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Escaping The Light

Chapter Text

The early years 

Max Caulfield believed in her faith.

For a long time, anyway.

When she was a little girl, growing up in a small Oregon town called Arcadia Bay, she believed her parents would love her forever. Just like they told her they would.

When she was six, she believed her mother was the best in the world. She was always there, taking care of Max. She cooked amazing food, showed her how to do her hair, and kissed every boo-boo. And she made sure to take Max to the park every day, to play with her friends from their church.

When she was seven, she believed that her father was perfect. He was so smart; he had the answer for every question she could ask. Her dad even commented that she was a very curious little girl. He knew why the sky was blue, what the clouds were made of, why it rained, everything. He always had time for her after work, gave her piggyback rides, read bedtime stories, and everything else that a great dad was supposed to do.

When she was ten, she believed that the church was always right. Her parents were incredibly religious, and her father was a church Elder. Every Wednesday night, after he came home from work, they would gather up in the family sedan and drive over to listen to their pastor give his sermon. Max preferred the Wednesday sermons to the Sunday sermons; on the weekend, she had to get up early and put on her nice dress, so her mother had time to fix her hair while her dad put on his best suit. And since her dad was so high up in the church, they had to sit right up front.

Max’s dad did his best to ensure his daughter set the example for the other kids, and Max wanted to do a good job. She always sat up straight, didn’t fidget in her seat or make a fuss, and tried to pay attention to the pastor when he spoke, though she didn’t always understand what he was talking about. He used words that Max’s parents didn’t say around the house, like ‘hell’ or ‘damnation’.

When she asked later, her dad still had the answers.

“Our religion is the only right one, Maxine,” he explained. Max sat on the couch while her dad paced back and forth, her mother fixing dinner in the kitchen. “Pastor Rogers uses bad words because he’s passionate. He doesn’t want anyone from the church to stray from the flock.”

“Why are the other churches wrong?” she asked.

“They’re not entirely wrong, they’re simply misguided.” Her father shook his head. “God is difficult to understand, Maxine. You’re young; you won’t get it until you’re older. But you have to trust Pastor Rogers, your mother, and I. We want what’s best for you.”

He fixed Max with a hard look. “Do you want to go to heaven, Maxine?”

Max nodded her head vigorously. Of course she did. What a silly question. What kind of good girl didn’t?

“Then you need to do as our church says.” Her father smiled. “And we’ll make sure you get there.”

So Max did as she was told.

She wore the dresses her church mandated that women wear. She prayed several times a day; before every meal, when she woke up in the morning, and before she went to bed at night. Max listened to the lessons her parents taught her, and had every correct answer when her school teachers asked her a question about their faith.

“She sets such a good example,” her teachers would gush to Ryan and Vanessa Caulfield. “I wish all the other children were as righteous and well-behaved as your daughter was.”

Max liked the praise. She was so happy, that her parents were so proud of her. They told her she was the best little girl in the world.

And so Max continued to believe.


2007

It wasn’t until she was eleven, almost twelve, when she started to have the littlest of doubts.

The church ran their own elementary school, which Max attended until the 5th grade. She was meant to attend their junior high school as well, but... something happened. Max wasn’t sure what, exactly; rumors flew around the groups of kids, but nobody knew anything for certain. She knew her parents and most of the church parishioners were very upset about it, though. All she could really comprehend was that nobody could go to the church’s junior high school anymore.

Her parents talked for a while about home school, but by then her mother had taken on less of a care-giver role around the house, and had started taking a more active role in the church. She had become indispensable for several functions. And she was an Elder’s wife; backing out would be highly inappropriate. Home-schooling was no longer feasible.

So Max’s parents sat her down, and explained she was going to be going to the local public school for her 6th grade year.

“You’re going to hear and see a lot of things that conflict with what you’ve learned, Maxine,” her mother explained sternly. “Girls will not dress appropriately. Boys will act in very inappropriate ways. And your teachers will try to tell you falsehoods.”

“Falsehoods?” Max asked, confused. Why would a teacher try to teach lies? It didn’t make any sense to her. She was always taught to respect her teachers, and listen to their instructions like they came from her parents. Why were her new teachers so different?

Her parents spent close to two hours reinforcing what she’d learned in the Church’s school. Evolution wasn’t real, of course, it couldn’t be. Dinosaur fossils had been placed in the ground by the devil, to try and sway humanity’s faith in God. The world was barely a few thousand years old, after all.

Abstinence before marriage. That was an important one, for the good church girls. Remaining pure until marriage was vital, if they wanted to go to heaven. “Boys are gross.” Max said as she wrinkled her nose.

Her parents were happy to hear that, at least. “We don’t want you to get involved with any of the boys from that school,” her father said. “You’re going to marry a nice boy in our church, and have lots of children to love. Doesn’t that sound great?”

Max did love kids. As an Elder’s daughter, she was such a responsible girl that some of the other parents trusted her to watch their kids, while they went on church business. Mr. and Mrs. Hansen even let her care for their infant, for a couple of hours.

So Max nodded, and continued to believe everything.

Chapter Text

2007 (cont)

So Max nodded, and continued to believe everything.

Until school started.

Almost immediately, Max was thrown out of her element. Her parents hadn’t adequately prepared her for what school would be like. Nobody understood why she always wore dresses. Max didn’t understand why other girls were allowed to wear such short shorts, or even denim jeans. Or why their sleeves were so short. Or how their parents could just let them show off their stomachs with short shirts.

Or why the boys were allowed to say and do the things they did. She even heard a few of them using curse words in front of teachers, who didn’t bat an eye. One of them, she’d even seen smoking around the side of the school. She couldn’t believe these children could be so... full of sin. And she could barely handle the thought of being around them.

People made fun of her, of course. The weird religious girl who didn’t have any friends. They were merciless; snickering behind her back, pushing her in the hallway, and chanting insults as she went to catch her bus home.

“God tests all of us, Maxine,” her father said after she complained. “This is one of your tests. Stay true to our faith, keep to yourself, and you’ll be just fine.”

So Max did. She isolated herself. Ignored the others students, and focused all of her efforts on her schoolwork.

Or tried to, anyway. She excelled at reading, history and math, but when her father found out what some of her science assignments were, he was not happy. When one such assignment covered the theory of evolution, Max thought the roof of their house was going to blow off.

“LIES!!” he would scream. Max had never heard him yell before, and she cowered as he waved her science textbook. He ranted for two hours about all the devil’s falsehoods within, and finally threw the offending textbook into the trash.

Max had no idea what to tell the teacher when he asked for her homework the next day. When she did quietly stutter her nervous answer out, Mr. Grayson nodded, ignoring the other student’s snickers, and told her to see him after class.

“What church do you go to, Maxine?” he asked when they were alone.

“First Light of Christ,” Max explained nervously.

“I see. Well, Maxine-”

“Max,” she said quietly.

Mr. Grayson blinked. “You prefer Max?”

“Only my parents and Pastor Roger call me Maxine.” She shook her head. “I like Max.”

“Ah. Well, Max, I’ve heard of your church before.” A cloud passed over Mr. Grayson’s face, but it passed quickly. “What do they tell you about evolution?”

“That it’s made up by scientists, because they don’t have faith that we were made in God’s image.” Max parroted what she’d been taught by her old teachers.

“Well, then, Max.” Mr. Grayson leaned back. “I’m going to give you a different assignment than the others. Do you think you’re up for it?”

Max nodded.

“I want you to write a paper.” He nodded. “A research paper.”

“What’s that?”

Mr. Grayson spent a little time explaining what it meant, to cite her sources, and properly evaluate where she got her information from. “I want you to write a research paper on why evolution is wrong,” he finally explained.

“My, uh...” Max’s face turned red. “My dad threw away my textbook.”

Mr. Grayson pulled a new one out of his desk and held it up. “This one needs to stay at school,” he told her as he placed it in front of her. “But I think you’ll have better luck doing your research on the computers at the library.”

Max’s face got redder, and Mr. Grayson tilted his head quizzically after she didn’t reply. “Do you know how to use a computer, Max?”

“We don’t have one in our house,” she answered, embarrassed.

“I see.” He sat back and interlaced his fingers across his chest. “Then tomorrow, instead of coming to this class, I want you to go to the library instead and see Mrs. Hoida.”

“Why?”

“So she can show you how to use a computer.” Max’s eyes got wide, and Mr. Grayson leaned forward. “I understand that you’re nervous, Max, but computers are going to become more and more commonplace. You need to know how they work, and how to use one. You can’t hide from them, I’m afraid.”

So Max didn’t.

The next day, she went to the library and met with Mrs. Hoida. The librarian, clearly having been told about her by Mr. Grayson, was very kind as she sat Max down in front of the strange machine and showed her how the computer worked. She taught her how to use the internet, and how to use a search engine to find what she needed.

Max’s father wasn’t happy when Max told him what she was learning at the dinner table. She left out the assignment; she didn’t want to hear him yell again. He was, however, very against Max learning to use the internet in general.

But Max’s mother, in an INCREDIBLY rare show of disagreement, sided with the school. “Computers are everywhere these days, Ryan,” she argued. “They use them at church, remember? Pastor Rogers has one in his office to write sermons.”

“We both know what they can expose children to, Vanessa,” Max’s father replied crossly. “The internet is a dangerous place.”

“Well, if we had one at home, honey, we could monitor her use.” Max’s mother took another bite of dinner. “And, quite frankly, having a computer around the house might be nice. Beth is always going on about the web sites that sell her knitting supplies, and where she gets her new recipes. And I’m sure you could use it for work, too.”

“Hmm...” Max’s father stroked his beard, in thought.

A week later, her father was reading the instructions to set up their new computer at a desk in the living room.

“You are not to go on the internet without your mother or I knowing first,” he lectured to Max when he was finished. “The world wide web is like your science textbook; it’s full of lies and deceit, and much, much worse. We don’t want to see you hurt by any of it.”

True to his word, Max’s parents monitored her home internet use closely.

Her internet exposure at school, however, was unchecked, and Max began researching her paper.

And that was when her belief started to shake.

She sometimes imagined the smug look she could give her science teacher when she handed a paper in, explaining that she was right and he wasn’t. Evolution couldn’t be real; her parents, her church, and her old teachers had said so. So she entered what she’d learned into Google, and hit the search button.

And the entire page of results was all the proof that she was wrong, and Mr. Grayson was right.

She even found a page detailing the EXACT lesson she’d been taught in her old school, complete with pictures of her textbook, and a full list of counterpoints. Her parents and teachers had just explained that evolution wasn’t real, and Max had accepted that as a fact, but The Internet had lists of reasons why it was real. There were pictures of all the different skulls, showing the small steps between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. More pictures, from Sabre-Toothed Tigers to housecats. Charts. Simplified explanations that Max could understand, even with her lacking scientific knowledge.

And it all made sense. Max spent days reading everything. The few sites that agreed with her, on the stance that evolution wasn’t real, were all religious, and only cited bible passages. No pictures, no charts, no scientists. And they all repeated themselves, over and over. Even when she tried to cite them, she couldn’t meet the page requirement Mr. Graham had given her.

That was the first night Max cried. Not because she was upset, but because she was scared. Scared of what her parents would say when they found out she knew that evolution was real.

So she didn’t tell them.

She begged Mr. Grayson not to tell her parents, and she started doing her science classwork at the library after school. She told her family that she was walking home later than usual because she was studying her history homework, and her father didn’t question it.

When her report card came in, and showed her good grades in Science, he accepted the answer that she’d just copied what was in the textbook, and nothing more.

He never suspected that she was using the internet at school to learn what else the church was wrong about.

Chapter Text

2010

A couple of years later, she entered the local high school. And that’s when she found out that Physical Education was taken more seriously

Max was still wearing the dresses her parents made her put on. Back in junior high, the gym class was mostly a joke; she went through the entire period reading her schoolwork on the sidelines, the teacher uncaring. But in high school, she was expected to participate.

Which meant she had to change into athletic clothing in the locker rooms.

Her parents were completely against it, but a phone call from the assistant principal made it very clear; Max would take part in PE, or she would fail the class. As such, she needed appropriate clothing, and her dresses would not suffice. Additionally, the principal had received notes from her new Chemistry and Home Economics teachers as well. In both classes, Max would be working with fire, as she utilized stoves and Bunsen burners. Max would not be allowed to wear her dresses to those classes, either.

Max’s parents weren’t happy, but at the end of the day her safety was on the line. And for all of their faults, they did love their daughter. So they took her to Target, and brought new outfits. Max tried on denim jeans for the first time, and found that she actually liked them. T-shirts were a no-go; the ones the store had showed off way too much arm. So long-sleeves were her new norm.

As for athletic clothes, her parents brought her long pants and long sleeves as well. But Max quickly learned that they weren’t exactly ideal, especially when they went running around the track in the beginning of the year. By the time Max finished her mile of laps, she was drowning in sweat.

“Why do you wear those pants? They’re stupid.”

Max froze in the locker room, caught as she was changing back into her regular clothes; she’d thought she was alone. She quickly pulled her shirt back on.

“Hello? Did you hear me?”

Max turned and blinked. One of the other girls was standing on front of her, in her black running shorts and a grey sports bra. Max tried to avert her eyes. She’s almost naked!

“You’re going to die if you wear those pants again tomorrow,” the girl commented, her hands on her hips. “You need to get some shorts.”

Max’s face turned red as the girl refused to go away, and she forced herself to meet her gaze, looking at her bright green eyes and short blonde hair. “My, uh...” she swallowed. “My parents won’t let me wear shorts.”

“What?” The blonde girl frowned. “That’s stupid, why... oh, wait a second.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re that religious weirdo. I heard about you from the other kids.”

Max sighed. “Yea. I, uh, get that a lot.”

The blonde crossed her arms and sighed. “Why aren’t you allowed to wear shorts? Do you think they’ll turn you into a slut or something?”

Max’s face turned even redder. “It’s... look, can I please get changed?”

“I’m not stopping you.” The girl didn’t break eye contact. “Look... here, stand up.”

“Why?”

“Oh, just do it.”

Max stood, and watched the girl place her hands back on her hips, judging. Then she reached out and grabbed Max’s hips, her fingers grazing bare skin. Max gasped. “What are you doing?”

“We’re the same size.” The girl nodded. “Listen, you need to wear shorts when you run. I’ll bring you in one of my old pairs, okay? You don’t need to pass out on the track. Then they’ll have to call an ambulance, you'll go to the ER, and you’ll never live it down.”

“I can’t-”

“Do your parents work here?”

Max frowned. “No.”

“Then you’ll be fine to wear them for thirty minutes a day.”

Max started to argue, but stopped. She was still sweating from the run, and couldn’t bear the thought of doing it over again tomorrow.

“... thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

True to her word, when Max saw her the next day, the girl pressed a pair of light blue running shorts into Max’s hands, as well as a red t-shirt. Neither were incredibly revealing; the shorts came to about mid-thigh, and the shirt had real sleeves. Max was still incredibly nervous, but she found herself quickly not caring after she started running; it was SO much better, having the air on her skin.

“Told you,” the girl said smugly after Max finished.

“Yea.” Max clutched her arms and looked around, still nervous that someone would see her.

Back in the locker room, she changed as quickly as she could and tried to give the clothes back. “You can keep them, they’re yours,” the blonde girl said simply when Max met her at her locker. "They're all sweaty from you, anyway. I don't want them back."

“But-”

The girl grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it up over her head, and Max’s face turned red again. “I have more clothes than I know what to do with,” the blonde said, ignoring Max as she threw her shirt into her locker. “Besides, you need them more than me. Keep them.”

“Oh. Well-” Max’s voice failed as the blonde girl stripped her shorts off, throwing them after her shirt. Then the girl grabbed her sports bra, and pulled it off as well. Max spun around, her face practically on fire.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving you some privacy,” Max squeaked.

“Uh, we’re both girls. But, whatever. Like I said, you need a pair of running shorts, and I don’t. You can have them.”

Max stammered out a thank you and hustled out of the locker room.

When she went to bed that night, she tried very hard to think of anything else. Anything that wasn’t the brief glimpse she’d gotten of the blonde girl.

She only wore the shorts for the next couple of weeks, before the fall got too cold and she switched back to her long pants. The blonde girl didn’t stop wearing her shorts. Every so often, Max found herself staring at the blonde girl’s legs as she ran down the track. Or played basketball. Or when she wore shorts to class, and sat in front of her in History.

She found the girl’s name out a week or so after her initial encounter; Victoria Chase. A Junior who was on the track team, debate team, and the vice-president of the Vortex Club. Max was too shy to ever approach her again, after the second encounter in the locker room; it seemed like every time she thought about it, her face got hot, and she thought about her legs again.

What is WRONG with me?!

Max laid in bed awake at night a lot, even after her parents had gone to sleep. Trying to come to terms with her thoughts.

Why can’t I stop thinking about it?

Am I-

No. I don’t like girls. I do NOT like girls.

The very thought terrified Max. Pastor Rogers had spoken dozens of times about the dangers of the gays, and their agenda to infect the minds of others with evil thoughts. Max had never met one herself, of course, since they weren’t allowed in the church.

I wonder if Victoria is-

No. Nope. Quash that thought. Max rolled over and closed her eyes, trying to will her thoughts away.

She tried to ignore Victoria when she saw her. She focused more on her schoolwork. Her November report card showed a remarkable improvement in her grades, which her parents were very proud of her for.

Max found herself in early December, sitting in the cafeteria alone while she ate her lunch and read her history book.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

Max looked up at Victoria, and froze. The blonde girl blinked as she stared at Max. “Is. Anyone. Sitting. Here?” she repeated after a few seconds, pointing to the seat in front of Max.

“Uh... no?” Max replied.

“Cool.” Victoria dropped her backpack and sat down, placing her salad on the table in front of her. “So, what’s up?”

“What are you doing?” Max asked warily.

“I’m talking to you.” Victoria speared some of her salad and bit into it. “You’re kind of ignoring everybody.”

“I’ve been studying,” Max replied nervously.

Victoria glanced at her book. “I see that. You’re the only one in here reading their textbook, you know.”

Max glanced around and saw that Victoria was right. “I’m, uh, just making sure I’m ahead.”

“Right on.” Victoria shrugged. “Well, you wanna put it to good use?”

“Huh?”

“I had an ulterior motive for coming over.” Victoria took another bite of her salad. “One of the girls just dropped out of our Quiz Bowl team, and we need a replacement. And you’ve always got your nose in your books. You wanna take her place?”

Max furrowed her brow. “Quiz Bowl? What’s that?”

“Our school’s trivia team.” Victoria shrugged. “We do competitions and shit around the county. Looks good on a college resume. You want in? Because we can’t really find anyone else.”

Max bit her lip, unsure of what to answer.

“Ugh. Look, if you-”

“Okay.”

Victoria blinked. “You’re in?”

“Yea. Sure.”

“Sweet.” Victoria nodded. “We meet tomorrow after school in Mr. North’s classroom to practice. See you there?”

“Uh, yea. Definitely.”

“Cool.” Victoria grinned.

And Max could’ve sworn her heart felt light for a second.

Chapter Text

2010 (Cont)

Max’s parents were supportive when she told them about being asked to join the Quiz Bowl team. So the next afternoon, after school ended, Max had her first meeting with the others. They sat her down and threw questions at her from all the different categories; history, mathematics, current events... she was able to correctly answer most of them, until they started throwing science questions at her.

“She’s lacking,” the brown-haired girl with the beanie commented, once they were done. “Like, pretty behind, on biology. More than I’d expect even a freshman to be.”

“Yea, but she’s on point with math and history,” Victoria pointed out. Max let herself smile at the compliment. “And she did good enough on current events. Besides, Steph, nobody else is interested in taking Crystal’s spot.”

“Yea, true.” Steph nodded and turned back to Max. “Can you get caught up on the science stuff? Like, quickly?”

The boy next to her scoffed. “Please. The weirdo probably thinks the planet is only a thousand years old or whatever.”

Max’s face grew red. She knew otherwise, despite what her parents and the church had tried to teach her. But it seemed like arguing would be counter-productive, given the circumstances.

“Stuff it, Nathan.” Steph shot him a glare before she turned back to Max. “Seriously, though, you do need to know the material. Can you get caught up before this weekend?”

“Totally.” Max nodded enthusiastically.

“Great.” Victoria nodded. “Because this Saturday we’re competing against Derby High School, and we need a fourth person on the board.”

Max hesitated, but she saw the expectant look on Victoria’s face. “I’ll get caught up, I promise.”

Max took her science book home that night. She usually kept it in her locker, to avoid a repeat of her Junior High incident with her father. But this was important, too; she wanted to do well, and if that meant studying material she wasn’t supposed to be believing, than so be it. She waited until after her parents had both gone to bed and stayed up late with a flashlight, going through the book and learning what she could.

Her parents drove her to Derby High School that weekend, and watched her participate. Max was especially nervous as they focused on her, while the judges read the rules and announced the categories. Man, I don’t want to have to explain why I know some of this stuff, she worried as she picked at her fingernails.

Luckily, Max was only called for one science question, and it had to do with chemistry, not something her parents or the church had taught her. She answered everything else correctly, as did Steph; Victoria and Nathan both dropped a couple of questions. But it was still enough to win.

Max’s smile was about to break her face when she high-fived Victoria.

She was using the bathroom before her parents drove her back, washing her hands, when she heard Steph speak from behind her. “You’re crushing pretty hard, you know that?”

Max turned to see the other girl lean against the wall, smirking. “I’m what now?” she replied, confused.

“Crushing, Max.” Steph grinned. “On Victoria?”

“Huh?”

“Oh, come on." Steph rolled her eyes. "It’s painfully obvious that you have a crush on her.”

Max’s face reddened quickly. “No I don't!”

“Uh huh.” Steph shook her head. “My Gaydar is pinging like crazy, Max. I know we just met, but-”

“I do NOT have a crush on Victoria,” Max protested vehemently.

Steph cocked her head. “Is it your parents? That whole religion thing?"

Max didn’t answer as she dried her hands and turned to leave. Steph caught her elbow as she was about to walk out. “Look, I didn’t mean to make fun of you," she said, her grin now gone. “If you want to talk about it, I-”

“There’s nothing to talk about.” Max jerked her arm back and left to meet her parents, purposefully avoiding Victoria on her way out.

Max’s parents were both very proud of her, but they had a serious conversation when they got home. Max’s father, in particular, was concerned about what his daughter might be learning, regarding the other science questions he’d heard asked. And Max hadn’t worn a dress to the competition; she worn the Quiz Bowl t-shirt over a long sleeved shirt. Him and her mother were both very concerned, about what she was picking up at her school.

She downplayed everything. She only studied the book because that’s what the questions were based off of. She knew what was true in her heart, and was certainly smart enough to recognize the falsehoods taught in public school. And they were required to wear the Quiz Bowl t-shirts while competing; wouldn’t it have looked silly, if she’d worn it over her dress?

Her parents were satisfied with her replies. They couldn’t imagine their daughter showing any form of disobedience; they both knew they had raised her well. Her answers were accepted, and they dropped the subject.

Max was up late again that night, trying very hard not to think about Victoria. And her conversation with Steph. She did that that a lot more often, the more she hung out with them.

For the rest of the year, she focused on her schoolwork and the Quiz Bowl team. She got all A’s on her final report card, except for a B- in chemistry. While she hung out with the others, she got to know Victoria and Steph pretty well, and became friendly with both of them; they were the first two real friends she’d made outside of the church.

Over the summer, she attended her church’s summer camp, working as a junior counselor with the other teenagers. She had to revert back to being the extremely religious girl; wearing dresses all the time, praying, daily sermons, everything stereotypical about bible camp.

After a year of high school, and being around teenagers who were far more tolerant and way more fun to be with… she was slowly starting to resent it.

And her church, in general.

Chapter Text

September, 2011

By the beginning of September, she hated the dresses they made her wear; they were hot, didn’t breathe, and itchy. She hated getting up at five in the morning to help the other junior counselors prepare games and activities for the younger kids. She hated that the boys were allowed to wear shorts and t-shirts, and she wasn’t.

And she found herself arguing with the camp pastor in her head.

Have you even MET any gays? She thought to herself as the man droned on and on about how they were unnatural and evil. Max couldn’t stop thinking about Steph; while they were a little standoff-ish for a while after that first competition, Max did still think of her as a friend. And she was one of the nicest girls in school. She certainly wasn’t trying to recruit Max, like the pastor was warning about.

The camp pastor went on and on. The younger kids nodded, absorbing his every word. The other teenagers, having heard the sermon dozens of times, looked bored. Max just resented him.

Max knew the earth wasn’t six thousand years old anymore. Hell, even the Pope agrees with that! Max thought angrily, careful not to let her face betray her emotions. She knew that the dinosaurs had been real. The outside world was NOT desperately trying to destroy the sacred bonds between Man and God. It was everything to keep her frustrations off her face. 

Even worse, there was nobody she could talk about when it came to her thoughts. The reasons she couldn’t fall asleep at night, especially when she thought about her crush on Victoria. One of the junior counselors had already been sent home for talking to another teenager about his feelings towards other boys. The rumor in the teenager’s building was that he had found himself at one of ‘those’ camps.

Max shuddered. She swore she wouldn’t go to a camp like that. She’d heard terrible stories. Read about them on the internet at school, where her father still couldn’t monitor her.

She still didn’t understand how it could be so bad. She still thought about Victoria sometimes, at night, and her cheeks grew warm. Especially when she thought about what she’d seen in the locker room. She is really pretty...

She finally left the camp the week before school started, and she was eager to start her sophomore year.

She met and caught up again with Victoria and Steph; Nathan had transferred to another school. They quickly found a new student to replace him with before their first competition, just after Max’s sixteenth birthday.

“Did your parents get you anything good?” Steph asked when they were all in the cafeteria over lunch, a couple of days later.

Max shrugged. “A necklace,” she replied, digging it out from under her shirt. She showed them the silver chain and ornate cross. “It’s a family heirloom. It belonged to my great-grandmother.”

“Oh, that’s pretty.” Victoria nodded. “I think mine are going to get me a car this year. They’ve been dropping hints about me finally being able to drive myself around.”

“Boy, I wish I had parents who were loaded.” Steph smirked. “My mom got me the boxed set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though, that was pretty badass. I binge-watched it in, like five days.”

“Nerd.” Victoria snickered, then glanced at her watch and got up. “I gotta go. Taylor wanted to grab something from my locker. See you girls after school.”

Max watched her go, trying not to let her eyes linger; Victoria was wearing shorts again. She turned back to Steph and bit her lip, hesitating.

“What?” Steph took another bite of her lunch. “You okay?”

“How did you know you were gay?” Max blurted out.

Steph’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Wow,” she commented. “I’ll be honest. Wasn’t expecting that. Why do you ask?”

Max’s face got red, and she didn’t answer.

Steph glanced around. “Max...” she hesitated. “I told you last year, if you want to-”

“I’m just curious,” Max interrupted.

“Uh-huh.” Steph put her sandwich down and folded her hands. “I... well, I’ve always known, more or less. Ever since I was old enough to be interested one way or another.”

“Interested?”

“In boys or girls, Max.” Steph shrugged.

“Oh.” Max fell silent.

“Max...” Steph caught her eye. “Do you want to talk about something?”

Max sighed. “No,” she said remorsefully, leaning on her elbows.

“Are there any boys or girls YOU want to talk about?”

Max’s face grew hot again. “Not really.”

Steph hesitated. “This… Max, does this have anything to do with your church’s legal problems? From this summer?”

“Legal problems? What legal problems?” Max glanced back at Steph, puzzled.

“Oh… you didn’t know.” Steph bit her lip. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Max leaned forward. “Steph, what are you talking about?”

“If you don’t know, I’m not sure it’s my place to tell you.” Steph glanced around. “I’m gonna go. Just... I’m always here if you want to talk, Max. Okay?”

Max couldn’t get what Steph had said out of her mind, so during her study hall that afternoon, she got a library pass and did something she’d never done before. She sat down at a computer, and Googled the First Light of Christ church.

And her belief shook to the core.

The Wikipedia page that came up was terrifying. Max’s mouth dropped in horror as she read through it. She found entries going all the way back into the 1970’s, revealing the numerous church officials that were arrested for polygamy, some of their wives as young as twelve. The page detailed accounts of the abuse endured by the child brides of the church.

This can’t be real, Max thought in horror. No. No, this is just a bad example. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never even heard of any of these families.

The paragraphs didn’t get much better as Max caught up to current events. Max found one less than ten years old, where an investigative reporter uncovered millions of dollars in financial fraud, going back to the church’s beginnings. Another paragraph detailed the arrest of several church members for covering up the crimes of a pastor. Crimes involving children of a terribly young age. Max involuntarily shuddered as she pressed on.

The next paragraph shed some light on why Max was forced to go to public school after her first six years of education; the academic credentials of the schools run by the church were revoked. The government had forced them to close, after their curriculum was found to be entirely based on the bible. The entry stated everything had come to light after a student ran away from the high school, which had placed him in a “punishment chamber” for hours at a time, for the offense of questioning the decision of a teacher.

Max finally found an entry that had been added over the summer. She read how Pastor Rogers had been arrested for assault and battery, after a young man had been beaten with a blunt instrument so severely that he required surgery. Max’s lip quivered as she went to the cited article and read about the boy who had confided in his “homosexual thoughts” to another teenager at her summer camp, and had been promptly reported and taken to the church for “treatment”.

The article used a word Max had never seen aimed at her church...

Cult.

The members are essentially brainwashed to believe numerous lies, such as...

... children, some as young as six, taught at a summer camp to...

...parishioners tithing as much as thirty percent of their income, leaving many on food stamps...

And then Max found the sentence that made her heart drop.

Pastor Michael Rogers’ attorney, Ryan Caulfield, made a statement to the press the afternoon following his client’s arrest...

Her dad was the lawyer defending the pastor who’d almost killed a teenager. For thinking he was gay.

Max closed the browser window and ran out of the library, straight for the closest bathroom. She found the closest stall and slammed the door shut, locking it behind her as she sat down.

And she cried.

Everything she thought she’d known was a lie.

Chapter Text

September 2011 (cont)

Max found Steph the next day, as soon as she could.

Max had barely been able to look her father in the eye, the night before. She was almost too terrified to go home, after reading the article, but she knew she didn’t have a choice. She made excuses about not feeling well, and went to bed early, right after dinner.

Once she got to lunch, she immediately went to Steph’s table and sat down across from her. “Hey, Max, what’s...” Steph started, then stopped as she saw Max’s face. “Are you okay?”

“No.” Max’s voice sounded hollow, even to her ears.

“You... oh, fuck.” Steph pushed her lunch out of the way and leaned forward. “You found out what happened, didn’t you?”

Max looked Steph in the eye. “I saw that kid at the camp I went to this summer,” she said, her voice quaking. “He was one of the junior counselors with me.”

“Aw, man.” Steph sighed. “I’m sorry, Max. I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I thought you knew.”

“Am I...” Max swallowed. “Steph, am I in a cult?”

The brunette hesitated, biting her lip before she answered. “I don’t know.”

Max sniffed and rubbed her eyes as she cast them downwards. “My dad is defending the Pastor who beat him. That teenager. I saw it on the news website.”

Steph’s eyes widened in surprise. “I didn’t know that.”

“Me either.” Max paused. “Steph...”

“What?”

Max glanced back at her. “You were right.”

“About what?”

“You know.” Max paused. “Before. And... I don’t know what to do.”

Steph hesitated and glanced around. “Max,” she whispered. “Max, you CANNOT tell anyone.”

“But-”

“Max, you’re not the only kid here from your church. I know a couple of others are, too.” Steph leaned back. “I know one for sure, but there are others, and I don’t know who they are. Max, if you tell anyone...” Steph swallowed. “I don’t want to see your name in the papers, too.”

It was too much. Max clenched her eyes shut as tears started to fall.

“Okay, get up. Come on.” Steph stood and grabbed Max’s shoulders, pulling the smaller girl out of her seat and leading her out of the cafeteria. She took her out an exit door and brought her under a tree, sitting her in the shade as Max cried.

“I’m sorry.” Steph sat next to her, between them and the exit door. “I didn’t mean... I’m sure your parents-”

“They were the ones who taught me all that stuff.” Max sniffled. “That all the gays were going to hell. And they’re trying to brainwash us, and... God, I don’t even remember.”

Steph bit her lip. “So are you...”

“I don’t know,” Max muttered. “... maybe?”

“And... Victoria?”

Max didn’t answer right away, whispering under her breath.

“Huh?”

“I said, she’s really pretty.” Max closed her eyes, her cheeks turning red.

“Well...” Steph leaned back into the tree. “You’re not wrong, I guess.”

Max snorted. “Thanks.”

Steph rubbed her back. “You’re welcome. And good to know my brainwashing powers are working,” she remarked. “Welcome to the army, recruit.”

Max barked out a laugh.

“Yep. I’ll have you doing my bidding before you know it. You’ll be cooking all my meals, doing my homework...” Steph turned to Max, who was still chuckling. “I’m gonna make you my little Dobby! You’re gonna be my house elf!”

Max looked at Steph, blinking. “A house elf? What is that? And who’s Dobby?”

“Oh, jeez, you’re not allowed to read Harry Potter, are you?”

Max sighed, turning her head back. “It promotes witchcraft and devil worship,” she replied morosely. “According to my mom, anyway.”

“Figures.” Steph leaned forward, making eye contact. “Look, Max...”

“What?”

“There’s a meeting, if you want to come, this afternoon.” Steph glanced at her watch. “We run a little LGBT group, under the radar. The school doesn’t know; we’re not registered or anything, except through the guidance counselor.”

Max glanced at Steph. “I don’t know if I should sign up for anything that-”

“There’s no records, and everything is kept quiet. Even the principal doesn’t know, it’s all word of mouth.” Steph nodded. “The guidance counselor doesn’t even go. She just gives us excuse slips if we need it.”

“Steph...” Max hesitated. “I don’t know...”

“Max, you can keep trying to work through this on your own, or you can talk to people who might have some insight.” Steph nodded. “Maybe you are, maybe not. But talking about it won’t hurt.”

Max sat silently for a moment. “When is it?” she finally asked.

Steph smiled and gave her the information.


 

At the end of the school day, Max made her way towards the back of the library. To meet up with the “Tabletop Gaming Club”.

Steph introduced her to the other three students. Two of them were boyfriends, who were in situations much like hers; their families weren’t with her church, but they were homophobic nonetheless. The third student was another senior, named Rachel Amber.

Though Max never gave any specifics about her parents, she talked about having a crush on another girl, and shared her fears of what her family might do if they found out. Rachel listened intently, and nodded as she reached into her purse.

“You should take this,” she said as she slid a slip of folded paper across the table.

“What is it?” Max frowned as she picked it up and opened it, revealing a phone number.

“It’s my phone number,” she replied. “My dad... he works for the city. If you need help, you can call me, and I can talk to my dad.”

Max took the paper and slipped it into her pocket. “Thanks,” she said quietly.

After her introductory meeting, Max started going to the club a couple of times a week. She mostly listened. Steph talked about the arguments she had with her mother, about whether or not liking girls was “just a phase” she would grow out of. The two boys, Nick and Andrew, always talked about how scared they would be if their parents found out they were more than just best friends. When Max did talk, she mostly tried to emphasize that she didn’t know if she was really gay or not.

“You’re still crushing on Victoria, aren’t you?” Rachel finally asked her during one of their meetings.

Max’s red face was the only answer they needed.

“Have you had a crush on any boys? At all?” Rachel asked next.

“No,” Max answered. “I mean, I’m not really allowed to date or anything, anyway...”

“What about Zach?” Nick asked.

Max furrowed her brow. “Who?”

“Zach Riggins? The school quarterback?” Nick clarified. “Absolute hunk of a man, incredibly dreamy, makes all the other girls soak their panties when he walks down the hall?”

“Do YOU want to hook up with him?” Andrew asked crossly.

“Hey, I’m just being descriptive.”

“Um...” Max thought. “Yea, no. I mean, he’s not ugly or anything...”

Rachel reached over and took her hand. “Max, maybe you’re gay. Maybe not.” She grinned. “But let’s be honest, it sounds like you’ve definitely got a little something for girls.”

She was the only one who had a good relationship with her parents; she was definitely out and proud. Max was, at times, especially envious of her. “Okay, maybe,” Max conceded.

“Enough with the pressure, all of you,” Steph scolded. “Look, Max, sexuality is confusing. Especially when you're young, and you have, like, zero experience.” Steph paused. “We can offer whatever opinions we want, but at the end of the day, you’re gonna have to figure it out for yourself.”

Max started sleeping a little easier after that. She still thought about Victoria a lot, but talking about it to Steph and the others made it a little better.

Maybe I AM gay? Max mused. It was getting harder and harder to shake off. Especially with how often she thought about the blonde girl.


 

She never asked her father about defending Pastor Rogers’ crimes. But she noticed how different he got as the trial progressed. Max watched him come home later and later, his temper getting shorter as the months passed.

Her parents never spoke of the trial, but Max followed it on the computers at school; from what she could understand, it didn't sound like Pastor Rogers was coming back. A new pastor, a man named Thomson, was slowly taking over the Wednesday and Sunday sermons as he became more and more active.

But the sermons didn’t change. The devil was everywhere. It was the church against the world. And homosexuality was still the greatest sin of them all.

“The gays shall be burned in a river of eternal hellfire!” Thomson chanted as the congregation applauded. “They will know the furious anger of our Lord, and they will be DAMNED to an eternity of suffering! For as our lord, the almighty God, sayeth in Leviticus: If a man lies with a man, as he does with a woman, both of them have committed an ABOMINATION! And they shall surely be put to death, for their blood is upon them!”

Max applauded with the others. But she did it with a heavy heart.

I could never say stuff like this to Steph, Max thought sadly. I’ll bet if they ever met her, they’d change their minds. She’s the nicest girl ever.

Chapter Text

November, 2011

“Dad, have you ever met any gay people?” Max asked at dinner one night, out of the blue.

Her father shifted his eyes to her as he slowly put down his fork. “No, I have not,” he replied icily. Max’s mother had lowered her fork as well, focusing her attention on her daughter. “Why do you ask?”

“I was just curious.” Max shrugged and turned her attention back to her spaghetti.

“Have you?” her mother asked harshly.

Max hesitated, slightly off-balance by her mother's tone. “Um, I think one of the girls at school is gay, but I-”

“Do not speak to her, do not approach her, and do not go near her,” her father interrupted. “You need to stay as far away from that girl as possible. Do you have any classes with her? If you do, we need to have them switch you.”

Max was completely taken aback. “Um, no. I’m not actually sure she’s-”

“I knew sending you to that school was a bad idea,” her father replied fiercely, ignoring her. “It's bad enough that those faggots and dykes are out in public, but now their spawn are taking over the school system. I think we need to consider pulling you out.”

“Dad!” Max’s eyes got wide. “I don’t know if she is or not!”

“Then why did you ask?” Max’s mother put her fork down. “Maxine, ARE there any gays at your school?!”

“I mean, yea.” Max glanced at her mom, too late realizing that she’d given the wrong answer as her mother’s nostrils flared in anger. “But I don’t talk to them!” she quickly added. “I remember what Pastor Thompson said! I don't want to have anything to do with them”

Her father stood, and Max noticed him shaking. She was starting to get nervous; he'd always been passionate, but she'd never seen him, or her mother, behave like that before. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied coldly. “There are too many temptations at your school.” He glared at her. “I don’t like that they make you wear those... WHORE clothes. I don’t like that they let you talk to boys freely. I certainly don’t like that-”

“I’m not talking to boys!” Max shot back. “I don’t even-”

It happened so quickly, Max barely saw it. She’d never seen her father’s hand move so fast.

She blinked, and before she could realize what was going on, she was on the floor, dazed, her ears ringing.

“DO NOT INTERUPT ME, MAXINE!” Her father shouted, though Max could barely hear him. She felt dizzy as she turned onto her side and tried to push herself up. Her dad grabbed her shoulders and yanked her to her feet, shaking her. Max was too terrified to pay attention as he screamed.

He was her father, the head of the household, and she was his child, she was to listen to him in all things...

Max barely followed any of it, between the ringing in her ear and the pain in her face.

She didn’t remember how she got back to her bedroom that night. She did remember her mother whispering to her as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling with an ice pack against her face.

Her mother spoke quietly, but with determination. She was going to make sure Max wasn’t pulled out of school. But she needed to tell people who asked that she tripped while walking down the stairs. Her father was very important to the church. And if she did tell people, she would get in a lot of trouble for fighting with her dad. Her mom would keep it a secret if she did. Max shouldn’t provoke her father anymore, either.

Max nodded blankly, her brain still not comprehending what had happened.

She didn’t get her first good look at her face until the next morning, when she went to the bathroom to brush her teeth. The bruise was not inconspicuous. It covered most of her cheek, and was an ugly purple and yellow.

My dad hit me.

Max blinked as she poked the bruise carefully.

No. It was an accident. He didn’t mean to. She brushed her hair so that it covered her face from a side view and finished getting dressed. He’s under a lot of pressure. I provoked him. I shouldn’t do that.

She was numb most of the morning, including her first few classes. She managed to avoid anyone she knew. When her Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Grant, asked what happened, she told her the truth; she’d fallen down the stairs the day before. Mrs. Grant nodded, and accepted her homework as she started class.

Max avoided Steph at lunch, but she couldn’t avoid the other girl for long. Max was walking down the hall to her next class when a hand came out of nowhere, bodily yanking her into the girl’s room.

“Ow!” Max yelped in surprise as Steph pushed her into a stall.

Steph slammed the door behind her and turned to face her. “What happened to your face?” she demanded.

“I- I-” Max stammered in surprise, trying to collect herself. “I fell down the stairs last-”

“No, you didn’t.” Steph’s eyes were on fire as she stepped in close. “Mrs. Grant might have brought your story, but I don’t. What happened?”

Max swallowed. “I’m not lying, Steph. I was going downstairs and I fell over.”

Steph grabbed her wrist and held her arm up, the sleeve of her shirt sliding to reveal her forearm. “And you only got a bruise on your face? Not your hands or arms, from trying to break your fall? You’re so full of shit,” Steph growled. “Did your parents do that to you?”

“... I had an accident,” Max replied nervously, pulling her arm back. “I told you, I fell down the-”

Steph slammed her fist into the stall in frustration, right next to Max’s head. Max immediately fell back onto the toilet, cowering and hyperventilating. The other girl’s face immediately flashed with regret as she put her arms up. “Max, I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“I fell down the stairs,” Max whispered back.

Steph didn’t reply. She just wrapped the girl in a hug as Max quivered.


Max made it through the rest of the day without incident, until Steph took her to the library after school ended. 

But it wasn’t the full group. It was just Rachel, sitting at one of the square, four-person tables. “Where are the others?” Max asked hesitantly.

“They’re not coming, Max.” Rachel scratched the back of her neck as Max sat down next to her. “I, uh... I want your help.”

“With what?” Max asked.

“Listen, you know your dad is defending that asshole pastor who almost killed that kid?” Rachel asked. Max nodded mutely. “Well, uh... my dad is the one prosecuting him.”

Max’s eyes shot up. “What?”

“Yea. I don’t talk about it, but my dad is the District Attorney.” Rachel nodded. “And... I think he’s about to lose the case.”

“How do you know?”

“We talk at dinner,” Rachel replied. “Basically, Max, he can’t really get anyone to admit that they saw the pastor beat the kid senseless. The one person who did give a statement just recanted, so it’s useless.”

“Even the teenager won’t testify,” Steph added as she sat down across from Rachel, with Max between them. “He’s totally brainwashed.”

“My dad needs something on the record.” Rachel leaned forward. “Something admitting that someone saw this happen, or someone planned it.”

“I don’t understand.” Max glanced between them. “I wasn’t there. I was at the summer camp when it happened. I didn’t even know about it until a few weeks ago.”

“Your dad was there,” Rachel said simply. “My father is 100% sure that your dad was involved.”

Max shivered. “My dad wouldn’t-”

“Yes, Max, he would.” Rachel nodded resolutely. “And you know he would, too.”

Max fell silent. “I can’t help you,” she finally said quietly.

Steph leaned forward. “Max, you HAVE to,” she replied. “Nobody else will. If you don’t, that pastor is going to walk, and he’ll go right back to beating the shit out of the other kids in your church.”

Max sat between them, her emotions torn.

“That asshole pastor almost beat a teenager to death.” Rachel reached across the table and took her hand. “If my dad tries him and fails, then fine. That’s the justice system. But if he tries him and fails because he didn’t have what he needed, then it’s on the people who knew about it and didn’t say anything.”

“Max, that prick almost killed a kid who he thought he might be gay.” Steph interlaced her fingers as she stared into Max’s eyes. “Are you really going be the one who lets him get away with it?”

Chapter Text

November, 2011 (cont)

Max’s heartbeat felt like a jackhammer as she crept down the dark stairs early the next morning. Oh, man, if my dad catches me...

Max didn’t want to think about that. She didn't want to imagine her father coming downstairs, while she was at the computer unsupervised, never mind going through his work. So she tried to focus on what Rachel had said.

“Emails, Max,” Rachel had explained. “My dad had his guys search the church’s computers, but they were all wiped by the time they got to them. I’ll bet your dad never wiped his, though.”

“Why can’t your dad just search them himself?”

“Because your dad is the pastor’s lawyer. No judge in the state will give my dad a warrant for his computer. But if he was to get them anonymously, then he can probably still use them.”

“Won’t my dad know if I send them to you?”

“You don’t have to. Just plug this into your computer, and…”

Max tried to remember her instructions as she made her way to her dad’s computer and turned it on, her heart rate going even higher as the tower came to life and started making noise. She quickly plugged in the flash drive Rachel gave her and opened her dad’s email program, dragging all of the messages into the disk.

The five minutes it took to copy everything was the longest of her life.

Max shut down the computer as soon as she finished, pulling the flash drive from the tower and sneaking back upstairs. She crammed it into the bottom of her backpack and crawled back into bed. It took almost an hour for her heart rate to drop back to normal levels.

She didn’t sleep the rest of the night, though. All she could do was think.

I don’t know if this is a good idea.

That was the only thing rattling around her head when she finally got up. And when she got ready for school. And as she rode the bus. All through her classes; she was barely able to pay attention to the teachers, staring numbly at the dry-erase boards without retaining any information.

She was still thinking about it as she made her way to the library, where Steph and Rachel were waiting on her with a computer at the end of the school day. Ultimately, Max handed over the flash drive without a word. Rachel snatched it, plugging it in.

“Holy shit,” she breathed as she read the emails.

“What?” Max sat in the chair next to her, not looking at the screen. 

“This is it.” Rachel’s mouth moved as she read the email. “Your dad was included in a mass email the pastor sent out a few days before the kid was beaten. The pastor wrote about how the evilness needed to be cleansed from the boy, talking about his homosexual desires. All the church Elders were summoned to witness it. And take part.”

Max hesitated. “Did my dad go?”

“According to the email he sent back, yea. He did.”

Max closed her eyes.

“There’s more.” Rachel kept going. “Your dad knew that mine was going to raid the church. He sent an email to the pastor the day before the police showed up. It linked to a web site that shows how to destroy everything on a computer. And he-”

“Rachel, maybe that’s enough,” Steph interrupted.

“Hmm?” Rachel turned her head and saw the tears rolling down Max’s face. “Oh. Uh, right. I’m just... gonna print these out.”

Max didn’t reply as she got up and left.


Seven days.

That was all it took for Max’s world to fall apart.

Max was at the dinner table when it happened, three days after she gave Rachel the flash drive, ignoring her parents again. She hadn’t spoken directly to her father since he’d hit her, and as far as she could tell, her parents didn’t notice. They were more than content to make small talk between themselves, until the doorbell rang.

The next thing Max knew, the police were in their kitchen. Her mother was screaming. Her father was yelling. A man in a suit read her dad his rights as police officers placed him in handcuffs and took him out of the house. Max and her mother were brought outside and placed on the porch for two hours while the police went through her house, taking away the computer and her father’s cell phone, along with a bunch of paperwork from his office.

Max didn’t sleep that night, either. She had the house to herself, as her mother had gone to speak to a few other parishioners. She spent the evening staring at the ceiling, sick to her stomach.

She didn’t find out until later how much trouble her father was in, when her mom came home from the meeting, angrier than Max had ever seen.

I did this. Max’s gut was tight, as she tried to sleep during the night. Oh, God, I did this. This was a mistake.

She didn’t go to school the next day. Her father didn’t come home, either. Her mother wouldn’t say what was happening, only that it was related to a client her dad was defending.

Max didn’t return to school until the following Monday. Steph was waiting for her when she got off the bus.

“Max-” she started as she approached her.

“Leave me alone,” Max replied angrily as she walked away, too upset to talk to anyone.

She avoided Steph all day. And Rachel.

Until they finally cornered her in the library.

“Max, the emails were exactly what my dad needed,” Rachel started. “He said-”

“The police showed up at my house during dinner!” Max interrupted. “They arrested my dad! He’s still in jail!”

Rachel fell silent. “I’m sorry, Max, I really am, but-”

Steph interrupted her. “They reported that they have the evidence to charge the pastor now,” she stated. “But they’re not going after your dad for anything serious, something about intent, or whatever.”

“No, they’re not.” Max folded her arms, glaring at Rachel. “He’s just being disbarred. My mom told me last week, after they took him away. Your father is reporting him to the state bar for ethics violations. He won’t work as a lawyer anymore.”

“What the hell do you care?!” Rachel glared. “Your dad helped cover up a hate crime. He probably helped beat the hell out of that boy. He hit you, for fuck’s sake, and don’t say he didn’t. Everyone knows you’re full of shit with your whole ‘I fell down the stairs’ story.”

“I live with him!” Max met her glare with one of her own. “You don’t have to! How is he going to provide for us now? My mom doesn’t work! Or what if he finds out that I was the one who gave you those emails?! Do you have any idea how much trouble I’ll be in?!”

“Max-”

“Did you know that he might get arrested if I helped you?!” Max demanded.

Rachel bit her lip and didn’t answer.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Max asked. “It is because you thought I wouldn’t do it if I knew what would happen to him?”

“Max. MAX.” Steph grabbed her shoulders. “Look, you have every right to be mad. But we’re trying to help you, I swear.”

“How?” Max shot back. “By making us homeless!?”

“By trying to keep you away from an abusive asshole!” Rachel replied harshly. “Your dad was trying to protect a dickhead who beat the shit out of a kid who was gay. And forget giving up his emails, what do you think he’d do to you if he found out you had feelings for Victoria? You know what your church does to gay teenagers, Max!”

Max bristled and yanked herself away from Steph’s hands. “I don’t need you two to protect me!” she growled back.

“Max, we just-”

“Fuck off.” Max turned on her heel and stalked out of the library. The other two girls quietly followed her out a couple of minutes later in silence.

None of them noticed the freshman girl in the next aisle. Or the dress she was wearing; the new girl’s parents had refused the principal’s demands for more sensible clothing. The girl had been standing still, silent, as she overhead the entire conversation.

And she knew what she had to do, to try and save the soul of an Elder’s daughter.

Chapter Text

November, 2011 (cont)

Max barely made it into the kitchen before her evening went to hell.

She didn’t even see her father before the fight started. She’d had no idea that he’d been released that morning. Or that her mother had gotten a phone call from the parent of another child who went to Max’s high school.

Max saw everything in eye blinks. She rounded the corner into the kitchen. Her father lashed out as soon as Max turned, with the initial slap to her face. Then the punch to her stomach, when her dad had held on the ground. Dragging her back upright. Screaming in her face as he shoved her into one of the kitchen chairs.

Max was crying with pain. Her mother was crying, too, but it was mostly for her daughter’s lost soul, as her husband screamed for answers. Max remembered babbling that she didn’t know what he was talking about. She denied everything.

Her father was having none of it. Max couldn’t tell what made him madder; that his daughter had been the one to report him, or that his daughter was having feelings towards another girl. When Max tried to deny the second accusation as well, her mother whipped her hand across Max’s face, screaming that she would be damned if she raised a whore AND a liar.

The second slap from her father was harder than the first. That was the one that drew blood from Max’s lip. It happened while she was in a chair, her father screaming for answers while Max cried too hard to give them.

It didn’t matter. They knew what she’d told her dyke friends in the library that afternoon. Max tried, again, to deny it, but her mother’s hands were around her throat before she could finish her sentence. She yelled while Max gasped for air. How dare she, their child, defy her parents. Their beloved pastor was not there, to make sure she paid for her wicked sins, but her parents would make sure she did. And how DARE Max put her hands on her mother’s arms, while she struggled to breath!

Everything else happened in a blur that Max could barely remember, afterward. At some point, a slap turned into a punch, and she fell out of her chair onto the floor. She was halfway to her feet when she received the first kick to her ribs. Everything after that was a mishmash of images and feelings, as her parents manhandled her around the kitchen. There were more slaps, and more punches, Max knew that. Her face felt swollen, her abdomen felt like it was on fire, and her throat hurt with every breath she took.

When her dad shoved her against the counter, Max was terrified. She had a very real fear that her family was going to kill her.

So when she saw the frying pan in the sink, she didn’t think. She didn’t hesitate. She didn’t consider another option. In her fear, she grabbed the handle and swung cooking utensil in an arc, as hard as she could.

The cast iron made contact with her father’s jaw, and he dropped to the kitchen floor.

Her mom screeched, kneeling next to her husband and shaking his shoulders. He didn’t reply; Max had knocked him out cold. Her mother glared at Max, with fire in her eyes, and stood back up, shrieking at her rotten, corrupted child, that she was going to pay for what she’d done.

Max dropped the frying pan and grabbed a knife from the butcher block on the kitchen counter, aiming it at her mother with shaking hands. The blade gave her mom pause.

Enough for Max to escape the kitchen, up the stairs, and into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. She barely managed to push the dresser over, tipping it sideways onto the floor and blocking the door before her mother got there. She started beating on the door, screaming that Max was going to burn in hell for her evil sins.

Max hyperventilated as she grabbed her duffle bag and threw some clothes inside, as well as anything she thought she’d need. Not willing to face her mom again, when Max was done, she picked up a candle stick and smashed her bedroom window, knocking all the glass out of the frame before she climbed out onto the roof to jump down.

It was almost nighttime now. Max realized she had completely lost track of time since she’d been home. She had no plan, other than to leave. And with her mother still yelling in the house behind her, Max took off down the street at a sprint.


It was several hours later that Max realized she had no idea where to go. She’d spent the entire evening in a local park, sitting on the bench. 

A public bathroom was nearby. Max washed up and finally got a good look at herself in the mirror. Both sides of her face was covered in bruises; her left eye was already starting to swell. Lifting up her shirt, Max saw the black and blue colors on her rib cage. She pushed into it gently; nothing felt broken, though it was incredibly painful. Her lip had stopped bleeding, but her face was still covered in the dried blood. Max used a wet paper towel to clean herself up as best she could, but she still looked like a boxer who’d gone several very rough rounds.

Afterwards, she’d sat back on the park bench, unsure of what to do.

She couldn’t go home, she knew that.

She thought briefly about Steph and Rachel, and disregarded them too. She didn’t want to see them. Ever again.

Victoria crossed her mind. But Max barely knew her, outside of the Quiz Bowl team. Max didn’t think she’d take kindly to the girl showing up unannounced on her doorstep.

Nobody nearby would help her, either. Everyone she knew was a part of her church. If they found out what she’d done, they’d just bring her right back to her father. That she’d just knocked out with a frying pan. And her mother, who looked like she was ready to kill her.

Maybe the police could help. But Max was terrified of them, too. Or what her father would do when he found her; Max knew he was a very good lawyer. She was terrified if she went to the police, her father would appear from thin air, doing whatever he did, and she would end up going home with him that evening. She knew stuff like that happened. She read the news stories, of police believing the abusers over the victims.

And she knew nobody in the Arcadia Bay Police Department took the members of her church seriously anyway.

So she made a decision. She shouldered her duffle bag, and walked four miles to the Arcadia Bay bus terminal. She had about forty dollars in cash. It wasn’t very much, but she was able to get on the last bus of the night leaving Arcadia Bay. She kept the hood of her sweatshirt up, to hide her face from the clerk as she purchased her ticket.

Climbing onto the bus, she shoved her bag in the overhead bin and curled up on a seat in the back.

She watched the lights of Arcadia Bay dim behind her with empty eyes.

Chapter Text

August, 2015

Four years is a long time for anybody. It’s even longer when you struggle almost daily to survive.

Being homeless was absolutely miserable. Max spent too many nights unable to find shelter, shivering in the cold as she huddled under a bridge to avoid the rain, breathing into her hands to stay warm. When the winter came, bringing the snow with it, and the homeless shelters filled up even faster. If Max was lucky, she could sometimes find an unlocked basement window or abandoned building, and hide from the worst of the elements.

Max had picked up a few things. Whether or not she could trust people was the hardest skill to learn. And she’d learned it the hard way a few times.

A trucker near Portland. He had seemed sketchy, but he was willing to give Max a ride. She didn’t find out what the price would be until later that night. She barely managed to convince him to let her use that truck-stop bathroom, escaping through a window.

Another runaway near Corvallis. She had seemed nice. At first. Max learned that the truly crazy ones knew how to hide their insanity very well from others. With only a few cuts and bruises for her trouble, Max was able to avoid her during a brief chase under a bridge.

A man in a nice car, on the highway near Sacramento. Luckily for Max, she’d been able to get her door open and throw herself out of the car when they weren’t going too fast. She’d convinced a free clinic to bandage her up and wrap her swollen ankle with a minimum amount of questions.

Some stuff, she’d learned by experience. Where she could scrounge food, for example; the dumpsters behind restaurants, or which ones might have sympathetic employees willing to part with some hot food at the end of a shift. Where she could safely sleep, be it a lonely ditch or a homeless shelter. How to defend herself; she had managed to procure a small Swiss Army knife, which she kept in her pocket at all times.

She’d learned all those lessons, and more. And she’d slowly made her way south, to San Francisco, and joined one of the largest communities of homeless people in the world.

Max liked it enough. It was chilly, for sure, but with a sweatshirt it was very bearable, even in the wintertime. And there were a lot more people her age, who were a lot more willing to take pity on the poor homeless girl while she panhandled.

She made okay money by begging, but it was risky work; she was threatened often, by other homeless people who were mad that she was on their corner. Or stealing their business, as more people took pity on the younger girl than the older men who were usually out panhandling. The cops, too, hassled her more often, especially when she set up near a more affluent part of town.

It was easier, and occasionally more profitable, to find some occasional part-time work. With a quick shower at a nearby shelter and some new clothes from a donation bin, she could still clean up well enough if she needed to. Which was how she found herself in a bar, talking to the manager about the HELP WANTED sign in his window.

“How old are you, exactly?” he asked.

“Twenty-one,” Max lied.

“You got any ID?”

Max shook her head.

“Look, kid, I can’t hire you as a bartender if you can’t give me some proof that you’re old enough to serve alcohol.” The man shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

Max bit her lip. “Do you have any other openings?” she asked desperately; she’d gotten hassled by the cops the other day, and hadn’t made any money. Her stomach was starting to growl. “Please, I really need the work.”

The man leaned back and scratched his beard. “Mmm... I do, actually. We need a barback.” He looked her up and down. “But it’s a lot of manual labor. I don’t know if you’ve got the muscle for it.”

“I’m stronger than I look.” Max nodded her head. “I’ve barbacked before. I can handle it.”

“Where?”

“At a strip club in Eugene, back in Oregon.” Max briefly recalled the offer the greasy manager had made for her to become a dancer, but Max hadn’t been that desperate. At the time, anyway. She’d also only just turned seventeen, and the fact that the man hadn’t bothered to ask her for an ID had been a big turn-off.

Also, it’s not like I have the body for it. After almost four years of living on the streets, not knowing where her next meal was coming from, Max had not exactly put on the curves men craved.

“Alright, then.” The manager nodded. “I’ll take you on. When can you start?”

“Immediately,” Max answered.

The manager chuckled and gestured to the mostly-empty bar. “I don’t really need you until the weekend, kid. This place is pretty dead until Friday night.”

It was Wednesday. That wasn’t going to work for her hunger. “I can do more than barback,” Max replied. “I can clean, bus tables, I’ll do whatever.”

The manager cocked his head. “You really are desperate for cash, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

He sat silently for a minute before he nodded. “I guess I can get you a couple hours worth of work tonight.” He glanced at the floor. “The closing shift didn’t do a great job cleaning the place. You can sweep up, and wipe down the bar top. You know how to clean beer taps?”

Max nodded.

“Ok. Supplies are in the closet in the back.” The manager gestured over his shoulder. “Go ahead and get started.”

“Thanks, thank you so much, I appreciate it.” Max nodded enthusiastically.

She spent the next two hours cleaning, following the instructions of her new manager, Patrick. She swept, cleaned the bar and the taps, sanitized the ice chest, everything Patrick asked her to do. And she did it well, if she said so herself; cleaning was an easy job to get, and it usually paid cash, so she was experienced.

“Nice work,” Patrick nodded as he handed Max a few bills for her time.

“Thanks.” Max stuffed them in her back pocket.

“Look, kid, I got no problem giving you cash for some busy work,” Patrick said. “But for your real job this Friday, you’re getting a check. Is that gonna be a problem?”

Max grimaced. She hated using check-cashing places; they took too much of a cut. But she didn’t have a choice. “Yea, that’s fine.”

“Cool.” Patrick nodded and glanced around. “Okay. You wanna come back tomorrow, same time, I’ll put you back to work again.”

Max allowed a small smile. “I appreciate it.”

She went straight from the bar to the closest McDonalds, grabbing a couple of cheeseburgers from their dollar menu before heading back to the shelter; she preferred to get back early, before they filled up for the night and she had to sleep in an alley again.

Max went back to the bar the next day, too, and as promised, Patrick gave her some more work cleaning. She was asked to do the bathrooms as well, which took a little longer and made her some more money.

“All done, Patrick,” she announced as she walked out.

Patrick turned from his conversation. “Oh, thanks, Max.”

“You need anything else?” she asked as she pushed the mop and bucket towards the closet, shoving them inside.

“No, good work today.” Patrick nodded. “I’ll get your money in a second.”

The man he’d been speaking with looked Max over. “Oh, hi there! Are you our new bartender?”

Max glanced at him, confused, not knowing who he was. “Uh... no?”

“She’s our new barback-slash-cleaning lady,” Patrick explained. “Max, this is Jacob Franklin. He owns the bar.”

“Jake, please.” He smiled and stuck his hand out. “Nice to meet you, Max.”

“You, too.” Max shook his hand. “This is your place?”

“This one, and a few others.” Jake nodded before he looked back to Patrick. “Anyway, I need to get going. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Later,” Patrick nodded. Jake turned and walked out.

“Seems nice,” Max commented as she closed the closet door.

“Jake? Oh, yea. Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, God’s truth.” Patrick nodded as he pulled a few more bills out of his pocket, handing Max her money. “Tomorrow, we’ll need you here at four. You’ll probably be working until closing, and the barbacks get a percentage of the tips, so you’ll make some good money. It’s hard work, though, like I said. You sure you’re up for it?”

Max scoffed. “I told you, I can handle it.”


Ok, I may be out of my depth here, Max admitted to herself. 

She’d been moving boxes of beer bottles for the entire night. Literally; as soon as she brought out a case and shoved them into the ice, both bartenders were grabbing them and handing them out. Max hadn’t realized the bar would get so popular, but it was absolutely packed.

It’s probably more like the fight that’s on, she figured. Max didn’t follow any organized sports, but the bar had some MMA competition on their TVs, and the guys (and a few of the girls) were getting really into it. It seemed like every few minutes, a loud cheer went up that Max could hear, even when she was breaking down the cardboard boxes outside.

She sighed and rolled her eyes as she tossed the cardboard in the pile and re-entered the back door, grabbing a new case of beer and stacking it. Intending to carry two of them at a time, she grabbed the bottom case and heaved while stepping backwards, lifting all forty-eight bottles.

And immediately felt herself start to slowly stagger backwards. Shit, shit... her arms quivered at the exertion, and she tried to slowly put the cases of beer down, but she couldn’t; she just felt herself slowly start to collapse backwards. SHIT!

A pair of hands immediately camped down on top of hers, and she felt the weight being lifted. “I got it, I got it,” a voice sounded, though Max couldn’t see who; the top box was right in front of her eyes. “Here, put it down slowly, okay?”

“Yea, okay, okay.” Max’s arms shaking, she helped the guy slowly bring it to the floor.

She stood, breathing heavily, and saw Jake standing in front of her. “You alright?” he asked, concern in his eyes.

“I’m... okay.” Max breathed. “I just... thought I could... sorry.”

“It’s all good.” Jake grabbed the top case and picked it up. “You’ve been going back and forth like a madman. Take a few minutes, catch your breath. I got these.”

Max didn’t have the energy to argue. She plopped down on a nearby box as Jake carried away the beer. He made three or four trips while Max took a break, squeezing her arms to massage the sore muscles.

“The fight’s almost over, I think it’s finally starting to calm down out there,” he stated as he sat down next to Max a few minutes later, holding a bottle of water in his hand. “You okay?”

“I’m good.” Max nodded. “Thanks for the save.”

Jake waved his hand dismissively. “You were busting your ass all night, figured you could use a break.” He handed her the water, and she snatched it and started drinking. “Pretty good workout, right?”

Max finished her drink before she answered. “No kidding,” she gasped, lowering the water. “Good way to burn calories.”

Jake smirked, rolling his shoulder. “You’ve barbacked before?” he asked. “Patrick said you had some experience.”

Max nodded. “Back in Oregon,” she replied. “Did it at a strip club for a few weeks.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

She nodded. “Got into town a couple of weeks ago,” she lied; it had been closer to a few months. “Still trying to find a steady job.”

“Well, hard as you work, I got no problem keeping you on the payroll.” Jake nodded, a grin on his face. “Anyway. You still good to move stuff around?”

Max nodded as she put the empty bottle down. “Yea. Just needed a minute.”

“Take a couple more, if you want.” Jake stood back up and grabbed another case of beer. “Grab some more Coors when you head back out, these guys are going through it like water.”

Max nodded and went back to work a few minutes later. Jake was right, the pace had definitely slowed down. The fights ended about thirty minutes later, and Patrick had her alternate between moving beer and cleaning up tables, wiping them down and gathering all the empty bottles strewn about.

She blinked and before she knew it, the bartenders did last call and started ushering people out. Patrick heaved a sigh of relief as he finally locked the door behind the last customer. “I fuckin’ hate fight night,” he griped. “Too many assholes.”

“We made some good money, though!” One of the female bartenders called out as she held up an overflowing tip jar.

Part of which is mine. Max allowed herself a small smile, though it vanished when she saw the clock on the wall. Oh, man! The shelter is closed! Shit!

“Yea, we did. Good work, guys.” Patrick nodded and started directing the clean-up, which took another hour; Max spent the entire time in the bathrooms, mopping everything up and wiping down all the surfaces, while the two bartenders and Patrick took care of everything else.

What the fuck is wrong with people leaving this kind of mess, Max wondered as she picked up trash on the floor and mopped the women’s bathroom. And how the fuck is there piss on the floor in here?! These bitches are shooting at point-blank range!

She cursed a lot more, after having spent so long away from home. But now she was mostly upset that she wouldn’t get to sleep inside.

“Good work, Max,” Patrick greeted her when she finally pushed the mop and bucket into the closet. The bartenders had already gone, and Patrick had one envelope left. She took it and felt the cash inside. “Check’s in the front, got about one-fifty in tips, too,” Patrick added.

Sweet!

“Awesome, thanks man.” Max smiled as she folded the envelope and stuck it in her back pocket. “See you tomorrow?” she asked hopefully.

“No, I have another barback lined up for Saturdays.” Patrick shook his head. “College kid who can’t work Friday nights. If you swing by Monday, though, I can put you to work cleaning again.”

“I’ll take what I can get.” Max shrugged as she slipped back into her grey hoodie. “Have a good night.”

She walked out the back door, grabbing her backpack from the ground outside; her duffle bag had long since worn itself out, and someone had finally stolen it the previous year. Max quickly jammed the money she’d made deep into the main pocket, then shouldered it and walked away from the bar.

Max hated sleeping outside, especially in the city; while it never got super cold in San Francisco, the pavement had a tendency to get chilly, which wasn’t comfortable. Plus, she was more likely to get hassled by people, like cops and the other homeless guys.

Not much choice tonight, though. God damn, I’m exhausted. Max glanced around and saw an alley with a dumpster not too far down the street. Good enough.

She made her way over, sitting so the dumpster was between her and the street, and curled her knees into her chest. Max slung her backpack around her front and wrapped her arms around it, so that nobody could just sneak up on her and grab it, which was how she’d lost her duffle bag. Patting her pocket to make sure her knife was still there, she nestled up to the dumpster, leaning her head against it as she tried to get comfortable.

I can get some real food tomorrow, she thought sleepily as she started to nod off. Mmm... Burger King...

Chapter Text

August, 2015 (cont)

When she slept in the street, she usually didn’t dream; Max had learned to sleep lightly. And when she did dream, they weren’t always good. Sometimes, she dreamed about her more... unpleasant memories.

Like the man in the nice car, near Sacramento.

“A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be walking to wherever you’re going.”

Max shivered in her subconscious just thinking about him. He seemed pleasant enough, and she figured anyone who dressed in a collared shirt with slacks couldn’t be too much of a creep. It wasn’t until she got into the car that she noticed how intently focused he was on her ripped jeans. Or the overwhelming scent of his cologne. Or how his tongue kept sticking out, licking his lips, like he was hungry.

But was bitterly cold. And pouring rain. And she was desperate for a ride. He hadn’t started getting weird until she’d been in the car for a few minutes.

“What are you doing so far from home?”

“I’m just trying to get back to town.”

“Yea? Back to your boyfriend? If he was a real man, like me, you wouldn’t be walking in the rain.”

“You know, this is actually close enough, you can pull over here.”

“No way, it’s raining way too hard. Still a few miles into town Just relax. You seem way too tense.”

“What are you doing?!”

“Just trying to help you relax, just calm down-”

“Let go of my leg! Let me- OW!”

“Listen here, sugar-tits, I’m going out of my way to give you a ride wherever you want to go, the least you can do for me is nibble on-”

“No! Let go of me!”

“Not until we get someplace nice, baby girl-”

“Fuck you!”

“That’s the plan, sweetie, but we’re gonna tease a little bit before we get there.”

“Stop the car! Let me the fuck out!”

“What are you gonna do, bitch? What are you gonna-”

Max had been desperate, indeed. The wind whistling past her head, the ground coming up quickly... luckily, the guy had slowed down to take a turn. And she’d mostly landed in the grass, which softened her fall. By the time he’d stopped the car, she’d been able to get up and hobble into the trees, dragging what was left of her duffle bag behind her.

She still remembered the look on the face of that nurse in the morning, when she’d seen Max sitting by the entrance to the free clinic. Covered in mud and dirt, soaking wet from the previous day’s rain, face covered in scratches, ankle swollen... she could only imagine that she looked like a swamp monster.

Max?

Fuck... was that him? No. No, he was gone. Max hadn’t seen him, not after she’d jumped free of his car. Unless... had he chased her into town? Had he followed her through the woods?

Max?

Whoever it was it was getting louder. Max struggled to identify it, before he got too close, but as she looked around, she couldn’t see the source of the voice.

“Max!”


 

She awoke with a start to someone’s hand on her arm. Max lashed her arm out, her self-preservation instincts kicking in, as she brought up her fist to punch whoever was grabbing her.

“Whoa, easy.” Jake stepped back, his hands outstretched in a calming gesture, a concerned look on his face. “Max? Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Oh, God... why is it him? Max struggled to regain control of her breathing before she answered. “Yea,” she replied, quickly standing up. “I’m fine.”

Jake blinked as she re-slung her backpack. “Were you sleeping out here?”

“I, uh, I just got really tired and wanted to sit for a minute,” Max lied. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. I was just leaving.”

“Max, Max, hold on, wait.” Jake reached out and put his hand on Max’s bicep.

Max instinctively flung him off again. “Please don’t touch me,” she said, still breathless.

Jake stepped back and lowered his hands. “Max, I’m not gonna hurt you, I promise. I just want to make sure you’re okay. I saw your leg sticking out, from behind the dumpster.” He gestured to the space she’d been sleeping in. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”

Dammit. “I’m fine,” Max replied. “I just... like I said, I wanted to sit for a minute. I’m gonna head home now." 

Jake gestured of the shoulder with his thumb, and Max saw a running pickup truck. “I can give you a ride,” he said. “You don’t need to walk.”

“I, uh...” Max shook her head. “I’m good.”

Please go away. She made to step around him, but Jake matched her and wouldn’t let her pass.

“Max, it’s almost three in the morning. I don’t want you running around the streets at this hour, it’s dangerous.” Jake gestured to his truck again. “I can give you a lift wherever you need to go. I’ll drop you at a corner, if you don’t want me to know where you live.”

“I don’t need a ride, I’m not that far away,” Max replied.

Please leave me alone.

“I’ll walk with you, then. Where are you going?”

Max shook her head. “I’m good, Jake. I’ll be fine.”

Jake looked her up and down, glancing at your backpack. “Max,” he asked hesitantly, “you do have a place to sleep tonight, right?”

“I said, I’m fine,” Max replied as she tried to get around him again.

Jake moved and blocked her again. “Max, I’m trying to help. I don’t want you to sleep on the street.”

“Please let me go,” Max replied quietly.

Jake stared at her, and sighed as he stepped back. “Max...”

“I’ll see you next week, Jake.” Max walked past him, heading towards the other side of the alley.

“Max. Max, wait.” She paused and turned her head back over her shoulder as Jake took a few steps to catch up to her. “Max, I’m sure you’re fine. You look like you can handle yourself.” He hesitated. “Do you... look. I have a guest bedroom at my apartment. I don’t use it, and you look like you need it.”

Max paused, trying to work out a reply.

“Max, if you don’t have a place to stay tonight, you can stay with me. It’s just one night.” Jake glanced her up and down. “You can get your clothes washed. And a shower.”

Max hesitated. “I... uh...”

“I’ll bet my spare bed is a lot softer than the pavement, too,” Jake added.

Max did miss sleeping in a bed. She’d gotten the offer before, over the last four years, to use a real bed. But there was usually a condition attached to it. One that she wasn’t eager to take anyone up on. And the beds at the shelter were shit; old, lumpy mattresses that, while better than the street, were hardly comfortable.

This was the first offer for her own bed. And Jake certainly wasn’t making it dependent on her doing something to him. She still hesitated, nervous.

“Max,” Jake gestured toward his truck. “Please.”

She gave in.

Shaking like a leaf from nervousness, she slowly walked up to Jake’s truck and climbed into the passenger seat. Jake closed the door behind her and walked back around to his side, getting in and buckling his seat belt.

Max didn’t reach for hers. She sat in the passenger seat, gripping her backpack with one hand, the other on the door. She watched Jake from the side of her eyes as he got in the driver’s seat.

He’s probably not a serial killer, she thought, as Jake put the truck in gear and drove. She had a flashback to the man with the nice car. He’s not being creepy, at least. And his hand isn’t on my leg.


 

Twenty minutes later, he pulled into a nice apartment complex. One with a gated entrance, which Max eyed nervously; it wasn’t too tall for her to vault over if she had to. “I live right up there,” Jake said as he pointed to the third floor of one of the buildings.

Max followed him up the stairs and into his apartment as he opened the door for her. She still clutched her backpack close with both hands, her heart hammering in her chest.

Please don’t let this dude have a sex dungeon, she thought, as she slowly made her way inside.

Jake’s apartment was devoid of anything resembling a sex dungeon. It was very orderly, with everything neatly put in it’s place. A brown leather couch sat facing a big-screen television with a gaming system. His kitchen table and chairs were clean, a few unopened letters being the only mess she could see.

She jumped as Jake closed the door behind her. He held up his hands. “You can leave whenever you want, Max. It’s okay.”

Max nodded, still nervous.

“The, uh, guest room is down the hall.” Jake pointed. “The shower’s right there...” he hesitated. “Do you have any clothes to sleep in?”

She shook her head.

“Okay... gimme a second.” Jake ducked through a door into what Max assumed was his bedroom.

Max took a couple of minutes to look at the pictures he had on the wall. It looked like they were mostly friends, all of them guys his age, and a couple of girls; no one consistent girl, so she guessed he didn’t have a girlfriend. One picture showed him wearing a camouflage uniform in a desert, standing with a bunch of other guys in matching uniforms. They wore helmets and vests, and carried rifles, holding them up as they smiled for the camera.

He was in the Army? Max relaxed a little bit. Ok... maybe he’s not a serial killer.

Jake emerged from his bedroom, a black shirt and grey sweatpants in his hand. “Here, you can sleep in these,” he said as he held them out to her. He had a mesh bag in his other hand. “You can put your dirty clothes in here, if you want. I can run them through the washing machine-”

“I won’t sleep with you.” Max blurted out.

Jake blinked. “Okay. I, uh, wasn’t going to suggest it. Or ask.” Max didn’t reply, still looking at him warily. He finally sighed, after a few seconds. “Max, if that’s why you really think I brought you here, then you will be happy to know that I am very, incredibly gay.”

Now it was Max’s turned to blink. “Really?”

“Yea. Like, you are so far from my type it’s not even funny.” Jake smirked. “Unless you can transform into a lumberjack.”

“Oh.” Max felt a little better, but she still kept her guard up.

“Yep. So, now that we’re established that...” he extended the clothes again. Max took them from him with shaking hands. “You should probably shower first,” he added as he handed her the mesh bag. “I, ah, don’t want to insult you, but you kind of smell like garbage.”

He wasn’t wrong. Max took the mesh bag from him, too. “Thanks,” she said quietly.

“You’re welcome.” Jake nodded. “The, uh, towels in there are already clean. Let me know if you need anything else, okay?”

Max entered the bathroom and quickly stripped her clothes, shoving them into the bag while she turned the water on.

She didn’t get out for over twenty minutes. The showers at the shelters she visited were miserable. The water pressure was funky, the water was only hot for a few minutes, and the shower floors were filthy; Max usually wore a pair of socks, scrubbing as quickly as she could with bargain-bin soap. If soap was even available that day. The towels were equally gross, itchy things that were often ripped and stained.

Jake had actual shampoo, like the kind Max hadn’t used in years. She tried not to use too much, but getting her hair lathered and clean felt amazing. Same with the soap; he had a pump bottle full of scented body wash, not a dispenser with weird yellow gel that barely lathered at all. And the hot water felt great on her skin, especially without someone yelling at her that she was taking too damn long.

When she stepped out and finished toweling herself off, she almost felt human again. She pulled on the sweat pants and the too-large shirt before she walked outside.

“Feel better?” Jake asked, standing at the kitchen table as he read through his mail.

“Yea.” Max’s face reddened. “Sorry. I, uh, didn’t mean to take so long.”

“It’s alright.” Jake nodded at the mesh bag in her arms. “Is that all your clothes?” Max nodded, and Jake took the bag from her and walked through the kitchen. Max heard a washing machine start up a minute later. “Are you hungry?” he asked as he came back out.

She shook her head.

“Okay. Well, if you change your mind...” Jake thumbed at the fridge.

“I, uh... I’m just pretty tired,” Max replied.

“Right.” Jake nodded and tossed his mail aside. “Yea, it’s kind of late, isn’t it? The guest room is down there,” he said, indicating the hallway. “Like I said, let me know if you need anything, okay?”

Max nodded as she walked towards the guest room, shutting the door behind her as she took it in. It was simple and plain; a bed with a night stand, an empty closet, and a lamp. She set her backpack on the floor by the door and crawled under the covers, savoring the feeling of real sheets and a soft mattress for the first time in years.

She tried to stay awake, listening to make sure Jake wasn’t going to sneak in behind her and go psycho. But she was so tired, and the bed so soft, that she was unconscious within twenty minutes.

Chapter Text

August 2015 (cont)

When Max woke the next morning, she felt... indescribable.

Even when she’d slept at one of the shelters, her sleep had been light; while the conditions were better than the street, the terrible mattresses and flat pillows did not really make for comfortable sleeping. She woke up after only a few hours, usually feeling sore and tired.

But she actually felt rested. Fully rested, for the first time in years. Max blinked as she rolled onto her back, looking around Jake’s guest room before her eyes settled on a clock mounted to the wall. Twelve o’clock? Shit. I slept all morning.

Max got up and opened the door to the sounds of Jake moving in the kitchen.

“You’re awake!” Jake smiled as he poured a cup of coffee. “I thought you were going to sleep all day. How are you feeling?”

“Good,” Max admitted quietly as she padded into the living room.

“Cool. Are you hungry?” Jake gestured to a box of cereal. “I was just about to eat.”

Max’s stomach growled at the mention of food.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’, then.”

Max ate two bowls of cereal while Jake munched on his, eating with one hand as he scrolled through his phone with the other.

“Thank you,” Max finally said as she finished.

Jake glanced up. “Hmm?”

“For, uh, letting me stay the night.” Max paused. “I appreciate it. And breakfast, too.”

Jake nodded. “Well, nobody should ever have to sleep on the street.” He put his phone down. “Do you... uh, do that often?”

Max hesitated. “Only if I have to,” she finally replied.

“So you don’t have anyplace to go, do you?”

Max shrugged. “I got out of work too late last night, to go to the shelter on 3rd Avenue,” she said quietly. “I usually sleep there.”

Jake didn’t reply. He got up after a couple of minutes. “You want some coffee?”

Max nodded, and Jake poured two cups, setting one in front of her. He took the seat beside her. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Twenty-one.”

Jake looked her in the eye, gauging her answer. “No, really.”

Max glanced back at him. “Is it... like, really obvious?”

“No, but I’m intuitive. Plus, I own a bar, so it's not like you're the first kid to try and convince me they were twenty-one.”

Max shook her head, sighing. “Nineteen. Almost twenty.”

“And how long have you been, you know, homeless?”

“Almost four years.”

“You’ve been on the street since you were... fifteen? Sixteen?” Jake’s eyebrows raised. “What happened?”

“Sixteen. And, uh... a lot of things.” Max scratched the back of her neck uncomfortably.

“Hmm.” He sipped from his cup. “You don’t have any family, or anyone to stay with?”

A flood of memories came back to Max, her father screaming.

...ABOMINATION...

...HEATHEN...

...UNNATURAL...

“No,” Max slowly shook her head. “No family.”

“Friends? Anyone?”

Max shook her head again.

“Do you... want to talk about it?”

She shrugged and sighed. “I turned my dad in to the police for conspiracy to cover up a crime, and he got disbarred. Then he found out I was the one who turned him in. And also, that I like girls.” She looked back at Jake. “So he tossed me around the kitchen until I knocked him out with a frying pan, ran to my room, grabbed what I could, broke the window, and left.”

Jake blinked and leaned back in his chair. “Wow.”

“Right?” Max nodded.

“Okay...” Jake leaned back. “Look, Max, I know you don’t know me very well.” He paused. “Or at all, really. Except that I’m gay and not creepy.”

Max smirked involuntarily as she looked back at her coffee.

“But, you work for me. Well, you work for Patrick, but you work for me indirectly.” Jake took another sip of his coffee. “I don’t really like one of my employees not having a place to stay. So... if you want to stay here until you figure stuff out, you’re welcome to the guest room.”

Max blinked. “Are... are you serious?”

Jake shrugged. “Somebody might as well use it,” he mentioned, drinking more coffee. “You’re the first person to sleep there in months.”

Max still hesitated. “Why?” She asked. “You don’t know me. I’ve worked for you for, like three days, and I don’t think the first two really counted.”

Jake put his mug down. “Max, nobody should be forced to sleep on the street,” he replied. “Believe it or not, I’ve been where you are.”

“Really?”

Jake nodded. “My parents kicked me out right after I graduated high school. The old man didn’t particularly care to have a gay son. I spent a few weeks living in a shelter in Dallas.” He smirked. “If it wasn’t for the Army, I’m not sure what I would’ve done.”

“Yea, I... saw the pictures on the wall.” Max nodded towards the photos. “You were in Iraq? Afghanistan?”

“Iraq. One-and-a-half tours with the 101st.” Jake chuckled. “Would’ve been a full two, but...” he pulled up his right pant leg, revealing a prosthetic limb.

“Oh, wow.” Max couldn’t help but stare. “What happened?”

“I got shot in the foot with an RPG while walking through Mosul.” Jake dropped his pant leg back into place. “But I digress, Max. You’re clearly a tough kid, but you look like you could use a hand.”

Max drummed her fingers on her mug and didn’t reply at first. “I, uh... well, I’m... definitely... not really in a place to turn down some help,” she muttered, biting her lip. “I, um, don’t have a lot of cash for rent or anything. I got about a hundred bucks or so from-”

Jake was already waving his hand. “I know, I know. Look, you’re not really going to make a lot of cash barbacking a couple of times a week. Plus, Patrick’s bar is pretty far away, and I can’t always get you over there. Would you rather work as a waitress?”

Max glanced back up. “I did, for a couple of weeks, last year.”

“Well, I own half of a Mexican restaurant about three blocks away.” Jake gestured out the door. “You’ll make more money there anyway, and they just lost two waitresses last week. Do you think you’re up for it?"


Max took the job. Jake introduced her to Maria, the half-owner-slash-manager of Maria’s Kitchen, and the woman took an immediate liking to Max, on account of her previous experience. And her sobriety. After a quick orientation, she arranged to bring Max on as a regular waitress. 

She also accepted Jake’s offer. The two of them spent that first day talking. Max shared a little of what she’d gone through, and Jake helped her come up with some ideas to get her life back on track. They also came to a living arrangement; Max would pay a small amount of rent, to help offset the cost of her food and the utility increase, and she could claim the guest room as her own.

It still took a few days for her to unpack her backpack. She was too worried that Jake would decide he’d made a mistake, and negate the deal.

But Patrick was right; Jake was the nicest guy she’d ever met, and he set about helping her almost immediately. The first thing he did, after listening to the full story behind Max’s escape from Arcadia Bay, was call a friend who was a lawyer and set up a meeting.

“I don’t understand why I need one,” she said to Jake after he hung up the phone. “I don’t think I broke any laws.”

“Max, you were acting in self defense, but you still assaulted your dad,” Jake pointed out. “Plus, you were probably reported as a missing person back in Oregon. The police may even think you’re dead. We need to make sure you’re safe to poke your head back up without getting arrested for something stupid.”

The lawyer came to the apartment the next day, and Max explained everything; stealing her dad’s emails, the assault, and running away from home. The lawyer listened, took notes, and asked a few questions.

“It sounds like you should be fine,” she stated as she closed her notebook. “You weren’t obligated to protect the pastor like your father was, you clearly acted in self defense, and being a missing person isn’t a crime. But I’m going to make some phone calls to a few colleagues in Oregon and make sure, before you do anything.”

She called back a couple of days later, and informed Max that she was not a fugitive. She had been reported as a Missing Person, but the lawyer said that it was up to her whether or not she had that fixed. Since she wasn’t an active case, she wasn’t obligated to report to the authorities back in Oregon that she was alive.

While the lawyer worked, Jake helped Max get a copy of her birth certificate online, since she had neglected to grab hers before she ran away. “I never figured I’d get this back,” Max remarked as pulled the certificate it out of the envelope and examined it, while they sat at Jake’s kitchen table.

“You can do everything on the internet these days.” Jake shrugged. “It’s good that you have it, though. You’ll need that to open a bank account.”

“Never had one of those before.” Max put the envelope away. “Well, at least I didn’t have to go back to Oregon to get it. Really wouldn’t have cared to interact with anyone back home.”

“Max...” Jake hesitated. “You know people are still looking for you, right?”

Max raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? How do you know?”

Jake nodded. “I, uh, Googled you a few days ago.” Jake opened up his laptop and started typing. “Just to make sure you weren’t, you know, a fugitive serial killer or anything. But I found this as the very first entry.”

Max looked at the website Jake showed her, which had her picture posted on top; she was wearing her old Quiz Bowl t-shirt, smiling at the camera while she flashed a peace sign. “What the hell?” she breathed as she scrolled through it. “Maxine A. Caulfield, born 1995, missing since 2011. Last seen... holy crap, what is this?” Max read the rest of the paragraph. “This looks like a missing person’s poster.” 

“I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.” Jake nodded. “It links to a Facebook page that’s pretty much the same thing.”

“Well, I’m certain my parents didn’t make this for me.” Max leaned forward as she kept scrolling. “After everything I did, between ratting out my dad and holding a knife on my mom, I’m pretty sure they don’t want me back.”

“No, it looks like someone else put it together.” Jake pointed to the bottom of the page. “Do you know a Rachel Amber?”

Max’s face clouded over. “Yea.” She pushed the laptop back to Jake.

“Well, that’s a reaction.” Jake took the computer back. “Who was she? Old girlfriend?”

Max sighed. “Definitely not. She was the girl who convinced me to steal the emails from my dad’s computer. The ones that put that pastor away. She neglected to mention that my dad would get in trouble too, though.”

“Looks like she feels pretty guilty about it.” Jake clicked on the link and brought up the Facebook page. “Her and another girl share this page a couple of times a month. What about a Stephanie Gingrich? You know her, too?”

“I went to high school with them.” Max looked over his shoulder.

Max will turn twenty next month. She might be somewhere in Portland or Corvallis. If you see her, please call... Max, these girls are still looking for you.” Jake pointed to the screen. “They shared this status last week with about four hundred people.”

Max didn’t reply.

“Do you want to send them a message?” Jake asked. “We can-”

“I... don’t really want to talk to either of them right now.” Max shook her head.

“Okay.” Jake nodded as he closed the window. “We can deal with it later.”

He never mentioned it again. He brought Max to the bank the next day and helped her set up a checking and savings account. No credit card; he said they’d work on that later. But for now, she didn’t have to take her paychecks to a check-cashing business. She had them directly deposited into her account.

Max started accumulating money in quantities she hadn’t before. She was used to getting a few twenties at a time, maybe a couple of hundred on a good day with a quick part-time job. Between her first paycheck and her tips in cash, she found herself with close to seven hundred dollars and no idea what to do with it all.

At Jake’s suggestion, she stashed some of it away in her savings account. The rest she spent on expanding her wardrobe. After a few paychecks, she wasn’t wearing the same four outfits over and over. She also brought the comforts she hadn’t been able to get in years; proper shampoo and conditioner, a new toothbrush, and quality feminine products (not the discounted and expired bargain brands that were donated to shelters).

She began to feel more and more like a real person with each purchase.

Chapter Text

September, 2015

One night, on her way home after work, Max entered a convenience store to buy a drink. She was walking towards the cash register when she paused in front of the magazine stand, looking at a copy of Vogue. She’d read one when she was in high school, but her father had expressly forbidden them in the house; apparently reading the magazine didn’t meet his standard of “acceptable behavior”.

Max stood there for a couple of minutes, admiring it, before she brought a copy. But as she kept walking home, she felt more and more guilty about her purchase. I’m supposed to be saving money, not spending it on trivial shit, she thought miserably. Crap... and I can’t return it, either. Jake’s gonna be mad at me...

She walked into the apartment and sat on the couch next to Jake, who was focused on a football game on TV. “Who’s winning?” she asked quietly, as she sat next to him.

Jake looked at her curiously. “You following football now?”

“No.” Max bit her lip, deciding to confess and get it over with. “I, uh, brought a magazine on the way home.”

Jake looked at the plastic bag in her hand. “Yea? Anything good?”

Max furrowed her eyebrows. “Vogue.”

“Ah. Well, you know the whole ‘gay people are into fashion’ bit is one of the stereotypes I don’t fall under, so that’s all yours.” Jake went back to the game and sipped his beer. “Let me know if you decide to take up reading gun magazines.”

“I, uh...” Max blinked. “You’re not mad?”

“What?” Jake turned back to her, confused. “Because you brought a magazine? Why would I be? Did you steal my credit card or something?”

“No, I... because I’ve been trying to save money, and-”

“Hell, Max.” Jake shook his head. “You’re allowed to spend some cash on yourself, too. Life isn’t worth living if you don’t have a little fun.” He paused. “Here; what have you always wanted to really buy?”

“What?”

Jake muted the football game and turned to her on the couch. “What have you always wanted, Max? All the time you spent living with your repressive-as-shit family, there must have been something you really wanted to get for yourself. Nice jacket? New shoes?” he shrugged. “Come on. What’s your guilty pleasure that you were always denied?”

Max thought for a minute before she came up with her answer.

The next day, after her shift, Jake drove her down to a cell phone store and helped her set up a contract for her new cell phone.

There was some trouble, initially, because Max didn’t have a credit score; the store was less than enthusiastic about letting her set up a payment plan for a smartphone without one. Finally, tired of going back and forth, Jake put down his card and told the guy to charge it.

“No way! Jake, that thing is, like, six hundred bucks!” Max protested. “You can’t-”

“I can afford it, and shut up.” Jake took the phone from the counter and pressed it into Max’s hand. “Happy early birthday.”

The associate looked extremely uncomfortable as Max started tearing up in the store, thanking Jake while hugging him. It was the first birthday gift she’d gotten in four years.


February, 2016

Even after the cell phone, Max had never actually considered how much money Jake actually made, until she’d been living with him for a few months.

Max and Jake had fallen into an easy routine for food by then. They weren’t always in the apartment for dinner, since Jake didn’t have any set hours and Max’s shifts varied from week to week, so the arrangement they had was that the first person home would cook. More often than not, it fell to Jake during the week. Max usually cooked on Fridays and Saturdays, since Jake often worked late when the bars and restaurants he owned were busy. Since Jake usually took Sunday off, and Max usually worked short shifts that day, they usually ordered out, either pizza or Chinese.

One such Sunday, Jake ordered an extra pizza pie. “You feeling hungry?” Max asked after he hung up.

“We’ve got a dinner guest coming over,” he answered.

“Oh?” Max wiggled her eyebrows. “Hot date?”

Jake scoffed. “I’m getting laid about as often as you are these days, Max. No, she’s my business partner, of sorts. We’re fifty-fifty owners of three restaurants, and we’re looking at buying a fourth.”

Max’s eyebrows arched up. “That sounds expensive.”

“It can be.” Jake shrugged. “We’ve been putting together some money to help get a bank loan for the past few months, and we’re finally in a position to make a decision.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Yea, it’s not.” Jake smirked. “It’s probably gonna be pretty boring conversation for you to listen to, honestly. I’ve been told that when Penny and I get going, we start sounding like the parents from those old Charlie Brown cartoons.”

“Never watched them.” Max shrugged.

“Really?”

Max rolled her eyes. “Cartoons lead to temptations... or something equally dumb, I can’t remember.”

“Well, add it to your list,” Jake said, referring to what they called Max’s Pop Culture Catch-Up List. She’d started it, in an attempt to get up to speed on the cultural references that her family hadn’t allowed her to read or watch. “Near the bottom, though,” he clarified. “They’re not THAT important.”

