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ChaseMarsh: The Road to Redemption

Chapter Text

One of Victoria Chase’s guilty pleasures was long drives along the coastal roads of Arcadia Bay. There was something about the setting sun that made the waves sparkle, something about the scent of salt in the breeze and the picturesque landscape that set her at ease. She always drove with the top down, a moment of peace that she shared only with the warbling stereo of her car.

She usually drove in the evening, chasing the setting sun.

But tonight, stars dotted the night sky, and the moon was reflected off the bonnet of her Mercedes. The blonde’s short hair fluttered in the buffeting wind, whipping her face painfully as her car sped faster and faster.

She didn’t even notice the pain. She was too busy crying.

The car came to a stop on a cliff overlooking the bay, and Victoria leaned her head on her hands, her nose millimeters away from the fake leather of the steering wheel. Her eyes were closed, and tears stained her leggings, turning them a darker red.

Sobs soon began to wrack her frame, and she covered her mouth, trying to stop herself from wailing out loud. Hundreds of metres below her, waves crashed against the rocks, water bursting high into the air. Every crash and break of the waves echoed around the cliff walls, so loud that they almost masked her words. Almost.

No one else would have heard them, but Victoria Chase did.

In that starry night, she heard herself apologise to Kate Marsh. Over and over again.

 

---

 

When she looked back, Victoria couldn’t help but imagine what a beautiful photo it would have been.

Kate, standing on the precipice of life and death with rain pouring from the heavens. Maybe that was a defining moment for her as much as it was for Victoria, and, perverse as it might be, Victoria thought that there was a morbid beauty about it.

But in the moment, Victoria had watched, terrified, as Kate stood on that roof, and Max appeared out of nowhere, and talked her down. She had felt her heart leap into her throat when, just before Max appeared, Kate had lifted her foot, almost stepping out into the air. She had a vision then, a vision of Kate plummeting to the ground, and of herself running to her side, cradling her broken body. She saw Kate, fragile and twisted, and bleeding onto her hands, and had felt her hot tears streak down her cheeks, mixing with the cool rain.

She had seen it, felt that vision, and to this day could never really decide if it was just a vision.

But Victoria knew, knew that if Kate had jumped, that her blood would have been on her hands. And with every moment that Max had spent up there, talking her down, Victoria had wished that Max would just pull her in, so she could know that she was safe.

When Kate finally fell into Max’s arms, Victoria breathed an audible sigh of relief, loud enough that Courtney noticed, but chose not to mention it.

 

---

 

It had been a crazy week for Blackwell Academy. Not long after a false fire alarm had been pulled on Monday, David Madsen had gotten an anonymous tip about a gun in Nathan’s possession, along with evidence that painted Mark Jefferson as the mastermind behind the murder of Rachel Amber and the disappearances of many other teenage girls.

David had been smart, taking the time to investigate the claim before acting on it, but that precaution had nearly cost the life of Kate Marsh. If it hadn’t been for Max’s miraculous appearance on the roof...Victoria shuddered to think of the consequences.

In fact, Victoria struggled to think about the entire situation in general. Because every time she did, she could only think of herself as a monster. She had always liked drama, and causing chaos just to see how people would react, but when she saw Kate up on that rooftop, she felt her heart break. She had broken her, ruined something, someone, that was so gentle and kind. How could she have done that?

Victoria still couldn’t sleep. Not when she saw Kate on that rooftop every time she closed her eyes.

And that’s how Victoria found herself in her car hours later, half-awake, the sun behind her rising over Arcadia Bay. Her phone buzzed on the seat next to her, and she glanced across.

09:00 AM: Courtney

Hey, you okay?

Victoria ignored it, staring out at the early waters of the bay. She didn’t want to be up here, left alone to her thoughts, what she really wanted was to drink, to lose herself in the comfort of oblivion that three shots of tequila brings. But it was too early for that, and she needed to get to class. So what if a fellow student tried to kill herself? Life goes on...right?

But she really didn’t feel like dealing with everyone else today. Blackwell’s halls had a life of their own, brought to life by the whispers and taunts behind her back. “The Bitch of Blackhell” was the most creative title she had heard so far, and she’d be lying if she said she didn’t like it.

So what if people didn’t like her? Tough luck, right? She knew the art world, had grown up staring at it through the window of her parent’s careers. It was brutal, a dog-eat-dog world that you needed to be on top of in order to get by. So let the people talk, she’d act the way she always had, and dance in the attention they showered her with.

But now, people think you’re a monster.

That voice again, always that small nagging doubt in her mind. Ever since the first time she had seen Kate going into her room, trying to hide her sobs. The voice that told her to shut the fuck up every time she mocked Kate about her video. God, she should have listened.

Yes, you should have, and now Kate probably hates you. You can see it now, can’t you?

Kate, scratching out pictures of Victoria in her hospital room. Kate, coming back to Blackwell and staring at her with eyes filled with hate. Kate, blaming her for the loss of her family.

She had seen those looks before.

Why did they matter now?

 

---

 

Victoria didn’t go to class that day. There wouldn’t have been much to learn anyway, she was already ahead of everyone else on the rest of her subjects, and they couldn’t have found a replacement so quickly after Jefferson.

So she stayed in her room, movies and music taking turns to be the backdrop of her wallowing.

She felt lost, adrift, teetering between awake and asleep, anchored to this limbo by thoughts of Kate.

“Hey Vic, check it out, Kate’s going wild over there.”

“You uploaded the video? Nice, now the world will know all about how loose that Abstinence Angel really is.”

“That video of you clubbing didn’t look like homework.”

“Don’t be shy Kate, I think it’s awesome you set a tongue record on video.”

“You’re going to be sorry someday.”

Her mind was a mess, a haze of coloured lights, harsh words and the girl with the cross necklace.

Kate Marsh. A long time ago Victoria had just finished moving into her dorm, dolling it up with posters of her parent’s gallery and of her own works. It had never quite felt like home, but it worked. The little anime figurine kept her spirits up, even if the constant stream of letters from galleries refusing to show her work kept trying to bring them down. Kate had come in that day, a rabbit in tow and in the hallway, their eyes met.

Victoria turned over in her bed, ignoring the movie flickering on the plasma. Was it Ghost in the Shell? She didn’t care. She had seen it too many times to count. There was only one thing on her mind right now, and that was the smile she had flashed Kate in that hallway so long ago. Was it genuine? Was the smile that she returned genuine too? Had life really turned around so quickly that she couldn’t remember anymore?

Kate had looked so happy that day.

Knock knock

It wasn’t a sharp rapping that was at the door, nothing like the way Taylor or Courtney would have knocked. Besides, they were probably in class anyway, moving on with life. Life was...fleeting, for them. She could understand that. Victoria didn’t need their advice now anyway, there was only so much reassurance that you can get before it starts to sound fake. Add that to the ever-growing list of chaos that she’s brought? She couldn’t help but feel that she deserved some form of retribution. Maybe that was the only way to make amends.

The knock came again, and Victoria slowly sat up on her bed. Who could it be? That first knock was hesitant, like someone who wasn’t sure if Victoria would let them in, but the second knock was more purposeful, as if regardless of how Victoria felt, their message was important.

Vic glanced at the clock. 12pm. Well, seems as good a time as any to start the rest of the day.

She paused the movie, and opened the door.

Chapter Text

Sometimes when you come across a certain person, you only seem to remember a certain aspect about them. Someone with hair the colour of the twitter icon. Or someone else whose smile seems to charm everyone else, but fill you with an irrational hatred. And then there’s the one that seems to be made of ninety eight percent freckles.

Victoria opened the door to a tsunami of freckles and a gentle smile.

“Caulfield. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Max stood in the doorway to her room, clothed in another Max Gray Hoodie™. Victoria considered slamming the door in her face. She didn’t want to talk to the hipster “with a gift” right now, and she definitely didn’t need the surge of jealousy that came every time she saw Max.

But…

But Max did save Kate. She stopped Victoria from becoming an actual monster who drove someone to their grave. And honestly, who gives a fuck about whether or not ‘Mark Jeffershit’ thought that she had a “gift”? The creep was in prison, and obviously not good for anyone. Victoria had seen some of Max’s photos. She had talent, and she had a certain style that Victoria couldn’t place her finger on, but she liked it.

Maybe she should stop judging people.

“Hey Victoria...Can I come in?” Max said, smiling. Autumn was in its peak, and the orange glow streaming into the dorm made Max’s smile look so welcoming.

Welcoming wasn’t something Victoria had felt in a long time.

Maybe she was crazy, letting her (unofficial) sworn enemy into her room, but maybe there was less harm in it than she thought. So she let Max push past her, and closed the door behind her. Max stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, as Victoria collapsed back onto the bed.

There was a long moment of silence before anyone spoke.

“...God, Max. Take a seat and relax, I’m not going to hurt you.”

Max barely suppressed a squeal, brushing her brown hair aside as she quickly sat down at Victoria’s desk, turning the chair around so she could keep looking at her. If Max was honest with herself, she had no idea why she wanted to be the one to talk to Victoria. Sure, her rewind powers could help her shape the conversation however she wanted, but Max had made her choice. She wanted to live with her choices, to stop using those powers. If anything, she would convince Victoria with her own merit, nothing more, nothing less.

Speaking of convincing Victoria.

“Victoria...I’m actually here because Chloe and I thought it’d be nice to send Kate a card. From all of us.”

Victoria turned to look at her, with an expression Max could only describe as disbelief.

“Max,” She began, her tone with the barest hint of venom at the edges. “Do you really think Kate would want anything to do with me after everything that’s happened?”

“I ruined her reputation, screwed her relationship with her family, and rubbed it in whenever I could! Like throwing that stupid cherry on top of the shitty cake that I wanted to make her life into! I just…”

Max could hear Victoria’s voice crack, just before she trailed off and stopped talking. Like a child who knew she had done something wrong, but was so unwilling to admit it. It would have been adorable, if what she had done hadn’t almost cost someone else’s life.

Max sat up a little straighter in her chair. What did she do now? She imagined two choices, floating before her in the air. Comfort Victoria? Or let her know exactly the extent of her misdeeds?

No, She decided. She was done with binary decisions, done with the finite choices that she imagined life was reduced to. Life was… complicated, magical, special, and filled with opportunity. She just had to reach out between the lines.

“Victoria…”

Victoria almost didn’t want to hear what Max had to say next. There was a hint of malice, anger in the way she had said her name. But Max’s expression was gentle, and plus she wasn’t outright screaming at her. Though she knew she definitely deserved that.

“Victoria, I want you to understand that you hurt Kate.” Max said, her gaze steeling somewhat. “When I came in here I expected to have to tell you exactly how much you hurt her. But, looking at you now I think you already know. You also took the video down, and I heard from Taylor and Courtney that you’ve been making people delete it from their phones as well. You’ve been trying hard to make amends. I know that.”

Max took a breath, and Victoria stared at her from the bed. Max seemed...more confident now. More final in her words.

“And I just thought that...you’d like to wish Kate well, along with the rest of us.” She finished, a small smile on her face.

“...Don’t be stupid Max.” The venom that Victoria tried to deliver that line with would probably have worked better if her voice hadn’t cracked in the middle.

“Kate doesn’t want to talk to me. She probably wants absolutely nothing to do with me from now on. God, she might even think I’m trying to insult her by apologising. Can you imagine that? “Dear Kate, I’m very sorry, signed Victoria.” What does that even mean? Sorry that you had a perfect life and I came along to ruin it? Sorry you were in my way and I just had to squash your happiness?”

Victoria’s voice was breaking now, every sentence punctuated by a hitch in her breath. She was staring at the floor, and Max couldn’t see her eyes but she could tell from the way her shoulders sagged and the simple fact that Victoria “Queen Bitch” Chase wasn’t talking with steel in her tone and a glint in her eye.

Max realised, that Victoria was just as torn up about all of this, maybe even more so.

Maybe that was why Max stood up and crossed the space between them, sitting beside her on the bed. Victoria didn’t look up, but when she didn’t immediately push her off, Max sat there, silent for a moment.

“Victoria… look at me.”

Victoria tore her eyes away from the floor, locking her red-rimmed gaze with Max’s blue eyes.

“I’ve talked to Kate. I know she was in a dark place, but her family has slowly been more accepting of her. Ever since Jefferson’s...scandal, her family has started to really support her. Sure, it was bad, but she’s doing better now. And there’s something else she told me that I think you should hear.”

Victoria was listening with rapt attention now, her fingers nervously twisting a pillow she had clung on to.

“...She told me that she’d like to give Blackwell a second chance. To give everyone here a second chance.”

Max sighed, shuffling in her seat. It was difficult deciding on what she wanted to say nowadays, seeing as how she went from not wanting to say anything ever, to being able to say and do anything with no consequence, and then now to having to live by the consequences. All within a week. But she thought that this was the right thing to say.

