“So,” Hunter says, pencil clenched between his teeth, “you like Casey, huh?”
Zoe has to take a full sixty seconds to process that absurd question. She counts. Maybe, she thinks, if she waits long enough, it will magically start to sound sane.
This does not happen.
“I’m sorry,” she says at last, lifting her chin out of her open palm, where it had been propped only a moment ago for her to more comfortably peruse her AP Chemistry textbook. “I must have dozed off for a second there. I swear to God I just had some sort of crazy nightmare where you talked to me?”
She can’t see it, since his back is to her, but she’s sure Hunter rolls his eyes at that one, which is frankly offensive. She doesn’t know when their relationship had gone from “Oh, Zoe, please don’t make my life a living hell; I’ll do anything” to “Oh, Zoe, you are such a piece of work, and I somehow find it acceptable to treat you with a modicum of familiarity,” but suddenly that’s where they are, a fact by which she is both disgusted and horrified. She needs to step up her game.
“Ha, ha,” Hunter deadpans. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“What the hell are you asking me for?” she fires back. At this, she finally twists her head over her shoulder to scowl appropriately at the back of his. They’re sitting at two separate tables in a vacant corner of the library, and midterms start tomorrow. “You trying to gauge your competition, or something? Because frankly, you’re going to be wasting your time with a lot of people even stupider than you are if you plan on asking every single—”
“I’m not asking every single person,” Hunter says. “I’m asking you.” He glances at her with furrowed eyebrows. “You don’t—actually think you’re being subtle about it, do you? Because, like, everyone knows. We can all tell.”
“Hunter. Buddy. Champ.” She slings her arm across the top rail of her chair, to more fully face him and pin him with a judgmental stare. “Please tell me you did not just try to lecture me on subtlety. Swear to me that this did not just happen.”
“Can’t make any promises,” Hunter sighs, and at this, he finally has the nerve to show his stupid face, standing briefly up from his chair to plop back down into it backwards. His standard position. Zoe doesn’t balk from his stare, but she does feel a distinct spike of both annoyance and befuddlement at how unashamedly cheerful it is, like they’re two best friends swapping gossip. “So? Do you like her or not?”
“What is even happening right now?!” Zoe explodes, at so shrill and incredulous a volume that it earns her a chiding shush from the nearby library student assistant, who she promptly flips off over her shoulder. “Hunter, what the fuck? You like Casey!”
Hunter grimaces, eyes darting evasively to the ceiling. His cheeks are flushed, but one of his hands is clenched into a firm, decisive fist.
“Not anymore,” he says. “Well, only a little. Maybe? It’s complicated. That stuff you said during Woodrun—it made me think about some things. Look, it doesn’t matter. The point is, if you like her, I want to support you, because we’re friends.”
He gives Zoe a thumbs-up that she promptly swats down. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she snarls. “Even if I was remotely into the whole ‘friends’ schtick, you would definitely not be first on my list.”
“You don’t need to feel embarrassed or anything,” Hunter continues, as if he had not even heard her crushing reply. “Jade likes her, too. And Vanessa. I think. I’m pretty sure. But I think you definitely have the biggest chance out of anybody.”
“Vagigoth I can understand, but I would’ve expected better from one of the few halfway intelligent people in this dungeon.” Zoe checks her nails idly, rather than continuing to let Hunter stare at her with that all-too-knowing expression. “What are you getting at? That we should all start a club for people with bad taste? Because I think you’d be way better suited to join up than I would.”
“Um,” Hunter says, brow furrowing, “no. I’m trying to say I think it’s okay for you to like Casey, and if you want any help asking her on a date or whatever, we’re all here for you.”
Zoe has to throw her head back laughing at that, setting a hand on her chest in an attempt to quell the totally undignified display. The library assistant shushes her again, much more furiously than the first time.
“Oh my God,” Zoe splutters, carefully flicking a tear from the corner of her eye so as not to smudge her mascara. “I don’t know what’s more fucking hysterical. That you’re so convinced I’ve got it bad for Little Miss Perfect, or that you think I’d actually need your help asking another human being out.”