When Penny knocked on the door about twenty minutes later, Max was the one to answer it. A blonde woman around Jake’s age stood in front of her, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. “Wow, you must be Max!” she said enthusiastically as she walked in. Before Max could react, Penny wrapped her up in a bone-crushing hug. “It’s so nice to meet you!”

“Urgh...” Max grunted, unable to move.

“Penny, heel.” Jake called from the kitchen.

The blonde released Max. “Sorry, Jake says I hug too hard.” She smiled wide. “He talks so much about you, it’s so nice to finally meet you in person!”

“Nice to meet you, too.” Max managed a half smile as she massaged her arms. Geez, she must work out like a maniac for that kind of arm strength.

Penny wound up being incredibly nice, chatting with Max while they waited for the pizza to arrive. Jake brought out some beer, and the three of them spent about ten minutes making small talk until the pizza arrived.

Once they sat down to eat, though, it was all business. Jake was right, Max was barely able to follow anything they said while they discussed profit margins, demographics, equity, loans... Penny had brought several files in her purse, and Jake broke out his iPad while they talked for over an hour. From what little Max WAS able to follow, they were deciding on the location they wanted to buy and what kind of restaurant they would be setting up.

“The best location is here, we can agree on that,” Penny explained after Max asked. She slid over a map of San Francisco and tapped a section of the city. “The old owners went upside-down on their loans, and the bank took it back. They’re offloading it at a good price, too. What we can’t decide on is the kind of restaurant we want to open there.”

“Italian,” Jake called out from the kitchen as he got more beer. “It’s almost impossible to go wrong with Italian. It’s popular with every demographic, pasta and pizza are stupidly cheap to make, and it's one of the most-frequented cuisines in the world.”

“Yea, which is why the previous owners went with it.” Penny rolled her eyes. “But they did a crappy job, and they failed. I think opening another Italian place at the same location is a bad idea; people will remember that the last Italian place sucked, and we’ll hit the ground with a bad reputation.”

“We can work around that.” Jake came back with the beer, handing Penny and Max new bottles. “With the right marketing, of course.”

“Yea, we could, or we could go in a different direction, to make sure we completely separate ourselves with the last business that owned that building, and we won’t have to spend the extra money.” Penny looked back at Jake. “Hispanic food has a lot of the same perks as Italian, and that part of town is almost forty percent Latino.”

“This is California. You throw a rock, you’ll hit three or four Mexican places.” Jake indicated the map. “We go your route, we’re competing with an established Latin restaurant down the street, plus the Taco Bell two blocks over.”

“Taco Bell is NOT real Mexican food.”

“It’s faster, cheaper, and close enough.”

Max interrupted them. “So what are you guys going to do?”

“Well, we’re definitely going to buy it, that’s for sure.” Penny looked at Jake. “You have your half together?”

“Yea. I’m gonna transfer the seventy-five grand into the account tomorrow morning.” Jake sipped his beer.

Seventy- did he just say seventy-five GRAND? Max could barely stop her jaw from dropping. Seventy-five THOUSAND dollars?! He has that kind of money? And he’s so casual about spending it?!

“Good, mine’s already in there. That should be more than enough to get the bank to grant us the loan we need.” Penny nodded, oblivious to Max’s reaction. “Renovations will take at least a month, so we’ll have at least another week to puzzle out what we’re going to do food-wise.”

“Yea.” Jake leaned back. “We’ll figure something out.”

“You think about the other thing we talked about?” Penny asked.

“Yes. I’m still thinking about it.” Jake scratched his nose. “I have some concerns, but it might be a good idea. I still want to meet with my lawyer, ask a few questions.”

“Fair enough.” Penny finished off the last of her beer and took the new bottle, unscrewing the cap. “So, Max, no more ignoring you. Where did Jake find you?”

Max managed to pick her jaw up off the ground. “Um... sleeping behind a dumpster?”


“You’re rich.” 

Max stated it simply the next morning over breakfast, as the two of them ate their cereal.

Jake gave her a weird look. “That’s... kind of an odd way to start a conversation, don't you think?”

“I’m sorry, I just...” Max hesitated. “I mean, I figured you were well enough off. I just didn’t think you were rich enough to drop seventy-five thousand dollars like it was nothing.”

Jake barked a laugh. “Trust me, Max, that’s not ‘nothing’. That’s a sizeable chunk of profits from my businesses. I could be doing a lot more productive things with that money before I gambled on a new venture.”

“How many businesses do you own, exactly?” she asked curiously. “It seems like you’ve got a few of them, besides Patrick’s bar and Maria’s Kitchen.”

Jake looked up in thought. “Kind of a tricky one to answer. I’m a fifty-fifty owner with Penny on three of them, and four more I own myself. I’m also a part owner of a couple other places, like Maria’s Kitchen; your boss owns the other half. I invested to help start it up.”

“Patrick’s bar?” Max asked for clarification.

“That’s one of the ones I own outright.”

Max considered his answer. “How do you just... buy a business?”

Jake leaned back in his seat. “It’s kind of complicated. The short version is that I managed to finagle a loan from the bank after I was retired from the Army. Some kind of grant, where the bank got part of the loan subsidized because I was a veteran. I used that money to buy a bar, and it did very well; I was able to pay the bank back fairly quickly. Then I used the bar as collateral for another loan, and brought a second bar, Patrick’s. The rest, as they say, is history.”

“That sounds really simple.”

“It’s not. It was a very complicated process, and I was terrified of failing the entire time.” Jake shrugged. “There was not a small amount of luck that I’m as successful as I am today. There were a number of places where it all could have gone south.”

“Why do you live in this apartment then?” Max gestured around. “I mean, it’s a nice enough place, but you must be able to afford someplace nicer. And a newer truck, too.”

“I like my beater. Don’t knock it.” Jake chuckled. “You sound like Penny, too. She actually paid cash for her condo, and drives a brand-new Prius.” He sighed. “Honestly... I feel kind of guilty for the money I have.”

“Why?”

“Because there are people that need it a lot more than me.” Jake shrugged. “I donate a lot of money away. I keep what I need to live comfortably enough, and stock some away to expand my little business empire, but that’s it.”

Max bit her lip as she considered his answers. “So what was the other thing Penny mentioned?”

“Oh, you caught that.” Jake leaned back. “She wants to join forces.”

“Huh?”

“Incorporate, basically. Form a joint company.” Jake nodded. “She owns a fair amount of her own businesses. A few restaurants, but also a car dealership and two beauty parlors. We’re pretty close, equity-wise, and we work really well together. Combining our assets gives us more money to play with, and more more flexibility to grow.”

“And... you don’t want that?”

Jake scoffed. “I want that very badly. But I’m not going to run into it without knowing everything. Penny and I are serious about it, but we’re both talking to lawyers and accountants before we make our final decision.”

“Mm. I guess that makes sense.” Max paused. “Sounds like a lot of paperwork, too.”

Jake laughed. “You have no idea.”

Chapter Text

May, 2016

True to his word, a couple of months later Max saw Jake going over a stack of paperwork close to an inch thick. He explained that they were financial records; a hurdle towards combining his and Penny’s assets. For the week he spent going over them, Jake barely left the apartment, or the kitchen table.

A couple of months after that, Jake invited Max with him to a restaurant they’d never been to before. “We pulled the trigger,” he explained on Friday night as they left the apartment.

“You what now?”

“Penny and I met with the bank this morning and finalized everything,” Jake explained. “Lawyers will have to file paperwork with the city, but we’ve successfully formed Franklin-Seymour LLC.”

Max raised her eyebrows. “You guys just combined your last names?”

“We couldn’t agree on anything else.” Jake shrugged as they got in the truck. “We’re going to celebrate at Riccardo’s.”

“What’s that?”

“One of our other restaurants we’re fifty-fifty on.”

Max frowned. “I’ve never heard you mention it.”

“It’s Penny’s baby. She manages it most of the time.” Jake started the truck and pulled out of the lot, driving towards the highway. “If you haven’t figured it out, she prefers to run higher-class establishments. Not as many properties, but more revenue.”

Max looked down at her khaki pants and blue t-shirt. “Um... am I dressed for this place?”

Jake indicated his blue jeans and red flannel shirt. “Neither of us are. But we own them. They’re not gonna give us any shit. We’ve got a private dining room anyway.”

When they got to Riccardo’s, they saw Penny was also dressed casually. “You’re really shooting for that lumberjack vibe, aren’t you?” she teased Jake as they walked in.

Jake shrugged in response. “You know what they say, dress for the man you want.”

Penny looked down at her jeans and hooded sweatshirt. “So what kind of man am I dressed up for?”

“Someone who thinks Axe Body Spray is classy,” Max answered.

Jake snorted as he tried to stop himself from laughing. Penny narrowed her eyes. “Big talk from someone who just got off their shift at Best Buy.”

“Touché.”


 August, 2016 

Over the next several weeks, Max noticed a definite change in the way Jake started to carry himself.

He dressed less casually, and more business-like. She watched him come home carrying several suits over his shoulder less than two weeks after he formed his new LLC with Penny. “How many weddings are you attending?” she asked him.

“Very funny,” Jake grumbled as he dropped the clothes in his bedroom. “We’re interviewing people all week. Penny and I are spread too thin, so we’re hiring a few people to handle a lot of the basic business stuff. We’re going to start dressing a little closer to the part.”

“Who are you hiring?”

“Human Resources, Marketing, that sort of thing.” Jake shrugged. “Penny and I went from having a couple hundred employees each to having closer to three or four hundred overall. Plus, more than a dozen businesses. We need the manpower.”

Max snickered. “I’m pretty sure that’s a sexist term nowadays.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “I’ll ask my new HR manager when we hire him.”

“Why does it have to be a ‘him’?”

“... shut up.”

From then on, Jake rarely left the apartment without a tie around his neck. Max also saw a lot more of Penny at the restaurant, since she was now a part-owner, and noticed an improvement in her wardrobe as well. The denim jeans were replaced with slacks, the sweatshirts with cotton blouses and jackets.

“People do take me a lot more seriously now,” Penny admitted one day while she ate lunch at the restaurant, when Max brought her food out. “I used to only dress up when I went to the bank. I kind of miss my jeans.”

Max nodded as she set the plate in front of her. “Well, you look a lot more like a manager now,” she admitted. “Your hoodies were giving off a pretty serious Mark Zuckerberg vibe.”

“He’s a billionaire. And a man. He can dress in whatever and run a board meeting.” Penny laughed. “One of the guys at the dealership who hadn’t met me yet actually called me ‘toots’. I didn’t know that was still a thing!"

“Oh God. Did you fire him?” Max chortled.

“I thought about it, mostly for using the word ‘toots’.” Penny smirked. “He was sentenced to a rather lengthy sexual harassment training seminar instead. Far more terrifying.”

Other than those brief exchanges, two months or so went by where Max barely saw Jake and Penny. Afterwards, though, once they hired the people they needed, Jake started keeping more regular hours, leaving the apartment at noon and returning a little after eight pm. “Between lunch and dinner,” he explained when Max asked him about it. “Most of our businesses keep those hours, so it’s the best time to answer questions and solve problems.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” Max sipped her beer while they watched TV on the couch. “How’s the search for actual offices?”

“We found a good one.” Jake nodded. “Small little suite in town. A few more desks than we need, but that’s just room to grow, I guess. We’re signing paperwork on Friday.”

“Jeez, an office and everything. You’ll be a real businessman soon enough!”

Jake gave her a look. “What the hell was I before?!”

“Some weirdo who refuses to get a nicer truck.” Max gestured out the window, towards the parking lot. “Have you figured out what the new noise coming from the engine is?”

“Yea, one of the mechanics at the dealership looked at it. Something about a belt, or whatever. And I LIKE my truck,” Jake added with a huff.

Max smirked. “You know, it might be easier to pick up men with a nicer car.”

“Oh, shut the hell up.”


September, 2016

When Max turned twenty-one, Jake surprised her with two gifts.

The first was a new laptop. Until then, she’d used his when she wanted to go online, or settled for her phone and its small screen. Max was absolutely giddy when she unwrapped a brand-new Toshiba. “This is fucking amazing!” she exclaimed, hugging the box. “And you’re such a dick! I can’t believe you spent that much money!”

“Well, I had it to spend.” Jake shrugged sheepishly. “You’re going to need it, anyway, for your other gift.”

Max looked up at him. “Please tell me you didn’t get me something else. This thing is too much already!”

“It’s not something physical, Max. And it comes with... conditions.”

Max frowned as she set the box down. “Conditions?”

“Yep.” Jake leaned forward. “Its... well, it’s a job offer.”

Max’s eyebrows went up. “Uh, I have a job already.”

“It’s a better one.” Jake grinned. “Penny and I can’t find a good office assistant. We need one to keep a calendar, answer phones, that sort of thing. We’ve been through two temps from an agency already; apparently, using a Xerox is just too much for some people.”

Max stared at him. “Wait, are you serious? You want me to work for you and Penny?”

“You already work for me and Penny, Max,” Jake reminded her. “Now you’ll just do it directly.”

She processed that information. “So, what are the ‘conditions’ of this new job?”

“Well...” Jake shifted. “You’ll make more money then you are waiting tables. Penny and I talked about hiring you, and we agreed to pay you above market rates... on the condition you get your GED and enroll in college classes.”

Max sat back. “You’re... shit. Classwork? Seriously?”

“Yep.” Jake nodded. “I know it’s a lot, but-”

“Where do I sign?” Max interrupted.

Jake did a double-take. “I thought I’d have to put more effort into convincing you.”

“Are you kidding?!” Max smiled. “I’ve missed school. I was doing really good in high school before...” she hesitated. “You know. And you guys... you and Penny will pay me enough to take them? The classes, I mean.”

“We will.”

Max’s smile threatened to break her face as she got up and walked around the table, wrapping Jake in a bone-crushing hug. “Thank you,” she breathed, her eyes getting wet.

“As much as I’d love to take sole credit,” Jake said with a grin as he patted her back, “it was actually Penny’s idea.”


“So this is your last week, then, is it?” 

Max nodded as she stood in front of her manager. “Sorry, Maria.”

The plump Hispanic woman got up and walked around her desk, wrapping Max in a hug. “You don’t have to apologize for a damn thing, Maxine,” she said with a grin. “Although I will miss the hell out of you. You’re one of my best waitresses.”

“You’re only saying that because I show up to work on time,” Max chuckled back as she returned the hug. “And with a blood-alcohol level of zero.”

“I never said the bar was high.” Maria let go. “Alright. I’m gonna try and find a new waitress to replace you, so you’ll have to train someone for your last couple of days. You gonna be okay with that?”

“Of course.” Max nodded with a smile. “Can I recommend avoiding the girls with felony conviction records this time?”

“Once, Max.” Maria gave her the stink-eye. “I did that ONCE.”

“It was twice. That we know of.”

Maria smiled and waved her hand dismissively. “Get out of my office and get back to work.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Max left Maria’s office and headed back to the front of the restaurant, next to the hostess, Beth. “What did she say?” the other girl asked.

“That I’m her favorite employee, and always will be.” Max smirked.

Beth rolled her eyes. “No, but for real.”

“How do you know she didn’t-”

“Over her own daughter?” Beth gestured to herself. “I know my mom loves us both, Max, but gimme a little credit.”

Max laughed. “Yea. She was cool. She did say she would miss having a waitress that always showed up on time and sober.”

“That sounds more like my mom.” Beth pulled an apron from a drawer and handed it to Max, along with a couple of pens and a notepad. “Okay, she said this morning we were supposed to push the chicken. I guess the batch is expiring soon, and she’d rather serve it than throw it away.”

“Any kind of dish?” Max stepped aside and pulled the string over her head, tying the apron behind her back.

“As long as it has chicken, I don’t think she cares.” Beth shrugged. “But you should try to upsell the-” the door opening drew her attention, and Max watched her customer-service smile come on out of the corner of her eye. “Hi! Welcome to Maria’s Kitchen! Are all four of you together?”

“Yep,” a girl replied.

Beth nodded as she scribbled on her board. “Excellent... okay, Max will be your server today.” She turned. “Go ahead and put them at table ten. You good?”

“Yep.” Max turned back to the customers with a smile. “Hi, I’m Max, you guys... can...”

She froze.

Max couldn’t believe it.

The girl who’d just walked into the restaurant froze too, her blue eyes going wide as Max took her in. Her white beanie, flames embroidered on the side, brown hair peeking from underneath it. A red, wide-neck shirt showed off a dragon necklace.

Max’s notepad slipped from her hands, falling to the floor as Steph worked her mouth like a fish, no words coming out.

What... Max swallowed. What is she doing here?!

“Max?” Steph whispered, her voice giving the slightest crack.

Chapter Text

Max took a step back, away from Steph, unable to respond.

How did she find me?

“Oh my God.” Steph breathed quietly, voice wavering, ignoring her friends and Beth, who were staring with confused looks on their faces. “Max... it’s really you...”

Max couldn’t speak. Her mind raced at a million miles an hour. She’d only occasionally thought about Steph and Rachel since Jake had shown her the Facebook page they’d made.

She had never made up her mind what to think; on one hand, she was still kind of mad about what had happened, towards both of them. But she knew that they must have still worried for her, with the frequency at which they reminded people to look for her on Facebook.

Max didn’t know what to do.

Steph took another step towards her, her eyes still wide as her breathing got heavier.

I can’t do this right now.

Max turned on her heel and walked away, back towards the kitchen.

“Max!” She heard Steph behind her, trying to follow. “Max! Max, WAIT! Come back!”

She didn’t answer. Max speed-walked around the corner and ducked into Maria’s office, slamming the door behind her and leaning against it. From her desk, Maria looked up, confused, as Max braced the door behind her.

The banging started a second later. “MAX!”

Maria got out her her chair as she saw the expression on Max’s face. “What’s wrong?” she asked as she made her way across the room.

Max didn’t reply as the banging increased in intensity. “Max! Max, please come out! I just want to talk! PLEASE!!” Steph cried from the other side of the door.

“Make her go away,” Max breathed in a half-whisper. “Please make her leave.”

Maria took one look at Max’s face and nodded, grabbing the door handle as Max moved. Her manager swiftly opened the door and slid out, slamming it closed behind her. “Miss, you need to go.”

“No! No, please, I just want to talk! I just want to talk to her!” Steph banged on the door again. “MAX!!”

Max closed her eyes and hyperventilated, leaning back against the door. Please, please go away.

“Miss! Step back!”

There was one more bang on the door. “MAX! I’M SORRY!! I’M SO SORRY, MAX!! PLEASE!!”

Max opened her eyes. What?

“Miss! Enough! Back UP!” Maria yelled.

Steph stopped yelling. But with her ear so close to the door, Max heard something else; she was choking on a sob. “Please...” she wept. “I just want to talk to her...”

“She doesn’t want to talk to you.” Max heard scuffling behind the door. “Ma’am, you need to leave. If you don’t, I’m going to have to call the police.”

Max didn’t catch the rest of what Steph mumbled back, but she heard the voices retreat. Max didn’t move, staring through the opposite wall, as a thousand thoughts raced through her head.


“And... you didn’t say anything?” Jake asked as they sat at the kitchen table that night. 

Max shook her head. “I didn’t know what to do,” she mumbled. “I froze. I just... I don’t even know what she was doing down here. I thought she was still in Oregon.”

Jake stroked his chin. “It could have been a coincidence,” he said. “It’s a small world. Stranger things have happened. Plus, San Francisco is the gay Mecca, so she was bound to come down eventually.”

“I... God damn it.” Max put her head in her hands. “I always thought, you know, if I saw her or Rachel again, I would have something to say. About what happened back then.”

Jake nodded. “When I first showed you their Facebook page, you said you didn’t want to talk to either of them. Are you still angry at her?”

“I thought I was.” Max lifted her head. “I don’t know. She... jeez, she sounded so upset. She was begging to talk, and when she yelled that she was sorry, my brain locked up. Whenever I thought about what I’d say to her, I always imagined tearing her a new asshole.” She glanced at her computer on the table. “Instead, I got her crying her eyes out. God, she must feel terrible.”

“You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself, I guess.” Jake nodded at the computer. “Have you checked their Facebook pages?”

“Yea. She hasn’t posted anything about me since two weeks ago.” Max glanced at Jake. “Do you... do you think I should talk to her?”

Jakes eyebrow went up. “You’re asking me?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Max put her elbows on the table and ran her hands over her face. “I don’t know what to do. I am so lost, Jake. Please, give me something.”

“Hmm.” Jake closed his eyes in thought for a minute, then opened them. “Max... you know that you don’t have to forgive her, right?”

Max nodded.

“Then, I guess you have to ask yourself... do you want to hear what she has to say?”


Max’s heart raced as Jake drove her downtown. 

She’d spent twenty minute composing a Facebook message, asking Steph if she would meet her at a coffee shop near the restaurant. She’d replied in only a few seconds, to tell her she was already on the way. “I’m nervous,” Max admitted out loud.

“I bet. Look, how about this, I’ll go in first.” Jake parked his truck and turned it off. “I’ll sit across the shop. If you want to leave, just give the sign, and we’ll take off.”

“Okay.” Max nodded. “Thanks.”

She gave Jake a few minutes, then got out and walked into the coffee shop behind him, her heart in her throat as she looked around.

Steph was sitting at a booth, her leg jiggling nervously. Both of her hands were clasped together in front her her mouth, eyes glued to her phone on the table in front of her. Her gaze shot up as Max came into view, and she stood.

“Max,” she whispered. “You really came.”

“I told you I was coming,” Max replied quietly.

“I know, I...” Steph hesitated. “After what happened earlier, I wasn’t... I don’t know.” She paused. “Oh my God, Max, I can’t believe you’re here.”

Max sat down across from her without a reply. Steph slowly followed suit, and a waitress came over. “You girls want some coffee?”

“Just a water please,” Max answered.

“Uh, same.” Steph nodded as she fidgeted with her fingernails. As the waitress walked off, Max saw Jake sitting across from them, sipping his own cup. He made eye contact with Max and nodded, giving her a brief thumbs-up.

Max turned back to Steph. Neither of the girls spoke for a minute as the waitress came back with two bottles and departed.

“Max... I have so much to say, and I don’t even know where to start.” Steph rubbed her hands together. “I just...” She swallowed and blinked, and Max saw her eyes getting wet. “I’m sorry, Max. I’m so sorry for what I did. Rachel and I never should have asked you to steal those emails from your dad. We never thought...” her voice faded, as she sniffed deeply.

Max didn’t reply back, her gaze alternating between Steph’s face and her hands.

“I was...” Steph sniffled and wiped her eyes. “Oh, God, I can’t even imagine how much you hate me. I’ve spent the past five years hating myself. I would give anything to take it all back, Max, I swear.”

Max looked back at her. “I... I did hate you. And Rachel. For a while,” she admitted as she bit her lip. “I never expected to see either of you again.”

Steph lowered her gaze. “I’m just... God, Max.” She sniffed, and Max saw a tear making its way down her cheek. “I can’t believe you’re alive. I was so scared you were dead, and that it was all my fault...” She looked back up. “I know you won’t ever forgive me, Max. I was a fucking asshole, and I never thought about what would happen to you if your parents found out. I am so, so sorry.”

Max couldn’t believe how broken up Steph was. She’d figured the girl would feel guilty, but she never thought she’d feel as terrible as she did.

“I, uh, saw the Facebook page you and Rachel made.” Max looked Steph in the eye. “Have you guys really been looking for me this whole time?”

Steph nodded as she wiped her eyes again. “Rachel, mostly. She uh... when you didn’t come back to school after that day, she was really worried. She actually called your house, pretending to be a teacher. When your mom said they had pulled you from school...” she swallowed, cringing as tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “Max, we were so scared. Rachel was terrified that your parents found out what happened and killed you.”

Max sighed as she stared at the table. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” she said quietly.

Steph didn’t reply. When Max looked to see if she’d heard her, she realized the girl was barely holding herself together, eye squeezed shut as she tried to stop herself from crying, at Max’s revelation.

Max didn’t know what else to do. Unsure, she reached over and took Steph’s hands in hers.

Apparently, that was the wrong move. Steph broke down, her head low as her body was wracked with sobs.

The waitress materialized at their table. “Are you two okay?” she asked, concerned.

“I think we need to go outside for a minute,” Max replied as she got up, taking Steph by the shoulder.

Leading her out the door, Max brought the girl to the bench right outside the shop and sat her down as Steph cried. “I’m sorry, Steph,” she said quietly as she sat next to her. “I didn’t mean to-”

“Don’t.” Steph managed a deep breath. “Don’t... fucking apologize to me. I don’t deserve it. Not after...” she trailed off as she wiped her eyes.

Max swallowed. “What happened? After I left?”

Steph picked her head back up, not making eye contact. “After the phone call... Rachel and I went to her dad. We told him where the emails came from and what we asked you to do. I thought his head was going to explode. He was so furious at us...” her voice trailed off for a minute as she wiped her nose. “He was screaming his head off, about how fucking stupid we were, and how much danger we had put you in. He had cops at your house that night, literally an hour after we confessed, looking for you.”

Steph looked back at Max. “When they figured out you had run away, her dad called in every favor he had to try and find you. I think half the cops in Oregon had your picture at some point. A bunch of us from school drove down to Portland that weekend to look for you, because that’s where we figured you got off that bus.”

Max sighed. “I... didn’t make it there that night,” she admitted. “I didn’t have the money.” She frowned. “The other students really went looking for me?”

“You can thank Victoria for that.” Steph grimaced. “Jesus, I thought Rachel’s father was mad. I thought Victoria was going to kill us both, when she found out what we did. She got all the students with cars and gas money together, and organized the trip, but she refused to speak to us. I don’t think Rachel and I kept a single friend we made in high school after graduation.” She shook her head. “Even Nick and Andrew didn’t talk to us after that.”

Max felt bad. “Jesus. Steph...”

“No.” Steph shook her head. “Max... I don’t want your pity. Rachel and I fucked up, and we paid for it.”

Max hesitated. “Did Rachel’s dad put Pastor Rogers in jail? I never bothered to check.”

“Yea. He did.” Steph nodded. “The emails were still admissible. He fought the judge like crazy to keep them. I still remember him yelling at Rachel, that since she put your life on the line, he was going to make damn sure it wasn’t for nothing.”

“Where is Rachel now?” Max asked.

“She’s still in school,” Steph replied. She sniffed back tears before she continued. “She’s getting her Masters. She wants to be a social worker.”

Max was taken aback. “I thought she wanted to be a model?”

Steph glanced at her. “Max, Rachel took what happened hard. Like, really hard.” She shook her head. “Her and her dad still have a pretty rough relationship. She did a complete one-eighty. She wants to help people now, kids like you were back then.”

“Wow.” Max paused. “Um... does she know you found me?”

“... no.” Steph sighed. “We, uh, had a fight a few months ago. Other than your Facebook page, we haven’t really spoken for a while.”

“Why?”

Steph squirmed. “I, uh, kind of snapped at her,” she explained. “Rachel still looks for you. Like, posts flyers and shows your photo around. She’s probably hit up every homeless shelter within three hundred miles of Arcadia Bay by now. She was trying to get me to go with her to Seattle again, but I was in the middle of studying for finals, under a ton of pressure. I kind of lost it, and...”

She paused and swallowed. “Max, we hadn’t seen a trace of you in years. I thought you were dead. And I told her as much.”

Max blinked. “Oh.”

“Yea. Rachel flew off the handle. We had a huge blowout over Skype.” Steph looked Max in the eye, fresh tears still leaking down her face. “Max, if Rachel knew you were here, she’d be on the first flight out of Portland. She’d fly all the way down here to kiss your feet and beg for forgiveness. She’s never given up looking for you, like, ever.”

Now it was Max’s turn to look away.

“Steph...” Max paused. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Whatever you want.” Steph shrugged morosely. “I didn’t mean to word-vomit all over you. I don’t want you to feel bad for me, either. And I don’t expect your forgiveness.” She rubbed her nose, sniffing, as she stared at her feet. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was tell you how sorry I was for what we did.”

Max didn’t reply immediately, thinking over everything Steph had said.

Man... this is definitely not how I ever thought this would go. Max swallowed. God, I’m supposed to be tearing her a new one. I can’t believe how upset she is. And Rachel...

“Steph...” Max took a second to gather her thoughts as the other girl looked at her. “I... I was mad when I left. I blamed you and Rachel for everything, for a really long time. I spent four years living on the streets, just... pissed. At the two of you. If you guys had just left me alone...”

Max paused, trying to gather her thoughts. Steph squeezed her eyes shut, tears running down her cheeks as she faced to the ground, unable to look at Max.

“But... I’m better now.” Max sighed as she rubber her hands together. “I met this really awesome guy who took pity on me. I have no idea why, but he let me stay with him while he helped me get my shit together. He got me a job... two jobs, actually. And he’s going to help me go back to school this year. Life is so much better now than it was back then.”

“And I know you just wanted me away from my dad." She glanced at Steph. “You were right, back then. He did hit me, because I told him I knew a gay student at school. Between that and the church, I was just surrounded by hateful assholes. And getting away from them... it was probably the best thing I could have done.”

Max reached over and took Steph’s hand. “I don’t know if I can forgive you and Rachel yet. But... I don’t hate you two anymore.”

It was almost like a weight was lifted from Steph’s shoulders, the way she reacted. The breath she’d been holding exploded from her lungs as she started shaking and crying loudly. Max reached around her shoulders and hugged her tightly, the side of Steph’s face pressed into her shirt as she bawled. Between ugly tears and sobs, all she could say, over and over, was “I’m sorry.”

Max held her for several minutes while the girl cried herself out. When she finished, Max finally let go, and Steph sat back up, wiping her eyes and runny nose on her sleeve.

“Sorry I ruined your shirt,” she sniffled quietly.

Max glanced down to several wet spots where Steph’s head had been. “Nothing a wash won’t fix,” she replied.

“I...” Steph snorted, trying to stem the flow of snot from her nose. “Max, I don’t know what to say.”

“Me either.” Max hesitated. “I gotta ask... what are you doing in San Francisco? I thought you were still in Oregon.”

“I’m, uh, actually moving here for a job.” Steph wrung her hands, sniffing her tears back. “I graduated from OSU, last spring. A video game company just opened offices out here, and they had me come down for an interview as a designer. I was hired this morning.” She looked back at Max. “That’s why I was at your restaurant. A few of my new coworkers were taking me out to lunch.”

“Oh.” Max winced. “How did they take the, uh...”

Steph shrugged. “Mark, my new boss, was actually pretty understanding about it, once I explained.”

“So you’re moving down here,” Max stated.

“Yea, in two weeks. I have to go back to Oregon tomorrow and get my stuff packed.” Steph looked back at Max. “Can I... when I get back, I really want to see you again, Max. I really don’t want this to be the last time we talk."

Max thought for a second. “Neither do I,” she finally admitted.

They didn’t say anything, for a minute, while they sat on the bench.

“The guy you met,” Steph started. “Is he-”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Max replied before she finished. “I am definitely still gay. And so is he, funnily enough.”

Steph snorted in amusement. “I never thought I’d hear you say that out loud, back then,” she said. “Do you... have someone?”

“No.” Max shook her head. “I, uh, haven’t been looking, really.”

“Yea, me either,” Steph said. “School, and all.”

Her watch beeped, and Steph glanced at it and hit a button. “Shit.” she glanced back at Max. “I, uh... I don’t want to leave. But my flight takes off at, like, six in the morning tomorrow.”

It was almost ten at night. “You should go, then.”

Steph nodded as they stood up, and wrapped Max in a crushing hug. “Can you send me your number?” she asked. “I want to text you. Before I come back.”

“I’ll send it over Facebook,” Max promised.

“And, um...” Steph let go and stepped back. “Max, can I tell Rachel I saw you? I won’t, if you don’t want me to,” she quickly added. “But I know she’s going to want to talk to you. She’s got her own apologies to make.”

Max hesitated, then nodded. “But... I want to talk in person,” she said. “I don’t want our first conversation to be by phone.”

Steph nodded. “She’ll probably want to drive back down with me, if that’s the case. Hell, she might make me come back early.”

Max shrugged. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

Steph grabbed Max and hugged her again. “Thank you, Max,” she whispered in her ear, her voice wavering as she sniffled. “I can’t tell how much it means to see you again.”

Max hugged her back. “It was good to see you,” she replied quietly as she let her go.

“Yea.” Steph rubbed her eyes again. “I gotta go get some sleep... I’ll text you this week.”

Max nodded as they said their final goodbyes, Steph looking back over her shoulder as she walked back to her rental car. She got in and drove away, her tail lights vanishing down the street.

“So, that looked like it went well.”

Max turned to see Jake sitting on the bench. “Yea, I think it did,” she admitted as she sat next to him. “It was good to talk to her, and listen to what she had to say.”

“I bet it was. I could hear her apologizing from inside.” Jake nodded. “Did you forgive her?”

“I don’t think I can yet.” Max scratched behind her ear. “But... I told her I didn’t hate her anymore. And that leaving home was probably the best thing I ever did.”

“I’m sure she felt better when she heard that.”

Max chuckled as she indicated her shirt. “You think?”

Chapter Text

Steph: Max? This is you, right?

Max: Giving you a fake number over Facebook Messenger seems a little silly, no?

Steph: Fair. I just landed back in Portland.

Max: You going call Rachel?

Steph: No. I need to do this in person.

Steph: I have to apologize to her, too. For the fight we had.

Steph: I forgot to ask, how would you feel if I told her dad that I met you? He put a lot of effort into trying to find you, too. And if I’m going to Rachel’s house anyway...

Max: I figured if you didn’t, Rachel would.

Max: Wait, I thought you said Rachel and her dad were having issues?

Steph: They do. But she still lives at home. She commutes to Corvallis for her classes.

Steph: They can have civil conversations, for a while.

Max: I feel bad for them.

Max: Do you think he’ll lighten up on her?

Steph: Maybe. He’s as stubborn as she is.

Max: When are you going to see her?

Steph: This weekend. They should both be there.

Steph: Gonna try real hard not to make it awkward. He doesn’t like me either.

Max: I’m sorry.

Steph: I told you not to apologize to me.

Steph: This is our fault.

Steph: Not yours.

Max: And I told you, I don’t hate you anymore for what you did.

Max: Please make sure Rachel knows that, too.

Steph: I will.

Steph: You’re amazing, BTW.

Max: Damn right.


Steph turned into the Amber’s driveway, her heart pounding in her chest. 

She hadn’t been back to their house since she’d come with Rachel, to confess to James Amber what they’d done. That visit had ended poorly, with a lot of screaming and crying.

Hopefully, this one will be better, Steph thought as she parked and turned her car off. God, Rachel was even more messed up than I was after everything. When she hears that I found Max, she’s going to lose her mind.

She made her way to the front door and rang the bell, still trying to think of what she would say when Rachel answered. But she was saved from that, as an older version of her friend opened the door to see her.

Rose did a double take, frowning as she got a good look. “Stephanie?” she asked. “Stephanie Gingrich?”

“Hi, Mrs. Amber.” Steph waved nervously.

“It’s... been a long time.” Rose opened the door a little wider. “Are you okay?”

Steph nodded. “Um... is Rachel home?”

“Yes, she is.”

“What about your husband?”

“We’re all home,” she replied. “James just got back from the office a little bit ago. Is everything all right?”

“Yea. Is it okay if I talk to them?” Steph asked. “I, uh... I have something to tell them.”

“Both of them?”

Steph nodded silently, her heart rate going up.

Rose looked like she was debating it, but in the end she opened the door all the way and stepped aside. “Come on in.”

“Thank you.” Steph walked inside, looking around.

The house had barely changed in five years, except for a few of the pictures on the walls. She glanced at the living room, memories flooding back to the last time she’d been there; both of them had been on the couch, while James yelled. Steph still remembered a little bit of what he’d said.


“DO YOU TWO HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MUCH DANGER YOU PUT THAT POOR GIRL IN?!” 

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Dad! I was trying to help! You said-”

“Criminal trials are NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY! I had options without those emails! I could have convicted him on a lesser charge! Or had him plead out! Do you have ANY idea what you’ve done?!”

“Mister Amber, we-”

“Her father was released from jail yesterday morning! He’s back in that house! He knows that we received copies of his emails as proof of that boy’s assault! AND YOU SENT THE GIRL WHO TOOK THEM BACK TO HIM!!”

“We tried to stop her! She wouldn’t-”

“She NEVER should have been in that position to begin with! You two didn’t-”

A cell phone rang.

“Amber.”

...

“How long ago?”

...

“Where? And what did her mother say?”

...

“Chief, you need to call in all your off-duty officers. My office will pay for the overtime. Hospitals, taxi companies, the bus station, start a search. And call the neighboring counties; we need to put out an Amber Alert right away.”

A snap, of his phone closing. “Maxine is gone. There are indications of a struggle, and her bedroom window is smashed. Her mother is refusing to speak, and her father isn’t there.”

“D-dad, s-she has to be-”

“Rachel, go to your room. Stephanie, go back to your home. I have to get to the office immediately. And both of you had better pray that your actions didn’t just get your friend killed.”


Steph shuddered, as she followed Rose further into the house. 

She finally saw Rachel and her father, sitting at the kitchen table. Rachel was working on her laptop, a schoolbook open in front of her, while James read the newspaper. “We have a visitor,” Rose announced.

Rachel looked up, her face changing from a look of concentration to an unreadable expression. James saw her and frowned as he lowered his newspaper. “Stephanie,” he said, by way of greeting. Rachel didn’t speak.

“Hi, Mister Amber,” Steph replied quietly.

“Are you here to see Rachel?” he asked.

“I, um...” Steph hesitated, not sure how to proceed. “I actually-”

“I’m busy right now,” Rachel said as she closed her laptop and stood, taking it in her hands. “I’m going to my room.”

Well, I guess that answers the question if she’s still mad at me.

“Wait, Rachel,” Steph said as she moved to block her way. “Please.”

Rachel sighed as she put her hand on her hip. “Steph...”

“I just-”

“I don’t want to do this right now,” Rachel interrupted her. “I have a Behavioral Science test to study for, Steph. Whatever you want, it can wait until later.”

“Rachel, I’m sorry.” Steph sighed. “I’m sorry for what I said. But I-”

“Look, I get it, all right?” Rachel put her laptop back on the kitchen table. “I know how long it’s been. I know you want to forget about it. But I can’t.” Rachel paused. “I... I just can’t leave Max behind. I know she’s alive somewhere.”

James sighed. “Rachel, I know you’re still upset about what happened,” he said as he stood. “But it’s been a long time. I told you, you need to accept that-”

“No, I don’t.” Rachel turned on her dad. “Max is alive. I don’t care what you and Steph think.”

“I do not want to have this argument again,” James glowered. “The fact is that nobody has seen or heard from her in years. As much as we all wish it weren’t so, Maxine is most likely dead.”

“NO!” Rachel yelled. “She’s not! I’ve checked. I have the FBI’s Unidentified Persons page bookmarked. I email the offices of Medical Examiners every week. Max is not dead, and until anyone can prove otherwise, I’m not giving up on finding her.”

“Maybe you should go,” Rose whispered to Steph.

“Yea, maybe you should,” Rachel glanced at Steph. “I don’t know why you-”

“I found Max.”

The silence that followed Steph’s statement was deafening, and all three of the Ambers turned to face her.

Rachel spoke first. “What?” she asked in a whisper.

“I found Max,” Steph repeated. “I ran into her while I was in San Francisco. Completely by accident. She’s alive, Rachel.”

Rachel didn’t reply as she stared, her eyes wide, processing what Steph had said.

“Are you sure, Stephanie?” James asked as he stepped forward. “It was really her?”

“Yea.” Steph nodded. “It was her. We talked for a while, the night after I ran into her. She’s not dead. She’s alive. She’s working as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant.”

She turned back to Rachel, who still hadn’t moved. “She’s still alive, Rachel. You were right, and I’m so sorry.”

Rachel blinked a few times before she answered. “She’s in San Francisco?” she asked, her voice shaky.

Steph nodded.

“Do you have her number?”

“Yea, but-”

“Please.” Rachel stepped close to Steph. “Please, you have to give it to me. I need to call her, I have to...” She paused. “Oh. Oh, God. She doesn’t want to hear from me, does she? No, no, of course she-”

Steph took Rachel by her shoulders. “Rachel... she does. She does want to talk. But she doesn’t want to do it on the phone,” she added. “Max said she wanted your first conversation to be in person. She... Rachel, she does want to see you.”

Rachel took a breath. “Okay. Okay, then.” She looked at her father. “I need to borrow your credit card. I need the money to get plane tickets. I’ll pay you back, Dad, I promise, but I have to go see her.”

James was already sitting back down, a shocked look still on his face as he contemplated what Steph had said.

“Dad!”

“Rachel, you have an exam tomorrow,” he said slowly. “You need to-”

“I need to see Max!” Rachel yelled back. “I have to see her. I have to tell her how... FUCKING sorry I am!” she took a second to wipe her eyes. “I have to make sure she’s okay. You’re always telling me how bad I fucked up, I have to-”

“I’m driving back next Saturday,” Steph interrupted.

James and Rachel both looked at her. “You are?”

“I got hired for a job down there,” she explained. “I came back to pack up my apartment. My lease is up on Friday, and I’m driving down the day after.”

Rachel grabbed Steph’s hand. “Please, Steph, let me come with you,” she whispered, tears still forming at the corners of her eyes.

“Of course. But, um, I wasn’t going to drive back. How are you gonna get home?”

James sighed. “I’ll pay for plane tickets home,” he said. “Stephanie, would it be okay if Rachel stayed with you for a couple of days?”

“Absolutely,” Steph assured him.

He leaned forward. “I... know the last time we spoke, it didn’t end well.” He paused. “Would you tell us how you found Maxine? And what happened?” he gestured to an empty chair at the table. “Please,” he added.

Steph nodded, and slowly sat down as she started the story.


Max: Well? 

Steph: If tonight was any indicator, wherever we meet next weekend, there should probably be tissues.

Max: Really?

Steph: I told you, Rachel’s been taking what happened badly. She feels worse than I do.

Max: I didn’t think that would be possible.

Steph: Her dad had a million questions, too, once the shock wore off. He wanted your contact info.

Max: What? Why?

Steph: There’s still a Missing Persons case against you.

Max: Oh, right. He wants to close it, I’m assuming?

Steph: Probably.

Max: Did you give him my number?

Steph: I didn’t want to, without your permission.

Steph: He understood. He really wanted to stress that you weren’t in any trouble.

Max: That’s good. I’m too pretty for jail.

Max: When are you guys coming down?

Steph: Next Saturday, but it’s an all-day drive.

Max: I’ll be working that day. I won’t be able to see you until the evening.

Steph: Your boss makes you work Saturdays?

Steph: What a dick.

Max: He charges me $400 a month in rent.

Max: And he’s helping pay for my classes.

Steph: ... and you’re sure he’s gay? He doesn’t have the hots for you?

Max: Yea, no, definitely gay.

Max: He just made some very lewd comments about what he would let Mark Wahlberg do to him.

Steph: How lewd?

Max: I had to look some of them up on Urban Dictionary.

Max: Do you know where I can find brain bleach?

Steph: Nice.

Chapter Text

October, 2016  

“Will you please stop that?” Steph asked, annoyed.

Rachel ceased her drumming on the armrest of her seat. They had just entered San Francisco, and were about ten minutes away from Steph’s new apartment. Rachel had been fairly quiet for most of the drive, lost in her head, but the closer they got, the more fidgety and nervous she became.

“Sorry,” Rachel sighed as she put her hands in her lap. “I, uh... I still don’t know what I’m gonna say to her.”

“I suggest you start with ‘sorry’ and go from there.” Steph shrugged as they drove. “That’s more or less what I did.”

“And you’re sure she isn’t mad at me?” Rachel asked quietly. “Because... I seriously have a really hard time believing that.”

Steph shook her head. “She said she wasn’t ready to forgive us, but she wasn’t mad at us anymore.”

Rachel leaned her head back against the seat. “I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means she’s willing to talk to us again,” Steph said. “And... maybe be friends again someday.”

“You sure?”

“Hell, no. But if it means that she’s back in our lives, I’ll take what I can get.” Steph took a turn. “She said she’d be working until the evening, so we have about an hour before we see her.”

Rachel looked out the window, fidgeting with her hands. “Where are we going to meet her? Another coffee shop?”

“No. There’s a park near her offices,” Steph explained. “We’re going to meet her there, when she gets out of work.”


“You’re sure you don’t want me to stick around?” 

Max shook her head as Jake rode the elevator with her. “I’ll be fine,” she assured him quietly. “I don’t know how long we’re... I’ll just take a taxi back to the apartment.”

“Okay.” Jake nodded as the doors opened up into the lobby of the office building. “Any idea what you’re going to say to her?”

“Not a fucking clue.” Max sighed as she adjusted the shoulder strap on her messenger bag. “Steph said she’d probably throw herself at my feet and grovel. She apparently feels terrible about everything."

“Well, she did do a pretty shitty thing.” Jake shrugged. “So... are you and Steph friends again?”

Max hesitated before she answered. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “We’ve been talking a lot. And she is moving down here. Her apartment is only thirty minutes from ours.”

“Do you WANT to be her friend again?” Jake asked.

Max bit her lip. “Kind of? Maybe? I’m, uh, still just... trying to process that she’s back, you know?”

Jake nodded again. “I don’t know if you still want my two cents...”

“Dude, I want all the money in your wallet.” Max turned to him. “Figuratively AND literally. Please lay down some wisdom, Obi-Won Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

Jake chuckled, then shook his head. “Well, Max... friends forgive each other for the shit they do to one another.”

Max frowned. “You told me I didn’t have to forgive her. Or Steph.”

“You don’t,” Jake clarified. “But you don’t have to be their friends, either.”

“So I need to forgive them to be friends with them?”

Jake held his hands up. “If you don’t, you’re holding your forgiveness over their heads. And that’s hardly the foundation for a solid friendship.” He shrugged. “But that’s just my opinion. You’re free to do whatever you want.”

Max didn’t reply as they walked outside. “I’ll think about it,” she finally said, as she nodded towards the park next door. “They’re probably here by now.”

“I’ll see you at home, then.” Jake waved as he turned towards the parking lot.

Max made her way across the street. The park was set up around a rather large pond, surrounded by a walking path. At that time of the day, food trucks moved back and forth between several groups of picnic tables, positioned at the corners of the lake. Max didn’t see Steph, so she started a loop around the pond, to check the other tables.

She had made her way almost to the other side when she spotted Steph’s white beanie. Sitting next to her was a head of blonde hair, a blue feather earring barely visible. The two girls were facing away from her, watching the opposite offices.

I never told them which building I work in, Max realized. They think I’m coming from the wrong side of the park.

She walked closer, but slowed as she started hearing their voices.

“Are you sure she’s coming?” Rachel asked, her hand rubbing the back of her neck.

“She said six.” Steph glanced at her watch. “She’s not that late. It's only five after.”

Rachel put her head down. “She doesn’t want to see me, does she?”

“I told you she said she did, Rachel.” Steph reached over and rubbed her shoulder. “Relax. She’s coming.”

“I still don’t know what to say to her,” Rachel muttered as Max walked closer. Neither of the girls noticed that she was ten feet behind them. “I screwed up her whole life, Steph. How can I possibly apologize for that? What could I possibly say to make her not hate me?”

Steph didn’t reply as she rubbed Rachel’s shoulder.

Max finally spoke up behind them. “I don’t hate you.”

Rachel’s whole body stiffened as Steph glanced over her shoulder. “Max?” she said, confused, as she spun in her seat. “But... I thought-”

“I work in those offices.” Max pointed behind her. “I think you two are creeping on a law firm or something.”

Rachel slowly turned around, standing up to face Max. Her face was frozen, and Max couldn’t get a read on her emotions as she took a step towards her.

“Hi, Rachel,” Max said quietly.

The blonde didn’t reply as she reached out and touched Max’s shoulder, almost to make sure she was real.

Then her composure broke, and her lips started to tremble. Before Max could even react, a sob exploded from her lips, and she darted forward and wrapped her arms around Max, gripping the back of her shirt tightly. Rachel’s shoulders heaved as she cried into Max’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry!” she bawled into Max’s shirt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Max, I’m so sorry!!" 

Max grabbed Rachel’s shirt as the girl lost the strength in her legs, and they both wound up sinking to the ground as she cried her eyes out.


Rachel took almost ten minutes to cry herself out. Steph and Max both guided her back to her seat. Max sat across from her, but Rachel couldn’t really bring herself to look Max in the eye, instead staring at the worn wood between them. 

“I’m so sorry, Max” she repeated morosely.

“I know, Rachel.” Max reached across the table and took her hand. “I told you already, I don’t hate you for what happened anymore.”

Rachel shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, sniffling as she wiped her eyes. “You could never hate me more than I hate myself.” She glanced up to meet Max’s gaze. “I manipulated you and took advantage of you. And I knew what would happen to your dad if you gave me his emails.” She sniffed deeply and wiped the snot running under her nose. “I lied, and fucked up your whole life. I would give anything to take it all back.”

Max sighed. “Rachel, the journey sucked. I...” Max hesitated. “I was homeless. For a few years, before I met Jake. He helped me get my life turned around. I have a great job now, and he’s helping me get my GED. I’m going to be able to start the college classes my parents would have never let me take. I’m free of their damn church. And if I hadn’t run away... none of that would have happened.”

She sighed. “I accept your apology, Rachel.” She turned to Steph. “Yours, too, I don’t know if I told you that last time. I don’t want to hate either of you.”

Rachel’s face twisted as she squeezed her eyes shut, tears starting to leak out. Steph, too, turned away and wiped her eyes.

Max gave her a few seconds. “Are you really going to school to be a social worker?” she finally asked.

Rachel nodded, sniffing. “I got accepted to a program at OSU,” she replied quietly, her voice still shaking. “And my dad helped me get an internship at the Department of Children’s Services in Portland.” She looked back at Max. “I don’t want to fuck up anyone else’s life ever again, Max. I swear to God, I’m gonna do better.”

“I know.” Max allowed herself a small smile. “How’s it been going?”

“Good.” Rachel nodded, still trying to wipe her eyes. “Schoolwork sucks, but the internship was really eye-opening.”

“She helped place a couple of little kids, after their father blew up their house cooking meth,” Steph added.

“That’s incredible.” Max smiled. “You’re gonna be great at it.”

“I hope so,” Rachel muttered.

Max didn’t reply as she squeezed her hand.

“Max... there has to be something I can do,” Rachel said. “I can never make up for what I did, but there must be some way I can help you get your life back on track.”

“Rachel...”

“Please, Max,” she interrupted, as she squeezed the brunette’s hands back. “I’ll do anything, I swear.”


Jake: Seriously? 

Max: I thought it was a reasonable request.

Jake: It is, but I didn’t know you needed help studying for your GED. You seemed good with the practice tests you took last week.

Max: I kind of waffled the science part, remember?

Max: And I couldn’t come up with anything else.

Max: You should have seen her face. She was desperate to do something for me.

Jake: I’m sure. She’s probably carrying an incredible amount of guilt.

Jake: Does this mean you’ll be home late?

Max: I may not be home at all. We’re getting dinner at that Italian place by the movie theatre.

Max: After that they want to bring me to Steph’s apartment.

Jake: You’re gonna start tonight?

Max: Well, I do want to spend some time with her.

Max: She’s only in town today and tomorrow.

Jake: Wait, are you texting at the table?

Max: Bathroom.

Jake: Gross.

Max: Excuse me, it’s your fault that I know what a Rusty Trombone is, you degenerate.

Jake: I was joking when I said that stuff. And I certainly didn’t force you to Google any of it.

Max: THERE WERE PICTURES THAT I CAN’T UNSEE

Jake: At least you didn’t look up the others.

Max: Back at the table. I just asked them about the felching thing.

Max: Steph says it means either you were loved too much as a child, or not enough.

Jake: You should invite her over for dinner at some point. I like her.


Rachel stayed in constant contact with Max after she left, including thrice-weekly Skype chats to help her study for the science portion of her GED test. 

Steph joined them on occasion, but she was incredibly busy with her new job at the video game company. She did join Max and Jake for dinner several times, making for some especially entertaining evenings. Especially when they started on about football; Max could barely follow the conversation, catching only that Seahawks and Cowboys fans didn’t like each other very much.

Max called James Amber during the week after Rachel left, and they set up a time for them to Skype. On her day off two weeks later, they spoke for a few hours about what had happened between her running away from Arcadia Bay and Steph finding her. It was a difficult conversation for the both of them; Max watched the pain in his face, as she told him about being homeless.

“I am so sorry, Maxine, for everything,” he finally said. “I had no idea Rachel was... you can’t imagine how relieved I am, to hear that you’re alive and well.”

“Thank you.” Max paused. “Are you and Rachel... you know, okay?”

James sighed, glancing off-camera. “We had a long talk, when she got back from seeing you.” He turned back to her. “She never gave up looking for you. Even when everyone else, including me, thought it was hopeless. I have to commend her perseverance, if nothing else. And she has devoted her college education to helping others. I respect her for that, as well.”

Max also asked about her parents and the church.

“They’ve kept my office rather busy,” James admitted. “After you left, a couple of other teenagers called the local crisis hotline, to help them leave as well. Apparently, there was a rumor going around that your parents had killed you and gotten away with it.”

“Wow,” Max said. “I... didn’t mean for that to happen.”

She watched James shrug over the camera feed. “It was a good thing they did,” he replied. “They reported more instances of abuse. We shut down their summer camp three years ago.”

“What a shame,” Max remarked dryly. “Um... what about my parents?”

“Well.” James flipped through the folder in front of him. “Your father WAS disbarred by the Oregon Bar Association, but it was only temporary; he can practice law again. Most of the time when I see him, it’s in court, and he’s defending members of the church from their various offenses.”

“Offenses?” Max asked. “Like what? Assault?”

“Assault, Child Endangerment, Tax Evasion, Domestic Violence...” James shook his head. “Sadly, Max, your old church has not improved since you’ve left.”

He closed the file in front of him. “Oh, by the way, the day after you left, he was admitted to Arcadia General Hospital for a broken jaw.” He paused. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Max squirmed in her seat. “I think this is where I’m supposed to plead the Fifth.” 

James smirked. “I thought so. Don’t worry, he never said what happened, and I don’t particularly care to ask. Anyway, I don’t really see your mom unless we’re serving a warrant on the church, so I don’t have much info for you about her. Sorry.”

Max shrugged. “Oh well. Not like I ever had any intention to come back and visit.” A thought occurred to her. “You’re... not gonna tell my parents where I am, are you?”

“I had no intention of letting them know.” James shook his head. “Your Missing Persons case can be accessed with the proper request, once it’s closed, but I don’t have to mark your current location. I’m only going to note that contact was made, and you’re in good health.”

Max sighed in relief. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

January, 2017

 

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t friended her on Facebook already,” Jake said one night, at their apartment after work. “Why didn’t you do this a few months ago?”

Max looked up from her laptop. “I mean, I wanted to... I’m just not sure how she’ll react.”

“I can’t imagine she’s mad at you.”

“I’m sure she’s not,” Max clarified. “But... I’m not sure if I would have called us ‘friends’. ‘Acquaintances’ is probably more accurate. The only reason we spoke as much as we did was because we were both on the Quiz Bowl team.”

Jake scoffed. “Steph said she organized a search party for you, Max. I can only speak for myself, but I’m not organizing parties of ANY kind for people I’m not friends with.”

“Fair enough,” Max allowed as she looked back to Victoria Chase’s Facebook. It was locked down tight, so she could only see her profile picture; everything else was hidden. She stared at the photo of the blonde girl, hairstyle still the same as it had been back in high school, as she stood in front of a tree somewhere and smiled.

“How does she not know that you’re alive already?” Jake asked. “Didn’t Rachel and Steph make posts with you that weekend?”

“Yea, on their pages. Victoria isn’t friends with them. Neither are most of the people they went through high school with. They deleted the ‘missing girl’ Facebook page a few weeks ago, without any updates, so she probably doesn’t know yet.”

Jake shrugged. “Might as well tell her, then.”

“Yep.” Max hesitantly clicked on the button marked ‘Add Friend’. “There. We’ll see what happens now, I guess.”

“Mmm.” Jake got up. “You want another beer?”

“Sure.”

Her retrieved a pair of green bottles from the friend, popping the caps as he handed her one. “I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear from you,” he assured her as he sat back down.

“I hope-” A ding from Max’s computer distracted her. “Wow. That was quick. She accepted already.”

Jake’s eyebrows went up. “She must have been online.”

“Either that or she’s got lightning-fast fingers, and saw the notification on her...” Max trailed off as her computer started beeping, a new window coming up. “What the hell?”

“What?”

“You can video chat through Facebook?! I didn’t know that!”

“Damn, seriously?” Jake looked over at her screen: Incoming Video Call from Victoria Chase. “Wow. You gonna answer it?”

Max sighed. “I guess it would be rude not to. How do I look?”

Jake smirked. “Terrible.”

“Fuck you.” Max clicked the green button, and the video started to load.

When the feed came to life, Max saw Victoria standing, leaning over the laptop she was using as she stared into the screen with wide eyes. “Holy shit,” she breathed.

“Um... hey, Victoria.” Max waved hesitantly.

“Max. Oh Christ, that really is you.” Victoria sat down. “Oh my God, you’re alive. Holy shit, Max, you’re here.”

Max scratched the back of her neck. “Yea. It’s, uh, good to see you.”

Victoria blinked, shaking her head as she tried to recover. “Wow. Max. It’s... Jesus, I can’t even make sentences.” She sighed as she looked at the screen. “It is fucking amazing to see you. Are you okay? Where are you? Where have you been?”

“I’m fine.” Max allowed a small smile. “I’m in San Francisco. And I’ve, uh... well, I’ve been a lot of places.”

“Do I need to come get you?” Victoria leaned forward. “Max, if you need help, just let me know. I can be there tomorrow, and-”

Max shook her head. “No, no, Victoria, I really am fine. But...” she hesitated. “That means the world to me, that you’d come get me.”

“Of course I would.” Victoria sat back, a shocked look still on her face. “I was worried sick about you when you ran away. We all were.”

“Yea, I heard.” Max paused. “Steph said you actually put together a search party for me.”

At the mention of Steph’s name, Victoria’s face clouded over. “You’ve spoken to Steph? Recently?”

“We... sort of ran into each other by accident a few months ago,” Max explained. “She walked into the restaurant when I was working.”

Victoria crossed her arms. “And how is the little delinquent?”

Max frowned. “Victoria.”

“No, Max, fuck her. And Rachel, too,” Victoria added. “I know what they twisted your arm into doing.”

“They apologized. Over and over,” Max added. “They feel terrible about what happened.”

“Well, they fucking should,” Victoria growled. “I can’t fucking believe those two would have the balls to-”

“Vicky?” A small voice sounded from off-screen. “Who are you talking to?”

Victoria looked over the camera, and her fierce expression melted into an apologetic smile. “Oh, hell. I’m sorry, babe. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

A petite girl appeared over Victoria’s shoulder, looking into the camera as she ran her fingers through her long blonde hair. “Who is that?” she asked.

“Um...” Victoria turned to her. “Do you remember, I told you about the girl who ran away from her parents when I was in high school? The one we tore up Portland looking for?” she gestured towards Max through the screen. “She just friended me on Facebook.”

The girl’s eyes widened as she stared. “Oh my God,” she said. “Wait. You’re Max?”

“So I’ve heard,” Max replied with a smile.

“Max, this is my girlfriend, Kate,” Victoria said. “Kate, this is Max Caulfield.”

“Oh... wow,” Kate breathed, closing the distance to the camera until she was leaning on Victoria’s shoulder. “I guess that explains the noise. I can’t believe it. Vicky has talked so much about you!”

Max’s eyebrows went up. “She has?”

Victoria rolled her eyes. “Not THAT much.”

“Yes, that much.” Kate moved close to the screen. “Seriously. She wrote a paper about you for one of her law classes.”

“It was NOT about her.” Victoria interjected before Max could say anything. “It was about evidence gathering for criminal trials. And I only mentioned you in a few paragraphs.”

“Yea, I heard you were in law school.” Max grinned. “How is that?”

Victoria sighed. “Incredibly boring and extremely difficult.”

“Says the girl near the top of her class,” Kate chided her.

“I never said I wasn’t good at it.”

Kate turned back to Max. “So where are you now? Are you back in Oregon? And what are you doing?”

“No.” Max shook her head. “I live in San Francisco now. I work as an office assistant.”

Kate inhaled with a smile. “San Francisco?! No way!” she turned to Victoria. “We were literally just planning a trip there in a couple of months for our anniversary! We totally need to go see you! How amazing is that?”

“Seriously?” Max smiled back. “Wow. I’d love to see you, Victoria. It’s been ages.”

“Yea, it has.” Victoria allowed a smile. “We’ll definitely meet up while we’re there. We haven’t finalized anything yet, though.”

“Dude, that would be awesome. How long have you guys been together?” Max asked.

Kate beamed. “Almost two years,” she replied, leaning her head on Victoria's shoulder. “We met on campus at a party.”

“I was at the party. You were desperately trying to melt into the wallpaper,” Victoria said with a smirk. “Your friends had to drag you kicking and screaming.”

Kate whacked Victoria’s shoulder with her hand. “They did not!”

“That’s not what Alyssa said.”

“Alyssa’s full of it.” Kate rolled her eyes.

“I doubt it, but whatever.” Victoria turned towards Max. “Anyway, now that I know you’re in San Francisco, we’re definitely going to come see you. Think you can make time for us?”

Max scoffed. “Wow, let me check my busy schedule. Since, you know, I barely hang out with anyone besides my roommate and Steph-” she caught herself and stopped talking.

Victoria narrowed her eyes. “Steph is there?” she asked.

“Um... yea. She got a job up here at a video game company as a designer,” Max admitted.

“And you’re hanging out with her.” Victoria said in a flat expression.

Max scratched the back of her neck again. “We’ve spent some time together. I’m trying to reconnect with people. Including her. And Rachel,” she added.

Victoria’s nostrils flared. “You’re a lot nicer of a person than you ought to be.”

Kate laid her hand on Victoria’s arm. “Vicky, it’s been five years.”

“I know how long it’s been. It’s not the kind of memory you forget about.” Victoria frowned. “I can’t believe you’re actually speaking to them.”

“I’m... trying to move past it. It’s not easy,” Max admitted, “but... we’re making progress.”

Victoria pressed her lips together, then sighed. “Well... it’s your call, I guess.”

Kate leaned forward, resting her chin on Victoria’s shoulder. “Max, I’m sure you guys want to keep talking, but Vicky was supposed to come to bed an hour ago. She has classes early tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll send you my number,” Victoria promised. “We’ll text this week and figure out where to meet up when we get there.”

“That sounds awesome.” Max grinned. “It’s gonna be great to see you.”

“You too.” Victoria smiled back and waved. “Talk to you later, Max.”

“Bye Max!” Kate said cheerfully.

Max shook her head as the video feed ended. “Wowsers.”

“Right?” she looked behind the computer and saw Jake leaning back in his chair, a smirk on his face. “All these people missed you. Who would have thought?”

“Oh, shut up.” Max scratched her nose, as she closed her laptop. “I can’t believe Victoria has a girlfriend. I never would have pegged her as gay, back in high school.”

Jake raised an eyebrow. “She wasn’t in that little LGBT group?”

Max shook her head. “Nope. And she was always hanging around with the guys on the football team. I was so sure she was dating the quarterback, Zach Riggins.”

“Maybe she hadn’t figured herself out yet.” Jake shrugged. “Does it bother you, that she has a girlfriend? I know you used to have a crush on her.”

Max pursed her lips, then shook her head. “Not as much as I would’ve thought,” she said. “I never expected her to feel the same way... I mean, like I said, I was sure she was straight. It didn’t seem like something that would ever come to fruition.”

“Well, we’re all allowed our little crushes.” Jake shrugged, sipping his beer.

“Did YOU have a thing for the high school quarterback?” Max asked with a smirk.

“No.” Jake shook his head. “He was a man-whore. Had a different girl wrapped around his finger every week. Not the kind of behavior anyone should find attractive, especially with what he used to say about those girls in the locker room after practice.” He smirked. “The running back, on the other hand...”

Chapter Text

February, 2017

“What the hell is wrong with this thing!?”

Max and Jake walked into the office a week later to see Sarah, the company’s Social Media Director, smacking her computer monitor. “What the fuck?!” she snarled as she jammed her fingers on the keyboard. “Work, you piece of crap!”

“Sarah, stop domestic-violencing the sensitive electronic machines,” Jake called as he walked into his office.

“Our boss is so very funny,” Sarah growled, as Max walked to her desk at their small reception area. “Maybe he can use his humor to get the network to stop displaying an error.”

“What’s wrong?” Max asked as she sat down and typed in her password, logging into her computer.

“I’m trying to bring up the old sales data for the dealership,” Sarah said as she whacked the side of the monitor again. “I’m trying to get numbers, to see what the best-selling vehicles were.”

“Why don’t you just call the dealership?”

Sarah shot Max a frustrated look, flipping her brown over her shoulder. “I tried. They don’t have it on hand; they keep it on our shared network.” She glanced back at the computer. “The problem is that I can’t actually get to our shared drive! Every time I try to log in, it throws up errors!”

“Maybe it’s your computer. Let me try.” Max turned to her machine and brought up the company network drive... only to have her computer generate its own error message. “Hmm. I can’t do it either.”

Jake stuck his head out of his office. “Hey, can either of you two get your emails?”

“No,” Sarah replied crossly. “That was another thing. I can’t send any emails. They’re all stuck in my Outbox.”

Jake frowned. “Are we having network problems?”

“It would seem so.” Max opened her desk drawer and pulled out a small binder. “Let me call the IT company really quick.”

“Please hurry,” Sarah grumbled. “I want to get this message about the upcoming promotion on Facebook and Twitter by noon.”

Max found the information for the company that had set up their network several months ago, and dialed their number. After two rings, she received a trio of tones and an automated message: “The number you have tried to dial is not in service.

“The hell?”

“What?” Jake asked as he walked up to her desk.

Max redialed and got the same message. “The number is out of service,” she replied. “Let me try Googling the company, maybe their number changed.” She pulled out her phone and started typing into her browser.

Penny and their company accountant, Tucker, walked out of the elevator a few seconds later, blinking as Jake and Sarah stood around Max’s desk. “What’s going on?” Tucker asked.

“Our network isn’t working,” Sarah answered. “Max is trying to reach the IT people.”

Penny frowned. “Their number is in the binder in her desk, isn’t it?”

“It’s out of service,” Jake and Sarah replied in unison.

“Um...” Max bit her lip as she looked up from her phone. “Shit. So is their website. It redirects to GoDaddy, and it’s listed for sale.”

Jake’s brow furrowed. “That’s... foreboding.”

“Yea.” Max reached back into her drawer and pulled out a set of keys. “Let me check the server closet,” she said as she got up. “Maybe something got turned off by mistake.”

The others followed her towards the back of the office, and watched her unlock a small door. A wave of heat blasted her as she opened it. “What the fuck?” she exclaimed as their ears were assaulted by a loud whining.

“Ah, shit.” Jake sniffed the air. “I smell ozone. Something’s fried.”

“It feels like something’s on fire, is what it is!” Max reached inside and waved her hand in front of the black metal server box. “Jesus, you could cook pancakes on this thing!”

“Well, unplug it!”

Max reached towards the floor and yanked a power cable out of the wall. The blinking lights on the front of the box went out as the whirring slowly died down. “This isn’t good,” she stated as she stepped back.

“Fucking hell...” Sarah sighed. “What do we do now?”

Jake turned to Max. “Call someone. We need this fixed.”

“Who?”

“I could care less, Max,” Jake gestured towards their closet. “As long as they can fix our server, I don’t give a shit if you pluck them from a refugee camp. Just get someone down here, like, today.”


After a little research and a few phone calls, Max finally got ahold of someone helpful. 

“Yea, I know that building,” the man on the other end of the phone said, after Max described their problem. “We’ve had techs in and out of there all month. Was your last IT company named Dynamic Technology, by chance?”

Max double-checked the paperwork they had. “Yea, it was. You know them?”

The man scoffed. “Oh, we’re very familiar,” he remarked dryly. “You’re actually pretty lucky, I have one of our best techs a couple of blocks away. I can get her there in twenty minutes or so. We’ll even waive the same-day fee for you guys.”

Max blinked. “You will? Awesome.”

The man sighed. “Don’t thank me until you hear what she has to say, miss. If your problems are similar to the other offices we’ve been to in your building... well, I hate to say it, but we might not be saving you that much money.”

Max thanked him anyway, hung up, and relayed the info to Jake. “That sounds ominous,” he remarked as he typed on his phone. “And potentially expensive. We paid a fair bit of cash for that server setup and maintenance retainer.”

“It sounds like there might have been a problem with the whole company that did it,” Max said with a shrug. “We’ll know what the tech gets here.”

She went back to her desk and fiddled with her phone for a little while. Finally, she heard the elevator jingle, and she looked up as the tech arrived.

A tall girl in khaki cargo pants, black boots, and a blue short-sleeved work shirt stepped out and glanced around, spotting the office name on the door. Pulling her black beanie off of her head, she shook out her blue and purple hair as she walked towards Max’s desk, stuffing the hat into her laptop bag.

Wow, that’s a professional look, Max thought as she looked over the tech, her eyes drawn to the intricate tattoo on her right arm. She totally pulls it off, though. Jake would give me so much shit if I dyed my hair like that.

“Are you guys the ones who called for a server tech?” the girl asked as she approached Max’s desk.

“Yes, we did.” Max smiled as she stood. “I’m Max.”

“Chloe,” she introduced herself, smiling as she shook Max’s hand. “Nice to meet you. What's the problem?”

Max winced. “I think our server was about to blow up when we came in this morning,” she said. “Our network is down, we can’t get email, and the whole closet was hot when we opened it up.”

“Ooh, that’s not good.” Chloe frowned. “Where is it?”

“That way,” Max indicated towards the server closet; they’d left the door open in an attempt to cool the room down.

Chloe walked back into the office, Max following her as she approached the closet. “Jeez, you weren’t kidding,” the blue-haired girl remarked as she stopped in front of the door. “It’s like a sauna in there. How long ago did you pull the plug?”

“Thirty minutes or so.”

Chloe stepped into the closet and opened the black case, her eye wandering over the contents. Max looked as well, though she had no idea what anything was. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Chloe muttered. “Another wonderful job by Dynamic Technology.”

“I take it you’re familiar with their work?” Max asked.

“Intimately,” Chloe replied as she poked around inside the box. “I’ve been fixing their screw-ups since the owner shut the company down and fled to Mexico last month. They wired half the offices in this building, and they half-assed all of them.” She glanced back at Max. “Pardon my French.”

“If you can fix it, I’ll forgive you,” Max remarked dryly.

Chloe sighed as she took her hands out. “Don’t bother,” she said. “Your server is fucked.”

Penny appeared at Max’s elbow. “I really hope I heard that wrong,” she groaned.

“Penny, Chloe. Chloe, Penny. She’s the boss,” Max explained. “What exactly is wrong?”

“You paid them for a brand new server installation, right?” Chloe asked. “Wiring, setup, maintenance, all of it?”

“We did.” Penny nodded.

“Yea, well, they screwed you.” Chloe gestured towards the server. “These boards are years old. And they’re under recall. Have been ever since six months after they were released. For overheating, as you might have guessed.” Chloe reached back into the box. “Was there an audible alarm going off when you opened the door?”

Max shook her head. “No.”

Chloe pulled out a few wires that were hooked up to a black box. “There would have been, if those assholes had plugged in the speaker,” she said as she held it up for them to see. Dropping it onto the floor, she reached back in, then quickly yanked her hand back. “Ow!”

“Are you okay?” Max asked.

“Yea. Still hot. Hang on.” Chloe pulled a glove from her cargo pocket, slipping it onto her hand. She reached back in, disconnected a couple of cables, and extracted a hard drive. Lifting it to her face, she sniffed it and wrinkled her nose. “Yep. Your drive is fried.”

Penny’s face fell. “Can you get back what was on it?”

Chloe placed the drive on top of the cabinet and reached back inside, tracing a wire with her finger. “Maybe. But...” she trailed off as she reached inside and pulled out another drive, sniffing it as well. “Ah ha. You’re in luck. They must have had a spare hard drive when they set it up, because you guys actually have a working backup. Two of the offices I’ve been to, those guys didn’t bother with their backup drives. They lost everything.”

Penny breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank God.”

Chloe looked over the rest of the cabinet. “I’ll be honest, miss...” she hesitated, looking at her expectantly.

“Penny is fine.”

“Penny, that’s gonna be the only bit of good news I have for you.” She gestured over the whole cabinet. “This setup is toast. Totally unfixable, and even if it was, this is a shitty setup overall. I wouldn’t sell this to my worst enemy. You need a brand new rig in here.” She glanced around. “There’s no environmental monitoring system, you should have one of those too... God, those dickheads couldn’t even get the wiring right, it looks like a blind man did it while he was on crack.”

Chloe looked back at Penny. “Pardon my French,” she added.

“Well, fuck those assholes,” Penny growled. “I’m going to sue them into the grave.”

“You and plenty of others,” Chloe snorted. “That’s probably why the owner fled to Mexico last month. Something like two dozen people want his head on a stick because of his shoddy work. I was at a marketing firm last week, they lost a BUNCH of work when his servers blew up. They want to sue him for millions.”

Penny shook her head. “Okay, I’ll look for a hitman later. Can you get a server back up and running?”

Chloe bit her lip and looked around the closet again. “Yes. Not before dinnertime, though,” she answered. “And not with what I have on me. I don’t have any other service calls today, so I can go back to the warehouse and get what I need. But it’s gonna be expensive.” She looked back at Penny. “I’ll talk to my boss, he’ll probably cut you guys a discount. But you’re still looking at a lot of money.”

“Well, we can’t work without email, never mind what was on those servers.” Penny shrugged. “Do what you have to do, we’ll pay for it.”

“Mm.” Chloe looked back at the server as she lifted her left arm, scratching the back of her neck. As her short sleeve rode up, Max noticed another tattoo on the inside of her bicep, a rainbow triangle. “Okay. I’ll head back now, then. I’ll get you an invoice before I get started."

Penny thanked her, and Chloe put her glove away as she walked out. Max went back to her desk and sat down, watching her get on the elevator.

“That sucks,” Max commented.

“Yea. Sounds like we got lucky, with that backup drive though.” Penny shrugged. “Well, shit happens, I guess. Could have been worse.”

Max nodded as she glanced back at the elevator. “Sounds like we’ll be up and running again tomorrow, though.”

“Yep.” Penny looked at the elevator, then back at Max. “She was pretty cute, too, right?” she added.

“Well- I mean-” Max squirmed. “Yea, if you’re into the whole Hot Topic vibe.”

Penny turned her head, looking sideways at Max. “Are YOU into the Hot Topic vibe?” she asked with a smirk.

Max glared at her. “Don’t you have some work to do or something?”

“Just saying,” Penny said as she waggled her eyebrows. “I know you saw her pride tattoo. She’s cute, and she wasn’t wearing a ring or anything. She might be av-ail-i-ble,” Penny sang, enunciating the last word.

“Do you want to date her?” Max asked sarcastically.

“I have a boyfriend, thank you very much.” Penny grinned. “The question is; do YOU want to date her?”

Max hesitated. Chloe was pretty cute. “I, uh... I don’t think our styles exactly match.”

“Hey, opposites attract,” Penny said smugly. “When’s the last time you went on a date?” The silence that came from Max was the only answer Penny needed. “Oh, honey, you REALLY need to ask her out when she gets back.”

“Go away,” Max said grumpily, as she turned back to her computer and started typing.

“Fine.” Penny walked away. “Next time you pretend to do work to make me leave, though, you should probably try when our server isn’t fucked,” she called over her shoulder.

Max sighed and slowly took her hands off the keyboard. “Dammit.”

Chapter Text

February, 2017 (cont)

 

Max couldn’t help but admit that Penny wasn’t wrong. Chloe was definitely attractive.

When she returned back ninety minutes later, she went into Penny’s office with an invoice for Max’s boss to look over. Penny signed it with a little grumbling, and Chloe went back to the elevator, heading down. When she returned ten minutes later, she was carrying a massive cardboard box that she could barely look around, and slowly waddled towards the office.

Max sprung up. “Do you need help with that?” she asked.

Chloe looked at her. “I think I’m supposed to refuse, in the name of good customer service,” she answered. “But yes, please, I didn’t think it would get so heavy.”

Max ran over and grabbed the other side of the box, alleviating some of the weight as she helped carry it towards the server room. “What’s in here?” she asked as they set it down.

“A new server case,” Chloe answered, breathing heavily from the exertion. “And some of the hardware. I’ve got to make another trip, though. There’s more stuff in the van.”

“You want a hand?”

“Please and thank you.”

Max followed her into the elevator, and they rode it down towards the parking lot. “Why is it going to take so long to fix the server?” Max asked, trying to make small talk. “Don’t you just plug everything together?”

Chloe smirked. “If it was that easy, Max, I would be out of a job,” she said. “Putting everything together and running wires will only take two or three hours. Everything else will be configuring it. It takes a while to set up a new server.”

Max frowned as the elevator opened up at the ground floor. “It only took the last guys a couple of hours.”

“Which is why the owner fled to Mexico to avoid the lawsuits,” Chloe chuckled as they walked outside. “When it’s done right, it takes a little longer.”

They quickly unloaded a few more boxes, bringing everything back to the elevator. “I appreciate the help,” Chloe said on the way back up.

“No problem.” Max smiled. “You need anything else?”

“Nah.” Chloe shook her head as the elevator got back to their floor. “Like I said, though, it’ll take a while. My boss pulled me off the on-call rotation for this gig.”

Max winced. “I hope we don’t keep you too late.”

“Hey, I never turn down overtime.” Chloe smirked again. “Nobody’s twisting my arm.”

Dropping the last boxes with the big one, Chloe started ripping them open, pulling stuff out. Sensing that her helpfulness was at an end, Max left her and went back to Penny’s office.

“Chloe’s getting started,” she informed her.

“Cool.” Penny grinned devilishly. “You ask her out?”

Max couldn’t stop her face from turning red. “No.”

“Why the hell not?”

Max squirmed. “I... uh... I don’t-”

“Oh, God, you’ve never done that before, have you?” Penny asked in surprise.

“Like you have,” Max retorted.

Jake chose that moment to walk into the office. “Like she’s what now?”

“Ever asked a man out,” Max replied.

Jake scoffed, looking back at Penny, who was sitting with a smug look on her face. “Max, I was with her at the bar when she met Charlie. She asked him if HE wanted to get coffee the next morning."

Max’s eyebrows went up. “Really?”

“Girl, you can wait forever for opportunity to knock, or you can kick the door in,” Penny chuckled as her phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID. “Shit, it’s Sarah.”

“Is she at the dealership?” Jake asked.

“She should be, by now. We need to figure this thing out.” Penny turned back to Max. “We’re not done here. We’ll take this up later.”


Max tried to stay busy as the day went on, doing what she could by telephone and a limited network. 

Chloe spent most of the day in the server closet, the occasional grunt and curse word emanating as she worked. Max saw her occasionally as she retrieved another component, or went to use the bathroom, but that was it; she spent the day focused on her work.

Until about four o’clock that afternoon, when Max was typing out a text message on her phone. “Hey, are you using that computer?”

Max blinked and looked up, Chloe standing in front of her. “Huh?”

“I need to see if your computer is reading the network,” Chloe explained. “May I?” she asked, gesturing towards Max’s machine.

“Oh. Um, sure, go ahead.”

Chloe walked behind the desk and stood next to Max, bending over as she typed rapidly on the keyboard. Her eyes were laser-focused on the screen as a text window came up, and information started to scroll, showing a list of numbers Max couldn’t begin to understand.

Especially with Chloe literally three inches from her.

Is she wearing perfume? Max wondered about the floral scent, then immediately discounted the thought. No, she doesn’t seem like a perfume kind of girl. It must be her shampoo or something. It sure smells good... I should ask her what brand it is. Or is that creepy?

“Max?”

She blinked, realizing Chloe had asked her a question. “What?”

“I said, are these seven computers the only ones in your office right now?”

“Um, yea.” Max looked around, double-checking. “There’re a couple of laptops, but they’re not here at the moment. Penny keeps one at home, and our Social Media Director has the other one.”

“Cool, all I need.” Chloe stood back up, the floral smell fading. “Thanks.”

Max watched her walk back, until a tapping sound distracted her. She looked back at the glass office wall, seeing Penny stare at her with a smirk on her face.

Max flipped her a middle finger in response, eliciting a laugh.


A couple of hours later, and Chloe was wrapping up in the closet; Max could hear more rapid typing as she finished with the server setup. She found herself in Penny’s office, the blonde giving her grief. 

“So are you going to go ask her out or what?” Penny asked, exasperated. “She’s literally been here all day, Max. It’s now or never.”

Max wrung her hands. “She probably has a girlfriend already,” she muttered.

“You won’t KNOW that unless you ask, Max.” Penny rolled her eyes. “Seriously, both of your jobs are almost over. Just go talk to her!”

“I don’t know what to say, Penny! I’ve never done this before!”

Penny threw her arms in the air. “And do you think it’ll get easier if you don’t do it?!” she retorted. “Look, maybe she’ll go get a drink with you. Maybe she won’t. But either way, you don’t lose anything by going and talking to her!”

“Except my dignity.” Max slouched in her chair.

“Who gives a fuck about your dignity?” Penny leaned forward. “Seriously, if she says no, do you think you’ll ever see her again?”

“I...” Max squirmed. “I don’t know?”

“Oh, for the love of Christ...”


Jake sighed as the two women went back and forth in the office next door. 

These glass walls looked so cool when we got this place, he thought to himself. He was regretting there not being a real wall between their offices; he was texting a couple of his managers as they discussed upcoming restaurant promotions, and the background noise was very distracting. Jesus, Max, I love you, but this is getting annoying. You need to sack up already.

He sent a reply to a question just as Penny’s voice raised a little in volume, while Max threw out excuse after excuse. 

Okay, fuck this. You want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.

Jake stood and walked out of the office, the other two women ignoring him as he walked towards the server room. The clicking of keys got louder as he approached and peeked inside.

“Hello,” he said cheerfully as he stood in the door way.

The blue-haired girl, Chloe looked back at him. “Oh, hey!” she said with a smile. “You’re Jake, I’m guessing?”

“That’s me.” Jake smiled back. “How is everything?”

“So far, so good. I’ll be done in a few minutes, then the server will restart, and you guys should be up and running like before in no time.” Chloe made a few more keystrokes and hit the Enter button on her laptop. “Just loading the last configuration now.”

“Super. We appreciate your quick response on this.”

Chloe shrugged. “Sorry the last guy fucked it up,” she said. “We try to do top-quality work in this business, but assholes like that give IT guys a bad name.”

“Well, you get assholes in every line of work.” Jake and Chloe shared a smirk. “So... kind of out of left field, but do you mind if I ask a personal question?”

Chloe looked at him curiously. “Uh, sure.”

“Are you gay?”

She did a double take. “Um... yea,” she replied guardedly. “Is... that a problem?”

“No, no, absolutely not,” he replied with a laugh. “I have my own Pride shirt at home. My last boyfriend made me wear it to a parade.”

“Oh.” Chloe looked him up and down, then shrugged. “I take it you noticed my tattoo, then?”

“Well, I didn’t, but they did.” Jake nodded towards the girls, still bickering in the office. “Penny is trying to convince Max to ask you out.”

Chloe’s eyebrows went up, and a corner of her mouth tugged upwards in a half-grin. “Wait... your receptionist? Really?”

“Max prefers ‘administrative assistant’. But yea.” Jake smirked. “She’s also shy. Like, incredibly, depressingly shy. She’s not really experienced with the whole ‘asking people out’ thing, and Penny is trying to help her work up the stones to do it.”

Chloe leaned over and poked her head out, looking towards the office. “Mm. She is pretty cute,” she admitted as she withdrew her head, glancing at her laptop.

“So... you don’t have a girlfriend?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

Jake grinned. “Well, I’m trying to get some work done, and quite frankly, they’re getting really fucking annoying,” he said. “I can promise that she’s not a serial killer or anything. You think you’d be up for a date with her?”

Chloe glanced back outside, at the office. “Hm. Yea. I would definitely get drinks with her, at least.” She hesitated and looked back at Jake. “You’re sure she’s not a serial killer?”

“She captures spiders alive and releases them outside,” Jake assured her.

“Then I’m down.” Chloe said with a grin as her laptop beeped. She hit a couple of buttons, and the lights on the connected server flickered. “Good timing, too, because I’ll be finished in a few minutes.”

“Perfect. Just a sec.”

Jake walked out of the closet and further into the office, stopping at the filing cabinets and pulling out a folder. “MAX!!” he yelled.

Max stopped talking to Penny and got up, poking her head out of the office. “Jake? What is it?”

“Will you come take a look at this? I don’t think this is right.”

Max frowned as she walked towards him, letting the office door close behind her. “What are you even looking at?” she asked as she approached the door to the server closet.

“Don’t know. Didn’t read it.” Jake set it down on top of the cabinet, then grabbed Max’s shoulder and shoved her into the doorway.

“Whoa!” Max stumbled in surprise as she grabbed the door frame to catch herself. Looking up, she saw Chloe watching her, an amused expression on her face. “Um...”

“Chloe, Max has something she’d like to ask you.” Jake leaned in behind Max. “Spoiler alert; she already told me she’d be down,” he whispered loudly into her ear as he patted her shoulder. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”

With that, he walked back towards his office, leaving Max gaping like a fish. She finally managed to shut her mouth as her face turned beet red.

“Wow, he was right, you really are shy,” Chloe chortled.

“... I’m going to kill him,” Max muttered.

Chloe arched her eyebrows. “You shouldn’t.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s gonna be kind of hard to ask me out if you’re in prison.” Chloe grinned. “I’m not waiting on a jailbird.”

Max’s face got even redder. “Do... uh.... are you...”

Chloe was silent, eyebrows raised, waiting for Max to finish her sentence.

“Are you doing anything later tonight?” Max finally got out.

“Nope.” Chloe smiled.

“Do you, uh, want to go get coffee?” Max asked. “Or maybe a... drink?”

The laptop next to her beeped, and Chloe glanced at it. “Your server is up and running,” she said as she disconnected it from the case and shut the door. Dropping the computer into her laptop bag, she zipped it up and turned back to Max. “You know what? It’s been a long day. Coffee sounds good, but grabbing a beer sounds better.”

Max thought quickly. “Um...”

Chloe finally took pity on her. “How about Zulu’s?” she asked. “It’s at the corner of Mark and Fifth. You know it?”

Max nodded. “Yea. I’ve been there.”

“How about we meet there in...” Chloe glanced at her watch. “An hour?” She looked back up, grinning. “You can tell me all about how you want to kill your boss.”

“That sounds great,” Max managed to squeak out.

“Cool.” Chloe slung her bag and grabbed the last empty cardboard box. “See you there, Max,” she said as she walked out with a smile.


“Sarah got the message out on time?” 

Penny nodded. “Yea, James got her the numbers she needed. Those Civics were our top sellers, but we still need to move a bunch of them to make room for the next shipment of cars. They think, with the new promotion, they’ll be able to move ten or twelve in the next couple of weeks.”

“Perfect.” Jake nodded. “What about Daniel? Did he ever get back to you with the new ads for Maria’s Kitchen?”

“Yea, but they’re stuck in our email somewhere.” Penny shrugged. “Speaking of which...” she worked her mouse on the computer. “Hey, our email is up and running!”

“Great.” Jake sighed. “Well, we lost a day, but that’s not too...” he trailed off as the door opened, and Max walked back inside. “Hey, Max!” he said with a big smile. “How did it-”

Max snatched a magazine from Penny’s desk, folded it in half, and smacked Jake in the back of the head as hard as she could.

“OW!!”

Max hit him again. And again. And again. She rained blows down on his head and arms as he held them up to defend himself.

“YOU!” Smack. “ARE!” Smack. “SUCH!” Smack. “AN!” Smack. “ASSHOLE!” Smack.

“What the fuck?!” Jake finally stood and shoved his chair between Max and himself, using it as a shield. “What the hell are you hitting me for?!”

Penny got to her feet, looking from the angry expression on Max’s face to the amused/confused expression on Jake’s. “Oh, God, Jake, what did you do?!”

“He shoved me into the server closet with her!” Max tried to make her way towards Jake again, but he maneuvered the rolling chair to block her, keeping her at bay. “He told me to ask her out, said she was already down, and to ‘go get ‘em tiger’! That was so FUCKING humiliating!” she yelled as she swung the magazine again, not making contact with Jake.

“Did you get a date with her?!” Jake asked incredulously.

“YES!”

“That what the fuck are you complaining about?!” Jake asked. “I asked her for you! I did you a favor, for fuck’s sake!”

“I- YOU- WHY- AAARRGH!!” Max finally threw the magazine at him. Jake barely managed to avoid it, as he ducked beneath the flying paper. “I am going to KILL you!!”

Penny’s snorting distracted her. Max turned to see her holding her hands over her mouth, desperately trying not to laugh.

“Don’t EVEN,” Max growled.

Penny took a couple of seconds to compose herself. “Ok. Ok, Max, maybe that wasn’t ideal,” she allowed, glancing back at Jake. “But, hey! It worked!”

“I looked so fucking pathetic!”

Jake interrupted before Penny could reply. “Max, maybe you could consider that Chloe might have taken it as a compliment?”

Max turned back to him. “Excuse me?!”

“Think about it. If another girl was into you, and was so incredibly nervous to ask you out that she needed a damn pep talk, you wouldn’t be just a LITTLE flattered that she thought so much of you?” Jake asked.

Max didn’t reply as she stared at him and fumed.

“Dude, you need to stop thinking so little of yourself,” Jake said carefully. “Maybe consider than other people might want to date you, too.”

“Max, he’s not wrong,” Penny added. “When is your date?”

Max turned back to her. “In an hour,” she replied. “At a bar called Zulu’s.”

“Oh, I know that place,” Jake said. “Neat little bar. Very good place for a first date. Nice and-”

“Shut up,” Max snapped. “I haven’t ruled out killing you in your sleep yet.”

Chapter Text

February, 2017 (cont)

Jake redeemed himself somewhat by letting Max leave the office early, and allowing her the use of his Uber account to get a ride to the bar.

When she got to the bar she spent a little time in the bathroom, quickly combing her hair with her fingers and straightening her clothes out to make herself a little more presentable. She would have preferred to go home and change, but there wasn’t time. Finally satisfied that she couldn’t do any better, she made her way to a table and ordered a beer from a passing waitress.

I cannot believe how nervous I am. Max sat at the high-top table, bouncing her foot up and down while she tried to control her heart rate. She absently scratched at the label on her beer bottle with her thumbnail. Calm down, Max. It’s just drinks. You’ve had drinks before.

Just, you know... now it’s a date. With a cute girl. That your gay roommate asked out for you. Because you’re a ginormous fucking pussy, who couldn’t work up the balls to do it herself.

Max pressed her hand into her forehead, grinding the heel of her palm against her skin. Oh, Jesus, I am so fucked.

In her self-wallowing, she failed to notice Chloe walk into the bar through the other entrance. She was still wearing the same outfit, though she’d put her beanie back on her head. Seeing her date, the blue-haired girl grinned as she snuck her way up behind Max.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she whispered right behind her head.

Max almost jumped out of her chair. “God,” she exclaimed, her hand on her chest. “I almost had a heart attack!”

“That would be a terrible first date.” Chloe smirked as she sat down across from Max. “Although not the worst I’ve ever had.”

Max blinked. “You’ve had dates worse than heart attacks?”

“Well, one girl did show up twenty minutes late and already drunk,” Chloe laughed. “So, yea, by that measure, this is going pretty well.”

The waitress chose that moment to arrive. “What can I get you?” she asked Chloe.

“Your strongest IPA,” Chloe answered. The waitress nodded and made a note as she walked off.

Max raised her eyebrows. “I, uh, wouldn’t have pegged you for an IPA girl.”

“Chloe Price is a woman of many layers.” She grinned. “So. Is poor Jake still alive, or did you kill him before you came here?”

Flushing red, Max picked another piece of label off her beer bottle. “I, uh, let him live. For now,” she added. “That might change, though. That was really embarrassing.”

Chloe leaned forward. “Yea, he mentioned you didn’t have a lot of experience asking people out,” she chuckled.

Max scratched at the back of her head. “I, uh... yea, not so much.” She sighed. “I’m not... really good at putting myself out there. It’s been a while.”

“Well, in case you forgot how dates work,” Chloe said with a grin, “this is the part where we get to know each other.”

Max finally smiled back. “Okay, it hasn’t been THAT long.”

Or ever. You terrible liar.

“Okay, then.” Chloe put her chin in her hands. “So. What does Max do, besides work in an office and come up with ways to murder her boss?”

Max laughed. “Well... I used to be a waitress,” she replied. “Jake owned the restaurant I worked at, so helped hook me up with a job.”

“Really?” Chloe smirked. “That’s really nice of him. Is he your brother or something?”

“Roommate,” Max clarified. “He’s been helping me out for the past year or so.”

The waitress returned with Chloe’s beer, and quickly departed. The bluenette picked up her glass, taking a generous sip. “Mm.” she smacked her lips. “Just what I needed after a long day.”

Max smirked. “Was setting up our server that hard?”

“It wasn’t you guys. Your job was easy, mostly.” Chloe shrugged. “My first job this morning was at a shipping company, where some dude put a virus on his computer while downloading some pretty fucked-up porn. It took a couple of hours to sort out.”

The brunette grinned. “How bad was the porn?”

Chloe shuddered, lifting her glass and downing several large gulps. “Pretty bad,” she admitted with a chuckle. “Not, like, illegal or anything, but... man, people are into some fucked up shit. But enough about somebody’s weird fetishes.” She leaned forward. “So, are you from around here?”

Max shook her head. “I actually grew up in Oregon. I came here a couple of years ago. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m a local,” Chloe answered. “I was born here. I went to high school about...” she looked around, getting her bearings before she pointed to her right. “Forty-five minutes that way. What bought you down to California?”

“I was looking for work,” Max replied. “I did a couple of odd jobs before I met Jake and got my waitress gig. He gave me the office job I have now to help get my GED, and pay for college classes.”

Chloe arched her eyebrows. “You had to get a GED?”

The brunette squirmed in her chair. “I, um... I didn’t graduate high school,” she admitted, slumping her shoulders in embarrassment.

“Really? Hey, me either.” Chloe smiled. “I had to get my GED too, a few years back. What happened with you?”

“There were... extenuating circumstances,” Max admitted. “I’d rather not talk about it, honestly.”

