath Annabelle’s thighs to support her weight, “—is wrong with you?”

“You got the fucking gallery, didn’t you!” Annabelle yells her in ear, before hopping down, out of Hope’s arms. 

Hope rubs the ear that Annabelle yelled in, wincing, but her face is flushed red and Amy can tell she’s immeasurably happy. “You’re such a pain in the ass,” she says.

“And I’m so fucking proud of you!” Annabelle exclaims, manhandling Hope once again by pulling her into a hug. 

Save me, Hope mouths at Amy over Annabelle’s shoulder, but then Hope sinks into the hug, finding comfort in the happy exhilaration of her best friend, and Amy’s pretty sure she doesn’t need any saving at all.

“I couldn’t resist, I had to tell her,” Molly tells Amy, having been at Annabelle’s side before she accosted Hope so unscrupulously. “And, you have to admit, that’s kinda cute.”

“Remember when they were all bro-y backslapping and,” Amy lifts her chin in a classic frat boy wassup gesture.

“We were all such emotionally repressed weirdos in high school.”

“Some more than others,” Amy says gravely. She lifts her gaze up to see how many people paid witness to Annabelle and Hope’s antics, but everyone seems to be doing their own thing. “Hey, are we playing any games tonight or something?”

“Nick and I thought about it, but we eventually decided to just let the night play out like it did at prom. We do have this little thing at the side that I forgot to show you, though.”

They both turn to their respective partners, and, seeing both Hope and Annabelle still engaged in conversation, come to an unspoken agreement to leave the two of them to do their own thing. Molly talks over her shoulder as they make their way to the left side of the gym.

“This was mostly Nick’s idea,” Molly explains.

On the left side of the gym are two large, portable partition walls, one labelled THEN and another labelled NOW. The wall labeled THEN has a large smattering of photographs of their entire senior year cohort back in high school, pinned everywhere and without rhyme or reason. The now wall is similar, except it’s photos from all the years afterwards, and somehow even more chaotic.

“So, we asked people to bring in photos, as many as they wanted, and they could just pin the photos on this wall wherever they desired.” Molly gestures to a little basket of push pins on a small table by the side of the two walls. “I was waiting for you so we could put these ones up together.”

Molly lifts the basket of push pins to reveal a thin stack of photographs underneath. The first one on the pile, Molly reveals, bringing up the photograph so both of them can get a better look, is a photo of them together. It takes Amy a second to place where it’s from, but once she does it’s pretty obvious that it was taken one of the very many bridges in Amsterdam, the both of them looking very touristy, wedged next to each other and smiling brightly.

They look so young. If Amy remembers correctly, it was for their model UN trip, and their teacher supervisor had taken it for them, since all of the other students were off doing their own thing, and left Molly and Amy alone. It was also the day before Amy got high for the first time.

“Oh, wow,” Amy says, leaning closer to look at it. “Holy shit.”

“Indeed,” Molly agrees, passing the photo to Amy. “Would you like to do the honours?”

Amy laughs lightly, taking a push pin from the basket before pressing it, and the photo, into a relatively free space on the then wall.

The next photo is also the both of them at the Tournament of Champions during their junior year, in front of Patterson Hall. They had gotten knocked out by the semifinals, but it was one of those rare days where Molly was completely fine with not being the absolute best, and they had gotten ice cream afterwards. 

“You know, this one surprisingly ended up being a good day, even though we lost,” Amy says, taking another push pin and tacking the photo up.

“I think that’s why it was a good day,” Molly says. “I didn’t mind losing. And I wasn’t being an asshole about it.”

Amy grins at her. “I’m glad you can admit that now, because you cannot imagine how much I wanted to make a comment on the fact that you weren’t being a sore loser for once.”

Molly laughs, waving her hand. “I know, I know, I was a snobby academic with a superiority complex, etcetera, etcetera. Come on, look at the next photo.”

“You weren’t a snobby academic with a superiority complex. Nobody thought that.” Amy frowns, poking Molly. “You were just a sore loser.”

“Thanks, Ames,” Molly says drily, before nudging the next photo on the stack towards her. “Look at this.”

Amy looks at the photo, and then bursts out laughing. “Oh my god, you’re such a fucking asshole.”

The photo, taken senior year, is in Crockett’s library, featuring not Molly and Amy, but Amy and Ryan. It’s during one of Amy's free period tutoring sessions that Ryan managed to absolutely sucker Amy into doing for free—without even trying, really, Amy had offered to do it for free, even though tutoring was her job—and Molly had decided to be a particular kind of menace that day and insisted taking a photo of them together. For posterity.

They usually sat next to each other during the tutoring, so Ryan had done the only logical thing and slung her arm around Amy’s shoulders, pulling her in closer and throwing up a peace sign. Amy remembers barely keeping it together, and it’s pretty plain to see in the photo: her face is an almost concerning shade of red, mouth in the tightest, most uncomfortable smile ever, shoulders folding inwards. She looks like she might die.

“I sent it to Hope and she thought it was pretty funny,” Molly says.

“You sent that to Hope? You asshole.” Amy whacks her on the shoulder. “You actually spent money to print that?”

“Worth every cent.”

Amy groans. “You’re not actually going to put that up, are you?”

“No, I just wanted to see your face,” Molly snorts. She presses the photo into Amy’s hands. “You keep that one safe.”

Amy almost rips it in half, but instead exercises some self control and folds it, tucking it into her inner jacket pocket, to be thrown away later. She hopes it never sees the light of day.

They flick through some more photos, most of them in the same manner to the first two: Molly and Amy at school event, Molly and Amy winning some tournament, Molly and Amy at an extra curricular.

“Okay, here’s an interesting one that Annabelle found,” Molly says, showing her the next photo.

The next photo is interesting, mostly because Amy had almost completely forgotten about that moment. It’s Amy and Hope, their freshman year, standing at the front of the class for some presentation that Amy doesn’t remember. Amy’s reading off cue cards, one of her hands perched, in the middle of pushing her hair behind her ear. Hope stands off to the side—still in her classic vintage Levi's, but in the era before she found her signature tassled jacket—looking quite intently at Amy, arms crossed over her chest, like she’s absorbing everything she’s saying. 

“Where’d you find this?” Amy asks, running a finger over Hope’s face. If she remembers correctly, this was right after her growth spurt—she looks so gangly.

“The deep recesses of Crockett’s website,” Molly says. “I think yearbook kids were crawling around for photos that day.”

“But I don’t remember this being in the yearbook.”

“Yeah, I don’t think it got in. Annabelle said she found it on the 2016 in review webpage, so maybe they just plastered all the nice rejects there.”

“Huh,” Amy murmurs.

“Look at the way she’s looking at you—how did we not realise she was totally in love with you? I can’t believe this.”

“I don’t think she had a crush on me freshman year,” Amy says, carefully pressing the photo onto the wall. “Do we get these photos back after tonight?”

“Okay, but she was totally interested in you freshman year, right?” 

“Maybe? It’s been ages since we talked about it, but I think she said she only realised she was crushing on me until senior year.”

“Wow. Slow on the uptake.”

Amy laughs. “Haven’t we had this conversation before?”

“I just love rehashing it,” Molly sighs, fluttering a hand over her heart.

“You’re so lame.”

“Thank you! Also, yes, we do get the photos back after the night, but it might be a little free-for-all with everyone trying to remember which photo is theirs.”

“I’ll bring my helmet, then,” Amy says, leaning over Molly’s shoulder to look at the rest of the photos. “Oh, are these the now photos?”

Molly hums in affirmation. 

This photo captures one of Molly, Amy, Annabelle and Hope's rare gatherings in the great outdoors, a location usually frowned upon by both Molly and Annabelle who are both a) homebodies and b) notorious workaholics, because being outdoors means that they have to a) exercise and b) not have the privilege of checking their phones for work emails because there isn't even any wifi. Usually, convincing them to go camping was like convincing a dog to do taxes—impossible and laughable—but it ended up working, somehow.

They had set the camera on a timer and taken a cheesy little snapshot of them roasting marshmallows over a campfire. Hope looks miserable at such blasphemy to the art of photography by taking plebeian self-timers, but Amy knows she was just faking it for laughs.

“I like this one, because we’re actually with other people in it,” Amy says, putting the photo onto the now wall.

“I actually noticed that while looking at photos! All our then photos are just the two of us, maybe the occasional third person, but mostly just us. But we’re in a lot more group photos now.”

Amy hums thoughtfully. And Molly’s right: the next few now photos are mostly group photos, unlike their then photos, where it was Molly and Amy at their most isolated. They scan through a few more, their cast of characters rotating with each photo, until it culminates into the first single Molly and Amy shot in the now pile.

“The day you passed your bar exam!” Amy registers, pointing excitedly at the photo.

Molly is crying in the photo. So is Amy.

“I don’t think we’re gonna put this one up,” Molly says, eyeing her crying face.

“Aw, babe, but you look so good in it,” Annabelle cuts in, appearing by Molly’s side, startling the both of them. 

“Did you add this one to the pile?” Molly asks, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek.

“Sure did,” says Annabelle, grinning wildly. “Hey, did you show Amy that freshman year one with her and Hope?”

“You found that one, right?” Amy asks.