Hunter is scowling at her now, but she’s still trying to wrestle some composure back into herself and failing miserably, dropping her face into one hand and muffling another round of imperious cackles. Hunter waits a while, until she’s expended herself and sighed briskly to signal accordingly, and then he scoots his chair just slightly closer, leans forward, and whispers behind one surreptitious palm:
“I don’t wanna offend you or anything, but that was the fakest laugh I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“Oh, shut up!” Zoe snaps, shoving him away by the face. He flails at her raw strength and nearly topples out of the chair. She keeps her hand where it is, squashed against his nose. “What the hell do you know, anyway?! Is this some parallel universe where you think it’s acceptable to talk to me? Go away!”
“I know that you’ve got a big crush on Casey,” Hunter says, smothered. “And I know you don’t wanna admit it because you think feelings are gross. But you can tell me. That’s what friends are for, right?”
You could pay Zoe a thousand dollars and she still would not be able to tell you when the fuck she and Hunter had become “friends.” She still denies it regularly, to herself and to others, because the whole progression and inevitable result had not even remotely been something to which she had consented. Hunter seemed to have just cheerfully decided that it was going to happen. One would think that the whole trying-to-stab-him thing would have been a red flag, but if anything it had only strengthened his resolve. And now they’re sitting in the library, and he’s making a big show of trying to give her romantic advice, and he had definitely been crying when he’d pulled her into a clumsy hug at the end of Woodrun, and she had definitely not planned on setting a hand on top of his head, glancing aside, and muttering that she was fine; don’t be embarrassing.
Slowly, she lowers her hand, her scowl loosening into a more subdued frown. Hunter wrinkles his nose once it’s freed, carefully prodding at it to ensure it hasn’t suffered any permanent damage.
“I do not think feelings are gross,” she says eventually. “I just think they’re private. And totally not appropriate for the setting around here, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Hasn’t stopped me!” Hunter says, and grins. “But I guess that’s fair. Look, uh, I’m sorry for bringing it up. Guess the idea of focusing on something a little more normal was… kinda tempting. But that doesn’t make it my business, or anything. Your feelings, I mean.”
“Damn straight it doesn’t,” Zoe says. Satisfied with her apparent victory, she whirls back around in her chair, hair swinging over the front of her shoulder with the momentum, and leans over her textbook again, arms folded and laid across the edge of the table. And she could stop there—she has every reason to—but that same weird part of her that had started fluttering at the mention of a chance pushes her further, until her mouth opens around the words, “But thanks. For caring.”
She can tell that it makes him smile. When Hunter is happy, the whole atmosphere of the room he’s in changes to accommodate it.
“No problem,” he says. “That’s what—”
“Don't fucking say it.”
The thing is, Hunter is a goddamn liar. From that moment on, it is such a problem.
Zoe’s not about to go and publicly broadcast it, or anything, but Hunter’s unprecedented attack on her expertly buried emotions shakes her to her core for the rest of the week. She’s useless at the campaign meeting, she’s useless in Ancient Civilizations class, and she’s useless sitting in her dorm room, staring blankly at her homework and repeatedly twisting a lock of her hair around her pencil. It is not a sensation with which she had been even remotely acquainted before coming to this dump—feeling useless, that is; not the pencil-and-hair thing, which she does regularly as a form of meditation—and as far as first impressions go, this blows. Dealing with it is totally beyond her, so all she can do is sit there and take it and put all of her effort into not thinking about the dimple in Casey’s right cheek when she smiles, something she’d never thought of before anyway, so where the fuck is it coming from now—
“I’m prepared for whatever backlash I get for asking this, but—are you doing okay?”
Zoe does a great job of not jumping or tensing up or doing anything to indicate that that specific question in that specific voice at that specific moment scares her out of her mind. She should win an Oscar or something. Really.
“Oh, I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” she replies after just enough time that it looks like she doesn’t care. “It’s just, I thought for sure we agreed you wouldn’t waste your time or mine with the whole compassionate princess act when we both know it’s a fraud.”
Zoe doesn’t see it, but Casey looks at the ceiling, mouth thinning impatiently. “Okay…”
“Not that I’m not touched, mind you,” Zoe continues, light and airy but still savagely sarcastic. “I mean, it just makes my heart skip a beat that you’re trying so hard to pretend you care. I’m really moved.”
“Okay,” Casey says again, more tetchily this time. “I’m not doing it for show, you know. Did you ever consider the possibility that I actually care?”