“Oh. Sorry, my bad.” Chloe had a pained look on her face, like she had done something wrong, but she pressed forward. “If it makes you feel better... I got expelled from high school when I was seventeen.”

Max blinked. “Really?”

“Yea. The principal didn’t appreciate my minor rebellions against his tyrannical rule.” She smirked. “I was kind of an asshole, when I was a teenager. I got my GED the year after I left.”

Max smiled, relieved that the bluenette didn’t press her for her high school story. “What about you? Did you do college classes around here?”

Chloe shook her head. “I have a few computer certifications. I got them at a trade school, and one of my instructors helped get me this job. I’m actually pretty lucky my boss hired me,” she admitted. “Most of my coworkers have at least associate’s degrees. I’ve been thinking about going back to class myself.”

“For Computer Science?” Max asked.

“Yea, maybe.” Chloe shrugged. “I like what I do, but I’m not sure if it’s my long-term plan yet. It helps pay the bills, though. Especially in this city.” Chloe gestured around them. “I moonlight a little bit as a tattoo artist, too.”

Max looked at her right arm. “Is that your work, then?”

“Yep. Did it myself.” Chloe pulled back her short sleeve to show the full artwork. “Kind of like a wearable resume, you know?”

Max admired the details as she got a closer look; the red ribbon and beautiful roses were a distinct contrast from the green stems and the sharp thorns. The centerpiece of the tattoo, a skull, was incredibly detailed; Max found herself admiring the small indentations and cracks she could make out in the bone. The blue butterflies were a nice touch as well. “That looks incredible,” she breathed.

“Thanks!” Chloe dropped the sleeve. “Took a really long time, though. Several sessions over a few weeks.” She smiled back at Max. “Do you have any ink?”

Max shook her head. “I know it’s painful, and getting stabbed over and over doesn’t really sound appealing,” she admitted. “It looks really good on you, though.”

“Well, if you were to get a tattoo... say, one licked on by unicorns...” Chloe paused as Max snorted in amusement. “What do you think you’d get?”

Max considered for a minute. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’ve never thought about it before.”

“Favorite animal?” Chloe offered. “A quote, maybe? What about a cross? Those are always popular.”

“Definitely not a cross,” Max said immediately.

Chloe’s eyebrows went up. “Another sore subject?” she asked.

“Ah... kind of,” Max answered uncomfortably, scratching her neck.

“Sorry. I forgot, you’re not supposed to talk about religion on the first date.” Chloe winced. “My bad. See? I’m not great at this either.”

“Pretty sure you’re still doing better than I am,” Max said with a grin. “What else are we not supposed to talk about?”

“Political views.” Chloe took another sip of her beer. “My current view on the administration can best be summed up with the words ‘Fuck Trump’.”

Max smiled. “We can toast to that,” she said, raising her beer bottle. Chloe clinked her glass against it, and they each took another drink.

“What about hobbies?” Chloe asked, as they put their glasses down. “You can’t do nothing besides work and school. What do you do for fun?”

“Um...” Max fidgeted. “I don’t really have any,” she admitted. “I watch a lot of TV and movies, but I’ve mostly been working... you know, trying to figure life out, and all that. I was pretty off-track, before I started doing classes. What about you?”

Chloe shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, I’m a stereotypical computer nerd. I play video games, argue with trolls on Reddit, and stick PC parts together to see how fast I can make them run before they blow up.”

Max blinked. “That sounds... exciting?”

“Eh.” Chloe grinned conspiratorially. “My landlord disagrees. But whatever.”

Max had to laugh at that, as she downed the rest of her beer.

“Looks like you need a refill.” Chloe smirked. “Actually, you know what sounds good right now?”

“What?” Max asked, leaning forward.

“Mozzarella sticks.” Chloe nodded. “Unless you’re a vegan or something, in which case, this is gonna be a really short date, because I don’t think I can live without fried food.”

Max laughed. “I am definitely not vegan,” she assured her. “And mozzarella sticks sound amazing.”

“They are. This bar has some pretty good ones.” Chloe raised her hand, and the waitress started making her way over. “See, we’ve already made it to round two of drinks. This is definitely a successful date in my book.”


When Max finally got back to the apartment, it was almost ten o’clock at night. If round two of drinks is a success, she thought with a smile, making it to round four must be, like, super-success or something. 

Plus, mozzarella sticks. Even if Chloe did eat most of them.

Jake was still awake, having thrown on his sweatpants while he worked on his laptop. He looked up as she opened the door, a big smile on his face, and didn’t say a word as Max came inside and closed the door behind her.

“I still hate your guts.” Max dropped her purse on the counter, unzipped her hoodie, and hung it on the hook.

“Did it go well?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Did you get a second date?”

“Yes.”

“Are you gonna apologize for trying to kill me with an issue of Cosmo?”

Max glared at him. “No.”

Jake smirked, then shrugged and turned back to his laptop. “See if I help hook you up with a hot girl again.”

“Shut up.”

Chapter Text

February, 2017 (cont)

Max met Chloe twice more that week after work.

On their second date, they went out and got dinner at a food truck Chloe swore by. “The absolute best tacos in San Francisco,” she promised, as they waited in a parking lot.

“They had better be,” Max replied as she looked at the line in front of them, which was almost twenty people long. “Otherwise, all these people are going to be very disappointed.”

“Trust me, Max, these are TOTALLY worth the wait.”

Chloe was right, of course. She’d ordered four of them, despite Max’s objecting that she wasn’t hungry enough for two. After the first bite, though, Max stopped protesting. She finished the second taco with ease and eyeballed the line, debating if she wanted to get a third.

“Told you,” Chloe said smugly as she sipped her soda. “I think the chef puts cocaine in them or something, because they’re addictive as hell. I get lunch from them at least two or three times a week.”

“How did you find these guys?” Max asked, balling up the wrappers.

“Their iPads took a crap, and they happened to see me getting out of my service van,” she explained. “They told me that if I could get them up and running, they’d give me lunch for free. Hard to resist a deal like that.”

Max smirked. “So... you were, like, a Tech Support prostitute?”

Chloe snorted. “Well, if you want to get into the semantics of it...”

Their third date was more in line with what Max expected with going out; dinner and a movie, on Friday night. That was also the first time Chloe picked Max up from her apartment, rather than meet her elsewhere, so Max took a little time to pretty herself up; she applied what little makeup she had, and changed clothes several times. She also asked Jake’s opinion often enough that, on her final change of clothes, he’d just told her to get the fuck out so he could play Call of Duty in peace.

Max was waiting on the curb, wearing a white blouse and jeans, when she finally spotted a head of blue hair driving into the parking lot. She hadn’t been sure what she’d expected Chloe to drive... but the pickup truck that stopped in front of her seemed about right.

“Is that thing safe to get in?” she asked, carefully evaluating the rusty pickup truck.

Chloe smirked. “It hasn’t fallen apart yet.”

“You and my roommate both, with the old trucks.” Max rolled her eyes as she pulled the door open, climbing inside. Though it was clean, she almost felt her shirt getting dirty as she put on her seat belt. “Although his doesn’t have any rust on the outside. Where did you find this thing?”

“At a junkyard,” Chloe replied casually as she shifted, driving out of the lot. “It only needed a little work to get running again. I still have no idea why someone tried to junk it.”

Max looked around, noting the rusty frame, the cracked dashboard, the duct tape wrapped around the steering wheel, and the stain on the ceiling, next to the dome light. “Yea, I can’t imagine,” she remarked dryly.

Dinner was nice; they went to an Irish pub Chloe was familiar with, and enjoyed Sheppard’s Pie with their beer while they made small talk. “So...” Chloe finally said as their empty plates were taken away. “Can I ask a maybe-bad question?”

“Sure,” Max answered with a shrug, sipping the last of her beer.

“What was your bad religious experience?” Chloe noticed Max tighten her lips as she put her glass down. “I mean, if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool,” she added quickly. “You just... had a pretty quick reaction the other night, and I was curious.”

“No, I...” Max hesitated. “It’s my parents. They’re really religious. Like, the Pope doesn’t pray often enough for them, level of religious. And the church we belonged to didn’t think very highly of gay people, so...”

“Ah.” Chloe blinked, a look of comprehension on her face. “Your parents don’t approve of you being a lesbian, I take it?”

Max frowned as she looked away. “They didn’t approve of lots of things I did,” she said quietly.

“Oh. Oh, jeez.” Chloe reached across the table and grabbed Max’s hands. “I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“No, it’s fine.” Max shook her head and turned back. “It was a long time ago. I don’t speak to them anymore.” She shrugged. “What about your parents? What do they think of your lifestyle choices?”

“You mean being gay, or my incredible-sexy punk look?” Chloe smirked as Max blushed. “Yea, my mom doesn’t really care. She just wants me to be happy. I think my step-dad is weirded out by the whole ‘lesbian’ thing, but that’s, you know, whatever.”

“Do they live here?” Max asked.

Chloe shook her head. “They used to, but they moved years ago. They live in Phoenix now.” She bit her lip as she tightened her grip on Max’s hands. “I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t mean to kill the mood or anything.”

Max couldn’t help but smile. She liked the feeling of the blue-haired girl holding her hand, running her thumb along her knuckles in a caring manner. “You didn’t, Chloe. I promise.”

They went and saw the movie soon afterward. Chloe took Max to the latest comic book movie that had just come into theatres, and spent most of it excitedly whispering in Max’s ear about the various characters on the screen; she was incredibly knowledgeable about all of their backstories.

“Okay, that was a pretty badass movie,” Max commented as they left the theater. “How do you know so much about all of the characters, anyway?”

“I was a HUGE comic book fangirl when I was a kid,” she replied as they walked back to her truck. Their hands were linked again, and Max had to walk faster than usual to keep up with Chloe’s longer strides. “My dad had a bunch of them in our attic, and he used to read them to me at night. I spent a lot of allowance money on them when I was younger.”

Max snorted. “So you’re a closet nerd?”

Chloe stopped next to the truck and turned back to Max. “Okay, I’m lots of things. Being closeted is not one of them.”

Max had to laugh at that. “Oh yea? What else is Chloe Price, besides a nerd?”

“Oh, you know. Punk, computer geek, lesbian...” The blue-haired girl grinned as she stepped closer. “I’ve also been called impulsive.”

The brunette’s eyebrow went up. “Impulsive? Like wh-”

Chloe interrupted her by lifting her hand to Max’s face and cupping her chin. She slowly tilted Max’s head up and brought her lips to hers, kissing her into silence.

Max’s mind went totally blank. She was pretty sure her heart stopped beating, too. All she could focus on was the feeling of Chloe’s lips on hers. It was both the longest and shortest few seconds of her life, as Chloe broke the kiss off.

“Kind of like that,” she said with a grin.

It took a second for Max’s brain to catch up to what had just happened. “Wowsers,” she breathed.

Chloe snorted in amusement. “That good, huh?” She said with a smirk, though Max could see a hint of apprehension in her eyes, like she wasn’t sure if she’d done the right thing. “Or too impulsive for you?”

Max swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. “I, uh...”

Say something, moron!

“I’m not sure,” she finally got out. “I might need a second opinion.”

Very smooth, you tremendous idiot.

Chloe grinned, though, as she looped her arms around Max’s neck, pulling her back in and kissing her again. Max’s hands found their way to Chloe’s waist almost unconsciously as they slowly made out next to her truck.

Now Max’s heart was beating like a jackhammer. Her eyes were closed as she tasted Chloe’s lips, feeling the warmth spread into her cheeks from her chest.

Her moment of bliss was interrupted, however, by wolf-whistles behind her. She stiffened, suddenly remembering that, while there were cars around them, they WERE in public, and very visible.

She went from blushing in romance to embarrassment as they separated, Chloe raising a one-fingered salute to the high-school boys behind them. They laughed back, one of them yelling for the girls to get a room.

“Fucking assholes have to ruin all the fun,” Chloe remarked with a hint of amusement.

“Dickheads,” Max agreed in a somewhat hollow, dreamy voice.

Chloe smiled. “I guess I should get your home, huh?”


Max got back to her room and immediately grabbed her laptop, calling Steph over Skype. 

After a few rings, the other girl answered. The bags under her eyes were more evident that usual, the tell-tale sign of her working late at home. “Hey Max,” she said in a tired voice. “What’s up?”

“I kissed the girl I’ve been dating,” Max said quickly. “And now I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Please help me!”

Steph did a double-take as her eyes widened. “You’re dating some- wait, you KISSED the girl? What the hell?! Why am I just now hearing...” Steph’s voice trailed off, as her eyes narrowed. “Oh. It just happened, didn’t it?”

“How did you know?”

“Gay intuition.” Steph tapped the side of her head. “You unlock that part of your brain after you turn twenty-two. Mine’s pretty on-point.”

Max arched an eyebrow. “Really?”

“No, you doofus, you have shiny lip gloss on your bottom lip.”

Max immediately wiped her mouth with her sleeve, noting the sparkly residue left behind. “I thought she tasted fruity,” Max said off-handedly.

“In more ways than one.” Steph’s grin was about to break her face. “Okay, gimme the details. ALL of them, right now. Name, occupation, cup size, everything.”

Max rolled her eyes, but she filled her in, telling her all about Chloe and how they’d met, and described the dates they’d been on, ending with her kiss earlier that evening. Steph listened with rapt attention as she talked. “Wow, Max,” she said as she finished. “That line is one of the cheesiest things I’ve ever heard.”

“Hey, it worked,” Max objected.

“Well, when girls thirst, they thirst. So, is this her?” Steph picked up her tablet and flipped it around, showing a Facebook page with a very familiar girl in the profile picture.

“What the hell- did you Facebook stalk the girl I’m dating?!”

“Yep.” Steph nodded as she turned the tablet around. “Chloe Elizabeth Price, age 23? Wow, someone’s robbing the cradle.”

“She’s only two years older than me!”

“Yea, in age. In experience, on the other hand...” Steph flipped the tablet back around, showing pictures of Chloe with other girls.

A few other girls.

“Wow,” Max said as she felt herself slowly deflate.

“She’s pretty cute,” Steph commented as she flipped through the pictures. Chloe with her arm around a girl’s shoulder at a sports arena. Chloe sitting in another girl’s lap at a BBQ. Chloe sitting between two other girls on a couch as they drank beer and smiled at the camera. “Damn, Max, you picked, like, the EXACT opposite of the girl I pictured you to go for. In appearance and behavior.”

“Yea...” Max felt traces of doubt nibbling away.

Steph picked up on her tone, and glanced back at the camera. “What?”

“I, uh...” Max sighed. “Steph, I don’t know if...”

“Oh, hell. That wasn’t what I meant, Max. Forget this.” Steph casually tossed the tablet over her shoulder.

“Dude!” Max gaped, as she heard the tablet clattering in the background. “What the hell?”

“Relax, it’s in an Otterbox case, and it’s not mine anyway. Max, I didn’t mean... what you probably thought I meant,” Steph assured her.

“That I’m not experienced enough for her?” Max asked quietly.

Steph leaned closer to the camera. “She kissed YOU, Max,” she pointed out. “This girl clearly does not care about your experience, or lack thereof.”

“I’m not sure she realizes how...” Max squirmed. “...inexperienced I actually am.”

Hesitating, Steph considered her words carefully before she spoke them. “Okay, Max, I’ve made some... assumptions... based on what you’ve told me, including your lack of previous girlfriends. But, you know, just to be clear... you are talking about sex, right?”

Wow, I didn’t think my face could possibly get any redder.

Max swallowed. “Yea,” she muttered, looking down at her lap.

“Okay, Max, look at me and listen,” Steph ordered as Max looked back up. “Are you listening?”

Max nodded.

“If this girl likes you... and it certainly sounds like she does... then she is not going to give a single shit about any of that.”

Max blinked. “Really?”

“One hundred percent.” Steph nodded. “Don’t let it get to your head, man.”

“Well, now I can’t stop thinking about it.” Max sighed.

Steph rolled her eyes. “Dude, this girl is clearly into YOU. If she was into someone who was more experienced, she would be with THEM. Get over your insecurities and deal with the fact that she might like you anyway.”

“That... is disturbingly similar to something Jake told me,” Max replied, thinking back to what Jake had told her in the office; maybe consider than other people might want to date you, too.

“Well, your roommate might have shit taste in football teams, but he’s not wrong in this circumstance.” Steph paused. “And he is a total badass for getting you that first date.”

“Oh my God, shut the hell up.” Max scowled. “That might have been the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me.”

Steph shrugged. “If it might get you laid, who cares?”

“Steph!”

Chapter Text

Jake: Hey, are we still going to see the Logan movie tomorrow?

Max: You can. Chloe and I are going to the zoo.

Jake: Really?

Jake: Chloe didn’t strike me as a ‘zoo’ girl.

Max: What does a ‘zoo’ girl look like?

Jake: Okay, fair point. But you know what I mean.

Max: Apparently it’s an adult night or something. They’re selling booze instead of soda, and no kids are allowed. 

Jake: That... actually sounds pretty awesome.

Max: Right? I had no idea that was a thing.

Jake: I feel like I should come up with a business like that.

Jake: How expensive do you think a zoo is?

Max: ... you just want a pet tiger, don’t you?

Jake: Is that so wrong?

Max: You watch too much Archer.

Jake: Excuse me, do you want to get fired? Because that’s how you get fired.


Victoria: Did you get my email? 

Max: Yep! I can’t wait to see you, and meet Kate!

Victoria: I know, it has been WAY too long. And Kate is really looking forward to meeting you.

Max: Really? How much did you talk about me?

Victoria: I mean... it wasn’t that, so much as her finally asking me who you were while I was sharing the status updates from your old ‘in search of’ Facebook page.

Victoria: By the way, I noticed you only have like six friends? You know there are a bunch of people from high school who would like to make sure you’re okay.

Max: Yea, I know... I’m trying to make sure that my parents don’t see my online profile.

Max: I mean, I’m pretty sure my father doesn’t have a Facebook page, but I’m not taking chances, you know?

Victoria: Got it. Probably a good idea.

Max: How many people actually went looking for me?

Victoria: I think there were about a hundred of us, that first weekend.

Max: ... wow. I feel really bad. I wasn’t even in Portland.

Victoria: Really?

Max: I got off the bus a few stations before that. I didn’t have a ton of cash, and I wanted to save some of it.

Max: I’m sorry.

Victoria: Max, don’t even think about apologizing.

Victoria: We were all worried sick. Nobody is sorry that we took a chance to try and find you.

Max: Still.

Victoria: Change of subject. You’re sure you’re doing okay? You don’t need anything?

Max: I’m fine. My boss got me a job that makes me enough to pay for online school, so I’m starting classes.

Victoria: Oh? Which ones are you in?

Max: English Comp, Anthropology, and American History.

Victoria: Still in the electives, huh? Enjoy them while your professors don’t give a shit.


Rachel: Maxine Anne Caulfield! 

Max: Um, that’s not my middle name?

Rachel: What did Steph just tell me about you having a girlfriend???

Max: Okay, first, we’re not calling each other that yet.

Max: Second... well, I think the question is self-explanatory. Is there confusion?

Rachel: Not the point! Why am I hearing this second hand?!

Max: It’s been two weeks! We’ve only been on seven dates!

Rachel: YOU’VE BEEN ON SEVEN DATES IN TWO WEEKS?!

Max: I feel like you’re making a bigger deal about this than it should be.

Rachel: You told Steph and didn’t tell me!

Rachel: And we Skyped last week!

Max: Are you really upset about this? I only told Steph because I needed advice.

Rachel: I can give advice too!

Max: Yea, I needed GOOD advice.

Rachel: When have I ever given you bad advice??

Rachel: I saw it as soon as I typed it.

Rachel: Please don’t go back to hating me.

Rachel: Max?

Rachel: I wasn’t thinking! I’m so sorry!

Rachel: MAX??

Max: Holy shit, I had to answer a phone call.

Max: I’m certain we’ve been over this.

Rachel: :(

Max: I was GOING to make fun of that time you convinced Steph to ask out the very heterosexual head cheerleader back in high school.

Rachel: Excuse me, Dana Ward was most definitely at LEAST bi-curious.

Max: I looked her up on Facebook. Her male fiancé would probably beg to differ.

Rachel: If her fiancé knew what she did with Juliet Watson while she was drunk at the junior prom after-party, his nose would shoot blood like a busted fire hydrant.


Penny: Max, are you with Chloe right now? 

Max: Yea, we’re getting lunch.

Penny: Oh, at that taco truck??

Max: More like at Taco Bell.

Penny: It feels too soon, for your dates to go so far down hill.

Max: We were both craving Quesaritos, and we wanted them in less than forty-five minutes.

Max: Also, this is less of a date, and more of our lunch hours coinciding.

Max: Why are you asking, anyway?

Penny: I need computer help.

Max: She says she’s off the clock.

Penny: I’m just trying to use one of these Smart Boards, you know, the ones with the projectors and touch screens? The dealership just got one for meetings.

Max: Yea, I remember seeing the invoice. What’s wrong with it?

Penny: There’s a file on the desktop, and I need to open it with a different program, but this damn screen thing won’t let me right-click!

Penny: What do I do?

Max: Chloe says it’s because you’re using your left hand. You have to use your right.

...

Penny: It’s still not working!

Max: ... now she’s laughing her ass off.

Penny: Why?

Penny: Wait...

Penny: God damn it!

Max: “Tell her to just plug a mouse into the tower and use that!”

Penny: I spent five minutes having all the staff try using THEIR right hands!

Penny: Is that why they’re all laughing at me?!

Max: Soda just shot out her nose. It’s all over the table.

Penny: I don’t like Chloe anymore.

Max: Too bad. I think she’s going to get you a gift basket for making her week.


Chloe: Max. I have a question that needs an answer, quickly. 

Max: Yes, you’re very pretty.

Chloe: First of all, I’m hot as hell, TYVM.

Chloe: Second, I need to know what kind of music you listen to.

Max: Um... a bunch of different bands. Fall Out Boy, Imagine Dragons, Green Day, that kind of stuff.

Max: Jake usually turns on his Rock & Roll playlist when we drive to work, I like most of what he’s got.

Chloe: Perfect. Need you to pull up a band on YouTube and tell me if you like their jam.

Max: What band?

Chloe: They’re called Firewalk. Check them out really quick, need to know what you think.

...

Max: Wow, these guys are pretty good.

Max: Why haven’t I heard their music before?

Chloe: They’re a local band that hasn’t hit it big yet.

Chloe: Anyway, I’m asking because they’re playing at Club Whiskey this weekend, and I got two tickets from a friend who can’t make it.

Max: ... you want me to go with you, right?

Chloe: No, I was just letting you know what I was doing, in case I got kidnapped.

Chloe: YES, I WANT YOU TO GO WITH ME, YOU DORK.

Chapter Text

March, 2017

 

“Wow, this place is packed,” Max commented as Chloe pulled into the parking lot.

“Yea, Firewalk is definitely getting popular.” Chloe maneuvered her truck into one of the last available spots. “I knew I should have ducked out of work sooner.”

Max shrugged as they got out. “It’s not that far of a walk.”

“Not yet, but we’re gonna be tired later.”

“Why? Do we not have good seats?”

“I’m sorry, seats?” Chloe grinned as she wrapped her arm around Max’s shoulders and pulled her in close. “Where we’re going, we don’t need seats! We’re getting into the mosh pit, shaka brah!”

Max furrowed her eyebrows. “What does that even mean?”

“Oh, my young padawan.” Chloe planted an exaggerated kiss on Max’s temple, causing the brunette to blush. “I have so much to teach you.”

Chloe flashed their tickets at the entrance just as the music started. “Come on!” she said as she pulled Max through the crowd, towards the front of the stage.

The closer they got, the more Max felt the music in her sternum as the band really got their rhythm going. All around her, people were jumping and waving their arms, pushing into both her and Chloe. They finally stopped about thirty feet from the stage, and the two girls joined in, Max watching Chloe closely and following her lead.

Man, these guys are good! Max started actually having fun, listening and dancing to the music Firewalk was pumping out. She made sure not to stray too far from Chloe; with the density of the crowd, she was afraid of losing her. But Chloe seemed to keep an eye on her, too, knowing when to grab her arm or hand and pull her in closer, to avoid the worst of the pit.

A few times, during breaks between songs, Chloe just grabbed hold of Max and wrapped her arms around her from behind. Max enjoyed that feeling even more than the mosh pit, as she held on to the bluenette’s arms and leaned back into her.

“SAN FRANCISCO!!” the lead singer finally yelled into the microphone, eliciting a fit of screaming from the crowd, including Max and Chloe. “We got one more song before the owners kick us all the fuck out of here, so let’s fucking ROCK THIS!!”

The crowd roared as they band started their final song.

“Hush/Let's kick it in to touch/And wash away the sludge/That's withering our minds...”

“Words/A message to the world/To let the masses learn, that someone holds a light...”

Max didn’t notice, but as they danced and jumped, Chloe started slowly pushing them away from the middle of the pit, towards the edge as the band worked their way through the song.

“'Cos we've waited all our lives/And now's our fuckin' time...”

“'Cos we've waited all our lives/Yeah, we're coming!!”

The entire venue shrieked as the guitarists and drummer beat out the last few notes of the song, letting the music get drowned out by the fans. “GOODNIGHT, SAN FRANCISCO!!” the lead singer screamed into the mike.

Max felt like she was coming back down to earth as she blinked, realizing they they were already out of the mosh pit. Chloe had pushed them all the way to a far wall, the rest of the fans slowly streaming out. “That was fucking awesome,” Max gasped, trying to catch her breath.

“I know!” Chloe grinned as she stood in front of Max, one hand on the wall while she wiped sweat from her forehead. “Dude, you were totally thrashing like a pro! That was so wicked!”

“These guys are the wicked ones.” Max grinned back. “They’re so my new favorite band!”

Chloe was still breathing hard as she glanced over her shoulder. “We should give it a few minutes to clear out.” She looked back to Max. “So? Feeling tired?”

“I mean... not really!” Max smiled. “I’m still stoked, like, I could totally run a marathon or something-”

Chloe grinned as she leaned in and grabbed the back of Max’s neck, mashing their lips together as she kissed Max fiercely.

“I know what you mean,” she grinned as she pulled away after a few seconds.

Max blinked, then clawed at Chloe’s waist. “Get back here,” she said breathlessly.

“Yes, ma’am.”

They kissed hungrily for several minutes, Chloe’s fingers snaking their way through Max’s hair as they made out against the wall. Max’s fingers inadvertently slipped under Chloe’s shirt, the bluenette moaning as they grazed the smooth skin above her hips.

Almost in retaliation, one of Chloe’s hands let go of Max’s head and slid slowly down her spine. Max practically felt the electricity of Chloe’s fingers dragging down her back. The hand dipped below her waist, and she felt fingers work their way into her back pockets, causing Max to moan back into Chloe’s mouth.

Chloe finally broke it off, biting Max’s lower lip as she released her mouth. She leaned her forehead against Max’s as they both took a few seconds to catch their breath.

After a few seconds, she brought her mouth to Max’s ear. “I think we should go back to my place,” she said breathily.

Max was hardly in a state of mind to refuse her. She barely finished nodding as Chloe grabbed her hand and dragged her back into the crowd, towards the door.


Max barely got a look around Chloe’s place before the girl slammed the door behind them and pushed Max into the wall, resuming their fierce makeout session from the club. All Max could gather was that it was a small studio apartment, but she found herself not really caring as she kissed back. 

After a few minutes, Chloe’s hands made their way up to the zipper on Max’s hoodie, pulling down slowly and helping Max shrug it off her shoulders. Tossing it aside carelessly, Chloe brought her hands back to Max’s hips and hooked her thumbs underneath the brunette’s t-shirt, slowly working it up her stomach.

If Chloe’s fingers had been like electricity before, now they were sparks, igniting trails of fire wherever they touched. “Chloe,” Max said breathlessly. “Chloe, wait, I...”

“What?” Chloe let go of Max’s shirt. The look of concern she had on her face almost made Max’s heart melt. “Is something wrong? Am I going too fast?”

“No, no, definitely nothing wrong,” Max said hurriedly. “I... um... I’ve just... I haven’t-”

“You’ve never done this before,” Chloe finished Max’s sentence, “have you?”

Max’s face turned bright red as she shook her head slowly, unable to talk.

“Hey, Max. Look at me.” Chloe brought her hand up to Max’s chin and tilted her head up, looking into her eyes. “It’s okay.”

“I just don’t want to...” Max trailed off, not sure where she was going.

“I don’t want to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with,” Chloe whispered softly, kissing Max gently on the lips. “Do you want me to stop?”

“No, no no no, definitely not,” Max said quickly. “I want to do this. I just...” Max swallowed. “I don’t want it to...”

“What? Suck?” Chloe grinned as Max’s face got redder. “Max...” she bent down and kissed her again. “It’s not going to, I promise. Hey,” she said, kissing Max a third time. “Stop me if I’m doing anything you’re not ready for. Okay?”

Max nodded, her breathing getting faster as Chloe’s fingers dipped underneath her shirt again.


Half an hour later, Max was still breathing heavily as she lay next to Chloe on her bed. 

“So... how was it?” She asked nervously, trying to ignore the cramping in her hand as the bluenette struggled to catch her breath.

Chloe turned over and took Max’s cheek in her hand, kissing her deeply. “You can leave, if you want,” she said with a smile, “but your fingers have to stay.”

“Really?” Max said with a grin.

“Hell yes.” Chloe snaked an arm under Max’s neck and pulled her closer, planting a kiss on the top of her head.

Max smiled as she let herself get pulled into Chloe’s chest, nestling where her shoulder met her collarbone. Wow, she thought, enjoying the feeling of their bare skin touching as she relaxed into her...

Wait, what am I supposed to...

“Um... Max glanced back up at Chloe. “I’m not really sure how this is supposed to work now...”

She felt Chloe giggle above her head. “Well, most people leave the money on the nightstand when they’re done. I take Paypal, though.”

Max poked the bluenette in the ribs. “Not what I meant,” she scoffed. “I mean the whole... relationship thing. Um... do I call you my girlfriend now?”

Chloe pulled back and looked down at Max, the smile still on her face. “Do you... WANT to be my girlfriend?”

Max nodded vigorously. “I mean, if you’re gonna keep my fingers anyway,” she said quickly, trying to lighten the mood.

Chloe laughed as she pulled Max back into her embrace. “Then yes, you little dork,” she replied. “You’re my girlfriend now.”

I have a girlfriend. Max’s smile was about to break her face and she hugged Chloe back. I have a girlfriend. And she’s fucking awesome.


Several hours later, the sun having risen, Max crept back to her apartment. 

She’d wound up staying the night with Chloe; between the mosh pit and their... extracurricular activities afterwards, they had both fallen asleep in moments.

Chloe had woken up first. And then she’d found a way to wake up Max that the brunette discovered she liked WAY more than an alarm clock. Her face turned red as she remembered it, plus the shower afterwards. “We’re in the middle of a drought, Max,” Chloe had pointed out. “Saving water is important...”

Yea, she’s a lot smoother than I am.

Chloe dropped Max back at her apartment afterwards, so she could go to work; she’d taken an on-call shift for that Sunday. And now Max was desperately hoping Jake was still asleep, as she slipped her key into the lock as quietly as possible.

Jake was not asleep. He was sitting at the kitchen table, reading something on his tablet while he ate cereal, as Max failed to slip through the door discreetly.

He looked up, saw who it was, and put the tablet down as he took her in, noting the damp hair and same clothes she’d gone out in. “Soooooo....” he said slowly, a grin spreading on his face. “How was the concert?”

Max’s face felt like the head of a match that was about to ignite. “Good,” she muttered.

“Uh huh.” He looked like his birthday had come early. “I didn’t realize it was going to go on so late,” he commented. “Unless you were out doing other stuff?” His eyebrows went up. “What else do two young lesbians do all night, besides go to rock concerts?”

“We... uh...” Max swallowed, then hung her head. “You know already.”

Jake opened his mouth, comically feigning shock. “Oh, my goodness, is our little Maxine Caulfield doing a...” he glanced around and lowered his voice. “... Walk of Shame?!”

“Man, shut up.” Max took off her hoodie and tossed it onto the coat rack by the door, heading towards her room.

“Max, wait!”

She paused and looked back at Jake, who was barely holding in laughter. “Are you hungry?” he said, indicating the box of cereal. “Or are you still full from eating out?”

Max’s ears turned pink as she turned and went back to her room, Jake’s laughter echoing behind her as she shut the door.


Max: Hey Steph! 

Steph: Max!

Steph: How was Firewalk? I’ve been wanting to see them forever!

Steph: And why are you up so early on a Sunday?

Steph: Wait... 

Max: Firewalk was good, we had a blast!

Max: Wait for what?

Steph: Are you just now getting home?

Steph: DID YOU GET LAID!?!

Max: ...

Max: Why is that so exciting?

Steph: OMG OMG OMG

Steph: You got your V-Card punched!

Steph: Fingered?

Steph: Eaten out?

Steph: What verb can I use?

Max: NO. I am not doing this.

Steph: You have to!

Max: I most certainly do not.

Steph: Hang on a minute.

Max: For what?


Steph: Max got laid!! 

Rachel: MAX GOT WHAT

Max: Dude! WTF?!

Steph: This was WAY too important not to tell her.

Rachel: Detailsdetailsdetailsdetailsdetails!!

Rachel: Was it the Smurfette?

Max: How many girls do you think I’m dating?

Rachel: ANSWER ME

Steph: ANSWER HER

Max: ... yes, it was Chloe.

Rachel: How was it? Scale of 1-10?

Max: You know I have nothing else to compare it to, right?

Steph: That matters not. Rate her! 1-10!

Max: Is this a lesbian thing?

Rachel: This is an ‘our friend finally had sex and we want to know details’ thing!

Steph: Did you do the Seesaw?

Max: WTF is a Seesaw?

Rachel: She didn’t do the Seesaw.

Rachel: How about Tribbing?

Steph: I don’t think that’s a thing.

Rachel: Trust me, it’s a thing.

Steph: What about the Rocking Horse? I’ve only seen her picture, but she definitely seems like a Rocking Horse kind of girl.

Max: Yea, I’m not Googling any of this. I learned my Urban Dictionary lesson already.

Steph: Ok, fine, time for the important question. We’ll get the rest out of you eventually.

Steph: You gonna keep seeing her?

Max: Why would I not keep seeing my girlfriend?

Steph: YOUR WHAT

Rachel: You guys talked about it? She’s your girlfriend now?

Max: Yea, we talked about it. She’s my GF now.

Rachel: Awwwwwww...

Steph: My phone doesn’t have the emojis to convey the warmth in my heart.

Steph: Best I can do is the Vulcan greeting and a tongue.

Max: I hate you both.

Steph: ... please take it back.

Rachel: Yea, we’re not ready to joke about it yet.

Max: Sigh.

Max: Fine. I still love you two.

Rachel: :)

Steph: :)

Steph: So when do I get to meet her?

Rachel: Hey! I want to meet her too!

Max: When I’m satisfied you two degenerates won’t embarrass me.

Steph: So... never?

Max: Never EVER.

Chapter Text

April, 2017

Since their hours ended at roughly the same time, Max found herself seeing Chloe almost every other day. If she didn’t ride home with Jake, she waited for Chloe’s truck to pull into the lot and climbed into the passenger seat. 

“It feels like I’m picking you up from school,” Chloe commented one day.

“Classy,” Max remarked dryly as they ate their tacos; they had begun making it their mission to seek out the taco truck in the evenings, wherever it parked. “Is that a fantasy of yours?”

Chloe’s eyes lit up. “It wasn’t,” she said, “but now I’m thinking about you in one of those schoolgirl outfits.”

Max’s face turned pink as she looked around, checking to make sure nobody was listening. “Maybe we could revisit this later,” she suggested.

“Oh, we’re definitely not done with this,” Chloe said with a grin.

Sometimes they didn’t get food. Sometimes they went straight back to Chloe’s apartment, which Max finally got a good look at. Her girlfriend rented a studio apartment that was actually a decent size, big enough for a full kitchen (though not enough for a kitchen table) and a small walk-in closet. The built-in on the wall opposite her bed was stuffed full of computer parts and small tools, and a few pictures.

“My mom and step-dick,” she commented as Max asked about one of them.

Max looked at the middle-aged woman and the man with a mustache. “I take it you don’t like him very much,” she remarked.

“Well, I like him enough, I guess.” Chloe shrugged. “Maybe some leftover teen angst. We don’t really see eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff. He’s really conservative, and I have the feeling that he only tolerates me being gay because my mom supports it.”

Max saw another picture of Chloe’s mom with a different man, this one with blond hair. “That was my dad,” Chloe explained as she saw where Max was looking. “He died in a car accident when I was fifteen."

“I’m sorry,” Max said.

Chloe shrugged. “Long time ago.”

That was the same week Chloe also introduced Max to video games, which Max had never really played before. “Dude, you are terrible at this,” Chloe snickered as they sat on the edge of her bed, playing on her PS4.

“I’m trying!” Max shook the controller as her character moved around the screen. “Ugh! Why can’t he push the damn block?!”

Chloe reached over and tapped a button on Max’s controller, and the block in question was blasted out of the way. “You never played any video games when you were a kid, did you?”

Max shook her head. “They weren’t allowed in our house.”

“That sucks.” Chloe paused. “If you want, we can do something else-”

“No way.” Max looked back at her. “I’m gonna get better at this, as another one-fingered salute towards my parents.”

“Good of a reason to do it as any.” Chloe lead the way deeper into the video game. “So you’re meeting your friends tomorrow for dinner, right?”

Max nodded. “Victoria and her girlfriend, Kate,” she replied. “They’re up from Los Angeles for their two-year anniversary weekend.”

“That’s- there, smash that one.” Chloe pointed to the screen, and Max moved her character. “That’s cool. Are you gonna be out late?”

“Probably not, they made a bunch of other plans,” Max pulled her phone from her pocket, checking the screen. “I’m meeting them at seven, but they have a show or something at nine.”

“How does another girl our age, still in college, have the money to bring her girlfriend to San Francisco for the weekend?”

Max smirked. “Oh, her parents are filthy rich.”

“Ah. The best kind of friendship to maintain,” Chloe said with a snicker. “How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”

“Five years.”

“Wow.” Chloe worked her controller, and something on the screen dropped a bunch of coins. “Oh, grab all of those. Why so long?”

Max squirmed slightly; she still hadn’t told Chloe what she’d been through, including running away from home. “I just fell out of touch with a bunch of people, you know? I’m trying to reconnect.”

“Well, better late than never.” Suddenly, something on the screen exploded, and Max’s character went up in smoke. “Looks like you’re out of lives.”

“Dammit.” Max pouted as she put her controller down. “Next time.”

“Lemme kill this dude really quick, then we’ll do something else.” Chloe’s character started attacking a big monster and Chloe fell silent, a look of concentration on her face.

Max grinned as she laid her hand on Chloe’s thigh and slowly started working her way up. “Max...”

“What?” Max replied innocently. “Is he dead yet?”

“No. He’s a really hard one.” Chloe’s eyes didn’t leave the screen, though a grin was breaking over her face.

Max’s hand worked its way over Chloe’s belt buckle, then under her shirt. “I’m not distracting you, am I?”

“Max,” Chloe growled. “If you keep doing that, I’m not going to be responsible for what I’ll do to you.”

The brunette withdrew her hand and stood up, pulling her shirt over her head. Chloe finally looked away from the screen as Max lifted her leg and sat down on her lap, wrapping her arms around her girlfriend’s neck.

“Doing what?” she asked with a grin.

Something exploded on the screen behind her, and the noise stopped. “You just killed my character,” Chloe said as she dropped her controller and grabbed Max’s hips.

“Oh, no,” Max said as Chloe’s hands worked their way up her back, towards her bra strap. “Whatever will you do?”


Max checked the time on her phone, tapping her feet nervously as she sat on the bench in front of the Italian restaurant. 

Why am I so nervous? Max swallowed as she put her phone back in her pocket. We were friends back in school. She seemed excited to meet me... well, not as much as Kate, but whatever. Why am I worried about-

“Max!”

The brunette looked and saw the two blonde girls getting out of a car, Victoria waving as she closed the door behind her.

“Hey, Victoria,” Max said as she stood and waved. “It’s-”

She blinked and found herself wrapped in a bone-crushing hug. “Christ, it’s good to see you,” Victoria whispered.

“Ugh... can’t... breathe...” Max gasped.

“Vicky. Vicky, too much.” Kate grabbed Victoria’s elbow and tugged. “It’s bad form to suffocate people in public.”

Victoria laughed as she let Max go, dropping her back to the ground. “Thanks,” she breathed as she smiled at Kate.

The smaller girl gave her a hug. “It’s great to finally meet you,” she said as she let go. “Vicky’s been telling me all about you.”

“Only good things, right?” Max said with a smile.

“Yea, mostly.” Victoria smirked. “Come on, let’s eat. I’m starving, and I’ve heard great things about this place.”

Kate was immediately awed as they walked inside. “This place is amazing!” she gasped as they admired the wood paneling and antique lighting fixtures. “Wow! Victoria, how did you even get reservations for this place?”

“I asked my dad very nicely.” Victoria grinned. “Apparently he knows the owner or something. I didn’t ask.”

“I guess some things don’t change since high school,” Max chortled.

“Why?” Kate turned to her. “Was she incredibly pretentious back then, too?”

“Hey!” Victoria pouted. “I was not!”

Max gave her a look.

“Okay, maybe a little bit.”

The three of them laughed as they walked up to the hostess, who glanced up as they arrived. “Good evening, welcome to-” she blinked and did a double-take. “Max?!”

“Beth!” Max smiled as she saw her friend from Maria’s Kitchen.

“Oh my God!” Beth ran around her podium and wrapped Max in a hug. “It’s been forever!”

“Oh, come on! Chloe and I had lunch at Maria’s last week!” Max laughed as she let go. “What are you doing here?” she asked, frowning. “Did your mom finally fire you?”

Beth rolled her eyes. “No, you jerk. My mom got Jake to give me a second job. I’m working here at night. What are YOU doing here?” she asked. “No offense, but this place cannot be in your price range.”

“I’m here with her,” Max said as she gestured to Victoria, who still had a surprised expression on her face. “She has reservations.”

“Oh, hang on.” Beth went back behind her desk and opened a book. “Miss Chase, right?”

“Uh, yea. That’s me.” Victoria shook her head. “Party of three?”

“Yep, I have you right here.” Beth marked her book and called up a waiter. “John will bring you guys to your table. Max, don’t you leave without saying goodbye!”

Max waved as John brought them to their table, handed out menus, and departed. “How do you know her?” Victoria asked.

“Uh, well, I was gonna mention it, but I know the owners too.” Max grinned as she picked up her menu. “I work for both of them. One of them is my roommate.”

Victoria blinked in astonishment. “You work for Penny Seymour?”

“I’m her office assistant,” Max replied. “Slash-secretary. Slash-errand girl. I do a lot around their office. How does your dad know her?”

“I honestly have no idea.” Victoria shrugged. “He knows too many people for me to keep track of. I asked for a restaurant recommendation, and he got us reservations here.”

Max shook her head. “Talk about a small world.”

“So, who is Chloe?” Kate piped up as she put her menu down.

“My girlfriend,” Max answered nonchalantly as she read her menu. “What in the world is guh-nosh-i?”

“Gnocchi, you heathen, and they’re pasta dumplings.” Victoria replied, then flipped her menu down to stare at Max. “Wait, Chloe’s your what?!”

Max shook her head at the look on Victoria’s face. “My girlfriend. And why does everyone have that reaction?”

Victoria blinked, trying to form words.

Kate finally leaned close to her. “That’s what WE are,” she whispered loudly.

“Oh, hush!” Victoria waved her away and leaned forward. “You’re gay?”

Max frowned. “Did you not know that?”

“No!” Victoria paused. “Although your choice of friends in high school does make a lot more sense now.”

“Is that why you...” Kate hesitated. “Never mind.”

Max figured what her question was, and nodded. “Yea, that was one of the reasons I ran away,” she replied. “I’m sure Victoria told you, but my parents are not exactly liberal lions.”

“Jesus...” Victoria put her menu down. “Max... I really wish you’d talked to me before you left Arcadia Bay.”

The brunette hesitated before answering. “I, uh, didn’t think I knew you well enough to just show up at your house and ask for help,” she explained. “I mean, we barely knew each other.”

“We were on the Quiz Bowl team together!” Victoria objected.

“Yea, but, I mean, that was it.” Max shrugged. “You lived in the high-end part of town... I lived with the rest of the nutjobs from my church... we hardly ran in the same social circles.” She was about to say more, but she noticed Kate give Victoria a quick glance, which the other girl returned. “What?”

“She had a crush on you in high school,” Kate answered.

“Kate!” Victoria’s face turned red. “Don’t tell her that!”

Kate smirked. “Well, it’s true.”

Max’s eyes widened in surprise. “Did you really?”

Victoria sighed as she fidgeted with her fingers. “Yea,” she admitted. “I mean... you were pretty cute, and you had the whole ‘innocent’ thing going on. I just figured, you know, you were straight. I mean, after those articles came out, the whole school knew what your church did to gay teenagers.”

Max scoffed, shaking her head. “Yea... I had no idea about any of that,” she said sadly. “I never knew how bad my church was until Steph told me. That was kind of one of the reasons I agreed to copy those emails from my dad’s computer when Rachel asked.”

“Really?” Victoria’s eyebrows went up.

“Well, that, and he did swat me across the face for asking if he knew any gay people,” Max said dryly.

Kate looked at her, horrified, while Victoria’s face got dark. “I fucking knew you didn’t fall down the stairs,” she fumed. “Your father’s an asshole.”

“Certainly not gonna get any arguments from me.”

The waiter chose that moment to reappear. “Have we made any decisions?” he asked.

“Yea, I’ll have the guh-noke-ee,” Max replied.

“Gnocchi,” Victoria and the waiter corrected her simultaneously. “And I’ll have the same,” Victoria added. “Plus a bottle of Pinot Noir.”

“Ah, the lobster bisque, please,” Kate said as she handed over her menu. The waiter collected the rest of them and departed. “Max...” Kate said as she turned back. “You haven’t seen your parents since you left, have you?”

“No.” Max shook her head vehemently. “I have no intention of EVER going back to Arcadia Bay. Or seeing them ever again.”

“Good.” Victoria took a sip of water from her glass. “There’s nothing to go back for, anyway.”

Max raised her eyebrows. “What does that mean?”

“I mean Arcadia Bay is a shithole, Max.” Victoria shrugged. “What’s there to go back to? The church runs half the town, even with all their legal problems. They’re constantly at war with the other half over business, real estate, laws... you know they tried to pressure the city council to close the entire city on Sundays? Even the hospital.”

Max shuddered. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yea. Anyone with half a brain is getting out of there. The only ones crazy enough to stay are the guys who want to shut your church down, like Rachel’s dad.” Victoria paused. “Although he is doing a really good job. Gotta give him that, at least.”

“Does that mean you’re never going back either?” Max asked.

“No way. My parents moved back to Seattle years ago.” She shook her head. “They took a lot of money with them, which I know hurt a bunch of people on both sides.”

“Maybe we should talk about something a little lighter,” Kate said as she leaned forward. “I want to know more about Chloe. How long has she been your girlfriend?”

Max looked at her watch. “About three weeks. We had our first date the week after I friended you on Facebook.”

Her phone chose that moment to jingle in her pocket. “Oh, is that heeeerrrr?” Kate said slyly as Max pulled it out.

“Yea. Sorry, she’s texting me.”

“Something sappy and tender, right?” Kate asked as Max brought up the text.

Chloe: Hey, come over when you’re finished with dinner.

Chloe: We can take our pants off and binge Game of Thrones.

“Yep,” Max said with a smirk. “She’s a real romantic, that girl.”


“You went to high school with Derek Chase’s daughter?” Penny exclaimed, eyebrows raised in surprise. 

“Yea, I did.” Max nodded, reclining in the chair across from Penny’s desk the next day. “How do you know her?”

“I don’t.” Penny shook her head. “I’ve met her dad twice, though, back in Seattle. My parents run a pretty exclusive restaurant near the Space Needle, so they know most of the movers and shakers in town. He called me a couple of weeks ago, asking to hook his kid up with reservations at Dionaldo’s. With money like his, you don’t really say ‘no’.”

Max chuckled. “Talk about a small world.”

“Right?” Penny leaned back. “How was dinner?”

“Amazing.” Max grinned. “I had the gnocchi. It was on point.”

“Fuck yea, it is.” Penny grinned back. “Chef Frank’s gnocchi is the reason I hired him. So, are Victoria and her girlfriend still in town?”

“They’re leaving tomorrow. She’s got classes back at UCLA that she can’t miss.”

Penny nodded. “Are they gonna come back?”

“They said probably. They also said I have an open invitation to come visit them, too.” Max shrugged. “It’s, like, a six-hour drive, though, and I don’t have a car. So we’ll have to see.”

“Maybe you can get your girlfriend to take you.”

Max scoffed. “Have you seen Chloe’s truck? I don’t know how she drives it around the city without it blowing up. I’m not risking my life in that thing on the highway.”


Kate: Hey, Max, it is okay if I ask you a bad question? 

Max: Sure, I guess?

Kate: Did you tell your parents you were gay? Before you ran away?

Kate: I’m so sorry if you don’t want to talk about it.

Max: No, it’s fine. It was a long time ago.

Max: I didn’t tell them. They found out from someone else.

Kate: Do you think it would have been better, if it came from you?

Max: Honestly, no. Probably not.

Max: But they’re incredibly homophobic. I don’t think there’s any way they would have been good with it.

Kate: Oh.

Max: Is everything okay?

Kate: I’m... having some family issues of my own.

Kate: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I don’t really have anyone else to ask about this.

Max: That’s okay, Kate. You can talk to me about anything.

Kate: Thanks, Max. :)


Chloe: I cannot believe you. 

Max: ???

Max: Why? What’s wrong? What did I do?

Max: Please tell me so I can fix it!

Chloe: You took me to dinner with Jake.

Chloe: YOU LET ME SIT AT A TABLE WITH THAT MAN

Max: I don’t understand! I thought you liked him!

Chloe: I just looked him up on Facebook.

Chloe: YOU LET ME SHARE A MEAL

Chloe: WITH A FAN

Chloe: OF THE DALLAS COWBOYS

Max: Okay, you think you’re being funny, but I was having a legit heart attack.

Chloe: I have never been more serious in my life.

Chloe: We are SWORN ENEMIES

Max: You are not a member of the San Francisco 49ers!

Max: Jake is not your sworn enemy!

Chloe: I have to challenge him now!

Max: No, you don’t.

Chloe: A fight to the death!

Max: He did two tours in Iraq.

Chloe: This is about honor!

Max: You lost a wrestling match with the comforter last week.

Chloe: IT SNUCK UP ON ME

Chapter Text

June, 2017

One Friday night found the two girls in a bar after work. After a couple of drinks and some food, the decided to play some bar games, starting with billiards. Max was currently bent over the pool table, trying to line up her shot.

She was also trying to ignore her girlfriend’s attempts at sabotaging her. Chloe bent over right behind her, pressed up against Max as she breathed heavily into her ear. “Remember, Max, just keep your eye on the ball,” she purred.

“You aren’t helping,” Max growled.

“I’m not trying to.”

Max paused, smirking over her shoulder. “Don’t get fussy, just because I’m whooping your ass.”

“Being one ball ahead does not mean that you’re whooping my ass.” Chloe stood back up. “But fine. Take your best shot.”

Max turned back to the table, made a couple of adjustments, and gently tapped the cue ball forward. It rolled smoothly across the green felt, knocking her target ball into the pocket. “Now I’m up by two,” she grinned as she stood. “Am I whooping your ass yet?”

“No,” Chloe said crossly, examining the table. “Beginner’s luck.”

“Uh huh.” Max went around the table, seeing a perfectly straight shot to sink another one of her balls. “What if I’m up by three?” she asked, bending over to aim. “What then?”

Chloe walked over next to her. “You’re not gonna make that shot.”

“I am totally going to make this shot.” Max aimed her stick. “Watch and learn, padawan.”

She slid the stick through her fingers a couple of times, getting a feel for it, then pulled back to shoot the ball. But as she did, she felt her girlfriend’s hand on her butt, and squealed as Chloe gave her a sharp pinch. The cue ball went wide, completely missing her target and bouncing across the table.

“Told you so,” Chloe smiled mischievously.

“You cheated!” Max shot her a glare, though she couldn’t keep a trace of amusement from her face. “You pinched me!”

“Well...” Chloe moved in, forcing Max back against the pool table. The bluenette planted her hands on either side of Max, trapping her in place. “To be fair, your butt is way too nice to keep my hands off of,” she whispered, leaning in and planting a kiss on Max’s lips.

Max blushed as Chloe pulled away. “You’re terrible,” she muttered.

“It’s also my turn now.” Chloe took the stick. “Time for me to start whooping your ass.”

“Literally,” Max said as she rubbed the seat of her jeans. “That was really hard.”

Chloe smirked. “You want me to kiss it and make it better?”

“Well, maybe not here...” Max trailed off as Chloe took aim as one her her balls. She grinned and reached over as Chloe pulled the stick back, pinching a handful of her girlfriend’s butt.

It didn’t work. The cue ball rolled straight, knocking Chloe’s ball into the corner pocket.

“Concentration of a champion,” she said as she looked over at Max, a smug grin on her face. “Gonna have to do better than that.”

“Yea...” Max glanced around. The bar they were in was only half-full, but there were still a fair amount of people around. “There’s a limit to how much I’m willing to do in public.”

“Oh?” Chloe’s eyebrows went up. “So, if we were in private...”

“Get a pool table in your apartment, then we can talk,” Max folded her arms, smiling.

Chloe’s grin widened. “Oh, I could totally get behind that.” She glanced back at the table, taking a new position across from Max. “It doesn’t sound like we’d ever finish a match, though.”

“Eh. I’m not that dedicated to this game anyway.”

The bluenette laughed as she took another shot and missed, her ball bouncing off the edge of the table. “Damn. You’re up.”

“Hang on.” Max took another drink from her beer. “I have to use the bathroom.” She went to leave, then stopped, pulled her phone out, and took a picture of the table.

“You gonna plan your shot from the stall?” Chloe smirked.

“Making sure you don’t move the balls around, you sore loser.”

Chloe laughed as Max made her way towards the bathroom.


Max was washing her hands as her phone vibrated in her pocket. She dried them quickly before she retrieved it, bringing up her text messages. 

Chloe: You took too long. <1.jpg>

Max shook her head as she brought up the picture. It was a shot of the pool table, all of Chloe’s remaining balls gone, and the eight-ball lined up with a perfect shot to the corner.

Guess we’re done playing pool, Max thought to herself as she left the bathroom, sticking her phone back in her pocket as she smiled. She’s freaking adorable.

In her distraction, she didn’t notice the guy in front of her, and almost ran into him before she could stop herself. “Oh, excuse me,” she said, trying to walk around him.

“It’s- oh, you’re the girl at the pool table,” the guy slurred. “You and your friend are hot as fuck.”

“Um... yea, sure,” Max said, mentally rolling her eyes. “Okay, I’m gonna-”

“Kissing and groping in public, you two must... get up to some freaky shit in private.” His voice was all over the place, and Max could smell the liquor on his breath. “You two wanna come back to my place? I got the hookup. Grass, blow, whatever you want.”

Max scoffed. “Yea, no, we’re not doing that.” She tried again to get by him, but he was a big guy who blocked off most of the hallway that lead to the bathrooms. “Dude, move over.”

“What’s wrong?” the man’s voice took on a new tone. “What, you don’t think I can handle the two of you at once? Wait until you take a ride on Big Papa, hot stuff, you’ll never go back.”

“Yea, it’s gonna be a hard pass.” Max glared at him. “Get the fuck out of my way.”

His hand shot forward and grabbed her arm. “What the fuck is wrong with you, girl, you-”

Max blinked, and for a second the man had on a trucker hat. She felt like she was back in the run-down service station.

“-don’t think I just give free rides to everyone, do you?” His beady little eyes passed over her hungrily. “You got something I want.”

Max gasped, trying to pull her arm away from him. “Let go of me!”

“Ow! Let me go! That hurts!”

“Why don’t you take it easy, girl, and just get your lady friend so we can have some fun?”

“You owe me, little bird. I drove you all the way from Eureka. Let’s go back to the truck, and we’ll have some fun.”

“Let go of my- OW!” Max yelped, as the man tightened his grip. “Ow! Let GO!”

“Let go! Please! I- I-” Max swallowed nervously, her mind racing. “I have to use the bathroom. Please, let me use the bathroom, I really have to go!”

The guy grabbing her arm and the trucker almost looked identical, at that point. Right down to their smug sneer. “Calm down, you little-”

Max saw a black boot come flying up between his legs and slam into his testicles. Gasping, he immediately released Max’s arm and brought his hands to his crotch as he fell against the wall. 

Chloe stood behind him, fuming as she glared. “How’s that for a fun time?” She snapped. 

“You bitch...” the man gasped out, pushing himself off the wall with one hand. “You fucking-”

Rearing back, Chloe threw a punch directly into his nose. Max heard a sickening CRUNCH as blood exploded from his nostrils. His eyes rolled back in his head as he sank back into the wall, sliding to the floor in a heap.

“Asshole.”  She glanced back at Max, stepping over the man’s legs. “Are you okay?”

Still hyperventilating, Max nodded as she gripped her arm. “Yea,” she managed to get out as she tried to slow her breathing. 

“Good. Let’s go.” Chloe grabbed her shoulder and pulled her towards the back exit, past the bathroom she’d just left. 

“What- where are we going?”

“First rule of winning a bar fight, Max; get the fuck out of dodge.” Chloe pushed the door open, and guided Max around the building, bringing her towards the truck. They jumped inside and took off, peeling out of the lot as fast as they could. 

Max was still breathing fast as Chloe drove. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Chloe asked, a worried look on her face.

“Yea.” Max closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as she cradled her arm. “Yea, I’m fine.”

“What a fuckin’ asshole.” Chloe turned back to the road, pulling to a stop at a red light. “Should’ve hit him in the balls a few more times.”

Max glanced over, noticing that Chloe’s hand was shaking as she clenched and unclenched it. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Max. I’m worried about YOU.”

“I mean your hand.”

Chloe shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

“Let me see.” Max took her hand from the steering wheel. She reached up and turned on the cab light to inspected her girlfriend’s bruised knuckles. “Should we go to a hospital?”

“No.” Chloe shook her head. “If anything was broken, it would hurt a lot more. It’s just gonna be sore for a few days.”

“Are you sure?”

Chloe smirked. “I’ve been in fights before, Max. I’ll be fine.”


For all her bravado, Chloe was still wincing when they got back to her apartment. 

Max quickly filled a bag with ice, as her girlfriend sat on the couch and gently pushed at her knuckles with a finger. “These are gonna swell up tomorrow,” she muttered.

“Yea, probably.” Max sealed the bag and want back to the couch, sitting down next to Chloe. “Here, gimme your hand.”

The bluenette let Max take her arm as the pressed the bag of ice into the back of her hand. “Ooh, that’s cold,” Chloe hissed.

“It’s supposed to be.” Max smirked. “That’s the point. Are you sure you-”

“I’ve broken fingers before, Max.” Chloe waved her other arm. “I know what a busted hand feels like. I don’t need to go see a doctor. What about your arm?”

Max looked down, pulling her sleeve back with one hand while she used the other to keep the ice in place. Her arm had several bruises from the man’s fingers. “It hurts, a little,” Max admitted. “I’ll be okay, though. I’m more worried about your hand.”

“It’s gonna be fine.” Chloe’s face twisted in anger. “I should have hit that prick harder.”

“I think he learned his lesson anyway.” Max sighed. “You really laid into that dude.”

“Damn right I did. He was putting his hands on you,” she reminded her, as she laid her good hand on Max’s arm. “Nobody fucks with my girlfriend.”

Max couldn’t help but smile. The memory of the man-slash-trucker was fading quickly, as she nestled into Chloe’s side. “I, uh... it’s amazing, what you did for me.” She hesitated. “But I don’t want to be the kind of girl that jumps your bones for getting into a fight.”

“Good, because those girls are terrifying.” Chloe smirked, leaning her head onto Max’s as they sat quietly for a minute. “Sorry our night out got cut short.”

“I’m okay with it.” Max looked up, pecking Chloe on the cheek. “There’s no place else I’d rather be.”


Rachel: I finally got my Masters! 

Max: Yay! Congratulations!

Rachel: Thank you so much :)

Max: Wait, you put this in the wrong chat. Steph isn’t here.

Rachel: I know. I wanted to tell you first.

Rachel: I also got a job referral for Oregon CPS, from one of my professors.

Rachel: I have an interview next Monday.

Max: Wow, Rachel! That’s awesome!

Max: You are gonna do such great work.

Rachel: I hope so.

Max: You are going to be an amazing social worker.

Max: Stop doubting yourself just because of high school.

Rachel: Max... I just wanted to promise you, I will never screw up like that again.

Max: I know you won’t.

Max: I am so proud of you.

Rachel: Thanks, Max.

Rachel: Being able to talk to you again means everything to me.

Max: Ditto.

Max: Now go save some kids.


Jake: Why the fuck does Chloe want to challenge me to a sword fight? 

Max: Yea, about that.

Max: We need to talk about your Facebook page.

Jake: Is this about the picture of me in my Halloween costume from last year?

Max: No.

Max: But we should talk about that, too.

Jake: I was a VERY convincing William Wallace.

Max: Not with a kilt that short, you weren’t.

Chapter Text

August, 2017

Chloe hummed as she stirred the pot of sauce on the stove, sprinkling in red pepper flakes. “Is it done yet?” Max called out from her seat on the bed. 

“Perfection takes time, babe,” Chloe replied back with a smirk.

“Yea, but I’m hungry NOW.”

“That just means that it’ll taste better.” Chloe set the spoon down and poked her head past the cabinets, looking at her girlfriend as she reclined on the bed, watching TV. “It should be done in twenty minutes.”

“You said that ten minutes ago!” Max retorted.

Chloe shrugged. “Don’t know what to tell you,” she said as she went back to the stove. “Your girlfriend sucks at following her mother’s instructions.”

Max laughed. “This had better be good pasta.”

“This is going to be AMAZING pasta.” Chloe turned the heat down on the stove, setting the sauce to simmer. “It’s my great-grandmother’s recipe. I had to beg my mom to give it to me this afternoon.”

“Beg, huh?”

“Well...” Chloe hesitated. “I, uh... I made a deal. With my mom.”

“What kind of deal?”

“I, uh, told her that if she gave it to me, so I could cook something good for our six-month anniversary, I’d... introduce you to her. Over Skype.” Chloe held her breath as she waited for her girlfriend’s response.

“Oh?” Max said after a couple of seconds. “That doesn’t seem like a fair deal to me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, you just got some recipe. Your mom gets to meet ME.” Chloe could practically feel Max smirking. “I think she got the better end of the bargain.”

Chloe snorted. “SOMEONE thinks very highly of herself,” she shot back with a smile, relieved that Max was taking it well; she’d mentioned the possibility of introducing her to Joyce a couple of times, but her girlfriend had given no indication if she was ready for it or not.

It’s been six months, though. Chloe shrugged internally. You’ve met other girls’ parents sooner than that... although none of those relationships made it to the six-month mark.

Sigh. At least Max didn’t show up to the third date with a U-Haul.

Max was silent as Chloe busied herself cleaning up the kitchen, dropping the cutting board in the sink as she washed her knife under the faucet. She had just set it aside and was bagging up the leftover garlic, when she could have sworn she heard Max gasp in the other room.

“Max?” Chloe glanced over her shoulder. Her girlfriend didn’t reply. “Is everything okay?” 

No answer. Chloe finished sealing the Ziploc bag as the volume on her TV went up, reaching her ears in the kitchen.

“...people were arrested in the middle of services, the culmination of efforts by a task force in the Oregon State Police,” a reporter was saying. “Six men and two women have been charged with numerous offenses relating to the death of two teenaged girls, who were only sixteen years old when they died last month.”

Chloe frowned as she dropped the bag on the counter and walked back into the bedroom. Her girlfriend was sitting forward on the bed, remote control in her hand, eyes wide and locked on the TV. The news was showing a video of several people being led out of a church in handcuffs.

“Max?” Chloe carefully asked again. The brunette showed no indication of hearing her. Chloe looked at the TV as the woman continued her news report.

“The autopsy of Jennifer Hansen and Sara Wood, both young parishioners of the First Light of Christ Church in Arcadia Bay, was released this morning,” the reporter continued. “It was revealed that the two girls died from injuries sustained during what leaked church files described as a “sinner’s exorcism”, in which they were severely beaten over the course of several hours to repent for homosexual feelings.”

The video cut to a man identified as James Amber, the District Attorney. “The parents of these girls, as well as the church leaders who sanctioned and oversaw this atrocious assault, will be held accountable for their actions,” he announced to the cameras at a press conference. “They are going to be charged, and prosecuted, to the fullest extent of the law.”

Chloe looked back at Max, who hadn’t moved a muscle. Slowly making her way onto the bed, she carefully took the remote from Max’s hands and muted the TV. “Max? Max, are you okay?”

Max swallowed and looked back at Chloe. “That was my church,” she said hollowly, gesturing towards the screen. “First Light of Christ.”

Chloe’s eyes got big. “That... wait. You used to go to church there?”

“When I was a kid.” Max looked down, biting her lip. “I... I used to babysit the girl that died. Jennifer Hansen. And her little brother.” She sniffed. “She was such a sweet kid.”

“Oh, Max...” Chloe wrapped her arm around Max’s shoulder and pulled her close, pressing her girlfriend’s face into her chest. “Max, I am so sorry.”

Max sniffled. “They arrested my mom,” she added, her voice muffled by Chloe’s shirt.

Chloe picked her head up and looked down at Max. “They- wait, what?!”

“They had her mug shot up a few minutes ago,” Max muttered. “My parents are really involved with the church. My father’s an Elder. I guess my mother was one of the people who was involved with that...” her voice trailed off.

“Oh my God.” Chloe hugged Max tighter. “Max... please,” she whispered, “please tell me they never tried to do that to you.”

“No.” Max sniffed again. “I ran away before they could.”

Chloe blinked. “Wait... you ran away from home? Seriously?”

“Yea. When I was sixteen.” Max nodded against Chloe’s chest. “My parents found out I was having sinful thoughts about girls. And that I ratted my dad out to the police for covering up another assault like that one. They were...” she paused. “They were really angry.”

The bluenette fell silent. “I want to know what happened,” she finally said. “When you were younger.”

“Chloe-”

“Max,” Chloe interrupted. “I know you don’t like talking about it. But... please? For me? Tell me what happened.”

So Max took a deep breath and told her. All of it.

Her developing feelings about Victoria. Meeting Steph and Rachel. Reading the church’s Wikipedia page and finding out about the boy from her camp. Her dad hitting her that first time at dinner. Rachel and Steph convincing her to copy emails from her dad’s computer. Her dad getting arrested. Her parents beating her, the next week, after they’d found out what she had done. Hitting her father with a frying pan and holding a knife on her mom so she could get away.

She never noticed that Chloe was hugging her tighter and tighter as the story went on. And it wasn’t until she got to the part of the story where she held a knife on her mom, that she felt her girlfriend’s tears hitting her hair.

Max tried to move, but Chloe was holding her too tightly. “Chloe...” she started.

“Shush.” Chloe kissed the top of Max’s head, her eyes squeezed shut. “Just... keep going, Max. I want to know all of it.”

Max did leave some stuff out. She didn’t tell Chloe the worst parts of the four years she spent homeless. The time she was almost killed by another homeless woman, or assaulted by the guy in the car by Sacramento. She did mention sleeping in shelters, panhandling, and begging her way into San Francisco. By the time she got to meeting Jake, she thought Chloe was about to squeeze her to death.

“I owe him so much,” Max finished. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for him.”

Chloe didn’t reply for a few minutes as she slowly released her grip on Max, trying to sniff tears back. “Your parents are fucking assholes,” she croaked.

“Tell me about it,” Max replied quietly.

The bluenette grabbed Max’s chin and tilted her head up to face her, using her other hand to wipe her eyes.

“Max...” she swallowed. “I swear to God, I am never gonna let anyone hurt you. Ever again.” She paused for a moment. “I love you, Max,” she whispered as she planted a kiss on her forehead.

Max’s throat caught as she swallowed. “I love you too, Chloe,” she whispered back.

Chloe kissed her again and wrapped her in another bone-crushing hug. They sat like that for a few minutes, Chloe really not wanting to let go.

Finally, Max spoke again. “I think the sauce is burning,” she mumbled.

“Fuck the sauce.”

“Chloe, I’m still really hungry.”

“I’ll order pizza.”

“I’m gonna want pineapples on it.”

“... fine. I’ll fix the sauce.”


They were both curled up in bed that night, Max playing little spoon as she lay her head on Chloe’s arm. She was absently running her fingers over her girlfriend’s tattoo, as the bluenette gripped her tightly with her other hand. 

“I’m gonna punch your friends Steph and Rachel when I finally meet them,” Chloe mumbled into Max’s hair.

“Please don’t.”

“Gonna do it.”

“I forgave them for what they did, Chloe,” Max said. “Well... sort of.”

Chloe lifted her head off the pillow. “Sort of?”

“I haven’t really said it to them yet. Out loud, anyway.” Max sighed. “But... if they hadn’t done it, and I hadn’t run away, I wouldn’t have made it here. I wouldn’t have met Jake. Or Penny.” She paused. “Or you.”

Chloe put her head back down. “I’m pretty awesome, but I don’t know if I’m worth what you went through to get to me.”

Max interlaced her fingers with her girlfriend’s. “If it got me to you, Chloe, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Chloe pulled Max tighter, kissing the back of her head. “Nuh-uh. No more self-sacrifice for you,” she growled. “You’re all mine. Anybody wants to mess with you, they gotta come through Mama Bear now.”

Max smiled as she nestled closer to Chloe. “Seriously, Chloe. They went through a lot trying to find me. Rachel was looking up until the day Steph told her where I was.”

“... fine.” Chloe sighed. “I won’t punch them in the face. It’ll be a gut shot.”

“Chloe...”

“Only because I love you.”

“... I’ll take what I can get.”


Rachel: Max? 

Max: Hey.

Rachel: I just talked to my dad.

Rachel: Have you seen the news?

Max: Yea.

Rachel: How are you doing?

Max: I don’t know.

Max: I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel.

Max: Did he say anything about my dad? I didn’t see him mentioned.

Rachel: Your dad wasn’t one of the ones arrested.

Rachel: He is defending the ones who were, though.

Max: He wasn’t involved this time?

Rachel: Apparently, after what happened with you, he doesn’t get involved in those things anymore.

Rachel: My dad says it’s his way of plausible deniability.

Max: ... wow.

Rachel: Seriously, Max, are you okay?

Max: I’m fine. I’m with Chloe.

Max: Jake gave me the day off. We’re spending it at her apartment.

Max: Is it wrong that I feel lucky? Like, that it wasn’t me? I feel so terrible for that.

Rachel: Absolutely not.

Rachel: And I’m sure Chloe’s telling you the same thing.

Max: Your dad’s going to put them all away, right?

Rachel: He says he’s going to nail them to the wall.

Rachel: It won’t be like last time. He has a shitload of evidence and witnesses.

Max: Good.

Max: I hope my mom gets sent to prison, and someone makes her their punk.

Rachel: Wow.

Max: Sorry. Chloe and I have been binge-watching OITNB.

Max: I want her cellmate to be Boo.

Rachel: What about Sophia?

Max: I will accept that as well.

Max: Oh! Crazy Eyes! That would be hilarious.

Rachel: Or Taystee!

Max: Poussey! Oh, I love her.

Rachel: ... what season are you two on?

Max: Halfway through 4. Why?

Rachel: Nothing.

Max: What?

Rachel: Text me back when you finish.


Steph: Hey Max, I just saw the news. 

Steph: You doing okay?

Max: Better.

Max: Talked to Rachel earlier.

Max: Chloe and I are taking the day off and watching Netflix.

Steph: I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry’ or not, about your mom.

Max: Rachel says that her dad is going to send them all up the river.

Steph: Good. I don’t know if you feel bad or not, but your parents belong there.

Max: Not gonna argue.

Max: I knew one of those girls.

Steph: You did?

Max: When our parents met for church stuff, I used to babysit her and her little brother.

Steph: Fuck. I’m so sorry, Max.

Max: Yea. So we’re all in agreement that my mom can sit on it and rotate.

Steph: Okay, I know I haven’t met her yet, but this sounds less like you and more like Chloe.

Max: No, it’s me. What Chloe said was SO much worse.

Steph: Now I really want to meet her.

Max: Soon.

Max: Preferably before lunch.


Victoria: You see the news yet? 

Max: Yes.

Victoria: Was that your mom? I don’t know if there are any other Caulfields running around back in AB.

Max: Yea, it was.

Victoria: Kate wanted me to tell you that she’s sorry.

Victoria: I wanted to tell you that I hope she rots in hell.

Max: Thank you both.

Victoria: Maybe she’ll meet a nice butch named Abigail the Involuntary Pussy Slayer.

Max: Rachel and I had this discussion already.

Victoria: Dammit.

Victoria: For real, though. Are you okay?

Max: Better than I was last night.

Max: I told Chloe what happened back then. She’s on Team Rot-in-Hell.

Victoria: What’s her email?

Max: Why?

Victoria: I want to send her a link. I found a couple of web sites that will allow you to sign people up for pretty fucked-up adult mailing lists.

Victoria: I’m subscribing the church’s address to some fairly graphic gay porn.

Max: This doesn’t sound like something Kate would be on board with.

Victoria: Kate was the one who found it.

Victoria: You should see what SHE signed them up for.


Max: God damn it. 

Rachel: Yea. Sorry.

Max: I don’t like this show anymore.

Rachel: ... you’re still watching it, though, aren’t you?

Max: Fuck yea, we are.


Kate: Hey, Max. How are you doing? 

Max: I’m fine, Kate.

Max: Been with Chloe all day.

Kate: Good. I know Vicky texted you before, I just wanted to make sure you were feeling better.

Max: We’ve literally been in bed all day, watching Netflix. Couldn’t feel any better.

Max: She’s developed a weird obsession with OITNB.

Kate: Oh my God, Vicky loves that show.

Max: It is pretty good.

Kate: I can’t follow it. There’s so many characters, and it gets really sad sometimes.

Max: I know, I thought Chloe was going to cry when Poussey... you know.

Kate: Oh, last season? Yea, Vicky was pretty upset.

Kate: You haven’t heard from your family at all, have you?

Max: No. My parents probably don’t even know I live in SF. Or that I’m alive.

Max: And if they’re still toxic enough for this shit, I’m not gonna try to reconnect.

Max: Sorry for cursing :(

Kate: I’ll give you a one-day pass :)

Max: I’ll use it responsibly.

Max: Unlike you and your mailing list website.

Kate: ... Vicky’s got a big mouth.

Max: What did you sign them up for?

Kate: I’m not going to say.

Max: Come on! It’s my old church! I have to know!

Kate: ... fine. It was Big Burly Bikers in Bondage.

Kate: Don’t Google it. I can still see it sometimes, when I close my eyes.


Max: Dude, you did not have to send us pizza. 

Jake: Are you gonna tell me to take it back?

Max: I mean, even if Chloe hadn’t already eaten half of it... no. No, I would not.

Jake: Penny wants me to make sure you’re doing alright.

Jake: She’s worried about you too.

Max: Tell her I said thanks. I’m doing fine.

Max: Everyone is texting me to ask the same thing.

Max: Chloe says I have too many friends.

Jake: Tell her the more friends you have, the greater the likelihood of surprise pizza.

Max: She accepts your wisdom.

Max: And, apparently, your shit taste in football teams.

Jake: If you can tell me, without asking her, what a 49er actually IS, I’ll wear a Joe Montana shirt to work tomorrow.

Max: ... and now she’s mad at me.

Jake: My job here is done.

Chapter Text

August, 2017 (cont)

Chloe looked at Max, exasperated as the brunette ran a comb through her hair again. “Will you stop fussing? She’s going to love you, no matter what you look like." 

Max shot her girlfriend a look. “I want to make a good impression, Chloe,” she retorted. “It’s your mother. I want her to like me.”

“I don’t actually believe that my mother is capable of NOT liking someone.” Chloe smirked. “Seriously, she has made friends with everyone she’s ever met.”

“Yea, but I’m her daughter’s girlfriend,” Max pointed out. “I have a vested interest in your mother not thinking I’m a hussy or something.”

“Well, in any case, I think there’s a limit to how many times you can comb your hair before you fuck it up.” Chloe reached over and pried it out of Max’s hands, setting it next to the laptop on the coffee table. “Calm the hell down.”

“YOU calm the hell down,” Max grumbled as she adjusted her shirt. “How do I look?”

Chloe glanced over as she hit the ‘Video Call’ button on Skype. “Like we just had sex.”

“What?!”

Max was still gaping as Joyce Madsen’s face came up on the screen. “Hi Mom!” Chloe said, waving with a smile.

“Hi Chloe!” Joyce smiled brightly through the monitor as Max pried her eyes away from her girlfriend’s face. Chloe’s mother looked at the brunette. “Are you going to introduce me?”

“No, I had no intention,” Chloe said as she rolled her eyes. “Mom, Max. Max, Birth-Giver.”

“Classy,” Max said dryly, smiling at the computer. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Madsen.”

“Oh, please call me Joyce,” Chloe’s mom drawled. “‘Mrs. Madsen’ makes me sound so old.”

Chloe smirked. “You ARE old, Mom,” she pointed out.

“Wow,” Joyce commented. “And here I thought I wasn’t going to use this.” She held up a pink book, the word CHLOE bedazzled on the front. “Max, would you like to see some really embarrassing pictures of Chloe as a little girl?”

Max sat forward, her eyes brightening. “Would I EVER.”

“No!” Chloe gasped. “Put that away!”

“Are you sure, Chloe?” Joyce’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “They’re the good ones, remember, where you were so little and hosting your precious tea parties...”

“You’re not old! You’re the picture of health and beauty! Put that damn thing back in the attic where it belongs!” Chloe pleaded.

Joyce smirked as she lowered the book. “Aww...” Max pouted.

“Don’t worry, Max, you’ll see it eventually.”

Chloe glanced at her girlfriend. “You will never see it, so long as there is life in my veins and a Zippo in my pocket,” she promised.

“Oh, Chloe, you’re not still smoking, are you?” Joyce asked in a disappointed voice. “Max, I tried so hard to convince her to quit...”

“Me too.” Max crossed her arms and looked back at Chloe. “She doesn’t listen to me, either.”

“Wow, I am feeling so ambushed right now.” The bluenette sighed as she leaned back. “This is supposed to be a major milestone in our relationship, not a moment to gang up on me.”

“Babe, there’s no reason it can’t be both.” Max patted Chloe’s knee.

Joyce smiled. “God, you two are so cute it’s going to kill me. Where did my daughter find you, Max?”

“Her boss shoved her intooompf!” Max cut Chloe off as she slapped her hand over her girlfriend’s mouth.

“We met at my office,” she answered. “Our server went down, and we wound up calling her company to get it fixed. We met for drinks that- ew!” Max pulled her hand away, wrinkling her nose. “I can’t believe you licked me!”

Chloe grinned as Max wiped her hand on her pant leg. “Serves you right.”

“I feel like I’m missing some of the story,” Joyce said slyly.

“A little bit.” Chloe turned back to the laptop. “I’ll tell you later. It’s incredibly embarrassing for her, and entertaining as hell for me.”

“Well, Max, no matter what happens...” Joyce held up the book again. “I’ll always have this.”

Max’s face brightened. “I am seriously going to steal that and burn it,” Chloe muttered.

“Go for it, sweetheart.” Joyce grinned. “Your stepfather already made computer backups.”

“Oh, good. One more reason to hate him.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Where is your husband?” she asked.

“David wanted to be here, but he had to pick up an extra shift at the station.” Joyce shook her head. “He’s covering for someone who called in sick.”

“Yea?” Chloe scoffed. “Is he arresting any more innocent teenagers?”

“You were most decidedly not ‘innocent’, young lady,” Joyce lectured sternly. “You were caught red-handed spray-painting graffiti inside that bathroom.”

Eyebrows raised, Max turned to Chloe. “You were what now?”

Chloe folded her arms. “I was innocent until proven guilty, is what I was.”

“The principal had you on a security camera, Chloe.” Joyce rolled her eyes, looking back at Max. “She was lucky all she got was arrested. David spent a long time trying to keep her from getting expelled.”

The bluenette sighed. “Can we be done ganging up on me now?” she asked.

“Oh, fine.” Joyce smiled at Max. “So, Max, you’ve been dating Chloe for how long now?”

“Six months last week.” Beaming, Max turned and kissed Chloe’s cheek.

“Six months!” Joyce gasped, turning back to Chloe. “And what took so long for me to meet her, exactly?”

Chloe threw her hands up. “We’re doing this now, mom!”

“And all it took was you begging for our family’s secret pasta recipe.”

Max snickered. “It was pretty good pasta,” she mentioned.

“Well, thank you, sweetie.” Joyce chuckled, leaning forward. “So, six months. Does this mean Chloe is bringing you here for Christmas?”

Max glanced at Chloe, who was working her mouth like a fish. “Uh... I...”

“We haven’t really talked about any holiday plans yet,” Max said.

“Well, did you have plans to bring Chloe to meet your parents?"

“No.” Max squirmed. “Um... my parents and I don’t speak.”

“She means that her parents are the toxic waste at the bottom of the human gene pool,” Chloe stated.

Joyce’s eyes got wide. “Chloe!”

“No, she’s... definitely not wrong,” Max assured her.

“Oh.” Joyce blinked, then forged ahead. “Well, then. I’ll make sure I book two plane tickets from San Francisco to Phoenix.”

Max’s eyes got wide. “No, Joyce, you don’t have to-”

“I insist,” Joyce said. “I was going to fly Chloe out this year anyway, and I’m certainly not going to leave her girlfriend behind.” She smiled. “Besides, if Chloe was willing to call and introduce you to me, knowing that we would probably gang up on her, then she must love you.”

Max saw Chloe’s face turn red. “Well... you’re not wrong, Mom,” Chloe replied as she took Max’s hand and kissed it.


Chloe closed the laptop a little while later. “So, that went well,” she commented as she pushed it aside, turning back to Max. “She really laid on the whole-” 

Max was still staring at the computer. “She’s really buying me plane tickets to come see her,” she said, shocked.

“Dude, I told you she was going to love you.”

Max turned to Chloe. “But... she doesn’t even know me.”

Chloe smiled. “Max, she’s not stupid.” Reaching around her shoulders, Chloe pulled Max into a tight hug. “She can tell you’re important to me. And once she found out you would be spending Christmas alone? There was no way she wasn’t going to have me bring you.”

The brunette didn’t reply for a minute. “... I am so fucking lucky,” she finally mumbled.

Chloe planted a kiss on the top of her head. “We both are.”


Max: Hey, are you two awake? 

Steph: I only sleep when I run out of Red Bull.

Rachel: It’s, like, 9pm.

Steph: I’ve been up since 3 this morning.

Steph: Deadlines to meet, and all.

Rachel: So, yes, we’re awake. What’s up, Max?

Steph: Yea, everything okay?

Max: Everything’s great.

Max: Chloe and I Skyped with her mom this afternoon.

Steph: Whoa. Big step.

Rachel: How’d it go? She like you?

Max: She’s buying me a plane ticket to see her for Xmas.

Rachel: Wow!

Steph: So it went well?

Rachel: No, her GF’s mom brought her a several-hundred-dollar plane ticket because Max acted like Belatrix Lestrange.

Max: Who?

Rachel: If Harry Potter is on your pop culture catch-up list, you need to move it closer to the top.

Max: LOL

Max: I couldn’t believe it. As soon as she heard that I wasn’t on speaking terms with my parents, she insisted that I come.

Max: And then she texted Chloe later, asking what she thought I might want, present-wise.

Steph: Wow.

Rachel: Damn. You made her love you over one Skype call.

Max: I know. Just... I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I am to have Chloe.

Max: And how lucky I’ve been in general, ever since I ran away.

Steph: ...

Steph: Max, you know we’ll never stop feeling terrible about what happened.

Rachel: Seriously. Forever.

Max: I know.

Max: But after everything, I can’t think of a way my life would have been better if I stayed.

Max: Running away might have sucked, but I told Chloe last week that I’d do it again in a minute to get back to her.

Max: And I know I told you both, I accepted your apologies already.

Max: I just wanted to make sure you both knew that I really do forgive you guys for what happened, back in high school.

Max: And I really hope you’ve forgiven yourselves, too. We were all young and dumb. It shouldn’t stick with us forever.

Max: Didn’t mean to do this so late, I just got caught up thinking about it and wanted to let you two know.

Max: ... guys?

Max: Guys, it’s been like five minutes.

Steph: I know

Max: Are you okay?

Steph: NO

Steph: I HAVE WORK DO TO

Steph: I CAN’T DO IT WHEN I’M CRYING OVER MY KEYBOARD

Max: Um... sorry?

Steph: Max... I don’t deserve you as a friend.

Max: Don’t say that.

Steph: I really don’t.

Steph: You’re the best person I’ve ever met.

Rachel: Ilkce Nsx

Rachel: O’n stokl si dorty

Max: ???

Rachel: Maxine, it’s Rose. Rachel’s mother.

Max: Is she okay?

Rachel: She’s a little emotional, and is having trouble typing on her phone.

Rachel: Can she text you back later?

Rachel: Or maybe call? That looks easier at this point.

Max: Of course.

Max: Whenever she’s ready.

Chapter Text

September, 2017

 

“Now, remember your promise.”

Chloe sighed as they exited the truck, slamming the door behind her. “I don’t want to.”

“Chloe.”

“I get it; you forgave her already.” Chloe crossed her arms as she stood on the sidewalk in front of Jake’s apartment building. “I’m angry on your behalf. And I want to put her face into a wall. You almost got killed because of her and Rachel." 

“And she has apologized for it. Profusely,” Max added. “She is absolutely torn up about the whole thing. PLEASE, try to remember that.”

Chloe sighed as she played with the sleeves of her jacket. “Fine,” she grumbled.

“Thank you.” Max stepped in close. “Hey,” she said softly as she put her hands around her girlfriend’s waist. “Having you here means the world to me.”

Chloe grinned as she looped her arms around Max’s shoulders. “Well, you’re my world,” she replied, kissing Max. “So I guess that’s fair.”

“Mm.”

They stood like that for a minute before Chloe tugged Max away. “Come on. I want to watch the 49ers beat the Panthers' asses.”

They made their way towards Jake’s apartment. Max almost felt like a stranger there, at that point. She spent at least half her time at Chloe’s, only returning for fresh clothes and to concentrate on her college classes, which was difficult to do when Chloe was around. But football season was starting, and Jake had invited co-workers and friends over to watch the first games of the year.

Including Steph, the subject of Chloe’s contention.

Max raised her hand and knocked on the door. Jake opened it a few seconds later, looking at her in surprise. “Max, why the hell are you knocking?”

“Because...” Max paused, and her face fell. “... I forgot that I still live here.”

Chloe clasped her hands to her stomach as she turned to laugh, putting her hand on the wall to hold herself upright. “Oh my God, that’s classic!” she snorted.

“Oh, shut up!”

“Yea, very smooth, Max.” Jake shook his head and pushed the door open. “Come on, you can help make fun of Penny. She’s been trying to make cheese dip for half an hour now.”

“I have NOT!” Max and Chloe walked in too see Penny in Jake’s kitchen, hair tied back in a ponytail as she worked with a bowl. "You shut up! It has NOT been half an hour."

Jake rolled his eyes. “Almost an entire quarter has gone by since you started, Penny,” he said as he gestured to the football game on TV. “Charles?”

“I’m staying out of this.” Penny’s boyfriend sat on the couch, beer in one hand while he scratched his beard with the other. “I learned a long time ago not to provoke my girlfriend while she has easy access to sharp cookware.”

The other man on the couch, and the woman sitting at the kitchen table, both chuckled. “Oh, Chloe, this is Sarah Preston,” Max said as she gestured to the woman at the table. “She’s the company’s Social Media Director.”

Sarah tapped on her phone, sparing a glance at Chloe. “Nice to meet you.”

“You’re a professional Facebooker?” Chloe asked.

Sarah smirked, not looking up from her phone. “Good one. I’ve never heard that before.”

“The lunk over there is Hayden Jones.” Max pointed to the guy sitting next to Charles. “He’s the HR Manager. And absolutely terrible at predicting football games.”

“Oh, bite me.” Hayden wiped his face, grimacing as he watched the TV. “I had San Diego winning this one.”

Chloe glanced at the TV. “Against Denver? While they played IN Denver?”

“Yea.”

“So... do you not play for real money?”

Charles and Sarah both laughed as Hayden threw his hands up. “I had a hunch!”

“More like a desire to fork over all his cash,” Sarah said as she finally put her phone down. “I’ll own him at this rate."

Hayden shot her a look over his shoulder. "No, you won't." He smirked. "You have too much faith in Minnesota and Detroit. And there's no way the Pats are gonna lose to the Chiefs. I don't think you actually know who the teams are."

"We'll see." Sarah smirked back. "Hope you've got hundred bucks ready to fork over."

“Ooh, I like taking people’s money.” Chloe grinned. “Is it too late to get in on that?”

“We made our picks before the games started,” Jake replied as he opened the fridge, grabbing a couple of beers. “Sorry, Chloe, no IPAs in here.”

“I’ll live.” Chloe shrugged as she looked over into the bowl Penny was shredding cheese into. “You’ve been working on that for thirty minutes?”

Penny shot her a look. “I, uh, had to start over.”

“Why?”

“Because she dumped the first pot into the sink by accident,” Jake said, pointing to the yellow stains inside the drain next to him. “She’s lucky I had more cheese in the fridge.”

“Ah. That sucks.” Chloe leaned on the counter. “Is it cool if I smoke on your balcony?” she asked Jake.

“Yea, there’s an ashtray out there.” Jake nodded outside. “You can light your shirt on fire, too, if you want.”

Chloe looked down at her 49ers shirt. “How I burn yours? While you’re still wearing it?”

Jake laughed, adjusting his Cowboys jersey as Chloe walked outside.

I need to quit these, she thought as she pulled her pack out. She retrieved her Zippo from her pocket and lit up a cigarette. Max had started bugging her more and more, complaining about the smell. Chloe had since cut back, but she couldn’t quite kick the habit. Maybe I’ll take my mom’s advice and start with the nicotine gum. It worked for her, she figured as she took a deep drag.

“Those are terrible for you, you know.”

Chloe glanced over her shoulder, blinking in surprise; she hadn’t realized there was anyone there. A brunette girl with a Seahawks beanie looked back at her, a smile on her face as she sat in a chair in the corner. She fiddled with a red-and-silver box, a clear pipe sticking out the top.

A vape? Really?

The bluenette was about to reply when she realized that she knew the girl. From the Facebook pictures she’d looked up a couple of weeks ago.

The girl knew her, too, she saw. Recognition flashed in her eyes. “Oh. OH! You’re Chloe, aren’t you?”

Chloe nodded.

“It’s so great to meet you!” The girl stood, still smiling as she held her hand out. “I’m St-”

“I know who you are,” Chloe interrupted.

“Oh, you...” Steph took in Chloe’s expressionless face and piercing eyes. The brunette’s smile slowly disappeared as she lowered her hand. “You do?”

“Max told me all about you.” Chloe tapped the ash off her cigarette over the balcony, not turning from Steph’s eyes. “And Rachel.”

A look of shame crossed over Steph’s face. The girl bit her lip as she sullenly averted her eyes. “... oh.”

Chloe took another drag of her cigarette. “Relax,” she said as she blew the smoke away. “She made me promise not to punch you in the tits when we finally met.”

“Ah.” Steph sat back down. “Um... thanks.”

“Yea. She’s pretty amazing. The nicest, sweetest and most forgiving person I’ve ever met.” Chloe planted her elbow on the railing, her eyes boring into Steph’s. “Which leads me to my question. How, exactly, do you have the balls to look her in the eye?”

Steph glanced back up at Chloe. “I... uh...” she paused for a few seconds. “... I have no idea,” she finally admitted, looking back at her feet.

Chloe scoffed as she took another puff from her cigarette. “Right,” she muttered.

“I really don’t.” Steph picked her head back up. “When I ran into her last year, all I could think about was how sorry I was. That was all I wanted to tell her. All I figured I’d ever get in return was a punch in the face.” She swallowed. “Never in a million years did I imagine she’d want to be friends again.”

“Well.” Chloe slowly exhaled. “A punch in the face may still be called for.”

Steph snorted half-heartedly. “Go for it,” she mumbled.

Chloe blinked. “What?”

“Seriously. Go ahead.” Steph shrugged. “Do whatever you want. Maybe it’ll make us both feel better.”

“Jesus.” Chloe puffed on her cigarette, staring. “How fucked up are you?”

“I manipulated one of my best friends into betraying her family when she was too young and naïve to know any better,” Steph said morosely, looking away. “It’s my fault she spent four years being homeless, having to beg for food. I spent the last half of that time thinking she was dead.” She turned back up to face Chloe. “I thought I got her killed. It doesn’t matter that she forgave me. I’ll hate myself for it until the day I die.”

Steph set her vape down on the table. “I never really got punished for what I did. So if you want to beat the shit out of me, go ahead.” She sighed. “Someone should.”

Wow, she’s got some deep-seated issues. Chloe looked over the other girl, her now-shriveled frame a stark contrast to the bubbly girl who had tried to introduce herself not five minutes before. I think I killed the party vibe.

“Yea, no.” Chloe shook her head. “I’m not."

Steph’s face flickered. “Why? Except for Max, you’ve got the best reason to do it.”

“Because it’s not gonna make either of us feel any better.” Chloe took one last drag of her cigarette and crushed it out. “I’m gonna have a brief moment of maturity here. We can’t change what happened, and Max is dead set on moving forward. I’m not gonna try and drag her back by whooping your ass before we watch football.”

Steph made an amused noise. “Yea, at least wait until the late game. We’ll be drunk by then.”

Chloe couldn’t help but let out a brief snicker before she straightened back up. “Yea. Well...” She paused as she considered her next words. “I still don’t like you very much. But Max said you’re a good person. If she can get over what you did, I’ll try and give it a shot."

The door behind them slid open, and Max appeared on the balcony, taking in the scene as her eyes settled on Steph. “Jake mentioned you were out here,” she said as she glanced between her and Chloe. “Are you two...”

“She was just introducing herself.” Steph managed a smile.

“I was actually promising that I wouldn’t beat her ass,” Chloe corrected.

Max frowned as she looked at her girlfriend. “Chloe...”

