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poison and wine

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Kelley first met her soulmate when she was six months old.

She didn’t remember it, of course, and for the rest of her childhood it would be a constant nagging regret, that she couldn’t quite hold onto that memory, that it slipped away with all the other firsts — the first gasp of breath, the first bite of food, the first wobbling step.

Her mother was cradling her close to her chest, rocking the two of them with one foot on the porch swing in the back of their house, watching an evening rainstorm blow in. The air was hot and heavy with humidity. Erin was sprawled on the floor next to her, a grubby fist wrapped around an orange crayon, filling in a technicolor piece of paper that vaguely resembled its original form as a princess coloring book.

“Look, Er—“ Karen’s voice was excitable, cutting through the nighttime quiet, and the little girl jerked her head upwards, scrambling to her feet and clambering up and into the swing next to her mother. She cocked her head, surveying the light pink skin of her little sister, eyeing where her mother was pointing.

“She’s got the drawing too,” Erin said, her voice soft with wonder. Karen nodded, smoothing her finger over the doodles appearing on Kelley’s skin. Tiny hearts, blossoming into swirling, nonsensical patterns across one tiny kneecap. Karen’s smile grew as she watched the drawing stop. She was tempted to pick up a pen, to write something back — a thank you, perhaps — but she had no idea where this mystery person was or how old they were or if they were even ready to receive anything back yet.

Besides, that was Kelley’s role. To write, to receive. She had all the time in the world.

So instead, Karen pulled a pen out of her own pocket, pressing the ink into the curve just below her elbow, careful not to let it smudge with the sweat of a Georgia summer. She only wrote three words.

“Kelley found hers.”

Dan was downstairs in seconds, Karen’s handwriting fresh on the curve of his arm.

“He's already alive?” He crouched next to Karen and Erin, flashing a smile at both of them as he wrapped his arm around his wife’s torso and peered down at his daughter. His smile faltered slightly at the sketches. “It looks like a girl’s drawing.”

“Oh, who cares.” Karen beamed at her daughter. “She’s already found her. Will you look at that.”

***

Of course, it was a few years before Hope found the same. And a little different.

She woke up the morning of her eleventh birthday to a scrawled smiley face on her wrist. She slammed down the stairs, tossed open her brother’s door and pulled his sheets back.

“What did you do?” Her voice was squeaky in the morning and she hated it, because she was trying to sound tough — and look tough, her fists clenched at her side — but the whole Mickey Mouse early morning voice thing was ruining it completely. Marcus just raised an eyebrow at her, glaring back.

“What do you mean, what’d I do?” He shoved her with one foot. “Get out of my room.”

“You drew on my wrist and I can’t get it off.” Hope shoved the aforementioned wrist in front of his face. “Get it off.”

“I didn’t— What do you mean you can’t get it off?” Marcus sat up in bed, grabbing her wrist and rubbing at the skin, which was red and raw already and smelled vaguely of soap. “Have you tried everything?”

She nodded vigorously, then winced, tugging the wrist back from him.

“You found your person.” Marcus sat up on his knees in bed, his eyes dark with excitement. “Hope, you found your person.”

“What are you talking about?” She wanted to believe that Marcus was just messing with her, but the mystery of this unerasable ink and the strange sense of excitement filling her brother somehow froze Hope in place. “You mean like in the movies and stuff? That doesn’t—"

“You found your person, I’m telling you.” Marcus hopped out of bed and closed the door, then rolled up his sleeve. “You promise not to tell mom and dad?”

Hope nodded, then watched as Marcus pulled out a pen and wrote quickly across his wrist — “Jenny, you up yet?”

After several minutes, Hope could see — no, that wasn’t possible. Marcus erased the ink on his arm as several other letters formed themselves.

“Hey bud.”

“You have a soulmate?” Hope’s voice was strangled as she grabbed Marcus’ arm, examining the script, running her finger across the ink. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why do you think?” Marcus looked at her, eyebrows raised again, but his eyes were more gentle now, more understanding. Hope knew why.

Because their parents spoke in low, bickering tones and her father spent most nights on the couch, not sharing their bed. Because when they looked at each other, it was with annoyance or resentment or dread or perhaps even guilt, regret, mourning, when they thought the other was looking away. Because when her mother absentmindedly drew a small series of circle, each one smaller than the next, on the inside of her palm, her father’s palm remained bare, empty.

Because their parents weren’t soulmates.

She had always assumed this meant that not everyone had a soulmate, that only the lucky few were selected to see the ink that spilled on the skin of their perfect person reflected on their own skin. But here she was, with a smiley face that grinned up at her like a question, like a new beginning. Hope cradled her wrist lightly.

Hope left and went to her room. She sat on her bed, tracing the outline of the ink with one finger, trying to memorize each curve of each line. It was poorly drawn, done either quickly or by an inexperienced hand. There was so much she wanted to say, to ask, to know. She picked up a pen and balanced it, pulling off the cap and then smashing it back on. Finally, she opted for a simple message, the simplest she could think of.

“Hi, I’m Hope.”

She wrote it beneath the smiley face in blunt block letters, careful that each letter stood out plainly against her skin. It didn’t occur to her that, perhaps, this person didn’t speak English or didn’t know how to read or wasn’t even expecting a reply. In the minutes, then hours, that came afterwards, however, she mulled over each of these possibilities in her mind, trying to pretend she wasn’t worried, trying to pretend she wasn’t desperate for a response.

Finally, Hope pulled on a sweatshirt in the blazing July heat and forced herself to keep her eyes away from her skin. It wasn’t until that night, sweat sticking to the back of her neck and fingers twitching at the corners of her sleeves, that she allowed herself another glance at her arm.

She wasn’t disappointed.

Another wobbly smiley face, smaller and this time outfitted with a nose and eyebrows, decorated the inside of her arm. Hope studied it, and she recognized the uncertainty of the lines, as if the artist in question held the pen balled up in a fist. Her soulmate was clearly younger, much younger than she had perhaps expected, although this made more sense seeing that they’d never had contact before.

That was okay, she decided. Hope laid on her back, one arm crossed behind her head, the other hovering before her eyes for a more dedicated studying of the drawing. She could wait.

***

Kelley wanted to grow up fast.

By age four she was tired of staring at the script that blossomed on her wrists, her kneecaps, the space between her thumb and her pinky finger, and not knowing what Hope was saying. Of course her mother was always patient, reading the daily messages aloud, smiling at the politeness of the mystery girl on the other side of the pen. But Kelley was tired of not being able to say anything back, of chewing on the tip of a pen before drawing a smile or a flower or a crooked little heart as a way of letting Hope know that she was here, she wasn’t going anywhere, she was trying her best to be what she wanted.

She was four and she was already craving the affection of a girl who was fast becoming a woman, something that was rapidly becoming more and more intimidating by the second.

Hope’s messages were alway polite, written in block lettering that seemed almost jagged at the edges, and always starting the same — “Hi, it’s Hope” — as if she perhaps had forgotten who it was, could possibly forget that somewhere the other half of her heart was living a normal life, riding her bike and eating pancakes on the weekends and going to school when the sun rose every day.

“It’s warm here today,” she said on a particularly hot Georgia afternoon, and Kelley wondered where “here” was, when she would get to know what “here” looked like, smelled like, felt like, whether “warm” was a relative word, whether Hope lived in Antartica with penguins and “warm” meant that a little ice was melting, or whether she lived in Africa with zebras and lions and “warm” meant the skin on her nose felt like it was frying off.

“I don’t want to go back to school really,” she said, and Kelley wondered if Hope was good at school, if she dragged home backpacks filled with library books like Erin did, if she could write in cursive and add up numbers and then take them away again, or if she was like Jerry, who pretended to be sick three days a week and always complained over breakfast and acted as if the yellow bus that came each morning was an alien ship about to abduct him, racing around the living room and shouting for Kelley to duck down, staying out of the sight of the aliens.

“I’m sad today,” she said, and Kelley wondered at this the most, because she never really felt sadness for more than a glistening moment or two, because her dad was always there to scoop her up and her mother’s hands were almost as gentle as her voice, and there was always a scoop of ice cream or a trip down to the lake awaiting the end of a spell of crying or a minor fight between the siblings. Her mother, upon reading the words out loud, stared at them, puzzled and perhaps concerned.

“What do I draw back?” Kelley asked, and Karen gnawed at her lip for a moment.

“How about a heart, sweetie.” She nodded, wrapping her fingers around the pen she always kept close by, and she drew back a heart, her favorite shape for Hope. There wasn’t a response, no more words for today, but later she found another heart, much smaller and much less lopsided, drawn next to hers. That was, it seemed, enough for today.

***

Hope never knows what to say. She’s supposed to know, she thinks, but she doesn’t. She’s 12 and she’s lost and she’s lonely and she’s tired — like, exhausted, heavy tired, the type of nauseating feeling that makes her want to slump down and close her eyes wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, rather than sit in a classroom or a bedroom or a living room or any room day in and day out — and she has a soulmate but damn this girl is useless.

Which is to be expected because she’s literally a child, and she doesn’t know how to write yet and that’s fine, it really is. But what is Hope supposed to say? She has so much that she wants to tell someone, to tell anyone, and this is where she — her soulmate, stupid as that sounds that’s all she can call her seeing that the girl can’t even write her own name back — should be coming in handy right now.

And it’s not fair because Marcus has his girl, who is smart and funny and always happy to talk and actually the same age as her brother, and who now texts Marcus instead of taking to the cumbersome method of writing and wiping away ink.

She still remembers that day, remembers Marcus bounding into her room, holding his arm aloft, a grin splitting his face wide open.

“I got her number!” He waved it in front of her, whooping and hollering, as if he’d actually asked a girl out, not asked his future wife to take another step in their predetermined direction. Hope had smiled, but it was tinged at the edge with something that tasted like jealousy, only slightly calmed when she looked down to see another heart, this time a little less uneven, drawn just above her kneecap.

She just had to wait. If she waited, it would be worth it.

In the meantime, she bided her time by leaving little messages, mostly inane and pointless and honestly rather stupid, but nonetheless important because they always resulted in a response, however poorly drawn.

This is enough for now.

***

Karen and Dan send Kelley to Montessori school. On her first day, dressed in light blue coveralls and a faded purple polo, she stares up at her teacher and announces that she needs to learn how to write. She’s greeted with a smile and a laugh and a question that she comes to resent — “Why?” — because she’s wanted to write for, well, for as long as she can remember. For as long as she’s known Hope, or tried to know Hope through scribbles she didn’t understand and haphazard drawings that couldn’t even attempt to contain her excitement and curiosity. So she shrugs in response.

She learns the letters quickly, in a week, and it’s several more weeks until the reading begins to click, until she can sound out the basic words written on the board from her seat at the front of the class — “cat” and “cow” and “mom” and “dad.”

In her fourth week of class, she sticks one hand, still sticky from a pudding pack at lunch that had not opened as expected, in the air and holds it there, impatiently, until she’s called on.

“How do you spell Hope?” she asks, and there’s that slightly condescending amusement from the teacher again, who writes the word with a lowercase ‘h,’ who assumes that Kelley meant a noun and not a name, who praises Kelley for asking about something so closely tied to faith, who doesn’t understand that Kelley does have faith but in a person not a religion.

But still, when Kelley sees that word — hope — written on the board, nearly identical to the word that embellished her skin every day, Kelley can’t help but smile, her grin wide, her eyes focused on the curve of the ‘h’ and the ‘o’ and the ‘p,’ excitement filling her chest and making her whole body feel like a rubber band stretched tight, ready to snap.

She runs to her mother at the end of the day, half-leaping into her arms and begging for a pen, for anything to write with. When Karen digs out an old ballpoint from the glovebox, she clicks it on, pulling up one sleeve and sticking her tongue out slightly through the gap of a missing tooth. Her curves lack the grace of her teacher’s writing and the definitiveness of Hope’s penmanship, but the words are legible as she prints them, large and unruly, across her leg.

“Hi Hope.”

Kelley looks up, freckled nose scrunched with pride, and Karen kisses the top of her head.

“Good job, honey,” she murmurs, and the two of them watch for a moment, waiting for something, anything, in response. Finally, Karen twists the keys in the ignition and starts them on their way home, keeping one hand on Kelley’s head, fingers tousling her daughter’s hair as the girl stares at her thigh, all the impatience of a four-year-old bundled up in a knot of excited waiting.

***

Hope slams her door shut, running both hands through her hair. Her dad forgot to pick her up again, meaning that she walked the three miles home and now has only ten minutes to change before jogging another two miles to practice. The exhaustion weighs even heavier now, pressing down with a weight just behind her eyes, and she strips down to nothing in a fog.

One foot gets stuck in her shorts as she pulls them on, and she curses, tugging and then tripping, resting back on her bed to yank the waistband the rest of the way up. And that’s when she sees it.

The writing is horrible and the ‘i’ looks like it’s falling over, the dot just hovering there in space, but there are words, there are actual words written on her leg in the scrawling writing of someone who is just learning how to write. Hope can barely breathe as she scrambles across her bed, knocking a textbook to the ground as she digs a pen out of the bottom of her backpack, tossing the cap aside and pressing the tip into her leg hard enough to bruise.

“Hi.” She pauses, unsure of what to say, what to ask, where to go. Her mind is racing with a million questions, a million possibilities, but then she remembers how little she knows and how much time she has and how much she wants and she decides to just start at, well, the start. “What’s your name?”

It’s minutes later, and Hope has forgotten entirely about putting on her clothes or going to practice, instead content to analyze every single mismatched letter.

The writing starts and stops and it’s sloppy but it finally spells out a word, a name, and Hope feels something that is whole and rich and not at all exhausted blossoming in her chest.

“Kelley."

Chapter Text

In some ways, Hope raises Kelley.

Not that she needs it. From what Hope can glean from the snippets of conversation — which are quite stunted in the early years due to general issues of learning grammar and vocabulary — Kelley belongs to one of those golden families where the children's smiles are perfectly white and Dad wears a tie to work every day and the mom is an expert at baking and wrangling PTA meetings. She doesn't quite mean to resent it, but she can't help but feel a slight tug at her chest when Kelley mentions their family Halloween parties or weekly trips to church.

So she gives Kelley what she can. She gives her what she wished she'd known as a kid, tells her what to read and what to watch, who to sit next to in elementary school to avoid being picked on, how to cheat on a spelling test without getting caught. She's there for the first time Kelley gets all the way through a Harry Potter book, and she stays up half a night writing back and forth, struggling not to ruin six more books' worth of plot line for the little girl scrawling excited misspelled words across her arm.

In first grade they discover that Kelley loves math, a proclamation that is made rather suddenly after she writes an equation on her arm in the mid-afternoon.