“Hm,” Zoe muses, tapping her lower lip with her pencil eraser. “I’m sure I must have. Once. In the timeline God abandoned.” She resists the urge to shoot a triumphant stare behind her for the finisher. “You would not believe the kind of crazy shit that goes on in there.”
Casey sighs, loud and dramatic. “Forget I asked.”
“Done and done.”
An oppressive silence mounts between them after that, and Zoe doesn't keep track of how long it's pressing against her back. Long enough, maybe, for her to start feeling a strange pinprick of guilt and apology growing in the back of her throat, making it hard to swallow. God. What is her problem? It’s just Casey.
Just Casey, whose campaign for student council she’s been running for the past three weeks since she’d usurped Ike in a gruesome coup. Just Casey, who she’d helped Hunter half-carry up the vast staircase from the basement at Woodrun’s chaotic end, who had smelled of smoke and electricity at the time, who had not remembered her face. (When Zoe had come sprinting into the cylinder room, dead leaves in her hair and dirt under her nails, and fallen to her knees opposite Hunter at Casey’s prone side, he hadn’t asked her how she’d known. He had stared at her, wide-eyed, frightened, blank, for only a second.) Just Casey, who might have almost died in there, without Zoe’s permission, without Zoe’s presence, without—
Why does it matter?
“Listen,” Casey says, sudden and frank, but trembling the slightest bit. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to end up—fighting, or whatever, like we always do. It’s just… ever since Woodrun… with everything that happened, or, I mean, what Hunter told me—I’ve been—like, with you—” Zoe isn’t watching, but she knows she’s halting to chew her lip and wrinkle her brow, as if it will produce the words she needs.
“What Hunter told you, huh?” Zoe asks with a huge roll of her eyes. That damn pipsqueak again, sticking his stupid big nose in her business. “What was that, exactly?”
Casey inhales. To anyone’s ears but Zoe’s, it would sound steady, but the most minute of Casey’s nuances and mannerisms have had an intimate familiarity for her since the moment she’d seen her walk into that drab orientation room, so she can tell how it shakes, about to give out under the weight of all the things it is hiding.
“That you almost died,” she says. “That Irina almost shot you, but you moved out of the way like—like you knew it was coming. That she still hit you in the shoulder—” The scarring wound throbs, and Zoe has to resist the instinct to graze her fingers over it. “And you had to play dead while they took Hunter, and that you ended up by yourself, with no food or water or map, and still found a way back to the school, and showed up in the basement, like—like you knew.” Zoe can feel her stare, calculating but still unsure. “Even though that’s—you couldn’t have known; that’s not possible.”
Zoe scoffs, letting a smirk open up on her face. “Princess. Have you met me?” Finally, her upper hand somewhat restored, she twists around in her chair, crossing one leg over the other and locking eyes with Casey and not balking at the intensity that greets her. Not for the first time, she’s gripped by the sensation that she’s a child staring straight at the sun, despite all of the warnings around her to refrain. “Seriously. Let it go. I’m here now, aren’t I? As okay as ever, or at least more okay than you are, although that’s not anything new.”
Something seizes Casey’s pretty features at that, as though she’s been stung, and Zoe swears for a surreal beat of time that she’s going to cry. Her limpid blue eyes start to dully glisten as if to prepare for that very thing, but nothing follows, no tears or whimpers.
Casey’s lower lip vanishes subtly behind her teeth. Zoe’s stomach pinches. She wants to follow it.
“Oh, come on, get a grip,” she says in her loftiest tones, rising from her chair to cross the room. She halts in front of Casey, setting her hands on her hips and quirking an eyebrow down at her. “Save the waterworks for your Gothfriend, okay? People are never gonna vote for you if you start bawling every time somebody says something mean.”
“I’m not bawling.” Casey sniffles quietly, swiping at the corners of her eyes with her index finger, gaze still downcast. “Whatever. Like you give a shit. I can handle it.”
Zoe leans to the right to force Casey to look at her. Some of her hair comes loose from the bun she’d twisted it into a few hours ago; a few wet strands still cling to the nape of her neck after her shower. “Didn’t catch that.”
Casey sets her jaw, cheeks flushed, and doesn’t blink. Zoe can’t tell if the look she’s giving her is murderous or determined, but it’s probably both. (And it’s beautiful.)
“I said I can handle it,” she repeats, stronger and more spiteful this time.
