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A Darkness in Arcadia Bay

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Chapter 1

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.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

I still remember the day I met Rachel Amber as vividly as any memory I’ve got.  Much more vividly than some, but that’s a story I’ll have to get into a bit later.  It was about a month before my seventeenth birthday.  The second seventeenth birthday I ever had, as it were.  My body may have been sixteen years old back then, but my mind was already eighteen. 

I should probably elaborate on that, huh?  The thing is, I’m sort of a time traveler.  Neat, right?  It’s actually every bit as much a curse as it is a blessing, though the more control over my powers that I’ve gained, the less of the latter they have been.  I won’t get into the full story just yet, but shortly after my (first) eighteenth birthday, I discovered that I could rewind time.  Not by much.  Usually only a couple of minutes, at most.  So then, how could I jump back two full years, you ask?

My powers are weird.  Hella weird.  Years later, and I’m still not sure I understand the full nature of them.  Much less where they came from.  All I know is that I can make larger time jumps, but in a way that is very peculiarly tied into my life-long love of photography.  I can sorta jump my consciousness through photographs, taking over the body of my past self.  Any changes I make can change the future as I knew it, but I can only stay in that past reality for a moment before my consciousness jumps back to my present day.  At least, that’s how it usually works.  The journey of my eighteen-year-old consciousness finding a permanent home in my sixteen-year-old body is … let’s say complicated, but for now, I think that’s a pretty good primer on what I’m working with, powers-wise.

But back to the day I met Rachel.  She’s not the only important person in this story, but she was the immediate priority.  You see, I went back in time primarily to save Rachel’s life.  When I left my original timeline, shit was all kinds of fucked up.  My best friend, Chloe Price, and I had discovered, six months too late, that Rachel had been murdered.  Well …. Chloe and I were more than just friends, but we didn’t really get a chance to explore what that meant.  The day after we found Rachel’s body, the entire town of Arcadia Bay was destroyed by an impossibly large, definitely supernatural tornado.  Chloe was a shell of herself after that.  Hell, so was I.  I still carry a lot of scars with me from that bizarre, haunting week when my powers first manifested.

The point is that I had to fix it.  I couldn’t let that happen to Chloe.  So, I found a way to come back.  My theory was that everything tied back to Rachel Amber, and it turned out, I was right about that.  Sort of.  Anyways, I found my way back to my sixteen-year-old self the summer before the 2012-2013 school year.  Rachel and Chloe’s senior year at Blackwell Academy.  Mine too, thanks to a few tweaks to the timeline I made.  I skipped a year of high school and graduated early, so that I could take a second senior year focusing on photography at Blackwell Academy.  (Blackwell’s a strange fucking place for a lot of reasons, not least of which was its two-year senior program.  Just picture an idyllic arts and science private school for pompous young rich kids, and you won’t be far off from an accurate imagining of Blackhell, as Chloe tended to call it.)

I spent that summer putting together my grand plan to change the future, while also struggling not to let my parents see that I was suffering from major issues with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.  I was … moderately successful.  I really should’ve gotten some serious help that summer before I threw myself back into the nest of triggers and terror that Arcadia Bay had become for me.  But I was young and arrogant and focused on my mission.

Needless to say, I did not make a good first impression on Rachel.  In fact, it was a fucking disaster.  Rachel and Chloe had been dating for a little over two years at that point.  Chloe and I were best friends, nearly inseparable, until my family moved to Seattle when I was thirteen.  We moved away shortly after Chloe’s dad died in a car accident—we left the day of his funeral, actually—and I was absolutely shitty about staying in touch with Chloe at a time when she needed me most.  As a result, when I tried to reach out to her the summer I came back in time (and again several times as I prepared to move back to Arcadia Bay), she ignored me completely.  And I deserved that.

What I wasn’t sure of, that first couple of days back in the Bay, was how much Chloe had told Rachel over the years.  I caught glimpses of her that first day, when my parents helped me move into the girls’ dorm at Blackwell.  Through some blessed twist of fate, I was placed in room 223 rather than 219, where I lived for about a month in the original timeline.  Room 223 honestly didn’t look any different, but it felt different.  I don’t know if I would’ve been able to emotionally handle being back in room 219.  The other notable feature of Room 223 was that I lived right next door to Rachel.

I didn’t officially meet Rachel Amber until the next morning.  I woke up early, snapping away from my usual nightmare, and my anxiety wouldn’t let me go back to sleep.  I decided to head into the communal bathroom to grab a shower before anyone else was awake.  It definitely helped relax me, which wasn’t good because I ran smack into Rachel as I exited the bathroom.  We both managed to stay on our feet, but our foreheads collided quite painfully.

“What the honest fuck?”  For all of Chloe’s talk about how incredible and magical Rachel Amber was, I was entirely unprepared for the reality of her.  I mean, I knew that the real thing couldn’t possibly live up to the memory Chloe had of her, but … Chloe really wasn’t overselling it by much.  Even in a moment of confusion and frustration, Rachel’s voice was downright melodic.  I felt immediately awkward and dowdy in comparison, even though I was freshly showered and Rachel was still half asleep.

“Sorry!” I managed to squeak out, quickly looking down at my feet in embarrassment.  I had been lost in thought when I walked out of the bathroom, not expecting anyone else to be awake even then.  I certainly didn’t expect to run, quite literally, into Rachel fucking Amber. 

“Jesus!  That fucking hurt!  Are you alright?”  It hurt, but I was okay, and as I looked up to meet Rachel’s gaze, I thought I saw a glint of concern in her soft almond eyes.  Then a flash of recognition hardened them against me.  “Oh.  You’re Max.”  It wasn’t a question.  Chloe had definitely told her about me.

For a couple of seconds, I just gaped, unsure how to respond.  The thing was, yeah, Chloe absolutely undersold it, and I was entirely unprepared for this first meeting.  Rachel Amber was magnetic, even first thing in the morning.  She was grumpy from being half asleep and having a stranger basically headbutt her first thing in the morning, and yet her narrowed eyes gleamed from behind the remnants of slept in eye shadow and mascara, illuminated by the morning sunlight filtering in through the blinds of the nearby window.  Her long sandy blonde hair was in a disheveled bun.  She was wearing a nondescript black tank top and pajama shorts, and you know, I couldn’t quite help noticing that she definitely wasn’t wearing a bra.  Despite being my height, her legs looked impossibly long and smooth and amazing.  My eyes lingered just a bit too long on the insanely cool dragon tattoo on her right calf—I didn’t know it then, but it was a Chloe Price original.  In short, after only a few seconds in Rachel Amber’s presence, so many things Chloe had told me made so much more sense.

Unfortunately, I had been standing there in awe for entirely too long, and Rachel was looking at me like I was a crazy person.  So, I tried to fix things.  “Umm, yeah, that’s me.  And you’re Rachel, right?” I asked meekly.  I could feel my chest tightening as the familiar feeling of anxiety began to seep back in.

“You bet.”  Rachel stepped back and leaned against the wall, crossing her arms.  I figured that wasn’t a great sign.

“I uhh guess Chloe told you about me.”

“She definitely told me about a Max Caulfield who was her best friend for years, but then abandoned her when her life was its absolute shittiest.  Assuming you’re that Max, then yeah, Chloe’s mentioned you.”

Shit, I thought.  She already hates me. 

“Look, Rachel—”

“No, you look.”  The sleepiness was gone from Rachel’s body language—she was all righteous anger.  Protectiveness was a good look on Rachel.  “You really fucked up.  And Chloe doesn’t want anything to do with you anymore, okay?  Stop messaging her.”  Rachel shoved past me and opened the bathroom door.  She stopped and dramatically flipped her hair as she glanced back at me.  “And you know what else?  That goes for me, too.  Piss off, Max.”

I was left staring at the bathroom door, cursing myself for fucking up that first meeting.  I had no idea just how volatile Rachel Amber could be.  While I understood and sympathized with her fierce loyalty to Chloe, I was a little frustrated that she didn’t even give me a chance to make an impression.  My hope was that Rachel wouldn’t be as harsh as Chloe, and that I could establish a friendship with her while I tried to get Chloe to forgive me.  Yet there I was, feeling like that couldn’t possibly have gone worse.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to stay that way, at least, I hoped not.  My powers had deserted me ever since I came back to my sixteen-year-old self, but by that time, I had a pretty strong hunch about what would bring them back.  (For the record, my hunch was right, but more on that later.)  I did some reflecting on where the conversation went wrong, then I crossed my fingers and tried to rewind time.  And it worked!  This time around, I stayed in my room until I heard Rachel leave hers to head to the bathroom.  You’ve got this, Max, I reassured myself.

I followed Rachel into the bathroom maybe a minute later and took my shower same as before.  The biggest difference, beyond being more fully awake, was that I was treated to a serenade over the sound of the flowing water.  I didn’t recognize the song—probably a pop song that was popular at the time—but wow, the Rachel Amber cover really did it for me.  The song was a little repetitive (a lot of lines were devoted to how the singer and her former lover were never getting back together), but it was hella catchy.  Unfortunately, I finished my shower more quickly than Rachel did, so I stayed put and waited her out.  I waited about ten seconds after Rachel shut off her water to do the same, then began to towel off.  As I reached just outside the shower and grabbed my clothes, I offered up a compliment from behind the anonymity of the shower curtain.  “I hope this isn’t super weird for me to say right now, but you have a gorgeous voice.”

Rachel giggled, which sent a wave of relief rushing through my body.  “Why, thank you, anonymous stranger.  You a big Swiftie?”

“Is it bad if I have no clue what the hell a ‘Swiftie’ is?”

Rachel’s laugh was full and bubbly.  “Oh god, don’t tell me we’ve got one of those moody hipster chicks living in the dorms this year.”

“Umm guilty?”  Rachel made me feel awkward in a way I’d never felt before.  I didn’t feel judged, not exactly.  Rachel’s voice definitely didn’t sound disapproving, just amused.  Surely having good taste in music couldn’t be a crime, could it?  I knew for a fact that Chloe was not a ‘Swiftie’ or whatever, and Rachel seemed to like her just fine, at least based on the light social media stalking I did over that summer.

“I’m just fucking with you, don’t worry.  A Swiftie is a fan of Taylor Swift, who sings the admittedly silly tune I was belting out a few minutes ago.”  I was fully dressed at this point but was terrified that angry Rachel would reappear the minute that she realized who she was bantering with.  “So … you ever coming out of there, mystery girl?”

“Shit.”  I hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but it turns out that I did whisper it, just loud enough for Rachel to hear it and chuckle.

“Nervous, huh?  That’s adorable.  I promise I don’t bite.  I’m Rachel, Rachel Amber.”  I figured, it was now or never.  Plus, I could always rewind again, if need be.  I timidly pulled back the curtain, towel folded over my arm with my shower supplies in hand.  As I stepped out, I nearly tripped and broke my face.  Because unlike me, Rachel hadn’t put clothes back on.  She was standing there with a towel wrapped around her hair and another wrapped around her otherwise probably very naked body.  I managed to catch myself and not be completely embarrassed, and in doing so, I couldn't help but notice that her toenails were perfectly painted in a pale shade of green.  As I turned my eyes from the floor back to Rachel, I could see her face shift from complete and utter amusement to something decidedly more neutral.

“Hi, Rachel.  I’m uhhh … ugh, is it too much to just ask that maybe you won’t hate me when I tell you that I’m Max Caulfield?”  This time, Rachel’s eyes grew wide, but didn’t harden against me like before.  Still, I could see the casual ease that had characterized Rachel’s voice was gone, replaced by a distinct caution.  I decided to push my luck.  “Look.  I know you’re dating Chloe, and I’m guessing she’s told you some not great things about me.  And that’s all fair.  I know I was a complete shit of a friend to her, and I have no excuses.  I feel awful about it.  She deserved better.  But … is there any chance you could give me like the tiniest bit of the benefit of the doubt before you write me off completely?  Chloe might not be talking to me right now, but I want to make it up to her.  And yes, I know, it’s gonna take a lot of work, but she’s worth it.  I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that.”

In what I could only call an act of kindness, Rachel let me finish my word vomit.  And … believed me?  Honestly, I didn’t learn to really read Rachel’s conflicted faces until much later.  Back in August 2012, I could just stand there helpless and hope that my best Max puppy eyes had some effect on Rachel.  And I guess they did, at least a little. 

“Okay.  Here’s what we’re going to do.  I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, for now, but only because you’re actually pretty cute and you seem genuinely remorseful.  But you’re on thin ice, Caulfield.  And yes, I’m going to call you Caulfield.  You have to earn your first name.  I don’t trust you, but I’ll give you a chance to earn my trust.  That comes sometime after you earn your first name back.  Just promise me one thing, okay?  Don’t make me regret this.”  Rachel winked—she winked at me—then turned to make a dramatic exit.  Just as before, she flipped her hair and looked back to add one final retort.  “Also—and this stays between you and me—Chloe still loves the fuck out of you and misses you, and that’s why she’s so damn mad at you.”  Then she was gone.

That’s the first meeting Rachel remembers, and even though I later told her I rewound, it’s the only one she’ll accept as ‘canon’ (which I think it a silly, but adorable, way of putting it).  Overall, I was pretty pleased with it, and it was all kinds of reassuring.  My plan to save Rachel and bring her murderers to justice was going to be a lot easier if I could get her and Chloe to trust me.

So, I was off to a good start.

                                                  

In those first few weeks, I still didn’t make any progress in getting Chloe to talk to me, but Rachel was cautiously welcoming.  We hung out a few times, and Rachel even stood up for me when Victoria mocked my selfies.  But they were still some of the most difficult weeks of my life.

Being back in Arcadia Bay, and at Blackwell in particular, was intensely traumatic.  This was the place where my entire life had fallen apart.  Where I learned about the depths of depravity some men are capable of.  Where I watched Kate die, however briefly.  Where I was … stalked, drugged, kidnapped, and nearly murdered by a psychopath.  Where I watched Chloe die half a dozen times.  Where my actions brought about the destruction of an entire town.

For that version of me, for whom that horrific week was still fresh on my mind and especially in my dreams, Blackwell was a literal hell on Earth.  I didn’t sleep well. I was terrified to leave my room some days.  The mere thought of going to his classroom was enough to give me a panic attack, and I only had orientation week to prepare myself for that particular trial.  Actually surviving that first day of classes … to say it was one of the most difficult ordeals of my life is something of an understatement.

It helped a little that I was in a different room.  And that I went out of my way to decorate my new room as differently as possible, within reason, from my room in the original timeline.  Still, I was a bundle of nerves and terror and depression, rolled up into an anxious, withdrawn, jumpy package.  All while trying to hide my mental health issues from every single person I came into contact with.

But one light in all that darkness was my friend, Kate Marsh.  My second first time meeting her happened the same day as my first encounter with Rachel.  In the original timeline, Kate had become a dear friend of mine.  She had suffered at the hands of the same people who killed Rachel and kidnapped and tortured me, but she had survived it.  But only barely.  I was able to stop her from committing suicide after her ordeal led to relentless bullying that made her question her faith and the goodness of humanity.  Even though technically that never happened because of my time traveling, I will always feel a special bond with Kate. 

I can’t say if I believe in fate necessarily, but it sorta felt like no matter what timeline I found myself in, Kate and I were destined to be good friends, if given the opportunity.  That second day at Blackwell, I skipped breakfast after my chat with Rachel.  I wasn’t the only one.  The sound of Kate’s violin eventually drew me out of my room, but I paused to savour the sound of it for a while first.  I almost felt bad when my knock at Kate’s door silenced the pleasant strings.

Kate was meek as ever when she answered the door.  Seeing her face again, but freed of the trauma of the bullying she had suffered the first time I met her, warmed my heart, almost literally.  I felt more relaxed in that moment than I had since arriving at Blackwell.  I took upon myself to break the ice.

“Hi, I’m Max!  I thought I was the only one who had decided to skip the big breakfast crowd until I heard the wonderful music coming from your room.  Figured I would come introduce myself.”

Kate’s timid visage broke just a little as she smiled softly.  “Oh!  Umm., hi Max.  I’m Kate.”

I smiled brightly, offering a hand that she shook pleasantly.  “Nice to meet you, Kate.”

“Max is such a cool name, is it short for--"

"Nope!"  My name was sort of a sensitive subject, especially back then.  I hadn't even begun to explore all my issues with gender yet, but the name should've been my first clue that traditional binary concepts of gender really didn't work for me.  Max, never Maxine.  "Sorry, umm, geez.  So, yes, it's technically short for something, but that's really not important.  I swear to god, I'm legally changing it to Max at some point in the nearish future."  Max winced as she noticed Kate's nostrils flare just slightly when Max said 'swear to god,' and her hand played nervously along the cross at her neck.  Nice going, Max.  You should know better.  "Ugh, sorry I'm such a weirdo.  I can just go back to my room now if you--"

"No, Max, it's fine!  Really.  Would you like to come in?”

“Sure!”  Kate stood aside and gestured for me to enter.  Her room looked almost exactly how I remembered it, meaning that she didn’t really make any big changes to it between 2012 and 2013—or at least, she hadn’t in my original timeline.  The first thing I did was walk over to Alice’s cage and coo at her, before turning back to Kate.  “You have a bunny!  What’s her name?”

Kate grinned and walked over to stand beside me in front of Alice’s cage.  “Max, this is Alice.  Would you like to hold her?”

“I’d love to.”  Kate reached forward and opened the cage, gently picking up Alice and cradling her in her arms. 

“You can just hold her right like this, just be careful that she doesn’t nibble on your shirt.”  I took Alice into her arms, stroking the rabbit’s head softly.  She was such a sweet creature.

“Hi Alice, I’m Max.  You’re a precious baby.”  I took a seat on the couch in Kate’s room, and Kate sat beside me.  “So Kate, I know why I’m still in the dorms and not the cafeteria, but what’s your excuse?”

Kate wilted a little, and I immediately regretted the way I phrased the question.  But not enough to rewind.  “Oh I just … I’ve got Pop-Tarts.  I’m … well, I’m just sort of nervous about the crowd.  I just transferred in, and I’m not exactly used to … umm, any of this.”

Poor Kate, I thought.  “Hey, that’s okay!  I just transferred in too.  Though… I grew up in Arcadia Bay.  But I’m new to Blackwell, just like you.  I’m here for the final senior year on a photography scholarship.”

Kate perked up a bit at that news.  “That’s so cool!  I’m here for both years of the senior program, but I’m studying art and illustration.”

Our connection was every bit as genuine and sweet as it had been in the original timeline.  I was really glad that I chose to reach out to Kate.  And in that moment, I promised myself that I wasn’t only there to save Rachel.  I was sure as shit going to protect Kate, too.   From the horrors that the future potentially held, yes, but also from the everyday troubles.  Kate might not get dosed at a party this time around, but Victoria would find a reason to bully her regardless.  I wasn’t going to stand for it.  Not this time. 

“Kate, you seem pretty awesome.  I’m super glad I decided to introduce myself.  I bet we’ll be good friends this year.  And I’d love to see your illustrations sometime.”

Kate smiled warmly back at me.  “I think I’d like that.”  And so a friendship began anew. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

I’m going to kill that fucking douchenozzle, Chloe thinks.  It’s a thought that has leapt to her mind no fewer than 50 times in the hours since Steph called.  Chloe is still awake, even though a quick glance through the window tells her that the sun is beginning to rise.  After hanging up on Steph, Chloe had run the remaining block home, her heart pounding in her chest.  She had barely closed the door behind her when the anger set in, and as a result, her apartment is fairly trashed. 

She stayed up all night, doing all the online research she could to learn as much as she could about Joyce’s death.  This included several texts to Steph, who apparently also could not sleep.  The official story is that Joyce was working late at the Two Whales diner when a fire broke out that burned down the diner and killed Joyce.  However, from what Chloe has been able to gather, she is convinced that Joyce was murdered.  And her gut knows who did it. 

The man she hates most in the world.

The bane of her late teenage life.

The fascist who surveilled her, invaded her privacy, treated her like a cadet, constantly spoke down to her, and went out of his way to intimidate and bully her and her girlfriends until they all moved away to Seattle.

Her stepfather, David Madsen.

Chloe isn’t going to stand for this.  Joyce fucked up when she let David into their lives, and she continued to fuck up worse and worse when she married him and continued defending his increasingly abusive patterns of behaviour.  That’s a big part of why Chloe left and never looked back.  But she didn’t deserve to die.

And she didn’t have to.  Chloe paces, nervous about what she has decided to do.  She grasps her phone tightly in her left hand.  Fuck these nerves.  Just do it.  Fuck it.  Fuck it!  Before she could psych herself out, she pulled up a phone number she had looked at in years and pressed call.

The phone rings three times before they answer.  “Chloe?  Is it really you?”  Their voice is soft, a little bleary, but laced with tension.  Or maybe stress or worry.  Or even excitement, Chloe guesses, but she doesn’t have time to worry about it.