“Yeah. You know Crockett’s website goes back until 2007?” Annabelle says. “I don’t know how they manage to still keep all that stuff up, but it’s like a goldmine of memories. Did you know Miss Fine used to go to Crockett?”

What?” Molly and Amy say at the same time.

“Yeah, there’s some of her senior year stuff there. She won a bunch of interstate poetry competitions. She was really good, actually.”

“Um, holy shit,” Amy says, at the same time Molly says, “you’re showing me as soon as we get home.”

Annabelle laughs. “Sure thing, babe. Also, Amy—Hope went to go get drinks.”

Amy looks over Annabelle’s shoulder to try and find Hope by the drinks bar, but can’t seem to spot her. “I can’t see her for some reason. I’ll head over there and look for her. Thanks, Annabelle.”

“No worries.”

“We’ll just be here,” Molly says, gesturing to the wall of photographic memories. “I need Annabelle to point out to me all the embarrassing ones.”

“And this is why I love you,” Annabelle laughs. They both wave Amy goodbye before turning to peruse the wall of photos together, Molly laughing when Annabelle leans in to whisper something in her ear.

Her search for Hope turns up strangely fruitless. She checks the drink bar, the snack bar, the DJ booth, the dance floor and behind the makeshift stage. Nothing.

“What the fuck?” Amy says to nobody in particular.

She figures Hope might be lost somewhere between all the bodies in the banquet area—as unlikely and uncharacteristic as that seems for her—so Amy wanders over to all the people mingling around and eating and trying hard to find a Hope that just isn’t there.

Eventually her search takes her back to the banquet table, where Tanner and Theo have wandered off somewhere but Nick and Ryan still stay, chatting.

“Hey, have you guys seen Hope?” Amy asks, scratching a nervous itch on her elbow.

“No, we haven’t, sorry Amy,” Nick says, leaning forward and frowning. “You need any help?”

“It’s okay, I’m just—” Amy starts, but pauses as her phone buzzes with a message. She pulls out her phone and squints against the brightness of the screen.

Hope: SOS

“Is that Hope?” Ryan asks, also curious.

“Yeah,” Amy says, brows furrowed. “Thanks for the help, you guys, I’ll just take this.”

Nick gives her a two fingered salute. “Sure thing, Ames.”

Amy wanders off to a secluded part of the gym and dials Hope. The call stops after the first ring.

Hope: sorry. can’t answer ur call. think i just got kidnapped by gigi

Amy: Where are you???

Hope: i have NO idea

Amy: You’re still in the school… right?

Hope: yeah but like gigi took me through like a million different corners and now we’re in this small room

Hope: i THINK it’s one of the art rooms on the second floor but don’t quote me on that

Hope: amy crockett is fucking labyrinthine

Hope: how did i never notice what a fucking maze this school is

Amy: Public school infrastructure. Always surprising

Hope: lmao

Hope: oh fuck gigi just noticed i’m on my phone ok please come save me i love you bye

Amy sighs.

Amy: I’ll come find you. Love you too

Chapter Text

then

They migrate from the game reserve to a neat little craft store a short drive away. Hope spends the most of their time there being quietly regaled by their collection of pottery kitchenware and textured, fibrous basketry, the exact kind of kitsch Amy had expected her to be quietly regaled by. She feels proud for choosing a place Hope would like.

There’s a quiet, comfortable lull between them as Amy watches Hope peer with poorly masked delight at a handmade clay tea-light holder modelled to look like a rondavel, raising it to eyeline to look through the door-shaped hole where you slide in the tea light. She grins, unabashedly. Amy feels her heart flutter, though she pretends to continue rifling through elephant print oven mitts.

Her earlier revelation that Hope may have had a crush on her in high school connects very many dots, but… presumptuous dots. She’s scared, a little, about what it means, too: about Hope being here with her. It elevates things bigger than the hot girl, bored and interested, taking a detour in her trip around the world to entertain a girl who is surely tiers below her league. There’s more meaning to everything. More promise.

Amy can’t decide if the promise scares her or not—if it’s true. How do you deal with something with that? How do you? Amy has no idea.

She gets out of her head long enough to settle on buying a hand carved wooden letter opener for Molly. Even though their primary mode of communication is through email, they’ve gotten into the habit of mailing each other a gift every month—something little, small enough to slip into an envelope so they don’t have to pay exorbitant packaging fees. Amy picks out a postcard to go along with it.

Hope skirts around her shoulder as she’s by the register, sniffing curiously after what Amy decided to buy. A tiny little laugh slips out of her as she notices what Amy’s purchasing.

“A letter opener? A little pompous, don’t you think?”

“It’s for Molly,” Amy explains, ignoring Hope to try a confident thank you in Setswana to the cashier. Delight splits through her as the cashier says tlhôla sentle in return—the clean thrill of learning a new language are the tiny exchanges like those. Amy hopes to settle into conversational fluency sometime soon.

“She likes the ceremony that comes with opening mail with a letter opener,” Amy continues, turning back to Hope.

“God,” Hope says, shaking her head, holding the front door open for Amy as they both exit the store, making their way over to the restaurant across the street. “Adding that to list of Molly-isms that make her so thoroughly… Molly.”

Amy bristles slightly at the sardonic weight Hope inflects on Molly, feeling the protective urge to defend her best friend’s honour. “She wouldn’t be Molly without them.”

“I didn’t mean it like a bad thing,” Hope backpedals, sensing Amy’s defensive tone. At Amy’s unconvinced look: “Well, okay, maybe a little. But she has her things, I get it. I have mine.”

Amy nods, hearing the apology, even though it isn’t necessarily there. She glances around for another conversation topic, before realising Hope is empty handed. “You didn’t buy anything?”

Hope runs an embarrassed hand through her hair. “Uh, no. Kind of broke.”

“Oh, no,” Amy says, eyes widening. “How do you… I mean, are you okay?”

“I’m fine if anything goes sideways, if that’s what you’re asking,” Hope says. “I have an emergency fund. More than it needs to be, really, but I’m not touching it unless I have to.”

“But what about… getting around and stuff?”

Hope shoves her hands into her jacket pockets, looking like she’s about to start laughing at the worried expression on Amy’s face. “Amy, I’m fine. All my flights were pre-booked. I’m not rich enough to be spontaneous with my money.”

Oh, god, is what Amy comes up with in response.

She surreptitiously reaches over to pinch the skin on the inside of her elbow, feeling embarrassed for finding Hope’s frugality hopelessly attractive. All she can fixate on is the way Hope’s mouth pinches at the side, unapologetic.

A blooming ache in her chest tells Amy all she needs to know.

The restaurant is good. Homey. The tables are pushed close together, tight in a way that suggests they were trying to utilize as much of the restaurant’s floor space as possible. It’s the kind of place where privacy feels like a fever dream, the kind where you rely on other customers’ goodwill not to eavesdrop on your conversation.

Miraculously enough, though, there’s a corner table hidden away from everything else by a strategically placed pot plant. Amy feels like a goddamn FBI agent hustling them over to the table before anybody else gets to it.

“Trying to get me alone?” Hope says, eyes alight with mirth, not missing anything.

Their table is small and cramped, an unfortunate consequence to the privacy, and Amy hunches slightly when she realises their calves brush each other underneath the table.

“I, uh,” Amy falters. What even to say to that? Yes? “It’s quiet?”

“Hm,” Hope hums, sliding her jacket off her shoulders, doing that thing where she surveys the room before getting truly comfortable.

The menus are creased, lamination peeling at the corners, but it’s genuine and authentic, the music piping overhead in a language neither of them speaks. Eventually a solemn-looking waiter comes over and takes their orders—Hope; a summery Botswana salad, Amy; a veggie burger. They demurely order water for the beginning of the night and engage in light, honest conversation.

Hope digs out her phone and swipes through her camera roll, showing pictures of her travels. Her anecdotes are funny in a way that surprises Amy—not dry, clean wit but the punchline, precise, loaded by a vivid and clever retelling. She leans over the table, and Amy does the same, until the already small space between them closes indefinitely, their elbows pressing together, knees almost touching—feet already scuffed together.

She coaxes Amy to bring out her own phone, cycling through embarrassing selfies the other girls at the organization had needled her into taking with them, some amateurish nature landscapes, and quiet, soft screencaps of Molly over FaceTime. Tries not to feel too self-conscious when Hope continues swiping and finds a screenshot Amy had taken of one of Hope’s Instagram posts, cropped and saved just because.

They part when the food comes—Hope eats methodically, and never talks while chewing. She reaches over and steals one of Amy’s fries; Amy leans over to puncture a wad of spinach on her fork and pop into her mouth in retaliation.

The salad ends up being really good: they swap dishes when Amy has about three quarters of her burger done, Hope a few stray green stragglers. Hope pretends to be Amy, eating the burger, demure mockery—Amy pretends to be Hope, eating the salad, motioning for her jacket, asserting that she needs it to truly be in character. She shoves her arms through the sleeves and basks in how warm it is. Their impressions aren’t nearly as offensive or insulting as they probably could’ve been. Hope doesn’t ask for the jacket back. Amy doesn’t offer.

