The sunset always turns the water of the Puget Sound the most vivid shade of pink. It’s a sight that Rachel Amber never tires of. She sits comfortably on her balcony, enjoying a cold glass of Manny’s Pale Ale while she waits for her partner to come home. Manny’s is her favourite summer beer in Seattle, and she was in the habit of starting her nights just like this one, as often as she could. Relaxing, enjoying the sunset and the sounds of the gorgeous city below her.
The latest show run at the 5th had wrapped its run the week prior, so Rachel is in full audition mode. Her agent secured her two commercial auditions earlier today, but she had been home for over an hour at this point. Anticipating a comfy evening in of cuddles and Netflix, she had long since changed into her go-to loungewear, pairing thin maroon tights with a grey, striped slouchy tee. Taking another sip, Rachel glances at her phone to check the time, confirming her suspicion. Where are they?
As if on cue, she hears behind her the telltale sounds of a key unlocking the front door. “Sorry I’m late, but it was for a good reason! I grabbed us dinner from the Thai place downstairs!” Rachel grins. She fucking loves that place. She pushes herself up and turns to walk back into the apartment, dramatically eying the person holding out the bag of takeout as a peace offering.
Max Caulfield had grown and changed so much since Rachel had met them seven years ago, back in Arcadia Bay. For starters, their hair is much shorter, cropped short around the ears and in the back, but shaggier on top. The bangs on the right side of their face are a bit longer, sweeping up then curving back towards their ear at about their cheek. It’s an altogether boyish look, and it fit them perfectly. Today, they aren’t wearing any noticeable makeup save for a touch of mascara and their eyebrows filled in as always. Their pale green oxford shirt is buttoned all the way up under a dark grey vest, and their skinny jeans are cuffed as usual, exposing a bit of ankle above their stylish loafers. It took them a long time, but Max has finally figured out their style in recent years. Rachel loves it.
Rachel, on the other hand, hasn’t really changed all that much. Her hair is a bit blonder, and she takes care to wear it a bit more fashionably than she had in high school. The single blue feather earring is also something she had left in Arcadia Bay (figuratively, of course—it holds too much sentimental value to actually leave behind). But otherwise, her sense of style is essentially just a more refined, slightly more grown up version of the girl Max had met all those years ago. Minus that grunge stage that followed her into their first year of college. She even wears the same perfume. One doesn’t mess with perfection, after all.
Rachel grabs the bag of takeout, only to toss it casually onto their small dining table on her way to Max. Rachel wants only one thing, and Max’s wide grin tells her that they know it. She wraps her arms around their neck and leans in for a kiss. Max’s lips are soft as ever, and a slight giggle escapes them as Rachel immediately moves her tongue against them. Then Max deepens the kiss, wrapping their arms around her lower back and pulling her close. As she pulls away after the lengthy and satisfying kiss, she gushes, “My dashing hero has returned,” earning another bright grin from Max. “And with a feast! You go get changed, and I’ll set the table.”
Max does as they’re told, and Rachel pinches their ass as they walk away. Max jumps and gives her the stink eye, but otherwise doesn’t react, escaping down the hall to the left towards their walk-in closet. Max has long since learned not to indulge Rachel’s antics. She sighs happily and begins unpacking their dinner. The one-bedroom high rise apartment she shares with Max is a source of pride and joy for Rachel. It felt like fate when the new apartment building in downtown Seattle opened last year, just as they were looking for a fancy new place. They had both been doing pretty well for themselves a year out of college and agreed that they could afford to treat themselves by finding the perfect home.
Apartment 2507 fits that bill. Between the balcony and massive windows facing the Puget Sound, the fact that they are the first to ever live in the unit, the dark wood of the gourmet kitchen, the bamboo floors, and the massive bathtub, it checked all of Rachel’s boxes. And she is, after all, the pickier of the two. Rachel knows that she is more than a little high maintenance, but Max loves her for it, and there had never been any question in her mind that they would find the perfect place. She likes to think that they will never leave this home they had made for themselves.
Except for that one painful missing piece. Rachel immediately shoves the troubling thought deep down, choosing to ignore her pain as she always did when it came to the missing person in their lives. Fortunately, Max comes back around the corner just then. Unfortunately, they must see something on her face to give away the thought that she had just dismissed.
