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The Grieving Process

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Victoria Chase doesn't get Maxine Caulfield.

Or Max. Whatever.

She's always been aloof, shy, alone. Maybe even a little dumb if the sessions with Mr. Jefferson (before he got arrested for some very disturbing things anyway) were anything to go by. And even though she's too quiet, a lot of people seem fond of her which is honestly just so infuriating to think about. Her clothes are unfashionable, her voice is annoying, and yet people like her more. Really? Why?

That is of course a rhetorical question. Victoria knows.

Max is kind. Sympathetic definitely, from what she's seen of her interactions with Kate. She might not seem like it but she smiles an awful lot. She's got talent too, though that admittance from Victoria will never get to see the light of day. Her photos, or whatever few of them Victoria has managed to snatch off her desk, are actually breathtaking. Beautiful, candid. They make you feel things just by looking at them.

It's a funny thing really. Having so much knowledge about art and photography, having all the money for the best equipment, all to be overshadowed by some introverted nobody who barely has any of those.

Hate. The perfect fuel to obnoxiously throw those photos right back at her with the snappiest, bitchiest comment. That's her thing. She's Victoria Chase, for shitting out loud.

And yet... Victoria glances up from her phone, openly eyeing the girl in question as she saunters into class and plops down on her seat. And yet. Max keeps her head down, stares at her hands, not moving even as Kate Marsh places a hand on her shoulder.

What a goddamn mess.

It's been almost two weeks since the burial of Chloe Price. Victoria didn't know much about her. Not enough to be called her friend anyway, just that she was Max's best friend and the head of Blackwell security, David Madsen's stepdaughter.

Nathan shot her in the girl's bathroom some weeks ago. She has a good idea for what reason.

She came to the burial for human decency if anything. Nathan was the one who shot her dead. Max had been nice to her on more occasions than she will ever be willing to admit, and it just felt like the right thing to do.

Especially considering how Max is doing now. She doesn't talk anymore. Not to Kate, not to Dana, probably not even to that nerdo boy whatthefuckishisname. Distances herself from those who wants to come closer, drags herself through her classes and disappears for the rest of the afternoon.

Victoria knows grief. Knows enough of pain.

Knows enough of hurting, life melting away. She can smell it for miles.

Max reeks.

Victoria eases on her seat when Principal Wells marches into the classroom. He launches into a godawful monologue about Blackwell, the importance of education, the impact of art and photography on society, and then finally gets to the point that no suitable replacement for Mark Jefferson has been found yet.

She gets the subliminal message: We'll find a good teacher soon, else Blackwell's photography program is fucked.

The students start to leave after Principal Wells. Behind her, Courtney is blabbing on and on about unimportant things and Taylor isn't anywhere in sight. With a harsh shush to Courtney's direction, Victoria starts for the door but topples when someone bumps into her from behind.

She turns and scowls down at Max Caulfield, leaning to blocking the exit effectively with her arm. "Oh look, it's the selfie ho of Blackwell," She sneers. "You even gonna apologize for that, Max?"

Max shrugs, fidgets on her spot. Says nothing. Kate answers for her with a lame apology. Victoria rolls her eyes, "Whatever. Mute loser." and then stalks down the corridor.


 

It's hard to properly get hammered these days.

The Vortex Club has been practically disbanded since Nathan's arrest, because really he is the Vortex Club. Without Nathan there's no money, no place to hold a party, no proper liquor, and no drugs. Victoria could try to talk to Principal Wells about using the school as a venue like Nathan has plenty of times before, but she's no Prescott. The Chases don't have a leash on Wells and don't have cops for footrests.

Victoria grumbles, takes another shot as the crowd in the apartment hoot and holler over raspy music. The speakers are old, flaking. The drinks are lousy and everything about the place is disgusting. The air, the smell, the carpets. Hell, even the people.

"How did you even find out about this place?" She asks Taylor irritably over the music. Taylor looks up from her purse, stops ransacking it for something.

"A friend. No one special. Cheer up, V," Taylor rolls her eyes. "You gotta at least give me some props for managing to even find something like this. And here -"

Victoria catches a small packet thrown to her and holds it up in the right light to see it filled with unmarked pills and tabs. "What the hell is this?"

"Also from a friend. Nathan isn't around to hand out party favors anymore."

Tilting her head, Victoria produces one from the packet and stares, rolling it around in her palm for a time. She looks to Taylor next with a grumpy expression. "This better be good, Taylor."


 

The drugs weren't any good. They were fucking terrible. It tasted like shit, whatever that was that Taylor fed her. Her throat itched and the nausea swept over as soon as it went down. Even now she feels like she wants to vomit.

For someone who just got into the dorms alone so late she's making so much of a racket. Cursing and grumbling, stomping angrily down the hall. She's pissed, she's so so pissed, about Jefferson, about Nathan, about the Vortex Club, about her parents threatening to move her back to Seattle. Jefferson was the only good thing about Blackwell's photography program, so now that he's gone, what's left to stay for?

Fuck everyone. Victoria stops in front of her door and fumbles for her keys. Searches her purse for a long time before she realizes she doesn't have them and starts screaming in exasperation and banging on her door. No one in the hall has the balls to come out and tell her to shut up. Good.

She grunts, punches one last time then sinks to the floor. She doesn't need this shit. 

 

At the end of the hall, something clicks open and Victoria looks up in time to see Max coming in from the stairwell. Head down as always, taking slow careful steps, trying not to wake anyone in the floor. Unlike her, obviously.

Max doesn't show any signs of noticing her there on the floor even as she stops in front of her door, 219, right across from her. Victoria stares. Burns holes on her back.

"Where have you been, Max?" With just that small hint of malice. No answer.

"I'm talking to you, Max. Don't you ignore me, I'm right here." Nothing. Max unlocks her door and opens it quietly, turning on a dim set of lights inside. "Oh, you're really doing this, huh? You're really doing this? Right now?" Max steps into her room and shuts the door. Victoria's knuckles turn white when she balls her hands into fists and she rises, slowly, glaring at the door marked 219.

She blinks. She loses it.

A hand flies to the doorknob and wrenches the door open. Victoria stalks toward Max and grabs her by the hood of her jacket, spinning her around forcefully until they're face to face. The height difference makes it so easy to glower.

"I was asking you a question back there," Victoria starts. Max listens without looking. "Where have you been, Max? No, where have you been going? We've started to notice, you know. Your disappearing," Max seems to fidget. "You going on afternoon dates with someone? Not that science nerd who keeps hanging around you, right? That guy's too fucking weird to matter to any girl.

"Or do you have other appointments? What have you been doing, Max? Why so quiet?"

When she gets no answers Victoria grabs Max by the collar of her hoodie. Wills her to look up. Max still doesn't lift her head. "I'm talking to you, selfie ho, don't ignore me like you're fucking better than me! You and your blue-haired punk trash mashed together are still nothing compared to what I have!"

She doesn't know why she said it. Doesn't know why she had to mention Chloe Price, the dead girl with the hole in her stomach. Taylor's pill has started to give her a headache and her head begins to cloud a little. But she knows she isn't imagining it when Max finally looks up. Knows it's real when their eyes meet.

The ache in her head makes it hard to think and remember things, but it's kind enough that it allows her to process the fact that she's kissing Max, never mind who started it. It's harsh, rough, lousy. All teeth and tongue, their foreheads bumping, the taste of rust heavy in her mouth. Victoria doesn't know whose lips have started to bleed.

They both crash down on the bed, notebooks and papers swept to the floor by unruly arms. Max makes a sound and Victoria bucks, pulls their bodies flush. Reaches for the spot between Max's legs to grab through the fabric of her jeans. Her teeth work the soft flesh of Max's neck, tongue licking up the taste of her skin and sweat.

It's exquisite. Tons better than Taylor's drug kind of exquisite.

The clothes go quickly, Max's and hers both. The sheets cling to the sweat on their skin. The pillows crush under both of their weight. Victoria's hand finds what it's looking for and her fingers go deep, slow and pacing and dragging. Teeth are grazing the edges of her ear and she hears sounds, small and contained from the girl beneath her.

With her free hand, Victoria pushes herself up. Disconnects their bodies save for the busy fingers and their legs brushing, lays that hand on Max's collarbones to inch up to her shoulder, then her throat.

Victoria goes faster, feels Max start to claw on her arms, her hands. The air around them fills with noises, growing heavier. Their sweat and scent both, mingling on the sheets. Victoria pumps and pulls, staring like watching is enough to get off on, breathing heavily herself. Finds Max oddly beautiful, flushed and tense and moaning. Max sweating, sparkling almost in the dim glow of the lights hanging over the bed, mouth open in heavy breaths and strangled gasps and whimpers, nails digging scarlet marks on her skin. The sensation is stingingly delectable.

Victoria curls her fingers harshly, Max beneath her tensing and vibrating in bliss. Max bites her lip until it pales to keep the scream in. Victoria helps shut her mouth with her own.

Max switches with her shortly after. Victoria writhing underneath, wringing the sheets with trembling hands, shaky breaths leaving her mouth as a warm tongue traces shapeless pictures on her chest and throat. It's her turn to fill the room with noises. Her muscles stiffen and slump all at the same time, the flesh of her thighs and stomach going taut with their motions. It's hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to feel anything beyond the flaming dip between her thighs.

Her muscles coil and she finally gets hers, throwing her head back and spine arching. Shuts her eyes and grinds her teeth, hoping against hope she could fight the scream. Max helps her with that in the same way she did. Their mouths meet, their teeth click. The trembles eventually subside.

And Max starts to cry.

Victoria doesn't hug her or anything but she lets Max collapse on top of her. Lets her bury her wet face in the inlet of her neck and shoulder, sobbing disconnected words that fly over Victoria's pounding head. The skin there grows cold with the tears but she doesn't move, can't find the strength or the reason to.

Instead she just listens to the grief, breathing as the Max breathes, her heart beating as the Max's beats. Max is light, unsurprising really, considering her size. It's almost a comfort to have her body where it is.

The sobs slow but don't die down until minutes later. Max mumbles something about Victoria wanting to turn the overhead lights off but she shakes her head no, chin bumping. Max's temple. The top of Max's head smells like shampoo, flowers, and sweat. Victoria sleeps to the scent. 


 

This being the weekend meant better clubbing opportunities, or so Victoria announces as she skips down the dormitory stairs to the courtyard. Courtney voices her agreement. Taylor says nothing, just the way Victoria likes it. Messing up like Taylor had takes a whole fucking lot of forgiving ("Just say it, were you trying to fucking poison me?")

The night looms over them, starless, a brilliant black sheet thrown over the vastness of the sky.

It's cold too, squalls coming once in a while in freezing puffs. Victoria brought a jacket for the night out. Bronze and made of finely woven cashmere to go with the rest of her fabulous outfit. Beautiful and priceless to go with beautiful and priceless queen bee.

Max isn't wearing a jacket though. All this cold and no jacket. Victoria sees her in a plain, ugly t-shirt, shivering arms hugging her body as she walks toward the dormitory building. She hasn't seen Max since the other night, completely disappeared as soon as the weekend morning kicked in. Max seems to have not told anyone about their little encounter yet, but -

Victoria expects a smile, maybe a look. The smallest form of acknowledgement is crucial especially after an encounter like theirs. But Max climbs up to the Prescott Dormitories' entrance without much of a glance in her direction and Victoria just stares at her shuddering back. Stares even longer as the door shuts.

"V? Hey, come on, let's go."

"Go on without me."

"But -"

Victoria walks up the stairs to the entrance and goes back into the dormitory building, slamming the door behind her to discourage any thought of disobedience. She stalks the halls with purpose.

No. Victoria Chase doesn't get Max Caulfield at all.

Chapter Text

Victoria's head smacks against the back of the couch. The browns of her eyes disappear when her eyeballs roll backward once, reappear when they twitch back upright. Her jaw slacks, her wrist flops. A peeled ID card slides off the coffee table and falls to the floor, scattering flecks of white powder over her suedes. She doesn't notice the wasted cocaine.

There's a twitching under her skin that scratching nails can't quite soothe, so she lets the prickles run through her flesh. Shudders once or twice when the twitches dip a little too hard on her muscles. When she can finally push off the dingy couch, she lolls forward, puts her elbows on her knees and palms her right nostril.

She digs her nose into the heel of her hand. Tries to soothe the burning around and inside it with pressure, but her arm is shuddering too much and it's just fucking hassle.

"So how is it?"

She blinks. Her jaw rolls once, twice, and then she sets it but it doesn't quite snap shut. Her tongue bobs around in her mouth and she swallows sticky saliva down her throat, strangely dry in spite of Biology and Human Anatomy laws. She tastes liquor and something else: heavy, bitter.

When she turns her head, she sees the form of a man hovering next to her and she has to blink again, squinting. She smells alcohol mixed with dinner and cigarettes. A warm breath brushes her cheek and she reels back reflexively.

Frank Bowers only laughs.

Victoria stumbles on her way off the couch and claws on its arm for balance. She sucks a breath through her teeth, sneering. "Distance, dick," There's venom in her voice, a dose bound to impress especially given the state she's in. Frank is straightening from having been bent at the waist. "Just because I'm in your damn RV doesn't mean I don't get some personal space."

And a damn RV it is. It smells like laundry, spoiled food, and beer. She still sniffs, loud and hard, and a delicious kind of sting shoots up her sinuses and makes tiny stars explode in front of her eyes, evaporating quickly into mists that turn the whole world bleary again. Only for a moment. She blinks to clear the world.

"Yeah, my damn RV," Frank says with a jab to his chest. He's smirking, that stupid goatee of his making him look a lot more disheveled. "So you better watch how you talk to me around here, else things won't go too nicely for you."

It's supposed to scare her. It's a threat. Victoria thinks it is, anyway. But it doesn't. Beyond the whisking of her blood in her veins and the tremors racking her spine and joints, Victoria feels very little else. She's rolling her tongue in her mouth and her jaw feels loose. Heavy and light at the same time. She can't swallow properly without wincing. Lingering alcohol in her system is making her knees do tricks.

"You're a moron to forget I have someone waiting for me outside," She says. Her nails toy with the fabric of the couch's arm before she pushes off of it. "And to answer your question, it's satisfactory. Haven't gotten anything that good from you in a long time."

Satisfactory. But the dilation of her pupils and the twitching of her shoulders probably say the rest, because Frank's eyes follow her and he's smiling. The skin of his face is sagging. His cheeks look flat, his eyeballs about ready to roll off his skull, and the way his lips are parted into a grin is giving him the appearance of something children fear in the dark and in their dreams.

Being the gentleman that he is, he doesn't exactly race forward when Victoria's knees give and she has to lean on the wall to steady herself. What a guy.

"Yeah? Good, yeah? I got a weird bout of inspiration the other day, and just went out of my way to head to the next town for 'em."

"Stunning dedication on your part. I should get you a fucking medal."

Victoria sniffs again. She tips her head low until her chin skirts the edges of her shirt collar, looking down at the thing she's got in her fingers. A rolled up one hundred dollar bill, wrinkled up on one side from having been bunched up just now. Her nose burns. She tosses the bill over to Frank.

Probably a lot more for what she was given, but let the guy have it. Pocket change.

"Someone waiting for you, huh? I thought you were flying solo now?" Frank says after a while. He probably got bored of watching Victoria shuffle against the wall, dragging herself toward the door like that. Her handbag dangles a scant inch off the floor. "Y'know. What with your partner in crime being a fucking murderer and all."

"A fucking murderer who was your richest fucking client."

"Fuck that."

And Victoria laughs because they both struck the wrong nerves. Too slow for the low blow. Her head tilts and turns enough that she's able to see Frank's expression, dark, brooding, and sad all at the same time. Oh, right. Before Chloe Price there was another.

Rachel Amber. The specimen of a perfect girl who is looming over Victoria even in her death. Rachel Amber is in Frank's eyes, in the bloodshot red of his whites and the endless deep of his irises. In his sagging skin and disgusting RV. In the way he looks at Victoria, like he might kill her just for being associated with the man who drugged her dead.

Drugs Nathan probably even got from him anyway.

What a fucked up world.

"But now I'm your richest fucking client, got it?" She decides not to push the subject. Beaten to death isn't exactly a very glamorous way to die. Make-up can only cover enough. "So none of that shit."

A tense silence crowns them. Frank snaps the crown in two: "You wanna take some for the road?"

Freight trains slam against Victoria's temples when she shakes her head but she grits her teeth through it, tries to stop her eyeballs from any further rolling. She succeeds for the most part and manages with a strange eye twitch. "No. I need to be a little sane for something I have to do."

"Well, I don't have any change on me." Frank says with a half-hearted attempt at looking solemn. Victoria clicks her tongue. Frowns.

"Keep it. Grocery money for air fresheners and disinfectants and whatever the fuck else you need to get this place cleaned for the next time I come over."

 

The RV door closes behind her with a bang. As if on cue, a gust of wind comes and sends her toppling right back against it, spine slamming painfully on metal and rust. She blinks, raises her head to look up at the expanse of the sky. It's dark, endless, and starless, and the moon is swallowed up by clouds and mists before she could get a good enough look at it. Taylor is at her side in a moment.

Taylor walks but Victoria shuffles, kind of, and she knows she'll see marks on the soles of her suedes the next morning. There are hands around her and they pull her to a stop when they've walked a good enough distance. Some sounds and a series of questions come next, but she isn't paying attention.

The sea is dark at night. Black and deep, an iridescent shimmer here and there like spilled oil on sand. The water is licking further on the shore right now than it does in the morning, and Victoria toys briefly with the idea of walking. Stepping out of the concrete and onto the sand, down to the blacking waters.

Her throat constricts. A cloud forms in her head and she can't do anything to wave it away. A quiet sniff sends cold air and ice picks stabbing into the bottom of her eyeballs.

She wants to drown herself.

Two different poisons in her veins, one wanting her to drop dead and the other making her feel ethereal, and all she wants to do with both is to drown herself.

Just close her eyes as the waters strangle her, waves dunking her head lower and lower, gravity pulling her down to the bottom where everyone who'll see her eventual missing person posters will never find her.

Missing persons posters are a thing now. Just ask Rachel Amber.

Victoria wonders idly how Rachel's final moments were. She hopes they were terrible.

She doesn't get to drown herself though, at least not that night. Taylor shakes her back to the mortal plane just as her car beeps to life. Victoria has to deal with clambering into the passenger seat without giving herself a serious head injury.

"You okay, V?"

Victoria feels movement at the driver's side. She doesn't look. "I'm fine."

"How's your head? I mean, you already had a lot to drink before we -"

"I'm fine. Take me to Blackwell." She snaps.

A hesitant sound. "O-okay, let's just pick Courtney up from the club and -"

"Have you gone deaf, Taylor? Do I have to repeat myself fifteen times just to get you to understand me?"

"Right." Taylor takes the hint. Blackwell first, then Courtney. She starts up the car. 

The two of them sink into an uncomfortable quiet while Taylor turns up the heater and lowers the volume on the radio just enough. Some kind of hideous pop song is playing. The headlights flash, turn the concrete and sand ahead into a foamy kind of yellow.

They drive away from the beach. Victoria is looking at the shore in the rear view mirror.


 

Sweat is making her hair cling to her forehead and the back of her ears. Ache is still riding her temples in mild grinds, but at least the sobs have died down. The silence helps.

Victoria looks at her hand, splayed like a star on top of her pillow. The pillowcase ripples when she curls her fingers and stray strands of brown hair get caught in the wobbly fist. Max rolls her head and the strands snap. Victoria tosses them off the bed.

She shifts her weight on her elbows, their breasts pressing flush once with the adjustment. Their ankles lock and their knees settle side by side. How many times has this happened? Is this only the third? The fourth?

(Maybe) the fourth time Max is under her, breathing the same stuffy warm air as she is? Lying on the same bed, damping and stinking up the sheets, brown eyes and blue blinking into the same darkness?

It could even be the fifth. What day is it anyway?

"You done?" She asks blandly.

Max's eyelids flutter and then she stares up at Victoria, the flush making her face and throat glow in the moonlit dim of the room. When she shifts, their thighs and hips grind. Victoria grunts.

"Yeah."

And Max is still staring. It lacks the usual biting luster of her callousness but Victoria manages to croak, "What?"

Max shrugs, blinks twice. "Nothing. You're just so quiet when I cry. It makes me wonder what goes through your head."

It really begs the question why this keeps happening. The first was a whim, she could even insist it was an accident. She was drunk and pissed silly from stale drugs, Max was a submissive grieving wreck with talent in her fingers that could surprise the sun into rising in the west.

The second was to make the point that she did not like being ignored, and she had already run after Max through the dormitory halls far enough to go back.

The next ones were just begging for a sledgehammer to the face.

Victoria wants to think it's because of the mundanity of it all that she keeps letting it happen. How she easily shoves Max against lockers in the day and groans her name out at night. The way she'd pin Max down on her bed with the same power she uses to push her out of the way in the halls of Blackwell. It's just a power trip.

The odd satisfaction of seeing her squirm. The sex even, which is surprisingly good.

But things are fucked up and never that simple. Except this is simple, as simple as downing a shot or snorting cocaine. It's the addiction. The addiction to the numbing blankness in her head when they're writhing against each other, the unholiest things spilling out of their mouths and everywhere else.

The need for the momentary peace, the high for the emptiness of empty sex from a girl as empty as she is.

And they fit, she supposes. Someone damaged for someone broken.

It's the coming down that's the problem.

"Nothing. Nothing goes through my head. When we fuck or when you cry. That's why we do this." A half-truth from a half-lying girl coming down from a high.

Because everything goes through her head when they're done. The world resurfaces from the void, always a little filthier than she remembers each time. Victoria thinks of parents, and parents who don't love their daughters. She thinks of alcohol, drugs, and loud music.

She thinks of people who call themselves friends, and friends who are in jail for shooting people in women's lavatories.

There's just one of those though. Just one, who was about as fucked up as she is that she's melted herself into him through the years like an internal organ, clinging onto him like a parasite. A druggie begging for a fix. Just one who sat, talked, and listened. Who told her all that her parents would never say and who held her like no one else did.

They were best friends and closer, lovers on occasions she can count on her fingers. Nights she had been too drunk and broken to serve him up a snarky remark on a silver platter. Even then, it was okay. Anything to keep him. Bon appetit.

Now he's gone. He might as well be as dead as the corpse Max cries every night over.

She has started to think of seas now, too. And drowning in them.

Max shifts under her again, bringing up one of her hands to wipe over her face. It's when she's rubbing her knuckles on her eyes that Victoria sees it. There's no thought to the action, she just grabs Max's forearm, twists it enough that she could see the crusty, redding slice on Max's wrist.

The wound makes Victoria think of liquor bottles and she wonders, for a moment, if Max drinks herself silly before these encounters too.

She shuts that thought down quickly. Max Caulfield isn't the type to drink.

But then, Victoria Chase isn't the type to fuck hipsters who cry after sex. She supposes they aren't themselves anymore.

Max tears her arm away and jams it protectively between them. Victoria just stares.

"Rushing into it, Max?" She asks dryly. "We're all gonna die some time. Just need to wait it out."

"Tell that to yourself, Victoria."

It takes her a moment to process the red droplets on Max's chin and throat. An even longer one to realize the moist that's spread from her nostril to her lips. Victoria pushes off of Max quickly and stomps her feet flat on the floor. The pain of bruises and marks starting to form all over her body doesn't even bother her right now.

She dabs at the wetness on her face, draws a shuddering breath when her fingertips come off stained with blood. Her right nostril burns when she sniffs and she has to jam the bone of her wrist against it just to breathe without the sting.

The bed shifts when Max sits up. She palms Victoria's shoulder, their thighs pressing together, and they both turn to meet eyes.

Max chews her lip. "Do you need help?"

A sneer. Venom in Victoria's throat, drawn out with the words she bites out.

"Get out of my room, Caulfield."


 

Victoria's been putting it off for a week. The notifications from both a text from a private number and Principal Wells himself were like shackles. Weights on her limbs and in her chest. It's with those weights that she's slumped in a cheap stainless steel chair, hands fidgeting nervously on her lap, head groaning with a hundred and one different migraines from a hellish hangover.

It's too bright. The walls and the floors are all painted white, too immaculate a color for this kind of place. The fluorescence is hurting her eyes in ways that she could pretty much get from stabbing them with forks from the Blackwell cafeteria. She convinces herself this is the reason she's keeping her head down.

Her hair's still damp from a shower. Her clothes are fresh off her closet but the reek of morning cigarettes cling to the fabric of her sweater. A few seats away, an elderly woman is speaking into the receiver of a telephone. Victoria hears garbage from where she is.

An alarm sounds and she stiffens, hands and fingers like tangled spiders on top of her lap. On the other side of the glass panel in front of her she sees the flicker of movement. Legs, a key ring, the dull gray of steel and chains, and suddenly the seat on the other side of the panel isn't so empty anymore.

She sees a phone being picked up through the glass. Bony fingers wrap around the receiver, attached to a pale palm and a thin wrist. Without glancing up she takes the phone on her side and presses it to her ear. Breaths come in from the other line.

"Hey, Vic."

They've been held back for weeks but the tears are falling now. Victoria finally looks up, watches through the waterworks as the boy at the other side of the glass smiles at her. His face is thin, all pallid skin pulled taut over his skull, dark shadows under his eyes and hair sticking up in places he's probably been clawing on for days and nights.

A shiver bordering on permanent is all over his shoulders and arms but he smiles anyway. At her. And she just smiles back.

The words roll around her mouth. "Hey," Comes the first of them. "Hey, Nathan. Hey."

Chapter Text

The days are like the leaves Samuel rakes into neat piles to throw every morning.

Classes go by in blurs of faces and lectures. Science is about as interesting as Ms. Grant's never changing hairdo.

Photography finally gets a new teacher, in the person of an uninteresting woman who graduated from NYU and has some sort of miniscule tie to New York galleries. She speaks in an annoying nasal voice and a speech pattern that is some sorry imitation of Mark Jefferson's hipster-wisdom-enlightenment talk bullshit.

