They ate at a diner, because Hope didn’t even stop for breakfast or lunch at the airport in her rush to make it to Stanford. But now she was half-dying with hunger, and Kelley — she quickly learned — was famous for being perpetually able to eat anything, at any time of day, that was put in front of her.
“Hey.” Kelley reached out, grabbing Hope’s hand as she popped a tater tot into her mouth. “This is our first date.”
“You might want to stop eating like that since this is our first date,” Hope said, smiling as Kelley dipped five fries into her milkshake and shoved them all into her mouth. She looked up at Hope, eyes wide, chewing slowly and guiltily.
“Is this grossing you out?” Hope laughed, shaking her head, and Kelley smiled through her mouthful of food, watching her from across the table with the dopiest possible grin.
“I can’t stay for long,” Hope admitted after finishing — “demolishing” in Kelley’s words — her burger.
“How much time do I get?” Kelley asked, and her shoulders slumped slightly when Hope gently told her that she would have to leave the following day. The next second, she shoved her food over to Hope’s side of the booth and then flopped down in the seat next to her, interlocking their arms and leaning her head on her shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Hope asked, smiling down at Kelley, who for her part just pressed her face into Hope’s side.
“Making the most of my time,” she murmured.
“Okay.” She kissed the top of Kelley’s head. After a moment, she darted a hand out and stole one of Hope’s fries, glancing up with wide, innocent eyes, and it was all Hope could do to keep from laughing.
She hadn’t, of course, thought to book a hotel room, and she didn’t really tell Kelley that until they’d been wandering campus for a few hours and the sun was about to set.
“Stay with me.” It wasn’t really a request, and Kelley made a stupid face while she said it, as if she was just begging Hope to make some type of sexual innuendo. Hope, for her part, just laughed.
“Do you have a spare bed?” she asked, and Kelley offered to take the couch so that Hope could have her bed, and the next thing she knew she was walked up the driveway of a small, beaten down house that belonged to Kelley and her friends.
“How many of you live here?” Kelley jiggled the front door’s handle for a moment, then shoved it open.
“Seven, most days.” She glanced back at Hope. “Sometimes it feels like twenty.”
Sydney was eating in the kitchen as they walk in, and she looked hard at the woman with the suitcase and the shy smile trailing after Kelley.
“Yo, this is my soulmate, Hope.” Sydney dropped her fork. “Is Tobin around? I want them to meet, too.”
“This is— Hope.” Sydney took a second to stand, walking around the kitchen counter to stick her hand out. “Hi, I’m her roommate, Sydney. It’s really nice to meet you, I’ve heard a ton about you—“
“Not so positive the last few days, I’m guessing?” Hope said with a self-deprecating smile, and Sydney didn't even deny it, just shrugging in reply.
“You’re here now, aren’t you?” They looked at each other for a moment, as if sizing the other one up, and then Sydney’s face broke into a wide, easy smile.
Tobin was a little more cautious, her eyes tracing Hope up and down and looking curiously at Kelley, as if she was gauging the situation. It wasn’t until Christen shook Hope’s hand and gently asked after her artwork that Tobin seemed willing to cross the room and join the conversation, but her eyes remained wary throughout the night.
Hope liked Kelley’s friends. Even more, she liked sitting next to Kelley on a couch with a cold beer in her hand, her arm draped on the cushion behind her. She had thought she’d known the girl before, but now she was realizing that meeting her in person was different than listening to her words over the phone for years.
She hadn’t expected the freckles smattered across the bridge of Kelley’s nose, dusted across her collarbone. She hadn’t expected the sharpness of her jaw, the smug smile that filled her face whenever she made a joke. She hadn’t expected to be this wholly, entirely enraptured by one person. She wanted to watch her talk forever, she wanted to kiss her forever, she wanted to take her outside and walk down the street so that the whole fucking world could see them hand-in-hand, she wanted to stay on their own, arm in arm, and never see anyone else but her.