“It’s okay to miss her, you know,” Max consoles. This is a mantra for Max, something they remind Rachel of at least once or twice a week. They walk behind Rachel and wrap their arms around her, standing on their toes so they can kiss the top of Rachel’s head. Max’s presence is comforting as always, but that doesn’t make the hurt go away. Years had passed, and it still hurt almost as bad as it had back then. The problem is that Rachel doesn’t want to miss her. She wants her back.
“I just feel stupid, you know? I’ve got everything I ever wanted at the ripe old age of 24. The love of a doting partner. A beautiful home in a beautiful city. A glamourous acting job. I even got that Mini Cooper I always secretly wanted. Yet I can’t stop dwelling on the one thing I don’t have.”
“You say it like I don’t miss her every bit as much as you do.” Max’s voice doesn’t convey hurt, just a solid reminder that the loss is not Rachel’s alone. “But she made her choice, and we have to respect that, even though it hurts. Maybe someday she’ll come to her senses, or at least try to talk to us again. But you’re right, Rach. You do have a wonderful life here. And as long as we’ve got each other, that’ll be enough.” Rachel knows Max well enough to know that they don’t fully believe that last statement. But she agrees with the sentiment. It isn’t that Max isn’t enough for her—they absolutely are. It’s just that deep down, they both know, without any shadow of a doubt, that their twosome ought to be a threesome.
These days, neither of them even has the heart to say her name aloud anymore. They just dance around it as if the ghost that haunts them won’t hurt them as long as they don’t name it. Yet it hurts anyway.
Why did you leave us, Chloe?
Up until about three years ago, both Rachel and Max had also been in a long-term relationship with Chloe Price. Rachel and Chloe started dating after a whirlwind couple of days towards the end of their sophomore year at Blackwell Academy. Their romance had been a tornado that upended everything Rachel thought she knew about herself and her life. It had been intense and amazing and seemingly instantaneous. A couple of years later, Max came back to Arcadia Bay to finish their final year of high school at Blackwell. Chloe and Max had been childhood best friends, but Max’s parents moved to Seattle when she was thirteen. Things had been rocky when they first came back to Arcadia Bay, but it hadn’t really taken all that long for the three of them to realize there were some major feelings all around.
Rachel smiles softly, thinking of that first moment she had thought to herself, Oh shit, I have a crush on Max. The three of them continued dating through graduation, then Chloe followed Max and Rachel to Seattle when they were both accepted into the University of Washington. Things weren’t always easy, but they were happy together. Rachel knows that even in the progressive environs of Seattle, the concept of polyamory isn’t a prevalent or normalized one. But it works for them, or it had. Until something shifted in Chloe around their sophomore or junior year of college.
A kiss on her cheek snaps Rachel back to the present. “Shit! I’m sorry, babe. No more sad talk tonight. Thai and cuddles and Netflix, right?” Max nods, and Rachel turns her head enough to kiss her lightly on the lips. “What are you drinking?”
“I’ll have what you’re having,” comes the nonchalant reply, as if Max doesn’t know Rachel’s go-to beer. As Rachel pulls out the chilled glass she had placed in the freezer in preparation and pours Max a beer, she can’t keep her eyes off her partner. Seven years in, and Rachel was every bit as enamoured with them as when they were teenagers. Gone were the vest and jeans—Max looks crazy adorable in their heather grey French terry shorts and very well worn blue Deep Space Nine v-neck t-shirt. And they had even taken off their binder, so Rachel knows cuddle times are definitely a go. Max was in for the night.
Rachel saunters over and places the glass down beside Max’s plate, then takes her seat across the table. “How did the shoot go?”
“Freaking awesome, actually,” Max replies excitedly. “The weather was absolutely perfect, and this couple is stupid adorable, Rach. I mean they’re hella photogenic anyways, but sometimes you can just see the happiness, you know? One of the best engagement shoots I’ve done in a while.” Even though it is their full-time job now, Max’s enthusiasm for photography is practically radiant. Engagement and wedding shoots aren’t their true calling or anything, but they pay the bills and are a regular source of inspiration and shared joy. Over the past couple of years, Max has become the hottest queer photographer in Seattle. Engagement shoots, wedding shoots, anniversary photo shoots, family portraits—Max handles it all, with their signature flair.