2+2=

She leaves it blank and, when Hope doesn't respond, scribbles a small question mark below the equation, then another one above it.

"Need help?" Hope writes back, and she gets a checkmark in response — their own way of quickly saying yes or no — before she writes in the answer. Kelley erases the equation and replaces it with a question.

"Why?" She stares at that question, unsure of what to say, because it's math, it's just math, and of course leave it to Kelley to question the basic building block for the science that holds together the universe.

"It just is," she responds. She sees Kelley erasing her question, the ink fading from her skin, so she does the same, leaving her arm a blank slate.

"I love that." Hope grins. She's not sure why, but she can't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

In many ways, Kelley spends her childhood chasing Hope, asking Hope what she should do, what sports to play and what clubs to join. Hope tells her to avoid softball unless she wants to get hit in the face with a bat during her second practice and lose two teeth along the way. Instead, she tells her to give soccer a try.

(technically, it's another try. Kelley played her first soccer at age four, but she sat down in the grass after a few minutes and began plucking at clovers. On the drive home, her dad asked if she had fun. She said no. They didn't come back for a second game.)

Before Kelley's second try at a first soccer game, Hope tells her to avoid the big scrum of players around the ball and wait on the outside, then to use small kicks to move it so she can keep it under control. Kelley is six and doesn't really get it, instead throwing herself into the middle of that scrum and kicking wildly at the ball, but she's faster than the rest of the herd and therefore secures an upper hand. She scores three goals, and with her mouth still tasting of orange slices she excitedly tells Hope about it as well as she can, her pen markings trailing from the top of her knee to the slight curve of her bony hip.

Hope's response is short — "Good job." — but it's followed by a smiley face and a drawing of a soccer ball, then of two stick figures chasing after the ball. Hope labels one as herself, and one as Kelley.

"We can play someday," she adds at the bottom, and Kelley grins even wider at that.

Kelley always asks her the same thing — "Are you good at soccer?" — and with each passing year that answer changes. "I'm not bad" becomes "I'm pretty good" and somehow turns into "The college scouts are coming today" and finally lands at "I committed to North Carolina" and there's something hopeful to Kelley about knowing the general location that Hope will be in once a year and a half has flown by. She looks up a map of the United States and finds North Carolina, then looks again and finds Chapel Hill. It doesn't seem too far, she thinks, and the world feels a little smaller, a little safer.

She’s a quick learner. She really is. Hope is amazed every day to see the way the letters begin to reshape themselves, the way Kelley’s thoughts grow, the way they move from one word responses scrawled in massive letters to a smaller jumble of words.

But at the base of it all, Kelley is seven and Hope is fifteen, and sometimes she thinks her world is crashing down on her, and sometimes she wishes she could deal with that world without Kelley.

It has something to do with the fact that her dad has just stopped coming around, period. He used to haphazardly live in the house, although he slept on the couch in the basement and sometimes left for days or weeks at a time. But now the man who used to lift Hope on his shoulders so she could see over crowds is missing in action. She asks Marcus where he went, but Marcus is practically mute these days, mumbling something that sounds vaguely like swear words under his breath before slamming his way out of the house.

Partly it has to do with the fact that Hope can't seem to make friends, in class or on the soccer field or anywhere, and this bothers her because she's pretty sure she's trying. Trying to be, well, normal. She knows her eyes can be a little sharp, knows her voice can be a little harsh, but she's trying. She doesn't prefer loneliness, doesn't like the window seat at the back of the bus, doesn't like doing her science projects on her own, doesn't want to skip her fourth high school dance in a row. But she does. She doesn't know what else to do.

And it doesn't matter. She hates where she lives, hates the too-small house with the slightly musty smell and the cracked kitchen table and the TV that loses its signal several times a day. Hates the way her mother sits at that table and stares at that TV and doesn't even seem to notice that smell. Hates the way girls at school stand with their shoulders close and their heads hanging low together, their eyes darting around to find amusement in the exterior of someone else's life. Hates how nobody seems to ever leave, how her neighbors are living in the same houses they grew up in, how Marcus doesn't even have a plan for what he'll do after high school even as his graduation looms close, just over the horizon.

She wants to get out.

Kelley, for awhile, feels like "out." She lives in Georgia — that much she knows, although she refuses to share last names or home towns or cell phone numbers until Kelly is a little older — which is far away, far enough away that maybe Hope could leave and never come back.

But after awhile, the complacent perfection of Kelley's life begins to rub against skin in a way that chafes to a point of hurting. It's jealousy, and Hope knows that, and she hates it. But there's something in Kelley's youthful exuberance that she resents, that she covets and detests in the same heartbeat. She begins to grow tired of the daily messages that she's become so used to.

One day, she just stops. She doesn't respond for hours, then for days. It's a full week before she replies, just a simple "Hey Kell" that almost immediately earns a "Hi Hopey" in return. And Hope tries to pretend that she didn't, at least a little, enjoy the quiet.

It doesn’t go away. It just becomes a pattern.

She’s fifteen and she’s tired of Kelley’s doodles and she doesn’t have the heart to say it so she takes to wearing jeans and sweatshirts, covering every possible inch of skin, hoping no one will see that there’s a rather accurate rendition of Winnie The Pooh on the inside of her left leg, in that no-man’s-land between her knee and her thigh.

She’s sixteen and she’s tired of Kelley, of the constant nature of her affection and attention, of the little messages all the time — “Hopey what’s the weather like?” and “Hope I think I’m actually getting good at math” and worst of all just “Hope?” — and one day she grabs a Sharpie and writes “STOP” on her hand. Just like that, all caps, on the back of her hand where it won’t scrub off easily. She doesn’t wipe it off while it’s wet. She lets it dry. She lets it stay. And Kelley stops, not giving a reply, not even the smallest drawing, her eight-year-old silence weighing heavily on Hope for days. Finally, she tries to wash the ink off, first rubbing at it with soap and water, then finally digging in with her nails, sloughing off her own in her attempt to remove every dot of black ink. She replaces it with a single word — “sorry” — but there’s no response. A day later, Hope glances down to see a math problem on the back of her wrist. She fills in the answer with a smile curling her lips, her heart content with accepted forgiveness.

She’s seventeen and she’s tired of waiting on Kelley to grow up, to catch up, to be a true soulmate, because right now it feels like she's in a long distance relationship with an overly attached little sister who likes cartoons a little too much. And as much as she loves sending her recommendations for her favorite books and movies, as much as she loves telling Kelley good morning and good night every day, as much as she desperately needs the random proclamations of love and trust and loyalty that Kelley is always unfailing in providing, she's just— tired. That exhaustion is always there, it's always present, and if Hope is honest she's curious about everything that is supposed to be happening in a typical teenage life.

So she kisses a boy at a party, lets his whiskey-flavored lips replace any guilt that might rise like bile in her throat if her thoughts linger too long on the nine-year-old girl waiting for her somewhere in this world. He's not gentle and he's not tender and he spends too much time sucking at her neck and too little time undressing her, and his hands are scrabbling down her thighs when he pauses, glazed eyes staring with blinking amusement at a patch of skin on her thigh.

"Taking notes?" he asks, and she glances down to see sentences, almost a full paragraph, in neat lettering on her upper thigh, where Kelley prefers to write, where most people will never see. And she pushes the child from her mind, forces a laugh and then drags the boy whose name she can't remember up to her mouth. Because she shouldn't feel guilty that she's kissing someone her own age, shouldn't feel angry and then perplexed and then just tired again when she sits on the edge of her bed in the pre-sunrise haze of an early morning and wonders if she should write to Kelley. To Kelley, who doesn't even understand, on a biological level, what Hope did tonight, not to mention on an emotional level.

She puts the pen down. It's not important, she tells herself. It's not important that she keeps doing it, that the weekends become a parade of different boys and, on occasion, girls. It's not important that she keeps searching for something to fill the small gap in between her third and fourth rib where she always feels hollow, for someone to soften the edges of her intellect and deepen the quiet in her mind. She's searching for something she can't find, and part of her wonders if that's because she's already found it, already found her person, but has to wait.

It becomes a game, a math equation. How long until Kelley might be ready? She assumes that 18 will be the appropriate age, at least for them to meet, even if she will be 26 and in the middle of her young adulthood while Kelley will only be just beginning it. And if she turns eleven in 38 days, then it's only seven years and 38 days. That's not too long, right? That's not unbearable. Not impossible.

Some days, Kelley reminds her of this. She does the math, counts up the days, the minutes, occasionally the seconds until that birthday. Some days, when Hope doesn't respond, doesn't have the words, she just sends her a number and Hope knows what it means. It's a reminder that this number will always be shrinking smaller and smaller, that they are in on a collision course, moving through life separately but still moving ever closer.

She is eighteen. She is lying on her back in the goal. She can't move.

She knows she needs to do something. Anything. There are worried faces hanging above her, but their voices aren't quite clear enough to cut through the fog that is filling her head. The grass is tickling the back of her neck and she can't help but notice how sweaty her palms are inside these gloves. She wonders if she can take them off, but right now that seems like too much effort, especially when she is beginning to feel her knee again and feel the pain and feel the fear that comes with the pain. She lets her eyes close instead.

Kelley hears nothing for a week. Not even the numbers, quiet promises of a future, can do anything. She's ten years old and she's not in love with Hope but she loves Hope as fiercely as she knows to love anything. And maybe that's why she keeps desperately rubbing off the number, adjusting the calculation, counting down the minutes until she'll be enough for Hope, enough that she won't get shut out, enough that the silences will stop.

It's been eight days and then, in the morning, she sees a glimpse of ink on her knee. She looks down excitedly, but it's just a straight line, then another straight line, and somehow it doesn't feel like Hope. Kelley shows her mother, who eyes it curiously, then pulls Dan to look too.

"Those look like surgeon's markings." Dan looks at Kelley. "Honey, is Hope doing okay?"

She shrugs. She doesn't know. Why would she know? She's ten years old and she's learning what it feels like to long for someone. And that is definitely, entirely, wholly why she doesn't stop her desperate messages, why she doesn't give up, why she keeps pressing for Hope's attention even after the week has become a month. She is desperate, but she is desperate without self consciousness, without remorse. She waits, but she is not patient in her waiting, not for a silent second.

Halfway across the country, Hope wraps extra padding onto her crutches and tries not to think about the words "ACL" or "MCL" or "six months of recovery" or "season ending injury" all too much. She tries to tell herself that she still has her scholarship, that this is what the red shirt freshman option was created for, that she has a chance, a shot, that she can get out.

She tries to write to Kelley. She really does. But every time she picks up a pen, she has no clue where to start, no idea how to communicate the idea of her future, her perfectly created future, crumbling in on itself. How does she tell Kelley that she's terrified that she'll never be enough? How does she tell Kelley that she feels like she's cursed, like that black cloud from Kelley's favorite cartoon is following her around constantly. She doesn't know what to tell her, so she stays silent, hoping the words will come, hoping Kelley will understand.

But Hope takes quiet solace in the numbers, the steadily updated countdown on the skin of her right leg, constantly reminding her that at least part of her future is set in stone.

She prays the numbers never stop coming.

Chapter Text

The thing about life is that, despite what she might have expected, it keeps going on even in the silence.

Every day is a tally, a number, and Hope keeps herself occupied with creating lists of what she knows and doesn’t know, rearranging her life into neat compartments that she can control and what she can't.

What she knows:

1. She blew out her ACL and MCL in one smooth motion. When her body hit the ground, hands flying to grab at her knee, the immediate fear for the future drowns out most of the pain ripping through her leg. Most of it.

2. The doctor says it’s not that bad. Not really. Nine months of recovery, tops. He says she can play soccer again. He says she doesn’t need to lose her scholarship. He says she’s going to be okay and she, of course, believes him.

3. North Carolina believes the doctor, too. A month later, she leans on her crutches as Marcus books a flight into Raleigh and a rental car to get them to Chapel Hill. Hope breathes in, then out. He says her life is about to get a whole hell of a lot better. She believes him.
Her mom doesn’t drop her off at college, just drives her to the airport and trusts Marcus to handle the rest. She kisses Hope on the cheek once, but it feels dry and her mouth reeks faintly of cigarette smoke. Marcus organizes her desk and makes her bed, then hugs her a little gruffly and a leaves a little abruptly. Her roommate doesn’t arrive for another day, so Hope orders a small pizza and falls asleep halfway through an episode of Friends, curled on her side on top of her sheets.

4. It has been 256 days since she stopped talking to Kelley. The silence is not silent. Not for Hope. It weighs heavy, tastes sour, a sickly dose of guilt that doesn’t yield, doesn’t fade, just grows.

Knowing these things really doesn’t help, of course. Freshman year is odd and it comes like a whirlwind, each day too different yet too filled with monotony to be described as anything but overwhelming.

The year is a rapid accumulation of firsts.

The first time she meets her roommate, she’s halfway through pulling her t-shirt off over her head. She hears the doorknob turn and freezes for a second, unsure of whether it’s better to keep tugging it off or let the fabric settle back over her torso.

The tall brunette who walks in doesn’t seem particularly phased that her new roommate is awkwardly wriggling out of a shirt. She slings her soccer bag off one shoulder and drops it onto the ground unceremoniously, shoving both hands into her pockets.

“Hope?” She gets the damn shirt off and nods, turning to face the other girl and mirroring her stance, hands in her pockets, one hip jutted out slightly.

“Yeah.” Hope hesitates, then sticks a hand out cautiously. “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Carli.” She turns quickly, dragging in a black suitcase and a backpack from the hall. “Midfielder, freshman.”

“Goalkeeper.” Hope turns too, leaning over to dig a shirt out of her newly-filled drawers. After a second, she settles on a plain red one, pulling it on and leaning against her bed. “I’m a freshman too.”

“Cool.” Carli lifts the suitcase easily onto her bed, unzipping it and beginning to pull out what appears to be an unending supply of grey workout clothes. "I'm gonna unpack a bit."

"Cool." For a second, Hope hesitates, phone and headphones in one hand, watching her roommate. "I'm gonna go on a run I think."

"Cool." There's a small nod, but Carli doesn't turn. Hope nods unconsciously, then swings the door open. She starts her jog halfway down the hall.

She's not good at these things. Not good at introducing herself, at making a good first (or second) impression. She assumes the worst, pushes herself away before others can do it for her, creates a distance that is both comfortable and aggravating.

Hope runs three miles. She figures it's long enough to give Carli space to move in and get settled. Part of her hopes that her teammate will be gone when she gets home, but when she opens the door — with some difficulty due to a doorknob that requires an upwards twist of the wrist to rattle it open — Carli is lying across her bed, staring at her laptop.