“I’m not concerned about whether or not you can handle it,” Zoe says. “Despite what my regularly scheduled insults may have led you to believe, I know that when push comes to shove you will be totally fine; it’s every dumb fuck who happens to be in your way I’m worried about. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. What did you say? ‘Like I give a shit?’ Excuse me? What is that supposed to mean?”
Casey, in her University of Chicago sweatshirt and messy French braid and threadbare leggings, gapes at her. There’s no other word for it. All traces of unspoken hurt and contorted tension have vanished into an expression so ridiculous it’s borderline comical, especially on Casey’s face, of all faces. Zoe nearly has to kick herself to keep from laughing.
“You—don’t,” Casey stutters, gobsmacked. “I-I mean… you don’t.”
Zoe’s eyebrows rise to her bangs and disappear. “Don’t I?”
“You absolutely don’t,” Casey repeats. “That’s, like… your brand, practically. Quit messing with me.”
“Wow,” Zoe says, fanning her fingers out over her lips in faux shock, “if I knew that all it took to throw you off your game was to casually imply I gave a shit if you lived or died, I’d have done it ages ago. Can I like, retroactively win arguments with this?”
Casey is still eyeing her incredulously, like she’s waiting for a cameraman to pop out of Jade’s empty bed (she’s getting dinner in the dining hall with Hunter) and tell her she’s been Punk’d, so Zoe huffs, massaging one of her temples for patience.
“I…” The words stumble on her tongue, leaving her with nothing of substance. “I give a not-insubstantial shit.” The wilier part of her steps in, then, and saves her: “I’m your campaign manager, after all. Kind of part of the job description. Gotta keep the future dictator intact.”
Something flickers across Casey’s face so fleetingly that Zoe nearly misses it—disappointment? She doesn’t have time to try to identify it before Casey has ducked her head and spun back around to her Physics notebook, picking up her pen and fiddling with it and pointedly, decidedly no longer looking at Zoe.
“Right,” she says. “Thanks for the pep talk. I think.”
The feeling that sours Zoe’s stomach at the emptiness of the words is no stranger to her. When she blinks, in the moment between opening her eyes again to the silent backs of Casey’s shoulders, she’s standing in an empty gymnasium with a girl named Sarah, and the sun is setting outside, and she’s just muttered that she doesn’t kiss girls, even though her teeth and her quickening heart and her empty hands all tell her that they want to, want to, want to.
It feels like she’s just lost something. Like she’s shut a door on herself.
She turns away, fingers curling into loose fists at her chest. The sun goes down outside this time, too, but they can’t see it, because their damn room doesn’t have any damn windows.
“Thank me after you win.”
“Ouch,” Hunter says, with an accompanying grimace.
“Yeah,” Jade adds through a mouthful of tater tots, “maybe not your best move.”
Zoe lets out a groan so deep and so prolonged she would not be surprised if it began to vibrate the lunch trays on the table in front of her. She drops her head into her folded arms with a conclusive thud.
“I cannot fucking believe this,” she says, though it’s probably not really audible. “I cannot shitting believe I just told you both that.”
“Friends,” Hunter sings, like that settles something. He raises his carton of chocolate milk in a toast.
Jade is not nearly as chipper as he is, but that’s like saying the sun isn’t as visible at night.
“Don’t go too crazy,” she tells Hunter warningly. “Remember we’re talking to a potential knife-murderer.”
“She didn’t actually stab me,” Hunter says. “Just chased me. With the knife. Not really relevant right now.”
“I’m just surprised that you could fuck up this bad,” Jade says to Zoe, picking a celery stick up and brandishing it at her. “I mean, you’re like, top of the food chain, right? Textbook Alpha Bitch?”
Hunter looks at her excitedly. “You read TVTropes?”
“What I mean is,” Jade continues over Hunter, “aren’t you supposed to know what you’re doing?”
Zoe concocts a glare that is a perfect balance of venomous and disdainful. “If you’re seriously trying to lecture me right now, please say so, so I can walk away before you make me sit through more of it. I might actually vomit.”
“I think you should just be honest with her,” Hunter says. He sets his now-drained milk carton down so that he can more freely gesticulate along with the words. “People like it when you’re honest.”