‘Yeah Max, it’s me.  Sorry.  Look … I need your help.”

“Chloe, it’s five in the morning—”  There’s noise in the background, maybe another voice.  Rachel.  Max continues, “And I haven’t heard from you in almost three years.  What—”

“The fucker murdered my mom, okay?!”  Chloe isn’t interested in reopening old wounds or catching up with her exes.  She needs Max’s help.

“What?!  Chloe, oh no.  Fuck.  I am so sorry.  What do you—oh.”  Max’s voice shifts from distraught to serious as they realize why Chloe is calling.  “You want me to go back in time and stop it from happening, don’t you?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.”  She sighs.  “Look, Max, I know you don’t owe me anything, and—”

“Chloe, shut the fuck up.”  That’s Rachel.  Max must have put the phone on speaker.  “Of course, we’re going to help you.”  Rachel’s voice has none of the sleepiness that characterized Max’s.  It does, however, have just enough optimism in it to worry Chloe.

“Are you sure it was David?” asks Max.  Chloe smiles, if only internally.  Of course Max knows exactly who Chloe meant by ‘the fucker.’ 

“No!  Not … I’m not sure.  It’s a gut feeling.  The official story is that Joyce fell asleep while working late and a gas leak caused the diner to burn down, with her in it.  But … Steph and I are sure it’s a cover up.  I can’t prove it was David yet, but with your help, I won’t have to.  We will stop him instead, and this time, Max, I swear to any gods out there that I’m going to fucking kill him.”  Chloe is actively trying to remain calm, but the volume of her voice is suddenly out of her control, and the tears start to fall.

Max’s voice comes back soft and concerned.  “Chloe, we’re going to cancel our appointments for the next few days and get the first flight we can to Portland, okay?”

There’s a pause for more than a few seconds—Chloe guesses Rachel took them off speaker to have a private conversation with Max—and then the next voice is Rachel’s.  “Chlo, we’re going to fix this, okay?  We’re coming to see you, and we’ll all have a nice long talk.”

Chloe hates the implication, and she’s sure that Joyce isn’t the only thing Rachel envisions them discussing.  “Rach—”

“Shut it, this is happening.  You want Max’s help, then I’m tagging along.  Not only that, but this is personal for me, too.  Joyce fucked up, and she was a shit mom to you for as long as I’ve known you, but she didn’t deserve this.  So, get your head out of your ass, and text me your address.  We should be able to get to you by this afternoon.”

Chloe doesn’t respond.  Her skin crawls at the thought of the questions Rachel is going to have for her.  But she doesn’t really have another choice.  Maybe Max will keep Rachel in line.  Chloe’s grieving the death of her mom, even if the three of them are about to make plans to fix it.  Fuck, I don’t want any of this.  Chloe wonders, not for the first time, if she is actually cursed by some dark spirit.

“Chloe, I’m not coming unless you tell me that you want us there, but I can’t do this alone, and honestly, I don’t think you want me to.  I know you had your reasons for leaving, even if I don’t understand them, but you know that when it comes to investigating mysterious future murders, the three of us are an unstoppable team.  Together.

Chloe sighs.  Max is right.  This is going to be a nightmare.  “Fine.  I’ll text you the address.  Let me know when you are grabbing a ride from the airport.  I’m not going to work anyway—before too long this present will cease to exist, so who really gives a fuck?” 

“Okay.  Chloe, I’m really sorry that this happens.  We’re on our way.  I promise you, we won’t let it happen.”

“Thanks, Max.”

                                                  

“What makes you think I’m going to berate her?”

“The fact that the only things keeping you from doing so at least once since she left us have been my good influence and regular threats to cut you off from sex.”  Rachel rolls her eyes.  She hates it when Max is right.  But they’re only half right this time.

“Fine!  But I’m not a monster, Max.  Joyce just died.  I can’t imagine what Chloe’s going through.  Am I still fucking pissed that she left us, without any real explanation?  You’re goddamn right I am.  But I am well aware that this isn’t the time.”  Rachel narrows her eyes and lowers her voice.  “I’m sure past me will have plenty of time to berate Chloe extensively while we’re figuring this whole thing out.”

Max glares at her, glancing back and forth between Rachel and the driver of their car.  Rachel doesn’t care—worst case scenario is that the driver thinks they’re crazy weirdos who believe in time travel.  I mean, we are, but also time travel is real, so who cares?  They are nearing Chloe’s apartment in northern Portland, which is why Max is giving her the ‘don’t provoke a fight with Chloe’ speech.

“I promise I won’t make a scene.  And if I do?  You’re the only one who will remember it anyway, right Super Max?”  Max’s lips purse in reproval.

“Technically, yes.”  The car pulls to a stop, and they get out, thanking the driver as they grab their bags out of the trunk.  “But here’s the thing.  I still love her, even after all the pain she’s caused us.  I’m 1000 percent sure you do, too.  She’s hurting and scared and angry.  Please.  Please don’t make it worse.”  They stop in front of the door to the building, and Max cups their hand around the side of Rachel’s jaw, looking her directly in the eyes.  “You won’t have to remember it, but I will.  So, please, please don’t make this about why she left.”

Rachel sighs.  She really hates it when Max is right.  She leans in and kisses Max lightly.  “Okay.  You’re right.  I’ll be good.”  They enter the building and head up to Chloe’s apartment.  It’s actually nicer than she expected.  She had always imagined that a depressed and self-hating Chloe would have found some shitty hole in the wall place and settled in there for her life of loneliness and bullshit.  This building is fairly ordinary, just a three-story blue-grey box really, but it has the hallmarks of being new(ish) and decently made, with a cute splash of colourful geometric shapes painted around the first and second story corner walls by the entrance.  The kind of place that might appeal to 20-something urban white couples, not the miserable punk stoner that Rachel has assumed Chloe would’ve reverted to after leaving her and Max.  She isn’t sure how to feel about this new information.

Chloe answers after the first knock.  She looks so different than Rachel remembers her.  Her hair is almost all gone, and what’s left is shaved and coloured into a messy, bright red coif or mohawk.  The septum piercing is new, and it looks like she added a few more piercings to her ears.  She is wearing black leather pants and combat boots, along with what was once an oversized, heathered grey v-neck t-shirt.  With the sleeves cut out, it's now a tank top with wide enough arm holes that Rachel can see the neon blue sports bra Chloe is wearing.  There is a large hand curled into a middle finger drawn on the makeshift tank top.  Based on Chloe’s day-old makeup and the greasy appearance of her hair, Rachel guesses that Chloe hasn’t showered or changed her clothes since the previous night.

Chloe doesn’t say anything, moving aside so that they can enter the apartment.  Her face is stained with tears, and Rachel assumes that she hasn’t bothered to look in the mirror the couple of times she’s used the bathroom since finding out about Joyce.  Despite everything, Rachel wants desperately to hug her.  There’s an awkward pause where the three of them just stand there, unsure of what greeting, if any, to exchange.  Based on Max’s posture, they want to hug Chloe just as much as Rachel does, but they're also holding back out of respect for Chloe’s personal space. 

Releasing a frustrated grunt, Chloe mumbles, “Come on,” and starts walking away.  As she leads them down a narrow hallway back towards the living area, a familiar snout peaks out through the slight opening of a barn-style sliding door that must open to Chloe’s bedroom.  “Pompidou?” Rachel asks incredulously.

The dog rushes out of the bedroom and right up to Rachel.  She stops to pet his head, but Chloe keeps walking even as she mutters, “Yup.”  Max follows closely, but Rachel pauses to take in her surroundings.  The walls are all a basic off-white colour, but clearly Chloe has taken up painting at some point in the past three years.  Splashes of colour and gorgeously vague designs and ideas are scattered across the walls.  The paint appears random, but there is a unified feel to the artwork.  The floors are all medium brown faux hardwood, the kind that looks nice but is actually pretty damn cheap.

Rachel glances into the bedroom as she walks by, noticing a simple full-size bed with unremarkable light grey and red bedding.  There’s only one nightstand, and what looks like a dog bed in the corner by the closet.  Continuing forward, the hallway opens into the rectangular living area.  To her immediate right is the kitchen area, with stainless steel appliances and cabinets and drawers that are a sort of stylishly faded brown colour, only slightly darker than the floors.  The white countertops are in need of cleaning. Directly across from the kitchen wall are the only windows in the apartment, with a larger, central rectangular window over a wall-mounted air-conditioning unit, framed on either side by a row of three smaller, square windows.  The middle right window is broken, with jagged shards jutting accusingly from the edges.

The living space was open and airy feel in a way that would have looked surprisingly nice if not for the fact that the place was a mess.  On the rightmost wall is a decently sized flat-screen TV atop a very small, black TV stand. There is a fist-sized indention in the wall to the left of the TV.  Directly in front of Rachel is a simple IKEA armchair and a small black sofa.  The bright blue full-body-length cushion that belongs on the frame of the armchair is clumped lifelessly in the far right corner.  The floor lamp in the other corner is leaned over the top of the sofa, sticking out in front of the windows.  The simple matte-black coffee table where Chloe’s laptop rests appears to have been pulled or pushed nearly to the far wall.  There is no rug of any sort on the floor, but it is littered with crumpled and torn paper.  Shoes and other small objects—mostly dog toys, Rachel notes—are tossed around the apartment haphazardly.  Rachel gets the sense that Chloe definitely hasn’t slept since she got the news, and probably spent a good chunk of that time raging around her apartment.

Chloe still hasn’t said anything, and while she is pacing in front of the TV stand, Max sits on the sofa.  Rachel shoots Chloe a questioning look before walking over and sitting beside Max.  They exchange a look, waiting for Chloe to say something, but Chloe simply keeps on pacing without a glance to her former lovers.  Less than twenty silent seconds pass before Rachel has had enough.

“Fuuuuuck this.”  She stands, walks around the coffee table to pick up the cushion for the armchair, then places it where it belongs.  Moving the chair so that it faces the sofa, she turns to Chloe.  “Sit the fuck down and tell us what is going on.  Then you and Max can come up with a plan.”  Max was the best planner of the three of them, but Chloe had all the information here.  Rachel’s skills will likely come in later on.  Chloe looks at her a bit dumbfounded, but as Rachel narrows her eyes and furrows her brow, she capitulates and takes the seat.  Rachel goes back to her seat beside Max.  “Talk.”

Chloe takes a deep breath, refusing to make eye contact with either of them.  “Late last night, I got a call from Steph.  She still lives in Arcadia Bay, for the most part.  She called me because it had been three days already and she hadn’t heard from me.  She assumed Joyce’s shit stain of a husband hadn’t called to tell me she was dead, and she was fucking right.”  Chloe’s knuckles are white, fists clenched tightly on the arms of her chair.  Her gaze shifts periodically from her feet to the window and back again as she tells the story.

“Steph knows someone on the police force.  According to him, nothing is as simple as it seems in the official story.  It’s a fucking cover up.  Based on how thorough the cover up appears to be, David must have had help.  This stinks of someone with more knowhow, connections, and money than that fuckface.”

Max starts to interrupt but thinks better of it, and Chloe’s eyes catch Max’s for the briefest of moments before returning to her feet.  “The official cause of death is fire-related, smoke inhalation and burns or whatever.  But there’s evidence of blunt force trauma to the head.  That’s the big thing.  Her guy also thinks the gas leak story is bogus, but doesn’t have any hard evidence, and apparently there was some sort of vaporized grease buildup in the ducts from years and years of deep frying shit.  The source of the fire is in doubt, at least for this guy, but it’s no surprise that the whole place went up.”

Out of nowhere, Max yells at Chloe, “Don’t even think about it, Chloe Price.”  Chloe’s face freezes in a look of complete shock, but it’s immediately clear to Rachel that Max rewound to stop Chloe from doing something.  “I know you’re pissed, and you have ever right to be.  But we’re done with the ‘destroying your apartment’ stage of grief, okay?”  Their scolding tone makes it very clear that the question is rhetorical.  Chloe sighs but relaxes a little, sliding back into her chair.

“I forgot how annoying Super Max can be,” Chloe quips, but the pain is still there in her voice.  “Anyway.  The other damning piece of evidence that was covered up is the fact that the fire occurred at like two a.m.  My mom has never, ever been at the diner that late.  So, here’s what I think.  David fucking Madsen got pissed off and got violent.  Maybe he hits her, maybe he shoves her, but somehow, he bashes her head in, killing her.  Then he calls … someone … who helps him cover it up by placing the body in the diner and faking a gas leak.  Then this person pays off whoever needs paying off in the police department to make sure no one questions the story.”

“Anything else I should know?”

“I’ve thought of about five different ways we can kill that fucker and get away with it.”  Chloe doesn’t sound like she’s joking one bit.  In fact, if Rachel were to guess, she would say Chloe probably has at least ten plans for how to kill David.

“You’re not killing anyone, Chloe,” Max insists.  Chloe doesn’t bother arguing, but Rachel can still read her face as easily as she could when they were together.  She guesses Max can too, so neither of them is under any misapprehension that Chloe would abide by that rule.  Fortunately, this Chloe won’t be around much longer.  Rachel imagines that is why Max doesn’t continue the argument.  Instead, they push forward.  “We need to agree on a plan, as well as what story I’m going to explain to your and Rachel’s past selves to convince you I’m telling the truth.”

“Oh please,” Rachel blurts out.  “You’re not going to have to convince us this time.  We both know about your powers.  And we know you don’t use them unless it’s important.”

“Fine, but we still need a plan.”

“Uhhh, Max?”  Chloe sounds tentative for the first time since they arrived.  “You aren't worried about making this kind of a change in the timeline again?”

Max grins.  “It worked out pretty great last time i jumped back and let myself stay in the past."  Rachel smiles warmly at that, forever thankful she never had to live a life without Max in it.  "Besides, I’ve had years to master my powers.  Unlike you, I take my gift seriously.”

“Your curse, you mean,” Chloe snaps back under her breath.

“That curse saved Rachel’s life and is about to save your mom’s, so maybe you shouldn’t be so cavalier about the powers we’ve all been given.  We’re a part of something bigger, whether you will admit it or not.”  This again.  Max and Chloe had been arguing for years about the source and purpose of their powers.  Max is sure that all their powers are connected and that they have them for some big mystical reason.  Chloe thinks they’re just random freaks, and Rachel is quite sure that Chloe is in fact terrified of their powers.  Which is why Chloe’s never really bothered to get any kind of a grasp on her own.

Rachel falls somewhere in between—she is sure their powers are connected.  Prior to meeting Chloe, she absolutely did not have anything like the ability to cause the biggest wildfire in northern Oregon in two decades simply by screaming at a garbage can fire.  Chloe started experiencing her visions at the same time.  Max’s powers didn’t manifest until she came back to Arcadia Bay and ran into Chloe again (the first time, anyway—the second time, bumping into Rachel is what did it).  As to whether there was some reason or purpose behind it all, Rachel is decidedly more skeptical about that point.  Regardless, now isn’t the time to get into it.

“Max.  Plan.  Now.”

“Okaaaay.  Chloe, how far back should I try to go?”

Chloe ponders this for a moment.  “You’ll need time to come to Portland, get me, go to Arcadia Bay and help me get things set up before I take David out, so …. Like a week, probably?”

“That is absolutely not how we’re doing this.  You don’t know for sure that David did this, and even if you did, Rachel and I aren’t going to let you commit murder.  That isn’t who you are.”

“Max, we haven’t talked in years.  You don’t fucking know me anymore.”  Chloe doesn’t shout, but her words are cutting and aggressive nonetheless.

“Maybe, maybe not.  But this isn’t a discussion I’m having.  You want my help, my powers, then we’re doing this on my terms.  And I’m guessing past you will be a lot more reasonable on this point anyway.”  Chloe doesn’t push it any further, so Max continues.  “We will need time to investigate David and any other potential suspects, as well as Joyce.  Once we have strong evidence against a suspect, we can put together a plan to stop the murder. Or manslaughter.”  Max looks directly at Chloe, daring her to challenge Max’s suggestion that maybe Joyce’s killing was accidental.  Chloe’s eyes flash, bright with anger and righteous fury, but she remains silent.

Rachel decides to toss in her own two cents.  “I say you go back about a year.  We can all find jobs in Arcadia Bay and that will give us plenty of time to run a covert investigation and get all the facts.  The last thing we need is to find ourselves rushing around the week before Joyce’s death, getting reckless and giving ourselves away because our deadline is approaching.”

“You’re right.  That makes sense.  Are you really okay with losing the past year of your life?”  Rachel thinks on that.  She honestly hadn’t considered the implications of Max going back that far.  But Rachel doesn’t have to think about if for long.  “If that’s what it takes to save Joyce and take care of David, then it’s worth it.”  What Rachel didn’t say aloud was that a year of working closely with Chloe to figure this thing out would give her plenty of time to pick apart why Chloe left and how to heal whatever rift there was between them.  Joyce honestly hadn’t meant all that much to Rachel, not really.  She is here for Chloe.  And only Chloe.

“I’m in, too.  Chloe?  I know this isn’t what you had in mind, exactly, but you have to agree or I’m not going.”  Chloe’s face is firmly set in 'pissed off but resigned' mode.  Or as Rachel used to call it ‘Chloe’s grumpy going along with it’ face.

“You already flew all the way down to Portland; I’d be a pretty huge bitch to put the brakes on this plan now, just because you don’t wanna let me solve it as quickly and efficiently as possible.  On the tiny off chance that I’m wrong about it being David—” she exhales loudly, letting out all her frustration, “—let’s go back a year.  Really figure this shit out.”  Max smiles, clearly believing that they are getting through to Chloe.  Rachel doubts it, but she has to admit that Chloe’s current demeanor is much calmer than when they had first arrived.

“Good.  Now, once I jump back to the summer of 2018, we will need to make arrangements to get all three of us to Arcadia Bay.  We will all need good covers, plus you know, income so that we can find somewhere to live while we conduct our investigation.  Chloe, can you find work there?  Auto repair?  Tattoos?”

Chloe rolls her eyes.  “Yeah, I’ll figure something out.”

“Kay.  I am pretty confident I can convince Wells to reinstitute the photography program at Blackwell.  It’s been long enough since we exposed Jefferson and got him arrested, and the program was very popular.”  She glances over at Rachel.  “What do you think, Rach?”

“Mr. Keaton always talked about writing a play script, calling it a masterpiece that he just never had time for.  If he’s still at Blackwell, we could probably convince him to retire.  He’s getting up there in age now.  Barring that … I don’t know, Max, I guess if I can’t find a job in Arcadia Bay, I’ll just come as your partner, and if we must, we’ll dig into our apartment fund.  You’ll have to go back to before we got the new place.”  Now they are really making a sacrifice, though only Max will really know how big a sacrifice it is.  Max grabs Rachel’s hand and squeezes.  They both know how big a deal it is to let go of their dream home.  But if there is even a chance to get Chloe back, the sacrifice is worth it.

Chloe is silent, looking away again.  Rachel feels a pang in her heart.  She can’t even look at us holding hands.  I know she loves us.  It’s fucking obvious.  Why did she leave?  Max lets go of her hand and clears their throat.  “Okay, so July 2018.  I’ll go back, and Rachel and I will make our plans to move to Arcadia Bay.  Then we’ll come to Portland.”  Chloe’s eyes widen.  Max tries to reassure her.  “I don’t want to chance telling you over the phone.  Rachel and I need to be there to field any questions, and it will help for you to be able to see our faces and read our body language.  It’s really important that the past you believes me and doesn’t waste any time worrying that it’s all some ploy for us to get you back.”  Chloe’s eyes narrow, but again Max anticipates her retort.  “And don’t pretend like you weren’t thinking it.” 

Rachel loves snappy, assertive Max.  So much of the time, they’re a beautiful wallflower.  Few people knew the deep well of strength underneath the unassuming outer appearance and mannerisms.  But when it come to the welfare and happiness of their girls, Max is a force of nature.  Rachel smiles at Max, then looks back to Chloe.  She isn’t sure, but she thinks she sees a small spark of hope in her eyes.  The rest of her face is a stony mask of indifference. 

I’m coming for you, Chloe Price.  Or … past me is coming for past you.  I deserve answers.  And once I get them, I’m gonna prove that you’re being a giant idiot.  Rachel has no idea if their powers were fated, but she is absolutely sure that their love was.  The three of them are meant for each other.  Past Rachel just has to find a way to prove that to Chloe.

Max’s voice pulls her back to the present.  “Chloe, where were you in the summer of 2018?  How will I find you?” 

“Here.  Or at work, depending on what time of day you show up.”  Chloe’s voice makes it clear that she has no intention of elaborating further.  She’s just as aware as Rachel is that Max is fishing for more personal information.

“You didn’t go anywhere else?  Ever?  For any reason?”  Max eyes Chloe doubtfully.  “This version of yourself is about to be wiped from existence, and your past self’s life is going to be turned upside down.  Is this really the time to be difficult or hide things from me?”