It appears that she's unpacked, but most of Carli's side of the room is fairly bare. There's a U.S. soccer pennant on the wall and two picture frames on the desk next to a pile of textbooks and spiral notebooks. A soccer ball and several sets of free weights are heaped at the corner of the bed. On second glance, Hope decides that her new roommate will most likely be the type of person to wake up early to get in extra sets of squats and bicep curls before practice.

"Hey," she says softly as she shuts the door, and Carli looks up and nods before returning to her computer screen. Hope sighs and clambers into her own bed, picking up a book and settling in for what she expects will be a quiet afternoon.

She's beginning to get used to silence.

She figures this is how it's going to be for the rest of the semester. But two days later, she has her math homework propped on her knees when Carli comes in from class and decides to become her friend.

"Hey." The midfielder pulls out Hope's chair, flopping into it and opening her phone. "Classes good today?"

"Yeah." Hope pauses for a moment, realizing this is the start of a conversation. "Kinda hard."

"That calc?" Before she can stop her, Carli has grabbed Hope's book and is peering at a series of equations. "This looks like hell."

"It is hell." She hesitates, still guarded. "But it's a pretty type of hell."

Carli raises her eyes, studying Hope's face for a moment with a gaze that is just on the uncomfortable side of blunt.

"For you, maybe." She hands the book back. "You hungry?"

This is, Hope realizes, a habit of Carli's — asking questions in choppy sentences that lack verbs, her voice almost careless in its certainty. She puts her work to one side.

"Yeah," she says. "Thai food?"

Carli just nods in approval, already standing to leave. Hope follows, a smile soft on her lips.

A week later is the first time she practices with the team, and it all feels foreign in the best kind of way. Her new teammates are taller and clearly more fit than anyone she played with in high school, the upperclassmen carrying themselves with a bold faced confidence typically reserved for football players on college campuses. They are loud on the locker room and locked in on the field. They shout praise and critiques in the same breath, encouragement coming swift on the heels of brutal reprimands.

Hope loves it.

She's not even playing yet, just running through simple footwork drills in an unclaimed corner of the field with the only assistant coach not focused on the full-out scrimmage that's absorbing the rest of the team. She's doing her best to focus, but it's impossible with the sound of shots ricocheting off goalposts and wild whoops of celebration echoing across the field. Finally, the assistant she's working with holds up one hand.

"Do you want to watch?" Hope nods a little too eagerly, wiping her forehead, eyes already darting across the pitch. The assistant grins and jerks her thumb at the sideline, and Hope drifts over, hands on her hips as she watches.

They're good. They're better than good. And she should know this, because Hope has been watching them play for years, but it's different when she's wearing the same practice kit as the girls who are currently scrimmaging, grass stains streaking their socks and shorts, sweat coating their skin as they dive into tackles and slice shots towards the goal.

A particularly skilled upperclassman in the midfield streaks down the right flank, bobbing between two defenders before flipping a pass to the middle of the field for a perfect volley. Hope can't help it — she lets out a cheer, pumping her fist, grinning.

And yeah, she's not healthy yet and she's only a redshirt. And yes, at night she sometimes struggles to fall asleep because of that question, that stupid question — Am I actually going to come back from this? — but right now none of that matters. Right now, she is home.

Two weeks later is the first time that she throws up in a frat bathroom. The pulse of her heartbeat matches the pulse of the bass thumping throughout the overheated house, and she clenches her fingers around the rim of the toilet, relishing in the slight relief of cool porcelain.

She's a redshirt, which means she's not supposed to drink but she's really not going to get in trouble for this, but that doesn't stop her head from spinning as she drops her chin to her chest, wiping her mouth with one hand.

None of her teammates — who are now her friends, she guesses, although sometimes she questions what that is supposed to mean besides spending practically every free second together — could go out, so she had left with a handful of girls from her calculus class who claimed they needed to "blow off some steam."

This apparently meant sucking down several beers an hour and entering into loud, boastful games of slapping and then drinking from bags of wine held up by chanting frat guys. It wasn't necessarily Hope's speed, but then again it was a competition, and Hope didn't like to lose those. She didn't like to lose at beer pong, or at rage cage either, but she did both of those marvelously throughout the night, head growing lighter and stomach growing queasier with each passing loss.

In some ways, it's not as bad as she expected. She stands unsteadily and stumbles away from the party as quickly as possible, forgetting to even flush the toilet, navigating the three blocks back to her dorm in a series of almost-falls.

The next morning, her hands are scraped from cement she doesn't remember falling onto and her hair is smashed to her face and her head pounds like hell. It's her first real hangover and she curls into herself, refusing to move for hours, wishing she could melt back into sleep.

The next morning is the day that the numbers stop coming.

It's been almost a year, and every day, faithfully, Kelley had updated the number on her wrist, the always-shrinking tally of the days left until they might meet. It was her little touchstone of hopefulness, a soft reminder of what was to come.

Her teammates had noticed it one day in practice, the small numbers outlined on the inside of Hope's left wrist stark against the white of her wrist.

"Is that a tattoo?" Heather, the midfielder she had noticed on the first day, grabbed her arm in one hand, peering down at the ink.

"Not exactly." Hope bit her lip. She hadn't heard anyone here talk about soulmates, and at times she still felt ridiculous for bringing it up. "I didn't do it, it's from my, um, my—"

"Oh, you have one too?" There was a quick smile, followed Heather tugging up her sleeve to display a note written in block handwriting. "Same. Dave. He came here so we could be together. Who's yours?"

"Her name's Kelley." She tugged her arm out of Heather's grip, flushing slightly. "She's ten. Eleven in a month or two."

"Oh." Heather paused, then gestured at her wrist again. "Is that what the numbers are about?"

Hope nodded, and Heather smirked. She could already see a joke — most likely very inappropriate — brimming in her eyes, so Hope tossed a towel in her direction and hurried onto the field.

The numbers had kept coming for almost a year. Sometimes Kelley forgot a day, but she always corrected herself in the end. She never forgot. She never gave up, even though

And that morning, they stop. Hope pretends not to notice.

(she does notice, of course, and it hurts in a way she didn't expect, something that gnaws lightly at her ribs throughout the day and then pierces her at night. she notices every day, as the silence grows louder and the distance grows wider.)

Life goes on.

She's a sophomore and a starter and a possibility for the national team. She and Carli room together in a new apartment, fixing breakfast side by side and co-existing in their quiet, peaceful way.

She's a junior and a starter and a common fixture of the national and she's starting to think she's finally figuring out who exactly she is, as if before she was an empty page in a child's coloring book and now she's finally learning how to fill in the color between the lines.

That year marks the first time she sees Kelley.

She doesn't know it, of course, but she sees her.

The team is flying to an away game and they make a two-hour layover in Atlanta. Carli and Hope split off to find something to eat besides Qdoba and Burger King, and they end up in the line for an overly fancy bar and grill situated in the middle of the airport. She's on her phone, half-listening to Carli's analysis of a Leicester match, when she glances up and sees her.

The girl is beaming, glancing back over her shoulder at a boy who must be her brother as she tugs a hot pink suitcase behind her. She's around 13 and she's headed to California for the weekend and her smile is splitting her freckled face wide open. She pauses, and her eyes scan across the crowd, landing on Hope's face.

For half of a second, Hope's breath hitches and her eyes widen slightly and her grip on her carry-on tightens. For half a second, she can't hear what Carli is saying because she's too focused on the fact that her heart is hurting, actually hurting, over the way this girl is grinning.

Then a woman calls after the girl, and she turns and tugs that pink carry-on away, and Carli is asking Hope if she's been listening at all, and she's already forgetting the moment.

(she doesn't forget, of course. she carries the moment with her, something she pulls out to think about when her mind is quiet. because as much as she wants to pretend that she doesn't, she knows who it is. she knows the whole time.)

She's a senior and she's skipping North Carolina games as a starter for the national team and she knows who she is mainly because everyone else seems to know who she is now. She's a senior and her mother barely calls but Marcus comes to a handful of games a year holding handheld signs aloft. She's a senior and she sits in the back of classes with her teammates and goes out with them to shitty college bars on the nights they have free and forces freshmen to skinny dip as hazing. She's a senior and she's happy.

And then, yet again, she's not.

The second time she blows her knee out, it feels like the world has stopped and spun on its axis in the opposite way, sun rising in the west and setting in the east. It's peculiar, because it's not as scary as she would've expected. The pain is all there, and so is the numbness, the heaviness that coats the inside of her chest as she lays back and screams the same word, over and over, until she's hauled off the field and held still by her coach.

"No." She screams it until she's hoarse. She says it until she's not sure what she's even saying no to anymore.

They tell her what has to happen, the recovery process, the risks that vastly outweigh the rewards. Hope listens to the sound. It's muffled, but she listens anyways, because she needs these words, despite the fact that they cut like a knife.

Three days later is the start of her life without soccer. Three days later, she writes to Kelley.

She's not sure why she does it. But in her first minutes back in her apartment, her arms already raw from the crutches, she fumbles for a pen and shoves one sleeve up. She doesn't plan anything out, doesn't even apologize for what feels like half a lifetime of silence. She just writes.

"Kelley can you talk?"

It's seconds later when the response appears, on her thigh, in Kelley's favorite place to write, in handwriting she no longer recognizes.

"Hope?"

Chapter Text

They fall together naturally, really.

In many ways it’s like learning each other all over again. Hope quickly realizes that the person that someone is as a child is not the person they are as an adult, or whatever Kelley is now that she’s old enough to stay at home on her own and make terrible sex jokes and worry about her own future. She doesn’t mind. She likes this version of Kelley more than she thought possible, and in catching up on lost time she feels that she is finally settling some part of her life back into place, some puzzle piece that was missing without her ever noticing.

Their first phone call lasts for three hours. Hope would be lying if she said she didn’t feel a little more at home like this, with her back against the wall behind her bed, her good knee pulled tight to her chest and her bad one stretched out in front of her, phone pressed into the crook between her shoulder and her ear, smile hanging loosely and easily across her lips.

They talk about nothing at first. Hope doesn’t mention the knee. She asks Kelley about her family and about school, and somehow the conversation gets twisted around and they’re now talking about book-to-movie adaptations and Kelley is doing her best to defend the Great Gatsby movie despite the fact that Hope has laid out multiple plot points and numerous errors that the movie failed to carry over from the book. And she’s laughing, a good type of laugh that fills her lungs and makes her chest feel light.

It's not until much later, when the sun is hanging heavily beneath the tree line outside of Hope's window, that Kelley asks.

"Why?" She doesn't preface the question, doesn't fill the awkward silence that follows. Hope knows what she's asking. She's not sure exactly what to answer, but Kelley also doesn't seem to shy away from waiting, and they sit in a steady quiet for several minutes before Hope finally finds her voice again.

"I got hurt." Hope runs her fingers along the brace, just along the edge where it always chafes the worst in the Carolina heat. "Twice. The first time was when I—"

"When you stopped talking to me." Kelley's voice rings with a type of old hurt, something that she seems to be trying to dampen as much as possible. "I know. I remember the lines."

"It happened again," Hope murmured. "You probably saw. I'm done. With soccer, I mean, they say I'm done for good. And I just— I needed you."

"You don't know me." It doesn't sound like an insult when Kelley says it, just a fact, one of the many uncomfortable truths of their relationship. "How did you know I'd pick up?"

She was right, of course. This had been the fear that hung on every movement Hope had made — as she scribbled the frantic message to Kelley, as she asked for her number, as she dialed the number and heard the girl's voice for the first time in her life. What was she to expect from her soulmate? That after years of silence, they would fall together perfectly? Of course not, because Hope was a realist and most of her expected to hear a reflection of herself across the phone, to hear a voice that was hesitant and judgement or perhaps just angry. But Kelley's joy was thick with hope, her voice was deeper and richer than Hope had expected, her wit sharp and her humor gentle and God it was just what she needed.

"I trusted you," Hope said, and it was a half truth. She had trusted Kelley because she didn't know what else there was for her to trust anymore. She fell back on the last resort, on the one thing that she was pretty sure she was always supposed to be able to count on.

"I'm glad." Kelley's voice is warm, in a way that a 15-year-old really shouldn't be warm yet. Hope doesn't mind. She smiles when she hangs up the phone, and the smile stays somewhere deep in her chest for the rest of the night.

They fall into a pattern, an easy give-and-take that makes more sense than most other things in Hope's life. She calls in the evening, most often after physical therapy and dinner with a mug of tea in one hand, hair just-washed and falling damp over one shoulder. Kelley is normally in the middle of working on homework, just back from soccer practice, and sometimes she just listens to her talk her way through homework, analyzing a book or trying to memorize Spanish verb conjugations.

Kelley provides something that Hope never had before — comfort. It's a gentle type of relationship, talking in low voices so that Kelley doesn't get in trouble for not doing her schoolwork, running the gamut of conversation topics and somehow never doubling back, never getting bored. They fit, in a way that makes Hope feel a little cheesy and a little awkward, especially as the older variable in the equation, but she shrugs off any taint of discomfort because for once she wants something that's goddamn simple.

It's different for Kelley.

She asks questions. Lots of questions. Mainly, she's just curious, always has been and always will be, and she feels she's been cheated out of years of Hope's life. So she asks, and when she's not satisfied she asks again, she asks more. It doesn't really make up for the time. But it fills in the holes, the gaps, the question marks hanging over her head for years.

When she saw the words scribbled on her skin, she'd been unsure what to feel. Her chest had blossomed with excitement and she had scrambled for something to write back with, but even as her smile grew, even as she grabbed for her phone the first second it lit up, something else clawed hesitantly at her ribs. After they talked, she shoved her face into her pillow, something beyond happy but also something beyond angry.

She had left. Hope had left, and Kelley had been too young to understand, too young to even ask why. It was an old hurt, like a bruise that had faded, that she had become used to poking and prodding, a dull pain that was expected and easy to ignore.

And Kelley wasn't one to hate. She wasn't the type to hold a grudge, to stay mad for long. It was, perhaps, one of her greatest weaknesses — the fact that she forgot old fights easily, that she forgave even more easily. But part of her didn't want to forgive Hope.

The way her mother described it to her, a soulmate was a constant. She wasn't ever supposed to fade away, or leave, or forget. She was there, and she wasn't going anywhere. Which was the opposite of Hope, who left for years without any sign of ever coming back.

She tells her this the next morning over breakfast, running her fork through her eggs. Her mother smiles softly, running a hand through Kelley's hair, and she ducks out of the embrace with a small smile.

"Don't lose yourself in idealism, Kell." Her mother turns away, straightening her dress. "Not every person is perfect. Sometimes you have to take your time to find your person."