Max still has the old instant camera that used to be Chloe’s dad—it is something of an anchor for them—but they had finally adopted a more sophisticated setup for their business. They have a tiny little combo gallery and studio in a chic office building maybe a ten minutes’ bike north of their apartment. Max Caulfield Photography has an astonishingly good website that their high school friend Steph Gingrich had designed for Max back when she first opened her business their senior year of college. Max keeps most of their fancier equipment at the studio, along with the used Prius Max insists is only a work car. They walk, bike, or take public transit unless they’re hauling equipment around.
But all of Max’s most treasured or most personal pieces are on display in their apartment. They have a couple of nice canvas paintings and a couple of framed show posters from Rachel’s favourite theatre runs, but otherwise, all their art are Max Caulfield originals.
“What were their names?”
“K.D. and Ash. Such cuties. K.D. is a ferry boat operator, and she pulled some strings so that a good chunk of the shoot was actually on a ferry out in the sound. It was such a challenge, because I’ve never shot out on the water before, but it ended up being so awesome. I think you would’ve loved it too—you might not have gotten bored for once.” Max’s tone is joking but pointed. Rachel had demonstrated a problem with staying still and out of the way on the few times she’s accompanied Max on the job. What can she say? She’s not a sit still and watch sorta girl. Never has been. Still, she can’t let the jab go unpunished, so she flicks a piece of shrimp from her pad thai right at Max’s face.
But of course, Max just caught the shrimp with their mouth, chewing dramatically while fixing Rachel with a shit-eating ‘don’t even try me’ look. Well, this is entirely unacceptable, Rachel thinks.
“No fair! You rewound!”
“Did I though?” Max fixes her with their most impish grin. “What, do you doubt my shrimp nomming reflexes?”
Rachel rolls her eyes. “You really didn’t rewind to be sure you could impress your gorgeous and exasperated girlfriend with your delightful nomming skills?”
“You’re just going to have to trust that I’m really that good, sweet stuff.” That impish look hasn’t completely subsided, so Rachel isn’t entirely sure she believes Max. But she lets it go. It’s pretty unusual for Max to use their control over time anymore except for serious issues.
“Fine, I’ll concede that you are simply an expert nommer. You win, love.” Max performs a brief celebratory dance that is unbearably cute. They finish off their dinner, and Rachel places the dishes in the dishwasher before plopping down beside Max on the couch. By then, the sun has completely set, and the moon is clear and bright over the sound. Something about the sight of a full moon always puts Rachel at ease, and she sighs as she cuddles closely to the warmth of Max’s body.
“Alright, so what are you in the mood for tonight?”
“Hey you. So, I’m all yours—we doing that arrow and flowers design we worked out last time?” Chloe’s client, Luna, has an appointment, but she had come in a little early and had to wait while Chloe finished up with the client ahead of her. Luna smiles and nods, and Chloe leads her back to a private room. Chloe closes the door. “Alright, so depending on the exact positioning, you might be able to keep your bra—”
Chloe’s words drift off as she turns to see that Luna’s already removed her top and her bra and is standing there, topless, with her hands on her hips. Luna’s eyebrows are raised, clearly having intended to make an impression, but Chloe isn’t one to let people surprise her. “Yeah, I guess that works too,” she shrugs, then gestures towards the chair. “Have a seat.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Luna jokes. Chloe pulls up her chair and sits.
“Okay so first, let’s figure out exactly where you want the placement. You mentioned your ribcage, under your right breast, but where—” Luna grabs her hand, and places it on her ribcage.
“Right here.” Chloe’s hand is almost cupping her boob, but she doesn’t move it, not wanting to make Luna uncomfortable. Or, you know, give any indication that she is, herself, uncomfortable. Chloe is more than used to a bit of flirting from a client, even if Luna is exactly Chloe’s type, at least lately. Her rich brown skin practically glows, even in the semi-perpetual gloom of Portland’s Pacific Northwest climate. Her dark hair is long, thick, and wavy on the left side, but shaved into a neat undercut on the right. Traditionally femme presentation, but she just oozes this edgy masculine energy. Her dark cropped t-shirt and short denim vest lay discarded on the floor along with her lacy pink bra. Just a hint of hip bone is exposed over the thick belt adorning her maroon jeans.
