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Reckoning

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She knew where she was before she even opened her eyes. Every choice, every attempt to change the future had led inexorably here, to the dark room.

Max was bound and gagged on the couch, and she opened her eyes to see Mark Jefferson talking to Nathan Prescott, who was fetal on the floor.

"Your instability has endangered my work, Mr. Prescott," Jefferson pronounced blandly. "But no matter. Max will be my masterpiece."

"Why did you kill Rachel?" Nathan wailed.

"She no longer suited my needs," Jefferson replied. He picked up a tripod and carried it across the room to the white backdrop at the room's focal point. He spared Max a mere glance as he passed by. "Ah, you're awake."

Max yelled into the gag across her mouth, struggling against her bonds, trying to lift her arm enough to rewind.

"Please remain calm, Ms. Caulfield. This will all be much easier if you stop fighting me."

Nathan was looking at her from across the room, eyes wide with horror and silent apology. She tried to give him a look that said she understood and forgave, but Jefferson stepped between them. He held a syringe in one hand, and a light meter in the other.

Max screwed her eyes shut, preparing for something unspeakable.

The sudden percussive force of a gun blast that blew open the safe room door made her jerk, and left her ears ringing.

Jefferson whirled, and found himself staring down the barrel of the shotgun held by David Madsen.

"Max!" David yelled. "Are you okay?"

It was almost an absurd question. Max could only nod.

"Mr. Madsen," Jefferson began. "Surely a man such as yourself can be reasonable..."

David growled and stepped around him, sights still steadily trained on Jefferson's smug face. "I found Chloe," he said quietly. "Did he..."

Max could only nod again.

David grit his teeth, then looked down at her. "Close your eyes, Max."

She did. Whatever happened next was shockingly quiet after David's deafening arrival, but when gentle hands pulled the tape away from her wrists, she opened her eyes to see David freeing her and Jefferson gone.

Or, more likely, lifeless under the drop cloth in the corner. Max didn't care. Nathan only whimpered from his spot against the wall.

David helped her to sit, and she tipped forward to grab at him in a desperate embrace, unable to manage more than a choked sob.

He held her gingerly, searching her for obvious injury. "I need to get you to the hospital."

"No," Max objected. "I can fix this." She pushed him away and swung her legs off the couch to stand unsteadily and wobble over to the computer. David hovered awkwardly at her side, debating whether he should just sling her over his shoulder and haul her away.

"I can stop him from hurting her," Max murmured. She could still see the photos in her head, the ones that lingered with a sick kind of beauty.

"Max, he won't hurt anyone ever again. There's nothing else we can do for Chloe."

She ignored him and scrolled through the contents of the computer, trying to find an appropriate photo. David heaved a sigh of frustration and turned to check on Nathan.

Her movements turned more frantic, more desperate, as she tried to find an image - anything - that could put her in proximity to Chloe. Timestamps blurred past as she scrolled through hundreds of pictures of the Blackwell campus.

"Max, we've got to go," David insisted. "Your friend is in the car outside, and every single one of you needs to see a doctor, now."

Max froze. "My friend?"

"Warren, from Blackwell. He was stumbling past the junkyard while I was doing my usual rounds. That's where I spotted Chloe's truck."

"Warren's here?!" she cried. She clutched at David's arm in sudden hope, then bolted past him up the steps into the barn.

"Max!" he yelled. With a low curse, he hauled Nathan upright and helped him toward the exit.

David's car was idling outside, and Warren leaned against the trunk, holding his head and moaning.

Max ran up and grabbed his shoulder. "Warren, do you still have the photo you took at the party?!" she demanded.

He peered at her blearily. "Max? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she lied. "The photo from the party. Where is it?"

He dug around in his pocket, then handed it over before lurching over to a bush to be violently ill.

David and Nathan approached, stumbling through the beams cast by the car's headlamps. "Max, just get in the car, okay?" David said, trying to project authority and calm as she backed away.

She looked at him, then, at his troubled face, recognizing for the first time the burdens he'd carried on all their behalf. "I'm sorry for doubting how much you love Chloe," she said quietly.

His expression softened, and for a moment he looked like he might cry. "Likewise," he murmured.

"I'll remember, but you won't. I promise I'll make it right."

"Max," he said, confused as she stared at the photo in her hand. "What are you..."

Then she was gone.


 


The flash faded, pulling her firmly back into the moment of the party. She jerked, feeling Warren's unsteady weight heavy against her, barely catching sight of Chloe's figure disappearing into the chaos that was the Vortex Club. She charged forward, nearly knocking Warren over, then managed to stop herself and reach out to grasp his hand.

"Thank you," she said, giving him a genuinely grateful look. "Listen - go back to the dorm and sleep it off, okay? Don't go wandering around."

"Huh?" he asked. "Haven't you seen the moons, Max? Gotta get a good view if it's the end of the world."

She grabbed him by the sleeve. "Promise me, Warren."

"Okay, okay," he muttered, and stumbled off into the white haze that defined the edge of this captured moment. She spared him one more glance before bolting after Chloe.

She pushed her way into the teeming mass of students, not bothering to make idle chitchat or search for Nathan. In the Vortex VIP section, she made nice with Victoria, even as her anxiety skyrocketed. What if this reality diverged from what she remembered? What if Chloe didn't walk through that door?

Just when Max was about to hyperventilate, Chloe did, in fact, walk through the locker room door. Max sagged in relief and stepped over, grabbing Chloe's hand and tugging her back through the door, away from the pool, just as Jefferson stepped over to talk to her.