“Agree,” Jade chimes in. She’s peeling the orange she’d been neglecting in the corner of her tray; Zoe is made physically uncomfortable by how terrible her nails look, bitten down to the quick, polish chipped beyond all recognition. The thickness of her black eyeliner makes her look like she’s half-asleep. “Like if you wanna have a shot with any human being, ever, honesty is kind of a must, but especially with Casey.”
“That’s a laugh,” Zoe says, “since she’s the biggest liar I’ve ever seen.”
Hunter frowns at her, uncharacteristically silent, the same way he had that night on the forest floor, hands set in the dirt, sleeping bag puddled around his torso. Jade must pick up on the strain that’s suddenly knotted itself in the air between them, because she glances up from the orange and, when it becomes clear that neither Zoe nor Hunter is going to speak, she hunches forward, eyebrows knitting together.
“She’s a good person,” Hunter says abruptly. Zoe darts her eyes away with a quiet (weak) scoff.
“I thought we agreed you wouldn’t bring that hero worship crap up around me,” she mutters. “It makes me sick.”
“I know you think she is, too,” Hunter retorts, “or you wouldn’t like her so much.”
“This again?” Zoe exclaims. “For the love of—”
“You literally just told us about how you couldn’t ask her out,” Jade says sharply, throwing her arms out across the table for dramatic emphasis. “Literally just now! Just admit that you like her! It’s not like it’s gonna be a scandal! Everyone does!”
Zoe’s voice breaks on the word, which had rushed out of her before she could notice. It’s so loud, and so anguished, that the entire cafeteria briefly goes quiet to make room for it, to stare at it, dissect it, and Zoe’s never felt more exposed than she does in that second, except for a faraway night on a pier she can’t quite remember anymore, when she’d sobbed in Sarah’s face like a fucking baby, when she’d almost told her everything.
The regular chatter and buzz picks up around them again after only a heartbeat. The world goes on, ultimately unconcerned and forgetful, not caring that Zoe looks over at Casey’s bitten lips sometimes and feels an ache in her chest all at once foreign and familiar; not caring that Zoe had dreamed the night before of a life that was not hers again, and some Parisian street had been burning, and Casey’s hand (which was not Casey’s hand) had closed around her wrist, and Casey’s mouth (which was not Casey’s mouth) had been at her ear and it had whispered something she had forgotten the moment she woke up—not caring that every prescient conviction in her, all of the eerie voices she’s tried her whole life to ignore, are insisting without breath or reprieve that this would be a mistake, that this has happened before, that it will be her ruin—not caring that, ever since Casey, half-conscious, had sagged against her on the basement staircase and deliriously addressed her by a name she couldn’t possibly have known, those voices are growing harder and harder to hear.
“Exactly,” she whispers again. A tear definitely just slipped down her cheek and dropped into her lap. “You two are a pair of fucking morons, you know that? Is that supposed to make me feel better? Remind me never to come to you in a moment of supreme weakness and ask for advice again. This place really is turning my brain into oatmeal.”
“I’m sorry,” Jade murmurs.
It comes out of nowhere, from Zoe’s perspective. It’s such a curveball in the whole conversation, in fact, that Zoe thinks she must have hallucinated it, as some kind of sick side effect from her overwhelming embarrassment at wanting to kiss Casey-fucking-Blevins.
“What?” she says at last, a little stupidly, if you want the truth.
Jade is fidgeting, picking at one of the last remaining chunks of nail polish on her right thumb, eyes fixated unshakably on the task. “I said I’m sorry.”
When it becomes clear that Zoe isn’t going to prod her further, and that Hunter isn’t going to be a good comrade and help her fill in the blanks as he is too busy stuffing spoonfuls of corn into his mouth as an excuse not to get involved, she huffs exasperatedly, throwing her hands in the air and glowering at the ceiling.
“For being a sarcastic dick,” she finishes. “I wasn’t being fair. It’s just—it never occurred to me that you would actually—I mean, we joke about it, and stuff, but then it turns out you really do have it bad for Casey… now I feel like a royal jagweed. So: I’m sorry.”
Zoe stares at her, wide-eyed and dumbstruck. When the undoubtedly awkward silent gets to be too much to bear, Jade reverts to her standard disgruntled, misanthropic expression, narrowing her eyes.
“See, that—that thing I just did there, that was called an ‘apology?’ I don’t know if they have that in San Diego, but…”
“Totally ruined it just now,” Zoe interjects. “We were having a moment, and you blew it. Never again.”