She introduced herself with a wide grin that spoke volumes of her desire to fame, and shrugged her shoulders in the telltale signage of struggles with sense of self-importance.

She has the sagging cheeks of someone who has had their work rejected one too many times.

Victoria recognizes them because she sees them in the mirror every damn day, when she's putting on make-up or washing it off.

She doesn't remember her name despite coming to her class everyday for the boring lectures.

The Blackwell halls are still the thrums of activity they always have been. Yesterday some nerd broke a set of beakers in the Science room, the other day the cafeteria had some hotdog shortage. Maybe the Prescotts aren't too keen with the donations and funds anymore now that their son doesn't come here.

Principal Wells has that look in his eyes that you'd find on a guy about to lose his job. Victoria thinks he can take his alcoholism elsewhere.

The Vortex Club is back and still rules the school, and it's a comforting constant. Victoria is looked to for leadership but Taylor and Courtney take care of things more than she does. They set up the parties, hand out the invitations, lead the who's-cool-who's-not searches. Victoria just crashes the parties and gets as fucked up as possible.

Max Caulfield is still a zombie. Or a ghost, haunting the corridors of this school. Kate is her faithful bunny rabbit trailing after her with concern and coddling every step of the way.

Dana and Juliet try to invite her to hang out one morning while they're in the communal showers. They're turned down with a sad smile and silence.

That Warren guy from a different class still can't take a hint.

Victoria still pushes her up on lockers and splashes her with water when she's drinking from the drinking fountain. Still calls her things like classless and hippie loser whether she's within hearing range or not.

They fuck each other at night till they're numb. They do it sometimes in Max's room, and Victoria will look at the bare wall next to the bed when the crying starts. Max had taken down the polaroid photos she used to have stuck on there at one point. The marks of torn paint and cheap glue glare down at them. Even the hipster string lights are gone.

"Why'd you take them down?" Victoria asks once upon a time. Max shrugs while wiping away tears.

"Just kind of tore them off on impulse."

"And the hipster lights?"

She squints. "Too fucking bright."

Redecorating game A+.

 

Victoria visits Nathan often and listens to his rambling, like the good best friend to the psychologically impaired murderer that she is. Sometimes it's just him going on and on about things other than the crime he committed, and looks at her with wild eyes and the jitters and sweating of someone going through withdrawals.

He'll sink so low as to beg for her to sneak a fix in. She never does.

Sometimes, it's her who rambles. About Blackwell and the lousy teachers, some bits about her parents. The concern in his otherwise unfocused eyes is something she missed, misses, and will continue to miss from him.

Usually though, it's just her spacing out, staring at the white walls. Nathan will be prattling on too consistently to notice. But today is different, and he does notice as she goes out of focus.

He snarls a little too loudly into the receiver at his end and it makes Victoria wince. She jerks away from the one on her end.

"Did you even understand me at all, Vic?" He asks fiercely. Or, it would've been fierce, if not for the shuddering of his jaw and the panicked wideness of his eyes, practically begging her to do something about it. To help him out, to break him out. Deep down he's wishing it.

Deep down Victoria wishes she could do something like that, too, but she just sits there, pretending her eyes aren't stinging.

"Did you understand what I just told you? Were you even listening?"

"Yes." She answers thickly. She did listen, and does understand. She leaves in a hurry.

 

That night she comes to Frank's spot sober. Cocaine is a lot better without the liquor. She pays more than she's given, as always, and barks at Taylor to drive her back to Blackwell for an outfit change while she's grinning stupidly at herself in the rearview mirror. She lets Taylor watch as she rummages through clothes, pupils blown and skin glowing pale in the mirror. She's tossing rejects to the floor.

"We're worried about you, V." Taylor says sometime into the whole dressing game Victoria is playing. Her knuckles are white as she grips on the bed sheets, unknowingly sticks her fingers into a dried stain only Victoria knows what of.

"We?"

"Courtney. Me. Some others at the Vortex Club."

"Give me the names so I could send a group text to all of you telling you to stay the hell out of my business."

Victoria pushes a Dior blouse against her body, turns this way and that with a pucker of her lips to see the fit on the mirror. She ultimately tosses it over her shoulder. The ridges of her spine are a valley of mountains down her back. The bones of her hips are sticking out of her sides in a way far from healthy. When she turns to face Taylor, her ribs glare from underneath her pallid skin, like bony fingers grabbing her from both sides.

Taylor bristles. "I don't even know what's going on with you anymore, and we're supposed to be friends. Why aren't you telling me what's wrong? I've told you about my mom, and -"

"That doesn't entitle you to my own life dramas."

"I want to help though! Is it Nathan? I know you were close, but god V, he killed someone -"

"And we've been here, partying, like he didn't."

Taylor recoils, but doesn't stop. She does pause to gather some composure. "Is it your parents? Have they been bugging you again? Are they mad at you about Kroft -"

"Taylor," Victoria is shrugging on a dark silk Burberry button-up. She tosses a glance over her shoulder at Taylor. Eyes narrowing, blown pupils zeroing in. "Shut up."

The jutting bone of her wrists, her prominent elbows, the sharp curve of her shoulder blades, disappear into the fine, dark fabric. She twists again, clearly enjoying herself.

In the mirror, at this moment, she isn't some sorry little girl licking off crumbs of parental affection from the floors, or some slut spreading her legs for her twisted best friend to get another fix.

Not some gallery reject, not a young woman cracked and broken in so many places she shouldn't even be able to stand upright.

Tonight she is fucking beautiful.

She reaches for the plastic packet Frank had handed to her earlier, carefully peels it open with trembling fingers. She sticks a pinky into the packet, wiggles it in the thin depth of cocaine squeezed inside, and then sticks it into her mouth to rub all over her teeth and gums. When she swallows it tastes bitter. Her jaw is doing that not snapping completely shut thing again.

"I want to have fun tonight, Taylor." She says at length, squeezing herself into a dark faux-leather skirt. Taylor's gaze burns into her back and she turns over her shoulder to look.

"You always want to have fun." Taylor says stiffly.

"Because I fucking deserve some."

Victoria smiles, sickly sweet. Sucks noisily against her teeth. Taylor just stares, face grim. 

Victoria finishes her outfit with dark tights, boots, and a grand bronze fur coat from Hermes with a collar that brushes her earlobes. She grins at her reflection, and then at Taylor, who manages a small smile when she comes strutting over.

Her eyes are fierce. Her cheekbones jut. "Am I pretty, Tay?"

"The prettiest, V."

Victoria kisses her, wet and open and sloppy, and disconnects with a shuddery laugh that makes the Hermes fur coat bounce around her. She asks Taylor to do her make up for her. Taylor does.


 

The club lights catch beautifully on the puffed furs of her coat. People are looking at her. Women are hating her and men are just eating her up.

That's right, stare.

She is fucking beautiful.

She snorts two more lines in the club restrooms before heading to the dance floor. A guy, two, three, come over and touch her all over. Taylor is calling her name somewhere nearby.

She doesn't care. Fuck Taylor.

She is

fucking

beautiful.

Two of the guys who have wandered over smell heavily of liquor and cigarettes. The third one smells like musky perfume, sweat, and expensive hair gel. He smells a lot like Zachary Riggins. This is the one she pulls out the club and into her car.

"Am I pretty?" She asks him.

He tells her, "Damn pretty." and she laughs while she drives because tonight, that is the fucking truth. 

He nibbles on her neck and ear and cups her breasts while she's turning the corner. They veer into the narrow road of Arcadia Bay's suburban district, the flash of the car's headlights the only source of good lighting in this dead part of town.

The houses they pass have all their lights out except the porch's, and every one or two corners there would be a flickering street light.

Victoria really hates Arcadia Bay.

A tongue flicks at her chin with urgency. She tilts her head, toying with the idea of sex in the car, but that musk and sex stench will be hard to get off the leather seating. So she rolls her shoulders, grins with wanton promises, and stomps harder on the accelerator.

A house stands some meters away with all its lights open, including the porch light. Victoria stares a little longer at this one with idle interest. The paint job is terrible, unfinished blues all over the chipping peach, with a hideous untended garden of blasted foliage. The front yard and driveway are littered. A rusted truck is parked lousily upfront.

She sees a figure standing in the lit second floor window. Small, still, shoulders folded in and -

Victoria hits the brakes. There's the sound of someone yelping and a body being hurled toward the dashboard. The mouth lapping on her throat disconnects. The CDs slipped in a compartment under her radio jiggle.

"Get out of the car."

"Wh-what? But I -"

Victoria clenches her teeth. She scowls. "Get. Out. Of. The. Car."

Some stuttering, some one-sided arguing. Eventually, the passenger door opens and closes. Victoria speeds the rest of the distance down to the lit-up house.

She parks parallel to the rustic truck in the driveway and clambers out slowly, breaths coming out in visible puffs. Her lips are dry under the black cherry lipstick Taylor had chosen to put on her ("You'll look great with this and some smokey eyeshadow.") She sheds her fur coat because in spite of the cool night air she's sweating, even under the thin silk of her Burberry. She leaves the night's handbag in the car too.

And then she's sauntering down the concrete path, up the stairs to the front door, and knocking.

It doesn't even occur to her that she's done so until the door swings open. The light from inside the house leaks and forms a jagged sheet of foamy gold on her feet, the pavement. She blinks stupidly before looking up to see a woman from inside, staring at her.

She's old, stress wrinkles all over her face making her look older. Strawberry blonde hair unkempt, pinned up in a hurry to look presentable in answering the door, clothes sagging around her body like they're a size too big. They probably fit perfectly when they were bought.

Victoria blinks a second time in a span of only seconds. She's seen her: saw her. Crying her eyes out, legs a wobbly mess, clinging to David Madsen for dear life. He practically dragged her the rest of the way to the burial site. She cried even more there, mumbling her own prayers and begging to be woken up from the hellish nightmare she was in.

And then the coffin went into the hole in the ground.

"Yes?" The woman ventures timidly. A crack's in her voice and in her smile.

"Mrs. Madsen," Victoria speaks but her mouth feels foamy all over. "Hi. Good evening."

"Just... Joyce."

"Right. Hi."

They fidget. Joyce chances a glance up and down Victoria. Wariness. Apprehension. Suspicion. Curiosity. It's either the third or the fourth one wins out. "And you are?..."

"Victoria Chase. I go to Blackwell," I knew your daughter? I hated your daughter? Your daughter hated me? I don't really care? What else does she say? "I'm sorry. About your daughter."

Joyce seems to stiffen. At the name, at the mention of Blackwell, at the apology, Victoria isn't sure. It could even be because of all three. "Thank you."

They stare at each other a little more until Victoria asks the question she already knows the answer to. "Is Max Caulfield here?"


 

Max doesn't look when the door opens and shuts. Doesn't look even when the sound of clicking heels grows closer, and then stop. Not even when the mattress shifts with the weight that joins her at her side, a thigh brushing against hers enough to signal presence, if the first few ones weren't enough.

Even the contact doesn't make her budge. The wall in front of them is too interesting.

There are other walls around them, filled with pinned photos and magazine scraps, some posters, some flyers. Graffiti, too. And Max is choosing to stare at a bare one.

Victoria stares at the same wall, tries to search it for what's so interesting. It's a flaking shade of peach, with some lines that look like the scratches of a cat at the bottom near the floor. The smell of coffee is in the air but only vaguely. You'll catch it if you sniff hard enough which Victoria does.

Some multicolored Christmas-looking lights are lit behind them and they're painting the peeling peach in the light shades of their colors.

This room is so dusty, so trashy. It's constricting. She feels claustrophobic. The room is intruding in the same way she's intruding in it.

"So this is where you disappear to everyday?" Victoria's voice is quiet, so small it's strange, as if the room is too sacred to stain with unnecessary noises. It probably is, anyway. This is Chloe Price's room, Chloe Price's shrine. Max must come here to pay respects. To send prayers to a ghost, to worship some precious memory.

Max doesn't answer until the second minute is about to end. "Yeah."

"You just sit here?"

"Yeah."

A breath from Victoria as she glances around, folds her hands on her lap. She's trembling a little and when she inhales through her nostrils, there's a flaming sting in one. She sucks on her teeth again on instinct. The bitterness isn't there anymore and she can swallow like a human being again.

"I come here to cry." Max says later on with a laugh. It trembles and ends on an abrupt raise of pitch, and then a hitching breath. Victoria doesn't look at her.

"Then why aren't you crying right now?" She asks instead.

Victoria is looking at her fingers, twining and untwining them on top of her lap. The stinging in her nostril persists like a bitch in heat. She's resisting the urge to squash it with the bone of her wrist.

She tips her head, throws it up slowly to breathe through her mouth like she had been drowning. This entire room is a ghost, a specter with fingers and eyes boring into and brushing on her skin. Draping her with a weight her muscles twitch and whine against.

She's shaking. The Burberry she's wearing doesn't feel so fabulous anymore. Her feet suddenly hurt from having walked and danced around too long in high heels. She has this sudden urge to douse the Hermes fur coat in her car with kerosene and set it on fire.

Her make up feels terrible. Feels like paint drying on her face.

She stops sucking on her teeth. The coming down really is the hardest.

She feels fucking ugly.

"I guess I'm tired."

Victoria rolls her shoulders and glances down, draws a long breath through her mouth when she catches Max staring at her. Max's eyes are droopy, tired, bloodshot, shoulders bobbing visibly with shallow breaths. Her cheeks are flushed, her jaw is twitching. On her lap are her hands, and on one wrist Victoria spies a fresh slice, thick and crusty red with dried blood. Longer than the first one below it.

"Nathan is getting moved. Tomorrow," Victoria blurts, her voice surprisingly even as the words are dragged out. The conversation this morning at the detention center is playing in her head, a cassette being rewound and played back. Nathan's jittery voice becomes a dull hum at the back of her skull. "To Washington I think. D.C. I don't know. They've linked him to Jefferson. To some missing girls. I can't think - I can't remember the details well."

And then she's suddenly breathing hard, hands clawing on the knobs of her knees. She feels so fucking ugly. The world feels so fucking ugly. So twisted and ugly and now she's alone in it. "Do you want to cry some more, Maxine?" She asks.

Max blinks at her, rubs her wounded wrist. "I think I've done enough of that today."

Victoria laughs quietly. Her make-up smudges and runs, eyeliner and mascara drawing black lines down her cheeks. "Well I want to."


 

It's a funny switch. Max watches Victoria cry that night, scrawny arms around Victoria's shoulders. Victoria sobs, curls, burrows closer into Max. She stains Max's skin and sheets with expensive make-up and salty tears. Her phone is vibrating on the bedside table, the ninth call that night from either Taylor or Courtney but she still doesn't pick up.

She digs her face into Max's collar bone and sucks a shaky bout of air. Her face is moist and sticky and it's not just from the tears or the make-up, but she glances up at Max anyway. Ruined make-up, flushed face, and bleeding nose and everything.

"Am I pretty, Max?" She asks.

Max looks at her, Victoria stares back. The blue of Max's eyes is stark and deep, like the sky during the summer or the ocean seen from a cruising ship. They're not dark enough to feed thoughts of midnight seas and drowning.

Max thumbs at the blood on Victoria's upper lip with surprising gentleness and smiles. A tiny curl of her mouth that is a comfort from one broken girl to another.

"You're beautiful, Victoria."

Sincerity drags its knuckles over the syllables, a coating of melted chocolate for Victoria's ears.

She hates herself for wanting to believe it is true.

Chapter Text

Victoria streams the news on her laptop. Watches as Nathan Prescott hobbles away with uniformed men like a skeleton ragdoll tossed from one officer to another. His hair is trimmed, his face looks cleaner. When he stares right into the camera as he's being shoved into the back of a van, Victoria knows he's looking at her. Right at her.

Break me out, Vic.

Break me out break me out break me out.

Help me.

Mark Jefferson looks calmer than his supposed protege. A mob calls him murderer, sick, a spawn of hell. He doesn't smile that familiar winning smile when he's being swarmed by a crowd. A tomato? Rotten fruit? Something hits him square in the jaw and the mob rages, but the policemen and agents in the scene don't work too hard trying to disperse them.

He looks at the camera. He's thinner, paler, his hair's mostly been shaved off but they left the stubble on him. He smirks at the viewers. I am here.

I am here, I am immortalized. His work will never be forgotten now.

The Prescotts are neck-deep in scandal and accusations. Jefferson's accomplice is their son, Jefferson's playroom was their property. The old Prescott barn is going to be demolished after more thorough investigations.

More binders turned up since the initial ransacking, not just in the barn but also in Jefferson's home and car. Nameless girls no older than 18, girls missing since before he came to Arcadia Bay. They're saying from Seattle, from New York, from California, from all over. They're saying there's no way he'll be running free again.

His body will rot and die in a cell but he'll live on. Mark Jefferson the photographer, the teacher, the boogeyman, the legend. His work on capturing innocence is as beautiful as it is macabre - no one will ever openly admit it, but it is.

 

Victoria sits through Photography class that day in a cashmere sweater reeking of cigarettes. Taylor and Courtney ask what her plans are for the day, but she doesn't dignify their existence with an answer. Taylor squeezes her bicep with some worry and reverence and tries to smile. Victoria doesn't even look at her.

During class the new teacher asks her, "What was the process that gave birth to the first self-portraits?" She's smiling but it's forced. The shake of her hands is something Victoria finds interesting.

"The Daguerrean process." Victoria answers. The deja vu hits her like a wave and backwashes, leaving nauseating memories where it licked.

She glances furtively at Max, finds Max bent at the neck, looking at her lap wide-eyed. She's trembling from the shoulders down to her feet. When Kate wills Max to look at her with a firm pat on the arm, Max keeps her head down, eyes wild and unseeing. No one else notices but Victoria. No one else understands.

Victoria shoves Max against a wall after class to snap her out of it. Kate is frowning but Max looks up at Victoria, gaze refocusing and mouth smacking shut. Max blinks, chases away vertigo with small breaths.

"Watch where you're going, loser." Victoria says. Max's eyes look clearer.

That's better.

 

Zachary Riggins has rough hands and a salty sweaty neck. He's pushing Victoria into the back of the bleachers, eyes gleaming and teeth bright in the shadows he's leading them into. He kisses her, rough, urgent and wild, all teeth and spit and no real warmth. A string of saliva links their mouths when he pulls away to fumble with his belt and jeans. He's pushing Victoria to her knees.

When he lunges, Victoria thrusts him away and smacks him with her hand. Her phone is on her other hand, unlocked to display the time. 4:08pm.

"You've never said no before." Zachary says with some disdain as Victoria struts out of the shadows and away. He's got his thing hanging out of his jeans.

"I'm on a fucking schedule." Victoria answers.

Later, when she's turning the heater up in her car and Max is buckling her seatbelt on the passenger side, Victoria doesn't even feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable. Because this is routine now.

Taylor and Courtney text her a lot, the rest of the Vortex Club ask questions. Victoria ignores them. Taylor sometimes cries in front of her while demanding to know what's going on with her. She doesn't need to tell them. No one else understands.

She drives Max to the Price household at 4 after class in the afternoons in relative silence, nothing but the songs from the radio in the air of the car. It's pop most times, but Max doesn't seem too bothered so Victoria doesn't turn the music down. The sad gray streets of Arcadia Bay's suburban district have started to look a lot homier than her room.

She still hates Arcadia Bay though.

She'll stay put outside when Max goes into the house. Sometimes she'll hang around for a cigarette or two, or she'll catch up with schoolwork or celebrity gossip in her car. Scroll through textbooks or magazines or the browser of her phone.

Sometimes she'll peel out of the driveway immediately to head to the beach, invade Frank's RV with her bitchy grins and overflowing money. Her nostril hurts whether she's on or off cocaine but she tells herself it's all routine.

She thinks Frank looks at her funny sometimes. Like the way Zachary tosses her glances in the corridors, primal, unapologetic, and so very hungry. Starving. Frank's eyes are a lot more dangerous in that she doesn't see the hungry beast in them. Just an emptiness, a contagious kind of darkness that sucks up all the warmth in the stuffy air of his RV. A blackhole is a lot more dangerous than a monster.

But he doesn't touch her, because there's a ghost hanging over his shoulders. Victoria sees the specter whenever he looks away when he's caught staring, or when he's playing with the colorful bracelet around his wrist.

Chloe Price's room is her own shrine, and Frank's RV is Rachel Amber's.

He's got a lot of other clients, but no one else understands.

Sometimes, Victoria will leave everything behind completely and meet up with Taylor or Courtney at another club. She'll snort and drink and vomit like the world is ending, and she'll bask in how beautiful she feels in the cocaine high while the bass and beat drops deafen her.

She teases the boys but she never really comes home with any of them. She doesn't need their company. Max will be waiting when she gets back to the dormitories.

But today the routine is broken. Joyce Madsen knocks on her window minutes after Max came in. Victoria lowers it to hear the woman better, see her clearer without the window tint in the way. Joyce is smiling, the hollows under her eyes deeper, darker, her fingers gaunt as she waves Victoria over.

"Why don't you come in, for a change?" Joyce says. "Have some coffee with me. Or maybe some juice, if coffee's not your thing."

Victoria thinks it through. She eventually kills the car engine and steps out into the driveway, meets Joyce's eyes. They're glossy, focused, but the soul's not really in her pupils. The smile she's wearing is small and forced.

"Come on in."


 

Victoria asks for coffee. It goes better with cigarettes than juice does. Joyce gives her the go ahead to smoke and even pulls one out of Victoria's cigarette case for herself.

They sit in the kitchen and sip and smoke wordlessly, the only sounds coming from the TV living room, airing some kind of interior designing show giving tips on how to make a home homier. It's pointless. This house will probably never feel homey again.

"I didn't know Max had a friend like you," Joyce pipes conversationally when she's starting on her second cigarette. The silence between them had become too choking. "She doesn't get herself out there all that much. She's a shy girl."

"She's okay. She doesn't talk much. I think that's what makes her okay."

"You don't like talking much?" Joyce sounds vaguely teasing.

"Not these days." Victoria says with a smokey breath. They both take sips of their coffee. Victoria starts with a second cigarette, Joyce flicks the lighter for her.

"It's nice that you're hanging around with her like this. Supporting her, helping her through this. I didn't think she had any other closer friends besides Chloe." Joyce's vague southern drawl falters at the name and Victoria sees her forcing a smile. It's supposed to look kind. Grateful, even. It just ends up looking like a wince. Like saying the name of her own dead damn daughter is causing physical pain.

Did Max and Chloe even hang out much? Victoria's never seen them together. Does Max even have any other friends besides Chloe? There's Kate Marsh, that Warren guy, and Dana and Juliet seem keen enough to help her feel better. Some others at the dorms also try their hardest to smile at her when they see her. Even Taylor doesn't snark on her as much as she used to. Are those friends?

Is Victoria even friends with Max?

Weird friendship. Fucked up friendship.

Victoria bites hard enough on the cigarette filter to tear through it. "I... understand her. She needs someone who understands. It's hard. What she's going through," She sips on some more coffee with mildly trembling fingers. Joyce does the same. "She's helping me through something too."

Joyce looks like she would have said something, maybe asked, but the words die stillborn on her mouth when the front door swings open. The footfalls that follow the door shutting are heavy and tired, and not much later David Madsen's head comes peeking into the kitchen area.

He opens his mouth, chapped lips parting, eyes drooped, but he takes one look at Victoria and his face swarms. Swells red with so much hatred it is physically affecting.

"What is she doing here?" His voice is cracking, wilting, but the rage of his face more than makes up for it. Joyce rounds on him with flailing hands, coffee cup tilting. The browns splatter on the table and the floors.

"This is Max's friend, David, sit down -"

"This is no friend of Max's! This girl, she -"

"She is a nice girl, and she's helping Max through a hard time -"

"- she's friends with that - that murdering psycho! Max isn't -"

"- don't raise your voice at me, not in this house, not anywhere, David -"

"- Joyce this girl is dangerous! Do you even know her name? Who she is? Who else she's friends with -"

"- and I don't suppose you do? You just know everything don't you -"

"- I know enough not to let the friend of a sick, twisted murderer into our house -"

"- Victoria is a nice girl, David, why do you think everyone is such a bad person -"

Victoria is holding her head with trembling hands, fingernails tracing crescent moons all over her scalp.

She never should've come inside. Should've just driven off to the beach or to the club or somewhere else. Should've stuck to the routine. She's breathing hard, air coming in and out in shaky heaves through her mouth, ribcage stuttering with each draw -

"- enough, David -" Joyce is screeching, pacing around the kitchen aimlessly. The tears in her eyes are enough to tell Victoria this has been going on long enough. This has become just another routine.

David grits his teeth and slams a fist on a nearby wall. He jabs a finger in Victoria's direction. "- she's friends with a killer - a killer. The killer who shot our girl dead and is being taken away to -"

"- stop it -"

Shut up shut up shut up. Victoria blinks at the tabletop and drags all the hair she can to cover her eyes and temples. Shut up shut up shut up over and over again in her head until it's not just in her head anymore. Joyce is crying the same words out in her own voice, begging and angry and tired.

David doesn't listen. He growls a wordless epithet and prepares to round again but -

Victoria stands shakily to her feet. Joyce and David stop. The world seems to freeze for a short few seconds when Max comes into the kitchen, face pinched, mouth drawn tight on her face. She paws at her own arm and looks at the walls, the floors, the ceiling, until there's nothing to look at anymore but the three of them there in the kitchen.

The sounds of the TV drag on.

Joyce's tears. David's anger. This broken home.

No one else understands.

 

"I'm sorry." Victoria says when they're back in the car. She says it once she can breathe beyond labored huffs. Arms stretched rigidly forward, knuckles turning white with how tightly she's grasping the steering wheel. Max's hum is almost lost in the incessant drone of the radio.

"Don't be," She says softly. She catches Victoria's gaze and smiles, actually smiles, not happy or even something close to that, but it's a smile. "I needed that. They needed it too, probably."