Chloe removes her hand slowly, before sizing up the placement and snarking, “Yeah, I think that’ll do nicely.” She pulled over a small table with a cushion on top. “You’ll need to keep your arm up and out of the way while I work, and this’ll probably take an hour or so. Feel free to rest your arm here, but just let me know if you’re going to move it at all. Sound good?”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me to, of course.” This is the fourth tattoo Chloe has done for Luna, and already this is the flirtiest the DJ has ever been. I wonder what changed? Chloe thinks. Break up with a girlfriend or just getting comfortable? Chloe gets her tattoo gun ready to go, then decides to break the ice a little further.
“Who did your piercings? Anyone I might know?” She raises an eyebrow at Luna, who glances knowingly down at her pierced nipples. “Maybe the best I’ve ever seen. Certainly better than mine.” Chloe leaves the question hanging, so that Luna can answer if she wants or let it drop if she doesn’t. “Oh and by the way, this is going to hurt like hell.” The first prick draws a gasp from Luna, but otherwise, she grins and bears it. This probably wouldn’t be too much worse than the slightly stylized cross Chloe did behind her right ear, but Luna will have to deal with the pain for much longer.
Luna takes a couple of minutes to let herself get used to the feel of the gun before answering Chloe. “I got these done before I moved to Portland, so I doubt you would recognize the nice old lady who did them. Glad you appreciate them, though.”
Chloe snorts. “What can I say, I’m appreciative of all forms of art, as long as it’s good.” She glances up for the briefest moment. “And those are excellent.”
Luna hums. “We still talking about my piercings?” Chloe feigns having her full attention on her work, refusing to answer. “Oh, okay, now she gets quiet. Fine then, keep your eyes on your work.” Luna’s left hand moves slowly, clearly not wanting to startle Chloe or cause any sudden reactionary movement. She slips a couple of fingers gently through Chloe’s hair. “I know I say this every time, but I fucking love your hair. And red. I loved the purple, but this is a surprisingly good colour on you.”
Chloe’s hair hasn’t been its natural strawberry blonde since she was sixteen. She had kept it pretty consistently blue until she was nineteen or twenty, but since then she has been in the habit of changing it fairly regularly. Now that she keeps her hair short, it gives her opportunities to try a new colour each time she got it cut, once every month or so. Right now, the undercut sides of her hair are their natural shade, but the fluffy mohawk adorning the top and back of her head is a vivid red, with just a hint of root showing.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret, but it has to stay between you and me.”
“Ooooh, I think I can handle that,” Luna purrs.
“I picked this colour so that I could look like Batwoman.”
“Holy shit, my badass tattoo artist is also a badass comic book nerd?” The surprise and pleasure in Luna’s voice are palpable.
“Hah. Well, actually, not really at all. A girl left a Batwoman comic at my place a couple months ago. Turns out, I’m a pretty big sucker for gothy ex-military dykes who throw on leather batgear to kick the shit out of criminals at night. Who knew?”
“Well, we all have our kink. Kate Kane is a very good look for you, Chloe.” She winces and draws a sharp breath as Chloe works over a rib. “So, how’s that pup of yours, what was his name?”
“Pompidou.” Chloe is looking after the little dummy after an old friend from Arcadia Bay got busted for dealing drugs. Frank has another three years on his sentence, and Chloe guesses he will probably take Pompidou back when he gets out. But the little guy has grown on Chloe—he had certainly gotten her through her absolute darkest days a couple of years ago. “Little bastard is doing good. For a former guard dog, he’s a big fucking softy.”
“And it’s just you and him. No live-in girlfriend or anything?”
“Subtle,” Chloe teases. She uses the humour to deflect, which is a step up from some of her old coping mechanisms. “No, just me and the pup. And honestly, that’s how I like it.” Chloe pauses long enough to take the emotions bubbling up and shove them way, way down. She can’t focus on creating perfect art with Max and Rachel on her mind. After all, she came to Portland to escape all of that. “So, your piercings predate P-Town? What brought you to our fair city?”