Conversation settles eventually, Amy feeling comfortable enough to childishly swing her arm back and forth, watching the arm tassels on Hope’s jacket pendulate. Hope watches her, chin propped on her hand, smiling. Not too much, but enough.

“Can I see the letter opener?” she asks, words coming off the trail of nothing.

Amy looks up at her, eyeing the peculiarity of her question, before conceding and reaching into her backpack to hand her the letter opener.

Hope smooths the tip of her finger over the flat spine, not risking swiping over the belly, lest she accidentally cut herself.

“Still pompous?” Amy asks.

“Uh, yeah,” scoffs Hope, now waving the opener around. “Kind of looks like a Harry Potter wand.”

“That’s why I bought it,” Amy clarifies. “Molly loves Harry Potter.”

“Of course she does,” Hope deadpans—Amy can see her mentally adding it to her list of Molly-isms. “What is she? A Slytherin?”

“Half-Ravenclaw, half-Slytherin, but uh, yeah, basically.”

Hope barks out a laugh. “Things can’t ever be simple with Davidson, huh?”

“Hey, you’re probably half-Ravenclaw and half-Slytherin too.”

“No way, Amy. I don’t like doing things in halves. I’m a Ravenclaw, period.”

Amy laughs, grinning like an idiot. “Okay, what am I?”

“Hufflepuff,” Hope says, almost immediately. She does a smooth once over of Amy, before shrugging slightly. “Gryffindor tendencies.”

Amy raises a brow at her. “Tendencies? I thought you didn’t like doing things in halves?”

Tendencies is more like a fifth, not a half. I can settle with fifths.” She hands Amy back the letter opener. “Take care of that. Not every day do best friends get gifts from Botswana.”

Amy knows Hope’s mostly joking, but the words cut deep into Amy’s chest, burrowing. She schools her holy shit I think I just figured something out expression back into neutrality and tucks the letter opener into the open zipper of her backpack. Another idea hits her at full force. She stands up, abrupt.

“I’m,” she begins, remembers she can’t lie very well, and deigns to go for something simple: “going to the bathroom. To pee.”

“Um… okay?” Hope replies, off-put but pushing through it. “Have fun?”

“I will,” Amy nods, automatic, before realising Hope’s sarcasm. “I mean, I can. I should. Uh.” She pivots on her heel, shouldering her backpack as she does.

The signs point to the toilet being in a separate building outside the restaurant, but Amy was never planning to go to the bathroom, so she doesn’t care. It helps her cover, anyway. Instead, she skips and hops across the street back into the crafts store, making a beeline for the rondavel tea-light holder Hope was looking at earlier.

The tea-light is firm—small—and smells kind of earthy, texture rough against her thumb as Amy drags her touch along the modelled roof. Amy doesn’t quite know why the tea-light was the thing Hope fixated on with everything going on in the store—there’s a mug a ways off sculpted to look like an elephant, gauche in a cool way, Hope’s aesthetic, seemingly—but the tea-light fits her, somehow.

Just to be sure, she does one full lap of the store to see if there’s anything else Hope could possibility want instead. But the tea-light speaks to her, so she keeps it, paying for her items and hurrying back to the restaurant before Hope wonders why she’s been gone for so long.

She just barely manages to remember to stuff her purchases into her backpack before re-entering, sliding into the seat across from Hope and hoping she doesn’t look harried. Or suspicious.

But Hope doesn’t react—why would she, if she believed Amy truly went to the bathroom—attention drawn towards the drinks list on the back of the restaurant menu, reading, piqued.

“Welcome back,” she says, briefly glancing up from the menu.

“You know,” Amy says, tucking her hair behind her ears, “the legal drinking age in Botswana is eighteen.”

Hope grins at this. “Oh, is it?”

now

“It’s fuckin’ cold,” Annabelle says, holding open one of the gymnasium doors as Amy slips past her.

“I’ll be okay,” Amy reassures, though her body language says otherwise, hesitantly loitering by the doorway to gather as many vestiges of warmth as she can before she treks out to find Hope in the presumably non-heated art rooms.

“You sure you don’t want me to come along?” Annabelle asks, crooking an eyebrow. She points to the unlit pathways of Crockett’s courtyard. “It’s dark as shit, too.”

Amy rubs her eyebrow, genuinely considering Annabelle’s offer, before there’s a dramatic shout behind them. Annabelle turns her head as Amy looks over her shoulder to see Molly in heated conversation with the dancefloor DJ, arms akimbo. Even from so far away, Amy can tell she’s probably scowling.

“You should probably back up Molly on that,” Amy says, sighing. “I’ll text you if anything weird happens.”

Annabelle knocks Amy on the shoulder, grinning. “Good luck out there, Ames.”

Amy throws her a sardonic thumbs up, making her grin wider, before Annabelle pulls back into the gymnasium, leaving Amy out in the cold.

Shivering, tugging the sleeves of her denim jacket further down, Amy fishes her phone out of her pocket and thumbs a message.

Amy: Alive? Please say yes

No response.

“Okay, fuck me I guess,” Amy says to the cold night air, shoving her phone away and tucking her hands into her pockets.

It’s dark, but peaceful, and there are some still-on overhead lights dotting the side of the buildings, so she doesn’t feel completely like she’s going to get murdered. Or something close. The football field is also still lit, though the middle is completely pitch black, like a void. Amy shivers again and moves on.

She eventually rounds a corner to make it to the entrance of the school, though she freezes momentarily when she realises someone’s sitting on the front steps, backlit so shadows mask their face. The silhouette doesn’t match Hope’s, so Amy reaches for the can of pocket pepper spray she keeps in her tiny sling bag.

“Hello?” she says, then immediately feels like an idiot. Horror movie 101, Amy. Jesus Christ.

A tiny orange glow rises and meets the figure’s lips, the person clearly taking a drag of a cigarette, at the same time lighting their face. Amy relaxes immediately once she just realises it’s George.

“Hey, Amy,” he says, voice rasping slightly. He clears his throat. “Are you looking for Hope?”

“Did you see her?” Amy asks, walking over to him. He looks tired, but he also looks the practically same. His glasses look slightly pricier.

“Saw Gigi drag her into the building like ten minutes ago,” he explains, taking another long puff from his cig. “What’s happening there?”

“I honestly have no clue,” Amy asks, which is mostly the truth.

Amy smiles at him and wonders over to the front doors, peering into the hallway, noting that the lights are off. Looking to the right, slightly, she can see light spilling out into the end of the hallway, where the stairs leading the second floor are. Okay. They’re on the second floor. Amy pushes a little on the front doors, sighing with relief as they give. At the least the doors aren’t locked.

“It’s dark as shit in there,” Amy says, loud enough that George can hear, taking Annabelle’s words from before.

She hears George chuckle appreciatively.

“How did Gigi even—” Amy starts, then realises she’s never going to get a concrete answer and drops it.

“You want a smoke?” George says, holding up a half-empty pack of Pall Malls.

“I’m good, thanks,” Amy says, jogging back over to him to take a seat next to him on the steps. She pulls out her phone again.

Amy: On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you need me to wander through our darkened empty high school like some b-list horror movie protagonist to come find you?

No response again. She sighs.

“Are you going in?”

“I just want to make sure I’m not going to get murdered first,” Amy says, code for I’m psyching myself up to go inside a dark and empty hallway. She notices the way George hugs himself tighter, shivering. “Are you cold?”

“Just a little,” he admits, nodding. “I’ve been out here for a while.”

“Why not go back inside? It’s warm.”

“Oh, I’m,” George starts, seems to hesitate, before his expression goes: fuck it. “I’m avoiding Alan. And smoking. But mostly smoking to avoid Alan.”

“I see,” Amy says, deciding on a neutral response. Amy’s managed to keep up with George in a peripheral sense—they both have each other on Facebook, and she’s gone to a few of his off-Broadway and on-Broadway shows—but she doesn’t really know him well enough to know what goes on in his personal life.

Her phone buzzes in her pocket. She quickly fishes it out, fumbling with it in the process.

Hope: Amy! No need to come looking for us.

Amy frowns.

Amy: Gigi?

Hope: In name only, yes.

Amy: Did you take Hope’s phone??

Hope: She was using it while I was talking to her. :(

Amy: Can you please give it back?

Hope: Maybe in an hour or so. We’re kind of busy right now.

Hope: I’ll talk to you later!

Amy: Gigi PLEASE give the phone back to Hope

Amy: Gigi????

Amy: GIGI

“Jesus Christ,” George says, from where he’s bent over to get a better look at Amy’s chatlog. “I think Hope’s going to die up there.”

Amy makes a noise between a groan and a strangled laugh. “I guess I’m going in. Oh my god. It’s so dark in there.”

George smiles at her. “Come on, Amy. Channel the energy of your suffragette foremothers.”

Amy starts to laugh, shaking her head. Just to be sure, she says: “If you’re making fun of me—”

“No, no! I’m being totally sincere! Here, look,” he snubs his cigarette out against the steps, standing up to toss it into a garbage can nearby. He turns to hold out a hand. “I’ll come with you. Let’s go.”

Amy allows him to pull her to her feet.

“I have lots of experience with big, dark empty buildings.”

Amy raises an eyebrow.

“Soundstages,” he clarifies. “Jesus Christ, you looked just like Hope doing that.”