"Are you telling me I did a good fucking deed?"

Max shrugs and sinks in her seat, leans sideways to rest the side of her face on the window. "I'm telling you not to feel bad about it."


 

Victoria's phone vibrates for the fifth time in a row now on the bedside table. Max moves to pick it up, maybe reject the call, who knows, but Victoria beats her to it regardless and swipes it up. Chucks it carelessly into her handbag.

She locks the door. Turns the lights off, lets the setting sun come in through the window to replace the artificial light. The yellows and reds are hazy but enough for her to see where she's going and where Max is standing. Max sees her enough, too, and they stare at each other for a long moment before Victoria starts.

She sits on the bed but Max just stands, watches her unbutton her cardigan. "It's too early for this, but -"

"It's fine."

Max swings her bag over her head and sets it daintily on the floor, leaned against the bedside table. She's shrugging off her hoodie afterwards.

"So," Victoria finishes the last of the buttons and slides the cardigan off her shoulders. "Who was Chloe Price, exactly? Just your best friend? I didn't even know you had a friend like that."

She keeps her eyes down. They've never really talked before, or, never talked about anything like this before. It's just not routine. Max glances at Victoria with some surprise but ultimately shrugs it off. Victoria tosses her cardigan to the floor.

Max picks it up. Victoria almost laughs when she sees it being folded neatly, and then set aside at the bed's foot. "We've been best friends since childhood. I grew up here in Arcadia Bay," Max kicks off her shoes. "I moved away a few years ago though. I really wasn't around when she needed me the most. Her... dad died. The real one. William."

"You came back," Victoria's undershirt slips off with ease and she stands to slide her skirt down her legs. She folds these herself, to save Max the trouble. "That matters."

She checks up on Max with a furtive look. Max is halfway through pulling a shirt off her head and when it's off, Victoria can see the starting glimmers of tears. Max says, "Not on time," and means to fold her shirt, but Victoria snatches it from her to do it. Max works with unbuckling her jeans instead. "I loved her."

Victoria stiffens a little. She pauses from her folding, chews her lip, looks up with furrowed brows. Max looks like she's... smiling? About to laugh? About to cry? She gets her damn jeans off anyway and joins Victoria on the bed, spreads Victoria under her.

She thumbs on the waistband of Victoria's tights. Victoria helps Max out by lifting her hips and the tights slide off easily. Their legs brush.

The kiss Max gives her on her throat is nothing like Zachary's mouthwork. It's gentle, a butterfly landing and promptly flying away again. It's a tiny flame on her skin. She asks, "Did she love you too?"

She cups Max's shoulder, pushes off the mattress with her elbows so her bra can go. Max unfastens it with one hand. "No."

Their breaths mingle and then they kiss, lips melding gently before their tongues join in. Victoria drags her fingers up and down Max's back, works slowly on the hindering bra. It takes some time with her eyes closed as they are.

"I was in love with the idea that maybe she did though. But she didn't," Max mumbles when they part, licks her lips before moving down Victoria's chest. Her breaths wash over Victoria's skin, raise goosebumps where they land. "She loved someone else."

"Who?"

"Rachel Amber."

Victoria feels a nibble on one breast and jerks, but Max shudders and breathes almost like she had laughed.

Max is moving lower now. Her hands slide down Victoria's stomach, crawl to the garters of Victoria's underwear. Max slides it down and off, travels back up the length of Victoria's legs with wet kisses. "How about you? How about Nathan?" She asks. 

The name drips with enough weight that Victoria actually glances down, but Max is already between her thighs, face hidden. "What about Nathan?"

Max presses against Victoria with a broad tongue and fingers, and Victoria jolts, toes curling. Victoria lets her back arch and head topple back onto the pillows with a sigh, fingers finding scraggly brown hair to grasp. The tongue disappears for a moment to let Max answer against her thigh. "Weren't you two dating?"

Does everybody really think that? "We weren't -" Victoria mewls and grits her teeth, eyes closing tight. She yanks on brown hair and the tongue comes back, slips into wet folds with the rhythm of busy, pounding fingers. Her chest shudders. "- weren't. Fuck. No, we were - h-he was my best -" A gasp, a moan. "- b-best friend."

"That's not what people are saying."

Victoria tries to laugh but the sound that comes out is just a needy whimper. She tugs until Max's face is flat where she wants it to be again and bucks her hips, rides Max's ministrations. For a long time the only sounds are wet slurping, heavy breaths interlaced with mewls, an oscillating fan, someone outside starting a shower alone.

When Victoria comes, she bites down on her lip hard and keeps her eyes closed until the spasms stop. She slumps. Max is crawling up.

"We fucked a few times. That's what people are probably saying," She says breathlessly, turns her head for her chin to meet Max's forehead. A blackness pools in her chest and she swallows to try to tame it. Her voice trembles anyway. "I was always drunk. I had to be. He needed me and I needed him, and I guess that just had to happen."

Max blinks. Victoria can see her reflections on those two bright pools of blue. She's frowning in her warped reflections. She looks away and twists, rolls until she's holding Max and carries them both off the bed. Max is short, thin, and light in her grasp and so incredibly easy to throw down on her knees and elbows. Max tenses but doesn't start an argument.

"Chloe listened a lot to me. I could talk for hours and she wouldn't mind," Max says, adjusting until her joints are comfortable and she's spread enough for Victoria. "But I think she wasn't really thinking of me when she'd kiss me. Or... hearing my voice when she'd lay me down on her bed."

Victoria slips into Max quick and without warning from behind. Max jerks, makes a noise drawn from deep down her throat, before muffling herself with Victoria's pillows. Her fingers find the duvet and curl, claw so hard she might just tear through the fabric. Her back glistens with sweat dripping.

Victoria leaves fiery lines where her nails drag all over Max's back, squeezes hard enough on Max's hip that there's sure to be aches and bruises in the morning. When she's satisfied with the marks she sees on Max's skin, she finally bends down.

A slithering tongue and curling fingers finish Max up fairly quickly. Max flops on the mattress, twitching, jaw still clamped hard around the pillow she had buried her face in. Victoria moves to join her and Max shifts, moves her arms and legs around until they're huddled close, limbs twined with each other, sweat and scents mingling.

The sun has set completely and the room is only barely lit by the light from the hallway, coming in through the narrow slats of the door.

"Nathan listened," Victoria says into the skin of Max's throat. "He listened even when it didn't matter - or - I think I mattered. Enough. To him. And I listened to him," She pulls her face close until the tip of her nose is touching Max's skin, until she can breathe in the sweat, sex and tangy cheap perfume. "I guess we fit. That's why I needed him."

"No one else understands."

The answer is so quiet Victoria almost misses it. But she hears it, understands it enough that she actually glances up. Max is playing with the strands of Victoria's hair, her other hand tracing idle patterns on Victoria's back. She's looking at the far wall, right into the darkness. Her eyes are glassy but the tears don't fall. It's strange, but she isn't crying. Not right now.

"I have you now, don't I?" Victoria whispers. Max blinks and looks at her.

"And I guess I have you."

Victoria nuzzles and Max holds her, breathes on the crown of her head. She shudders but still no tears. No wetness, no sobbing.

"Don't party tonight. Just stay here." Max mumbles into Victoria's hair, said so softly it's more a plea than a request. Victoria burrows closer, clings tighter.

Somewhere her phone vibrates in her handbag but they don't mind it.

"I'll be here, Max."

This could be a new routine.

Chapter Text

"Tell me about Nathan."

The steel hangers scratch and whine on the wardrobe rail. Victoria palms on one of her cardigans, hikes it sideways to get a better look with squinted eyes. It's a pastel kind of pink with bronze buttons and pale rose patterns on the breasts. She eventually puts it back.

"He was a troubled kid. But you already knew that," She answers without much beyond a noncommittal shrug. Was. Was, like he's a distant memory or just another body buried underground. She does another shrug to shake off the crawling ghosts of his hysterical screams. Yelling had always been Nathan's default volume. "He had a lot going on in his life. Asshole parents, asshole dad, that kind of thing. They treated him like some kind of freak, or a little kid. Or both. A freak of a little kid."

"He was kind of a freaky little kid."

"But with good reason. He had a bad life growing up. Parents gone all the time, and whenever they were around they just pretended he didn't exist," It's not a defense, not quite. There's not enough bite to it. Just a statement of a fact. Victoria grasps another jacket and twists this one for better judgment, thumb running on the beige-colored synthetic leather material. "And he wanted to exist so badly and get their attention that he got all - freaky."

She hears Max hum an understanding behind her. The wooden bed frame creaks with sloppy movements. "Didn't he go to therapy or something? Or took medication? He was obviously pretty..."

"Fucked up," Victoria assists in monotone. Her face scrunches and she makes an effort to turn further away from Max. She takes the beige jacket out of its hanger and spreads it out in front of her, eyes it shoulders to hems. "He did. Both therapy and medication. That made him feel more of a freak and invisible to his parents I think, and he just started getting angrier," With a hum and a nod, she flourishes the jacket and tosses it over to Max. "Put that on."

"Won't this look too big on me?"

"Maybe a little baggy, but it's classy, at least. You're not eating with me dressed the way you are. Dump that hoodie."

Victoria crosses her arms and stands there, watches Max shed her bag and then her hoodie. Max looks the beige jacket over with a critical, if only slightly clueless, eye, and eventually slips it on with careful motions. The hems rest a little above the bottom curve of her rear and the sleeves cover her hands down to the ends of her palms. She touches the zipper, thumbs it uncertainly. She looks over toward Victoria in wordless inquiry.

"How did you become best friends, anyway?" Max asks as Victoria strolls over. Victoria zips the jacket up to the midriff and then pulls back for further appraisal, eyebrows furrowing in concentration. How? Like it's that simple.

There's only so much about Nathan and Victoria that can be defined by words, and what little that can be always tends to come out fucked up and hard to understand. I needed him, he needed me is the basic premise of their relationship. And even then that's open to numerous interpretations.

That's the complication, she supposes. Everything about the two of them is blurred, all the lines are blurred. Like a painting ruined and smudged and stepped on. You could still see the colors, but where this color ends and the other color begins is up to the onlooker. What the painting is really of is up to whoever sees.

The question hangs unanswered for some time. Like a neon sign buzzing in Victoria's peripheral while she smooths the jacket over Max, tugging at the shoulders, hiking the sleeves up to her elbows in an attempt to make it seem more her size. Max is watching patiently with quiet interest.

"A few years ago. Before I moved here. You know we own the Chase Space in Seattle, right?" Victoria daintily tips Max's head up with fingertips to her jaw, nimbly fixes the jacket's lapels to make them flare upward a little. "Some time around ninth grade, my parents held a gallery show for one of their friends who was commissioned by Vogue. They brought me along for show-and-tell. The cute little blonde daughter who wanted to be a photographer," Victoria doesn't need to strain her ears to hear the bitterness in her own voice. She swallows, moves to the tapers on the waist of the jacket. "Nathan and his sister were there."

She picks a lint off the jacket and steps back, admires her handiwork. "Everyone was talking to his sister but no one was talking to him. Next to his sister, bright, tall, beautiful, Nathan kind of... shrank. He was like he was invisible. Or about to stop existing. He was so pale, bags under his eyes, nervous ticks. You want a change of pants, too?"

Max shakes her head and looks down at her jeans. Darker than her usual faded ones with a tighter fit around the thighs and ankles. "I think I'm okay with this. So, you talked to him?"

"I didn't want anything to do with him that time," Victoria starts with Max's hair, picking it at the tips, running her fingers through it, deciding if there's something that should be done. "He scared me, if anything. Even back then he made a habit of sneering at people. But his sister was nice. And my parents ended up telling me to show him around."

"And you did? Showed him around?"

"No. We never got to it. He threw a tantrum over the idea of being separated from his sister. And I ended up getting yelled at outside by my dad."

Max raises her brows at Victoria. "Over what?"

"Not taking control of the situation," Victoria answers simply as she pulls away with the decision to leave Max's hair be. She does toss Max a hairbrush though. She sits down on the bed to get properly dressed herself, kicks off her suedes. "Nate saw the whole thing I guess. Because when we went back in, he wasn't so keen with sticking to his sister anymore. He took my hand, dragged me off, and told me -"

"Parents are assholes. We don't need them. Let me be your friend."

A little boy with greasy brown hair, bony fingers, and sweaty palms. Looking at her with wide, pleading eyes. Looking at her like he wants to swallow her whole and never let her go.

"- just. It started there," Victoria cuts herself off, shrugs off her sweater with her undershirt. She slides her skirt and tights down in one quick motion. Max tidies up her discarded clothes for her. Victoria walks back to her wardrobe. "He kept coming back to the gallery after that. Always with his sister though, 'cause his parents didn't have the time. Sometimes he'll visit a week after, a few months, sometimes longer."

She falters, stares at herself in the mirror. She sees the reflections of her hands, thin, pale, and trembling. She didn't even realize she's shaking again. The silence doesn't numb her to the tiny tremors.

"Victoria?" Through the mirror, far behind her, Max is watching. Dark brows furrowed, lips tight. She's seeing it too. Victoria avoids her eyes and stands there. Watches her fingers furl and unfurl, gritting her teeth at the sensation of irrational discomfort crawling up her legs.

"I gotta..." She whispers, voice so small it looks like her mouth just moves around the words. She swallows and tastes, she swears she tastes, a grainy bitterness in her mouth despite having just brushed her teeth. She swallows again just for the hell of it. "I-I gotta... ah..."

"Where is it?"

"Drawer. Top shelf -"

Victoria hears the sound of hurried footsteps, the scraping wood of a drawer being yanked open. Max shuffles through the piled clothes and trinkets. She comes over shortly after and paws Victoria's shoulder to turn her around. There's sweat on the indent of Victoria's collarbones.

Max has seen her do it plenty of times by now. Just watching, just waiting, sitting behind Victoria while she bends over a table or an empty seat to inhale through a lousy rolled up bill. With surprising calmness, Max pushes the plastic packet in her hands open and dips a single index finger into it. Wiggles it around, gathers enough powder until she's satisfied, and then brings it up to Victoria's mouth.

Victoria parts her lips, lets Max's finger run over her gums and teeth before closing in on it and sucking with fervor. The bitterness is real when she swallows now.

"Better?" Max murmurs. She's looking at Victoria and Victoria sees the way her eyes ripple when she blinks. Blue, so so blue, like seeing the entirety of the sky in two round pools. In them she sees something she's only ever seen on Taylor and Nathan. Nathan especially.

Concern, thick and bubbly like molasses suspended over the kitchen counter after falling over. Victoria feels a strange kind of dryness at the back of her throat. She swipes the packet of cocaine from Max with so much urgency that it surprises them both.

"Don't touch this stuff again." She mutters, the words hard as they leave her mouth. She turns away from the Max to go through her wardrobe. Watching from the corner of her eye, she sees Max frowning.


 

They're stopped by Kate on their way down the hall. Kate looks at Victoria like a liberated slave staring down a former master.

She's been braver since Jefferson and Nathan's arrest. Braver, in that she can look at Victoria and the rest of the Vortex Club in their faces now, reminding them always with intense eyes and a disapproving face about the video they put up and the nasty story told behind it. Drugged and kidnapped little Kate Marsh, a victim more than she is a slut.

One time, just one time, Victoria would like to claw that accusing look off her face. Just one opportunity.

Victoria didn't know. She really didn't know.

She already apologized and said she didn't fucking know. She was Nathan's best friend, but she didn't fucking know.

Nathan's jittery voice plays in a loop at the back of her mind, his drunken, sinister slur of how much of a slut Kate is. How fun she is when she's loosened up. All the things she'd want to do to her, been wanting to do to her.

Victoria wonders when Arcadia Bay became the home of so many tortured ghosts.

Max stops but Victoria just keeps walking, face set firmly ahead and gaze forward. "Hey, Max." Kate whispers and Max answers in a hushed murmur that's drowned out by the clicking of Victoria's heels. Victoria pulls the stairwell door open and hobbles down alone.

"I'm okay, Kate. I'll be fine." Max eventually says, louder this time. Victoria closes the door behind her.


 

"Tell me about Chloe."

Max quietly thanks the waitress before regarding Victoria with rolled lips. On the table adjacent to them, a band of old men, maybe old friends, bond and laugh over their glasses of draft beer. Victoria glances over to them with a meaningful nod of her head and a sweet smile, and they return the gesture with vaguely sheepish looks. They behave a little after that.

"She was a troublemaker. A Blackwell dropout, punk trash, bought drugs and used them. I think you already knew that," Max answers with a thoughtful air. Their attending waitress floats over to their table and sets four glasses, two for them each, one for wine and another for water. A saucer of quaint round buttered bread follows. "But she wasn't always like that. She was always adventurous, though. She liked going wherever, fucking around, just having fun. When we were kids we liked to pretend we were pirates on the trail of the next big treasure."

The waitress mutters a kind farewell and Max answers with a small smile. Victoria's just looking at Max. "Sounds very not like you," She says. "She filled up your boring holes, huh?"

"You could say that," Something in Max's face twitches but she's started speaking again before Victoria could ponder about it. "I liked hanging around with her, before and after the moving away thing. I..." She trails off, frowns, seems to think something through with hard, unseeing eyes. Victoria tilts her head to meet her gaze and Max shifts, looks at Victoria for a moment before quickly averting her eyes. "A-after the moving away thing. She uh... she changed a little bit, I guess. Which I understood. She hated me I think."

The waitress returns with a bottle of wine and Victoria waves her dismissal before she could pour for them both. The waitress excuses herself.

"Aren't you driving?" Max hedges with a wrinkle between her brows. Victoria tosses her a quick look, bored, exasperated, something in between, but doesn't stop pouring herself a glass. She rolls her eyes.

"I know my limits. I don't think I recall ever seeing the two of you together. I'd remember you hanging out with a girl like that."

"Maybe you just never saw," And there it is again, the odd twitch on Max's face. A small spasm along the skin skirting her jaw line. Max catches Victoria staring and she tips her head, smiling. It's humored, somehow. Like she's thinking of her own private joke. A funny secret. "I spent a lot of time with her. We even hung out a couple of times at Blackwell. Maybe you were there and weren't there at the wrong times."

"Maybe," Victoria puts the bottle down. Between them, for easy reach, but Max doesn't move toward it. Typical Caulfield. Victoria sips from her glass. "You said she hated you?"

"F-for a while," Max shrugs, like the idea still bothers her. "I mean, I... abandoned her at a bad time. She felt that way, anyway. She had to deal with William... passing away, and then David on her own. And a lot of other things. She just... felt alone. Unwanted," She shrugs again, voice going low. "She had those kinds of issues. And Rachel was just kind of suddenly there."

Victoria feels herself frown. Max is staring into the empty space past the side of Victoria's head, lips parted to aid with her breathing. Blinks leisurely like she's watching some memory playing back before her very eyes. Victoria sighs through her nostrils and reaches over the tabletop to furl her fingers around Max's hand.

The hand stiffens and then goes soft, like the blood swirling within had paused and is now whisking again. Better.

Now, talk about something else.

"You think if her dad lived things for her would've turned out better?"

Their food comes. A plate of beef medallion, a dish of filet mignon, and a small platter of seared shrimp and scallop skewers. Neither of them move. The restaurant continues with its hum of activity around them, silverware clicking and patrons buzzing with conversations. Laughter, glasses toasting, plates being slid around and set.

"Everything was always gonna be worse for Chloe." Max says at length. When she looks at Victoria it's with a sad smile, too low on one corner and wobbly on the other. The smile falters when the wine bottle is pushed toward her and she stares at it, swallowing. She glances up at Victoria. Victoria has started slicing into her filet mignon. She tosses Max a gentle look.

Think about something else.

"It'll help you feel better. Tonight at least."


 

The way Max is clutching her is tender, but not quite. She's holding onto Victoria like she would her instrument, that stupid guitar in her room. Tight but then fleeting. Careful but then not. Max slides her fingers down until it's Victoria's wrist she's holding and it stays there, like wanting to feel the pulse under the skin.

Max's hand is cold from being outside, but Victoria feels the muscles of her wrist warm under the touch.

Victoria has no words for this, not really. Has no words for the timidness of this moment, this strange aftercare from dinner and too much wine.

It's not sweet, she thinks, because this is Max, someone she's been fucking senseless for weeks and been tormenting relentlessly before that. But it's not wrong either. This is like a poem that just turned into a song halfway unexpectedly, words fading into musical notes on parchment.

That could be it. A song. This moment is like a song in its entirety. The way Max is leaned on her, hand on her wrist, walking in slow, unsteady strides. Victoria there, slowing her own pace so their strides match and sync, cooing quietly. Steady, easy, steady whispered repeatedly for assurance.

This is like a song with a bit of wrong, a bit of right in it. Like everything is fine until you notice the absence of drums.

The absence of a name. The absence of what exactly this is.

It's funny, really, how they're pretty much doing this backwards. The sex first before the classy dinner. The harshness first before the sweetness, but then again there should be discordance before a proper melody. You can't tell which is beautiful without the ugly.

So there it is again. The impasse.

The beautiful in-between. Lines blurring.

The hallway is bare, and that's understandable since it's around past 9 on a weeknight. They pass Taylor's room and Victoria notes the lack of light and actual sounds from inside. Out partying again. That would explain the number of times her phone rang tonight, not that there was any doubt on the possible reason behind that.

Ahead, a door cracks open and light from inside the room spills into the hall, a slat of gold like a knife on the floor. It's Kate's door. Victoria sees her peeking through the crack, watching the two of them move unsteadily down their path.

Don't ruin the song, bible thumper. It doesn't need a violin.

The door pushes farther open when they're adjacent to it. Victoria pauses. More like freezes on the spot really, and Max feels her stop. With a small noise Max lifts her head off of Victoria's shoulder and looks at Kate, hovering there by her doorway with an alarmed expression. Kate tries moving toward them but Max holds a hand up. Or tries to. She just ends up flapping a hand lousily.

"I'll be fine, Kate," She says, slowly, working around the slurs with some effort. Victoria's head is still set firmly forward. "I told you, didn't I? I've got Victoria."

The dubious, vague, ridiculously blurred promise.

I have you now, don't I?

And I guess I have you.

Victoria doesn't wait for Kate to answer, or for her door to close. She continues hobbling forward, patiently waiting for Max to follow after her strides, and that's that.

 

They end up in Max's room. Victoria turns on the light and shuffles to sit Max on her bed, crouching so their faces are at least leveled. She slaps Max a few times softly on both cheeks and Max mutters nonsense, something like stop that strewn with some syllable garbage. Victoria huffs quietly and works on pushing the borrowed beige jacket off Max's shoulders.

"You could've saved him, you know," Max mutters suddenly. Victoria feels hot breaths on her cheek so she turns her head until they're face to face. Their noses nearly brush at the tips. "Nathan. You could've saved him."

"Nate didn't want saving. He wanted someone sitting at the bottom with him."

The little boy with the greasy hair screaming you can't tell me what to do you can't control me.

"You could've saved Nathan. And that could've saved Chloe."

The little girl who was always going to have something worse. The one who loved someone else.

"And then what? You two could've fallen in love and run off into the sunset?"

Max actually laughs. Full, long, humorless. Bitter. She helps Victoria with getting the jacket off anyway. Victoria doesn't get up, just tosses it over to the couch across the bed, folding habit be damned. They stare at each other, scrutinizing, thinking. Waiting.

Talk about something else. No - stop talking.

Victoria feels tired. Today is the most tired she's felt in weeks. Today she did the most talking she's done in weeks.

"We had to talk about it some time." Max says, as if Victoria's thoughts are written in bold, black ink all over her face. Reading minds now?

Victoria doesn't answer. She gets off the floor and unbuttons her shirt, slides it off her shoulders while she's pushing Max down with a gentle knee. It's that time of the night again. The wounds are opening.

"What is this even anymore, Victoria?"

Victoria's breathing slows before it stops completely. The absence of drums.

"This is just bandage." She says into Max's chin, adjusting so she's comfortable. She finds her breath again on the tangled scent of lingering wine and cheap perfume on Max's skin.

Max hums, blinks. Turns her head to the side to see Victoria's hand splayed there, just near the crook of her neck. The fingers are trembling again in that telltale sign of need for a fix. She glances back up and Victoria sees it there, in her blue eyes. Bleary from too much wine but still identifiable. Concern

Actually caring

Victoria wonders if Max sees the same in her own eyes. Wonders if that's what's defining them, if that's the closest they'll get to having a name for this. "No," Max mutters. "I think this is the whole medical treatment."

Chapter Text

Victoria is thinking about it again.

She's bent over a desk. An empty chair. A sink of a club's filthy comfort room. She has trembling fingers and raised hairs, pupils blown while she's walking down the dormitory hallway. Sneaking out of Blackwell - walking down the sidewalk - strutting into the night. She's sure her mouth is closed but it doesn't feel that way somehow. She swallows through the foams and bitterness.

She gets the shakes often. Sometimes she thinks she feels them even in her sleep.

In class there are words on the whiteboard written with a fading marker and lousy, hasty handwriting. She sees the letters, can see them as the words and sentences they form but she can't concentrate. They jumble and disperse into fuzzy static in her brain.

Taylor is whispering gossip and Hayden is laughing quietly. Max's stare is making the hairs at the back of her neck perk up. Victoria is trying very hard to keep her hands from shaking and thinks of -

Max asking her what's wrong. Max asking her where it is, how she's doing, does that feel better. Max telling her to slow down. Max and the drying cuts on her wrist and the way she looks and clings to Victoria like she's afraid the ground will eat Victoria up.

There's the packet of cocaine in her hand. How many times does Victoria have to -

"I told you never to touch this stuff again." Victoria seethes. She looms, draws closer. Renewed energy crackles and electrifies the goosebumps on her arms to existence, and then the anger is gone as quickly as it came when Max looks at her with wide eyes. Frightened, worried, folding into herself like a wilting flower.