“Relax, Max, we’re fine.” Chloe made her way behind Max and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “We were just... talking some stuff out.” She paused. “I can see why you like her.”

“It’s because of my exceptional taste in football teams.” Steph tapped the embroidered Seahawks logo on her hat. “12th Man for life, yo.”

Chloe narrowed her eyes. “You and Jake are both neck-and-neck for the race to be set on fire today, just FYI.”

Max rolled her eyes and she hugged her girlfriend’s arms into her chest. “Jake’s standing next to Penny while she uses the stove,” she said. “So he’s still heavily favored.”


Kate: Can I ask you another question about your family? 

Max: Sure.

Kate: They were really religious, right?

Max: Extremely. Why?

Kate: What was their justification for their homophobia?

Max: Hell, take your pick.

Max: I heard that stupid “if a man lies with another man” verse every other sermon, but that’s an easy one.

Max: Homosexuals were intent on forcing themselves into the public eye, so “they must want to influence our children”, because all gays are apparently closet pedophiles.

Max: They somehow stole paying jobs away from righteous women... not sure how that added up, but whatever.

Max: Oh, my parents also somehow thought it was contagious? Which, I guess, makes Steph Patient Zero or something.

Max: Why? Are you still getting grief from your family?

Kate: Some. I’m trying to figure out where it’s coming from.

Kate: Sorry, I don’t mean to keep bringing up bad memories.

Max: All they are is memories. It’s not my life anymore.

Kate: Thanks :)

Max: Yep. Memories.

Max: Like Burly Bikers.

Kate: I HAD FORGOTTEN

Kate: YOU’RE SO MEAN

Chapter Text

October, 2017

 

“I want a tattoo.”

Chloe opened her eyes and stared at Max from across the pillow, squinting at the early morning light coming through the window. “You do?”

Max nodded as she snuggled closer to her girlfriend, running her hand along the ink on her right arm. “I’ve been thinking about it for a little while,” she admitted. “I had a couple of ideas.”

“Like what?” Chloe asked.

“Um...” Max paused. “I don’t want you to make a big deal out of it.”

Chloe snorted. “Ok, Max, I love you, but I am not going to tattoo my name on your butt.”

“Oh, shut up.” Max poked her in the ribs.

The bluenette giggled. “Seriously, though.” She looked back at Max. “What do you want?”

“A semicolon.”

Chloe did a double-take. “Really?”

“Yea. I, uh, looked them up. They mean-”

“I know what they mean, Max. I’ve done a few of them.” Chloe put her hand on Max’s cheek, stroking it gently. “Max... what do you want it for?”

Max bit her lip. “Um...”


January, 2013 

It would go down as one of the coldest snowstorms in Portland’s history.

Temperatures dipped into the negatives, and didn’t come back up for a few days. The snow came and went at random, but when it did fall, it was relentless. The city was covered in two feet of frozen powder in less than thirty-six hours, and the magnitude of the weather forced it to grind to a halt.

Schools shut down for over a week. Buses didn’t run. Businesses closed. The mail sat in the post office, deliveries suspended. Even emergency services were affected. Police were forced to find alternate vehicles, their squad cars barely able to handle the unplowed streets; they utilized SUVs,  hitched rides with the fire department, commandeered snow plows, even used the few snowmobiles they were able to rent.

And all of the homeless shelters were full. The older, more experienced of the city’s vagrant population had recognized the warning signs, and gotten in early. Max, barely seventeen years old and braving her second winter, was stuck in the alley behind a convenience store.

She sat next to a dumpster, trying to soak up what little warmth permeated the metal from the decaying garbage inside. Her knees were hugged to her chest, arms curled around herself as she tried to stay warm. The thin wool blanket, stolen from a thrift store, was wrapped around her shoulders, draped over her head, and did little to keep her warm against the weather.

The snow had slowed, but didn’t stop. Every so often, Max had to brush the powder that accumulated off of the blanket. The building provided some shelter, but not enough. Adding to Max’s misery, she hadn’t eaten in two days, and the hunger pangs were killing her stomach.

I would kill for a burger, Max thought as she blew into her hands, shivering fiercely. Or fries. Or a cracker.

Movement caught her eye, near the entrance to the alley. She looked and met the eyes of a man walking past, who’d happened to glance in and notice her.

He ignored her. Turning back to the sidewalk, he continued on his way, leaving her sight.

He doesn’t care.

Nobody cares.

Even the church locked their doors. All Max had wanted to do was use the bathroom, but the priest refused her, explaining that theirs weren’t open to the public. Max had to pee in the bushes later that day.

Fuck him.

Fuck my parents.

Fuck Steph and Rachel.

Fuck Victoria.

They don’t care anyway.

Max leaned her head against the side of the dumpster, trying not to cry. She didn’t move, save for shivering, as she hugged herself as tight as she could to stay warm. She could almost feel it working, after a while. Her shivering slowed. She actually started to feel a little warmer.

That feels nice. Max’s eyelids were drooping, and she leaned her head forward, against her knees. Feels better.

It doesn’t hurt that much anymore.

I’m so tired.

I just want to sleep.

Is that bad?

I think this is bad.

...

Whatever.

Fuck it.

It doesn’t matter.

I don’t want to do this anymore, anyway.

Max surrendered. She quit. She was done. After several minutes, she felt her breathing get easier, and she let her eyelids close as she slowly relaxed into the side of the dumpster.

I... don’t... care... anymore.

Her vision darkened.

Her hearing slowly dimmed, as she felt sleep start to carry her away.

There was silence.

Then there was a light, shining against her eyelids.

Voices in her ears.

“Hell.” A man sighed. “You were right, Pat. It’s another bum-sicle.”

“Wonderful,” another man muttered.

“You wanna call it in?”

“Not really. Dispatch will make us stay with it until the body wagon gets here.” A scoff. “Jimmy and Mike said that last one took over an hour. They’ll get here and have to pick up a couple of cop-sicles, too.”

“So what do you wanna do? Can’t leave it here.”

“Why? Not like he’s gonna get any deader.”

“It’s a body, man. Sarge finds out...”

“Sarge ain’t here. His fat ass is back at the warm police station. We can call it in once the plows come through again in a few hours. He ain’t going anywhere.”

Who... is...

It took all of Max’s strength to pry her eyes open. It felt like she was moving through molasses, as her head slowly tilted up to see what the commotion was.

“Holy...”

A man in a police uniform crouched in front of her, grabbing her chin and yanking her head up. Max’s strength started to fade, and her eyelids began to fall again.

“Hey! HEY!”

“What?”

“It’s a girl, Pat! She’s still alive!”

“Jesus!” A second police officer appeared next to the first one, grabbing at Max’s hands. “Oh, fuck, she’s cold as hell.”

“Wake up!” Max felt her head shake as the first officer grabbed her shoulders, jerking her back and forth. “Hey! Miss! Wake the hell up!”

Leave me alone... I’m tired...

“Okay, Rick, get her up. Let’s put her in the back of the car.”

“Miss, on your feet. We’re getting you out of here.”

Hands grabbed both of Max’s shoulders, and she felt herself get pulled upright. No sooner were her feet under her than Max collapsed again, sinking to her knees before the guys caught her.

“Shit, she’s out of it.”

“Yea. I got her. Get the door.”

Large arms wrapped around Max and lifted her up. Her head bounced as she was carried out of the alley. She barely heard a car door opening as her rescuer placed her inside, covering her with a coat.

“Go, let’s go!”

“Uniform Four-Six to Dispatch, show us en route to Portland General...”

Max didn’t register much else. She involuntarily curled back up, her eyes still closed as she began to nod off...

The car’s brake squealed. A second later, she was lifted out of the back seat and carried inside a building, someplace where the light threatened to break through her closed eyelids.

“What have you got?”

“Homeless female, looks about twenty or so. Found her behind the Seven-Eleven on 9thand Franklin. We thought she was already dead before she started to move.”

Max felt herself get dropped onto a bed as more voices poured into her ears.

“Let’s get heating blankets on her, and start her on warm saline. And somebody get me a temperature reading!”

“Core temp is eighty-five. She’s in late-stage hypothermia. Jesus, she’s not even shivering.”

“Her clothes are soaked through. Pass me the scissors, we need to get them off, right now.”

“Pulse is weak, stand by with paddles...”


October, 2017  

“Jesus Christ, Max,” Chloe whispered.

“No, it was a doctor named Angela.” Max shrugged.

“Not what I meant.”

“I know.”

Chloe had her arms tightly wrapped around Max. “I can’t believe you almost...”

“Yea.” Max swallowed. “When I woke up and realized what had almost happened... I don’t know. It just felt so right. I knew it was bad, to fall asleep, but I didn’t even care.” She sniffed. “I was miserable, and it felt like I was abandoned by everyone. I just didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”

The bluenette didn’t reply for a few minutes.

“You’re not allowed to do that ever again.”

“I won’t.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“I’m serious. If you ever feel like that again, and you don’t tell me, I’m going to kick your scrawny little ass.”

“... does that mean you’ll do the tattoo?”

“Of course it fucking does.”


“And... this won’t hurt that badly?” Max asked nervously as Chloe prepped the skin on the inside of her wrist. 

“I mean, you’ll definitely feel it.” Chloe rubbed something that smelled funny over Max’s skin, her hands covered in latex gloves. “It’s not that big, though, so it won’t take that long. Little bit of pain, and you’ll be finished before you know it.”

Max took a deep breath as she sat on one of Chloe’s bar stools, leaning forward onto the metal. Chloe had set up her supplies right next to her on the counter, including her ink, paper towels, a box of plastic wrap, and a couple of different lotions. And her gun, in a hard case. “That thing looks big,” she commented as Chloe lifted it out and plugged it into the wall.

“Calm down, Max.” Chloe pressed the trigger a couple of times, the buzzing noise making Max tense up a little bit. “Seriously, it’ll be done in, like, five minutes.”

“Okay.” Max breathed in and out, trying to think of anything else.

Chloe rubbed her arm. “You ready, babe? Last chance for take-backsies.”

“Just do it before I chicken out.”

“Okay, here goes.” Chloe clicked her gun, the buzzing noise filling Max’s ears as she lowered it to her wrist, her free hand holding Max’s arm in place.

It can’t be that bad. Tons of people have tattoos. Chloe’s is huge, she wouldn’t have done it if they really HOLY MOTHER OF FUCK!!

“MMMMMMMmmmmmmmm...” Max pressed her lips together and grunted as Chloe pressed the needles into her skin.

“Don’t tense up, Max,” she cautioned as she moved the gun, dipping it in the black ink as she worked. “Relax your hand. There you go. Take some deep breaths...”

Max grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut as Chloe worked.

Fuck, this hurts. This was a stupid idea. Why do people do this shit? I can’t believe I told Chloe I would do this. Why the FUCK would you-

“All done.”

Max’s eyes popped open as the stabbing sensation went away. “What?”

“I told you it wasn’t going to take long.” Chloe turned the gun off and placed it down on the counter. “It’s less than an inch tall. I’ve done pieces that took hours.”

“Can I see?”

“In a second.” Chloe rubbed something on it, then wiped it down with a paper towel. “All right. What do you think?”

Max held her wrist up, looking at the black semicolon sitting on top of her veins. “I mean... it’s definitely a punctuation mark.”

“Ha ha, doofus. Gimme.” Chloe took her hand back and wrapped a piece of plastic on it, sealing it with tape. “You need to make sure you put lotion on it every few hours, to help it heal,” she lectured. “And the plastic needs to stay on for a couple of days.”

“Right.” Max examined her wrist. “It’s great, Chloe. I love it.”

Her girlfriend smiled as she snapped her gloves off, tossing them in the nearby trash can. “Good,” she said as she took Max’s hand back, kissing the plastic just above her new tattoo. “Next time, we’ll do a shoulder piece. Get you started on some bigger ink.”

“Uh... yea, maybe later.” Max started sweating at the thought of the tattoo gun being anywhere near her.

“I know, I’m kidding.” Chloe wrapped Max in a hug, which the brunette returned. “I’m serious about the tattoo, though,” she said. “If you ever feel like that again...”

“I haven’t felt that depressed in a long time, Chloe.” Max hugged her back. “Besides... you make me way too happy.”

Chloe scoffed. “Look at you, getting all mushy.”

“It’s called having a moment, you loser.”


Kate: I might need some advice. 

Max: Family still giving you grief?

Kate: Little bit, but that’s not why I’m texting this time.

Kate: Does Chloe smoke?

Max: UGH. Yea, she does.

Max: Victoria?

Kate: Yea. I thought I finally got her to quit, but I caught her sneaking a cigarette on the apartment balcony when my classes were cancelled for the day.

Max: I don’t know what advice you want from me. I keep bugging Chloe about it, but the best I’ve got is her cutting back.

Max: What did Victoria say?

Kate: She was stressed from her classes.

Kate: Granted, I’ve never touched a cigarette, but I don’t see how sucking on a stick full of cancer helps take the edge off.

Max: Yea, I never got it either. Maybe because I wasn’t one of the cool kids, back in high school.

Kate: How do you get Chloe to cut back?

Max: I ask her nicely? And tell her I love her?

Max: Also, carting around an oxygen tank will cramp her style.

Kate: I’ve tried that. She just got sneakier.

Kate: It CANNOT be that satisfying.

Max: I know it’s addictive. Chloe and Victoria both started in high school, so it’s probably a tough habit to break at this point.

Kate: Vicky started in high school?!

Max: ... did you not know that?

Kate: She told me that she started in college!

Max: Oh, God. Please don’t tell her that I sold her out.

Chapter Text

December, 2017

“That looks like a terrible Christmas present.”

Jake looked at Max crossly. “It’s supposed to be terrible. That’s the point.”

Max looked over the gift Jake had in his hands. “You realize that if you gave a woman an ironing board as a gift for real, she would shove it up your ass?”

“Hey, last year Penny gave me the first season of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Jake shrugged as he deposited his gift in their shopping cart. “When you have enough money to get whatever the hell you want, Christmas and birthdays become a challenge. Penny and I agreed to have fun with it instead.”

“I thought that was supposed to be a good show?”

“Probably. Fuck if I know.” Jake looked at her with an exasperated expression. “I’m not a ‘straight guy’, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Max shrugged as she turned back to the movies, glancing through the titles as she sighed. “I still have no idea what to get Chloe,” she admitted.

“You’ve got three weeks to figure it out,” Jake reminded her.

“Yea, but it’s our first Christmas,” Max countered. “I feel like it needs to be GOOD, you know? Like, she should open the bag and just be, like, blown away.”

Jake scratched his neck. “Well, what does Chloe like?”

“Drinking, smoking, eating, computers, video games, and watching TV.”

“Okay...” Jake paused, thinking. “Wow. Yea, I have nothing for any of that. How about a piece of jewelry? Like a necklace or something?”

Max sighed. “I mean, jewelry’s kind of expensive...”

“Not, like, a diamond necklace or anything, dope. Look for one of those unique necklaces you get off Pinterest or something.” Jake reached past her and snatched a movie off the shelf. “Ooh, Aliens. We have to get this one.”

“Nerd.” Max shook her head as Jake dropped the movie in the cart. “Although that’s... actually not a terrible idea.”


Kate: What are you getting Chloe for Xmas? 

Max: I’m still working on that :(

Max: What are you getting Victoria?

Kate: I don’t know. I was hoping for some suggestions.

Kate: Do you have any idea how hard it is to shop for a girl who can literally buy whatever she wants?

Max: Jeez. I literally just had this conversation a couple of days ago with Jake. Him and his business partner exchange gifts every year, and they’re in the same financial situation.

Kate: What did he say?

Max: He said it was better to just have fun with it.

Max: As he purchased an ironing board for her Xmas gift.

Kate: Wow. That’s a terrible idea.

Max: Hey, you sound like the guy at the gift-wrap counter!

Max: What does she like?

Kate: Very nice stuff that I can’t afford.

Max: I guess she really hasn’t changed much since high school.

Max: Look, whatever you get, I’m sure she’ll love it just because it came from you.

Kate: I hope so.

Kate: Do you have ANY ideas?

Max: Nicotine gum?

Kate: I’m trying to avoid being passive-aggressive.

Kate: ... also, I may have given her that for her birthday.


Ladies and Gentlemen, please direct your attention to the flight attendants for your pre-takeoff safety briefing.” 

“Yea, yea.” Chloe rolled her eyes as she turned back to Max, pulling her tablet out of her backpack. “So, it’s only a two-hour flight. Do you want to watch the new Thor movie, or-”

“Just a second, Chloe.” Max focused on the flight attendant. “I’m trying to listen.”

Chloe glanced back forward as the woman demonstrated the use of the inflatable life preserver. “Seriously?”

“Yes. Hush.”

“Dude, we’re not even flying over water.” Chloe grinned. “If we crash, we’re fucked. Best hope is that they hit hard enough to kill us on impact, so we don’t spent months in a hospital wasting away on-"

“Please shut up,” Max interrupted.

That was when Chloe finally noticed that her leg was bouncing nervously. She put her hand on Max’s knee to get it to stop. “Max? Are you okay?”

“No,” Max replied as she fidgeted with her hoodie strings. “I’m nervous.”

“I told you already, my mom is going to love you. Just because we’re meeting in person instead of over Skype doesn’t mean that she-”

“I’ve never flown before, Chloe.”

The bluenette blinked as she did a double-take. “Wait, seriously?”

Max shook her head, sparing a cautious glance out the window as the plane started to back out of the gate. “We never left Arcadia Bay when I was a kid,” she explained. “And I made my way to San Francisco at ground level. I’m kind of freaking out here.”

Chloe silently squeezed Max’s knee. “It’s gonna be fine, Max. This is the safest way to travel, you know.”

“Uh huh.” The plane jolted to a stop, and Max almost jumped out of her seat. “Unless the plane actually crashes.”

“It’s not going to crash.”

“But if it does, we’re fucked, right?”

“No way. Remember that dude, who crashed the plane into the Hudson River? Everyone walked away from that!”

Max looked at Chloe crossly. “I thought we weren’t flying over water.”

“We’re... okay, look, Max, just relax. It’s not going to crash.” Chloe patted Max’s knee. “Millions of people fly every year without dying. Including the two of us.”

Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff.

Max looked forward as the woman who’d been doing the safety briefing buckled herself into the seat up front. “Why does she get shoulder belts and we don’t?”

“Because she’s sitting backwards.”

Max blinked, looking at Chloe. “... do you know that’s true, or are you just guessing?”

The bluenette hesitated, then pointed out the window. “Watch, we’re about to take off.”

“That’s not an-” Max’s voice caught as she felt the plane surge forward, and she pressed herself back in the seat. Her hands grabbed Chloe’s arm like a safety rail as she closed her eyes, holding her breath.

Chloe watched her in amusement as the plane shot down the runway, finally pulling up as they left the ground and the ride smoothed out. Max sat like a statue for a couple of minutes afterwards. “Hey,” Chloe finally said, shaking Max’s arm. “We’re airborne.”

Max slowly peeled her eyes open. “We are?”

“Dude, look out your window.”

Slowly turning her head, the brunette carefully looked outside. She blinked as she saw how high up they were. “Whoa.”

“Right?”

Max leaned against the window, pressing her nose into the plastic. “I think I can see the Golden Gate Bridge from here.”

Chloe smirked. “Well, we’re about ten thousand feet up, so probably.”

Max’s head snapped back around. “We’re what!?”

“Wow. Do you need a Valium or something?”

Max took a deep breath as she sat back in her seat. “No, I do not need a Valium.” She paused. “But if you have one...”

“Two-hour flight, Max.” Chloe plugged her earphones into the tablet, holding one of the buds out to Max. “So. Thor?”


“I’ve never been so happy to be on the ground."

Chloe rolled her eyes as they rolled their suitcases through security. “Come on, Max. It was not THAT bad.”

“Were we on the same flight? He hit the ground so hard!” Max objected.

“That was actually a pretty smooth landing, in my experience.”

“That was a SMOOTH landing?!”

Chloe threw her arm around Max’s shoulder and pulled her in close. “Maybe you should focus on something else,” she said into her ear.

“Like what?”

“Well, you are about to meet my mother in ten minutes, so maybe you should go back to stressing about that.”

Max’s face dropped. “Oh, shit. I am.” She pulled away from Chloe and ran her fingers through her hair, attempting to make is straighter than it already was. “Do you have a mirror?”

“Seriously?”

The brunette gave her a look. “I want her to-”

“Like you. Yea, I know. You remember the dozen or so Skype sessions we’ve had with her, right?” Chloe rolled her eyes. “Short of walking up to her while while holding my severed head, I don’t think it’s possible for her to dislike you. And even then...” she shrugged. “Well, she’d probably assume I did something to deserve it.”

“... fine.” Max pulled her hoodie straight and followed Chloe onto the escalator, finally taking a minute to look around. “This is actually a pretty nice airport.”

“Yea, apparently they sunk a lot of money into building this place.” Chloe shrugged as she pulled her phone of of her pocket, typing out a text. “I’ve only been through here and San Francisco, but David used to travel all over when he was in the Army. He says this is one of the nicest airports he’s ever been in."

Max wondered about the elusive David Madsen. While they had Skyped close to a dozen times with Joyce, Chloe’s step-father had never actually been around when they connected. “Is he going to be here?” Max asked.

“He might. Fifty-fifty either way.” Chloe shrugged as they got off the escalator and walked towards a door. “I told you, we don’t exactly have the most... endearing relationship. I gave him a bunch of shit after he married my mom, mostly teenaged angst from missing my dad. And he stays pretty busy at the police department anyway. I think he’s angling for some big promotion, or whatever.”

They exited to warmer weather than Max had anticipated, though she still kept her hoodie on. “I figured it would be a little chillier,” she commented as she looked around. “Where is your mom?”

“She says two minutes.” Chloe put away her phone. “And it’s gonna get cold tonight for sure. Probably drop into the 40s or so. Keep your hoodie handy.”

Max fidgeted with the zipper while Chloe stood on the curb, watching the cars drive past. “Oh, there she is,” she said, pointing to a blue sedan.

The car parked in front of them, and Joyce popped out of the driver’s seat and ran around the front. “Max!”

“Hi, Joyce.” Max smiled nervously as she stood her luggage up. “It’s good to-”

The blonde woman wrapped her on a tight hug, picking her up off the ground. “It’s so great to finally meet you in person!” She drawled excitedly.

“Oof... nice to meet you...” Max breathed, unable to keep the smile off her face.

“Wow, Mom, I’m happy to see you, too,” Chloe said sarcastically. Max could practically feel the bluenette roll her eyes. “Can’t believe Max was worried you wouldn’t be excited to see HER.”

“Chloe Price, you hush.” Joyce finally put Max down, walking over to hug her daughter. “I’m thrilled to see both of you.”

Max glanced at the car, noting the empty passenger seat. “David busy at work?” she asked as she picked up her luggage, pushing the drag handle back into the frame.

“When is he not?” Joyce rolled her eyes as she walked around the back of her car, popping the trunk for the girls. “I love that man to death, but I think if you asked him to pick between me and the badge, he’d have to weigh the pros and cons.”

Chloe lifted her luggage and dropped it into the trunk, taking Max’s from her and doing the same. “Are we going to see him at all?”

“Yes, Chloe, you will have to interact with your step-father.” Joyce smirked as she closed the trunk. “I did get him to promise he would be home for dinner tonight.”

“Oh, right. I forgot.” The bluenette grinned as she opened the back door for Max to get in the car. “He only arrests innocent teenagers during office hours.”

“Chloe, get in the car before I take Max home and leave you on the curb.”


When Max wasn’t answering questions from Joyce, she spent most of the drive looking out the window. 

Max had spent most of her life in cities, between Arcadia Bay and San Francisco. It was her first trip to the desert, and the lack of trees was quite a shock. As was the openness of the sky. Once they got on the highway, the distance she could see to either end of the horizon was breathtaking. And the mountains were the biggest she’d ever seen.

“Are we completely surrounded by mountains?” she asked as they turned off the highway.

“Oh, yea. That’s why Phoenix is sometimes referred to as ‘the valley’.” Joyce nodded as they merged onto a smaller road.

“So where are we now?” Max asked.

“We’re in the town of Surprise.”

“Not Phoenix?”

Chloe chuckled. “Weird, right?”

“‘Phoenix’ is kind of a misnomer,” Joyce explained. “Everybody uses the word to describe most of the area, but the town of Phoenix is kind of small compared to everything else. There are a couple of dozen smaller towns around it. Including Surprise.”

They arrived at Joyce’s house twenty minutes later. “Wow, this is such a pretty neighborhood,” Max commented as they drove through the subdivision.

“It really is. We actually have a pretty good HOA.” Joyce pulled into a garage at a corner house, turning the car off. “We’re home!”

“Thank God, I have to pee so bad.” Chloe pushed the door open. “Max, will you please get my bag? Thank you!”


Chloe washed her hands as she took a couple of deep breaths in the mirror. 

Okay, your mom loves Max. This is going well. You just have to try not to get into a fight with David, and everything will be peachy.

The bluenette was hiding it from Max rather well, but truthfully, she was freaking out about the trip, just like her girlfriend was. Not about Joyce; her mother had made it abundantly clear that she loved Max almost as much as Chloe did. But David... We don’t need a repeat of my sixteenth birthday, Chloe thought miserably as she dried her hands. I don’t think Max will love me anymore if she hears me threaten to kill him.

She took a calming breath. You are here for one week. David is completely addicted to his job anyway, so he’ll probably barely be here. You’re a mature adult now.

Okay, fine. You’re an adult now. You can be civil to your step-dickhead for one week.

Probably shouldn’t call him that.

She heard Max and Joyce laughing as Chloe let go of the towel. Well at least those two are getting along, she thought. Maybe this will be a good week after all, and when we get back, I’ll ask her about... the other thing.

Why are they still laughing? What’s so-

No.

No she DIDN’T.

Chloe yanked the bathroom door open and ran past their bags into the living room, taking in her worst fear; her mother and Max, sitting on the couch, looking at a very familiar pink picture book, Chloe’s name bedazzled on the front.

“Chloe!” Max looked at her, unable to contain her grin. “You were such an ADORABLE little pirate for Halloween!!”

“I know!!” Joyce laughed. “It took me DAYS to get her to take the eye patch off!”

Chloe glared at her mother. “You traitor,” she growled.

Joyce ignored her as Max turned the page. “OHMYGOSH!” she squealed. “You’re hosting a tea party with your stuffed toys! That is so CUTE!!”

“Okay, gimme that thing.” Chloe reached into her pocket, then frowned. “Where’s my Zippo?”

“Not on your life. And you left it in your truck, because you knew TSA wouldn’t let you bring it through security.” Max turned back to Joyce. “Oh, you were so right. Her natural hair color looks really pretty on her.”

Joyce grinned. “I know. I will never, for the life of me, understand why she insisted on dying it that shade of blue.”

Max smiled as she looked back at Chloe. “I think she looks good with it,” she admitted.

“Oh, good. You’re going to take my side for once.” Chloe sighed as she hung her head, dragging herself towards the couch to sit next to Max. “I need a cigarette.”

Max looked back at her, finally frowning. “You promised you would try not to smoke while we were here,” she pouted.

“Well, if I had known my mother was going to drag out the Book of Horrors on day one, I wouldn’t have.” Chloe folded her arms. “Can we maybe find something else to look at?”

“In a minute.” Max flipped the page. “Your mom says there’s a picture of you in here I need to see. Something about a school play, and-”

“Okay, GIMME!!” Chloe lunged for the book, trying to snatch it from Max’s hands.

Apparently, Joyce had been waiting for that, because she grabbed the book just as Chloe’s fingers grazed the pages, holding it out of reach. “Maybe that’s enough for today, Max,” she allowed. “I’ll show you the picture of Chloe as Mrs. Claus later.”

“Aww...”

Chapter Text

December, 2017 (cont)

 

Chloe slipped through the back door, a beer bottle in each hand as she closed the door behind her with an elbow. “Here you go,” she said as she held one out to Max.

Her girlfriend took it, turning back to the crackling fire as she took a sip. “Are you sure your mom doesn’t need our help?”

“Trust me, when she starts cooking, she doesn’t want anyone’s help.” Chloe sat next to Max, putting her feet up on the brick wall of the fire pit as she put her arm around the brunette’s shoulders. “You’ll just get in her way, and then she’ll love you a little less.”

Max nestled into her girlfriend’s side, leaning her head on Chloe’s shoulder as they watched the fire. “This is really nice,” she murmured. “I wouldn’t mind one of these back in San Francisco.”

“Yea, but I’m pretty sure if those hippies catch you burning wood for warmth, you’ll get executed.”

“Har har.” Max took another sip from her beer. “So, shouldn’t your step-dad be home by now? When is he gonna get here?”

“Mom said he’s running a little late. Something about a hit-and-run.” Chloe shrugged.

Max hesitated. “You’re... always a little stand-offish when someone mentions David,” she said. “Is there an issue between you two?”

Chloe sighed. “It’s... mostly with me,” she admitted. “I wasn’t exactly the greatest step-daughter after he married my mom. She met him a year or so after my dad died, and I thought it was too soon for her to meet someone else...” she paused. “I probably took more shit out on him than I should have.”

“How bad was it?”

The bluenette scoffed. “I did threaten to kill him in his sleep a few times.”

“Seriously?” Max looked at her, eyebrows raised.

“He spent ten years in the Army before he became a cop, Max. I was hardly a real threat.” Chloe shrugged as she drank her beer. “Other than that, there were a lot of fights that started and ended with some variation of ‘you’re not my real dad’.”

“Wow.”

“Yea, it wasn’t pretty.”

Max didn’t reply for a few minutes, instead rubbing Chloe’s knee soothingly. “And now?”

“I don’t know.” Chloe sipped from her bottle. “I mean, I like to think I’ve matured a little bit since high school.”

Max snorted.

“Yea, yea. Shut up.” Chloe sighed. “I... honestly, I kind of feel bad for some of the shit I put him through. I mean, he made some genuine effort, and then I would go spray-paint graffiti in the high-school bathroom, or pull the fire alarm to get out of a test, and he’d have to go try and smooth things over with the principal and keep me from getting expelled.” She shrugged. “Not that it did any good. I still got kicked out anyway.”

“This was back in San Francisco?” Max asked for clarification.

“Yea. I’ve never lived in Phoenix. They only moved here three or four years ago.” Chloe continued. “Anyway, after I got the boot, my mom didn’t really know what to do with me. David put a lot of pressure on me to figure out a way to make money. I was good with computers, and it was his suggestion to take a few certification classes. I did, and it got me my IT job.”

Max took a minute to soak everything in. “It sounds like he does care about you,” she pointed out.

“Yea, I know.” Chloe sighed. “Like I said, I want to be more mature about the whole thing. There’s just... a lot of bad history, you know?”

“Mm.” Max watched the fire for a few minutes. “And you being gay is... cool?”

“Dude, I honestly have no fucking idea.” Chloe snorted. “I came out to them when I was seventeen. That was the last time he ever mentioned it. I mean, he did live in San Francisco for a while, but he’s still a pretty staunch conservative, and he was in the Army.”

Max frowned. “So was Jake, remember?” she pointed out. “Besides, I’m sure your mother mentioned to him at some point that you were bringing your super-awesome girlfriend home with you.”

“You know, you say that with humor, but those are probably the exact words she used.” Chloe scoffed as Max chuckled. “I’m sure he’s not going to go, like, total Westboro Baptist on us or anything when he sees us holding hands. My mom does love him, but if he started on any shit like that, she’d cook his balls for dinner.”

The sound of an engine rumbling slowly cut through the night, and they watched headlights sweep over the fence across the yard. After a couple of seconds, they heard the garage door start to open. “Sounds like he’s home,” Chloe commented as she took a healthy swig of her beer, finishing the bottle.

“Let’s go say hi, then.”

Max started to get up, but Chloe tightened her grip on her shoulder. “He’ll come out here,” she said quietly, setting the empty bottle down on the ground.

The brunette stared at her. “Are you... trying to do a power move on your step-dad?”

“No. Once he sees that we have the fire going, he’ll be out here in two minutes with his own beer.” Chloe smirked. “Trust me. He built this thing by himself. To him, the only pull stronger than an open fire is a gun range.”

True to her word, the sliding door opened two minutes later, and Max finally got a good look at the mysterious David Madsen. He wasn’t any taller than Chloe, but decidedly more built; his biceps strained the fabric of his short-sleeved police shirt. His black hair and mustache had bits of grey in it, some of which Max assumed was probably Chloe’s fault. He also had a bottle of beer in each hand as he made his way towards a chair across from the two girls.

“Hello, Chloe,” he said cheerfully, handing her one of the bottles.

The bluenette furrowed her brow. “How’d you know I was empty?” she asked as she took it.

“Figured it was a safe assumption to make.” David twisted off his bottle cap and tossed it into the fire pit as he looked at the brunette. “And you must be Max. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You t-” Max tried to stand, but Chloe still had her arm around her shoulders, and she fell back down again. “Chloe, let go so I can stand up and say hi.”

“Don’t wanna. I’m comfy here.”

“And I’m trying to not be rude. Let go.”

The bluenette reluctantly released her, and David smiled, bemused, as Max shook his hand. “You got her to do as you asked. Use your powers responsibly,” he cautioned her.

Chloe rolled her eyes as Max sat back down. “Man, don’t you have some constitutional rights to violate or something?”

“Not unless someone’s filming us, or there’s a lawyer nearby,” David replied dryly as he plopped down in the opposite chair. “How was the flight over?”

“It was good.” Max sipped from her bottle. “Thank you both so much, for the tickets.”

“Of course.” David smiled. “Joyce is excited to have you here. She hasn’t stopped talking about your visit. I honestly wish I could be here for more of it, but the holidays are pretty busy for us."

“Really?” Max raised her eyebrows. “I figured the opposite.”

David laughed. “Right? Me too, when I started out as a rookie.” He took another sip of his beer. “But no. Families that hate each other fly into town, and start drinking and fighting. People plug in faulty Christmas tree lights and burn their houses down. Christmas Eve is in two days, and there’s a pool at the station to see which Wal-Mart we arrest more people at for assault and battery. First responders stay busy between the 24th and 26th of December, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, crap.” Chloe frowned. “That reminds me, I still have to get a few presents.”

“Do it tomorrow, then.” David shook his head. “Trust me.”

Max set her beer down. “When will you be here?” she asked.

“I have tomorrow off, and Christmas morning. I have to be at the station by noon, though.”

“Mm.” Max leaned back into her girlfriend. “What do you do, exactly?”

“I’m the Commander of Field Operations.” He shrugged. “It sounds more exciting than it really is. I just organize patrols and movements of the on-duty officers. And my lieutenants do most of the work for me; I just supervise. I haven’t made an arrest in years.”

“Miss it, do you?” Chloe said dryly.

“Not really.” David shot her a look. “Especially when it’s my step-daughter.”

Chloe opened her mouth to argue, but Max put a hand on her knee. “You also promised me you were going to be nice,” she said to the bluenette.

“You want me to not smoke AND be nice?” Chloe pouted. “I’m gonna be real irritable by the time we leave.”

David’s eyebrows went up. “You got her to stop smoking?”

“She said she would try not to while we were here,” Max replied.

“You got her to stop smoking. And to try to be nice to us.” David mused, then raised his beer bottle. “She’d better keep you around. You’re good for her.”

“I know, right?”

“Oh, God.” Chloe ran her hand over her face. “This whole visit is just going to be everyone making fun of me, isn’t it?”

David smiled, his eye gleaming. “Has Joyce broken out the picture book yet?”

“Dude!!”


“I like David.” Max pulled on her tank top and sat down on the bed in the Madsen’s guest room, stretching her shoulder. “He’s really nice. And I don’t see where you got that he might have a problem with you being gay.” 

“You just like him because you two ganged up on me all through dinner.” Chloe took her beanie off and dropped it on the nightstand, then pulled off her jeans. “I think even my mom took pity on me at some point.”

Max got under the covers and rolled over, facing Chloe. “I mean, he definitely cares about you.”

“I know he does.” Chloe sighed as she turned off the light and lay down. “I don’t know. When I have my brief moments of maturity, I kind of want to let him in. But then I remember how much I hated him when I was a teenager... it’s kind of hard to just shake that off.”

Max scooted closer to her girlfriend. “You said he was the one that pushed you to get your IT credentials, right?”

“Yea. So?”

“Well... you know if you hadn’t gotten those, we wouldn’t have met.” Max stroked Chloe’s shoulder. “In a way, you could say he’s the reason we’re together.”

Chloe didn’t reply for a minute. “... dammit.”

“Yea. So, maybe while we’re here, you could just, you know, try to make the extra effort to not fight with him? Maybe even have some meaningful discussions?”

“You know, I’m getting concerned that my parents might use you to start manipulating me.”

Max smiled. “Good night, Chloe.”

“Hey, Max.”

“Hmm?”

“Sooooo.... what are the odds of a little something something?”

“Your mom is literally twenty feet away.”

“I can be quiet.”

“Your volume is not the one I’m concerned about.”

“I can make you be quiet.”

“Good NIGHT, Chloe.”


Max: Merry Xmas Eve! 

Rachel: Merry Christmas!!

Steph: Many yuletides!

Max: What the hell is a yuletide?

Steph: Dunno. I’ve been drinking since this morning.

Rachel: Aren’t you with your mom?

Steph: No. I’m still in San Fran. I’m with a couple of coworkers who don’t have family nearby.

Max: Why didn’t you go back to AB?

Steph: Firstly, because my mom moved to Colorado, like, two years ago.

Steph: Secondly, because she’s shacked up with her current boyfriend on some kind of couple’s getaway.

Max: Oh, Steph, I’m sorry.

Steph: Eh. I don’t have to spend the holidays pretending like she’d not going to break up with fuckshisname in two months while she needles me about finding a boyfriend.

Steph: I’d rather get trashed and hang out at my coworker’s house than listen to the hypocritical bullshit of a woman who’s between her fourth and fifth husbands.

Rachel: Dude, you could have come and hung out with me and my parents.

Steph: Appreciate it, but I took the money I would have spent on a plane ticket and invested in a High-Growth Fund instead.

Max: What kind of... wait.

Max: Is that a euphemism?

Steph: No...

Rachel: Uh huh. And when does this fund mature?

Steph: April 20th.

Steph: :)

Max: I don’t get it.

Rachel: That’s because you’re a good person.

Steph: Ask Chloe.

Max: She won’t tell me.

Max: But she says to save some for her?


Max: Merry Xmas Eve! 

Jake: You too!

Penny: How’s meeting the GF’s parents going?

Max: Good! They’re awesome.

Max: Her dad’s police vehicle is a Roush Mustang GT.

Max: Chloe’s been drooling over it ever since she saw it.

Jake: What? That’s an $80K car.

Penny: Yea, how does a police force afford that?

Max: Chloe asked the same thing.

Max: It was apparently seized from a very generous drug dealer, who used it to transport heroin between Nogales and Flagstaff.

Penny: Ah. Well, a man in that line of work needs a fast car.

Jake: Oh! I just had an idea!

Penny: We are NOT getting Mustangs to use as company cars.

Jake: ... buzzkill.

Max: LOL. What are you guys doing?

Penny: We’re hanging out at my condo with Charles, Hayden, Sarah, and one of Sarah’s friends.

Penny: We’re playing the Christmas Hat drinking game.

Max: The what?

Jake: Oh, it’s fun. You stick a Santa hat on the corner of a TV and turn it on.

Jake: Whenever someone on the TV looks like they’re wearing the hat, you drink.

Max: Is everyone drinking on Christmas?

Penny: I think the bigger question is who ISN’T drinking on Christmas.


Max: Merry Xmas Eve! 

Victoria: You too Max!

Kate: We miss you!

Max: Aw, I miss you guys too.

Victoria: Are you still in Phoenix?

Max: Yea, we fly back on the 27th.

Max: Are you two in LA or Seattle?

Kate: Seattle. We’re flying back on the 29th.

Kate: Oh! You and Chloe should totally come hang out with us in LA for New Years! They’re going to do fireworks over the Hollywood sign! It’s been too long since we saw you last. And we still have to meet your GF!

Max: That would be awesome, but I don’t know if Chloe’s truck can make that drive.

Victoria: You guys know there’s a train, right?

Max: Really?

Kate: Yea! You two can stay with us for a couple of nights!

Max: Hmm. Let me ask Chloe.

Max: She’s totally down.

Max: And insists there’s nothing wrong with her truck.

Victoria: What does she drive?

Max: <chloe_pos.jpg>

Kate: ... is it behind the clunker?

Victoria: Oh my God, did an auto-theft ring steal that truck in Mexico to sell here?

Max: She’s very hurt by your comments.

Victoria: Did she do that on purpose for the insurance money?

Victoria: How difficult WAS it, to negotiate a sale from one of Immortan Joe’s War Boys?

Victoria: It’s the elusive Autobot, Wreckasaurus Rust!

Max: She says that last one was weak.

Kate: Ask her if she got Larry the Cable Guy’s autograph, when she brought the life-sized model of Mater.

Max: ... ouch.

Victoria: Babe.

Victoria: I am SO proud of you.

Chapter Text

“Max! Max! Wake up!" 

Max was roughly shaken from her slumber, and when she came to, she did so in a very confused manner. “Huh? Wha? Why?”

Chloe was straddling her in the guest bedroom, knees on either side of Max’s stomach, pinning her arms in place as she held her face above Max’s. A big grin stretched across her lips as she shook her girlfriend awake. “Max! Wake up, quick!”

Max blinked. “Chloe?”

“Max! It’s CHRISTMAS!!”

The brunette groaned. “For fuck’s sake, Chloe, I was-”

Chloe bent down and mashed her lips into Max’s, forcing her tongue into her mouth and she gave her the sloppiest kiss ever, finally letting go with a ‘mwah’. “It’s time to wake up for presents!!”

“Eww! Gross!” Max sputtered, trying to bring her arm up to wipe her mouth, only to find herself fully pined by the blue-haired monster sitting on her abdomen. “Chloe! Get off of me!”

“Come on! I want to open presents!” Chloe grinned. “Did you get me anything good?”

“I did, but I’m going to take it all back and trade it in for a sack of coal at the rate you’re going. Get off of me and let me up!”

Chloe’s smile threatened to break her face. “Someone’s not in the Christmas spirit,” she sang. “I don’t think I can let you up until you tell me why you love me.”

Max glared at her. “Right now, I’m drawing a complete and total blank.”

“I guess that means I have to kiss you again.”

“No! Wait! Okay, okay.” Max took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a second. She opened them and looked back at Chloe. “Fine. I love you because...” she paused. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Chloe blinked, the smile becoming less comical and more genuine. “Really?”

“Uh huh.” Max nodded. “Out of everything that’s ever happened to me, falling in love with you has been the absolute biggest highlight. And it made all the bad shit I had to go through worth it.”

The bluenette swallowed. “Damn, Max,” she said as her voice broke. “I was just shooting for, like, my amazing tits or whatever.”

“Well, ask and you shall receive.” Max smiled back. “Now, can I please get up?”

“Not yet.” Chloe bent back down and gave Max a loving, tender kiss, devoid of tongue and saliva. “Okay,” she said as she broke it off. “Now, let’s go get breakfast. Mom and David woke, like, half an hour ago.”

“You’re gonna have to get off of me, first,” Max pointed out.

Chloe bent down and put her mouth next to Max’s ear. “I know you won’t, because you’re being a prude,” she whispered, “but I so wanna smash right now.”

Max’s face turned red as Chloe finally got up. “You’re terrible.”

“Yea, yea. Come on, Mom’s making her waffles. You haven’t lived until you’ve had them. I’m pretty sure they’re the reason my dad and David asked to marry her.”


“Holy shit, Joyce.” 

That was the only reaction Max had when she took the first bite of her waffles, ruining the last two days of her efforts to be on her best behavior.

“Uh oh, Mom made Max curse.” Chloe snickered as she speared into her own plate.

Max’s ears grew red as she realized what she’d said. “Sorry.”

“Well, if it was going to happen, I guess I can be flattered it’s on account of my cooking.” Joyce smiled as she set a plate in front of David. “Eat up, everyone.”

David made a happy noise as he poured syrup. “Every time she makes these, I have to loosen my duty belt,” he quipped to Max. “She’s making me set a bad example to the rookies. Can’t have a fat Commander, that’s just stereotypical.”

“If you want, I’ll eat them for you. Spare you the embarrassment.” Chloe reached her fork towards David’s plate.

He quickly blocked it. “Don’t even think about it.”

Max was happy to ignore them as she scooped a heaping fork of waffles into her mouth. “This is the best food I’ve had. Like, ever,” she added as she swallowed. “How do you make them so good? Is it another secret?”

“Yep.” Joyce brought her own plate over, setting it between Max and David. “Chloe can’t beg this one out of me, though. These waffles are how I make sure she visits every so often.”

“Heck, I’ll visit you without her for these.” Max grinned.

“Well, it would certainly be a lot quieter.” Joyce winked as she took a bite of her own waffles. “Eat up, we’ve got presents to open after this.”

They quickly wolfed down the rest of their food after that, though Max had to stop Chloe from stealing bites from her waffles twice. “A good girlfriend would have shared,” Chloe pouted as they cleared the table.

“In this instance, I’m okay with being a mediocre girlfriend.”

They made their way to the living room, Max and Chloe sharing the couch as David doled out presents. Max was handed way more than she was expecting. “Okay, now I feel bad,” Max said morosely as she was handed what felt like her tenth present.

“Don’t.” David tossed the last present to Chloe. “If my wife’s only fault is going overboard while Christmas shopping, I’ll live with it.”

They started opening presents in order, but it quickly descended into chaos as Chloe’s excitement got the best of her. Joyce and David loved the presents they got; Joyce was particularly excited for the picture frame Max got for them, which she’d had etched with THE MADSENS. David laughed hysterically at the Funko Pops they’d found. “We started collecting them, and we looked for the ones that embraced your personality,” Chloe said with a grin as he unwrapped the vinyl RoboCop doll.

“That one’s going on my desk,” he chuckled as he set it aside, opening the other two; Daryl Ward, from Bright, and Judy Hopps, from Zootopia. “I get the feeling this one is more Chloe than Max,” he said as he held up the bunny rabbit.

Max got a couple of hoodies, some flannel PJs, and an American Express gift card, which she thanked the Madsens profusely for. Chloe received a new precision tool set, and a couple of gift cards to GameStop and NewEgg.

“Here’s one from Maaaxxx...” she opened the wrapping paper as Max twirled her finger in her hair nervously.

“I hope you like it,” she said cautiously. “I looked through your closet, to see if you had one, but I couldn’t find anything.”

Chloe beamed as she held up a black beanie, the 49ers logo stitched into the side. “Sweet! I’ve been meaning to get one of these for years!” She immediately yanked it onto her head. “Oh, what’s this one?” she said as she picked up a little one.

Max nervously watched as she opened the wrapping paper, and the box inside. Her face adopted a confused expression as she looked between the box and Max.

“Did you...” she paused, glancing at David, who was also confused, and she lowered her voice. “Max, did you get me a necklace full of cocaine?”

“What- no!” Max’s eyes rolled as Chloe pulled out a silver necklace. A glass bulb containing white powder hung from it... which did kind of look like illegal narcotics. “Read the paper, dummy.”

Chloe picked up the card inside, her eyes moving over the text, bugging out as they finished. “Moon dust?!” she glanced back at Max. “Is this for real?!”

Max nodded carefully.

“Dude, this is so fucking wicked!” Chloe showed the card to Joyce and David. “Check this shit out! I got a piece of the moon!”

“What? Let me see!” Joyce took the card as Chloe fumbled with the chain, trying to get it around her neck. “Oh, my! That is so neat!”

“Right?!” Chloe finally got the chain connected, and admired the bulb, shaking it to watch the white powder bounce around. “That is so cool! I can’t wait to show off my piece of Neil Armstrong’s footprint!"

Max’s third gift made Chloe laugh; a rubber keychain with a picture of Mater on it. “I swear, I brought that before Kate made her joke,” Max teased.

“Yea, she thinks she’s cute.” Chloe tossed Max a larger box. “Open one of mine!”

Max unwrapped the box, opening to reveal a leather messenger bag. “Whoa!” She held it up, admiring the look; the leather had been intentionally distressed, giving it a very ‘vintage’ feeling. And it looked way cooler than her current canvas bag. “This thing is awesome!”

“I thought so.” Chloe grinned, handing her a gift bag. “Plus, it fits in with your hipster look.”

Max took the bag and pushed the tissue paper aside, pulling out a white instant camera and couple of packs of film. “Dude, please tell me you did NOT spend a ton of money on me,” Max said as she looked back at Chloe.

“I, uh, found it at a pawn shop.” Chloe shrugged as Max took the camera out and fiddled with it. “And even if I did, so what? Besides, I remember how much fun you had with that photography class you took last month...”

Max had enjoyed the online photography class, especially when it came to taking the pictures on her phone. She’d lamented not having a physical camera. Grinning, Max set the camera down as Chloe produced one last box. The bluenette bit her lip nervously as Max took it.

“I, uh, hope you like it,” she said as Max opened it, pulling the necklace out.

She blinked as she examined the pendant on the silver chain. It looked like a two-sided metal coin, and on each side was a painted representation of both sides of the Earth. “Is this...” her voice trailed off as she looked back at Chloe.

Her girlfriend’s face turned red as she scratched the back of her head. “I, uh... It’s like I told you, you’re my world.” She swallowed. “I, um, hope it’s not too cheesy. I just wanted to-”

Max leaned forward and planted a kiss on Chloe’s lips, surprising her. Chloe kissed back after a couple of seconds.

David leaned over to his wife. “I think she likes it,” he whispered.


Max: So did you guys get anything good for Xmas? 

Rachel: My parents gave me money for a down payment on my own car!

Steph: Dude! Nice!

Max: What kind are you gonna get?

Rachel: Got my eye Honda Civic. Nothing fancy. But I am TOTALLY coming to visit you guys once I don’t have to catch the bus to work. It’s been over a year at this point, and I need my fix.

Rachel: Assuming the offer to stay with Steph is still good

Steph: Of course it is. When are you gonna come down?

Rachel: I don’t know yet. Work is supposed to ramp up after the holidays.

Rachel: Maybe March? Or April?

Max: I’ll get time off work.

Steph: Yea, me too, totally. Just tell me when.

Rachel: Sweet! And I can finally meet Chloe!

Steph: Yea, she’s a real hoot.

Max: What did you get, Steph?

Steph: My mom just sends me money now.

Rachel: Wow, that’s... cool?

Steph: I think you mean lazy. But it works for both of us.

Steph: I’m just gonna put it towards a new computer.

Rachel: What about you, Max? What did you get?

Max: Check it out!

Max: <presents.jpg>

Rachel: Okay, that’s a cool bag.

Steph: Nice necklace, too. Did you get her the one you showed us?

Max: I did. She was so freaking stoked to hang a piece of the moon around her neck.

Max: She’s walking around trying to do the Michael Jackson Moonwalk right now.

Rachel: Is she any good at it?

Max: I’ve never seen the music video. But she’s fallen over, like, three times.

Max: So no, probably not.


Max: How did Penny’s gift go over? 

Jake: She tried to hit me with it.

Max: I told your dumb ass.

Max: What did she get you?

Jake: Elton John’s Greatest Hits CD.

Jake: Fair warning, I’m going to be singing Rocket Man a lot when we get back to work.

Max: You guys are weird.

Jake: Did Chloe like her gifts?

Max: She did. Good call on the Pinterest thing, BTW.

Jake: Now who’s a dumb ass?

Max: You gave a woman an ironing board as an Xmas present. Still you.


Max couldn’t stop fidgeting with her necklace as Chloe drove them back to her apartment. “Babe, you’re gonna break that thing,” she said with a chuckle. 

“Am not.” Max dropped it back inside her shirt as they pulled up to Chloe’s building. “Hey, did your boss reply to your email?”

“Yea, he said it’s cool if I take off until the 3rd.” Chloe nodded “So we’re good to go visit Victoria and Kate. Do they have a guest room, or do we need to get a hotel?”

“I’ll ask, but if they invited us, I assume they have a guest room. Or, at the very least, a pull-out couch.” Max shrugged as Chloe parked, and they got out. “Okay, fair warning, I have no more clean clothes on me. So I need to go back to my apartment at some point to get fresh ones.”

Chloe nodded. “I’ll, uh, drive you back in a little bit. Come on.”

“What’s up?”

“I still have a Christmas present for you.”

Max raised her eyebrows. “Chloe, I swear, you better not have spent too much money on me.”

“Will you just come on?”

They made their way back into the bluenette’s apartment, and Chloe dropped her suitcase by the door with her backpack. “It’s over here,” she said as she walked over to her bookshelf. She reached to the highest shelf, where Max couldn’t reach without standing on a chair, and pulled a small gift box down.

“Sneaky,” Max commented as Chloe gave it to her. “So what is it?”

“Open it up and find out.”

Max pulled the lid of the box off, and moved the tissue paper aside to see... “A key?” she looked up at Chloe, noticing how nervous she looked. “Is... Chloe, is this a key to your apartment?”

“I, uh...” she shifted anxiously. “I want it to be your key. To... our apartment.”

Max blinked, the realization of what her girlfriend was implying coming over her. “Chloe-”

“I want you to move in with me.” Chloe took a deep breath and started talking rapidly. “You’re over here most of the time anyway. You’ve knocked on Jake’s door to get let in, like, a dozen times now. My landlord said it was cool, we just need to let him know when you move in so he can add you to the lease. And I know Jake charges you, like, no rent so you can take your classes, and I’m fine with that, I can handle it on my own-”

“Yes.”

“-I mean, maybe a little cash for the extra food we’ll...” Chloe blinked. “Huh?”

Max wrapped her arms around Chloe’s neck as she stepped up and kissed her. “Yes, Chloe,” she said as she broke away. “I want to move in with you.”

The bluenette stood, frozen for a minute, before she relaxed. “Oh, thank God,” she breathed as she put her hands on Max’s waist. “I’ll be honest, I’ve been tweaking about this since we flew out to Phoenix.”

“Really?” Max smiled.

“Well, I figured, if you didn’t run from my family screaming, you’d hopefully say yes.”

Max rolled her eyes. “You know, that means you made a bigger deal out of this whole thing than I did, FYI.”

“Well, whatever.” Chloe shrugged, a grin breaking out on her face. “Holy shit, you said yes. We’re gonna be roommates.”

“Damn right.” Max paused and bit her lip as she glanced at Chloe’s closet. “Um...”

“What?”

“Here.” Max guided Chloe over to the foot of her bed and pushed her down, so she sat on top of it. “Wait for a minute. Don’t move. Okay?”

Chloe raised her eyebrows. “Uh, sure.” She replied as Max dashed into the closet. She heard rustling as the brunette moved around. “Are we digging for our own present?” she asked with a smirk.

“Will you just hold on?!”

After a couple of minutes, the rustling stopped. “Okay, so...” Max hesitated before she stepped out of the closet. “I was gonna do this later, but if we’re still giving presents, then, you know...”

“Come on, Max, what kind of gift are yoooooooooouuuuuuu....” Chloe’s voice trailed off as Max stepped back into view.

The brunette had pulled on a pair of knee-high white socks, which stopped several inches before the bottom of a pleated, plaid skirt. A white button-up blouse with an embroidered logo barely hid the white bra she was wearing beneath it, and it stopped a few inches before the skirt started. Max clutched her hands nervously as she took in Chloe’s frozen reaction.

“So... you mentioned this after we started dating, and I found this online,” Max said with a nervous smile. “I was gonna wear it for you eventually, but you never mentioned it again, and I wasn’t sure if... you...” Max stopped talking as Chloe stood up and stalked her way over to her.

The bluenette stopped right in front of her, eyeing her hungrily. “That’s not a rental, right?” she asked quietly.

Max shook her head.

“Good.” Chloe grabbed Max around the waist and threw her over her shoulder. The brunette squealed as her girlfriend tossed her onto the bed and jumped on top of her.

Chapter Text

December, 2017 (cont)

“Hah! And you thought my truck was going to explode.” Chloe grinned as they passed a sign, welcoming them to Los Angeles. “You owe me twenty bucks.”

“If that’s the price of our safety, I’ll take it.” Max rolled her eyes as the city loomed in front of them. “Man, I’ve always wanted to visit LA,” she commented as she lifted her new camera, snapping a photo. “I can’t wait to see the Hollywood sign.”

“Or check out the Walk of Fame.” Chloe grinned. “Do you think we’ll get in trouble if we take a dump on Donald Trump’s star?”

Max gave her girlfriend a look. “Yes, Chloe. Yes, we will.”

An hour later, Max was looking around as she tried to spot Victoria’s apartment building. “I think it’s that one,” she said as she pointed to a small six-floor tower.

“Holy shit, you weren’t kidding. Your friend is rich as fuck.” Chloe pulled into the parking lot in front of the building. “What does her dad do again?”

“He’s a businessman of some kind. Penny knows him. She says he’s got Fuck-You levels of money.” Max unbuckled her seat belt as Chloe turned the truck off, opening her door and stretching as she got out. “God, it’s gonna be great to see her again."

“Yea, I can’t wait to meet them.” Chloe passed Max her duffle bag as she shouldered her own, closing her truck and locking the door. “Lemme guess. She lives on the top floor?”

Max smirked. “Yep.” She checked her phone as she sent a text. “Apartment 6B.”

“You tell her we’re here?”

“Yea, but she hasn’t been texting back.” Max frowned as she put her phone away. “She must be busy or something.”

They walked inside and too the elevator all the way up, getting out at the top floor and making their way to Victoria and Kate’s apartment.

As they got close to the door, they could hear a commotion from the other side. “What the hell?” Chloe remarked as they stopped in front of it. “Is... someone yelling?”

Max frowned as she rapped on the door quickly.

It opened a few seconds later, and Max did a double-take at Victoria’s haggard appearance. Her short blonde hair was not in it’s perfect shape, several tufts slightly eschew. She hadn’t applied makeup, which was very unlike her. Her white shirt had wrinkles in it. And they could both see the slight puffiness in her eyes.

“Oh, Max,” she said in a shell-shocked tone. “Um... sorry. We, uh, kind of forgot you were coming.”

“Jesus, Victoria, are you alright?” Max stared, almost not recognizing her.

“Uh...” Victoria hesitated. “It’s... been a long day.”

They heard more yelling, and the three of them glanced back as Kate walked into view, on the balcony outside. She was stalking back and forth as she argued with someone on her phone, the anger clearly evident in her voice.

I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU THINK!!” Max heard her scream. “This is not about you! This is MY LIFE! Not yours! You had NO RIGHT to...” her voice ebbed as she turned and paced towards the other side of the balcony. 

Chloe blinked. “Wow,” she commented. “Who knew someone so small could be so loud?” 

Victoria stared at her, finally noticing the bluenette. “I, uh, know, right?” she replied hollowly, holding out her hand. “Victoria.”

“Chloe.” They shook hands, standing awkwardly. “Um, should we... come back?”

“No, just...” Victoria stepped aside. “She’ll be a little bit.”

Max walked inside and set her bag down, turning to Victoria. “What’s going on?” she asked carefully.

Victoria averted her eyes. “Nothing.”

“Victoria.” Max grabbed her shoulders. “Come on. I can tell you’re upset. What happened?”

“I mean...” Victoria paused. “Yea. I am. It’s...” she sighed. “I don’t know anymore.”

“...is not my FUCKING PROBLEM!!” Kate came pacing back outside. “I do NOT need to be fixed! No! I don’t- I DON’T GIVE A SHIT! I am an ADULT, and I will curse at you if I FUCKING feel like...

“Oh, God.” Max could almost see the energy leave Victoria as she sat down on a couch, looking absolutely exhausted as she put her head in her hands. “This is all my fault.”

“Okay, why don’t we breathe for a minute.” Chloe sat down next to her. “Victoria... I know we just met, but... are you okay?”

Victoria looked back up at Chloe. “Not really,” she admitted. “I... oh, man, I knew we should have made different plans over Christmas. I just wanted to introduce her to my parents.” The blonde girl sniffed, rubbing her nose. “We’ve been together for over two years, and they hadn’t even met her yet. And I...” Victoria hesitated, then squeezed her eyes shut, lowering her head again.

“I’m... gonna go check on Kate.” Max made her way towards the balcony doors, opening them as Kate came back to her side of the balcony.

“No! NO! I am NOT! I don’t- you know what?! Fine! FINE!! FUCKING DO IT, THEN!!” Kate took her phone from her ear and held the mouthpiece up. “FUCK YOU!!” she screamed into the microphone, jamming her thumb onto the screen as she hung up the call.

Then she turned, brought her arm back, and chucked her phone over the balcony as hard as she could. “FUCK!” she shouted after it.

Max blinked, unable to believe that sweet, innocent Kate had used the kind of language she’d just witnessed. “... Kate?” she asked cautiously.

The short blonde girl spun, the anger in her face slowly melting as she saw the brunette. “Max,” she breathed. “I... um...”

Max slowly walked closer. “Do you, ah, want to... talk?”

The anger in her eyes died as Kate tried to take a couple of deep breaths. “I forgot you were... I...”

Her lower lip started to quiver as she took another deep breath and choked, grabbing the balcony railing as she slowly sunk to her knees. Her breathing got faster and faster as Max ran forward, grabbing her as she burst into tears.


“That was my mom.” 

Chloe blinked as she stared across the coffee table at Kate. “You were yelling at your mom?”

“It’s... kind of a long story.” Kate wiped her eyes with a tissue as she sat next to Victoria. Chloe sat next to Max, leaning forward as they listened. “My mother doesn’t accept that I’m a lesbian. Or that I love Vicky.”

“I think I’ve read this book before,” Max remarked.

Kate snorted. “Yea, I guess you have, haven’t you?” She sniffled. “I’m sorry. My thing isn’t as... bad as yours was. I’m sure you don’t want to-”

“I didn’t say stop, Kate.” Max shook her head. “Keep going.”

Kate dropped her old tissue, grabbing a new one from the box on the table. “She’s always been a real pain about it,” she admitted. “She refuses to meet Vicky, even over Skype. And she unfriended me on Facebook, because I have pictures of the two of us on there. I don’t like talking to her very much, because she keeps asking if I’ve figured out that I like boys yet.”

“What a treasure,” Chloe remarked dryly.

Victoria scoffed. “Nicer word than I use.”

Kate nodded as she continued. “She wants me to marry this boy I was friends with when I was younger. His name is Chris, and our families go way back. She has this fantasy that I’m going to get over loving Vicky, move back to San Diego, and marry him to have all the grandkids she wants.”

“So what happened over Christmas?” Max asked.

Victoria dropped her head. “It’s my fault,” she muttered.

“No, it is NOT.” Kate shot Victoria a glare. “Stop saying that.” She turned back to Max. “It’s... see, the first holiday we were together, we’d been dating for about seven months or so. I hadn’t come out to my parents yet, so I went home for Christmas alone.”

“That sucked,” Victoria added.

“Yea, it did.” Kate nodded in agreement. “I missed her the whole time I was there. The second holiday-the one right before Vicky called you on Facebook, Max-I wanted to bring her with me. So I Skyped my mom and dad, told them I was a lesbian, and asked if I could bring my girlfriend home for Christmas with me.”

“And that didn’t go over well?” Chloe asked.

“Like a lead balloon.” Kate shook her head. “My mother went off on this tangent, about me just being confused and whatnot, and we got into a kind-of heated argument. But then she hit me with... she said my grandmother was dying.” Kate bit her lip. “She said she didn’t want me upsetting the rest of the family, while they were trying to make her last Christmas a good one.”

Kate squeezed her eyes shut as Victoria reached behind her, rubbing her back. “I fell for it. Hook, line, and sinker,” she moaned.

“Her grandmother was fine,” Victoria explained. “She’s still alive. She’s in her early seventies, and walks two miles a day.”

“Jesus,” Max breathed. “Kate...”

The petite girl took a deep breath. “I was so miserable. She spent two days trying to browbeat me into saying it was just a phase. She practically locked me in a room with Chris during one afternoon, when our families were together. When I finally realized that I had been played...” she sniffed and looked to Victoria.

“She called me. I drove to San Diego and picked her up, on Christmas Day,” Victoria finished. “I, uh, might have flipped off her mother when I peeled out of their driveway.”

Chloe raised her eyebrows. “Um... I don’t mean to be crass or anything, but...” she extended her palm across the table.

Victoria smirked as she high-fived her. “Yea.”

“So what happened this year?” Max leaned forward. “I know you didn’t go back to San Diego.”

“No, we didn’t. My mom called early this month.” Kate shook her head. “She wanted to know when I was coming down, so they could finalize plans. I told her the only way she would see me is if Vicky came, too.” She sighed. “You can probably guess how well that went over. She finally insisted that I stop being foolish, get over this silly phase, and ‘come back to the light’ so I could marry Chris.”

“I really don’t want to interrupt, but I have a dumb question. Does this dude actually want to marry YOU?” Chloe asked.

“That’s the only funny part of this whole issue.” Kate chuckled as she dabbed at her eyes with the tissue. “He’s got a serious girlfriend. Like, going-to-get-engaged-any-day-now, level of serious. They started dating while they were in medical school, before I even met Vicky. My mother is in such deep denial, it’s not even funny.”

Max and Chloe had to smile at that. “So you went to meet Victoria’s parents instead,” Max offered.

“I wanted them to meet her.” Victoria ran her hand through her hair. “My parents don’t make it down to Los Angeles very often, and the few times they have while we’ve been together, our schedules didn’t match up. We’ve been a couple for almost three years, and they hadn’t met her yet. So I brought her with me up to Seattle instead.”

“It was amazing.” Kate smiled as she looked at Victoria, reaching over and squeezing her girlfriend’s hand. “Her mom and dad are awesome. They are so non-judgmental, and caring... I wish my last few holidays had been like this one.”

“I’ve read that book, too.” Max squeezed Chloe’s knee.

“Yea. Well, my mom was furious that I didn’t come home.” Kate shook her head. “She decided that since I’m not going to ‘come back to the light’ or whatever on my own, she was going to push me there. So she called my professors yesterday, and tried to withdraw me from school.”

“She... wait, what?!” Max gaped. “Are you serious?”

Kate nodded as she wiped her eyes. “She told all of them that I was dropping my classes, for the rest of the semester, because I needed to come home and take care of my sick grandmother.”

“The one who walks two miles a day?!” Chloe asked incredulously.

“Yea.” Kate sniffed. “Thankfully, I’m still doing classes for my Masters. My professors are rather intelligent. I got calls from all of them this morning, letting me know what was going on.” She buried her face in her hands. “Oh my God, I was so mortified and humiliated. I had to explain what was happening to three professors and my Student Advisor.” 

“And then she had the balls to call to help arrange for her travel home,” Victoria added.

“I guess that was when you two arrived.” Kate glanced back on the balcony. “She just told me that if I wasn’t going to stop this nonsense about being a lesbian, she was going to disown me.”

“And you told her to do it,” Max concluded. “And to fuck herself.”

Kate cringed. “I’m sorry you heard me say that,” she muttered. “I don’t like to swear. I was just so angry...”

Chloe pursed her lips. “Kate, I hope you can forgive me for saying this,” she said. “But your mom’s a fucking cunt.”

“Chloe!” Max scolded.

Kate shrugged. “If I can forgive Vicky for saying it, I guess I can let you off the hook, too,” she sighed. “I... I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” she mumbled as she ran her fingers through her hair. “I don’t know if I should try to talk to my dad, or my sisters, or what.”

“What does the rest of your family think?” Chloe asked.

“My sisters don’t really seem to care,” Kate replied. “They’ve never expressed any interest in meeting Vicky, but they never gave me any grief about being a lesbian, either. My dad... I really have no idea. My mom wears the pants in that house, so he mostly does as she says. He never said anything bad to me about it, though.”

“Either way, you’re not talking to them without a phone.” Max nodded towards the balcony. “Should we go downstairs and try to find it, or...”

“There’s a pond on that side of the building,” Victoria answered. “Unless you guys brought scuba gear with you, we’re not getting it back.”

Kate looked back out the balcony and grimaced. “Oh, God. Now I need a new phone, too.”

“I’ll get you a new one tomorrow, Kate,” Victoria assured her. “Don’t worry about it.”

The petite girl gave her a look. “You know I don’t like it when you throw your money at my problems.”

“In this instance, I don’t care.” Victoria turned back to Max and Chloe. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how we wanted this visit to go. We’re supposed to be having fun.”

“Fuck that. You guys need someone to talk to, we’re here for you.” Chloe smirked. “This is definitely an interesting way to make new friends, though.”

Kate looked at her, horrified. “Oh, God. The first time we meet, and I’m swearing and throwing my phone around. I am so sorry.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.” Chloe waved her hand. “We’ll have fun tomorrow. Let’s focus on you guys tonight. Actually...” she looked at Victoria. “An apartment this nice, you must have some booze laying around. You two wanna get drunk and bitch about shitty parents?”

Victoria blinked and smiled. “Ok, we just met, but I already love the way you think.”

Chapter Text

The first bottle of wine had turned into two. Then three... four...

Several hours later, there were five empty bottles of wine on the coffee table, next to two pizza boxes. And an empty box of tissues.

Kate, while initially hesitant, decided to toss her inhibitions aside and partake at least as much as Max. Though the two were about matched for weight class. Max’s occasional beer did not make her a heavy drinker.

“I’m actually...” Victoria paused as she burped into her fist. “Actually kinda impressed she tried to keep up with us.” She thumbed at her girlfriend, slumped over next to her, passed out with her head on the arm of the couch. “She, like, never drinks more than a glass or two at a time. Makes me feel like such an alcoholic when I empty a bottle by myself.”

“Right?” Chloe chuckled loosely, glancing at Max. The brunette was curled up on an easy chair, one leg hanging off the side as she dozed. “She has, like, two or three bottles out of every twelve pack I buy.”

“Is it us?” Victoria frowned. “Is it the nature of... alcoholics to fall in love with people who barely drink?”

Chloe lazily held up her finger. “I am NOT an alcoholic.” She grinned. “Alcoholics go to meetings. I am a drunken wench with poor coping mechanisms.”

Victoria snickered, taking a swig straight from her wine bottle. She swallowed and glanced around. “Holy shit, we just drank, like, four hundred bucks worth of wine in one day,” she noted.

“Damn, really?” Chloe lifted her own bottle, examining the label. “Is it the cork that makes it so expensive? I don’t really drink wine, but when I do, it has a screw-on top.”

Victoria looked horrified. “Please, Chloe, tell me that’s not true.”

“Well, sometimes it also comes in a box.”

The blonde girl snorted as she took another sip. “What about people with decent parents?” she asked. “Maybe we’re destined to fall for the ones with families that are literal train wrecks.”

“Hmm.” Chloe looked at Max. “That theory might be worth exploring.” She glanced back to Victoria. “Hey, ah, you don’t happen to smoke, do you?”

She hesitated. “Um... maybe. Are you gonna tell Kate?”

“Not if you don’t tell Max.”

“Are we becoming, like, best friends or something?”

“I guess that depends on what kind of cigarettes you have.”

The two of them staggered uneasily to their feet and stumbled outside to the balcony, bringing their wine bottles with them. “Max made me promise that I wouldn’t smoke when we visited my parents for Christmas,” Chloe explained as she sat on the lounge chair, Victoria closing the door behind them. “I have been Jonesing for tobacco for DAYS.”

“Kate’s trying to get me to quit, too.” Victoria sat opposite her and reached under the patio table. Chloe heard a rip of duct tape, and the blonde girl produced a pack of Marlboros and a lighter. “She says it makes me smell terrible. She actually gave me a pack of nicotine gum for my birthday.”

Chloe snorted in amusement. “I think Max just wants me to be a better person,” she said as she took the offered cigarette. She stuck it in her lips, using the lighter to fire it up. “Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that’s the stuff,” she sighed after she took a drag.

Victoria chuckled as she lit up her own cigarette. “Does she get on you about drinking? Kate bugs me about that too, sometimes.”

“No, just the cigarettes.” Chloe shrugged. “Don’t know why she doesn’t care about the booze. Probably figures I need a vice of some kind, or I’ll go crazy.” She glanced back inside. “Fuck, I love that girl.”

“I know the feeling.” Victoria looked lovingly back at Kate. “She just... hell, she’s so fucking amazing. I can’t believe she’s willing to get disowned for me.” She sniffed. “I just wish I could put her in, like, a box or something, so I could keep her away from her mother’s bullshit. I had her turn her phone off, while we were in Seattle, so she could avoid it, and...” she glanced back at Chloe. “She was just... so stress-free. Like, being away from her mother actually made her better.”

Chloe nodded. “I bet. I mean, I’m just now hearing about it, but it sounds like a woman who would just wear you out if you had to deal with her.” She inhaled more of her cigarette. “How was your guys’ Christmas, with your parents?”

“It was wonderful.” Victoria smiled. “They loved her. I was fucking terrified, honestly, because... you know, we’re rich as fuck, and she’s from the suburbs. But my parents didn’t even give a shit, and they told me that she was a keeper on day one.”

Chloe snorted. “Like you didn’t already know that?”

“Well, I mean, I wasn’t going to factor their opinions into my relationship, but I still wanted them to like her.” Victoria shrugged. “She had the charm on maximum. She even helped my mom cook all the meals while we were there.” She was about to continue, when she watched Chloe’s eyebrows arch. “What?”

“I’m just having trouble picturing a family with your money cooking for themselves.” Chloe’s mouth twitched up in a smirk. “Figured you guys would have a butler or something.”

Victoria rolled her eyes. “We’re not THAT pretentious. Come on.”

“Sorry, I just find it hard to imagine rich parents like yours cooking family dinners every night.” Chloe shrugged. “When I think of families like yours, I imagine kids that grew up barely seeing their folks."

“My parents were actually pretty involved with my life, when I was growing up.” Victoria took another puff from her cigarette. “I don’t know how much Max told you about my family...”

Chloe snorted. “I got that you guys have ‘Fuck You’ levels of money.”

“Okay, that is true.” Victoria leaned back in her chair. “My dad... he basically does what Max’s bosses do, on a larger scale. He has major stakes in businesses all over the world, but a lot of them are in the states, especially around Seattle. I don’t know exactly how much money our family has, but it’s definitely more than I can appreciate.”

Chloe frowned. “Then why did you go to school in Arcadia Bay? Why not some elite private school in New York or something?”

“Because my mother wouldn’t let me.” Victoria smirked. “My parents met when my father bought out the company my mother was working for. My mom didn’t grow up poor, but she was definitely middle-class. She knew a bunch of people who went to those elite schools, and she refused to let me go, because a lot of them were arrogant snobs.”

“And your dad...”

“My dad took over the business from his father. He grew up rich, and went to one of those schools. He agreed with my mom.” Victoria took a sip from her wine bottle, and continued. “I grew up with a fair amount of cash. I was definitely the richest kid in that high school. But my parents always made it clear to me that I wasn’t going to inherit anything, if I didn’t work for it. And that if I ever started doing stupid shit, I was cut off.”

Chloe whistled.

“Yea.” Victoria nodded. “Anyway, my mom didn’t really do any work while I was growing up. I mean, she did a little bit, here and there, but she was definitely a stay-at-home parent. And my father made it a point to be home at least half the time. At his level, a lot of work can get done over the phone.”

“So why doesn’t he make it down to LA very often?” Chloe asked. “I mean, this is one of the biggest cities in the world. He doesn’t have anything to do down here?”

“I mean, a little, but not much. He doesn’t make an appearance unless he’s really needed.” Victoria shrugged. “He’s been expanding his reach overseas recently, so there isn’t much for him to do in California. He has people to handle things for him down here.”

“Hmm.” Chloe pursed her lips. “We went off-topic, a little bit. Your parents adored Kate?”

“Oh, totally. They said I couldn’t possibly do better than her.”

“And what do they think about...” Chloe glanced back inside. “Mama Marsh?”

Victoria hesitated. “They have no idea,” she admitted. “I just... my dad loves me, a lot, and this isn’t something I want him involved in, because I know he'll try to help.” She glanced back inside, at her sleeping girlfriend. “She doesn’t like when people try to fix her problems for her."

“But you would, though,” Chloe pointed out.

“In a heartbeat.” Victoria looked back at Chloe, her eyes sad. “I would do anything to get her free of her mother’s crap. I’m just...” she bit her lip. “I love her. I love her so much. I don’t want to do something stupid, and make her hate me.” She glanced down at her lap. “I don’t know what I would do without her,” she finished quietly.

Chloe took another puff of her cigarette. “You know what my biggest worry is?” she asked. Victoria looked up at her, waiting. “That something’s gonna happen to Max, someday, and I’m not gonna be there.”

“What do you mean?”

“She told me what happened to her. Back in high school.” Chloe let out a shaky breath. “Her dad beating her, the email thing, being homeless, all of it. At least, I hope so; I don’t wanna know if she left anything worse out. I promised her that I would never let anything bad happened to her ever again. And if something did...” Chloe glanced back at Victoria. “I don’t know what I would fuckin’ do.”

“I do.” Victoria nodded. “If it Kate’s mother did something? I’d go to San Diego, and burn that whole fucking city to the ground.”

“Amen.” Chloe exhaled, smoke wafting into the sky. “Christ, these women.”

Victoria smirked. “Max told you about Steph and Rachel?”

“I was THIS,” Chloe said as she held her thumb and index finger up, pinching a small space between them, “close to beating the shit out of Steph when I first met her.”

“Wow. What stopped you?”

“I saw how fucked up she was from the whole thing.” Chloe lifted the cigarette back to her lips and inhaled, the ember on the tip glowing. “Like, some truly deep-seated guilt. Her level of self-hatred is actually pretty fucking depressing.”

The blonde’s eyebrows went up. “Really?”

“Yea. She genuinely feels like the worlds biggest asshole about it.” Chloe shook her head. “I really wanted to go at her swinging, but... I don’t know. Would have felt like beating up a disabled kid, or something.”

Victoria hummed, then looked back inside. “Hey...” she bit her lip, looking back at Chloe. “If I show you something, will you keep it a secret?”

“Sure.” Chloe looked at her curiously. “What?”

The blonde placed her cigarette on the edge of the table, then got up and staggered back inside. She came back out a couple of minutes later carrying her purse, which she deposited on the table and started to rifle through.

A few seconds later, she produced a small blue box. She opened it to expose a silver engagement ring.

“Holy shit,” Chloe breathed, unable to take her eyes off the diamond. “Jesus, Victoria...”

“Yea.” Victoria set it between them, and sat back down, retrieving her cigarette. “I was gonna ask her tomorrow. On the roof. When the fireworks were going off.”

Chloe pried her eyes away from the ring, back to Victoria. “What do you mean, ‘was’? Are you not anymore?”

“I...” she hesitated, staring into the distance. “I don’t know if the mood is still right. I mean, her mom just threatened to disown her because of me. You saw how upset she was. I don’t know if I should drop this on top of her, after a conversation like that.”

Chloe blinked as she absorbed what Victoria said. “Vic, that’s the dumbest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever heard.”

"Okay, I don't like that nickname..." the blonde paused, and looked at Chloe. “Huh?”

“Dude.” Chloe leaned forward. “Kate’s mom threatened to disown her. And Kate told her to do it, and to go fuck herself. She just showed that she loves you more than her own family.” Chloe took another puff of her cigarette. “I cannot imagine a more powerful response than to show her that you’ll love her forever. And on New Years Eve? You can’t do better than that, man.”

Victoria glanced back at the ring, uncertainty still on her face.

“Also.” Chloe smirked. “Can you imagine the look on her mother’s face when her precious little angel agrees to marry another girl?”

Laughter exploded from Victoria’s mouth, and the two of them sat and giggled wildly for a few minutes. “Good point,” she conceded. “God, I’d love to be a fly on the wall in that house when she finds out.”

“Exactly.” Chloe shook her head. “I know I just met you two, but even a dope like me can tell Kate is head-over-fucking-heels in love with you. And I know you love her more than anything. If you think she won’t jump at the chance to lock you down, you’re an idiot.”

Victoria allowed a small smile. “You’ve, uh... got a real way with words.”

“So I’ve heard. You’re gonna do it, right?”

Victoria bit her lip as she looked back at the ring. “Yea. Yea, I am,” she said as she made up her mind, picking the box back up and snapping it closed. “Thanks, Chloe.”

“For what?”

“For telling me what I wanted to hear.”

“No problem.” Chloe took one last puff of her cigarette, then flipped the butt over the side of the balcony. “So, are Max and I sleeping on the couch?”

“What? No.” Victoria looked offended. “This isn’t a college dorm. We have a guest room.”

Chloe shrugged. “Just checking. Come on, let’s get the drunks to bed.”

Chapter Text

Kate slowly sipped her tea, eyes closed. “Oh, that’s good,” she breathed slowly.

“Mm.” Max drank from her coffee cup, trying to ignore her headache as they sat in front of the café. “What kind did you get?”

“Earl Grey.” Kate smiled. “Vicky and I found this place a few months ago. They have the BEST tea in the city, I swear. We’re here three or four times a week.” She held out her cup. “Do you want to try?”

“No, thanks. I’ve never been a big fan of tea.” Max took another sip of her coffee. “This is pretty good too, though.” She glanced at the phone between them. “Has it finished loading your cloud data yet?”

“Let me check.” Kate touched her thumb to the home button, turning her new phone on. “Oh, gosh. Yea, it has.”

Max looked at the screen and saw the notifications. “Wow. Seven voice mails?”

“Plus forty-something texts.” Kate scrolled down the list. “All from my mother. So much for disowning me, I guess.”

“Are you okay?” Max gave Kate a concerned look. “What she did and said... that’s pretty fu- I mean, messed up.”

Kate snorted. “I don’t think I can chastise anyone for swearing, after yesterday.” She hit the power button on her phone and put it back on the table. “I don’t know what to think. I mean... she’s my mom. I want her to accept me for who I am, not whatever fantasy she’s put together in her mind.”

“Maybe she will, someday,” Max agreed. “But... Kate, I think trying to force it on her is just going to be punishing yourself.”

“Yea...” Kate bit her lip. “I’m not gonna call her back for a little while.”

“And the voice mails?”

Kate glanced between her phone and Max. “I don’t know if I want to hear them or not,” she admitted. “My mom was pretty heated yesterday. I mean, I was, too, but still... I’m not sure if I want to know what she said while temperatures were hot.”

Max sighed. Then she picked her head up, frowning. “How long have Chloe and Victoria been in the bathroom?”

Kate glanced at her watch. “Maybe ten minutes?”

“Geez. What’s taking them so long?”


“Okay, Vic, if you have a blunt to smoke, now would be the time.” 

Victoria took a deep breath as she gripped the countertop with both hands, her knuckles white. “I’m freaking the fuck out, Chloe.”

“Midnight is, like, ten hours away. That’s a REALLY long time to have conniptions.” Chloe folded her arms. “How about a Valium? Or Xanax? You’re a rich white girl; you’re gonna have me believe that you can’t get ahold of some good prescription shit with one phone call?”

The blonde shot her a glare through the mirror. “This may run contrary to your beliefs, but I do not have a pill-pusher on speed-dial.”

“Okay.” Chloe smirked. “What’s your drug, then? Shopping? Driving fast while texting? Pumpkin-spice lattes? Telling the cashier at the Coach store that you want to speak to her manager?”

Victoria took another deep breath and closed her eyes. “This is revenge for all the jokes I made about your truck, isn’t it?”

“Not gonna lie, little bit.” Chloe turned around and leaned back against the counter next to her, making direct eye contact. “Ok, Vic, look at me.”

Victoria glanced at Chloe. “Please don’t call me that.”

“You’re gonna propose to Kate at midnight.” Chloe nodded, ignoring her. “You and I both know she’s gonna say yes. She’s going to scream, and cry her eyes out, and blubber while you put the ring on her finger. You’re probably gonna cry too. Then Max and I are going to find someplace else to hang out at for an hour while the two of you have really loud and passionate sex in your bedroom, because neither of us is gonna want to hear that.”

The blonde snorted, looking down as she composed herself. “You should probably make it two hours,” she muttered.

“Christ, woman, what the fuck are you gonna do to that poor girl? Actually... don’t answer that.” Chloe smirked as Victoria’s ears turned pink. “Look, you already know what’s gonna happen. Freaking out and stressing isn’t going to make the time go by faster. Now, come on.”

“Huh?”

Chloe grabbed her bicep and pulled her away from the counter. “We’ve been in here for fifteen minutes. We stay any longer, one of our girlfriends is going to come looking for us.”

Victoria took a second to put herself back together before they walked out, returning to the table. “Everything alright?” Max asked, frowning.

“Yea, you two were in there for a while.” Kate looked at her girlfriend. “Everything okay, Vicky?”

“Everything's fine. We were just... talking through some stuff.” Victoria kissed Kate’s forehead as she sat down. “So, we still have a bunch of time to kill.” She glanced back at Max. “You two want to go see the Walk of Fame? Hit up a few shops on the way?”

“Ooh, that sounds like fun.” Max smiled. “Chloe?”

“Definitely.” A big grin broke out onto the bluenette’s face. “I want to find Trump’s star, and-”

“There’s a security guard next to his star at all times,” Victoria interrupted.

Chloe’s face fell. “Crap.”

“Yea. You’re not the first person to try and deface it, you know.”

“Figures.” Chloe sat back, her arms crossed. “Fucking pigs. Never let me have any fun.”


Max lifted her camera. admiring the lights of the city as she pressed the shutter button. The gears inside whined smoothly as the paper ejected. “Man, this is a great view,” she commented as she took the picture, shaking it out. “Your building is amazing.” 

“Yea, no kidding.” Chloe stood on her left, arm around Max’s shoulder as they stared at the gleaming city, the hill with the Hollywood sign off to the side. “I wish ours had a view like this. Your landlord is so cool, that he lets you have roof access.”

“He, uh, usually doesn’t.” Victoria grinned as she stood behind Kate, her arms wrapped around the smaller girl. “I had to convince him to give me a copy of the key.”

“She was very insistent that we watch from the top of the building,” Kate added, her hands over Victoria’s. “How much longer?”

Max checked her phone. “Three minutes or so.”

“Sweet.” Chloe pulled at Max. “Hey. Come here.”

The brunette frowned as Chloe pulled her away from Victoria and Kate, then turned, so they were face-to-face. “What?” she asked.

“I...” Chloe paused for a second. “I just wanted to make sure you knew that you made this the best year of my life.”

Max slowly smiled, her hands making their way to the bluenette’s waist. “Chloe...”

“Not done.” Chloe took a breath and continued. “I, uh, I wasn’t looking for anything serious, when we met. I just figured, you know, you were cute, and I wouldn’t mind fooling around for a little while.” She paused. “But, the more I got to know you... and the more we hung out together... I realized how special you really are.”

Chloe blinked, her eyes wet as she kept going. “I’m only sorry we didn’t meet sooner,” she added. “I would give anything to save you from what happened, when you were younger. But I’ll make damn sure that nothing bad ever happens to you again.” She grinned. “You’re my world, Max. And I love you.”

The brunette’s throat bobbed, and it took a few seconds for her to speak. “Damn it, Chloe,” she whispered. “I, um... I had something, for midnight, and you made me forget it.”

Chloe laughed as she hugged Max. “I know, I’m fucking amazing.”

“Yea. You are.” Max hugged her back. “I didn’t even know you for the first couple of months of 2017, and you still rocked it. I never thought I’d feel this way about anyone.” She sniffed. “I love you, too.”

“Good, because I’m not going anywhere.” Chloe grinned. “Now, gimme some sugar.”

Max looked up as Chloe’s lips met hers, and they kissed fiercely for a few seconds. Then she felt the bluenette’s arm move behind her back, as Chloe checked her watch. “Sorry to jump the gun, Max,” she said as they separated. “I had to get all that out of the way before the fireworks.”

Max raised her eyebrows. “What? Why?”

“Trust me on this.” Chloe pulled her phone out, bringing up the camera mode. “And don’t say anything until it’s over.”

“Until what’s-” Max was distracted by the explosion behind her, and she turned as the first of the fireworks exploded in the sky. “Wow!” she gasped, as the display lit up the entire city, the white Hollywood sign reflecting the light from across town.

“Max! No talking!” Chloe hit the record button on her phone. “Shh!”

She turned and saw that Chloe was recording Victoria as she looked into Kate’s eyes, speaking softly, her arms looped behind her girlfriend’s back. Kate was looking up at her, smiling as she met her Victoria’s eyes. Max couldn’t hear what the blonde was saying over the fireworks, but given how affectionate Kate’s smile was, she imagined it was similar to what she’d just shared with Chloe.

Then Kate’s eyebrows furrowed, confused at whatever Victoria had just said. The blonde kept a smile on her face as her right hand lowered, dipping into her coat pocket, producing something that was decidedly shiny, holding it up for Kate to see.

Her reaction was immediate. Kate emitted a small scream, and her hands flew to her mouth, her eyes wide as she stared. Max gasped as she finally got a good look at what Victoria was holding.

Kate stood, frozen, for several seconds, none of the girls looking at the fireworks going off behind them.

Then Kate started nodding frantically, her eyes closing as tears started to flow. She let Victoria take her left hand, the blonde starting to cry as well while she slid the ring over Kate’s finger. Once she got it on, Kate threw both her arms around Victoria, her sobbing audible over the fireworks as the two of them clutched each other tight.

After a few minutes, Victoria tilted Kate’s chin up, their tears visible as they kissed.

It wasn’t until Max finally blinked that she realized she was crying, too. “Holy shit,” she croaked, her hands covering her mouth.

She finally heard Chloe’s loud sniffling as the fireworks began to die down. “God damn,” Chloe said as she wiped her nose. Then she hit the button to turn off the video recording. “I think our cursing ruined the video,” she said quietly as she put the phone back in her pocket.

“We’ll, uh, edit it out.” Max sniffed as she wiped her eyes.

The other two finally broke apart, and Kate looked back at Max and Chloe, tears still running down her face as she weakly held her hand up and started bawling. Max shot forward, running up to Kate and wrapping her in a tight hug.

Chloe followed right behind her, throwing her arms around Victoria. “I told your dumb ass,” she sniveled into the blonde’s ear.

“Shut up,” Victoria whimpered softly, gripping the back of Chloe’s jacket. “Please tell me you got it all.”

“Every second.”

Kate was still sobbing into Max’s shoulder, her words completely unintelligible as she cried. “Kate,” Max finally said as she blinked back tears, “I can’t understand a fucking word you’re saying.”

Kate pulled back and took a deep breath. “I’m... getting... married!” she finally managed to choke out, her breath hitching at every word as she held up her left hand.

“I know!” Max cried as she hugged her again. “Oh my God, Kate!”

Kate started crying again as she reached out, grabbing for Victoria and dragging her and Chloe in for a group hug. The four of them spent several minutes crying, Kate harder than than the others.

“Oh, my God, I’m so happy for you two,” Max finally got out as she pulled back a little. “Victoria, that was so romantic!”

Victoria wiped her eyes, sniffling. “Thank you,” she murmured, hugging Kate fiercely. “Babe?”

“I love you, Vicky. I love you so much.” Kate sniffed deeply, tears still leaking from her eyes as she pressed her face into Victoria’s chest. “I’m not even upset that I missed the fireworks.”

Chloe snorted out a laugh. “I, uh, got the whole thing,” she said, as she patted the phone in her pocket. “You can see the fireworks later.”

Kate blinked, her wet eyes moving to Chloe. “You knew?”

Max turned to her girlfriend. “Yea, how did you know?”

Chloe bit her lip as she looked back to Victoria.

“I, uh, may have needed a pep talk, before,” the blonde admitted, her chin still resting on top of Kate’s head. “She helped me work up the stones to do this tonight.”

Kate slowly released Victoria and turned towards Chloe. Taking a couple of steps, she wrapped the taller girl in a bone-crushing hug of her own.

“Thank you,” she wept into Chloe’s shirt.

“Yea, well.” Chloe sniveled as she rubbed Kate’s back, looking at Victoria. “I mean, she did all the hard work.”

Kate giggled as she released Chloe, turning back to Max. “Your girlfriend is the best.”

“Yea.” Max grabbed Chloe’s hand, squeezing it. “She is.”

Chapter Text

January 2018

Max: Have you guys seen Facebook yet???

Rachel: What like, recently?

Max: Well, in the last day.

Steph: I’m on it right now, but there’s nothing to get excited about. Why?

Max: ... oh. I, uh, forgot you two aren’t Facebook friends with Victoria.

Rachel: Yea, I think that bridge has long since rusted over.

Steph: Why? What’d she do?

Max: She proposed to Kate!

Rachel: Whoa!

Steph: Dude! Nice!

Rachel: What, did she do it while you two were there?

Max: She did! Although I’m pretty sure us being there wasn’t intentional.

Max: Kate was the one who invited us to see them, without consulting Victoria first.

Rachel: LOL

Steph: Wow, that’s hilarious. Pretty cool, though. I’ll bet it was awesome to watch.

Max: Chloe got it on video. We’ll show you guys next time we see you.

Max: She did it while there were fireworks going off! At midnight on New Years! It was SO FREAKING ROMANTIC!

Rachel: Damn. Victoria’s got some slick moves.

Rachel: I guess when you see her next... just, you know, tell her we said congrats.

Steph: Yea, that’s cool. I wanna know how big the rock was.

Steph: With Chase money, it better have been at LEAST two or three carats.

Max: We didn’t ask.

Max: They did put a picture on FB. It certainly looks like a big diamond.

Max: Kate’s got small hands, though. Could be deceptive.

Rachel: Can we see?

Max: <ring.jpg>

Rachel: God damn!

Steph: Holy shit, I’ll marry her for a rock that big!

Max: You know they love each other and all that, right? And Kate’s not really materialistic.

Steph: I’m not saying love and money go hand in hand.

Steph: But it is just as easy to marry a rich girl as a poor one.


Kate: I still can’t get used to wearing this ring. 

Kate: It’s really weird, having it on my finger.

Max: #engagedgirlproblems

Max: I’m sure you’ll get used to it. It’s only been a week.

Max: You getting lots of comments?

Kate: Oh, yes! Everyone at school keeps congratulating me!

Kate: Vicky’s dad even cried when we showed him the video Chloe took!

Max: Okay, now I’m really glad we edited out the last couple of seconds.

Kate: LOL. I’m sure he would have understood.

Max: What about Victoria’s mom?

Kate: She’s in London. We haven’t gotten a chance to talk to her yet, with the time difference.

Kate: She sent us a message though. She was so happy! She’s all excited for a wedding!

Max: I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a million times, but what kind of timeline are you guys looking at for a ceremony?

Kate: Ugh. Everyone does keep asking.

Max: Sorry :(

Kate: No! I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.

Kate: Vicky wants to wait until I’m done with school. So it won’t be until at least 2019, maybe in the summer.

Max: You’ll have your Masters by then?