“The day I went to visit her… she asked me to let her see it again.” Victoria looked up at her.

Kate couldn’t have wanted to...could she?

Max met her gaze, nodding. “ Yeah, she wanted to see the video. And I really, really didn’t want to do that. But she insisted, telling me that seeing it again, actually dealing with it might help her.”

Max took a breath, and Victoria started freaking out again. Had she deleted the video in time?

“And when we got to the site? Page was down, and there was almost no trace of the video anywhere. She knows that you went out of your way to try and erase it from existence, and she’s really grateful for it.”

Victoria let out a breath she didn’t know she had been keeping, and Max reached over, passing the card in her hands. It was a simple “get-well” card, with everyone else’s well wishes already scrawled across it. Victoria took the card, trying hard to stop her hands from trembling as she took it.

Max got up to leave, walking over to the door. Just before she left, she happened to glance over at the plasma TV tucked away in the corner of Victoria’s room.

Ghost in the shell? Vic, I thought you had standards.” Max smirked, twisting the doorknob.

“Screw you Caulfield, I like that film. The Puppet Master’s view on humanity makes me so damn sad every time.”

Max laughed quietly, halfway out the door. She was surprised to see Victoria sending her a small smile too.

“You know, Vic, I bet Final Fantasy: Spirits Within would look great on your TV.”

“Thanks for the advice. I won’t tell everyone you’re a closet nerd.” Victoria replied, laying back down on her bed. She stared at the ceiling, watching the afternoon sunlight dance through her curtains.

“Your secret’s safe with me too.” Max smiled and turned to leave.

 

---

 

Victoria spent too long thinking about what to write in the card. Every thing that she wanted to write would have taken up every last inch of space on the card.

and it was now much later into the night, after Max had snuck Chloe into her room and quietly shared a joint, that she saw the card come sliding under her door, and heard Victoria’s door close a while later.

“What was that?” Chloe whispered into Max’s hair, her fingers toying with her brown locks. She was too lazy to get off the bed, and Max, lying next to her, was too happy to argue. Sometime during the night her arm had wound up behind Max’s neck, and judging by the lack of protest it was more than welcome.

Max quietly got up, picking up and glancing at the card before passing it back to Chloe, reclaiming her spot on the bed.

“So, she signed it huh?” Chloe said, placing the card on the dresser next to Max’s stereo.

“Yeah, but I have a feeling she won’t stop there.” Max sucked down another lungful of weed. Chloe stared at her, her fingers running through those brown locks.

“What makes you say that?”

“Just a feeling, Chlo. Life is about to get real interesting for Victoria.” Max said, smiling as she exhaled.

Chapter Text

C’mon Vic, you can do this.

Victoria could not do it. If anything, just standing in front of the hospital door was the most difficult thing she had ever done.

It was two days after Max had come into her room, and she had spent the vast majority of those days thinking about how Kate was doing. Max had been reassuring Victoria that Kate was fine. But eventually, even Victoria felt that asking Max every other hour for an update on Kate was probably getting annoying.

It had taken her a whole day to work up the courage to write her own note, and another few hours and about fifty torn pieces of paper to finally decide what she wanted to say. If she was honest, it still wasn’t the final version.

But Victoria couldn’t put it off any longer, she needed to see Kate, to know that Kate was doing better. Standing here, breathing in the cheap disinfectant and staring at the door. The number plate was reflecting the fluorescent light overhead, making the room number looked like it ended with a sparkle. It seemed fitting, that even the room door sparkled when Kate was nearby. Victoria felt her hands rooted to her side, and note that she had tucked into her pocket seemed to dig into her thigh with indignation.

You didn’t write me just to come all this way and not give me to her, did you? The note seemed to say.

Victoria sighed, and with all the willpower in the world, she reached up to knock on the door.

However, before she could knock, the door opened, someone stepped out. Her black hair seemed to absorb the light, and as she swung the door open, Victoria saw her face. Courtney’s smile froze when she saw Victoria.

Courtney’s eyes were puffy, and bags hung below them. Probably the only brandless bags she owned, thought Victoria. Courtney’s smile was slowly disappearing, her eyes losing their crinkled edge. She still had makeup on, but it was slightly smudged. She still made an effort to look good then, even if her effort was half-assed.

“Oh, hey Victoria.” Courtney sounded tentative, unsure of her place.

“Courtney.” Victoria replied simply. She tried to smile, honestly she did, but she just didn’t have the energy to make it genuine. “What brings you here?”

“...Same reason as you, I suppose.”

Courtney had closed the door behind her, and they stood in the hallway.

“You never did reply to my text, you know. How...are you?”

Courtney’s tone was...gentle. Victoria thought this was possibly the first time she had ever noticed anything about the way Courtney was behaving. She was treading lightly, and Victoria was thankful for that.

“I’m...trying to get better.”

How do you really begin to talk to someone that you used to treat as your mindless slave? Honestly, Victoria had no clue. She knew what Courtney was like, knew what she cared about and what she loved, but she honestly had no idea how to really talk to her.

Courtney gave her a small smile, then put her hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly.

“...Good luck in there. I’ll see you in school.”

And with that, Courtney turned to leave. Victoria watched her go for a moment, then raised her hand again.

Knock knock

 

---

 

The door swung open, and Kate Marsh looked up from her drawing. Victoria stood in the doorway, wringing her hands. Kate stared at her, her face almost expressionless, and Victoria struggled to look at her.

“...Hello Victoria.”

Victoria finally looked up. Kate was sitting by the window, her hair tied up in the loose bun she always wore. Her eyes were tired, still puffy, but not red-rimmed. She was dressed in her scrubs, but had swapped out her shirt for one of her own, with a beautiful golden flower in the middle of her chest. Around her, she had decorated the room with many of her drawings.

They were...colorful. Brighter. Bunnies in the forest held hands with bears and rode tricycles. If Victoria didn’t have more important things in mind, she would have thought of the drawings as childish. But right now they were a reflection of how Kate felt, and that was more important than anything else in the world.

Victoria’s lips trembled for a moment.

“...Hi Kate.”

“Join me, will you?”

Kate gestured to the chair opposite her, and Victoria slowly lowered herself into it. They were silent for a while, Kate staring at Victoria, and Victoria at the empty bed.

“Kate...I have something to say.”

She pulled the note out of her pocket, unfolding it and holding it under the table. It had been hastily written, and the handwriting was a far cry from her usual neatness. But they were the words that she felt she had to say to Kate, words that could barely begin to make up for the hell she had brought to Kate’s life.

“I’m sorry. That’s absolutely the first thing you have to know. You...don’t have to accept my apology, and if you don’t I would understand.”

Victoria looked up, and Kate was still staring at her. She had leaned forward, resting her arms on the table as she stared. It was kind of scary, the way her expression refused to change. There was a blankness on Kate’s face that scared Victoria, shook her to the very core.

Some part of her was afraid that she had broken Kate, like a vase that will never be whole again. Cracked and fragile, put back together without care and forced to move on through the rest of her life as mostly scar tissue. On the other hand, Kate could be hiding her true anger, her hatred and seething fury.

Biblical wrath suddenly seemed a lot closer to Victoria Chase.

“I honestly have no excuse for what I did to you. What I did that night...filming you...was immature. But what I did after, that was inexcusable.”

“I know I must be insane to ask you for your forgiveness, and I’m not. I just want you to know that I regret every moment, every insult that I threw at you. If I could go back in time, I would smack myself in the face and make myself promise to help you. Not that I think you need my help, I mean, You’re strong and smart an-”

Shit shit shit, keep your cool Vic!

Victoria took a breath, glancing up as she tried to calm herself. Kate had barely moved, but her hand had moved up now, covering her mouth. Was that a smile? No, don’t think about that Vic, focus on the job at hand!

“...What I’m trying to say, is… Kate, I’m sorry. Sorry for everything. I’m sorry for making everyone judge you, and leave you alone in your time of need. I’m sorry I thought that you making out with everyone was funny, and for ever thinking that you were in the right frame of mind for doing that.”

Victoria’s voice was shaking as she spoke, her voice growing smaller and smaller. She was too afraid to look at Kate, only managing to steal the occasional glance as she spoke. Kate finally dropped the pencil she had been toying with, sitting back in her chair. She had folded her hands over each other, resting on her knee. She too wasn’t staring at Victoria, choosing to gaze out the window next to her instead.

She looked beautiful in the light.

“Kate… At the end of this, I’m not asking for your forgiveness.” Victoria continued. “ I know I don’t deserve that. All I’m saying is...if you ever need a friend. Someone that you can talk to and to stop you from ever- to just help you over whatever troubles you have… I’d like to be that friend.”

Victoria let out a breath that she felt like she had held throughout the entire speech. Her fingers had not stopped wringing the note, and looking at it now, there were so many creases that it looked more like a used tissue. She refused to look up, terrified of what she would see in Kate’s eyes.

There was a sound of a chair, sliding backwards across the floor. Victoria looked up, and Kate was standing, walking around the table. Her expression was still terrifyingly blank.

Then Kate’s arms wrapped around Victoria, and she gasped.

Kate smelled like lilies, cheap hospital shampoo that lingered in the locks of her hair. Her arms were slight, but they were gripping Victoria so hard she thought that she would squeeze the tears out of her. Victoria felt herself tear up, and she dropped the note, slowly wrapping her arms around Kate’s waist. She was warm, so very warm. Kate’s breath was ghosting over the tip of Victoria’s ear, Victoria could feel her heart beating through her chest, could feel the jut of her bones against her face as she buried her face into Kate’s shoulder.

Kate was alive. And Victoria felt a little more of herself die inside.

“...I forgive you, Victoria.”

Victoria could hear the smile in Kate’s voice, and if she listened a little closer, she could just about hear the sound of her own heart breaking.

Chapter Text

Kate stared at the water droplet dangling off the flower petal, hanging precariously over the vase that held the bouquet that Taylor had bought for her. It was beautiful, the way the sun was catching it, and it hung there on the precipice of falling onto Taylor’s card.

It would make a wonderful photograph, thought Kate. She wasn’t really the type to take the shot, and only had the barest hint of interest in photography. She was more interested in learning the principles of a good photo in order to translate those principles onto her drawings.

She was glad of that now, glad that she never really paid total attention in Jefferson’s class. If it wasn’t for that...if he hadn’t been arrested, she might never have known whose voice it was that scraped at the back of her head every time she closed her eyes.

Kate stared at the droplet as she let her mind wander. Her therapist had told her not to do that, to keep her mind occupied and keep moving on. But her hands were tired of drawing, and her phone lay sullen in its corner on her bedside table.

No one to talk to. Nothing to do.

Nothing except to think back to that night.

She wants to say that the wine tasted different, that she should have known from the moment she took a mouthful. But it wasn’t true. Kate had only ever had communion wine before, the odd mouthful during her time at Sunday church. And the wine that night had tasted so sweet, such a wonderful distraction from the strobing lights and thumping music…

That’s all she remembers now. The odd flash of colour, the feeling of music beating on the inside of her ribcage, and the ghost of lips on hers.

Kate bit her lip, trying to remember what she had done. If she was going to plead for forgiveness, she was going to try her best to remember what she had done, to plead forgiveness for.

There were so many. So many different sensations to feel. Some were gentle, with large guiding hands on her hips, letting her lean into the kiss. Others were rougher, teeth grazing her lips, tongue rubbing against the front of her teeth.

All of them were faceless, and she couldn’t tell you which was which if you put a gun to her head.

Kate sighed, turning her gaze down to her hands. She rubbed her right over the palm of left, trying to remember something, anything that might make that night clearer, easier to understand, easier to forget.

It was strange, how hard it was to forget something you could barely remember.

And how much hard it was to forget the bits that you could.

Kate closed her eyes again, and the colourful strobing lights were whisked away, replaced by a harsh white one. It was bright, blindingly bright, and it seemed to envelop her, taking away every sense she had. She could see the light, taste its heavy weight on her tongue and listen to it’s absolute silence.

Except it wasn’t silent. There was a buzzing, on the edge of the light, just out of reach. Kate now knew that it was probably Jefferson and Nathan discussing what to do with her, but in the moment she thought of them as angels, marvelling at her beauty.

How sacrilegious. Kate thought to herself, ashamed.

She wanted to forget, to forget that night ever happened, but to do so would be to deny herself the grief that she had felt. If she ever forgot what had happened, she would have to deny the good that came with it too.

Max. She was living proof that even in the darkest of times there was always hope. That everything deserved a second chance, most of all herself.

Well, maybe some would have to work harder than others. Victoria, for instance.

Kate had been surprised at herself, how little hatred she felt for Victoria, even though she was one of the three main reasons that her life had nearly been ruined. She had tried her best, done her utmost to summon as much hatred and anger as she could when she saw Victoria walk in through her hospital door.