"I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

But Max does it again anyway. When she sees the shakes, she starts biting her lip, face scrunched and shoulders tensing. She'll ask, "Where is it?" and Victoria will say top drawer, or middle shelf, or bottom rack because she can't move above herself. She can't resist the chance of being given what she needs and wants, and Max can't stand her looking and shaking like that.

"Better?"

They pass each other one time in the Blackwell hallways. Kate is there (Kate is and will always be there) and her face pinches, an obvious automated response. She casts a wary eye at Victoria that turns intense when Victoria raises a hand. The hand moves forward. Kate waits for the shove to come.

It doesn't. Victoria's fingertips press on Max's bicep, all five of them, but that's it. The hand gets off without much incident. Max cranes her neck so they could look each other in the face, one freckled cheek lifted in the slightest. Victoria gives her own wordless greeting with a quick brow quirk. Taylor sees the whole thing.

"So, she's like your friend now?" There's so much weight in the question, like bile. She might as well have thrown it up and made a mess on the grass. She's crossing her arms, looking out at the Blackwell courtyard, face crumpled up like a child trying to intimidate her parents. The hurt is in the wobble of her lips, the vaguest envy bleeding out of her slumped shoulders.

"Something like that." Victoria answers. The guilt crawls, but it's nothing that she couldn't easily shake off. She remembers Taylor asking for weeks, begging to the point of crying to be let in, a loyal puppy kicked and spat on and still keeps on running back.

A puppy with dark bags under her eyes and wrinkles, sends her texts and calls like cellular plan is nothing when they're barely paying the bills to her mother's hospitalization.

"Is this how you're getting over Nathan? So what is she?"

The hit is hard to swallow. It lodges in Victoria's throat. She sees the line again. Smeared like chalk lines swept sideways with feet and hands, blurred and glaringly indifferent to the ideals of intimacy and boundaries. The ravine, the impasse neither her nor Max seem to refuse to move off of. It's fine here. It's beautiful here. Let this be meaningless with some hope of meaning.

And then Nathan, who had shared this same blurriness with her for so many years, who defiled the lines to the point of complete nonexistence. The lover and the friend, a parasite who was as much of a host. A remedy and the ailment.

"There's nothing to get over. Nathan and I never dated," She says at length. Taylor fidgets next to her and seems to soften, if only for Victoria's benefit rather than her own. "You of all people should know that."

"But you miss him."

Victoria looks to the side where Max is standing with Warren. Warren is chattering animatedly, evidently pleased and somewhat relieved. Just happy that Max is talking and walking and breathing properly again. He flails his arms in some ridiculous proclamation, and Max actually smiles at him.

She looks past Warren's shoulder and meets Victoria's eyes. Victoria turns away.

"I'm comfortable with her," Victoria mutters, the truth of it a vaguely heavy weight on her tongue that she ignores. "She lost her best friend too, right? The sympathy helps." The weight settles and skitters over her shoulder blades like jovial insects. She pushes away the beginning thoughts of lost because of yours before they could set up camp in her skull. She wrings her hands furtively and looks to Max's direction again.

Max is watching Victoria over Warren's shoulder with a look of knowing, a look that is all too familiar that Victoria can almost hear Max cooing into her ear. Telling her to slow down and breathe.

So she breathes, in and out of her mouth, until she can look away. This is bandage. This is medical treatment. This is the whole package. This is treating the wound until it heals and not just slapping a flimsy cover on it, then pretend there's nothing there.

Taylor is humming. This small discontented sound that she tends to make when her photos come out overexposed, underexposed, or just blatantly terrible. Victoria frowns and presses onward with a quiet voice because she knows Taylor wants her to. "She gets it."

She pictures Nathan at the back of her mind, sprawled on the floor of her room, drunkenly talking her out of driving him to therapy. She sees a coffin housing Chloe's rotting corpse and a headstone engraved with her name and empty praises. A loving daughter and a good friend, the writing says.

Taylor looks at her then, expression unreadable aside from the obvious ghosting concern of her frown. She opens her mouth, looking like she's got something more to say on the matter, but seems to decide against it and closes it again. The unspoken and I don't? lingers in the air like a bad smell. She talks again after a long pause.

"I'm just glad you decided to talk to me again." She says.

Victoria glances down, looking at her hands. Fingers starting to tremble again in a furious, all too familiar announcement. She swallows and steers the subject. "How's your mother?"

She's thinking about it again.


 

She thinks about it, even on the road to the beach or, Frank's RV to be specific. Taylor is driving and tapping her tense fingers on the gear shift, a nervous tick. The skin of her jaw is pulled tight in the way that tells she's trying not to talk.

She gets off the car and lights a cigarette when they're parked and set. Victoria gives her a lingering look before scampering off toward the only other vehicle in the parking area.

It's become a second home pretty much in that she can just walk in without too much worry now. Even the spoiled interior stink has stopped bothering her. Pompidou is curled up next to the old couch and springs to his feet at her entrance, greeting her with a wagging tail and shining beady black eyes.

Frank is leaning on the door that leads to the RV's compact bathroom. Elbow pointed, forehead on the back of his hand, forearm rested on the chipping door. Beer cans are all over the table and Victoria knows for a fact that these are just today's, because yesterday's are all over the couch and piled in a messy row on the counter next to the sink.

Frank is swaying on his spot slowly and doesn't need to look to know who his guest is. Expensive perfume reeks in a way cheap body sprays can never.

"Mind clearing up the table? My head is pounding," He all but slurs. When he doesn't hear Victoria moving, his forehead disconnects from his arm and he turns, throws her a drunk-flushed, half annoyed expression that has him looking a lot like Pompidou. He grunts and pushes himself upright. "Fine, Ms. Prissypants, I'll do it."

Victoria watches him make a fool of himself trying to walk among the clutter of his floors. She grits her teeth. "I'm just here for a pick up."

"What? No tasting today?"

"Not yet. I'm good."

Frank peers up at Victoria behind unkempt, oily bangs. His eyes are bloodshot and veined, rimmed stark red all over with deep hanging bags. The browns of them are bleary and blown almost black but he can still see, apparently, because he smirks at her. Gestures with a hand wrapped around a beer can toward her. "You sure about that?"

His eyes are down, looking intently at her hands. Victoria bites the inside of her cheek and wrings her shaking fingers. The fist she makes is loose and is the sorriest excuse for a fist. He glances up.

"What? You in a hurry?" He asks, blinks while he sets his stance right. He sets his current beer can on the table, the other cans toppling at the brute force of it, and starts rummaging his jacket pockets, brows furrowing.

Victoria does some rummaging of her own. It takes some time, her hands unruly as they are, but eventually she manages to pull out a couple of twenties from her wallet. Frank hands her a packet and crumples up the bills with his other hand, jams them into his jeans pocket without counting. He knows it's a lot. He knows it's keep the change. "That all?"

He's looking at her in that way that's making her skin crawl again. Lids heavy, hooded, face swirling with a hundred different hungers that teeter unsteadily between violent and wanton. Victoria bristles when he takes a tentative step forward, his lips drawing thin, stubble rippling in a jaw roll.

And then he steps back and fiddles with his bracelet. He looks away.

 

Taylor turns the heaters way up when they're back in the car in some clueless hope that the warmth will help with the trembling. It doesn't. "Maybe I should get you something. Let's drop by Seven-Eleven? Hot chocolate? Food?" Her eyes go wide on the temperature controls. "What do you need? V?"

Victoria is curling and uncurling her fingers, like a toddler practicing making and unmaking a fist. She levels an unimpressed look at Taylor. "I'm fine. I'm fine," Repeated, to convince them both. "Get me out of here. Take me drinking. I need to feel buzzed."


 

She stumbles into the dormitories with Taylor late that night. Taylor is mostly sober, too nervous and worried to drink, mainly having just chowed on whatever leftover shots Victoria demanded she chug down. She lets Victoria drape her whole weight on her while she leads them down the hall.

They shuffle, hobble, grunt and groan against each other on the way. Stella turns the disjointed corner from the bathroom and pauses to stare at the spectacle of them both with raised brows and dripping wet hair. No wonder she has kinky strands and split ends. Who the hell even sleeps with wet hair?

Victoria scoffs at her and snarls, "What?" fiercely enough that Stella glares before pushing past them. They continue down.

"Not there." Victoria drawls when Taylor makes to open her room door. She squirms and twists until Taylor lets her go and she's swaying on her own. She sniffs twice, tries to dull the ache in her nostril, and she's thinking about it again.

She can't stop thinking about it.

Max catches her mid-stumble when she comes bursting into the room. Victoria grunts and palms Max's shoulders to straighten herself, wills her knees to stop wobbling and do their fucking job. It's Taylor who closes Max's door. Her steps retreat with her back down the hall.

The world is spinning, but it spasms and bursts to focus when Max's face looms over her, taking up the entirety of her vision. A comforting eyefull of freckles and eyes too blue. Max is trying to hold them both up but Victoria is dragging them down to where the bed is with deceptive strength and purpose. The kiss is a mess but Victoria's world and breath both pause to allow it.

"My head hurts." She mutters into Max's cheek, managing to fish out the words from the fuzzy depths of her brain. Her head lolls uselessly before a hand tips it upright and steady. She sees blue. She knows what it is even without thinking about it, and finds herself clinging a lot tighter than she means. Holding Max in that way that makes her heart twist and brain scream.

This is reaching for a knife. This is taunting the blurred line. This is cutting up a new wound.

Wounds leave scars.

"I'm here. I've got you."

Hold the knife by the blade and twist, lick up the bleed of affection.


 

Victoria is thinking about it again.

Staring up at a dark ceiling, eyes forced open by dreams of drowning and gunshots and crushed, fine, white powder. Her heart is beating at a fierce, terrified beat, fingers curling tight into the sheets. She blinks and turns next to her.

Max is sleeping. There are tense grooves all over her forehead but her breaths are slow, deep, stable. She's a heavy sleeper. Victoria knows it well enough, after so many times of waking up before her and walking out without ever hearing her stirring.

So she isn't too worried when she throws off the duvet and swings to sit up, gritting her teeth through the pounding of her head. She can feel a thrum of painful pulsing on her temples and she bites her cheeks hard, swallows up blood, pushes up to stand with trembling legs to get dressed.

All the lights are off on their floor. Out the window the moon is watching with a halved face. The winds are rustling the trees. Tiny branches tap on the glass like tiny, gnarled fingers.

Victoria shuffles down the hall with an aching head and sore cheeks and lips. The bathroom lights blind her when she flicks them on and she hisses, reeling and falling to the floor. The tiles spin and shake before her very eyes and she keels, stops all movement to ease the pain in her head and steady her vision. Breathes through her mouth because her nose is burning.

Morning will find her elbow bruised from the fall. The throb in her head is joined by ache shooting up her smacked, bruising muscles, and she tries to force her eyes open and forward when they roll back from the fall.

And then she pulls out a plastic packet from the pocket of her cardigan.

On the floor she makes a line. A thin, long, beautiful line of shimmering white powder, a sight that makes the trembling of her fingers still immediately. She blinks at the line and is reminded of another line entirely.

This other line is blurred. This one has two sets of feet standing on it, the other of a scrawny, brown-haired girl with a small voice and a bleeding wrist. Dry lips and slumped shoulders, brilliant blue eyes thick with worry. Asking Victoria, "Better?" Telling her, "Slow down and just breathe," with squinted eyes and a frown she tries hiding by angling her head away. Shrinking when Victoria looks pointedly at fresh cuts on her wrists, trembling when she remembers something that shouldn't be remembered. Victoria is reminded of -

Max under her, stinking and tasting of wine, muttering, "No, this is the whole medical treatment," the duvet under them rippling, jerking with movement. When the sheets calm she looks down at their bodies, twined at the ankles and their fingers. She smiles that small, hopeful smile that never fails to remind Victoria that she's breathing. That they're both living and blinking in the same darkness, the same space, the same world. That they have each other. "We'll get better."

The cold of the tiles crawl up Victoria's hands and arms, slithers into her skin, sits and coils in her gut. Her heart wrenches.

She's thinking about it. She's looking down at the cocaine line, and she's thinking about it.

And then she stops thinking about it and makes a decision.

 

When she gets back, Max is sat up on her bed and rubbing her eyes with her knuckles. She turns to the door when Victoria enters and stares blankly, face slack and eyes still sleepy. But then Victoria grasps her elbows and there, there, Max sees the trembles of her fingers. Her eyes open in full.

"Where is it?" Is the first thing that comes out of her mouth. Victoria just stares and pales and doesn't answer, and Max frowns as she whirls to her feet. The sheets fall off of her and the goosebumps bloom all over her unclothed skin, limbs tensing in the open cold for the briefest moment, shoulders folding. Her teeth chatter.

She makes to push past Victoria to stalk across the hall, to search the top drawer or middle shelf or bottom rack or wherever the hell else, to come back with the thing she's not supposed to touch.

But, "It's not there." Victoria tells Max. Max pauses to look at her with a face that's almost a scowl.

"Where then?"

"I threw it away."

The air in the room turns colder. The world pulses and spasms, pain both physical and beyond swarming the shivering flesh of Victoria's body. Victoria is closing her eyes through the headache and the burning of her nostril, teeth chattering. Max holds her.

Max doesn't stop holding her. She holds Victoria when the tears fall, holds her when the panic attacks come and Victoria is screaming and sobbing into her pillows and sheets. Holds her through the trembling, the horrid amalgamation of anger and sadness and fear.

Victoria begs, kicks and whines and curls over, curses and screams into the pillow some more until she's hoarse. She says fuck Nathan. Fuck Nathan for being so fucked up and leaving her. She says fuck Jefferson, fuck him for ruining everything and whatever it is he did. Fuck Chloe for dying. Fuck Frank, fuck Rachel, fuck her parents. Fuck the cocaine. Fuck Blackwell. Fuck Arcadia Bay.

She says fuck Max. And Max just holds her.

The seconds drift to minutes and then hours, the night's dark slowly peeling back into a lazy kind of half-light. Through it all Victoria sweats and cries waterfalls, blood tracing an ugly line down from her nostril to a tiny pool on the moist pillow case.

When she's done, tired and panting and out of tears, Max brushes the hair off her damp forehead and pushes all the blonde strands back until the whole profile of her face gleams in the dawn's vague luminescence.

Max stretches off to fetch a bottle of water on the bedside table, shifts and angles them both so she could help Victoria drink properly. Victoria's face is pale, moist, and stained everywhere, but the trembles have dimmed to irregular spasms at least. Max cleans Victoria's face off gently with her palms as best as she could.

"Better?"

Victoria stares, flushed and puffy-eyed. She finally has a good answer. "A lot better."

The softness of Max's eyes and smile takes her to sleep, and she closes her eyes slow enough that she catches Max do the same. It's dawn, and they've been up for hours, holding each other on sheets damp with sweat and pillows cold with tears, spit, and blood. The others in the dorm will be up in another hour or two.

But the two of them need to sleep. They need the rest, all the energy they can get. This is just the first night. It's going to be a long weekend.

Chapter Text

White is drifting outside. Snowflakes are floating and falling, pooling into thin sheets of snow and clinging to the trees and untrimmed shrubberies. Come late afternoon, they all will either have melted away or washed off by drizzle or heavier rain.

This is typical Oregon shore winter. Windows are foggy with condensation. The sun barely graces the mornings of Arcadia Bay beyond halfhearted peeps, but even then it doesn't make too long appearances.

The atmosphere is cool, winter cold tangled with strong shore winds. Blackwell's courtyards have become ghost pavilions with no signs of life to make space for the usual rainfalls. It's chilly and moist whether you're inside or outside.

December.

 

Thin snow piles on the sills and uneven slats of the windows. Victoria is on the couch, huddled into a blanket, settled with Max's laptop and typing with rigid fingers. A document window is pulled up on the screen and the brightness is dimmed, an attempt to help with the mild throb still pulsing on her temples and behind her eyes.

The room is poorly lit by the feeble gray coming in through the windows. Dana several doors down is announcing the first snow of this year's winter like the people around her don't have eyes, and Victoria rolls hers.

Her eyes, already bloodshot, red-rimmed, poor things, squint and shut tight when someone comes in and turns on the lights. The glare is like the sun beating down and melting her eyeballs.

All at once every hungover ache bursts to life. She's already hissing by the time Max realizes her mistake.

"Goddammit." Victoria grits and Max sputters sorry, I'm sorry repeatedly while turning the lights off again and closing the door.

Victoria curls and rubs her face with fistfuls of a stupid cartoon blanket, mutters expletives through the fabric and her hands. The couch dips with a weight and she ignores it.

"I'm sorry," Max says for about the seventh or eighth time already. She shuffles closer and rubs the back of Victoria's neck, resettles the blanket around Victoria's shoulder when one side rides off in a dismissive shrug. The dormitories' heater is shit, and Victoria is still in her night clothes. Max sees goosenips. "Did you take that aspirin I left for you this morning?"

"Yes," Victoria grunts hoarsely, pulls her hands away to open her eyes. Sniffs. "Could've gotten me colder water though."

"I'll remember that for next time," Max says softly as she rubs Victoria's neck again. They maintain the proximity. It's nice, warm, comfortable, and not like anything they haven't already done. Also, winter sucks. Rainy or snowy, just winter in general. "What'cha doing?"

The couch dips again and Victoria tilts her head away when hair brushes her cheeks and ear. Max's hair tickles. "Cleaning up your paper," She supplies grouchily, and the blanket is fixed for her again when she shrugs. "You're great with a camera, but you're shit with everything else. Your impact of modern art on society paper was on the clear path to an F."

It's a snark, but there's a compliment in there that once upon a time, would have been hard for her to admit, much less say. Max bumps heads with her and she grinds out idiot before returning to her work.

"How's it going then? The cleaning up?"

"Terribly," Victoria huffs. "I deleted most of your paragraphs and rewrote whatever was left. I'm adding more now."

Max hums. She leans a little more to see but she's shooed away. She pulls back after bumping heads again (nerd.) "So you didn't come to any of your classes this morning?"

"Courtney's covering for me. I hate snow. Cold. Whatever."

"You haven't even showered?"

Victoria's eyes snap up and her fingers go stiff over the keys. She frowns. "Something wrong with me not showering?"

Thin ice. That's how the past days have been for them, or, Victoria is thin ice and Max is trying to cross the length of her without setting anything off.

The withdrawal is an iceberg with a body deadlier than its peak. Max has purplish crescent moons all over her arms and shoulders from trying to hold Victoria down, muffling her screams, fending her off during her more violent nightly episodes.

She's taken to borrowing Victoria's concealer for the marks that stray to her face. Victoria can't look at them without getting a lump in her throat.

The shakes of her fingers have gone at least.

People still look at her and avoid her in the halls. She's still Victoria Chase the Queen Bee, an inexplicable ball of spite dishing verbal abuse every which way, nothing too new.

Only now some people have started to hear the noises from room 219, started to notice how distracted and on edge she is all the time, and sometimes the looks she gets are too meaningful for her peace of mind. Gossip is getting around.

Taylor and Courtney do their best to pacify the rumors (drugs, mental instability, rumors so reminiscent of another Blackwell elite from some time ago) but there's too much to filter for just two people.

Even the rest of the Vortex Club have their own says when Victoria's back is turned. About her, about Max, about her and Max together.

Max doesn't seem to mind any of them. Back then when it was Victoria saying things about her, she didn't mind, too, so it's either she's willfully brave or genuinely doesn't care. Max still stands by Victoria in the dorms, holds her hand in the Blackwell halls, carries her handbag for her while she reapplies make-up in the women's restroom.

Max smiles at her even while Kate or Warren look on cautiously. Her free disregard of other people's opinions is something Victoria has always envied.

Now, it's also admired. A little.

The couch shifts when Max pulls away with rolled lips, taking in her faux pas, eyes turning wide and thoughtful. "No," She answers at length and she tries out a lopsided smile to ease the situation. "You still smell nice."

And then they bump heads again and Victoria mutters dumbass with a noticeable softness. Her temper rolls over like a good, tame little beast. Only for Max. Crisis averted. "Why do you do that? The head bumping. It's stupid."

"Cats do it to show their fondness. Depositing pheromones I think?" Max answers. 

"We're not cats."

"Maybe we should be."

Victoria rolls her eyes, watches Max flop down on her bed without taking off her coat and galoshes. The moist soles have made wet marks all over her stupid Keep Calm And Carry On carpet. "You can at least get a change of clothes, so we could grab some lunch. I'm pretty sure you haven't had any breakfast yet."

"I don't need to eat." Victoria says as her typing picks up pace again. Max makes a small humming noise of disapproval.

"But you're so thin."

Victoria finishes a paragraph with some difficulty before glancing up.

Max is looking at her with furrowed brows and tight lips, face glazed over with the look she often gets while watching Victoria undress or redress, or running her hands down the knobs of Victoria's spine or grabbing Victoria by her jutting wrists.

The look is making Victoria's knee jiggle.

They're out in the Blackwell parking lot half an hour later, Victoria bunched up in (stylish) thermal clothing put together with Max's helpful quips on colors. Max isn't very fashionable, god no, if that hideously dull jacket of hers is anything to go by, but at least she knows colors. Must be the photographer in her.

Dana and Juliet pass in time to see Victoria opening the passenger door for Max but neither her nor Max think too much of it. They'll all talk regardless.

"Can we eat at the Two Whales this time?" Max asks once the heat of the car has settled. Classy restaurants, atmospheric coffee shops, they're defaults for Victoria when it comes to eating outside campus and so naturally, she raises her brows. Max has never complained the past times.

"If you want sloppy and greasy, just say so. I know a place."

Max is quiet as she fidgets on her seat. She avoids Victoria's eyes. "I just want some pancakes today, actually. The pancakes there are bomb," A smile finds its way to her face but it's small, and her voice is even smaller. She swallows. "Joyce texted me to come see her. A couple of days ago. I think she's worried."

Victoria worries her lip between her teeth, keeps her hand paused on the gearshift for now. "And you're worried about her."

It's not a question. Max smiles and shrugs. Victoria gives her understanding by throwing the car in reverse, peeling out of the parking space slowly, mindful of the iced pavement.


 

She's eaten with Nathan here once or twice, just some greasy burgers with fries when they were in that sloppy mood, felt like distancing themselves from the Blackwell dramas for a while.

Nathan would sprawl like the spoiled teenager he was and bark orders like an uneducated fiend. His hair messy, sticky with oil and gel, and his eyes wild and blown with medication and a combination of many other drugs. He'd jitter and snark incessantly, untouchable prince that he is.

Max is quieter, gentler. She's neat and tidy. Combed hair, a zipped up jacket, a soft smile ready for Joyce when she comes strutting over to their booth to take their order. She's tranquil, eyes bright without ever being wild. She's a comfort.

But her hands are shaking. Victoria takes the one under the table and smooths it over her gloved ones, holding Max's gaze with furrowed brows and a taut jaw. Max is getting that faraway look on her face again and it takes a strong squeeze to her palm to snap her out of it. She pales, but ultimately smiles a wordless assurance. She squeezes back.

Joyce comes back in a hurry with their food. Burger and fries, pancakes, a sundae for Max (which is nonsense, seeing as it's so fucking cold) and a diet Coke. Heavy make-up covers up the majority of the pallidness of Joyce's face, but she looks happier. Relieved. Maybe a little brighter than the last time Victoria saw her anyway, volleying with David in their tiny kitchen.

"So how's my girl doing, huh?" She starts awkwardly with a smile. "How are you girls doing?" She reaches over to palm Max by the hair and her forearm looks thicker. Max shrugs and grins.

"We're okay, Joyce. I'm so glad to see you again."

"I'd be hurt if you weren't," Joyce smirks and her shoulders soften some. "You haven't been to the house lately, and I was starting to think you'd forgotten about me."

Chloe's name ghosts over the response like a haunting. Victoria shifts, Max's face twitches.

"Never." Max says. Joyce nods her head a few times before turning her attention to Victoria, and her expression turns somber. Almost falters really, but she keeps the smile for decency's sake.

"Hon, about the last time, I'm sorry you -"

"It's fine," Victoria cuts off with a cursory glance. "It's - well, if anything, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don't worry about it."

"It's not that you're not welcome in our home, sweetheart," Joyce says after a minute pause. "David is just... he's... paranoid. And what happened just -"

"It's really okay. It was a nice coffee break with you though. Thanks for that."

Max catches Victoria's eyes, purses her lips. Victoria sighs quietly, angles her head enough to meet Joyce by the eyes. They smile at each other, both awkward, both strained.

Victoria's knee won't stop jiggling and she can't help but notice the failed lilt of Joyce's eyeliner, one eye rimmed thicker than the other, such a tiny imperfection. It's infuriating to look at for some reason. She swallows through the bile building in her throat.

"You two didn't have to see that." Joyce mutters at length.

"It's fine. It - it's just normal stuff, I guess. And Victoria's right, about, us being in the wrong place and all," Max clears her throat and reaches over to clasp Joyce's hand. "I hope you and David are working through... through things. How's he doing? He hasn't been around at Blackwell much."

"He took a two month leave. He's at Portland with family, I thought he needed the break," Joyce's voice gets small. "Thought we needed some time apart. I - I suppose I was right. He's been calling regularly. We talk about a lot of things," She squeezes Max's hand and smiles, grateful. "When he gets back, the two of us will talk more."

"Are you going to be okay?" Max's voice is hopeful and her face is gentle, but Victoria doesn't miss the death grip she has on one side of the table, the way her eyes are twitching to fight the urge of looking elsewhere.

"I think so, Max," Joyce mutters. She pulls her hand away and rubs it, thumb padding over her knuckles. Pulls on a smile that fleets with the ending note of a corny old love song playing on the jukebox, face darkening with uncertainty.

But then Max hums and smiles at her and hope sweeps in, a tiny crackle of embers in the deep dark, a prayer prying Joyce's mouth into a wider smile that lasts. It actually lasts. Joyce says, "I really think so. We'll be fine, I think."

She leaves them with some hopeful words about coming over to the house, having some coffee, talk about things some more, keeping her company, and they say yes through the upbeat tempo of another song playing from the far corner.