“Changing the subject on me? Interesting.” Chloe keeps her eyes firmly on Luna’s side. “Fine, I’ll bite. But you should know, it’s much less fun when you don’t flirt back. I moved here last year from Los Angeles after a bad breakup.” Fuuuuuuuck. Los Angeles. Of course. Fuck. Once upon a time, Rachel had been a Cali girl. Back when it was just the two of them, they had talked about running off to LA together. Fortunately, Luna kept talking.
“Turns out, Portland is much more my speed than LA ever was. Not that you could’ve ever convinced 23-year-old me that. Little did she know the wonder of getting fucked by punk rocker chicks.” Chloe grins wickedly, forcing herself not to chuckle.
“Someone’s feeling bold tonight.” Chloe is legitimately curious about the change in Luna from their previous sessions. She has been flirty each time, but this feels more intentional, more pointed.
“Yeah well, maybe I’m just angling to meet your dog is all.”
“And here I thought you just liked my work.” Chloe is finished with the design, a fairly ornate arrow with a subtle curving stem wrapped around it, three distinct lilies blooming from the stem. Now she just has to fill in the pink colouring of the lilies.
“What? It can’t be both?” Chloe glances up at Luna just in time to catch her biting her lip. Shit. Why are the hottest chicks always clients? “Anyway, what do you and Pompidou get up to during the day while you’re not at Lady Luck?”
“Well, Pompidou sits on his ass all day or plays with his toys or barks at people walking by the window, or so I assume. I wouldn’t know because I’ve got a day job.”
“Interesting. The tattoo artist with the colourful mohawk and nipple piercings has a day job. I wouldn’t have guessed. So, what’s this day job?”
“I’m a mechanic at a garage a ways south of here.” Chloe works normal people hours Monday through Friday at the garage—where of course she is the only female mechanic—and works weekends and a couple nights a week here at Lady Luck Tattoo. It allows her to afford the tiny, but very nice, studio apartment where she hosts her various conquests and hangs out with Pompidou.
“I guess you don’t have a ton of free time then.” Wow, this girl is fishing. Chloe doesn’t mind too much; Luna definitely has game. But she knows she is going to have to shoot her down tonight, which sucks. She’s a cool chick, and wicked hot. And a great client. Hopefully, Chloe’s ‘no clients’ rule won’t keep her from coming back.
“Don’t have much need for free time, honestly. I enjoy my work. I’m good with cars. Cars make sense.” Unlike people, who are confusing and make me feel things I don’t want to feel. “And I get to meet lots of cool people and shoot the shit here at Lady Luck. A couple nights a week of drinking and fun are all the socializing I really need.”
“Don’t suppose that really leaves a lot of time for dating.” Wow. She’s not going to stop until I have to say it. Chloe hopes she can at least make it through this last lily before she has to shoot Luna down.
“Yeahhhh I’m not really a dating sorta girl, frankly.”
“Of course you’re not, because what would be the fun in that.”
“On the contrary, there’s plenty of fun to be had in building a relationship with someone. For some people. But not me. It’s … more complication than I’m willing to deal with. Not looking to share my life with anyone, you know?” She glances up and can immediately see that Luna is onto her. Rather than forcing an end to this particular topic of conversation, as Chloe intended, she has only piqued Luna’s curiosity. You’re sexy as hell, lady, but that’s not a story I’m getting into with you. Sorry.
“Holy shit, you remind me of her a little. My ex. The one I moved to Portland to escape.” Chloe winces. They have that in common at least, the whole ‘run away to Portland to get away from broken relationships’ thing.
“Well, I’ll say this. If she’s anything like me, then she definitely didn’t deserve you. And with that, we’re done.” Chloe backs her chair up and motions for Luna to stand and check it out in the mirror. Luna gives her a look that very much says ‘we’re not done with this conversation,’ then stands up and saunters towards the mirror on the wall.
“Fuck, this is perfect Chloe. It’s exactly what I imagined. It’s gorgeous.” She turns back to Chloe, face alight in a brilliant smile. “You’re a genius! You really oughta charge more.”
“Oh yeah? That wouldn’t scare you off?” Still very much topless, Luna walks over until she is standing directly in front of Chloe, locking eyes with her.