But before she could decide on what words would best fit her rage, Victoria had apologised, and Kate felt all the hatred gush out of her like air out of a punctured balloon.

Kate couldn’t say that she wasn’t angry. She was still furious for the hell that Victoria had brought onto her life, but she couldn’t bring herself to hate the poor girl that sat in front of her.

When Victoria spoke, Kate heard none of the Queen Bitch in her voice. She only heard the voice of a lost and insecure girl, trying to find her way in the world.

Victoria Chase was flawed, and needed fixing, but in her own twisted little way she was magnificent too. Kate could appreciate that.

Maybe that’s why she hugged her, to help her feel a little more anchored in her world. And Kate had picked the words she whispered very carefully.

“I forgive you.”

Not “It’s okay” or “It’s all right”. Because it was neither one of those things, far from it. It was an acknowledgement that what Victoria did was wrong, and this was only the start of her redemption.

It was a second chance for Victoria, and as Kate reached over to touch the droplet on the petal, she came to the realization that she might not be able to give Victoria a third.

There was a knock at the door, and before she could answer, a nurse entered the room.

“Good afternoon, Kate” She smiled, walking into the room.

“Hello, Ms Lee.” Kate returned the smile, sitting up a little straighter. It was a bad idea to let the nurses know she had been thinking about it again, no matter how much it helped her. Ms. Lee was a short and skinny asian nurse, and she had been the one constantly taking care of Kate throughout her stay here. And even though Kate trusted her, she still didn’t want to trouble her. It might even mean a longer stay if she confided in her. Even if everyone thought that would help her, Kate was somewhat anxious to go back to Blackwell again.

Ms. Lee was carrying a lovely bouquet of flowers, and sight filled Kate with joy.

“Ms. Lee, are those from Dr. Carter?” Kate teased. Kate knew that Mrs. Lee had held a torch for the oblivious doctor for far too long, and he had been wrapped too up in his work to notice. She could only hope that Ms. Lee had taken her advice to ask him out, and this was the result.

Ms. Lee laughed, walking over and placing the bouquet down on her bed. “No, he would never have done this, the shy man. But, I do have a date with him tomorrow night. Fingers crossed it all goes well!” She said, sitting down beside Kate on the bed, and she looked radiant.

So that’s what love does to a person, Kate thought, smiling to herself.

“Im happy to hear that Ms Lee,” Kate said, reaching over to hug her. It was the smallest of hugs, but it made Kate feel a little better. When they broke, the nurse reached behind her, passing the bouquet to Kate.

“These actually came in for you,” Ms Lee said.

“Oh?” Kate questioned, tilting her head.

She pulled the bouquet close, admiring it. It was a beautiful arrangment, with flowers of red white and pink. She smiled, stroking one gently. It was a fragile thing, beautiful and soft.

“Who sent these?”

“I didnt ask for her name, Kate.” Ms Lee replied, standing up to leave. “She was a blonde though, had her face in the meanest pout.” Kate stared at her, saying nothing. But she could feel her heart hammering inside her chest, and she knew why.

“But she tried to smile,” Ms Lee continued as she got up to leave. “When she asked me to ‘Specifically put them in your hands so you could see the card’.” Ms Lee smiled, closing the door behind her as she left.

Kate gently turned the bouquet over, and grabbed the card that had been tucked into the ribbon at the base.

Dear Kate,

I know that you’ve been giving away most of the flowers that you’ve received to people who need it more, but it would mean the world to me if you could accept these. I picked them personally, a mix of geraniums and daisies. The florist tells me that their scent will help you feel better.

I’m not in any position to ask you for anything, but knowing that there’s some part of me, something that I’ve given to you in that room with you makes me happier than I’ve ever known.

You deserve so much better than what i have given you, and with this as a start, I can only hope that I can continue to earn your smiles.

On the road to redemption,

Victoria.

Kate smiled, closing the card and hugging it close.

Maybe a second chance is all she needs. Thought Kate.

There was another knock at the door, and Ms Lee came back in after a beat.

“I thought you’d need a vase for those flowers,” She said. “Or...are you planning on giving those away?”

Kate smiled. “No Ms. Lee, I think I’ll be keeping these all to myself.”

Chapter Text

“Just like that? No insult, no guilt-tripping, not even a sassy remark?”

Courtney’s eyes were the size of the moon, and Victoria couldn’t help but want to laugh. It was the day after her trip to visit Kate, and this was perhaps the first time she had properly hung out with Taylor and Courtney ever since...that.

It still felt wrong to call it an “incident”. That made it feel like it was something that happened to someone else, something that you’d read about in a newspaper, not witness firsthand.

Or be the cause of that incident. Thought Victoria bitterly.

Courtney was sitting at the table in Victoria’s room, the laptop in front of her open, and a browser with every fashion website known to man was displayed across the screen. Taylor was sitting on the couch, holding her head up with her hand.

Victoria sat on the edge of the bed. Even though she was talking to them about it, she still had no idea what to think about that afternoon in the hospital. Every time she did, she would start to question whether or not she was actually worthy of Kate’s forgiveness.

Well, that and how much she’d like to feel her warmth in her arms again.

“Wait,” Said Courtney, closing the laptop and turning fully to face Victoria. “So what did you guys actually do after all that?”

“Honestly? Not much. She showed me everything that all of us had given her, told me that she gave most of the flowers she received to people that ‘needed it more’. Don’t worry, Taylor, she kept yours. She even told me to thank you again, and showed me the sketch she did in her notebook of it.”

Victoria didn’t tell her that, at her suggestion, Kate had added drawings of her trademark bunny playing on the flower. She didn’t tell her that she had watched in silence as Kate drew, and how happy she had been to see Kate smile when she was done.

Victoria glanced at Taylor. She was quiet, staring intently at the black screen of her TV. She hadn’t even responded when Victoria mentioned her flowers. An emotion rose in Victoria’s chest. It was the same emotion that rose every time she heard Jefferson compliment Max, or when Taylor stayed silent while she mocked Max, blocking her way into the dorm.

What was that emotion?

Taylor was mumbling something.

“I’m sorry?” Victoria said. She felt a weight on her chest, and looked down. When had she folded her arms? Was her voice rising?

“I said, we don’t deserve it.”

Ah, there it is. Insecurity. More common ground, Taylor.

Victoria was shaken out of her reverie, and turned to Taylor. She had moved when Victoria wasn’t paying attention, cradling her face in her hands and leaning away from them. Courtney turned slowly, and stared at Taylor.

“Taylor-”

“Shut up, Victoria.”

The words were like a physical slap to Victoria. She felt her blood rush, reacting to the venom in Taylor’s words. She didn’t even know words could be spoken like that.

No, not spoken. Spat.

Taylor spat out those words. As though thinking about them, thinking about her gave Taylor a bad taste in the mouth, one that she couldn’t bear with anymore.

“...Excuse me?”

Taylor turned to face her now, and her eyes were watery and filled with rage.

“Vic don’t you see? This has got to be some sick fucking joke! After everything we’ve done to her she’s willing to forgive us just like that?”

Taylor’s voice was climbing, and Courtney was slowly retreating into her chair. Courtney had never seen Taylor like this before, so...lost.

Taylor was standing now, and Victoria stood to meet her. Eyes both filled with a fire and anger that threatened to burn the fabric of their friendship.

Neither was willing to back down.

“What is wrong with you Taylor? Why are you acting like you know Kate so damn well? What, were the both of you besties hiding behind my back? You were taking pictures when she was standing on that fucking rooftop you bitch!” Victoria screamed, jabbing her finger into Taylor’s chest.

Taylor laughed, a short bark that was nothing but derision and hatred.

“You’re such a fucking hypocrite, Victoria, you know that? You ruined her entire life with that video, laughed at her as she cried, then turned around and apologised and sucked up her forgiveness like you deserve it. Newsflash, Vic, you don’t. None of us do! We should be on our fucking knees in front of that hospital begging for her to forgive us!”

A hypocrite? Well then what the fuck are you, bitch? I didn’t write that note and throw it at Kate in class did I? Who said you could pin your guilt on me?

“Taylor-” Courtney started, but Taylor speared her with a glare that would have made a bear freeze in its tracks.

“Fuck you, Courtney. You don’t get to judge me. You wanna know something funny? Did you never think about why I don’t have to do any of her bullshit work? Victoria makes you do all of that because she knows you’re just clinging to us for the popularity you attention whore. She used to laugh after she closed the door on you so happily telling her that you’d ‘get it done as soon as possible’. If you think that she ever considered you a friend you’re a goddamn idiot!”

Courtney sat in stunned silence, staring back at Taylor for a long moment before looking away. Victoria was still staring Taylor down. She could deal with what she said about Courtney later, right now she wanted to tear into Taylor, to rip her apart for even daring to think that she could pin her own blame on her.

And she was still fucking talking.

“You wanna know something? I envy Max. Sure she’s a weirdo hipster, but at least she’s honest, she doesn’t lie to someone’s face to make them do what she wants!”

“...Shut up, Taylor.” Victoria whispered.

Courtney glanced at Victoria, her fists were clenched, and her arms were shaking.

Fuck you, Vic. You think you’re still ‘Queen Bee’? That you still get to tell me what to do and treat me like your personal fucking slave? Well, you can kiss m-”

Victoria slapped Taylor. Hard.

The slap echoed around the room. Courtney covered her mouth with her hands, not making a sound. Taylor covered her cheek, her mouth open in shock and pain. Then she looked up at Victoria, and she was furious.

Victoria felt her heart beating, a crazy drumbeat smashing the inside of her chest.

Jefferson used to talk about moments like these. About how he wished he could be the photographer to his own life, documenting the pivotal moments, the flashpoints like these.

Victoria had always felt the same way, watching herself play the biggest role in the room. She wanted it to freeze, to stop and sit back. Frame the moment, the crest of the tsunami, the tipping moment of someone falling off the cliff, and capture it. She would have wanted to capture almost every moment of her old life, but not this one.

This one was filled with too much pain for anyone else to see. Her friend, her best friend, cupping her cheek, with eyes that were blue and murky now.

They were clouded with emotion, pulling Victoria in. A wave of pain, anger and betrayal surged behind Taylor’s eyes, and Victoria found herself swimming in it. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t find the strength to speak, to swim to the surface for air.

Say something you idiot! Apologise!

“Taylor, I-” Victoria began, reaching out to take her hand. But Taylor stepped back, slapping it away.

“...You’re still the same old Victoria.” Taylor said, and her voice was barely a whisper. “We’re fucking disgusting Vic, and I’m sick and tired of being that way.”

Taylor stood and left, and the slammed door she left in her wake echoed in the silence.

Chapter Text

“Welcome back, Kate!”

Max’s smile was the brightest thing in the room, and Kate returned it. It was good to finally be back in Blackwell. To see all the well wishes that people had scrawled on the board at her door, and to be around her friends again. Chloe called the signatures “hypocritical”, and even if Kate was tempted to agree with her, they did make it easier for her to give everyone a second chance, no matter how small.

They had been in Max’s room for almost three hours now, sharing stories about everything Kate had missed whilst she was gone. Stories like how Warren and Brooke were finally getting into a relationship, despite a rocky start, how Alyssa had started a chick lit blog and found out that one of her regular visitors was actually Courtney, who denied it vehemently when the rumour got out.

Fun stuff, Kate thought. Life moves on…

So why isn’t it enough?

Just the day before, Kate had finally gotten the all-clear from Doctor Carter to come back to school, under the condition that she had somewhat constant supervision from the teaching staff and kept herself around her friends. Max and Chloe were great company, and it was clear that they had chosen to keep her company, to make sure that she could join the school again.

But it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough to stop her from glancing over at the members of the Vortex club, and see some ghost of her on their lips. Their hands on her hips, or the thought of their teeth on her lips. It wasn’t enough to stop her from thinking she was dirty, filthy, from that night.

Max slowly stopped talking, seeing Kate drop her gaze and look away. Chloe glanced over, trying to keep her face neutral. If she was honest, she had no idea how to help Kate. Looking at her, Chloe realised that it was easier for her to deal with her own demons, there was always someone to blame. Max for leaving, David for being a step-dick, Nathan for being a fuckhead. Even...even Dad, for leaving her alone.

It must be much harder when you started to blame yourself.

“Kate…” Max said, her voice so low it was almost a whisper. She was sitting next to her on the couch, and reached over to take Kate’s hand. It was never easy, trying to comfort someone. Kate turned, covering Max’s hand with her own. She tried to smile, but judging from Max’s expression it must’ve looked like she was trying to hide a gaping wound somewhere. Chloe stood up, walking over and sitting on the other side of Kate.

They sat there, silent, for a very long time.