She hadn’t expected to fall in love for the first time, because God she never realized that Kelley was her first and last and only, that being with her would be like wildfire.
Hope also hadn’t expected Kelley to have the alcohol tolerance of a much larger frat boy. She’d had at least seven beers as they sat in the living room, talking first with all of her roommates, then just with Sydney, then on their own. It was somewhere long past midnight as Kelley finished off her final beer — number eight — and Hope honestly felt like the whole world was spinning slightly.
“Okay, time for bed,” Kelley laughed as Hope’s head began to nod off to one side, and she stood, sticking both hands out to help Hope up. They walked side by side up the stairs, and Kelley opened the door to her room, remaining in the doorway and gesturing around the small space.
“Make yourself at home, I’m just going to crash downstairs.” She hesitated for a second, and in that hesitation Hope let her hands brush softly against her waist, pulling them closer. Her mouth curled up at the corners as she looked down at Kelley, and then she leaned in and did her best to kiss her breath away.
And maybe it was the alcohol, or the proximity to a mattress, or just the fact that she’d had all day to drink in how fucking gorgeous Kelley was — but all of a sudden, Hope had absolutely no intention of controlling herself.
She walked Kelley back into the doorjamb, kissing her deeper and tightening her grip on the smaller girl’s ribcage. She could feel the slight trembling, the low moan that stuck somewhere in Kelley’s rib cage, and then there were hands pushing her shirt aside, nails scraping against her back, and Hope was damn sure she was going to lose her mind.
They were in bed and Kelley was on top of her and her mouth was on Hope’s throat before she really had enough time to process it. She did her best to keep up, because Kelley set a pace that was also faster and more starved than she had ever expected. Hope did her best, sliding both hands down the back of Kelley’s thighs and tugging her closer, arching her back up and rolling her hips. Kelley made a small sound, something between a whimper and a groan, her breath coming out fast. And then, just as quickly, she pulled away, hands pressing Hope’s shoulders further into the bed.
“I’m not the type to give it up on the first date,” she said, with a shit-eating grin and a hokey Southern accent that told Hope she was exactly the type of girl to give it up on the first date. But something in the way that Kelley leaned down to kiss her, slower and more purposeful, made Hope’s chest swell. They spent the rest of the night wrapped up in each other, talking quietly.
“Did you ever expect that we would just fit this well?” Kelley mumbled between kisses, and Hope smiled, her lips finding purchase in the soft space between her cheek and her jaw.
“I don’t think I could’ve expected anything about you,” Hope responded. “Not a thing."
The next morning, Kelley drove Hope to the airport. She clung to her hands as they stood outside of security, studying Hope’s face carefully.
“What are you doing?” Hope asked, closing the distance between them to press a kiss to her forehead.
“Remembering.” Kelley looked more carefully. “Don’t want to forget anything about you.”
“I’ll be back.” She kissed her again, a little deeper, slipping out of Kelley’s grip to slide her hands to the small of Kelley’s back. “Promise.”
“Okay,” Kelley whispered, eyes wide, a little scared. “I love you.”
“I love you.” Hope kissed her again, and again. “I love you, and I’m coming back, and those are promises I won’t break.”
Kelley stumbled back through the front door of her house an hour later. She walked straight into the living room, which was filled with the rest of her housemates, who looked as though they’d been waiting for her to come back. Sydney raised her eyebrows, sitting up straight with a smirk on her face. Tobin just crossed her legs and leaned back, as if she was waiting for Kelley to explain. Christen’s heel tapped on the floor in excitement.
“Hi.” Sydney’s voice turned up at the end, and Kelley grinned.
“Hello.” She moved past them into the kitchen, grabbing a mug and filling it with coffee before coming back into the living room. “How are your mornings?”
“So Hope is hot.” Kelley spat out her first swallow of the coffee. “Like, really hot.”
“Yeah.” She wiped her mouth. “Yeah, she’s— yeah.”
