"You can do this, Hope…I know you can do this."1

Hope took a slow breath in, then let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. Her shoulders were drawn together tightly, her spine stiff, her lips pressed together firmly in a thin line, all clear symptoms of her anxiety. She could feel Annis watching her, blue eyes seeming to see past Hope's exterior into her thoughts, her mind, her soul…but then, this was not unusual. Hope had always had the feeling that Annis knew even what she did not share about herself…sometimes, she felt that Annis knew and understood more of her than Hope did herself. 2

She wanted to look away from Annis, to bring herself out from under the scrutiny of the other girl's stare…but of course, she couldn't bring herself to do so. She had never been able to bring herself to do so…3

"I…I don't know, Annie," Hope said shakily, wanting to flinch, to cringe away from the intensity of Annis's eyes…and yet a part of her felt a small thrill to be so closely watched by her, to know that she was so interested in her, held her in such high value and esteem. It still amazed her to know that Annis cared about her, considered Hope to be her closest friend. It amazed her that Annis Medulla would even casually acknowledge her existence, much less entrust her with her secrets…entrust her with such an important knowledge, important plan.4

Sometimes Hope felt as though she would burst with awe and glee to have been chosen, out of all the others possible, to be Annis's friend, Annis's confidant. Sometimes she looked at Annis, caught sight of her smile, and she could feel her cheeks burn, knew her eyes were glowing with her knowledge of her own luck. But other times, she was not so sure…other times she doubted and questioned, felt shame of her unworthiness, her clearly lesser status when compared to Annis. Other times she was certain that she not only did not deserve Annis's notice and affections, but was wrong to accept them at all.5

Times like now, as she felt Annis watching her closely, knew the significance she placed upon what she was entrusting Hope to do…6

"Annie…I…I don't think I can…"7

"Yes you can, Hope," Annis repeated, and her voice was soft, gentle, soothing…she shifted closer to Hope on the bed so that their knees were touching in their seated, Indian-style positions, putting a hand on Hope's leg. "I know you can do this."8

She began to rub Hope's leg slowly, softly at first, then a little harder, sliding her hand up and down her calf in an almost massaging manner. Looking into Hope's worry-darkened eyes with an intensity that was somehow also conveying her reassurance to her, she continued to speak to her with quiet firmness, still rubbing her leg as she did.9

"It'll be quick, Hope. It'll be over before you know it. You can do it…just take a deep breath. Just calm down, pull yourself together…and go."10

Still rubbing Hope's leg, Annis let her hand drift up to her knee, squeezing it carefully, then caressing it as she went on in the same soft, almost hypnotic tone.11

"Everything will be better, Hope…soon it will be all over, and you'll never have to think of it again. We can go on with our lives, and it will be just the way it was before…better than it was before…."12

"I…I don't know," Hope almost whispered; she wanted to believe Annis so badly. She knew she should believe Annis…for when had Annis lied to her before? She was the only person in Hope's life who had been nothing but truthful and good to her, nothing but accepting and supporting.13

She wanted to believe her, was desperate to be able to…but still, as she tried to relax her tensed muscles, tried to focus on how good it felt for Annis's hand to be caressing her, she could not entirely do so.14

"Hope…" Annis said, and her word was almost a sigh. Hope cringed, hearing the disappointment, the slight reproach in the other girl's tone, and she felt tears prick behind her eyes. Annis's hand had stilled itself on her leg, and Hope could not bear to see the sadness in her eyes as she continued to regard her. She would do almost anything to wipe that sadness away from her, to bring herself back into Annis's approval and favor…even if Hope still didn't feel she deserved it, the thought of having it taken away from her made her stomach knot in anxiety, her heart seize with fear.15

"Hope…you know that you have to do this," Annis went on quietly, still searching her eyes gravely, her expression solemn. "I don't ask much of you… in fact, I have never asked for anything from you, have I? Until now…right now, what I'm asking of you is all that I ever will. That I promise you, Hope."16

She put a hand to Hope's face, cupping her cheek in her palm as she leaned even more closely to her, so closely that Hope could feel her breath on her cheek. Hope remained very still, torn between conflicting desires to pull away, and to lean further into her, perhaps even burrowing herself into Annis's embrace. 17

"If we don't do this, Hope… if you don't do this…then nothing will ever change. You have to do this to make things better… you have to do this to make things okay."18