Outside, birds sang, their song carrying in on the breeze coming through the open shutters of Max’s room windows. Kate could never hear the birds singing from her hospital room, and she remembered how she used to practice the violin when she heard them sing. She liked to think that she could add her own little ounce of beauty to what was already around her. But that night had taken that from her. Now the world was a uglier, darker place, with drinks that could make you forget, and people that would always remember your sins.

Dr Carter had told her that she needed a therapist, someone to talk to about her troubles when they came to haunt her. But Kate wasn’t sure she could ever trust anyone to see this side of her, the one broken and twisted by the world.

Chloe broke the silence.

“You know...it’s okay to cry, if you need to.”

Kate nodded, but the tears wouldn’t come.

 

---

 

The lights were always too bright, and they left trails that felt like they were burning themselves into the back of Victoria’s eyeballs. Her mouth was dry, but she was laughing too hard to take another sip of the shitty drink in her hand. Was it vodka? Gin? She could barely remember.

She could remember the colours of the pills she took, though. The ones that she had seen Frank selling to the bouncers of the club. She remembers how bored she had been when she first came here, and how the pills had slowly brightened the world around her, then pulled her into it.

Life wasn’t so bad...right?

So what if she had just lost her best friend? Had she lost more than one? Did Courtney count as a friend? Victoria couldn’t decide. It didn’t matter, though. Not after how she had screamed at her to get out of her room. Not after the meltdown she had had after she physically kicked Courtney out.

Her posters were strewn over her dorm room floor, her mirror smashed, her TV knocked to the ground.

A photo of Taylor and herself, smiling at a party, torn apart and lying above the wreck that used to be her room.

She didn’t want to think about that. About the fight or the hours she had spent silently crying her eyes out behind the door of her room. She didn’t want to think about the fucking disgusting monster she was, and how she had managed to ruin everything.

She definitely didn’t want to think about how alone she was now. With parents that hadn’t called or written in months, and friends that would probably never speak to her again.

No. All she wanted to think about now was the hand on the inside of her thigh, and the girl that that hand belonged to.

The lights were blurry, and Victoria’s fingers felt numb. She could feel everything she was doing, fingers interlacing with hers, lips on hers. But it wasn’t her. Victoria retreated into herself as the other girl...Ashley? Asha? Did it really matter? Whatever her name was, she was pushing Victoria down onto the sofa, straddling her. Her kiss felt out of this world, and Victoria danced amongst the stars as the girl’s hands danced along the side of Victoria’s ribs.

She wanted to enjoy this, but she was slipping, the pills and the lights and the alcohol pulling her away. And she couldn’t help but think that maybe that’s what she needed right now. Away from her own head, away from thoughts of deep blue eyes and harsh words.

Whatever her name was sat up, trailing her fingers along the side of Victoria’s face. She was a brunette, with hair so brown it was almost black in the low light. Her eyes were a murky green, and her smile was taunting, teasing Victoria. But whatever Victoria’s expression was, it clearly wasn’t the teasing one she thought she sent back. The girl pulled her up, and whispered in her ear.

“Are you alright?”

No, no she wasn’t. Thought Victoria’s head.

“Yeah, yeah I am.” Said Victoria’s mouth, curling into the natural fake smile she had spent hours in front of the mirror perfecting. The one that the rest of the world saw, the one she used to wrap everyone around her fingertips. The one that had slowly caused the world around her to crack, and now it’s fallen apart.

The girl smiled back, genuine and hopeful, and as she bent down to kiss Victoria again, Victoria forgot herself completely.

 

---

 

Kate never noticed before, how the moonlight made the number plate shimmer in the darkness of the hallway. The number 221 held her attention, and she stared at it for a moment.

Before everything, before the world had gone and turned itself upside down, Kate remembered how she would sometimes glance over at the door, and wonder what it must be like to live on the other side. What it must be like to be Victoria Chase. So confident, so powerful, so sure of what she wanted and unafraid to do anything to get it.

She never wanted to judge Victoria, even though over time it slowly got more and more difficult not to. Kate used to think of her as a force of nature, harsh and unyielding, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. But you couldn’t call a storm cruel, or an avalanche vindictive. Maybe Victoria was just the way she was, unable to change, and people like Max and Kate would have to sweep up the wrecks left behind by her.

Now she knew different.

She knew that the girl that lived behind this door was just a girl. A girl with friends that she held dear, a girl who made mistakes and could come to learn that those mistakes had consequences.

Kate knew it was late, that Victoria might not even be awake. But Kate couldn’t sleep, and Victoria had asked to be her friend when she needed to talk.

She needed to talk now.

Kate knocked, and the door swung open at her touch.

If Kate ever had any doubts about whether or not Victoria was a force of nature, the scene before her quelled them.

But the force of nature wasn’t here, and neither was the girl Kate needed.

She sighed, and started to pick up the pieces.

Chapter Text

Kate doesn’t dream much anymore. At least, she tries not to. Even so, her sleep is restless, tossing and turning, and she’s gotten used to sitting up in the middle of the night, sweat on the sheets, out of breath and not able to remember why her heart is racing and she’s so...afraid.

She prays, she prays and she prays but every night there seems to be no answer, no end to the terrors and pain that sleep seems to bring. It wasn’t long before the thoughts of her God abandoning her came back, but she did as Dr. Carter had told her, and tried to distract herself every time they did.

Her walls were littered with her drawings now. Soon, there’d be no more space to hang them on.

Maybe that’s why she knocked on Victoria’s door. Maybe after a while, distraction just isn’t enough any more.

The TV was back on it’s stand now, with only a slightly chipped screen to show that it was ever smashed onto the ground. There was nothing Kate could do about Victoria’s mirror, but at least her room looked better now, no clothes on the floor, sheets made on the bed.

Some things can still be salvaged, thought Kate.

Kate was sitting on Victoria’s bed, staring at the torn picture of Victoria and Taylor. At least now i know what probably caused this, Kate thought. The photo was cleanly torn, so it was easy for Kate to put the pieces back together. Victoria had her arm around Taylor, and the other was extended, taking the photo. They were smiling, and the flash made them stand out from the dark background of what Kate assumed was a party.

But as Kate studied the picture, she started to notice more. Victoria’s short hair was dishevelled, not the perfect sculpting that she usually styled it into. Her clothes were rumpled, her shirt half untucked from her skirt. And she wasn’t standing ramrod straight, her posture heavy as she leant onto Taylor for the shot. But despite all of that, she looked beautiful. No, she looked happy. And if Taylor’s smile and hand supporting Victoria were anything to go by, Taylor was pretty happy too.

This picture must have meant a lot to Victoria. It was the first time Kate could ever recall seeing her so happy, so free. If Kate could ever feel for herself what Victoria must have been feeling in this picture, maybe Victoria would be slightly easier to understand.

Kate sighed, putting the two pieces of the photo side by side on Victoria’s desk. The clock on the radio reads 03:00, it’s black numbers standing out against the blue backlight. Kate stared at it for a moment, wondering how long she had been awake now. Almost a day? It felt like it.

She laid down, curling up against Victoria’s sheets. They were warm, and smelled of lavender. Was this what Victoria smelled like? The perfumes on the shelf in her closet told her that Victoria smelled like whatever she wanted to smell like, but Kate doubted she wore those to bed.

Kate rubbed her eyes, rolling over on the bed. Whatever the case was, Kate loved the way the bed smelled. Kate’s eyes grew heavy, the softness of Victoria’s pillow on her face lulling her. Maybe she would just grab a quick nap here...before Victoria came back...

 

---

 

Victoria wakes up tired.

Her arms and her back ache, and her head feels like there’s a thunderstorm clashing about inside her skull, lightning arcing across her forehead every time she tries to move. Slowly, she sits up, the sheets flowing around her. She’s sitting in the middle of a ocean of fabric, and off in the distance, an arm’s reach away, was an island of flesh.

She stared at the girl for a while, remembering the feeling of her name in her mouth as she cried out last night. Ashleigh.

It was weird, foreign. Like the first bite of a dish you’ve never had before. If anything, she was sure she wouldn’t be having seconds.

Victoria slid out from under the sheets, picking up her discarded clothes from the floor. She got dressed, staring out the bedroom window. The sun had already risen over Arcadia Bay, and the town was slowly coming to life again. Victoria stared as the beams of light danced on the sheets of the bed as the curtains fluttered in the breeze. Ashleigh stirred in her sleep, pulling the covers closer.

Victoria watched as she snuggled into the bed, wondering. What it would take to just be able to be happy, to spend the rest of her life with someone like her. She knew it would never happen, not with just anyone. Besides, her life had already been planned out until this point, why should her future be any different?

But in these quiet moments, in the silence between the collection of storms that her life was, she couldn’t help but wish.

But there are no genies, are they? No one to hear your wishes, no one to make them come true.

There were engines now, coming in on the breeze through the open window. Victoria sighed, she should leave soon, before she woke up. Save herself the awkwardness.

“It’s a rare opportunity to be the documenter of your own life, so take every chance you get.”

Jefferson. Haunting her again, even from miles away, behind bars. Still, he had a point. There was something beautiful about this moment, the morning after a night of mistakes.

She didn’t have her camera, but her phone would work too.

Snap.

 

---

 

The engine hummed in the background as Victoria turned her stereo up. She had driven to the party last night, and as she stared out onto the road, she wondered if that had been a bad idea. Dont drive to drink, right? But as she drove along the coastal road, she put those thoughts to the back of her mind.

It was another beautiful day in Arcadia Bay, but Victoria had slowly stopped being able to appreciate that beauty.When she was younger, she lived in cities with buildings so high she had to shield her eyes from the sun when she stared up at them. Her parents spent long hours in their gallery and she would sit near the massive windows, staring out over the city. She used to think that you could get lost in there, down below. Amongst the hundreds of people that wandered around seemingly aimlessly, but she was safe, she was special, as long as she was up here.

Then they had to send her away.

Here, to hick town Arcadia in the middle of butt-fuck nowhere Oregon, where everything you did mattered to everyone and no one at all. One video, and everyone goes insane, but no matter how many photos you send out, no one likes them.

Victoria was sick of it all. Sick of parents telling her that she wasn’t applying herself. That she was wasting their time and maybe she could learn more under the guidance of someone younger. That someone turned out to be Mark Jefferson. Look how well that turned out.

She pulled up into the Blackwell carpark, leaning back in the seat as she killed the engine. She could see them, the empty displays on the lawn of the campus that used to hold his works. She remembered sitting on the grass, staring at the black and white images, imagining what it must have been like to be him in those moments. What it must have felt like to be in those moments of despair he could create and frame. What it must have been like to feel so genuine.

Victoria buried her face in her hands. This was fucked up, everything about her life was fucked up. Not the fact that she had looked up to him, not even the fact that she had wanted to be like him.

The most fucked up part was that she had felt the most genuine around him. Trying to win his approval, complimenting him, flirting with him. She wanted him to like her, but through her pictures, through how inadequate he used to make her feel, she had felt so...real.

Yeah, real needy.

She slammed her fist against the dashboard, sitting up in annoyance. Not like this, she wouldn’t let herself break down like this, not here, where people could see her. Here, on this campus, she was still queen, flawless, powerful. No one would get to see her weak.

Really? Is that what Taylor saw?

Victoria took a deep breath, then stepped out of the car.

It was Friday morning, and the first cold one of the coming winter. Autumn was slowly leaving, but Oregon always seemed to stay almost the same, despite the temperature. Only the occasional shower and drop in temperature made the years feel like they were going by. Otherwise, the land itself seemed trapped in it’s own little limbo, watching the lives of the people who lived there with a sullen attitude.

Victoria stood in the middle of the empty campus lawn for a moment, looking all around her. It was still too early for anyone to be up and about, most of the students in the dorm would only just be heading the showers to prepare for the day. Victoria was no stranger to coming back to school in the wee hours of the morning, but today, as she watched squirrels scurry across the grass, she felt a little more alone than usual.

Victoria sighed again, realising how much she’s been doing that a lot lately.

Just another day Victoria, nothing can go wrong. Show perfection, that what you are, and that’s what you’ll always be.

She straightened, and walked back to the dorm.

Chapter Text

Kate’s eyes flutter open at the sound of the door opening, and when she glances over, Victoria’s face is one of absolute shock.

“Oh! U-um...Good morning…?” Kate tried weakly, sitting bolt upright on the bed. Darn, did I really sleep until now? Kate thought as she stood up, trying her best to smooth down her clothes. Her hair was a mess, but at least she hadn’t slept with it done up in a bun. Victoria slowly stepped into her room, looking around as she closed the door behind her.

“Kate...what...what are you doing here?” Victoria asked hesitantly as she took note of everything, back in it’s proper place, no sign of the fit she had thrown a few hours ago. She was expecting to have to spend the time she had before her class started cleaning up, not to come back to a room that was almost as perfect as it was before she fucked it up.