“Why, thank you,” Amy says. “Well, if you’re sure about coming.”

“This is not suffrage, Amy. I’m coming with you,” he says. “And, besides, it’s not like I was going to do anything but stay outside. I’m definitely not going back inside the gym.”

They both begin to walk towards the front doors. Amy turns on the flashlight to her phone, George following suit, and tries not to feel like she’s doing something very seriously wrong by walking into an empty high school at night.

“Do you remember where the art rooms are?” she asks, voice oddly quiet, like she’s trying to match the dead silence of the hallways.

George, on the other hand, seems to have no such reservations. His naturally loud voice echoes. “Yeah, they’re like, second floor I think. You don’t remember?”

“Only vaguely. I never had any classes there.”

“Ah, yes. I remember. You and Molly were too good for us art kids.”

“A devout philistine here. Lock your windows,” Amy jokes, drawing a snort out of George. Amy feels good, joking around like this. Any sincere animosity about how they may have felt to each other in high school is long gone. Molly may have liked to joke about how academia contributes more to society than the arts, but she was never really serious about it. She likes to make that part clear now.

“You’re all good, Amy. By the way, I don’t think I ever thanked you for coming to my first Broadway show, like, god, how long has it been? Four years ago? I kind of let the fame get to my head.”

“You’re still kind of famous, George,” Amy says, but she’s smiling.

“Ugh. I never thought I’d say this, but don’t remind me,” he groans, shaking his head. “You’re good people, Amy, I'm being deadly serious. Hey, I’m doing another show in June. Off-off-Broadway, but still good. Invite Hope, and maybe Molly and Annabelle if they’re around.”

Amy brightens at this. “Thanks, George. That’s really nice of you.”

He smiles, seemingly properly pleased at the flattery. “That’s the first time I’ve been called nice in ages.”

They both round the hallway and start to make the ascent upstairs.

“Hope’s going to have this exhibition in a few months. I’ll try and ask her to save you and whoever you want to bring along a ticket.”

“I’m probably just going to need the one ticket, but thank you anyway,” he says, sighing dramatically. “Chronically single, I regret to admit. Some of us can’t be as lucky as you, Amy.”

The words hit Amy as he says it: she is lucky. Luckier than most. It makes her feel comfortably warm. “Come on, George,” she says, trying to share her sudden shift into a good mood. “You’re a catch.”

George laughs at this. “Am I, now?”

Amy nods encouragingly. “Sure. You’re handsome. Smart. Aggressively sought after in the up-and-coming Broadway community. What more could a guy ask for?”

“I’m afraid my problems with romance go far beyond myself,” he says, also perhaps a little too dramatically. “Remember how I said I was smoking outside to avoid Alan?”

“Well,” George starts, breathing it out like a sigh.

The silence speaks volumes. “I think I understand,” Amy says.

“You know what they say: sandbox love never dies.”

“Did you just reference Jennifer’s Body?”

“Absolutely.”

“I love that movie!”

George laughs delightedly. “Oh, Amy, you understand me.”

Amy smiles, sharing in George’s delight, before she remembers to check her phone for more messages. Her smile fades a fraction when she realises there’s nothing there.

George notices her descent into worry. He makes a dismissive noise. “I think if anyone can wrangle Gigi, it’s Hope. I mean, she’s scary as fuck.” He pauses to think on this. “No offense.”

Amy laughs. “No offense taken. I’m just concerned she’s going to go insane.”

“Nothing that can’t be fixed, I’m sure,” George says. He pauses from their conversation to look around them.

Amy realises around the same time he does that they’ve finally made it to the wing of the school where the art rooms are. She hadn’t even noticed. She silently thanks George for his company—the silence and darkness would’ve made her go crazy otherwise.

“Where’s your wife?” he asks, swinging the flashlight on his phone around.

Amy side eyes him. She can’t tell if he’s joking or not. She decides to leave it alone. “Not sure. She just said in one of the art rooms on the second floor.”

“The room she’s in is probably the one with the light on. This won’t be too hard.”

Just as expected, they turn another corner to find a room with the light on spilling out into the hallway.

“Thank fuck,” Amy breathes, walking a little faster than George to make it to the door first. She looks through the window to see Gigi by one of the lightboxes pushed against the side of the wall, drawing something on a piece of paper as she implores Hope to watch. Hope watches on, looking slightly bemused, but her arms are crossed and stance points outwards. Amy can tell she wants out.

Amy tries the door handle—it moves, but the door doesn’t swing open. Hope hears the jiggling, though, face shifting into relief as she realises Amy’s finally here.

Push, hold, and shove, she mouths, miming pushing the door handle down and shoving the door forward. It’s stuck.

Amy frowns, pushes the door handle all the way down, holds it, and throws a little bit of her weight forward to shove the door open. It gives with only a second of resistance, and Amy just about stumbles in.

Gigi finally hears the commotion, turning around, pen poised in hand.

“Amy?” she says, sounding cautiously excited. “What are you doing here? I told you we’re all fine.”

“I just needed to check on Hope, yep,” she says, watching as Hope straightens, nodding. Amy stumbles to come up with a lie on the fly, which is, of course, a disaster. “Uh, Hope, darling—your mother called. Something about our dog being infected with… heartworm. Yes! Heartworm. He’s been making hacking noises like a dying seal all day, dramatically rolling around in her hydrangeas…”

“Oh, no. That’s awful,” Hope deadpans, uncrossing her arms and striding over to Amy. She places a hand on Amy’s back and frowns, feigning sympathy. “Sorry to leave so early, Gigi, but I have to go talk to my mom.”

Gigi nods solemnly, understanding, then: “Let me come with you. I’ve been trained in spiritual healing for animals in about thirty-five different states.”

Amy looks at Hope. Hope shakes her head.

“Uh, well—” Amy fumbles, trying to come up with another excuse.

Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the art rooms,” George cuts in, stepping past Hope and Amy to peer at whatever Gigi’s been doing by the lightbox. “What’re you working on, Gege?”

Gigi sighs impatiently. “George, I need to go help Hope and Amy fix their dog’s heartworm.”

“But your artwork!” he points, pouting, pantomiming spectacle. His acting chops aren’t half bad.

“George,” Gigi sighs, looking conflicted.

“I need you to explain to me your artistic process! From artist to artist, Gigi! I’m starving!”

“It’s fine, really,” Amy says, somewhat rushed. Hope’s starting to get that affected look to her, like she just might start laughing. “Gigi, you can stay here. We can—we’ll figure the heartworm thing out.”

“Amy’s right, Gigi. We’ll call you if we need your help,” Hope supplements.

Her eyes flicker from Amy to Hope, pointing her pen warningly at them both. “I will know if something’s wrong, okay? I will be expecting your call.”

“No doubt, Gege,” Hope says, clapping her hands together. Amy grins gratefully when George shoots her a knowing wink.

Hope and Amy both share a mutual sigh of relief once they’re out of the classroom. Hope’s hand immediately finds Amy’s, squeezing it, running her thumb over hers. Her other hand reaches up to rub her forehead.

“Thank you. That was a nightmare.”

“What was she drawing on the lightbox?” Amy asks.

They both begin to make their way down to the first floor, Amy making the executive decision to start swinging their hands between them. It’s childish and completely cheesy, but Hope makes a quiet amused noise and Amy just enjoys the way she doesn’t let go.

“She drew up the seating plans for our wedding and she was copying them onto another piece of paper for me to take home.”

“Um?” Amy begins. Where to start with that. “How many people?”

“A few hundred.”

“Great.” Amy pauses. “Do we even know that many people?”

“I don’t think so,” Hope says, worriedly chewing over this.

“Was she planning to hire actors to fill seats or something?”

“No idea. I didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t ask any details?”

“And prolong my suffering?” defends Hope, mouth set in a grim line, like she’s just been through war. “No. No thank you.”

Amy snorts, squeezing her hand tighter.

“Hey, where’s Molly and Annabelle?” Hope asks, after a stretch of comfortable silence. “Too busy for your impromptu rescue mission?”

“Arguing with the DJ, last I saw,” Amy says. “I think he got mad because nobody was moshing on the dance floor. It’s a high school reunion. I don’t know what he was expecting.”

“How close was Molly to fistfighting him?” Hope asks, sounding dangerously excited about the prospect of Molly exchanging fisticuffs with some hapless pimple-faced event DJ. Not that Molly was particularly known for her physical violence, but anyone unlucky enough to fall victim to her vicious way with words might as well be in the hospital, anyway.

“Oh, so close,” Amy says, humouring her.

Hope makes a thrilled noise at this, tugging at Amy’s hand and increasing her pace. “Come on. We’re definitely not missing this.”

then

“…drink critics often consider the drink mediocre, but it has been noted for its historical significance,” Amy reads from her phone, lounging by the dining table, watching Hope—with her back turned to her—mixing drinks on the kitchen counter. She furrows her brow. “There are drink critics?”

Hope rolls her eyes at her as she approaches, sliding her a highball with rum and coke. “Drink criticism is fake,” she declares, knocking their glasses together and taking a small sip. “It’s like wine criticism. Everyone’s just faking it.”

Amy also takes a sip. “Hey, not bad.”