Victoria peels Max's tight fingers off the table's edge when they're left alone. Max sighs, flexes her fingers. She almost looks tired.

"It's hard to come up with the right things to say." She mutters. Victoria pulls the glove off her free hand with her teeth and quirks a brow, smirking.

"You always manage to anyway. Nice talk."

Max shrugs and takes off Victoria's other glove for her. "I try."


 

They go to the beach at Max's request. Wind is slapping at their faces and water is lapping on the shores, higher now with all the rains. There isn't snow here on the sands, just specks and dots of wetness where the snowflakes fell but didn't last.

The sounds are just the wind, the sea rolling and crashing on rocks and sand, the odd squawk of a bird flying overhead. The lighthouse is high and mighty in the distance.

Max is looking at it. Standing there staring, hands tight on either side of her, shoulders tensed and face taut in that faraway look she gets. Seldom now, with how things are going between them, but she still has these moments.

It's always darkly fascinating to watch her blink slowly, eyes going more and more out of focus with each flutter of her eyelids, looking right at something but seeing something else, some ghostly apparition of a memory playing back. Right hand flexing and tightening, as if feeling for something, checking if it, whatever it is, is still there.

Victoria's been ordering medication online to reduce the hassle of prescription or hospital checkups, and ultimately for the relative anonymity. To save face. Anticonvulsants, Gabapentin to kill the cravings and mellow out the nerves and muscles. The unavoidable headaches and queasiness that come with the dosages are shit, but the medicine helps. Mostly anyway, during the mornings. It helps her concentrate better in class.

Max isn't too partial to medication. Victoria would know, because she tried asking Max about it. Just to help with the panic attacks more than anything: the spacing out, the freaking out at the littlest reminders of a horror long past.

No medicine, Max said. So Victoria settles for the next best thing and just holds Max's hand.

She does it right now, looking intently as Max inhales, takes in the warmth of Victoria's hand through the smooth designer glove. It takes some squeezing, some patient caresses, but Max does calm.

The breath she drags out is long and heavy, and just like that the ghosts are gone. She blinks, turning to the waves. They keep the contact and stand there at the shore hand in hand.

The little things matter. Doing homework, picking out clothes, holding hands.

Just being there, really. It's nice. Needed.

"You mind if we stay here a little longer? I need the air." Max murmurs. Victoria gives her assent with a head bump that has them both laughing out to the whipping air. That sound, of the two of them laughing, is nice. It's warming. It's hope.

A particularly cruel rush of cold air has Max's shoulders folding and Victoria's breath coming out in a thick fog. With little thought Victoria shrugs off her winter coat, hands it over, stands there in an agreeable enough layer of a thinner jacket over a thermal sweater. Max's teeth chatter while she gapes.

"You need it," Victoria says, warmth spilling into the ruse of practiced indifference in her voice. "Couples do this."

"We're not a couple." Max says with a crinkly-eyed smile. Says it teasingly enough that Victoria's huff is halfhearted and lame, and she's looking away to hide her grin.

Max takes the proffered jacket anyway. Her fingertips manage to peek out of the ridiculous fluffs at the sleeve ends and she finds Victoria's hand to hold again.

"Maybe we should be." Max says. She laughs.

Victoria snorts with a playfully upturned nose.

A vibration in her pocket makes her glance down and fumble. She pulls out her phone and goes through notifications, face scrunching after each one opened, breath held. By the end of them her face has gone paler. Her mouth is dry, curled down at the corners. Something heavy sits where her heart should be sitting. Her blood is running cold. Max notices, sees the tremors of Victoria's lips and cheeks, and promptly takes the phone to scan.

Three texts, two from Frank and one from Dana.

"You haven't been around much. Heard you quit the stuff and just wanna say that's good for you. You were hanging out too much at my RV anyways."
"I'm going out of town. Not sure when I'll be back. Been thinking I gotta visit Rachel's place or maybe her grave at Long Beach. I haven't visited yet."

"What's your deal, Victoria? You've been dragging Max around like some kind of pet and just letting you know, we're keeping an eye on you. Don't think we won't know if you hurt her."

And then an email.

"Victoria,
Your ticket home for Christmas break has been reserved. Please refrain from another shenanigan as last year's - I won't arrange for another reservation again if you miss this one. Please be responsible enough to make it for your trip in time.
Your mother and I expect to see some of your photos when you get home. Your Principal has informed us of the replacement for Mark Jefferson. We'll see if Blackwell continues to be the place for you, and if it is making you better or worse. Kroft was a disappointment but here's to hoping the next application will be better.
Dad."

"I don't want to go home." Victoria says quietly, looking out at the crashing waves.

Max nods. "I know."

She takes Victoria's hand in both of hers, squeezes, kisses the gloved fingertips one by one until it feels enough. And it does feel enough, somehow. The beach, the wind, the proximity. The touches and kisses and the warmth from Max, trying very hard to burn the dread coiling around Victoria's throat.

The little things feel enough.

Chapter Text

Max dreams of waters. Gentle waves kicking off the shore and walking hand in hand/side by side/at a safe distance next to a Chloe with legs/Chloe without legs.

Angry waves that explode and gnaw on the sand while a raging tornado spirals in the distance.

Closing distance.

Closing distance.

A lighthouse overlooking the sunset/overlooking dead whales/overlooking destruction and scenic doomsday. Snow and not snow. Live birds and dead birds. Chloe is running through the live ones and flapping her arms like wings, cackling. Chloe is dead with the others among the dead birds.

Jefferson is holding a gun/holding a camera/holding a syringe/holding nothing, dragged out by officers in uniform. Jefferson smiles. Jefferson doesn't. Jefferson is telling her how pretty and talented she is and all she could think about is dead Chloe Chloe is dead Chloe is dead -

Jefferson shot her/Nathan shot her/the tornado got her.

Closing distance.

The sickness is under her skin. It crawls and slithers through the flesh, pricks into her veins and roams wild and free with her blood. Circulates. Pumps into her heart and out and she vomits to try to get it out -

It doesn't get out.

Chloe is dead. Chloe is not dead. Chloe can walk. Chloe can't walk. Chloe can't fucking die -

She scratches skin to make the itching of the sickness go away. Jefferson gave her the sickness. He gave it to Rachel. He gave it to Kate. He gave it to all the girls he captured. She scratches but it doesn't go away.

Max is sick. Max is sick with pain/trauma/disgust.

The dark room. The lighthouse. The junkyard. The bathroom.

- Chloe fucking dies.

It hurts. It hurts it hurts it hurts and she cries. She cries. Chloe tells her no, Chloe tells her about Rachel, Chloe touches her and makes her feel good but it isn't Max. It isn't really Max she's touching and it hurts.

Chloe lives and it hurts. Chloe dies and it hurts. Chloe gave her the sickness. Rachel gave it to Chloe first.

Max is sick with heartache/rejection/isolation.

Max bleeds out the sickness. She cuts through skin and bleeds it all out until she feels better. Bleeds out blue butterflies and dead birds and Chloes who can and can't walk. Bleeds out sedatives and hard slaps and photo flashes in the dark.

Nathan/Jefferson/Chloe screams. Nathan/Jefferson/Chloe in the dark room.

Max in the dark room. Max in the dark room.

Closing distance.

Max can smell. Cigarettes/tranquilizers/expensive perfume. Max can see. Blue hair/brown hair/blonde hair. Max can touch. Tattoos/a rough beard/soft skin.

Expensive perfume. Blonde hair. Soft skin.

Victoria on the floor. Victoria on the stairs. Victoria in the party. Victoria begging for her help/covered in paint/believing her warning. Victoria on her bed, holding her hand. On the beach, holding her hand. In the car, holding her hand.

Victoria in the dark room. Victoria in the dark room.

Closing distance. Closing distance -

 

"Max."

Max's face is wet. She wipes at the moist of her face, tears, sweat, and others, and rolls to face the ceiling. A street light outside is casting vague shadows over the plastic glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling's plaster. She spies a dinosaur among the shapes of stars and planets. 15 year old Max thought a dinosaur in space was funny.

The bedside clock says it's 7:07am. It's still dark. The bedside clock's opinions are irrelevant because of winter.

She rolls again. The mattress shifts and someone groans under the covers. A hand other than hers materializes, gropes the length of her forearm before winding around her wrist. Slow, gentle. The pulse there, not so much. "... Nightmare..."

"What?"

"Mmyou were having a nightmare," Victoria slurs, squeezes Max's wrist. Her eyes are still closed and she wrestles with the drowsiness to continue talking. "...nightmare. Hnnbad one. You hngkay?"

"Yeah." The reassurance comes out shaky and small. Max can feel her heart, thumping and barreling itself raw and angry against the bones of her ribs. Sweat is making her hair and clothes stick to her skin.

"You sure?..."

Max inches up until her head knocks the headboard. Victoria's head is tilted down, half buried in a pillow. Max sees her eyelashes at the angle and they're long, thick, even without the expensive mascara and other things.

They flutter with a sleepy haze about to break. Max pads her thumb on Victoria's forehead to smooth out the creases beginning to form there.

"I'm okay. I'm okay." She murmurs. The wrinkles disappear. The sleepy miasma starts to resettle. Victoria's hold on her wrist slacks.

It's that scene that Vanessa Caulfield happens to see when she wanders in minutes later. Max in bed, curled up in blankets, head propped up on the headboard, peering down at her sleeping companion. Max sees her mother hovering and sinks back slightly, lifting off the bed.

"Up already, sweetie?" Vanessa's voice is the careful blend of soothing and wary. Like witnessing a baby take its first steps. "Breakfast is downstairs. I made pancakes."

Max nods and feigns haziness to wipe off her face with a fist of blankets. "I'll be right down, mom, thanks."

"And your friend?"

"I'll get her down."

Vanessa disappears and Max shakes Victoria to wake her up. Victoria stirs after a good one-two wobble and grunts, takes the blanket with her when she turns the other way with a mumbled curse.

Max digs her knee into where Victoria's spine and pelvic bone connect and Victoria ultimately turns over again, one eye popping open.

"Hey," Max says. Victoria groans. "There's breakfast downstairs. It's seven. Time to get up."

The other eye pops open and Victoria breaks into an inelegant yawn she hides behind her hands. "Mmkay," She mutters, grumpy, exhausted, very not a morning person. She picks Max's wrist off the side of her head to plant a sloppy kiss on. "Mmkay. I'm going. Mmhm, 'kay, whatever."

"You sure?"

"I'm up, aren't I?" She isn't. Her eyes are closed again.

"Mom gets grouchy when breakfast isn't eaten."

"Fuck breakfast." But she rolls off the bed anyway and grudgingly forces herself to her feet. There we go. 

 

Max heads down to the kitchen alone, because Victoria needs about a 15 minute lag to let the morning sink in and to put on her good face. Ryan is in the living room in sweats and a shirt, browsing through the morning newspaper and Vanessa is just about finishing with the table. They look up, somber their faces into a look befitting staring down a wounded animal.

Max wishes they'd stop looking at her like that.

They only talked about it once, right at the first day of Max's time at home. Said right off the bat, "We hope you're doing well, sweetie. It's so sad what happened to Chloe."

They never talked about it over the phone, mostly because Max had an excuse on homework or projects always ready to end the calls. Speaking in person completely makes that particular weapon useless.

The proclamations of, we're so proud of you for being so strong, the people responsible will get what's coming to them, we're just glad you're so safe, became lost in the fuzziness of her head. She smiled through the trembles and ate dinner normally. She didn't sleep that night.

She's coddled like some disabled person on the way to the kitchen (a paraplegic a paraplegic a paraplegic) with Ryan trailing her with cheery good mornings and Vanessa going so far as to pulling a chair for her. The pancakes are beautiful, piled in neat stacks and draped with butter, syrup, and chocolate, like the ridiculous breakfasts children in fairy tales get. Seams of blueberries poke out of the sides.

This feels like a last meal. Every meal since she got here have felt like a last meal.

(Execution life sentence execution life sentence)

She loves her parents, but she wishes they'd stop doing this.

"Pancakes are your favorite, right, honey?" Vanessa beams next to her. "I know you love them with blueberries, too. Do you like them?"

"I hate them."

Ryan's face reminds Max of that weird painting, The Scream. Vanessa looks caught in a scuffle between confusion, shock, and wild rage. Max raises her right hand and rewinds.

"I love them." She says this time, complete with a smile.

Victoria comes strutting down the stairs in perfect poise and smiles, probably having practiced this encounter in Max's mirror before heading down. She puts on that delightful charming expression she uses around people of authority, people to impress. Ryan greets her good morning and Vanessa waves.

There's a stunning silver Aston Martin convertible parked out in their driveway, like some kind of misplaced monument in their bland suburban home and next to their outdated SUV.

The latest gift from Victoria's parents to make up for their absence. Driven all the way from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill in the dead of the night to escape a large empty house of maids and no parents.

Max still has the text on her phone of Victoria asking if she could come over. Just tonight, she said, and even on text the pleading in it is hard to miss.

"Breakfast?" Vanessa hedges politely.

"Thank you, I would love some," Victoria answers. Definitely rehearsed. Max tosses her a furtive smiling glance. Victoria pretends not to notice, continues instead: "By the way, I am so sorry for coming in on no notice at all last night. It was just so late, and I felt exhausted, and Capitol Hill was still ways away."

"Oh, no worries, Victoria," Ryan answers, twists on the couch to look at her. "That was a good choice on your part, anyway. Driving while tired isn't safe."

"Exactly. And I remembered Max telling me she lived around here. Again, I'm so sorry, and thank you."

"You slept well?" Vanessa asks conversationally, handing Victoria a plate of the ridiculously decorated pancakes. Victoria takes it and casually sits next to Max.

Breakfasts aren't Victoria's thing. Food in general isn't Victoria's thing, but she's smiling like breakfast is such a wonderful thing and sometimes it's amazing how she can pull these kinds of phony crap off, no sweat.

But then again, phony is Victoria's default.

Rewinding can't take that horrible thought back. Max winces inwardly.

"Quite well, thanks," A glance to Max, who has started digging into her plate of pancakes with determination. "It was a nice offer to sleep in Max's room, but really, I could've gone for the couch."

No, you couldn't have, Victoria. They nudge each other with knees under the table.

"Are you okay?" Victoria whispers as soon as Vanessa has moved away and Ryan is too busy with crossword puzzles to listen in. She inches her fingers toward Max's forearm and pokes, fondly, eyebrows lowering.

"I'm good." Max says. Something in Victoria's eyes hardens but she drops whatever it is and starts with breakfast.

 

The rest of the morning is spent watching Victoria charm the Goodwill pants off both her parents. Last night was a dismal failure with slurred introductions and profuse apologies, and she's making up for that today with breathtaking smiles and her very own particular brand of showoff-y flattery ("You have such nice carpets, we have something of the same color scheme at my grandmother's chateau.") She praises Vanessa's kitchen and interior decorating, feigns interest on Ryan's paper-pushing office work and camping tales.

Someone's obviously running for president. Despite very clearly saying otherwise before.

Victoria and Vanessa are in the kitchen going on and on about some classy homemade lunch dish. Max is curled up on the couch next to her dad, swiping through her phone and only half-listening to a repeat air of a hockey game on the TV.

Kate has texted her ("How's Christmas break so far?") and the realization that her dad is watching her comes delayed. She perks up, eyebrows raised.

"What?"

Ryan shrugs and inclines his head toward the kitchen. "You never told us about her before."

His smiling scrutiny is hard to stand. Max shrugs to play the chill high school girl with lots of friends. "Well... she's a friend. I told you I've made friends at Blackwell, right, dad?"

"Okay," Ryan nods mechanically. Squints. What? Max's neck is getting warm. "Just a friend, right? Pretty girl like that?"

Don't bumble. Don't stammer. Don't fuck up. Apparently, Max's brain isn't very well-connected to her mouth because the word vomit comes and Ryan sits there grinning, cocking his head in exaggerated nods. His laugh booms loud enough that Vanessa and Victoria come poking their heads out of the kitchen.

"What's going on?" Vanessa hollers. Victoria ambles over, rests her arms on the backrest of the couch Max is steadily sinking into. Max's ears are red. Victoria blows on the tip of one playfully.

Ryan sees. Max's knee jiggles. He moves away and drags his wife into the kitchen with him.

"What'd you fuck up?" Victoria teases with a shit-eating grin so wide Max thinks it'll split her face in half. Max tugs on her arm and, in very uncharacteristic so-not-Victoria fashion, she hoists herself over the backrest and slides, pooling into a comfy curl of long limbs on the couch next to Max.

"Can you tone it down with the impressing?" Max mutters quietly. Victoria makes a ridiculed noise and scrunches her nose, but a quick hand flap sobers her up. "My dad just asked me about you and I think he's thinking we're..." Max waves her hands in vague gesture but at least Victoria looks like she gets it.

"Okay, fine," Victoria drags out the vowels. Max mutters great before looking back down to her phone at an unfinished text. A shift on the couch cushion tells her Victoria has leaned over. "Texting someone?"

"Kate."

"Oh."

Victoria's voice is small and distracted and Max looks up at her, curious. She's pointedly looking at the TV and pretending to be interested as two hockey players start throwing down on the ice. Max nudges her. "Something wrong?"

She gets a dismissive hum. Unsatisfied, she deposits the phone on the coffee table and nudges Victoria until she turns. Victoria's face is grim, cheeks flat in a small frown. She rubs the back of her hand absentmindedly. "Nothing, I..." She clears her throat and shrugs. "Your friends don't like me much."

Something clatters in the kitchen. Max shifts uncomfortably but digs up enough sense to reach over, hold Victoria by the hand to stop her rubbing it so much. They don't look at each other for the moment. "Your friends don't like me."

"What? You're cool with Taylor and Courtney."

"Well, yeah, but the Vortex Club..."

Victoria's expression sours. Days in the Blackwell halls hum by in Max's peripheral.

So are they a thing/Nah, they can't be a thing/D'ya hear, Vic's getting kinda fucked up. Heard she's into these weird meds now/She was already a druggie before though/Max is getting dragged into her shit/Max probably likes it, always thought she was a bit of a dyke

They're doing sleepovers/Must not be sleepovers, if you're catching my drift/Watch your backs, guys, we might have another Nathan Prescott in our hands here/Why is she still here? She should be getting therapy or something/D'you see her eyes? Max was helping her to the bathroom/Oh, man -

"They're assholes." Victoria says at length. She turns away and wipes her hands over her face.

Max raises her right hand and the world slows to a stop. She watches Victoria turn back to her, her face scrunched but it softens, slowly, the wrinkles smoothing over, the hardness in her eyes evaporating, and then her mouth opens in words that become unsaid and forgotten. Max stops when Victoria is smiling again.

Max doesn't text Kate back. Instead, she gets off the couch, pulls Victoria up with her, and proclaims with a smile: "Let's go play in the snow."


 

They have a tree in the backyard, tall, thick, and snow-caked with an old tire swing dangling on one branch. It's the kind of tree that Chloe would never leave unclimbed and unmarked. Makeshift shiv in hand, she'd say, let's go get it, Max and barrel off toward it without hearing a response.

"Let's climb the tree." Max says. Victoria looks at her like she's a kid. Or an idiot. Maybe both.

"Why would we do that?"

Right. She's not Chloe.

(Rejection rejection rejection)

Max shrugs. Makes for the tree in slow strides, thin snow crunching under her galoshes. The tree is old, all cracked and veined bark, and getting a solid grip is hard especially with gloves on.

She tries anyway and manages to scramble a hold on one branch before falling flat on her ass. Victoria is snickering, classy lady that she is.

Or, she snickers until a lump of snow slaps hard on one side of her face and she chokes. She stumbles sideways, gawks at Max, scandalized, one cheek flushed and the other paling. Max smiles at her without apology.

"You ass!"

Victoria talks a lot of smack for someone who can't handle herself in a snowball fight. It doesn't really help that there is virtually nothing to take cover behind in the Caulfields' backyard, and it doesn't take long to have her squealing and crying surrender with flailing arms like white flags.

Max finishes her off with one last shot to the chest. There, now her surrender is acknowledged.

"God, you're such a child." Victoria says with chattering teeth and a laugh shaking her shoulders. Snow is settled on her eyebrows and eyelashes. Max wipes her face clean and gives her a lingering peck to the lips.

Vanessa's face is on the window to their side, gawking and breathing fogs on the glass. Max rewinds and instead shoves more snow on Victoria's face, earning her more futile smack talk and scandalized screeching.

She takes Victoria to the bathroom for a shower after lunch. And then to her room to change, picking out colors again because she's asked to. Victoria is here for a night and a day only and it shows with the contents of her bag. Just two jackets and two trousers to choose from. Needless to say, color picking isn't fun this time.

Come dinner time, she'll start her drive back to Capitol Hill to meet up with her parents and celebrate Christmas in their classy gallery with classy strangers. Her own words.

She's gained a little weight in the span of days Max has been forcing her to eat. Take-outs, fancy meals, whatever. Just food. Her cheekbones don't jut as fiercely as they used to, and there's a roundness skirting her jawline that projects her youthfulness even beneath sophisticated make-up.

Her wrists are thicker. Her hipbones still hurt Max's thighs, but you can't rush everything.

"Creep," Victoria says fondly. Max shrugs, laughs off the awkwardness of being caught staring. Victoria's collarbones hide behind her shirt and she buttons it up, turning appropriately. "How do I look?"

"Beautiful."

Victoria tilts her head thoughtfully and says nothing. At least she smiles. She walks past Max to pick up her make-up pouch and sits in front of the small vanity.

Chloe was pretty. Chloe had the hair of the seas and the electric life of sunbeams lighting up the cities. She could smile and the day would instantly be better. Max liked her prettiness, even through the ugly self-pity and shameless stink of desperation for affection. But Chloe's prettiness wasn't meant for her.

Victoria is, has always been pretty. She has the golden hair of angels and the face of women often painted by lovesick romantics. She is genuine perfection caked with the artificial perfection of expensive make-up, trendy get-ups, and the nasty bitchiness from her own self-defense mechanism. A goddess slathered with paint.

Max likes her prettiness, even through the same ugly self-pity and shameless stink of desperation for affection. And maybe this prettiness could be meant for her.

Maybe.

Staring again, Maxipad? Why don't you just pick up that camera and take a picture? You know, get this whole staring thing over with.

Max's hand shakes on the bed. Happened/didn't happen/happened/didn't happen.

Blue hair, eyeliner, smoke in her mouth. Max takes a picture.

When she blinks she sees Chloe's room. When she blinks again she's in the Blackwell ladies' restroom.

Stop blinking.

Happened/didn't happen/happened/didn't happen -

Victoria pulls her back to the present with a nudge to her shoulder. Then that hand slides down. To her bicep, her forearm, then her wrist, thumb tracing delicate patterns on the bulge of dried cuts. The exit slits to the sickness.

Victoria's never spoken out about them, but her look gets somber (partly angry? Partly scared?) when she sees them, touches them. She doesn't talk because it isn't her place.

She wants to though. It shows in the way her eyes grow hard when she looks at them sometimes.

She's been so patient. Max tries to smile.

"Where'd you go?"

"Looking for colors." Max answers, trying to be playful. Victoria's lip purse.

When will the patience wear thin?

"I got you something," Victoria says slowly without taking her hand off Max's wrist. "Just something I thought you'd like... it's - hang on. It's in the car. Stay here."

She floats off and out of Max's room with a stern palm to signal Max in place. When she comes back, she's holding up a glinting silver object in her hands, face flushed both with the run and mild delight.

Max is looking at it. Well, gawking. "That's a Leica T!" She squeaks stupidly. Victoria laughs herself red.

"It is," Is that pride? That's pride. That's pride and smugness in her voice. Max wants to squish her face. "I didn't think it'd get shipped in time, but I guess I gotta give some online stores credit. They only had it in silver, though -"

"Holy shit it's decked!" Max squeals. And it is, complete with the EVF and the company local lens, 18-56mm of zooming goodness. Victoria rolls her eyes but hands it over and Max actually jumps back. "I - I can't! This - this must've cost you -"

"Not much. My Hasselblad still wins by a landslide," Of course. Victoria forces the camera toward Max this time. Loops the strap over Max's head, stands back with her hands on her hips. She grins. "Welcome to the present, hipster. Time to go digital."

Max stares at the Leica in visible awe. This costs like, what, 1800 dollars? More probably, with the accessories? Her knees feel oddly like jelly and she can't keep herself from smiling.

She saw this on Camera Porn once and stayed on the page, pining over the specs and the beautiful, minimalistic design. Victoria had been intently browsing on her own laptop next to her.

Well, maybe not so intently after all.

"I..." Max feels warm. Lightheaded and warm. "I di-didn't get you anything, I -"

"Just say you'll use it to take pictures. More pictures."

Max looks up from the camera. Victoria is smiling gently, eyes soft, face lit by her own flush. Happy. Patient. Beautiful. Max puts the camera up to her face and takes a picture.


 

"Come by again soon, okay, Victoria? You're always welcome here." Vanessa says with a fond squeeze to Victoria's arm. Ryan is at the driveway sweeping snow off the path.

"I will, Vanessa, thanks. It was nice getting to know you."

Max leads Victoria away before her mother could break into more affectionate word vomit. She's always thought she got that inelegant knack somewhere.

Ryan comes up next to them with a shovel and pink cheeks. He goes off with a salute and a pointed look in Max's direction.

"They seem just about ready to have me move in."

"Told you to tone down the impressing," Max mutters with an eyeroll that gets Victoria smirking. Victoria unlocks her car and ducks into the passenger side, throws her overnight bag onto the seat carelessly. Max starts: "So," and Victoria glances up. "You'll be okay?"

Victoria is silent for a moment, fumbles with something Max can't see inside the car. There's the reek of new car interior. "I'll be fine," She says curtly and then promptly clears her throat. "What's the worst that could happen?"

They both can think up worst case scenarios but don't voice them. 

"Thanks for having me over, Max." Victoria says quietly. Max notices her parents hanging around for the waving-goodbye-while-the-guest-drives-away-ritual and doesn't come any closer to the car.