Kate straightens, trying and failing to meet Victoria’s eyes as she talks.

“I came here last night...knocked on your door but you left it unlocked and I saw what happened. I wanted to talk to you, but you weren’t here and I thought I’d wait for you? I cleaned up your room a little, I hope you don’t mind…”

Kate wringed her hands nervously. Of course she wouldn’t want to see me right now, Kate thought, glancing at Victoria, who was looking around the room. She just had an argument with her one of her closest friends! And I’m just gonna come in a dump my own emotions onto her? How could I be so selfish?

Kate bit her lip, trying to quell those thoughts. If anything she didn’t want to add on to Victoria’s troubles, but maybe she could help a little. Cleaning her room, maybe talking to her? She turned around, reached over to the table and picked up the torn picture.

“Victoria…” Kate said, taking a step forward. Victoria’s gaze snapped back to her as she moved, and Kate couldn’t place her expression. It wasn’t fearsome, or hurt, it was just...empty. Like she wasn’t even in the same room as Kate. She kept talking, trying to reach out to her.

“I came here because I couldn’t sleep...And I wanted to talk, but from what I saw last night, It seems like you’re the one that could use someone to talk to.”

Kate passed the photo pieces over to Victoria, meeting her eyes for a moment. Victoria took the photo, studying it.

The silence in the room was overwhelming. Victoria was staring at the photo, and her eyes were cold, intense, slowly hardening. Slowly her gaze rose to meet Kate’s and all of a sudden the ferocity was back, the hard jawline, the ramrod straight spine.

“No.”

Kate took a step back. “...Victoria?”

Victoria took a step towards Kate, her eyes almost aflame with fury. “No, Kate, I don’t need someone to talk to. Least of all to talk to you. I promised you that you could talk to me, that i could be your friend, but I don’t need anyone to confide in.”

Victoria brushed past her, standing at her desk. With her back towards Kate, Kate could see the tension in her shoulders, the hunch that she carried herself with. Kate knew what that was, the posture of a girl trying to keep her head up high, even though her world was falling apart around her.

She recognized it, had seen it in the mirror before.

She took another step towards Victoria.

“Victoria, I just-”

Please, Kate.” Victoria said, and she wished that her voice wasn’t so goddamn weak. She wished she didn’t have to beg and she wished that she could find it in her heart to scream at Kate until she left.

Kate stood by the door, her heart pounding in her ears. She wanted to say more, wanted to close the gap between them. But what could she say? That it was going to be alright? That everything would sort itself out?

Lies. All meaningless.

Victoria was standing at her desk, a few feet away from Kate, but she might as well have been a thousand miles away for all the help Kate could give her.

Kate sighed, opening the door.

“...I’m sorry, Victoria.” Kate whispered, closing the door behind her. Just before it closed, Kate could have sworn she heard a sob.

 

---

 

For the first time she could recall, Kate finds herself hating class.

She hates every moment that she has to sit at her desk, watching Victoria smile and pretend that everything’s okay. She hates the fact that she has to listen to Ms. Grant rattle on about ions while she stares at the back of Taylors head.

But most of all, she hates feeling so helpless. She hates the fact that when she glances over at Max, Max can only send a small smile her way. She should be able to do something, right?

Then again...maybe not. Maybe this is what Victoria deserves, after everything she’s done. Maybe she needed to know what it was like, to have your world falling apart around you. Was this God’s way of delivering retribution?

Kate shook her head, sitting upright on her chair. No, she shouldn’t think like that. Not because she wanted to go against God’s wishes, but because if this was how God wanted Victoria to feel, he wouldn’t have made Kate understand how bad it felt to go through this. Kate knew that being helpless, feeling like the world was going against you, was one of the worst things she had ever felt.

No one should have to feel like that.

Kate sighed, folding her arms across the table and laying her head upon them. Ms Grant, in the middle of her lecture, spared Kate a passing glance as she lowered her head, before continuing. A few weeks ago, that would have been a reprimandable offence in her class, but even Ms Grant could feel the quietly growing tension in the room. Considering that Kate was only just recovering from her ordeal, she thought she’d let that slide.

Kate closed her eyes, tuning all of it out. It was a trick that Ms. Lee had taught her, to help her calm down and think clearly. Ms Grant’s voice faded slowly, from its droning presence at the front of her skull to a quiet buzz at the back of her mind. Slowly, all the noises around her faded, the clicking of pens, the tapping of feet against tiled floors, even the sound of the shutters on the windows fluttering in the breeze. Eventually it all turned to silence, and Kate focused on the sound of her own breathing.

In, out.

She thought of Victoria, of the bloodshot eyes that she had seen that morning. She thought of Taylor, of the slammed doors and the glares that she sent when Victoria wasn’t looking. She thought of the moments when Taylor had caught her staring at her, and guilt flashed on her face before she turned away.

Kate thought of Max, of her hand reaching out to her when she was on that rooftop. She thought of herself, switching places with Max, and Victoria standing on the ledge.

In, out.

There must be some way to help her, Kate thought. But how? She won’t let me.

There must be some other way. When I was alone, and needed help, Max reached out to me, but Nathan must have needed help too, we just didn’t see it.

Nathan and Me, Victoria and Taylor. Cause and effect, all of us victims.

If we could help one of us, maybe that would help the other?

A gentle nudge on her elbow shook Kate awake, and she sat up. All around her, her classmates were packing up their stuff, piling them all into their bags as they slowly filed out of the classroom. She was just able to see Victoria rush out of the classroom before the door swings shut. Max is standing next to her, concern writ large on her features as she leans against Kate’s desk.

“Hey Kate...you alright? You’re looking kinda...zoned.

“I’ll be alright, Max.” Kate replies, rubbing her eyes. Max runs a hand through her brown locks, brushing her fringe away from her face as she frowns slightly. It’s a nervous tic she’s developed, and one that Chloe constantly points out whenever she starts to worry. But she has a good reason to worry about Kate, several, if she’s honest.

“Are you sure?” Max asks.

Kate takes a breath as movement behind Max catches her eye. Across the classroom, Taylor had dropped a book, and she bent to pick it up. As she slipped it inside her bag, Kate caught a glimpse of a familiar selfie, of Taylor and Victoria at the party, stuck to the back of the book. Taylor gazed inside her bag for a moment before zipping it up, slinging it over her shoulder.

Kate watched as Taylor quickly left the room.

“Yeah, Max. I think I’ve got it sorted out.”

 

---

 

Taylor sits on the edge of her bed. Her phone lies on the table, just out of reach, but she was happy just to sit here and look at it. On screen was a picture of her mother, smiling down at her as she played in the sand. That had been a good day, and hopefully more would come soon.

She hated seeing her mom in the hospital. But she knew, knew that if it wasn’t for the fact that the hospital was a two hour drive away, she would be there every day, doing her best to help her recover.

And she was recovering, slowly perhaps, but she was. She had to be.

Taylor was scared, scared that those happy days of running around the house, watching her mother at the stove may never come again.

A few weeks ago, she had gone to go see her mother, practically begging Victoria to help her make the drive down. She watched as her mother smiled on the bed as doctors pulled a endless amount of tubes and needles out of her. Her knuckles grew white as she gripped her fists tight, watching as her mother grit her teeth and struggled to walk as she underwent her physiotherapy.

She remembered breaking down in the alleyway behind the hospital, quietly crying as if her mother could still hear her, even though she was three floors away.

Then there was movement next to her, and she saw Victoria sitting down next to her, letting her four-figure digit worth outfit be stained by the dirt of the floor and wall. Victoria’s fingers were extended, a cigarette hanging from her fingertips.

She remembered how happy she had been to smoke in silence, to be able to quietly tell Victoria all of her worries and fears on the drive back.

She missed that Victoria, the one that was able to understand when she felt like shit, and to reassure her that it was fine. But that had been before everything went to hell, before Nathan and Jefferson managed to shake everyone’s faith in everyone else. Before the revelation that Kate had been telling the truth turned Victoria and Taylor into vindictive heartless bitches.

Taylor regretted taking that video of Kate up on the roof. She really did. She didn’t think Kate would have actually jumped, thought that it was all a ploy to gain some attention. How wrong she was.

Taylor leaned back, sighing.

She wanted Victoria back, wanted her old friends back, but she knew that that was impossible now. Not now that she knew the consequences that her actions could have. A carefree life was forever beyond her reach.

There was a knock at her door.

Taylor stood, opening the door. Kate stood on the other side, hands nervously clasped together. The last person she wanted to see, at the moment when she wanted to see no one.

Taylor watched as Kate’s fingers nervously squeezed each other. Even after all this, even after all the strength it must have taken Kate to move on, she was still afraid of her.

Kate looked up, kind brown eyes piercing Taylor’s light blues.

“Taylor...can we talk?”

Chapter Text

“Kate, when you said you wanted to talk, I didn’t have this in mind.”

Taylor wrapped her fingers around the styrofoam cup in her hands, trying to warm them up. They were sitting on the rocks by the seaside, gulls squawking as they flew over head. Kate was sitting next to her, another cup in her hands as she filled it up from the small thermos she had brought along. The tea was fragrant, a mix of lavender and berries that made it slightly sweet even without sugar. Taylor took a sip, enjoying the taste. Kate set the thermos down precariously on the top of a nearby rock, before staring out at the water. The sun was high in the air, but the cold wind swept across the beach, a sign of the winter to come.

“I just thought it’d be easier for us to talk if no one else was around.” Kate said, brushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

Taylor sighed. Okay, this is it. She’s going to talk to you about you taking that video. Just stay calm, explain yourself, and accept whatever anger comes your way, she thought. Taylor had been dreading this conversation for a while now, it was probably the biggest reason why she had never visited Kate in the hospital. If she was truly honest, she still didn’t know how she’d be able to explain herself, but she had to at least try. Kate deserved that much.

Kate turned to her. “What...what happened between you and Victoria?”

Taylor released a breath she hadn’t even realised she had been holding. That wasn’t the question that she was expecting, and as she started to think about it, panic slowly started to rise up in her again. Was Kate trying to get information out of her to get revenge on Victoria? Taylor took another sip, trying to calm herself. No, Kate wasn’t like that. Kate would never lash out at others, even when she was completely broken she still chose to hurt herself instead of anyone else.

“...Why do you ask?” Taylor said, hoping Kate’s answer would calm her nerves.

Kate turned away from the beach, meeting Taylor’s eyes. “A while back, Victoria came to visit me in the hospital, and promised that I could confide in her whenever I needed to. But i went to her room, last night, and she wasn’t there. The room was a mess, and I found a picture of you two, torn apart.”

Kate tapped her show against the rock in front of her, staring at the loose pebbles she knocked free as they tumbled into the sand. “In the picture… the both of you were together, at a party, and she seemed so...happy.” Kate took a breath, staring into her tea. “ I’ve never seen her smile like that before. If I confided in her and let her help me with my problems, I should at least try to return the favour...right?”

Kate’s voice was so meek, so unsure. Taylor heard the note of fear in it, the same fear that was in the voice that told Victoria she would be sorry someday. Why was it there, again? Taylor wasn’t threatening her, and Victoria must have learned her lesson, right?

Kate sighed, setting her cup down next to her. As she turned to look at Taylor again, she could see the worry in Kate’s eyes.

“Taylor...I don’t know if I can even help, or if Victoria or you would even appreciate me prying like this, but...I promised myself that I’d give everyone here another chance, a chance to genuinely care about them and try to help them. Please, let me do what I can.”

Kate’s hands were squeezing the hem of her skirt, and her hair was fluttering in the seaside breeze, and Taylor couldn’t help but think about how fragile she looked. It was scary, how even when Kate was clearly trying to help, she could worry so much about whether or not her help might actually hurt others around her. How could anyone be that kind?

“Kate…” Taylor began, her voice catching in her throat. She could feel the tears welling up now, and she rubbed her eyes to try to keep them at bay. But Taylor knew that that wouldn’t last long. She knew from the nights that she spent alone in her room wondering about her life, that the tears would always find their way out. Devilish little things, tears.

Kate stayed silent, terrified of reaching over and scaring Taylor off by touching her. She had learned, from many of the stories that she had heard from Ms Lee, about how to let people deal with sadness.

A lot of people don’t actually need our help, Kate. Ms. Lee had shared one afternoon as she cleaned up around her ward. They’re usually smart enough to figure out how to help themselves. We just need to be there to remind them that they're strong enough to do it.

Kate sat, quietly waiting for Taylor to continue. Eventually, with a shaking voice, she did.

“Kate, we...we fought because I thought that we didn’t deserve your forgiveness. I thought that...that we couldn’t have done anything that could even begin to make up for what we did. We almost killed you, Kate.”

Taylor covered her eyes with her hands, sobbing gently. Kate kept her eyes fixed on the horizon, the midday sun making the waves sparkle.