Kate: Yea, I’ve only got a couple more semesters after this one. Vicky will still have one more year of law school, though.

Kate: She wants the wedding out of the way before she starts studying for the Bar Exam.

Max: Hmm. I would have figured you two would hire a planner.

Kate: She was VERY strongly against that when her father mentioned it.

Kate: She says it’s our day, and she wants to make sure we’re both fully involved.

Max: Victoria’s not gonna be a bridezilla, is she?

Kate: Oh, my. I hope not.

Kate: I’m sure I could keep her grounded, right?

Max: Better you than me.

Kate: Okay, I’m hoping for a LITTLE more support from one of my bridesmaids.

Max: ONE OF YOUR WHAT?!?!


Chloe: Dude. Vic. 

Victoria: I really hate that name.

Chloe: WTF did your fiancé do to Max?

Victoria: Oh yea, she mentioned she was gonna ask her to be a bridesmaid.

Chloe: Okay, I’m gonna need a warning next time.

Chloe: She’s climbing the walls over here. She just spent an hour and a half looking at dresses online.

Victoria: Why? We haven’t talked about wedding colors.

Victoria: It hasn’t even been a full week yet. Our wedding won’t be for at LEAST 18 months.

Chloe: It amuses me, that you think there’s any reasoning with this girl right now.

Victoria: Wow.

Chloe: I’ll be honest, I’m kind of surprised Kate would ask her.

Chloe: I mean, haven’t they only met in person twice?

Victoria: Kate... doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Mostly just casual classmates. She’s really shy to begin with, and her studies keep her pretty busy.

Victoria: And from what I’m understanding, her and Max talk. Like, a lot.

Victoria: Apparently, they text each other all the time.

Chloe: They do? I didn’t know that.

Victoria: Yeah, me either.

Victoria: And they talk about us.

Chloe: ... good or bad?

Victoria: Don’t know. Kate won’t tell me.

Victoria: She did say we’re a lot more alike than we both think.

Chloe: Two drunks and secret smokers who fell in love with tiny women that have shitty home lives?

Chloe: All you need is some blue hair dye.

Victoria: Excuse you!

Chloe: Yea, yea. So. How is it, being a claimed woman?

Victoria: It’s not like I wasn’t taken before!

Chloe: Yea, but now it’s for realsies.

Chloe: There’s a great big RESERVED sign over your head now.

Victoria: Wow. That’s, like, the worst rendition of Macbeth ever.

Chloe: And Kate seems like a ‘hell hath no fury’ kind of gal.

Victoria: Are we talking about the same Kate?

Victoria: My sweet, adorable little bunny rabbit?

Chloe: We were both there for her phone call home.

Victoria: ... okay, I’ll agree that was very disconcerting.

Victoria: Let’s talk about something else. Is Max moved in yet?

Chloe: Ugh. I need a bigger closet.

Victoria: Too many shoes?

Chloe: Surprisingly, no. She has, like, five pairs total, and she only wears three of them regularly.

Chloe: Her fucking HOODIES, on the other hand...

Victoria: Well, it is pretty chilly in San Francisco.

Chloe: Yea, but when I asked her to pick her favorite TWENTY, she looked like she was about to have a heart attack.


“This is the last one, right?” 

“Yea.” Max tightened the strings on the garbage bag full of her clothes, handing it to Chloe. “We got everything else.”

“Thank God.” Chloe glanced around Max’s old room, now devoid of all her things. All that was left was the bed and night stand. It looked exactly like it had the day she moved in. “It’s way too empty in here.”

“Yea, I know.” Max nodded, looking around. All she’d had two years ago was her backpack... there were a lot of memories floating around.

Jake came back into the apartment as Max and Chloe walked out of the room. “Your truck bed is full,” he said as he wiped his hands on his pant legs. “You might have to put that last bag in the cab with you two.”

“If it’s more hoodies, you can have them,” Chloe remarked dryly.

Jake smirked. “I don’t think they’re my size.” He looked back at Max. “You double-check the bathroom? The closet?”

“Yea.” Max nodded, hesitating.

“I’ll, uh, take this downstairs.” Chloe threw the bag over her shoulder and walked outside.

Max looked at Jake, remembering how they’d met. Her mind flashed back to the first time she’d walked into the apartment, terrified that he was going to kill her in her sleep. Or that first morning afterward, where they’d talked, and he offered the room to her for almost nothing. How he’d gotten her two jobs, and was still helping her pay for college classes. “I...” her voice caught as her lower lip trembled. “Jake...”

“Oh, don’t do that.” Jake smiled. “Come on, I’m gonna see you at work tomorrow.”

Max sniffed as she wrapped Jake in a hug, trying to hold back tears. “Thank you,” she cried. “Thank you so much. For everything.”

Jake hugged her back. “You’re welcome, Max.”

“You saved my life,” she croaked, sobbing.

“No, Max, I didn’t.” Jake squeezed her tight. “I just let you hang out. You did everything else yourself.”

“You gave me a place to stay. And food. And a lawyer, and my phone, and my laptop, and my job...” Max’s breathing hitched. “I love you, man.”

Jake rubbed her back. “Don’t let Chloe hear you say that,” he whispered. “She’ll try to challenge me to a sword fight again.” Max laughed, trying to sniff back tears. “Come on,” he said, coaxing her to let go. “You’ve got a lot of shit to unpack. And Chloe’s waiting."

Max nodded, pulling him back in for one last hug. “You’re the best.”

“Damn right I am.” Jake grinned. “Now, get going. And you’d better be at work on time, since I’m not gonna be there to drive you.”

Max nodded as she let go, stepping outside and closing the door behind her.

Chloe was drumming her fingers on the steering wheel when Max climbed in, the last garbage bag between them. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Max shrugged, wiping her eyes. “Just...” she gestured towards Jake’s apartment... her old one. “I spent months, you know, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like, he was gonna collect on some big favor, for letting me live with him. Kidney, smuggling drugs, sex on demand, whatever. And he never did.” She sniffed. “The manager I was working for when I met him, he said Jake was the nicest guy I’d ever meet. He didn’t even know the half of it.”

The bluenette reached over the garbage bag and took Max’s hand in hers, squeezing. “Your boss is a fucking amazing dude,” she agreed.

Max nodded. After a few minutes, she let go of her girlfriend’s hand. “Let’s go home, I guess,” she said with a nod.

Chloe grinned. “Holy shit, Max. My apartment is OUR home now.”

“Yea. It is.” Max smiled. “So take me back. Your roommate is hungry.”

“And needy as hell, apparently.” Chloe started her truck with a smirk. “You get too pushy, I might ask Jake to take you back.”


Penny: So how’s living with Chloe? 

Max: Honestly, not much different than when I wasn’t. I was over here most of the time anyway.

Max: Except now I don’t have to go to Jake’s every couple of days for clean clothes.

Penny: Have you guys fought about anything yet? Charles and I used to rail on each other when we first moved in together.

Max: What about?

Penny: Dumb shit, mostly. He’d leave his dirty clothes in a pile on the floor, instead of a basket, which is a real pet peeve of mine.

Penny: And he would bug the shit out of me when I didn’t run the fan in the bathroom after I showered. What about you guys?

Max: I mean, not really?

Max: Chloe is surprisingly tidy, especially when it comes to her laundry. She takes very good care of her clothes, despite their ragged appearance.

Max: We do bug each other about what’s on TV, but that’s about it.

Penny: Well, if you have to argue about anything, that’s probably the best.

Max: Any advice, if we do get into a bigger argument?

Penny: Find a compromise, push through it, get to the make-up sex as quickly as possible.

Max: ... very duly noted.

Chapter Text

February, 2018

The phone on Max’s desk rang. She let it go, glaring at it for several rings, before she slowly picked it up. 

“Franklin-Seymour LLC, Max speaking,” she said in a sickeningly sweet voice.

“I know you’re mad at me, Max, but you could at least pick up the phone right away,” Jake said irritably. “I need you to get all the purchase receipts for St. Mark’s from the last year, for any equipment. For food and alcohol, I need the last month’s sales."

Max grimaced. “Of course, sir. I can do that for you. May I put you on hold?”

“Hey, I don’t want to be in on a Sunday either, you pain in my ass.” Max could practically hear Jake’s eyes roll through the phone. “Not my fault someone tried to burn the place down.”

“Ok, well, I know YOU have to be here,” Max grumbled as she got up, carrying her cordless phone with her as she walked towards the filing cabinet. “I don’t understand why I had to come to the office.”

“Because the insurance people are here now, and I need to be able to give them accurate numbers. Since the paperwork is across town from the bar, and I can’t be in two places at once...” Jake’s voice trailed off. “Look, please just pull the paperwork out, will you?”

Max opened the cabinet, her fingers deftly flicking through the folders until she got to the invoices for St. Mark’s Bar and Grill, the Irish pub Jake and Penny had opened the previous year. “Found them. Equipment purchases for the last year, food and booze for the past month. What about bar supplies, like glasses and pour spouts?”

“Same as food and booze, past month. We track them all as consumables.” A voice cut through the background. “I gotta get back to these guys. Just add everything up and call me back, will you? And don’t put the paperwork away, I might need you to take pictures of specific receipts.”

“Yes, my lord and sovereign,” Max replied, reverting back to her sweet tone of voice.

“Keep it up, and I’m gonna make you call me that forever, smart-ass.”

“How long is this going to take, anyway?”

“Longer, if you keep bugging me, but for double overtime, I would hope you’d just shut the hell up and deal with it.”


“Still?” Chloe asked over her cell phone, pausing the video game. “You’ve been there for almost three hours now. Are you even doing anything?” 

Max sighed through the phone line. “I mean, after adding these numbers up, no. I’m just waiting for Jake to tell me that we’re all done, and then you can come get me.”

“Can’t you just send him pictures? Let him do the math?”

“He’s dealing with the police, firemen, and insurance agents, so not really. Besides, he brought up a good point; he’s paying me double overtime to be here.”

Chloe chuckled. “Fair point. Why the hell would someone try to burn down St. Mark’s, anyway? That place is so cool.”

“Apparently, the guy who broke in after they closed was high as a kite on meth. Something about him thinking the place was haunted... I don’t know. I’m sure Jake will happily recount the tale for you later.” A ringing noise sounded behind Max. “Shoot. Love you, gotta go.”

“Love you too.” Chloe hung up and un-paused the game. “Sucker,” she grinned. “Double overtime ain’t worth my freedom.”

Chloe went back to maneuvering her character through the fantasy world for the next hour or so. She’d had to significantly cut back on her video game time, since Max had moved in; while she had initially been eager to play, the Lego games had been collecting dust for a while. The bluenette was far behind on her other titles she’d picked up, and with Max away for a little while, she was intending to play catch-up.

At the very least, she had to know where the name Zero Dawn came from.

“Mother-fuckin’ robot tigers don’t know who they’re messin’ with,” she muttered, her character smashing through the enemies as she swung her spear.

Then the doorbell rang, making Chloe jump in surprise.

“The hell?” she glanced at her phone; Max hadn’t called her back. They hadn’t been expecting any visitors, either. Who the hell is that?

Chloe walked over to the door and looked through the peephole, blinking in surprise.

Okay... definitely not who I was expecting.

“Steph?” Chloe asked as she opened the door.

The brunette girl bit her lip as she stood on the welcome mat. “Hey, Chloe,” she said weakly. “Um... sorry. To bug you without calling, I mean. Can I, uh, talk to Max?”

“She’s not here.” Chloe leaned against the door frame. “She got called into work.” She frowned as she looked Steph over; something was wrong. The girl, normally pretty chill, was definitely twitchy. And one of her thumbs was bleeding, probably from picking at it; a self-destructive habit Chloe was sort of familiar with. “Are you okay?”

“Yea. Yea, no, I’m good.” Steph sighed. “Sorry. I’ll, uh, find her later.”

“Hey, wait.” Chloe reached out and grabbed Steph’s arm as she turned. “Dude, what’s wrong?”

Steph shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Yea, I don’t buy that. You’ve never even been here before, and the first time you show up, you don’t call or text first?” Chloe raised her eyebrow. “You love Max too much to do that. What is it?”

The brunette girl blinked, then sighed as she looked at the ground. “Yea. You’re... I just really wanted to... hell.” She glanced back towards Chloe. “I just wanted to talk about some shit. And Rachel’s busy, so I figured...” she exhaled. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be rude. I’ll go.”

Chloe tugged Steph’s arm back towards the door. “No. Come on.”

The bluenette dragged her inside, closing the door behind her. Steph stood in the entryway, partially frozen in surprise, finally looking around. “Wow. It looks nice.”

“We try.” Chloe folded her arms. “You wanna tell me what’s up?”

Steph looked at Chloe. “I...” she hesitated, staring back at the floor. “Chloe, I know you don’t like me. Max isn’t here for you to pretend in front of. I can go, I’ll be fine until I talk to her or Rachel later.”

“You’re not fine. I can tell something’s eating at you.” Chloe looked Steph up and down. “Look, my feelings about you may be... conflicted. But Max loves you. I know she wouldn’t let you leave until you spilled.” Chloe gestured to her couch. “So, sit.”

The brunette hesitated, but she slowly sat on the couch. Chloe sat opposite her, on the bed. Neither of them spoke for a few seconds.

“My mom is getting remarried,” Steph finally said.

Chloe blinked. “Um... wow.” She frowned. “Wait, isn’t this, like, marriage number six or something for her?”

“Five,” Steph replied as she sat forward, elbows on her knees as she played with her fingers and stared at the carpet. “She’s convinced he’s the one. Guy runs a ski resort in Aspen or something, I don’t know. And they’ve only been together for five months.”

Chloe scoffed. “Christ. And they say lesbians move quick.”

“Right?” Steph smirked briefly, for a second, her face falling again quickly. “You know how I found out? That she was getting married?”

“How?”

Steph looked up. “Facebook. She posted a status update this morning.”

“Are-” Chloe leaned back, shocked. “Are you fucking serious? You found out through Facebook?!”

“Mm-hm.” Steph nodded, looking back down. “I called her after I saw it. Tried to figure out what happened. And then she told me he’d proposed over Christmas. She just hadn’t put it on Facebook until today.”

Chloe stared, eyes wide. “That was six or seven weeks ago!”

“Yea. And we talked on New Years Day.” Steph sighed. “I asked her why she didn’t mention it earlier. She told me that since I wasn’t excited about her last marriage, so she didn’t think I’d be excited about this one.”

The bluenette tilted her head. “Really?”

“In my defense, that dude was a literal loan shark.” Steph snorted. “He got arrested four months after that marriage was annulled, for breaking some guy’s hand when he owed him too much money.” She shook her head as she moved on. “Anyway, my mom played it off and rug-swept. Then she asked me how I was doing. And whether or not I was enjoying my job at GameStop.”

Chloe’s brow furrowed. “She thinks you work at GameStop? A game store? Not a major video game developer?”

“No, Chloe, she thought I STILL worked at GameStop.” Steph clarified as she scratched her ear. “I worked there as an assistant manager while I was at OSU, studying for my degree. I called her when I got this job. I was so excited, it was my number-one choice out of school, I told her about it for an hour...” she looked back up at Chloe. “And she totally fucking forgot about it.”

“Jesus.” Chloe leaned forward. “Steph...”

“Yea.” Steph nodded morosely. “So… there it is. I finally figured out that my mom doesn’t really give a shit about me, or my life. She’s only concerned with running around, collecting husbands.”

Chloe hesitated, not quite sure how to answer that. “Steph, I’m sure that’s not-”

“She didn’t go to my college graduation, Chloe.” Steph glanced back at the floor. “I told her I was graduating OSU, with honors, four months before I walked. But three weeks before the ceremony, she got tickets to a last minute cruise that she apparently couldn’t pass up. I haven’t physically seen her in almost two years. And the last time was only for a couple of days.”

Steph took a second to remove her phone from her pocket. “And after we hung up this morning, I looked at our call history, to see when I last spoke. And I noticed this.” She handed her phone to Chloe.

The bluenette looked at the history and frowned, scrolling. “She never calls you.”

“Yea. We only speak because I call her.” Steph sniffed and brought her hand to her face, rubbing her eye.“Anyway… I don’t know...” she sniffed again, and that’s when Chloe realized there were tears threatening to leak from her eyes. “I just wanted to vent, I guess. I, uh, appreciate you listening, Chloe.”

She got up and moved quickly, to leave the apartment, before Chloe followed her, grabbing her arm to stop her. “Come here,” she muttered, wrapping Steph in a hug.

The brunette froze, for a minute. Then she hung her head on Chloe’s shoulder and sniffed deeply, still trying to keep tears back. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“It’s alright.” Chloe let her go and guided her back to the couch, sitting next to her. “Um… Max is a lot better with the ‘shitty parent’ advice than I am. The best I can come up with, based on my experience, is that your mom’s a fuckin’ idiot.”

Steph chuckled lightly, wiping her eyes. “I don’t even know what I want to hear,” she admitted. “Like… what the fuck do I do now?”

“Do you want to go to her wedding?” Chloe asked.

“No way.” Steph shook her head. “She was so sure the last four guys were ‘the one’, too. She might not even have a wedding; she’ll probably just go to the courthouse again. It’s not worth the plane ticket."

“Then fuck her.” Chloe leaned back on the couch. “I bet that if you don’t call her, it’ll take her months to realize she hasn’t heard your voice.”

Steph sighed. “I want to argue, but you’re probably right.”

“And where is your dad in all this, anyway?” Chloe frowned. “I don’t know how I never realized this before, but you never talk about him.”

“That’s because my mom doesn’t know who he is.” Steph shrugged. “Apparently, it could be a couple of different guys from some motorcycle rally in San Bernadino, the year before I was born.”

Chloe frowned. “Wow.”

“Yep.”  Steph sighed as she leaned back into the couch. “God damn, I’m so tired of this crap,” she sniveled. “At least in high school I could pretend she was an okay parent, since I actually saw her and she had to talk to me. I think the reason she was so excited that I went to college was that she could get back to her life of freedom.”

Chloe didn’t talk for a minute. “How come Max and I don’t know any of this?” she finally asked.

“Why do you think?” Steph gave Chloe a look. “After what I did, do you really think I have the gall to complain to MAX about my parental situation?”

The bluenette bit her lip and didn’t reply.

“Yea.” Steph pushed her head back into the couch. “I'm sorry. I couldn’t bottle this up anymore. I just had to talk to someone. I can’t stop thinking about my mom not caring enough to call me… and…” Steph closed her eyes, not finishing her sentence as she exhaled slowly.

“Well, I would offer some booze, in this situation. But...” Steph picked her head off up as Chloe raised her eyebrows. “That High-Growth Fund you invested in. You seeing any dividends?”

Chapter Text

Chloe took a deep inhale of their third blunt, passing it back to Steph. “Can I just say,” she gasped, exhaling the smoke towards the fan she’d set up near the open window, “that your dealer has a GREAT hookup?”

“Right?” Steph took her own drag as she closed her eyes. “He called it something weird. ‘Dragon Tail’, or whatever, I don’t know. Some of the best shit I’ve ever had.”

Chloe snorted. “All those growers give their stuff fuckin’ weird-ass names. Pretty sure they make them at random.” She burped. “Like, pick a color and a noun. ‘Blue Camel’. Boom, you just named a new strain of weed.”

Steph snickered as she looked up, considering that statement. “Yellow Housefly.” She blinked. “Holy shit, you’re right. It really works.”

“Orange Leprechaun!” Chloe laughed. “Oh my God! I would TOTALLY smoke that!”

“Red Caviar!”

“Maroon Tortillas!” Chloe hesitated. “No, that’s dumb. Maroon Nachos? Eh…”

“Purple Burritos?” Steph furrowed her brow. “Wow. Now I’m hungry.”

“Yea, me too.” Chloe stood and walked over to the kitchen, opening the cupboard and grabbing a couple of bags of chips. “You want Doritos or Cheetos?”

“What kind of Doritos?”

Chloe raised an eyebrow. “Does it really matter? It’s the good kind.”

“They’re all the good… okay, I see your point.” Steph put the blunt in the ashtray and held her hands out, catching the bag and tearing it open. She shoveled a hand full of chips into her mouth as Chloe sat back down.

“You feeling any better?” Chloe asked as she opened her own bag.

Steph crunched and swallowed her chips. “Like less of a hot mess,” she replied.

“Well, nothing like some grass to take the edge off a shitty day.” Chloe popped a few Cheetos in her mouth and started munching. “Too much thinking about shit like this is bad for you.”

“I... still have no fuckin’ idea what I should do.” Steph plucked another chip out of her bag and held it in her hand for a minute. “Part of me wants to call her back and scream and yell, and ask for her to care and respect me enough to at least not let me find out about her upcoming marriage over Facebook. And maybe TRY to remember what I actually do for a living.”

“And the other part?”

Steph ate the chip, swallowing before she continued. “To just say ‘fuck it’. I know she’s never gonna change. Just grit my teeth and bear it, accept the fact that our entire relationship will be one-sided conversations, in exchange for which she’ll throw money at me on my birthday and Christmas.”

Chloe absorbed that, and shook her head. “Steph… I really only got one thing to say. And it’s that some people just weren’t meant to be parents.” She shrugged. “Your mom doesn’t deserve you. She’s still running around trying to relive her youth, or whatever, and she forgot she’s already got a kid.”

Steph sighed. “Yea...” She paused, timidly looking over at Chloe. “Why are you being so nice to me?” she asked quietly.

“Hmm?”

“You don’t even like me.” Steph looked down at the chip bag in her lap. “And after what I did to Max when we were teenagers, I don’t know why you’d even want to talk to me if you didn’t have to."

Chloe looked over. “I mean…” she hesitated, trying to think through her hazy mind. “Like, you’re important to Max. And you’re not a bad person.”

Steph scoffed. “Yea, I am.”

“No. You’re really not.” Steph blinked, looking back up at Chloe. “You fucked up. Back then. You know you did. And you are, like, the most self-deprecating person I’ve ever met.” Chloe leaned back. “Honestly, watching you beat yourself up is fucking sad. And I don’t think me being mad and whooping your ass is gonna make it worse.”

“Probably make me feel better,” Steph muttered, turning her head and looking away.

“No, it won’t. Stop that shit already.” Chloe rolled her eyes. “You asking me to beat you up doesn’t make you apologetic. It makes you a masochist. Max wouldn’t want you to do it, either.”

Steph blinked as she stared at the wall. “You know, when Max texted last year and said she forgave me, I sobbed my eyes out for, like, an hour. I never, ever, figured she would say anything like that to me.” She glanced back at Chloe, her eyes starting to water again. “Your girlfriend is… I don’t even deserve to know her.”

“Oh, Jesus, please don’t start crying.”

Steph wiped her eyes. “Sorry. I just...”

“Trust me. I get it.” Chloe nodded. “Her parents didn’t fuckin’ deserve her, either. She made me promise, you know, before WE met, that I wouldn’t beat you up. But her parents?” The bluenette scoffed. “I don’t care what she says. If I ever meet her father, I’m gonna bury that son of a bitch.”

“Join the club,” Steph said dryly. “And… you know. Thanks. For not beating my ass.” She sniffed again. “Sorry I-”

A key slid into the lock, interrupting her, and they both turned as the apartment door opened, and Max stepped inside. An angry look came over her face as she laid eyes on Chloe. “What the fuck?!” she snapped at her girlfriend, slamming the door behind her.

“Max!” Chloe sat up. “What- how did you-”

The brunette put her hands on her hips, fuming. “I’ve been calling you for the last hour!” Chloe glanced over, remembering that her phone was on vibrate when she turned on the PS4, but Max continued before she could defend herself. “We got everything done! I was ready for a ride home! Why didn’t you…” her voice trailed off as she noticed the other girl on the couch. “Steph?!”

“Hey, Max.” she waved from the couch.

“What are you doing here?” Max’s nose wrinkled. “And what the hell is that smell?”

Steph smiled, looking at Chloe. “Oh my God, Rachel was right.” She glanced back at Max. “You are such a good person, Max.”

“Why? What are you…” Max’s eyes landed on the ashtray in front of them, their discarded blunts still laying on it. And the two bags of chips on their laps. “Are… oh my God, are you two smoking POT?! Inside our APARTMENT??”

“Well, we weren’t gonna do it outside, dummy, everyone could see us there.” Chloe started laughing, Steph joining her half a second later.

“This is NOT funny!” Max clenched her fists, her face turning purple. “We’re RENTING this apartment! What is the landlord going to do if he walks in and the whole place smells like a fucking dispensary?!”

Chloe burped. “Knowing him? Probably ask us if he can take a hit.”

The two girls on the couch giggled as Max’s eyes lit on fire. “Okay, Steph, I might need you to leave so I can kill my girlfriend.”

“Nooo! Don’t!” Steph cried. “She was being so nice to me…”

Max blinked, taken aback. “She was?”

“Yea. We’re bonding.” Chloe nodded. “We were just talking about her shitty mother, and how amazing of a person you are.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Right.”

“We were!” Steph sniffed, suddenly turning sad. “I’m so sorry, Max, I didn’t mean to make you mad, I just really wanted to talk, and you weren’t here, and Chloe was just…”

Chloe glanced over as Steph dropped her head, sniffling, then looked back at Max. “See? Look what you did. You’re gonna make her cry again, and I just got her to stop.”

Max shot her girlfriend a confused look. “Why was she crying before?”

“Because her mom is an idiot,” Chloe said simply.

“Huh?”

“Basically, Max, Steph’s mother has been a terrible parent for her entire life. Steph pretended otherwise in high school, but now that her mom doesn’t have to take care of her anymore, she’s satisfied with throwing money at her every once in a while while she marries one boy-toy after another, not telling anyone until she announces it on Facebook.”

Max’s mouth dropped as Chloe finished her explanation. Then she turned to Steph. “Holy- wait, are you serious?”

Steph glanced back up, tears brimming in her eyes again. “It’s been a long day,” she muttered, trying to wipe the moisture away.

Max dropped her purse on the bed, then moved the stuff out of the way on the coffee table, sitting down in front of Steph. “Are you okay?” she asked, the anger gone from her voice.

“Better now.” Steph hung her head. “Sorry for smoking pot in your apartment.”

“I’ve already figured it was Chloe’s idea.” Max shot the bluenette a glare. “Which we WILL talk about later. But I digress.” she turned back. “Steph… why haven’t-”

“Max, you are exactly the LAST person I want to come to, when I complain about my family problems.” Steph sniveled. “I usually talk to Rachel, but she’s at work, and I just…” Steph shrugged. “Everything boiled over.”

Max took both of Steph’s hands in hers. “I don’t want to hear any more excuses,” she lectured. “Now. Tell me EXACTLY what’s going on.”


After a few hours, Steph was passed out on the couch. 

Max had firmly forbid the two girls from lighting up another joint. She did allow Chloe to break open a pack of beer, while she sprayed the entire apartment with Febreeze in an attempt to make the marijuana smell go away.

“I don’t know how we’re going to sleep,” Chloe complained as Max drew a blanket over Steph. “This entire apartment smells like a skunk took a shit in a flower store.”

“This is only for tonight, Chloe.” Max glared at her. “SOMEONE is going to get this place professionally cleaned.”

Chloe smirked. “Come, on, Max. We’ll leave some windows open, and the smell will go away after a day or so.”

“It had better.” Max stood back up, crossing her arms. “I still cannot believe you two smoked pot inside.”

“Is it better, than if I smoked cigarettes?” Chloe asked, as she rolled up what was left of the chip bags and stuck them back in the cupboard.

“Not really.” Max turned and walked into their closet, a rustling sound following as she changed for bed. “Is it too much to ask that you not smoke at all? You did so good at your parent’s house. You didn’t have any cigarettes until we went to see Kate and Victoria.”

“I didn’t-”

“Yes, you did. I could smell it on you when I woke up.”

Chloe bit her lip. “Um…”

“Chloe, is it that bad that I ask that my girlfriend try and cut back on a habit that makes her smell terrible, is probably turning her lungs black, and makes her kisses taste like an ashtray?” Max came back into the main room, dressed in her sweatpants and a white tank top.

“I did cut back!” Chloe protested. “Like, a lot!”

“Yes, and the goal of cutting back is to QUIT.” Max sat down on the bed, looking at Chloe. “Come on. It’s a terrible habit, and you should try to stop anyway.”

Chloe frowned. “Wait, how did we get here? Weren’t you just giving me shit about smoking pot inside?”

“I was. You were the one who brought up cigarettes.”

The bluenette sighed. “Okay, okay, fine.” She sat down next to Max on the bed, grabbing her hand. “I am sorry, about smoking inside.”

“And getting stoned? And forgetting to come get me from work? And making me take an Uber back to our apartment?”

“Yea, all of that.” Chloe shook her head. “I was just trying to help her de-stress a little bit,” she said as she nodded at Steph. “You should have seen her when she knocked on our door. She was so upset… I just felt really bad for her.”

“I know.” Max squeezed Chloe’s hand. “I am really glad, that you helped her work through everything. It means a lot to me that you did.”

“Yea. Well.” Chloe sighed as she got up, heading to the closet to get ready for bed. “We’ll see how I handle meeting Rachel, I guess.”

Max nodded. “I need you to promise not to beat her up, either.”

“This list of people you want me to be nice to is getting a little long.”


Rachel: Did you two get my email? 

Max: I did. Already scheduled that week off.

Steph: Me too. Couch is all yours!

Rachel: Yay! I am super excited to see you two again.

Rachel: And meet Chloe, of course!

Steph: Yea, maybe it’s time we told you…

Rachel: Told me what?

Max: Look, Rachel, I told Chloe what happened in high school.

Rachel: ... oh.

Rachel: Well, I guess I should’ve figured.

Rachel: So does that mean she doesn’t want to meet me?

Max: No, she totally does.

Steph: You made her promise not to hit Rachel, too, right?

Max: Yes.

Rachel: Sigh.

Rachel: How angry at me is she?

Max: Not as much as she was at first.

Steph: Be prepared for a real come-to-Jesus conversation.

Max: What does that mean?

Steph: It means you have an amazing girlfriend, that loves you more than anything.

Rachel: So, bring body armor? Y/N?

Max: No. Chloe is not going to beat you up.

Steph: She is really nice. Just… you know… give her a bit to get to know you.

Rachel: Should I bring anything? To, you know, help smooth the transition?

Max: I’ll tell you what you should NOT bring.

Steph: Yea, I’ve still got some with me.

Max: NOBODY IS SMOKING POT!!

Rachel: ROFLMAO

Rachel: You don’t have to worry about that from me. I get drug-tested at random.

Steph: Wow, that blows.

Rachel: I work for the state. Kinda comes with a government job.

Max: You don’t get drug-tested, Steph?

Steph: Are you kidding me?

Steph: I’m in creative design. My team’s entire job is to create cool shit out of thin air. You think management WANTS to know how we do it?

Chapter Text

March, 2018

Man, it’s cold out here. Rachel tightened the zipper on her jacket as she sat in the passenger seat of Steph’s car. These people know the borders are open, right?

“You okay?” Steph looked over at Rachel, concerned.

“I’m pretty nervous,” Rachel admitted.

“I know.” Steph took a turn as she drove. “Look, just relax. Chloe may not like you very much yet, but she does love Max. And Max made her promise to be nice.”

Rachel twirled a lock of her hair in her finger. “I looked her up on Facebook. She’s pretty scary-looking. Like, she’d definitely be the prisoner Red would send to do the dirty work, if a punk needed shanking in the shower.”

Steph rolled her eyes. “You three love that show WAY too much.”

“You don’t love it enough. It’s a good show.”

“Whatever. We’re here.”

Rachel looked forward and saw the park, the same one she’d met Max at almost eighteen months prior. Wonderful. Of all the places...

“Why did we have to meet here?” she asked, as Steph parked the car.

“It was Max’s idea. Apparently there’s a taco truck her and Chloe love, and it comes here every Friday afternoon.” Steph got out of the driver’s seat. “Look, they’re already here. See?”

Rachel followed Steph’s finger and saw the rusty pickup truck, parked on the other side of the lot. “Man, Max must really love Chloe, if she rides in that thing,” Rachel scoffed, closing the car door behind her.

“Yea, don’t make fun of Chloe’s truck.” Steph shook her head. “She’s pretty attached.”

To what? The rust patterns? Rachel mentally shrugged. Whatever. Gotta make nice. Don’t want her to kill me.

The two of them meandered into the park, looking around; several food trucks were situated around the large pond. “Oh, I think I see her,” Steph said as she pointed.

Rachel looked and saw the two girls at a picnic table near a yellow truck with a burrito decal on the side. Max saw them just as they were walking up. Smiling, she jumped out of her chair with a squeal and ran up to Rachel, wrapping the girl in a tight hug.

“I missed you!!” Max cried in her ear.

Rachel gripped Max’s back, squeezing her even tighter. “Oh, fuck, it’s good to see you again, Max,” she said with a smile. “I missed you, too.”

“You CANNOT wait so long to come back, next time.” Max buried her face in Rachel’s hair. “You have a car now. We expect to see you more often.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Max loosened her grip. Rachel did not. “Um...”

“Not yet.”

“Are you okay?”

“Your girlfriend is scaring me.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Chloe, stop mean-mugging Rachel,” she called out, not looking over her shoulder.

“Fine,” the bluenette grumbled as she stood, and Rachel let go.

Rachel finally got a good look at Chloe, who was way taller than she expected, in-person. With her black leather jacket, distressed pants, and blue hair sticking out from under a 49ers beanie, Chloe definitely looked like the kind of woman who would kick a lot of ass in a video game. Rachel also noted the moon-dust necklace Max had given her around her neck as she stepped closer.

Her piercing eyes looked into Rachel’s. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said stiffly, as she held out her hand.

Okay, don’t let her intimidate you.

“It’s good to finally meet you.” Rachel managed to form a smile as she shook Chloe’s hand, trying not to wince as the other girl squeezed it. Neither of them broke eye contact. “Max talks about you all the time,” she added.

“She talks about you, too.” Chloe blinked. “A lot.”

Okay, don’t let her intimidate you TOO much.

“Chloe, stop.” Max tugged on her girlfriend’s jacket, pulling her back to the table. “We got you guys tacos. You’ll love them, they’re the best in the city.”

“They certainly look good,” Rachel agreed as her and Steph sat down opposite the other two.

Steph bit into them first, her eyes lighting up. “Okay, what the fuck?!” she gasped. “How long have you two known about these without telling me?!”

“Chloe took me to this truck on our second date,” Max replied with a grin.

“So it’s been over a year?!”

Max’s grin vanished, and she blinked. “Holy shit, it has been over a year,” she said as she looked at Chloe. “It has, right?”

“Um...” Chloe shifted uneasily. “Yes?”

“Oh my God, I didn’t do anything for our one-year anniversary.” Max put her head in her hands. “I’m such an-”

“Okay, stop.” Chloe grabbed Max’s forearm. “I, uh... I have something planned.”

Max looked back up, confused. “What? Chloe, we met in February. That was last month. We missed it completely.”

“We MET in February, Max.” Chloe let go of Max’s arm and wrapped her hand around the brunette’s shoulder, pulling her in close. “You asked to be my girlfriend in March. Our one-year anniversary for THAT is in ten days.”

“... oh.” Max blinked. “You made plans?”

“I, uh, forgot about February, too. Until after the fact.” Chloe’s ears turned pink. “Sorry.”

Steph turned to Rachel. “Hey. You were worried about Chloe beating your ass. I went and reminded the both of them that they forgot their anniversary.” She shrugged. “So far so good, right?”

Max and Chloe broke out laughing as Steph took another bite of her tacos.

I guess in the grand scheme of screw-ups...Rachel shook her head as she took her own bite, her eyes widening. “Wow!”

“Right?” Max grinned as Rachel took another huge bite. “I don’t know what their secret is, but they’re fucking incredible.”

Chloe leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “So, Max says you’re a Child Protective Services agent now?” she asked. “Is that right?”

Rachel nodded as she chewed. “Still probationary,” she mumbled around her food, finally swallowing. “Until June, then I’m fully-qualified.”

“Why June?”

“New CPS agents have to go through a year of on-the-job training,” Rachel explained. “I’ll be able to work on my own when I’m finished. Until then, I get supervised at all times.”

“You’d think after getting a Master’s in Social Welfare, they’d let you do your thing,” Max replied.

“It’s more about field experience.” Rachel shook her head. “Determining if a child is safe in the home, whether the parents are fit, knowing the laws, separating the fake calls from the real ones, all of it."

Chloe’s brow furrowed. “Fake calls?”

“Oh, yea.” Rachel nodded. “Our department gets weaponized by all kinds of assholes. Parents file false reports during heated divorces, grandparents try to use us to get custody of their grandkids, people accuse their enemies of molesting their children to get them arrested... there are a lot of shitheads in the state who like to waste our time.”

The bluenette blinked. “Wow.”

“Yea, people are assholes.” Rachel shrugged. “I’ve gotten pretty good at filtering them out, though. So, you’re in IT, right?”

Chloe shrugged. “Mostly just fixing servers,” she demurred. “Nothing special. I don’t rescue kids from burning meth labs or anything.”

Rachel scoffed. “Usually by the time I get there, the meth lab has burned out."

“Wait, does that happen often?” Max’s eyebrows went up.

“Four times last year.” Rachel nodded sadly. “Asshole in Salem burned down most of his apartment complex, too.”

“Wow.” Chloe leaned back, folding her arms. “What about teenagers?” She asked pointedly. “Any runaways from super-religious churches?”

Wondered if that was gonna come up. Rachel bit her lip, looking down at her lap.

“Chloe,” Max warned as she laid a hand on her girlfriend’s arm.

“I’m just curious.” The bluenette didn’t break eye contact with Rachel. “You know, if a high school student ever tried to-”

“Chloe, stop it.” Max squeezed her arm. “You promised.”

Rachel looked back up. “We’ve had four teenagers come through our office since I’ve been there, after they ran away from First Light,” she answered quietly.

Chloe did a double-take. Max and Steph blinked in surprise. “You have?” Max asked.

Rachel nodded. “Two of them were gay. The other two were trying escape arranged marriages.” She glanced back at Chloe. “I know more about the church than the others in my office, so I helped place all of them with new foster families. And I visit the four of them every week. I got them new phones, too, so the church can’t find them, and they can talk to the other kids that are still inside. And let them know that there are people willing to get them out.”

“Wow.” Steph said in awe.

Rachel kept her eyes on Chloe. “I know what I did was fucked up. I know what Max went through because of me. She’s the reason I went to school for this job.” Her face flushed. “I can’t make up for what I did. But I can make sure those kids know they have someplace to go, so it never happens again.”

Chloe blinked, taking in what Rachel said. Max kept her eyes on Chloe, waiting for a response.

“Well.” Chloe reached out and picked her taco back up. “I guess I can’t give you too much shit, then.” She took a bite of her food, chewing slowly. “Sounds like you’re doing good work, too.”

Rachel exhaled slowly. “Thanks,” she mumbled.

“So, has your dad put Max’s mom in the slammer yet?” Chloe asked, moving on.

Rachel smirked. “No. The trial won’t start for a few more months.”

Max blinked. “Wait, what? That’ll be almost a year since she was arrested!”

“Your dad keeps filing motions that the DA’s office has to fight,” Rachel explained. “Between that, trial prep, due process... it’s going to take a while.”

“So when DOES the trial start?”

“My dad’s expecting to make opening statements in the late summer. That’s just for your mom, though. A couple of the other trials are ongoing now. One of the guys has already taken a plea deal; he agreed to testify against the others who were in the room, and he got a reduced sentence.

“They should bury him up to his neck in flesh-eating ants,” Chloe snipped angrily.

Rachel shrugged. “I think there’s an Amendment that prohibits that.”

“If they got him to testify, though, why isn’t my mom in jail yet?” Max asked.

“Because your mom wasn’t in the room. My dad isn’t trying to hit her with the murders, Max.” Rachel looked at her. “He wants to hit her for conspiracy. She wasn’t there, but she put pressure on the others that were. He’s got messages and phone records that prove she was the one who convinced the others to do what they did. But it’s hard to charge someone with murder when they had someone else pull the trigger, so her trial is going to take a little while.”

“Plus, your dad is defending her,” Steph added. Rachel shot her a look. “Hey, I’m following the trial too. And he’s probably a lot more motivated to keep his wife out of prison.”

Max frowned. “I thought he was defending all of them?”

“Not after my dad got the first guy to roll over. Judge won’t let him.” Rachel shrugged. “Conflict of interest, or whatever. The others have to make do with public defenders.”

“What a shame,” Chloe remarked dryly.

Max sighed. “Great.” She glanced at the others. “It doesn’t matter. Why don’t we talk about something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. What about the new game Steph is working on?” Max glanced over at her. “You mentioned zombies when you told me about it.”

“Okay, they’re not zombies, they’re demons.” Steph grinned as she looked around. “Picture this; a meteorite from outer space, that hit the planet so hard it punched through the crust of the earth. And it broke open the gates of Hell, so all the demons are coming forth. The protagonist is a Catholic Priest that fights them with swords AND blessed machine guns.”

The other three girls stared at her blankly.

“Your boss’s meth pipe must be fucking MELTING,” Chloe finally said.

Steph rolled her eyes as Max and Rachel dissolved into giggles. “Hey, he pays me to come up with content, he can smoke whatever he wants.”


Chloe and Max pulled up to Steph’s apartment the next morning. 

“She still isn’t answering?” Chloe asked as Max fiddled with her phone.

“No.”  Max shook her head. “I know Steph sets her phone so it stays silent until 8am. But Rachel’s just rings and rings.”

“Whatever. They’re probably hung over or something.” Chloe got out of the truck, carrying a bag with burritos. “If that’s the case, I’m sure they’ll appreciate the breakfast carbs.”

“I hope they’re at least awake.” Max glanced at her watch. “It’s a long drive to the vineyard Rachel wanted to visit. Plus, we have to cross the bridge.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “I REALLY don’t want to,” she pouted.

“Rachel hasn’t seen it yet. Let her take her pictures.” Max led the way up to Steph’s apartment, raising her hand to knock on the door.

At the first rap, the door gently slipped open. “She must not have closed it all the way last night,” Max commented, frowning as she gently pushed it open. “Steph? Rachel? Are you guys awake?”

No reply. Max glanced around, noticing Rachel’s bag on the ground near the couch, but Rachel wasn’t there. “Steph? Rachel?” Max repeated, looking around as she turned to Chloe. “Where are they?”

A rustling sound came from Steph’s bedroom. “Max? Is that you?” she called through the door.

“Oh, geez, Steph, were you still sleeping?” Max asked through the door as she walked up to it. “You know we have to go soon, right? And where’s Rachel?”

“I just got out of the shower, Max.” The door cracked open, and Steph’s voice got clearer. “Rachel said she was going to run to the corner store, for cigarettes. She’ll be back soon.”

Max furrowed her brow. “Rachel smokes?”

“Sometimes, yea. Look, Max, can you, like, wait in the parking lot for me?”

“What? Why?”

“Because I left my towels in the dryer, it’s across the apartment, and I don’t want to put on clothes while I’m wet. Please?”

Max glanced over at Steph’s washer and dryer, in the small closet across the living room. “Uh, I can get-”

Chloe clamped her hand over Max’s bicep. Max glanced at her girlfriend, noting the cagey smile on her face. “We’ll wait outside then, Steph,” She called, dragging Max back to the apartment door. “Find us when you’re ready!”

But they didn’t leave. Chloe planted Max right near the door, holding a finger to her lips as she signaled her to be quiet. Lightly stomping on the floor, to make it sound like they left, Chloe slammed the apartment door closed with them still inside.

They heard a sigh. “Okay, they left,” Steph muttered from the bedroom. “Jesus, what were you thinking?!”

“I’m sorry! I was tired! Look... my bad, okay? I didn’t mean to fall asleep!”

Oh. My. God.

Max’s jaw dropped as she looked at Chloe, who now had a massive grin on her face as an increase in the rustling noises came from the bedroom.

“Yeah, your bad! Now what do we do?!”

“I don’t know! How the fuck am I supposed to be at the corner store?! Why would you tell them that?!”

“I panicked! I couldn’t think of a good reason you wouldn’t be on the couch! Or why you’d be in my bedroom!”

Max heard a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll… I’ll leave out the back of your apartment complex. I’ll go to the street on the other side, and act like I was coming back from the store.”

“You’ll have to buy cigarettes really quick.”

“I can’t believe you said that, I quit smoking in college… Okay. Know what? I’ll just say they didn’t have my brand. And if Chloe offers me any of hers, Steph, I swear to God, I will kill you.”

The bedroom door slowly opened as Steph continued to talk. “Relax. Max is trying to get her to quit, she’s not going to…”

Steph walked out and froze, looking at Max and Chloe with wide eyes.

Max was frozen, too, her jaw practically on her floor as she stared at Steph, who had clearly NOT just come out of the shower; she was still wearing her sleepwear, a white t-shirt with a pair of red boxers. And her hair was still messed up from her pillow.

“Steph?” Rachel walked out behind her, wearing an extra-large Seahawks shirt, her bare legs sticking out from underneath it. “What are…” She jerked to a stop as she saw the others.

The four girls stared at each other, unmoving.

Steph finally blinked first, her face getting red as she glared at Chloe. “You must think you’re so fucking slick.”

The bluenette’s roaring laughter echoed off the walls of the apartment for several minutes.

Chapter Text

Okay, maybe I went too far.

Chloe and Max were in the back seat of Steph’s sedan as they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, on their way to the vineyard Rachel had wanted to visit. When Chloe had finally stopped laughing, the other two girls had kicked them out of the apartment for real, so they could get ready.

Ten minutes later, they’d all gotten in the car and started driving. That had been the last time anyone had spoken. The ride had been silent for almost twenty minutes.

The expression Max had on her face was completely unreadable, so Chloe couldn’t even begin to guess what she was thinking. Steph was content to stare at the road ahead of them, both hands on the wheel as she studiously ignored everyone else. Rachel had been looking out the window, trying not to make eye contact with anyone in the back seat.

Do I say something to lighten the mood? Chloe was now feeling a little bad. She’d figured out what was going on almost as soon as they got to Steph’s apartment. Max probably would’ve too, if the poor girl wasn’t so innocent; Rachel’s bag hadn’t been opened, and the couch had definitely not been slept on. Man… yea, I pushed it too far.

Fuck. I didn’t exactly want to be Rachel’s enemy or anything. Max was right, she’s even more messed up about what happened than Steph, to have earned a Master’s degree in Never Fucking Up Again. Chloe fidgeted nervously. Maybe we can talk about something else. Rachel hasn’t been paying attention to the bridge, and I know she wanted pictures. Maybe-

Max suddenly leaned forward, putting her head between Steph and Rachel’s shoulders. “So. How long have you two been fucking?”

The laughter exploded out of Chloe’s mouth before she could stop it. The COMPLETELY unexpected statement had her in stitches immediately.

Rachel and Steph both whipped their heads around in surprise. Steph, to her credit, kept the car centered on the road. “Jesus, Max!” she exclaimed.

“I really am curious.” Max looked between the two of them. “About all of it. Did you two do the Seesaw?”

“Oh, Lord.” Rachel buried her face in her hands. “Please, don’t do this. I beg you.”

“What about Tribbing? I understand that it IS a thing.” Max turned to Steph. “And the Rocking Horse? Are you about that ‘Ride or Die’ life?”

Steph didn’t reply, her knuckles white as she squeezed the steering wheel while Chloe fought to breath. “Oh, God, Max! Stop!” the bluenette finally managed to get out, her voice high-pitched as she struggled through her laughter. “Don’t! I can’t take it!”

“No, I’m gonna make this a thing for a minute.” Max turned back to the girls in the forward seats. “What else? I try not to go on Urban Dictionary anymore, since Jake traumatized me with his Rusty Trombone nonsense. I have heard of a couple of others, though. What about-”

“Okay!” Rachel threw her hands up, her face red. “Max, please stop. What, exactly, do you want from us?”

The brunette leaned back into her seat. “To bust your balls for a minute,” she said with a smirk. “But I do have questions, given the… unexpected nature of our visit. How long HAS this been going on?”

Rachel sighed as she slouched in her seat. “It’s… been a while,” she admitted quietly. “Although it’s been a couple of years since we hooked up.”

Max raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? So this has been going on since...”

“Since high school,” Steph mumbled from the driver’s seat.

“Since HIGH SCHOOL?” Max gaped. “You two have been girlfriends since high school?!”

“No!” Steph and Rachel said simultaneously.

Chloe rolled her eyes as she settled back into her seat. “Come on, Max, this is clearly a ‘Friends with Benefits’ situation.” She glanced forward. “Right?”

Steph leaned against the window, taking one hand off the steering wheel and rubbing her forehead. “Someone, please, kill me now.”

“I still don’t believe it.” Max folded her arms. “You two were together in high school, and you didn’t tell me? Or Nick, or Andrew?”

Chloe frowned. “Who?”

“The other two kids in the LGBT group,” Max explained.

Steph bit her lip. “We... didn’t hook up until after everything happened with you.”

Max blinked, her eyebrows raising in surprise. “Really?”

Rachel turned around in her seat. “Look, Max... high school wasn’t easy for us, after you ran away. Not to take away from what happened to you!” she added quickly. “But… nobody talked to us, after people found out what we did. We lost all of our friends.”

Max frowned. “Yea, Steph mentioned that…”

“It was just us.” Rachel glanced back at Steph. “And we kind of had to lean on each other for the rest of that year.”

“It fucking sucked,” Steph added. “When we weren’t running around Oregon looking for you, we hung out and were miserable together. We drank a lot of booze, and smoked a lot of pot, trying to get over what we’d done, and... well, it wound up being one of those ‘one thing lead to another’ sort of deals.”

“But... you’re not girlfriends,” Max stated.

Rachel looked back. “Max, we felt like complete and total fuckheads,” she emphasized. “We didn’t think we deserved to be happy, ever again.”

“We were just trying to feel better, for a few minutes,” Steph finished.

Max glanced between the two of them. “For the love of... you two aren’t, like, waiting for me to give you permission to be happy, are you?”

Rachel and Steph exchanged glances and didn’t reply.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Max dropped her head back against her seat. “If being together makes you happy, why-”

“Max, we’re not getting together.” Rachel sighed. “Last night was just... it was the first night we were alone. With each other. Since the fight we had, before Steph saw you in that restaurant.”

“Aaahhh,” Chloe said, understanding. “Itched a little, did you?”

“I mean...” Steph hesitated. “I can only speak for myself when I say that I’m not getting laid very consistently at the moment.”

“Ditto,” Rachel said weakly. “Now, can we please drop it?”

“Fine.” Max rolled her eyes. “For the record, though, if you two were getting together, I would be thrilled for you guys.”

“We both have full-time jobs, and there’s a ten-hour car ride between us,” Rachel pointed out, turning back towards the front of the car. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The car fell silent again, as they continued the drive.

Chloe piped up a few minutes later. “So what do we call you two now?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m trying to figure out what to call this ship. Gingber?”

Rachel looked at Chloe over her shoulder. “One, that’s fucking terrible, and two, don’t even start.”

“Oh, it’s happening. What about Amberich?” Chloe’s eyes got wide. “Ooh! That SO works! I’m gonna start using that now!”

Max started laughing as Steph glared through the rearview mirror. “If you call us Amberich while I’m driving, Chloe, I swear to God I will ram us into the closest brick wall I can find.”

Chloe pouted. “You suck.”


“How did people know that it was you two?” 

Steph and Rachel looked across the table at Max. “Huh?”

“After I ran away,” Max clarified, putting her glass of wine down. The four of them were sitting at a table in the restaurant attached to the vineyard. “You guys said you lost all your friends. But I don’t see how Victoria, and Nick, and Andrew, and the other students would know what happened.” She frowned. “Unless your dad told everyone? But I don’t see why he’d do that.”

Steph and Rachel looked at each other.

“You know how your father found out, right?” Steph asked. “What you did?”

Max shook her head. “I mean, I know he heard it from someone else, but I never figured out who they were. Or how they found out.”

“We did.” Rachel nodded. “Or... well, one of Victoria’s friends did. You remember the girl with the black hair? Courtney?”

Max frowned, trying to remember. “The one who made the costumes for the Drama club?”

“Yea, her.” Rachel nodded. “Courtney overheard another girl from the school on the pay phone, telling someone about a girl named Maxine and talking about stealing emails. It was one of the other teenagers from your church.” she sighed. “Courtney happened to mention it in passing to Victoria. When you went AWOL, Victoria put two and two together.”

Chloe blinked, moving her glass of wine to the side. “Wait, how did the other girl know?” she asked.

“Turns out, she was in the library with us when we had our argument that afternoon.” Steph bit her lip. “We, uh, were a little loud that day.”

“Anyway, Victoria was pretty pissed. I still have no idea how... probably through one of her family's connections or something... but she was able to confirm that the police arrested your dad because of emails entered into evidence. Then she cornered the other girl, and confirmed that you were the 'Maxine' from her phone call.” Rachel scratched the side of her neck. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a confrontation with Victoria Chase, but let me tell you... she’s gonna be a great fuckin’ lawyer.”

Max hesitated. “And you two know that... how?”

Steph sighed. “Because we were her next stop.”


November, 2011  

Steph stood in the back of the school library, glancing around nervously as she waited.

She took a second to check Facebook on her phone. Nothing new, no updates or messages. Max had been missing for three days, and nobody seemed to have responded to the Missing Persons status the students had been circulating on social media. News of her disappearance had spread like wildfire, and several posters with her picture had gone up around town; there was hardly a soul in Arcadia Bay that didn’t know about her.

But she hadn’t surfaced. No trace of her had been found.

Please, don’t let her be dead, Steph worried silently. She watched CSI. She knew people claimed that someone had gone missing, to avoid murder charges. Just considering the possibility filled her with dread and guilt. Oh, God, if her parents did anything to her...

Rachel rounded the corner, moving quickly. Steph shook herself out of her mind. “What did you find out?” she asked quickly.

“My dad said they’re sure Max ran away,” Rachel said in a hushed voice. “They checked surveillance video at the bus station. They saw someone that was her height, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, getting on a bus that was heading towards Portland.”

Steph’s heartbeat accelerated. “She’s still alive?” she whispered.

“Looks like she was a couple of days ago.” Rachel nodded. “He said she was carrying a green duffle bag. They found pictures of her, with that same duffle bag, in her house. With the clothes missing from her closet, and the broken window in her bedroom, they’re sure she ran away that night.”

“Oh, thank God.” Steph took a deep breath. “Portland? Portland’s not that far away. Your dad will find her, right?”

Rachel nodded. “He had the police put out a state-wide BOLO, just in case she got off somewhere else. And he called in a favor with a prosecutor he knows over there. Their entire police department is going to have her picture.”

Steph trembled as she ran her hands over her face. “We need to go, we need to try and find her,” she whimpered. “We’ve got to get her back.”

“I know, I know.” Rachel checked her watch. “School lets out in an hour, and we’ve got the whole weekend. Can you get your mom’s car?”

“Yea, she’s out of town.” Steph nodded. “Come on. I don’t give a damn about my last class. Do you?”

Rachel hesitated, then shook her head. “Fuck it,” she said. “I’m already in enough trouble, a skipped class won’t make it worse.” She turned, and they started to walk towards the exit. “If we leave now, we can be in Portland by-”

A familiar short-haired blonde materialized at the entrance to the aisle, her eyes locking onto them. “Victoria,” Steph said in surprise, as they stopped. “What are you...”

Two other girls and a guy appeared behind her as Victoria stalked towards them. She didn’t speak as she grabbed Rachel by the collar of her flannel shirt, turned, and slammed her into the book shelf.

Stars exploded in front of Rachel’s eyes as Victoria leaned in close.

“What. Did. You. Do?” the blonde growled out, spitting each word with venom in her voice.

Rachel gasped in pain as her head cleared, her hands clutching Victoria’s wrists. “I... I...”

“Victoria!” Steph stepped forward. “Let her-”

The other two girls moved to block her. Courtney and Taylor glared at Steph silently, as they positioned themselves between her and Victoria. The boy at the end of the aisle leaned against the books, keeping an eye out for teachers, as Victoria’s head spun towards Steph. “I’ll get to you in a fucking minute, Gingrich,” she snapped.

Steph balked in fear. She’d seen Victoria upset, or frustrated. She’d never seen her mad. Her green eyes were practically on fire as she glared, her face a perfectly calm mask of fury as she turned back to Rachel.

“I asked you a question, Amber.” Victoria tightened her grip on Rachel’s collar, pressing her further into the bookshelf. “I know Max’s parents found out she stole her father’s emails. I know that she ran away. I know that your dad is leading the fucking charge to find her.”

She put her nose right on front of Rachel’s. “And I know that you had something to do with it. Now... tell me what you FUCKING did.”

Rachel stared at her, eyes wide. “I... I didn’t mean... didn’t want her to...” her face slowly started to melt, and her lips trembled as her voice started to crack. “This wasn’t supposed to happen...”

Victoria pulled Rachel back, and rammed her into the shelf again. “I don’t want to hear your goddamn excuses!” she snarled in Rachel’s face. “Start fucking talking!”

Rachel’s breathing hitched as words started spilling from her mouth. Her breaths came in short gasps as she choked out the conversation they’d had with Max. How her dad was prosecuting the pastor. How he’d been about to lose. Max’s dad had the emails that would put him away. They’d pressured her into copying them. She’d done so, and Rachel had gotten the emails to her dad, who then proceeded to arrest Max’s father.

By the time Rachel was finished, Victoria was shaking in rage.

“You... fucking... sociopathic... bitch!” she whispered, as tears streamed down Rachel’s face. “You twisted Max’s fucking arm, the girl who doesn’t fucking know any better, into stealing evidence of a crime! From her father! The man who sanctioned the near-death beating of a teenager!”

Tears were threatening to leak from Victoria’s eyes, too. Steph was stuck watching, frozen, as the volume of Victoria’s voice got higher.

“You didn’t even have the balls to tell your dad where the emails came from!” Victoria shouted. “He could have kept Max safe! He could have taken her into protective custody! Instead, you fucking... USED her to do the goddamn dirty work, and then tossed her right back to the fucking wolves!”

Rachel sobbed, not struggling as Victoria tightened her hands. Snot flowed freely from her nose as she sniveled. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Victoria drew one hand back and slammed her fist into Rachel’s stomach. The other girl gasped, her eyes clamping shut against the pain as she struggled for breath.

“How DARE you fucking apologize to me,” Victoria whispered angrily into Rachel’s face. “I am not the one you abandoned in the fucking cold. Max is the one who’s in danger, and it’s YOUR fault.” Victoria leaned in closer. “You, Rachel Amber, are a fucking disgusting human being.”

With that, Victoria tossed Rachel aside, past Courtney and Taylor. The girl landed in a heap on the ground. Steph immediately knelt down to check on her.

“Gingrich.” Steph looked back up to see Victoria glaring at her, now in front of the other two girls. “Tell me where the police are looking for Max.”

Steph swallowed. “Portland,” she replied quietly. “The cops think she got on a bus to Portland.”

“Court, call everybody else in the Vortex Club,” Victoria ordered. “Get everyone with a car together. Taylor, there’s a picture of Max on the school web site, under the Quiz Bowl team photos. Print up as many copies as you can.” She turned around. “Zach, call the rest of your friends on the football team, the ones who can drive. We’re going to Portland. Tonight.”

Victoria glared back at the two girls on the floor. The blonde was still quivering in anger. “If anything happens to Max because of you two and your goddamn arrogance,” she snarled quietly, “I’m going to fucking END the both of you.”

With that, the four students marched away, leaving Steph and Rachel on the floor.

“Rachel.” Steph looked back at her and took her shoulder gently. “Rachel, are you okay?”

The other girl curled into a ball on the floor of the library and wept.

“Max...” she sobbed, as Steph held her shoulder. “Max, I’m so sorry...”


March, 2018 

Max and Chloe didn’t say a word as Steph and Rachel quietly finished their story.

“Christ,” Chloe finally spoke. “When Vic passes the bar, we’re putting her on retainer.”

Rachel snorted, as she fiddled with her silverware. “Yea. So, Chloe, as scary as you are, you’ve got a long way to go before you get to Victoria Chase’s level of terrifying.”

“I’m not even jealous.” Chloe downed the rest of her wine.

Max cleared her throat and leaned forward. “So, that was the weekend when everyone went looking for me in Portland?” she asked quietly.

Steph nodded, her eyes downcast. “The Vortex Club and a few of the football players drove down that night,” she said. “On Saturday, everyone was there. Victoria had people all over the place, looking for you. She probably got everyone to cover more ground than the cops.”

“We went down, too,” Rachel added. “Other than texting us instructions, Victoria didn’t talk to us. And when we got back...” she shrugged. “We were basically social pariahs. I don’t know if you realized it or not, but that girl practically ran that school. Or our grade, at least.”

Max sighed. “I feel really bad,” she muttered. “I wasn’t there. I got off that bus, like, an hour before it even entered the city.”

“Even if we had found you, Max, I don’t think it would have helped.” Steph shook her head. “Either way, that was the last time Victoria spoke to us. She un-registered the Quiz Bowl team from the local group, so we didn’t do that anymore, either.”

“What about the other girl?” Chloe leaned forward. “The one who snitched?”

“Yea, we heard she had a pretty miserable year, like we did.” Rachel looked up in thought. “I don’t know her name... I want to say it began with an S? I’m not sure, I never met her. She basically got shunned too, though she was one of the other girls from your church, so she probably didn’t mind. We graduated that year, but she was still a freshman. I don’t know if she stayed in that school or not.”

“Well, Victoria left when we did,” Steph pointed out. “High school has a short memory. She probably stuck around.”

Max shook her head sadly. “I really am sorry, that you two had to go through that.” She glanced back at them. “At least you helped each other through it.”

Steph and Rachel glanced at each other. “It made it a little easier,” Rachel allowed, as she looked back to Max. “Still, you have got to stop feeling bad for us.”

“I can still be sad that you two had it rough.” Max crossed her arms. “Just because I was miserable doesn’t mean you weren’t, either.”

“Well...” Steph shrugged. “How about we focus back on the wine. Rachel came a long way for this place, we should at least try to enjoy it.”

None of them spoke for a few seconds.

“Wait.” Rachel furrowed her brow. “Did you call her ‘Vic’?”

Chloe frowned. “Um, yea. Why?”

“Do you do that to her face?”

“Oh, all the time.”

Steph blinked. “And she lets you get away with it?”

The bluenette shrugged. “I mean, she’s made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t like it. But you don’t get to choose your own nickname.”

“That’s all?” Steph’s eyes got wide. “Dude, I watched a girl try to call her Tori once, back in high school. Victoria almost took her apart in the hallway. She HATES when people call her by nicknames.”

“Kate calls her ‘Vicky’,” Chloe pointed out.

“Yea, Kate’s also sleeping with her. She gets a few benefits that the rest of society doesn’t.” Rachel leaned forward in her chair. “How the hell did you get nickname privileges?”

Max smirked. “She did help Victoria propose,” she reminded them.

“Oh.” Rachel paused. “Still, though. I wasn’t there for the hallway incident, but the whole school heard about it. Everyone was terrified of her. Nobody ever did it again, even as a joke.”

“Even Taylor, her best friend, calls her Victoria. Or she did when I knew her.” Steph shook her head. “Man, she must REALLY like you.”

Chloe smiled smugly. “I will have you two know that I am a VERY likeable person.”

Chapter Text

July, 2018

Max stared at her phone, texting Chloe as she rode on the train into Los Angeles.

Max: This sucks. I miss you already.

Chloe: I know, babe. I miss you, too.

Chloe: Don’t pretend that you won’t have a blast with Kate and the others, though.

Max: I’m sure we’ll have fun, but I still wish you were here with me.

Chloe: Hey, this company is paying us a ridiculous amount of money for this contract. Nobody here is complaining.

Max: Except your girlfriend.

Chloe: It be what it be. I gotta get back to this. Love you, and have fun with the rest of the bridal party.

Max sighed, putting her phone away as the train finally came to a stop. She would try to have fun, for the holiday weekend. Kate was hosting all three of her bridesmaids for tea, shopping, and planning tomorrow, but Max had come in early to spend the night beforehand.

As she got off the train and made her way through the crowd, she saw a familiar girl waving at her. “Max! Over here!”

“Kate!” Max walked over, smiling, and scooped her up in a hug. “Oh, it’s good to see you!”

“You too!” Kate smiled as they broke apart. “I’m so sorry Chloe couldn’t make it.”

Max shrugged, adjusting her duffle bag. “Yea, she’s pretty bummed. But her company got a huge contract, to upgrade servers for a banking chain across the city. They’re all-hands-on-deck, and she’s making a boatload of overtime.”

“Still, though. Vicky was sad too. I know she wanted to see her.” Kate looked at Max’s duffle bag. “You have everything?”

“Yep!” Max gestured. “After you!”


“Thanks!” Max smiled as Kate handed her a glass of wine, and took a sip. “Oh, that’s good.” 

“I bet, after a long train ride.” Kate smiled as she sat across from her, the coffee table between them as they relaxed in the apartment. “How was it? I’ve never actually taken the train before.”

“Kind of like flying, but less scary.” Max shrugged. “So, the other two are coming in tomorrow?”

“Mm-hmm.” Kate sipped from her own glass. “Alyssa actually lives here, but she’s working today. She’ll come over tomorrow morning. And Stella lives back in San Diego, with her boyfriend. She’s coming up tonight, but she won’t get to the hotel until really late.”

Max leaned back. “How do you know them? From school?”

“Alyssa, yea.” Kate nodded. “Alyssa is the reason Vicky and I met. I didn’t want to go to the party, three years ago, but she dragged me there, and I wound up hanging out with Vicky. Afterwards, she gave me a bunch of relationship advice, since Vicky was my first actual girlfriend.”

“And her reward is being your Maid of Honor?” Max asked coyly.

Kate grinned. “She is incredibly jealous of you, by the way, since you and Chloe got to see Vicky propose.”

Max sighed. “Oh, good. I’m gonna get all the hard jobs.” She smiled, sipping her wine while Kate chuckled. “What about Stella?”

“Stella was one of my friends, from way back when we were kids.” Kate pulled out her phone, scrolling through her pictures. “Here, this is us, see?”

Max examined the photo, which was a picture of a young Kate with a slightly taller girl. The brunette noted her tan skin, darker hair, glasses, and light frame. “When was this?” she asked, handing the phone back.

“We were... sixteen, I think.” Kate put her phone down. “We were on the debate team together. When we graduated school, I came up for UCLA, but she went to SDSU. She’s got a degree in structural engineering. I always try to visit her when I go...” Kate trailed off, her eyes going distant.

“Home?” Max prompted.

Kate nodded silently, taking another sip of wine.

“I... don’t want to bring down the mood.” Max leaned forward. “Have you spoken to your mother?”

“Since you saw me screaming at her?” Kate sighed. “She knows I’m engaged. I’ve only spoken to her once, since Christmas. That was around... April?”

Max nodded. “And?”

“Oh, God, it was terrible.” Kate looked at the ring on her finger. “She told me she knew I was pretending to be engaged to hurt her, and that enough was enough. I needed to get over this stupid phase, come back to the light, and go home to marry Chris.”

“Jesus, your mother is delusional,” Max exclaimed.

Kate scoffed. “I told her, this wasn’t a phase, or a trick. I was marrying Vicky next year, Chris already has a girlfriend, and she needs to pull her head out of her ass and figure out that she’s going to destroy any chance we have of a relationship if she keeps her behavior up.”

Max blinked. “You cursed at her again?”

“Well, apparently, my mother brings it out of me.” Kate continued. “She didn’t take it very well. She screamed a lot of bad stuff, and I hung up on her. Then she called Vicky’s cell phone.”

“She called- wait, how did she get her number?” Max asked, raising her eyebrows. “I assume Victoria did NOT give it to her?”

“Yea, no, she didn’t. We’re actually kind of concerned, because we’re not sure how she got it.” Kate drank some more wine before she went on. “She screamed and yelled at Vicky for corrupting me, and turning her daughter away from the light, and ruining her life. Vicky said some incredibly inappropriate things in return, and then she hung up, too.”

Max snorted in amusement. “Is this whole ‘come back to the light’ thing, like, her catch phrase? What does it even mean?”

“It’s her phrase for coming back to Jesus, as far as Vicky and I can tell.” Kate shrugged. “She’s been saying it since my sisters and I were kids, that we all needed to stay with the light, or some variation of that.”

“Is the rest of your family...” Max paused in thought. “I don’t want to say ‘as bad’, but...”

“As religious?” Kate offered. Max nodded. “No, not by a long shot. I mean, we believe in God, and praying to him does give me comfort, but my mother takes it to a level that... well, you’re probably familiar with it.”

Max scoffed. “Little bit.”

“Yea. My dad is more of a casual believer. Like I said, though, my mom wears the pants in that relationship.” Kate took another sip of wine. “I probably took it more seriously than either of my sisters, but even I don’t like going to church every weekend.” Her lip tugged up in a half-smirk. “Probably because my mother forced me to, until I left for college.”

Max nodded. “Have you spoken to your sisters yet?”

“I can’t. They don’t have cell phones.” A sad look came over Kate’s face, and she glanced at her hands. “My parents wouldn’t let me get one until I was eighteen. Lynn is still seventeen, and Jessica is fourteen. They don’t have email or Facebook, either. I sent them letters, but I didn’t get a reply.”

“Your mom might have intercepted them,” Max pointed out.

Kate nodded. “She usually got the mail when I lived at home, so I think she did. I hope so, anyway.” Kate looked back at Max. “Either her or my dad. And I haven’t heard from him, either. I did send them a Save-The-Date magnet, like we sent you guys.”

Max remembered. The cute white-and-red magnet, with it’s script asking them to reserve the 4thof July, was stuck on the fridge back in her and Chloe’s apartment. “Are you really going to invite them?”

“I... yea, probably,” Kate muttered, staring back at her hands. “Part of me still really hopes that my mom will come around, accept that I’m a lesbian, and be happy for me.”

As she’d began the last sentence, the front door unlocked, and Victoria strode in, her purse in one hand and an attaché case in the other. She stopped as Kate finished her sentence while turning to see her. “Kate...” Victoria started, a concerned look on her face.

“Yes, Vicky, I know.” Kate sighed and turned back, picking her glass back up.

“Hey, Max.” Victoria dropped her bags on the table and came over to join them, pecking Kate’s cheek with her lips. “How was the train ride?”

“It was good,” Max replied as Victoria sat down, kicking her shoes off. “Where are you coming from? School?”

Victoria shook her head. “I’m interning at a law firm,” she explained, leaning her head back on the couch as she closed her eyes. “The pay is shit, and the hours suck, but it’ll look good when I apply for jobs after I pass the Bar.”

Max smirked. “Do you really care about the pay being shit?”

The blonde scoffed. “Only on principle. I mean, if I’m gonna be the partner’s gofer, and carry his bags, and run all over this city to deliver legal papers, I could at least earn more than minimum wage.” She opened her eyes to look at Max. “I had to ride the bus today. Have you ever ridden a bus in Los Angeles, Max?”

The brunette shook her head.

“Let me tell you, it sucks. I swear to God, half this city has an aversion to showering.”

Max chuckled. The mirth faded, though, as she looked back to Kate. The other girl was silently running her finger along the stem of her wine glass. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Kate replied quietly.

Victoria reached over and took her hand. “I just... don’t want her to get her hopes up.” She looked back at Max. “Those religious bigots don’t change their minds. Especially when they’re as crazy as her mother.”

“Yea, I heard she called you, too,” Max said.

Victoria shook her head. “Yea. I’d love to know how she got my phone number.” A grin spread over her face. “Guarantee you she’ll never call me again, though.”

“Yea, what did you say?” Max smiled. “Kate wouldn’t tell me.”

“Oh, no,” Kate muttered, burying her face in her hands.

“Well, the good Mrs. Marsh screamed at me, going on and on about how Kate was such a godly child, and that I’ve destroyed her poor soul and twisted her from the light with my evil wickedness.” Victoria’s grin got wider. “When she finally stopped for breath, I told her that she was going to have to repeat herself, I was too distracted in my ecstasy because her precious little girl’s tongue was jammed so deep in my-”

“Please stop!” Kate interrupted, her face red as Max started laughing fiercely.

“Oh, relax.” Victoria rolled her eyes, reaching one arm around Kate’s back to squeeze her shoulder. “She wasn’t really, by the way,” she continued. “I got the call while I was in the library. I think I made my study group’s day.”

Max finally managed to get a breath. “Oh my God, I would love to have heard the rest of it,” she quipped.

“I’ll tell you and Chloe later.” Victoria waggled her eyebrows. “The ending was fucking EPIC.”


 

Victoria left early the next morning, to return to her internship. Max and Kate got up and dressed just in time for the doorbell to ring, an hour later. 

“Did someone say burritos?” The woman on the other side of the door asked as Kate opened it to greet her. She held a large white bag in her hand, shaking it.

“Ooh, yes, we were just talking about breakfast.” Kate smiled as she hugged the girl. “Thanks for coming, Alyssa. This is Max.”

“Oh, please, like I wasn’t gonna come.” Max took the woman in as she stepped through the door. Slightly plump, with lightly-dyed purple hair, she definitely had a gothic vibe, though her cheerful demeanor suggested otherwise. She put the bag of burritos down, smiling at Max. “It’s so good to finally meet you!”

“You too!” They shook hands. “Oh, those smell good, and I’m starving.”

Alyssa reached into the bag and withdrew several of the small burritos. “They are, they’re from a Mexican place right next to my apartment. Chorizo, potatoes, and eggs.” She tossed two of them at Max. “Bon appetite.”

The three of them started eating around the kitchen island. “Where is Her Majesty?” Alyssa asked, after they finished their first burritos.

Max snorted as Kate shook her head. “I hate when you call her that,” the shorter girl sighed.

“That’s one of the reasons I do it, kid.” Alyssa grinned. “So? Her Royal Highness?”

“VICKY is at her internship,” Kate replied with an eye roll. “She’s going to be gone all day. She said she probably won’t join us for dinner, either. One of the partners at the firm is taking all the interns out to a restaurant."

“Well, good for her. Sorry she gets to miss the fun.” Alyssa smirked, turning back to Max. “Did she tell you how they met?”

Max nodded, swallowing a bit of her second burrito as a grin came over her face. “She said you dragged her to a college party, kicking and screaming.”

“That is NOT what I said!” Kate protested as Alyssa laughed.

“I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s still the truth.” Alyssa turned back to Max. “Oh my God, she was so pathetic. I sent her back to her dorm room to change clothes TWICE, before she actually found an outfit that was more ‘I wanna relax’ then ‘I want a job as a librarian’. And she grumbled the whole car ride about some test.”

“It was a mid-term!” Kate said crossly, folding her arms. “It was twenty percent of my grade for that class!”

“And your grades were so high, you could have bombed it and still made the dean’s list.”

Max whistled. “So you introduced her to Victoria?”

“I was trying to keep her AWAY from the Ice Queen,” Alyssa replied humorously.

“You were trying to hook up with Derek Matthews,” Kate retorted.

“No reason I couldn’t do both.” Alyssa raised her eyebrows as she turned back to Max. “You should have seen this dude. He was on the swim team, ran marathons, and had abs you could play tic-tac-toe on. And he was so unaware of how attractive he was, it was adorable. He walked through the UCLA campus leaving craters in his wake, from all the panties slamming into the ground behind him.”

Max laughed at that visual. “So you were a little distracted,” she allowed.

“He was wearing one of those skin-tight t-shirts. Every straight girl who wasn’t BLIND was distracted.” Alyssa shook her head. “So I’m not sure why I so was surprised when I looked over, to see the only two lesbians at the party, chatting in the corner.” She looked back to Kate. “I think you were the first person to get within five feet of Victoria without being torn apart. You must have survived through sheer obliviousness.”

“Oh my God, was she that bad?” Max raised her eyebrows.

“Our little Victoria had something of a reputation. She was determined to get into law school, and God help anyone who threatened her dreams.” Alyssa thumbed at Kate. “Except her, of course.”

“She was very lovely, at that party,” Kate replied adamantly. “She didn’t want to be there either. She had a test she was studying for, too. Both of us talked about our terrible friends,” she said with a look at Alyssa, “dragging us out to drool over men we weren’t interested in.”

“Yea, well, you two met because of your ‘terrible friends’.” Alyssa took another bite of her burrito. “I think a couple of people owe us an apology for whining so much.”

“You’re my Maid of Honor,” Kate pointed out. “It should be obvious that you’re forgiven at this point.”

Max snorted as she finished her food, balling up the wrappers. “So, when is your other friend, Stella, coming?”

“She should be here any time now,” Kate said as she glanced at her watch. “I told her eight AM.”

“Oh, I finally get to meet the mysterious Stella.” Alyssa smiled as she collected their trash, leaving the two untouched burritos on the counter. “About damn time.”

Max frowned. “You haven’t met her yet?”

“No. We’re all meeting for the first time,” Alyssa replied with a head shake. “She talked about her enough, though. So, we’re looking at dresses first, when we go out, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Kate nodded. “There are a couple of really nice shops downtown, that aren’t too expensive. Vicky and I decided on our colors, too. We’re doing silver with gold highlights, and Vicky’s bridesmaids are doing the opposite, gold with silver accents.”

“Ooh, pretty,” Max complimented.

“And so, totally expected from the Chase family,” Alyssa added.

“You hush.” Kate smiled at Max. “I know, right? We were originally gonna have all the bridesmaids in silver dresses, but then Vicky found these gold ones online that were-”

The doorbell interrupted her. “Oh, she’s here!” Kate squealed, running to the door. “Stella!” she cried as she opened it.

Stella didn’t look much different from the picture Max had seen, except for being a little taller. Max noticed she looked off, though, as she played with the strings on her blue hoodie. “Hey, Kate,” she said cautiously. “Um... I hope you don’t mind, but...”

Kate’s brow furrowed. “Don’t mind what?”

“I, uh, brought a visitor,” she explained.

“A vi-” Kate’s voice caught as Stella stepped aside, and Max got a look at the girl behind her. And realized there was only one person it could be.

The smaller girl was almost a mirror image of Kate, except for the longer hair and the braces. She was younger, too. Much younger. She wore a purple button-up shirt and blue jeans, a gold chain around her neck as she looked at Kate.

Her sister didn’t say anything. She just shot forward, the two girls wrapping their arms around each other. “Hi, Kate,” she finally squeaked.

“Lynn!” Kate cried. “It’s so good to see you!”

Chapter Text

“I’m really sorry.”

Max and Alyssa glanced at Stella as they stood on the balcony. The three of them had elected to go outside, to give Kate and Lynn a few minutes of space. “Why?” Max asked. 

“Because... I mean, we had plans today.” Stella wrung her hands nervously. “But when Lynn found out her sister was engaged, and that I was coming up here, she begged me to bring her along. Like, with tears. And...” she hesitantly shrugged. “Like I said, I’m sorry.”

Alyssa snorted. “We’ve got an entire year to do this,” she said reassuringly. “Bringing her is not setting us back that far.”

“And Kate was literally just talking about how much she missed her sisters yesterday,” Max added. “I don’t think she’s gonna mind.”

Stella sighed. “Thanks,” she said. “Still, though. I would have sent a text, or something, but...”

“Yea, we don’t have each other’s contact info, do we?” Alyssa pulled her phone from her pocket. “We need to fix that, if we’re gonna be helping Kate. Gimme your guy’s numbers.”

Max and Stella gave them to her, and Alyssa texted them quickly. “Now we’ve got a bridesmaid chat,” she said as they put their phones away. “I have a feeling that we’re going to need it, with her mother.”

Max and Stella both snorted. “Yea, I hope you two don’t actually think that woman is going to let this go off without a hitch.” Stella added.

“That’s right, you knew her, didn’t you?” Max asked. “From when you two were kids?”

“I know her now. Our families are still close.” She glanced between the other two girls. “Did she tell you about her supposed husband-to-be, Chris? He’s my cousin.”

“Wait, seriously?” Alyssa’s eyebrows went up.

Stella nodded. “Our families run in the same circles, so he has to deal with her sometimes, when he comes home to visit. She freaks him the fuck out.”

Max snorted. “I’ve heard she’s a little delusional,” she conceded.

“Oh, way more than a little.” Stella shook her head. “Every time she sees Chris, she starts mushing about how Kate has grown into this wonderful woman... which is true, I know. But she lays it on, like she’s still trying to set them up. She’s not even subtle about it, always showing him pictures and trying to encourage him to reach out and call her. Last time, she did it when his girlfriend was standing right next to him.”

Alyssa shook her head. “That sounds like a great way to get knocked out,” she stated. “I mean, if someone was doing that to MY boyfriend...”

“Yea. Jaime’s a real sweetheart, though. Nice southern girl. She’ll just cut you to shreds with her words while sounding like your best friend.” Stella grinned. “Though Kate’s mom is too far gone to realize when she’s being insulted.”

“Okay, Stella, you’re going to have to be our girl on the inside.” Alyssa nodded. “Keeping your ear to the ground in San Diego, in case she gets a really bad case of the crazy.”

Stella pouted. “Fine,” she muttered. “Only so this goes off without a hitch.”

Alyssa looked at Max, her face twisted as she suddenly looked nervous. “Max... um, Kate’s told me a little about you, so you probably have the most practice when it comes to...”

Max blinked. “Dealing with religious zealots?” she finished dryly. “Yea, I’ve got a little bit of experience.”

Stella looked aghast. “You do?”

“My relationship with my parents is best described as ‘troubled’.” Max shook her head. “I agree with you guys and Victoria. Short of Jesus himself actually coming down from the clouds and telling her to lighten up, Kate’s mom isn’t going to change. You two know she’s thinking about inviting her to the wedding, right?”

Stella recoiled. “No, she isn’t. She can’t be.”

“Yea, she is,” Alyssa said. “She mentioned it to me, too, last week.”

“Oh... crap.” Stella frowned. “That is a horrible idea.”

Alyssa nodded, glancing at the other two. “Okay, we need to make a sacred bridesmaid pact, right now.”

“Bridesmaid pact?” Max asked curiously.

“We must swear a sacred blood oath, on our lives and honor.” Alyssa smirked. “The three of us will not allow Kate’s mom to fuck up this wedding. Whatever it takes.”

Stella scratched the side of her neck. “I, uh, don’t do blood so much,” she admitted. “How about a handshake or something?”

The sound of a sliding door opening behind them drew their attention. They turned to see Kate and her sister stepping outside. “Hey, guys,” Kate said with a smile. “Alyssa, Max... this is my little sister, Lynn.”

“Yea, we gathered.” Alyssa smiled. “It’s good to meet you, Lynn.”

“You, too,” Lynn replied in a small voice, shaking Alyssa and Max’s outstretched hands. “I, uh... I’m sorry for dropping in like this,” she added. “When I heard Stella was coming up, I just...”

“Trust me, we get it.” Max nodded.

“You’re not gonna get in trouble for being here, are you?” Kate asked suddenly. “God, I didn’t even think about it. You came up with Stella last night. Are Mom and Dad looking for you?”

Lynn shook her head. “I told them I was spending the weekend with one of my friends from school,” she explained. “She’s covering for me. I gave her Stella’s phone number, so she could get ahold of me if she had to.”

Kate visibly relaxed, though not completely. “You still shouldn’t run away, without telling them,” she lectured. “And if Mom finds out you’re here...”

“I don’t care.” Lynn shook her head. “I overheard Mom talking to grandma, last week, about how you had lost your way. And I had one of my friends look at your Facebook, and saw you were engaged.” She sniffed. “I tried to call you, but Mom erased your number from the board next to the house phone, and I couldn’t remember it. And her and Dad got those smart phones that you can’t unlock without their fingerprints.”

“I sent you a letter,” Kate said quietly.

“I... never got it.” Lynn’s face got dark. “Mom must have... God damn it.”

“Lynn!” Kate gasped at her sister’s language.

Her sister’s face fell. “Sorry,” she muttered.

Alyssa cleared her throat. “Do you have her number now?” she asked.

Lynn nodded. “I got it from Stella,” she said as she glanced at the other girl. “I wrote it on a note and stuck it underneath the insole of one of my sneakers.”

Max nodded. “Nice,” she remarked. “What about your other sister... Jessica, right?”

Lynn sighed as she sat down on a lounge chair. “Jessica... I don’t know.” She glanced back at Kate. “I think she’s trying to take advantage of you being gone. To try and, you know, get Mom to pay attention to one of the other children that’s not her favorite.”

“Oh, Lynn,” Alyssa said gently. “I’m sure Kate isn’t-”

Lynn and Kate both interrupted her, the younger saying “Yes she is,” at the same time the older one said “Yea, I am.”

“I’ve felt terrible about it for years,” Kate added morosely, as she sat down next to Lynn. Max, Stella, and Alyssa found their own seats as Kate continued. “I didn’t really notice until high school, but my mom definitely favors me over my other two sisters. Better birthday presents, nicer clothes, the works.”

“I’ve... never really cared that much,” Lynn said. “Our dad doesn’t play favorites like mom does, and I like spending time with him. Jessica, though, is desperate for mom to treat her like she treated Kate growing up.”

“The curse of the firstborn daughter?” Max suggested.

Kate shrugged. “I never really figured out why, but I don’t have a better reason.”

“It’s actually not THAT bad, for us.” Lynn smirked. “Like, me being at a friend’s house all weekend? Mom didn’t even bat an eye before she said yes. If Kate had asked, mom would have had a heart attack.” She paused. “Unless it was Chris. Then she would have driven you and poked holes in his condoms.”

Max, Stella, and Alyssa had to laugh at that, while Kate cringed. “I don’t know if I like this language you’re spouting,” she pointed out.

“I do.” Alyssa grinned as she turned to Lynn. “You might be my new favorite Marsh sister.”

Kate gave her a look. “Seriously?”

“Hey, she doesn’t look like she’s about to lecture me for day-drinking. So far, she’s ahead of you.”

Lynn snickered briefly, then composed herself. “Anyway... like I said, I’m sorry to crash your guys’ day.” She looked back at Kate. “I’ll go back to the hotel, so you can-”

The negative responses from the other girls all crowded each other out, from Kate saying “No way,” to Alyssa stating “Fuck that.”

“You didn’t crash anything, Lynn,” Alyssa added, looking at Kate. “We’re going dress shopping. Then we’re gonna get lunch, and drink tea, and make wedding plans. The back seat of my car is just going to get a little more crowded.”


Max: You would not believe who showed up today! 

Chloe: Tupac Shakur?

Chloe: Michael Jackson?

Chloe: Kurt Cobain?

Chloe: Amy Winehouse?

Max: Wow, not even close.

Chloe: Getting less and less interested.

Max: Lynn! Kate’s sister!

Chloe: WHOA

Chloe: Wait, I thought her sisters were little. How did she get there?

Max: Caught a ride with another bridesmaid and surprised Kate. And she’s seventeen, she’s not little.

Chloe: I meant ‘not adults’ little. How did it go?

Max: Kate was so happy to see her. We took her shopping, and we looked at a bunch of dresses.

Chloe: Is she gonna be a bridesmaid too?

Max: No, Kate and Victoria are only doing three each. But she does want to come to the wedding next year. She’ll be 18 and in college by then, so her mom won’t have much of a say.

Chloe: Nice. Little teen rebellion never hurt anyone.

Max: This is coming from you?

Chloe: I said a LITTLE.

Chloe: So do I get a preview of these dresses?

Max: Maybe.

Chloe: Well, I need to get one that doesn’t clash, so...

Max: <dress_1.jpg>

Chloe: Damn, girl, you look good in that one. I like the off-shoulder bit.

Max: <dress_2.jpg>

Chloe: Still pretty, but I like the first one better.

Max: I wound up going with this one.

Max: <dress_3.jpg>

Chloe: Ooh, good choice. You are gonna look fine as hell.

Chloe: Not sure how I’m gonna compete with you.

Max: Aw, babe, you always look good standing next to me.

Chloe: I’m pretty sure that was a shot at one of us, but I’m too dumb to figure out who.

Chloe: And mostly disappointed that I don’t get any naughty dressing room pictures.

Max: What kind of GF do you think I am?

Max: <dress_0.jpg>

Chloe: ... wow.

Chloe: Be a lot naughtier if you had less clothes on.

Max: I will NEVER do less than underwear. You’d better accept that.

Chloe: Eh, it’s a start.


Later that evening, Max, Kate, and Lynn were sitting around Victoria’s kitchen table, talking quietly. 

“I can’t believe mom tried to withdraw you from your classes,” Lynn was saying as she shook her head angrily. “That is beyond fucked up.”

“You REALLY need to watch your language,” Kate scolded lightly.

“Sorry, Kate. It’s just...” Lynn shrugged. “She keeps pretending like everything is fine, at home. Like, Jessica asked about you, if anyone had spoken to you, since you never came down for Christmas. And mom was all bubbly, saying that she had and you were having a nice holiday to yourself. She has never said the words ‘lesbian’, ‘girlfriend’, or ‘Victoria’.”

Kate sighed sadly. “I figured,” she mumbled.

Max squirmed in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. “Um, Kate, maybe I should have asked this earlier... do you two want me to go, so you can have some privacy?”

“Actually, no.” Kate shook her head. “You’re... probably more experienced than us with this kind of thing.” She looked at Max sadly. “I kind of feel like I’m sinking, here.”

Lynn looked confused. “Is your mom a huge, religious homophobe, too?”

Max and Kate shared a glance. Kate didn’t reply, clearly putting the ball in Max’s court, regarding how much she should reveal about her past.

“Yea. Both my parents are,” Max finally said, taking a large sip from her glass of wine. “We had... let’s just call it a ‘falling out’. My parents and I haven’t spoken in a few years.”

Lynn bit her lip. “Oh. Um... sorry.”

Max shrugged. “It was a long time ago,” she said, glancing back to Kate. “Your mom is still messing with you, though. I know that you want her to get over this and accept you...” Max bit her lip, choosing her next words carefully. “But Kate, I really don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Kate looked down morosely, then lifted her glass and proceeded to drain her wine in one gulp. “Part of me knows that already,” she said miserably. “Just... it’s my mom, you know?” she looked back at Max. “You’re not the only one saying that. Vicky says it, too, when she thinks I can’t hear her while she’s Skyping with Taylor. So has Alyssa. And Stella. And I’m sure Chloe thinks the same thing, even if she’s polite enough not to tell me directly.”

Lynn leaned forward. “Kate...” she swallowed. “I don’t think you should invite Mom and Dad to your wedding.”

“I am,” Kate said resolutely.

“Kate-”

“They’re getting invitations.” Kate looked between her sister and Max. “I know it’s stupid. I know they’re probably not going to come, or may try to make trouble. I know my mom probably won’t change her mind. But... I still want her too. And on the off-chance she does, I want her and my dad there.” She sniffed. “Besides, he’s supposed to walk me down the aisle.”

Lynn bit her lip and looked back at Max warily. But before either of them could respond, the front door unlocked, and Victoria walked in.

The blonde’s eyes wandered over the three of them sitting at the table with the wine. “Hey Kate,” Victoria said as she laid her bags down on the counter. “How was your day?”

“It was good.” Kate smiled as Victoria walked over. Rather than kiss Kate’s cheek like she had the previous day, though, the blonde tilted Kate’s head up and rather pointedly kissed her on the lips.

Max noticed Lynn squirm uncomfortably in her chair. Way to make a power move, Victoria,Max thought, realizing that she was going to be a really good lawyer. Not five seconds into the room, and her potential enemy was already unbalanced. Chloe’s right. If we can afford her, we should put her on retainer.

“And you must be Lynn.” Victoria’s smile did not extend to her eyes, as she took in the smaller girl, standing up while rubbing Kate’s shoulder possessively. “Kate talks about you all the time. She’s very proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Lynn murmured as she stood. “It’s nice to meet you.”

They shook hands, Victoria taking a seat next to Kate. “We were just talking about Kate’s mother,” Max interjected.

“Oh, yea?” Victoria asked. “What about?”

“Just...” Kate sighed. “The usual. Can we drop it?”

“Fine.” Victoria looked back at Lynn. “Are you staying with us tonight?” she asked, her tone friendly.

“Yes. She’s going to sleep on the couch, and Stella will come get her in the morning.” Kate nodded. “How was work?”

“Slow.” Victoria took Kate’s hand, rubbing her knuckles. “I missed you. I’m sure you and the other girls had fun, though.”

Max nodded. “We got measured for our dresses,” she said. “The shop is gonna mail them out in a few weeks, once they get sewn up.”

“Nice.” Victoria nodded, then looked back to Lynn. “What about you? Did you get a dress, too?”

Lynn shook her head. “I’m still putting money together for something to wear,” she said quietly. “I’ll, uh, be back in a second. I need to use the bathroom.”

The other three watched her stand and walk down the hall. As soon as she was out of sight, Kate whacked Victoria’s arm with her hand. “Stop it,” she ordered her fiancé.

“Stop what?”

“We’ve been together for three years. Do you think I can’t tell when you’re making people uncomfortable on purpose?” Kate folded her arms. “I know you hate my mother. I certainly don’t blame you for it. But I will insist you at least get to KNOW Lynn before you activate Lawyer Mode.”

Max snorted. “Lawyer Mode?” she asked.

“It’s what I call it, when she becomes nice and terrifying at the same time,” Kate explained, turning back to Victoria. “Now, enough. Turn it off, and join us for some pleasant conversation.”

Victoria sighed, her face relaxing. “Fine,” she grumbled. “But I ABSOLUTELY will not refrain from kissing my fiancé, or holding her hand, in our own apartment.” She looked at the mostly-empty bottle on the table. “We need some more wine.”

“Oh, right. Hang on.” Max got up and disappeared into the guest room, returning with a bottle. “I was supposed to give this to you, Victoria. It’s from Chloe, we got it at a vineyard a couple of months ago. It’s really good, and she says we owe you.”

Victoria smirked as she took the bottle. “Oh, I’ve had this before. It is really good.”

Lynn came back as Victoria was filling their glasses. Victoria turned to her as she sat down. “Lynn, would you like some?” she asked.

“Um, excuse me. She’s only seventeen,” Kate protested.

“Kate, I wasn’t asking you.”

Lynn hesitated, then nodded. “Maybe a little bit,” she agreed.

Victoria retrieved a fourth glass from the cabinet. “Here you go,” she said, pouring about half of what was in Max and Kate’s glasses. “We’re not gonna get you drunk yet. We’ll save that for later.”

“How about we save it for NEVER?” Kate asked crossly.

“Again, Kate, I wasn’t asking you.”

Max snorted as she took a sip from her glass. “So, Lynn,” she started. “You’re starting college next year?”

“Yep.” Lynn nodded proudly. “I’m ahead on high school credits, so I’m graduating in January instead of June.”

“Wow!” Max said, impressed. “Have you started applying yet?" 

Lynn nodded. “Actually, I want to come up here,” she replied. “I sent in my application to Cal Tech last week.”