“It was a nice moment,” Hunter says. He’s smiling. There’s an undercurrent to it he’s aiming almost entirely at Zoe, and it might be pride. “I saw it.”
“Both of you are morons,” Zoe says. “And if you tell anyone, I swear to God, I will cut your throat out.”
“I mean, we don’t really have to,” Hunter says. “Like I said the other day—pretty much everyone knows; it’s not like you’re making it a big secret.” At Zoe’s vicious glare, his hands snap up in surrender and he laughs nervously. “Uh, hah, but noted!”
“Yeah, whatever, pinky swear,” Jade drawls. “So what are you gonna do about it, anyway? Now that your chances are, like, three-quarters blown to all hell.”
“Thanks,” Zoe deadpans. “And I—” Her voice abandons pretense and settles into something ungainly, something genuine. “I don’t really know. I guess I figured I’d wait until the party.”
“Oh, shit, the party!” Hunter gasps, slapping a hand to his forehead. “I totally forgot! That’s this weekend!”
“I don’t see how you could,” Jade says, permitting herself a fond half-smile. “Ike’s been livetweeting BoozeQuest, like, all week.”
“As if I follow Ike!” Hunter pulls a horrible face, shaking his head, before returning his attention to Zoe, pointing enthusiastically at her. “That’s a great plan, though, Zoe! You can give her some apology punch, talk it out, maybe ask her to dance…?”
“The part where I willingly imbue a liquid at a function organized by Ike is your biggest plot hole there,” Zoe says. “But other than that…” She slumps a little, slowly settling her chin into her palm and staring distantly at the last of her food—a few leaves of cabbage and a cherry tomato and the crusts of her sandwich. “I guess that could work.”
“Yes!” Hunter exclaims, pumping both fists and then high-fiving Jade (who reciprocates without an ounce of enthusiasm, but reciprocates nonetheless). “Operation Ravens is go!”
“Ravens?” Zoe repeats. She’s astonished the word does not collapse under the weight of her skepticism.
Hunter shrugs in an attempt to look aloof, but his ears go immediately red. “You’re both—smart? I don’t know.”
“Hunter, I cannot believe I’m about to say this,” Zoe tells him, reaching across the table to set a hand on his shoulder, “but that was actually, like, 15% sweet.”
“Oh, my God, don’t encourage him,” Jade grumbles.
The days leading up to the party are such a flurry of “Doing Free Shit For Other People,” an activity Zoe hates, that she nearly forgets what lies at the end of them. It’s practically nothing but classes, midterms (all of which she aces—don’t give her that look), and shooting down Ike’s terrible editorial comments when they open Casey’s speech up for feedback.
(“I think it’s really lovely,” Vanessa says with a tender smile, hugging her knees. She’s seated on the floor of their secret meeting room (read: the third-floor janitorial closet) in a hoodie and sweatpants, reading glasses perched on her head. “I don’t really see how Isabel can shoot it down. It seems really mature and well thought out, you know?” She turns her head to the right. “What do you think, Guillaume?”
Guillaume, cross-legged next to her and leaning against the wall, has been focused on the ceiling for the past half an hour. “Wasn’t listening,” he grunts.
Vanessa punches him in the arm.)
While she has not bothered wasting a great deal of her mental capacity retaining information about Ike, one thing Zoe had known the moment she met him is that he can throw a damn good party. As usual, her instincts are correct—when she steps into the off-campus warehouse he (and the rest of the campaign team—mostly the rest of the campaign team) have spent all week repurposing into a proper party zone, she takes in the strobe lights and the snack table and the DJ and allows herself to acknowledge, for a moment destined to be lost to history, that he has outdone himself.
She catches sight of Casey immediately. She’s in the upper rightmost corner of the room, laughing at something Vanessa has just said and setting a hand on the other girl’s shoulder to brace herself when the amusement overtakes her. Even though it’s not her style, Zoe can’t help remaining frozen in place, watching the display, committing its nuances to memory.
God. She is in way too fucking deep.
The light is making Casey’s form-fitting dress look violet, but Zoe knows it’s really coral, since it’s been hanging in their room, off the corner of Casey’s bunk, since last Friday. Her hair is even curlier than usual, bouncing at her shoulders when she breaks into another fit of giggles. There’s a red plastic cup of punch in her hand. Her lipstick could use reapplying—it’s starting to wear off.