Taylor spoke again, her voice muffled by her hands. “Kate, I don’t deserve your forgiveness. I filmed you, filmed you, in your darkest moment. I thought you were just another attention-seeking slu-...person, just trying to cry out for attention. I never believed that you could have needed our help, and I know that I would never be able to forgive me if I were you.”

Taylor sobbed softly. She had never been great at apologising, mostly because it was rare that she actually thought she was ever in the wrong. But this time...this time she had hurt someone, and Taylor knew that she would never be able to forgive herself if she didn’t at least try to get Kate’s forgiveness.

Kate sighed, standing up and walking onto the beach. The loose sand flowed away from her shows as she stood for a moment, before turning to face Taylor.

“Taylor, look at me.”

Taylor pulled her hands away from her face, looking up at Kate. Kate was standing tall, no longer the nervous and fragile person she was just moments ago. Her voice had a small note of steel behind it, and it was almost impossible to ignore.

“Taylor, we all make mistakes. And we usually don’t know that they’re mistakes until it’s too late. But I don’t hold what you did against you. Victoria told me that you deleted the video almost as soon as you found out I was telling the truth, and I think that that has proven to me that deep down, you want to do the right thing.”

Kate takes a small step forward, picking up Taylor’s hands from her knees and holding them gently in her own. They were soft, warm and wet from her tears, but they were squeezing gently back, and that gave Kate courage.

“Taylor…” Kate said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “There’s only one reason that you don’t have my forgiveness.”

Taylor’s eyes snapped up, meeting Kate’s gaze. Kate smiled.

“You haven’t asked.”

Taylor gasped softly, her mouth hanging open in silent dismay. Kate suddenly felt a surge of doubt flood over her. Was that too much? Would that push Taylor away? Kate bit her lower lip as Taylor’s gaze flicked away. Of course. She shouldn’t have pushed so far, should have been content with telling her that-

“Kate…”

Taylor was staring at the rock beneath her feet, and her voice was weak.

“I’m...I’m sorry. I’m so goddamn sorry.”

The world seemed to hold it’s breath. The squawking of the seagulls seemed to soften for a moment, and the waves rolling up the beach seemed to be the only noise in the silence between the two girls. Then a smile broke across Kate’s face.

Kate took the styrofoam cup from her hands, placing it aside as she gently pulled Taylor to her feet. She glanced into Taylor’s eyes for a moment, made sure she wasn’t panicking about what she was about to do, before she wrapped her arms around her, pulling Taylor in close.

Kate had always loved hugs, loved getting them from her sisters, her friends. She loved the feeling of trusting someone enough to be wrapped in their arms, and liking someone enough to want them in yours. But her favourite kind, the absolute best hugs, were the ones where their hands slowly reached up your back to pull you close. The way Taylor’s hands were pulling her now. Like she had just made the decision that Kate was worthy of her trust.

“I forgive you.”

Taylor’s sobs soon began to make her shake, even as Kate tried to hold her tighter. As Kate felt Taylor’s tears pool onto her shoulder, she listened to her crying out. Crying out and wishing that things could go back to the way they were, to when everyone was happy and there were no drugs and psychos. To when Victoria wasn’t the Queen Bee of Blackwell.

Back to when Taylor and Victoria were just friends.

Kate listened to them all, thinking about how much had changed. She knew that they could never go back, but that didn’t mean that there was no merit in looking into the past. Maybe, maybe if she knew more about the Victoria that Taylor became friends with, then she’d be able to help the current Victoria feel just a little bit better.

“Hey Taylor…” Kate began, pulling Taylor back to arm’s length. Taylor wiped away her tears, trying to calm down.

“Yeah?”

“We still have to help Victoria…”

“Oh yeah.”

“Please...could you tell me what she used to be like?”

Chapter Text

The sun dips across the tips of the waves by the time Kate and Taylor finally fall silent, tea leave dregs in their empty cups staining the paper.

Kate had heard so much, so much about who Victoria was before all the power had gotten to her head. About the Victoria that would wordlessly share her shoulder and her alcohol when Taylor showed up at her door at night, after nightmares of her mother not making it. The Victoria that would laugh and smile no matter how lame the joke was.

She heard about the things Victoria had told Taylor in secret. About her fear of never being good enough for her parents, of how disgusted she was at herself for trying to impress Jefferson.

Even of how understanding Victoria had been when Taylor gently pushed her away when they had kissed.

That had been a surprise, to Kate at least. She had never cared that much about Victoria’s love life, there had always been other things to think about, to focus on. Mostly to worry about.

Taylor sighed, standing up and taking off her sneakers. Kate watched her, curious. She placed her sneakers next to the empty paper cups, walking on her tiptoes on the warm sand. The sea breeze billowed through the folds of her shirt, and her hair fluttered in the breeze. The sunlight streamed across the beach, sand glittering as the sun set. It was beautiful, and Taylor strided across the beach until the tip of her toes were brushed by the breaking waves.

She folded her arms, closing her eyes and enjoying the moment of silence.

She barely noticed Kate walk up and stand beside her.

“Arcadia bay really is beautiful…” Kate whispered, bending down to dip her fingers into the clear waters.

Taylor gave a small smile, curling an errant strand of hair back behind her ear. “...The people here are too, in their own, special, sometimes twisted ways.”

Kate didn’t respond, but she knew that she agreed, at least a little. There were still some people in her memory that were too twisted to be considered beautiful.

“We came here, you know,” Taylor continued. “Victoria and me. The day after the party that she kissed me. She was worried that I would hate her, that she had ruined a good friendship. Taylor gave a mirthless chuckle, shaking her head. “Look at me, caught up in all these good old memories.”

“I actually wanted to hate her, for playing me along, toying with my feelings. Then she apologised, and said that she thought of me as one of the few people that truly trusted her, and that she didn’t want to ruin our relationship by loving me.”

Taylor’s voice was so quiet that Kate had to struggle to hear it over the breaking waves, but the heartbreak in her tone was unmistakeable.

“How could I hate her, after all of that? She can be a bitch, from time to time, but that’s not all there is to her.”

Taylor turned to Kate, and there were tears in her eyes. Kate knew what she was going to ask almost before she said it.

“Kate...do you think I’ll ever get her back?”

Kate took a long moment, breathing in the cold air. The gulls were falling silent now, they’re cries slowly fading out. The sun was almost halfway into the water, and soon the night would take Arcadia Bay again. Kate hoped that tonight would be a quiet night, filled with dreamless sleep. But she knew that that was wishful thinking, and she sighed.

“...I don’t think so, Taylor.”

“As much as you miss her, that was the Victoria that would go on to do horrible things, and after everything that’s happened, I don’t think Victoria will ever go back to that. She can’t.” Kate said those last two words with a quivering voice, filled with a hope that Victoria could find her way to be a better person.

“But…” Kate continued. “That doesn’t mean that Victoria deserves to be as miserable as she is now.” She turned to Taylor, smiling weakly. “Life can be...painful, sometimes. But as long as we can help each other through it, it does get better.”

The sun was almost completely below the horizon now, the last rays of orange and gold flashing out across a pink and purple sky. The two girls stood by the beach as behind them, the lights on the path flickered to life. Night behind them, the last remnants of day ahead. Taylor bent down, picking up a pair of smooth rocks from the sand, offering one to Kate. Kate took it, weighing it in her palm.

“I hope you’re right, Kate.” Taylor said, flicking her wrist. Kate watched as the rock bounced, once, twice across the surface, before cutting into the water and sinking beneath the waves.

As Kate watched the pebble sink, she hoped that she was right too.

 

---

I’m fairly certain this is some kind of binge.

That was Victoria’s last sane thought before downing her fourth pill that night. Or was it the fifth? It didn’t matter, nothing mattered. Nothing but the hammering inside her chest, the feeling of euphoria flooding through her veins. Every time her heart beat she felt herself knocked around, the music blaring into her skull. Too loud, too loud too loud too loud.

Not loud enough.

Victoria was thirsty, but every drink she downed just seemed to make that worse. The lights were flashing all around her, faces freeze-framed in crazy smiles. She wanted to stop standing, to just let her legs collapse and let the pure unadulterated joy buzz through her. It would be so easy, she could already feel the numbness on the edges of her fingertips. She lifted her hand, staring at the strange digits as if they belonged to someone else. Her body no longer felt like her own, moving in time to the strange music.

She loved the feeling of the bass slamming into her body, and she couldn’t care less about what she was dancing to. Her body was already doing things that she wasn’t telling it to, and she was no stranger to the sensation. But it wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough to quell the nervous quiver in her heart that danced out of time with the beat of the bass. It wasn’t enough to quiet the sinking feeling in her gut, to stop the lashes of guilt and doubt slicing across her brain every time.

Not enough to stop her from thinking of Taylor, of Kate.

It was almost three days since the meltdown in her room, and every night she tried to drown that voice in her head.

As soon as she stopped moving, she felt a heat blossom across her, like fireworks exploding beneath her skin. Her body must be running a mile a minute, her heart racing and her throat dry and painful. She stumbled clumsily over to the bar, and forgot what her drink was almost as soon as she finished screaming it at the bartender over the music.

She almost didn’t taste it as it went down.

Victoria leaned against the bar, looking down at the crowd. With every passing party she recognised less and less of the crowd. She knew why, knew that letting the members invite their own guests would eventually bring the last scrapings of the scum of youth society into her vortex club parties. Normally, she would give a shit, but normally she’d have Taylor and Courtney by her side as she fended off the riff raff.

The bar was elevated, and on the dance floor she could see the people jumping and dancing, moving like a uncoordinated wave. Her head was spinning, a throbbing ball of pain rolling around inside her skull. Her eyelids were heavy, so damn heavy.

So why don’t you just go to sleep already?

You can’t, can you?

Victoria turned herself around, squeezing her eyes shut. The music was still too loud, still crashing into her but despite all of that, despite the amphetamines and alcohol coursing through her system that voice still wouldn’t fucking shut up.

More, I need more. Victoria thought, clenching her fist and rubbing her temples. She turned, keeping an eye out for Frank, for a bouncer, for anyone that could sell her another pill. But they were nowhere to be found.

Fuck it.

Her fingers scrabble against the sides of the bottle in her bag, and she fumbles for a while before she pulls it out, quickly pocketing it before anyone could see it. Almost unconsciously, she found herself carving a way through the crowd. She rubs up against sweaty bodies, strange hands reaching out to grab at her before she can swat them away. She was used to this, used to the dangers of the dance floor. They used to exhilarate her, because she knew that if anybody ever went too far she could ruin them without a second thought. But tonight, all this just exhausted her. It was always the same, jump, dance, feel the beat in your chest, rinse and repeat. She knew how the colours melted now, and it was boring. But she knew what would make it better.

She threw the door of the bathroom open, staggering in before she steadied herself on the edge of the sink. Her head was throbbing, and now, with the music muffled behind the door, her headache was ten times worse. She looked up, staring into her own brown eyes.

Look at yourself, a Chase. Victoria Maribeth Chase. Can you even begin to live up to that name?

Her fingers unclench, and she glanced down at the bottle in her hand. It was filled with a light white powder, tumbling around inside.

No, you can’t. Just another monster, another Chase that leaves people behind.

The powder spills onto the countertop when her fingers slip, the bottle spinning off the counter top and onto the floor. She pulls out her wallet, her fingers frantic as they pull out a card and start to cut.

You’re just like your parents, blind with ambition, leaving broken people behind in your wake.

Her fingers keep slipping, again and again on the card, and she can barely get the lines straight enough or thin enough.

That’s all you do, you break people. People who deserve better.

She bends down, not even bothering to roll up a bill. The voice was so loud now, too loud not to hear, and it was all she could do to focus on moving her head as she breathed down the line. It was always unfamiliar, the first hit of cocaine. The feeling of it clogging the inside of your nose as you breathe it in. But as she felt the strength flow back into her limbs she started to breathe a little easier, and her fingers buzzed into life again.

She knew what this was, the first rush of energy that comes with the hit, and that she would be crashing soon, but right now she couldn’t care less, not with the euphoria returning. She wiped her nose, then stormed out the bathroom, leaving the bottle behind. It didn't matter, nothing mattered.

Not anymore.

Chapter Text

It’s too boring in here.

That’s what Kate has been telling herself for hours, staring up at the ceiling of her room. It was a quiet night, and she couldn’t sleep. The only thing behind her eyelids was a white light, waiting for her in her dreams. She was tired of seeing it, tired of hearing those muffled voices at the edges of her mind. It was getting better, slowly. Every time she dreamt of it the instinctive fear that flared up was getting duller and duller. But she was still shocked awake when the voices drew nearer, and waking up to a bed drenched in sweat was becoming commonplace for her.