“I’d be very worried if I managed to fuck up rum and coke,” Hope deadpans, but seems pleased by the praise anyway. “Okay, what you got for me?”

Amy grins, motioning for Hope to follow her into her bedroom. She tried to set up the room in a way that would make both of them comfortable—utilized every single spare blanket her host parents had given her, padding Hope’s floor futon, swiped some pillows from the spare room, making a mental note to put them back afterwards—then becoming unsure halfway through and throwing the pillows everywhere.

Ratatouille?” Hope guffaws, disbelieving, staring at Amy’s laptop screen, “we’re watching Ratatouille?”

“Cinema classic,” Amy says, smoothing out a crease in the blanket and sitting down.

“This is so dumb,” Hope says, but she’s sitting down next to Amy, crossing her legs.

They keep an odd puritan distance from each other, Hope with her legs crossed, balancing her glass on her knee, keeping it upright with her hand, Amy with her knees pulled to her chest, watching with split attention between the screen and Hope.

Hope gets up every now and then to refill their drinks—Amy hasn’t done a lot of drinking before, but it’s strange how the buzz flattens everything, makes her all wobbly and inarticulate. She looks at Hope and she thinks about crawling over and tucking herself in her arms, pressing her face into the crook of Hope’s neck. She doesn’t know what she’d do after that.

“You know I read this theory online, that was like,” Amy begins, rustling the ice cubes in her glass, “you know how Linguini sucks at cooking, even though he’s supposedly Gusteau’s son?”

“Yeah?”

“So, the theory goes that Gusteau apparently wasn’t a great chef at all, but also had a tiny rat in his chef’s hat, controlling him.”

Hope thinks about this for a second. “That’s ridiculous.”

Amy looks at her; breaks out into a fit of giggles. “I know, I just thought it was funny.”

A world-weary expression on Hope’s face, like she doesn’t know if she should laugh or fly back to LA.

“Also,” Amy continues, giggly and good, “what’s so stupid is—there’s no genetic predisposition to make someone better at cooking. There’s no cooking gene. I guess there’s an affinity, maybe? But nothing that implies your mom being good at cooking automatically means you’re going to be good at cooking.”

“If you’re in the kitchen with your mom a lot, maybe,” Hope says.

Amy frowns, thinking about the fact that Linguini’s mom in the movie is dead. “Poor Linguini,” she says, and holds out her glass for a refill.

They’re wobbly and close together by the time the rats have taken over the kitchen. Amy’s slouched down to lean her head on Hope’s shoulder—which is kind of boney, so she moves to rest her head on Hope’s chest, who accommodates wordlessly by holding her arm out so Amy can burrow deeper—the thump thump thump of Hope’s heart making her sleepy, but content.

“How was Paris, for you?” she asks, when the movie is almost finished, Remy and Linguini and their café called Ratatouille, but also their tiny little rat restaurant above it. “But, like, how was it really? Any rats?”

Hope snorts. “Big time. It’s kinda dirty, honestly. There’s like the part where all the tourists go and it’s clean and romanticized and everything you expect Paris to be, and then there’s the real stuff, where actual people live.”

“What about the food? Served by rats?”

Cooked by rats, you mean,” Hope squints at her. “How drunk are you?”

She’s got her self-control on the tightest leash possible, or she might just be telling herself that. “How drunk are you?” Amy says, defensive, before her resolve cracks. “Only a little. Come on, tell me about Paris.”

So Hope tells her about Paris, for a while, and the drinks keep on coming, pouring and mixing and serving.

“It was great. I’d love to maybe study abroad there one day. Or maybe not, maybe I’ll do something less white.”

Amy snorts. “Did you go to any Asian countries?”

Hope drags her hands down her face. “No, I couldn’t afford it,” almost-whining, shaking her head, “I know I’m white but I’m not that white. I know Europe’s not the only continent besides America.”

Amy leans closer. “Where did you want to go?”

“Japan,” Hope says, not missing a beat. “My dad used to work there, for an engineering project. Always went on about how beautiful it is.”

There’s such a palpable yearning—longing, desire—on Hope’s face that Amy’s heart lurches in her chest, that all she wants to do is ease a hand over Hope’s heart and take the longing from her. Maybe that’s why she throws away all notions of saving money and says: “What if you just flew over there? Now?”

Hope looks at her like she’s grown a second head. “With what money?”

“Your emergency fund,” Amy says, ideas coming to her all at once. “Didn’t you say it had more in it than you needed? It’s—this is once-in-a-lifetime. You could see so much more. Are you going anywhere else after this—here? Botswana?”

“No, it’s right back to LA. Then I’m heading to New York a week early with my parents.” Hope furrows her brow. “It’s not like I haven’t been spontaneous—but flights—they’re expensive. I can’t just go to Japan on a whim.”

She’s being utterly reasonable, which makes Amy like her even more, but she doesn’t want to let go of the idea. “Okay, not Japan then. Somewhere closer. Africa’s not Europe. What about Johannesburg? Or Cape Town?” Amy pauses, even in her tipsy haze remembering to ponder over an offer so monumental. Eventually it just slips out of her: “I could come with you. I have another week left of leave.”

Hope looks at her, before shaking her head. “Maybe we’ll have this conversation when we’re both not drunk.”

They talk for a little bit more, until eventually Amy decides she feels like listening to music, getting up to open Spotify. It takes her a few drunken fumbles to type Ratatouille in the search bar for her own saved music.

Hope bursts into laughter in the midst of taking another drink, the drink bubbling over her lips. “No, no, Amy, no,” she says, wiping her upper lip, crawling over to Amy’s ancient Mac and backspacing to scroll through Amy’s song library. “We are not listening to the Ratatouille soundtrack.”

“Aw, why not?” Amy asks, petulant, pouting slightly.

Because,” Hope says, laughing low. Then, looking through Amy's music, unrepentant: “Florence and the Machine? You are gay.”

Amy blushes. “Florence Welch has a lovely voice.”

Hope snorts, transferring to a lying position on her stomach. Amy lies down next to her. “You’re like the opposite of those indie Kanye West skater guys who only listen to male artists because they’re convinced it’s the only thing that’ll give them credibility. Your music library is literally just women.”

“Thank you?” Amy says, not quite grasping the specificity of Hope’s allusion, or maybe just too drunk to think about it hard enough. “I mean, I have few George Michael—”

“George Michael absolutely does not count,” she interrupts, firm, before settling on a Cocteau Twins song and rolling on her back. “Wait, hold on, I have another story about Paris. This one’s funny.”

“Tell me it,” Amy says, laughing at the way Hope prefaces her own story by calling it funny. She would never do that sober.

“So, it’s my first night there, and I was kind of? on a date,” Hope says, then pauses to rub the inside of her eye with one of her knuckles.

Amy rolls onto her back—ignoring the irrational spike of jealousy that hits her, knowing she has no claim to whoever Hope does—folding her hands onto her stomach, lying next to each other.

Words come out looser, it seems, with Hope, when she’s drunk. “I had just met the girl on one of those double decker tourist buses—it wasn’t really anything, I just didn’t want to be alone—and it’s raining that evening, and we’re trying to find a way to get out of the rain, so we stumble upon this restaurant with big neon lights on the outside. It’s raining so hard it’s hard to see—see anything else, so we head right for it, with—like—moths—drawn to a flame, you know—”

She’s saying so much, Amy thinks she’s never really said this much all at once before, even when she was telling her stories in the restaurant. She’s smiling, too, like she’s amused by her own story, and Amy can’t stop staring at her lips.

“And, it’s dinner time anyway so it doesn’t even matter if we just stumble into some random restaurant,” she says, and her smile gets even wider—“and, Amy, we sit down to order some food—and the first thing I read on the menu is fettucine alfredo. We’re in an Italian restaurant! In Paris!”

She breaks out into peals of delighted laughter, and Amy can only lie there, staring at her, staring at her really, thinking about how much she likes her.

Hope catches her staring, and her smile fades slightly. She winces. “Was that too much?” she looks up to the ceiling, before closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’m always like this when I drink too much. I tried—try not to, mostly. Guess I just lost track.”

Amy rolls over again, this time not to lie on her stomach but to hang over Hope, leaning down to kiss her, earnest and gentle. Hope’s surprised only for the briefest of moments, before her hand slides to the back of Amy’s neck, tugging her closer, deepening the kiss.

She tastes sharp and sweet, like the rum and coke, but also like Hope, which is a flavour Amy can’t really define yet, except that it’s her. Hope slides her hand against Amy’s ribs, over her shirt, fisting there to urge her closer. Amy does her one better, breaking the kiss briefly to roll completely on top of her, sitting low on the belly of Hope’s stomach.

“Why do you always end up on top?” Hope says, but she doesn’t sound like she’s complaining, reaching out to press her palms Amy’s thighs.

“Why do you always end up on the bottom?” Amy retorts, snorting lightly. She leans down to kiss her again, moving her own hair to drape over one shoulder so it doesn’t get in the way, moaning when Hope swipes her tongue against her bottom lip, urging her mouth open.

They’re both a little on the drunk side of tipsy—persistently so—but the alcohol makes Amy feel hotter, greedier. There’s a haze on her, a good haze, the forgiving kind, smoothing her world down enough that she doesn’t second guess herself when she presses her lips to the corner of Hope’s mouth, then her jaw, then her neck, Hope shivering, then laughing a little, tickled.