“What?! That’s amazing!” Kate squealed. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll get accepted. You’re the smartest kid in the family.” She glanced at Victoria. “She’s captain of the Robotics Team, and she places first in all the science fairs she submits to.”

“Wow, that’s cool.” Victoria looked at Lynn, clearly impressed. “Cal Tech has a really tough admissions rate. I hope you get in.”

“Me too,” Lynn said nervously, playing with a lock of her hair. “I got a few people to write me letters of recommendation, so we’ll see.”

“What do you want to study?” Max asked.

“Engineering, for sure,” she said. “Like Stella, but probably mechanical engineering instead of structural. I’d love to work for JPL, or NASA. That would be so cool.”

“You gonna try and become an astronaut?” Victoria asked with a smile.

Lynn fidgeted. “I mean, that would be pretty cool, too,” she admitted. “I think that’s pretty far afield, though.”

“Oh, yea, like you haven’t thought about it.” Kate smirked. “You could be the first Marsh in space!”

Max snorted, and the other three looked at her. “I’m sorry,” she said with a laugh. “It’s... when you said ‘Marsh in’, it sounded like ‘Martian’.” She looked at Lynn. “Oh, God! If you went to Mars, you could be Marsh, the Martian! Like Matt Damon!”

Victoria and Kate laughed while Lynn’s ears turned pink. “That makes me sound like a comic book character,” she said with a pout.

Kate shrugged as the laughing subsided. “Well, there’s worse things to be known for.”

Chapter Text

Alyssa: FYI, just so everyone’s tracking, I added Victoria’s bridesmaids to this chat, too.

Taylor: Uh, who is this?

Alyssa: Right, this is Alyssa Anderson. Kate’s MOH.

Alyssa: You guys should introduce yourselves, too, since we don’t all have each other’s number.

Taylor: Oh. This is Taylor Christensen. Victoria’s MOH.

Courtney: Courtney Wagner, backup MOH.

Taylor: That is NOT how this works!

Courtney: LOL, check your brake lines, ho.

Stella: I hope that’s not how this works. Stella Hill, one of Kate’s BMs.

Max: Max Caulfield. Kate’s other BM.

Dana: Dana Ward, Victoria’s second backup MOH :)

Courtney: Wait, MAX!?!?!

Taylor: Holy shit! Victoria said she was talking to you again, but we didn’t know you were Kate’s BM!

Max: Yea, Kate asked me after my girlfriend helped Victoria propose.

Dana: Um, someone want to clue me in?

Taylor: Dana, how could you have POSSIBLY forgotten about Max?

Dana: Have we met?

Courtney: WE SPENT TWO DAYS RUNNING AROUND PORTLAND LOOKING FOR HER

Dana: Oh shit!

Dana: Oh God, I totally fucking spaced! Max! I didn’t know you were back! Where have you been?!

Max: I’m sorry :( I wasn’t in Portland when you guys were there.

Max: I didn’t even know people were looking for me until later.

Stella: You guys all knew each other in high school?

Taylor: ‘Knew’ is a strong word. We were all friends with Victoria.

Dana: Yea, when Max ran away, Victoria gathered up everyone to go looking for her in Portland.

Alyssa: ... ran away?

Max: It’s a long story.

Courtney: You really weren’t in Portland, Max?

Max: No, I got off the bus before it made it there.

Max: I’m really sorry you guys wasted your time :(

Taylor: Oh, don’t even say that.

Dana: Yea, really. You needed help. It wasn’t a waste.

Courtney: Okay, we need to set up a Skype session to see you properly.

Alyssa: We should probably ALL do a big Skype session, for wedding stuff. Also, we need to talk about the Delusional One.

Dana: Who?

Taylor: Kate’s mother? Seriously, do you even pay attention when Victoria talks?

Dana: I didn’t know she had a nickname!

Max: I like it. It works for her.

Stella: “Strong in this one, the crazy is.”

Courtney: LOL, no joke. I’ve heard some of the stories.

Max: Did Victoria tell you guys about the phone call she got?

Taylor: NO!

Dana: Kate’s mom called her??

Max: Yea. She said some really bad stuff to Victoria, Victoria said some really inappropriate stuff back, and the relationship kind of collapsed after that.

Stella: As an engineer, I promise you, a black hole cannot collapse any further.

Taylor: LOL

Courtney: Jokes aside, what are we gonna do? I don’t know this woman, but she doesn’t seem like the ‘roll over and die’ kind of gal.

Alyssa: We have all sworn sacred blood oaths to stop her from interfering with the wedding.

Taylor: Most I can promise you is a pinky swear.

Courtney: I’m totally down, but I’m not sure what I can do. I’ve never met Kate’s mother, and I can’t do much from Seattle anyway.

Max: We already have a man on the inside.

Stella: One, wrong pronoun, thank you. Two, ‘inside’ is kind of a stretch. More like ‘nearby’.

Alyssa: What IS the latest intel from Operation: Full Nelson?

Dana: You need a better name.

Stella: Yea, she does. And nothing. Her mother has been deceptively quiet since the April phone calls. Lynn says she’s still pretending like the wedding isn’t happening.

Taylor: Lynn?

Max: Kate’s younger sister. She came up to visit last weekend while we were doing our thing.

Taylor: Oh, right. We’re doing ours with Victoria in three weeks.

Dana: Does Lynn have a way of getting in touch with us, if the Delusional One starts popping and locking? I know she had a weird thing about cell phones.

Stella: In a roundabout way, yes. She calls my cousin, Chris, and he calls me.

Courtney: Jesus, it’s like human telephone in real life.

Alyssa: Until she turns eighteen, and is allowed to have a cell phone for real, it’s the best we can do.

Taylor: And we’re sure Lynn isn’t on Team Marsh?

Max: Are we NOT Team Marsh?

Taylor: We are most definitely Team Chase in this game.

Stella: Whatever team name we want, Lynn is definitely on it. She loves Kate too much to be her mother’s accomplice.

Alyssa: After Xmas, Kate put a freeze on her credit, and locked down all her school info. She’s gonna do the same with the wedding stuff, and put passwords on everything.

Courtney: What about Victoria? If this woman got her cell phone, who knows what else she might have?

Taylor: Good point. I’ll call her later today and put the bug in her ear.

Dana: Do we have to worry about this woman showing up to the ceremony?

Max: Since Kate is inviting her, yea, probably.

Taylor: ?!?!

Courtney: Seriously?!

Dana: That sounds like a fucking TERRIBLE idea.

Max: Literally everyone has told her that. Including Lynn.

Max: She’s insisting, and won’t back down. She still hopes her mom will come around.

Stella: Yea, I still hope they’ll make a second season of Firefly, too.

Alyssa: Look, we’ve tried to sway her, she won’t budge. We’ll have to come up with a ‘day of’ plan to keep this shit from going south.

Taylor: We’ve got some time. We’ll figure it out.

Courtney: Oh! New topic, we need to see the dresses you guys picked.

Stella: I thought you guys were going to have gold dresses?

Alyssa: Yea, all of ours are in silver.

Courtney: We still need to make sure our styles don’t clash.

Max: Styles can clash?

Dana: Don’t. There’s no reasoning with her when she starts swinging her fashion degree around.

Courtney: If it was up to Dana, we’d all be wearing poofy dresses with empress waistlines, so I don’t want to hear it.

Stella: I don’t even know why those things are bad.

Courtney: Ok, you need to understand that it physically hurt, to read that.


Rachel: Did you know that abusing opioids is a crime in Oregon? 

Max: Um... yes? Isn’t it a crime everywhere?

Rachel: Congratulations. You’re smarter than the three parents we’ve dealt with this week.

Max: Three in one week?!

Rachel: Yea. Pretty sure it’s a full moon or something.

Rachel: Did you ALSO know that if your six-year-old calls 911 because your dumb ass overdosed, he’ll get a free bowl of ice cream and a ride to the CPS office?

Max: You should put that on a billboard.

Rachel: Hmm. I wonder if the state would let us.


Unknown: Hey, Max... do you think you could help me out for a second?

Max: Who is this?

Unknown: Oh, sorry, it’s Lynn. Kate’s sister? One of my friends from school gave me her old prepaid cell phone, so I can call Stella if I have to.

Max: Ah. Sure, what’s up?

<CONTACT INFO UPDATED> 

Lynn: I found a few dresses online, for Kate’s wedding, and I want to get her approval before I decide which one I want.

Max: Okay, makes sense. Where do I come in?

Lynn: I wanted to know what you think of them, before I send them to her.

Max: Why don’t you just let Kate decide?

Lynn: Because I know she’s going to show them to Victoria, and I want her to like the ones I send them.

Max: Lynn, are you scared of your future sister-in-law?

Lynn: No.

Max: Lynn.

Lynn: ... she’s really intimidating.

Lynn: I just don’t want her to think I’m some nerd who can’t dress herself properly.

Max: Dude, you’re applying to Caltech. You’ve got some credit in Victoria’s book.

Lynn: Still, I want to make a good impression.

Max: I’m sure it will be fine. Show me the dresses you picked out.

Lynn: I’ll send you the email right now.


Jake: Max, where are the purchasing invoices from Riccardo’s? I can’t find them. 

Max: In the filing cabinet.

Jake: Which one?

Max: ... the one that has the drawer marked “Riccardo’s”.

Max: Wait, why are you at the office on a Sunday?

Jake: I got in an argument with the chef, while I was eating dinner there last night, about how much we spend on premium spirits.

Jake: I’m trying to find proof that it is NOT a waste of money to stock the restaurant with high-end bottles of wine.

Max: And it couldn’t wait until Monday?

Jake: Eh, it could’ve. But I want to be proven correct now.

Jake: Okay, where the hell are the invoices in here?

Max: The back of the drawer, filed by year and quarter. Just like they’re LABELED.

Max: How the hell do you own all of these businesses and not know where anything is?

Jake: Because I pay YOU to do that for me.

Jake: It’s called ‘delegation of responsibilities’, and I’m sure your classes will cover it at some point.

Max: So... if I get hit by a bus, you’re screwed?

Jake: In that situation, I’m pretty sure we both will be.


Chloe: Vic, are you there? 

Victoria: Okay, what will it take for you to stop calling me that?

Chloe: How serious of a crime is it, to torrent music?

Victoria: What? Where did that come from?

Chloe: Having an argument with Max.

Victoria: Do you think I just have random legal facts rattling around in my brain, waiting for people to ask me weird stuff like this?

Chloe: So you don’t know?

Victoria: ... dammit.

Victoria: Distribution of copyrighted materials is a crime under the DMCA. Punishable by fines of up to $150K per file and 5 years in jail.

Chloe: Shit, really?

Victoria: Yes.

Chloe: Okay, how realistic is it that they would actually charge me?

Victoria: I will give you that the odds are in your favor. That doesn’t change the fact that if you DO get really, really unlucky, they’ll whack you with fines that would bankrupt you.

Victoria: A single mother in Minnesota thought she’d be fine, too, until she was sued for $2 million 

Chloe: ... fuck.

Chloe: I was really hoping for a better answer.

Victoria: Just buy the damn album on iTunes.


Steph: My mother finally called me. 

Chloe: Wait, seriously?

Chloe: It’s been months!

Steph: Yea, she finally noticed that I haven’t spoken to her since before she got married.

Chloe: So she did marry the dude?

Steph: I never expected her not to.

Steph: She wanted to know why I hadn’t called her.

Chloe: What did you say?

Steph: I told her that I was curious. I wanted to see how long it would take her to figure out that she hadn’t heard from me.

Chloe: And how did that go over?

Steph: Apparently it’s my fault. She blamed me, because her life is so busy. It’s my job to call her, see, because I’m the child, and I have all this free time.

Chloe: Jesus. Steph, I’m sorry. Are you okay?

Steph: Honestly? I’m kind of conflicted.

Steph: I’m angry at what she said, for sure. What free time is she even talking about? I work constantly, at the office AND at home. I’m supposed to be working right now, FFS.

Steph: On the other hand, the fact that she actually does want me to call her more often is kind of... fuck. I don’t even know.

Chloe: Okay, you’re way smarter than me, and even I can see how fucked up that is.

Chloe: Your mom is a narcissist, Steph. She can’t comprehend why anybody would care about anything besides her. Please don’t fall into that trap.

Steph: ... I know.

Steph: It was just nice, feeling missed, for a little while.

Chloe: Do you think people don’t miss you now?

Chloe: Max loves you. Rachel cares about you. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, either.

Steph: Well, that’s certainly an improvement from wanting to punch me in the tits.

Chloe: What can I say? You’ve grown on me.

Steph: Like cancer?

Chloe: Not a comparison I would make, but sure.

Steph: Can I run an idea by you? I’m not sure how stupid it is.

Chloe: Of course. What is it?

Steph: I just got a raise at work. A few of my designs were selected for some games, and they’ve decided that I’m worth keeping around.

Steph: I was thinking about using some of that money to hire a private investigator. To try and find out who my father is.

Chloe: Why would I think that’s a stupid idea?

Steph: What if he doesn’t care? He most likely doesn’t even know I exist. And I just want to butt into his life, twenty-five years later?

Chloe: That’s one possible outcome.

Chloe: The other is that he accepts you as his daughter, gets to know you, and you find a parent who actually gives a shit.

Steph: I was kind of hoping for the second one... I’m still nervous about it.

Chloe: I’m lucky enough to have parents who actually care about me. You got the short end of the stick.

Chloe: If there’s a chance that you find your dad, and he wants to have a relationship with you, then there is no reason why you SHOULDN’T take it.

Chloe: Have you done any research? If you want, I can ask my stepfather. A lot of PIs are retired cops, so he probably knows a good one around SF.

Steph: Actually, yea. I would like that a lot.

Chloe: I’ll call him right now. We’ll find you a good one.

Steph: Thank you.

Steph: For the help, and the talk. I appreciate both of them.

Chloe: Of course. I’ll text you back in a bit.

Chapter Text

September, 2018

Max tapped her foot on the floor, her eyes staring holes into her phone.

“That’s not gonna make it ring any faster,” Chloe said. She was sitting up on the bed, her laptop open as she typed away. “Relax. Rachel said her father would call when court let out.”

“He said the jury would probably come back this afternoon.” Max glanced at her watch. “It’s four o’clock on a Friday. These guys must want to go home by now.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “As much as I’m sure they do, I don’t think the judge would look too kindly on them handing your mother a guilty verdict just because they want to go home early.”

Max looked back at the internet browser on her laptop, which was set to the online version of the Arcadia Bay Reader. She hit the refresh button again, but no new headlines came up. “It still feels like this is taking too long,” she sighed.

Chloe’s phone dinged with an incoming text. She stopped typing to look at it. “It’s Vic,” she said as she tapped out a reply. “She’s just asking if we’ve heard anything yet. She’s following the trial, too."

“So is Steph.” Max nodded back to her phone. “She texted me this morning.”

“Why don’t we talk about something else?” Chloe closed her laptop, shoving it to the side. She got up and walked over to sit next to Max on the couch. “Have you decided what you want for your birthday? It’s in a few days.”

“Yes. I want my mother to go to prison.” Max leaned back on the couch, sinking into the cushions. “Beyond that, I have no idea.”

“Okay...” Chloe hesitated. “Well, I can’t do anything about that. So I guess I’ll just-”

The phone buzzed, vibrating on the coffee table. Max immediately shot forward to look at the caller ID; James Amber. “Finally!” she said, snatching the phone and putting the call on speaker. “Mister Amber? How did it go? Is she guilty?”

The silence was foreboding. Chloe felt her stomach drop after a few seconds.

“... Maxine, I am so sorry,” James said hollowly, the shock evident in his voice.

The effect of those words on Max was immediate. She almost seemed to implode as she leaned back into the couch, shrinking as her face fell and she let out a shaky breath.

“What happened?” she asked quietly.

“Your father...” James cleared his throat. “Your father, if you didn’t know, is an exceptional lawyer. He’s spent the past four days poking holes in all the evidence we had. His closing arguments... I hate to compliment him, but they were very eloquent. He managed to convince the jury that your mother’s messages were all taken out of context. And that she did not play an instigating role in what happened to those girls.”

“But...” Max’s voice failed. “There were witnesses...”

“His cross-examinations were brutal. He managed to paint them all like demons. He even insinuated that some of them were testifying to take your mother’s position in the church hierarchy... he tainted everything we put together, Maxine.”

He took a deep breath. “The jury returned a Not Guilty verdict five minutes ago.”

Max dropped the hand holding the phone into her lap, her eyes squeezing shut.

“Thanks, Mister Amber,” Chloe said as she picked up the phone. “Um... sorry.”

“Me too, Chloe.” James sighed. “I’m afraid I have to go... I need to give a statement to the press. You girls call me if you need anything."

Chloe hung up, and placed the cell phone back on the coffee table. Then she turned back to Max and wrapped her arm around her shoulders, pulling the brunette into her chest.

“I’m so sorry, Max,” she whispered.

Max started trembling. Then her breathing began to hitch, and tears began to flow as she started to cry into Chloe’s shirt. “It’s... not... fair...” she sobbed, gripping Chloe’s arm.

“I know, Max.” Chloe hugged her fiercely, pressing her lips into her hair. “I know.”


Rachel: I saw my dad’s press conference.

Rachel: My mom said he started drinking as soon as he got home.

Rachel: I’m sorry, Max. Everyone thought for sure she was going to jail.

Max: I know. We did, too.

Max: Please tell him I know it’s not his fault.

Rachel: I will. I think he’ll feel better hearing it.


Victoria: Do you guys need anything? 

Chloe: No. Max cried herself out a little while ago. Now she’s just moping.

Victoria: Kate wants to call her, but she doesn’t want to interrupt anything.

Chloe: Tell her to go for it. If you guys have any good wedding news, now would be the time to lay it out.

Victoria: We finalized the flowers. I’ll tell her to send pictures.


Jake: You doing okay? 

Max: Better.

Jake: You need tomorrow off?

Max: No. I want to go back to work.

Max: I could use a distraction.


Steph: How’s Max? 

Chloe: Better, now that she’s slept.

Chloe: She was pretty upset yesterday.

Steph: Not gonna lie, me too. I can’t believe she got away with this crap.

Steph: Is there anything I can do?

Chloe: She’ll be fine.

Chloe: Although... I could use your help, with Max's birthday gift.

Steph: Whatever you need. 


“Max.” 

“Mmpf.”

“Max...”

“Go ‘way.”

Chloe grinned as she leaned over the bed, looming above Max’s semi-sleeping form. “The blue-haired bobby is about to unleash her signature attack move,” she whispered.

One of Max’s eyes opened. “Don’t you d-”

Chloe’s hands shot out and grabbed the side of her face, and she mashed her lips onto Max’s, delivering one of her sloppy wake-up kisses. Her tongue probed Max’s lips as well, But the brunette used her self-defense mechanism of clamping her mouth shut. Chloe had to make do with licking all over her face as Max struggled.

“Happy Birthday, Max!” she exclaimed as they separated.

“God, why...” Max wiped her face with the sheet and grabbed the comforter, dragging it over her head. “Why are we waking up so early?”

“Dude, it’s eight-thirty in the morning.”

“And?”

“I’ve been up for, like, an hour.”

“... and?”

Chloe rolled her eyes as she grabbed the comforter and yanked it off Max’s head. “You need to be awake for breakfast in bed, Max. At least sit up.”

Max’s eyes opened. “In bed, you say?”

“Only the finest for my girlfriend.” Chloe reached over to the coffee table and picked up the brown bag, shaking it. “I got your favorite from McDonalds.”

Max glanced at the bag. “Did you get ranch for the hash browns?”

“Yes I did.”

The brunette smiled as she sat upright, accepting the bag and pulling out her McMuffin. “You really do spoil me rotten,” she quipped as she bit into it.

“Well, babe, you’re worth spoiling.” Chloe kissed the side of Max’s head, then reached under their bed and pulled out a gift bag. “Happy 23rdBirthday.”

“Ooh, presents!” Max grinned as she set the breakfast sandwich down, and accepted the bag from Chloe. “The best part of getting one year closer to the grave!”

The bluenette rolled her eyes as she sat next to Max on the bed. “Just open your gifts, you morbid little weirdo.”

Max smirked as she reached into the bag and pulled out a red-and-white box. “What’s...” her eyes went wide as she read it. “You got me a Nintendo Switch?! Chloe! These are so expensive!”

Chloe scoffed. “So?”

“We still have to buy plane tickets for Phoenix!”

“Max, the overtime I got a few months ago will cover the tickets.” Chloe grinned. “And it paid off my credit card. There was still a little left over. Also, would it make you feel better if I told you Steph gave me the hookup?”

Max blinked. “Did she?”

“She works for a video game developer, Max. Her team gets to buy the systems and games at-cost.” Chloe grinned. “So, no, I did not go broke buying nice shit for my girlfriend. Come on, keep going.”

Max pulled two games out of her bag, a new Pokémon title and Breath of the Wild. “Ooh, I heard this one is really good,” she said, admiring the Zelda game.

“Yea, I might steal that from you to play at some point.” Chloe nodded. “There’s one more left.”

Max dug back into the bag and came up with a smaller gift box. Chloe squirmed nervously as the brunette opened it, and produced a sewn-together rag doll with brown hair and a white dress. “Um...” Max frowned as she turned it over, examining the stitches, and noticed a couple of sewing needles threaded through the back of the dress. “Chloe? What is this?”

“It's a, uh, voodoo doll,” Chloe explained. “Of your mom.”

Max blinked and looked at her girlfriend. “A voodoo doll?”

“Yea. I looked them up online, and they have, like, kits to make your own.” Chloe scratched the back of her neck. “I got with Rachel, and she sent me... some form, I don’t know what, but your mom had to sign it at some point during the trial and give it to the city. I cut out your mom’s signature, and I put it inside, so it has that link back to her, or whatever.”

Max looked back at the doll, a small smile breaking out over her face. She took out one of the needles and stuck it in the back of the doll’s head.

“I hope this is giving her migraines.” Max left the needle in the doll as she put it down, wrapping Chloe in a hug. “You’re the best, babe.”

“Well, you know.” Chloe hugged her back, kissing the top of her head. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a little African black magic for a birthday gift.”

Chapter Text

December, 2018

Jake was typing away at his computer, getting ready to fire off an email to the law firm their company had on retainer, when Penny walked into his office.

“Have you talked to Jose yet?” she asked, sitting in the chair across from his desk.

Jake nodded, his eyes not leaving the screen as he typed. “Yea, this morning. He walked me through what happened, showed me the write-ups this kid got, and sent me the security footage of what went down in the kitchen.” He shook his head, finally glancing back at Penny. “Jose’s a great manager, except that he’s TOO nice of a fuckin’ guy. I would’ve fired this little shit a lot sooner than he did.”

Penny shrugged. “Kid’s young. Jose was trying to teach him a little bit.”

“There’s a line between ‘teaching’ and ‘enabling’, Penny. He crossed it a couple of times with this kid.” Jake sighed as he finished the email, sending it out. “Trish is gonna have a field day with this case in court.”

“Yea, I spoke to her yesterday. She’s actually excited.” Penny smirked. “She might even do it for free.”

“She’s a lawyer. No way is she doing this for free.”

“Well, nothing says you can’t enjoy your work.” Grinning smugly, Penny sank lower into the seat. “I can see the press release now; Restaurant Fires Millennial For Refusing To Remove His Tail.”

“The next entry in a list of sentences you never thought you’d hear.” Jake leaned back in his chair, picking up his coffee cup and taking a long sip. “This is not something I wanted to deal with on a Friday morning.”

Penny laughed. “You can’t-”

Hayden materialized at Jake’s door, knocking as he entered. “That email, the one you just CCed me on,” he said. “Am I reading that correctly? Because this sounds like a joke.”

“I swear, Hayden, it’s not a joke.” Jake rolled his eyes. “Did you read all of it?”

“I got to the part where a dishwasher refused to remove his tail, and couldn’t go any further.” Hayden walked in and sat down next to Penny. “This tail... is it metaphorical?”

Jake snorted. “Do you know what Furries are, Hayden?”

Their HR manager blinked. “The people who dress up like sports mascots?”

“Yea, that’s them.” Jake nodded. “They embrace a culture of anthropomorphic animal characters who exhibit human traits, like intelligence and facial expressions.”

Penny raised her eyebrows. “And you know this... how?”

“Wikipedia.” Jake moved on. “Apparently, this young man, Henry Thatcher, is a Furry. Part of his ‘Fursona’ includes an actual, no-shit tail that he attaches to the back of his belt every day and wears. In public, and until recently, to his place of employment, which was Riccardo’s.”

“Wow.” Hayden leaned back in his chair. “Okay... well, far be it from me to belittle someone’s lifestyle, but how does this tail lead to him being fired?”

“Henry’s ‘tail’ is four feet long,” Penny explained. “He worked at Riccardo’s for about two weeks, during which he was told numerous times that his tail was a problem. The tail’s length meant that it dragged on the floor behind him, and posed a tripping hazard to others in the kitchen.”

“Jose, the manager, tried several times to reason with him, but Henry refused to take it off,” Jake added. “They finally reached a compromise, where he wrapped the tail around his waist. And that was when the kitchen staff started finding bits of the ‘fur’ on the plates.”

Hayden’s face adopted a disgusted look. “Okay, that’s gross.”

“Indeed. His ‘tail’ is home-made, very poorly.” Jake shook his head. “They also found out that it was flammable, the day he was let go. He brushed up against a lit stove, and part of it caught fire. He was lucky that another member of the staff noticed it, and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. He’s okay, but several hundred dollars of nearby food was ruined.”

Penny scoffed. “We got lucky, it could have been a lot more. Jose basically told him that one way or another, the tail was leaving the kitchen and never coming back. Henry then went on a very long rant, and punctuated it by throwing a pot at the woman who sprayed him with the extinguisher. Jose finally fired him, and said he’d mail him his last paycheck."

“Well.” Hayden chuckled. “That’s a story that’ll get you free beer for a while.”

“Yea. I CCed you, in case you had anything to add,” Jake explained. “From an HR perspective, anyway. Do you?”

Hayden thought for a minute, and shook his head. “If he received multiple warnings and refused to comply, then we were well within our rights to let him go.” He frowned. “Why is he suing us?”

“Unlawful discrimination.” Jake snorted. “Apparently, he thinks he was let go for being a Furry.”

“He’s not completely wrong,” Penny pointed out.

Jake shot her a look. “Yes, he is. I couldn’t give less of a shit about his lifestyle choices. He got fired for being an immature asshole about them.”

“Whether he’s right or wrong doesn’t matter, in this case.” Hayden interrupted, waving his hand dismissively. “He wasn’t let go for being a Furry, he was let go for refusing to eliminate a hazard. I’m sure it’s against SOME kind of health code to have a furry tail in a kitchen. And even is he was discriminated against, to the best of my knowledge, Furries are not a protected class in the state of California.”

“That’s basically what Trish said over the phone.” Penny nodded. “I told her to offer this kid a little cash, to make him go the fuck away, but not more than two grand, and certainly not the fifty thousand dollars we’re being sued for.”

Jake shook his head angrily. “I almost want her to tell this kid to go fuck himself,” he grumbled. “Entitled little shit just wants money.”

“I’m with you. But this is cheaper than going to court.” Penny grinned. “If it makes you feel better, he’ll probably have to give all of it to his lawyer. Hell, he might come out of this owing his lawyer money." 

“And if he doesn’t accept?” Hayden asked. 

“They we go to court, and we counter-sue for legal fees.” Penny shrugged. “But we’ll never collect on it. He’s a twenty-five-year-old kid, working as a dishwasher, who lives with his mother. He probably doesn’t have two pennies to rub together.”

“Yea, but I’ll be a lot more satisfied.” Jake nodded, standing up. “Whatever. It’s Trish’s problem now. I’m gonna go see Maria.”

Penny furrowed her brow. “What for?”

“She wants to talk about a possible renovation,” he said, grabbing his sport coat from the back of his chair. “And I want a plate of her enchiladas. I’m gonna take Max, too. Maria’s always nicer when she’s around.”

They all left his office chuckling, Jake walking toward Max’s desk... but she wasn’t there. Glancing around, Jake saw her standing by the office window, looking outside. “Max?”

The brunette looked over, and Jake saw a nervous look on her face. “Yea?”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” She walked back to her desk, straightening her shirt out. “Just wanted to get up for a minute.”

“Okay...” Jake sensed there was more, but he dropped it. “Hey, wanna go to Maria’s? I’m hungry, and she wants to talk business.”

Max smirked. “Are you asking me for lunch, or to make sure she’s not mean to you?”

Jake rolled his eyes. “I’m buying. What do you care? There’s no reason it can’t be both.”


Max spent most of the car ride to Maria’s silent, staring out the window. 

It was very unlike her; she was usually very talkative, or insisted on fiddling with the radio. Jake tried to make eye contact with her a few times, but whatever she was thinking about, she was completely absorbed.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jake finally asked, when they stopped at a red light. “You’re normally louder than this.”

Max snorted. “Yea,” she sighed, looking back at him. “Sorry. I’ve, uh...” she hesitated. “I was thinking about a conversation I had with Rachel yesterday.”

“Oh?” The light turned green, and Jake resumed driving. “What about?”

“She...” Max bit her lip. “She asked me if I’d consider coming back to Arcadia Bay.”

Jake did a double take, blinking in surprise. “What in the world for?” he asked.

Max drummed her fingers on her leg. “You know Rachel’s with CPS, right?” Jake nodded. “Well, she’s been working with a bunch of teenagers that have left my old church. She sees them on a regular basis. She even spent her own money giving them new burner phones, so they couldn’t be tracked by their parents.”

“That’s good of her,” Jake allowed. “Sounds like she’s really trying to make up for what she did, back in high school.”

“Oh, yea, totally.” Max nodded. “But... all the kids were following my mom’s trial, and she said my mom getting off was a real morale killer. They way they’re seeing it, my mom got away with murder again.”

Jake glanced back at her. “Again? What do you...” it clicked, realization coming to him. “They think you’re dead?”

“Sort of. I’ve told you, my dad is an Elder. Between his legal work and his devotion, he’s basically right near the top of the church pyramid, just below the pastors who run it. My mom is, like, right beneath him, unofficially.”

A look of confusion came over Jake’s face. “Unofficially?”

“The church is really old-school. The women take Ephesians 5:22 pretty seriously.”

“And for those of us who grew up without a bible under our pillow...”

Max scowled. “It was not under my pillow, don’t be facetious. The verse reads ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord’. So women don’t have any place in the church hierarchy. But as the wife of an Elder, my mom has a lot of influence over the other wives in the congregation. And, I’m sure you know, if you influence a man’s wife...”

“You’re basically using his testicles as puppet strings by proxy,” Jake finished with a nod. “And I’m guessing your mother is rather good at that?”

“Picture the worst kind of sewing circle.” Max grimaced. “Anyway, apparently when I vanished, the rumor flying around the other kids was that my parents had killed me and gotten away with it.”

“Ah.” Jake nodded. “And your church, zealots that they are, didn’t discourage it, because it makes it easier to force the other kids to toe the line.”

Max looked up in consideration. “I never thought about it that way. But yea, you’re probably right. So, when my mom got off on conspiracy charges, the kids Rachel talks to basically think that the church is untouchable. Hence, the blow to morale.”

Jake pursed his lips. “And you coming back to talk to them...”

“Rachel thinks it’ll help them. They’ll see that it IS possible to get out, and live a healthy life without the church’s influence. They’re still really young, and don’t see it like that. One of the teenage girls even went BACK to the church, to marry the guy her parents had arranged for her, because she didn’t think she’d be able to hack it without them.”

“Wow.” Jake shook his head. “That’s terrible.” He looked back at her. “What are you going to do?”

“I told her I’d think about it.” Max rubbed her arms, suddenly cold. “I think I want to, but... I’m really nervous.”

“Is it your parents?” Jake asked. “Or the church, that worries you?”

“Both.” Max sank into her seat. “I mean, I see what Kate’s going through with her mother. My parents have left me alone, because they don’t know that I’m alive. Rachel’s father says they’ve never filed a request to see my Missing Persons case file, which says he made contact with me a couple of years ago. If they find out I’m alive...” Max shuddered.

“Christ.” Jake took a deep breath. “Yea, I can see why you’re worried.”

Max fell silent, as she looked back outside.

“What address is on your ID?” Jake asked after a few minutes.

Max glanced back at him. “Huh?”

“Your ID card? The one you got from the DMV?” Jake reached over and tapped her purse. “Does it still have my address on it?”

“Yea, I never got around to updating it.” Max nodded. “Why?”

“Because that would be the first thing they look up, to try and find you,” he answered. “And it’s a wrong address. You don’t live there anymore.”

“I’m on Chloe’s lease,” she reminded him.

“Yea, I know, but she’s the primary renter,” Jake reminded her. “And you never registered a forwarding address with the Post Office. I don’t think there’s any record of you being there.”

“Hmm.” Max looked at her purse, thinking. “True.”

Jake turned the truck into the parking lot for Maria’s Kitchen, finding a spot and turning the car off. “That’s just me spitballing,” he continued. “Chloe’s stepfather is a cop, right? He’d be a great guy to ask, and find out how safe it is to poke your head up.”

“Yea...” Max hesitated. “I, uh, haven’t told Chloe yet.”

“Oh. Oh, boy.” Jake looked at her. “How do you think she’s gonna react?”

Chapter Text

“There is not a single FUCKING chance in hell I am letting this happen.”

Max bit her lip, as Chloe glared at her. They were both in the apartment, and had been sitting on the couch when Max told her about Arcadia Bay and Rachel. Now Chloe was standing over her girlfriend, hands on her hips and a furious expression on her face.

“Do you have ANY idea how fast your parents could find out that you’re there?” Chloe snapped angrily. “Those teenagers won’t even consider your safety before they start blabbing to all their friends that you’re still alive. I’d put money on your fuckhead father finding out in less than 24 hours.”

“Chloe-”

“I’m going to kill Rachel.” Chloe yanked her phone out of her pocket and unlocked it, starting to go through it. “After what happened to you? I can’t believe she’d have the balls to ask you to go back to that state, never mind back to Arcadia Bay. I thought I liked this girl, too, but now I’m going to string her up by her fucking intestines and-”

“CHLOE.” Max stood, clamping her hand down on the bluenette’s wrist before she could dial. “Chloe, I could help these kids. They’re terrified. They have no idea about what’ll happened to them, and they’ve been with the church for so long that they can’t even think about living outside of that support system.”

Her girlfriend glared back at her. “These kids are not your fucking problem,” she growled. “You paid your dues. You almost died because of that town. I will not let you go back there and risk your life for a handful of teenagers.”

Max arched her eyebrows. “Excuse me? You won’t ‘let’ me?”

“Don’t think for a fucking second that I won’t handcuff you to the bed frame.” Chloe crossed her arms. “And not in the good way.”

“Okay, Chloe, please calm down.” Max pulled on her arm. “Please, sit. Come on.”

She didn’t budge, at first, but after a few seconds Chloe allowed Max to reluctantly pull her back onto the couch. “Chloe...” Max paused for a minute gathering her thoughts. “I told you what happened to me. When I ran away from home.” She rubbed her thumb over the bluenette’s knuckles. “Do you know why I never went to the police? Or any of the people I knew outside the church?”

Chloe shook her head silently.

“Because I didn’t think any of them would help me.” Max shook her head. “I was sure that if I went to them, or anyone else, they would send me right back to my parents and the church. That’s why I left town and lived on the streets. These kids have Rachel, but they don’t know what to do after that. Rachel’s already had one of them go BACK to the church, because they didn’t think it was possible to survive without it.”

“Then Skype them,” Chloe said. “Have Rachel set up a-”

“And send the message that I’m still scared of the church?” Max asked. “I can’t do that.”

“You ARE still scared of the church, Max!” Chloe pointed out. “Hell, I’ve never set foot in Oregon, and I’M fucking terrified of those nutjobs! Nobody would ever blame you for that!”

Max took a deep breath. “Chloe, these kids are just like I was, seven years ago,” she said. “If I could do something, but don’t, and even one of them goes through what I did...” she exhaled, looking at the ground. “Chloe, I want to do this.” She looked back at her girlfriend’s face. “I understand you don’t want me to. But... please, let me.”

Chloe stewed on the couch, still clearly upset. “I will think about it,” she grumbled. “And we’re definitely taking Jake’s advice, and talking to David when we see him next week.”


Two days after they flew back to Phoenix, the day before Christmas Eve, Max and Chloe arranged a couple of hours to sit down with Joyce and David. 

Max didn’t tell them as much as she told Chloe. She left a lot more out. But she explained everything. The church, her parents, the abuse, running away, and ended with the conversation she’d had with Rachel.

About halfway through, they had to stop for a few minutes when Joyce started crying. Max spent the rest of the conversation sandwiched between Chloe and her mother on the couch. Her girlfriend gripped her left hand like a vise grip, while Joyce alternated between holding her other hand and rubbing her back.

David, on the other hand, listen silently, his face immobile and hands clasped together. The only indication of his emotions were the way his knuckles whitened, as Max detailed the worst parts of her life story. When Max finally finished, he separated his hands, setting his elbows on his knees as he stroked his beard with one hand.

“You, young lady, have gone through more in your life than anyone should ever have to,” he said kindly, exhaling slowly.

Max didn’t respond. Chloe and Joyce both tightened their grip on her.

“I agree with Chloe,” David added. “I don’t think you should go back. I’ve heard of the First Light of Christ before; they’ve one of several radical churches discussed at various police conventions around the country. Nothing ever said about them has been good.”

“Thank you.” Chloe turned back to Max. “See? We’re not going.”

“But.” David continued, eliciting a glare from Chloe. “I can certainly see why you would want to. I think it’s a good thing, what you’re trying to do. And you could even be helping bring about the end of that insult of a religion.”

Max blinked. “You... really think so?”

David nodded, leaning back into the couch. “Established religious cults are extremely difficult to bring down, as I’m sure your friend Rachel’s father can attest to. Similar to Scientology, or the Westboro Baptist Church, their believers are deeply committed. And they often take advantage of our religious freedom laws to stick around. But they all have the same, incredibly-difficult-to-exploit weakness; their base.”

“I don’t understand.” Max frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Their base. Their followers,” David elaborated. “You were born into the church. If you had stuck around, and married another parishioner, all your children would’ve been born into the church as well. When you ran away, it wasn’t just you leaving; it was all your potential children, too. Every person that leaves that church detracts from the number of people they influence, and when that number drops too far...”

“Then they’re not a church anymore,” Max finished, finally comprehending.

“Precisely. They’re just a group of hateful old men, who will be left behind on the wrong side of the history books. Ergo, the more people that leave, the better.” David smirked. “As Chloe’s father, I care about you very much, and I don’t want you anywhere near them. As an officer of the law...” he hesitated. “You would be doing a lot more good than you realize if you went.”

Chloe sighed. “Can I bring her here, just once, and have you people take MY fucking side for a change?”

“What about that church finding her?” Joyce finally spoke up. “Chloe is right, too. If they start looking for her...”

“It’s highly unlikely.” David leaned forward again. “First Light of Christ is a powerful church, but ONLY in Oregon. Similar to the Mob, their influence will decrease with distance to their home base. If they did try to find you... well, it’s not as easy as Hollywood makes it look.” David nodded at Max’s purse. “You mentioned you have an old address on your ID card, that’s a big part of it. Your name isn’t the primary on Chloe’s lease, that helps too.”

“What about her finances?” Chloe asked. “She uses our address as her billing address.”

“A PI looking for her would have to know what bank she uses,” David assured her. “And he would need to get access to their system, which is impossible without a court order.” He looked back at Max. “Have you ever been arrested? I promise not to judge.”

She shook her head.

“Do you have a driver’s license or permit? Or any credentials that require a current address? Like a Concealed Carry License, or something similar.”

“No,” Max replied. “Chloe drives me to work.”

“What about social media?” David continued. “I know you have Facebook, at least.”

“I’ve got my privacy settings on maximum, and my profile picture is an avatar. I’m only friends with a dozen or so people, too, and they’re not friends with anyone from the church.”

David nodded. “That’s good to hear. I would change your profile name, though. And your city of residence. If you have your place of employment listed, get rid of that, as well.” He glanced up, thinking. “You don’t have a car, either, that’s good. What about your office? Do they have your current address on a computer?”

Max hesitantly nodded. “Yea, it’s in their employee system.”

“You should talk to your boss about changing it, or removing the address completely.”

“What about her phone?” Joyce asked. “You told me last week, that you found a suspect by tracking their smart phone.”

David shook his head. “We had a warrant for that, and we worked directly with the service provider. An average citizen, including a PI, wouldn’t be able to do it. And even if they could, they would need the phone number.” He looked back at Max. “I can’t think of anything else, off the top of my head. Trying to track someone down is harder than you think, especially if you’re not a cop.”

Max breathed a sigh of relief. “So they probably won’t find me,” she said.

“It would be very difficult for them to do so,” David agreed. “I would still take every precaution when you went to visit, though. Avoid renting a car, if you can; Chloe would have to give the agency her driver’s license, which does have your current address. And these days, you have to use credit cards for a hotel, so if you could, I would have someone else make the reservation and pay them back.”

“I would also make sure you’re there for as little time as possible,” he added. “If you’re only going up to talk to a small group, you could get away with only being up for one day. I would say not to spend the night, but since Arcadia Bay is a couple of hours from the Portland airport, that’s probably not feasible. And don’t use your credit cards, if you can help it; better to take cash out of an ATM before you go.”

Max nodded, turning back to Chloe. “We can do all of that.”

Chloe fumed next to her. “I still don’t want you to go.”

“I know, babe.” Max squeezed her hand. “I know you don’t. But if I can help these kids...”

“Yea, I get it.” Chloe sighed. “God damn it.”

“We’ll do what he said,” Max assured her. “We only need to go up for one night. We’ll be gone before the church even knows we’re there.”

Chloe squeezed Max’s hand. “Okay,” she breathed. “Fine.”

“Thank you.” Max smiled and leaned over, giving Chloe a peck on the cheek. “We’ll be okay.”

Chapter Text

January, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Portland, Oregon. The current time is seven forty-five in the evening, and the outside temperature is a hair over forty-five degrees, so button up those jackets.

“Oh, good. At least it’s not fucking freezing,” Chloe grumbled as they stood, stretching after the three-hour flight. “Rachel better be grateful we came at all.”

“Yea, I forgot how cold this state gets during the winter.” Max looked out the window as Chloe pulled their duffle bag out of the overhead bin. “It’s just for one night, babe.”

“I know.” Chloe slung the bag, and they slowly made their way out of the plane, the air chilling briefly where the boarding platform met the aircraft. “It was nice of Rachel’s dad to let us stay in their guest room, too.”

Max nodded as they walked into the main concourse. “I think that was more her way of avoiding paying for our hotel room, though.”

“Well, the tickets were expensive enough.” Chloe shrugged. “She must really love these kids, to spend her own money like this.”

“Her and her dad split the cost,” Max said. “I think he’s still trying to make up for not convicting my mom at her trial.”

They made their way out through security, glancing around until they saw a familiar blue feather earring. “Hey guys!” Rachel said, smiling as she hugged Max. “It’s great to see you two again.”

“You too, Rachel.” Max hugged her back. “I wish it was in San Francisco, though.”

“Yea, me too.” Rachel pulled back, looking at Chloe apprehensively. “Um... do I...”

“No.” Chloe crossed her arms. “I’m back to hating you until Max and I leave. No hugs for you.”

Rachel bit her lip. “Yea, I guess that’s fair. Do you guys have checked bags?”

“Nope.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Rachel led them across the terminal, towards the parking lot. A dark blue, older model Honda Civic sat in a space near the exit. “So it does still work?” Max asked as they approached it.

“Yea, of course.” Rachel looked at her, puzzled. “Why?”

“Well, you haven’t been to see us since April.”

Rachel sighed as she took her keys from her pocket, unlocking the car. “Blame work,” she grumbled. “It’s been absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know what happened in 2018, but people would NOT stop trying to cook meth with their kids in the other room. We’ve been working nonstop. I didn’t even get Thanksgiving off.”

“Seriously?” Chloe raised her eyebrows as she opened Rachel’s trunk, dropping their bag inside.

“Well, I was going to,” Rachel said as they got into her car. “But then some asshole went and started beating the shit out of his kids for talking when football was on. And then his team lost, and he had a bet of some kind on the game...” Rachel shook her head. “I was the closest one on call.”

“Oh, God.” Max sighed as she closed the passenger door. “Were the kids okay?”

“Yea, we placed them with their grandmother when they got out of the hospital.” Rachel shrugged as she started the car. “He’ll see them again, but it’ll be when he gets out of prison in a couple of years, and completes a few anger management classes."

“What a tragedy,” Chloe said dryly, buckling her seatbelt in the back. “What about the church?”

Rachel nodded, backing her car out of the space. “We’ve had a couple more teenagers come to us. Since I’m from the area, they usually have me process and place them.”

“Nice.” Max nodded. “How many kids total?”

“You’re gonna meet nine of them tomorrow. They’re split between four foster homes. I called all the adults, today, and they’re gonna bring the kids to our office conference room tomorrow morning.”

“That’s it?” Chloe asked incredulously. “You brought us up here for nine kids?”

Rachel shot her a look. “Do you have any idea the amount of effort it took to get them out of the church’s reach?” she asked, her voice taking on an edge. “Their parents are not exactly pleased with us. We used to not be able to take any of them at all, until a few years ago.”

“What happened a few years ago?”

“Pastor Rogers almost beat a teenager to death for being gay,” Max realized.

Rachel nodded. “That was the catalyst,” she explained to Chloe. “Before then, there were a lot of rumors floating around, about what was going on. There are even a few kids that up and vanished. But the state never had any proof of what was happening, until Pastor Rogers went too far. Once they had established that pattern, things changed.”

“What happened before?” Max asked.

Rachel shuddered. “The woman who trained me told me a story,” she said. “Her name is Stacy Hemingway. Several years ago, when we were still in elementary school, one of the teenaged girls ran away from the church and asked our office for help. She was about sixteen, and said she was set up for an arranged marriage, but didn’t want to do it. She begged Stacy to help her.”

She shook her head. “Stacy tried. But the girl’s parents demanded her back, saying she was making the whole thing up. Stacy did everything she could; home visit, neighbor interviews, welfare checks, but everything came up empty-handed. She was forced to give the poor girl back to her parents.”

“That was the last time anyone saw her.” Rachel looked back at Max. “Stacy saw the wedding announcement in the First Light’s newsletter, a couple of weeks later, but when she tried to do a welfare check, the girl was nowhere to be found. The parents refused to give her their daughter’s new address. And she’s never shown up on any public records; Stacy still searches for her every once in a while.”

A chill crawled up Max’s spine.


When they got to Rachel’s parent’s house, James and Rose both hugged Max and Chloe, very grateful to see them. 

Being so late, when they finally got there, they were both ushered to the guest room for the night. James promised that they would be safe; he had an excellent security system installed, and as the District Attorney, the police were familiar with his address.

Chloe and Max, both tired, got changed and immediately crawled into bed.

“I wonder if my parents had a marriage arranged for me,” Max wondered quietly.

Chloe, curled up against her back, tightened her grip around Max. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, her voice hard. “You’re all mine. I’m not sharing you with anyone.”

Max breathed, comforted by her girlfriend’s possessive grip. “Chloe...”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Chloe reminded her. “Rachel is taking us from her office to the airport. We’re not going to see your parents. They won’t even know that we’re here until after we’re gone."

The brunette didn’t reply, squeezing Chloe’s arm as she closed her eyes.


Max wasn’t sure what kind of office she expected Rachel to work in, but it wasn’t what she saw when they arrived. 

Most of the buildings around Arcadia Bay were historic, done up with brick and mortar. The building Rachel parked in front of was constructed of glass and metal, like Jake’s offices. It reminded her of the modern buildings back in San Francisco. “Wow,” she breathed as she took it in.

“This is kind of out of place,” Chloe remarked as she looked around.

“That’s because this is a state facility, not a local one,” Rachel explained as she pulled into her spot. “The building that was here burned down a few years ago, and the state reclaimed it. Construction wasn’t finished until just before I got the job here."

“So it’s just state agencies?” Max asked.

“Yea. Some regulatory body owns the first floor, CPS owns the second, and the Oregon State Police use the third and fourth as a field office.”

They walked in, and Rachel immediately brought them to the metal detectors. She got to bypass them, as she waved her ID, but Max and Chloe were scanned and patted down. “Hey, lady, you get any more handsy and we’re gonna have to go on date number two,” Chloe commented to the security guard that checked her.

“The kids should already be here,” Rachel told them as they got on the elevator. “I asked their foster parents to bring them by at nine.”

“Do they actually stay in Arcadia Bay?” Max asked.

“No. We place teenagers from the church outside of the city, just to be safe.” Rachel glanced back at Max. “Our office considers them ‘high-risk’, so their placement info is restricted. Only me and my supervisor have access to their files. We’ve had break-ins before.”

Chloe raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? With cops in the building?”

“Some of the kids we remove have parents that are a few bananas short of a bunch.” Rachel rolled her eyes. “They didn’t get very far. We take security seriously.”

Max saw when she meant, when the elevator doors opened. The CPS office didn’t even have a reception desk; Max saw a window covered with Plexiglas, where a receptionist was working. Rachel nodded to her and flashed her ID, and the woman behind the counter reached below her desk, hitting a button that worked the thick sliding glass doors in front of them.

An older woman waited for them as they walked into the main office. “Everyone’s here,” she said to Rachel, before turning to Max. “Is this her?”

“Yep.” Rachel nodded. “Max, this is Stacy. Stacy, this is-”

“Maxine Caulfield.” The older woman shook Max’s hand gently. “I’ve heard your name before,” she said, a small smile on her face. “I’m very glad to see you alive and well.”

Max blinked. “You know who I am?”

“Everyone working here did, a few years ago.” Stacy nodded. “Rachel’s father sent your picture statewide. I can’t tell you how happy I was, when Rachel told me you were still alive yesterday.”

Max looked at Rachel. “Yesterday? Not before?”

“She didn’t tell anyone here that she knows you, or where you are.” Stacy nodded to Rachel. “She doesn’t want your name getting bandied about by other, less careful agents. She only told me that you were a woman who had left the church years ago.”

Rachel scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. “Well, her parents are still nearby,” she reminded her boss. “We deal with her father, sometimes.”

“Yes, we do.” Stacy nodded. “It was the right call to make. But we’re missing the point of your visit.” She gestured to the conference room at the far side of the office, and Max could see several teenagers sitting inside, fidgeting. “People are waiting to meet you.”

Max nodded and went to start walking, but Rachel stopped her, grabbing her arm. “Max,” she said carefully. “I just... if you want to back out, then now’s the time.”

“Seriously?” Max asked.

“Once you tell them who you are, that information will spread.” Rachel nodded. “Some of these kids still talk to others that are still in the church, thinking about leaving. It will reach the wrong people eventually. No one here will blame you if you want to walk away.”

Max looked back at the conference room, not replying for a few minutes. Her heart rate went up, thinking about her parents finding out she was still around, and for a moment she was conflicted.

Then she felt Chloe’s hand slip into hers and squeeze. The message was clear; I’m here for you.

“They came a long way to meet me,” Max said quietly. “Let’s not disappoint them.”

Chapter Text

Rachel entered the conference room first. Max and Chloe walked in a few steps behind her, shutting the door behind them as they took everyone in.

It was a fairly big conference room, with plenty of chairs at the table. All nine of the teenagers, three boys and six girls, sat with plenty of room between them. Along the far wall were even more chairs, seating various adults; Max assumed they were the foster parents. They looked at her and Chloe, puzzled by their appearance.

Rachel spent a few minutes greeting the teenagers as she made her way towards the head of the table, finally stopping to take in everyone as she stood behind the chair. “How are you guys doing?” she finally asked gently.

Most of the reply were mumbles and shrugs.

“Well, you all sound thrilled to be here early on a Saturday.” Rachel smirked as a wave of chuckles made their way through the room. “I hope you guys at least got breakfast first.”

One of the girls piped up. “If we say we didn’t, are you going to get us some McDonalds?”

Rachel snorted as the other teenagers snickered, as well as a few of the adults. “Tell you what, Emily,” she quipped, “if your foster mother tells me you stopped skipping class, I’ll buy you whatever you want next time we have lunch.”

Emily beamed as she turned to one of the adults, who looked at Rachel and smirked. “Pay up, Miss Amber,” she chortled.

“Are you kidding?” Rachel looked back at Emily, a fake exasperated look on her face as the other teenagers laughed. “As proud as I am about you finally taking your schoolwork seriously, I’m sure we’ve had a talk about hustling adults.”

“Yes, Miss Amber.” Emily grinned. “You can give me another one over lunch.”

Max and Chloe had to laugh at that, along with the other adults in the room.

Rachel looked around the room as the laughter died down, heaving a sigh. “Can anyone tell me if they’ve heard from Linda?” she asked gently.

The mood in the room shifted, and the kids all looked at each other. “My cousin said she married the Wagner boy last week,” one of the boys said after a few seconds.

Rachel griped the back of the chair tightly. “Dammit,” she said quietly. “Did he say anything else?”

“No.” The boy shook his head. “Sorry, Miss Amber.”

Standing back up straight, Rachel looked around the room at the other kids. “I’ve told you all this before,” she said. “I know running away from First Light is hard. And I know what you kids left behind when you did.”

She looked each of them in the eye. “You guys are some of the bravest people I’ve ever met,” she stated. “And I’m not saying that to placate you. Leaving everything you’ve ever known for a chance at a better future... it’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing you can do. And it’s even harder, when the church fights tooth and nail to get you back.”

Rachel started walking around the conference table, the kids all turning to follow her. “I told all of your guys when we first met, whatever you told me would stay in the strictest confidence,” she continued. “And I’ll never break that promise. But when Vanessa Caulfield was found not guilty, for what happened to the Hansen and Wood girls, I will say that most of you, and Linda, asked me something similar.” She paused. “You guys asked me how she got away with murder.”

She resumed walking, Max and Chloe paying rapt attention with the others as she spoke. “I know what the church looks like, to you guys. It looks like a big monster, one that you can’t stop, can’t escape, and that’s always trying to get you back. And I know that it feels like you’ll never get away, even when you guys become adults.”

Rachel finally made her way back to her chair. “That’s why I wanted you guys to come in today. I wanted you guys to know that there is a life after the church. And that it is possible to get away from it, and make a better life.”

She finally turned to Max. “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

All the kids looked at her, and Max felt like a million spotlights were shining in her face as she slowly got to her feet, nervously looking at the others.

I should have given a lot more thought to what I was going to say.

She cleared her throat. “My name is Max. Max... Caulfield.”

The reaction was immediate. All of the teenagers shifted, sitting up straighter, their eyes getting wider. She almost felt like a zoo animal as she paused for a minute, the kids taking her in.

“Whoa,” one of the girls finally breathed. “You’re Elder Caulfield’s daughter?”

Max nodded.

Another boy spoke up. “We heard you were dead.”

Max cracked a small smile. “I got better.”

A few of the adults snorted. The teenagers all blinked, staring at her.

“Sorry. That’s a joke.” Max shifted. “Um, when I left the church, I made a list of all the pop culture that I missed out on. You guys should, too.” She nodded. “There’s a movie called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Make sure it’s on there.”

She slowly made her way next to Rachel, who patted her back and moved over, letting Max take her spot behind the chair.

Max cleared her throat. “When I was about your guy’s age, my dad found out that I was gay,” she said quietly. “One of the other girls in the church found out, and told her parents, who told him. When I got home from school, he, uh...” Max paused. “Him and my mother both started hitting me. I thought he was going to kill me. So I hit him in the face with a cast-iron skillet, and managed to get away.”

The teenagers shifted again, a couple of them grinning. “Was that why his jaw was broken, a few years ago?” one of the girls asked.

“If it was 2011-ish, yea, probably.” Max nodded. “I had to pull a knife on my mother to get away. I managed to barricade myself in my bedroom and pack a bag before I ran.”

She swallowed. “It sucked,” she continued. “I didn’t think anyone would take me in. And I didn’t have any friends that I thought I could go to. I had enough money to get on a bus out of Arcadia Bay, but not much further. I spent four years, moving between homeless shelters before I made my way... south,” she said, catching herself before the words ‘San Francisco’ came out of her mouth.

Close one.

“It took a really long time, to get a job that let me save up the money to find a place to live. It was hard. And... there were a couple of times that I wanted to quit.” She unconsciously rubbed the tattoo at her wrist.

“But I’m glad I didn’t.” she looked at the others. “I got my GED a couple of years ago, and I’m in college now. I know I wouldn’t have been able to go if I’d stayed. I’m sure my father had a marriage planned for me, just like your parents had one planned for you. But I met my girlfriend instead.” Max glanced over at Chloe, who smiled back.

“I had to do most of it alone, though.” Max looked at Rachel, who was watching intently. “I wish to God I’d had someone like R- I mean, Miss Amber,” she corrected herself, “helping me.” She turned back to the teenagers. “I know it seems like she said, you can’t escape. But trust me, when you do... you’ll thank God that you did.”

The kids stared at her for a few seconds, before one of the boys raised his hand. “What do you do?” he asked. “For money, I mean.”

Max smiled. “I work in an office as an administrative assistant.”

“What are you going to college for?”

“I haven’t picked a major yet,” Max admitted. “I’m thinking Business Management.”

A girl raised her hand. “My dad said the good colleges don’t let girls in,” she said quietly. “Is that true?”

“Absolutely not.” Max shook her head. “One of my friends, she’s going to law school. One of the best in the country. Your dad was full of it.”

The kids tittered at that, and Max saw a few of them relax. “Is college really that bad?” the girl from before, Emily, asked. “My dad said it was WAY harder than high school. He said if I had trouble with my high school math, I was never gonna be able to go through college.”

Max exhaled sharply. “I’ve done the math classes,” she said simply. “You only have to do a couple of them, if you’re not going to get a degree that needs math. And they’re not that hard. Most of what I’ve done is the general credits, and I’ve gotten mostly A’s and B’s.”

Emily grinned. “That’s awesome,” she said. “I think I want a degree in math, though. Just to give that dickhead one more middle finger.”

“Language, Emily,” Rachel cautioned.

“Sorry, Miss Amber.”

Max chuckled as she looked at the next girl with her hand up. “Yes?”

“Do you remember me?” she asked quietly.

Max blinked, caught off balance. “Um...” she paused, taking the girl in. Her dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, the freshly-applied red streaks in her hair... Max realized that she DID look familiar, but she couldn’t place her. “We’ve met before?”

The girl nodded as she bit her lip. “I was at the summer camp,” she said. “You were my tent counselor. I... used to have a way long ponytail-”

The realization was like a slap in the face. Memories flashed in front of Max’s eyes like pictures; introducing herself to the six kids she was in charge of, helping them set up their sleeping bags, the one little girl always more nervous to walk in the dark than the others...

“Brooke Scott,” she whispered.

The teenager brightened. “You remember me?”

“Elder Scott’s granddaughter.” Max snapped her fingers, still recalling the memories. “Bobby Marshall was always getting in trouble for pulling your hair. You made me hold your hand the whole way back to the tent from the campfire that one night, because one of the older kids told you about Bigfoot, and you were worried that he was going to eat you. You were SO adorable.”

Brooke’s face flushed in embarrassment as a couple of the other kids snickered. “I was only eight,” she muttered.

“Holy crap.” Max stared at her in awe. “I didn’t think any other Elder’s family members had run away. Your grandfather must be FURIOUS.”

“Yea, he’s definitely not happy.” Brooke sighed, slouching in her chair. “I called Miss Amber, after my grandfather told me I was going to be pulled from high school to be with my husband.”

“You’re already married?!” Max asked incredulously.

“No,” Rachel interrupted, looking back at Brooke. “I know your grandfather and the church say you are, but the state doesn’t allow marriage between people under the age of 17, and most certainly not between people too young to consent. Brooke is definitely NOT married.”

Max’s eyebrows went up. “Too young to... wait, what?”

Brooke rolled her eyes. “Bobby Marshall and I had our wedding when we were kids. After we went to the camp together,” she added. “I signed the certificate, but... I mean, I thought it was pretend.”

“Jesus.” Max shivered. “I had no idea.”

“It’s becoming more common in the church,” Rachel explained to Max. “Especially since you left. The pastors do the marriages when the children are barely old enough to go to school, and trick them into signing real marriage certificates. They’re not worth the paper they’re printed on, especially when you check the dates against their birthdays, but that doesn’t stop them from scaring kids who don’t know any better.” She nodded at the table. “Emily and Isabelle are in these sham marriages, too.”

Max looked around the table. “You guys know, every time I hear about First Light, they somehow get more and more twisted.” She shook her head. “Have you guys ever seen their Wikipedia page?”

Emily snorted. “The internet is full of evilness, falsehoods, lies, and deceit,” she said, rolling her eyes. “The church is pretty clear that computer use should be limited and monitored for kids. They even try to tell us we can’t use them for school work.”

Max sighed. “Yea, I think that’s partially my fault, too.”

“You know what that means though, right?”

Max and Rachel blinked, looking back at Chloe as she sat upright.

“Who are you?” Brooke asked.

“Chloe. I’m Max’s girlfriend.” Chloe stood, folding her arms. “Your church is trying to keep you guys from using the internet, right? That means you guys fucking terrify them.”

The teenagers all shifted in their chairs. “That... doesn’t sound like something that’s true,” Emily said.

“Bullshit. Did you guys hear about the student walkouts, last spring?” she looked around as they all shook their heads. “After an older kid shot up his old high school, students around the country walked out of their classes in protest. You should have seen the assholes on CNN, trying to downplay it. But those kids, rising up like that? They’re fucking with the status quo. And they all told the politicians the same message; we’re gonna be voters someday, so you’d better get with the fuckin’ program, or else.”

Rachel nodded. “Chloe’s right,” she said. “The church might be powerful, but it has that power because of it’s size. You kids are detracting from that, bit by bit.”

Max saw the kids all coming to the same realization; they were right.

“Guys, that church is built on a house of cards,” Max emphasized. “They may have gotten away with their crap before, when nobody knew what was happening. But now you guys do. And you can tell others about it. And you know what happens when you pull too many cards out from the bottom?”

She glanced around the room. “It comes crashing down.”

Chapter Text

Max spent nearly three hours talking to the teenagers. 

Chloe spoke with them, too, and Rachel flitted around the room, talking to kids and foster parents alike. As their time wrapped up, though, Max found herself speaking mostly with Brooke.

“What does Bobby Marshall think about everything?” Max asked as she leaned forward in her chair.

Brooke shrugged. “I haven’t seen him in years,” she admitted. “I hadn’t thought about him in as long. You know, he’s three or four years older than me. But he’s 19 now, and you know how people in the church marry young anyway...”

“So it was time that his ‘bride’,” Max said, using air quotes, “joined him?”

“I mean, I guess?” Brooke sighed, looking away. “I don’t know. I was fucking terrified when my grandpa told me what was gonna happen. Like... am I supposed to have sex with him now? Start having kids? I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to be a teen mom.” She looked back at Max. “Is that even legal?”

Max pursed her lips. “I want to say no... but Age of Consent laws are weird.” She thought for a bit and pulled out her phone. “One second.”

Max: I need a legal answer, without you judging me as to why.

Victoria: Oh, God, what is Chloe in jail for?

Max: Ok, it’s hilarious that that’s where you went first, but this is serious.

Max: I need a breakdown of Age of Consent laws between minors in Oregon.

Victoria: Wow. Okay, gimme a minute. But I’m definitely gonna want to know why later.

“Who is that?” Brooke asked as Max put her phone on the table.

“My friend, the one who’s in school to become a lawyer.” Max nodded. “She’s smart as hell.”

Brooke leaned back. “I don’t know why it matters,” she muttered. “I don’t wanna go back. I’m pretty sure my parents will kill me for embarrassing them, never mind what my grandpa will do.” She looked back at Max. “Did you ever see your folks again, after you left?”

Max shook her head. “This is the first time I’ve been back in Arcadia Bay since I ran away.”

“And they never found you?”

“Nobody did.” Max sighed. “Like I said, I was homeless for a long time. A friend pointed out that it was probably easier on the church, with me being ‘dead’ as the rumor, so that other teenagers would think twice before they challenged the church.”

“Your friend wasn’t wrong.” Max and Brooke looked at Emily, who was leaning on the conference table while she fidgeted with her bracelet. “Your name is pretty much a precautionary tale in the church rumor mill. Like, ‘Elder Caulfield’s daughter was bad, and now she’s dead’, kind of thing.”

“Yea, but I don’t think anyone really took it seriously until your mom got off on her trial,” Brooke added. “Like, we really thought everyone involved with those deaths was going to prison. That whole thing kinds of makes your dad the church bogeyman.” She shivered.

Rachel appeared behind Max. “Ryan Caulfield is not the bogeyman,” she assured Brooke. “The state's stance is very clear; if you don’t want to go back, then you won’t. First Light of Christ has shown a pattern of abuse towards teenagers who rebel against them, and we will not send kids back into that.”

Max frowned. “Am I missing something?”

“Her grandfather is using your dad to try and get Brooke back,” Rachel explained. Max looked back at Brooke, who bit her lip and stared at the floor. “He’s been a thorn in our side for a while, because he can’t find Brooke. So he’s been dumping legal paperwork on our office, trying to force us to give up her location. Which we won’t.”

“Oh.” Max looked back at Brooke. “Hey, listen.”

Brooke looked back up at Max.

“My dad’s a pussy.”

Brooke, Emily, and a few of the other teenagers started snickering. Rachel rolled her eyes. “I get the point you’re trying to make, Max, but we try not to use bad language around this office.”

“Sorry.” Max turned back to the kids. “He is, though. He’s a little, little man, who only beats up girls that he thinks won’t fight back. And last time he tried to do that, I broke his jaw with the pan my mom cooked breakfast in that morning.”

More snickering. “My father is only scary if you let him be,” Max finished, just as her phone vibrated on the table.

Victoria: So, age of consent laws are tricky, because they vary by state and there can be multiple ways to interpret them. The federal, big government stance is that no minor can legally consent to sex if they’re under eighteen years of age.

Victoria: But the federal government rarely, if never, prosecutes these cases. They’re done at the state level. And Oregon has what we call a ‘Romeo and Juliet Law’.

Victoria: Basically, as long as the two people having sex are within three years of age and over fifteen years old, then it’s more or less kosher. But their ages HAVE to be within three years. 15 and 18 is cool, 15 and 19 is not.

“So, there it is.” Max showed Brooke her phone. “When does this guy turn twenty?”

“May.” Brooke smiled as she read Victoria’s texts. “I don’t turn seventeen until November.”

Max pocketed her phone. “Which means that even if Miss Amber DOES have to give you back, which she won’t, the second this dude lays a finger on you, he’s toast.”

Brooke breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks,” she said gratefully. “And, you know, your friend, too.”

“Don’t worry about my dad.” Max smiled back at Rachel. “I know Miss Amber won’t let him take you anywhere. Like I said, I wish there’d been someone like her around when I ran away.”

Chloe walked up behind Max, reaching down and squeezing her shoulder. “Babe, our flight leaves in a few hours,” she said. “We need to start heading back to the airport.”

Max nodded, turning back. “I’m really sorry, guys, but we have to go,” she said as she stood up.

Brooke stood up next to her. “Thanks, Max... for, you know, coming back to talk to us. It feels a lot better, now that we know you got out okay.”

The other teenagers nodded.

“Listen, guys, everything is gonna be alright.” Max smiled. “Trust Miss Amber. She won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

“Okay, as much as I enjoy my praises being sung, we need to get you two back home.” Rachel smirked as she made her way to the door, opening it for them. “Thank you guys, for coming in.”

They walked out, Rachel leading the way, but there was a commotion as they got closer to the office entrance. “What’s going on?” Chloe said frowning; the conference room had been at a right angle to the main entrance, and they couldn’t see anything.

“... will NOT be doing that. We are her state-appointed guardians, and we are authorized to accept legal documents on her behalf.” Stacy’s arguing reached Max’s ears. “You can leave it with us. We will sign whatever acceptance documents you wish, and we will ensure it gets to her.”

“I have an obligation on behalf of my client to personally ensure that Miss Scott receives these papers.”

Max stopped, frozen, her heart dropping into her stomach. She hadn’t heard that voice for a long time. But the last time she had, her father had been trying to kill her.

Rachel’s reaction was immediate. She grabbed Max and Chloe, pushing them both against the wall, making sure they couldn’t be seen from the front entrance. She held her finger to her lips, signaling the teenagers coming out of the conference room behind them to be quiet.

“Your obligation to your client will not extend to the children currently in state custody,” Stacy shot back. “You’ve given us your paperwork. You can leave now.”

“That will not do. I insist on seeing Miss Scott in person. Her family is worried about her, and I need to make sure she’s in good health.”

Max turned her head, seeing Brooke against the wall behind Chloe. Her eyes were wide, and she was shaking like a leaf as she listened to Max’s father argue with Rachel’s boss.

“Have we called the police?” Rachel asked a nearby coworker.

“Megan’s on the phone with the office upstairs now,” the man quietly responded, nodding to a blonde woman near the back of the office with a phone to her ear. “They’ll get him out of here quickly enough. Better keep them out of sight, though, until they do.”

“As I have told you before, Mister Caulfield, Miss Scott does not want to speak to her family. And given your church’s abusive pattern-”

“Which is a falsehood spread by this state government and the media-”

“-we have our own obligations to her, as well,” Stacy snapped. “Miss Scott will get your documents. As I’ve said, it is time for you to go.”

“Not until I’ve seen Miss Scott.”

Max could practically feel the wall behind her rattle, as Brooke trembled against it. An older woman, who Max assumed was her foster parent, put her arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, whispering words of comfort; they didn’t look to be having much effect on the scared teenager.

“Miss Scott is not here, Mister Caulfield. And even if she was, she has been very clear that we are to act as her intermediary.”

“Which you probably coerced out of her, illegally I might add.”

“We are a state agency that is authorized to conduct interviews with children, away from their parents, as necessary. But that is a moot point. You have overstayed your welcome.” They all heard the sound of a door opening. “And I see that your escort is here. Gentlemen?”

“The SECOND either of you lay a finger on me, you’ll get hit with an abuse-of-force suit that will bankrupt you.”

“Sir, it’s time for you to go.”

“I am a legal representative at a public office, trying to serve legal documents-”

Stacy clucked. “This is NOT a public office, Mister Caulfield. And this entire building is property of the Oregon state government. These officers are within their rights to escort you out with any means necessary.”

“Fine, I SAID FINE.” Max could hear the anger in his voice. “This confrontation will make its way to court, Miss Hemmingway, I promise you that.”

“I’ll think long and hard about what I’ve done. Have a good day, Mister Caulfield.”

Max glanced back at Brooke, who was grabbing her foster mother’s arm like it was a life preserver. Tears were leaking from her eyes as they listened to the exchange. Behind her, Max saw several other teenagers standing still, pressed to the wall, trying their hardest to not be noticed by the man they couldn’t see.

He really is the bogeyman to them, Max realized.

Rachel was keeping a worried eye on the other kids. Chloe stood on the wall behind Max, silently fuming; Max knew what she’d like to do to her father, and she could only imagine how much her girlfriend would relish the chance to do it.

Max sighed internally.

Fuck, she’s gonna be mad.

Taking a deep breath, Max pushed herself off of the wall and walked around the corner. Chloe and Rachel couldn’t stop her before she came into view, getting a good look through the glass double doors, and seeing her father for the first time in years.

There was a lot more grey in his beard than she would have thought. Max supposed defending her mother had taken its toll on him, stress-wise. And his other clients weren’t making his life any easier, Max was sure. He still had about the same build... maybe a little thinner, Max supposed. He was being escorted into the elevator by two uniformed police officers, and didn’t notice Max staring at him.

At first.

When he finally got into the elevator and looked back up, he froze. Max watched her father’s eyes get wide as he took in the sight of his daughter, glaring back at him. After a couple of seconds, his eyes narrowed, and his nostrils flared, though he didn’t move or speak.

As the elevator doors closed, Max held up her right hand and gave him a one-fingered salute.

She glanced back at the others. Chloe and Rachel were staring at her in shock, their eyes wide and their mouths gaping. Brooke, and the teenagers behind them, had similar facial expressions. None of them spoke.

“I told you guys.” Max said, trying to make it look like her heart rate wasn’t in the triple digits. “He’s only scary if you let him be.”

Chapter Text

Max managed to keep her cool while they waited to leave. Rachel insisted that she send the police into the parking lot, to ensure that her father was gone, before they left the office.

She kept her face straight on the elevator ride down, too. Another policeman accompanied them, escorting the three girls out to Rachel’s car. Chloe and Max didn’t say a word as they both got into the back seat. Rachel floored the car out of the lot, her eyes looking around nervously as she made her way out of town.

Max couldn’t keep it up for much longer, though. Once she got to the highway, the full weight of what she’d done hit her. She tried to stay calm, but her breathing slowly got faster and faster, and before long she was gasping for breath in panic.

Chloe unbuckled her seat belt and immediately scooted next to Max, wrapping her in a tight hug as the brunette collapsed into her chest. “Breathe, Max,” Chloe murmured softly, stroking Max’s back. “In, and out. Just breathe.”

Rachel glanced over her shoulder, worry in her eyes. “Do we need to pull over?”

“No. Just get us to the airport,” Chloe replied. “The sooner we get out of here, the better.”

Max couldn’t speak. No tears ran from her eyes. She just grabbed Chloe’s shirt as tight as she could, holding on for dear life while she hyperventilated, her mind spinning in circles.

“Max,” Chloe whispered. “That was so fucking badass.” She planted a kiss on the brunette’s head. “You were such a bad motherfucker. Your dad must have been shitting his pants when he saw you. You rocked his fucking world.”

“I...” Max swallowed, still struggling to draw a proper breath. “I...”

“You’re gonna be those kid’s fuckin’ Superman, by the time they’re done telling that story,” Chloe assured her. “They’re gonna turn you into a comic book character. You just did so much for this kids with one gesture.”

“But now my dad knows I’m alive,” Max whispered. “Chloe, I’m so scared.”

“I know.” Chloe gripped the back of Max’s hoodie. “It’s okay. He doesn’t know where we live. We didn’t tell anybody there. All he knows is that we were here. We’ll be gone in a few hours, and he’ll never find us.”

Max sniffed, trying to lower her heart rate, but it wasn’t working. She was still breathing quickly while she shook in Chloe’s arms.

“Just breathe, Max,” Chloe repeated. “Everything is going to be okay.”


 

Chloe: Need help. SOS. Emergency. 

Jake: Chloe? What’s wrong?

David: Is everything okay?

Victoria: What happened?

David: Wait, who else am I talking to?

Chloe: Okay, intros. The 415 area code is Jake, Max’s boss. 623 is David, stepdad and cop. 323 is Vic, attack lawyer.

Victoria: It’s Victoria. And I’m not a lawyer yet.

Chloe: You’re close enough, and it’s not the time to be picky.

Jake: Ok, Chloe, what’s happening? Is Max okay?

David: Are you two still in Oregon?

Chloe: We’re on the plane heading home; I’m using the in-flight Wi-Fi. Max is asleep next to me.

Chloe: She did something so fucking badass. And I’m fucking terrified that it’s going to get her killed.

Victoria: Does this have to do with that weird question she asked me this morning?

Chloe: Probably? Maybe? Don’t know. Not important.

Chloe: Max saw her dad on our way out of the CPS office.

David: Shit.

Jake: Did he do anything?

Chloe: No. She was behind a glass security door, and the police were escorting him out of the building. The kids Max was talking to were there, and they’re all terrified of him.

Chloe: So Max went out in the open, mean-mugged him like a motherfucker, and flipped him the bird as the elevator doors closed in his face.

Jake: ... wow.

Victoria: Fuck.

Chloe: So yea. Dickhead Dad knows Max is alive.

David: Okay, did you girls do what we talked about over Christmas?

Chloe: We didn’t use credit cards, only cash. Rachel drove us around, and we stayed in her parent’s guest room. I didn’t show my ID to anyone who wasn’t TSA.

Jake: Did her dad see YOU?

Chloe: No. Just Max. Me and Rachel were out of sight.

Victoria: Did you sign anything at the CPS office? Maybe a visitor’s log? Those can be subpoenaed.

Chloe: Nope, Rachel escorted us the whole time.

Jake: How is Max now?

Chloe: She kept it together until she got away from the kids. She spent the entire ride to the airport and trip through security having a panic attack and hyperventilating. I think the lack of oxygen caught up to her when we got to the plane, because she passed out almost as soon as we sat down.

Jake: I think you’ll be fine, Chloe. Finding Max will be difficult enough for that church, even if they knew what city you guys live in. Finding you when they don’t even know you exist will be almost impossible.

Chloe: What about showing our IDs at the airport?

David: TSA isn’t allowed to store ID information. It’s only used to confirm the name on the ticket. And there’s no way her dad will be able to access those records.

Chloe: Should I do anything legal-wise? What about a restraining order?

Victoria: You could probably get one easily enough, but you’d have to put your current address on it, so her father would know where he isn’t allowed to go. Not a good idea.

Chloe: Could he use his legal powers to force Rachel to tell him where we are?

Victoria: Maybe. Is there ANY possible reason he could subpoena her into a deposition?

Chloe: What does that mean?

Victoria: Is he currently pursuing any legal action against the CPS office? Or anyone they have guardianship over?

Chloe: Fuck. Yea. He’s doing something, I don’t know what, but he’s trying to get one of the teenagers back into the church.

Jake: Would it matter? Rachel must be bound by confidentiality agreements or something.

Victoria: Yea, but only for the kids she’s working with. Max is an adult. She’s fair game.

Victoria: Rachel needs to talk to her father. Like, right now. If I was a psychopathic lawyer with a vendetta, I would find a reason to depose everyone who works in Rachel’s office.

David: Does Rachel know your address, Chloe?

Chloe: I don’t think so. She’s never been to our apartment.

Jake: What about when she sent you the thing for that voodoo doll?

Chloe: I didn’t want Max to see it, so I had her send it to my work address.

Jake: So even if she does get deposed, all she can tell Max’s father is “somewhere in San Francisco”. A city of nine hundred thousand people.

David: The odds in our favor are still good, I think. And we’re assuming the worst.

Victoria: Chloe, for your safety and Rachel’s, you need to limit what you tell her from now on. Never, ever give her your address, or have her over if she visits.

David: Do you and Max have a place to stay nearby, aside from your apartment, if you need it?

Jake: My guest room is always free for you two.

Chloe: Thanks Jake, but Max’s ID still has your address.

Jake: Penny, then. She’ll take you two in a heartbeat. I’m sure Steph will, too.

Victoria: If you guys need to get further away, you can stay with Kate and I.

Chloe: We might take someone up on it.

Chloe: Thanks guys. I’ll see how Max is feeling when we touch down in SF.

David: ... wait, what was that about a voodoo doll?

Chloe: Tell you later. Don’t judge me.


 

Max picked as her sleeve as Chloe parked the truck in their spot at the apartment later that night. 

“Good to be back,” she commented. “Come on, babe. Let’s get inside.”

Max didn’t reply, looking up at their door. She didn’t make any move to get out of the truck.

“It’s gonna be okay, Max.” Chloe took her girlfriend’s hand and squeezed gently. “There is no way your dad knows where we are. We’ll be fine.”

Nodding slowly, Max finally got out of the truck. Chloe followed suit, grabbing their duffle bag and leading the way to their apartment. She opened the door, quickly sweeping Max inside.

“Alright.” Chloe dropped the bag on the ground. “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. Let’s-”

“I’m sorry.”

Chloe blinked as she turned back to Max. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” Max repeated morosely. “I know you’re mad at me. I know you didn’t want me to go. I shouldn’t have-”

“Stop,” Chloe ordered. “Max... I’m not mad.”

Max looked down at her feet. “My dad knows I’m alive now,” she groaned. “If he finds out where we are-”

“He’ll what?” Chloe interrupted. “Kill us? Sue us? What are you worried about your dad doing?”

“I don’t know, Chloe. That’s the point.” Max looked back up at her. “I shouldn’t have done that. You didn’t see his face.”

“Fuck him.” Chloe grabbed Max’s shoulders. “Fuck your dad. You stood up to him in front of all those teenagers who think he’s some kind of supernatural monster, Max. That was so fucking incredible.”

She planted a kiss on Max’s forehead. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen now, Max. But whatever does... you did the right thing.”


Max: Hey Victoria. 

Victoria: There you are. Are you okay?

Max: Yea, I just wanted to thank you for your help yesterday.

Max: And your offer to let us stay with you. It means a lot to us.

Victoria: Of course. And seriously, whenever you want.

Victoria: I am dying to know what was up with that question, though.

Max: Well, you did a good deed, I can tell you that.

Victoria: How so?

Max: One of the teenagers I was speaking to ran away to escaped an arranged marriage with a boy that was older than her. She was terrified that if she was made to go back, she’d have to... you know.

Max: She turns seventeen after he turns twenty. She was so relieved that it would still be a crime.

Victoria: Jesus Christ.

Victoria: I’m glad I could help, but still, fuck your old church. They tried to get her married at seventeen?

Max: Oh, no. She was eight years old when they “married”. She thought it was a pretend marriage license.

Victoria: She’s not really married, then. You have to be seventeen in Oregon.

Max: Yea, Rachel explained that already. The state won’t recognize it.

Victoria: I almost want to be proud, that she knows what she’s doing.

Max: You should have seen her with those teenagers, Victoria. She was incredible. She is single-handedly keeping them sane.

Victoria: Well... good, then. Sounds like they need all the help they can get.

Max: You have no idea.


Rachel: Hey, I have a request. 

Max: Oh, God, not another one.

Rachel: Not from me. Brooke Scott wants to talk to you some more.

Max: Really?

Rachel: You stared down your dad. I’m not sure you grasp how big of a deal that is to these kids.

Max: Well, I have no problem talking to her, but I’m not sure how comfortable I am with her having my phone number.

Rachel: None of the kids are comfortable sharing their phone numbers. They use an anonymous instant messaging app instead of SMS. I can send you the details.

Max: If that’s the case, sure. Give it to me.

Rachel: I will. I also think it’s best if we use that to text from now on, especially if we’re going to be talking about First Light.

Max: Good call.


Max: Hi, Brooke :) 

Brooke: Hey Max.

Max: How are you doing? You okay?

Brooke: Um... I don’t know.

Max: What’s wrong?

Brooke: I got served with papers, through CPS.

Max: That’s what my father was dropping off?

Brooke: Yea. Part of the shit my family is pulling, to get me back.

Brooke: They’re saying I’m unstable. That I’m a pathological liar. They’re forcing me to get evaluated by a fucking head shrink!

Max: Okay, Brooke, relax. They’re just trying to upset you.

Brooke: I’m freaking out! What if the doctor says they’re right?

Max: What did Miss Amber say?

Brooke: She said not to worry about it. It’s a scare tactic.

Max: Trust her. She knows what she’s doing.

Brooke: I know. I just... sometimes think it would be better if I wasn’t here.

Max: Okay, Brooke, you need to listen to me.

Max: You CANNOT just run away from this. It’s not easier, I promise you that.

Brooke: You did it.

Max: I got very lucky. I could have just as easily died on the streets. There were a few times that I almost did.

Max: I know this is scary. Miss Amber, and the other people at CPS, are fighting for you. Just have faith in them; they’ll keep you safe.

Brooke: Okay.

Max: And text me whenever you want to talk, alright?

Brooke: I will. Thanks, Max.

Chapter Text

April, 2019

“Have you seen the other PS4 controller?”

Max stopped typing her paper for a moment, looking up from her seat on the couch. “The other one? Your spare? It’s not in the charger?”

Chloe shook her head as she looked around the apartment. “I must have taken it out at some point,” she moaned as she lifted the pillows on the bed. “I can’t find it.”

“Did you check the nightstand drawers?”

“Yep.”

“Behind the TV?”

“Yea.”

“Bathroom?”

“Why would I...” Chloe hesitated, they went over to check the bathroom. “Found it.”

“Gross.” Max wrinkled her nose as she went back to her laptop, typing her final paper. “You’d better sanitize it before you make me use it again.”

Chloe snorted as she plopped back down on the bed, hitting the button to turn it on. “Yea, yea. How’s the paper?”

“Almost done.” Max punched the keys, entering another sentence. “I only need a few more paragraphs. What are we doing for dinner?”

“How about pizza?”

Max shook her head. “We had that last night.”

“Is it so wrong to have pizza two nights in a row?”

The brunette snorted. “Only for our waistlines,” she pointed out as she typed. “What about Wildflower? I could go for one of their chopped salads.”

“If you really think those are much better for you than pizza, I have some bad news for you.” Chloe looked over. “What about Chinese? We haven’t ordered from that Golden Panda place for a while.”

“Ooh, I liked their egg rolls.” Max nodded. “I could get behind that. And their sweet-and-sour pork.”

“Chinese it is.” Chloe paused her game and got up, making her way to their junk drawer and retrieving the menu. “Just their egg rolls and the pork?”

“Maybe their noodles, too. They were pretty good.” Max nodded.

Chloe checked the menu as she pulled out her phone, placing the order. “They said thirty minutes,” she stated as she hung up. “You be done by then?”

Max’s phone buzzed on the arm of the couch, next to her elbow. “Yea, I should be,” she said as she retrieved it. “It’s not due until the day after tomorrow anyway, so it’s not... like... what the hell?”

Chloe picked her head up, noticing the look on Max’s face. “What?”

“Alyssa just put a message on the bridesmaid chat.” Max showed Chloe the phone.

Alyssa: Red Alert. 911. Everyone video Skype me, right now, all hands on deck. This is not a drill.

“Oh, shit.” Chloe looked at Max. “What do you think that means?”

“Nothing good.” Max saved her work and opened the Skype program.

Clicking on the video button, Max waited as the program dialed Alyssa. It only took a few seconds for Kate’s Maid of Honor to appear on the screen, as well as Taylor and Dana. “Max, good,” Alyssa said distractedly, typing rapidly on her phone.

“What’s going on?” Max frowned. Dana had a similarly-confused look on her face, while Taylor looked angry. “What...” Max’s voice trailed off, realizing that the background on Alyssa’s video looked familiar. “Are you at Kate and Victoria’s?”

“Yea. In a minute. We’re waiting for the others.” Another ringing noise sounded, and Alyssa slapped the laptop keys. Stella appeared on the screen with the others. “Perfect. Just waiting for Courtney.”

“Alyssa?” Stella frowned. “What’s happening?”

“Not yet.” Alyssa kept typing on her phone. “Finally. Courtney just saw it.”

Dana raised her eyebrows. “Isn’t she in New York this weekend?”

“Yea,” Taylor nodded. “This is important, though.”

“You know what’s going on?” Max asked.

“Victoria texted me when Kate called Alyssa.” Taylor crossed her arms, fuming. “We’ve got a serious fuckin’ problem.”

A sixth window finally popped up, and Courtney appeared in her hotel room. “Guys? What are we doing?” she asked.

“Waiting for everyone to get here.” Alyssa put her phone down and leaned toward the camera. “Okay, girls, there’s no sugar coating this. Kate’s fucking mother has effectively cancelled the wedding.”

“What?!” Max gasped. Similar cries of astonishment came from the other. “What the hell?!”

“What the FUCK?!” Stella shot to her feet. “How?!”

Alyssa held up her phone. “Kate was using an app to keep track of all of the wedding info. Vendors, phone numbers, dates and times, the works. Her mother, somehow, managed to get access to her account on that app, and all the vendor information. And she called them all a few weeks ago, and canceled the contracts.”

“Oh my God, you have got to be fucking kidding me,” Max whispered.

“I thought Kate was putting passwords on everything!!” Courtney exclaimed.

Alyssa nodded. “She did. She tracked all the passwords in the app, too. She never thought her mother would ever see it.”

“How are we just finding out about this now?!” Dana asked incredulously. “You said this was weeks ago!”

“Kate’s mother fed them all some sob story, about how the wedding was called off, and she’d been elected to cancel their services for her daughter.” Alyssa put the phone down, scowling. “All of them fucking fell for it. Kate only found out because the second deposit on for the catering company was due, and she called them to get the information. We just finished checking in with everyone about twenty minutes ago.”

“Where’s Kate now?” Stella asked.

“In her bedroom with Victoria, crying her eyes out.” Alyssa looked to her right, before turning back. “Victoria spent a while on the phone screaming at people, but it didn’t do any good. We’re properly hosed.”

Dana leaned forward. “We can’t get any of the reservations back?!”

“It’s a holiday weekend, and we’re three months out,” Taylor spoke up. “The venue has already sold their slot. Same with the caterer and their band.” Her face turned red in anger. “The videographer, the officiate, the florist, the bartenders and booze, they’re all re-booked. The photographer was literally the only contractor we could save.”

Stella collapsed back into her chair. “What do we do?”

“What do you think we do?” Alyssa looked into the camera. “Kate and Victoria are too out of it to do anything. And we all swore we wouldn’t let that fucking cunt of a woman ruin this day for them. We need to figure out how to save this party, and we need to do it quickly.”

Dana leaned forward. “Well, we need to find a new venue first,” she stated. “That’s the big one. You can get the rest, with enough money, and we know Victoria isn’t lacking for funds. But we need a space to put everything.”

“Yea, but like Taylor said, it’s three months away from a holiday weekend,” Courtney pointed out. “Every half-decent venue in LA will be booked by now.”

“They might be. But I can’t call them all,” Alyssa responded. “We’re gonna divide and conquer. Everybody needs to Google wedding venues in Los Angeles. Or Pasadena. Or anywhere nearby. We need to find one that’s available, and looks the least like a refugee camp.”

Max brought up a browser window, but hesitated before she started typing. “Chloe, I need you to do this for me,” she said, passing the laptop to her girlfriend.

“Uh, okay.” Chloe took Max’s computer, her hands flying over the keyboard. “What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna try to use a lifeline.” Max grabbed her phone.

Max: Need your guy’s help. Like, right now.

Penny: With what? Are you okay?

Max: I’m fine. Where’s Jake?

Penny: Not with me, I’m at home.

Max: Need him, too. Gonna call him quick.

Jake: Geez, I’m here. I was cooking. What’s up?

Max: Remember Victoria? Getting married to her GF Kate in three months?

Penny: Yea, of course.

Max: Well, Kate’s mother impersonated her and cancelled all of her wedding contracts. The whole thing is off unless we can figure something out.

Jake: Are you fucking serious?!

Penny: Oh my God! What the hell did she do that for??

Max: Because she’s a homophobic bitch. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Max: Do either of you two know anybody in LA? Maybe someone who has a line on a wedding venue we can snatch?

Jake: Maybe? For what date?

Max: Fourth of July.

Penny: Oh, shit, please tell me you’re kidding.

Jake: It would probably be easier to get a venue on the moon, Max. Not to make light, but you won’t find a professional space for that date less than six to eight months out.

Max: Neither of you have a favor to call in?

Jake: Not one that good.

Penny: Yea, me either. Any other weekend, maybe, but the 4thof July...

Max: We are seriously desperate. Is there ANYTHING you guys can do?

Jake: I’ll make some phone calls. But don’t hold your breath.

Penny: Ditto.

“Fuck.” Max glanced back at Chloe, listening to the other girls talking over her typing. “Anything?”

Chloe shook her head, not looking at the keyboard as she browsed through the search results. “I checked two hotels, but their electronic calendars say they’re already booked. I don’t think anyone’s having any luck.”

Max looked back over her shoulder as Chloe brought up a third website. “Anybody got anything?” she called towards the camera.

“No,” Taylor answered crossly. Max couldn’t see her, with the browser window up, but she could almost feel the blonde girl clench her fists. “I just got off the phone with one of her other choices. They’re booked, too.”

“Yea, me too.” Max heard Courtney pause. “Should we maybe try to move the wedding back? I mean, the 4thof July is gonna be a tough one to nail, ten weeks out.”

“Not if we can help it,” Alyssa replied. “We’ve been at it for five minutes. Keep trying.”

Max nudged Chloe. “Go use your computer,” she said. “Let me back on.”

The bluenette got up without replying, grabbing her laptop from her nightstand and resuming her furious typing. “I’m just checking hotels,” she told Max, not looking up. “The ones that have banquet halls inside. They’re probably already full, but...”

“Yea, I know.” Max entered a new Google search and started bringing up results. She dialed the number of the first one, praying for the first time in years that they could get lucky.

Chapter Text

Her prayers were about as effective as they had been when she was a child.

“Fuck.” Max hung up her phone an hour later. “They said no, too,” she reported to Alyssa. “Date’s already reserved.”

Stella put her phone down as well. “This place said they sold that slot two weeks ago,” she reported morosely. “There was a prior cancellation. If we had called earlier, maybe, but...”

Alyssa shook her head in frustration. “Dana? Any luck with the parks nearby?”

Dana held up a finger, on the phone with a park ranger; she’d had an idea, outside the box, to see if they could set up an outdoor wedding at one of the many parks scattered around LA. She hung up a few seconds later. “No dice,” she reported. “That was a park manager in Compton. They had an opening, but it was only for an hour, at nine in the morning, and the park is really small. Plus, you know, it’s in Compton.”

“Yea, fuck that,” Alyssa growled. “These two are not getting married in a park where there’s a risk of getting shot in a drive-by. What else? We’ve gotta think of something. Where else is nice to get married around LA?”

“We could try one of those old historical sites,” Taylor mentioned. “Like, those ancient manors or whatnot. There might be a couple of nice ones around...”

“Fuck it, give it a try.” Taylor nodded as she picked her phone back up. “Chloe?”

The bluenette peeked over from the seat next to Max. “The only opening I have is for a small hotel off the highway,” she replied. “You couldn’t pay me to get married there, though. I think the woman standing in front of it on Google Street View is a hooker.”

“Yea, let’s call that Option Two.” Alyssa ran her hands through her hair, turning back to her right. “Jesus, Kate just started crying again in the bedroom,” she said with a sigh, turning back to the camera. “We have got to fix this.”

“Alyssa, we’ve tried almost everything.” Courtney shook her head, lowering her tablet on the camera feed. “I think we need to seriously talk to Victoria and Kate about pushing the wedding back. We’re looking at hooker hotels, for fuck’s sake.”

“People have already planned for that weekend,” Alyssa countered. “We’ll be asking a lot of people to inconvenience themselves.”

Courtney rolled her eyes. “Have you seen their guest list? Most of those people are financially able to rescheduled for another date.”

“And some of them aren’t.” Alyssa folded her arms. “We need to keep working on this. We haven’t exhausted all of our options yet.”

Max’s phone buzzed again, as the girls went back and forth.

Penny: Are you guys still looking for venues?

Max: Yea. Like you said, there’s nothing good available. We’re running out of places too look.