Somedays she woke up struggling for breath, even worse, some days she woke up still feeling the ropes on her hands.

Tonight, however, was one of the other kind of nights, the nights where she was so afraid of the dreams that she couldn’t find the strength to sleep. She had pulled out her laptop, and soft music was playing, but all that was doing was keeping the silence at bay.

Not enough to quiet her mind.

Three days on, and Kate was still thinking about everything Taylor had told her. Everything about the older, better Victoria.

Kate turned over, feeling her hair fall over her face. She sighed, watching the hair float in the breeze. For the past three days, Kate kept turning the conversation with Taylor over and over in her head. She wanted to talk to Victoria almost as soon as they came back to Blackwell, but Victoria had done everything in her power to avoid that conversation.

She set land speed records on her way out of class, marching out so quickly that even Ms Grant raised an eyebrow. Her ability to hide from Kate would have put ninjas to shame, and any attempt to text her met with no response whatsoever.

Victoria was cutting her off from her world, and Kate had no idea what to do.

She sat up on her bed, rubbing her eyes. Her laptop continued to warble out it’s sad tune, and Kate tried her best to focus on the song. It was nothing special, just three hours of harp music, but she was thankful for the small amount of noise it made.

She stood up, throwing off her covers and walking over to the window. Opening it, the breeze flowed into her room, and she shivered as it wrapped around her bare legs. The moonlight washed across the campus, and the sky was clear enough for her to look up at the stars.

She took a deep breath, feeling the cold air flow into her lungs.

It was a quiet night, and the notes from her laptop flowed gently into the night. Kate stared out at the empty lawn of the dorm, trying not to think about the fact that only a few weeks ago, her body had a real chance of lying twisted on the tiles below.

The totem pole in the corner of the lawn looked a lot more foreboding at night, and the lit streetlamps seemed to only add to the mystique of the scene before her. She briefly wondered why Jefferson never set them any night assignments, since he was so fond of the darkness. There was a certain beauty to the darkness in front of her, and she wondered how her classmates would have chosen to bring it out.

Maybe Jefferson only liked the darkness he could create.

She leaned her forehead against her arms, breathing out slowly. In the corner, alice was asleep, but she wished she could hold her for comfort. It was always the most quiet nights that brought out her darkest thoughts, and she hated how weak they made her feel.

Can’t you leave my waking hours alone if you’re going to haunt my dreams?

She turned, throwing herself onto the bed. Maybe if her waking thoughts were still going to be this bad, she might as well try to go to sleep.

She tumbles into bed, and closes her eyes.

The singing coming from the hallway forces them open again.

It floats through the door, and she hears the odd thump of something in the hallway being bumped into.

We wrote a story in the fog on the windows that night~

The voice was weak, off-tune and slurred. But it was unmistakeable, even without the usual authority behind it. Kate clambered off the bed, rushing over to the door and pressing her ear up against it.

But...But the ending is the same every damn time~

Victoria was stuttering, almost like she forgot the lyrics, or couldn’t quite bring herself to sing them. Kate held her breath, trying not to alert Victoria to her presence. At least it was crazy late, and the other students would have already gone to sleep by now. If Victoria was singing any louder, she’d be worried about her waking them up, but her voice was small, and she seemed to have stopped walking into things. At least, there were fewer tell-tale thumps.

The singing grew slightly louder as she neared Kate’s door.

They think I’m insane, they think my lover is strange~

But I don’t have to fuckin tell them anything…

Kate had never heard Victoria swear before, but she could actually hear her bite her lip and drag the word out, and it she almost physically recoiled from the door. It was so rough, and Kate never knew that so much hatred and anger could hide behind a word.

The singing stopped abruptly, after a moment, Kate started to worry. Had Victoria passed out in the hallway? But if she did, wouldn’t Kate have heard it? She also hadn’t heard a door opening either. Was she okay?

Seconds later there was a thump. On Kate’s door.

Kate backpedaled so quickly she almost tripped onto her bed. Her door moved slightly in its frame, and the doorknob started jiggling. She could hear Victoria put her keys into the lock, then try to gently turn it. It wouldn’t turn, Kate knew that, but it was still another shock when she heard the whispered what the fuck? From Victoria.

The doorknob started to jiggle more violently. Before long, Kate’s door started to jerk violently in it’s frame.

She must think this is her room, Kate thought. If she gets any louder, she’s going to wake up everyone.

What do I do?

She didn’t want to just open the door and chase her away, If she did that, Victoria might never speak to her again. But staying here wasn’t a solution either. If nothing else, she knew that if Victoria was mistaking her door for hers, then she clearly wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

Kate didn’t want anyone to see Victoria like that.

Maybe that’s why she rushed off her bed, unlocking and swinging open the door.

She wasn’t ready for what she saw.

Victoria was slouched over, her shoulders hunched and her hair dishevelled. Her clothes were untucked and messy, nothing like the way she usually carried herself in class. Was that a facade? A mask she puts on to hide herself away from the world? Kate questioned. If this is who she really is on the inside, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Then Kate looked into her eyes.

Victoria’s pupils were dilated, blown out so wide the blacks almost overpowered her browns. But around that, her eyes were strained, red rimmed. The fact that they were bloodshot only brought out her eyebags more, and her makeup had long since been rubbed away.

She was still strangely beautiful, despite it all.

That was Kate’s last thought before Victoria surged forward and kissed her.

“Vic-” was all that came out when Kate’s lips had a moment’s respite as she tried to back away. But Victoria wouldn’t let her speak. She pushed against Kate until Kate felt the back of her sofa crash into her knees, and she tumbled onto it, Victoria still following her.

Kate landed on the sofa, and Victoria almost knocked the wind out of her as she landed on top of her. But Victoria seemed to move with a mission, quickly straddling her and cupping kate’s cheek with her hand. Kate struggled, but Victoria’s other hand pinned her wrists above her head, and all Kate could do was focus on the kiss.

Victoria’s lips were so...wrong. Kate had never been kissed before, but even she could feel the lack of love in this kiss. Victoria wasn’t paying any attention to her at all, her lips smashing into Kate’s again and again. Kate pushed with her hands, fighting against Victoria’s grip, but she was so strong. Victoria’s other hand left Kate’s cheek, letting her fingers ghost down the side of her neck. Kate shivered, struggling and whimpering as Victoria traced her collarbones, her fingers not relenting in their descent. Victoria let her hand move around Kate’s ribcage, brushing the side of her breast as her hand made her way to the small of Kate’s back.

Victoria pulled her close from there, so violently that Kate arched her back off the bed. And suddenly Kate felt bile rise in the back of her throat, the sour taste spreading as she suddenly remembered.

Remembered these hands on her, remembered the taste of wine, flashing lights and thumping music.

Wrong. This is wrong wrong WRONG.

Kate felt panic rush up in her chest, blossoming across her body as she began to thrash. Her legs bucked and kicked as she tried to get out, to do anything. She needed to breath, she needed air, she needed light she needed she needed she needed.

Victoria was so strong, but not enough, and Kate pitched her weight off the bed, rolling the both of them onto the floor. The next thing she know’s Kate is opening the door and running out of the room. Outside, she can hear doors opening and voices rising.

“What the fuck?!”

“Kate? What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

Victoria’s head is swimming, eyes blocked by a heavy fog that feels like it’s eating at the edges of her brain. Her hands scrabble around in the darkness, and she stumbles as she pushes herself off the ground. Outside, beyond the door, more and more lights are coming on, and a cacophony of different voices start to drift through the door.

“Is that Kate?”

“What’s going on?”

“Kate! Kate, what happened?”

The light in the room flickers to life, and Victoria feels rough hands grab her shoulders. She feels the carpet burn her through her jeans as she’s dragged to her feet, and a flash of blue before she’s flung out the door and into the hallway. She rolls out onto the floor, slamming her head against the wall.

Chloe comes striding out of Kate’s room, and Victoria raises her head to look at her. She’s standing tall, her fists balls of anger at her sides. Around her, a everyone is crowding around her, Taylor with wide eyes of concern, Alyssa and Max both standing with dark looks in their eyes. But they couldn’t compare to Chloe who was towering over Victoria with enough hatred in her eyes to cow an enraged bull.

“Start fucking talking,” Chloe commanded through gritted teeth. “Or I’ll beat it out of you.”

Victoria couldn’t help it. Her shoulders started to shake, and a small giggle escapes her lips. Before long, she’s full on laughing, notes of hysteria bouncing off the walls of the Prescott Dormitories.

She was still laughing when the punch landed on her cheek, and blood began to seep out her nose.

“Chloe!” Max rushes over, holding her back. She tried to meet her eyes, but Chloe’s eyes were flitting between a crying Kate and a laughing Victoria. They were burning with anger, and Max couldn’t help but feel some of it too.

“What the fuck is so funny?” Chloe growled, and Victoria could only laugh a little louder.

“A...all of you!” Victoria said between breaths. “Fuckin hypocrites, coming to help only when everything goes wrong.”

Victoria sniffles, rubbing the blood away from her nose with the back of her hand, staring at it incredulously. The laughter quietly subsided, and a sullen silence rushed in to fill it’s place. Alyssa grabbed on to Kate, hiding her from Victoria, and by now everyone had come out of their dorms to see what the commotion was about. Victoria stared around at the familiar faces, at the peasants that wandered these halls pretending that they mattered.

They disgusted her.

Chloe’s hands started to shake as Victoria rose to her feet. She should have known, known that leaving Kate and Victoria to their own business would only lead to disaster, but she had promised Max to stay out of everything they could. Seems like that was a bad idea.

Max was also thinking that, wondering if this was worth rewinding and putting right. But it was only by blind luck that she was able to make everything right, and save everyone before. She wasn’t sure luck would save them again. Who knows what could come next? Another hurricane? A solar storm? She couldn’t garuntee anyone’s safety if she ever used those powers again.

She sighed, resigning herself to sit back and watch as Victoria slowly rose to her feet.

“Look at all of you, standing there pretending to care about her,” Victoria spat, her voice dripping with venom. “Hypocrites, every last one of you.”

“You don’t deserve to stand there and pretend that you are about her, not if you were out on that lawn that day, doing fuck all while she was up here!”

Victoria took a breath. She was already breathing hard, the feeling of her heart hammering in her ribcage overpowering everything else. She knew that she meant none of this, that her words were simply tumbling out of her with no way for her to hold them back. But she couldn’t find it in herself to care.

Fuck you, Fuck all of you for thinking you even have the right to judge me.

She couldn’t control the anger in her, losing all control as its waves crashed against eery fibre of her being. Everyone was staring at her, and she was the centre of attention again, but she had no idea what to do . No games to play, no angle on someone else to work.

Just another freak show at the circus.

She was staring at the ground, and didn’t notice her walk up until Max was standing right in front of her. She glanced up, expecting fury and anger, but Max’s face was one of pity and concern.

Somehow that only made Victoria feel worse.

Max’s voice was barely more than a whisper when she spoke, a voice for just the two of them. “Victoria, please… don’t do this. There nothing you have to prove here, no one to prove yourself to. You don’t have to feel insecure. Just tell us what happened, apologise, whatever. We can make this right again.”

Those are my words, how the hell does she know that? I’ve never said those words to anyone else, no one that would tell her.

There’s no way she should know that. But she does. Does everyone?

Am I that transparent?

Victoria must have sneered, because Max’s face changes from gentle to taken aback so quickly it stuns her.

“Don’t make me laugh, Max.”

Victoria straightens, summoning what little steel she has left in her soul to spear everyone around her with the fiercest glare she can. She’s so so tired, but she will have the last word if it kills her.

“Nothing’s going to be right again.”

Victoria glances at Kate just as she removes her hands from her face. Her face is tear streaked, and she mouth’s two words.

I’m sorry.

Victoria turns, looking away. There’s nothing for her here anymore.

“Nothing’s been right for a very long time.” She says over her shoulder. Then she leaves the dorm, another trail of destruction in her wake.

 

---

 

Victoria disappears.

She never sets foot in the halls of Blackwell again. Her dorm is emptied out within the week, and a dark skinned girl with blue eyses takes her place. She’s athletic, joins the Blackwell Otters, but she keeps to herself, and no one finds the energy or time to pay attention to her.

The whispers stop, that’s the best thing that happens to Kate after Victoria left. That night, standing together in defiance in the dorm did something to the young women of Blackwell, and they start to protect each other with a vehement ferocity. Taylor takes the lead, and Max and Chloe watch from afar, stepping in when they have to .

No one hears from Victoria for the longest time. Whenever Kate asks, it’s always the faintest rumor, the story from a friend of a friend of a friend.

I heard she moved back to Seattle.

They say her parents disowned her, unofficially. Something to do with drugs.

She’s still taking pictures, that’s all I know.