Chloe groans.  “Fine.  Jesus Max, I hate it when you’re right.  It’s not like I’ll answer if you try to call me—you’ll have to ambush me.”  She stands up, pacing and refusing to look at them again.  “I was living here.  On weekdays, I would’ve been at work, at the Green Drop Garage.  Usually I get off around five, then come home to take Pompidou for a short walk, feed him, and feed myself.  A couple nights a week, I go for a shift at Lady Luck Tattoo.  If I’m not there, I’m either fucking around here or out at a bar, probably the Florida Room.  If we’re talking a weekend, I’m probably at Lady Luck or at a bar.  Unless Steph is in town.”

Rachel interrupts.  “Wait so you and Steph are friends again?  Good enough friends that she comes to visit you in Portland sometimes?”  Chloe glares at her, but only for a moment.  Rachel worries she won’t answer the question.  It’s not really her business, and it probably won’t help Max track past Chloe down.  But maybe Max’s point about none of this mattering after tonight got through to her. 

Chloe sighs.  “Yes, we’re still pretty good friends.  But she doesn’t come into town for me.  Her girlfriend lives here, and when Steph is in town, I hang out with her or with both of them.  Honestly Max, it’s gonna be easier if you just go back on a weekday.  Also, if you don’t show up too late at night.” 

So that’s why she has a nicer place than I expected.  Chloe’s dealing with her loneliness by whoring around Portland.  Rachel immediately scolds herself for such a rude thought.  Chloe’s escapades are none of Rachel’s business, and no reason to judge her.  I should be judging her for being an idiot and a jerk and tossing away a happy life for no good fucking reason.  If she wants to spend her nights on meaningless flings, that’s her prerogative.

Max is kind enough not to push any further.  “Okay, I think I get the picture.  Is there anything else I should know?”

“Just … stick to the facts.  My mom is going to die if we don’t save her.  Make sure you emphasize the date, June 13, 2019.  And the fact that you wouldn’t be bugging me if you weren’t telling the truth.  Explain the steps you and Rachel will have already taken to move back to Arcadia Bay, and I should be on board, okay?”

“Okay.”  Max locks eyes with Chloe, nodding slightly, then with Rachel.  Rachel bites her lip nervously, but nods in return.  “Are we ready, really?  Chloe, we can get a hotel if you want to sit on this another night.  Maybe get some actual sleep and be sure you agree with to this plan once you’re not sleep deprived.” 

“Fuck that.  I’m not sleeping.  We do this now.  Assuming you have a photo.”

“Rach, give me the photo album from summer 2018.”  Max had come prepared, bringing several photo albums along with them to Portland.  Rachel finds the right one in her bag and hands it to Max.  She flips through a few pages, then stops.  The picture she pulls out is a selfie, taken with Max’s beloved instant camera.  Rachel remembers when it was taken.  They were in their favourite park, celebrating their decision to start looking for their dream home by having an early dinner and wine, picnic-style.  They both look ecstatic.  Rachel’s face is turned towards Max, planting a big kiss on her cheek as Max grins happily at the camera.  The picture is a stark reminder of exactly what they’re giving up.  Of course this is the one Max would choose.  Rachel reaches up to wipe a tear from her eye.

Max gazes into her eyes.  “Ready?  This is your last chance to back out.”  Rachel glances over at Chloe, getting in one last look at what it is she is actually trying to save, then leans in and kisses Max deeply.

“Go get our girl.”  Max nods, then focuses all her attention on the photograph in front of her.   

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

A month into classes at Blackwell, and I think Rachel and I had actually become friends.  The first time she had actually agreed to hang out with me, the day after classes started, she had insisted on playing two truths and a lie.  From what I could gather, the game was inordinately important to her.  She went first, and I got the distinct sense there was more challenge in this game than Rachel was letting on.  She was testing me somehow.

“So, you understand the basics, yes?  I’ll tell you three things about myself, two of which are true.  You guess which of the three is the lie.  Then you go, and I’ll guess.”  I nodded, having already been aware of the rules of the game.  “Okay then!  First, I’m ambidextrous.”

“Wowzer, I hope that one’s true.”  The words were out of my mouth without a second thought—hell, without a first one, really.  Something about Rachel’s presence just put me at ease, even back then.  As we became better friends, that actually became a huge help to my mental stability.  But I didn’t quite recognize it for what it was at first.

Rachel raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t get any … naughty ideas now, Caulfield.  I’m spoken for, after all.”  I blushed wildly.  So not what I had meant.  I sputtered awkwardly for a few seconds before I could get out a response.

“What?!  No… I didn’t.  Wow.  I just meant that I’ve never met anyone who was ambidextrous before.”  Which, at the time, was true.  “I kinda thought it was a myth.”

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to keep playing to find out.  So then, second—” Rachel held up her right arm, displaying her signature bracelet made of thick interwoven brown and teal strands, “—I made this bracelet for myself in the fifth grade and have never taken it off since.”  She raised an eyebrow, as if daring me to ask a question.  Afraid of embarrassing myself again, I simply gestured for her to continue.  “And third … I first met Chloe in an old abandoned sawmill.”

Well, this is easy, I thought.  Rachel didn’t know this, but I already knew the story of Rachel and Chloe’s meet-cute at the mill.  Chloe had told me all about it in the original timeline.  She also told me about the deeper meaning behind the bracelet, which had been a gift from Sera when Rachel was a baby.  Meaning that Rachel was, in fact, ambidextrous.  Very skillful with both hands, I would later come to find out.  Even if she hadn’t gone with facts into which I already had insight, I had no intention of using my powers to be sure I guessed correctly.  For whatever reason, I couldn't violate the spirit of whatever test Rachel was walking me through.  Still, it was nice to feel confident about my answer.  Confidence was not something that came easily when I was in Rachel’s presence. 

I played coy for a minute, then offered my answer as if I was completely unsure of it.  “I’m hopeful that you are actually ambidextrous, and an abandoned mill totally sounds like somewhere Chloe might hang out.”  I decided to be a little bold.  “So, what’s the real story behind that bracelet.”

Rachel hesitated, but then pushed forward.  She was apparently unwilling to show any weakness around me.  Not yet anyway.  “My birth mother made it.  I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.  I was telling the truth about never taking it off, though.  Unless you count a couple of weeks there when I let Chloe wear it.  But just so I could prove that I wasn’t yanking her around when I told her I wanted to be with her.”

Talk about the cliff notes version of that story.  But I wasn’t in a position to push her on it.  However, I was curious how much she might be willing to share.  “Did something happen to your birth mother?  Have you ever met her?”

“I have, but not until a couple of years ago.  And we’ll just leave it at that, for now, okay Caulfield?”  Rachel’s tone was that of a command.  “Now, your turn.  And remember, you’re still on thin ice.  Better not screw this up.”  I couldn’t tell if Rachel’s stern look was genuine or not, but I had no intention of screwing it up.  I wasn’t really sure how I could screw it up, actually. 

“Umm so I’ll try to think of things I don’t think Chloe would have talked to you about.”  I almost felt a little guilty about that, since Chloe’s the only reason I had such an easy time guessing Rachel’s lie correctly.  But this felt important, somehow.  I thought for a good minute or two.  I wanted my facts to really help give Rachel an insight into who I was, rather than anything so trivial as how old I was when I lost my first tooth.

“Alight … first, I’ve never kissed a girl.”  Rachel immediately began humming what had to be another pop tune I had never heard of.  Rachel grinned mischievously, as if the tune should hold some meaning that I should feel embarrassed about, but I just looked at her quizzically.  Her grin immediately dropped into an exasperated frown.

“Oh, right.  If you don’t know Taylor Swift, you definitely don’t know Katy Perry.  You’re no fun, Caulfield.”

“Sorry that I’m no fun.  I’ll try harder next time?”  I’m sure I must have looked so shy and reserved in that moment, but I tried to play along with Rachel’s banter.  “Am I to assume this Katy Perry song had something to do with kissing girls?”

“Don’t fuck this up, and maybe if we become friends, I’ll give you a crash course on all the pop music you absolutely should be aware of.”  I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be an appeal or a warning, so I just smiled and moved on to fact number two.

“Second, I still sleep with a teddy bear.  Named uhhh … Captain.”  I felt like testing my acting skills, pausing just long enough so that it sounded like I was making up Captain’s name as I went along.  “And last …”  I swallowed hard, trying my best to hide the tightness in my chest.  I could feel the anxiety threatening to wash over me as I prepared to be brutally honest with Rachel, at least to an extent.  Fortunately, I was well-accustomed to hiding all but the worst of my anxiety by then.  “I struggle with PTSD and anxiety, more than anybody knows.”

Rachel’s face shifted from watchful and curious to genuinely sympathetic.  I felt like for the first time, Rachel was really thinking of me as a person, rather than Chloe’s asshole former best friend.  “So that’s too dark and vulnerable to be a lie, unless you’re some sort of sociopath.  I’m thinking that one is true.”

“It is.”  I hesitated, thinking about how much I was willing to share.  “I have been through some shit that no one knows about.  That I can’t talk to anyone about.  That I’m definitely not ready to open up about just yet.  And it … changed me.”  I felt suddenly really bashful, like I shouldn’t have brought it up knowing that I couldn’t possibly get into any specifics yet.  Rachel took my silence seriously, like the genuinely wonderful person I would come to know her to be.

“Big dark secret that you can’t share with anyone.  Wow,  that’s a helluva thing to admit during two truths and a lie.”  Her voice almost sounded impressed.  “I’m sorry, Caulfield.  It sounds rough, and—” Rachel paused, as if reconsidering whether she wanted to bring this up, “—let’s just say I know a little something about anxiety and depression myself.”

“Sorry for getting dark there,” I responded shyly.  I worried I had taken the game too seriously, so I tried to lighten things up a little.  “But hey, you got one right.  Go you!  What’s your next guess?”

Rachel matched my attempt to lighten things, although she was admittedly much better at it than me.  “I’m gonna guess that the teddy bear thing is true, mostly just because I’m hoping there’s a story there.  Good try, though.  You wanted me to think you made up his name on the spot, didn’t you?”

I ignored the question, skipping straight to the story.  “Captain’s been with me for as long as I can remember.  He’s a little worse for wear though.  When I was in the second grade, my mom had to take me to the ER to have his eye removed from my stomach.”  Don’t even ask how I came to swallow my teddy bear’s eye.”  Rachel laughed, a great sign as far as I was concerned.  “But I keep him with me because he reminds me that my parents would do anything for me.  Having him around makes me feel closer to them, even though they’re hours away.”

“Ah.  So unlike Chloe and myself, you’re actually close with your parents?” 

“Uhhh, yeah?  I mean, I’ve never quite gotten over the anger I had when they moved me away from Arcadia Bay—away from Chloe—without even asking me.  But otherwise, yeah, we’re close.  They have always supported my dreams, and they’re both just really cool people.  Maybe you’ll get to meet them someday, you know, if I don’t fuck this up.” 

Rachel looked me up and down, then smiled.  “Well congrats, Caulfield.  You told me two truths and a lie.  Good for you.  Maybe you’re not the flaky, self-absorbed asshole that Chloe makes you out to be.”

“Don’t tell me this whole thing was just to see if I would cheat at a silly game.”

“You’d be surprised how much you can learn about someone just based on how they handle the seemingly insignificant things in life.”  Rachel smiled at her, and Max felt reassured.  “Plus, this ‘silly game’ is a good way to get to know someone better, if they play it in good faith.  Speaking of which, thank you for trusting me.  Not only did you not cheat, you also opened up to me.  You were vulnerable, even if you were mysterious about it.  Not everyone is willing to do that.  You trusted me with some personal information about yourself, even though I haven’t exactly given you reason to trust me just yet.  If anything, you have every reason to be hella guarded around me, and yet, you’ve been a straight shooter so far.”

She pushed herself off the brick edge of the Blackwell fountain where we had been sitting and started walking towards the dorms.  “Keep it up, Max.  Maybe there’s a possibility for friendship after all.”  I can still remember the giddy feeling I got.  A few weeks after that encounter, Rachel and I hadn’t yet gotten as close as Kate and I had quickly become, but she no longer shared Chloe’s negative opinion of me.  I couldn’t be sure, but I had the strong suspicion she was working on Chloe to convince her to give me another chance.

Unfortunately, I still hadn’t been able to convince Chloe to talk to me.  Unlike in my original timeline, she was still in school at Blackwell and on target to graduate.  Rachel’s stellar influence, I suppose, along with a couple of helpful pushes from a nosy time traveler.  I had physics, statistics, and English with Chloe and Rachel, and even though I sat next to them in physics, Chloe was insistent on pretending as if I did not even exist.  As if Rachel was talking to an empty chair.  Bitch.

I mean, I get it.  I was terrible to her.  I let her down, and I deserved punishment.  But her continued refusal to engage with me wasn’t doing either of us any good.  I wished she would just yell at me or punch me or whatever and get it out there in the open.  Getting through my daily routine at Blackwell without having multiple panic attacks would’ve been much easier if Chloe and I were as close as we had been in the previous timeline.

Even when I dropped hints that I knew more than I ought to, it didn’t seem quite enough to entice Chloe to break her silence.  One afternoon, late in our chemistry class, I turned to Rachel and asked, “You were around for that massive forest fire a couple of years ago, right?”  Rachel’s first, unconscious reaction was one of shock and maybe even a little fear, but she immediately covered that up with an expression of cool detachment.  Even back then, Rachel was quite the actress.  Chloe was trying to look as though the question hadn’t piqued her interest, but she was failing spectacularly.  I could very clearly see her glancing sideways at us over and over, for less than a second at a time, as she pretended to look down on the chemistry book in front of her.  For my part, I kept a look of casual curiosity on my face, as if the thought had just occurred to me on a whim.

“Uhh, yeah, that was right around the time that everything blew up with my dad.”  I had known that I was making progress with Rachel about a week prior when she had finally opened up to me about the whole sordid tale of her father, formerly Arcadia Bay’s district attorney, who had lied to Rachel her entire life, covering up the existence of her birth mother, an addict who had been unable to conquer her disease for most of Rachel’s life.  To make matters worse, when Rachel’s bio mom, Sera, had finally gotten her act together and wanted to meet Rachel, James Amber had conspired with Arcadia Bay’s most volatile drug kingpin to kidnap Sera and kill her via overdose to keep the story covered up.  Rachel and Chloe had uncovered the whole thing, saved Sera (with some help again from your friendly neighborhood time traveler), and they provided the authorities with enough evidence to have James Amber disbarred and tried for conspiracy to commit murder.  In 2012, he was only a few years into his fifteen-year prison sentence.

“It sounded insane, based on the couple of things I’ve read about it.  Unnatural even.  But I guess that’s just how it goes in Arcadia Bay.”  At this point, Chloe didn’t even bother trying to hide her eavesdropping, and I caught her eyes, hoping I was finally about to make a breakthrough.  Instead she just glared at me before looking away again.

Rachel’s response was cautious, but not conspicuously so.  Obviously, she didn’t know that I knew she was responsible.  How could she?  “Yeah, Max, I don’t know.  I was a little distracted at the time.  I guess it was pretty weird.”  She glanced down at her textbook, then looked sideways at me, eyes alert and appraising.  “But what do you mean ‘that’s just how it goes in Arcadia Bay?’”

I chuckled wryly.  “I can’t be the only one who has noticed that weird shit just seems to happen around here, right?  Like … geez, maybe this sounds crazy, but sometimes it feels like actual supernatural stuff is going down.” 

“Oh come on.  Max, you don’t really think we’re living in the X-files universe or some shit, do you?”  Rachel’s voice sounded dismissive, but playful.  The appraising look remained in her eyes, though.

“What, like aliens and shit?  I mean … maybe, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  But, I mean the truth is out there,” I joked, earning an intoxicating smile from Rachel and a poorly disguised eye roll from Chloe.  “I’m thinking more like weird weather patterns or strange visions.  Shared dreams.  Subtle, unexplainable, weird shit.”

“How very vague of you, Max.  Do you really have to keep up this whole mysterious act all the time?  Mystery is really supposed to be my thing you know.”  I smiled at her without thinking, then blushed.  I don’t think I had any clue how big a crush on Rachel I had already developed at that point, but looking back, it should’ve been very obvious to anyone with eyes.  Rachel didn’t realize it at first either, but that was probably because of how stupid in love she and Chloe were.

I subtly checked to see if my words, especially the part about strange visions and shared dreams, had hit their mark with Chloe.  She wouldn’t look up from her book, but confusion and concern were written across her features, the wheels turning furiously in her head.  My words had definitely hit their mark.  I wasn’t sure if Chloe or Rachel were aware of their own powers, or if they had just chalked up the weird occurrences of their May 2010 adventures to be just that.  Then the bell rang, and Chloe was up and out of the classroom as quickly as humanly possible.  Rachel give me an apologetic look before chasing after her. 

                                                  

I couldn’t get it out of my mind the rest of the day.  I had a hunch that I had maybe finally gotten through to Chloe, so I took a risk.  I jumped on the bus and made my way over to the Price-Madsen residence.  The junker of a truck Chloe so fondly named ‘the Beast’ was parked in the street, so I knew she was home.  I had no interest in announcing my presence or engaging with Joyce or David.  I was there for Chloe, and only Chloe.

Her bedroom was upstairs, over the garage, and she usually kept her window cracked open when she was home.  I took care to sneak through the Madsens’ neighbor’s yard to get to the fence adjoining the backyard.  From there it was an easy climb onto the fence, then the lower roof over the back of the garage.  I stepped lightly as I snuck around to the front of the roof, careful not to alert David to my presence if he was in the garage below.  I could tell from the smell wafting out of Chloe’s window that she was, in fact, in her room. 

Steeling myself silently, I stepped in front of her window and knocked softly.  Chloe was lounging on her bed, smoking pot and working on a sketch.  Her room looked more or less how I remembered it from the original timeline: messy and cluttered, with clothes, bits of paper, and the occasional beer bottle strewn across the floor.  Posters and graffiti littered the walls haphazardly, but the Rachel Amber missing persons posters were not among them, not yet.  Not ever, if I accomplished my goals.  The oversized American flag completely covered the other window, behind Chloe’s bed, casting the room in a hazy pink glow during the day.

When I knocked, Chloe’s head sprung up in surprise, her face shifting from shock to anger as she realized who was at her window.  “Chloe, can I please come in?”  The only response I got was a middle finger, and while I was determined to say my piece, I wasn’t going to enter Chloe’s room without her consent.  She got enough of that from David.  “Okay fine, I can say what I want to say from here.”

Chloe kept her eyes firmly on her sketchbook.  She was determined to make this as hard as possible for me.  “I’ve been trying to have this conversation with you for a month now, you know.  You may not believe me, but you’re the one person who means the most to me in the entire world.” 

Chloe’s brow furrowed, and I could’ve sworn I heard her mutter, “Bull fucking shit,” under her breath.

“Fine, don’t believe me.  But it’s true.  You have no idea how much it is true, and I can’t even try to explain until you decide you’ll talk to me again.  I just want to say that I love you.  I know I fucked up.  I was a terrible friend.  I couldn’t help that my parents decided to move, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to stay in touch.  I ignored you.  When you needed me the most.  I was a selfish fucking asshole, okay?”

If my words had any effect on Chloe, she didn’t show it on her face.  That was disheartening, but I had no choice but to soldier on.  “I’m sorry.  More sorry than you know.  You’re an incredible person, Chloe Price.  And you deserved better.”  I thought of that last month I had with Chloe, after the storm.  I thought of how much she had been through, and how much it took to finally break her.  I had to fight to keep my voice from quavering, to keep the tears from flowing.  “I can’t take back what I did.  All I can do is apologize and try to make it up to you.  But I can’t do that unless you talk to me.”

More silence.  “You know, I can’t tell you how many times I wished you had moved to Seattle with me.  That city was made for you.  It was like … Chloe, it was like the faraway island of treasure and adventure that we would talk about back when we used to play pirates.”  Chloe’s expression changed a little, but I couldn’t puzzle out what she was feeling.  She made no movement to either invite me in or tell me to fuck off.  “It was cool at first.  It really was.  But it was so lonely without you.  Sometimes I feel like … like I’m not really me, without you.  I know, I know.  How can I say that, when I’m the one who abandoned you?  Like I said… I fucked up, Chloe.  I know I did.”  I smiled a little.  “But it worked out, in a way.  For you.  You met Rachel.  Who is amazing!  The two of you are amazing together, you know?”

It made me more than a little jealous back then, to be perfectly honest.  The Chloe from the original timeline was broken beyond repair, at the end of her rope (almost literally, if not for my intervention—fuck, that’s a morbid thought), but she had been my Chloe.  We had gone through so much together.  I had fallen in love with her that week.  Or maybe I had just realized that the love I’ve always had for Chloe had more facets than either of us realized as children.  But the point was … I was in love with Chloe, and it was terribly painful for me to go back to a time when not only did she sort of hate my guts, but she was also madly in love with Rachel.  It was still really difficult for me.  After all, eighteen-year-olds (even those trapped in a seventeen-year-old body) were not exactly known for their emotional maturity.  With great power comes great bullshit.