Amy kisses up her jaw again, trying to find that sensitive spot near her ear that she pointed out last night, the spot that made Hope full-body shiver, that made Amy feel good too, just on the account that she was making other people feel good.

Eventually Hope seems to become unhappy with just lying there, trying to push herself back into a sitting position. It’s not until Amy takes the hint and shuffles backwards slightly, easing off some of her weight, does Hope right herself, pulling Amy onto her lap, wrapping her arms around her waist.

They hit a rhythm—a stride—and Amy doesn’t dare pull away, trying to breathe through her nose, even though she’s getting kind of dizzy, her fingers and toes are tingling, there’s a pulling feeling near the bottom of the stomach, her skin gooseflesh.

Hope breaks away first, shoulders heaving as she pants, leaning her head on Amy’s shoulder. “I’m so,” she mumbles, “I’m so fucking dizzy.”

Amy commiserates. She leans her cheek on the side of Hope’s head—partly to anchor herself, partly to hopefully anchor Hope. Their position feels nonsexual, but very intimate. Hope seems to relax further into her touch as Amy threads a hand through Hope’s hair, finding in comfort in the soft silk.

They sit like that for a while, until Hope asks, “Are you drunk?”

She doesn’t say it unkindly—like an accusation—but more an honest question, gauging how far they should go.

“Just tipsy, I think,” Amy says.

Hope presses a kiss to her shoulder—still clothed, still wearing Hope’s jacket—and lays her forehead back down.

“Hope, are you drunk?” Amy asks, after a few long beats of Hope not moving.

“No,” she says, stubborn.

Amy hides a smile, turning her face away from Hope’s head, cheek sliding against Hope’s hair. “Do you want me to get you some water?”

“Just give me a second.”

Amy actually laughs, then. “Okay, I’m getting you water. Stay here.”

“If I hurl on you, we can call it even.”

Amy’s mouth drops open. “Really? Now?”

“What better time than the present?”

“Do you want me to get you water?”

A feeble pause. Then: “…yes.”

Amy rolls her eyes, moving to slide off Hope’s lap. There’s one weird second where Amy thinks Hope might try to keep her there, even despite her better judgement—tighten her arms around Amy’s waist, grip the jacket, pull her closer—before her own common sense seems to win out and she lets Amy stand, to make her way to the kitchen.

Amy has to stop and take an actual honest to god breather by the tiny dining table as she exits the room, pressing a hand to her forehead. All of her feelings bubble up in her throat and she feels like laughing—laughing—just because of how ridiculously happy she feels.

A good night. A good date. A date—her first date. Getting kind-of drunk for the third time ever—first as an experiment with Molly, second at prom—watching Ratatouille, of all things, and talking. Sitting around and talking.

A tiny laugh escapes her lips, at that. A fun person to sit around and have sleepovers with. Hope.

Amy fumbles for the water bottle in she left in her backpack—coordination still a touch off-balance—and heads over to the sink to refill it, thoughts running a mile a minute. She likes Hope. She likes Hope. Of course she does—she knew she would—but it feels real, not some friendly reciprocation, some curiosity, some desire to know why—but something tangible. Honest.

“I like you,” she mouths, then blushes, pressing a hand to her face. She feels so silly. She feels like laughing again.

The water in the bottle overflows, hitting her fingers, icy water jolting her back into reality. She quickly shuts off the tap and wipes her hand on her jean shorts, slowly breathing in.

She makes her way back to the bedroom.

now

“Oh, shit,” Amy says, dropping Hope’s hand to step forward, good mood ruffled by the tense atmosphere inside the gym.

She sucks in air between her teeth at the realisation that there’s damage to the gym’s décor. An overturned snacks table—food littered on the gym’s shiny maple hardwood—appears to be the only outstanding casualty, but all the lights are on and the energy seems to have been subdued greatly.

When Molly sees her and Hope, she hustles over to them with barely contained fury on her face. “You would not fucking believe what that event DJ just did.”

“Uh, that?” Hope says, pointing to the snacks table.

“I do not have enough fucks to pretend your scathing wit is funny instead of obnoxious right now, Hope,” Molly grits through her teeth.

Hope raises her eyebrows, taken aback. She looks at Amy and makes a yikes face, prompting Amy to shake her head. Hope tilts her head, eyebrows climbing higher: are you sure? Amy nods, firm. Hope sighs and lets it be.

“Hey,” Amy says, reaching out to place a hand on Molly’s shoulder. “We’ll get this fixed, okay? What happened? I was gone for like half an hour.”

“Where the fuck did you find that guy, man?” They hear Annabelle shout from further back, by the DJ booth. A peek over Molly’s shoulder tells Amy she’s shouting at Tanner.

“I didn’t fuckin’ know he was crazy!” Tanner defends, shoving his hands in his jean pockets. “My cousin told me about him—said he was cool. Maybe he was just havin’ a bad day.”

“I don’t care if he was having a bad day!”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Molly swears, making a beeline for Annabelle and Tanner. Amy and Hope exchange one last look before they follow her.

“Hey, everyone chill out, alright?” Nick says, holding his hands out. “Obviously that guy was a massive douchebag, but we don’t have to blame each other.”

Both of them look properly chastised at Nick's reprimanding.

“I’m sorry about the DJ, really, Annie,” Tanner says, looking properly sorry. “I promise I didn’t know.”

“Yeah, okay. I’m sorry for yelling.” Annabelle sighs, shaking her head. She purses her lips as she sees Amy and Hope approaching. “Hey, you guys missed a party.”

Amy doesn’t think she’s seen Annabelle quite so angry in a while.

“Shitty party,” Hope says, toneless.

Annabelle quirks a hollow half-smile. “The fucking shittiest.”

“It was going fine right up until that stupid DJ said—” Molly says, then cuts herself off, seemingly too furious to finish her sentence. “Fuck that guy.”

“What’d he say?” Amy asks.

“Dumb shit,” Annabelle says. She sighs and looks up at the gymnasium’s ceiling beams. “He was arguing with Mol and Nick about, I don’t know, something.”

“The dance atmosphere,” Nick supplies, quietly.

“Yeah, that. And then when I entered the conversation and told him he was losing his shit over nothing, he called me a stupid whore who should know her place.”

Amy makes a face that says let me at him, I’ve got two fists and I’m not afraid to use them, anger hitting her in a way that makes her almost breathless.

Hope knits her eyebrows together, frowning hard. She reaches out to place a placating hand on Amy’s shoulder. “Where is he now?”

“Well, Molly tried to bite his head off. And then Nick strong-armed him into leaving. Not before he kicked over the snack table, though, and cursed like six other people on his way out.”

“I could kick over his snack table,” Molly murmurs, incensed.

“I know, babe,” Annabelle assures.

Nick scratches his eyebrow, surveying the rest of the gym. “Yeah, the party’s pretty much over now. Some people are thinking of heading home.”

“Oh, no, c’mon,” Tanner says, looking veritably distressed at the reunion ending because of a misjudgement about the DJ on his part. “People can go home if they want to, but we can keep this going—clean up the food, turn the lights back off. The night doesn’t have to end here.”

“Come on, man. Be real. The dude said he’s going to come back for his DJ equipment. There’s not gonna be any music for the rest of the night.”

Tanner frowns, looking very distraught.

“We’re not paying that guy, right?” Hope asks, a bit contemptuously.

“We paid half in advance,” Molly says. “We’re definitely not going to pay the other half.”

“If he fights it you can just lawyer his ass, Mol,” Nick says, smiling, though his grin quickly fades. “Okay, shit. I’m gonna ask around. See who wants to leave and who wants to stay.”

They all watch as Nick leaves to talk to the rest of the crowd.

“Aw, fuck,” Tanner says, shoving his hands in his pockets. “This sucks shit.”

Theo pats his shoulder. “It’s alright, man.”

“How are you?” Amy asks Annabelle, low, as not to draw attention to any eavesdroppers.

“Fine,” Annabelle says. “It was funny seeing Molly about to go American Psycho on his ass.”

Hope brightens, a little, at this news. “How close was she to punching him?”

So fucking close,” Annabelle says, a slow, small smile spreading on her face.

“Whatever he got from me, he would’ve deserved worse,” Molly says, face still dark. “Misogynist asshole.”

Annabelle shrugs. “Ten bucks says he was high on something.”

“So the reunion’s really over, then?” Amy frowns.

“Everyone’s here for Thanksgiving. I’m sure people can find a way to catch up other than this,” Annabelle says. “I don’t really want to be here anymore, either, to be honest. Shitty energy.”

Amy watches Tanner as he begins to piteously clean up the mess made by the upended snack table. Theo appears out of nowhere with two brooms and a pan, probably taken from the janitor’s closet nearby. She feels bad for him.

“I think Tanner’s right,” she says, turning back to Molly and Annabelle. “The night doesn’t have to end here. Do you think we could take the reunion anywhere else?”

“None of us live in LA,” Molly says, before pausing thoughtfully. “Except Nick and Ryan, I guess.”

“Do you think they’d be okay with moving the reunion back to their house?”