"You'll text?"

Victoria has a smirk in her voice. "I'll call."

"I'll see you after the break, I guess."

"You'll be..." Victoria starts uncertainly. Pulls herself off the passenger side to straighten up, look down at Max. "You'll be fine, right?"

For a moment Max considers saying no. Telling the truth, that is. In between the nightmares, the memories, the absence of the warmth she's gotten used to having around her hand and wrist. Who's she to say she'll surely be fine?

"Yeah." She answers airily anyway.

Chloe would take her word for it. Chloe will believe anything she says, when said with the right enough expression.

Victoria looks at her intently for a second before pursing her lips and nodding. Her eyes are hard, deep, disbelieving.

She isn't Chloe.

 

Max boots up her laptop on her bed as soon as she's back in her room. She pulls up the browser and types the address she's seen Victoria visit tons of times.

She places the order, enters the saved form of Victoria's credit card information, and shuts the laptop.

Victoria fires her a text minutes later: "You ordered the antidepressants?"

(Sickness sickness sickness)

Max scratches her wrist, grinds her teeth.

She replies a simple affirmative and collapses hard on her back, burrowing into her splayed blanket. Her new Leica is fished for and turned on. The screen immediately lights up with her latest, and still only, photo. Victoria smiling.

Victoria isn't Chloe. Chloe is the blue of the oceans and Victoria is the gold of the sun.

Maybe Max would rather burn than drown.

Chapter Text

It rains all through the holiday break in Seattle.

Christmas and New Years are ultimately uneventful. For Victoria, they just mean a handful of parties, appearances, luncheons, with well-dressed strangers and her parents who talk about her as if she isn't there.

There's handshaking, the customary introductions and empty flattery, talk of school and bright futures in the art business.

"Oh, this is your daughter? She has your cheekbones! How gorgeous!"

"An aspiring photographer? I suppose the talent in arts runs in the blood then."

"My goodness, what a beautiful daughter! All the boys must fawn over you."

Etcetera etcera. Show and tell.

She keeps her shit together by amusing herself with the numerous selfies Max sends her regularly. In pyjamas, in winter wear, in the onesies she gets as presents from her dad. Meals with her family and with cups of hot cocoa.

Victoria saves each photo and pretends they're spending the holidays together while applying make-up for another day out.

 

It rains when they return to Arcadia Bay.

Ms. Grant gets a new hairdo, but even then she's pretty uninteresting. Samuel has an arm cast (from some bizarre squirrel-related accident) and has obvious difficulties cleaning the courtyards. Principal Wells has a new suit tailored for his noticeably thinned figure.

He addresses the Blackwell population through the speakers on the first day after the holiday break, announces his supposed early retirement by citing his deteriorating health due to stress. He's not very good with controlling the quavers of his voice.

His lies become a lot more convincing when he's drunk though, with his extra wider grins and happier speeches.

The Photography teacher with the forced smiles returns to Blackwell with a bigger inventory of forced smiles.

She chirps to her students about sending out another application to be reviewed by a Manhattan gallery. They hear nothing more of it for the next days.

Victoria wonders what she did to the rejection letter.

She also wonders if she keeps them in a pile in her bottom most drawer, like she does.

Max takes her out to the Two Whales after class and rejection letters don't matter anymore.

Max orders sundaes even with the season and pretends not to understand English when Victoria and Joyce call her out on it. Joyce lets them commandeer the jukebox when they're around because fuck trucker blues.

Most times, she brings them food free of charge and insists seeing them there, talking with them, is all she needs.

David has communicated his apologies through her. It's good enough.

Max takes pictures with her new camera (Victoria struggles not to smile every time she pulls it out of her bag.) The shots are landscapes, with some portraiture sprinkled here and there.

There are also animals. Squirrels, dogs, cats, birds, once every few landscape shots and most of the time, there's motion blur. But it's Max's shots, so of course they still look good. Victoria feels more pride than envy these days.

"You're gonna fill up the memory quick with how much you're taking pictures," She tells Max one night while they're on the roof, taking pictures of the sky. "Might wanna slow down there."

She doesn't mean it. Max knows it too, because she grins but doesn't pull the camera away from her face. She focuses on one particular spot on the sky with a distinct multitude of bright stars. "I go through the shots a couple of times a day and delete the ones I don't like. Don't worry."

"Where do you put the ones you like?"

"My laptop," She says, looking to Victoria with a crinkle in her eyes. "I almost have a good batch for printing. Wanna see?"

Victoria nods and Max shows her. The abundance of blonde hair and stolen moments in Max's drive makes Victoria whine in equal parts distaste and fondness.

"At least let me know when you're taking pictures next time so I can pose!"

The batch is printed the very next day and displayed. The humble beginnings of a second photo wall.

Things are brighter, better, happier.

Mostly.

 

Max sleepwalks.

The pills work enough during the day that she goes through classes without freakouts and can function like an actual student, but nighttime is different. Nighttime becomes the time that relentless machine she calls a brain chooses to replay whatever horrors it couldn't during the day, because of the calming cloud of medication. Nighttime becomes restless.

Nighttime scares Victoria.

The first time it happens, it's like seeing a ghost in the corner of the room. A shadow frozen among the other shadows, an unmoving outline in the darkness. Naked, freezing in the cold, lined with goosebumps and raised hairs, eyes half-lidded and twitching, nose bleeding and mouth salivating.

Victoria shakes Max awake and puts her back to bed. She doesn't sleep for the rest of the night.

The second time, Taylor knocks on the door of the room. Victoria opens to find a shivering Max wrapped in Taylor's blanket, pale from the cold, eyes blank, breathless from an impending panic attack.

"She was standing in front of the rooftop doors," Taylor mutters, wide awake and worried, feeling cold herself but standing rigid. She helps Victoria put Max to bed, watches her clean up the nosebleed. "I was on my way to the bathroom."

Victoria only nods and keeps her jaw tight. Taylor pushes on. "Should we... should we tell someone? The nurse? A docto -"

"She wouldn't want that."

That's the truth. Max had expressed her dislike for hospitals at one point. The rumors are bad enough as things are. Taylor says nothing and lets herself out of the room.

"I thought I saw Kate there," Max mumbles when Victoria asks. Slurring, still caught in the limbo of consciousness and unconsciousness, reality and vivid surreality. A floating shell in the horizon of a dark dreamscape. "I saw her up there and I had to go get her."

"It wasn't real." Victoria says. Max doesn't seem convinced.

Victoria's medication makes her sleep heavier at night. She stops taking it.

The cravings don't matter.

After the third night it happens, she decides to take Max out to drive around Arcadia Bay to get some air. See more sights, take more pictures. Victoria packs a Two Whales sundae for the date.

They pass the road to the old Prescott barn. Men in hardhats and heavy duty trucks are parked around, honking and yelling commands to one another. Half of the old thing has already been crushed.

Police officers emerge from underground carrying boxes and photography equipment. That's the time Max looks away and closes her eyes, squeezing her wrist, breathing slowly.

Nathan is in a mental institution in Washington. Jefferson has been sentenced and is rotting in a cell. The Prescotts are shamed, quiet, and a family with more blood on their hands than just political dirt.

There are angry mobs. There are sympathizers. Supporters to the deranged, abused, emotionally troubled boy. Haters to the murderer's accomplice. Sympathy to the family who lost a son. Spite to the people who fostered a sick young man.

Admirers to the revolutionary photographer. Detesters to the demon.

The victims are dead, buried, gone, just names flashing on the TV and printed in newspapers and blogs. Names on tombstones and the tears on the faces of the people they left. Names on filled red binders. Dreadful names hanging over Blackwell and Arcadia Bay. Ghosts, faces you see in your sleep.

Max doesn't take photos. She doesn't finish her sundae, but she smiles at Victoria and says her thanks for the time and effort.

Victoria doesn't know whether the drive was a good idea or a bad idea, but the sleepwalking continues all the same. She tiptoes through sleep.

One night, the cravings get too bad and she pops one-two pills to ease the tension. She locks the door.

She wakes up at dawn alone and panicked.

The first instinct is to run out of the room and check the rooftop (not the windows, not out the windows, not down at the courtyard ground.) She bursts out into the hall with bare feet and makes to dash to the rooftop doors, but promptly stops when the door across opens.

She meets Dana's gaze, hard, knowing, accusing. Dana's balling up a bloodied tissue in her hands.

Victoria's knuckles white.

"Going somewhere?" Dana says airily and not for the first time in this lifetime at all, Victoria curses her height and cheerleader physique. Dana's shoulders are squared, chest pushed out. She's a fucking wall. "You're up early."

Victoria sways to walk around her but she follows nimbly, blocking Max's door.

"You're not getting in."

"Why the fuck not?" Victoria grits, voice already going up. If Dana is fazed, it doesn't show.

"Max is sleeping," Is all Dana says. Victoria tries the other direction but is blocked off again. "Max is sleeping," She repeats sternly. "You can leave her alone."

"Get out of the fucking way."

"Why should I do that?"

"I need to check on her."

The implication weighs, the knowledge of the possibility that something is genuinely wrong. Dana catches it and it shows with the way her jaw sets and her throat bobs. She advances and meets Victoria's leer with a straight face. "What the fuck did you do?"

"What?" Victoria can't keep her voice from shaking.

"What did you do? What's wrong with Max? Did you give her something?" Dana holds up the stained tissue and her face contorts, teeth baring. "I knew you were bad news. I knew the moment she started hanging with you something was gonna go wrong. You dragging her around to clubs? You making her take drugs? You're sick," She jabs a finger in Victoria's direction. "I warned you, didn't I? I warned you that if Max gets hurt I -"

Dana's eyes shut. A crack, a skull and back slamming flat on a solid wall. The sound echoes down the hall and fades into labored breathing, then joints and limbs scrambling for balance.

When she opens her eyes again it's to see Victoria looming, face red and crumpled and eyes bleeding with absolute fury.

Victoria holds Dana against the wall, pale hands fisted into the collars of her night shirt. Her eyes are wide. Her teeth are bared.

The notion, the idea that anyone let alone her would ever hurt Max stabs like a knife. Her shoulders tremble.

"Listen, slut," She rasps. She slams Dana on the wall a second time and if the first wasn't loud enough to wake the rest of the floor, that probably was. "You shut your dick chute about things you know nothing about, okay?" Dana squirms. Victoria holds her tighter, closer. "You people can talk all you want, but never think I'll hurt - I'll never - she -"

She's always had a monstrous temper. An anger so breathtaking pulled up from the burning chasm of self-loathing and insecurities, hate and spite channeled for the rest of the world to feel.

Verbal abuse. Bullying. Scandals. Gossip -

- She's never been physical. She doesn't have the taste for it, beyond the customary push out of her way, the harmless shoves against lockers. But right now, the idea of punching Dana's face in feels satisfying, gratifying, the proper punishment -

A door opens. Victoria doesn't turn around, but Dana's eyes dart to the side and her jaw slacks in a wordless plea.

"Victoria?"

Victoria wrests her hands off Dana and turns to look over her shoulder at Kate, hovering at her doorway. Wide-eyed, unkempt from sleep but alert. She takes a tentative step forward and her face is kind. Frightened, but trying to be calming. "What's going on? What is -"

"Nothing. Sorry to wake you, Kate. Go back to bed." Victoria's voice doesn't soften. She rolls her shoulders and pushes into Max's room without another look toward Dana. She locks the door.

Max is already sat up when she slips in, half-awake, rubbing away the rest of sleep with limp hands. Victoria drops to a crouch in front of her and grabs her wrists, smoothing rigid thumbs over the bumps she finds there.

No new ones. She turns Max's wrists over to look at to make sure.

Lines, pale, dry, healed. Taunting. Once upon a time, they were all fresh and dripping red. The lines you ride to a slow death with a gleaming razor blade, broken bottles, a misplaced kitchen knife.

She shudders.

"Are you okay?" Gentler now. Her voice is soft. "What the hell happened? Did Dana bring you here?"

Max blinks. The realization doesn't set in until she looks around and sees she's back in her own room. "I..." She starts. Fails, tries again. "Dana..."

"Was here. What happened?"

"I saw," She pauses and her jaw shakes. "I saw Nathan. He was... he was angry, and he went into my room and..."

The word trail ends, the rest of it hangs. Victoria takes a deep breath and Max just stares, pale and visibly shaken.

The blues of Max's eyes are cloudy. So many things swirling in one beautiful color, hurt and pain and fear. So much fear.

What is Victoria seeing? What is she not seeing?

What does she know and doesn't know?

Secret. Dirty little secret.

Victoria waits but she gets nothing else.

Finally, she squeezes Max's wrists. The words, the ones she's been keeping at the bottom of her throat, swallowed back for days and weeks and months, climb and weave into a voice so small it's hardly audible.

"What happened to you, Max?"

Max's face twitches. Dirty little secret.

"Nothing happened to me."

"Bullshit. What aren't you telling me?"

"I'm not -"

"You talk in your sleep," Victoria says, adamant. Her face sours and her voice grows hard. Almost angry. "You get these nightmares and you space out. And you fucking sleepwalk and need goddamn pills just to calm the fuck down. You won't go to a doctor because you say you're scared of talking to them and needles and shit. What the fuck happened to you?"

"Victoria..." Max closes her eyes and rolls her jaw. "Victoria, you won't understand."

Dirty little secret.

Victoria takes the hit. The hurt stabs and twists like a bitch but it's fleeting, brief like the spark of a match struck. It coils in the bowels of her guts before it bursts to flames.

Anger. Anger is better. Anger is a default, protection from hurt.

"What?" Victoria croaks and Max's eyes open wide. She chases Victoria when she pulls away but she's shoved off. "I won't understand? Are you fucking kidding me? After all that shit about -"

"No, Vic, I -"

"- I've taken care of you and this is the bullshit you give me -"

"- that's not what I meant, I just -"

"- I've done everything, okay? I take all this shit at school and I've been trying to say the right things -"

"- and you have been saying the right things, just listen -"

"- we've talked about a lot of things and you think I don't fucking see it, that I don't fucking get that you're not telling me something -"

"You won't understand! No one can!"

"Fuck you!" Victoria shouts, voice loud even with the lump in her throat. Max stares at her in strangled silence. When she blinks, Max is paler. She blinks again and Max looks tired. She blinks and Max looks hopeless, lost, panicked. She blinks and Max is breathing rasping breaths.

Max's hand is lifted. When did she raise it? Her fingers tremble and then furl into her palms, wrist going limp and the rest of her arm follows suit. She slumps.

"Nothing I say is right." She mutters. Victoria sees the start of tears, beads of sweat forming below brown bangs, the small hitches in her every inhale.

The sirens are blaring. The urge to reach out and hold Max's hand makes the tendons in her neck bulge.

She leaves Max gaping. She opens the door and slams it, hard, and out in the hall a good number of heads are already poking out of their rooms. Dana is standing off to the side with Kate, both wary.

Taylor comes up on the other and carefully holds Victoria by the shoulder, shaking enough to get her to look at her.

"Are you okay, Vic? What happened?"

Victoria sniffs, shakes off the tension and the glare and the weight, coiled so tight in her stomach she wants to vomit. Or kick herself in the gut until she does. "Fine. Nothing. Where's Courtney?"

"In her room. Why?"

"Tell her to get the fuck up and dress up. You too," She says. Taylor's face scrunches but she ignores it. "Get the rest of the damn Club up and ready in an hour. We're going to Portland."


 

The Vortex Club blow off their classes to go to Portland. Dana gets left behind because fuck her, but the rest follow because Victoria's word is law. It's absolute. If Victoria has anyone to thank for the commanding veneer of tones that she's mastered, it's her father.

Don't chew with your mouth open. Don't talk with your mouth full. Don't touch the exhibits.

Don't be so goddamn soft.

Don't be such a failure.

"The two of you ride with me," She tells Taylor and Courtney with a snap of her fingers. "The rest cram up in Logan's van." Everyone skitters off as instructed, ants in a single file, doing the bidding of their queen.

Victoria Chase, queen for a day.

They go to the mall and shop for clothes, accessories, things that don't matter and they don't need. The jocks in their company trash the displays and shoplift, and Victoria only laughs with the rest of them while they appraise their prizes. Hayden flips off an elderly man when he sees him rolling up a joint. Victoria smokes two and floats.

She pays for pizzas for lunch. While the Hawaiian's being sliced in their booth, Courtney nudges her and slips her phone onto her lap. It vibrates, almost falls off her skirt had Courtney not caught it in time.

"It's Max." She whispers softly with furrowed brows, hard eyes conveying whatever her mouth isn't allowed to.

On the screen a call is flashing, Max's smiling photo is displayed, Victoria's arm around her neck and face only barely hidden from view.

They're wearing matching sweaters in a fitting room. Victoria's throat tightens.

"Reject it." She says. Courtney's jaw tightens, but she swipes the reject node nonetheless.

Dirty little secret.

They spend the rest of the afternoon driving around and exhausting Hayden's weed stock.

Alleys, establishment walls, even people get vandalized in their wild ride. Victoria pays a cop off when he catches them blowing marijuana smoke behind a dilapidated restaurant.

Come evening, the Vortex Club energy has yet to die down. Zachary pokes his head into Victoria's car and whispers sulkily into her ear, creeping his hand over her thigh. His breath is hot, heavy, and smells strongly of weed and fast food takeouts.

"There's a good club downtown. Great DJ, great drinks, great place," He says. He tips his head to the direction of Logan's van. "They're up for it."

Taylor and Courtney are staring at the side of her head, face molded into practiced indifference. Victoria voices her assent toward Zachary and their facade falters, their bodies leaning toward her minutely as he goes off with a whoop. Taylor shoves her phone toward her stiffly.

"It's Max." She says. The 14th call already today.

Victoria stares at the screen, wondering when she became the type to take selfies in a boutique's fitting room. Wondering when she learned to wrap her arm around someone like that.

"Turn the phone off." She says, the words weighing her down from the weed high. Courtney rubs her own forehead. Taylor does as she's told with averted eyes.

 

They drink to blaring music and flickering tinted lights. Victoria throws money around like she wants to make it rain indoors.

The shots are served in wide trays and finished in the same minute they're set, to be replaced by another round, and then another, and another. Zachary drags her to the comfort rooms once Taylor and Courtney are too buzzed to catch them moving away.

He barks at two boys making out at the sinks to get out and when they do, he locks the door behind him and kisses.

His kisses are wet. Too wet. His teeth and jaw are wild and urgent to the point of hurting. Victoria's lip bleeds but he keeps going, and he's laughing, looking at her with amusement as she sways and staggers where she is.

Max's kisses are slow, gentle, fleeting. Using her teeth to tease and tongue to play, taking her time like she's painting watercolor portraits in Victoria's mouth, Victoria's lips.

Max touches like sheets rolling on Victoria's shoulders when she shifts in her sleep, leisure brush of fingertips and palms smearing burning embers on flesh.

Zachary just pulls. Victoria's sweater might actually rip.

She waves him away, waves the thoughts and the clouds in her head away and he pulls back to stare at her, eyelids heavy. He scoffs, "What, you a full-blown dyke now?" and laughs when he gets slapped.

Max looks at her like she's the colors meeting on the horizon at sunset. Zachary stares like he's about to ravage a buffet.

"Here," He says huskily, pulling something out of his pocket. Pulling it out of his pocket. He slaps it down on a nearby sink and Victoria's eyes widen, her jaw going slack, fingers shaking of their own volition. "To loosen you up."

White grains pop and spill where the packet is scrunched and torn. An overwhelming flavor of fierce bitterness washes over her mouth when she swallows. She snaps her jaw shut with more force than necessary.

Zachary sees her staring and continues to smile, shark grin stark in the bright fluorescent light. He dunks his finger into the tear of the cocaine packet, then pulls it out to squeeze into Victoria's mouth.

She licks, swallows, sucks. Zachary tilts his head. "Better?"

Better?

Zachary's finger is spat out with a wet pop but before Victoria could whirl away, he grabs her by the waist and shoves her down on an empty sink. She scrambles, muscles whining, flexing with difficulty, alcohol in her bloodstream making her limbs flounder like whipping jelly.

Someone is pounding on the door and Zachary is yelling go away, rough like a rabid dog. Victoria's skirt is being hiked up. She's blinking away dark fogs in her vision.

"You like this, right?" Zachary asks next to her ear.

Her arms beg. She slumps and knocks her mouth on the tap. It bleeds, red lines running down to her chin.

The door bursts open and something heavy, metallic, goes rolling on the tiles with a dull screech. Victoria moves her head and all she sees is long blonde hair, a blur of Letterman jackets, a few people scrambling in.

Someone calls Zachary's name, the voice fading in and out, grainy like static to Victoria's ears. Her cheeks get cupped and her head is turned, tilted away from the sink tap and she blinks, sees brown and blue.

Brown and blue.

The warmth of hands on her cheeks slides to her neck, then her shoulders and arms. She's being swayed, rocked like a stagnant ship in the sea. She closes her eyes and lets the waves take her away.


 

When the waves recede, Victoria blinks up at darkness. Moonlight spills onto the ceiling in sheets of silver, jagged mountains on the expanse of black. She paws at the air and grumbles. The throb on her temples makes her close her eyes again.

The softness draped around her body shifts and something bobs by her legs. Blindly, she gropes at the bed (her bed? Whose bed?) and opens her eyes halfway to look down.

Max meets her eyes. Blue marbles bright in the dark. She's sitting by Victoria's feet. "You should go back to sleep." She whispers.

Victoria groans and rolls, burying her face into a chaffed pillowcase. The pillow is lumpy, cheap. Mystery of whose room this is solved.

"How did I get here?"

"I picked you up. Drove you home."

The bed shifts and Max's face hovers over Victoria's shoulder, one hand pressing on Victoria's forehead tenderly. "How are you feeling?" She asks, bitten lip only just visible in the darkness. Victoria wrings her head away.

"Fine. How did you know where I was?"

"Taylor and Courtney. They called me a couple of times," Max says. She must hear Victoria grunt because she quickly adds, "I contacted them. You weren't picking up. I called like -"

"Fourteen times," Victoria cuts off quietly. She doesn't get an answer so she continues. "I turned off my phone."

"You did." Tension seeps into Max's voice, but it's more fear than it is anger. Worry more than disapproval. Victoria's stomach clenches and she exhales a shaky breath.

The silence hangs. Max palms Victoria's forehead again and this time, she doesn't pull away. "Did..." She pauses, swallows, picks up shakily. "Did Zachary?..."

Victoria quickly shakes her head. "No. I don't think so." She claws at the duvet around her and pulls, curling into a shivering ball, eyes shutting tight. Max eases her trembling by climbing into bed with her and hugging.

Victoria sinks. She fits into Max so easily it makes her chest tighten.

"I'm sorry," She mumbles. "I almost -"

"Yeah. I saw," The embrace tightens. "... That was scary."

The cocaine on the sink. Zachary behind her.

Almost.

She cries and Max holds her, carries her through the fear until she can breathe beyond choked air and small sobs. They kiss, slow and soft. Lips fitting as if they were always meant to fit, puzzles completed, given meaning. 

Max draws portraits on Victoria's lips, brushes color into Victoria's mouth with her tongue and teeth, lights Victoria up with her hands. Peels off her clothes until she's bare and burning, trembling like a live wire with a hot ache between her thighs.

Max goes lower, follows the slopes of Victoria's body with her mouth. She slips inside, fingers and tongue, and suddenly Victoria is the golden sun burning in Max's stormy blue skies.

When the fires go out and the skies calm, Victoria pulls Max flush against her. Two broken pieces coming together and melding, becoming something breathing and beautiful and whole. It's then that Max stares at her and speaks.

"He took me."

Max crying in her sleep. Max and her nightmares, her sleepwalking. Max and her scars, the quiet fear behind her eyes.

Dirty little secret.

Max talking in her sleep, saying things about the dark. Max in the dark, Max in the dark.

Max in the dark room.

Kate in black and white, Rachel in black and white, Chloe in black and white. Victims in black and white, small, scared, and fading. Max in black and white, looking for colors.

Victoria's heart is screaming, her hands are trembling. Max closes her eyes when Victoria holds her face and kisses.

Victoria whispers apologies against Max's lips, Max says it's okay between shallow breaths and gritted teeth.

"He's gone now," Victoria says. She watches Max nod and sees the way the skin of Max's eyelids grow taut. "He's gone and I'm here."

When Max opens her eyes and smiles at Victoria, Victoria feels her ribs tighten. "I know. You're here."

Max doesn't sleepwalk that night.

Chapter Text

Zachary gets suspended. A bar fight in Portland, most say, and he has the bruises on his face to match the story. Most also say Logan was there to help him with the brawl, and he's got the broken hand to back that up. What most don't know is that Logan pointedly avoids looking at Zachary when they march into the Principal's office that day.

They're best buds and they can't even stand next to each other when they're at Wells' desk.

The Vortex Club, all of them, look grim. Wells is grimmer. David Madsen is back, and he keeps to himself in one corner with a police officer.

Max stands with Victoria and they're both quiet, one a breath's distance from the other. They let the rest speak for them. David's face is a stone monolith, hard and dark.

When everyone's done and the silence in the office gets too strangling, the air too heavy, Wells finally acknowledges Victoria properly. Instead of the usual stiff nod, he gives a solemn look. It's ruined by the alcohol in his breath and the fear in his eyes. "Would you like to press charges, Ms. Chase? I'll contact your parents about this matter immediately."

Drugged and taken is the whole context of this. Now why does that sound so familiar?

This will be another scandal. More dirt on Wells, everyone involved, the Academy especially. Blackwell, the breeding ground of predators. Blackwell, the hunting ground for prey. If that won't shut the place down nothing can.

But, "Just get him out of here, please," is what Victoria says. Max spins so quickly to face her she gets whiplash. Everyone's eyes go wide. "I don't want to see him here again. I see him back here, then I press charges."