But at least Chloe was alive and happy.  And that was my number one priority when I decided to mess with time on this scale.  I couldn’t let you die.  Now I just have to get you to talk to me, I thought, growing a tiny bit irritable.  “Chloe Elizabeth Price!  You need to get over this.  Let it go.  I don’t care if you need to yell at me, punch me, or humiliate me in some other creative way.  I deserve it.  But just do what you have to do so that we can start to put this behind us.  I need you.”

This time, Chloe looked at me.  Glared at me, to be more precise.  She stood, lifting herself off the bed and walking towards the computer desk in front of the window.  She stopped, still glaring furiously.  Then she leaned forward and spoke to me for the first time since I had come back in time.  “Max, you’re full of shit if you think I’ll ever be able to trust you again.  Since you can’t seem to take a hint, let me say it for you, very fucking clearly.  I don’t want to talk to you.  We’re not friends.  You don’t know me.  Now get off my goddamn roof and fuck off.”  She slammed the window shut, then turned and walked back to her bed.

I gaped.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I touched the shingles of the roof around me, assuring myself that there was something solid beneath me.  It felt as though my entire world had dropped out from under me.  The girl that I loved really did hate me.  I felt lost, and the world threatened to spiral out of control around me.  It hadn’t been nearly this hard to earn Chloe’s forgiveness the first time around.  I didn’t know what I was going to do.  I meant what I said.  I’m not me without Chloe.  This felt like defeat.

                                                  

The bus was nearing Blackwell when my phone vibrated.  I hardly remembered climbing down from that roof and finding my way back to the bus stop.  I was haunted by a dark cloud of depression, unable to really think about anything except the fact that I had lost her.  I had lost Chloe.  I gazed down at my phone on instinct alone.  At first, what awaited me there didn’t even register.  But then I focused.  I had a message.  From Rachel.

            Max?  Can you meet me at the lighthouse?  I wanna talk.  I promise it’ll be okay.

I sat there, staring at my phone.  What did she mean, it’ll be okay?  What will be okay?  Did Chloe already tell her about our conversation?  If so … what the fuck did that mean?  If Chloe didn’t care, why would she run straight to Rachel?  And why would Rachel’s first action be to reach out to me?

I still felt lost and defeated, but I was too curious to let this opportunity pass.  I texted her back.

            I’m just getting back on campus right now.  Can I grab a ride with you?

The response was almost immediate. 

            Sure thing, kiddo.  Meet me in the parking lot.

The bus pulled into the stop in front of campus, and I exited.  My feet felt like lead, but at least my breathing had slowed to something close to a regular pace.  I climbed the stairs, then took a left towards the campus parking lot.  Rachel was already standing beside her blue Volvo, and she waved at me when she caught sight of me.  Rachel smiled warmly, but I could barely even look her in the eye.  As I got close, she put a hand on each shoulder, and I finally met her gaze.

“Just breathe, Max.  Come with me.  I’ve got some stuff I want to talk to you about, that I’ve wanted to talk with you about for a little while now.  I ... can tell that you’re hurting right now, but you’ll get through it, okay?  I’m here for you.” 

I was still in such a haze that I only barely registered what she was saying.  It’s too bad I wasn’t in a better position to really appreciate how sweet she was being.  Instead, I offered a murmured, “Thanks Rachel,” before walking around the car and sliding into the passenger seat.  It was a short, but utterly silent, drive to the lighthouse.  It was only as we got out of the car to start walking up the path that I realized it.

I hadn’t been back to the lighthouse since Chloe and I were there, huddled together against the fierce winds of the storm that destroyed Arcadia Bay.  Immediately, my chest tightened up again, and my breath left me.  Memories of the storm, and of Chloe’s anguished cries, flashed through my mind.  I found myself on the ground suddenly, head tucked into my knees with my arms locked tightly around my legs.  I tried desperately to breathe, but it felt like I just couldn’t take in enough air.  I couldn’t hear anything but the storm.  It was all around me, and I found myself hoping that this time, maybe it would just take me away with it.  End all of the pain.  All of the torment.

The storm pressed down on me.  I could feel it, firm, warm, and steady on my shoulders.  Except … it didn’t feel like a storm.  I could hear something other than the winds and the thunder, faint but somehow soothing.  I focused on it, my attention focusing for the first time since the storm returned.  It was familiar.  Safe.

Rachel’s voice.  I slowly came back to myself, and the sounds of the storm faded as I focused more on Rachel softly but firmly calling my name.  “Max.  It’s okay.  I’ve got you.  Max?  Just breathe.  Breathe through it.  Come back to me.  Max.”

I opened my eyes, and it was a clear evening in Arcadia Bay again.  Rachel was on her knees directly in front of me, a hand on each shoulder, looking down at me with concern and compassion.  “Hey you.  You’re back.  It’s okay.  I don’t know where you went just now, but you’re okay.  Just keep breathing, alright?”  I gave her a faint smile, trying to reassure her.  Then I did my breathing exercises, trying to steady my body and center my mind.

Several minutes passed, and Rachel waited there with me patiently.  Finally, I released my legs, placing a hand on Rachel’s arm.  “I’m okay now.  Thank you.”

“Are you sure?” she asked me, still very much concerned.

“Yeah.  Help me up?”  I took Rachel’s offered hand, and she pulled me to my feet.

“There’s something about this place, isn’t there?  Max, we can go anywhere.  You don’t have to be here.  I’m sorry… if I had known—”

“Not your fault.  I should’ve thought about it.  It’s just the first time I’ve been back here since … something awful.  And I was too in my own head to register it when you asked to hang out at the lighthouse.”  The last thing I needed was Rachel feeling guilty, not when she was being so kind to me.

“Okay.  Well, I’m still sorry.  That looked really rough, and I’ve had a panic attack or two myself.  Let’s get out of here.  We can talk anywhere, okay?”

“No, I want to stay.  This used to be my favourite place in Arcadia Bay.  I hope that maybe one day, it can be again.  The worst is behind me, and I promise, if I need to leave, I will let you know.”  Rachel appraised me warily, so I took a step forward and held my hand out to her.  “Do you trust me?”

She reached out tentatively for my hand, snarking, “Yes.  But don’t you dare tell me to jump.”  The sudden Disney reference struck me as so absurd in that moment that I burst out laughing, and it proved contagious.  We laughed for what felt like forever, and by the end of it, I felt much more capable of facing any ghosts that awaited me at the top of the cliff where the lighthouse sat.  Rachel didn’t protest any further as she followed me up the path.

I couldn’t help noticing the tree stump to the left of the path, just before we reached the bench outside the lighthouse.  Still inscribed there were the words “Max and Chloe BFF pirates 2008.”  I had to fight back the tears that threatened to overtake me as I thought back on Chloe’s last words to me earlier in the evening.  Rachel must have seen me staring and guessed what I was feeling, because she put a soft hand on my back and led me past the stump and over to the bench.

The view was incredible, so different from the view of the storm that had haunted me just minutes ago.  The sun had nearly set over the horizon, but the blue water of the bay still held hints of the pinks and oranges left by the sun on its way out.  The water was calm, and save for a few whiffs of scattered white clouds, the sky was clear.  A bird chirped pleasantly behind us somewhere.  This was exactly the sort of reintroduction to the lighthouse that I needed.

I glanced back to Rachel beside me, and it looked like she had just sent a text before darkening her phone and placing it to the side.  “So … I feel pretty confident that you and I have built up some trust between us at this point.”  I caught her eyes, making sure it was obvious to her that I agreed.  “I was hoping you would be willing to tell me a little about what you’re going through.  I’ve been giving you space since you first told me you had been through some stuff.  But like … that panic attack back there was a monster.  You shouldn’t have to go through that alone.  You don’t have to go through it alone.  Not anymore.”

Panic threatened to grip me again, but I fought it off.  It’s fine it’s fine it’s fine … this is good.  Rachel wants to help.  I didn’t break her gaze, not wanting her to think I might spiral again.  But I also had no idea how much I was willing to tell her at this point.  I had planned on telling her and Chloe everything at the same time.  I hadn’t anticipated that Rachel and I might become trusted friends like this before Chloe and I managed to reconcile.

“Okay sooo …  I’m still not ready to tell you everything.  But … I think it would be good to let you in on some stuff.  And I do trust you.  I just … Rachel, I need to know that anything I tell you tonight stays between us.  I completely understand if you don’t want to agree to that, if you don’t want to hide things from Chloe.  But that’s the only way I’ll feel comfortable enough to open up.  You can’t tell anyone unless I give you the go ahead.”

To her credit, Rachel didn’t blow me off.  She didn’t make any promises she couldn’t keep.  She sat there, and she thought about my request.  Then she smiled softly.  It wasn’t a look of joy or glee, but simply one of confidence.  Reassurance.  “Okay, I promise.  Anything you tell me tonight is between us.  And my word is my bond.”

I exhaled loudly.  Part of me hadn’t fully expected Rachel to agree.  “Wowzer.  I don’t even know where to start.  I mean, I really don’t.”

“How about we start from a few minutes ago?  Where did you go?”

Shit.  “That’s something I can’t really get into.  Not yet.  I’m really sorry, I just …  I can’t.”  My mind raced, trying to settle on some version of the truth that I could actually explain to Rachel without getting into the whole human time machine thing.  “So … before I came back to Arcadia Bay, I went through a lot.”  Seattle, I realized was the answer.  It was a minor lie that would allow me to tell a larger truth.   “My best friend in Seattle lost someone.  Someone really important to her.  We sort of played detective, and we were the ones who found her body.  It … broke my friend.  And I tried to be there for her, but there was nothing I could do.”  Tears welled up in my eyes, the memories of Chloe’s dead eyes those last few weeks still vivid in my mind.  “I found—”  A sob wracked my body, and I broke down before I could finish the story.

But I don’t think I needed to, I think Rachel got it.  She wrapped me up in a big hug, letting me cry helplessly on her shoulder.  She placed a comforting hand on the back of my head.  She continued whispering those soothing mantras from before.  “It’s okay, Max.  I’m here.  Let it out.  Breathe.  It’s okay.  You’re going to be okay.”  The dark silhouette of Chloe’s body hanging there, and I just barely found her in time to rewind.  As long as I live, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that sight, even though I barely had time to register it before I reacted.

It was fully dark before I was in control of myself again.  I caught Rachel glancing at her phone a couple of times, reading messages from someone, but she didn’t let it distract her from being there for me.  As I calmed down, I explained, “There’s a lot more, and maybe we’ll get there eventually.  But I think that’s all the sharing I’m going to be able to do tonight.”

“Max, don’t worry about it.  Thank you for sharing what you did, and for being open and vulnerable with me.  I hope maybe it helped, even just a little.  I think you’re a champ, okay?”  I smiled at her, my first genuinely good-feeling smile in hours.  Then Rachel glanced down at her phone again.  “Gimme just a sec, okay?”

She pulled up her messaging app, looking over a few texts that had come in since last she checked.  I couldn’t see who she was messaging, but I could guess.  There was maybe a minute of back and forth, then she put the phone away and turned back to me.  Rachel's eyes sparkled, and something about the look she gave me filled me with hope.  “What is it?” I asked.

“It’s Chloe.  Look … I don’t know what you said to her this afternoon, but damn girl, you made an impression.  She’s still royally pissed off at you, but she wants to hang out tomorrow.  The three of us.  If I know Chloe—and I do—she wants to yell obscenities at you for a good twenty minutes and then pick apart the reasons why you abandoned her.”  Rachel put a hand on my knee.  “Today was a lot for you, and I completely understand if you need a couple of days before facing her again.”

“No!” I interrupted immediately.  My gut was doing flip flops.  I seriously thought I had completely blown it with Chloe, and now Rachel was telling me that the opposite was possibly the case.  I told Chloe to say whatever she needed to say, do whatever she needed to do, whatever it would take to get her talking to me again.  I wasn’t about to back away from that.  “I’ll do it.  I’m in.”

“Okay, but I’m going to play referee.  What you did to her was shitty, but I get the sense that there’s more to this than you’re letting us in on.  I kinda wish you would just spill the beans, especially if it’ll help Chloe take it easier on you.  But I get the distinct sense that you feel you deserve to be punished, and since I’m the one that had to pick up the pieces of Chloe you left behind, I’m not going to fight you on that.”  I smiled wistfully at her.  Rachel always had a way of phrasing things that was distinctly hers.

“Roger that.  Please tell Chloe I’m in.”

“Will do.  And I’ll let you know when and where.  My guess would be American Rust, after school.  I would ask you if you know where the junkyard is, but hell, I’ll just give you a ride, okay?”  I nodded, feeling pretty overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude I felt for Rachel right then.  The day had been a crazy emotional rollercoaster for me.  Hopefully, it would soon be worth it.

“Now, let’s get you home.  But not before we stop for ice cream.”  

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Rachel feels as though her heart might burst.  This moment was as close to perfect as life gets.  The last few years had been so up and down, but it had been an adventure of its own sort.  And now, she and Max have reached a turning point.  A start of something new.

Rachel's first full season at the theater has been everything she could’ve imagined.  Already, the place feels like home.  At the same time, Max’s business has really taken off, to the point where they both needed to and could afford to actually rent out some studio space and hire a part-time assistant.  And so they find themselves here, toasting a big decision as a couple, a deeper commitment to each other and the life they are building together. 

The scene is picturesque, which Rachel finds delightful.  Beneath them is Rachel’s favourite blanket, a deep navy patch of white stars and constellations on an eco-friendly, waterproof fabric that is surprisingly soft.  On the other side of Max is the antique wicker picnic basket with the remains of their dinner.  Their backs rest against the short stone wall behind them, and the bright green grass of the park extends out in front of them, giving way to a steep, downward sloping hill dotted with trees and other foliage.  Beyond that, the entire city of Seattle is spread out in all its glory before them.

Max’s head rests gently against Rachel’s shoulder as they enjoy the peaceful silence around them.  Rachel takes another sip from her glass of rosé, then turns her head enough to kiss the top of Max’s.  “We’re really doing this, huh?”

Max hummed their agreement languidly, not fully catching the second question hiding under the surface.  For Rachel, the decision for her and Max to finally leave the apartment they had shared throughout college and the two years since was more than just about taking the next step in their life together.  The perfect new home they were seeking to make for themselves would be the first that they had never shared—and in all likelihood will never share—with Chloe.  Getting over Chloe was the hardest thing Rachel had ever had to do, and part of her knows that she will never fully be over the beautiful, feisty dumb fucking idiot who had left them without any real warning.  And that is why this is such a massive step, at least for Rachel.  She isn’t sure it’s quite as big a deal for Max, who is generally much better at processing their emotions and handling major traumas and life changes than Rachel.  She wonders, not for the first time, if Max’s unique relationship with time has something to do with how stoic they can be sometimes.

The point is, finding a new home was as much about what they were leaving behind as it was about what they were choosing to build.  Rachel is proud of herself for having reached a place of strength from which she could make this decision, choose this life with Max—and only Max—with her full heart.  As if sensing the weight of the thoughts coursing through Rachel’s mind, Max’s head shot up suddenly.  A bright smile paints their face, but a curiously determined look animates their pale blue eyes.  They reach into the picnic basket and pull out the ancient instant camera that had once belonged to Chloe’s dad.

“This is a big moment.  We should document it.”  Rachel smiles, wondering if Max is hedging their bets, creating a photo so that they can come back to this moment and change everything if it all blows up in their faces.  Rachel immediately scolds herself for such a cowardly and insecure thought.  Max is all in on this with me

“I love you, you know that?”  Max raises an eyebrow and purses their lips, before breaking into a huge grin.

“Yeah, I had some idea.  Loser.”  They scoot forward, placing the wine glasses safely at a distance before directing Rachel to turn around and come sit by them.  Max wants the cityscape behind them in the photo.  They hold the camera out in front of them, muscle memory working to get the perfect angle.  Rachel wraps her arms around her partner, smiling uncontrollably before, on a spur of the moment idea, turning her head to kiss Max’s cheek as they take the picture.

The flash activates, and the camera spits out the Polaroid photograph.  As always, Rachel resists the urge to grab it up immediately, well aware that it needs to sit for a few moments and develop.  She giggles happily as she nuzzles against Max’s jawline, except that Max stiffens and pulls away just a little.  When Rachel looks up to meet their eyes, it is a different Max looking back at her.

The first thing out of their mouth fills Rachel with a sort of resigned dread.  “Rachel, I’m so sorry.”  Max’s eyes are filled with love and anguish.  Clearly regretful, but also with the distinctive glint of resolve and purpose.  Shit. Fuck.  Did everything actually blow up in our faces, for real?  From how far in the future is this Max?  Max takes both Rachel’s hands in their own and kisses her forehead.  “We can’t do this, but not for the reason you’re thinking.”

Rachel trusts Max, but she still feels uneasy.  Max hasn’t even explained what’s going on yet, but she has a distinct sense of the rug being pulled out from under her.  All of the resolution she had just been feeling, her confidence in their new direction as a couple, was dashed in the flash of a camera.

“Hey,” Max softly calls her back into the moment.  “Before I tell you what’s going on, I just want you to know that this decision we made together was one of the best of my life.  I’m from about a year in the future, and already, we’ve built a beautiful life together.  Please, don’t ever doubt that, okay?”  Max’s voice is so genuine and emotional, and Rachel believes them fully.

“Thank you.  You really scared me, coming back to this moment.  I needed to hear that.  Now tell me why we don’t get our happy ending, Max.” 

Two words are all it takes to send Rachel into another mini spiral.  “It’s Chloe.”  Rachel feels as though her stomach has dropped out of her gut.  Whatever she was expecting from this future version of Max, she genuinely did not imagine that Chloe would be involved.  Just as she was preparing to move on, Chloe finds a way to drop in from the future and blow everything up. 

“Fuck.”  Rachel grabs her glass of rosé and downs the rest of it.  For good measure, she does the same with Max’s.  “Alright babe, I’m as ready as I’m going to be.  Hit me with it.” 

“Joyce is going to die on June 13, 2019.  We promised Chloe we would stop it.”

Does that mean?  Rachel’s stomach fluttered, and her heart beat increased.  “Max?  Are you saying that in a year—”

“No.  I’m sorry, Rach.  Still just you and me.”  Max squeezes her hand.  “She called me a few days after, to ask me if I would come back.  It was the first time either of us had heard from her since she left.”  Fuck.  “I’m …”  Max pauses, and Rachel can see that they’re debating how much to tell her.  “Fuck it.  I’m pretty sure the primary reason you even agreed to the plan is that you want to use this as an opportunity to, if not get back together with Chloe, at least force her to finally explain why she left.  And maybe you will get that chance, but please, Rachel, remember that someone’s life is at stake.”

Poor Joyce.  Rachel wonders how she could’ve died.  The bitch had abandoned Chloe for a fascist, but … probably she didn’t deserve to die.  “What happens?  Happened?  Ugh, verb tense is always so annoying when we talk about your time adventures.”

Max smiles softly, then sighs.  “There was a fire at the Two Whales, but we’re pretty sure that’s a cover up for what really happened.  Joyce died of blunt force trauma to the head, then her body was placed in the diner and a gas leak was faked.  Chloe thinks it was David—”

“Obviously it was David,” Rachel chimes in immediately, drawing an exasperated look from Max.  “What?  You know we’re right.”

“Yes, David might be our lead suspect, but we don’t know anything.  That’s why I jumped back a whole year instead of just a few weeks.  We need to investigate.  Also, if we’re going to try to figure out what happened with Chloe, we’re going to need time to slowly get her to open up to us again.”

“Hah!”  Rachel leapt up, a fierce look painting her features.  “I’m not the only one with an ulterior motive here!  You want Chloe back too!”  Max rolls their eyes, then sets about packing up the remnants of their formerly meaningful picnic.

“Of course I want her back!  I’m just not going to bulldoze her to try to make it happen.”  They look right at Rachel.  “And you won’t either!  Chloe’s … I’m like 90 percent sure that she’s wasting away in a monotonous, lonely existence because she thinks she’s not good enough for us.  Or that she doesn’t fit or some stupid nonsense like that.  She thinks she owed it to us to get out of our way so that we can be happy together, without her, even if that comes at the cost of her own happiness.”  Max finishes folding up the blanket and stows it in the top of the basket.  “At least that’s my working theory.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”  Rachel blows out a frustrated growl.  “If I can just get her to sit there and listen to me for a few minutes, I can tell her what a stupid fucking—”

“You will do nothing of the sort, Rachel.”  Rachel both loves and hates Max’s stern voice.  It is so fucking hot, but usually they only use it when they’re reining in Rachel’s more … impulsive inclinations.  Almost always, Rachel comes around to thank Max for it, but in the moment, it’s just so very annoying.  But Chloe’s … somewhere … so it isn’t like Rachel can fly off the handle and go talk some sense into her, even if she would like to.  Plus … Joyce’s life is in their hands.