"But I've found her, mom," Kelley mutters, and the bitterness is impossible to hide from the way she bites at each word. "She just—"

"She just needed space." Her mother's voice is firm. "She needed you to take a few years to grow up. She needed to find herself. She needed— I don't know what she needed Kelley. But she's here now. That's what matters."

"It's not fair."

"Life isn't fair."

Kelley sighs. She's right, of course, and the anger is already dissipating by the time she leaves school for the day. She checks her phone as she slides her backpack off one shoulder and a message on her screen sends a small tremor through her hand.

"You're still wrong about Gatsby. Utterly and terribly wrong."

Kelley smiles.

The bitterness fades completely in days. They text. They call. And Kelley finally gets to meet Hope for real.

"What's your favorite book?" she asks one day, her hand wrapped around a pencil as she scratches out an answer to a math problem. "Like, your actual favorite. Unwavering."

"Unwavering?" Hope's voice is a little higher than she expected, a little raspier. She likes it, especially when she's amused and her laughter begins to bleed into her words. "I don't know if I can commit to that, Kell. That's a big one."

"Take a crack at it." Kelley rubs her eraser harder into a numeral, flipping her pencil around to change a three into a seven. "Or a top five."

Hope laughs, but she answers. Kelley pauses from her writing and scribbles the answer down — Harry Potter, This Side Of Paradise, Cloud Atlas, East of Eden, some Dave Eggers novel with an impossibly long name — in a red notebook that she bought the second day of talking to Hope again.

It's her Hope book, a small collection of what she knows about Hope, because even though they've talked for hours every day for the past five weeks she somehow feels that she's missing so many pieces of the other girl. Perhaps it's the time they lost, but Kelley feels more that it's the lack of connection, the distance, the fact that all she has to hold onto of Hope is her voice over the phone.

Hope has ground rules. She still insists that they can't meet until Kelley is 18, and she takes that to mean almost anything besides talking on the phone. She doesn't tell Kelley her last name. She says it's not a good idea for them to follow each other on Facebook, or talk on Facetime, or even to see pictures of one another. So Hope is, in many ways, just a sketch of a soulmate.

Kelley doesn't mind. She doesn't care. Her voice over the phone is enough, night by night. Waiting is easy when the deadline is close and the in between is filled with joy. But nonetheless, she collects little details of Hope and writes them down in her book, collecting them like flowers to be pressed and marveled at later.

"What color is your hair?" she asks one day, and then when Hope says it's dark she asks how dark, how long, until Hope gets annoyed and tells her she'll shave it all off if that will get her to stop asking questions.

"What's your major?" she asks a week later, and when Hope says it's PR she asks after her classes, her favorite projects, her goals for the future.

This was, in fact, the only thing that Hope was really focused on besides Kelley at this point. She had become so used to soccer being the one-word response to the question of what her future would hold. Now two ruler-straight lacerations in the skin of her knee are rewriting that answer, making it much longer and more complex.

She's lying on her bed one day, punching a ball into the air and then catching it and then punching it again, when Carli walks into the room they share in a big house with five other girls from the team. She drops her bag, turns to Hope and plants both hands on her hips.

"We're figuring your life out." She pulls a chair up to sit next to Hope's bed. "Now. We're doing this."

"Why?" Hope rolls over, cocking one eyebrow. "I have a plan. McDonalds. I'll make minimum wage, I'll work my way up through the ranks. It'll be amazing."

"Shut up you asshole." Carli leaned her arm against the mattress and rested her head in her palm. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know." Hope's voice is small, and that fear is tangible for just a second. "I mean, my GPA is fine, I'll graduate on time, but I just don't know. I loved soccer, I love soccer and I can't bring myself to think of it in the past tense. I don't know what else I love."

"I know." They sit in silence for several moments, and then Carli stands, walks to Hope's desk and pulls out a sketchbook. It's broad, pages warped with ink and paint, and Carli brandishes it like a weapon.

"What about this?" She tosses it onto Hope's bed. "If there's anything you do as well as you did soccer, it's this."

Hope opens the sketchbook slowly, traces her fingers across each page. It's almost full now, the fifth one she's filled since entering college. Some of the sketches are tiny, just a little detail, an unfinished idea. Others are filled with paint, sloppy in places and immeasurably detailed in others. They aren't consistent in design or content, but they are, inarguably, good.

Hope's art isn't something she talks about really, and Carli only knows about it because they've spent so many years sharing the same space day in and day out. But it is, perhaps, one of the few things that brings her the same level of joy as soccer, although that joy is much different, more subdued, more patient, more calm, a fire that simmers low rather than blazing white hot. But it is love, of some kind or another.

"Look." Carli sits on the side of her bed. "There's a ton of visually-based jobs in the PR market. Design stuff mixed with marketing. You get to create ideas and use your hands and it's not gonna be the nine to five type thing, my dad's company has a ton of jobs like this opening up."

She looks at her friend, the excitement that's lighting up her eyes slowly seeping into Hope's countenance.

"Do you think I could do this?" Hope barely has time to ask the question before Carli is already nodding excitably.

"I'm gonna call my dad tomorrow." Carli checks her watch. "No, I'll call him tonight. Maybe you can shadow someone, or intern? I don't know but it's something.

It's something, which is more than she had about 15 minutes ago. Hope nods slowly, a smile forming slightly. She glances down at her phone as it buzzes and smiles even wider when she sees a text from Kelley — "There's a woodpecker on my house and I'm scared to death my dad is going to go shoot it because it's keeping us all up, send help" — before she turns back to Carli.

"Okay."

Soccer is over, and it's not okay. But she has a friend who cares enough to figure out her future, and she has a hope, a chance at something different. And she has Kelley. That might just be enough.

"Where's your favorite place in the world?" Kelley asks a few days later, and she grows quiet when Hope says that it's on a soccer field, her voice pained and breathy. For awhile they sit in silence, and Kelley thinks she might hear a slight sob, but she lets it be. Eventually, Hope speaks again, and her voice is stronger and Kelley decides to stop asking questions for the night.

"It doesn't hurt as bad anymore," Hope says, quietly, much later, as Kelley's voice is growing softer and sleepier. "Just— it hurts, but I can handle it."

"What changed?" Kelley's voice has that softness to it, her words gentle. Hope wonders what she'll be like in person, whether she'll be the type who gets touchy or brings coffee or just sits and listens. Something in her says that, no matter what, she'll somehow do what's best without Hope even knowing what she needs to feel better.

"You." Hope laughs. "Which is dumb, but— I don't know. Talking to you reminds me that I have a future that's, I don't know, that means more than soccer. That has always meant more than soccer."

They're quiet, but it's a comfortable type of silence. She can practically feel Kelley smiling, even from here.

"I can't wait." Hope doesn't ask for what, because she knows exactly what Kelley is talking about. They haven't said "I love you" yet. It seems both a little sudden and a little unnecessary given their circumstances. But Hope has to admit that these words feel about as close as possible to the real thing.

She hangs up with Kelley a few minutes later, and she can't shake the warm feeling she gets every time they talk. This is, without a doubt, the happiest she can imagine being, the happiest she could ever imagine being without soccer.

They're having a girls night with the team — Hope is still part of the team, still there at every game on the sidelines, still included in every groupchat and outing, because God do they know how much she needs them — and she gets ready slowly, not minding much how her hair looks, throwing on a sweater and jeans before walking downstairs to meet the rest of the girls.

It's a Thursday night, not the type of night that means anything all that special to anyone, and Hope lingers at the bar for a moment after her fourth beer, messing with the label of the bottle.

"You look way too good to be sitting alone." The voice from beside her is low and gravelly, and when Hope turns she meets the face of the type of guy who clearly isn't used to being shot down often.

"If I had tried to look good tonight, I'd be flattered," she shoots back, and the smile that fills his face is infectious, surprising.

"Well then, I'd love to see you on a night you're actually trying." He sticks out one hand. "Jerramy."

Hope swallows, rubbing the dampness of her palm onto her jeans before shaking his hand.

"I'm Hope." Jerramy smiles at her, turning back to flag down the bartender.

"Nice to meet you Hope." He smiles again and her chest swells slightly. "What can I get you?"

Chapter Text

“Tell me everything.”

Hope flopped onto her back, grinning as Kelley ran her through the entirety of her first homecoming. She wore a blue dress that was “low-key kind of hideous but whatever” with black pumps which, as Hope had warned, rubbed three blisters into Kelley’s feet. They went to a kind-of-fancy Italian restaurant and her best friend dropped a full forkful of lasagna onto her dress — which was light pink, of course — and almost started crying in front of the waiter. Her date was tall and gangly, one of the best freshmen on the soccer team, and he tried to kiss her at the end of the night but didn’t know how and ended up with both hands pressed flat on her hips and a nervous, stuttering question bumbling on the tip of his tongue.

“Poor guy!” Hope laughed, rolling on one side, and she could hear Kelley’s amusement on the other line. “What the hell did you do?”

“I just— I freaked out.” Kelley burst out laughing, and for a moment they were both just laughing together. “I feel like I knew what to do but like, I didn’t really want to kiss him? I mean if he had gone for it I would’ve been like, whatever. But he just stood there and looked at me.”

Her laugh was sweet, a little raspy around the edges, the type of laugh that came deep from her stomach. It made Hope laugh, without fail. Every time that Kelley cracked up — and it was often, so much more often than Hope could’ve expected — she couldn’t help herself from joining in.

Carli walked in as Hope burst out in laughter at the next episode in the homecoming saga — Grant, the boy who took Kelley, had point-blank asked if they could “make out” and then practically ran away from their after party — and raised her eyebrows in mock surprise.

“Kelley?” she mouthed, and she grinned openly when Hope nodded in response.

Carli liked Kelley, who was often on speakerphone when she came home so that Hope could work on designs while retelling her day to her younger soulmate. She felt that she knew the girl at least a little bit, especially since it was her job to keep Kelley entertained whenever Hope left to go to the bathroom or get a snack. And even though she didn’t normally hang out with overly-energetic high school freshmen, something about Kelley’s quick wit and easy-going joy made Carli feel like she wouldn’t really mind in this case.

“So did you guys go crazy at the afterparty?” Hope hit the “speakerphone” button, knowing that Carli would want to listen in, even if she would never say so out loud.

“Oh god no.” Kelley’s voice sounded slightly disappointed, but Hope was honestly relieved. “There were, like, six sets of parents upstairs. We just chilled out, I guess, which was why the whole making out thing was even more—“

“Making out?” Carli looked at Hope, her eyes glittering with amusement. “Hope’s got some competition, eh?”

“Well, making out with Grant is actually legal, so…” Kelley’s voice trailed off and Hope could practically hear her smirk. “I think he’s got you beat.”

Her jaw dropped in fake amusement as Carli roared with laughter.

“You can’t see her, but she’s doing a classic Hope-Solo-death-glare right now,” Carli said, leaning in towards the phone, and Kelley burst out in laughter as well, Hope finally joining in with a shake of her head.

“I’m leaving you,” Hope muttered, crossing her arms and rolling onto her back. “I hate you both.”

It was fall, and outside the trees were beginning to glow red and orange, the air biting crisply in the mornings and evenings. Hope and Carli had moved to Charlotte after graduation, renting out a one-bedroom apartment with a surprisingly spacious kitchen and a toilet that only flushed half of the time. Carli had a job working in sports management for the Panthers, a job that she’d been offered only two days before receiving her diploma.

Her dad had offered Hope a summer internship at his marketing firm, which quickly turned into a full-time job when her boss — a tall, slender, intimidating woman who rarely doled out compliments — informed Hope that she had more raw designing talent in her pinky finger than most of her past interns had in their whole life.

Hope wasn’t used to being good at much besides soccer. She had always been a straight-A student, but she had seen that as a necessity, a way to ensure that her life and her future would be better. And while she knew that her drawings often earned gasps of surprise whenever her friends caught an accidental glimpse, she had never before had someone tell her that she was talented and actually believed them.

It awoke that fire of competition, of dedication, the thing that had kept Hope one step ahead on the field. She woke early in the mornings, poring over new magazines — she'd subscribed to at least 20 at this point — with a cup of coffee before work. When she returned, normally at the request of her boss because she was already staying two or three hours late, she would open up her computer and design small side projects, small ideas to pitch to her boss or maybe someone else, sometimes just playing around with concepts she'd seen online.

Her sketches and designs began to take on a similar style, a trademark look that was easily distinguishable among the work of her peers at the firm.

"You're turning into a crazy little artist," Carli said one day when she came home to find Hope sitting on the floor in leggings and an oversized plaid shirt, hair pulled up sloppily into a bun on top that sagged on top of her head, threatening to spill loose over her left shoulder. Pieces of sketch paper — thicker cut, only available from a store half-way across the city, which she bought in bulk packages twice a month — were scattered across the floor around her. Hope was bent over a sketch of an eye, carefully filling in part of the iris.

"I needed a break from the project I'm working on," Hope murmured, her fingers tight around her pencil. "And this calms me down."

"To each their own." Carli stopped to stand over her shoulder, looking down at the three or four drawings that Hope had completed this afternoon. "These are beautiful, Hope."

She glanced around and sighed contentedly. They were, and she knew it, but she just shrugged at Carli, going back to retrace the eyelid as her best friend moved away.

It was strange to her, in some ways, how easily her world had pivoted on its axis, realigned with a new focus. She'd always loved to create, to draw, but it had never been this all-consuming, this obsessive. Hope didn't mind, really, but sometimes she thought back to where she had been a year before and the ground under her feet felt a little less steady.

Hope paused her sketching and picked up a pen. She doodled a small flower on her wrist, a peony, Kelley's favorite type of flower. As she was filling in one of the petals, her phone vibrated and she grinned at the text.

Feeling creative?

A few minutes later, she was on speaker phone with Kelley, who was studying for finals for the first time. Her anxiety over the tests — she only had three — was the source of constant amusement and teasing from Hope's end of the line. But Kelley was a perfectionist, something Hope understood and loved.

"Hey, I have a question." Hope hummed her response, busy with a new sketch, this time of Carli's profile as she drank tea and watched a football game with the sound muted. "So Grant asked me out."

"Homecoming Grant?" She tried to mask her surprise, keeping her voice as even as possible and avoiding the look that Carli shot her. "He finally got the guts up?"

"Well, yeah and—" Kelley stutters for a moment and Hope stops her drawing to look at the phone, wishing she could physically look at Kelley now. "It's not like I'm going to marry him or anything, right? So I was just wondering, like, what's the— the rules for that?"