“What happened?” Tobin asked, and Kelley opened her mouth, and then closed it, because she was completely unsure of what had happened or what was happening and she felt, well— lost, but in the best sense of the word.
“I met my soulmate,” she finally said after too many beats of silence. She looked up at Tobin, then Sydney, her smile spreading wide, and then Sydney started laughing, and Tobin followed, and then Kelley let herself laugh too because God this was the best and the biggest feeling in the world.
Hope called Carli from the airport. It seemed like the right thing to do, seeing that in the past three days she had ignored about 17 calls from her best friend. She had wanted to pick up, really, but every time she thought about the questions that Carli would ask and that she would have to answer, she shied from the phone. Give it time, she thought. But now, it was time to start facing the questions.
“Hope,” Carli hissed the second she picked up. “Where the hell have you been? Jerramy called me, like, a hundred times.”
She sucked in a breath, reminding herself that the bite in her best friend’s voice came from concern, not anger, not matter what it sounded like.
“I’m in California.” Hope paused. “Kelley just dropped me off at the airport, I’m on my way back to North Carolina now.”
“You’re— Kelley?” She wasn’t one to yell, but Carli’s voice cracked as it rose an octave. “You went to see Kelley?”
“Yes.” And Hope couldn’t help but smile as she told Carli her plan — that her trip back to North Carolina was the last one for awhile, that she was going to talk to her boss and pull strings and find a new job in Palo Alto, that she would tell Jerramy the truth and be as gentle as she could.
“You’re insane,” Carli muttered, and she could hear her friend’s smile from here. “You’re insane and I love you and you better buy an apartment with a guest room for me to stay in.”
“I will,” Hope said. “You’ll always be my number one.”
She said goodbye a minute later as a voice boomed over the intercom for her flight. As she slid into her seat, the toll of the last week hit her — five flights and more than a life’s worth of both worry and joy — suddenly struck her. Hope leaned her head against the window, eyes fluttering shut, and within minutes she was fast asleep.
Hope didn’t go home when she landed in Charlotte. Instead, she drove to work, to the brick building that had become her home over so many years. She smoothed a hand through her hair as she walked in, processing the fact that she also hadn’t showered since she fled to Seattle. It didn’t matter, she figured, because there isn’t much of a dress code for quitting your dream job.
Her boss, Stacy, looked surprised when Hope walked into her office, eyes nervously flickering around the room as she picked at one of her cuticles.
“There you are,” she said, smiling. “I had wondered what you were up to. Did you and Jerramy have a nice trip?”
“We really need to talk,” Hope responded bluntly, clasping her hands. Stacy watched her with a measured gaze, gesturing towards a chair.
“What’s up?” Stacy asked, and Hope laughed slightly, because God if that wasn’t a loaded question.
“I’m moving to California,” she said. “As soon as I can, tomorrow if possible.”
“California?” Stacy watched her carefully, eyes narrowed slightly. “Go on.”
“Jerramy asked me to marry him, and I panicked because— because I already had my soulmate, and it wasn’t him.” She looked surprised at that.
“I always assumed—“
“He wasn’t.” Hope sighed. “He was great, but she— my actual person is something else. I’d never met her before yesterday and now I can’t imagine anything but a life with her, and I haven’t even told him yet but I— I have to go. I have to go be with her.”
“In California?” She nodded, and Stacy pressed her lips together, a look of resignation on her face. “I understand.”
They sat in silence for a moment, Hope fiddling with a pen that she had mindlessly pulled from a mug on Stacy’s desk, twisting at the cap and then spinning it between her pointer and middle finger.
“Where in California?” She jerked her head up, and Stacy smiled. “If you’re up in NorCal, I might be able to pull some strings, get you something.”
“Are you serious?” Hope’s voice shook with gratitude.
“Of course.” Stacy shrugged. “Who am I to question someone following their fate? Go get your girl. I’ll help you get the rest of your shit together. Just— just promise me you won’t fly out tomorrow. It’ll go much better if you take a little time.”