Molly thinks about this for a second. “I’ll go ask him.”

“Solving problems left and right,” Hope says, nudging Amy as Molly goes to find Nick.

“Well, problem solving is literally my full-time job,” Amy reasons, but she’s smiling too. “I’m going to go help Tanner and Theo clean up.”

Annabelle sighs slightly. “I’m just going to head outside for a second. I’m fine, really, just need some air.” She begins to make her way to the exit.

Hope frowns. “I should probably join her. I’ll go bring Molly with me.”

“Call me if you need anything,” Amy says, rising to press a brief kiss to Hope’s cheek. “Don’t get kidnapped.”

Hope smiles, faint but amused. “I’ll fight her off next time.”

The fool spill isn’t so great that it needs a whole team, but Amy grabs a plastic garbage bag and helps Theo clean the rest of it up anyway.

“Are you okay?” she asks Tanner, who’s sulkily running a hand through his hair, beanie tucked underneath his armpit.

“Huh?” he grunts, eyes unfocused, before realising that Amy’s talking to him. “Oh, yeah, Ames. I’m good. Just feelin’ bad.”

Amy neglects to point out you can’t be good and feel bad at the same time. Instead she says, “Don’t feel too bad about it. We’re working on keeping the party going.”

His gaze settles on Amy, senses returned. “Yeah? What’s happening?”

“Molly’s talking to Nick and Ryan about maybe moving the reunion to their house. If they don’t mind.”

“Oh shit, yeah,” Tanner says, back straightening. He tugs on beanie back on, mouth spreading into a grin.

“Yeah!” Amy says, encouraging his growing enthusiasm.

“I need to talk to them!” he continues, before flashing Amy a thumbs up, turning on his heel quite suddenly, and leaving.

“Wasn’t expecting that,” Amy intones, watching him practically hop and skip towards where Nick and Ryan are talking. He looks delighted.

Theo laughs lightly from the side. “You wanna help me go throw the trash out?”

“Oh, sure,” Amy says, hefting one of the trash bags over her shoulder.

Outside, Theo says: “You know Nick and Ryan live in Nick’s aunt’s house?”

“No way?” Amy replies, thanking Theo softly as he opens one of the large dumpsters for her. Her movements slow as she processes this. “Wait, the house we went to for our high school graduation party?”

Theo grins. “Yeah! That one.”

Amy almost laughs at how well it fits, with the reunion theme being the night before graduation. “That’s way too good. But also… why?”

“He inherited it,” Theo explains. He leans down closer towards Amy after he says this, as if to divulge a secret. “I think Tanner’s going to suggest something crazy once we go back inside. Just watch.”

“You have to help me steal the DJ equipment,” Tanner’s saying, as they enter back into the gymnasium, talking to Theo but also kind of to Amy, who feels like she’s almost there by hostage.

Theo looks at her and makes a face like, see?

Tanner looks insistent. “You have to help me,” and he takes a dramatic pause, “Steal. The. DJ. Equipment.”

“What for, man?”

Listen,” he says, putting a hand on Theo’s shoulder, and then, after a moment of thought, putting a hand on Amy’s shoulder too, “I feel partially responsible here. I didn’t background check him hard enough, whatever. We gotta make him sweat. Make him think about what he’s done.”

“I’m into it,” Theo says, looking like he’s starting to get sucked in.

Amy frowns a little. “This isn’t illegal, is it?”

“Nah,” Tanner says, then, off Amy’s dubious look: “Look, dude probably rented the equipment. He’ll probably just have to pay a late fee, who cares, you know? Guy deserves worse.”

Amy thinks about the way Annabelle sighed, not hurt but bothered, in a way that she hasn’t been bothered for a long time. Damn it, why the hell not. “What’s the game plan?”

Tanner beams. “Okay, so, we don’t have enough room to put everything in Nick’s sedan, so Amy, you gotta help me out here—can you take the speakers and the controller?”

“Got it,” Amy says, already puzzling through the Tetris-like logistics she’ll have to pan out with Hope to fit everything in the back of her mom’s tiny Toyota.

Tight. We’ll take the turntable and whatever else.” Tanner steps back, holding out his hand, closed fist. “One for the history books.”

Theo fistbumps him. After a second, Amy fistbumps him too.

His posture straightens, looking proud. “Always knew you were cool, Ames.”

then

Sometime in the early morning, Amy wakes up to a small chill. She sleepily fumbles for the blanket, pushed to the bottom of the bed, somehow strangling her ankles. She kicks around a bit until the blanket untangles itself, and then—

“Stop fucking moving,” Hope’s voice rumbles from behind her, mouth somewhere close to the top of Amy’s head. “It’s too goddamn early.”

“I’m cold,” Amy mumbles, cracking her eyes open slightly to find Hope’s arm around her waist, and the blanket still around her legs.

For a moment Hope doesn’t say anything, so Amy assumes she’s just gone and fallen back asleep, until there’s a tiny sigh of annoyance and the blanket’s being pulled up, up over Amy’s legs and torso, covering the both of them in a layer of warmth.

“Thanks,” she murmurs, sleep tugging at her periphery, feeling her eyes drift again.

“Go back to sleep,” Hope only says, and then the room’s silent again.

The second time Amy rises, they’ve somehow managed to swap positions. Hope’s facing the wall, the soft rise and fall of her shoulders stopping her from being almost entirely unmoving. Deep enough in sleep that she could just be a brick wall.

The bed shifts as Amy rises, but Hope doesn’t stir. There’s something soft and happy pulling at Amy’s shoulders, her chest, her stomach, easing some of her anxieties—like how Amy isn’t sure of what she’d say if Hope did wake up right then, maybe something embarrassing like are you comfortable? Do you need another blanket? Want me to get you more water?—because while she’s never woken up next to someone before, it feels… nice. It feels nice. Nice enough that she feels like she doesn’t quite have to start worrying about nothing yet.

She quietly presses a kiss to Hope’s shoulder—not quite sure if that’s something she can do, but feeling brave enough to do it anyway—and slipping away to go take a bath. She feels awful but not hungover—just dirty. Nothing a shower and breakfast won’t fix. She putters around for a second to grab everything she needs, setting out an aspirin and re-filling the water bottle just in case Hope needs it, and starting the bath.

As the massive bucket of water refills, Amy perches on the edge of the bathroom seat, scrolling through her text messages on her international flip phone.

She only really has two recipients from overseas: Molly and her parents. There’s Hope, too, of course, but Hope’s laying in her bed, so she doesn’t quite count at the moment. The rest are people she’s met through the program: her supervisor, a handful of the girls. Given that her social sphere beforehand was significantly smaller, she practically feels like a social butterfly.

Her thumb hovers over selecting Molly’s contact. It’s something like one am in California, but she’s probably still awake. Amy debates the pros and cons of giving up her saved minutes outside of their allotted calling times, but fuck it.

“Hi!” Molly says, as she picks up. Then, with more worry: “Are you okay? You usually don’t call at this time.”

“I’m fine,” Amy laughs, shoulders relaxing as she hears Molly’s voice. God, she misses her so much. “I’m just, I wanted to talk to you.”

“Sure, I’m just transcribing this legal brief. He’s like, mid-argument, so if you could just give me a second—”

Amy breathes a quiet laugh through her nose. “Take your time.”

There’s the distant clacking of a keyboard for another few seconds, before Molly’s voice comes back to the forefront. “Fuck it, we’re being charged by the minute. I can do this later. What’s up? What did you want to talk about?”

“I, uh, I think I have a crush on Hope,” she says, half-listening to the running water of the tap. “I really like her, Mol.”

“Oh, boy,” Molly breathes out, and Amy can hear the roll of her computer chair: she’s probably migrating to her bed. “It’s been two days since she got there.”

“But we’ve been talking for so much longer, and,” Amy bites her lip, “I slept with her again last night.”

Amy’s almost certain Molly can feel her embarrassed flush through the phone line. Molly just makes this delighted giggling sound. “Look at you! You can’t even keep it in your pants!”

“I’m, well,” Amy laughs with her, snorting lightly. “I mean, yeah. Have you seen her?”

“Not my type, unfortunately. But you certainly have.”

“Yeah,” Amy says, lowering her forehand onto her hand, smiling dopily. “I have.”

A contemplative silence on Molly’s end, then: “You should tell her.”

Amy didn’t even have to call Molly to know her response would be something along those lines: you should tell her, be open, talk to her. Molly doesn’t quite have the tendency to talk herself into circles about things like these, with Nick being a very odd exception. She understands the merciful thing to do is just fucking ask.

It’s comforting to hear it coming from her best friend’s own lips, anyway.

“I will,” a pause. “Maybe.”

“Come on, Amy,” urges Molly. Amy can see the soft crease of her eyebrow. “Don’t let things just play out. Take charge. Don’t let it become like a Ryan situation again.”

Amy breathes out. “I don’t know. I don’t want to scare her off.”

“Amy,” Molly starts again, taking on her lecture voice thing, before she seems to realise something and stops. “Listen, I’m not going force you to do something you’re uncomfortable with.”

Amy smiles, soft.

“But, this is just a li’l advice from me to you. Best friend to best friend.”

“Okay,” Amy says, pushing the phone closer to her ear.