“Fine.  So, what’s our plan?”

“Well it definitely doesn’t involve berating Chloe.  Yes, we have our side mission.  We both want to understand Chloe.  We both want her back, and on this we agree, but we have to play the long game here.  You know how she is.  You can’t force the issue.  But I promise, we’ll have plenty of time.  We’re moving back to Arcadia Bay.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.”  Rachel took Max’s hand as they began their hike back to the apartment they had once shared with Chloe.   She tried to ignore the sudden increase in dark clouds above them.

“Yup, you got me.  This was all a big joke so I could get you obsessing over Chloe again.”  Max glances sideways at her, and Rachel can’t help but grin.

“My dashing partner, ever with the dry wit.”  Rachel groans dramatically.  “I just …. thought we were free of that godforsaken place.”  Max doesn’t respond, not immediately.  They get that look on their face, the cute one where their eyes cloud over slightly as they gaze off into the distance and their nose crinkles ever so slightly.  It means they’re lost, deep in their thoughts.  Rachel takes extra care to guide Max along as they keep walking and waits patiently for Max.

What Max says next is as shocking as it is unexpected.  “I think I always knew we’d have to go back, eventually.”  Rachel’s hand tightens its grip on Max’s unintentionally, and the two share a look.  Max’s blue eyes are brilliant with curiosity and wistfulness, while Rachel’s are wide with disbelief.  Rachel had left Arcadia Bay completely behind her once they moved to Seattle, never looking back.  As far as she cared, the massive storm that Max had prevented from ever happening could have destroyed the town ten times over once they were gone.  But Max always does have a slightly different perspective on things than anyone else.  It’s part of why Rachel loves them so.

“Just think about it.  Everything always comes back to the Bay.  All the weird shit.  Our powers.  Our bond—you, me, and Chloe—across multiple timelines.  I … you know, we don’t even really understand our powers?”  They glance up, where the clouds were starting to dissipate a bit.  “Don’t think I didn’t notice the clouds being weird while you were all … irritated about the idea of going back.”

“Whatever, babe.  You really think we’ll find answers there?  And even if we can, when will there be time between investigating Joyce’s future death, seducing Chloe, and … I assume we’re getting jobs in that trashy town?”  Max shot her an exasperated look that Rachel knew was meant in response solely to the ‘seducing Chloe’ part of Rachel’s plans.

“I don’t know.  It’s just a feeling I have.  We’ve obviously got more important concerns, but don’t be surprised if this new adventure doesn’t quite turn out how we expect it to.”  The dark clouds return, but this time Rachel is the one who needs to process her thoughts for a minute.  The implications of what Max is telling her are starting to sink in.  Rachel spots a nearby bench and stops beside it, releasing Max’s hand before sitting.

Max stands there, looking down at Rachel.  She won’t meet their gaze.  As Max sets the basket down and takes a seat next to Rachel, the floodgates burst wide open.  “We were just starting to build a life.  Careers.  I’m going to have to leave the theatre, where I was just starting to feel at home.  Who knows if I’ll be able to get that job back when this is all over?  I was only just starting to get call backs for real commercial acting jobs.  What if … I mean.  Goddammit Max.  What if it isn’t worth it?  What if we can’t actually save Joyce?  What if something else goes wrong?  What if—”

“Hey.”  Max cups Rachel’s face in both of their hands, locking eyes with her.  “I know.  I’m asking you to give up a lot.”  Tears form in Rachel’s eyes, but Max strokes a single finger across her cheek.  “I can’t tell you it’s going to be okay.  I’ve only lived through the other timeline.  But I can tell you that we’re in this together, always and forever.”  Max tucks a strand of hair behind Rachel’s ear before kissing her tears away.  “Look. The other you agreed, but she doesn’t get to decide for you.  You get to choose for yourself.  I can’t tell you how sorry I am to force this decision on you, but if you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.  Chloe and I can handle this ourselves, and then I will come back.  You can—”

Rachel lets out a dark laugh.  “Fuck that, Max.  You know I’m in.  I’m not letting you two idiots face this alone, and I’m not missing out on a chance to get Chloe back.”  Rachel leans forward and kisses Max, their lips soft but salty with her tears.  “I just …  this whole thing has me going through a sort of emotional whiplash, you know?”  Max nods, stroking a hand lightly through Rachel’s hair.  “An hour ago, I was on top of the world.  I finally felt ready to move on from Chloe, and I was all in on building our dream life together here in Seattle.  Now … now, I’m just as certain that the right thing to do is to let all of that go.  So we can return to the place I hate most in the world in order to once again face dangerous and mysterious circumstances so that we can stop some ominous future from happening.”  Rachel laughs again.  “It’s a lot, Max.”

“I know.  I know it is.  But we’ll get through it together.”  Rachel kisses them again, scooting closer as she presses herself to Max.  Max presses their tongue into Rachel’s mouth, and for a moment, everything else fades away.  In this moment, Rachel and Max are alone with each other.  No Seattle or Arcadia Bay.  No future careers or past loves.  No impending danger.  No supernatural forces.  Just two people who love each other more than either of them ever could’ve imagined. 

                                                  

Three days.  That’s all it takes for Rachel and Max to pack up their lives in Seattle and set themselves up for their return to northern Oregon.  Max leaves their online shop in place, but otherwise updated their website to make it clear that they are on sabbatical, away from Seattle and unable to take any new jobs in the area.  Rachel has one of the most difficult conversations of her life, giving the 5th Avenue Theater notice that she would not be returning for the 2018-19 season.  Afterwards, she sits and sobs for a good ten minutes in the alleyway behind the theatre.  She knows they’re doing the right thing, but it still broke her a little to give up her dream job.

Max has a preliminary conversation with Principal Wells about restarting the photography program at Blackwell.  The old asshole is apparently less than warm to the idea, initially, but Max is confident they can win him over.  He at least confirms that is a possibility, and Rachel takes the next step in leaving a voicemail with Mr. Keaton, the theatre teacher she hopes to replace at Blackwell.  She offers to catch up with him, feigning interest in that play he always talked about writing.  Apparently this was future Rachel’s idea, and it’s a pretty good one.  The idea of putting her acting career on hold, at the age of 24 (almost), to go teach the assholes of Arcadia Bay for a year made Rachel cringe.  But what else is she supposed to do?  Pick up shifts at the Two Whales with Joyce?  Rachel can’t even fathom that idea.

In some ways, that was the easy part, Rachel supposes.  The hard part (as is always the case, Rachel thinks wryly) will be Chloe.  Neither of them had spoken to her yet, but apparently future Chloe had given Max a good snapshot of where she lives and what her routine is like.  Enough that they can track her down. 

Which is what they are up to now.  After a three-hour drive in Rachel’s Mini Cooper, they arrive at Chloe’s apartment complex right around 5:00 p.m.  (Along the way, Max confessed that by 2019, Rachel had finally gotten them to break down and buy a car themself—a Prius, which Max insisted was only for work stuff.)  Rachel wonders if some future version of herself who will now never exist had the same first impression of the building that she is having now.

“Time travel is so weird.”  Rachel closes the car door behind her after parking on a nearby street.

“Well, I mean yeah.  But what do you mean?”  They stand near the front door, where they wait for Chloe.

“I can’t believe it never occurred to me, after all these years, but it must be so strange for you.  Like … you’ve got a whole year’s worth of memories and inside jokes and experiences that you’ve shared with me that, not only do I not remember any of it, but I guess at this point none of it will ever exist.  Is that… hard for you?”

Now that she is thinking about it, Rachel’s mind races through all the possibilities.  How many distinct versions of Rachel had Max known over the years?  Did she change a lot in the additional year that Max knew her?  Rachel grabbed Max by both her hands, wrapping their fingers tightly together.

Max is surprised by the sudden insight.  Their voice is soft and hesitant as they answer.  “Umm, yeah.  It’s really hard sometimes.  I …  Surely you’ve noticed sometimes.  I’ll say something that you don’t immediately get, and … I mean, I’ve gotten better at hiding my disappointment, but yeah.  It’s weird.  For me, it’s like everyone has collective amnesia, but it’s most pronounced around you, because you’re the only person I’m super close to.”

Rachel hugs them, tightly, and whispers in their ear, “Baby, I’m so sorry.  I wish you had told me.”  She pauses.  “No.  That’s not fair.  I’m just sorry I didn’t think about it sooner.”  Rachel leans back and runs her fingers lightly through the longer bangs on the side of Max’s face.  “Even if it’s just little moments here and there, I hate that you’ve had to go through it alone.”  Max smiles softly.

“You know, it’s weird I didn’t think to mention it to you.  I guess it’s not really a huge thing, but … yeah, I mean, yeah.  It adds up, I guess.  But you’re the same.  I mean, the big stuff; the important stuff.  We all change over time, but you’re always my Rachel, you know?”  They kiss the tip of Rachel’s nose, and Rachel could feel her face break into a bright smile as a result.  “The coolest thing is that sometimes there are echoes.  Like … you’ll say something almost exactly the same way you said it in another timeline.”

“That’s pretty fucking cool, actually.  And, for the record, I always will be.  Yours, I mean.  Just … I don’t know, Max, please talk to me about it from now on?  I mean if it happens again, I’d love to hear about your memory, even if it was with some other version of me.  I don’t ever want you to feel alone in this world, even if you’re alone in your experience of it.  I will always be here for you, babe.”

Max’s thumb strokes gentle patterns along the knuckle of Rachel’s, a soft look of adoration shining through their eyes.  “I love you.” 

“I love you too.”  Rachel’s voice drifts off as the sound of an approaching motorcycle grabs their attention.  They step apart, releasing each other as they try to see which direction Chloe is coming from.  Rachel had tried to pick Max’s brain about what to expect from Chloe for the past three days, and she had gotten nothing.  Max insists that Rachel should form her own impressions.  The only thing they have told Rachel is that Chloe is unlikely to be happy to see them. 

By the sound of it, Chloe parks her motorcycle on the opposite street from where she parked the Mini.  Good, Rachel thinks.  No chance that she has any warning or opportunity to run away.  She chuckles a little at the thought.  As if they’re ambushing Chloe.  Rachel guesses that, in a way, they are.  She is so lost in the thought that she is completely caught off guard when Chloe comes strolling around the corner, nearly running into Max.

Grimy white converse high-tops give way to dark blue jeans that are about equal parts frayed holes and denim at this point.  A light denim jacket is tied around Chloe’s hips, and she is wearing a faded purple tank top with a small pocket on the left breast.  She’s not wearing a bra, and Rachel can see the faint outline of her nipple piercings through the fabric of her top.  The most surprising difference, and the one Rachel finds herself legitimately gaping at, is Chloe’s hair.  Well, the septum piercing is also new, but wow, Chloe’s hair.  Gone is the chin length bob she had the entire time Rachel knew her.  In its place is a much shorter style, undercut on both sides with a sort of untidy but fluffy mohawk, that is coloured into a wild pattern of seafoam green and silver.

Fuck me, she got hotter?  Rachel is still staring as Chloe recognized who is standing between her and her apartment.  “What the fuck are you doing here?”  Guess Max was right about Chloe not being happy to see us.

“Come with us if you want to live,” Rachel quips, in her best Schwarzenegger voice.  Chloe looks at her like she’s insane, and she makes no move to let them in the building. 

“She’s joking, obviously,” Max says, making an adorably apologetic face.  “Hey Chloe.  We missed you.  Now … your life is not in danger.  But someone’s is, and we’re from the future, here to stop it.”

“Well, Max is from the future.  I’m just along for the ride, same as you.”  Max rolls her eyes at Rachel, but it’s clear that they’re on the same page about using humour to try to disarm Chloe a bit.  For a split second, Rachel thinks Chloe might just smile a little, but the moment passes.

“If you let us in, we’ll explain everything.  You’re the one who sent me back here.  We’re here to help, I promise.“  Chloe’s eyes shift back and forth between them, and then she finally sighs, clearly making the decision to go along with this, for now.  She pulls her keys out and opens the door to the building.  Not once does she say another word to them, but they follow her inside nonetheless.

Rachel can’t resist pushing her luck just a little, teasing, “There’s our girl.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

The three of us at the junkyard.  Meaning that I had to pretend I’d never been there.  Fortunately, she was waiting for us in that shack where she and Rachel always hung out.  I don’t think I could’ve kept up pretenses if I had to walk past the spot where Chloe and I found Rachel’s body, back in the original timeline.  I needed to be completely focused on Chloe for this conversation.  I preferred not to rewind if I didn’t absolutely have to.

It was the day after Rachel took me to the lighthouse.  Chloe hadn’t wasted any time.  That’s something that I don’t think will ever change about her.  Once she made a decision, she didn’t hesitate.  I loved that about her.  She was pacing around outside the shack when Rachel and I arrived.  A thin beanie covered the top of her bright blue hair.  She wore a black tee shirt with the white outline of a lighter on it.  A blue plaid shirt was tied loosely around her waist, and cut off denim shorts, dark tights, and a scuffed-up pair of black combat boots completed the outfit.  Just before she heard us coming, she kicked a rock hard across the train tracks.

Even as a walking tornado of bottled-up frustration, I thought Chloe was beautiful.  Then, as we walked up, she caught Rachel’s eye, and her entire face broke into a brilliant smile.  I nearly melted right then and there.  I hadn’t seen Chloe smile like that since before William died.  Rachel brought out a light in Chloe that had been lost forever in the original timeline.  Then Chloe turned to me, and smile shifted back to scowl.  She turned aside, and Rachel led me inside.

I really wasn’t sure if I should sit or stand, and sensing my hesitation, Rachel pointed me towards the junky red floor rocker chair near the far corner.  The interior of the shack was as I remembered, more or less.  The dartboard was there next to the entrance, with Chloe and Rachel’s running score below it in sharpie.  On the wall across from her was written ‘Chloe was here,’ and just under it ‘Rachel was here.’  Once upon a time, I had written my own ‘Max was here” to join them, and a big part of me hoped I would have the opportunity to do it again, someday.  But not without earning it.  

As I settled in, Rachel leaned up against the far wall, taking up a clear mediator’s stance between me and Chloe, who had just followed us inside.  After a few seconds of awkward silence, I decided to take the lead.  “Chloe—”

“No.  You know what?  Just no.”  Chloe wasn’t yelling—not yet anyway—but her voice was fervent and on the edge.  “You said your piece yesterday, Max.  And I heard you, and that’s why we’re fucking here in the first fucking place.  But now it’s my turn.  And I’ve got some shit to say, so you just fucking sit there and listen.”  I didn’t move, just nodded slightly.  I meant everything I said the day prior.  I wanted Chloe to really lay into me, if that’s what it took to get my friend back.

Chloe turned and looked right at me.  “What is your fucking damage, Max?  You disappear at the worst possible time, completely fucking abandon me, and you can’t be bothered to send a fucking text for almost four years.  Then out of the blue, you go out of your way to skip a fucking grade so you can come play school at Blackhell for a year?  You come back here, and the first person you try to befriend is my fucking girlfriend?!”

“You were the first person I texted about coming back, and you know it!”

“Okay fine.  You wanna go there?  Did you like it when I completely fucking ignored your texts?  Was that fun for you, Max?”  It was little better than a rhetorical question, but Chloe wouldn’t react well if I didn’t answer.

“No.” 

“Yeah, it fucking sucked, didn’t it?  Now think about how much it would hurt if I did that to you for fucking years?!”

“Chloe, I know.  I’m sorry!  I don’t know how many—”

“Nah.  Fuck that, Max.”  Chloe was on a roll by then, which was a good sign.  “And don’t fucking pretend you came back for me, either.  You came back for Blackwell Academy, not your best friend.  You didn’t fucking bother trying to call or text until after that was decided.”

Technically, I had called a handful of times between 2010 and 2012, but those calls had been anonymous.  And I wasn’t ready to tell Chloe and Rachel about my time traveling adventures just yet.  “Chloe, I’m sorry.  I know things were completely falling apart when I left—”

“How would you fucking know, Max?!” exploded from a wide-eyed Chloe, who was now officially yelling.  “You weren’t fucking here, asshole.”

“I didn’t order my parents to move specifically to fuck you over, Chloe!”  That came out angrier than I meant it, I thought, sighing.  “But that’s no excuse for going silent.  For ignoring you.  I fucked up, and I know that.  I’m not making any excuses here.”

“Whatever, dude.”  At least the yelling had stopped, for now.  “The point is you left!  You abandoned me.  Just like Dad.  Just like my fucking mom, in her own way.  I needed you.  Everyone always fucking leaves me, until Rachel came along anyway.”  She smiled affectionately at Rachel again, who smiled back but lifted a hand as if to suggest her to take it down a notch.

Chloe sighed, pacing back and forth.  “Rachel says you don’t suck.  That you’ve got your own shit going on that I don’t know about.  That I should give you another chance.  And I trust her, so here we fucking are.  But you’ve gotta explain to me why I should fucking trust you at this point.”

“You shouldn’t.  Not yet.”  I think I actually surprised her with that response.  “I’d like to think I’ve earned Rachel’s trust at this point.  I’m not asking you for anything other than the opportunity to earn yours too.”

Chloe blew out a frustrated breath, loudly.  Then shook her head.  “Fucking fine.  I’ll give you a chance.”  She turned to glare at Rachel.  “But if she hurts me again, I’m breaking up with you.”

Rachel just smiled.  “No, you won’t.  I’m the only one who never abandoned you, remember?”

“Not yet, anyway.”  Ugh.  Maybe if Rachel and I had paid more attention to Chloe’s anxieties and insecurities back then … but we were still kids, more or less.  And there was the whole catching a predator thing.  Anyway … Chloe turned back to me.  “For the indefinite future, you’re my bitch, Max.”  I tried my best not to smirk at that.  My eighteen-year-old (nineteen-year-old?  Time travel is confusing) brain so wanted to make that dirty.

“Yes, ma’am.”  Rachel looked uncomfortable all of the sudden, standing up and walking over to kneel down beside me.

“Max.  Do you wanna tell Chloe about—”  I immediately shook my head no.  “Okay but…”  Her voice trailed off as she turned back to Chloe.  “Make Max your bitch all you want, she deserves it.  But just be … ugh, Chloe just watch out for her okay?  I can’t say anymore, and Max won’t, at least not yet.”  Rachel glared at me for a moment, but it was only because she cared.

“Relax, Rach.  I’m a bitch, but I’m not a bitch.  I’m hella pissed at Maximus, but I still care about her.  That’s why it fucking hurt so much when she abandoned me.”  Chloe turned to look at me.  “Max, fucking stand up for yourself, okay?  I don’t know what the fuck you’re going through, and you don’t have to tell me if you’re not ready to.  But I won’t know if something is actually a problem unless you say something, okay?”

I nodded, and that seemed to be enough for Rachel.  I found myself in something of a state of shock in that moment.  Rachel Amber liked me enough to be protective over me.  To stand up to her girlfriend, Chloe Price, for me.  It was a development I was in no way expecting back when I made the decision to come back.

“Alright, let’s make this peace treaty official then,” Chloe said, smirking.  “Rach, you holding?”  She was, obviously, and the rest of the night proceeded in a much more chill fashion.  In the sense that there was no more yelling, but also Chloe remained plenty icy towards me.  But it was still the best night I had had since coming back in time.

“So tell me, what does Max Caulfield do for fun now that she’s mostly grown up?” Chloe asked slyly.  She sat on the bench across the table from Max, her legs propped up on the big wooden spool that formed a table in the middle of the room.  Rachel was stretched languidly across the bench, with her feet in Chloe’s lap.  Chloe’s question struck me as familiar; maybe she had already asked it in another timeline.  I decided to push my luck a bit, see if I could goad her into some trademark Chloe Price banter.

“Party all night,” I snarked, daring her to call me out on it.  Rachel shot me a quick side eye before turning her attention back to the ceiling.  Chloe took a long drag before waving at me dismissively.

“Bullshit.  Not Little Miss Wallflower.  I bet you’ve never even been to a party.”  Memories of the Vortex Club’s End of the World Party flashed through my mind at the same time a sense of uneasiness blossomed in my chest at the way the word ‘miss’ sounded when directed at me.

“I think you’d be surprised.”  A thought occurred to me, as if out of the ether, and I blurted it out.  “Besides, I went to your big birthday blowout!”

“Oh?  You mean when you were twelve?  That’s uhh, pretty sad, dude.  You should probably stick to taking photos.”

Rachel butted in.  “Speaking of, you got any cool photos on you right now, Max?”  Obviously, I did.  I brought my camera bag with me everywhere, just in case.  And even if I didn’t, I had one photo that I carried with me everywhere.  It was a photo that technically shouldn’t exist anymore, but for me, it is a reminder of why I was there.  Of what was at stake.  I pulled it out.