Hope laughed, nodding in agreement.
“Deal,” she said, and Stacy grinned, the type of smile she reserved for special occasions, and it was all Hope could do to keep from standing up and hugging her.
The final confrontation of her homecoming was, of course, the worst.
Saved the best for last, she thought bitterly as she pulled into her driveway— into Jerramy’s driveway, wheels bumping over the little dip that she was so used to. She closed her eyes as she switched off the ignition, resting her forehead on the wheel, exhaustion seeping into her bones for a moment. Then she took a deep breath and swung open the door, fingers brushing against the sharp edge of the engagement ring as she tugged her house key out of her pocket.
Jerramy was on the couch, watching football with a blank face, a beer in his hand. The look in his eyes was many things as he glanced up at her — gentle and resigned and just plain tired — and he leaned over, flicking the TV off.
“Hey,” he said, voice low, soft. And she marveled at this, because with his broad shoulders and his dark features, Jerramy often seemed like the type of man to be intimidating, frightening — she remembered, suddenly and fondly, the time that a drunk guy at a bar made a rude comment and Jerramy hovered over him, glowering until he earned a stuttering apology — but with Hope he was soft at the edges, never quick to anger.
“Hi.” Hope slid into the space next to him. “Can we talk?”
He nodded, and for a moment she said nothing. Her thumb rubbed against the curve of the engagement ring, and finally she reached out, holding it up in her palm like an offering.
“I can’t take this, Jerramy,” she whispered. The look on his face was that of a heart that had already been broken. He’d known when she left that she wouldn’t be coming back.
“You went to see her, didn’t you?” he asked. She looked down at her hands, too guilty to answer, and they sat in silence. “What was she like?”
“She was—“ Hope’s voice cracked. “Jerramy, there’s nothing you could’ve done differently. You two are, you’re polar opposites, and nothing about what’s right with her has anything to do with you, or what you did wrong, because you didn’t do anything wrong—“
“Hope.” He caught her by the shoulders, and she forced herself to meet his eyes. “It’s okay.”
And finally, finally Hope let herself cry, the tears coming thick and heavy, filling her chest with something white-hot. He pulled her tighter, tugging her into his chest, one hand in her hair.
“I love you and I don’t—“ She choked on her words. “You’re my best friend and I don’t want to lose you.”
“Hope, I never had you.” His voice was soft and it cracked her to the core. “You know that. And in some way, you never had me either. You could never give all of yourself.”
“I love you.” She sounded weaker than she could ever remember herself being.
“I know.” He didn’t say it back, and that silence was deafening. “I know.”
Jerramy bought her a hotel room, a nice four-star suite for the next two weeks while she figured her future out. He offered to call a few friends who lived in the Bay Area, to help with finding an apartment or a job, but Hope refused, knowing that he was doing this out of duty, not out of his own accord. He smiled weakly when she packed her clothes into suitcases.
“I’ll be back for the rest,” she said, glancing around the living room as she leaned against the largest suitcase. “I can box it up sometime when you’re at work.”
He nodded. Words seemed too painful, too tangible for both of them. Jerramy hugged her goodbye, and something about that motion felt final.
“So I need to ask you something.” Hope was sprawled across the queen-sized hotel bed a week later, the phone tucked up next to her ear. She could hear Tobin yelling at something in the background as Kelley jogged up the stairs to her room, followed by a loud thump and a stream of curses. “Did you just fall up the stairs?”
“No, I didn’t— it doesn’t matter, okay?” She could now hear Tobin’s laugh, high and clear in the background, which she was fairly certain answered her question. “Was that your question?”
“No, it wasn’t.” Hope paused. “How would you feel if I bought an apartment in Palo Alto and started a new job there?”
“I would say you’re crazy, and the housing market is ridiculous, and you love your job in North Carolina and you’d be an idiot to do any of that.” She could hear Kelley smiling. “Please tell me you’re not about to—“
“I already put a down payment on the apartment,” Hope cut her off. “My flight is scheduled for— let me check, next Tuesday. And I’m shipping out my stuff in two days.”