Penny: Okay, Jake and I have been texting a few people. He’s on the phone right now. How important IS it, that Victoria and Kate get married in Los Angeles?

Max blinked, the smallest amount of hope glimmering in her chest.

Max: We’re totally striking out here, so let’s say not very. Please tell me you have something.

Penny: Your stars may have aligned just right. Jake and I know a developer that’s wrapping up construction on a new hotel downtown, here in SF.

Penny: They weren’t planning on being ready to open until the beginning of August. But they have plans for an AMAZING rooftop lounge. You can even see the Golden Gate Bridge.

Max’s heart rate quickened.

Max: And they’d let us rent it??

Penny: Well, not initially. Like I said, they’re still pretty far out from finishing. But Jake name-dropped Victoria’s father. He told them it would be an event he’d be attending.

Penny: The project lead said if Derek Chase is involved, they’ll move heaven and earth to make the rooftop wedding-ready by the 4thof July. Though it will probably cost an arm and a leg.

Max: If you have pictures, I’ll kiss you.

Penny: I’ll try to get some if you promise NOT to.

Max reached out and slammed her hand down on the coffee table, right next to her laptop. All the conversation on the Skype chat stopped as the girls, including Chloe, blinked in surprise.

“I think I might have something,” she breathed.


“Holy shit,” Alyssa whispered. “And they can get it ready by the 4th?" 

“They said they’ll move heaven and earth to make it happen,” Max said as she read the text conversation again. “I know it’s not in Los Angeles...”

“Dude, for a venue like that, who gives a fuck?” Dana said. “I mean, you can’t get any luckier than this. There probably aren’t any other venues available in San Francisco, either.”

Stella nodded. “Plus, we’re striking out everywhere else. Alyssa, this is it. Probably the best and only option we have.”

Alyssa stood. “I’m with you guys. We can’t make this call, though. I’m gonna get Kate and Victoria, they need to hear this.”

She vanished, leaving the other girls. “The only reason I would be bummed is because I already brought plane tickets to LA,” Courtney sighed.

“Yea, me too.” Taylor ran her hands through her hair. “But fuck it. We’ll rent a car and make our way up, for this.”

Alyssa returned a few seconds later, pulling Kate behind her.

Max almost recoiled at Kate’s appearance; she had never seen anyone in such miserable shape. Her nose and eyes were a bright red, tears and snot still leaking down her face as she slowly sat in the chair. Her hair was completely rats-nested, as well, and she couldn’t stop sniffling. Victoria looked much the same, except her mascara was streaked, running in rivulets down her cheeks. The taller girl kept one hand on Kate’s shoulder as they looked into the laptop.

“Max, tell them what you’ve got,” Alyssa said gently.

Max took a deep breath. “My bosses, Jake and Penny, may have found a venue for you guys. In San Francisco,” she added.

Kate blinked. “San Francisco?” she said hollowly, wiping her nose. “And... it’s available?”

“Um... sort of.” Max tapped on her phone. “Alyssa, pull up the email I just sent you. It’s a hotel, it’s still under construction, so they haven’t started taking any reservations yet. It wasn’t supposed to be finished by the fourth. But my boss said that it would be for a party that your dad was gonna be at, Victoria.” She grimaced. “Sorry he had to name drop.”

Victoria snorted, wiping tears from her eyes. “He’s not wrong,” she said wetly. “So... what did they say?”

“They said if Derek Chase was going to be there, they’d make sure the rooftop was ready by the beginning of July. I sent the design photos to Alyssa.” Kate and Victoria looked over as Alyssa brought up the pictures on her phone, handing it to them.

The two girls blinked through their teary eyes as they studied the photos.

Kate lower lip started to trembled, and she sniveled as she closed her eyes.

“It’s-” she sniffed back deeply. “It’s perfect...” She gripped Victoria’s hand as she started to cry again.

Victoria nodded, wiping her eyes with the same hand that held the phone. “We can get it, right?” she asked Max. “I don’t care if it’s in Los Angeles or not.”

“They said it’ll probably be expensive,” Max cautioned.

“I’ll call my dad.” Victoria sniffed. “I’ll ask him. You said Penny found it?” Max nodded. “I haven’t told him yet, what happened... I wanted to...” Victoria handed the phone back to Alyssa, gripping Kate tight as the small girl sobbed into her arm.

“Okay, Victoria, go call your family.” Alyssa shooed her away, turning the laptop. “Everyone else, focus. We’re not done yet.”


“That’s pretty much everything then, isn’t it?” Chloe said, the laptop screen finally closed. 

Max sighed, rubbing her eyes. They hurt from staring into the computer screen for so long. “Taylor found a contractor that does catering and alcohol... Dana found a videographer... Stella set up Skype interviews with a couple of officiates...” she frowned, thinking. “All that’s left is a band and a florist. We still need to work on that.”

Chloe leaned back into the couch, stretching her back. “If I meet Kate’s mom, I’m gonna pop her in the mouth,” she sighed. “This is too much work. And our Chinese food is cold,” she complained, gesturing to the cardboard boxes on the kitchen counter.

The brunette snorted as her phone vibrated.

Jake: I have phenomenal news.

Jake: We spoke to Mr. Chase, who asked us to speak to the hotel people on his behalf. The venue is a go.

Jake: He agreed to pay an absolutely ludicrous amount of money, but Victoria and Kate have a place to get married again.

Max smiled. “We did our good deed for the day,” she said showing Chloe the texts.

“Oh, thank fucking God.” Chloe sighed, getting up. “I’m starving, too. I’m gonna heat this up.”

“Yes, please.” Max nodded as she got up with her, shoving her phone back into her pocket. “Wow, I didn’t even realize how hungry I was until you reminded me.”

“Well, running on adrenaline will do that to you.” Chloe opened the containers and started spooning out the pork and noodles. “I mean, we basically planed most of a wedding in three hours. Not a bad night’s work."

“Right?” Max snorted. “We’re, like, a billion dollars and one family tragedy from being Batman and Robin.”

“Oh, yea?” Chloe smirked over her shoulder. “Which one of us is Batman?”

“Me, for sure.”

“Uh, excuse me. I am DEFINITELY the Batman in this relationship.”

“Whatever you say, babe.”


Kate: Max, I cannot thank you enough. 

Max: I barely did anything, Kate. Jake and Penny did the hard work. I just thought to call them.

Kate: I know. And you saved our wedding day. You are seriously the best.

Max: Hey, we already have the dresses. There was NO way you weren’t getting hitched.

Max: How’s Victoria doing?

Kate: Better. She lost a little of her voice, from yelling at people on the phone.

Max: I’m sure she did.

Max: Have you dealt with your mom yet?

Kate: I’m not going to. You guys were right the first time, and I should’ve listened. I shredded my parent’s invitations.

Max: I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t want to be right.

Kate: I talked to Lynn, too. She heard what happened from Stella. She feels so bad that she didn’t know what my mother did. And she’s really angry.

Max: She’s still coming, right?

Kate: Yea. She’s already mostly packed and ready to leave the house for Caltech anyway. She’s going to sneak away with Stella and her boyfriend when they leave.

Max: Caltech will let her move in that early?

Kate: She’s going to stay with me and Vicky until her dorm is ready. Probably a month or two.

Kate: You and Chloe have done so much for us already... I hate to ask one more favor.

Max: Name it.

Kate: Lynn is going to be coming up to San Francisco with us, but she doesn’t have the money for a hotel room. And where we’re staying doesn’t have any room for her.

Kate: Would you and Chloe be okay with letting her spend a couple of nights on your couch?

Max: Only if she brings wine!

Kate: Um... she’s too young?

Max: FFS that was Chloe. I put my phone down for five seconds to stir pasta.

Max: Yes, it’s cool. She does not have to bring booze.


Chloe: I heard Daddy Warbucks came through! 

Victoria: Oh, God, please don’t call him that. He’d probably love that nickname.

Chloe: So you’re the only one who hates nicknames?

Victoria: Shut up.

Chloe: How did the phone call go?

Victoria: Oh, he was absolutely furious.

Victoria: Not at us, or course, but that someone would actually do something like that. I’ve heard him curse before, but...

Chloe: Well, Kate’s mom made you guys cry. I’m sure he was at least a little upset.

Victoria: Either way, it’s done. He’s having one of his assistants take over control of the wedding info, so Kate’s mom isn’t going to pull the same stunt twice.

Chloe: I heard the smaller Marsh is coming to stay with you guys for a while?

Victoria: Yep. Lynn is going to stay with us until she gets to her dorm at Caltech. Stella and her boyfriend are going to drive her up in his pickup truck with her stuff.

Chloe: Kate’s mom doesn’t know where you guys live, right?

Victoria: Oh, no, she totally does. I pray to God, every night, that she comes up here so I can tear her fucking head off.

Chloe: Damn, woman.

Victoria: Nobody makes my girl cry. If I ever meet this bitch in person, I’m gonna get medieval on her ass.


Rachel: Another teenager from First Light called our office yesterday for a pickup. 

Max: Really?

Rachel: Yea. She’s sixteen. Another product of one of their arranged marriages.

Rachel: Except she’s pregnant.

Max: Oh, shit.

Max: What about the husband/father?

Rachel: Let’s stick with “father”. Her “marriage” is no more legitimate than Brooke’s.

Rachel: But at the moment, she won’t give us any details. We took her to a OB/GYN, got her fixed up with some pre-natal meds. But she’s not really talking to us yet.

Max: What are you going to do?

Rachel: For now, place her quietly, with a couple of the more well-adjusted teenagers. Probably Brooke and Emily. Hopefully, they’ll get her to trust us.

Max: She’s, what? The third new runaway since I was there in January?

Rachel: Fourth. The fact that you’re alive is definitely spreading through the church.

Max: If my father didn’t already know, I’d almost be worried.


Penny: Did you get the pictures I sent from the hotel? 

Max: Yea. Not gonna lie, I’m a little nervous. It looks like there’s so much left to do.

Penny: Most of it is cosmetic, not structural.

Penny: The foreman actually said they’re ahead of schedule.

Max: The roof only has half of a floor. And we’re less than eight weeks out!

Penny: They have a plan in place. They’re going to finish the building facade, and then they’ll start the interior.

Penny: They’re gonna focus their work on the roof first, then the lobby. Then the floor beneath the roof, working down.

Penny: Plumbing, electrical, and sewage will all be hooked up by then, too. And there will be two working elevators.

Max: So the guests will go through the lobby, straight to the roof level. Nice.

Penny: Yep. They’ll pass all the unfinished floors without realizing it.

Max: Victoria is hiring security, so they should be able to keep people away from the construction areas.

Penny: Probably a good idea. Don’t want guests getting hurt.

Max: Pretty sure she’s hiring them on account of the Delusional One.

Penny: LOL Kate’s mother? I like the name.

Max: We agreed that it suits her.


Unknown: Hey, Max, this is Lynn. 

<CONTACT INFO UPDATED>

Max: Did you get another prepaid phone?

Lynn: No, I turned 18 last month. My dad got me an iPhone for my birthday.

Lynn: I’m really sorry, about my mom and her bullshit.

Max: Lynn, that is SO not your fault

Lynn: I feel a little responsible. I was supposed to keep an eye on her, in case she pulled something like this, and I totally dropped the ball.

Max: You can’t watch your mom all the time. You have school, friends, all that.

Lynn: I still should have known.

Max: Nobody is blaming you, Lynn. For real, don’t apologize for it.

Max: Are you all set to go to Caltech?

Lynn: Yea, after this, I’m packing all the rest of my stuff. I am so mad at my mom, I don’t want to be anywhere near her.

Max: What about your dad? Or Jessica?

Lynn: I don’t know if my dad knew about it or not. I’m not sure if I want to ask him. I don’t know if Kate told you or not, he’s a little bit of a doormat.

Lynn: Jessica... I don’t know. She’s been a bit of a shut-in, recently.

Max: Why? What's wrong?

Lynn: My little sister is complicated. Talking to her isn’t very easy. And she doesn’t talk much to begin with.

Lynn: But she asked my mom, over the holidays, if we were going to call Kate and Victoria to wish them Merry Christmas, and my mother almost lost her mind. There was something about Victoria being a succubus, and the devil, and a whole bunch of other stuff I couldn’t follow because she was rambling.

Max: Wow.

Lynn: Yea. My dad had to bring her out of the room. My sister kind of shut down after that.

Max: Is she all right?

Lynn: She’s fine. I just don’t think she really understands what my mother’s problem is with Victoria.

Lynn: In any case, Stella and her BF are going to throw my stuff in the back of his truck and drive everything up to LA. I’m pulling a runner.

Max: Yea, Kate told me earlier. You know you’re going to stay on our couch when you get up here?

Lynn: Yea. Thank you so much for that, too.

Max: Of course. We can’t wait to have you up here.


Brooke: Miss Amber brought a new girl to our foster house this week. 

Max: Yea? What’s she like?

Brooke: She’s quiet. Like, really quiet. Emily and I got that her name is Regina, but not much else. I think she’s shell-shocked or something.

Max: I’m sure you know that it can be stressful to leave. She probably just needs a few days.

Brooke: Yea. Emily and I are worried, though. We think she might be pregnant.

Max: Why do you say that?

Brooke: She’s woken up early for the past four days to puke. I think she has morning sickness.

Brooke: I don’t know what to do. Should I ask Miss Amber about getting her to a doctor?

Max: I’m sure she saw one before she came to your house. Didn’t all of you kids?

Brooke: Yea, we did.

Brooke: Oh. That means that if she is, she already knows, doesn’t she?

Max: Probably.

Brooke: What should I do? Emily and the others were easy to talk to. Regina’s barely said five sentences since she got here.

Max: You know what she’d probably love to hear?

Max: That you know where she’s coming from. You understand a little about what she’s going through, and that all you and Emily want to do is help.

Max: And you’re willing to listen to anything she has to say.

Brooke: Okay. We’ll do that.

Chapter Text

June, 2019

“Sorry there isn’t much room,” Max said as she opened the door to the apartment. “Housing in San Francisco is expensive.”

Lynn walked inside behind her, carrying a suitcase. “I just appreciate you guys letting me stay here,” she said brightly. “I don’t have enough money for a hotel. And, uh, I don’t think Kate and Victoria would appreciate me staying in their room with them.”

Chloe snorted as she closed the door behind them. “Good call,” she said dryly. “Nobody needs to hear their sister getting frisky.”

Lynn squirmed, putting her suitcase down. “Yea, I’m okay going to my grave without that visual. Therapy is expensive, too.” She glanced around, noting the couch right next to the bed. “Sorry I’m kind of... intruding.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Max assured her as she set her purse on the counter. “You want something to drink? We’ve got water and Coke.”

“You could at least offer our guest wine,” Chloe pointed out as she plopped down on the bed, turning the TV on.

“Kate made me promise not to.” Max gave Chloe a look. “She might not have, if someone hadn’t tried to be funny. Lynn?”

“Coke sounds pretty good.”

Max brought her a can, handing it to her before she sat next to Chloe. “So, where does your mom think you are?”

“At a friend’s house again,” Lynn replied, popping the tab on the soda can. “I told her I might be there for a few days. I snuck everything I’m bringing to Caltech into Eric’s truck, the night before I left.”

“Eric?”

“Stella’s boyfriend.” Lynn took a sip of her drink. “We drove up to LA, and dropped my stuff off before we carpooled up here.”

“So you’re moved out?” Chloe asked.

“I guess so.” Lynn frowned. “Wow. I just realized that I’m kind of homeless.”

Max snorted. “Trust me, you’re not homeless.”

“I meant, you know... anyplace to call my own, I guess.” She shook her head. “Until I can move into my dorm, I’m floating between your couch and Victoria’s guest room. I just feel... I’m not sure. Scared? Nervous?”

“It’s terrifying, I know.” Max nodded. “It feels like you’re lost, right? And you have no idea if everything’s gonna be okay?”

Lynn nodded as Chloe turned, keeping an eye on Max.

“You’ll be fine, Lynn. Kate loves you to death, and you’re about to start at one of the most prestigious colleges in the world.” Max smiled. “You’ll find your own home. Trust me.”


“Do you mind if I ask you an uncomfortable question?" 

Lynn picked her head up from her plate of pizza, looking at Chloe. “What’s that?”

The bluenette leaned back on the bed, as she sat across from Max and Lynn. “How do you really feel, about Kate marrying Victoria?” she asked. “Or Kate marrying a girl, for that matter?”

Pausing, Lynn considered her answer. “I’m... okay, honestly? It feels a little weird, actually saying it out loud,” she admitted. “I certainly don’t love her any less. And Victoria must love her to pieces, if she’s willing to put up with my mother to be with Kate.”

“But?” Chloe prodded.

“I...” Lynn sighed, putting her plate on the coffee table. “I don’t know. Whenever I thought about how our lives were gonna go, I always imagined my sisters and I finding nice husbands, and having lots of kids. Thinking about my sister marrying another girl is still kind of... odd?” She shrugged. “I’m not sure how to really describe it.”

“Do you think it’s bad?” Max asked.

“NO. No, definitely not,” Lynn quickly clarified. “If Kate’s happy, then who am I to care? I mean, yea, maybe I think it’s a little weird that she’s marrying a girl, but it’s her life, and it’s what she wants. Unlike my mother, I like to think that I have some empathy towards others. Once I get used to the idea that Kate is married to another girl, I’m sure I’ll get over it.”

Chloe mused over her answer, then shrugged. “That’s fair, I guess. What about you?” she grinned, waggling her eyebrows. “No cute boys going with you to Caltech?”

Lynn scoffed. “Any boy who even considered dating a Marsh girl ran very quickly when he met our mother,” she said crossly. “I didn’t even go to the prom, because of my mother’s reputation. As far as going with me, most of the boys I did know were barely smart enough for community college.”

Max laughed. “So, you have standards?”

“I mean, at least an IQ that needs three digits to measure out.” Lynn smirked. “I was always too busy with school to date boys anyway, so it didn’t really matter to me.”

Max’s phone vibrated before she could reply. “It’s Alyssa,” she said as she read the text. “Kate and Victoria’s Bachelorette parties are on the 2nd. She wants me to make sure you’re with us,” she added as she nodded to Lynn.

“Oh, yea. Taylor texted me about that, too.” Chloe nodded. “They’re getting to the hotel late on the first.”

“You guys aren’t going to the same parties?” Lynn asked, surprised. “I figured you two would.”

Chloe shrugged. “Vic wanted me to come to hers,” she answered. “Max is your sister’s bridesmaid, though. Besides, Kate is doing a really low-key party, and Vic is going bar-crawling.”

“Yea, that’s all you.” Max put her phone away. “I’m gonna keep my liver in good health, for when you need a piece of it.”


July, 2019 

Max: How’s the hangover?

Chloe: I want to die.

Chloe: Seriously, I want someone to stick the barrel of a shotgun in my mouth and pull the trigger. My head feels like a washing machine falling down a flight of stairs.

Chloe: Fuckin’ Taylor had us at a different bar every hour. So glad she decided to do this on the second, so we have all day to heal and recover.

Max: Were you guys out all night?

Chloe: Yea, until the bar finally kicked us out after last call. We didn’t get back to the hotel until almost three in the morning, then promptly resumed drinking.

Max: Any strip clubs?

Chloe: Nope. Never. Is that a thing, even? They sound awful.

Max: You are so full of shit.

Chloe: Being facetious. Vic was very adamant that we were not going to any titty bars.

Chloe: Did you know that if there are tits out, you can’t serve alcohol?

Max: Really? Seems like the best place to do it.

Chloe: Fuckin’ Cali and it’s weird-ass laws.

Max: How’s Victoria doing?

Chloe: Passed out on the couch. Bottle of vodka in one hand, half-eaten burrito in the other.

Chloe: Pictures have been taken for posterity.

Max: Nice. And the others?

Chloe: Courtney is awake, doing surprisingly well; I guess she’s got a tolerance built up from all those fashion shows she goes to. Taylor is chugging Pedialyte and trying to apologize to her liver.

Chloe: Dana is still unconscious. She passed out while worshipping the porcelain throne. We’ve got pictures of that as well.

Chloe: How was Kate’s bachelorette party?

Max: It was very lovely. First we went to a tea shop, and then a spa. She bought us all full treatments as our bridesmaid gifts. It was amazing!

Max: Then we had dinner at Dionaldos, and a private tasting at a wine bar. Everyone but Lynn bought a couple bottles to take home.

Chloe: The needle is hovering between ‘fun’ and ‘lame’.

Max: Not done. It was dark, when we were finished, so we went back to the hotel suite and were hanging out, trying on our dresses and drinking wine.

Max: Then Alyssa started having chest pains.

Chloe: Wait, what?? Is she okay?

Max: In a startling coincidence, a female EMT and a male firefighter showed up in, like, three minutes.

Chloe: NO

Max: You should have seen the look on Kate’s face when they broke out a speaker and started dancing.

Chloe: NO FUCKING WAY

Max: Or Lynn, when the firefighter’s pants came off.

Chloe: Oh, that is SO not fair!

Max: I thought that poor girl was going to have a heart attack. Lynn could NOT stop staring at the guy’s... you know.

Max: He kept his underwear on, so all we saw was the bulge, but... wow.

Chloe: What did Kate say??

Max: That she was going to kill Alyssa.

Max: She couldn’t, though. The EMT girl was sitting on her lap.

Max: Stella and Alyssa were throwing singles everywhere. And they got the two dancers to have a twerking contest.

Chloe: Who won?

Max: According to Alyssa, we did :)

Chloe: And where were YOUR eyes in all this?

Max: On my phone, looking at your beautiful face as it stared at me from your contact photo.

Chloe: Uh-huh. NOW who’s full of shit?

Max: ... the bulge had to be fake. I mean, there’s no way they get that big in real life, right?


Max walked the rows of chairs, nervously checking to make sure that everything was perfect. 

The other five bridesmaids, as well as Chloe and Lynn, were all doing the same. There had been a mad rush of construction, towards the end of the week; when the catering and alcohol people had come to set up, they’d reported that tools were still out, and there were scraps of building material laying around the top two floors of the hotel. Everyone but Kate and Victoria was on the roof, doing last-minute checks of the area.

“Anything?” Dana asked as she met Max near the end of the aisle.

“Couple bits of trash.” Max held up some pieces of plastic. “You?”

Dana revealed a package of screws in her hand. “Found them near the water feature,” she said, pointing.

The roof was essentially split into two halves; one side had the space set up for the reception, including a dance floor, and the other was set up for the ceremony. Several rows of white chairs had been set up, facing the wedding arch. The scenery behind it made for an amazing view, to include a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Between the two sides, was a large rectangular pool that spanned most of the roof, with small pathways between either end of the water and the roof line. In the middle of the pool, stretching the entire length, was a raised granite planter, with flowers growing from the top and vines trailing into the water. Dana was pointing towards the far corner of the pool.

“Well, it’s not too bad, I guess.” Max shrugged, stuffing the plastic into her pants pocket. “Jake said he was up here before, and he found an entire toolbox sitting next to the arch. How’s that for photogenic?”

Dana snorted, glancing around. “Yea. They did fix this place up pretty quickly, though. I guess a couple of slip-ups are okay.”

Max glanced at the others as they joined them, all of them carrying small pieces of debris. Except Chloe, who had an eighteen-inch piece of two-by-four. “Where the hell did you find that??” Dana exclaimed.

“Sitting on top of one of the chairs.” Chloe smirked. “Which Taylor and Alyssa walked right past.”

“We were staring at the ground!” Taylor huffed, as Alyssa rolled her eyes.

“Whatever. Roof is clean.” Courtney tossed a few pieces of debris into the pool. “It’s time to get changed. The ceremony is in two hours.”

As they walked around the pool, a phone started to ring. Still making their way towards the elevator, they all checked their pockets, to see whose it was.

Lynn was the winner. “Hello?” she answered.

She listened, and stopped walking.

“Hi, Mom.”

As if cued, the other seven girls stopped and turned to Kate’s sister. Lynn kept the phone to her ear, an unreadable expression on her face.

“Seriously, Mom? You drove all the way to Michelle’s just to check on me?” Lynn closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Stella came up behind her, a concerned look on her face. “Michelle lives, like, forty-five minutes away!”

She paused, listening.

“Why? What does it matter where I am?”

“Dude, forget her,” Stella said quietly. “You’re an adult. Tell her to buzz off.”

Lynn looked back at Stella. Max could see gears turning in her head as a small smile came over her face.

“You know what, Stella? You’re right. I am an adult. I don’t have to account for myself twenty-four/seven.” Lynn turned back to the phone, listening for a few seconds. “Yea, I’m with Stella. Uh-huh. Yes.”

She paused again. “Of course I’m at Kate’s wedding,” she finally replied. “Unlike you, I was invited.”

The girls could hear the screeching through the speaker, as Lynn moved it a few inches back from her ear. Everyone started snickering at the indecipherable noise.

“Mother, if you’re not going to keep a civil tongue, I’m hanging up on you,” Lynn finally said in a condescending tone.

If her intent was to antagonize her mother, Lynn’s remarks were having the desired effect. The screaming reached a higher pitch, and Alyssa had to turn away as she snorted laughter into her hands.

“Look, Mom, we’re actually kind of busy, so unless you have something important to-” the volume of the noise dropped dramatically, and the girls heard a slightly calmer tone coming through the phone.

Lynn exhaled slowly. “Hey, Dad. How are things back home?”

She listened for a few seconds.

“I’m sorry you were worried for me. But I’m fine. I’m with Kate. Stella drove me to her wedding.”

She listened again.

“Well, Dad, quite frankly, I don’t care.” Lynn crossed her arms. “I was leaving for Caltech in a couple of months anyway. I just decided to spend them with my sister. You remember Kate, right? Your oldest daughter? About five-five, dark blonde hair, hazel eyes... yea, you say that, but it’s been so long since you saw or mentioned her that I was worried you’d forgotten.”

Max looked at Chloe, mouthing the word wow. The bluenette nodded back, an impressed look on her face as they listened.

“You know, Dad, you could try telling that to people who weren’t actually there when Mom had her mental breakdown last Christmas. They’d probably believe you.” Lynn shook her head as she kept listening. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. It certainly sounds like you’re taking it better than she is, though.”

She finally looked at her watch. “Look, Dad, I’d love to keep doing this, but we actually do have to go. The ceremony is starting in two hours, and I have to get ready.” She paused. “Kate asked me the other day if I would walk her down the aisle. I’m sure she would have loved to ask you, though, if you had ever sacked up to Mom. By the way, tell her next time she wants to cancel a wedding, she’s gonna have to try harder.”

Lynn took the phone from her ear and hit the power button, ending the call and turning her phone off. She slowly lowered it, sticking it back into her pocket silently.

“... holy shit,” Courtney remarked.

“Dude!” Dana held up her hand for a high-five. “That was the most gangster thing I have ever seen!”

Kate’s sister met her hand with a small smile on her face, as Taylor and Alyssa made similar remarks. “Are you okay?” Stella finally asked, a concerned look on her face.

“I, uh, kinda feel like I just ran a marathon,” Lynn admitted, slowly rubbing her hands together. “Like, oh my God, I just did that.”

Chloe smirked. “Speaking as someone who was there,” she commented, “you’re handling it a lot better than your sister did when SHE told your family off.”

“Yea, at least you didn’t destroy your phone,” Max added, looking at the roof line. “We’re a lot higher up than she was, too.”

“Okay, everyone, enough excitement.” Stella put her hand around Lynn’s shoulders, pushing her forward. “We’ve got hair, makeup, and dresses to put on.”

Chapter Text

Max had been to several wedding ceremonies in her life.

But all of them had been while she was at her old church. They were all very solemn affairs; nobody showed very much emotion, the remarks were brief, and the focus was more on God than the couple. And nobody ever got really dressed up for them; they all wore the same clothes they wore to regular services. Really, it was no more special than any ordinary Sunday to them.

“For if we worship man more than God, we commit an incredible sin”, Max remembered bitterly, rolling her eyes as she adjusted the gold bracelet around her wrist. Pretentious pricks.

She stood second in line, behind Alyssa, on their side of the roof; her and Stella had flipped a coin for the position, and Max had won. Opposite them, Taylor, Courtney, and Dana were lined up, waiting for the music to start. They all looked stunning in their gold dresses, with silver bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. They all carried white flowers, as well.

Behind them, stood Victoria and her father, Derek. He stood sharply in his tuxedo, keeping hold of Victoria’s arm as she made eyes with Kate from across the roof. Her smile was threatening to break her face as she blew kisses at her soon-to-be wife.

“Damn, we look good,” Alyssa commented as she looked down at her silver dress, holding her bouquet of yellow flowers up with one hand as she spun. “Hell, even Kate cleans up nice.”

“Oh, hush,” Max said with an eye roll as she looked back at Kate. Lynn had recovered from her phone call nicely; by unspoken agreement, none of the girls had mentioned it to Kate or Victoria, determined not to cast a shadow over the day. She stood, smiling, next to Kate as her sister sniffed, trying not to cry while smiling that her wedding day was finally there.

“Are they going to get going or what?” Stella stood on her toes, peeking over Max’s shoulder. “What are we waiting for?”

“Everyone to get seated, I think.” Alyssa turned back. “They should be... ah-ha!”

The music started, and everyone quickly shuffled back into line.

The bridesmaids walked out first. The six of them walked towards the center, zippering together one after the other as they made their way towards the arch. When Max walked down, she heard a sharp wolf-whistle from Victoria’s side of the aisle, and couldn’t stop herself from snickering as the other guests laughed. Thanks, Chloe.

She finally made her way to the front, and got a good look as she waited for Dana and Stella to take their places. This affair was anything but solemn; everyone looked absolutely thrilled to be there. Even the ones who had little connection to the couple, like Stella’s boyfriend Eric. Or Dana’s fiancé, Trevor.

Max even saw an older, blonde woman who could only have been Victoria’s mother, practically crying her eyes out in her seat. And her daughter’s not even out yet!

A few seconds later, the song changed, and everyone stood as Lynn and Kate appeared at the end of the aisle. Kate had such a happy look on her face as she clutched Lynn’s arm, her sister guiding her up to the arch. Upon their arrival they hugged for a few seconds, and Max could briefly hear them mumbling to each other before they separated, Lynn taking her seat on Kate’s side of the aisle.

Victoria and her father, Derek, started their walk a few moments later. Max had heard a lot about him over the last few days; his wealth, his success, and how much he loved and supported his daughter. He certainly does, for the money he shelled out to make this happen, Max thought as they walked. His chest was puffed out, and she could tell that he’d never been as proud as he was in that moment.

When he got to the arch, he gave Victoria a peck on the cheek before turning and hugging Kate as well. Max could see the wetness in his eyes as he went back to his wife. He didn’t even have to look at her as he dug a handkerchief from his pocket, passing it to her for her own tears.

Kate and Victoria, finally together under the arch, turned to each other, their smiles wider than Max would have thought possible.

The officiate took her place, briefly adjusting the microphone on her lapel. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered today...”

Max later would be completely unable to remember what the officiate had said.

To be fair, she was pretty sure nobody else did, either. Everyone had eyes on Kate and Victoria, who would have gotten through their vows a lot faster if they hadn’t started crying, promising to love each other forever and ever. When they finally got to the part where they exchanged rings, Max was willing to bet there was barely a dry eye in the audience.

There certainly isn’t one on stage,she thought to herself as she quickly wiped her own eyes.

She found out later that Derek had gotten Jake and Penny to help arrange his own surprise. While Victoria had been able to arrange for fireworks at the original venue, back in Los Angeles, there hadn’t been time to do so in San Francisco. Both Victoria and Kate had been disappointed, but they’d agreed that it didn’t matter to them as long as the ceremony went forward.

Derek Chase, however, was not about to let little things like permits and bureaucracy get in the way of his daughter’s wedding day. Not three seconds into ‘you may now kiss the bride’, while Kate and Victoria still had their lips together, the entire audience and bridal party jumped at the explosions above them, Kate and Victoria yelping in surprise as they looked up at the pyrotechnics in amazement.

Now laughing while crying, Kate and Victoria quickly finished their kiss while the fireworks went off over their heads.


The next twenty minutes was a whirlwind of activity. 

People slowly moved from the ceremony area to the other side of the roof, while the photographer positioned the wedding party and family members for pictures. Max, Alyssa, and Stella were quickly shuffled from one position to another, first with the entire wedding party, then with Victoria, then with Kate, then by themselves, then in a shot that included the bridge behind them... the photographer gave continuous orders, before finally booting everyone but the wedding couple out for their private shots.

“Thank God,” Alyssa breathed as they made their way to the reception. “I need booze. Damn photographers.”

“Those photos are gonna look great, though,” Stella pointed out as they walked around the pool. “Now, where’s Eric?”

“I think he’s over there with Trevor,” Dana pointed. “And I think they’re trying to light up a blunt.”

“Oh, God, please be kidding.” The two of them quickly vanished into the crowd. Max frowned as she surveyed the audience, looking for a familiar head of blue hair, not seeing her girlfriend anywhere. Not even at the bar, to her surprise.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

Max jumped, Chloe laughing as she spun around to face her. “Chloe!” she scolded.

“Couldn’t resist.” The bluenette smirked, smoothing out her dress; she’d managed to find a blue cocktail dress with purple trim, which matched her hair perfectly. “And consider that payback for taking so long with the pictures.”

“Yea, yea.” Max leaned up, pecking Chloe on the lips. “Where are Jake and Penny?”

Chloe nodded towards the bar. “Penny’s working the crowd. Apparently there’s a shitload of potential investors here. Jake, I think, is getting drunk with Charles.”

Max finally saw them, the two men trading shots of clear liquor. “Well, it is an open bar,” Max said with a shrug.

“Yep.” Chloe grinned. “Best part of a wedding, free top-shelf booze.”

Max glanced around, looking at the rest of the crowd. “Who are you looking for?” Chloe asked after a few seconds.

“A crazy woman who looks like an older version of Kate,” Max replied nervously.

“You don’t actually know what her mother looks like, do you?”

Max’s cheeks colored. “No.”

“Well, the security guards do.” Chloe nodded at a large man with no hair, wearing a suit, standing impassively at the roof entrance. “Victoria gave them her picture. Also, you remember that San Francisco is, like, an eight-hour drive from San Diego, and Kate’s mother doesn’t actually know where the wedding is?”

“Yea, I know.” Max sighed. “Still.”

“The Delusional One is not going to make an appearance. So forget about her.” Chloe smiled, grabbing Max’s arm. “Come on, you have GOT to try these hors d'oeuvres. They have these crab cakes, I don’t know what they put on them, but they’re fucking life-changing.”

When Kate and Victoria were announced and did the first dance twenty minutes later, the sun was finally going down and the lights were turned on. The lit-up rooftop looked even fancier under the lights strung overhead, contrasting against the darkening sky.

Max stood off to the side, watching the two girls dance while Chloe was at the bar getting drinks, when she heard the voice behind her. “You must be Max.”

She turned and saw Derek Chase behind her, smiling. “Uh, yea. That’s me.” Max smiled back, trying to forget that the man in front of her could probably buy the entire state twice. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s all mine.” He took her hand, shaking gently. “I wanted to make sure I thanked you personally, for what you did for my daughter.”

Max blinked. “What?”

“This venue.” Derek gestured around them. “I know you were the one who made it possible.”

“Oh- oh, no, no way.” She shook her head vigorously. “Jake and Penny were the ones who found it. I just called them to ask for help. You should thank them.”

“I did, profusely.” His eyes twinkled. “But if you hadn’t been there, at their worst, then they would have been forced to postpone. I know neither of them wanted that. And I know you and your girlfriend have been good friends to them, as well.” He nodded towards the bar. “I can’t thank you enough for supporting them.”

Max squirmed, uncomfortable with the praise. “I’m happy to help,” she said honestly. “They’re amazing, and they deserved this. Especially after...” her voice trailed off.

“So they did.” Derek nodded, reaching into his jacket pocket. “I wanted you to have this, Max. As a token of my gratitude.”

Max frowned as she accepted a black business card from him. “What is it?” she asked, flipping it over. There were no names, or markings on the thick card, save for a single phone number embossed in silver on the back.

“It’s a favor.” He smiled. “My daughter’s happiness means everything to me, Max. More than all the money in my pocket. And you helped make it possible. If there’s ever anything I can do for you,” he added, indicating the card, “don’t hesitate to ask.”

With that, he turned and left back into the crowd.

Chapter Text

Steph: So, how was the wedding? 

Max: It was amazing. The venue looked great, and Kate and Victoria were so happy. We were there for most of the night.

Steph: Any family drama from the psycho-in-law?

Max: LOL, I think I like that name better than Delusional One. But other than a phone call to Kate’s sister, no. She didn’t make an appearance.

Steph: Good. They deserved a drama-free day.

Max: Yea, they did. We didn’t expect any, though. After what happened in April, Kate and Victoria put all the wedding info on lockdown. Even Lynn didn’t know where it was going to be until she got to Los Angeles.

Max: I don’t even think her mother knew they were in San Francisco.

Steph: Smart. Where are they now? Honeymoon?

Max: Yea. Victoria’s dad gifted them a two-week vacation in Europe. They're hitting all the tourist cities.

Max: According to Facebook, they’re in Rome right now.

Steph: Damn. I gotta find me a rich girl.

Max: Rachel’s dad isn’t exactly poor, you know.

Steph: Oh, shut the hell up.


Lynn: Can I ask you a question?

Max: Sure, what’s up?

Lynn: Do you ever miss home?

Max: What, the town I grew up in, or my family?

Lynn: Well, I figured not your family.

Max: Sometimes I miss Arcadia Bay. I liked the town well enough.

Max: Missing San Diego?

Lynn: A little bit.

Max: You can always go back, you know.

Lynn: My mom is pretty pissed at me. She left some very angry messages on my phone during the wedding.

Lynn: I don’t think I can go home anymore.

Max: Lynn, I am so sorry.

Lynn: It’s not her I miss, though. It’s Jessica. And my dad, oddly enough.

Lynn: He never said anything bad about Kate being gay. I mean, he never defended her to my mom, when she started on her tirades, but I never heard anything negative from his mouth.

Max: Can’t you call him? Doesn’t he have a phone?

Lynn: After what I said to him? I’m pretty sure he hates me, too.

Max: Maybe you can save it. You were pretty angry. I know you were lashing out.

Max: You don’t have to apologize for what you said. But maybe you can make sure he understands why you’re upset.

Lynn: True.

Lynn: Ugh. Maybe I’ll call him today. I’m so bored here.

Max: Well, Kate and Victoria won’t be back for a few days. Maybe you can give Alyssa a call, I’m sure she’d love to hang out.

Lynn: That sounds like way more fun than an uncomfortable conversation with my dad.

Max: Plus, she’ll probably bring wine.

Lynn: Sold.


Chloe: Hey, dickface.

Jake: What’s up, rotten-crotch?

Chloe: I just wanted to remind you to be careful with your Tony Romo jersey. It’s a choking hazard, after all.

Jake: How dark is it in your stadium again? I know it’s difficult, living in Seattle’s shadow.

Chloe: Can you give Max a ride home today? I’m stuck at a job site down town.

Jake: Yea, sure. Everything alright?

Chloe: Some jackass at a law firm downloaded porn that had ransomware in it. They didn’t pay, and the hackers fried their shit.

Chloe: I’ve been here all day, setting up their new server.

Jake: That sucks. I’m sure he’ll get a very stern talking-to.

Chloe: I got to watch them fire and trespass him. He cried like a bitch.

Chloe: Anyway, thanks man. I would’ve told Max, but she’s not answering her phone.

Jake: Yea, she forgot it at her desk. She’s with Penny today.

Chloe: Doing what?

Jake: They went to the dealership, to deal with a problem.

Jake: As part of a promotion, the salespeople put 49ers bumper stickers on the cars, but now they won’t work on Sundays.

Chloe: You guys should try putting Cowboys tickets on the dashboards. Then the drivers can park in handicapped spots.


Max: You just got a package delivered to the office.

Penny: I did?

Max: Yea. Were you expecting something?

Penny: I was not. Where is it from?

Max: It’s weird. It’s got a UPC code in the return address, and a P.O. box. It’s a pretty non-descript bubble envelope.

Max: Do you want me to open it?

Penny: Yea, just in case it’s something important.

Max: Um...

Penny: What? What’s inside?

Max: <dvd.jpg>

Penny: THAT FUCKER!!

Max: Why are you having porn sent to the office?

Penny: I’M NOT

Penny: MY GODDAMN BOYFRIEND THINKS HE’S FUNNY

Max: Why is Charles sending porn to the office?!

Penny: Because I sent a three-foot-tall teddy bear to HIS office as a joke!

Penny: He was really embarrassed, and said he’d get me back!

Penny: Hide it. Hide it now, quickly, before Jake or the others see it.

Max: Too late. Jake and Tucker are rolling on the floor.

Max: Hayden's asking if the HR guidelines need to be re-done.

Max: And Sarah wants to know if she can borrow it when you’re finished.

Penny: FUCK


Chloe: So, your dad still interacts with Herr Fuckface, right?

Rachel: Okay, I’m assuming you mean Max’s father, but my dad IS the District Attorney. “Herr Fuckface” could be a number of people.

Rachel: And yea, from time to time. Why?

Chloe: Has he given any indication of knowing anything about Max? Where she lives, what she does, whatever?

Chloe: I’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop since January, and it’s bothering me.

Rachel: Let me ask. BRB.

Rachel: He says not to him. He did say that Ryan finally accessed the Missing Persons case file. But Max’s current location isn’t in there.

Chloe: What about you? Your office seems to deal with him a lot.

Rachel: Not normally face-to-face, like we did when you were there. Usually it’s through the court. We think he somehow knew the girl he was looking for, Brooke Scott, was in the office and wanted to see her.

Chloe: That’s disturbing.

Rachel: Yea, no kidding.

Chloe: You’re sure he didn’t know about Max?

Rachel: Positive. I didn’t tell anyone she was coming, except my boss, the night before. Nobody else even knew that I knew her, until you guys showed up that morning.

Chloe: I had a war council meeting after we left. Victoria said we need to limit what we tell you, in case you get deposed.

Rachel: Admitting this leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but she’s probably right. I don’t think it’ll happen, but better safe than sorry.

Rachel: If asked in a deposition, I would have to admit that Max is in SF. But that’s it.

Chloe: Can Fuckface even ask that? She has nothing to do with the Brooke girl.

Rachel: He’s a good lawyer. He’d find a way to link them.

Chloe: What about her mother? Where is she?

Rachel: My dad has no idea. Most likely back at the church, but my dad hasn’t seen her.

Rachel: Then again, it’s not like he goes out of his way to see any of them.


Brooke: Regina is pregnant. She told us. 

Max: You got her to talk?

Brooke: Sort of. She had a really bad nightmare, and we sat with her until she calmed down. She spilled everything.

Brooke: It’s not her husband’s baby. It’s her husband’s father’s.

Max: What?!

Brooke: She told us some... really bad stuff.

Brooke: But she made us promise not to tell Miss Amber. She still loves her husband. She just couldn’t be around his dad anymore. That’s why she left.

Brooke: I don’t know what to do. I want to tell Miss Amber, so that motherfucker can go to prison. But I’m afraid of what Regina will do if she finds out we snitched.

Max: You should convince her to report it. That man is a predator. He’s likely done that kind of thing before. And her husband deserves to know what his father did to his wife.

Brooke: Yea... her husband already knows.

Max: Excuse me?

Brooke: That prick told her that she needed to keep it quiet, for the sake of the church, because First Light didn’t need anymore bad publicity.

Max: Fuck him, then. He’s just as bad as his fucking father.

Brooke: What do I do? I don’t want to lose the confidence she has in us. Emily and I are tearing our hair out over this.

Max: Okay. You’re trying to be the friends she needs right now. That’s important, especially so soon after she leaves the church.

Max: But this is beyond that. This is not a secret you keep, not when there’s a predator on the loose. It’s more than keeping her confidence, it’s about the safety of all the other children still in the church.

Max: Tell Miss Amber. Let her handle it. Maybe there’s a way she could deal with it that doesn’t involve the two of you, maybe not. But this is something she needs to know.

Brooke: Okay.

Brooke: Emily’s gonna call her later. We’ll figure it out.


Steph: I just heard from the PI. He may know who my dad is. 

Chloe: Holy shit, seriously??

Chloe: I didn’t know you were still looking. I honestly thought you’d given up.

Steph: Well, the fee he charged me wasn’t TOO bad. And he did tell me a few times that he was still looking into it, so I let it go.

Steph: But he thinks he may have a lead now.

Chloe: So? What’s up? Tell me!

Steph: He checked some records in San Bernardino, and got a list of motorcycle rallies that took place back then. And he figured out which MCs were going.

Steph: Then he started looking at their membership rosters from way back when, in the early 90s. And the pictures they have on their web sites, of the older bikers.

Steph: He actually told me he wasn’t very hopeful in the beginning, and it was kind of a long shot. But he might have actually found the guy. An older dude, age is right, something about the shape of our chins and earlobes, and he said he’s got the same shade of blue eyes I do. Apparently it’s not that common.

Chloe: Really? Because you two look sort-of alike, he thinks he might be the guy?

Steph: Well, also, there’s a picture of him with a woman on the back of his motorcycle. The PI thinks it could be my mother.

Chloe: For real?

Steph: He says it’s hard to tell for sure, because the woman is wearing sunglasses. And it’s a scan of a photo from the early nineties, so, you know, quality’s not great.

Steph: But he thinks, overall, that it’s enough to go ask for a DNA test.

Steph: He actually has to go see the guy, though. The dude is in an MC called the Locos Lobos, but he used to be a Hell’s Angel. He lives in Santa Cruz.

Chloe: Damn, your potential father is a fucking badass.

Steph: Yea, I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems less likely that he’ll want to talk to me.

Chloe: So he’s going to go see him?

Steph: It depends on me. I’d have to pay for the trip, which would be a couple hundred bucks. And it’s not guaranteed that this dude would even be interested, never mind consent to a DNA test.

Chloe: Is it the money that’s the issue?

Steph: Not as much as the uncertainty, no.

Chloe: Well, it’s your decision, no question about it... but how are you going to feel if you don’t do it? This guy could be your father. He might not be, but you never know.

Chloe: And if you tell the PI not to bother, you’re gonna wonder for the rest of your life.

Steph: ... fuck. Yea, I will.

Steph: I’ll have him do it in a little bit. Save up the money, you know, lessen the blow to the ol' bank account.

Chloe: Atta girl.

Chapter Text

August, 2019

“And...” Max tapped the Enter key on her keyboard. “That’s it. That was the last assignment of the class.”

“Nice.” Chloe sipped her beer as she lay on the bed, playing with Max’s Switch. “And it only took you all day. Way to procrastinate.”

Max rolled her eyes. “Shut up,” she grumbled as she stood from the couch, turned, and collapsed face-first onto the bed next to Chloe. “I’m tired.”

“I bet, since you were up all night.” Chloe smirked. “Doesn’t your next class start in four days?”

The brunette lifted her head up, glaring at her girlfriend. “I don’t think that reminder was necessary,” she growled.

“I know.” Chloe reached over and rubbed Max’s back softly. “Hey, one more year to go. You’re basically a senior now.”

“Mm.” Max dropped her head back down. “I do like the sound of that.”

“Of course, it’s all the hard classes at the end.”

Max groaned into the comforter. “I hate you so much.”

Chloe chuckled as her phone rang on the counter. “Dammit,” she sighed, pausing the game and getting up. “I knew I shouldn’t have taken the on-call rotation this weekend.” She grabbed her phone and answered it. “Hello?”

She listened for a minute. “Got it,” she said curtly as she hung up, typed out a rapid text message, then dropped her phone into her pocket as she went to their closet.

“You have to go in?” Max asked.

Chloe didn’t answer. Max frowned as she rolled over and sat up, listening to Chloe rummage around the closet. “Babe?”

“Max, come here. Need you.”

Max stood as her phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out as she made her way towards Chloe.

Her girlfriend had sent out a mass text. Max, Jake, Penny, Steph, Rachel, Victoria, and a couple of other numbers she didn’t recognize had all received it.

Chloe: FIREBUG

Max looked up at Chloe as she walked into their closet. “What the hell is Fire-”

The bluenette snatched the phone from Max’s hands, stuffing it into a black bag made of thick fabric.

“Hey!” Max objected. Chloe ignored her and dropped her own phone in after it, quickly sealing the Velcro on top. “What are you doing? What is that?”

“It’s a Faraday bag. It blocks wireless signals, so people can’t track your phone.” She stuck it on the top shelf of the closet. “Here,” she continued, grabbing Max’s duffle bag from the floor and shoving it into her hands. “Pack a few days’ worth of clothes. We’re leaving.”

“What? Why?!”

Chloe looked Max in the eye. “That was Jake, that called. A woman just showed up at his apartment looking for you. She had your picture and everything.”

Max’s eyes got wide. “Oh, fuck,” she whispered.

“Yea. Pack clothes. Now.” Chloe picked up her own backpack and started grabbing clothing off of hangars. “His apartment is twenty minutes away. We’re leaving in five, so hurry up.”

Max frantically grabbed a few shirts, some underwear and socks, jeans, and a couple of hoodies. She swiped her toothbrush from the bathroom as well. “Did he know who it was? Or what she wanted?” Max asked as she zipped the bag up.

“Nope. But we’re not taking any chances.” Chloe placed her bag on their bed and dropped to the floor, crawling underneath it. She came back up with a shoebox, opening it to reveal the contents; an old-school flip phone, a couple of chargers, and a small stack of money. She dumped everything into her backpack before she zipped it shut. “Are you done?”

“Uh, yea.”

“Good. Come on.” Chloe grabbed Max’s arm and dragged her outside, making sure to turn off all the lights before she locked the door behind them.

“What did Jake say?” Max said as Chloe ushered her towards her truck.

“Just that a woman had shown up at his apartment. Tall, pretty, brown hair. She said she was looking for Maxine Caulfield, and had his apartment as your address of record.” Chloe opened the driver’s door of the truck, shoving Max inside towards the passenger seat. “Jake said you were his roommate for a while, but you’d moved over a year ago, and he didn’t know where you were.”

“And what does Firebug mean?” Max asked as Chloe got in the truck behind her, shutting the door. The bluenette quickly removed the cell phone and a charger from her bag, plugging it into the car.

“It was something we all came up with,” she said as she started the truck, backing up before she peeled out of the lot. “If anything like this happened, it was a code word to let everyone know that we were dipping out, and shutting off our cell phones. And that someone should expect us to show up at their place unannounced.”

“Seriously?” Max stared at her with wide eyes. “You guys came up with an escape plan for me?!”

Chloe smirked. “Well, after your little stunt in January, everyone thought it might be prudent to have one.”

Max opened her mouth to argue, but decided against it. “So where are we going?”

“The mall.” Chloe took a turn, heading for the highway. “We’re gonna catch a taxi from there.”


Chloe parked her truck on one side of the mall lot, then took Max through the massive parking lot, making their way to the other end. While they were walking, Chloe used the new phone to call for a taxi to meet them. 

She took a stack of cards that were rubber-banded to the money as well, and selected one at random. “Take us here,” she told the driver as they got in.

Thirty minutes later, Chloe and Max were knocking on Steph’s door.

“There you guys are,” Steph breathed as she opened the door for them. “Come on, get inside.”

They slipped in quickly, Steph closing and locking the door behind them. “Are you talking to the others?” Chloe asked, dropping her backpack on the counter.

“Yea. Jake filled us all in.” Steph sat down at her kitchen table, going back to her laptop. “I’ll do the thing really quick.”

Max set her own bag down, peeking over Steph’s shoulder as she typed.

Steph: Has anyone heard from those two yet?

“Why are you asking?” Max frowned.

“That’s part of the plan,” Steph explained. “The first person to ask is the one who’s got you two.”

Jake: Nope.

Victoria: Not yet.

Penny: No.

Rachel: Me either.

David: Still waiting.

Max turned to Chloe. “Exactly how much James Bond were you guys watching when you came up with this?”

“All of it.” Chloe shrugged, grabbing a couple of beers from Steph’s fridge. “Seriously, though, it was mostly David’s plan.”

Max snorted, turning back to Steph. “Now what?”

Steph accepted a beer from Chloe, twisting off the cap. “Now we wait,” she replied as she turned back to the chat.

Jake: David, have you heard anything back?

David: I gave the description of this woman to an old friend in the SFPD. She checked it against all the registered PIs. There are only a few females, and none of them match. Nor do any of them have the name ‘Elizabeth’.

Victoria: She could be from out of state.

Rachel: Are we making too much of an assumption? It might not have been a PI.

David: Possibly. But it’s the most likely scenario, and the easiest to verify.

Steph started typing.

Steph: What did she say again?

Jake: I answered the door, and she said her name was Elizabeth. No last name. She said she was looking for Maxine Caulfield, and she had a photo of her face. And she had my apartment as her current address.

Penny: Did you recognize the picture?

Jake: No. It was from the neck up. And I only saw it for a few seconds. All I can tell you is that it wasn’t from her state ID, so she didn’t get it from the DMV. It looked like it may have been cropped from a larger photo.

“I don’t understand.” Chloe folded her arms. “How could this woman know that Max is in San Francisco? And where would she get a photo?”

David: Could you guess if it was posed? Or candid?

“I think you and your stepdad are on the same train of thought,” Max offered.

Jake: She was looking straight into the camera and smiling. I would say posed.

David: Like a professional photo?

Jake: Maybe? It was pretty pixelated. It looked like it was printed from the internet or something.

“Oh... fuck.”

Steph and Max glanced at Chloe. “What?”

“The wedding pictures.” Chloe looked at Max, grimacing. “Kate and Vic just got them back from the photographer last week. Did they put them on Facebook?”

Steph blinked, then whipped her head back to the computer.

Steph: Victoria, are your wedding pics on Facebook?

Victoria: ...

Victoria: Oh, shit.

“Mystery solved.” Steph leaned back in her chair. “Not that it does us any good. This woman, whoever she is, already has your picture. And I’m sure Victoria’s wedding photos were geotagged as being in San Francisco.”

Victoria: God damn it. We were so excited to get them back, we didn’t even think about it.

David: It’s fine. We figured they would find out what city she was in sooner or later.

Penny: Yea, I don’t think anyone’s gonna blame you for that.

Victoria: I am so sorry.

Max leaned over Steph’s shoulder and started typing.

Steph: Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they’d understand.

Victoria: You think so?

Steph nudged Max out of the way. “Gimme.”

Steph: We can ask them when we see them. But yea, I think so.

Penny: So now what? Do we wait for his woman to surface again, or do we get proactive?

David: We’re about as proactive as we can be, at the moment. If anyone else has this woman knock on their door, they need to try and get more info. But for now, whenever and wherever Max and Chloe show up, they need to lay low.

“Yea, figured that much out,” Steph remarked dryly.

James: Sorry, everyone. Just got back.

“Rachel’s dad is in on this too?!” Max asked incredulously.

“Oh, yea.” Steph nodded, shooting her a look. “I know this might be hard to believe, Max, but there are a lot of people who don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Rachel: Did you find anything out?

James: Not really. I had the police check the state’s Private Investigator database. There are two women with variations of the name Elizabeth, but one is African-American, and the other is in her late forties.

Jake: Definitely not her. She looked mid-twenties, thirty at the most. And was very much white.

David: Is this kind of behavior consistent with the church? Sending a PI, or anyone really, after someone?

James: It’s highly unusual. They’re not against violence, as I’m sure you’re aware, but they rarely send anyone after somebody who leaves. They prefer to have Ryan Caulfield fight through the courts.

Penny: So who could this woman be, if not a PI?

James: If I was to hazard a guess, I would put money on a process server. Most likely, if the church has decided to harass Maxine, they’ll do so through the legal system.

Steph started typing again.

Steph: So you don’t think Max is in danger?

James: Not physically, no. Still, until we’re certain of this woman’s identity and intentions, it would be best if she were to stay out of sight.

David: This woman is likely not done for the day. If she struck out at Jake’s apartment, her next stop will be Max’s place of employment.

Penny: Our office is closed on Sundays.

David: Then she’ll try and work out who Max’s friends are, and visit them as well. She may already have a list of names and addresses.

Rachel: How would she get them?

David: If she was able to get Max’s address from the DMV, then we can’t underestimate how much she might know.

Jake: Victoria, Max isn’t tagged in the photos, is she?

Victoria: Sort of. We tagged her with her name, but it didn’t link to her Facebook account.

Jake: Why not?

David: She changed her name on Facebook last year, before she went to Arcadia Bay.

Victoria: Yea. Kate is removing the tags right now. And deleting all the photos that Max is in.

James: That works in our favor. Still, if this woman did manage to find Maxine’s real Facebook account, then she might know who her friends are.

James: Wherever Maxine shows up, she should be extra careful.

“We’re friends with you on Facebook,” Chloe pointed out to Steph. “This woman could be on her way here.”

“Well, she’s not getting inside.” Steph shook her head, then looked at Max. “You’ll be safe here, don’t worry.”

Max sighed as she sat at the table. “Great,” she muttered. “Instead of coming to kill me, my father is just going to sue me into oblivion.”

“Eh.” Chloe shrugged. “How much do you really have to lose? Not like you’re rich or anything.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.”

Chapter Text

The two girls wound up spending most of the day on Steph’s couch, watching TV quietly; while their friend was happy to keep them, she still had work do do.

Max spent a little time watching Steph use a paint program on her tablet, as she drew an intricate fantasy character. “He’s supposed to be a holy warrior from another planet,” Steph explained as she drew the tall humanoid with grey skin. He carried a large sword in one hand, while his other was extended with a red aura around it. “His abilities include gravity manipulation, and being a real son of a bitch.”

“That’s pretty wicked,” Max admitted. “When is this video game coming out?”

“It might not.” Steph smirked as she added details to the alien’s clothing and armor. “This is all concept art. The developer hasn’t reserved funding yet. But if it does, we’re looking at a couple of years.”

“That long?”

“It takes time.” Steph shrugged. “Programming, animation, voice work, music... these things don’t come together overnight.”

Other than that, Max spent the rest of the day leaning against Chloe, watching Netflix. The bluenette looped her arm around Max’s shoulder comfortingly, keeping a tight grip as they surfed through the various shows.

“I’m gonna order some pizza,” Steph finally said as it started to get dark. “Pepperoni good?”

“Works for me.” Max sighed as Chloe let go of her shoulder and stretched. “Have you heard anything back from the others?”

“No.” Steph picked up her phone, double-checking. “Whoever she is, this woman hasn’t popped up since she went to see Jake.”

Chloe looked over the back of the couch. “Order the pizza with cash,” she said. “I can cover for it.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Steph glanced at the TV. “Alexa, open Dominos and place my saved order.”

The black cylinder in front of the TV came to life, a blue ring illuminating around the top. “Confirm Dominos saved order?

“Yes.”

“Ordering now.

“Dude, that is cool as fuck!” Chloe leaned forward, a big smile on her face. “Max, we should totally get one of those!”

“Yea, sure.” Max rolled her eyes. “Says the girl who insists on taping over the camera on her laptop. Now you want a microphone in our apartment?”

Chloe considered, then shook her head. “But... I can order pizza just by asking!”

“Hey, I’m good with it,” Max replied with a grin. “Just making sure you saw the hypocrisy.”

There was a knock on the door, about ten minutes later. “Wow, and they’re here quick!” Chloe commented as she got up. “The future is now!”

“No, Chloe,” Steph started to object as she got to the door, “It’s way too early, it takes them twenty minutes to-”

Too late. Chloe opened the door and blinked. “You’re not pizza.”

“Um... no?” The woman on the other side of the door was confused. “I’m sorry, I was looking for Steph Gingrich.”

Oh, shit.

Max immediately shrank down into the couch as Steph stood up, not speaking as she stared towards Chloe. “And who are you?” The bluenette asked cautiously.

“My name is Elizabeth,” she answered. “Does she still live here? I just wanted to ask her a couple of qu-”

Blindingly fast, Chloe reached out and grabbed the woman by her collar, yanking her inside and slamming the door behind her. “HEY!!” she yelped.

Chloe slammed Elizabeth into the kitchen wall. “What the FUCK do you want?!” she snarled.

“What the fuck?! Let go of me, you goddamn psycho!” Elizabeth yelled back, lifting her arms and trying to shove at Chloe. The bluenette grabbed her wrist, then twisted the other woman’s arm around. In a second, she had Elizabeth bent over as she pushed the side of her face into Steph’s kitchen table.

“I asked you a FUCKING question!” Chloe jerked Elizabeth’s arm high along her back, eliciting a cry of pain. “What the fuck do you want?! Why are you here?!”

“OWOWOW!! Let me GO!”

The woman tried to fight back, but Chloe had her at a complete disadvantage; every time Elizabeth tried to get free, Chloe wrenched her arm higher up the back of her spine, increasing the amount of pain she was in.

“Not until you answer me!” Chloe spat. “Why are you looking for Steph?”

“I just wanted to ask her a couple of questions! That’s all! Let go of me!”

“Questions about WHAT?!” Chloe tweaked Elizabeth’s arm again.

“OW! FUCK! Alright, ALRIGHT! I wanted to ask her if she knew where Max Caulfield lived!” she cried out. “Let me fucking go!”

“Why are you looking for Max??” Chloe growled, tightening her grip on the other woman’s wrist. “What do you want with her?!”

Max and Steph were staring, shocked. Max had never seen Chloe this mad before, not even when she’d been assaulted in the bar; it was a little disconcerting, if not scary. Steph was also too surprised to say anything, watching with wide eyes as Chloe interrogated the woman.

“What?! Why the fuck does it matter to you??” Elizabeth struggled again, reaching at Chloe with her free hand.

Chloe narrowed her eyes and pulled Elizabeth’s arm up even further, to a point where Max was afraid that she was going to pop the woman’s arm out of it’s socket.

“AAAAAAHHHHH! FUCK! I JUST WANT TO INTERVIEW HER!! THAT’S ALL!! I JUST WANT AN INTERVIEW!!” Elizabeth screamed, picking her head up.

Chloe’s face finally went from angry to confused. “What?”

“Jesus Christ!” the woman cried, Chloe finally bringing her wrist back down. “I want to interview her for a story I’m writing! That’s all! I swear!”

Steph furrowed her brow, as she finally got a look at the woman’s face. “What the fu- Juliet?!” she exclaimed, stepping forward. “Juliet Watson, is that YOU?!”

Elizabeth- or Juliet, apparently- finally saw Steph standing opposite her. “Steph! Make this crazy bitch let go of me!” she yelled desperately.

“Juliet, what are you doing down here?!” Steph asked. “I thought you were working in Seattle or something! Why are you running all over San Francisco looking for Max?!”

Juliet blinked. “How the hell did you know I was- OW!” she yelped as Chloe twisted her arm again. “Fuck! Stop!”

“Do you know this girl, Steph?” Chloe asked.

“Yea. We went to high school together.” Steph folded her arms, staring at Juliet. “Jesus, Juliet, what the hell?! We haven’t spoken in years, and you just knock on my door with a fake name?!”

“It’s my old pen name!” Juliet gasped, her face twisted in pain. “I go by Elizabeth when I deal with people I don’t know! Now tell your girlfriend to let me go!”

Steph gave Chloe a look. “Maybe you can let go of her now,” she said. “I don’t think she’s a threat.”

“You sure she’s not with the church?” Chloe asked cautiously.

“Yea, no, she’s not with First Light.” Steph turned back to Juliet. “Are you?”

“Fuck no!” Juliet shook her head. “I’m trying to write a story about them! That’s why I’m looking for-” she stopped, finally noticing Max as she stood behind Steph. “Wait, Max? Is that you?”

Chloe jerked her arm, producing another yelp of pain. “What the hell do you mean, you’re trying to write a story?”

“I’m a reporter! I’m writing a story about First Light! It’s my fucking job!”

Chloe and Steph exchanged glances. “Prove it,” Chloe ordered.

“Check my back pocket! Left side!” she replied angrily. “That’s my press pass!”

The bluenette fished into Juliet’s jeans, producing a laminated ID card on a lanyard. She tossed it to Steph, who examined it. “You work for the Seattle Times?”

“Yes! Now, call off your fucking attack dog!”

Chloe looked like she was considering, for a moment. Finally, she pulled Juliet back upright and pushed her away, sending her stumbling into the wall.

“Shit!” she gasped, wincing as she held her shoulder. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

“Juliet, we thought you were working for First Light,” Steph handed the reporter her ID back. “The guy you visited this morning, Jake? He called everyone right after you left., and told us that some mysterious woman had showed up, looking for Max.”

The reporter glared between Steph and Chloe. “And what, your girlfriend decided to assault me until I told you who I was?!”

“She not my girlfriend. She’s Max’s.”

The reporter absorbed that information, glancing between Chloe and Max. “What, did you think I was coming to kill her or something?”

“Nobody knew who the fuck you were,” Chloe snapped. “Or why the fuck you were here, looking for Max.”

“So rather than ASK me, you decided to just try and break my goddamn arm?!”

Chloe narrowed her eyes. “I haven’t figured for sure one way or another yet, you little-”

“Okay, maybe we can calm down a bit,” Steph interrupted, moving between the two of them. “Juliet, how exactly did you manage to figure out where Max lived?”

Juliet took a deep breath, still holding her arm gingerly as she leaned against the wall. “I’m still Facebook friends with Dana Ward,” she answered. “I saw her in Victoria Chase’s wedding photos, and that Max was one of the bridesmaids. My paper has a contact with the LAPD, and I asked them to run a discreet search on Max’s name in the California DMV. That’s how I got her address.”

“And you just decided to show up out of the blue?” Chloe asked incredulously. “Why not, I don’t know, CALL her? Or shoot her a message through Facebook?”

“I couldn’t find her on Facebook. Or her phone number. Otherwise, I would have,” Juliet shot back. “I got permission from my editor to see if I could track her down in person.”

“Why didn’t you just call Dana, then?” Chloe pointed out. “Ask her, explain why, all that. Then we could have saved everyone the heart attack.”

“Yea, you know, I never thought about that,” Juliet kept her glare on the bluenette. “Because that was the first thing I learned, when I became an investigative reporter, that I should go around blabbing about what I’m working on to people that don’t need to know about it. Especially a world-class gossip like Dana. I had no idea people were wound up so tight about Max’s location. This was supposed to be an easy trip, not a goddamn Guantanamo Bay interrogation!”

Max finally spoke up. “What do you want, exactly?” she asked. “What story are you working on, and what does it have to do with First Light?”

Juliet looked at her. “I’m doing an exposé piece, about your old church,” she answered. “I’ve been working on it ever since we learned about their expansion project.”

“What expansion project?” Max and Chloe asked simultaneously.

The reporter grimaced. “I found out, a couple of months ago, that they were planning on opening another one of their churches just outside of Tacoma. Since I’m more or less familiar with their fuckery, I let my editor know a little bit about them, and we agreed that we should do a piece on their history. So the public is aware of who’s moving in down the street. But we wanted to talk to someone who was IN First Light, to make sure the story has an impact.”

Steph heaved a deep sigh, rubbing her forehead with one hand. “We’re sorry, Juliet,” she said. “When you showed up at Jake’s apartment, he called Chloe, and she hustled Max over here, in case you had her new address.”

“I don’t. I’ve been calling a few people, to try and find her, but I wasn’t making any progress. I heard a rumor that you two were back on speaking terms, so I figured I’d swing by and ask you.” Juliet glanced between Steph and Chloe. “Are you guys really that worried about her safety?” she asked, sounding slightly less angry.

“Extremely,” Steph replied.

“Well... fuck.” Juliet sighed and shook her head, turning to Max. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Like I told you, I just wanted to find you and ask for an interview. So you could give me some insight into your old church. I figured, you know, since you ran away from them, you could probably give me some better info than the police reports.”

Max pursed her lips, slowly nodding. “Yea. I, uh...” she hesitated. “Sorry my girlfriend tried to kill you.”

Chloe scoffed.

“Why do you want to interview ME, though?” Max asked. “I’m not the only one who ran away from the church.”

“Well, I don’t really know anyone else from that church. And you’re the daughter of one of their authority figures,” Juliet replied. “I figured you would be familiar with their inner workings.”

“Not really.” Max shrugged. “My parents kept me away from everything. I didn’t even know that they were abusing gay kids until the one pastor got arrested for it.”

“Well, even if you don’t know much, an interview from one of their Elder’s kids is a good way to deliver a slap in the face.” Juliet smirked, though it faded quickly. “I can promise that I won’t reveal your location,” she assured her. “Even under oath, I’ll refuse to testify. There is very clear precedent in place, for a reporter protecting her sources.”

Max considered her proposal. She was still thinking about it when the doorbell rang.

“That’ll be the pizza.” Steph glanced back at Juliet. “How about we take a few deep breaths over some food? Call it our way of apologizing for grievous bodily harm.”

Chapter Text

Steph: Okay, we can call off the hounds.

David: You have something? 

Steph: Yea. The woman came to my apartment looking for me. Because she knew me from high school, and thought I might know Max’s new address.

Steph: Elizabeth is her alias. Her real name is Juliet Watson.

Rachel: It’s Juliet?? Are you for real??

Victoria: What the fuck is she doing in San Francisco?

Penny: You guys know her?

Victoria: We went through high school with her. Last I heard, she’s a reporter in Seattle.

Steph: Still is. She came into town to try and find Max, so she could interview her.

James: Why does she want to interview Max?

Steph: She’s doing a story on First Light. Did you know that they’re trying to open a church in Tacoma, Mr. Amber?

James: No, I did not.

Rachel: What, are they trying to expand?

David: That’s probably the cover story for more nefarious reasons. Religious organizations like First Light often open new churches in different states or countries, to make it easier to move people out of jurisdictions that may want to try them for crimes.

James: I was thinking the same thing. A phone call to the DA in Tacoma might be in order.

Jake: Where is this Juliet now?

Steph: At my kitchen table, eating pizza with Max and Chloe.

Penny: If she showed up unannounced, I’m surprised Chloe didn’t kill her.

Steph: It wasn’t for lack of trying.

Rachel: ... she says, forgetting that there’s a police officer and a prosecutor reading these texts.

David: Out of my jurisdiction.

James: Not my state, not my problem.

Victoria: Did she say how she found her?

Steph: Yea. Keep deleting the photos of Max from Facebook.

Victoria: Dammit.

Victoria: Please tell Max I’m sorry.

Steph: She forgives you. She says she didn’t think about it either. Neither did Chloe.

Jake: Okay, so, is Max going to do this interview?

Steph: I think she’s seriously leaning towards ‘yes’.

Steph: Juliet says that she won’t give up anything about Max, even under oath. She says she can refuse to answer questions. Is she right?

James: More or less. California, Oregon, and Washington all have Shield Laws that afford journalists protection from being forced to reveal a source. Ryan Caulfield can still try to depose her, but I imagine that whatever outlet she works for would very quickly quash the subpoena in court.

Rachel: And knowing her, even if she did have to go, she’ll just tell him to fuck off. On the record.


“Everything alright?” Juliet asked Steph as she put her phone down. 

“Yea, it’s fine.” Steph picked up her pizza slice and took another bite. “Just letting people know that you’re not here for Max’s head.”

Juliet shook her head, looking back at Max. “You have a lot of friends that care about you,” she observed.

Max shrugged sheepishly. “I guess so. Um... how’s your shoulder?”

Juliet shot a glare at Chloe. The bluenette sat beside Max; having finished her pizza, she nursed a beer, looked at Juliet without any remorse in her eyes. “I’ll live,” the reporter answered. “It’s not the first time I’ve been beat up while chasing a story.”

“Seriously?” Steph raised an eyebrow.

“Yea. I was interviewing a prostitute last year, and her pimp sucker-punched me from behind. Gave me a concussion.” Juliet smirked. “Joke’s on him. The whole thing was caught on a security camera. He did ten months for assault and battery.”

Max furrowed her brow. “Why were you interviewing a prostitute?”

“Because she was sleeping with a state congressman.” Juliet shrugged, then moved on. “Have you thought about answering questions?”

“Yea.” Max nodded, putting her pizza down. “I’ll do it.”

“Max,” Chloe started.

The brunette shot her a look. “It’s not like it’ll be the first time I’ve talked about it,” she pointed out. “Besides, if it might stop First Light from opening a church outside of Oregon, it’s worth it.”

“You talked about it before as a coping mechanism,” Chloe countered. “That’s NOT what this is. This is airing their dirty laundry for everyone to see. If you do this interview, you’re essentially going to war with your church.”

Juliet looked up in thought. “Okay, how about this,” she offered. “I use you as an anonymous source.”

“What does that mean?” Max asked.

“It means that I can quote you in my story. I’ll use your answers to my questions. But I’ll keep it vague. I’ll refer to you as an unnamed source. A dissatisfied church-goer, or something to that effect.” Juliet nodded. “You can still give me information to use, without declaring war.”

Max thought for a minute, glancing at Chloe. The bluenette still didn’t look happy, but she reluctantly nodded. “I can live with that,” she grumbled.

“Fantastic.” Juliet pulled a notepad from her pocket and set it on the table in front of her, flipping it to a blank page. “Why don’t we start with your childhood, Max. Tell me what it was like, growing up as a member of First Light of Christ."


Once she started talking, Max didn’t stop for close to three hours. 

Juliet took dozens of pages of notes. Max told her about the sermons she went to, and all the hateful speeches made by the pastors. How her elementary school wouldn’t teach things like science, non-biblical history, or anything more complicated than basic math. How so many members of the congregation truly believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old.

“How do they explain dinosaur fossils?” Juliet asked curiously.

Max smirked. “They were placed in the ground by the devil, to try and sway us from our faith in God.”

The reporter snorted. “Wow.”

“Yea.” Max shook her head. “There’s a reason their schools were shut down by the government.”

She spoke about how she’d seen others get treated. The other teenagers that she knew about, who’d been beaten for the crime of being gay. The marriages that smaller children were pressured into, when they were too young to even understand what was happening. How the women were so suppressed, that they couldn’t even show off their bare arms or legs. To wear anything besides their dresses was to be labeled a whore.

“How did you get away with jeans?” Juliet asked. “I remember you wearing regular clothes, back in school.”

“The administrators told my parents I had to wear them for classes, because my dress was flammable,” Max answered. “I know they changed the rule after I went to that school, though. I saw other girls from my church who wore their dresses to class.”

Juliet nodded. “Yea, I remember that, too. Your parents never made you switch back?”

“I don’t know if my parents were aware of it,” Max replied. “And I didn’t really care for the dresses, so I never told them.”

Juliet also asked her how she could have believed everything that was told to her. Max was honest; she’d been given no reason to think otherwise. For as long as she could remember, the beliefs and worldviews of the church had been heavily ingrained into her education. The idea that the church could have been wrong, never mind that she could even think to question them, was an entirely foreign concept to her. How, just by discovering that evolution was real, had lead her to a mental breakdown so incredible that she cried herself to sleep.

Then Juliet asked her why she had left.

“She can’t answer that,” Chloe objected. “Her parents tried to kill her. You think that if you print that, people back in the church won’t figure out who she is?”

“So she left to escape her parent’s abuse,” Juliet offered. “She can’t possibly be the only abused child from that church. I know how disguise the identity of a source, Chloe.”

That’s what they ended up going with. Max, terrified of the continued abuse of her parents, elected to escape. Juliet did not get any specifics as to how she’d done so.

“Have you talked to any others?” Juliet asked.

“Others?”

“Other people who’ve left First Light,” she clarified. “I’m sure you’re not the only one. I’d love to get some other points of view.”

Max shook her head adamantly. “I don't think you'll be able to talk to them.”

“Why not?”

She took a deep breath before answering. “Because they’re minors,” she said. “The state of Oregon has custody of them.”

Juliet’s eyebrows shot up. “You’ve spoken to other children who’ve run away?”

“I have.” Max nodded. “But I can’t tell you any specifics. Some of them are still in danger.”

“I understand.” The reporter nodded. “Can you point me in a direction?”

“All I would tell you is the Oregon CPS department,” Max replied. “And I’m fairly certain they’ll deny any interview requests.”

Juliet pursed her lips, then nodded. “Yea, I don’t think my paper has that much influence,” she allowed. “And I’m not sure how comfortable my editor would be with me talking to them anyway. He’d probably refer me to the legal department, and they tend to err on the side of caution more often than not.”

Everything after that was just Juliet clearing up a few questions. She thanked Max profusely. “My editor has really been getting on me, about finding someone with first-hand knowledge of the church’s workings,” she explained. “This story could even kill the plans to buy property in Tacoma.”

“When is your paper going to publish it?” Chloe leaned forward.

“Probably later this year,” Juliet replied. “I still have to write it, my editor needs to review it, a bunch of people need to sign off on it... this isn’t something you throw together in a few days.”

“You’ll tell us before it goes public, right?” Max asked.

“Of course.” Juliet nodded. “Max, thank you so much.”

Max smiled. “No problem. Just... you know, next time you come to town, maybe call first.”

She snorted. “Yea, I think I’ve learned my lesson,” she remarked dryly, pointedly looking at Chloe.


Kate: Max, I am so sorry about the pictures. 

Max: Seriously, Kate, we already told Victoria that it’s okay.

Kate: No, it’s not. I didn’t even think about how many people we’re Facebook friends with before we posted them online.

Kate: I feel absolutely terrible.

Max: Stop it. I know how excited you were to get those pictures back.

Max: I didn’t think about it, either.

Kate: We took down all the pictures with you in them. Or we cropped you out.

Kate: We got ahold of the others guests, too, the ones who posted copies to their profiles. We’ll get them removed, I promise.

Max: I appreciate it. Now stop fussing over it.

Max: I want to hear about the new job. How’s being a teacher?

Kate: Well, the kids are pretty adorable. I can’t get used to being called ‘Mrs. Chase’.

Max: I didn’t know you took Victoria’s name!

Kate: Yea, I wanted to put some distance between me and my family. That seemed like the easiest way to do it.

Max: I bet Victoria’s happy.

Kate: She said it didn’t matter to her. I thought about hyphenating, but Marsh-Chase is kind of a mouthful.

Max: Could’ve gone with Chase-Marsh.

Kate: Hmm. That is much catchier.


Brooke: Miss Amber talked to Regina today. With a couple of cops. 

Max: How did it go?

Brooke: She kept us out of it. She fed her a line, about how the police had opened an investigation into her husband for statutory rape, because he’s so much older than her.

Max: How old are we talking?

Brooke: He just turned twenty-one. Anyway, Regina swore that it wasn’t true, you know, trying to keep her beloved out of trouble. Miss Amber told her the baby was all the proof they needed, and that her husband was going to get arrested in a couple of hours.

Brooke: I felt really bad. Regina broke down sobbing so hard. She told Miss Amber and the cops everything she told us.

Max: Somebody is with her now, right?

Brooke: Miss Amber took her to a hospital, I think. I don’t know what’s happening to her now, but she hasn’t been back yet.

Brooke: I’m really worried.

Max: I’m sure she’s going to be okay.


Max: What’s going on with Regina? 

Rachel: She’s... not doing great.

Rachel: Having Brooke tell us about Regina was the right thing to do, but I’m not sure she needed to go through telling that story again.

Max: Why did you guys interview her then?

Rachel: Believe me, I didn’t want to. But the cops won’t act on second-hand information. They needed a statement from her.

Max: That really sucks. How bad is she?

Rachel: The hospital recommended she be admitted for further evaluation and observation.

Max: Oh, no.

Rachel: We’re not worried about her hurting herself, or the baby. But she is definitely traumatized.

Max: She’s not... committed? Is that the right word?

Rachel: No. This is temporary. There are programs and support groups, to help girls like her.

Rachel: The hospital we took her to in Portland has a world-class therapist, who specializes in PTSD. We’ll know more after she gets the treatment she needs.

Rachel: It was pretty rough. I had to have a coworker drive us. Regina wouldn’t stop crying, the whole way to Portland. I wound up having to sit with her in the back seat, hugging her the whole time.

Max: Please tell me they arrested the fuckhead who did that to her.

Rachel: Goddamn right they did. And his shithead son, for Statutory Rape and Accessory After the Fact.

Rachel: I think the cops were racing to see who could get the cuffs on them first.

Chapter Text

September, 2019

The knocking on the apartment door roused Max from the game she was playing on her Switch.

“Dammit,” she heard Chloe swear from the closet. The rustling sounds she’d been listening to increased in speed. “Max? I don’t have pants on yet.”

“Yea, I got it.” Max paused the game and stood, opening the door to the apartment. “Hey, Steph,” she greeted her friend.

“Hey, Max.” Steph hugged the brunette quickly. “Where’s Chloe?”

“She’s getting dressed. Come on.” Max guided Steph to the couch, sitting next to her. “So... what’s the big thing?”

Steph shifted. “It’s... something Chloe and I have been talking about,” she admitted. “We’ve been texting for a little while.”

Max blinked. “You- wait. Is this about your father?”

“Oh. I guess I should have figured she’d tell you.” Steph sighed. “Yea. It is. I just got some news from the PI, and I wanted to talk to Chloe about it.”

Chloe walked out of the closet just as Steph finished the sentence. “What’s up with your dad?” she asked.

“Well...” Steph crossed her legs, leaning back. “For starters, he really is my dad. The PI got the DNA test back from the lab yesterday, confirming it.”

“Whoa!” Chloe smiled, sitting down on the bed across from them. “That’s awesome! Does he know?”

“He knows.” Steph nodded carefully. “The PI told him already.”

“Well, what did he...” Chloe’s voice trailed off. “Oh, hell. He doesn’t care, does he? I’m sorry, Steph, some fuckin’ people-”

“He does, actually,” Steph interrupted. “The PI said that when he told him he might have a daughter, he actually got excited. He didn’t even have to ask him, the guy offered to do the DNA test on the spot. I guess he always wanted kids, and the idea that he could have a daughter got him pretty stoked.”

Chloe blinked. “Oh. Wow. Not what I was expecting at all.”

“Yea, me either.”

“What do you know about this guy?” Max asked.

Steph pulled her phone from her pocket, bringing up an email. “His name is Michael Thompson, forty-seven years old,” she read. “He was a Hell’s Angel for a few years, when his cousin sponsored him, but he left for the Locos Lobos, which is a more low-key, less-outlaw MC. When he’s not riding with the motorcycle club, he works at an auto shop, restoring classic cars.” She smirked. “And doing custom paint jobs. I found some pictures online; he’s got some pretty sick airbrushing skills.”

“Well, that explains where you got it from.” Chloe nodded.

“Yea, I was always curious about that. My mom can’t even draw stick figures.” Steph moved on. “He’s married. Has been for about twenty years or so. Only criminal history is a Drunk and Disorderly charge.”

“From what I know of those motorcycle clubs, that sounds about right.” Chloe smirked. “I don’t think you’re allowed in without a charge or two on your record.”

Steph shrugged. “Either way, he knows about me. And he wants to meet me.”

“When?” Max asked.

“This weekend.” Steph glanced back at her phone. “In a couple of days, here in San Francisco. He’s riding up from Santa Cruz.”

“So you already said yes,” Max deduced. “Or, I’m assuming you were asked.”

“Yea, through the PI.” Steph squirmed. “I mean, I spent a fair amount of money finding him. Of course I want to meet him. I’m just...” her voice died as she searched for the right words.

“Nervous? Anxious? Terrified?” Chloe offered.

“Let’s go with a combination of all three.” Steph uncrossed her legs and leaned forward, her nostrils flaring as she exhaled. “Honestly... and I feel bad for asking for your help on your day off... I was kind of hoping you’d come with me, Chloe.”

The bluenette raised her eyebrows. “Really? Why me? Why not Max?”

“Well, you can drive, and Max can’t,” Steph pointed out. “And you’re a lot scarier than she is. I mean, it certainly doesn’t sound like he’s a bad guy, but he was a Hell’s Angel. Not that I’m predisposed against bikers...”

“Yea, I don’t think that rough reputation is entirely undeserved.” Chloe nodded. “Of course I’ll go with you. You want me to drive?”

“Probably, yea.” Steph smiled in relief. “Thanks.”

Max leaned forward. “Does this guy have any other family?”

Steph looked back at her phone. “Two brothers, one sister, and a bunch of nieces and nephews. Father is dead, mother still lives in Santa Cruz.”

She lowered her phone. “It’s crazy, saying that out loud. I have, like, no family on my mom’s side, since she’s an only child. Now I have aunts and uncles... a grandmother... cousins...” Steph paused, slouching. “I mean, technically, I guess. Who knows if I’ll ever actually meet them.”

“Let’s not get fatalistic before we meet the old man,” Chloe scolded.


Chloe parked her truck in front of the dive bar, turning the engine off. 

“This seems like exactly the kind of place a motorcycle rider would hang out at,” she observed, looking over at Steph. Her passenger had cleaned herself up a little bit, throwing on a long-sleeved sweater over a nice button-up. She still wore her white beanie, though. “How early are we?”

Steph glanced at her watch. “About twenty minutes,” she replied quietly. “He’ll probably be here soon.”

“You okay?” Chloe asked, concerned. Steph had barely spoken since Chloe had picked her up from her apartment. She’d been fidgeting nervously for most of the car ride, only speaking up to give the bluenette directions.

Steph took a deep breath, exhaling before she turned to Chloe. “Yea,” she said unconvincingly. “Yea. I’m good. Let’s do this.”

They got out, Chloe taking in the front of the bar. It was a run-down place named Saint Louie’s Pub; the front window had a crack in it, several motorcycles were parked in front, and a few of the bricks in the façade were falling out.

“This is the kind of building they specifically target when they gentrify a neighborhood,” Chloe joked, glancing at Steph as she tried to lighten the mood. “Betcha that in two years, this building will be an artisan bakery. Or a Whole Foods.”

Steph looked at the bar. “It’s not that bad,” she said defensively. “I mean... okay, I guess it could definitely use a touch-up.”

“All the gays in San Francisco couldn’t save this place.” Chloe smirked. “Come on, let’s get situated.”

The inside looked like a dive bar, too. Albeit a clean one; Chloe actually felt like she could eat their food without getting sick, as she looked around. There were only ten or so people in the building, mostly sitting at the bar as they watched TV. A couple of others sat at a far table, drinking while conversing.

And an older man and woman were sitting near the entrance. They stood as soon as they saw Steph, drawing the girls’ attention.

The man was definitely a scary-looking dude, Chloe would have been the first to admit. He stood a little over six feet tall, his hair and beard were almost completely grey, and he was absolutely massive; Chloe watched muscles ripple as he moved. He wore a white t-shirt under a leather motorcycle vest, and both of his arms were covered in full-sleeve tattoos. His ensemble was rounded out with a pair of well-worn blue jeans and black boots.

The woman next to him looked to be about his same age, maybe a little younger. Her ponytailed brown hair was shot with strands of white, and she had some definite crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. She was small, almost like a pixie compared to the man she stood next to. But she still felt very vibrant; she moved easily, and wore a leather vest similar to her husband’s over a red long-sleeved shirt. Her legs terminated with a pair of brown cowboy boots.

Steph blinked as she noticed them, her eyes immediately going to the man as she froze.

“You’re Stephanie, aren’t you?” the man asked cautiously.

Steph nodded mutely. Chloe prodded her with a finger. “Yes,” she said out loud, clearing her throat. “Yea. I’m... um, Steph. Steph Gingrich.”

The man looked her up and down, seemingly analyzing her. He finally smiled. “I, uh, don’t know if you’ll take this as a compliment or not,” he said, “but you look almost exactly like your mom.”

Steph blinked. “You remember my mom?” she asked, the surprise evident in her voice. “I didn’t think...”

He frowned. “Of course I do,” he replied, confused. “We were together for two years.”

Steph paused, comprehending what he said. “Two... years?” she repeated slowly, looking at Chloe. Then back at her father. “My mom said you were a one-night stand.”

His face fell. “Oh, no,” he said sadly. “I didn’t...”

“Why don’t we sit?” Chloe interrupted. She took Steph’s arm and slowly guided her to the table. Steph barely registered the bluenette, as she sat down. The man and his wife followed suit.

“I’m sorry, you are...” he asked Chloe expectantly.

“Chloe. I’m Steph’s friend.” She shook his offered hand.

“Michael.” He gestured to the woman next to him. “This is Amanda, my wife.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” she said easily as she shook Chloe’s hand as well.

Michael looked back at Steph. He shifted in his chair, clearly as nervous as she was. “I...” he hesitated. “I honestly don’t know what to say. Or where to even begin.” He paused. “Are you okay? Are you healthy?”

Steph nodded. “I, uh... I don’t need a kidney or anything,” she said quietly, one corner of her mouth tugging upward in an attempt at a smirk.

“Well, I hope not. I already donated my spare.” Michael grinned, though it faded quickly. “Do you need anything?”

“No.” Steph shook her head. “I... mostly hired the PI because I wanted to know who you were.” She scratched her arm nervously. “My mom only ever talked about you the once, when she was drunk. She never mentioned it again. It always bugged me, and I just... I was curious.”

Steph didn’t notice Amanda purse her lips, at the mention of her mom’s decidedly un-motherly behavior. Chloe caught it, though. I think Amanda is familiar with Steph’s mom,the bluenette thought, though she stayed silent.

“Well.” Michael scratched behind his ear, looking down at himself. “Not quite what you were expecting, huh?”

Steph shrugged. “I had no idea what to expect. Although if you guys did meet at a biker rally, then...” she nodded at his clothing. “I guess this about fits.”

Michael chuckled, tugging at the sleeves of his shirt. “Sorry. I, uh, wanted to dress up nice, I swear. But our car is in the shop, so we had to take the bike.” He nodded out the window. “A suit and tie doesn’t do so well on a long highway ride, I’m afraid.”

Chloe watched as Steph finally cracked a smile. “No, I guess not,” she admitted. “I know you’re in a motorcycle club. The PI said you were a Hell’s Angel, back in the day?”

“I was, until about twenty years ago,” he admitted. “I had actually just been patched in, when I met your mother. I promise, I’m not a criminal, though,” he quickly added. “Other than a couple of little charges. No jail time, just fines. I left that club behind a long time ago, after a few people started being stupid."

“Yea, the PI mentioned that.” Steph’s eyes wandered over the patches on his vest. “I didn’t think you were or anything. I mean, I liked Sons of Anarchy enough, when it was on, but...”

Michael laughed at that. “Oh, that was a great show,” he chortled. “Sorry, Steph, the best I can give you was a Drunk and Disorderly charge during a particularly exciting rally in San Bernardino, back in ’96. We try our best to stay out of trouble in the Lobos.”

Steph snorted in amusement as a waitress finally came up to them. “Can I get you guys something to drink?” she asked.

“Water,” Chloe replied.

“Um, me too,” Steph said.

“She doesn’t want a water. She wants a Jack and Coke.” Chloe met the glare Steph shot her. “Don’t look at me like that, I know you do.”

“Why don’t you make it two Jack and Cokes.” Michael nodded, looking at Amanda. “Babe?”

“Diet Coke, please,” his wife rounded out the order.

The waitress nodded and left. “So, Steph...” Michael leaned forward. “It sounds like your PI told you about me. What about you? What do you do?”

Steph scratched the back of her neck. “I work for a video game developer,” she replied, and Michael’s eyebrows went up. “I’m an artist. I do mostly character design.”

“You’re an artist too?” Michael smiled. “Do you have some of your work? I’d love to see it.”

Steph hesitantly reached into her pocket and retrieved her phone, bringing up one of her image apps. She handed it to Michael, who flipped through it while examining the photos intently. “It’s mostly fantasy and sci-fi stuff,” Steph explained nervously, as he perused her work. “I know it’s not really-”

“These are amazing,” Michael said, interrupting her.

Steph blinked, clearly not expecting his answer. “Really?” she asked, and Chloe detected a tone of hopefulness in her voice.

“I like this guy, right here.” He showed her a sketch Chloe recognized; it was the one her and Max had seen the month prior, at her apartment, of the grey alien with the sword. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m getting a real ‘Knights Templar’ vibe from him. What’s his deal?”

Steph smirked. “Um, he’s... supposed to be a holy warrior. From another planet.”

“Well, you hit the nail right on the head.” Michael nodded, impressed.

“My bosses thought so, too. They’re gonna use that design for the game’s antagonist.” Steph couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “I’ve been working with the computer modelers for a couple of weeks, to make sure they get the details right."

“So he’s going to be in a video game?” Amanda asked.

Steph nodded. “Yea. It’s not gonna be out for a couple of years, though,” she added. “Once the computer guys are done, we have to get actors and start doing scenes, and the actual programming is going to take months by itself, and beta testing...” Steph trailed off. “But, yea. He’s gonna be in the video game.”

“That is cool as hell.” Michael had a look of pride on his face as he gave Steph the phone back. “Did you go to school for that?”

“Yea. I graduated from Oregon State a few years ago,” she replied, sliding the phone back into her pocket.

Michael and Amanda both shifted at that answer. “You lived in Oregon?” Amanda asked, a look of surprise on her face.

“Yea.” Steph nodded. “It was a small town, called Arcadia Bay. After I graduated high school, I moved to Corvallis for college.”

“Not the east coast?” Amanda pressed. “You’re sure? Not even when you were little?”

Steph looked confused. “I lived in Arcadia Bay for as long as I could remember, before I went to college.”

Amanda and Michael glanced at each other. “What?” Chloe asked, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

“We were under the impression that your mother was living on the east coast,” Michael replied. “In Virginia, to be exact.”

Steph shook her head. “She lives in Colorado now. But I’ve never been to Virginia. Furthest east I’ve ever gone is Denver.”

Amanda’s face got hard. “God damn it,” she muttered as she glanced down at the table, her fists clenching. “She...”

“What?” Steph looked at her, her confusion turning to worry. “What’s wrong?”

Michael looked at his wife. “Babe,” he said carefully.

“Yes. I know. I’m...” Amanda loosened her hands, looking back to Steph as she exhaled. “I’m sorry. We spent a long time, looking for your mother, and when we finally got in touch with her a decade after she left, she told us that she was on the other side of the country, and had no intention of ever moving back.”

Steph blinked in surprise. “You guys were looking for my mom?”

“That was, ah, actually how we got together,” Michael explained, shifting uneasily.

“Yea. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to...” Amanda hesitated, then sighed. “Hell. I’m your aunt, Steph. Your mom is my sister.”

Steph’s face went blank with shock, her eyes fixed on Amanda’s face. “You’re...” she paused, swallowing. “You’re my aunt?” she asked quietly, her eyes getting wide.

Chloe glanced between them, and noticed a definite resemblance once she started looking for it. Amanda’s hair was close in shade to Steph’s, though a little lighter from age. Her eyes were brown, instead of blue; Steph definitely got hers from her father. But she looked to be about Steph’s same build, and close enough in height.

Amanda reached into her purse, producing a couple of items. “Here,” she said, gently placing them down and sliding them across the table. “My driver’s license. And a picture of your mom and I, last time we were together, about a week before she left Santa Cruz.”