"Max?" Jefferson called after her as the door shut.

"Max, what the hell?" Chloe asked, as Max's grip grew more frantic.

Max pushed Chloe into the dark shadows of the locker room where they'd hid two nights previous, then stepped in close against her, clapping a hand across Chloe's mouth.

Her breath seemed unnaturally loud and grating in her ears as Jefferson opened the door, then peered into the dark and called for her a couple more times. She could see his shadowy posture stiffen, his eyes turn steely as he turned to retreat back to the pool and his prescribed announcement.

Once he was gone, she started to shake. Her hand fell away from Chloe's mouth, and she dropped her forehead to Chloe's shoulder.

She heaved a dry sob into the familiar scent of her friend's jacket and tried not to melt down entirely. The dark room was still out there, and she was starting to feel like she could never escape it. Chloe would always die, Jefferson would always win...

"Max?" Chloe whispered in alarm. She lifted her hands to Max's back, trying to steady the trembling with some kind of soothing motion.

"It's him," Max said, her voice weak and shaky. "Jefferson killed Rachel." She felt Chloe's whole body jerk in reaction. "He's got Nathan locked up in the dark room."

"What?! How do you know?"

Rather than answer, Max balled her fists into Chloe's shirt and shut her eyes.

"You found out and rewound," Chloe breathed, answering her own question. "What did he do?"

Max could only shake her head, and exhaled a ragged gasp when Chloe's hands clutched at her.

"Did he hurt you? Max?"

"He drugged me with something. Broke my rewind, at least for a while," Max whispered. "I didn't know if I could get back in time."

"In time?" Chloe asked. She felt another tremor rattle through Max's body, and did the mental math. "Shit," she hissed, making a guess as to her own fate.

"He shot you," Max confirmed, stark and sad. "I can't watch you die again, Chloe. I can't."

Chloe looked up as the thumping music died down and Jefferson took the stage to announce the winner of his godforsaken photo contest. She held her friend a little tighter, and bumped her chin against Max's soft hair. Somehow the sensation managed to ease the rage building inside her.

They drifted and rocked together, and Chloe idly thought that if she had rewind power, they might just stay there forever, where they were together and safe. She snorted. Together, safe, hiding in a chlorine-soaked locker room, while a gaggle of students retched up their ill-advised Vortex Club cocktails in the bathroom stalls not twenty feet away. What a fucking week.

She didn't know when the world had become so irretrievably fucked up, and she didn't know how they were going to survive it. But in this instant, in this place, she was alive, and with Max. That had to count for something.

"Yannow, when we were kids, I used to imagine us getting married," Chloe whispered, surprising them both. Somehow it was fitting that this confession would come here and now, while they hid together in the shadows like they did when they were young.

"I'd tell myself those stories about how I was the pirate captain, and you were my first mate, and we'd sail the high seas and have all these adventures and live happily ever after." She felt Max shift to look up at her, but she kept her eyes fixed on the shadows. "Sometimes when you'd sleep over, I would stay awake and wonder what it would be like to kiss you."

She ducked her head then, still avoiding Max's eyes. "Then you left and I thought that was my chance to get normal again, you know? Get over this stupid girl crush. Then Rachel..." She stopped, and swallowed, hard. "Then you. Again." She took an angry swipe at the tears brimming in her eyes. "So how fucked up is it that Rachel is in the fucking ground and right now I'm just glad it's not you?"

"Chloe..."

"She's dead, and that's..." She exhaled raggedly and tilted her head back against the wall. "It's fucking awful. But at least I know. That bastard can't hurt her anymore. And I won't let him hurt you."

Max said her name again, in a low, raspy register that hit her in the gut, suddenly taking priority over absolutely everything else.

She turned, angling her embrace to tuck Max behind the lockers, shielding her and seeking closer contact all at once. Max responded with a gasp and let her fingertips find purchase under Chloe's jacket, against the curve of a hip and the rise of a shoulder blade. Chloe propped one hand against the wall, lifting the other to stroke the thin tank over Max's ribs.

Chloe bent to press their faces together, cheek against cheek, as they panted fear and desire into the meager space between them.

Max lifted her hand, finding Chloe's face and steering her downward, pulling her in for a kiss that was graceless, all clumsy fervor and desperation. Their lips crashed together, bruised, then gentled.

They parted to breathe against each other once more, then with a tiny sound of protest Max lurched upward to capture Chloe's lips again, just for a moment. She could feel her blood rushing, could feel the ache roiling in her belly, and realized that time travel felt a great deal like Chloe's tongue setting her nerves alight.

Chloe broke away and rested her forehead against Max's. "We have to keep fighting, okay? Because we're getting out of here, and I am getting my happy fucking ending," she said, trying not to cry.

Max managed a weak laugh. "Aye aye, cap'n," she said.

The door to the locker room opened again, and Jefferson stepped inside. "Max, I know you're here," he said in a cadence that was at once hypnotic and nauseating. "We should talk."

They shared a long, intense look that burned in the dark, and Chloe could feel Max's fingers trembling against her cheek.

"He has a gun," Max breathed.

Chloe nodded. She took a step away, drew her borrowed pistol, leveled it at the shadowy shape of Jefferson's head, and waited.

A small whoosh of air passed between them.

"Aim a little to your left," Max said, lowering her hand.

Chloe snarled, and pulled the trigger.

The white haze around Blackwell dissipated, and outside, a single moon shone down upon Arcadia Bay.