“I don’t think this is something you should be afraid of. I mean, she flew over to Botswana for you. That’s like—” sentence breaking off to make some disbelieving strangling noise, “Jesus Christ!”

“That’s the thing, actually. I didn’t want to presumptuous, or anything, but I think…” okay, how to say this? Amy closes her eyes and tries not to cringe. “I think maybe she had a crush on me, too?”

“Oh boy,” Molly says, obviously trying to process this information. “Okay, where did this come from?”

“She keeps on making like, comments on how she paid attention to me in high school, it’s, I mean, who says that if you’re not trying to imply—” Amy makes a frustrated noise. “It’s so stupid.”

“No, it’s not, that’s not stupid.”

“I mean, I’m gay and inexperienced but I’m not blind, you know? I like to think I can pick up signals.”

Amy can tell they’re both thinking about Ryan.

“Ryan was different,” Molly immediately reassures, reading her mind. “Ryan was a fucking smokescreen.”

Amy gets up to turn off the running tap. She has a feeling her conversation with Molly won’t be done for a while, so she gets comfortable on the closed lid of the toilet seat. As comfortable as you can be on porcelain.

“Ryan was so,” starts Amy, then stops. She doesn’t know how to finish her sentence.

“We don’t have to talk about that,” Molly says, quickly. “So, Hope? She liked you?”

“I don’t know, I’m just guessing. I had, like, a eureka moment yesterday, and everything about our situation right now, how weird it is—her being here in Botswana, despite being a very mean person to me in high school—just made sense. It just clicked.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Molly says, being strangely agreeable. “If you think all that stuff, why won’t you tell her that you like her?”

“Because I’m,” and the million-dollar question really deserves a million-dollar answer, “because I’m a little afraid?”

“Okay, sorry if this is a little insensitive, but—what?”

Amy laughs at her best friend’s incredulity. “It’s kind of complicated.”

“You’re telling me!” Molly guffaws. “Everything could be so simple! If you like her and you think she likes you back, what’s the issue? I’m asking seriously, what is the issue?”

“The issue is… I want her to be my girlfriend.”

Amy can practically see the affronted look on Molly’s face. “Isn’t that the end goal? Isn't that like, the whole point?”

“But I mean,” Amy says, but then, yeah, isn’t that like the whole point? “But then I’m not going to be back stateside for another eight months after that.”

Molly lapses into silence. Then, cautiously: “You’re afraid she’s going to find someone else while you’re gone.”

Amy closes her eyes.

“Amy,” Molly says.

“I want Hope to do whatever she wants,” Amy says, scratching her knee. “But I also want her to be my girlfriend.”

“And you think those two things are mutually exclusive.”

“As long as I’m in Botswana, and she’s in New York, yeah.” Amy sighs. “I know long distance is like some lesbian right of passage, but it doesn’t feel right. Not when everything between us is so new. She’s going to want things, and I’m going to want things, and we’re not going to be able to compromise. Maybe we could do the whole long-distance thing later on—if we even have a later on. But right now, it’s like…”

“I understand,” Molly says. “As much as I love you and I love hearing about everything in your life, maybe you should be having this conversation with Hope?”

“She’s sleeping right now. But, um, maybe in a while—she’s still going to be here until the day after tomorrow.”

“Just make sure not to put it off too long,” warns Molly.

“I won’t.” Amy scratches the side of her cheek. “Thank you. For listening. I love you.”

“I love you too. And literally always, okay? Call me any time.”

“I will.” A contented silence, Amy smiling softly. Then: “Enough about me. How are you? How’s Jared?”

Hope’s awake by the time Amy steps out of the bath. Her conversation with Molly ended up lasting a whole forty-five minutes, ending with rescheduled call schedules and a hearty exclamation of good luck, and she takes a bath long and slow to get rid of all the sleepy alcoholic grit off her body, so the whole thing ends up taking her a little over an hour.

The bed’s neatly made—Hope’s futon is rolled up into a spiral and pushed off to the side, like she knows she won’t be using it again—but the kitchen is empty and so is the living room, leaving Amy to deduce she’s probably outside.

And she is outside. Sitting on a step leading up to the front door. Smoking.

Hope notices her quickly, mid-drag. She casually pulls the cigarette away from her mouth and snubs it against the side of the house, waving the smoke away.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” Amy says, casually, like she didn’t just spend the last half hour spilling her guts out about Hope to Molly. She takes a seat to the right of her. “They let you bring cigarettes on the plane?”

“As long as you don’t smoke them,” she shrugs. “You can bring a lighter too.”

She pulls her Zippo lighter out of her jacket pocket, handing it to Amy to take. It’s engraved: David, 06.12.2004.

“My dad’s,” she clarifies, flipping it over to the other side, where it says best man. “Given to him at my uncle’s wedding.”

“That’s cool,” Amy says, rubbing her thumb against the date, engraving rough against her skin. She looks at Hope’s packet of cigs, which she just left on the ground. There’s only one stick left. “What are you smoking?”

Hope rolls her eyes at this. “All-natural cigarettes,” she says, leaning in closer to take on a more conspiratorial tone, “indie cigarettes.”

Amy snorts. “What, they’re healthier or some other bullshit myth?”

Exactly. Complete bullshit.” Hope taps on the pack. “A friend back home gave me this. I’ve had one for every new place I’ve been to.”

Amy resists making a face. She doesn’t want to seem like a stick in the mud.

Hope’s looking directly at her, though. “I’m not a smoker, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“It’s just, the health ramifications…”

“Hear you loud and clear, Amy,” she says. “I only smoke recreationally.”

“Yeah?” Amy’s eyes glint with mirth. “You promise?”

Hope side eyes her, pulling a face, before: “I promise I only smoke recreationally.”

“No, no,” Amy says, taking Hope’s right wrist to place her hand over her heart. “You have to promise.”

Hope looks down at her hand, then back at Amy. Her mouth drops open, a little shocked. “You’re making fun of me.”

“Me? Making fun of you? I would never.”

“The sex has made you really bold, you know that?” Hope says, trying and failing to sound annoyed, eyes crinkling at the edges.

That makes Amy blush a little. Did she really have to put it so brazenly?

“I’m waiting, Hope.”

She sighs, exaggerated, before straightening her posture and saying: “Hand over heart, I promise I only smoke recreationally.”

“Very nice. Eight out of ten.”

“You’re such an asshole,” she snorts, turning her head to look out into the empty street, hand falling back to her side. “What’s on the agenda for today?”

“About that,” Amy starts, picking on a weed growing through the cracks in the steps. “I kind of have to stay here today and clean. A condition to my host parents letting me hang here alone with you was that I would help them clean the house, and they’re coming back tomorrow, so. I don’t mind if you want to head out and explore by yourself. We can head out together tomorrow, maybe even tonight.”

Hope frowns. “I can stay here, help you clean. I’m eating their food and using their bathroom too, you know.”

 “No, seriously. I’ll feel terrible making you stay here and clean with me. You’re just a guest; this is my home for the rest of the year.”

“Amy, stop being so self-righteous. I’m gonna stay here and help you clean.”

“Did you hear the part where I said I’d feel terrible about it?”

“And did you hear the part where I told you to stop being so self-righteous?”

Hope.”

Hope looks at her; sighs. “You’re really going to make me say it, huh?”

“Make you say what?” This slips out of her own volition; Amy knows exactly what Hope’s talking about.

“I’m here for you,” Hope says, looking away. “So stop making decisions for me.”

“Okay,” Amy says, slow, biting her lip. “If you’re sure you want to stay here with me.”

“I am,” she says. She looks down at her last cigarette. “I’m going to smoke this and then I’ll head inside. May as well finish the pack.”

Amy’s gaze flickers down to the cigarette too. “Can I try?”

Hope looks genuinely caught off guard. “You want to try smoking?”

“Just this once,” warns Amy, holding up a finger. “Just one drag. Just to try.”

Hope snorts. “Fuck, sure. If you want to.”

She hands Amy the last cigarette from the pack, which Amy rolls nervously between her thumb and forefinger. She quickly slips it past her lips once she notices Hope flicking the lighter on and off once, then twice, just to make sure it’s working properly.

“Don’t inhale while I’m lighting it, just suck on it slightly like a straw,” she says, cupping one hand around the cigarette and using the other to light it. “Okay, pull in, hold for a second, then breathe out.”

Amy does what she’s told. Her throat tickles, then burns, then she finds herself coughing.

“That tastes like shit,” she says, pulling the smoke from her mouth and resisting the urge to spit.

“It’s a wonder why anybody smokes,” Hope drawls, grinning slightly, taking the cigarette from Amy’s hand and taking her own drag. Amy might have formed a lifelong hatred for smoking right then and there, but there’s still something inexplicably intimate about sharing a cigarette with someone else. Hope’s lips being in a place where her own lips were.

“I feel such a strong urge to slap that thing out of your hands right now.”

Hope looks at her, rolls her eyes, then snubs the barely-smoked cigarette out next to her. “Okay, fine,” she says, standing up. “I’m going to get myself clean, and then we’ll clean the house. Sound good?”

Amy stands with her, taking the cigarette packet from the ground. She never wants to see it again. “Sounds perfect.”