Zoe takes her time—she gets some punch, sniffs it rigorously for traces of something suspicious, and congratulates Ike on his efforts. He slings an arm across her shoulders and crows that he could not have done it without her, to which she replies by plucking him off and confirming that no, he absolutely could not have, and he had better not dare fucking forget it for the rest of his days.
In the end, she doesn’t really know how she ends up beside Casey, one hand tucked under her own arm, staring out at the dancing crowd. Casey is periodically lifting her cup to her mouth to drink, smirking to herself whenever some drunk towerball player embarrasses himself, or Hunter and the AV Club actually have the gall to try dancing.
“You look,” Zoe says when she’s good and ready, “presentable.”
Casey doesn’t look at her, but she says into her cup, “Try again.”
Zoe sighs, reaching up to twist some hair around her index finger. “You look nice.”
Casey smiles wanly. “Be still my heart.”
Zoe traces the rim of her own cup with her thumb, thoughtfully eyeing the contents. The punch Ike had chosen is bright pink and tastes like strawberries, and Casey’s perfume smells sharp and tangy, like an ocean breeze back home. Zoe tries to picture her on a beach, pulling her hair out of the wind’s way, laughing when the waves reached her ankles. It doesn’t take much work.
“Zoe,” Casey says abruptly. The DJ switches to a loud pop song, so Zoe has to raise her voice to respond.
“Whether I win or lose,” Casey half-yells over the music, “I just want you to know… I’m really grateful for everything you did to help me. You didn’t have to, but you did. And you did a really amazing job.”
Finally, she turns her head to look at Zoe. She’s a little bit shorter than her even in high heels. There are a few strands of hair swept across her forehead. Zoe weighs the pros and cons of reaching over to brush them out of the way.
"I know you told me to hold off on that until after I won," Casey continues, "but I really wanted to say it."
“What have I told you about gross niceties?” Zoe sneers, but she makes her acceptance clear with a wry smile. “It’s whatever. Not like I had anything better to do.”
Casey chuckles, nose scrunching. “Yeah. Of course.”
“And anyway, a lot of it was you,” Zoe continues. “Not most of it. Most of it was me. But don’t sell yourself short or anything. Your whole ‘scrappy rebel’ thing is pretty appealing to the masses.”
“I thought I was supposed to be a compassionate princess,” Casey says slyly.
“Who says you can’t be both?” Zoe retorts. “Hello? Princess Leia?”
She can’t see it, but she’s sure the mere mention sets off some sensor of Hunter’s somewhere in the room. She scans it to confirm her suspicions, but when her eyes land on Hunter, leaning against a table with his elbow touching Andres’s, he doesn’t holler some Star Wars comment at her—he catches her gaze and gives her a thumbs-up.
And don’t quote Zoe on this, but that gesture might make something erupt in her chest, something of conviction, something warm, and steady, and brave.
She reaches the few inches of fraught heat between her body and Casey’s and tangles her fingers into hers.
Casey stiffens slightly at the contact, and slowly turns her head to gaze at their intertwined hands. When she lifts her eyes to Zoe’s, the corners of her mouth have quirked up into a clement, flushed smile, and the flecks of pink and blue light swirling through the room light them up like some far and magical reach of outer space.
There is a moment—a moment Zoe wouldn’t mind framing, and keeping, and musing over for an eternity—during which nothing happens. Then, Casey sucks in a breath, closes her eyes, and sets her free hand on Zoe’s cheek, and kisses her.
Zoe wastes no time. She steps closer until the front of her body ghosts against Casey’s, and Casey, through her giddy smile, lets out the softest gasp, and she squeezes her hand.
“I think I know who I’m voting for,” Zoe says against Casey’s mouth, and damn it, she’s smiling, too.
Casey sets her forehead against Zoe’s. It’s warm. Zoe knows the song that’s playing now—it had come up on shuffle on the drive to the airport, and she had been staring out the window at the passing clouds, and then she had fallen asleep. I was a fool for love, I was a fool for love, I was a fool.
Maybe she's a little grateful she hadn't ended up stabbing Hunter to death and had saved Jade's life that one time. But only a little.
Anyway. As far as world-ending mistakes to make go, this seems like kind of a no-brainer.