“Just … this photo is really important to me.  Please be careful with it.”  I handed over the photograph, and Rachel studied it intently.  I can’t imagine she had any idea why such a simple photo could have been so meaningful.  All it depicted was a simple grey metal bucket, with a bright blue butterfly perched on its lip.  Possibly Rachel’s imaginative mind, set free from any unnecessary burdens by the influence of the pot, set to work inventing any number of beautiful explanations.  But none of them could compete with the bizarre nature of the actual story. 

For me, everything had started with that butterfly.  That photo.  I took it in a future that likely would never come to be, and I honestly had no idea how it had stuck with me through my travels. 

“It’s beautiful,” Rachel whispered. 

“I’ve never seen a blue butterfly like that,” Chloe agreed.

“Neither have I, not since then,” I answered, taking back my photo and storing it safely.  On a whim, I pulled out my instant camera and took a candid photo of Rachel and Chloe lounging together.  One of the best shots I had ever taken, truth be told.  The camera I was carrying around was not my favourite.  It was technically superior to William’s old camera, but it didn’t have the same feel.  The same weight.  But Chloe hadn’t given me William’s camera yet, and it was too important for me to just steal.  That would’ve tarnished the magic of it.  Someday, I hoped I would earn Chloe’s trust and, yes, her affection enough that maybe it will occur to her to give it to me again.

“Hey, Rach?  How did you and Chloe meet?  You never did tell me the whole story.”  Again, I knew the whole story, but I was dying to hear it from Rachel’s perspective.  What I hadn’t expected was how differently Chloe would react to it with Rachel alive and happy beside her, instead of a distant memory, dead and buried.

Rachel immediately broke into an uncontrollable giggle, and Chloe looked at her like she was an adorable weirdo.  Which … yeah, I suppose she really was.  “This dumb bitch got into a fight at a backwoods concert in the middle of nowhere, and I had to save her ass.”

“Hey!  They picked the fight with me!  And I got in a good shot.  Besides, you enjoyed playing hero.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never met a damsel in distress with such a mouth on her.”

“Fuck off,” Chloe shoved Rachel’s feet playfully, sparking another giggle fit.  “Max, you’ should’ve seen Rachel in her full punk persona.  It was incredibly hot.”  Chloe bit her lip slightly.  “Hair up in braided fauxhawk, leather jacket, choker, fingerless gloves… the whole fucking thing.” 

“Hey!  When I play a part, I commit.”  Chloe’s hand stroked up and down Rachel’s foot, seemingly on instinct.  They both looked so comfortable—they just fit together.  So perfectly. 

I think that was the first time I really wrestled with the implications of what changing the future really meant for me.  Back then, I hadn't even heard of polyamory, and I certainly never imagined that Rachel Amber would be interested in me.  Technically, I came back to save Rachel, but saving Rachel was only a means to my ends.  Saving Rachel was necessary for saving Chloe. 

I was in love with Chloe.  And it was becoming more and more clear to me that saving her meant that I would have to let her go.  Because she was in love with Rachel.  And their love was beautiful.  Powerful.  I felt sure it was something I couldn’t compete with, even if I had wanted to.

I had to rewind so that Chloe and Rachel didn’t see me cry.  Twice.  It was a difficult night.  But it was good for me.  Because more than anything, I just wanted Chloe to be happy.  And she was definitely happy.  In a way she never was with me back in the original timeline.

I reached out and took the joint from Rachel.  “So, how did you get from bar room brawls to dating?”

Chloe snorted.  “It was hardly a brawl.”

“And the mill was hardly a bar,” Rachel added.  “But we had quite a few adventures after that, and between meeting my bio mom and getting my dad tossed in jail—”

“Not to mention taking down that scumbag drug dealer he was working with.”

"Yeah, that fuck.  Anyways, somewhere along the way, I proclaimed my love for her on stage, and we just sort of fell into dating.”

Oh fuck off, you didn’t ‘proclaim your love.’  She’s trying to make it seem more dramatic than it was.”  The funny thing is that I guess I’ve kind of been involved in their love story from the beginning, in my own way.  Truth be told, the original story was pretty damn dramatic.  But the version Chloe and Rachel remembered isn’t how it was originally supposed to happen.  The broad strokes were the same, mostly, but I had jumped back and nudged a few things to keep them away from some of the dangers they seemed determined to stir up. 

Originally, Chloe had gone to Frank to help set up a contact with Sera, Rachel’s biological mother.  But Frank was working for Damon Merrick, the creep who was Arcadia Bay’s most violent drug kingpin at the time.  He was also the asshole Rachel’s father had contracted to take care of Sera, to get her out of the way before Rachel could find out she existed.  In the end, Merrick had stabbed Rachel and then later nearly killed Sera with an overdose of heroin, and Frank had killed Merrick in the ensuing scuffle.

It was a mess.  So, I interfered.  I jumped back to my 2010 self in Seattle just long enough to do some research and make a couple of calls from a payphone.  One to Frank, the other to Chloe.  Neither of them knew who I was, and I’m sure they thought I was pretty creepy, but in the end, they went along with it.  I convinced Frank that Damon was bad news, and I helped Chloe get the information she and Rachel needed on Sera and James Amber without involving Frank or Merrick.  No stabbings, no relapses, and no getting mixed up with the seedy underbelly of Arcadia Bay.  James Amber and Damon Merrick were both in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, among other lesser charges.  Rachel had a burgeoning relationship with Sera, who was now three years’ sober.  And I had something to point to as evidence when I’m finally ready to tell Chloe and Rachel about being a human time machine.

“How did Joyce take it when you came out to her?  Or … sorry, I shouldn’t assume.  Did you come out to her?”  Oops.  I cringed a little.  I didn’t even know for sure how Chloe identified, much less whether she had actually told Joyce anything.  Bad Max.

“Eh.  I mean I didn’t really come out or anything.  She got the clue when Rach and I started making out everywhere.  She hasn’t really said anything about it.”

“Stepdouche, on the other hand,” Rachel added, ominously, a flash of worry crossing her face.

“Grade-A homophobe there.  Joyce keeps him in line to an extent, but he’s a dick to Rachel.  They won’t let her sleep over ever.  He’s always muttering under his breath about how unnatural we are, and Joyce still gets pretty uncomfortable when we’re affectionate.”

“Could be worse, but it’s not great.”  Rachel took the joint from me.  “Mom’s been beyond chill about everything since Dad went to prison, though.  I can’t tell if she’s actually supportive or if she just doesn’t want to lose the last piece of normalcy she has.”   There was a shadow behind Rachel’s eyes, and an undertone to her jovial body language.  She was hiding something.  Her own struggles.  Maybe that’s why she was instantly so understanding about mine.  “Say, what about you, Max?”

“What about me?”  I don’t think I really realized that I was queer until I ran into Chloe again, in the original timeline.  After that …. Well let’s say hindsight is 20/20. 

“I mean—”  Rachel narrowed her eyes at me, a very knowing look, then glanced back and forth between me and Chloe, “—you like girls, right?”

"Oh!”  I blushed pretty furiously.  Clearly Rachel had some idea that I had feelings for Chloe.  “Well … yeah.  I mean, who wouldn’t?  I guess I’m like, bi, or whatever.  But I had a bad experience with a crush on a guy—” talk about an understatement, “—and let’s just say I’m leaning strongly on the girl side of my sexual orientation now.”

‘I knew it!”  Rachel was pleased, but Chloe looked pretty surprised.  Which was kind of shocking to me.  I mean … I didn’t see it until probably the morning I kissed Chloe for the first time, but once my eyes were open, it was pretty clear to me that Chloe and I had been in love with each other, in some way or another, for most of our lives.  I just kind of assumed now that she knew she was gay, Chloe would’ve remembered all those little moments too.

But I guess she probably didn’t like to remember things from back then anymore.  Too painful.  Well, now you know, Chloe.  Your childhood bestie is a big ole queer.  And head over heels in love with you.  No biggie!

I faked a yawn.  I could feel myself falling into that dark hole again.  I needed to get away from Chloe and Rachel for a while.  Process my feelings.  It was too much.  “I’m kinda beat, you guys.  It’s been uhhh an eventful couple of days, okay?”

“Yeah that makes sense.”  Rachel grabbed onto Chloe’s arm and pulled herself up, kissing Chloe’s cheek as she stood.  Chloe’s entire face lit up again, and my heart sank.  “I’ll get her home—you wanna hang some more after?”

"You know it.”  Chloe stood, suddenly awkward and hesitant.  “Uhh.”  She moved closer as I stood, and then put one arm around me for an incredibly stilted side hug.  “Thanks for coming, Max.  This didn’t completely suck.”

“Thanks for giving me another chance, Chloe.”  I couldn’t keep my voice from cracking a little.  I was on the edge of falling apart, so I immediately turned and walked away.  My eyes focused on the ground as I walked back to Rachel’s car.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  I repeated the mantra to myself over and over.

Rachel came up behind me, sliding an arm over my shoulder as she reached around to open the passenger side door for me.  “You did good, kid.  I’m proud of you.”  I got in without looking at her.  As she got in on the other side, she added, “She’ll come around.  After tonight, I’m sure of it.”  That helped a little, it really did.  But I still couldn’t face her. 

“Thanks, Rach.  Tonight was—”  I swallowed hard, fighting against my body, “—it was really great.  It was hard for me.  Obviously.  But it was a good step.  Thank you.”

“Hey now, us queers of Arcadia Bay gotta stick together, right?”

“Hah!  Right.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Confusion spreads through Chloe’s mind, escalating as her consciousness expands towards full wakefulness.  Why do I feel sunlight on my face?  She opens her eyes to a room she’s never woken up in before.  Sunlight streams in from a window behind her bed and another on the wall to her left.  Empty beige walls surround her, broken only by the windows, the wooden folding doors of a closet, and the closed door to the bedroom.  The only familiar presence is the warm ball of fur cuddled against her feet near the foot of the bed.  Where the fuck am I?

Her brain registers the events of the past couple of days all at once.  Max and Rachel’s story about the future.  The plan to save Joyce.  The arguments about moving back to Arcadia Bay, and worse, getting a place together.  The move.  Shit, this is my bedroom now.  Chloe groans, then sits up.  She pulls open the middle drawer of her nightstand, pulling her stash of weed and bong out.  Pompidou’s eyes ease open, but he doesn’t move from his comfortable position.

She has barely said anything to Max or Rachel since they had abruptly forced their way back into her life.  Or rather, she guesses, a future version of Chloe invited them back into it.  Fuck.  Chloe has no clue how to interact with them.  Shacking up with the two loves of your life who you abandoned years ago—not because old wounds have been healed, but because you are working together to stop a future death—isn’t exactly something that comes with a guidebook.  She feels so awkward around them.

Why did they agree to this?  Don’t they hate me?  They should.  When she left, Chloe had known that was the likeliest outcome.  But she believed then that it was best for them, and she has no reason to second-guess herself now.  She never imagined having to live with them again.  Yesterday, she had unloaded her own stuff from the U-Haul they had brought with them from Seattle, then hidden away in her room.  She hadn’t even helped them unload the stuff for the living room and kitchen.  It was too awkward, and Chloe isn’t looking to be judged.

Her stomach growls angrily at her, scolding her for letting her discomfort keep her from eating dinner.  Even now, she can’t summon the courage to simply leave her room and walk down the hall to the bathroom.  Max and Rachel are probably awake already.  What if she runs into one of them?  Chloe is fully aware that it’s entirely impossible to avoid them indefinitely.  But she just … isn’t ready yet.

Steph.  Chloe shoots off a quick text to her friend, asking if she has any plans today.  If I can talk to Steph, maybe she can help me sort out these feelings.  As she waits on a response, Chloe tosses off the covers and sets down the bong.  She rises from bed and pads over to the dresser against the wall.  One upside of holing up in her room is that she had already unpacked all of her (admittedly sparse) belongings.  She finds a pair of jeans—her nicest pair, the ones without any holes—before grabbing a fresh pair of underwear and some socks.  Tossing the jeans on the bed next to Pompidou, who is calmly watching her every movement, she kicks off her underwear and replaces them with the fresh pair.  Then she grabs a red flannel button-up from the closet, but remembers her hair is currently a leafy green colour.  Can’t go around looking like a fucking Christmas tree.  She discards it on the floor of the closet, grabbing a blue flannel instead and throwing it on over the tank top she slept in.  By the time she finishes dressing, a message from Steph awaits her on her phone.

            (Steph)           Not in Portland, dum dum.  You know that :P

Chloe rolls her eyes.  She hasn’t told Steph she’s back in Arcadia Bay.

            (Me)                No emoji!

            (Me)                I know that.  I’m in AB.  Long story.  Hang out this afternoon?

Years later, and Chloe still has only one messaging rule.  Which Steph continues to openly flout.  How do I get the fuck out of here without potentially running into them?  Chloe maps out a plan while she waits on Steph’s response.  Rachel and Max (well, Max for sure, and Rachel probably) might already have jobs, but Chloe still needs to find one.  She sure as fuck isn’t about to freeload off the partners she deserted.  Bad enough they blew up their life together to come help her save Joyce.  Her phone buzzes.

           (Steph)           No fucking way!  You owe me the full story.  Grab a drink with me around 4?

Chloe types out a quick yes, then tests the window.  It opens without any issue.  She rubs Pompidou on the head.  ”Sorry, buddy.  I gotta get outta here.  For now.  Max will take care of you though.  All you have to do is be my distraction, okay?”  He nuzzles her hand affectionately, possibly sensing her anxiety and wanting to soothe her.  She kisses him on the head, then stands.  “Come on, boy, off the bed.”  Pompidou stretches, then leaps off the bed onto the carpeted floor.  She shoves her phone into her back pocket and grabs her shoulder bag off the dresser, making sure her motorcycle keys are there, along with her wallet and mace.  “Alright bud.  Go on,” she says to Pompidou as she cracks open the door wide enough to let him out of the room.  The minute he is out, she closes the door and rushes back to the open window.  She climbs out easily, jogging to her motorcycle without looking back.

                                                  

“Is she fucking serious?” Rachel spits out as the sound of Chloe’s motorcycle fades away in the distance.  Max frowns as they finish up the last round of chocolate chip pancakes, of which they have now officially made too many.  They sigh but don’t seem at all surprised that Chloe snuck out.  Rachel supposes she shouldn’t be either.  Not after Chloe unloaded her boxes in complete silence the afternoon before, then shut herself up in her room.  Still, Rachel couldn’t help but feel furious. 

“She can’t ignore us forever.  We fucking uprooted our lives to come save her mom, because she fucking asked us to.”  Pompidou looks up at her.  Rachel doesn’t know the dog well enough to read his body language, but she guesses he is feeling something between fear and worry.  The pup isn’t a fan of shouting, duly noted.

“Give her the day,” Max advises softly, loading up their plate with a stack of pancakes and a healthy serving of the fruit salad Rachel had thrown together.   Rachel follows suit, then sets hers across the dining room table from Max before returning to the kitchen area.  She pours each of them coffee, black for Max, but a dash of sugar and splash of coconut caramel creamer for Rachel.  She walks back to the table with the mugs in hand, glaring at the empty seat between the two plates.  Pompidou settles down on the floor near them, in case either drops scraps. 

“She better be out there looking for a job at least.  You and I both know she isn’t going to see Joyce.”  Max reaches across the table and strokes their finger across Rachel’s knuckles in a soothing motion.  When she meets Max’s eyes, they’re warm but pleading. 

“You have every right to be furious, even though it’s been thre—sorry, two years.”  Rachel again thinks about how much Max gave up to be here and immediately scolds herself for being so selfish.  “Just … we don’t know what she’s going through, okay?  We don’t know why she left, not really.  But it’s Chloe.  You know she didn’t leave to hurt us.  If anything, it was for the opposite reason, even if that makes absolutely no sense outside of Chloe’s brain.”  Rachel sighs, making an effort to let go of some of her anger.

“Fine.  Sorry, babe.  Let’s just talk about something else.”

Max’s face brightens, but they finish chewing on a piece of pancake before responding.  “Can you believe this place?”

Rachel looks around.  The dining room table is placed in the open area between the living room and the kitchen.  Above them, the vaulted ceiling comes to a point along the path of the roof, but there’s an oddly placed loft over the kitchen and pantry.  The open room was little more than a large balcony in the back corner of the spacious second floor, with only a railing separating itself from the surrounding dining and living rooms.  It’s quite the eclectic set up.  The first floor contains two bedrooms, along with a utility room and a smaller foyer area.  Max and Rachel have taken the master bedroom, with its walk-in closet and attached master bathroom.  Chloe’s bedroom is directly across the hall, and her bathroom is the next door down.  Rachel’s eyes trace the unfinished wooden railing of the room above the pantry.  The room that can only be reached by ladder, and which Rachel and Max have no clue what to do with.

“Yeah, Max, this place is wild,” Rachel answers while munching on some fruit. 

“It’s so different from our—” Max’s posture crumples at the same time their voice drifts off.  Rachel immediately stands and walks over, leaning down from behind Max and wrapping her arms around them.

She kisses the top of their head and consoles, “Hey, it’s okay.  You’re allowed to have those thoughts.”  Max leans their head back against Rachel’s chest and lifts their right hand across their chest to rest on Rachel’s arm.  “So, this place is pretty different from our dream home, huh?”  That much is obvious to Rachel, even if she never actually saw the real thing.  Max tends to be more attracted to eclectic styles than Rachel, but they had mellowed since Chloe left, their style merging a bit with Rachel’s.  This cottage is much more Chloe and Max than Max and Rachel, all things considered.

“Yeah, I mean it’s definitely not a fancy, high-rise Seattle one-bedroom,” Max answers wistfully.  Then their voice brightens.  “But this place is so cool, Rach!  I think that if you had asked me back when I started dating you and Chloe, I would’ve described something like this as the sort of home I could see us eventually making for ourselves.”

“Oh yeah?  Even with the weird vaulted room that serves no purpose whatsoever?”  Max giggles, and Rachel releases them, resuming her seat to finish off her breakfast. 

“That part I couldn’t have pictured, but we’ll figure something out.”  Max ponders for a second, chewing on more pancake.  “I would say we use it as our base of operations for investigating Joyce’s death—”

And the mysterious shit in this town that is somehow connected to our powers,” Rachel interrupts, reminding Max of the side mission they had been so excited about. 

“Yes, and that!  We need to talk to Chloe about it, but I get the feeling she might not be very interested.  She’s never cared much about her own powers.”  Rachel shrugs.  Max is right, but Rachel’s trying to keep her mind off Chloe right now.  “But if we use that room to track our investigations, we can’t exactly have people over.  There’s a clear view of it from the living room.”

“Oh yeah?  And who did you imagine we would have over?”

Max’s face screws up in a face of concentration.  “Steph maybe?”  They sigh.  “You’ve got a point, I guess.  We’re not exactly here to make friends.  And I guess if we ever invited Joyce over—”

“Why the fuck would we ever do that,” Rachel mutters under her breath, earning a reprimanding look from Max.

“—if we invite Joyce over, we can just put things away and cover things up.”  They leave unsaid why the three of them would ever want to invite Joyce over, but it’s clear that Max is already scheming.  Rachel stands up and grabs their now empty plates, walking around the corner and depositing them in the dishwasher.  Max follows her and wraps their arms around her waist.  Rachel smiles brightly, Max’s embrace filling her with warmth.  “We’ve got a month to start our investigation before school starts—where should we start?”

Rachel rolls her eyes.  Always on task.  That’s my Max.  Rachel turns, making sure to keep Max’s arms around her.  “Ugh, we’ll figure that out in a bit.  For now—”  she kisses Max briefly, punctuating it with a teasing graze of her tongue across Max’s top lip before pulling away, “—I need a shower, and I’m gonna have to insist you join me.”

                                                  

Chloe’s eyes drift to the pale blue beanie before she’s taken more than two steps into the Ghost Hole Tavern.  Steph Gingrich is posted up at the bar with her laptop open and a fancy beer in hand.  Chloe moves towards the bar but doesn’t sit.

“Hey Paul, just gimme a PBR.”  Steph leaps up at the sound of her voice, and before Chloe can protest, she is wrapped into a tight hug.

“You’re late, you beautiful asshole.”  Chloe breathes in the familiarity of Steph’s perpetually sideswept mane, and for the first time since Max and Rachel showed up, the knot in her chest loosens. She holds on a little tighter and a little longer than she would normally.  Steph is basically the only person Chloe is willing to be vulnerable around these days, and she doesn’t see her nearly often enough.

“Yeah, but you won’t hold it against me once you’ve heard my story.” 

Steph raises a doubtful eyebrow but eases her laptop closed.  “We’ll see.” 

“Thanks, Paul.”  Chloe grabs the can and leads Steph to the back of the bar, on the other side of the pool table.  They both sit, and Steph watches patiently while Chloe chugs about half her beer.

“Are you okay?”