Hope flushed, keeping her eyes firmly away from Carli, who was clearly fixing her with an accusatory glare. She could practically feel the question burning in the back of Carli's throat — "You haven't told her?" — but she remained thankfully silent.

She had, in fact, spent several months dating Jerramy — "We're really just talking," she had defended at first, but talking had quickly turned into kissing — towards the end of senior year, before he left for Seattle and she moved to Charlotte. It hadn't really been much, just a fling, nothing more. But that didn't stop the pit of guilt that built up in her stomach every time she thought back the way he looked at her, a smile on his lips, reaching out his hand to take hers.

Because Jerramy was unfailingly kind, almost doting, and because he made her laugh without even trying, and because the way his smile broke jaggedly when she told him she had no interest in Seattle, or long distance, or anything more than a fling — well, it broke her heart a little. But he wasn't Kelley, and she knew that, and she knew they had nothing in the future.

She had tried to explain that to Jerramy, to explain the writing on her skin, the girl miles away who already held her heart. He didn't get it. He didn't have this connection — his skin had never been covered in someone else's writing. He didn't know his match, didn't know if they were dead or uninterested or just non-existent. But he let her go, as best as he could, and she tried to mask her hurt with gentleness, just as she tried to obscure her guilt from Kelley.

"You can date him, Kell." Hope's voice was soft. "It's okay."

"But he's not—" Kelley's voice cracked slightly. "I always thought you would be my first, you know, just everything."

"That's not realistic," Hope murmured, picking up her phone and turning off speakerphone, cradling it between her ear and her shoulder. "You know that."

"Yeah, but—" Hope interrupted her, a smile slight and heavy on her mouth.

"Go on the damn date, you idiot." Kelley laughed at that, although it was a nervous laugh, the type that didn't quite fill Hope up.

"Okay."

Kelley, to her credit, didn't tell her anything, except for fleeting details that she knew Hope would laugh at, take lightly and move on from without issue. From what she could tell, Grant was shy and a little awkward but also eager to win Kelley over. She mentioned a few dates they went on, typical coffee dates and awkward freshman parties and ice skating outings — Kelley fell flat on her face and Grant, in his own fear of falling, didn't even attempt to catch her, although he ended up flat on his ass laughing at her.

And it was natural, they were natural. Life for Hope began to feel, in some ways, hopeful.

For Kelley, high school was a whirlwind. She kept three goals in the forefront of her focus — making straight A's, becoming the star of the soccer team and making sure Hope fell incurably in love with her. The second two items seemed to be going fairly well, but the first one seemed like it might actually kill her.

It wasn't that she was a bad student. In fact, Kelley was an exceptionally good student, the type who lingered after school to chat with teachers and always high-fived the principal on her way out of the building. But she hit junior year and it all kind of fell apart.

She had somehow dated Grant for two years, growing comfortable and affectionate towards him in a way that somehow still felt casual. But junior year was different. Junior year was pulling the first, second and third all nighter of her life in the span of two weeks. It was attempting to take six AP classes at the same time as playing for her school's soccer team and it just didn't quite work.

Kelley spent more time in her room and in the gym, the two places she felt most comfortable. And when Grant made a snide remark about how she didn't seem to care to make time for him anymore, she cut him out of her life as easily as if he'd never been there in the first place.

(well, it came from more than that, it came from the fact that he held her hand a little too tight and made off-hand comments about going to college close together and jokingly told her that she should really stop calling Hope so much.)

She called Hope that night, like every night, to tell her the news.

"I'm sorry," Hope said, and her voice was genuine and it made Kelley's heart ache in the best kind of way. "He seemed like a fun guy."

"He really was," Kelley said, underlining a passage in her chemistry book with red ink. "But he didn't get me, you know? He didn't get what I want out of life."

"And what is that?" Hope asked, even though she knew, and Kelley smiled into her answer because she loved the joy that came whenever she told Hope about her hopes for the future.

"I want to go to a great school, a really great school," Kelley said. "I want to go into research, get really rich, move to the city, get one of those apartments that's kinda small but just ridiculously extravagant."

"Ridiculously extravagant," Hope laughed. "That sounds about right."

"And I want to marry you and get a cat and name it something stupid," Kelley continued. "And be that couple everyone's jealous of when they walk down the street."

"That won't be hard," Hope replied, and Kelley playfully told her to shut up.

"I want to be somebody," Kelley said, her voice slightly breathless. "Someone, I don't know, someone important. Not too big or anything. Just somebody who means something."

"You will be," Hope said, and Kelley believed her, believed in herself because seemed to have such an unfailing faith in her future. "Just you wait."

Hope was always Kelley's first call. When she was tired, when she was stressed, when she needed a break. The first time she got drunk — at a house party, on cheap beer and vodka bought from Costco by an older brother — she called Hope in the dead of the night.

"Hope, I love you," she drawled into her voicemail, accent a little stronger due to inebriation, and it was the first time she'd ever said it and meant it this way. "You are so— you're so cool, you know, and I just— I love you. You should be—wherever I am, because I don't know— I think you're just so much."

She returned the call the next morning, laughing before Kelley even picked up, groaning her apologies at the same time as she complained about the coffee she desperately needed to drink.

"Fun night?" Hope asked, and she laughed as Kelley muttered darkly in response. "You're cute when you're drunk."

"No need to flirt with me yet, Hope." She just laughed again, and finally Kelley had to concede and laugh along, even though it made her head throb painfully.

They worked. And as the year plodded on for Kelley and swept almost too quickly by for Hope, neither of them could help but realize — again and again and again — just how close they were to finally meeting.

Kelley was six months away from turning 18 when she called Hope, her breath coming out in excited pants.

"Hope, she breathed the second that she picked up. "I got into Stanford."

She wasn't one to scream. But nonetheless, Hope let out a whoop, a single excited shout, before she started yelling her excitement back to Kelley.

"Are you kidding me?" Hope's voice cracked slightly and they both laughed. "You are incredible, you hear me? Incredible."

It was only later, after Kelley had hung up to go to a celebratory dinner with her family, that Hope thought about where Stanford was, and how much farther away that take Kelley from her. She sighed as she sat at her desk, fingers idly twiddling her pencil, unable to draw.

She thought about her promise from so long ago — that they could meet in person, follow each other on social media, be normal after Kelley turned 18. She thought about how Dave had moved to North Carolina for Heather, how Carli planned to move to New Jersey for her soulmate, how that expectation seemed both too much and too little for Hope all at once. She thought about the fact that none of what they were could be normal, could be whole, until they were together. About the fact that if they had waited a lifetime, perhaps four years wouldn't be too much.

But mostly, she wondered what good it was to know this much and love this much about someone she was beginning to think she might never get the chance to meet.

It was melodramatic and stupid. She pushed the thoughts from her head, drowned them out with pride when Carli got home and she could finally tell her Kelley's good news. But that night, she thought about Kelley, about the girl she knew she was meant to love, and the truth she had known since the first day she'd seen a name written on her skin.

Someday, something had to give. Hope just hoped that day wasn't coming soon.

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you need this many t-shirts?"

Kelley's mom thumbed through the stack of clothes on her bed, eyeing the glaring disparity between the amount of workout clothes and the number of "normal" clothes her daughter has amassed over the last three days of packing for college.

"Yes." Kelley steps through the doorway with a laundry basket filled with socks on one hip, reaching out to slap away her mother's hand. "I'll need a lot."

"But you're not even playing soccer," Karen muttered, folding her arms. "You'll want to look nice for your classes and have something to go out in—"

"Mom, just because I'm not playing soccer doesn't mean I won't be working out." She set the basket down and began tossing socks onto her bed. "I'll probably need to work out more. And stop worrying about me looking nice, okay? I packed my good clothes."

Karen's mouth twitched at the corners as she sat down in Kelley's chair, watching her daughter continue to pack one of the three blue suitcases lined up next to her bed.

"What does Hope think of you going to Stanford?" she asked after several moments of silence. Kelley's shoulders twitched up and down, but she saw the trace of a smile interrupting the curve of her jaw.

"She was really excited." Kelley paused. "It's just far. It's... I don't know. It's far."

"Is she going to come see you?" She clenched her jaw in response. After several seconds of silence, Karen dropped the question.

Three mornings later, Kelley jolted awake as the wheels of her plane touched down onto the tarmac of the San Francisco airport. It took two full hours to unload the entirety of the O'Hara family from their plane, collect an impossibly large bundle of suitcases and load the entire mess into their rental cars — plural, because they somehow decided that the whole family was necessary for moving Kelley into college, and that the whole family required two vehicles.

The whole process was slowed down even more by Dan, who was wearing a bright red "Stanford Dad" shirt and proudly informing every flight attendant, Starbucks barista and Enterprise employee along their path that he was dropping off his youngest daughter for college.

"At Stanford," he added every time, as if that wasn't made clear by his shirt, reaching out to wrap an arm around Kelley's shoulders. "She's a real smart cookie."

She would have been more embarrassed, but her stomach was roiling with nerves and it was all Kelley could do to plaster a wide smile on her face, attempting to drown out the rest of her thoughts with anything else — and that anything included being completely and utterly embarrassed by her dad.

They stayed a night downtown in San Francisco, and Kelley ended up on the floor in the shared living room of their hotel suite, talking idly with Hope.

"You're nervous." It was a statement, not a question, and it was somehow more reassuring to Kelley than any gentle hand on the shoulder or reassuring smile that her parents had doled out since they began packing up.

"Of course I am!" Kelley shook her head, dropping a hand onto her eyes. "This is scary shit, you know?"

"Of course." When Hope comforted Kelley, her voice became fierce. She wasn't exactly gentle or nurturing, but the physicality of her words and the ferocity of her belief in Kelley's worth was somehow exactly what she needed. "Of course it's fucking scary. Like, honestly, when I first got to North Carolina, I took one look at my dorm and that empty bed and the shitty carpet and I was ready to just walk on out and go back home."

"But you didn't." At this point, she was practically goading Hope into giving a pep talk, but the older girl was eager to fill that role.

"I sure as hell didn't." Kelley rolled onto her side, shutting her eyes and focusing only on Hope's voice. "I worked my ass off and I made sure that I got the most out of every day. Even when it was hard. Even when it sucked. And most of it didn't suck. Most of it was fucking awesome, okay? I promise."

Kelley smiled, letting out her breath slowly.

"How'd you get through it?" She shifted, moving her phone to the other ear. "When it got hard?"

"I drank a handle of vodka, ordered Domino's and binge-watched Parks and Rec."

Kelley burst out laughing — Hope's deadpan sarcasm always bit through her nerves, forcing her into laughter even when she wanted to remain serious. She could almost imagine the girl on the other line, her face still stone cold but the corners of her mouth twitching upwards with her own joke.

"No, seriously though, you just get through." Hope's voice softened. "Find what makes you happy, who makes you happy, and hold onto that for dear life. Don't let yourself get so caught up in the work that you forget to go on a run just for fun, or go try some new breakfast place, or randomly drop everything and go camping with your friends. Just don't forget to actually live."

Leaning her head back against the floor, Kelley smiled. From anyone else the advice would sound pretty stupid, like something on a Pinterest board. But coming from Hope, it was exactly what she needed.

The first week was a rush — literally, actually, because Kelley decided to join a sorority — and she reached her first Saturday before realizing that she hadn't called Hope once. She picked up the phone almost sheepishly, dialing Hope's number and holding her breath as she waited for the answer on the other line. But Hope was almost unrealistically understanding — "Kelley, I get it, I've been to college" — and asks questions contentedly for over two hours.

By the time she's finished updating Hope on her new sorority (Kappa Kappa Gamma, which is apparently a top house) and her classes (they all look like they're going to kick her ass and she couldn't be more excited) and her new friends (Sydney, Christen and Tobin, each of whom are apparently insane and therefore a perfect match for Kelley) and her plans for the night (a round trip of every single frat house on campus, which is fondly referred to as "Blackout Saturday" by the seniors in her house), Kelley feels out of breath with excitement. She hadn't truly realized just how much had happened in the last week, but telling it all to Hope is filling her with a tangible warmth.

"I wish you were here," she groaned, and Hope laughed in response.

"So do I."

She could hear movement in the background, some type of quiet clattering.

"What are you up to?" Kelley moved her phone to the other ear, clamping it between her shoulder and her head as she opened her laptop.

"Getting ready to go out, believe it or not."

Hope had been a frequent patron of a variety of frat houses, bars and clubs as a college student, but the urge to forget her responsibilities for a night had drastically decreased when she started her new job. Several promotions later — she was now an assistant project manager — and she found that she barely had the time, not to mention the energy, to survive drunken nights and hungover mornings.

"You?" Kelley laughed, mimicking shock, her voice amused. "Are you actually gracing the dance floor tonight?"

"Yes, I am." There was more rustling in the background. "Is the dougie still an acceptable move to whip out?"

Kelley groaned again, muttering something about Hope being old, which earned a quick response about Kelley's plans for the night — "We're getting fucked up!" she had crowed proudly — followed with a warning about how much the next morning would suck. The teasing only lasted a few more minutes before Hope admitted that she needed to go, and Kelley said she understood and promised to call more, and a smile stayed on her face for long after she hung up.

College only sped up, and Kelley didn't call more, but when she did it was worth it. Hope rarely initiated a call, trying to give Kelley space to enjoy her experience, taking time to cherish the time that Kelley did set aside for her.

"I joined the rocket club," Kelley said excitedly one Monday evening, sounding out of breath as always as she spoke quickly into her phone. "We build rockets. And shoot them. Into space."

"You're not serious, right?" Hope wanted to roll her eyes because that was just so Kelley. "You're a nerd."

"I'm a nerd that's going to build a rocket," Kelly responded defensively. "And shoot it. Into space."

"Whatever, Stanford." Her voice was gentle though, and Kelley could hear the pride in her voice even if she wouldn't verbalize it.

A week later, Kelley called her in tears.

"I can't do this," she murmured, her voice ragged. "It's so damn hard, I don't know how I ever thought I could get through any of this. I'm failing my classes, I'm barely making it to all my club meetings, I'm not around the sorority house enough, I'm not sleeping, I feel like I never work out anymore, I just—"

"Kell." Hope's voice was firm. "You can do this."

"But I don't—"

"Shut up." They sat in silence for minutes, until Kelley's shoulders stopped shaking. "You can do this. You can."

"I know." Kelley sniffled pathetically, almost embarrassed at the depth of her breakdown. "But it's hard."

"It's the hard that makes it great," Hope quipped, and Kelley spewed a friendly stream of curses.

"Don't quote Tom Hanks at me in the middle of my breakdown," she muttered, but she was smiling again. "It's not the time nor the place."

She didn't cry again for awhile.