Max sees the quiver of Victoria's jaw and the tired hood of her eyes, they'd be red-rimmed too if not for the make-up. She's stiff, breath held, and that's when it dawns on Max.

Victoria has no love for Blackwell. She's not saving it. She's not saving Wells, not Zachary, not even the Vortex Club.

She's saving herself. She knows what happens to victims, what the people say about them. Knows what the students of Blackwell already have to say about her just the way things are.

That's what she says, too. That she's not a victim. That any word other than hers is a lie, as far as she's concerned, because she was the one there. It happened to her. They were drunk, and alcohol ruins judgment. There was no attempt of anything.

Harassment is the next best thing. David and the accompanying police officer argue but Wells is more than happy to just move on and believe things as Victoria wants them to be believed.

David takes it too personally (drugged and taken, drugged and taken) and looks like he might punch Zachary's face in.

Max does it for him. So many times she can't see straight when she decides to stop. Zachary stumbles back/falls on his back/clutches his jaw in pain/barely budges. It really depends on where exactly Max hits him.

Hitting him in the mouth makes him bleed. It's the best outcome, but she doesn't let it stick for a simple reason: there will be consequences.

She nurses her bleeding nose while Zachary is being handled by Wells. David notices her battered knuckles and rushes her to the infirmary.

"Sorry that had to happen to your friend, Max." He mutters as he ushers her in. The twitch in his jaw is fascinating, a muscle spasming before it pulls tight under his skin.

Victoria doesn't have a choice but to believe Max when she says she fucked up her hand earlier that day, way before the meeting. There's not much to pin to the bizarre injury. She sits next to Max on the infirmary bed and sighs, hands limp on her lap.

An ended call flashes on the screen of her phone before it dims, a contact with Chase for a last name blinking before going dark.

She looks tired. So tired, fires going out one by one.

Max gets it. She doesn't say anything, just bumps their heads, twines their fingers, pulls enough that their arms and thighs brush. Victoria smiles. She's the sun coming up in the morning.

This can be okay.


 

February.

They've talked about it only once and once is just fine. Once is enough. One night out of the blue, Victoria asks her, "So why haven't you told anyone? The police?" in the tone Max has come to learn means she's practiced saying it dozens of times, gone through the dialogue possibilities in her head a dozen more. "They could have done something for you. Not just shitty anxiety pills or..." She trails off with a bite to her lip.

Sex, just say it Victoria.

Strange to think of now that it's what set this all off. 

Max shrugs, the blanket around her shifting. Astro Boy's hideously bulbous eye is at the curve of her shoulder. "What's the point? They already had him. They had enough solid evidence to take him down. It was already happening, with or without my help."

With/without her help. Arcadia Bay is whole/Arcadia Bay is ruined. Everyone lives/dies. Lives/dies/lives/dies.

"But he took you. That son of a bitch abducted you."

Happened/didn't happen. Victoria's plasma is lit with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and casts feeble blue glows in the dim of the room. It's still dark though. Dark. Dark. Happened/didn't happen. "And I'm here right now, right? I'm alive. I'm fine." Not a name. Not fading. Not rotting.

"Screw your fine," Victoria murmurs with an edge, hard and sharp like a blade. She fixes Max with a critical eye and her fingers wind tight around the shared blanket. "You need serious help, Max. He drugged them, you. And took photos or - or - whatever the hell else," She sounds like maybe she doesn't want to know. She knows she had a binder, red, empty, her name on it, and she doesn't want to know. Max doesn't want her to know. "I - look - I just think - you... you need more, okay."

Max shakes her head and tries out her most reassuring smile. "I'm okay, Vic. I'm over it." She says. Victoria grows so livid all the blood rushes to her face.

So Max rewinds, tries again. "You're enough." She says this time. Victoria drops it.

She doesn't get it, but she tries anyway. With every smile and touch and every little thing that most people don't see, she tries.

Homeworks and tutoring and driving around Arcadia Bay when Max needs air, or texting and calling and sending cute photos of things Max might like.

Holding Max through the nights and speaking with her eyes, scared she'll say the wrong things. Ask the wrong questions, bring the wrong memories. 

Victoria really does try. And it's unfair that other people don't see it.

So what does a Max do in this situation?


 

"We haven't had tea in a while." Kate says quietly with a kind smile and a happy crinkle at the corners of her eyes. If five months is a while, then okay, a while it is.

"I know, I'm sorry. I've been kinda... out of it." Max says with an awkward chuckle. It breaks near the end when Kate furrows her brows. Two minutes in and the ceiling is caving in.

"I noticed," Kate answers simply. "I'm glad you're mostly... not out of it now. You're looking better at least. But, you know, how are you?"

"Fine," For the most part. "How about you? And Alice? I haven't gone to see her in a while too."

A while, a while. Five months is a while. Dodging bullets. "I'm okay. My dad has been using some of my drawings for the children's bible meetings in our church. I've been doing a lot of them. Alice is still Alice, you know. I bet she misses you."

"I miss her too."

Kate hums. Normally, Max would rewind, say something more conversational for the benefit of the other person. But this is Kate. Kate wears her minimalism like she wears the cross around her neck. "You should come to my room some time. Talk about books, you know. Feed Alice a little bit, maybe?..."

"I'd like that. I want to see your drawings." Max says. Kate nods. Kate often just nods. They're quiet for a time. Sipping tea and looking at the ceiling, the floors, out the window. Max is able to half her cup before Kate chimes in again.

"So what is this about, Max?"

Max swallows hard. "What is what about? I'm... we're having tea, aren't we?"

"But this is all so sudden. You haven't been around me much."

Kate stares at her. An artist appraising an inscrutable portrait, trying to make sense of sloppy colors and terrible details. Trying to make sense of Max and the nervous jiggling of her knees. Max shakes her head. "I just wanted to have some tea with you, Kate. I missed you."

"Okay," Kate says slowly. She drums her fingers on the tabletop, a four by four of tension and nerves and anxiety. She orders another cup (she went through that first one pretty quickly) and wills the atmosphere to better things. "So, are you going to the Valentine's day dance tonight? Partying isn't your thing, I know, but it's more of a formal affair than just... thrashing."

"I am," Max groans halfway and Kate smirks, tips her head. "I already have something to wear, just in case you ask. My mom sent it. She was all, you have to go, honey, and wired a bribe to inspire me. It's a guilt trip. My mom knows me."

"Well, better not let the dress go to waste," Kate says and then seems to think for a moment. "So... do you already have a date?"

A sip, a click of china. Max worries her fingers on her empty cup and breathes. "Yeah, I do actually."

"Oh. Well then, I have to tell Warren. He texted me when he found out I was heading out with you. Only heaven knows how he found out at all."

"Warren texted you? To report about a Valentine's date?"

"It's not only you he texts, you know."

Max groans. She rolls her eyes and Kate actually grins, snorts once before she lets herself laugh out. When she sobers up she looks away.

"It's Victoria, isn't it?"

Dominoes falling, one after the other. Kate looks back with a frown and Max feels a weight, a sharp pang stabbing her chest and going out her back. The one who ruined Kate's life. The one who pushed her to the roof, at one point, in one timeline. Almost killed her/killed her.

Dana was easy to tell off, it was easy telling her earlier to stop bothering Victoria and be nice. Max could use tones heavier than boulders on Dana.

But this is Kate. Kate wears her fragility like she wears her hair up.

"You're okay with that, right?" Max ventures cautiously. Kate starts thumbing on the cross around her neck. It's not so much the stigma from a devout Christian that Max is worried about. Kate is kind, closed off but open at the same time. She doesn't judge. She takes people as they are.

The worry burrows deeper, goes back five months from now.

"Victoria is..." She starts. Dominoes, dominoes. "Victoria is... complicated Max. You know what she did, right?" The accusation in her voice is stark but it fades, her eyelashes flutter. "And what I mean is even before that. Before the video. She was terrible, Max. She was mean. All those things she said and did, to you even."

Max goes stiff, her eyes are down and then up, out the window. Down, the window, down, the window. "She's sorry." Is all she says. Lame but the truth at least. Victoria's said it a lot of times and expressed it, in her own Victoria ways. Subtle. Trying. Less sneering in the Blackwell halls, less bullying, less hate.

Kate hums and says nothing for a long time. When she does finally, her voice softens to a gentle lull. "I see the way she looks at you, you know. It's kind of weird sometimes, because there'd be all these people around and she's just looking at you," She smiles when Max does. "Warren is convinced it's some kind of spell that needs constant staring" - a snort from them both - "but I know it's not that."

"She's... complicated. You said so." Max says, trying not to smile. Too much anyway.

"And yet things between you two look so simple."

When Victoria comes with her car to pick them up after, her shoulders square at the sight of Kate, defenses coming up. But Kate waves and doesn't argue when Max tells her to get in. The first smile between them comes after the ride back to Blackwell.

"Thank you, Victoria." Kate says. Victoria smirks, waves her away and heads off to the dorms by herself. Typical Victoria subtlety.

Forgiveness. Gratefulness. 

Dominoes falling into place. This is okay.


 

Victoria has seen her in it already. Insisted to see her in it actually, saying some garbage about seeing the fit and necessary adjustments and whatnot. "Blue." Was all she said once Max had worn it, nodding her head in some vague private thought.

Yes, she's seen Max in it. It's still awkward actually wearing it on the night of the dance, waiting for Victoria, the date who already knows she'll be wearing it.

Max is a jiggling mess with light make-up, pinned up hair, and a blue dress her date has already seen her in.

When the knock on her door comes the jiggle becomes full on quaking. It subsides when she opens and Taylor is there, holding out a corsage and smirking, not Victoria in a dress or some ridiculously expensive gown that would shame Max's outfit and everyone else's.

She deflates but lets Taylor in. She stops shaking altogether.

"V is finishing up at the auditorium. Some last minute checks on the music or something," Taylor flaps her hand around, twirls in her dress. She's wearing boots with it. Modern day stregoica. "I'm supposed to pick you up."

She pins Max's corsage for her because Max is a klutz who pricks her finger. That done, she leads them out into the hall and Max nearly gives herself a concussion when a wall of a human being steps in front of her. Logan gives her a goofy grin.

"We're supposed to escort you." He supplies with a mock accent that sounds like butchered British.

Max doesn't hate Logan, not really. If there's anything she doesn't like about him, it's how he beat her to the literal punch at Portland. Knocked Zachary's nose in before she could even blink. Max doesn't take his arm for the walk.

At the dance, Max slinks to the nearest wall and wills herself to disappear. She's been to one real party all her life, and that's not even a very nice memory, but for dances this is a first. Dances are a little more awkward. Dances have dates.

And she can't find hers anywhere.

She drinks two cups of (spiked) punch and finishes about three songs just stuck to the wall. She lights up when Kate comes meandering over, but quickly douses when she sees Warren trailing after her. Loyal puppy dog. Annoying puppy dog.

Kate isn't even able to get a breath in. Warren jumps between them, mouth flapping so quickly Max can't catch a word of his garbage and then he's pulling them to the dance floor, still chattering.

"Wow, Max! You look really pretty tonight. Did your date run off? Kate said you had a date. What a dweeb, leaving you here. Hey! Maybe I could -"

Nope. Max rewinds, chooses a different wall to stick to for safety.

Six songs in and no Victoria. No Victoria in some bafflingly expensive-looking dress, no Victoria in some divine, otherworldly gown. No Victoria to take Max's hand like an actual date should and take her dancing on the dance floor.

Max realizes her mistake about a second later, when she looks up toward the dance floor again. Someone is staring at her from the far opposite wall. Blonde, pale, and grinning, shoulders squared and posture faultless, dressed in a suit that fits her so well it still puts Max's dress to shame.

Never should've been looking for dresses at all in the first place.

A goddamn suit.

Victoria waves at her from across the auditorium. She's tall, long, arm stretched high over her head as if Max couldn't already see her. The suit hugs her, fits so naturally like a second skin, like suits have always been made for Victoria and tonight is divine intervention.

She's beautiful. In the suit, under the lights, amidst the mass of the crowd, making her way toward Max. She's beautiful in anything, everything, nothing.

It's never occured to Max before how different the two of them really are until now. Victoria is tall, elegant, sharp in her attempts to be precise. She lies like she's telling truths, tells truths like they're lies. She's smart, rich, has an image to keep. A golden girl.

Max is short, pretty to some, maybe. A flower that refuses to bloom no matter the springs that pass it. She has a mouth as clumsy as her feet, and a brain that can't handle numbers beyond three digits. A secret power bundled in a hundred-pound average girl.

They're different.

Max is warmth. A creature born and raised with love and care. Someone with a childhood full of ice creams during summers and tree decorating during winters. She laughs when she wants to laugh and cries when she wants to cry.

She has too many hearts, one in her chest, one on her sleeve, and one for each person she cares for, looks out for. Has too many smiles to go around. She feels.

Victoria is cold. Storms in a tundra, shivers of a fever. She was raised in an empty house and to empty praises with too many holidays celebrated with strangers.

She taught herself to build walls as a child. Taught herself to mend the cracks of her walls, taught herself to use so much cement and stone that it seeps into her veins and bones. She cries when she can't take it anymore, laughs when she can't hold it in anymore. She has a heart and smile meant for none.

She doesn't want to feel. But she feels.

Take warmth, on this side of the auditorium, and cold, on the other side. Put them together and what do you get?

"Blue is the most beautiful color." Victoria says with the right tone. The right smile. The right temperature, ice melting and cinder blocks breaking.

Max smiles and paws at Victoria's suit. The material under her palms is smooth, velvety, exquisite. And a very complementing shade of blue.

She prepared for matching outfits, the jerk.

"About time you got here, fuck you. I put on this whole thing to go to this dance with you." Max drawls. She can't stop the smile that comes though, and Victoria's mouth stretches to match.

"But you look great, see? We look great. In matching blue." She says. Max hums, reaches forward and holds Victoria by the shoulders, waits until Victoria relaxes enough to take Max by the waist. They pull, tease the scant inches that divide them both.

A flash goes off at their side and they turn to see Kate pointing a camera at them. Kate actually smiles. Dana behind her is inscrutable.

Max and Victoria look away. They smile at each other, and this feels okay.

Max has never been one to build walls or wear armors. The very first wall she built was when Chloe told her about Rachel. The very first armor she wore was when Jefferson stabbed needles into her neck.

Defenses, she learned, are crucial to survive. Bleed out too much love and you'll eventually run dry. Sit still and the unspeakable will happen.

Put warmth and cold together: You get a crack on the concrete of Victoria's walls that cement and stone can't fix. A beat in the muscle in her chest she's long convinced herself was dead.

You get a chink in Max's armor, skin vulnerable through the gap. You get another heart for one more, one more to care for and look out for. The biggest of her hearts for one more.

When Max was younger and Chloe was alive, blonder, she scraped her elbows bad on the sidewalk. They were on their bikes and Max wasn't wearing elbow pads when she should've been. The wound bled all over her pink shirt, the pavement, her untied laces. She has the scars to this day.

Victoria could be a wound. Victoria could be scar one day.

"Listen to this," Victoria whispers as the lights dim. The music dwindles, disappears. Revives in a feeble hum that settles into a tranquil tune, guitar strings strummed. Max's face lights up in recognition in no more than three seconds. "Yeah," Victoria says not at all humbly. "I knew you'd like this."

"You listen to my music?" Max blurts. Victoria flushing and stammering to Lua carves an unforgettable story in Max's mind.

"I - no! It just... played from your laptop one time while I was writing you a paper and - fuck off."

Put warmth and cold together. What do you get? Two planets meeting. Worlds colliding, exploding into stardust. Something never meant to happen. A breathtaking disaster. 

Puzzle pieces torn to fit. 

Victoria will be a scar one day.

Max laughs and Victoria just smiles. The sky is calmer with each laugh, the sun is brighter with each smile.

The walls are shorter, the armors are lighter with each moment.

They'll be okay. 

Maybe, Max thinks, some scars are okay to have. 

Chapter Text

"Where do you wanna go today?"

Max tilts her head, legs dangled off the edge, swaying. Wind in her hair tangling the strands into loose knots. Victoria watches the tip of Max's tongue dent on her cheek, bounce up and down a little bit with thoughts coming and going. Eventually, she just shrugs.

"I dunno," She says. She's looking at the view ahead, the forest that stretches past Tobanga. The trees and shrubs, greeneries and tame wildlife. "I was thinking maybe we could just stay in today. Maybe watch a movie."

"We can watch a movie outside," Victoria quips. Max throws her a weighted side glance and she grins, coy, before shrugging a shoulder. "Fine. What movie? Not Final Fantasy again, please, we've watched that like nine times."

"Eight."

"Okay. Eight."

"Going on nine." Max says. Snorts a little when Victoria scoffs. She's still swinging her legs, still dangling them off the ledge and Victoria is there. Next to her, faced the other way and feet planted flat on the ground. With the winds and the way she's swaying her legs, Max might fall. But she's just braver like that, Victoria supposes. Has always been the braver one. Ignoring gossip, facing confrontations head-on.

Outrunning psychopaths and escaping bunkers.

That kind of brave.

(Tied up, drugged, taken pictures of, slapped, thrown around, groped. Bits and pieces of truths in sporadic spills and Victoria still doesn't know if she's more afraid for Max or for herself.

A red binder. A red binder with her name on it. Empty but it has her name on it.)

But brave doesn't mean superhuman or invincible or whatever else. Which is why when Max bends to look down, lowers her head and body until her hair curtains her entire face and the bone of her nape shows, Victoria tugs her back. She purses her lips. Max blinks, pulls her legs off the ledge, twisting to face Victoria.

"What would you rather we watch then?" She asks. She has mussed hair from the wind, face half eclipsed by sunny yellows. Victoria thinks of roses on Max's lips.

"Miyazaki?" She hedges. Max's lips quirk, obviously still amused by that particular admission from her ("I always kinda pegged you as a closeted anime fan anyway.")

"Miyazaki." She agrees. Smile stretching wide, roses blooming.

They go back down to their floor with the sunset still behind their heads at 6. Max absentmindedly holds onto Victoria's sleeve the entire time.

The days and nights are warmer.

March.


 

Kate tolerates. She waves when Victoria comes, says a few greetings here and there to be polite, but her smiles don't really reach her eyes. When she talks, it's always kindly. A little more and she'd be cooing. She tells Victoria goodbye but says take care to Max when they head off, and Victoria supposes that's as good as it gets.

Dana tolerates with a hard t. She's soft when Max is around but hard when she's in Vortex Club meetings (like an actual dick, Victoria thinks unnecessarily.) She's probably the only reason Juliet hasn't gone off to write some scandalous article about her and Max though, so Victoria doesn't mind.

Warren needs to be punched in the face. That's all there is to him.

Taylor and Courtney like hanging out with them at the beach, a lot safer now without Frank squatting in it. Just smoking and laughing and telling stories about home, life, heck even God one time. They get squinty eyes whenever Max turns a cigarette or a beer can down, but they pose for her Photo Lab assignment just the same.

"So where do you want us, Max?" Courtney asks jovially, already straightening her hair and fluffing her blouse. Taylor is adjusting her bra.

"Just, well, I don't know. Stand there by Vic's car?" Max says. She gestures with her Leica and fidgets, eyebrows furrowed. Victoria knows she isn't one for artistic direction (Max is all about sincerity, about candid beauty and quick snapshots) so she helps out with a jerk of her chin. Courtney and Taylor follow and position themselves appropriately.

Night photography. All about playing with and simulating the right amount of light without overwhelming the darkness. An added challenge to the main concern, which is Chiaroscuro. Victoria's done hers (a guided photoshoot of Hayden smoking at the rooftop) and Max is already a day late for submission. Which is really nothing new at this point.

Courtney wraps an arm around Taylor. Taylor sits on the hood of Victoria's car, puckers her lips because she thinks she's model material like that. Camera on the tripod, flash turned up, Max takes the shot.

"So?" Courtney asks. She doesn't see Max frown, but Victoria does. She rolls her eyes fondly and shoots Taylor a disapproving look. 

"Taylor, get your ass off my car's hood."

Max takes another shot. The resulting image is one with Courtney laughing and Taylor pouting, faces drawn close because of Courtney's arm and the shakes of her own laugh. The flash illuminates their faces, an artificial brush of light on their features down to their necks, and then darkness everywhere else. Victoria takes her own photo of Max's cheery smile.

She appreciates everyone's efforts. 


 

"You ever think about time?"

Victoria's eyebrow quirks. She twists, collarbones brushing Max's shoulder, head coming off the pillow and elbow propping her up. Their hips bump, their ankles lock. Under the sheets, Victoria's hand splays on Max's stomach.

"Time?" She asks for clarification. Max nods. The other eyebrow quickly follows the first one. "Why would I think about time?"

"I don't know. See, time, it's like... geez, okay, I'm being weird -"

Max's hands fly up. The bedframe squeaks when Victoria springs. She holds Max by the elbows to stop her from covering her face. Max is flushed, cheeks to neck. Victoria smirks.

"No, no, keep going. Uh. So, time?"

"It's..." Max pauses, thinks it through. "It's just... crazy, I guess. I mean it's this like, unstoppable thing, right? Just keeps moving forward no matter what happens. There could be all these bad things that are happening and time isn't even pausing to stop them."

A gnarled branch taps on the window, scratches when the wind sweeps it aside. Max's eyes are polished cuts of sapphires. Hard, serious. Sad, almost. She's staring at the ceiling, an inch or two to the side of Victoria's head. Victoria hums.

"How high up in space are you right now, spaceman?" She asks. Lets some humor seep into her voice, because she knows it'll help. It does mostly. Max laughs a little.

"I'm just being crazy existential here, don't make fun of me."

"Alright, alright," Victoria clears her throat. Shifts a little. "So it's unstoppable. So then, why do you have to think about it like you do? It's not like you can do anything about time."

Max's eyes twinkle faintly but before Victoria could look closer, she's already blinked. "But, what if you could do something about time, though? What if I could?"

"Then I'll have to ask you what kind of shit you got from Hayden and for how much."

They laugh. Max picks Victoria up by her sides (thicker now, less jutting bones) and rolls them. Their pelvises are flush but Max has her elbows propping most of herself up. She smiles at Victoria and briefly, Victoria thinks of mischief. Secrets. Knowing something everyone doesn't.

"So, hey. Think for a sec, I could do something with time. Like," Max scrunches her nose to search the right words. "Like... I dunno, manipulate it. Fuck it up. Rewind and pause. The whole thing. Yowza. What..." She swallows. Keeps her eyes down, straight at Victoria. "What do you think someone like me would do with it? What would I do with it?"

Victoria stares, hums. Max's eyes are sapphire searchlights. "You? Besides rewinding as much as you liked to get some perfect shot of a squirrel or something?"

"Shut up!"

"You'd totally do it and you know it," Max is snorting against her throat and it tickles, a little bit. Victoria's hand comes up to rest on Max's hair. "I don't know. Help people? Make sure everyone's happy? That they get what they want? That they're safe? Shit, I don't know, Max. I don't know what you're thinking half the time."

And she really doesn't. Max has a mouth distant from her eyes. She could say something and her eyes mean something different, something Victoria can't really grasp. Something... brushing her fingertips but she can't really pull out.

(Maybe more darkness. Maybe more madness. Victoria thinks, maybe more about the dark room.

Maybe.)

Max smiles at her and it's sad. Mischief. Secrets. Knowing something everyone else doesn't. "I think about stopping time all the time, if that helps."

"Why would you wanna stop time?"

"To stop any more pain."

Max rolls off, settles with her spine on Victoria's chest and their thighs pressed, ankles twined. She searches for Victoria's hand and when she finds it, furled at the crook of her abdomen, she holds it.

"You know," Victoria starts, licking her lips. Max's neck still smells like the cigarettes she watched Victoria smoke this evening. "Just when I start to think I really, like, understand you. All of you. You go all spaceman on me and I get really lost."

Max laughs. "You understand more than anybody else does. Probably more than I even do?" She tilts her head up and Victoria smells her hair. Shampoo, slight sweat. Sunlight, spring. "You're amazing, you know."

Max sounds like she's smiling, and for a second Victoria thinks she can imagine her eyes. The crinkles of them. Like cornflowers in the breeze, petals folding and wrinkling. The roses of her lips, blooming. Tulips on her cheeks.

Romantic poetry. "You're pretty breathtaking on your own, too, nerd." 

Their hands stay twined. On Max's back, Victoria's heart beats. Thrashing, pounding, hurling itself raw against her ribcage. 

"Hey. Let's stay like this. For a long time."

Victoria smiles. On Max's shoulder, she places a kiss. Fleeting, a singular ember on skin. "Whatever you want."


 

The Vortex Club throws a party for the spring season. They take the beach and start a raging bonfire, throwing planks and cans and even goddamn clothing to keep the fires burning. Logan hurls a six pack of beer into the fray and the fire roars, wild and free and licking, tips lashing at the sky.

Max sits with Stella and the rest of the social outcasts. They draw pictures on the sand, talk Kubrick and Van Gogh and philosophy. Victoria listens to them with her chin pointed at the sky. Taylor waves to them, a howling drunk animal. 

"What do you think, Victoria?" Alyssa asks timidly. Victoria's eyes snap from the sky to the small crowd of them, huddled up around a sand drawing of birds in flight. She knows Max's worksmanship by now. 

"What do I think of what?"

"Time," Brooke says, rearing on her palms. Mismatched socks flecked with sand. "It's infinite, isn't it? Just one straight line going on and on."

"Infinite maybe, just not one straight line." Max murmurs. Another crash by the shore and the bonfire rages. 

Victoria spots Taylor still waving. She waves back, nods her head. "It ends somewhere. Everything ends somewhere. And it probably splits. Everything is fucked up like that," She hops off a sand hill and makes her way towards Max, palm already out. "Come on. Let's get to the bonfire."

"I'll see you guys."

They set off, walk side by side. Max holds Victoria's elbow. She tugs a little. "D'you really mean that?"

"Mean what?"

"That everything ends."

Victoria slows to look at Max. "Doesn't everything?"

"I'd like to think some things don't."

"Like what?"