“Good luck keeping me away.” Chloe smiles, then backs away. She’s gotten skilled at putting on a good face while hiding her internal emotions. When she was a teenager, that would’ve been impossible for her. She walks over to get a bandage to cover the tattoo, removing her latex gloves and tossing them in a nearby trash can as she moves.
“You know the rules, but I’ll mention them anyway.” Luna rolls her eyes as Chloe sits to clean and wrap up the tattoo. “The bandage will help keep any of the ink from bleeding into your clothes or sheets. Be sure to keep the tattoo out of the sun for a couple of days and wash it with warm water and antibacterial soap. Keep the skin hydrated, and if you use a lotion, make sure it’s something basic and unscented. You know, the usual.”
“Sure thing, babe.” Luna pulls the wallet from her purse, and lays down the $300 for the tattoo, plus a generous tip. She still hasn’t put her shirt back on. “And with our business concluded, I was hoping you’d give me your number. Let me take you out for a drink on one of your few nights out.”
There it is. Chloe smiles a semi-fake smile. Nothing personal. “I’m sorry, but I have a strict no clients policy. I like you, and it’s clear you like my work. Let’s not chance ruining that with something silly like sex.” She leans back against the counter while Luna puts her bra and shirt back on, slowly—as if a little reverse strip tease is going to be that last little nudge she needs to convince Chloe to go out with her. “If we were just two strangers at a bar, trust me, I’d be down. But your body is a temple. A very attractive one. And you can’t go trusting just anyone with the art you place there, right?”
Luna’s eyes narrow, and she steps close. “Fine. I get it.” Chloe sighs in relief, but only on the inside. “Now, where’s your phone?”
“Umm, what now?” Chloe tilts her head, legitimately confused.
“You won’t give me your number, and I respect that. But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving here without giving you mine. Just in case you ever change your mind.” Fuck, her persistence really does it for me.
Chloe allows her eyes to linger on Luna’s for just longer than is comfortable, then turns and pulls out her phone. “I can handle that.” She unlocks it, and hands it over. Luna wastes no time entering her contact info.
“Thanks for the gorgeous tat, Chloe. I hope you’ll change your mind, but if you don’t, I’m sure I’ll be by for another before too long.” She opens the door, and Chloe follows her out, walking her back to the front before she goes back to clean her equipment.
“I’m glad to hear that. See you around, Luna.”
“Later, Chloe.” Chloe logs a couple more hours at the shop, then packs up her equipment and makes her way outside and around the corner to where her motorcycle is parked. The deep violet Harley-Davidson Sporster has been her constant companion since the Beast finally crapped out on her four years ago. The ancient truck had lived far beyond its natural life after Chloe found it abandoned in the American Rust junkyard in Arcadia Bay and fixed it up. She had expected to find another junker to fix up but had gotten lost and found herself at the local Harley-Davidson shop. It was love at first sight, even if Rachel and Max weren’t exactly enthused with her choice of vehicle.
Now, there is no one around to question Chloe’s life choices. She pretends that she thinks that’s a good thing. The drive home is entirely uneventful, and Pompidou barks happily as she enters the small studio apartment she shares with him in North Portland. She tosses her helmet down by the door and grabs his leash.
“Let’s go, dummy. You need a nice walk before bed.” Pompidou enjoys the exercise as always, and luckily, they don’t run across any skeevy dudes, as is sometimes the case. But just as they turn the corner to walk down the final block on the way back to the apartment, something entirely unexpected happens.
Chloe’s phone rings. She halts, and Pompidou grumbles at her, pulling slightly on his leash. She pulls the phone out and narrows her eyes at the number displayed. Then she answers.
“Steph? What the fuck, dude? It’s a little late for random calls from Arcadia Bay.”
“Chloe! Look, ummm … are you sitting down?” Chloe’s heart falls out of her chest. Why would Steph ask her that? What the fuck is going on?
“No, I’m walking Pompidou. Steph. Just tell me what the fuck is going on. You’re freaking me out.” There’s a pause on the other end, then Steph sighs.
“Chloe, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have to be the one to tell you this, but it’s your mom. Chloe, she’s dead.”