The next week Kelley didn't call. She went camping with her friends and she had a chem lab and club meetings every night and there really wasn't time. Hope understood, and more importantly Kelley knew that Hope understood. She stopped feeling quite as guilty for the silence.

And Hope, for her part, was just as busy. She was in the midst of finishing two separate projects with completely different teams, and the work of delegating and managing and simply keeping track of all the moving parts between the two was driving her a little bit crazy. Carli commented more than once that she was continuing to devolve down the "crazy artist" path, spending most of her time at home in oversized sweaters with coffee in hand.

Hope didn't mind. She was happy, even if that happiness was tinged with insanity.

They settled into this new type of existence comfortably. Kelley's birthday — the one she used to count down to as a child — had come and past without much of a mention from either of them. Stanford changed things. They knew that. But drunk Kelley didn't always know that, and on random Friday and Saturday — and occasionally Tuesday or Wednesday or even Monday — nights, Hope's phone lit up with misspelled pleas that made guilt swirl hot in her stomach.

im drunk and its dumb bcaeus youre not here, you know??

theres a pupy here I feel like you like puppiess we've talked about this??

come see the ppuy pls

why aren't you here

She tried to be sweet, maybe even funny, when they talked about it the next week. But it wasn't particularly funny and she knew it and Kelley knew it, and it hurt badly enough that neither of them said a word about it, avoiding the pain like a sore tooth at the back of the mouth.

It was spring of Kelley's freshman year when Hope got a call that made her rethink the pain.

"Jerramy?" she asked in surprise as she picked up the phone.

"Hope Solo." His voice was rich, warm, and she was even more surprised at how much she'd missed it. How much she'd missed him. "What are you doing tonight?"

"Um, I'm— what?" She stood, walking quickly to the hall.

"I'm back in Charlotte," he explained. "And I would love to buy you dinner whenever you're free."

"I'm free tonight." She said it before she had time to think. "I get off work at 6, I can be ready at 7?"

"Perfect." Hope could feel him smiling at the other end of the line. It was contagious. "I'll see you then."

They ate dinner at an upscale Spanish restaurant that Hope had always talked about wanting to visit. Dinner turns into coffee afterwards, and a good night kiss, and a promise to call the next day. He did call, asking after her weekend plans and asking her to go to coffee with him.

Hope quickly learned that if Jerramy could do anything, it was surprise her. He brought flowers to their third date and took her sailing on their fifth. He remembered her favorite foods and her coffee order from back when they were in college, and he somehow kept track of each project she took on even if she only mentioned it in passing. He was kind, thoughtful, caring in a way she hadn't expected. His presence calmed her, filled her in when she felt hollow. He was just what she needed.

She mentioned Jerramy to Kelley after they'd been seeing each other for about a month. She didn't seem phased — Hope was fairly certain that Kelley's active social life wasn't entirely platonic, although the younger girl never mentioned any flings she might be pursuing — but she didn't ask any details. Hope quickly understood. Their private lives were private, even from each other, and for the time being Kelley wanted to keep it that way.

It wasn't necessarily the most pleasant compromise, but this situation wasn't pleasant in general. Hope had learned to live with it however she could, caught in a waiting game. But she was happy, even though she dreamed of a future that was happier.

It settled into a routine. Lunch dates, mornings at brunch and evenings at baseball games and movies with Jerramy. Long phone calls with Kelley in the space in between, waiting up for her drunk calls on Saturdays, stepping out of meetings to talk her down after failing a chemistry lab, calling her first when she gets a text of a perfect score on a physics test.

It works. It’s comfortable. And if the idea that she’s dating two people at once, that she’s trying to love two people at once, ever crosses her mind — well, she just shrugs it off.

Because for now, well, for now this is all she wants.

Chapter Text

It was December of the next year — Kelley's sophomore year — when Carli told Hope that she'd decided to move to New Jersey in a few weeks.

She'd be with Bryan, the soulmate who she has patiently waited for to finish medical school. He'd already picked out a house that will fit both of them snugly, and she had a job lined up with the Jets, and she offhandedly mentioned something about an extra room for "the future" in a way that makes Hope's throat close up with emotion.

"Carli." She grabbed her friend's hand, nestling it between the two of them and grinning. "I'm so happy for you."

She was happy for her friend, truly. She was also soon-to-be homeless, because the cost of rent was much too high for her to handle on her own and she didn't trust their apartment to any random stranger. So Hope found herself growling at her computer one day, sprawled across Jerramy's couch searching for a new apartment.

"Still can't find anything?" he asked, walking back into the living room with mugs of Irish coffee. She looked up at him, smiling gratefully as she gathered her mug in both hands and nodded. Jerramy settled down on the couch next to her, muting the North Carolina game.

"Nothing." She smacked at a key angrily, blowing on her coffee. "Literally, nothing in my price range that's close enough to work to make any sense. Nothing."

Jerramy hummed gently in response, rubbing a hand idly against her shoulder. Hope could feel his eyes, and she looked up at him, breaking her scowl for a moment and asking a question with her eyes rather than her words. He sighed, reached out his hand for hers.

"I'm going out on a limb here but—" Jerramy sucked in a breath. "Would you like to move in with me? You're already over here all the time, and I mean it would make sense, I wouldn't even ask for that much rent—"

"Of course," Hope breathed, smiling widely, and his face slowly mirrored hers.

"Okay," he said. "Okay."

She didn't tell Kelley until she had already moved in, her books filling gaps in Jerramy's shelves, art stacked in corners, pots and pans cluttering the used-to-be-half-empty cupboards. They fit together well, but something about living with a man she loved while the girl she loved was unaware seemed wrong.

Yet again, Kelley seemed almost uninterested in Jerramy, although she was happy that Hope had found somewhere to live — "I don't know if I could keep talking to you if you were a hobo," she had teased — and immediately turned the conversation to Hope's latest project. Hope left it at that, the understanding clear as ever — don't talk about Jerramy.

Kelley called her a week later, out of breath as always, and Hope reclined on the sofa, grinning.

"You're changing your major?" Hope asked, surprised. "I thought you loved engineering."

"Yeah, I do!" Kelley was excitable lately, a little hyperactive, but in a good way. "I'm not switching out of that. But I want to go into environmental engineering not chemical."

"Okay, please explain to the poor dumb artist over here," Hope laughed, and Kelley made a mock noise of exasperation. She launched into a description of her new major, which was apparently going to "save the world, thank you very much" and Hope was laughing again, a little louder, when Jerramy walked in. He smiled at her, watching her talk for a moment before sitting next to her, dropping a hand on her knee as if to interject, and suddenly Hope felt very wrong.

They weren't supposed to coexist. She had Kelley and she had Jerramy and the two weren't supposed to fit together in any sense of the word. She flinched away from his hand, smiled weakly and standing to excuse herself, walking outside to sit on the front step and finish her conversation with Kelley.

"Are you okay?" The girl on the other end seemed to be able to sense the shift, her discomfort. Hope brushed it off, made up a dumb excuse, pretended that she sounded believable. When she finally went back inside an hour later, Jerramy was sitting on the couch. He looked at her, concerned.

"Who was that?"

And she suddenly felt awful, terrible really, because she hadn't told him. In a year, she hadn't told him. And now, with their lives intertwined and entangled, she had to break it to him that their relationship had an expiration date.

"That was Kelley." Hope put her phone down, crossing the room. "She's my soulmate."

"Your— oh." He cocked his head at her, eyes narrowed in confusion. "Do you actually believe in that stuff?"

Hope recoiled at the question, even though it was asked gently.

"Of course I do." Her stance became defensive. "Her writing's been showing up on my skin for years."

"That— that doesn't happen," Jerramy stammered, and Hope realized suddenly, horribly, that he didn't have one, that he'd never seen the writing, that he'd never know what it meant to have his future all figured out from the age of 11. She took another step towards him, gently touching his arm.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Kelley is— she's my future. She's what I'm working towards, she's where I'm going to end up."

"Then why?" He didn't say more, just gestured around at the house, at the two of them, and Hope knew what he meant. Why take the time? Why try? Why do any of this?

"I love you." Her voice was soft, trembling. "I love you, Jerramy, and I want to live for a present with you, even if our future isn't forever."

"I can't believe—" He choked, turning his head, but Hope could see emotion rippling across his face. Jerramy didn't say anything else, just put a hand on her shoulder and then walked out the front door. She fell asleep on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for headlights to swivel into the driveway.

She woke the next morning to the smell of fresh coffee. Jerramy was on the couch next to her, a bag of donuts in hand, coffee resting on the table next to her. He wordlessly handed her one cup, reaching out to touch the rim of his with hers.

"To the present," he murmured, and his smile was weak but his eyes were determined, and Hope swore to God she couldn't love him any more than she did in that moment.

Living with a partner made Hope more domestic — she bought flowers randomly for the dining room table, took breaks from painting in the living room to try out new recipes. Life fell into a contented pattern, always feeling as if she was in Jerramy's orbit without being too attached or detached to be happy.

She still called Kelley as much, if not more, trying to prove that living with Jerramy wasn't a threat. Kelley, for her part, seemed almost overwhelmingly happy at Stanford, secure in a way that Hope remembered fondly from college. The older she got, the more effortlessly they fit together, conversations stretching even longer than before. And Kelley was still her go-to when she was tired, when she was upset or hit what she called "artist's block," when she just needed someone to listen to.

She was the first person she told when she was promoted to the position of lead project manager for the company she had worked at since graduation, somehow climbing the design ladder faster in two and a half years than many did in twice the time. Hope's knees nearly buckled when she received the news, and she had hardly left the office before her phone was in hand, fingers dialing a number she knew by heart.

"God damn it, I'm so proud of you," Kelley shouted, and she was fairly sure she could hear the younger girl jumping around on the other end. "You are the fucking best, you hear me?"

"Loud and clear, Kell." Hope laughed at her enthusiasm, and in her excitement made the type of promise she always tried to keep from making. "I might just be rich by the time we're together."

"I picked a good one," Kelley said in response, seeming to ignore the vague promise. She left the obvious question — and when will that be? — to rest for the moment.

Jerramy's response was softer, quieter, just like the man himself. He grinned broadly and tugged her into a hug, muttering a gruff "I'm so proud of you" into her hair as he kissed the top of her head. She glowed with the praise, tucking her head into his chest.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," he said suddenly, holding her by the arms. "You're off Friday, right?"

She nodded yes, and he was suddenly in motion, telling her to pack a suitcase — "Your warm clothes, okay?" — his smile wide and infectious, and Hope had no idea what she was getting mixed up in but she didn't give a damn. The next afternoon, Jerramy drove them to the airport, only grinning in response when she badgered him with questions about where they were going.

Hope quickly found out when they boarded the 6:25 p.m. flight to New York City. She could hardly sit still as the plane rolled slowly across the tarmac — only partly because she despised planes — and Jerramy didn't seem to be able to stop looking at her.

Six hours later, it was midnight and they were standing in the middle of Times Square, their arms flung out as they watched the crowds jostle by.

"You're crazy," Hope shouted, grabbing him by his coat and kissing him quickly. "You're actually insane."

"Yeah." He looked down at her. "Yeah, I think I am."

The next morning, she woke early, and she slipped into the hall to call Kelley without giving it a second thought. Her call went through to voicemail, but she left a long message, explaining what the city looked like — "It's too damn full of energy, you would love it." — and promising to call later. She hung up with an "I love you" in her throat, because this city made her feel filled with life and it made her wish that Kelley was there.

Jerramy was awake when she re-entered the room, sitting on the side of the bed and pulling his shirt on. She looked at him, a wave of guilt shallow in the pit of her stomach, and he smiled half-heartedly.

"Where did you get to?" His eyes followed her phone as she slipped it into her back pocket.

"Just making a quick call." She could see the melancholy look in his eyes, the way they drooped back to the floor.

"Kelley?" he asked, and she nodded, even though he wasn't looking at her, because she couldn't bear to say the words that she knew would hurt him. Because Jerramy would never tell her how this breaks him, tell her he's afraid of a college girl three time zones away. He wouldn't ask her to stop calling Kelley. He wouldn't tell her to leave the girl alone. And it's this understanding, this kindness — even though it breaks him — that in some ways made Hope love him even more.

"Hey." Hope sat next to him on the bed, placing a hand on his shoulder and a kiss on top of his head, dropping her hand and intertwining their fingers. "What do we want to do today?"

He smiled, small and unsteady, and glanced at her.

"Well, the morning is up to you, but—" Jerramy reached into the bedside table, pulling out an envelope and tearing the paper lip with one finger. "I think you'll want to leave your afternoon free."

She glanced down as he placed two tickets in her hands, and she could feel him beaming expectantly at her, but she couldn't look up quite yet because the tears brimming in her eyes made it hard to double check the name of the show printed in bold lettering.

"You didn't." And now Hope looked up, wrapping both arms around his neck, tugging him close.

"It's still your favorite show, right?" They broke apart, and Hope just grinned back, nodding wordlessly. Jerramy looked uncontrollably pleased with himself, like he just won the lottery even though he's the one giving a gift, and it was enough to make Hope kiss him, again and again.

"I love you," she murmured, and the tension that filled his broad frame since she disappeared this morning seemed to seep away. He softened, and she saw him for a split second — vulnerable but not wary, trusting in her — and her heart swelled.

They spent the morning wandering the streets of New York, eating breakfast at a tiny German bakery, sharing soft pretzels outside Central Park, stopping to watch a street performer create a sunset out of spray paint on a spinning canvas (Jerramy bought it on the spot). They stopped by F.A.O Schwartz and leap around each other on a giant piano, attempting (and failing) to recreate the scene from Big, and eventually receiving a strong suggestion to leave (mainly brought on by a lightsaber fight that nearly resulted in the destruction of a giant Lego sculpture).

In the end, they were almost late to the matinee show, sliding into their seats just as the lights begin to dim. Hope clutched at Jerramy's arm, and he flashed a smile at her as the curtain rose, and she closed her eyes as the first bar of music began, praying she'd never forget this.

(she tried to forget the fact that, when the show ended, her first instinct was to call Kelley and tell her all about it.)

It was only after the show finished, when they spilled out into the crisp evening air, tugging on their coats, that Hope realized something about Jerramy was slightly off. It was in the weight of his movements — the way his eyes lingered on her, the way his arm tugged at her waist, the way he couldn't seem to stop smiling — and she wasn't sure if he was drunk off the city or the play or just the two of them, alone together, but the feeling was infectious.

Jerramy called them a taxi, and Hope figured they were headed home until he leaned forward and asked the driver to take them to the Met.

