The doorbell rings halfway through Clueless, which Chloe brought over, and batted her eyelashes until Rae laughed and said, “Oh, go on then.”
Chloe sits up automatically, shoving the bottle of wine they pilfered from Rae’s mum’s stash under the pillow. She’s gone away for the weekend with Karim and Mini Bouchtat and shouldn’t be back til late Sunday night, but Rae appreciates Chloe’s caution anyway.
Rae sways to her feet, says, “One sec,” but Chloe gets up quicker, pushing Rae gently back down onto her bed.
“I’ll get it,” she says. Rae supposes it makes sense; Chloe’s been swigging from the bottle all night same as Rae, but she’s clear-eyed and steady on her feet.
Rae hits the pause button on the VCR and waits for her to come back, which she does ages and ages and ages – okay, maybe three minutes – later, a grin stitched on her face.
“Look who it is,” she says, and holds the door open wide.
“Finn!” Rae cries out, and then, “Wait, you’re not supposed to be here. Are you supposed to be here?”
Finn shakes his head, ducking down to kiss her forehead. “Nah, just wanted to see you. Got you at the right time, though. Chloe says she was just about to head off.”
Rae looks at Chloe. Chloe doesn’t look back at her. Rae frowns. “No you weren’t,” she says.
Chloe makes a face, but she’s still looking more at the Oasis poster on Rae’s wall than her. “Yeah, Rae, remember? I’ve got that thing that I need to go do. You know. The really important thing that isn’t here?”
Finn chuckles, but Rae doesn’t think the look on Chloe’s face is very funny. He’s not looking at her, though, and normally that would make Rae glow bright all over because nobody looks at Rae when they could be looking at Chloe, but not right now.
“Stay,” Rae says, one hand flailing out. She finds Chloe’s ankle and holds it tight, but not hard. “Please stay.”
Chloe’s still smiling, but it’s not the good kind of smile. Rae can always tell, no matter how much she’s had to drink. “Don’t you want to- you know.”
And Rae really does, is the thing, because it turns out that sex is kind of amazing and sex with Finn is even better, but she doesn’t want to stop hanging out with her best mate either. Chloe was here first, both physically and, you know. Existentially, or whatever.
Rae smiles at her. “Stay,” she repeats. “C’mon, Chlo.”
“Yeah, stay,” Finn says. Rae turns her head, surprised, remembers he’s still right there, but Chloe’s head snapped around too so Rae doesn’t feel too silly. “It’ll be a laugh, the three of us.”
“Okay,” Chloe says, and they all curl up on Rae’s bed, one of them on either side of her. She laces her fingers with Finn’s, but then thinks that’s a bit weird with Chloe right there, so she grabs Chloe’s hand too. And then she thinks maybe that should feel weird, but it doesn’t, not even a little bit.
“What you watching, anyway?” Finn asks, and grins as it starts playing again. “Aw, I love this film.”
Chloe cracks a grin, a proper one this time. “See, Rae, told you it was good.”
“It’s all right,” Rae says, who’s been stifling giggles the whole way through. “We’re still watching the Princess Bride after, though.”
The thing is, Chloe’s been acting a bit weird ever since Rae brought her back from Ian’s. Not so much as you’d notice, really, if you weren’t specifically looking for it, because Chloe’s good at pretending. But Rae still remembers Chloe’s diary, hears bitchy and broken like a refrain in her head, especially on nights when it’s too hard to sleep.
“It’s not that she barely drinks any more, even though she pretends to, or that she hasn’t so much as talked about a boy in ages,” Rae tells Kester. “It’s…” She screws her face up, huffs a breath of frustration. “It’s hard to explain. She’s just a bit not-Chloe, sometimes.”
“It’s hard to go back to normal after going through what Chloe has,” Kester says. “Is she still seeing a counsellor?”
Rae shrugs. “I think so,” she says. “I hope so. She said it was helping, but she keeps changing the subject when I bring it up, now.”
Kester makes a hmm-ing noise. “Do you remember what we talked about? You can’t fix other people-”
“Until you’ve fixed yourself, I know,” Rae says, rolling her eyes. “I’m working on it. It’s part of my morning routine. Get up, check on the baby, brush my teeth, tell my reflection she’s perfect and beautiful, get ready for college.”
“You can’t really fix other people, Rae,” Kester says, gently, and Rae looks away.
“I know,” she says.
This summer’s been just like last year, except for how it’s nothing at all like last year. Summer always feels kind of infinite, like you’re gonna be lying in the sun surrounded by your best friends, lazy and content, forever, but Archie going off to uni in September is hanging over all of their heads like a great big flying pink elephant. Chop and Finn have no fucking clue what they’re doing, but neither of them are definitely, one hundred per cent, for sure leaving Stamford. Leaving the gang.