“You’re insane.” Hope knew that the shouting was coming, but she still couldn’t help but smile as Kelley’s voice rose. Somehow, it was even better now that she could imagine Kelley bouncing around her bedroom, hair slightly messy and smile sloppy. “You are insane!”
“Yeah, well, get used to it.” She rolled over onto her back, grinning. “Give it a few weeks and you’ll never be able to get away from me.”
The apartment was small. Small enough that even Kelley commented on it in her own way — she glanced around and muttered “Not very many places for us to have wild sex on” with a wink as Hope rolled her eyes — the first time that she visited. After about two minutes, she turned towards Hope, hands on her hips.
“This looks like something out of American Psycho.” She waved her arms at the apartment, which was sparsely filled with a few half-packed boxes. “Why is it so bare?”
Hope shrugged. Most of the furnishings at Jerramy's had belonged to him before she moved in, and she hadn't had the heart to take much more than her books and her art materials to California.
"That's it." Kelley grabbed her by the waist, pressing a quick kiss to her mouth too quickly for Hope to even react. "We're going shopping."
And so Kelley filled her apartment with a life that belonged to the both of them. They bought mismatched plates and bowls because they couldn't agree on which ones were best, and an oversized white couch which caused Hope to raise her eyebrows dangerously every time Kelley tried to sit down with wine in her hand. Kelley strung lights above her bed and covered it in a quilt and an array of patterned pillows. Hope built a set of bookshelves one day, and the second-to-the-top one wasn't quite weight bearing — "It will come crashing down in the middle of the night and make you think there's a murderer in here, you realize that right?" Kelley asked, pressing her palm against the wood to test it — but she filled the rest of the shelves with books and pictures.
"Hey, I got this for you," Kelley said one day, unwrapping the newspaper surrounding a small black picture frame. "Mom sent it from home."
Hope took the picture in her hands, smiling. It was a picture of Kelley when she was ten, sitting on a swing in her backyard in Georgia, hands wrapped tightly around the chain, laughing at something outside of the frame.
"It's our first picture together." Kelley put her chin on Hope's shoulder, reaching around to point. "See?"
And now Hope could see — her own handwriting covered the space on the inside of Kelley's left wrist, dark and sloppy against her tan skin.
"Oh my God," she murmured, and she turned her head to catch a kiss, then turning her whole body, setting the frame down and wrapping her arms around Kelley's back.
"Even back then, I knew it was you," Kelley murmured, her mouth sweet and soft against Hope's. "Knew I'd trick you into staying with me."
"Jury's still out on that," Hope smirked, and Kelley hit her arm a little too hard, back away with her mouth hung agape in mock shock.
(she put the picture on her desk, where she spent most of her time, and in moments when she felt particularly uninspired she glanced at it for reaffirmation in fate and the future and inevitability)
She'd found a job with a local PR firm that mainly dealt with clients in Silicon Valley. It was a little more dry than what she was used to, and her office was, of course, unreasonably small. But the office served free coffee that was mostly drinkable, and her coworkers laughed at most of her jokes and always insisted on grabbing drinks after work, and she found herself slipping further and further into a state of contented happiness.
Hope learned a lot about Kelley. She learned that the girl was addicted to coffee, expensive coffee, and that most of their weekend plans revolved around finding new shops. She also learned that she loved to wake up to insistent texts — "I need brunch. Now. I'm coming over. No argument." — and the sight of a sleepy Kelley shoving her door open and pushing her down onto the couch, arms wrapping around her waist and head pressing into the curve of her neck as she growled about how badly she needed bacon and pancakes and coffee.