"You're up for one more adventure, right?" He settled back in his seat, and Hope just smiled, curling her fingers around his and leaning her head into his shoulder. Her phone buzzed, and for a second she wondered if she should check it, if it was Kelley calling to see how she is, but for the moment she figured the girl could wait.

The Met was better than she had expected, and truth be told, she had expected a lot. It was paradise for an artist, the type of place she just wanted to get lost in, and she walked wordlessly from piece to piece, floating in and out of rooms, Jerramy following, holding her hand, watching with a mix of amusement and adoration filling his eyes. Every now and then, she glanced back at him, asking what he thought, but he never really answered. He'd rather listen to her, listen to the way she obsessed over line and color, form and figure, eyes dancing with some type of love.

And then they entered the room of Monets, the one that is normally packed but on this Sunday night was somehow empty, and Hope couldn't help but let out the tiniest gasp. She stood in front of one, completely enamored, and it took her a moment to feel Jerramy tug lightly at her hand.

Then she turned around, and he had dropped to one knee, and the world turned head over heels.

"Hope." She opened her mouth but no words could come out, there were no words to explain what she felt, what she was feeling, whatever was filling her chest. "I love you. I've loved you for so long that I don't know how to do anything else. I love your eyes and your art and your voice and your sense of humor and the way that you look at me when you think I'm not looking."

She swallowed, reaching out to grab one of his hands, and she wanted to interrupt him but she didn't have the words.

"I have never asked you to choose me, and I will never ask you to do it again." His hand slipped into his pocket and he tugged out a ring, unimaginably small in his hands, the simple diamond sparkling in the light. "But I'm asking you now. I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Please, tell me you feel the same."

Hope looked down at him, at his warm eyes, at the gentle way he looked up at her, love thick in his eyes but tinted with fear. He knew that she might say no, and yet he was still here, on one knee.

"Jerramy, I—" Her voice trailed away, and she tugged at his hands until he understood and stood back up. "I don't know what to say."

"Say yes." His voice was pleading, and she thought of all the times he could have asked for this and didn't, and in this moment she hated herself because somehow, she had never expected to love him deeply enough to not want to break him. "Please, Hope."

Her silence spoke more deeply than any words could. He looked at her, face crumbling, so she pressed herself to him, arms wrapping around his torso.

"I need to think," she murmured, looking up at him. He wouldn't meet her eyes. "I need to figure this out, I need—"

"Time?" he asked, and his voice wasn't sarcastic, wasn't bitter. She loved him for it.

"Yes." She nodded. "I need time."

The drive back to their hotel was silent, the ring in Jerramy's pocket somehow weighing heavy, even out of sight. They shared the same bed, but they didn't touch, didn't speak, even over coffee the next morning, even in the terminal waiting for the plane to take them home. The silence was deafening.

Home didn't feel like home like this. After a few hours of unpacking quietly and attempting to avoid one another, Hope escaped, driving her car to a lake an hour from their house. She came out here to think occasionally, letting her sight unfocus over the glassy surface of the water. She sat for an hour, her fingers hovering over her phone, before finally dialing the number she needed to call.

"Kelley?"

Chapter Text

Kelley quickly learned that the whole "finding yourself" phase of college was, despite the overwhelming cliche, painfully accurate.

There were a lot of things she figured out. For instance, she hated chemistry despite its inevitable important to her degree. She equally hated tequila, but if she swallowed enough of it she forgot about chemistry, and that was a plus. She loved her friends, who brought coffee to her work study job and ate lunch with her on the quad and kicked around a soccer ball in their shared apartment, who were always down for movie nights and Popeye's runs and random road trips to the beach. And she missed Hope, in a strange way, missing something that she'd never had, never known, but always longed for.

The distance wasn't really the issue, because being further apart really didn't matter when they had never actually been together in the first place. But it was something about the distance of their future, which used to have a deadline and now floated amorphously, a possibility never discussed, never questioned. Kelley figured that she'd meet Hope after college, once she had a degree and was a "real-world adult" — she was slightly embarrassed that she used to think she'd magically be an adult at the age of 18, ready to move in with Hope and start their lives together — but every time she heard Jerramy's voice in the background of their phone calls, she just wasn't sure.

Which is maybe why she decided to drink too much on that night in November.

It was sophomore year, and Tobin's best friend from back home and decided to spend her fall break — she was a poly sci major at Cal — at their apartment at Stanford.

She didn't arrive until their group was already three shots deep into their pregame, Kelley clutching her "mixed drink" — a handful of shots of Jack with a splash of coke — and attempting to dance with Sydney, who was actually coordinated enough to bust out a few moves before dissolving into laughter. Alex walked in, all long legs and tan skin, rolling some name-brand suitcase behind her and running her hand through hair that had definitely been through keratin treatment recently, and she had the I-look-this-good-because-daddy's-money-paid-for-it vibe that got Kelley a little weak in the knees.

"Guys, this is Alex," Tobin shouted over the music, throwing an arm around her shoulders and dangling off the smaller girl. Kelley had to smirk for a second at how diametrically different the pair looked, and as she smirked Alex met her eyes, smile mirroring hers as she leaned into Tobin. And Kelley was a glorious idiot when she saw something she wanted, and God did she suddenly, incurably want Alex.

She had always been the type to get what she want, not because she was spoiled but because she was horribly, aggressively tenacious in pursuing what she desired. Grades, awards, positions on student councils and soccer teams — it was all the same. Kelley wasn't the type to cloak what she wanted behind layers of indifference; no, she knew what she wanted and she took it, to hell with what came in the way.

Looking across the room, drink cold against her palm, she wanted Alex more than anything else. So she didn't break eye contact, instead shooting a quick wink at the girl and watching her mouth curl into a smirk, her chin rising slightly, as if she recognized a challenge when she saw one.

That was how, one hour later, Kelley's hand brushed confidently against the curve of Alex's back as they lined up for their second game of beer pong. She was unsteady on her feet because she had, kindly, offered to drink for Alex who was, of course, a terrible shot. Kelley liked to think she was excellent at beer pong, but she was honestly mediocre at best, most of her reputation involving the game revolving upon a few lucky games from freshman year in which she took down teams of frat boys in less than five rounds.

But she wasn't going to tell Alex that.

"Will you please, for the love of God, hold your weight this time?" she asked softly, leaning into Alex's side to deliver the dig, her breath soft on the taller girl's throat. Alex glared down at her in response, biting her lip as she dunked her ball into a cup of water and shook it dry.

"You've got it," she said in response, her voice equally low, and Kelley grinned openly as Alex turned all the way to face her, holding the ball out. "Blow on it. For luck."

Kelley blew on the ball, and Alex turned and sank her first shot of the night. She glanced back at Kelley, raising her eyebrows, and earned a wink in response and a slap on the ass, playful only if they hadn't looked back at each other appraisingly, tearing their eyes away only after a few seconds.

And that was how, as the party was being cleaned up, Kelley and Alex remained downstairs, alone with a mess of red Solo cups and a half-dried puddle that looked suspiciously like beer. It was purposeful on both of their parts, and Kelley knew that, knew that she didn't really need to hide her motives as she picked up the last of the cups and stacked them on the table to be washed the next morning.

"Not too bad for a Stanford party," Alex said as she stood from where she'd been fishing cups out from under the couch, and she looked straight at Kelley, the challenge clear. Kelley took a step closer, hands on her hips.

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" She took another step closer as Alex straightened all the way up, enough that they were sharing the same space. "Because if so, that's adorable."

"I'm just saying, we know which of our institutions knows how to throw a better party," Alex smirked. "And it's sure as hell not going to be Nerd Nation."

"Take that back.

"No."

"Take it back."

"No."

Kelley took the final step, her knee in between Alex's legs as she pushed her back into the wall, both hands finding her waist, lips parted by only half an inch of air.

"Take it back," she muttered dangerously, and when Alex began to shape an argument she kissed it right off her lips. Kelley pressed her back further, earning a low moan, and her hands slipped under Alex's shirt, fingernails scraping against the soft skin of her ribcage before Alex even had time to kiss back. It didn't take much persuasion to get the shirt off, or to pin Alex to the nearest couch, or to tongue fuck her sloppily with one palm clamped against her mouth to keep the noise level at a minimum, and the next hour was spent stretched out in some type of heated haze.

Alex spent the next night in her bed. And the next. And the next.

It became a pastime. Alex went back to Cal, but Stanford's fall break was only two weeks later and Kelley found herself tangled up in the taller girl's sheets, both hands fisted in her hair as she bit her lip hard enough to bleed, attempting to keep quiet as her legs shook uncontrollably. It wasn't like she was unused to sex — she was successful enough with a series of flings throughout college, and there'd been her high school boyfriend — but Alex was fire, she was rough and ragged at the edges, she left Kelley more hungry than she'd been before they started.

The drive from Cal to Stanford was, in short, a bitch. It was two hours in San Francisco traffic which wasn't, Alex always pointed out, as bad as Los Angeles traffic. But it was still a bitch. Even so, they found time once a month for a weekend together, spent mostly in bed or at parties or tangled up and hungover in bed.

"You guys are cute," Tobin had commented once over lunch, and Kelley had rolled her eyes, shooting her friend a pointed look.

"We aren't anything," she muttered. "Except for having sex. That we are. We're doing that a lot."

"Right, if you two aren't a couple I don't know what is," Tobin shot back, and Kelley raised her gaze immediately to look at her friend, eyes wide and glittering with a mix of excitement and glee.

"Oh, you want to talk about couples?" Kelley leaned onto one elbow, a murderous smile filling her face. "Because there's a certain someone I wouldn't mind talking very loudly about right now. In fact, why—"

"Shut up and I'll let you live," Tobin growled, her eyes searching the restaurant quickly for Christen, who had left for the bathroom. They glared at one another for a second before dropping the conversation hastily.

And sure, some of those weekends were beginning to include trips to movie theatres or local restaurants, and yes Kelley did buy them James Bay tickets because Alex was the only person who would agree to go, and yes they did text almost every hour of every day. But she knew what friends with benefits looked like and she knew, beyond a doubt, that they were just that — friends. Who went down on each other. A lot. Nothing more.

Which was why, of course, it came as a surprise when Alex gasped out three words as Kelley pressed a kiss to her throat, hands dipping low under her sweatpants on an April morning after they'd tried — and failed — to make French toast in the kitchen. (they failed because Kelley pushed Alex up against the counter and kissed her for so long that the butter in the pan burned)

"What?" Kelley backed up, stricken, watching Alex as her face fell, then recomposed itself.

"I— I mean," Alex's eyes scanned around the room, seemingly anywhere but at Kelley. "We've been doing this for months, I figured eventually—"

"I'd what, eventually I'd fall in love with you?" Kelley saw Alex flinch at the words, and she tried to soften her voice. "Look, Alex, you're one of my best friends but I can't do this kind of thing—"

"What kind of thing?" Alex cut her off, voice rough with anger. "Date me? Love me? We were doing so fucking well, how can you act like we weren't going somewhere?"

"Because I can't go anywhere like that," she murmured. "I have someone already."

"You have... oh." The sound of her breath leaving her lungs was pathetic, and Kelley should have known to brace herself for the tears, but she wasn't prepared for watching Alex crumple. Even worse was the way she attempted to save face, to keep herself together, even as she covered her face with one hand. "So we're not..."

"No." Kelley cocked her head. "Why would you think we were?"

"We just seemed to fit." Alex shrugged. "I don't know."

"But we didn't have the writing," Kelley said, eyes tracing Alex's face, confusion thick in her voice. "I don't, Alex, I don't get why you would think—"

"I never tried writing." There was an air of dejection in the way Alex slumped against the counter. "My parents told me to wait."

There wasn't anything for Kelley to say, even though there were questions pummeling her with every second that passed. She nodded, gently, and kept her eyes down as Alex said she should probably go. She didn't fight it when she left, just handed her jacket and asked her to let her know when she got home safely. Kelley spent the night on the couch, staring blankly at the TV until Tobin came home. There wasn't much to explain, but she did so anyways, and Tobin wrapped herself around her, arms tight and gentle, whispering apologies until the guilt began to seep away.

It was two days later that Hope called.

Kelley was flat on her back in bed, which helped muffle the impact, the brutality of the words.

"Jerramy asked me to marry him."

Part of her became obsessed, in that instant, in the way that Hope phrased this. Not "Jerramy proposed." No. "Jerramy asked me to marry him." It seemed so heavy, so concrete. As if her mind was already made up.

"Okay." She wasn't going to give up any ground, wasn't going to allow Hope to win this one in the slightest. She couldn't breathe, besides, couldn't get out more than one syllable, because her rib cage was constricting every movement, every breath that she took in.

"Kelley—" Hope's voice trailed off and Kelley didn't know what to say. How did she fight for a soulmate, for someone who she had been created to love, for someone she wasn't supposed to live without? She didn't have the words for this argument, for this fight, because they weren't supposed to exist in the first place.

"Do what you think is best, Hope," Kelley murmured. "You know I'll always be here, no matter what."

And she hung up. Her screen read "1:06." A minute and six seconds devoted to perhaps the most important phone call of her life. A minute and six seconds to cut loose her future.

Hope didn't call back. Kelley got drunk.

It was a Tuesday night, so it was a little sad, just her and Tobin and Christen and Sydney sprawled out on the floor with two bottles of wine and a handle of vodka, pouring glasses of orange juice to cut the bitterness of the liquor. Kelley's anger became white hot with every drink, and everyone else seemed to understand that the trick wasn't to dampen this flame but to fan it, to let her blaze out every bit of resentment she was feeling.

"You know, Alex had never even written to hers," Kelley spat out, her hand gripped tight around the neck of one wine bottle. She threw her head back and killed the rest of the drink, wiping red liquid away from her lips.

"Written to her what?" Sydney's eyes were glassy as she stumbled to her feet, retreating to the kitchen and returning with a half-full 30-rack of beer.

"Her soulmate, idiot." Kelley grabbed a beer, cracked it open, and drank. "Didn't even write."

"I haven't, either." Tobin tipped her own beer to her lips, shrugging, and Christen nodded in agreement. "My parents and I, we don't really believe in it. We think God will bring us to our soulmate no matter what."

"That's stupid." Kelley's voice was sharp, her eyes narrowed. "You should write. That way you can know if they're shit or not to begin with."

"I don't see how that would help—" Christen began, but a single look from Sydney warned her away from arguing too hard. Kelley had almost finished her beer already, and the look in her eye had gone past dangerous awhile ago. She stood, stumbling slightly, and left the room, leaving her friends to glance at one another, wordlessly wondering if they had pissed Kelley off enough to make her turn in for the night. But seconds later, she returned with a Sharpie in hand.

"Write." Kelley stood over Tobin, the pen held out, and her friend looked up at her, eyes wide and fearful. "What are you scared of?"