"But…but what if I can't?" Hope croaked, her voice rasping with her fear as she nakedly returned Annis's gaze with her own. "What if it goes all wrong…what if I screw this all up, and-"19

"You won't," Annis whispered, and she slid her hand up from Hope's face to her hair, beginning to slide her fingers through it slowly. Hope closed her eyes, letting out another shuddering sigh as Annis stroked her hair, speaking to her gently.20

"I know you, Hope… and you won't. You'll do fine, just fine…and everything will be so much better…"21

"But…but, what if it isn't?" Hope asked her, and her voice was barely audible now, only heard by Annis because of her proximity.22

"It will be better, Hope. I promise…it will be better when all this is over."23

Hope kept her eyes closed as Annis's fingers continued to comb through her hair; she was breathing in long, shivering sighs, and even as she tried to concentrate on Annis's comforting touch, she felt a tear leak out from under her closed eyelid.24

"I'm scared," she breathed, swallowing hard as second tear escaped as well. "Annie, I'm scared…"25

She felt Annis's hand leave her hand, sliding its way down to her shoulders as the other girl began to rub her back and shoulders. With her other hand, Annis thumbed away Hope's escaped tears.26

"You won't have to be anymore," she told her softly. "Not after this is over…"27

She leaned forward slightly to kiss Hope's cheek, then forehead, then wrapped an arm tightly around her, pressing her cheek to Hope's. Hope hugged her back needily, still swallowing against the remainder of her threatening tears…28

When Annis finally extracted herself from Hope carefully but firmly, she held her by the shoulders, looking her carefully in the eyes. Hope stared back at her, still swallowing, still trying to pull herself together.29

"I know you can do this, Hope… I have faith in you," Annis told her solemnly, her blue eyes locked on Hope's so intensely that Hope could be aware of nothing else. "I'm placing my life in your hands, my future…our future. I trust you with it…and I know you will not disappoint me."30

Hope remained still, remained silent. She didn't want to disappoint Annis, didn't want to lose her faith in her, however deserved it might be. But still she was unsure…still she didn't know…31

"I have faith in you," Annis repeated, still looking deeply into the other girl's eyes, still holding her shoulders in her hands. And then she said the words that cinched it for her, immediately after another soft, lingering kiss to her cheek.32

"I love you, Hope…"33

At that, Hope drew in a sharp breath, then let it out in a shaky exhalation… for Annis had never said that to her before. It had never occurred to her that Annis could love her…for why would she? How could someone like Annis love someone like her- how could she ever even entertain the thought?34

And yet Annis had said it…and now Hope could see the truth of her words, gently sparking in her eyes.35

Annis loved her… and that, that was all worth acting for. Annis loved her, despite her flaws and failures, despite all the reasons that she shouldn't, that Hope was not even good enough to look her in the eyes.36

How then could Hope refuse her this? How could she not do the one thing she asked of her- deny her something that would please her, make her happy?37

She wouldn't…she couldn't. She had to do this…and maybe Annis was right. Maybe it would make everything better…38

She found herself nodding slowly, then more firmly, drawing her shoulders even more into themselves before squaring them determinedly, meeting Annis's eyes.39

"Okay…okay, I'm going to do this…I'm going to do it…"40

Annis sighed out in relief, and her eyes shone as she smiled at her, her approval obvious and satisfying. Even as Hope's stomach dropped, she felt a rush of warmth at the approval and love in her eyes.41

"Thank you, Hope," she breathed, and she hugged her tightly to her, whispering into her ear as Hope leaned into her, soaking up her embrace. "Thank you…"42

When she pulled away she caressed Hope's hair one more time, still looking into her face with that happy affection and satisfaction that still unsettled Hope just as much as it pleased her.43

"It will be better…I promise."44

Hope just nodded… she couldn't trust herself to speak. All she could think of was how very much she prayed that Annis was right.45

She stopped at the doorway on her way out, giving Annis one last look. Annis smiled at her encouragingly, but Hope could tell also that she was anxious now, impatient for her to get on with it.46

And so she stepped out into the hallway, leaving the familiarity and comfort of Annis's bedroom…and as the pajama-clad teenager made her way down the hall, shuffling quietly towards the door to the bedroom of Annis's parents, she nervously adjusted the grip on the knife in her hand.47

She just hoped that Annis was right, that everything would be okay in the end…48