It all comes to a head at the party Chloe throws in the last week of August. It’s a pretty small affair by Chloe’s standards, which still means that by the time they’ve chucked everyone out at four o’clock in the morning, the floor and every available surface is covered with cups, glasses, cans and little bottles of nail varnish, from when Chloe decided everyone was having painted nails.
“Right then,” Archie says brightly, “that’s us off.”
“Don’t you dare,” Chloe says, but she’s laughing.
They clean up a little bit, only enough that they can clear a space on the living room floor, because nobody really feels like dragging their sleeping bags up to Chloe’s room like they originally planned. Rae collapses on the sofa, her feet in Finn’s lap, and Chloe folds herself down at their feet, leaning up against Finn’s legs. She’s playing with Izzy’s hair, who’s got Chop’s head in her lap, his feet in Archie’s.
Rae can’t help but smile fondly at all of them, the gang, her gang, until she remembers that the summer’s nearly over and Archie’s driving his stuff up to halls next week. The smile slips off her face like it’d never been there.
“Last time we’re all gonna do this,” she says, because she’s so tired of not talking about this.
“Hey, c’mon,” Archie says. “It’s not like I’m moving to the other side of the world or anything.”
“May as well be,” Izzy says petulantly. “Sheffield’s ages and ages away.”
“It’s not even two hours in the car,” Archie says. “I’ll come visit every weekend.” They all burst out laughing at that, and Archie amends, “Okay, maybe not every weekend.”
“Why would you even come back?” Rae says, shaking her head. “There’s nothing good in Stamford.”
“Yeah, there is,” Archie says lightly.
There’s a beat of silence where none of them says anything at all, and then, “I’m gonna fucking miss you, lad,” Chop says, and sits up to kiss Archie square on the mouth.
“You gonna make this a habit?” Izzy says, laughing. “’cos I have to say I wouldn’t mind.”
Chloe goes, “Oooooooh,” and Finn says, “Oi, if you lot are going off together then where does that leave us?”
“You could always have your own threesome,” Archie says, waggling his eybrows, and Izzy giggles.
“Rae and Chloe have already kissed,” she reminds them.
“That was one time,” Chloe says, “and we were at a party.”
“We’re at a party now,” Rae says, and has no idea why. All of a sudden, she’s thinking about Chloe’s lips, the way she smelt, how nice her smile is when you get up close.
Chloe doesn’t say anything for a long minute, and neither does anyone else. “Not any more,” she says quietly, and gets to her feet. “I’m going to bed. You guys’ll be all right down here, yeah?”
She’s out of the door before she can get a response, letting it drift closed behind her. Everyone promptly turns to look at Rae.
“Why do I always have to fix everything,” she grumbles, but she’s already getting up.
Rae sits on the end of Chloe’s bed. She’s pulled her blanket over her head so Rae can’t see her face, just the outline of her body underneath it.
“What’s wrong, Chloe?” she asks.
“Nothing, I’m fine,” Chloe says, which is so blatantly untrue Rae doesn’t even bother calling her on it.
“Was I that bad?” she jokes instead.
“No,” Chloe says dully, “you were fine.”
Rae sighs, makes a face, scoots forward on Chloe’s bed. “What is it, then? Is it ’cos you still like Finn because you know that doesn’t bother me or anything.”
“It’s not that,” Chloe mumbles, “just, go away, please, Rae.”
“You’re my best mate,” Rae tells her. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well maybe I don’t want to be your best mate,” Chloe says with unexpected venom, and Rae actually, physically flinches.
“You know what,” she says, “I’m fucking sick of you doing this. I’m just trying to help-”
Chloe sits up abruptly, her eyes fiery and wet, and kisses Rae. It’s sloppy and awkward and nothing like the first time they did this, because the first time didn’t feel real.
It’s over before Rae can decide whether to kiss Chloe back or not, and she just stares and stares and stares, because somehow, she really hadn’t seen this coming. Chloe isn’t looking at her, and her face says she wants to pull the blanket back over her head and disappear.
And then, from somewhere behind them, Finn says, “Are you going to make that a habit, ’cos I have to say I wouldn’t mind.”
Chloe makes a shocked little noise. Finn sits next to Rae, reaching for Chloe’s hand, and Rae sees him trace something into her palm. And that’s their thing, has always been their thing even before they got together, but Rae finds she doesn’t mind sharing it. It’s weird because she always thought she would mind, but it’s not hard to suppress the small flare of jealousy in her gut with the warmth blossoming in her chest.
“You know,” Chloe says thickly, after a minute, “my bed’s kinda huge. If you don’t want to go back downstairs, I mean.”
“I don’t know about that,” Rae says, and Chloe stiffens. “I mean, I was really looking forward to sleeping on the floor. What about you, Finn?”
“Beds are overrated,” Finn says, grinning, “but it is you, so, I guess,” and they both curl up on Chloe’s bed, one of them on either side of her.