Chloe got a brief look at the license, which did read Amanda Gingrich. Her focus was on the picture, though. It looked like it was taken at a backyard barbeque, of two women sitting together on a bench. One was definitely a younger version of Amanda, looking off-camera as she held a beer and spoke to someone. The other girl, though, was making eye contact with the photographer, smiling slightly.

It’s like looking into a fucking mirror.Chloe’s gaze went back and forth between the other girl and Steph. Other than the eyes, and the lack of a beanie, they were nearly identical.

Steph examined the photo for a minute, looking back at Amanda and Michael. “So... you...” she worked her mouth, trying to form a sentence.

“Your mom left Santa Cruz in the summer of ’93, about the end of July,” Michael explained. “Amanda and I reported it to the police, we searched for her, I even got my club to send her picture across the country, in case anyone came into contact with her. We didn’t hear anything for almost a decade.”

“We got a random phone call from her back in 2004,” Amanda said, picking up the conversation. “She said she was living in Virginia, and to stop worrying. She’d found out we were still looking for her, and wanted to be left alone.”

Steph still couldn’t say anything.

“And you guys had no idea Steph existed?” Chloe asked.

Amanda and Michael shook her head. “I had no idea she was even pregnant,” Michael added. “I don’t know if she knew, but-”

“I was born in October of ’93,” Steph interrupted, still staring at the photograph. “She knew.”

Nobody spoke for a few seconds.

“I need to use the bathroom.” Steph stood and made her way to the back of the bar.

Chloe bit her lip, looking at the other two. “I, uh... I don’t. But I’m pretty sure she doesn’t either, so let’s not make this awkward.” Sliding her chair back, she got up and followed after Steph.

She entered the bathroom, looking over at Steph. The girl was leaned over a sink, both hands gripping either side tightly as her head hung over the drain. “Hey... are you okay?” Chloe asked, carefully walking up behind her.

Steph didn’t answer. Chloe glanced in the mirror and saw her eyes were closed, as she took deep breaths.

“Right.” Chloe leaned against the wall. “Okay, Steph, I know it’s a lot to take in, but just try to-”

“My mom told me she was an only child.”

Steph opened her eyes, looking at Chloe in the mirror. “When I was a kid, I asked my mom why we never went to see grandma, like all the other kids always talked about doing. My mom told me that she was my only family. I didn’t have anyone else but her.” She sniffed deeply. “I asked her again, when I was in high school, and she told me that she was an only child, and her parents and grandparents had died.”

She glanced towards the door to the bathroom. “And now I have an aunt? And she’s married to my dad? And my mom knew who he was, this whole fucking time, and actively kept me away from him?” Steph stood back upright. “I mean, I would think that okay, maybe he’s a bad guy. Maybe he’s a drunken wife-beater, or a psychopath, or... I don’t fucking know, SOMETHING.”

She sniffed again, and Chloe could see the beginning of tears forming. “But then the first thing he did was ask me if I was okay, and healthy, and if I needed any help. And he gave me more praise for my work in five minutes then my mom has in, like, twenty years.” Her face started to clench up, and her lip started to tremble as Steph’s voice got higher and higher in pitch. “And I can’t figure out why she wouldn’t tell him about me, or why she wouldn’t tell me about him, and I don’t know what to do, Chloe, I don’t know what to...” she paused, took a deep inhale, and a sob exploded from her lungs.

Chloe wrapped her into a hug, and Steph gripped the back of her shirt as she tried not to cry too hard into the bluenette’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

Chloe rubbed Steph’s back as the other girl washed her face. “Feel better?”

“No,” Steph replied hollowly as she filed her hands with water again. “I still have questions. And I have no idea how I’m gonna deal with my mother, the next time I speak to her.” She splashed her face, rubbing her skin. “Did you notice what she had in her hand, in the picture?”

Chloe frowned. “No. What was she holding?”

“A fucking cigarette.” Steph wiped the water from her face, picking her head up and looking at Chloe through the mirror. “Amanda said the picture was from a week before she left Santa Cruz. In July, the year I was born. When she was five or six months pregnant with me.”

The bluenette looked uncomfortable. “Maybe she didn’t know she was-”

“Yes, she did.” Steph rubbed her eye again. “My mom might be a shit parent and a few bananas short of a bunch, but she’s not fuckin’ stupid. And it wasn’t even during the eighties, when people didn’t know that was bad. It was 1993. The anti-smoking ads were in full swing, and it’s not like there wasn’t a massive warning on the side of the pack not to do that.” She sighed. “So, yea. Thanks for caring, Mom.”

Chloe bit her lip. “Well... how long has it been, since you spoke to her?”

“About four months.”

“Then cross that bridge on your birthday, if she calls you at all.” Chloe dropped her hand from Steph’s shoulder as the girl dried her face with a paper towel. “In the meantime, you have a father and a stepmom-slash-aunt who are probably really worried about you, because we’ve been in here for, like...” Chloe checked her watch. “Twenty minutes.”

Steph took a deep breath, in and out. “Okay. Okay.” She turned back to Chloe. “How terrible do I look?”

“You look fine,” Chloe assured her. The red around her eyes wasn’t too noticeable, and she’d stopped sniveling. “Come on, lets go back out.”

They made their way back to the table, where Michael and Amanda were still sitting. Their drinks had made it out, Chloe’s water sitting next to Steph’s cocktail. Which Steph took a healthy gulp from as they sat down.

“Steph, I am so sorry,” Amanda started. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Steph nodded, looking back at Michael. “Why didn’t my mom ever tell me about you?” she blurted.

Michael slowly rubbed his palms together. “I don’t know,” he admitted after a few seconds.

Steph eyeballed him carefully. “Are you, like, a killer or something?”

“Dude.” Chloe elbowed her.

“Sorry.” Steph bit her lip, looking down at the table. “I just...”

“I know. It’s okay.” Michael planted his elbows on the table. “I honestly have no idea why your mother left,” he confessed. “I came home from a club meeting one night, and her stuff was gone, with no note. And my savings account was cleaned out. I thought we had a good relationship, until she went missing. She was a little temperamental sometimes, to be sure, but that’s it.”

“Steph.” Amanda leaned forward to get a better look at her. “Michael isn’t a hardened criminal or anything. That little drunken escapade twenty years ago was the most amount of trouble he’s ever been in with the law. Yes, he is a with an MC, and yes, the cops show up to our house every now and again, but the police actually like him. They mostly talk about cars and drink coffee.”

She shook her head. “He’s also trying to not say anything bad about your mother,” she added.

“Amanda,” Michael started.

“No, you can take the high road, if you want. But I knew my sister longer than you did.” Amanda turned back to Steph. “‘Temperamental’ is a nice way of describing her, Steph. She’s a narcissist if I’ve ever met one. The only person she ever cared about was herself, and if she wasn’t my only family, I wouldn’t have hung out with her at all. I don’t know how she was as a parent, and I’d love nothing more than for you to tell me she has a trophy for being Mom of the Year...” she paused. “But I doubt it.”

Steph sighed. “You’re... yea, you’re not wrong,” she admitted morosely.

Michael put his hand on his wife’s arm. “Steph, I won’t speak to how your mom’s been since I last saw her,” he said. “But I want to know more about you. I’m sure there’s more to you than designing video game characters.”

“Well...” Steph took a deep breath as she leaned back in her chair. “I mean, my job keeps me pretty busy. Ever since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve been working and drawing almost non-stop.”

“Sounds like fun to me.” Michael smiled. “That mean you’re too busy to date, too? No time for a boyfriend?”

“Um... right. Yea, no.” Steph shook her head, tensing slightly. “I’m, uh, gay, so... not so much.”

Michael blinked. “Oh. Then... I guess I should have asked; no time for a girlfriend?”

Chloe felt Steph relax. “Even less time for them,” she replied. “Girls are complicated, man.”

“Well...” Chloe looked up. “There is the one girl-”

“Really?” Steph turned to Chloe, glaring. “You think NOW is an appropriate time to give me shit about Rachel?”

“Who is Rachel?” Amanda asked, a smirk on her face.

Steph turned back. “A girl I know, back in Oregon. She works full-time, at a way harder and more important job than I’ve got. And she’s only come down to see me, like, twice since I’ve lived here.”

Michael nodded. “What brought you down to San Francisco?” he asked.

“My job,” Steph answered. “I graduated OSU-”

“With honors,” Chloe interrupted.

Steph shot her another look. “... yes. With honors.” She turned back to Michael. “One of my professors gave me a letter of recommendation to the developer I work for now, and they hired me after looking through my portfolio. They asked me to come here, since they were opening up new offices. I’ve been here ever since.”

“Wow.” Michael smiled. “You graduated with honors, and got a job right away. That’s pretty impressive.”

She blushed at the praise. “Thanks,” Steph muttered. “I mean, it wasn’t that hard...”

“No, really, Steph. That’s amazing.” Michael pulled out his cell phone. “I don’t know how much your PI told you about my family, but you have two uncles and another aunt on my side. None of us went to college. When I tell my mother, your grandmother, about you? She’s going to lose her mind.”

Steph slowly smiled. “Really?”

“Yep. Here, this is us.” Michael opened his phone, showing Steph and Chloe a picture. “That’s me, on the left. I’m the oldest,” he explained, pointing. He moved down the line. “This is my next younger brother, Joshua. He joined the Navy right out of high school, and did fifteen years before he took early retirement. He works as an electrician with my other brother.”

He moved his finger to the next guy. “This guy, Frankie. He’s a general contractor. Him and Joshua work together at a construction company. One of the bigger ones in Santa Cruz. They’re actually working right now, on a big office building, doing a major renovation. Anyway, they’re both married, and have a couple of kids each.”

Finally, he moved his finger to the woman on the end. “This is Tricia, the baby. Well... not really, she’s thirty-five, but she’s the baby to us.” He smirked. “She’s a photographer. Works in a studio, most of the time, but she gets out and does weddings and graduations every so often. Her husband is a good friend of mine, he works at the body shop with me as a mechanic.”

“Wow.” Steph examined the picture, glancing at Amanda. “What about you?”

“I’m a manager at a little bar and grill back home.” She nodded, smiling. “So, yea. You’re the first person in the family for a while to actually get a proper education.”

“I mean, what about your family?” Steph asked.

Amanda sighed. “Your mother and I... our parents died in a car accident when we were in high school,” she said. “We were not exactly motivated to go to college, either. We did some work as bartenders, to get by, which was how we wound up hanging around the motorcycle club. And meeting Michael,” she added. “So his family is my family, since your mother left.”

“No kids?”

Amanda shook her head forlornly. “I, ah, had to get a hysterectomy when I was twenty-four,” she explained. “The doctors found some malignant growths during an exam, and... well, it was better to play it safe, unfortunately.”

“Oh, God,” Steph replied sadly. “I am so sorry.”

Amanda shrugged. “I got over it a while ago,” she said. “Besides, we’ve got enough nieces and nephews to make up for it.” She smiled. “And now... well, I can’t tell you how good it is to actually meet you.”

Michael nodded. “I never thought I’d have kids of my own,” he added. “I... really wish I had known you growing up, Steph. But, well, we know you now,” he said. “We’d really like to keep getting to know you. And, like I said, you’ve got a whole bunch of other family who’d love to meet you, too.”

Steph let herself slowly smile. “That... sounds pretty fucking cool,” she admitted.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Michael said with a smile. “And I have more questions for you.” He glanced back at the bar. “Are you two hungry? Because I could go for some food.”


Max: Are you two still there? 

Max: It’s getting close to dinner, are you coming back?

Max: Hello?

Max: Chloe?

Max: You’re not dead, are you?

Max: If you are, I’m gonna be really mad that you didn’t tell me to get my own dinner first.

Chloe: Sorry, my phone was on silent.

Chloe: Yes, you’re on your own for dinner. We’re still here at the bar.

Max: Are you good to drive?

Chloe: Oh, yea. I’ve stuck to water and soda.

Chloe: Everyone’s still pretty sober.

Max: How is it going?

Chloe: Like a fucking Hallmark movie, I swear to God.

Chloe: If this becomes any more adorable, a unicorn is going to walk in with rainbows shooting out of his asshole.

Max: Really? Him and his wife are that nice?

Chloe: Well, first off, the wife is pulling double-duty. She’s also Steph’s aunt, her mother’s sister.

Max: !?!?

Chloe: Yea, I know. Second, they’re even nicer that you can think. He won’t stop going on about how amazing she is. I think she might have to take a second bathroom break to cry some more.

Chloe: He wants her to come to Santa Cruz for Thanksgiving, so she can meet her grandmother, multiple aunts and uncles, and something like seven or eight cousins.

Max: Wow! That’s so sweet of him!

Chloe: Right? And he even brought us dinner.

Chloe: Not the worst burger I’ve ever had, either.

Max: Does he know she’s gay?

Chloe: Didn’t even bat an eye when he found out.

Chloe: Right now they’re talking about their art. He’s showing her pictures of some of the paint jobs he’s done on his club’s motorcycles. They look pretty sick.

Max: When do you think you’ll be coming home?

Chloe: At this point, whenever Steph wants. I certainly don’t want to break this up.

Max: You have work in the morning.

Chloe: Sweetie, that’s what Red Bull is for.

Chapter Text

October-November, 2019

CHURCH OF HATE TO OPEN CHAPEL IN TACOMA

Story by Juliet Watson

--

When most people think of Oregon, they think of the city of Portland, and its wacky residents and craft breweries. Or the massive Mount Rainier, and the surrounding national park. Nobody ever thinks of the small town of Arcadia Bay, only two hours south of Portland. 

A quiet little seaside town, Arcadia Bay’s biggest claim to fame is probably the local diner. The Two Whales boasts of the best waffles in Oregon, as reported by a magazine article in 2007. People making the drive between Seattle and Los Angeles are invited in for a plate of the most incredible waffles they’ve ever had, and their reviews are never less than three stars on Yelp.

But the small town of Arcadia Bay has a dark secret that they don’t like to talk about; First Light of Christ. A small religious community that has overtaken the eastern half of the city, far from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the church of just over four thousand members has been a thorn in the side of the city for quite some time.

Established in 1968 by a man named Mark Jefferson, the religion promotes what many call ‘extreme’ fundamentalist beliefs and practices. The church and its followers, commonly referred to as ‘First Light’, deliver sermons multiple days a week. Sermons that rival the Westboro Baptists in their hatred, ignorance, and vitriol.

The scandals of First Light have plagued the city for decades, starting shortly after it’s inception. “There is rarely a point in this city’s history when the government did not take issue with their practices,” the local District Attorney, James Amber, told the Seattle Times in an exclusive interview. “It started with polygamy, when men were taking as many as fifteen wives. Some of them were not of legal age, the youngest less than ten years old.”

First Light no longer practices polygamy, since many of the members who did so were arrested. These included the church’s founder, Mark Jefferson, who married no less than eight ‘wives’ between the ages of eleven and fifteen. Jefferson was sentenced to life in prison in 1979, passing away from pancreatic cancer in 1995.

But that was not the only scandal for First Light. “More charges were brought against parishioners, in 1984 and 1987, for abusing the tax-exempt status of the church to fraudulently purchase property that was not for religious purposes,” Mr. Amber explained. Legal documents revealed that, when using church money to buy properties to be used as private residences, they escaped paying over six million dollars in taxes. “That money was eventually collected, and several members of First Light leadership were sentenced to prison for the crime,” Mr. Amber added.

The past is the past, and most people would have no fault with a church who had put their crimes behind them. But First Light does not appear to be so caught up with the times. In 2011, Pastor Michael Rogers, at the time the head religious figure in the church, was sentenced to eight years in prison for the assault of a 17-year-old boy.

Emails that were anonymously given to the District Attorney’s office revealed that the victim had confided in another church teenager that he was having homosexual desires. That teenager informed the church leadership, who performed what they called a “Sinner’s Exorcism”, which consisted of brutally beating the boy for several hours. The assault required him to undergo multiple surgeries and a seven-week hospital stay.

The practice, apparently, did not stop. In 2017, two teenage girls, both in a secret relationship with the other, died as a result of their “Exorcism”. Five people were sent to prison, with sentences ranging between five and twenty years.

As part of our research into this story, the Seattle Times spoke at length with an anonymous source, who spent their entire childhood in the church. The source described a culture of unquestioning obedience and antiquated teachings, as well as the abuse from their parents that led to them fleeing First Light in their late teens.

“I was taught from the time I was five, that you could never question the church and its pastors,” the source explained. “That the church could ever be wrong was not a concept we could even entertain.”

Sermons condemning the ‘evils’ of homosexuality were the norm, the source informed us, as well as the instructions to blindly follow the pastor’s teachings.

The source also revealed a secret not commonly known outside of law enforcement; the arranged marriages between children.

“Arranged marriages have always been a part of the church,” the source told our reporter. “But they used to wait until the participants were old enough to consent to the marriage. They’re doing it to children now, kids that are too young to even know what’s going on. They have eight-year-olds signing marriage certificates, thinking that it’s a pretend wedding, and then the surprise is sprung on them years later.”

Oregon does not allow minors under the age of 17 to get married, even with parental consent. “But a lot of those girls don’t know that,” the source informed us. “It’s always the girls that they marry young; they’re almost treated like property.”

First Light studiously denies all of these accusations. “The First Light of Christ is a religion that is intended to return Jesus’s children to his original ways,” a church Elder named Ryan Caulfield informed us in their statement. They refused to answer any specific questions regarding their practice of arranged marriages, or their stance on homosexuality.

They don’t have to, however. Arrest reports and court records obtained by the Seattle Times reveal that lawsuits and criminal charges have been levied against more than two hundred of the church’s members in the past decade. These charges range from the murder of the two teenaged girls, to tax evasion, to assault and battery. And three former city workers are currently being prosecuted for accepting bribes to falsify official documents, including marriage certificates.

Additionally, the Oregon Department of Child Protective Services has confirmed that several children between the ages of 10 and 17 have been removed from their family homes in Arcadia Bay.

Stacy Hemmingway, a senior supervisor with CPS, would not tell the Seattle Times exactly how many children her department has taken in. “In almost every case, the children were in fear for their safety,” she informed us. “Several were in arranged marriages, or were afraid of their homosexuality being discovered by their parents. In one instance, a female teenager was sexually assaulted and impregnated by an older member of her church, after having been forcibly married to another adult.”

The alleged crimes of the First Light of Christ are horrific. But they are currently isolated to Oregon.

For now.

The Seattle Times, through a source inside the Tacoma city government, has learned that First Light has funds in escrow to purchase land inside the city limits. They have submitted architectural plans to the city, which reveal that they intend to build a religious compound, similar to that of the late David Koresh from the Branch Davidians. The compound plans, which feature several buildings, includes housing for close to fifty people, a large chapel, offices, and a brick wall around the perimeter, the height of which is the maximum allowed by building codes.

What may be concerning is one of the buildings in particular. The building is labeled only as ‘media studio’, but is small, less then four hundred square feet of space; not even half the size of the smallest media areas around the country. The schematics for the building include no phone lines, cable hookups, or Ethernet wiring, which would be necessary for a studio of any size. The plans also note that the building would be soundproofed, and situated far away from the other buildings in the compound.

The source inside the Tacoma city government would not theorize what the space might be used for instead, if not a media studio. But if First Light still practices “Sinner’s Exorcisms”, one could make some educated guesses.

(CONTINUED ON PAGE 3)


Max: Wow. 

Juliet: What do you think?

Max: I think my father’s head is going to explode.

Juliet: Oh, yea. It totally did already. We’ve been served.

Max: Seriously? So quickly?

Juliet: I called them to get statements before we ran the piece. They knew what we were doing. They probably had someone with the paperwork in hand in Seattle, waiting for us to deliver the paper that morning.

Juliet: I’m so excited. It’s my first lawsuit!

Max: That doesn’t sound like something you should be cheerful about.

Juliet: Are you kidding? This is like a merit badge for journalists. I hung the summons on the wall of my cubicle.

Max: So they named you specifically?

Juliet: I wrote it. Of course they did.

Juliet: Relax. I’ll be fine. The paper’s lawyers went over the story with a fine-toothed comb before we sent it to print.

Max: What are they suing you for?

Juliet: Slander, defamation, that sort of thing.

Juliet: None of it will stick, we know that. The lawyers are pretty sure they just want to depose me so they can find out who I talked to.

Max: And... you’re not gonna tell them, right?

Juliet: Oh, I’m gonna tell them something. It’s gonna be short and blunt.

Max: Okay, but just so I feel better...

Juliet: “I do not reveal my sources.”

Juliet: I might give them Chloe’s name. I’ll tell them to bring a chair and a whip.

Max: Don’t let her know. She’ll ask you to do it.

Max: I think she gets a proverbial hard-on, thinking about burying my father somewhere.

Juliet: Before or after she kills him?

Max: I don’t think she’s picky one way or the other.


Chloe: Happy Halloween! 

Victoria: Um... thanks?

Chloe: What are you going out as?

Victoria: A law student who has an important paper due in two days.

Chloe: Well that’s fucking lame.

Chloe: What did your wife do?

Victoria: She made herself up in white face paint and put in those plastic vampire fangs. She went to school as “Mrs. Dracula”.

Chloe: Wow.

Victoria: Yea, well, she works with a bunch of third graders.

Chloe: Hey, you know what the one lesbian vampire said to the other, right?

Victoria: ?

Chloe: “See you next month!”

Victoria: THIS CONVERSATION IS SO OVER


Jake: Are you and Chloe on your way or what? 

Max: Not yet. Chloe is taking forever to get into her costume. We’re leaving in a few minutes.

Jake: Well, hurry up. Everyone else is here. Penny and Sarah are about to start doing karaoke.

Max: Wow, that sounds terrible.

Jake: You know what’s even worse than that? Watching these guys hit on Sarah and complimenting her Hermione Granger costume.

Max: Who?

Jake: Oh my God, how have you not read Harry Potter yet?!

Max: It’s on my list! I swear!

Jake: Whatever. The point is, it’s the wrong character. She did a quickie red dye job in her hair. She’s dressed as Ginny Weasley.

Jake: Listening to her correct them, emphatically and loudly, is fucking hilarious.

Max: Where is her boyfriend?

Jake: Andrew had to work. Looks like firefighters don’t always get holidays off.

Jake: He may swing through anyway, though. It looks like she’s about to set the next idiot on fire.

Jake: What are you and Chloe dressed as?

Jake: Hello?

Max: Sorry. She’s ready. We just got in the truck.

Max: She convinced me to do the pirate thing with her this year.

Jake: Seriously?? That’s what I’m doing!

Max: Oh God, for real?

Jake: I swapped out my prosthetic, too! I have an ACTUAL peg leg!

Jake: Well, now you have to change.

Max: She refuses. She will graciously allow you to be the captain.

Jake: Well, every 49ers fan wants a proper one.

Max: Now she says she’s going to mutiny and set you on fire.

Jake: I’m just gonna call Andrew and tell him to get his truck ready.


Max: When the hell are you coming back to San Francisco?? 

Rachel: I have no idea. I was hoping to do it this year, but with everything, it just fell through.

Max: Come on, you’re not the only CPS worker in your office.

Rachel: I’m the only one who knows all the runaways from First Light.

Max: If only there was a small, portable electronic device, that you could use to talk to them whenever they needed you...

Rachel: I know you mostly talk to Brooke, but some of these kids need a lot more hand-holding that she does.

Rachel: One of them had a mental breakdown in his new high school last week, because he couldn’t handle what he was learning in his science class after ten years of home-schooling.

Max: Yea... I can speak from experience, that’s a rough one.

Rachel: Well, I was the only one he would talk to. I was at the school with him for an hour.

Max: It’s nice to be wanted, I guess.

Max: What about Regina?

Rachel: I saw her yesterday. She’s doing better. The hospital will be releasing her soon, and she’ll see a therapist closer to Arcadia Bay. The baby is due in about a month or so, too.

Max: What is she going to do?

Rachel: It changes every time I talk to her. Some days she wants to keep it, some days she wants to put it up for adoption.

Rachel: She probably won’t really figure it out until the baby is here.

Max: Can she support having a baby?

Rachel: Maybe? We can help her with a support system, but it isn’t easy.

Rachel: And I can’t force her to give it up. It’s ultimately her choice, as the baby’s mother. I can only step in if she starts doing a shitty job.

Max: That’s a pretty fucked-up situation, forcing a sixteen-year-old to make that choice.

Rachel: Yea, it is.

Max: Okay, I don’t like this convo anymore.

Max: Look, can you get away for two or three days in December? Like, drive down on Friday, drive back on Sunday?

Rachel: Probably, depends on the weekend. Why?

Max: My bosses throw a big Christmas party every year. They’ve currently got it scheduled for the 14th.

Max: You should totally get your ass down here. You can come hang out, we can get dinner, you can meet back up with Steph...

Rachel: I really don’t need this Amberich shit from you.

Max: Look, just try, okay?

Max: For me????

Rachel: Fine, I’ll see what I can do.


 

Max: Happy Birthday! 

Brooke: Thanks! I didn’t think you’d remember.

Max: Of course I did. How are you doing?

Brooke: Not too bad. My foster mom got a cake for me, and an Amazon gift card.

Max: That’s nice of her. Any idea what you’re gonna buy with it?

Brooke: I have no idea.

Brooke: Every time I go online, I get overwhelmed. There’s so much stuff for sale, and I only have fifty bucks.

Max: Well... what did you always want, that your parents said you couldn’t have?

Brooke: Come on, you of all people know how long of a list that is.

Max: But what did you REALLY want?

Brooke: ... it’s stupid.

Max: I’m sure it isn’t.

Brooke: Fine.

Brooke: I wanted flip-flops.

Max: That’s not stupid, why would you think it was?

Brooke: I don’t know, just... everything they withheld from us? Movies, makeup, cell phones, and my first thought was footwear?

Max: What was the reasoning?

Brooke: Well, you know they made us wear sneakers under those stupid dresses. And during the summer, they got SO hot.

Brooke: I was always jealous of my dad and older brother, because they got to wear them and they looked so comfy, but God forbid people see MY fucking toes, else I’d become a harlot or something.

Max: It sounds like you have a great reason to get them, then.

Max: Flip them that middle finger.

Brooke: Yea, you’re right.

Brooke: I found a really cute pair, too. I’m gonna buy them.

Max: You could get a couple of pairs, I’m sure. You’ve got a hundred bucks.

Brooke: Um, I’ve only got fifty.

Max: Check your email.

Brooke: Dude! You’re fucking awesome!

Max: :)


Lynn: You are never gonna believe who I just heard from. 

Max: Who?

Lynn: My dad.

Max: Wow. What did he say? Is he mad?

Lynn: We both said a lot.

Lynn: I think what I told him over the phone at the wedding really hit home, once he realized he might miss walking a second daughter down the aisle.

Max: I imagine he would regret that.

Lynn: He asked about Kate, too. He doesn’t have a Facebook, but I texted him a few pictures of the wedding. He said it looked amazing.

Max: Hmm. From what Kate was saying about him, he may not be entirely on-board with your mom’s ‘come back to the light’ nonsense.

Lynn: Well, he’s never said anything like that himself. My mother did, and he just never spoke against it.

Max: So what did he tell you, over the phone call?

Lynn: That he thinks I might be right. And he’s tired of not seeing his kids. And also, that he had no idea my mom had tried to cancel Kate’s wedding.

Max: Yea, I may not know him, but it doesn’t seem like something he’d be on board with.

Lynn: He said he wants to come up to LA, to see the both of us.

Max: What does Kate think?

Lynn: I haven’t told her yet.

Lynn: I’m a little nervous. I know what Victoria thinks of my family. And I’m kind of worried that Kate will be mad at me if she finds out that I gave our dad wedding pictures without asking; I didn’t think about it until after I sent them.

Max: Okay, the wedding picture thing is silly. They put them on Facebook, and your family is tight with Stella’s; they’re probably not even going to wonder how he saw them.

Max: And yes, Victoria has her own opinion on your family, but so does Kate. And Victoria is not the boss of her.

Max: Besides, she still really wanted to save a relationship with your parents up until the cancelling incident.

Lynn: Good point. I didn’t think about the Facebook thing.

Lynn: Speaking of which, where are you in those photos? I noticed when I was looking for a couple to send him, all the ones with you are gone.

Max: It’s a long story that involves a rogue journalist, Chloe beating information out of someone, going on the run, and a multi-state conspiracy.

Lynn: ... are you making that up?

Max: Ask me next time we see you. I’ll tell you over a bottle of wine or three.


Chloe: How’s your Thanksgiving going? 

Steph: I can’t even right now.

Chloe: ??

Steph: It’s... I don’t even know. Amanda and Michael said everyone was excited to meet me, but I didn’t expect this.

Chloe: What happened?

Steph: As soon as I got to their house, Michael’s mom, my grandmother, just pulled me into the biggest hug. Like, I couldn’t breath. She was so bubbly, all I could get was how excited she was to have another grandkid. I didn’t even get inside, she met me on the porch.

Steph: And then Amanda got me into the house, and introduced me to everyone.

Steph: I barely remember the rest of the morning. EVERYONE was hugging me. I couldn’t tell you half of their names. They sat me on the couch, and bought me drinks, and asked me a ton of questions.

Chloe: Damn. My family doesn’t wait on me hand and foot.

Steph: I know. Whenever I went to visit my mom before she moved, I just hung out on the couch and studied while she did whatever. I felt like there was a big spotlight on me.

Steph: Anyway, then they got to dinner. And they had cooked this HUGE thing. Two or three turkeys, mashed potatoes, veggies, all of it. I didn’t know people actually did that outside of Hollywood movies.

Chloe: Uh, yea? You and your mom never did Thanksgiving dinner?

Steph: I mean, we did, but it was mostly store-bought stuff, we only had turkey a couple of times, and it was just the two of us. There were close to twenty people between two tables here.

Steph: And then they started doing Grace. And you know, I’m an atheist, so I was kind of just going along, and then they started doing that thing where you go around and say what you’re thankful for.

Steph: And every single freaking one was about me. They were all so happy to have me there, to meet me, to get a chance to know me...

Chloe: Damn, girl.

Steph: Yea. They got to me, and I had nothing.

Chloe: What did you do?

Steph: I was too overwhelmed. I just started crying. It was SO embarrassing.

Steph: And then everyone started hugging me again.

Chloe: ... coming this Sunday, on the CW...

Steph: Yea, right? I mean, at least I got out of doing it, because I literally had no idea what to say.

Steph: I’m pretty sure they all feel sorry for me now. Like, the poor girl who had no idea what a real family dynamic is supposed to look like.

Steph: And the food was fucking amazing. I think I had three or four plates. I may have licked one, at some point.

Chloe: Loving the visual.

Steph: After that, we pretty much just hung out, watching football and puttering around the house.

Steph: You’d like them. They’re all 49er fans.

Chloe: Wow, you must have been dying.

Steph: You have NO idea.

Steph: Their kids are cool as hell, too. The older ones are twelve or thirteen, and when they found out I worked at a video game company, they latched onto me and asked a million questions.

Chloe: “How do I play professionally?”

Steph: More like actually programming them. I told them a little about the schooling, and their grandmother really got onto them about going to college. That was another thing, too, she was so proud when she found out that I have a degree.

Chloe: With honors.

Steph: Yes, Michael mentioned that, too. Apparently, I’m the first one in almost three generations to actually get a four-year degree.

Chloe: Damn. What did everyone else do?

Steph: Mechanics, construction, military, that sort of thing.

Steph: Anyway, most of them have left by now. I’m staying the night with Michael and Amanda, in their guest room, and heading back tomorrow.

Steph: They made me promise that I’d come back for Christmas, too.

Chloe: Well, overall, it sounds like it went swimmingly.

Chloe: Have you heard from your mom yet?

Steph: No.

Steph: I did get a $100 GameStop gift card from her, for my birthday. Michael and Amanda gave me a new sketchbook, and some really high-quality drawing pencils.

Chloe: That’s pretty cool. And hey, proof that he paid attention to you when you spoke!

Steph: Honestly, yea. It meant so much more to me, that he actually listened.

Steph: Unlike my mom, who I’ve told that I can get games at cost now through my job, and I’m barely playing them anymore anyway... I guess it’s the thought that counts?

Chloe: That’s what I tell Max when I fart on her to keep her warm.

Steph: Gross.

Chloe: That’s what she says, only louder.

Chapter Text

December, 2019

“Wow, Jake and Penny outdid themselves this year.”

That was all Max could say as the car pulled into the lot by the warehouse. It was massive, and the entire side had been done in Christmas decorations. Max saw several people meandering towards the entrance.

“How much did your bosses spend on this party?” Rachel asked, her eyes wide from the front seat.

“I know last year’s cost them twenty-five grand,” Max replied as Steph parked the car. “That was at a venue, though. We invited even more people this year, so they had to go outside the box to figure a place out. Penny found this warehouse, and they had to bring in everything.”

Chloe scoffed. “These guys love Christmas way too much,” she said as they all got out.

Their invitations had set the dress code as Business Casual, with a caveat for Ugly Sweaters. Max and Chloe had gone for a matching set; both of theirs read ‘Merry Christmas, Ya Filthy Animal’, Max’s in red, Chloe’s in green. Steph had found a sweater that said ‘Merry Sithmas’, with an embroidered Darth Vader head. Rachel had simply elected to find an elf sweater, since she hadn’t come prepared.

The four of them made their way to the entrance, Max waving to a couple of people she recognized. “Who are they?” Chloe asked.

“One of the waitresses I used to work with and her boyfriend,” Max answered. “Jake and Penny send invites to everyone who works for them, and all of their friends. There were over five hundred people at their last Christmas party.”

Steph whistled. “Anyone else we know gonna be here?” she asked.

“Um...” Max squirmed. “Maybe?”

“Maybe? What does-”

“MAX!!”

The brunette turned as the petite woman collided with her, wrapping her in a big hug. “It’s so good to see you!” Kate exclaimed.

“Oof! Okay, Kate, tone it down,” Max gasped, trying to wrestle from her grip. “I missed you too, now come on, let go.”

Kate finally released her, turning to Chloe and hugging her, too. “I’m so glad we found time to get up here,” she exclaimed as she let the bluenette go. “How are you guys?”

“We’re good, Kate.” Max smiled sheepishly as she waved at Steph and Rachel. “These are our friends, Steph and Rachel.”

“Oh, I’ve heard so much about you guys!” Kate turned, still smiling. “It’s so great to finally put faces to names.”

Steph and Rachel, for their parts, looked like they’d just swallowed lemons. “You’re, uh, Victoria’s wife?” Steph asked carefully.

“That’s me.” Kate showed them her wedding band.

Rachel sighed, looking back to Max. “There’s an open bar inside, right?”

“Oh, come on.” Max rolled her eyes.

“Yea.” Rachel turned back to Kate, shifting. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s so nice to meet you. Max talks about you all the time.”

Kate smiled as she shook Rachel’s hand. “Max has told me all about you, too. You’re a social worker, right?”

Rachel nodded. “I just came down for the weekend,” she explained. “I have to drive back up tomorrow.”

“That is so amazing,” Kate gushed. “You must do some incredible work.”

“I, uh, try to,” Rachel admitted, squirming uncomfortably.

“You actually do.” Steph elbowed her, turning back to Kate. “We saw your wedding pictures. I just wanted to say congratulations, even if it is a few months late.”

Kate beamed. “Thank you so much.”

“Okay, let’s go inside,” Rachel interrupted. “I really want a drink. And to see what a twenty-five-thousand-dollar Christmas party looks like.”

Max led the others inside, and nobody could stop staring.

She’d been right, Jake and Penny had definitely outdone themselves. Over a hundred tables were set up, all over the place, between two bars serving alcohol. A dance floor was in the middle of the room, a live band just starting into their first set as a few people danced. Further into the warehouse, a play area had been set up, with sitters dressed as elves checking in children so their parents could enjoy the evening. Right next to it was a massive chair on a platform, where a sign hung that read SANTA COMING SOON!!

“God damn,” Steph said, impressed. She gestured to the trailer next to Santa’s chair. “What’s in there?”

“The toys,” Max replied.

Rachel did a double take. “Toys?”

“Yea, for when the kids get to meet Santa.” Max nodded. “I told you, they go all out. They found a company that does this professionally; they bring in a Santa, and a trailer full of pre-wrapped gifts. The kids tell Santa what they want for Christmas, and the elves in the back to their best to find an approximate match.”

“That is fucking awesome,” Steph said in awe.

“Right?” Max smirked. “I saw the inside of it last year. No kidding, half of it is Barbie Dolls and Legos. You never see kids walking away from him disappointed.”

Rachel grinned. “Does he do one for the adults, too?” she asked slyly.

“Yes. It’s called the open bar.” Max pointed.

“Fair enough.” Rachel and Steph both started making their way over for drinks.

Chloe waited until they were out of earshot before she turned to Max. “I don’t know if forcing them with Vic was such a good idea,” she told her. “You heard what happened, back in high school, after you ran away. It doesn't exactly sound like Vic wants to rekindle a friendship.”

Max held her hands up, looking at Kate. “I had no idea you two were even invited until last week,” she explained. “Penny just happened to mention it.”

Kate pursed her lips, then shrugged. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” she said. “They interacted just fine, back in September, when that reporter started looking for you.”

“There was a common goal to keep Max safe,” Chloe pointed out. “I don’t know how much your wife has told you, but...”

Kate sighed. “I know Vicky was a bit of a ‘mean girl’, back in high school. I’m not under any illusions otherwise.” She glanced back at Rachel and Steph, getting their drinks. “At the very least, I’m sure she won’t start any drama in public. I’ll find her, make sure she knows, and that she needs to be on her best behavior.” With that, Kate left into the crowd.

Max turned back to her girlfriend. “Okay, potential drama aside, we are gonna have fun tonight." She reached out and took Chloe's hand. "Come on, let’s get some drinks.”

Chloe smiled. “This is why I love you.”

“There better be a lot more to it that that,” Max snorted as she dragged her girlfriend towards the bar.


Accepting directions from one of the bartenders, Rachel made her way outside to the smoking area an hour into the party. She took a seat on top of one of the picnic tables they’d set up. 

She felt a brief twinge of guilt as she pulled the pack from her purse. She’d kicked her old high school habit after her second year in college, in an attempt to save money. But with all the stress of her job, she’d picked up a pack a year beforehand, and occasionally lit up when necessary.

Rachel still remembered the drive to Portland, Regina ugly-sobbing into her lap while Stacy drove them down the highway. Rachel had spent two hours holding her tightly, trying to sooth her... the poor girl had been almost completely dehydrated by the time they got her to the clinic.

Once they’d gotten checked in, her and Stacy had gotten back in the car, disregarding the rules concerning a government vehicle as they chain-smoked for half an hour.

But that was work. Now Rachel was worried about running into Victoria. She still remembered the last time they’d spoken.

“You... fucking... sociopathic.... bitch!”

She stuck the cigarette between her lips and fumbled with her lighter.

“You fucking USED her to do the goddamn dirty work, and then tossed her back to the fucking wolves!”

Finally getting the cigarette lit, she inhaled deeply, feeling the tobacco make its way into her lungs.

“You, Rachel Amber, are a fucking disgusting human being.”

Rachel sighed, trying not to think about it. Just gonna smoke this really quick, then go back to hanging with Steph. The two of them had spent the last night together, before seeing Max and Chloe. She was pretty sure they’d be hooking up again that night, too. Although I guess that depends how drunk we get.

She took another deep drag, blowing the smoke out as she savored the taste. I really need to come down more often.

Steph was... nice. The bond they shared, after what happened with Max, had essentially kept them both sane. Rachel had been grounded to high heaven, but Steph’s mother hadn’t really cared. So it had been easy enough, for them to meet up after school and sit together. Whether they talked, or planned trips out to search for Max, or just cried.

So when they’d finally spent that first night together, alone for the first time in years, Rachel hadn’t been surprised that they’d wound up in Steph’s bed five minutes after she came through the door.

Fucking Chloe, she thought with a smirk. And Max. “How long have you two been fucking?” Jesus, that girl almost gave me a heart attack.

But Rachel knew her and Steph were complicated. For numerous reasons. The distance was a pretty big factor, for sure. And it’s not like their jobs made it easy to have a relationship at all. Steph had been working like crazy, to submit her latest project in time to leave for the party. And Rachel had only been able to get away by promising to be reachable by telephone if necessary.

Even more, it wasn’t like they hated their jobs. Rachel had to be honest with herself, she loved the kids she was looking after. Even if they did drive her nuts more often than not.

Lost in her mind, she barely registered someone coming out behind her, rustling with their own pack of cigarettes. “Hey, do you have a lighter?”

Rachel nodded. “Yea,” she said, picking hers up from the table. “Here you...”

Victoria met her eyes as Rachel blinked.

Of fucking course, Rachel thought miserably.

The blonde smoothly took the disposable lighter from Rachel’s hand. “Thanks,” she muttered, lighting up her own cigarette.

“You’re welcome.” Rachel took the lighter back.

Please go away. I really don’t want to do this.

Victoria didn’t go away. She took a seat on the picnic table, leaving plenty of room between them as she took a puff, the smoke billowing around her head.

Okay. Well, we can at least silently tolerate each other. I can live with that. Several minutes passed as they puffed through their cigarettes, ignoring each other.

“I’m not going to apologize,” Victoria finally stated.

It was great while it lasted.

Rachel sighed. “Kind of dumb to apologize when you were right,” she replied quietly.

“Okay. Just so we’re clear.” Victoria took another drag of her cigarette. “Max said you’re doing really good things with CPS, back home.”

“So I’m told,” Rachel said simply.

“How many teenagers have left First Light through your office?”

Rachel looked up, thinking. “Nineteen. Five boys, fourteen girls.”

Victoria grunted in approval. “Are they all... you know, gay? Like Max?”

Rachel shook her head. “Some. Most of the boys, a couple of the girls. The others were in arranged marriages, or were getting abused by their parents. We’ve been placing them outside of the city, away from the church.”

“That’s pretty amazing.” Victoria said. “Sounds like you’re doing really good work.”

Did Victoria Chase just give me a compliment?

“Are those fuckers really marrying girls off at the age of eight?” she continued.

Rachel nodded. “We know it’s taking place pretty often,” she admitted. “The state is prosecuting a couple of city workers for taking bribes, to do up those marriage licenses.”

“Christ.” Victoria scoffed. “I hope they throw the book at those enabling fucks.”

“My dad’s working on it.”

Victoria nodded. “You two are both doing good work. Nobody really wants to take on those assholes, but somebody should.” She paused. “Did you hear that their plans for the compound in Tacoma fell through?”

Rachel looked over at Victoria. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yea. After Juliet’s paper published that article, the city got involved. The council stopped the land transfer from going through.” Victoria smirked. “And the governor signed an order of some kind that stops them from trying again in Washington.”

Rachel smiled. “That’s really good to hear.”

“Right? And did you hear about Juliet’s deposition?”

“I heard that she was getting deposed. I didn’t know if it had happened or not.”

Victoria nodded. “The famous Ryan Caulfield tried to get her to give up her sources, while suing her, the Seattle Times, your dad, and your boss for defamation, on account of them losing the land deal.”

“That, I knew. My dad’s office got copies of all our files and the teenagers’ medical records.” Rachel paused. “What did Juliet say?”

“Apparently, Ryan Caulfield got to stand there for several hours and listen to her say, over and over, that she would not be giving up any of her sources.” Victoria shook her head. “The best part is that he can’t even do anything about it. Oregon has a Shield Law that protects her from EXACTLY what he was trying to do, and he knew that.”

Rachel frowned. “So why bother?”

“I don’t know. Probably because Juliet is only twenty-four, and he’s used to being able to bully people that age.” Victoria glanced back towards the warehouse, her grin disappearing. “I’m sure he misses being able to knock someone around,” she added.

Rachel’s face dropped as well, and she turned back to her cigarette. “Yea,” she sighed.

Victoria bit her lip. “I’m not sorry for beating you up,” she finally said. “I am sorry for what you and Steph went through, after Max ran away.”

Rachel blinked, surprised. “I thought you-”

“I was really mad at both of you,” Victoria interrupted. “I didn’t think about how guilty you two were probably feeling. I know you guys kept looking for Max long after everyone else gave up. Max said you were still searching for her when Steph ran into her. And you two had plenty of reasons to give me shit about the wedding pictures, and you didn’t.” She sighed. “That meant a lot. Especially to Kate. She was really beating herself up over it.”

Rachel itched at her neck, uncomfortable, as she didn’t reply.

“So... yea. Maybe we can make this a little less awkward.” Victoria took one last puff and crushed her cigarette. Reaching back into her purse, she pulled out a small bottle of blue liquid and poured it into her mouth, swishing it around.

Rachel raised her eyebrows. “Seriously?”

Victoria flipped her a middle finger, finally spitting the mouthwash onto the ground. “My wife gives me shit every time I smoke,” she grumbled, pulling out a small bottle of perfume and spritzing it over her neck. “She’ll probably figure it out anyway, but I can at least keep her off my balls for the rest of the night.”

Chapter Text

Kate glanced around as she sat at the table, frowning. “Where is my wife?” she asked, to nobody in particular. 

Max shrugged next to her. “I’m sure she’s around,” she assured her. “Anyway, you were saying about your kids?”

“Oh, yes! They are so freaking adorable.” Kate couldn’t help but smile. “And they’re at the age where you can actually watch them as they learn. Like this one girl, Casey, I saw her face when she finally grasped the concept of multiplication. It was amazing.”

“All sunshine and rainbows, huh?” Chloe said with a grin.

Kate sighed. “You’d think,” she said. “One of them threw up on my shoes this week. A brand-new pair, too.”

“Well, I’m sure your wife can buy you new ones.” Max smirked. “How’s Victoria doing in school? She’s gotta be almost done by now, right?”

“She’s taking the Bar Exam soon.” Kate nodded. “She’s been studying like crazy, day and night. I had to BEG her to come up for the weekend, and she only said yes if I would drive, so she could study on the way here and back.”

“Wow, that sounds lame.” Chloe rolled her eyes.

“Oh, hush.” Max whacked Chloe’s arm, turning back to Kate. “I’m sure she’ll be excited when she finally passes,” she added.

“We both will.” Kate smiled. “I think her father might try to hire her, too. He’s come down to LA a few times for business, and he’s brought her around with him.”

Steph appeared behind Chloe. “Sorry,” she said, handing the bluenette a beer. “The line at the bar is really getting long.” She sat down next to Chloe, across from Kate, glancing at the two empty seats. “Where are Rachel and Victoria?”

“Don’t know.” Chloe shrugged. “Have you ran into Vic yet?”

Steph grimaced. “Yea, we passed each other in the bathroom. We did that eye-contact thing, and it was kind of uncomfortable.” She took a sip from her cocktail. “But she didn’t try to kill me, so it’s something. I’ll deal with it later, I guess.”

Kate leaned forward. “So, I heard you finally met your father?” she asked. “How is he?”

Steph smiled. “He’s amazing,” she gushed. “Him and his whole family, they were so freaking stoked about meeting me. And we’ve been texting a lot. I’m going back for Christmas, too.” She snorted. “Gonna try really hard not to cry this time. That was kind of embarrassing.”

“You’re allowed to cry a little bit, Steph,” Chloe scolded. “You’ve got, like, an actual family now, more than just a parent who didn’t even call you on your birthday.”

“True. She did call me last week, though.” Shrugging, Steph took another drink. “I guess she notices when I miss HER birthday.”

Max winced. “How did that go?”

“Oh, about as well as you’d expect when your adult daughter asks you why the fuck you never told her that you actually knew who her dad was. And where he lived.”

Chloe’s face fell. “That good, huh?”

“There was a lot of yelling on both sides.” Steph stirred her drink absent-mindedly. “We were both really angry. All I wanted was a good reason for keeping us apart, and she wouldn’t even acknowledge that what she had done was messed up. She was just furious that I had looked for him at all.”

“I’m sorry,” Chloe said. “I still think your mom’s an idiot.”

“Yea. I wound up hanging up on her. And she hasn’t tried to call me back since.” Steph sighed. “It’s whatever. Not like we had a phenomenal relationship anyway. I’m just gonna work on getting to know my father and that side of the family.”

Max glanced at Kate. “How are you doing with your mother?”

Kate snorted. “I haven’t spoken to her since April.”

“Has she tried to call you?”

“Yea. I didn’t answer, though.” Kate shook her head. “I don’t want to deal with her, either.” A smirk crossed her face. “Victoria did volunteer to talk to her again, of course.”

Steph raised her drink. “To shitty moms.”

Max and Kate both snickered. “I’ll drink to that,” Max chimed in, lifting her beer as Kate lifted her glass of wine.

“No fair.” Chloe crossed her arms and pouted. “I can’t toast to that. I actually like my mom.”

“Sorry, babe.” Max patted her knee as she took a drink from her beer. “We’ll find something you can drink to tonight, I’m sure.”

Rachel and Victoria chose that moment to reappear. “Hey! Where were you?” Kate asked, noticing her wife as she sat down next to her.

“She saw me going outside to smoke,” Rachel answered. “She followed me to talk while I burned one.” 

“Uh, yea.” Victoria nodded. “We had a nice conversation. Talked about her work.”

Kate pursed her lips, then nodded. “Okay.” She smiled, laying her hand on Victoria’s arm. “I’ll forgive you for sneaking a cigarette, then.”

“I didn’t-”

“Normal people don’t walk outside and chug mouthwash, Vicky.” Kate rolled her eyes. “I can smell it on your breath.”

Victoria exhaled, slumping in her chair. “Dammit.”

The others snickered as the music slowly died down. “Oh, Jake and Penny are about to do their thing,” Max pointed out as her two bosses got to the stage. They each accepted a microphone from the band before they started speaking.

“Good evening, everyone!” Jake boomed, “Are we all having fun? Are we all properly liquored up yet?”

A resounding cheer went up through the crowd.

Penny chuckled as she took over. “Guys, we’re absolutely thrilled to have you all here,” she started. Whether you’re one of our valued employees, or a good friend, it’s a pleasure to get you all together for our company party.”

“Franklin-Seymour LLC, just in case anyone forgot,” Jake added.

Laughter ran through the crowd, Penny shaking her head. “It’s been a really good year for all of us,” she continued. “If we can brag for a few minutes, we opened up two restaurants and a second car dealership this year. Our gross profits were up from last year almost twenty percent, and we’ve got an extra one hundred and four employees.” She turned to Jake. “At least one of whom may have been on the run from the mob.”

“I was pretty sure we got over that,” Jake grumbled jokingly into the microphone. More laughter went through the audience. “In any case,” he said, “it wouldn’t have been possible without any of you guys. Whether you’re in sales at a dealership, or you mop the floors in a kitchen. This party is our way of thanking all of you for helping to make sure we’re as successful as we are today, and all of you deserve a round of applause!”

The girls joined the rest of the audience as they clapped. “Your boss has a way with words,” Steph complimented.

“Anyway, we’re gonna wrap this up so we can all get back to our booze,” Penny continued, holding up her cocktail. “I just wanted to remind everyone of something, after the events of last year’s party.” She glanced around. “Our special guest is here for the KIDS, not the adults.”

“Yes, any adult caught sitting on Santa’s lap will be sentenced to a very lengthy sexual harassment seminar,” Jake added as everyone laughed. “Anyway, where is he? Isn’t he supposed to be here any second now? Or was he going to-”

Everyone jumped at the loud “HO, HO, HO!” that echoed from the back of the warehouse. All the kids in the play area started screaming in delight as a very convincing-looking Santa Claus materialized out of nowhere.

The girls at the table started laughing, Max turning to her girlfriend. “You heard him, right?” she asked Chloe pointedly.

Rachel’s eyebrows went up. “Seriously?” she asked, giving Chloe a look.

Chloe shrugged unabashedly. “Hey, he was giving away Funko Pops, and I was pretty drunk. What do you want from me?”


Max: Do you want to have lunch with us before you head back? Or are you in a hurry? 

Rachel: I can do lunch, but I’m gonna have to leave right afterwards.

Rachel: It’s a long drive, and I have to be in court on Monday.

Max: How about Maria’s Kitchen? They’ve got really good Mexican food.

Rachel: Works for me.

Rachel: I woke up this morning to a friend request from Victoria on Facebook.

Max: Wow, really? What did you guys talk about while you were smoking?

Rachel: I guess we made peace? Sort of, anyway.

Rachel: Steph got one, too, from Kate.

Max: Did you guys accept them?

Rachel: Yea. I mean, she’s definitely a lot nicer than back in high school.

Max: How’s Steph? She got pretty drunk last night.

Rachel: Not hung over, just dragging a little bit.

Max: DID YOU DO THE HORIZONTAL NO PANTS DANCE???

Rachel: ... Chloe, give Max her phone back.


Kate: So, I’m going to see my father over the holidays. 

Max: I’m guessing Lynn talked to you?

Kate: Yea. I’ve blocked my parent’s numbers on my phone, so he has to call Lynn.

Kate: I’m a little apprehensive.

Max: Don’t blame you. When are you going to see him?

Kate: The 23rd. He’s driving up to see me and Lynn at a coffee shop near the Caltech campus.

Max: And your mom?

Kate: Is definitely not coming. I made it very clear that I have no intention of speaking to her.

Kate: Lynn said my dad sounded pretty apologetic, though.

Kate: Did I miss a phone call between those two at the wedding?

Max: Yes. Yes, you did. Lynn tore into him pretty good, for letting your mother run over you.

Max: It was pretty badass to watch.

Kate: I don’t like my family fighting like this.

Max: I know, Kate. I’m sorry.

Max: Is Victoria going to come with you?

Kate: Yes. But she’s not happy about it.

Max: I’m sure she just doesn’t want to see you get hurt.


Penny: Hey, I noticed you haven’t put in for your holiday leave. 

Penny: Are you and Chloe not going to Phoenix?

Max: Not this year. Her parents are coming here.

Penny: Isn’t your apartment a little small for guests?

Max: They’re going to get a hotel room for a few nights. They have a bunch of friends they want to see up here, too.

Penny: Ah. Still, you don’t want to take a few days for them?

Max: We kind of slipped on buying Xmas presents. I need the hours :(

Penny: If you’d rather do overtime instead, Jake and I could use an extra set of hands. We’ve been sticking around the office for a few hours after you leave, trying to get financial stuff in order for the new year.

Max: I wouldn’t say no to a little overtime.


Unknown: We all know it was you. 

Max: Who is this?

Unknown: You’re dead, bitch.

Unknown: You’re going to be raped to death in front of your little dyke girlfriend while we make her watch.

Unknown: Better grow eyes in the back of your head, cunt.

<CONTACT BLOCKED>

Chapter Text

Max and Chloe sat on the couch in the Madsens’ hotel room, watching David examine the brunette’s cell phone. He stoked his beard as he read the texts, his lips pressed tightly together.

“You’ve already sent these to James Amber, right?” he finally asked, handing Max her phone back.

Chloe nodded. “Well, we sent them to his daughter, Rachel,” she clarified. “She gave them to him. He’s going to have the police trace the number, and figure out who it is.”

“Good. If this person used their personal phone, they’ll find him very quickly.” David nodded, sitting back in the chair. Him and Joyce had gotten a very nice hotel suite, which included a living area and a small offset bedroom, both of which opened onto a balcony that overlooked the water. “How do you think they could have gotten your number?” he asked Max.

“I, uh, have no idea.” Max rubbed her palms on her pant legs. “I’m always careful handing it out. I don’t even put it in web sites when I order stuff online; I use Chloe’s for that. I can’t come up with any way they would have found it.”

“She does use that phone to talk to some of the runaway teenagers from First Light,” Chloe piped up. “Any chance one of them could have gotten it?”

David shook his head. “Not with the app she uses. Out detectives in Vice actually use that same one, to talk to their confidential sources. There’s no way to trace it.” He though for a minute, then shrugged. “I would get a new phone number. And be even more careful with who you hand it out to. Close friends only."

“Yea, we were gonna.” Chloe nodded, rubbing Max’s back. “Do you think that means they have our address?”

David drummed his fingers on his knee before he responded. “Like I told you last year, tracking a phone’s location is almost impossible if you’re not law enforcement. But,” he added. “these texts give us new information. This person has revealed that the church knows about you now, Chloe.”

“Oh.” Chloe bit her lip. “I, uh, didn’t think about that.”

David nodded. “PIs get cops to run DMV searches all the time, and your blue hair makes it easy to confirm a license is yours. So they MAY have your address. And it’s not much of a leap for them to guess that Max might be living there as well.”

Max dropped her head into her hands. “Ah, fuck,” Chloe muttered.

“Yea.” David pursed his lips. “How far into your lease are you?”

“Why?”

“Because it may be a good idea for you guys to move.”

Max got up and silently walked outside, onto the balcony.

Chloe watched her go. “Fucking...” she sighed, turning back to David. “We renew our lease every spring. It’s not up until March. What do we do?”

“Talk to your landlord after the holidays,” he replied, leaning forward. “See if he’ll let you out early. If he won’t, figure out what the penalty is for breaking your lease. Your mother and I will help, if it’s something you want to go ahead with.” He looked towards the balcony. “You should go check on Max. Make sure she’s okay."

The bluenette nodded and got up, making her way outside. Her girlfriend was leaning on the railing, watching the boats pass through the water. Chloe walked up behind her, wrapping her arms around Max’s shoulders and placing her chin on her shoulder. “Everything is gonna be okay,” she murmured into her ear. “We’ll be just fine.”

Max took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “Yea,” she replied, putting her hands on top of Chloe’s. “I’m just... I don’t know. I hate feeling like this.”

Chloe nuzzled into Max’s neck. “Hey, it’s almost Christmas,” she reminded her. “We’re opening presents in a couple of days.”

“Yea, I know.” Max shook her head. “It’s your favorite time of the year.”

“Damn right.” Chloe smiled. “Look, try not to worry about it, okay?”

Max sighed. “Chloe...”

“We’ll talk to the landlord after my mom and David leave,” the bluenette assured her. “We’ll see if moving is feasible. If not, maybe we can work something out, where our names aren’t on the lease. Or we can get a P.O. box or something. Either way, we’re going to be fine.”

“... yea.” Max squeezed Chloe’s hands. “I love you. I’m sorry you have to go through this with me.”

“I love you, too. And don’t start with that.” Chloe kissed the side of Max’s neck. “I told you, nobody’s gonna hurt you while I’m here. You’re my world, remember?”

“Can’t possibly forget.” Max’s hand went to the necklace Chloe had given her, for their first Christmas. The metal disc hung just underneath her shirt.

“Good.” Chloe kissed her again. “You gonna be alright?”

Max nodded as the door to the balcony slid open. “Everything okay out here?” Joyce asked behind them, concern in her voice.

“Yea, we’re okay.” Chloe turned to look at her mom. “Just... absorbing everything.”

Joyce nodded as she walked up to the railing, laying her hand on Max’s arm. “How are you doing, kiddo?”

“I’m good.” Max smiled. “Thanks, Joyce.”

“Of course.” Joyce smiled back. “Why don’t we try and focus on other things. You two feel like going out for some dinner?”

“Yes.” Chloe’s answer was immediate. “I’m starving.”

“What a shock,” Joyce remarked dryly.


Chloe: Any updates?

Rachel: Not yet. My dad got the warrant, but the cell provider won’t get back to him until tomorrow.

Chloe: Seriously? Can’t they check a number in, like, two seconds?

Rachel: It’s the day before Xmas Eve, Chloe. A lot of people aren’t there. And my dad’s isn’t the only warrant they’ve been given today. He has to wait his turn.

Chloe: Dammit.

Rachel: Has she gotten any others?

Chloe: No, just the one anonymous dickhead.

Rachel: Don’t worry, my dad’s going to find out who it was. Is Max okay?

Chloe: Getting better. She relaxed a little bit, over dinner with my parents.

Rachel: Good. I’ll let you guys know as soon as my dad hears back.

Rachel: Try not to worry about it. Believe it or not, death threats with these assholes are not uncommon. Most of these guys are all talk.

Chloe: It’s the ones that actually follow through I’m worried about.


“Are you ready yet?” Max tapped her foot impatiently as Chloe buckled her watch into place. “We were supposed to leave, like, twenty minutes ago. Your parents are probably already at the restaurant.” 

“Yea, yea, I know.” Chloe snagged her beanie, cramming it onto her head. “Okay, I’m good. You know, YOU’RE the one who slept in, so this is mostly your fault.”

Max rolled her eyes as Chloe walked over. “I slept in by five minutes. You, on the other hand, dragged ass all the way through the closet.”

“Making myself look pretty is not a fast or easy process,” Chloe replied with a smirk.

“It still shouldn’t take you five minutes to decide on a shirt,” Max countered.

“Okay, well, now YOU’RE the one holding us up.” Chloe gestured to the door. “Can we go now?”

“Yes. Finally.”

As Max opened the door, Chloe suddenly patted her pocket, frowning. “Shit, my phone’s on the counter,” she said as she jogged back to their kitchen. “Gimme one second, just gotta-”

Max’s piercing scream slammed into her eardrums.

Chloe whipped her head around as the brunette fell backwards onto the floor. Max kept screaming, as she kicked and scrambled to get away from the door.

Time seemed to slow as Chloe’s mind went into overdrive, the need to protect her girlfriend overcoming everything else. She snatched the big knife from their kitchen block, then raced to put herself between Max and the door, leaping over her in the process.

Her nose was immediately assaulted by the smell of rotting flesh. Looking down, her eyes widened in horror as she saw a dismembered cat laid in front of their door. Its head was tilted to look up at her with empty eyes, as it sat on the bloody torso. The four limbs and a tail were displayed in a circle around the body, blood splattered between them.

And a note sat in front of it all, written on a piece of paper in thick sharpie. 

THIS IS WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU.

Chapter Text

Max sat on the couch, hugging herself and shaking like a leaf, still in a daze an hour later.

Chloe did most of the talking when the cops showed up. She explained to them about the threatening texts, and gave them a brief rundown of Max’s history with First Light. The police tried to speak to Max as well, but she couldn’t give more than one word answers. She just gripped her biceps tighter, unable to stop trembling as she stared into space.

She was still quivering when David and Joyce showed up. David immediately took over talking to the police officer, whom he’d apparently known from earlier in his career. Joyce took a seat next to Max, gripping her shoulder and whispering words of comfort, while Chloe grabbed their bags and packed several days’ worth of clothing.

Once the police finished taking pictures, they helped David dispose of the dead animal. When they were done, he came back inside and collected the two girls. Max noticed a new bulge on his hip, under his shirt, as he escorted them down the stairs.

Keeping one hand on her shoulder, David brought her through the parking lot, opening the back door of the rental car and pushing her inside. Chloe got in next; she wanted to get her truck, but David refused to let her touch it until he came back later, to make sure it hadn’t been tampered with. Once Joyce got in, he pulled out of the lot and drove around the city, taking care to make sure they weren’t being followed.

An hour later, Chloe and Joyce put her on the couch back at the hotel. Max had stopped shaking, but was still lost in her own mind, unable to speak.

Chloe and her parents talked for a while, then her girlfriend left with Joyce, taking Max’s cell phone with them. David stayed with her in the hotel room, turning the TV on to try and fill the quiet space. He tried to talk to her several times, but she didn’t give any answers beyond nodding or shaking her head. And she couldn’t remember any of the questions he asked.

When she returned, Chloe gave Max her phone back. She explained that they’d had the number changed, and added it as an extra phone line on her own account, so it wasn’t registered to Max anymore. She’d also called the landlord and explained the situation; he’d agreed to allow them to break their lease without paying a penalty. They would be moving out within the next week, after Christmas.

Max wasn’t going to have to go back, either. Chloe told their friends what had happened. Jake and Penny agreed to give her extra paid leave, and help arrange for a moving company. After David and Joyce flew back, Steph would let the two of them stay with her until they found a new apartment. In the meantime, they would be sleeping on the fold-out couch in the hotel room.

Victoria called an hour later, having spoken to a lawyer who had just graduated from her law school, and was practicing in San Francisco. He had offered some pro bono hours to help them set up an LLC, which would allow them to rent an apartment in a corporate name instead of their own. As well as the suggestion that they have their mail forwarded to a PO box, instead of their new residence.

That evening, Max picked at the pizza the others gave her, not very hungry. When they finally turned in for the night, Chloe pulled her in tight, as the big spoon, while Max clung to her arms.

“I’m sorry, Chloe,” Max finally said, the fullest sentence she’d spoken since that morning.

Chloe gripped her even tighter. “It’s not your fault,” she murmured.

“This is revenge for the interview I gave,” Max said quietly. “It has to be. That property purchase was big for them, and the information I gave Juliet helped kill it. They must have seen pictures of us together from Victoria’s wedding, or something, and then found you.” Max sniffed. “It is my fault.”

“Fuck that,” Chloe replied. “Remember what I told those teenagers, earlier this year? They’re like this because they’re fucking terrified of you. They know what you can do. They’re trying to intimidate you into silence.”

Max sniffed again. “It’s working,” she muttered. “Now they know who you are. I didn’t want you involved in any of this.”

Chloe didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “Roll over,” she finally said, letting go of Max.

The brunette shuffled under the covers, turning to face Chloe.

“I love you.” The bluenette put her hand on Max’s face, rubbing her thumb along the brunette’s cheekbone. “I told you already, I am not going to let anyone hurt you, ever again. I am already fully involved. Whatever happens next...” Chloe leaned forward and kissed Max on the nose. “I’m here with you. And I’m not going anywhere.”

Max closed her eyes, tears leaking down her cheeks as Chloe pulled her close.


Christmas morning was not entirely cheerful. But it wasn’t unpleasant. 

Chloe had packed clothes, but hadn’t thought to grab the gifts they’d wrapped for Joyce and David. Neither of her parents cared, though, and they still made them open their presents. A couple of gift cards, a set of Bose headphones for Max, a new tablet for Chloe... the girls thanked them as Joyce set about making breakfast in the kitchenette.

“Sorry, Max, I didn’t think to bring the waffle iron,” she said apologetically, placing a stack of pancakes in front of the brunette. “I promise, they’re just as good in flapjack form.”

“I’m sure they are, Joyce.” Max allowed a small smile as she poured syrup and took a bite. “Mmm.”

David was still concerned. “How are you feeling?”

“A little better,” Max admitted quietly. “Mostly... just trying to figure out how they found where we live. Or, really, how they found out about Chloe.”

He scratched his chin. “My guess would be from the wedding pictures on Facebook,” he mused. “If Chloe was tagged, or mentioned in a comment, then they had her name. And like I said before, if they got someone to run a DMV inquiry on her, that would give them your address.”

The two girls exchanged glances. “We cannot tell Vic and Kate,” Chloe said after a few seconds.

“Yea.” Max sighed. “They already feel really bad about it. No point rubbing salt in the wound.”

“Vic’s already helping us set up an LLC, anyway.” Chloe turned back to David. “Her friend wants to meet us on the 27th, to get paperwork together and file with the city.”

Joyce set a plate in front of the bluenette. “Any thoughts on where you’re going to move to?” she asked.

“Not a clue.” Chloe sighed, looking at Max. “Does Jake know anyone who could help?”

Max scoffed. “If he doesn’t, Penny does. Those two know half the people in this city.” She turned back to David. “I don’t suppose your friends caught whoever did it?”

He shook his head sadly. “Your apartment complex’s cameras didn’t get the man’s face. And the quality wasn’t good enough to read the license plate, or get an accurate description of the paint color. All they can guess is a dark Honda Civic.”

“Because there aren’t a million of those in the city,” Chloe muttered, as she took the syrup from Max. “No other leads?”

David grimaced. “Unfortunately, they don’t call out a full crime scene unit just for a dead animal,” he explained. “Even under those circumstances.”

Chloe’s phone buzzed, and she picked it up from the table to check it. “It’s from Rachel,” she said, reading the message. “They identified the guy who texted you. His name is Timothy Watson, and he’s another First Light parishioner. They cited him this morning for sending you a death threat."

Max shook her head, turning to David. “So, what, he’ll pay a fine?”

“Most likely.” He nodded. “He’ll have to go in front of a judge, who’ll probably slap him around a little bit first. It’ll be small, if it’s his first offense, but probably embarrassing, and a public record.”

“They should chain-drag him around the city by his toes,” Chloe muttered darkly. “He won’t go to jail for dismembering a cat in front of our door?”

David shook his head. “James Amber would have to prove that he was involved. And given that he was ten hours away, it’s not likely that he was the one who did it.”

“But he probably knew about it,” Chloe argued. “He sent that message three days ago. Are we supposed to believe that the timing is a coincidence?”

“He probably did know,” David offered. “But, again, you’d need proof.”

Joyce finally brought over the last two plates of pancakes. “Enough of this,” she said kindly, setting David’s down before she took her seat. “Everyone, eat your breakfast. Then we can help find you two look at new apartments, and see if we can still salvage what’s left of the holiday.”


Rachel: Is Max doing better? 

Chloe: Yea. She liked hearing that your dad cited that asshole.

Rachel: I bet. I was pretty happy to hear it, too.

Chloe: I can’t believe your dad had the cops do it on Christmas.

Rachel: Well, he was going to wait until after the holiday, but when I told him about the dismembered cat he felt a little… vindictive.

Chloe: LOL

Rachel: Yep. Apparently the police officers interrupted dinner. That Timothy Watson was hosting for his in-laws. And they weren’t subtle about the citation they were serving him.

Chloe: #sorrynotsorry

Rachel: What are you and Max doing today?

Chloe: Spent a little bit looking at apartments online. We’ve got a few choices we want to visit.

Chloe: David is pretty adamant we try to get something in a single building, instead of a complex like my last one. Something something better security.

Rachel: He’s not wrong.

Chloe: No, he’s not. But it drives the rent up. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the rent prices in SF to begin with…

Rachel: Yea, I’ve heard.

Rachel: What about the home from Fuller House? That seems nice and affordable.

Chloe: Please tell me you’re being sarcastic.

Rachel: /s


Chloe: Merry day after Christmas! 

Steph: Hey! How are you guys doing? Are you two okay?

Chloe: We’re fine. Still with my folks in the hotel.

Chloe: Max wants to make sure I say thanks for letting us stay with you, while we find a new apartment.

Steph: Of course. Whatever you guys need. How is she handling everything?

Chloe: Better, after a night’s sleep. I think she’ll be okay.

Chloe: How’s Christmas with the new family?

Steph: I cried again.

Steph: There was a conspiracy against me.

Chloe: How so?

Steph: I asked Michael, a little after Thanksgiving, what I should get for people gift-wise, and he told me not to worry about the adults.

Steph: He said they only brought presents for the kids. He gave me some suggestions for them, toys and games mostly. And I got something for him and Amanda, too.

Chloe: What’d you get them?

Steph: I made a drawing of them on his bike, and had it framed.

Steph: <pic1.jpg>

Chloe: Damn, that’s really good! Looks just like them, too. I like the details on the motorcycle.

Steph: So did they. He went nuts when I gave it to him, absolutely loved it. He already hung it in their house.

Chloe: So... what was the conspiracy?

Steph: Well, first we let the kids do their thing, and watched them. It was great, they all loved their gifts. I got them a few video games, and some of the promotional action figures we get at work.

Steph: And then I figured we were finished, until everyone started handing me MY gifts!

Steph: They said they were making up for 25 years of missed Xmas and birthday presents.

Chloe: Wow, that is so sweet of them!

Steph: I felt like such an asshole! I had nothing to give them back!

Chloe: LOL. What a terrible conspiracy.

Steph: Shut up.

Steph: They weren’t little presents, either! Michael and Amanda got me a new MacBook Pro, FFS!

Chloe: Damn!

Steph: One aunt and uncle gave me this big, top-of-the-line slow cooker, because I mentioned at one point over Thanksgiving that I thought they were neat but hadn’t gotten around to getting one yet.

Steph: Another aunt and uncle got me the entire Game of Thrones deluxe box set, all eight seasons. They said it seemed like a show I would love. Michael’s sister and her husband gave me a badass stereo system with a dock for my phone.

Steph: And my grandmother, who you’d figure would find some neat little heirloom or antique? She made a Facebook account, just so she could see what I was into, and found out that I was a Seahawks fan. She got me an autographed Richard Sherman jersey.

Chloe: Your grandmother, a 49ers fan, actually brought you Seahawks merchandise?

Steph: Yea, we both got plenty of shit for that.

Steph: Her, mostly, because I was too busy being mad at Michael for not letting me get anyone else anything.

Chloe: I imagine it wasn’t very effective, with you crying and all.

Steph: Yea, not so much. I got him back, though.

Chloe: How so?

Steph: He was hugging me, and telling me he didn’t care, he was just so happy to have met me, all that heartwarming stuff you get at the end of the movie.

Steph: All I had to do was say “Thanks, Dad.”

Chloe: Goddamn. Low blow, Gingrich.

Steph: Hey, he made me cry first.


Max: It’s Max, this is my new phone number :) 

Kate: Max! Are you okay? Vicky told me what happened. I am so sorry!

Max: Thanks, and I’m fine. It wasn’t your fault, you don’t have to apologize.

Kate: I feel terrible about the wedding pictures, Max.

Max: Don’t. We’re pretty certain it wasn’t from them.

Max: We think someone got a good look at Chloe when we were in Oregon, and tracked her down through Facebook. Her blue hair is pretty distinctive.

Kate: I still feel bad.

Kate: What are you guys going to do? I know Vicky got you set with the lawyer.

Max: We met him this morning. He’s got the paperwork together for the LLC, so our names won’t appear on any rental paperwork. And we’ve got a PO box for our mail.

Max: We’ll be in the hotel with Chloe’s parents for one more day, then her stepdad will drive us to Steph’s apartment on their way to the airport.

Kate: That’s good. I’ve been praying every day for you two. And your safety.

Max: That means a lot, Kate :)

Max: But you never told me how the coffee went with your dad. Chloe and I are dying to find out.

Kate: I don’t want to take away from you two and your problems.

Max: Please, do so. Anything to take our minds off of it.

Kate: Well, okay. It actually went a lot better than I thought it was going to.

Kate: He even shook Vicky’s hand and said it was nice to meet her, when they met.

Max: Bet she didn’t expect that, huh?

Kate: Not even remotely. But, you know, he is a therapist, so getting people to relax is a skill of his. She looked a lot less likely to rip his head off when we sat down.

Max: What about Lynn? She said some pretty powerful stuff to him at the wedding.

Kate: He basically said she was right. And he apologized to both of us.

Kate: Apparently, him and my mother got in a huge fight about her trying to cancel the wedding, a few weeks ago. She went to stay with her sister, and hasn’t been back.

Max: I’m sorry.

Max: Does that mean they’re getting a divorce?

Kate: I don’t think so. He wants them to go to counseling. My mom is supposed to come back soon.

Max: What about your other sister? Jessica, right?

Kate: My dad has been helping her through everything. Jessica has an anxiety disorder; she takes medication to help her with it. She doesn’t like that we’re all fighting.

Kate: I feel terrible. My dad says she spends most of her time either at school, or in her room, playing the violin.

Max: Is she any good?

Kate: She’s incredible. We all played when we were younger, but she’s the best, hands down. She’s only sixteen, but there are a couple of music schools that have invited her to visit.

Max: Wow, that’s amazing. How have I never heard you play the violin?

Kate: I haven’t in years. Mine is still in my room back in San Diego.

Max: Hmm. So, your dad?

Kate: Right. After he apologized, he said he was really sorry for not getting more involved.

Kate: He knew the whole ‘Chris’ thing was an issue, but he figured my mother would eventually get over it once she accepted that I was gay.

Max: And he doesn’t have a problem with it?

Kate: He said he was pretty shocked, but he wants me to be happy.

Max: Well, it sounds like he’s making a real effort.

Kate: I think so.

Kate: Vicky is still pretty apprehensive.

Max: Can you blame her?

Kate: I guess not. Still, I would like to go back to having a real relationship with him.

Max: And your mom?

Kate: Unless she comes crawling back on her hands and knees to beg my forgiveness, I’m half a mind away from sending her some Burly Bikers mail to peruse.

Max: Have I mentioned that I think your wife is having a really positive influence on you?

Chapter Text

January, 2020

“I could get behind this whole ‘multiple rooms’ thing,” Chloe allowed as she walked through their new apartment, maneuvering around the stacks of cardboard boxes. “I still have no idea what we’re going to do with a second bedroom, besides make it an office or something. 

The new apartment was a two-bedroom, on the fourth floor of a taller building. The view wasn’t the greatest, but the apartment was entry-controlled. A panel with a security camera was mounted at the main entrance, which meant guests had to dial the occupant they were trying to visit before they were let in. The two girls could now see everyone who wanted to visit them.

They’d also explained the situation with First Light to their landlord. He was very understanding, and had been extremely helpful when setting up their lease. He’d even placed a fake name on the building directory for them. The whole thing made Chloe feel a lot better about Max’s safety.

“I’m more excited about having a washer and dryer of our own, instead of using a communal one.” Max smirked, glancing over to admire the appliances in the small closet.  “They never did fix that one bank of dryers properly.”

“Yea, that too.” Chloe hugged Max from behind. “You sure you don’t have a problem chipping in more money for the bills?”

Max shook her head. “It’s fine, Chloe. I can still pay for my classes. I only have a few left anyway. We’ll just have to cut back a bit until the fall.”

“All I really took away from that was ‘less pizza’,” Chloe grumbled as she let go, turning back around and re-entering the mountains of boxes. The moving company had dropped everything off an hour prior, and the girls were still sorting through it all as they tried to organize their stuff. “I found your Switch, by the way. I put it on the counter.”

Glancing over, Max saw the red-and-blue console sitting next to her purse in the living room. “Sweet,” she quipped, digging into another box. “I still haven’t found your laptop, though. Or mine.”

“Well, I’m sure they’re around somewhere.” Chloe shrugged. “Penny said the moving company was very reputable. I’m sure they wouldn’t risk her wrath to steal a couple of old laptops.”

Max’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and she abandoned her box to read the incoming text. “Hey, do we have any plans for the last week in February?”

“Not that I know of.” Chloe stood up, wiping her brow. “These are more of our clothes, by the way. Why? What’s going on in February?”

“I got a message from Kate.” Max re-read the text. “That last week is when Victoria’s taking the bar exam. She wants to set up a party, for after she finally finishes the last day.”

Chloe frowned, glancing back at Max. “The last day?”

“It’s a two-day test, Chloe.”

The bluenette blinked. “Damn,” she offered. “Wait, what if she fails? Won’t she be miserable and not want to party?”

Max smirked, as she kept reading. “She won’t get the results back until May. But she’s been studying non-stop for months. The party will be her chance to unwind.”

“Ah.” Chloe nodded. “I can totally get behind that. If she drinks as much as she did during her bachelorette party, it’ll be fuckin’ hilarious. So, what is it, a Friday?”

“Saturday.” Max tapped out a reply. “She’s inviting us to stay the weekend again.”

Chloe tilted her head, giving Max a look. “We get to visit LA again for a weekend without paying for a hotel? I am SO in.” She grinned. “Who else is coming?”

Max fired off the question, getting a quick reply. “Us, Alyssa, Lynn, and a couple of their other friends. She invited Stella too, but got a soft ‘maybe’. She glanced back at Chloe. “So probably less of a party, like you’re thinking of, and more like a celebratory get-together.”

“Will there be booze?”

“I mean, yea, probably.”

“Then I don’t care.”

The brunette chuckled as she sent another text to Kate, before tucking her phone away and opening a new cardboard box. “I think these are all your computer parts,” Max said, placing the new box with the first one. “Maybe we should get a second bookcase to hold them all, now that we have the room.”

“I like that idea. Still no laptops?”

Max shook her head. “No. They must be in one of these, though.”

“Ooh!” Chloe squealed. “Look what I found!”

Max turned and saw her holding up a very familiar outfit. White button-up shirt, plaid skirt... “Oh, God,” Max gasped, her eyes widening in horror. “I forgot that was in our closet! Those guys really packed that up?!”

“They sure did!” Chloe couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “I wonder what kind of naughty thoughts were racing through their heads.”

“Oh, no.” Max buried her face in her hands. “Oh, my God, I am so mortified.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “They’re professional movers, Max. I’m sure they’ve seen worse,” she said as she tossed the outfit towards their bedroom.

“What are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing? I’m setting it aside for later, dummy.”


Brooke: Regina had the baby. 

Max: Wow, has it been that long already?

Brooke: Apparently. Foster mama drove us all to the hospital this afternoon.

Brooke: It’s a boy. She named him Aaron, after the psychiatrist who helped her in Portland.

Max: That’s a great name. Are you guys still at the hospital?

Brooke: Yea. Emily and I are with Regina. She’s sleeping while we watch Aaron.

Brooke: I forgot how tiny babies are when they’re first born. I was terrified to even hold him, when Regina gave him to me.

Max: She gave him to you?

Brooke: And Emily, too. She wanted us to be godmothers.

Max: That is so sweet. She must really be grateful to the two of you.

Brooke: Emily and I have been talking, too. She’s turning eighteen this year, just before she graduates high school. She wants to get a job and save money up, so she can get an apartment near OSU.

Brooke: When Regina and I leave, we’re gonna live with her.

Max: That sounds pretty doable.

Brooke: We need to talk some more, when Regina wakes up. But we’re taking the plan pretty seriously.


Victoria: How’s the new apartment? 

Chloe: Bigger than the last one.

Chloe: Thanks again, BTW, for hooking us up with your lawyer friend.

Victoria: No problem. He helped you guys out?

Chloe: Yea. We paid a little bit, for the filing fees, but he did everything else for free. Much appreciated.

Victoria: Sure thing. You guys moved in yet?

Chloe: Still unpacking boxes. We’ve been doing it all day today. Probably be doing it all day tomorrow, too.

Chloe: And we’re still not sure what we’re supposed to do with another bedroom.

Victoria: You could turn it into a guest room.

Chloe: For who? All the people we don’t have over?

Chloe: Unless you and Kate ever come back up to visit us. That would actually be pretty dope.

Victoria: Yea, we do want to come back up to SF at some point, but we will definitely be staying at a hotel.

Chloe: What, is our guest bedroom not good enough for you?!

Victoria: Will it have room service? A king size mattress? Continental breakfast?

Chloe: Well. I’m sorry our accommodations aren’t up to Vic Chase’s standards.

Victoria: Stop calling me that!

Victoria: And you don’t have any “accommodations” yet!

Chloe: We could!

Chloe: And they would be free!

Victoria: Yea, because my budget is SO tight.

Chloe: Wow. Have you ever wondered why people hate the 1%?

Victoria: Jealousy?

Chapter Text

February, 2020

Kate handed Max part of a tablecloth, the two girls spreading it over the kitchen table as they set up for the party. “What time is it?” she asked, as they smoothed out the wrinkles.

Max checked her watch. “Just after six,” she replied, glancing outside at the rapidly-darkening sky. “We’ve got about thirty minutes or so, before the others start showing up.”

“Relax,” Chloe called from the kitchen, where she was working on two pots. She was making cheese dip in one, and boiling water for deviled eggs in the other. “People are always late to these things. We’ve got plenty of time.”

“Easy for you to say,” Victoria retorted as she opened bags of chips and dumped them into bowls. “I still have to shower and change. And we still need to go get booze.”

Kate rolled her eyes, as she took the bowls from Victoria. “The liquor store is right down the street,” she pointed out as she placed them on the table. “It won’t take more than twenty minutes. And it’s not like we need that much, just a few bottles of wine.”

“Do you want me to go?” Chloe asked.

“If you do it, it’ll take half an hour,” Max joked.

“Ha ha, funny girl.” Chloe stuck her tongue out.

“Also, you’re cooking,” Victoria reminded her. “Are you sure about that recipe?”

The bluenette scoffed. “It’s beer and cheese. Two of God’s greatest creations, combined together. It’s going to be amazing.”

“I’m pretty sure beer was an invention of Man,” Kate said absently. “Seriously, Vicky, go get your shower. Everyone else is ready.”

Victoria sighed. “Fine,” she grumbled. “Don’t let Chloe burn down the kitchen.”

“I heard that,” Chloe called out.

“You were meant to.” Victoria smirked as she walked back towards her bedroom, closing the door behind her.

Max looked back at Kate as they finished arranging the table. “How was she, when she finally finished the test?”

“The most relieved I’ve ever seen her.” Kate shook her head. “I felt so bad for her, this past weekend. She literally had her nose in books from sunup to sundown, all the way into Tuesday night. I made her take a sleeping pill so she would actually get some rest."

“Jeez.” Max winced. “That much pressure, huh?"

Kate nodded. “You know how driven she is,” she reminded her. “And the Bar has something like a fifty-percent fail rate. She puts on a brave face, but I know she’s been anxious for months. And she’ll probably fret until the results come out.”

“Yea,” Max agreed. “I stress while waiting for my teachers to grade my final papers, and that only lasts a week. I can’t imagine waiting three months for a response.”

“Right?” Kate smirked. “Did you finish your paper, by the way?”

“Not yet. I still need a few more pages,” Max explained, nodding towards the guest bedroom. “I still have a few days to do it, so I’m not worried.”

“Tell that to your computer.” Chloe looked at her as she rolled her eyes. “You were hammering on your keyboard this morning like you were trying to beat the essay out of it. You know those keys are breakable, right?”

“Yea, yea.” Max turned back to Kate. “I’m sure Victoria’s glad the test is over, at least. Does she think she passed?”

“She seemed pretty confident, but I can tell she’s still a little nervous.” Kate cocked her head, listening, and Max realized that they could hear the shower running. “Oh, finally.”

Max looked at her, confused. “What?”

“We’re gonna go get the wine now. Gimme a second.”

Kate walked over to the table at their apartment entrance, grabbing two sets of keys from the bowl. She dropped one of them into the pocket of a hanging coat as she twirled the second set around her finger. Then she made her way towards their bedroom, cracking the door open. “Vicky!” she called. “I can’t find the keys to my Volvo! I’m gonna take your Audi!”

“What?!” Max heard the blonde yell, over the running water. “Oh, no! No way! Wait until I get out! I’ll go get the booze!”

“There’s no time, Vicky! And you just got in the shower!” Kate grinned at Max. “It’ll only be a few minutes! I’ll be right back!”

“Kate! Come on! Do NOT take my car!”

“Can’t hear you! Leaving! Love you!” Kate slammed the door, cackling, as Victoria continued to yell from the shower. “Come on, let’s go!” she whispered to Max. “Before she gets out!”

Max laughed as Kate grabbed her arm, dragging her towards the door. “Love you, Chloe, back in a few minutes!” she called.

“Love you too! Get some IPAs!!” the bluenette called as the two of them made their way out the door.

Max and Kate giggled the whole way to the elevator. “Okay, what in the world was that all about?” Max finally got out, as Kate pushed the button to call the elevator.

“Vicky doesn’t like it when I drive her car,” Kate said, a smirk on her face. “She won’t let me do it very often. I have to sneak the keys away, in order to take it out.”

Max raised an eyebrow. “And why is that?” she asked coyly.

“Um... I may have gotten a couple of speeding tickets,” Kate admitted, still smirking as she scratched at her neck.

“Uh huh. And how many is a couple?”

“Five.”

Max blinked, as the elevator opened in front of them. “Seriously, Kate? You’ve gotten FIVE speeding tickets?” she asked, astonished. “That can’t be true. You’re such an innocent, good person. How is that possible?”

“I can’t help it.” She led the way into the elevator, pushing the number for the parking level. “Her Audi is so much fun to drive, and it accelerates so effortlessly. It’s... oh, I don’t even know,” she said, throwing her hands up. “It’s intoxicating, really. That first time, when I was driving it on the highway, they got me doing over ninety, and I didn’t even realize it.”

Max coughed out a laugh. “Oh, God,” she chuckled. “Kate Chase has a demon on her shoulder after all.”

“Yea, I guess so.” Kate’s face finally broke out into a genuine smile. “Kate Chase. God, it’s been eight months, and I still can’t believe I’m married.”

“I know!” Max smiled back. “You’re such an adult!”

“Oh, hush.” Kate gave Max a small shove, then sighed. “You have no idea how happy I’ll be when she joins the bar and gets a real job.”

“Yea, you’ll finally be a real working couple.” Max nodded. “What comes after that? Are you guys going to try and get a house? Join the country club? Have two-point-five kids?”

Kate bit her lip at the last one, causing Max to pause in her monologue. “We’re... seriously talking about it,” Kate replied.

“Wha- really?” Max blinked. “I was just kidding. Are you guys for real?”

“I mean, yea.” Kate looked back at Max. “Vicky’s always been on the fence about it. I told her I definitely wanted at least one, once we were finished with school and had the time to focus on a family.”

“Wow.” Max looked at her in awe. “And once she gets a job...”

Kate nodded. “We agreed to go see an IVF specialist,” she answered. “She still doesn’t know if she wants to go through a pregnancy or not, but with my job schedule, it might be easier if I did it, anyway. We figure we’ll have a preliminary appointment in the summer.”

“Dude.” Max reached around Kate, pulling her into a tight hug. “You are gonna be SUCH a cool mom.”

The other girl smiled. “You think so?”

“Totally.” Max paused. “Is it crass, to call Godmother?”

Kate rolled her eyes as the elevator opened into the underground parking level. “Yea, I’m pretty sure. Also, Lynn and Alyssa will probably fight you for it.”

“Eh. I think I can take them.”

Max and Kate both laughed as they walked up to a silver two-door car. “Holy crap, is this it?” the brunette asked with a gasp.

“Yep.” Kate grinned as she hit the key fob, unlocking the car. “Wait until you see the inside.”

Max opened the door and slid into the plush interior, admiring the brown leather and carbon fiber. “It looks like a freaking space shuttle,” she said in awe.

“I know. I love this car.” Kate got in and closed the door, both girls putting on their seat belts. “Vicky offered to buy me one, but I know how much trouble I’d get in. Plus, it’s a sixty-thousand-dollar car, and I’d feel incredibly guilty."

Max glanced at the practically non-existent back seats. “Not to mention that this is hardly a family-friendly car,” she added. “Victoria’s not putting a baby carrier back there.”

“Yea, I know. Be funny to watch her try, though.” Kate hit the button on the dashboard, and the engine fired up. Max could have sworn it purred like a kitten, as Kate shifted it into gear and pulled out of the spot. “Oh, God,” she exclaimed suddenly, her eyes getting wide.

“What?”

“I just thought about my wife trading this in for a minivan.” Kate laughed as she drove the car up the ramp, a yellow gate arm raising out of their way. “How freaking hilarious would that be?”

Max snorted with laughter, turning to Kate as they drove through the apartment lot. “Oh my God, I would pay money to see-”

Headlights. Approaching blindingly fast. Max barely got a chance to realize what they were. “KATE!!” she screamed, pointing as they sped toward the driver’s side of the car. “KATE, LOOK OU-”

She felt a flurry of sensations as the other car impacted with a violent crash.

The Audi twisting around her.

Spinning out of control.

Bucking in her seat.

Smashing into an obstacle. Glass shattering. White airbags deploying. A siren going off.

Pain in her head. Pain in her arm. Pain in her chest. A loud ringing in her ears.

Her vision slowly shrinking into blackness.

Chapter Text

Maxine?

Max picked her head up from the kitchen table, hesitating as she drew in her coloring book. She was in her childhood house, and her mom was calling her. She could smell food cooking on the stove; her mother’s spaghetti, one of her favorites.

Maxine, you need to put your things away and help set the table for dinner.

Nodding, the brunette closed her coloring book and tucked the loose crayons neatly back into their cardboard box. She slipped from the chair, taking her coloring book in one hand and crayons in the other as she softly padded for the stairs.

Maxine, don’t forget your doll.

Right. Almost forgot about that. She’d brought it down to play with earlier. Max turned back around, to get her doll from the living room.

A hand cracked across her face, sending her to the floor.

YOU FILTHY LITTLE ABOMINATION!!

She tried to raise her hand, but something grabbed her collar and dragged her to her feet, delivering another sharp slap as Max started to cry.

HOW DARE YOU SULLY THIS HOUSE AND OUR NAME, YOU FUCKING WHORE!! Another slap. YOU WILL ATONE FOR YOUR DIRTY SINS IF IT’S THE LAST THING YOU EVER FUCKING DO!!

Whatever was grabbing her finally dropped her, and Max jumped back to her feet, racing through her house. Her heart rate was sky-high as she shoved open the front door, sprinting into her front yard.

No. Not her front yard. It was an alley. Max looked around; she knew this place. There was something about it.

Something wrong.

A hand grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around.

A pretty little girl like you is just taking money away from the rest of us.

Something shoved her backwards. Max tried to retreat, as it shoved her harder and harder, but she eventually backed into the brick wall. The hands she couldn’t see grabbed her neck, forcing her to the ground as she struggled for breath.

You’re not made for these streets anyway, little girl. The hands got tighter.This is a mercy, is what it is. When I get to heaven, and Saint Peter welcomes be into the kingdom of God, you’ll be there to thank me for ending your suffering.

A knife was in Max’s hands now. A familiar red Swiss Army knife, the blade extended. The brunette slashed her weapon sideways, hearing a shriek as the pressure on her neck vanished. Jumping to her feet, she ran away, further down the alley, the stamping of feet close behind her.

You look like you could use a ride, girl.

Max turned, and suddenly she was in the passenger seat of a truck. Streetlights flew past her window, the glow made blurry from the rain pelting the windshield.

I got no problem helping you. I’m sure you’re desperate to get away from here.

Where was the driver? Max couldn’t see him.

But you’re gonna have to do a favor for me, first.

Max felt her foot yanked around her seat, as something pulled her towards the sleeping cab of the truck. She clawed for anything she could hold on to, finally wrapping her fingers around the gear shift. She hung on for dear life, kicking against whatever was pulling her back, while she grit her teeth and tried her hardest to scream, but no sound came from her mouth.

After what felt like an eternity, whatever it was let go of her, and she scrambled for the passenger door of the truck, jumping out as quickly as she could. She slammed into the ground face-first, the pain almost unbearable as she rolled to a stop.

She didn’t move. Why? What was the point? Easier to curl into a ball and cry. It wasn’t worth it to keep going.

Max?

A familiar voice.

She looked up. She was back in an alley again. And at the far end was... who was that? She was familiar. The black boots. Ripped jeans. White shirt under a black jacket. Blue hair, sticking out from beneath a black beanie.

I love you, Max.

The woman smiled, holding her hand out.

Ignoring the pain, Max slowly got to her feet, making her way down the alley. But it shifted. It was wrong. For every step she took, the alley grew two steps longer, stretching further back. She started to run, trying to get closer, but she almost felt like she was standing still.

Until she made progress. Slow, incremental progress.

Where the fuck are you going?

A hand flashed from behind her, grazing her hair.

You’re going to PAY for that!

YOU LITTLE HEATHEN BITCH!!

I gave you a ride, now it’s your turn!

Max put on a boost of speed. Her lungs were starting to burn, the alley slowly, too slowly, getting sh