The question catches Chloe off guard.  “Am I that obvious?”

“Now that you mention it, yeah, you are.”  Steph smirks briefly before getting serious again.  “But mostly I just know you’d never set foot back in this town if something hadn’t gone stupendously wrong.” 

Chloe can’t really deny that.  Only nothing had gone stupendously wrong, not yet.  “It’s complicated,” is the best Chloe can offer.  Shit, what exactly did I think I was going to tell her?  Chloe swallows a chuckle at her own lack of planning, then shakes her head.  “I’m worried about Joyce.”

“Moreso than usual?  I thought you gave up on her years ago, Chlo.”

“I did,” Chloe growls.  “But that doesn’t mean she deserves to—”

Steph’s eyes narrow as she leans in.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m here with Max and Rachel,” Chloe blurts, her brain spinning away from the impossible task of trying to explain that she is here to stop her mother’s future murder.  She winces as Steph’s face brightens instantly.

“You finally admitted that you’ve been a self-destructive moron?!” she practically squeals, drawing curious looks from the three other people in the room.  Chloe glares daggers.

“I’m not!”

“Bullshit,” Steph snorts.  “Why else would you be back together if you hadn’t realized you’re just as good for those beautiful people as they are for you?”  Steph hasn’t stopped beaming since Chloe said their names, but the smile fades as her eyes cloud with confusion.  “Wait, you are back together right?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here with them!?  And what does it have to do with your mom?”

Chloe sucks in a breath as she closes her eyes, trying to hold back the headache forming just behind them.  “Fuck it.  Wait here.”  Chloe downs the rest of her beer and crushes the can as hard as she can before stalking back to the bar.  Paul meets her gaze, and she could swear he nearly flinches.  “I’m gonna need a whiskey.  And a vodka cranberry for the lady.”  She leaves the husk of the can on the bar.  “And go ahead and get me a shot of tequila while I wait for the drinks.”  He does as told, without asking any further questions.  Smart choice.  Chloe throws back the tequila, wincing through a muttered thanks.

Steph watches her all the way back to the table.  “I don’t recall ordering another drink.”

“You’re gonna need it,” Chloe promises.  She slumps back into her chair.  “Look, I’m gonna tell you some shit, but you have to promise that you’re not gonna take me to the nearest psych ward.”  Steph’s features sink into a mocking deadpan, but Chloe just stares back.  Steph’s lips quirk as she hums thoughtfully. 

“You’re not joking.”  Chloe shakes her head.  “Chlo … just tell me what’s going on.  If I’m not gonna believe you, then who will?”

“Shit, you’ve got me there.”  Steph is Chloe’s oldest friend who hasn’t also seen her naked.  And she’s basically Chloe’s only friend these days.

“Fine, but I’m not joking.  Not at all.  You’re gonna find this really hard to believe.”

“Try me.”  Steph flashes her most confident grin, so Chloe calls her bluff.

“I’m here because in a little over a year, someone’s gonna murder Joyce.  If I don’t stop it.”  Steph sucks in her lips.  Her eyes narrow as she nods through a sharp inhale.  Then, rather than reply, she lifts her vodka cranberry to her lips, ignoring the half empty beer still sitting between them.  “Told you,” Chloe mutters.

“Okay, let’s skip past the whole ‘Chloe thinks she knows the future thing’ for a moment.”  Chloe must make a face at that, because Steph holds up a finger.  “Just a moment—believe me, we’re coming back to that.  But for now, what does any of it have to do with your exes accompanying you back into town?”

Chloe hesitates.  “Right, so that answer’s kinda tied up in the other stuff, believe it or not.”  Steph takes another long sip.

“Do tell.”

Chloe’s eyes dart around, even though she knows no one is listening in.  “Maxisatimetraveler.”

Steph leans in further, her nose crinkling.  “Chloe.  English.”

After a loud exhale, Chloe slows down.  “Max … can rewind time.” 

“Max can rewind? Time?” Steph enunciates slowly.  “Seriously?”

“I don’t call them Super Max for nothing.”

“You’re not fucking with me?  Promise me you’re not fucking with me?”

“I promise.”  Chloe takes a quick sip of whiskey.  “If you want all the details, that’s really Max’s story to tell.  But they genuinely have the power to return to the past from the future, and I know for a fact that if the three of us don’t stop it, Joyce is going to die on June 13, 2019.”

“Wow.  Wow wow wow.”  Steph slides her chair around the table so she’s closer to Chloe.  “So Max is what?  Like a superhero?”

“It’s a bit more fucked up than that, but again, it’s not my story to tell.  Not alone anyway.  Whatever—”

“Wait!” Steph blurts, not showing any remorse at interrupting Chloe.  “Is that why you left?  Max has powers and that caused trouble somehow?  Does Rachel know?”

“What the fuck?” Chloe demands, her voice louder than it should be.  “No, Steph.  Fuck no.  Why would you even—”  She stops berating Steph when the other girl when she put her hands up defensively.  “No, Steph.  I’ve known about Max for years.  Rachel too.  It’s never been an issue—hell, it’s fucking hot, except for all the shitty consequences that sometimes come with.  And it’s sure as shit not why I left.”

Grey-blue eyes swim with remorse.  “Hey, I’m sorry.  Time travel is a lot to process.  My brain went down a path, you know?” 

Chloe shrugs it off.  “That’s not even why I wanted to talk.” 

“Wait, you drop that bombshell, and that isn’t what you came here to chat about?”  Steph chuckles, and Chloe already feels her hand rubbing soothing circles along her back.  “Alright then.  What’s your damage, Price?”

Chloe leans into the touch, letting herself be fully vulnerable for once.  “I feel lost.”  She grimaces.  “Fuck, that sounds so stupid.  Ugh. I just don’t know how to be around them.”

“But they’re not about to let you launch yourself into a dangerous situation alone, are they?”

“No, they aren’t.  You know how they are.”

“You’re right about that,” Steph teases through a lopsided grin.  “I know very well that they are beautiful, lovely people who would move the entire world to help you, because they love you.”  It shouldn’t feel like a kick in the gut, but it does.  Chloe doesn’t need a reminder of how amazing her exes are; that’s why she left in the first place.

“Yes.  They’re perfect.  And I’m me.  So how the fuck am I supposed to live in the same house with them long enough to solve a murder that hasn’t happened yet?”

“Jesus, Chloe.”  She doesn’t flinch at the exasperation in Steph’s voice.  “One of these days you’re going to have to accept that there’s a damn good reason three of the best people in the world love you so damn much.  And yes, I’m including myself in that.”  Steph sighs loudly.  “But we can have that argument some other time.  The three of you really shacked up again?”

Chloe scowls.  “Out of necessity!”  Steph’s mocking eyebrows only increase Chloe’s scorn.

“Oh?  So it just never occurred to you to ask if you could stay with me?”  Chloe’s mouth falls open.  

“Shit.”  It genuinely had not occurred to her.  “They… I … They already had a plan. I just—”

“You just went along with it, just like always.  Because you know they’re smart and good with plans, and because you trust them.”  Chloe doesn’t dignify that with a response.  “But that’s not all.  I know you feel awkward about it right now.  Even so, some part of you wants this.”

“Steph—”  A raised finger in her face shuts Chloe up.

“No, I’m still talking.  You don’t have to admit it yet.  But I know how much you love Rachel and Max.  And I know how much they love you.  You’re a goddamn coward and an idiot for running away from that, but it isn’t like I haven’t told you that a million times already.  This isn’t about that.  You’ll figure that out on your own one of these days.”

She ruffles Chloe’s hair affectionately, and Chloe growls at her even as she leans into the touch.  “This isn’t about your issues with your exes, Chloe.  Focus on Joyce.  Think of it as a mission.  Rachel and Max aren’t your exes; they’re your partners is crime.  Or … not crime.  Whatever.  Point is, you three have never had any trouble getting along.  You just have to get out of your own way.  Keep your priorities in mind, and if you’re lucky, you’ll figure some of your own shit out along the way.”

“Maybe,” Chloe admits, feeling her spirits lift slightly.  “It’s worth a try.”

“There’s my girl.”

                                                  

Rachel cringes at how familiar the chirp of that bell is as they walk into the Two Whales.  Nothing has changed in five years.  Including the look in Joyce’s eyes when she realizes Rachel is there.  Rachel doesn’t think Joyce ever really disliked her, not really.  But she never approved of her and Chloe, and while she tried to mask it behind faux-southern sweetness, Rachel always knew.  She had hoped that would change once Max entered the picture—Joyce always loved them so much—but unfortunately the entire situation was just a bit too unorthodox for Joyce to swallow.

“Girls!” Rachel and Max both wince at the greeting, but struggle to maintain smiles.  “Gotta say, you’ve caught me off my guard.  I sure didn’t expect to see either of you again.”

“Hi Joyce,” Max offers quietly, and Rachel manages not to snap off a snarky comment as she follows them to a nearby booth. 

“And where’s my daughter?” Joyce asks as she sets down their menus, as if no time has passed at all.  Max and Rachel exchange a look, and Rachel gestures with her hand for Max to take the lead.

“I think she’s probably looking for a job, actually.”  Joyce’s eyes widen.

“Or catching up with Steph,” Rachel guesses.  Max shrugs.  “How are you doing, Joyce?  Still married to the fascist?”

“Rachel!” Max scolds, turning an apologetic gaze towards their waitress.  “Joyce, you don’t have to answer that.  How have you been?”  Rachel rolls her eyes but doesn’t push farther.

“I’ve been alright, Max.  Thank you for asking.”  She glances at Rachel to make the point of her judgmental tone perfectly clear.  “Now before I take your orders, I’d like to know what you all are doing back in Arcadia Bay after all this time?”

“We’ve got some business in town,” Rachel practically sneers.  She knows she isn’t helping anything, but she can’t help.  Joyce gets under her skin in a way few others can.  We don’t owe you anything, bitch.

“Right.  Well, no need to be rude.  You two showed up in my place of business, not the other way around.  Now—” she pulled out that same little pad.  “What can I get you?”

Max and Rachel order quickly, and the second Joyce walks away, Max fixes Rachel with a pointed glare.  “Don’t give me that.  I know we’re here to save her life, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her.”

“No, but it might help if you at least tried to play nice,” Max scolds.  “We’re not going to get any information out of her with you jumping down her throat every chance you get.” 

Rachel makes a face but doesn’t argue.  “I’ll try.” Max smiles and laces their fingers together.

“You think maybe she doesn’t know about the breakup?”  Rachel’s lips twist into a grimace.

“Unless Steph told her, seems unlikely.  It’s not like Chloe would break up with us, then turn around and be eager to mend fences with Joyce.”

Max starts to answer but hesitates when they see Joyce walking towards them.  They squeeze Rachel’s hand, and she isn’t sure if it’s meant to be reassuring or warning.  Joyce sets their drinks down, that same old smile plastered across her face.

“Anything else I can get y’all while you wait for your dinner?” 

“Thanks, Joyce, but we’re alright.  We were wondering if you might have a break soon?  We’d love to catch up.”  If Joyce is surprised, she hides it well.

“Well Max, I don’t—”

“Please, Joyce,” Rachel interrupts, taking control of the conversation.  “We won’t take much of your time, but it’s been years.  Surely you can make the time.”

This time, the cheery waitress façade slips for a few seconds, and Rachel can see apprehension written in the lines of the older woman’s face.  Even so, Joyce swallows, then nods.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Joyce,” Max calls after her as she walks back behind the counter.  Rachel’s eyes find their way to the window, and that same feeling starts to seep in again.  Like nostalgia, but darker.  Rachel and Max may have moved on with their lives in the Emerald City, but Arcadia Bay seems exactly the same.  Like it is forever stuck in the past, never changing.  Rachel tries her best not to shudder.

“You alright?” Max whispers softly.  Rachel rests her head against the side of Max’s.

“It’s just this place.  I forgot how it feels.”  Max’s thumb caresses her own.

“Yeah,” Max agrees wistfully.  They both have complicated feelings about the town that aren’t getting resolved anytime soon.

When Joyce returns with their food, she pauses before eying the empty seat across from them.  “Decided on joinin’ us, Joyce?” Rachel asks, trying her best not to sound insincere in her welcome.

“If you’ll have me,” she murmurs as she slides into the booth.  “I confess I’m a little thrown having you both here after so long.”  Rachel bristles at the tone, but Max squeezes her hand hard and speaks up.

“I know that we’ve, uh, had differences in the past, Joyce, but you’ve always been a big part of my life.  We may have moved on from Arcadia Bay, but that won’t ever change.”  Rachel shovels more food in her mouth to avoid making a disgusted face.

“Thank you, Max.  That means a lot.  You always were the kind one.”

“Chloe and Rachel are plenty kind, and they have very good reasons for being hostile sometimes.  But please, let’s not make things hostile right now.  How have you been?  How is David?”

Rachel can’t help but notice that Joyce’s smile at David’s name doesn’t quite reach her eyes.  “He’s doing good, Max.  Thank you for asking.  I don’t know if you heard, but he’s an officer with the Arcadia Bay Police Department now.”

“Talk about a step up,” Rachel snarks.  “Now he can hassle anyone in Arcadia Bay, not just innocent students.”

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”  Joyce starts to get up, and Max reaches across the table. 

“Joyce—“

“No, Max.  I know you mean well, but I don’t have to sit here and take this crap from Rachel.”

“That’s rich,” Rachel spits, ignoring Max’s beseeching stare.  “You could sit back and watch while David gave Chloe all kinds of shit for years, but you can’t take the tiniest amount of it directed at yourself.  Guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“Nice to see you again too, Rachel.  I’ll get Sheila to bring y’all the check when you’re done.”  Joyce crosses the space from the booth to the counter before Max can make any further attempt at reconciliation.  Rachel keeps glaring at Joyce, who pointedly ignores the attention.

“Dammit, Rachel.  Is it really too much to ask you to keep a lid on your temper?”  Rachel hates the disappointment in their voice, and she turns back to her partner as a hint of guilt settles in her gut.

“I’m sorry, babe.  I didn’t mean …”  She growls in frustration.  “It’s been years, and she hasn’t changed.  She doesn’t even seem sorry.”  Max shakes her head.  “I know, I know.  Not the point.  She just pushes my buttons.  She was supposed to protect Chloe, and she just …  Whatever.  I reacted.  I’ve got impulse control.  You know this about me.  I’ll be better next time.  I think I just needed to get it out of my system a little.”

“I hope so.”  Max brushes their bangs out of their eyes.  “It’s going to be really hard to figure out what’s going on if Joyce won’t talk to us.” 

Rachel looks away, quietly scolding herself.  It felt good to take Joyce down a peg, but probably it wouldn’t help Chloe.  And Max was definitely right that it wouldn’t help their mission.  She wraps an arm around Max, then leans in to place a soft kiss on their cheek.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll try to be better.  Hopefully I’ll be less on edge once Chloe stops actively avoiding us.”

A faint smile ghosts across their lips.  “You really think she went to talk to Steph?”

Rachel shrugs.  “She’s the only person Chlo’s really close to anymore, right?”

“As far as I know.  But that’s good.  Hopefully she can help Chloe find some grounding.  You know how neurotic she gets when she doesn’t know how to handle her emotions.”

“Don’t I ever.  I just wish it was us she would choose to talk to.  Things would be so much less overwhelming for her if she would just stop shutting us out and let us help her.”

“Maybe,” Max concedes, a thoughtful glint in their azure eyes.  “But pressuring her will just make her close off further.  All we can do is be patient with her.”

A long groan escapes Rachel’s lips.  “I know.  I just hate it.  I always have.”

“That’s why you keep me around, dear,” Max chides affectionately.  “I make sure you’re aware of the bigger picture.”

“One of the many reasons I love you,” Rachel agrees, and for a moment, she can just enjoy the warmth of a moment shared between them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

It took only a few days for Chloe to confront me.  Her knock at my door, tentative though it was, made me jump out of my chair with an embarrassing squeak.  I was supposed to be doing homework, but instead, I had been lost in brainstorming how to go after Nathan and Jefferson.  As much as my primary goal was to save Rachel, she wasn’t their only victim.  For all I knew, they had already preyed upon someone else.  The thought haunted me.  I hated that I couldn’t save them all, but I didn’t know how to stop it.  Not on my own.

Needless to say, my mind was in a weird place as I hastily hid my notes and ideas and moved towards the door.  My room was a mess, but I wasn’t exactly looking to impress anyone.  I guessed it was probably Kate or Rachel at my door, and they’d both seen my room in worse states.  When I cracked the door open to reveal that tell-tale bob of blue hair, I was more than a little surprised.

“Took you long enough, Maximus.  Hiding something from me?”  I’m pretty sure I blushed wildly at that, given that I was definitely hiding like so many things from Chloe.  Given what she was there to talk about, I doubt that helped my case much.  She leaned on the door enough to push it open a little further before asking, “Can I come in?”

She was at least respectful enough to wait for my hesitant, “Yes,” before pushing past me. I could see the nervous tension she was carrying in her stiff shoulders as she awkwardly stood in the middle of the room.  “What’s up, Chloe?  You can, uh, sit down, if you want?”

The way her eyes widened a little made me think that she hadn’t considered the option of sitting.  That she was so lost in her thoughts was worrisome, but she took the prompting and slid down onto my futon.  Chloe’s behaviour concerned me, so I opted for the chair at my desk rather than sitting down next to her.

Chloe caught her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment before sighing.  “Look, Max.  It’s clear that you’re sorry or whatever, but I just … need to know why.”  I had no idea what she was talking about, and after a few tense moments of silence, she clarified.  “Why you abandoned me.  Why you never responded to my letters.  Why you stopped calling.  Not even a text!  I know it’s been years, but I just can’t get past it.  I need to know.”

“Oh.”  I was not at all prepared for this.  In the original timeline, she had given me shit about my period of being a terrible friend to her, but she hadn’t ever pushed me to explain why.  Maybe that version of Chloe just didn’t care.  Too caught up in her own stuff, out of her mind with worry for Rachel even after she had been missing for six months at that point.  For whatever reason, she hadn’t been interested in any excuses I might offer, and even once we got close again, she never brought it up again.  I couldn’t help but wonder what was different this time around.

“Chloe, I…”  Truth be told, I had no clue what to say.  I couldn’t just tell her the full truth, not with Chloe and Rachel so happy together.  Not when I had just gotten her talking to me again.  “I don’t have any excuses,” I admitted.  “I was a bad friend, and I let you down.”

Chloe crossed her arms.  “Yeah, that’s bullshit.  I’m gonna need more than that.”

I closed my eyes, unable to deal with her demanding gaze.  Maybe I could tell some of it.  “William had just died.  I didn’t know what I could say.  Everything felt stupid or cliché or completely worthless.  You needed me there for you, and I couldn’t be.  No amount of texts would change that.”

“You figured leaving me all alone would be better?”

“You weren’t alone, Chloe!  You had Joyce.  I was 200 miles away, and I had no idea how to help you.  I know it’s a crap excuse.  But you were going through enough already, you didn’t need some sad lonely girl sending you texts about how much—”  I cut myself off, realizing what I was about to admit to.  “No matter what I did, I was letting you down.  And time passed, and I couldn’t deal…  I just thought you were better off without me, okay?”

“How could you think that, Max?”  Chloe stood, betrayal haunting her features.  “You were my best friend!  I needed you, and you ignored me.  And you kept on ignoring me for years!  Who does that?!”  Chloe’s voice broke as she shrieked that question at me, and I flinched. 

All of a sudden, I was back there all over again.  I could smell the slightly unsavoury notes of rust mixing with the trees and junk all around us.  I could feel the dirt under my nails as Chloe and I dug frantically at the bare earth.  I tried to stop her, but Chloe wouldn’t listen.  She was in a trance, driven by the things we had seen in that secret bunker.  We didn’t dig far before the smell of rotting flesh attacked my senses.  Chloe threw up, and I did everything I could to try and comfort her.  “What kind of world does this?” she demanded through her sobs.  “Who does this?!”  It took all my strength just to hold her and not fall apart myself.

“Max?”  The question was so soft and full of genuine concern that it snapped me right back into the dorm room with an entirely different Chloe.  Rachel wasn’t a horrifying nightmare just under the surface of the junkyard where she and Chloe had spent so much time together; she was a living, breathing wonder of a person who was probably right next door.  I blinked several times, trying to ground myself back in reality, and only then did I realize that there were tears streaming down my face.

I wiped them away as I focused solely on my feet, suddenly intensely embarrassed.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t…”

“Hey, it’s okay.”  Chloe was kneeling in front of me, and she couldn’t be more different than the angry girl who was demanding answers just a few minutes prior.  For a second, I almost felt like I had my Chloe back again, and I only just caught myself before giving into the urge to pull her in and kiss her.  Instead, I shook her off.

“I’m okay.  I’m just really sorry that I did that to you.”  It wasn’t really the truth, even if my regret was genuine.  Chloe pulled back a bit, brow furrowed.  She looked at me like I was some sort of entrancing yet indecipherable art installation. 