She learned that sorority invites were not her scene after Kelley threw up on the bus on the way to the venue, forcing Hope to call an Uber and take them back home, where they watched Harry Potter and ate popcorn for hours, Hope stroking Kelley's hair as the smaller girl told her all the ways that she loved her. She learned that she did, however, love tailgates, although not as much as Kelley, who wore the same oversized jersey every week and drank beer so enthusiastically that she was sure it was part of body composition at this point. But with an arm around Kelley's shoulders and a beer in her hand, the air crisp with a bite of fall, she remembered bits of what she missed about college.
She also learned that Kelley was really, really fucking smart. The type of smart that freaked her out a little, especially when Kelley studied at her apartment, books spread across the table, gnawing at her pen and talking to herself as she carefully solved equations in almost perfect, all-caps letters.
(Hope couldn't help but find the sight adorable, often leaning down to press a kiss to the back of her neck or the curve of her jaw as she walked past, and that often led to tugging her away from the desk and lifting her onto the table, which didn't result in much studying and quickly became the catalyst for Kelley to do her studying at the library)
Kelley didn't move in with Hope, which was the best possible decision because although she practically lived in the tiny apartment, they both had places to go, ways to keep their lives separate even when they attempted to spend every free waking second together.
Hope also learned about Alex, a month after she moved to Palo Alto. They had taken a trip to San Francisco, and they were walking to a theatre after a two-hour long boozy brunch in which Kelley drank at least two bottles of champagne on her own. Kelley had, on a whim, bought a bouquet of tulips, which she tucked into one arm as she tugged at Hope's arm with her other hand. Hope had just looked down at her, laughed at some joke and kissed her — soft and sweet, like always, a kiss that felt like a smile — and then Kelley looked up and saw her.
Alex looked slightly stricken, clinging to her shopping bags with one hand — Brandy Melville and Tori Burch, one of those strange, unnecessarily expensive shopping sprees that she insisted on making at least once a week — with a friend at her side. She opened her mouth, then closed it, pressing her lips into a straight line. They had to talk, now that they had seen one another, but there was an air of awkwardness that quickly drove them apart, Hope shifting at Kelley's shoulder.
"Are you happy?" Alex asked bluntly, and her answer came in the way that Kelley looked up at Hope.
(a year later, Alex had called Kelley, her voice rushed as she thanked her for helping her realize that she needed to trust the future, because now a boy with dark hair and a crooked smile had stolen her heart and she didn't even want it back. Kelley asked the same question — "Are you happy?" — and her answer came in the form of a laugh, and Kelley laughed too, because life was strange sometimes but mostly it was beautiful.)
If there was anything that Kelley marveled at, it was her patience. She sat through three different Sydney break ups, leaving only to buy alcohol and pizza, staying up even longer than Kelley to listen to the girl drunkenly rant late into the night. When Kelley took her home to visit her family, Hope bought wine and washed the dishes and watched football with Jerry and talked easily with her parents. She drove Tobin to the hospital when she broke her ankle and Kelley had turned her phone off to study for a test, and she bought Christen a cup of coffee and threatened to throw her off a parking structure when the younger girl almost broke up with Tobin after their first fight.
And she was most patient when Kelley straddled her on the couch, kissing her throat and letting her hands wander, but not too far. Because God did they have chemistry, and God did their bodies fit together like matching puzzle pieces, but something in both of them held back whenever clothes came off and kisses lingered long.
Until, suddenly, it had been far too long for Kelley.
It was strange what kicked it off — they were cooking lunch together, or more Kelley was cooking while Hope made them both coffee and picked the perfect music for the mood. She had just turned on Iron & Wine, and she said something that made Kelley laugh, and they both paused to look at each other and Kelley just— she knew what she wanted and she was sick of holding back.
The next moment, she had pushed Hope not-so-gently back into her chair, tumbling on top of her and kissing her breathlessly. It took Hope awhile to realize what Kelley wanted, but when Kelley had pulled off her shirt and moved her hands down to her waistband, she suddenly grabbed at her wrists, pulling back.
"Are you—" Kelley cut her off with a kiss.