"Look, Kelley we don't do this kind of thing." She didn't push the Sharpie away, but she didn't take it either. "I know it's not a big deal for you, but we don't do this."

"Right." The tone of Kelley's voice became even more barbed as a smile spread across her face. "Just like you don't drink, or do drugs, or swear, or sleep with pretty girls—"

"Alright." Tobin cut her off, glancing sideways for a moment, then reaching up to take the pen. "You've got a point."

The air in the room felt overly warm as Kelley sat back down, watching as Tobin uncapped the Sharpie. Sydney sat up, chin rested on her palm as if she was watching a particularly interesting movie. Christen's eyes bore a hole into the floor, fingers picking at the skin of one cuticle, and if Kelley had been even the slightest bit sober one look at her would've forced her to stop Tobin immediately.

But she was drunk and angry and every detail in the room was blurry. So she said nothing.

Tobin stared at her hand for a second, then wrote one word — "sup" — on her palm. She grinned up at Kelley, tossing the pen back at her head.

"Happy?" she asked, and then laughed, a little too loud. "Can you imagine how confused they'll be?"

Sydney joined the laughter, and soon even Kelley was cracking up.

"Like dude, it took you— what? Twenty years to say hi?" Sydney rolled over on her side, poking at Tobin with one toe. "How long's it gonna take you to get to first base?"

"Tobin—" Christen's voice was soft and drowned out by Kelley, who was loudly teasing Tobin.

"I'd be like, 'Dude, now?'" She mimed squinting down at her palm, then burst out laughing. "I got my life together and now this rando from Stanford is gonna try to woo me?"

"I woo well," Tobin said defensively, and Sydney laughed, shoving her over.

"Tobin." Their laughter died as Christen stood, her voice high and panicky. "I need to talk to you."

"Wha— Chris, we're in the middle of a drinking session." Tobin tugged at her ankle. "Sit down, talk here, it's comfy."

"Please, come outside, just talk to me for a second," Christen pleaded, but when she saw that Tobin was firmly anchored to the ground, she sighed, growling out a low "fine" as she dropped into a crouch and shoved her right hand in front of Tobin's eyes. "Now will you talk?"

Even Kelley glimpsed the flash of ink on Christen's hand, the scrawling "s" and the jagged "p." Tobin's eyes widened for a moment, her head whipping to look up at Christen. A second later she was scrambling to her feet, nodding and muttering to herself — "Outside. Talk. Yeah." — as she dragged Christen out of the room by one wrist. Kelley watched them go slowly, a sick sense of dreading filling the depth of her stomach.

"I'm going to bed." Sydney didn't stop her, and Kelley took the stairs to her room in twos. For a moment, she looked at her phone, scrolling through her contacts. She stopped at Alex first, pausing — she could call, she could apologize, they could figure things out. But she cared enough that she didn't want to do that. Not now, not like this, with the whole room spinning and nausea just a heartbeat away.

She stopped at Hope's name next, the name she checked for every time her phone buzzed, the most used contact on her phone. She could call Hope, too. It would hurt Hope less to hear Kelley's voice drunk. She might not even pick up, just feel guilty when she saw the missed call the next morning. Maybe now she could plead, she could beg, she could fight.

Instead, she swiped left and pressed 'delete.'

It was just a symbol, she knew, because she pretty much had Hope's number memorized by now. But the symbol was important, and she did it because in some ways, she knew tonight was the beginning of something new for both of them.

It was time to move on.

Chapter Text

Ten minutes after hanging the phone up, Hope bought a one-way plane ticket.

She didn't tell Jerramy, or Carli. She bought the ticket and packed a carry on and drove to the airport, even though she had around five hours to wait. She bought a book at a stand by the nearest Starbucks, curled up with a venti cup of black coffee and forced herself to read, to focus her mind on anything else. She bought another cup of coffee when her plane pulled in hours later, drinking half of it before the wheels even left the ground.

Hope realized that the caffeine was a mistake halfway into the flight, because she would do just about anything to just fall asleep. Coast-to-coast flights aren't her specialty, and God does she want to just shut her brain off for the next four hours.

When she finally landed, she'd finished the book, a forgettable thriller with a twist ending that she'd predicted from the first ten or so pages. Hope stood, rolling her neck and making her way out into the terminal, which was icy cold. She followed signs to a rental car company, asked for their cheapest car and gladly sank into the driver's seat, breathing in the overwhelming "fresh car" smell.

"Do you need a map or anything?" asked the woman checking her out, leaning in through the window. Hope just laughed and shook her head.

"I think I know my way around."

She hadn't made this drive in years, since Thanksgiving as a junior in college. She hadn't been home since her injury, and that wasn't by accident. Her mom wasn't the type to call or check in. Soccer had been an easy thing to talk about, a weekly occurrence to ask a few questions over and then disappear again until the next game. When soccer stopped, the phone calls from home stopped and Hope didn’t exactly do anything to encourage them to start again.

Her breath hitched as she pulled into the driveway. Someone had given the shutters a new layer of paint, planted little white flowers in the bed by the walk leading up to the door, and the grass was cut neat and low. For a moment she panicked, frightened that her mother had moved, that she had come all this way for nothing. And just as she was about to cuss herself out for not having the balls to call ahead, a car pulled into the driveway and parked, and her mother emerged from behind the wheel.

For a moment, she just watched. Her hair was well-done and she was wearing a light sweater and a pair of dark-wash jeans. She looked good — and Hope realized this with a wash of relief, as if she hadn’t abandoned this woman, as if maybe her absence had done some good, or at least not done any harm.

Finally, Hope unbuckled her seat belt and left the car. She walked slowly to the front door, raised her hand and paused. It took several seconds of standing, eyes closed, before she was able to rap her knuckles against the wood.

Her mother looked older as she swung the door open. Her face crumpled for a moment as she saw Hope, and then a smile filled her face with more joy than she’d ever seen in those eyes before.

Hope.” Judy hugged her, hard, dragging Hope into her chest. Her arms were bony, her whole body light and fragile like a bird's. "Oh honey you look beautiful."

She tugged Hope into the house, which smelled of vanilla and looked nothing like her childhood memories. She shifted awkwardly in the doorway, until her mother waved her into the kitchen, her smile broad and easy.

The kitchen was nothing like it used to be. The cracked table was gone, and its replacement was made of a sturdy pine. Hope sat down slowly at it, rubbing her thumb against the corner, noticing that the TV was gone, replaced by a vase full of peonies — Hope's favorites.

"So—" Judy sat in front of her, fingers interlaced, eyes wide with excitement. "How are you?"

And she told her everything. About the writing on her skin that she'd hidden since she was a child. About the phone calls, about Kelley's voice, the way she never failed to listen, the way she made her feel with words alone. About Jerramy and the way he always brought her flowers and made her feel at home just by tugging her into his chest. About the pain she felt whenever she thought about both of them in the same breath.

She pulled the ring from her pocket, where it had sat since they left New York, and laid it in between herself and her mother.

"Look," she whispered, and Judy gently lifted the ring, marveling at the subtle diamond.

"Oh, Hope." She sighed. "This is beautiful."

"I have to say yes, mom," Hope whispered. "I'm going to say yes. He's— He's too much to risk saying no to."

For a moment, they sat in silence, both of their eyes fixated on the ring in Judy's hands. Then, she took a deep breath and said more in a minute than she had ever said to Hope in her life.

"When I was three, I saw the writing for the first time." Hope's eyes darted up to her mother's face. "I don't remember it, but my parents said I was so excited. As soon as I learned to write, I wrote to him. We got along so well. We called every night once we were old enough — and this was before cell phones, so we were tying up the line all the time, it drove both our families mad."

She laughed softly, putting the ring back on the table.

"On December 12, he was supposed to call me." Hope watched her mother's features carefully. "He didn't. I waited a few days and then I called his house and—"

For a moment, her mother seemed to choke on her words before continuing.

"He'd been in a car accident," she whispered. "He flipped four times after the truck hit him. He died an hour later. He was 18. I never saw his face."

They sat in a silence that was heavy with grief, an old grief, a hidden mourning that carried the type of weight that dragged at every corner of her soul. Hope didn't know what to say, but something told her she wasn't necessarily meant to say anything.

"Hope, you get one soulmate," her mother continued after several minutes. "One person who you are meant to be with, who you are created to love and to cherish forever. And you might love someone else but it's never— it's never going to be the same."

She looked up, and their eyes locked.

"Not everyone gets their happily ever after." She smiled gently. "Go live yours."

Hope spent the night in her childhood bed, curled on one side and breathing in the familiarity of home. She spent the next morning tracing the outline of old soccer trophies, studying shelves cluttered with old pictures of herself and Marcus. She heard the door open behind her and smiled without turning around.

"I haven't seen him in years," Hope admitted. She glanced over one shoulder to see Judy leaned against the doorjamb.

"He lives ten minutes from here," she said. "He owns a restaurant with Jake, that buddy of his from college. They're doing alright."

Hope flushes for a moment. She doesn't know who Jake is, and she had forgotten that Marcus had always wanted to open a place of his own. She can imagine how it would look, how he described his dream as a child.

"You can go see him," Judy said hopefully, but Hope shook her head.

"I'm on the next flight out of here," she said, her voice regretful. "I want to stay longer but—"

"You have things to attend to." She reached out a hand, extending the ring. "You'll want this."

Hope nodded, smiling and wrapping her mom in a hug.

"Thank you," she whispered, and somehow, she realized that the last day had answered a lifetime of her questions.

It was time to face the fact that love was not something that came easily, that was handed to her, that was simple. Love was patient and kind, yes, but love was something to choose. And it was time to stop running from it, to stop acting as if all of this was something that she could put off.

Hope tucked the ring into her pocket. It was time to go home.

***

It took several minutes for Kelley to realize that her phone was ringing.

She'd meant to take a quick half-hour nap, but she'd passed out for two hours and Tobin didn't have the heart to wake her up. But a persistent vibration slowly roused her, and eventually she realized that her phone was ringing incessantly. She scrabbled at it and tapped "accept."

"Mm-hello?" Her voice sounded fuzzy, and she sat up, rubbing one palm into her left eye.

"Kell." And suddenly, she was as awake as she'd ever been. "Oh thank God I thought you weren't going to pick up."

"Hope?" She stood up, a hand running through her hair. "What's going on, are you okay?"

"Yeah, I mean no, I haven't been on a college campus in so long and I'm so confused but—" Hope sounded breathless and Kelley couldn't really understand anything she was saying. "I think I'm on the quad? Will you come to the quad?"

Kelley's blood ran cold.

"Are you— are you on campus?" she asked, already glancing around desperately for shoes, finding her Birkenstocks and shoving her feet into them, accidentally getting her left shoe on her right foot and then having to change them. "Hope, where are you?"

"I'm on the quad I think?" Kelley could hardly comprehend anything beyond her words and the cold of her phone in her hand. "And I— there's a church by me and—"

"Oh God, I know where you are, don't move." Kelley practically screamed as she grabbed her keys, shoving them in the waistband of her shorts. "Please don't move—"

"I'm not planning on it, just— can I see you?" Hope sounded desperate and Kelley was laughing, so hard she could barely breathe as she sprinted down the stairs and out the front door.

"For fuck's sake, Hope, I'll see you in five minutes," she growled.

"Okay, I'll be the one in the—"

"I'll know who you are."

Kelley had never been more sure of anything in her life.

She sprinted onto the quad, past Roble Hall, through the sculpture garden, through the grove, her feet half-slipping out of her sandals as she ran harder than she had since soccer. And it didn't matter how fast she moved, because Hope was there and wanted to see her and a handful of minutes, a few hours, wouldn't change that. But God she was tired of being apart from Hope and she didn't know if she could handle it for another second.

Kelley rounded the corner of Memorial Church and pulled up, eyes scanning the quad, the groups of boys tossing Frisbees, the girls reading in the shade, and then— she saw her.

She saw her and the world stopped.

Kelley honestly had no idea how she knew it was Hope. It was just something in her eyes, in the way she was looking around. Mostly it was the way her whole chest caved in just at the sight of her.

For a second, all she wanted to do was look. Hope's hair fell soft around her shoulders, brushing her collarbone. She wore a dark blue sweater that scooped low, and her hands clung gently to each other, and her eyes were sharp and brilliant and — god she was beautiful.

"Hope!" She screamed her name, and the woman's head whipped around, and the moment they saw each other she knew that there was no turning back, no getting over this. Hope started to walk across the quad towards her, but Kelley broke out in a run.

And really, it was an odd vision — Kelley in an oversized sorority sweatshirt, running shorts and Birkenstocks with her hair sloppily falling out of its ponytail, Hope with her makeup done in a J. Crew sweater and slim-fitting jeans. But then Kelley launched herself at Hope, arms wrapping around the back of her neck, and Hope caught her like it was all she knew how to do. She looped both arms around Kelley, tugging her tight and laughing as the smaller girl pressed her face into the curve of her neck and breathed in.

It felt like home.

"Don't let me go," Kelley whispered. She clung to Kelley, trying to memorize the way she smelled, the way her hair felt under the fingers of her right hand, the way her body was pressed insistently against hers. She didn't want to move. She didn't want to change a thing.

"I'm not," Hope whispered back. "I've got you."

Kelley stepped back, but only to grab Hope's face in both hands, eyes darting across every feature, thumbs dusting across her cheekbones. She pressed a kiss to her forehead, to both cheeks, to the tip of her nose. She stopped only when Hope started laughing, the sound light and giddy as her hands gripped at her sweatshirt even tighter, tugging her in so their hips were flush, foreheads knocking lightly into each other.

"Hey." Kelley grinned up at her. "You're beautiful. Can I kiss you?"

"As much as you want." Hope grinned back, and she didn't stop smiling as Kelley kissed her. Something about them fit perfectly, something in the way Kelley's hand tangled in Hope's hair and the way Hope cradled her face, in the way Kelley nudged her lips open a little wider and used her other arm to tug her closer by the small of her back.

They were both hungry for each other in a way they couldn't quite control, hands wandering, and Hope had to push Kelley back slightly, a laugh on her lips.

"Okay, okay, not as much as you want right now," she said, and Kelley smirked, raising an eyebrow. But the expression softened almost immediately as she smoothed a hand through Hope's hair, hand soft where it paused on Hope's jaw.

"You came," she whispered, dropping her forehead to rest on Hope's chest. "Why?"

Hope pressed a kiss to the top of her head, wrapping both arms around her shoulders and tugging her tight.

"I realized I wasn't made for anyone but you."

Chapter Text

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.

“Who—“

“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.

"Kelley—"

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.