“If it bothered you this much, why did you do it?  I’m sorry, but how could you not even try?  I did.”  Chloe’s eyes felt accusing and pleading at the same time.

“I know you did, but I just…”  I think I must’ve been caught up in my flashback or caught off-guard by the strength of my own emotions, because for maybe the first time since going back to 2012, I accidentally let myself just speak my mind, without any caution about what I might reveal.  “I was scared you might see how I really felt.  All I wanted to do was tell you that I missed you.  I missed you so much it hurt, and I didn’t know how to just say that without you seeing—”

Somewhere along the way my brain caught up with what my mouth was blurting out, and I cut myself off sheepishly.  But it was out there, and I could tell by Chloe’s wide eyes and sudden retreat back to a standing position in the middle of the room that she understood the implications.

“You…?”  The fact that Chloe couldn’t even ask the question freaked me all the way out.

“Yeah, but I mean, I was just a dumb kid!  And I was awkward and a coward and an asshole, and I only figured it out when it was too late, and then your dad died, and I-I-I couldn’t, I mean nothing was going to … and you didn’t need that on top of everything else.  I messed up, and I’m sorry, and I hope you can forgive me, but can we just… ugh, can we just leave it in the past?  I’m different now, and I’m not going to do that again.  Please, can we just … move on?”

Chloe looked intensely uncomfortable, and it was all my fault.  I was terrified that I had ruined everything.  But Chloe just shook her and shot me one of those cocky smirks she was so good at.  “Yeah, Max.  I get it.  Thanks for telling me, and yeah … we can move on.  I just have to, uh… I’ve got a thing.”  She stepped backwards towards the door.  “I’ll see you soon, Max.”

By the time I remembered I could rewind and spare myself the embarrassment, Chloe was already gone.  And ultimately, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that anymore.  That first week I got my powers, I was constantly using my ability to rewind time by a few minutes to manipulate people into liking me or telling me information I needed.  I used it to snoop around and get into places I shouldn’t be.  I invaded people’s privacy over and over, sometimes just to satisfy my own curiosity.

It took some self-reflection, after Arcadia Bay was destroyed and I was away from the situation, to realize how badly I was behaving.  2012 was a second chance for me.  For all of us, really.  But I didn’t want to make the same mistakes.  And I definitely didn’t want to manipulate Chloe.  Even if that meant I couldn’t take back embarrassing revelations that might’ve scared her off forever.

                                                  

Fortunately, I didn’t scare Chloe off, though she did seem much more awkward around me in the days immediately following our discussion.  I was too embarrassed to point it out.  That weekend, I found myself eating a quite pleasant lunch with Chloe, Rachel, and Steph Gingrich, with the meal and locale courtesy of Rachel.  Her mom prided herself on being a skillful homemaker, even with James Amber nearly a year into his prison sentence and Rachel insisting on living in the dorms.  So she showed off by bringing Rachel and her friends perfectly made gourmet sandwiches. 

Rose Amber seemed nice enough.  I didn’t really understand Rachel’s issues with her mom, but I knew I only had the barest hints of that full story.  Rachel wasn’t actively antagonistic, but it was clear that the relationship was strained.  And that Rose wasn’t the one keeping it that way.

“Jesus fuck, Rach.  Don’t tell her I said this, but Rose can make a fucking sandwich.”  A bit of pesto dripped down Chloe’s chin as if to emphasize her point, and I couldn’t help the adoring smile that broke across my lips.  Rachel just rolled her eyes.

It was a gorgeous autumn afternoon in the courtyard of Blackwell Academy.  The four of us were lounging at one of the picnic style tables, and the golden light of the sun filtered through the still green trees to infuse everything with an almost dreamlike ambience.  It should’ve been perfect.  Except that Chloe caught me watching her and made a face.

It wasn’t a reassuring face.  She looked awkward and embarrassed and more than anything, confused.  Fortunately, I seemed to be the only one who noticed, and the look passed quickly as Steph piped in with a question.

“So Chloe, is this finally the year that Rachel ropes you back into theatre?”  I was, of course, shocked by this revelation.  Chloe never seemed the dramatic type to me, at least not of the scripted variety.  Regardless, I could tell from Chloe’s wry grimace and Rachel’s wolfish grin that this was something of an ongoing disagreement.  “After all, it is our last year at Blackwell—when are you going to have another shot at dramatic glory?”

“Absolutely not,” Chloe insisted.  “Rachel can have all the dramatic glory for herself.  We all know she needs it to live.”

Rachel glared at Chloe’s remark, but it was obvious that her quirked lips fought against an affectionate smile.  “It’s no use, Steph.  I already tried to sway this beautiful yet troublesome creature, but she is stubborn, as you well know.  It’s too bad; Chloe would make an excellent Duke Orsino.”

Steph perked up at that.  “Holy shit, I can totally see it!  Come on, Chloe, what’s the harm in trying out?”

“Well, I could be cast in a play, so there’s that,” Chloe snarked.  I could tell from the easy banter that Chloe and Steph were good friends.  It made me wonder what happened in the other timeline.  As far as I knew, Steph was long gone by October 2013, probably to college.  But Chloe never even mentioned her.  It had really seemed like Rachel was her only friend.

This Chloe was so different from either of the Chloes I knew.  Like a perfect balance between the bright and outgoing teen I had left behind in the move to Seattle and the acerbic, broken punk I had reconnected with before and after the storm.  I could only guess that Steph was a big part of that.  She was sort of a counterbalance to Chloe.  They shared a similar cutting wit, but Steph’s was bright and teasing where Chloe’s was wry and edgy.  Steph was funny, charming, pretty, and so compassionate.  I wondered, not for the first time, what she would look like without the beanie on.

Rachel wasn’t one to let something go.  She teased Chloe as she elbowed her in the ribs.  “Because you absolutely hated the adoration you got last time.  You can’t deny it was magical.”

“Maybe not, but that had nothing to do with the play.”  Rachel’s blush was so subdued I almost missed it, especially since my eyes were consumed with the look of overwhelming affection Chloe had fixed on Rachel. 

“Ugh, gross,” Steph teased.  “You two can be so sappy sometimes.”  This was also surprising news to me, since “sappy” was not a word I would’ve associated with Chloe’s punk persona. 

“I feel like I’m missing something,” I finally piped in.  “Chloe was in a play?”

“Don’t sound so shocked, Max.  She was practically made for the stage, even if she refuses to accept it.”  Chloe took a big bite of her sandwich, pointedly ignoring Rachel’s praise.

Fortunately, Steph explained.  “The spring of our sophomore year, we were doing The Tempest.  Chloe and Rachel had just started hanging out, and Chloe was around for our first performance.  There was this crazy wildfire at the time, and Juliet was running late trying to get around it.  So Rachel shanghaied Chloe into playing Juliet’s part of Ariel.  Chloe nailed it, and then Rachel—" Steph paused for dramatic effect, a bright smile on her face.  “Rachel just couldn’t help herself.  She went off-script and basically professed her love for Chloe.”

“Hardly,” Chloe scoffed.  I could tell she was embarrassed, and Rachel’s lack of a witty retort was equally telling.  “More like it was Rachel’s grandiose way of asking me to run away with her.”

“And yet, you’re both still here, two years later.”

“For now,” Rachel protested.

“Oh please, it’s our last year.  Why quit on us now?”

Only when the uneasy silence settled in around us did Steph realize the conversation had gotten away from her somehow.  As far as I could tell, she was just as mystified as I was.  Chloe stood.  “Well, I think I’m pretty full now.  Steph, it’s about time for us to meet up with Mikey and Liv, yeah?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”  Steph scarfed down the last couple of bites of her sandwich, as Chloe said her goodbyes.

“You two don’t have too much fun without me,” Chloe joked, suddenly her normal irreverent self as if she hadn’t been acting super weird only moments before.  She smiled nervously at Rachel.  “I’ll see you later tonight, yeah?”

“I’ll see if I can work you into my schedule,” Rachel preened, her dimples betraying her attempt at seeming cryptic.

“Yeah yeah,” Chloe chided, leaning in for a quick peck on the lips. 

“Bye Max!” I smiled at the friendly goodbye from Steph, as I returned the sentiment.  We had only hung out a couple of times, but she had been so sweet to me since I got to Blackwell, always going out of her way to make me feel welcome.

“Later Max,” Chloe muttered as she walked away, with the slightest glance back at me.  I felt a little lost by the abrupt retreat, and for once, I didn’t keep it to myself.

“Has Chloe seemed weird to you the last few days?”

If Rachel was surprised by my question, she didn’t show it.  Instead, knowing eyes sized me up.  In another timelijne, someone labeled these eyes "hazel," but I thought they were more green than anything, with flecks of bright gold and tawny brown.  It didn't take me long to learn just how easy it could be to lose myself in those eyes.  But Rachel didn't give me that kind of time, not yet, pushing herself up and off the table’s bench.  “Come on, let’s hang out in my room.”  I followed Rachel as we disposed of the remnants of lunch and started back towards the dorms.  I nearly jumped when she placed a friendly arm around my shoulders.  “Max Max Max.  Now, I wonder what could’ve happened a few days ago that would make our beautiful Chloe act unusually.”

“What did she tell you?” I squeaked, intensely self-conscious.  Rachel seemed content to let me sweat, humming some new bit of pop music under her breathe as we turned around the far edge of the Prescott Dormitory and walked along the path to the front door.  She waved at Alyssa Anderson, who was seated against a tree on the lawn, a book in her lap and contented expression on her face.

“Hey Rachel,” she greeted.  “Max.”

Rachel didn’t speak again until we were inside the building, climbing the stairs up to the girls’ floor.  “Do you smoke?”

I grimaced at the mere thought of it.  “You mean cigarettes?  Eww, no.”

Rachel grinned as she held open the door for me.  “No, I didn’t mean cigarettes.  But if you feel that strongly, you should definitely share your disapproval with Chloe.  She won’t listen to me when I tell her it’s gross and she should stop.  Maybe you can convince her.” I followed her into her room, and once she closed the door behind me, she reached into her closet and pulled out what was clearly a bong.  “I meant weed, obviously.”

“Oh.”  I felt dumb, because of course that’s what she meant.  “I’m not opposed.”  I had smoked with Chloe a few times in the original timeline, and with a few of my friends back in Seattle, but I was hardly an expert.  It did tend to help calm the raging anxiety and what could probably be properly classified as PTSD that I developed after the storm destroyed Arcadia Bay.  “I’ve, uh, never used a bong before, though.”

“Oooooooh, I get to take your virginity, that’s delicious.”  I knew what she meant, but I couldn’t help the blush that burned across my cheeks.  Rachel either didn’t notice or didn’t feel like bothering me about it.  She reached into the tiny fridge beside her couch and retrieved a bottle of water.  Then she was standing in front of me again, only a few inches of space between us.  She put a hand on my shoulder.  “It’s really easy, don’t worry.  I’ll show you.  As long as you don’t have anywhere else to be?” 

I shook my head, and she slipped past me, hand lingering as long as it could before she pulled away.  She placed the bottle and the bong on nightstand and settled on her bed, back against the pillows lining the headboard.  Then, with a salacious grin, she patted the bed next to her.  I sucked in a deep breath and padded over, slipping off my shoes before climbing in next to Rachel.

From my seat, I could see Rachel’s whole room.  She had the same floorplan as mine, but where I had my bed immediately to the right of my door, hers was on the far-left corner of the room.  All the furniture was white, save for the maroon couch that perfectly matched her duvet.  Directly in front of us was a short but long dresser that took up nearly all the space between the bed and the closet.  A fancy flat-screen TV perched atop its smooth surface.  Opposite the dresser was the couch and fridge; above them was a mood board made of cork, and above that were a pair of pristine white drama masks, one smiling and one frowning.  Rachel’s desk and tall, thin bookshelf framed the corner opposite the bed.  The floor was adorned with a thin, multicoloured rug featuring maroons, blues, navies, pinks, and reds that tied the whole room together.  Altogether, it was so much more simple and understated than what I had initially expected. 

Having poured a bit of water into the chamber of the two-toned blue glass bong, Rachel leaned into me just a little.  The bong rested in her lap as she explained how it all worked.  “The advantage of a bong is that the water acts as a filter, creating a smoother smoke.  You just load a bit of the bud into the bowl here, then slide the downstem into the chamber like so.”  I watched as practiced hands went to work.  “Are you more used to a joint or a pipe?”

My eyes went wide.  I didn’t know you could smoke weed in a pipe.  “Uh, joints.”

“Okay, well either way, the bong is going to give you more direct smoke inhalation, so be careful.  No need to take a massive hit or to hold it in, just take the hit and breathe out normally.  Watch as I do it.”  Rachel rested a long, nimble finger over a small hole in the side of the chamber, then placed her mouth over the mouthpiece at the top of the shaft.  She lit the weed in the bowl and began inhaling slowly.  The water bubbled slightly as the smoke was sucked into the chamber, but Rachel just kept going as she lifted her finger off of the hole in the side.  Then the smoke seemed to rush up into her mouth, and she took it all in and then blew it out with practiced ease.  The smell was surprisingly pleasant.

“See?  Easy peasy.”  Her voice was husky, and it really worked for her.  “The key is to inhale very slowly while the smoke is pulled down into the chamber, then release the carb and let the rush of air into the chamber push the smoke up into your mouth as you keep inhaling.  Then blow it out.”  She held out the bong.  “Think you can handle it?”

I really wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t about to show fear in front of Rachel freaking Amber.  I couldn’t help but want to impress her, to earn her approval.  I took the bong, and for the briefest moment, our pinkies brushed against each other.  It sent a surprisingly pleasant tingle down my arm.  I followed Rachel’s example, holding the bong in my left hand and reaching for the lighter.  Rachel waved me off.  “I’ll light it for you, don’t worry.”  I nodded, then placed my mouth on the bong and my finger over the carb.  Rachel lit the bowl, and I began to inhale.  It tasted kinda stale at first, but I let the smoke filter into the chamber a bit before releasing the carb.  I wasn’t quite prepared for how quickly the now more savoury smoke was sucked into my mouth, and I pulled my head back quickly, blowing the smoke out in an embarrassing splutter.

Rachel laughed as her hand closed over mine, lingering again before she took back the bong.  “It’s okay, babe.  Nothing to be embarrassed about.  The smoke caught you off guard?”  I nodded, my breath calming down.  “Now you know.  How are you feeling?” 

I hesitated, letting my mind filter through what my body was experiencing.  “Tingly, a little?  But that’s probably just from the coughing.” 

“Maybe!  Let’s take another hit each and see where we’re at.”  I agreed, and we repeated the process.  This time, I handled the influx of smoke just fine, and blew it out without a single cough. 

“Someone’s a fast learner,” Rachel purred.  My face smiled of its own accord.

“Maybe I am.”  This time I could definitely feel the effects settling in, and I drew in a deep breath before releasing it and leaning back into Rachel’s pillows.  “This is nice.”

“Isn’t it?”  Rachel sat the bong down on the nightstand, then put her arm around me.  I let myself be pulled in closer.  “So, you told Chloe you have a crush on her, and you are surprised that she’s acting weird?”  My eyes widened, and my face must have done something funky as I looked at Rachel, because she burst into laughter.  “Sorry, Max.  You’ll get used to me eventually.”

“I’m less than sure about that.”

“Hah!  No, you will.  It’ll be fine.  I have a feeling we’ll be the best of friends before too long.”

My eyes narrowed.  “But—”

“But how can I call you out for having a crush on my girlfriend, and then immediately turn around and tell you that we’re going to be besties?”

I shrugged, feeling the most confounding smile forming across my lips.  “Well… yeah.”

“Yeah, well.  I’m not really the jealous type who gets all threatened and bitchy whenever someone expresses interest in my girl.  Glad you were willing to admit that you still have a crush on Chloe so easily.  All you told her was that you had one back when you moved away the first time.  I honestly thought I was gonna have to dig a little more.”

“Ugh, Rachel!  This isn’t fair!”  I had no idea what was wrong with me.

Rachel squeezed my shoulder.  “All’s fair in love and war, Max.”

“And which is this?”  The words were out of my mouth without thinking.  Like Rachel just had this innate power to put me at ease and bring out my inner extrovert.  It was both amazing and terrifying.

“Come now, Max.  You don’t want a war with me, do you?”

I couldn’t quite believe how bold I felt, sitting there on Rachel Amber’s bed with Rachel Amber’s arm wrapped around me.  But I definitely did.  “I think you’re the one who wouldn’t really enjoy a war with me, Rachel Amber.”

She pulled back slightly, her eyes practically glowing with delight.  “Maxine Caulfield, I didn’t expect such fire from you.”

I winced.  “Max.  Never Maxine!”

“Shit, I’m sorry.”  For a moment, I felt the anxiety clutch at my chest even through the pleasant buzz of Rachel’s weed.  Her voice had gone from teasing to caring in an instant, like she could sense something deeper about my choice of name.  Something deeper than I had even realized myself.  “I like Max better anyway,” Rachel clarified.  “Just for that, I’ll spare you any further interrogation about your feelings for my girlfriend.  But I hope you realize you won’t be able to live in denial forever, especially since Chloe is secretly a big sap and doesn’t know how to deal with feelings, like at all.”

I ignored that, because it was way too complicated for my brain to process right then.  Instead, I had the bright idea to start asking questions.  “Hey, so tell me about you and Chloe!”

“What about us?”

My hands flew up in the air.  “Everything!  When did you meet?  How long have you been together?  What’s it like?”

“What’s it like being with Chloe?  That’s what you’re asking me right now, Max?”  I blushed again.  How did she keep making me blush like that?  I froze, completely unable to respond, but fortunately, Rachel took pity on me.  “So I mean, technically, we saw each other around at school for a while before we officially ‘met.’  I joined Blackwell for the spring semester in 2010, when my dad moved us up to this hellhole from LA so he could be the district attorney.  But Chloe and I didn’t really meet until the end of the semester.”

Before I knew it, I had pulled free of Rachel’s arm and moved against the wall, crossing my legs in a lotus position as I faced Rachel, captivated.  I hadn’t ever heard this story.  “Tell me everything.”

“I had some shit going on with my dad, the beginning of a whole load of shit actually.  So I was feeling rebellious.  I channeled my inner badass, and I went to this concert at the old sawmill just outside of town.  Just wanted to lose myself in the movement of a crowd, I guess.  But as fate would have it, I noticed this cute girl on the dilapidated second floor of the mill, which I had just assumed was too risky for anyone to use.  She looked so happy and carefree.  Chloe just didn’t seem to give a fuck.  She was everything I wished I was at that time.”

Rachel retrieved the bong and set about lighting it for another hit.  “But then some skeevy dudes confronted her.  I rushed up there, but not before she kneed one guy in the dick and earned herself a black eye from the other in retaliation.  We spent the rest of the night thrashing tighter in the mosh pit, and things just sort of took off from there.”  She offered me another hit, but I waved her off.

“So was it love at first sight?”

“Oh gods, please tell me you’re not a hopeless romantic too?  You and Chloe are perfect for each other.”  My eyes darted away.  I had no clue how to take that.  “I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but we were definitely captivated by each other.  The next day we ditched school together, and the day after that she agreed to be in the play with me.  We shared our first kiss and planned to run away together.  It was all very dramatic.”  She sighed.  “I don’t know how much of it was just hormonal bullshit, but it sure as hell felt more romantic than anything either of us had experienced before.”

I just kept nodding along.  It sounded like a movie, but like the queer teenage dramatic romance that no actual movie had ever given me.  I was entranced.

“A lot of shit went down.  Shit that blew up my family and eventually landed my dad in prison.  The bastard got everything he deserved.  And throughout it all, Chloe was my safe place.”  Rachel leaned back against the wall, exhaling as if being this open were actually physically taxing her.  “We’ve had our ups and downs since then.  On again, then off again.  Fights and wild makeup sex.”  She shrugged as she met my gaze again.  “Not exactly a fairy tale, but for whatever reason, we can’t seem to stay away from each other for long.”

The story was both everything and nothing that I expected.  I knew that Chloe was hung up on Rachel in the other timeline.  I knew the shell she became after she knew for sure that Rachel was dead.  But it never really clicked for me just how in love Chloe had been until I heard Rachel give the cliff notes version of their relationship.  It was beautiful and messy, and I felt sure I could never live up to it.  I loved Chloe; I had no doubt of that.  But I was also sure that I would never measure up to what she shared with Rachel.  It broke my heart even as it inspired and empowered me.

It was beautiful.  “I’m glad she has you,” I whispered.  Rachel just smiled, her eyes hiding something I wasn’t ready to understand yet.  Regardless, I knew that coming back was the right choice.  Even if it meant Chloe and I would never be together, I was determined to make sure Chloe and Rachel’s chance at happiness wasn’t going to be cut tragically short this time around.