Max blinks at Victoria before she smiles. Victoria's insides turn molten. "Like this, maybe. Wouldn't you like this to not end?"

Their strides stop completely. Victoria manages a smirk. "And if I told you I'd like for this to not end?"

Max smiles. Romantic poetry. The sweetest romantic poetry, right there on her lips. "Then I'll say, whatever you want."


 

March is fleeting. Tests are piling up, projects and assignments are increasing in frequency. Juliet has written an article for the Blackwell Totem in explanation to the piling school work. High school seniors have tons to do, especially being so close to June. 

Taylor has made a habit of groaning to the heavens. Stress from a mother in the hospital and pressuring academics do that to a person. She says, fuck the system but sticks her face behind a textbook anyway. 

Victoria gets a call from her parents. 2 minutes, 34 seconds long, 10 second dead air added. She doesn't throw her phone. Hell, she doesn't even cry.

She just sits. Stares out the window, at the bright spring that has her boxing up her thermal wear and folding up the sleeves of her cardigan.

How do you stop the seasons from coming?

Kate is playing her violin next door. On a normal day, this is the cue for Victoria to leave. Or maybe, plug in her earbuds, put on some music or a movie. Kate's pieces are always so sad. Violin weeping, begging, pleading.

But she doesn't do any of that today. Instead, she drags herself to the steel desk pressed up on one wall and sits. Bends, holds her head in her hands and closes her eyes, breathing slowly. She listens.

Weeping. Begging. Pleading.

When the music stops, she stretches over the tabletop to knock on the wall. A tense silence follows before Kate's muffled, "Yes?" rings through the plaster. 

"Play another." Victoria says. A pause, some shuffling, and the music starts up again.

She doesn't cry.

 

When Max comes, the brightness of the sky bundled up in one human body and a pair of blue eyes, Victoria smiles. Max gives her the line she's made a habit of saying during the late afternoons.

"Where do you wanna go today?"

Kate has stopped playing. Victoria's elbows disconnect from the steel table. She hears the branches on the window, tapping, scratching. The sound of her own feet shuffling on the floor as she gets up, the pounding of her pulse. Erratic.

"Let's take pictures." She says. Max smiles and says yes (roses blooming, beautiful roses unfurling) and they go, but Victoria doesn't really bring her camera.

They cross the dormitory courtyard, amble through grass and dirt until Tobanga is behind them. They help each other through the terrain, hands and arms and shoulders for each other for balance. Max's shoes are old, and Victoria's weren't made for trekking. They laugh on the way up the hill.

Squirrels skitter by. Birds flit, insects watch, chirping. The trees and thickets thicken to the point that they both have to lift their legs up to the knees just to walk past the foliage. Eventually, the miniature forest thins out.

The clearing they reach glares with the colors of the afternoon sun. Max's camera goes off three times within the first ten seconds.

Victoria watches Max move. Walk around, camera held high, held low, at the middle. She squeaks when a squirrel runs between her feet to escape with a nut. She takes a picture of even that.

"It's beautiful here." She says, in that breathless way of hers that also makes Victoria breathless. She turns, enough that the right amount of light eclipses her face and even angels will be breathless. She's smiling. 

Roses. Cornflowers. Tulips.

Dandelions. Sunflowers. Marigolds. Jasmines. Lilies.

Victoria thinks of flowers, and how good Max would look with each one. With all. Victoria thinks of the flowers blooming in Max's eyes, cheeks, lips, mouth. The flower of her tongue, the sweetest syllables oozing out of the petals.

Flowers. Beautiful flowers, in the cracks of her skin and the slats of her heart.

Max is a meadow. Max is beautiful.

Too beautiful for this world, maybe. Too colorful. Too bright. Too good.

(I plant flowers in your heartstrings.)

In four long strides, Max is in front of her and in her arms, and Victoria has roses all over her lips and tongue.

(You plant flowers in mine.)

The sun watches. The wind waits. 

Heartbeats, breaths. A quiet moment crawls. 

"I'm leaving for France," She whispers. Max's eyes are closed. "This June. After graduation. My parents are sending me to college there."

The wind watches. The sun waits. Max opens her eyes but she doesn't look at Victoria. She turns away, head tilted, lips pursed and brows furrowed. She blinks once, twice, and Victoria sees it. Sapphires melting, shining, watery.

"If I could stop time," Max suddenly says, voice tiny. Croaky, cracking. Glass dolls shattering. Hearts breaking. Victoria's throat dries. "I'd stop it right here."

Victoria hasn't cried in some time. Not since her nose has stopped bleeding, since she stopped depending on the pills and alcohol to quit the shakes. Since Zachary got suspended. Since the lines have been cleared, cut, and crossed and she asked Max to be her date on the Valentine's dance.

Since Nathan became just another memory in the corner gathering dust.

Victoria hasn't cried over memories in a while. 

But right now, she cries. Because this isn't a memory, not yet. It's happening right now. This, with her hand in Max's, and their hearts in their throats and their eyes on the horizon, is happening. 

Maybe if she concentrates hard enough, time will stop. And this will never be a memory. This will always be a moment. The present. They can stay like this for a long time. It doesn't have to end.

But time is unstoppable. It keeps going, no matter the bad or good that happens in the world. You can't stop time. You can't rewind. But then, Victoria realizes, even rewinding is pointless. Time will keep going afterwards. The same thing will still happen.

She still hopes time stops anyway.

(It doesn't.)

The air is warmer than yesterday, but they're holding each others' hands like the season's heat doesn't exist. 

Chapter Text

Max has had worse days. On a scale of 'no Polaroid film' days to 'the literal end of the town,' these recent days are shelved at a solid place just below 'literal end of the town.' She blinks, rubs her eyes and starts to break into a yawn but something slams on the desk.

It rattles, has her jumping very nearly off her seat. Victoria frowns.

"Can't slack off, Max." She mutters, pats the new pile of textbooks now on the tabletop. Max sucks a long bout of air.

Everyone's studying for the SATs. The Blackwell library is so loaded with people that getting a book lasts about an hour at most. Stella, already the hermit, barely leaves her room save for the odd trip to the vending machine for an energy drink or to snatch a coffee from the cafeteria.

Dana attends cheerleader practice with bags under her eyes and daggers in her mouth. Kate has stopped her afternoon violin sessions altogether.

Alyssa still has time for her chick-lits, and that in itself is a wondrous feat. Or, she's not planning on heading to college. Who knows.

Max gets regular texts from her parents encouraging her to study, work harder, try harder, not to give up. There's always a weighty unset in her gut whenever she gets them. The fear of failure and disappointing her parents when all they've done is support her through everything.

Victoria helps her study. It doesn't seem like a problematic affair to her. When she teaches Max, it's like studying herself, only with the added questions and need for clarifications and backtracking from someone with more than a passing learning disability.

But Victoria's patient, has always been with Max, and goes through everything again if that's what Max needs.

Seattle U needs decent scores to be able to be considered for. Max knows this, Victoria knows this, and it's always a point Victoria makes known whenever Max gets her grumbly times.

Victoria studies as much as Stella does when she really gets in the zone. Considering she's already smart to begin with, she could probably get away with an average or higher score as things are.

But, universities can be a little more critical when it comes to admitting foreigners. It's always better just to be ready for anything.

The clocks in Arcadia Bay have become taunting little things in Max's peripheral. Tick-tocks to the end, reminiscent of how many timelines ago, when a storm was going to devour the town.

The seconds are like ants walking a single file. Waiting to be played and messed with by the one with the power to.

But Max doesn't rewind, hasn't rewound for quite some time. Time is infinite, vast, glorious, destructive. A splitting cable that leads to nothing and something. Tampering with it makes it feel worthless. Manipulating it makes every moment lose its meaning.

That's why she hasn't had the drive to rewind lately, she supposes. Because every moment leading to June is precious, gold flecks in the gravel. Every moment with Victoria should go as they should go.

Even the conflicts are bearable. Words said should stay said. Mistakes uncorrected. Nothing should be changed. 

They don't talk about it, though. They don't talk about how Arcadia Bay has become a town of clocks. They don't talk about time, they don't talk about leaving.

The beautiful illusion that avoiding something will make it go away.

"The movie for The Maze Runner's coming out this year." Max says through a mouthful of pop tarts. She chews, bites off another chunk without swallowing. Victoria comes up behind her, takes one look at the box of pop tarts, and makes a face.

"What, from that weird sci-fi book Alyssa lent you?"

"The Maze Runner's cool. Don't hate."

Max bites off more cardboard food. Victoria makes a sound and wipes crumbs off Max's mouth with a thumb. She leans, looks at the laptop screen.

"It's coming out on September." She says quietly.

Max pauses to swallow. She looks anywhere but Victoria's direction, lump in her throat and ice in her fingers. "Maybe we could," She tries out a smile without any actual feeling. "Watch it on my birthday or something."

Victoria's face is crumpled, skin of her neck taut with tension and jawline rumbling. She shrugs, breathes through her nose, returns Max's smile with the exact lack of emotion. "Maybe."

It's only a beautiful illusion when it actually stands.

They talk Maths, Statistics, measurements and calculations with no mention of numbers of time. Language and reasoning without talks of futures.

(No what ifs. No what thens.)

 

Blackwell's mock SATs last the better half of the afternoon. The morning was spent with Victoria pushing books Max's way while simultaneously being force fed toast, sausages, and coffee by Max. Joyce gave an energetic enough pep talk while taking orders and serving food.

The results get posted in a little less than a week. Victoria makes off with a total score good enough for Ivy League.

Max doesn't look at hers twice.

"It was only practice, Max." Kate consoles, smiling kindly. Warren is rambling to Brooke about his 2100 and has to be elbowed by Dana behind his head to shut up. Max finds that funny at least.

"The tests weren't the real thing, Max," Dana coos, reaching across the grass to brush her fingers on Max's hand, furls them around Max's palm to hold. "There's still time to study a little more. You're totally gonna get into Seattle U."

Seattle U. Her parents' disappointment, masqueraded as some weird kind of pity. Max clasps her hands together and nods, breathes, forces herself to smile with her teeth.

Juliet walks in and plops herself in the middle of their loose ring, grass caught on the wrinkles of her jeans. She bursts into a conspiracy theory ("I totally should've gotten a higher score, I totally should've! The faculty's probably still mad about that article I wrote about their supplies hoarding -") and that's the end of the Max pity party.

Victoria comes to the courtyard with Courtney in tow. She doesn't come any closer to their group, just stands far away enough to be seen with her scrunched face and fists on her hips. Max slips away with a fleeting smile in Kate's direction.

Victoria's expression doesn't soften. Courtney at least manages a look that doesn't look pitying.

"Hi, Max."

"Hey, Courtney. How'd you do?"

Courtney rolls her lips into her mouth once, says, "Pretty good. Managed a plus-nineteen hundred. I could get into Berkeley if that happened on the real thing." Max finds herself unsurprised, maybe even more than a little envious. Courtney's smart. That Victoria would trust her enough with certain ghostwriting duties should say enough. How she doesn't ask how Max did says a little more.

Victoria's expression hasn't changed. Max tries saying something else. "So, uh, where's Taylor?"

"She's been on the phone with her mom since the results came out," Victoria answers. Courtney's mouth closes. "We were on our way up to her room. Hey, Court, you okay going up alone?"

Juliet's voice is getting higher, angrier, from afar. Courtney nods her head in an assent Victoria doesn't see, walks around Max to give a pat to the shoulder to on the way to the dormitory building.

The dormitory doors swing and shut, and only then does Victoria's face soften. She looks at Max.

In Victoria's car, temperature leveled, Max's phone plugged into the stereo, Victoria says, "Don't worry," The engine hums. Lua drags on gently through the speakers. "We'll study harder."

They pass buildings, lumpy colors streaking past the windows. A town of clocks. The engine purrs. Max lowers the stereo's volume. "Hey, Vic?"

"Hm?"

"Thanks."

"For taking you out to Chipotle for tacos?"

Max's head turns very slowly. Victoria is smiling, bottom lip toyed in her mouth, head rocking mockingly to the song on the speakers. Max grins and shakes her head. "Yeah, for this, too."

"You know I'll always be here to help you out, right, nerd?"

Max answers with a nod she isn't sure Victoria sees. They don't acknowledge the illusion falling. Curtains yanked off a set, backstage visible to the congregation.

Always.

A town of clocks.


 

Birds flit overhead in rich flocks. The winds are richer, heavy with the shore salt of Arcadia Bay and the setting warmth of the season.

Perspiration, sun, and tree barks with every inhale. The sun is gracious on clear blue skies. Kids come out to play in the afternoons and don't head home until the late sunsets at 6.

The clocks are ticking.

May.

 

David takes a day off and drives Victoria and Max to Portland, at Joyce's request. He's quiet save for the occasional disapproving grunt of some trashy SUVs that cut them off or motorcyclists that stray from the shoulders. He drives Victoria's car in a speed a little below what Max has gotten used to.

"You sure you kids don't want to stop for some grub?" He asks for the second time during the trip. The traffic light is red and he drums his fingers on the dashboard. "Listen, I'm all for studying and all, but it's better to go fighting on a filled stomach."

Max is taking a last look at Mathematics formulas. An English book is wedged under her arm, pencil caught between her teeth. Victoria is skimming through last year's compilation of SAT questions.

"I had some coffee before we left," She answers absentmindedly. "I don't think I can eat anything right now, anyway."

"I could probably go for some drive-thru." Max mutters.

They pick McDonald's for the breakfast bundles. David pays in spite of Victoria's protests. He watches with a crinkly-eyed smile through the rear view mirror as Max shoves hash browns in Victoria's face.

"Vic, you gotta eat! We're gonna be in there for hours and no one can survive on just coffee!"

"Speak for yourself." David mutters. Victoria snorts, Max gets crumbs on the backseat.

"You're cleaning this up." Victoria slurs, hash brown chunks flying out her mouth.

 

Parkrose is bigger than Blackwell, but they meet up with Dana and Taylor to scope out their assigned rooms. Max and Victoria get assigned to different testing areas and Max starts to pale as soon as they get to hers.

"You'll be alright. I'll be right down the corridor." Victoria says, smile slow to spread, eyes soft and lingering. Max nods.

"Right. Okay."

"Just remember all we've studied."

Remember all they've studied. No sweat. Cold sweat beads on Max's forehead. "Right. Sure. Okay."

Victoria turns away, lets herself get ushered off by Taylor but Dana stops them with a casual nudge to both their shoulders.

"Good luck. Good luck, Vic."

They're playing it cool, but Victoria's lips quiver a little at the corners and Dana is trying not to look not-pissed. Max leaves their space because she knows that's what they want.

The tests will start in about twenty minutes. She gets a text from her parents, Kate, and Victoria at the last three.

Clocks ticking.


 

Max cries. Thick beads of tears, running down her face in glimmering moist paths that paint her freckles bright red, snot trailing down to her lip and sinuses clicking frantically but she doesn't care.

She doesn't care, doesn't stop crying because the SAT results are out and on the screen of her laptop she sees her scores.

And she'll be getting into Seattle U, knows she can get into Seattle U.

She doesn't tell Victoria because Victoria already knows. When she comes in that evening, sees Max huddled at her desk, crying, laughing, barely able to breathe, she knows.

She pulls Max into an embrace so tight, Max feels as if her heart might pop. "You did it!" She keeps saying. Keeps peppering Max's face with kisses, tears and snot so very surely sticking to her lipstick.

Max wants to kiss back so bad, to tell them that no, that they did it but all she can do is laugh and cry and sit there in Victoria's arms, heart twisting and thumping and tearing.

Because this is real now. This is happening. There's no more illusions to look at and no more lies to tell themselves. Max can get into Seattle U, and Victoria will leave.

It's happening. The clocks are ticking and they can't stop them.

Victoria gathers the Vortex Club and throws the biggest party she's ever organized. Lights and music and drinks, so many drinks, friends and lovers and enemies looking at each other like it's the last time they'll ever do it.

Once upon a time, in October, in another timeline, a different lifetime, the Vortex Club did the exact same thing and it was the end of the world.

Now, it is the end of the world all over again. Things are about to end for the second time.

Everyone comes, even Kate whose only videos of that night are ones with friends and apple juice and laughter under the auditorium lights. Dana screams like she has never screamed before and chants we did it, we did it, with the rest of the students like their throats aren't things with limits. Brooke says fuck it and drives her drone to nose dive right into the drinks, laughing and cheering when everyone else does. Warren drinks until he passes out. The jocks are throwing anybody within reach into the pool.

The faculty congratulates everyone on the stage the Vortex Club set up. The Photography teacher actually smiles and thanks her students for the experience, wishes them luck and to have the time of their lives.

Victoria thanks her for the kind words personally. She actually remembers her name this time.

Everyone laughs. Everyone cries. Everyone celebrates and it's like the world is ending.

Everyone's running out of time.

Victoria pulls Max outside. They watch the night meet the morning, light and dark colors smearing, stars blinking.

They run back to the dormitories after and Victoria kisses Max until it defies science and air is no longer a thing.

She touches Max and it burns, life and blood and soul afire under Max's skin. Victoria smells like angels probably do. Sounds like heaven probably sounds. Tastes like the sun is glowing in Max's mouth and none of it makes sense except that this could be the last.

Victoria feels like miracles happening all at once. Like watching the first leaves of autumn, or the first snows of winter, the first blossoms of spring, or the first light of summers.

She feels like time running out and Max's heartstrings are being shorn just being skin to skin.

Victoria looks at Max. Stares, tries to smile. Fails to smile, and says, "I think I'm in love with you."

And Max wants time to stop. But all she can do is rewind, and so she rewinds, the moment blurring before going back to when Victoria is failing to smile.

"I think I'm in love with you."

And the moment doesn't lose its meaning. It stays golden, beautiful, lasting, because with all the times Max rewinds, she only gives the same answer.

"I think I'm in love with you, too."

Max never changes a thing, not after the 6th rewind, or the 7th, or the 8th, or even after she's stopped counting and she's crying so much that Victoria doesn't know why. But Victoria always says it.

I think I'm in love with you.

I think I'm in love with you, too.

(Give us more time. Give us a little more time.)

"Give us more time." Max eventually pleads out loud. Cryptic, weird, a spaceman with her boots on earth and head in space as always. But this time, Victoria actually understands. She gets what Max is going on about this time. She cries, too.

Clocks ticking.

A town of clocks.

 


 

Max often says she didn't remember.

She didn't remember she was supposed to lend Megan her Anne Leibovitz book, she was supposed to hang out with Josh and help him with his Photography assignment, or that she was supposed to have lunch with Tyron and Ashley.

She didn't remember today was the deadline for the project on imitating Richard Avedon's style. She didn't remember Human Elective class was moved to 9am.

If her mom, or dad, or anyone else ever gets mad about her over something, she can just say she didn't remember.

Max Caulfield didn't remember. Can't remember anything. Poor memory. 

(Max Caulfield is so damn lazy.)

The sky is darker, orange meeting dark blue in the distance. The moon peeks from its corner on the sky. Max glances at her watch and realizes, she's late (so damn late) and sprints down the sidewalk, backpack wobbling.

 

But, Max Caulfield does remember. She remembers many things. She remembers Blackwell, how the sky looked on October and how Arcadia Bay smelled.

Chloe, Chloe and her dazzling smile and bright blue hair whipping with the breeze, cigarette slipped behind her ear.

She remembers Rachel Amber, the scars Rachel left on Chloe and Frank and Blackwell Academy.

Max remembers a lot.

 

A car screeches to a stop and drags out its horn when Max dashes, crosses the road, lungs heaving and sweater clinging to her chest with sweat.

Someone swears when she pushes past them and she yells sorry, because she's so late and she just has to hurry.

 

She remembers the dark. The Dark Room, the dark man. Jefferson with his white smile and flashing camera in the dim lighting. Nathan Prescott, his anger, his sickness, his clawing need to ruin everything just as everything has ruined him.

Max remembers Nathan's voice, venomous, threatening her with a pointed finger. His voice, lonely, broken, scared, apologizing through the speakers of her phone.

 

The sky is darker. Max has to stop, tapping her foot on the pavement and heavy breaths drawing heads toward her. She ignores them, because the sky is darker and she is. So. Late.

The light says walk. She doesn't walk. She runs.

 

Max remembers the October that didn't happen, not here, not in this timeline. Things that didn't happen. 

Max also remembers things that did happen. Max remembers deaths. Blood on white tiles, a gunshot, just one. Curling behind the stalls and crying.

Going to the burial, watching the things that didn't happen go under the earth with Chloe's casket. 

Grief, pain, mourning. Max remembers wounds on her wrists, roads to dying.

 

"Excuse me!" Max all but shrieks.

The men in hardhats freeze. She squeezes herself past them and they look at her, shrug, continue carrying sacks of cement across the sidewalk to their truck.

 

Max remembers the October that happened.

Max remembers Victoria.

Victoria, and the smell of chemicals and cigarettes and liquor on her cardigan. The bags under her eyes, hate burned behind her retinas, thorns coiled around her tongue.

Victoria's rough hands and meaningless kisses, the trysts at night that were empty. Hollow. Addicting. Victoria's gaunt face, the bones of her ribs like death's bony claws about to sink into her chest. 

Max remembers sex. Drugs. Blood. Tears.

 

The bell hanging above the coffee shop's door chimes loudly when she shoves it open. She pants, drapes her weight on the handle, tries to straighten her knees through the heavy breathing.

"You're late, kiddo."

"Y-yeah, I'm - hoh," She clutches her chest, grunts. Ryan has gotten off his table and is watching her with squinted eyes. He purses his lips, Max smiles. "Let me just catch my breath here, dad."

"Right," Ryan smirks and quirks an eyebrow. "Forgot again?"

Max blinks. She can say she did, say it completely slipped her mind that she goes home to Beacon Hill on Fridays for the weekend. It would be believable.

(Max Caulfield has a bad memory. Max Caulfield is so lazy.)

But she says, "No, I did remember. Just got held back is all."

Ryan hums, nods, and pats her on the arm to get her going. Max gets into his car.

 

Max remembers Victoria. The withdrawals, the pills, the jitters. Victoria and her shampoo and her perfume. The lights of her eyes on December and the small bruises from a snowball fight.

Victoria, pretty, beautiful, Victoria, and her kisses that turn soft and taste nothing like October's. The bones of her face and body receding, wrists thicker and belly pudge more than a little adorable.

The way she'd say things with practice, the way she'd say nothing at all with patience.

Victoria and her present, the camera Max still uses at Seattle U.

 

Ryan drives. Max takes three shots of him and he laughs. The crinkle of his eyes is all Max needs to know she's forgiven for being late.

Max watches the city pass them in a steady streak of shifting colord, a speed so below what she's gotten used to. 

 

Max remembers. The long nights spent studying, the longer days spent stressing, worrying over the SATs. The night they got the results and the party that followed.

What Victoria said that night. What Max said. How they both said it repeatedly without Victoria knowing.

Max remembers June. The last day of school, how the corridors exploded with the cheers of seniors out of their minds with ecstasy.

Graduation. Max climbing the stage with her parents, facing the crowd, her teachers, her schoolmates, their parents, Victoria. Max remembers how Victoria looked in the crowd, smiling like her own parents weren't right next to her and nothing else mattered in the world, except Max there, standing on the stage. Brown eyes meeting blue.

Max remembers how Victoria stood from her seat. Led an applause so loud, so wild, that Max couldn't see everyone standing, clapping, whooping for her through the tears.

Max will always remember.

 

They get home at around 8. Vanessa sets the table for dinner and they talk about university. Max's classes, her instructors, her exams (which she tries to elegantly divulge as little as possible.)

Ryan takes care of her laundry for her afterwards and sends her away with a kiss to the forehead. "We'll go somewhere tomorrow." He says.

Max opens her laptop as soon as she gets to her room. Showers to wash off the sweat and stink, changes to her most comfortable night clothes. She rifles her drawers and pulls out a flash drive, sticks it into her DVD player.

The TV starts up. It's no expensive plasma, but it's good enough. She grabs the remote to pause.

A ding from her laptop has her diving back to the bed. She clicks.

"You're late."

Max laughs and rolls onto her back. "I know. Sorry."

"What, did you forget, nerd?" asks Victoria, her face scrunched on the screen of Max's laptop. The sky on the window behind Victoria is bright, Paris' day just starting to unfold when it's already ended here in Seattle.

Max could say she did forget. Like always.

(But that wouldn't be true.)

"No, just had some hangups," Max supplies. She rolls to her front, shuffles forward with her elbows, pokes her nose close to the camera of her laptop. "Don't be mad."

(Because she never forgets.)

Victoria leans back. She's trying to look mad. Hair still mussed, make-up off, clothes ruffled by a grudging wake up from her Saturday alarm. Cameras can't quite capture how pretty Victoria looks in the mornings. Or evenings, if it's the weekdays.

Cameras can't capture how beautiful Victoria really is.

Max has started to pay attention to clocks. To calendars, crossing out days and tearing out months. Pulling out petals to the days Victoria can come home.

A city of clocks.

"Victoria, don't be mad."

Victoria's still trying to look mad. Max fixes that with a stupid face: eyes crossed, nose wrinkled, nostrils flared, upper lip pulled up above her teeth until Victoria laughs.

"Alright, alright. So, are you set?"

"Uh-huh." Max wiggles the DVD remote to show to the camera.

"Mmkay." Victoria sighs and angles her head, looks at something off-camera with a slight squint. Max sees the roundness of her jawline and briefly wonders if she's worked out the belly bump like she said she would.

Victoria's eyes flit back to her screen. She sees Max staring and smiles. "Hey, nerd."

Max doesn't even look away. "Yeah?"

"Happy birthday."

Max remembers wounds. Hurting. Scars.

Max remembers warmth. Care. Healing. Lines drawn and blurred and crossed. Walls brought down and armors unlimbered. Time continuing, undeterred.

(We'll have time.)

Max remembers, never forgets, Victoria.

In Seattle, in Paris, Max and Victoria start up The Maze Runner.