"Hope, I want you, please—" She stopped to kiss her again, and Hope answered her with a hand at the nape of her neck and another tugging at her shirt, soft and insistent. A moment later she pushed Kelley off of her, only to push her back into the counter with a grin.
"You know, beds were made for a reason..." Kelley shoved her backwards without another word, tugging her towards the bed. She removed the rest of Hope's clothes almost too quickly — the next time, she thought to herself, she would take her time, trace every line of Hope's body — and then she had her pinned to the mattress with her mouth tasting her skin and she thought she was going to lose her goddamn mind.
Hope breathed out her name and it pushed her over the edge and their first time was rushed and desperate and both of them loved every single second of it. Hope quickly learned that Kelley was the type who was not easily quenched, the type who pushed her into the alley behind a bar to slide hands down the front of her pants, who woke her in the middle of the night with kisses placed purposefully across her collarbone, who frenetically memorized every expanse of Hope's skin.
"You're really too good at this," she gasped one time as Kelley pressed her fingers just there, nipping lightly at her earlobe. She could feel the smirk that her praise gained, and she rolled her eyes as Kelley began to laugh against her throat. "Shut up, you idiot, and fuck me."
Life together was everything they had ever hoped it would be.
Hope wore a blue dress on Kelley's graduation day and Kelley, like always, gave her hell for it.
"Couldn't drop the Carolina blue even for today?" she quipped when she climbed into Hope's car, giving her a once-over that had to do with a lot of things besides the color of her dress. Hope glanced down at herself and blushed.
"I didn't even think—" Kelley cut her off with a kiss and Hope smiled, watching her eyes carefully. "You ready to be an adult now?"
"No." Kelley faced forward, fingers gripping her knees, smoothing down her black dress. "But I'm ready to fail spectacularly."
Kelley graduated and Hope cried, a fact that she denied vehemently in the following week of parties. She graduated and Hope realized, in a single breath, that the rest of their life together was about to start.
Hope found Kelley after the ceremony, in her black robes and red stole, holding the end of one of the red balloons strung at the end of every aisle of students and kicking one feet into the grass. She was alone, her brow furrowed, and for a moment Hope just watched. Then she crossed the space, coming to stand at Kelley's shoulder, looking down at her.
"Hey, you." Kelley looked up and smiled at her, hooking their arms together. "What are you thinking about?"
And as Kelley looked at Hope, she didn't know what to say.
She was thinking about the story she'd been told so often, of the little girl on the porch in the soft twilight of a Georgia summer, of a drawing that unknowingly began to weave her future together in shaky sketches across her skin. She was thinking about little hearts drawn on her wrists and her ankles, about the day the writing started and stopped and started again. She was thinking about the way Hope paused in the moment they first saw each other, how she stood still as if the breath had been knocked clean out of her.
She was thinking about Hope.
"I just—" Kelley leaned her head against Hope's shoulder. "All my life, I feel like I was just waiting. Waiting for you to write me back, to call, to come see me, to choose. And now I've just been waiting on this future I imagine for us, this normal future where we're just together, forever."
Kelley looked at the balloon in her hand, stark red with a white ribbon. She let it go, smiling as the balloon drifted higher, standing out blood-red against the blue of the sky.
"I'm ready to stop waiting and start living," she said.
And there are a lot of things that could be said about the rest of their years together — about their wedding, Marcus and Carli and Tobin and Christen at their sides; about the two boys they raised; about the house they bought eventually, small with a sprawling property dotted with trees and a pond. There are so many words and so many stories tied up in a love of a lifetime, in the uncountable seconds spent loving each other purely and wholly.
But all that you really need to know about Hope and Kelley came down to this moment.
Hope put her arm around Kelley, and the smaller girl reached up to hold her hand. They watched the red dot in the sky until it faded away, too small for their vision. They stood in silence, loved in silence, understanding of one another with every breath and heartbeat.
And then, wordlessly, Hope turned and Kelley took her hand. And together, they walked home, hand-in-hand, a childhood behind them and a lifetime ahead.