Socially, Victoria’s a ghost. Her social media pages disappear, and her works only appear occasionally on magazine covers and newspapers. Always pictures of people at th lowest points in their lives, and her name, small and insignificant in the corner.

Kate moves on.

She keeps drawing, pouring her heart and soul into her work, before long, she’s discovered by a publisher who loves the life and joy in her works, and they begin to talk.

It’s five years after Blackwell that she hears anything concrete from Victoria again.

That’s when the invitation appeared in her mailbox.

Chapter Text

2013, Arcadia Bay, The Vortex Club party.

The red light flashed on the corner of her screen as Victoria watches from afar, Kate kissing another boy whose name she can’t bother to remember. It might be Logan, she can’t really tell. The lights are too dark, but her flash illuminates the scene before her as her phone records every detail. Kate’s hair shifting in it’s bun as she wraps her arms around his neck.

Victoria’s grip on her phone tightens.

She only had a bit to drink, and was feeling nowhere as high as she was pretending. Every thought that flew through her mind was clear as day, and despite people telling her that a clear head is no way to party, she wasn’t going to add anything else tonight.

She didn’t feel much like partying, anyway. Not after seeing Kate lose her first kiss on the whims of Nathan, of all people.

“Go on, live a little!” Nathan says with a smile, a glass of wine outstretched towards Kate as Victoria watches. Where Nathan got the wine from, she had no idea. This was a Vortex club party after all, all hard liqour and party drugs. No time for the fancy tasting of wine.

Kate’s hesitant fingers, reaching out towards the glass, alighting around the neck. She brings it close, gently, staring at it as if it were a hand grenade about to go off in her hand. Bringing it up to her nose, she takes a sniff, and immediately turns her face away, disgust written clear on her features.

Victoria scoffs.

“See, I told you, Nate. Not cool enough, lets just leave her alone. She should be used to that, right? Being alone.”

The venom in her voice is manufactured, practiced, fake. None of the explosion of emotions everytime she turns her sharp tongue on her parents. But even that tiny amount of venom makes Kate look up, staring at her with wide eyes.

The contact lasts for a moment.

Then Kate lifts the glass and chugs it.

Nate starts whooping just as a little dribble of wine starts trailing down the side of Kate’s neck, and Victoria watches it flow down like a drop of blood.

Not so holy now, are you?

That was half an hour ago. The party went into a full-on rave a while after that, and it was all Victoria could do to keep Kate in her sight as she wormed her way through the crowd. Nathan had dared her, to go out and kiss every one she wanted to, to show her how much fun living a life on the edge could be.

And so she did, and Victoria was taping it all down.

She could already see it, headlines all over the internet. “Corruption of the Angel of Blackwell; the slut at heart.”

She wished she could summon more joy at the thought of taking Kate down a few notches on the social ladder, but in reality, every kiss she captured on camera just made her feel emptier.

She needed some peace and quiet, maybe a cigarette.

The carpark is full of cars, but as she rounded the corner and leaned against the wall, the thumping of the party music fades, and she’s left alone to her thoughts. The flame wavers in the night wind as she lights up, her cigarette smoke trailing upwards as she exhales. Inhale, exhale. That was the only way she kept living, trying to keep even breaths. As she took another drag, she imagined the smoke filling up her lungs, flowing into every corner and staining it black.

How fitting, the thing that helps me live reflects the way I live. She thought, watching the ash fall to the ground as she tips her cigarette.

The music turns louder for a moment, and she hears the door close as Nathan comes round the corner, Kate hanging onto his arm and walking unsteadily. He freezes when he sees her, then puts on his usual scowl.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

“What happened?” Victoria asks, straightening off the wall. Nathan slowly shuffles over, Kate leaning heavily into him. He doesn’t look like he’s really struggling with the weight, but Kate can’t be light either. He quickens the pace slightly, until he’s level with victoria.

“Bitch couldn’t handle her drink.” He grunts, hefting her arm over his shoulder as he says it.

She reaches over, poking Kate in the face. Kate’s eyelids stir, and she opens them blankly for a moment. “Vic...toria?” She says, her voice slow and slurred. So she was alive, at least, and it’s not like she was about to OD on anything considering she didn’t take anything.

She’ll be fine.

Kate slumps her head back for a moment, before half standing, staring up at Victoria with vacant eyes. Then she smiles, and reaches forward. Kate wraps her arms around Victoria’s neck, pushing off of Nathan with so much force that Victoria slumps back against the wall, the cigarette dropping out of her hand as she reaches back to steady herself.

Nathan takes a step forward, already reaching to pull her back, but Victoria puts up a hand to stop him. She’s not really sure why, but maybe it has something to do with the way Kate is looking at her. Kate’s staring deep into her eyes, her pupils blown wide. They were barely focused, but somehow Victoria knew that Kate was looking at her, and not through her. For the moment, she was still her, with her.

Kate smiles, and Victoria hates it.

Even when she’s drunk, even after she’s just kissed strangers and gone against everything she believes in, she’s still beautiful.

She looks like an angel. How can she look that good, be that kind?

Victoria’s fist clench. Why does she deserve to be so happy? When everyone else whispers behind her back and laughs at her she still manages to keep her head high. How, how, how?

Why can’t i be like that?

She wants to take it. Reach deep into Kate and pull that good heart and happiness right out of her just so she could know what it feels like. Maybe then she would know what it would be like to be flawless, to not have every flaw in her picked apart and torn into.

But she can’t. So Victoria wraps her hands around Kate’s hips, and pulls her close.

She won’t remember this, she thinks, digging her fingernails into Kate as the kiss deepens. Her heart races, and she reaches up to wrap a hand around Kate’s neck to hold her there. Kate whimpers as Victoria’s fingers descend on her her neck, but she doesn’t pull away, no matter how forceful Victoria gets. And she does get forceful. There was no love in the kiss, and as Victoria grazes her teeth against Kate’s lips, she pictures a black smoke, flowing into Kate from her, filling every cranny and dousing the light that used to reside in there..

You don’t deserve to be that happy. No one does.

Nathan clears his throat, and the moment is broken. The moonlight illuminates Kate’s face, and surprise is writ large on her innocent features as Victoria violently shoves her away. She crushes the cigarette with the flat of her high heels, then storms away. She doesn’t turn back when she hears Nathan grunt as Kate leans onto him again. She ignores the sound of a car door opening, and doesn’t see Nathan lay Kate across the back seat of his car, hidden from view.

She re-enters the party just as Nathan pulls out of the lot.

 

---

2018, Seattle.

Over again.

That’s what the sign next to the gallery entrance says, in a simple black font on a white background. The epitome of understatement. Kate runs a hand through her hair, tucking a stray strand back behind her ear. She wanted to tie it up, back into the bun that she used to wear a lifetime ago. But since those days she had learned that it paid more to look her age, especially when discussing business with strangers.

Another step forward. Sometimes Kate feels like that’s all she’s done since that night. One foot in front of the other, not stopping to think too much about who she was becoming.

Too afraid that she might not like what she saw if she ever turned back.

But then the invitation appeared. She looked down, at the.small card that rested in her hands. It had the same font, with no other designs beyond the intricate carving on the paper itself.

Kate Marsh, You are cordially invited to attend Victoria Chase’s latest exhibition “Over Again” at the Seattle Orion Gallery.

That was it. No big revelation, nothing to show that this was the first time she had heard anything about her in five years. The gallery itself was relatively quiet, but Kate had chosen specially to come on a weekday afternoon. To avoid the crowd, so she could see what Victoria had been up to in peace.

But now, standing in front of the trance, she was terrified of going in. What if Victoria had become twisted beyond recognition? What if Victoria didn’t even want to see her? Was this some sort of eleborate plan to get back at her for kicking her out of Blackwell?

Kate shook her head and sighed.

She wouldn’t do that. It’s been five years, and she could have done that anytime she wanted. She must have changed, just like I’ve changed. Lets hope it’s for the best.

Kate passes the invitation to a sharply-dressed receptionist, who directs her into the gallery.

The first shot she sees takes her breath away.

It’s in black and white, a picture of a woman holding a child, standing knee deep in murky waters and behind bars. They’re wide-eyed, staring into the camera, with eyes that screamed a mix of despair and hope. Kate steps in closer, reading the plaque that adorns the bottom of the frame.

Protection

After the earthquake that devastated Nepal, the country wa left in such a disarray that children were forced to live in hellish conditions. In some cases, when parents were sent to jail and there was no one to look after the children, they would live with their parent’s, in overcrowded and devastated jail cells.

Innocence in the most twisted and hopeless of places. How does it survive?

Kate didn’t realise she had covered her mouth as she read the piece, taken aback. What horrors had Victoria seen in the past five years? Did she choose to scour these places? Somehow Kate couldn’t imagine Victoria in hiking and protective gear, reaching out to these people.

What happened to her?

Kate steps further into the gallery. Slowly the theme starts to become clear. The gallery is arranged into two squares, one inside of another. The one inside houses the actual exhibition, titled Over Again, Whilst the outer one show’s off a wide variety of work that she must have accumulated in the last five years. They were amazing shots, moments of terrifying sadness, beauty and melancholy. Kate can see where Victoria has disappeared to over the past five years, Korea, Nepal, even a surprise side trip into New Zealand, the focus of those shots being the quiet power of nature.

Kate tries to picture, Victoria, alone in those places, up to her own thoughts and choosing what to take a picture of. What kind of a person those experiences must have changed her into.

Before long, she finishes looking through the outer circle, and steps into the inner exhibition. There’s only a few other people here, but she loses all awareness of them as she starts to look through the shots. And all of a sudden Over Again makes sense.

The shot in middle of the square, standing on a pillar and blown so big that it outshines the rest of the room is a simples shot. A lit cigarette, half burned out and trailing smoke, resting on the rough asphalt of a quiet street. In the background of the shot, a wall is lit in an orange glow, and three silhouttes are clearly cast onto it. Two women, leaning against the wall, and one more, slightly blurrier, standing further away.

The plaque reads simply:

Over Again

In life, there are many moments that we wish we could do over. These are mine.

Kate looks around, staring at each of the other works that line the walls around her. A rainy rooftop, looking down at a grassy lawn below. A hallway, with doors ajar and about to open. A bouquet of flowers, standing upright in a vase, with the background of the shot cut in half, half in a shop, and half in a hospital ward.

Kate stares at them all, lost in memories, and so wrapped up in the moment that she doesn’t hear the high heels clopping on the floor behind her. She only noties when she hears the familiar voice.

“Kate?”

Chapter Text

It’s a quaint little cafe that Kate soon finds herself in. The walls are lined with a strange floral wallpaper that gives the whole shop a last-century vibe, and the smell of good coffee has wafted into every inch of the space. The baristas aren’t in a uniform, and they smile at Victoria when she enters, with Kate on her heels.

“The coffee here is great, but you never were a coffee person, were you?”

Kate turns her attention back to Victoria, who was sitting across from her. For a moment, she couldn’t think of what to say. All she could do was stare.

Victoria’s hair was longer now, full of curves and waves that swept over her left shoulder. It was still blonde, but the sheer length of it and five years on the road had left it slightly worse for wear. It wasn’t perfect, the remnants of heat frizz and split ends hiding amongst it’s ranks, but all of it only served to frame a face that was still as perfect as she remembered.

Well, perfect except for the faint scar that ran from Victoria’s lip to her jawline.

“You can ask about it, you know.” Victoria said, a faint smile dancing on her lips as she reaches up, tracing the scar with a finger. Kate feels her face heat up, and she averts her gaze, staring intently at the menu resting on the table before her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare…” Victoria smirks, raising her hand to call over the barista.

“The usual, and a lavender tea for her.” She says with a smile. The barista, a brown-haired girl with the eyebags of a college student flashes a smile, and retreats. Victoria turns her attention back to Kate, steepling her fingers on the table.

Silence rushes in to fill the space. Kate hadn’t experienced it in a while, the type of silence you could actually feel. It was heavy, filled to the brim with the unknown of five years hanging between them.

Where do I even begin? Kate thought.

She takes a breath, nervously toying with the menu in front of her. ‘There’s so many things i want to ask you.’ Kate begins, and Victoria regards her openly across the table. Victoria’s expression seems different now, more open, willing to wait and listen. Kate remembers the way she used to listen to people. Arms folded, nose upturned in a silent protest of the time wasted on listening to others. Its a nice improvement, and it sure makes talking to her easier. Not that it Kate had any idea which of the many questions to ask first.

Victoria smiles. “Yes, I suppose there is a lot unsaid between us. Please, ask away, and I’ll do my best to tell you everything you want to know. You deserve that much, at least.”

Kate chews her lip, pondering. Maybe she should start small? Yeah, that seems like a good idea.

“...What made you suddenly choose to make a show? After so long...I’ve never even seen a lot of those shots, at least not in connection to you...so...why?”

Victoria runs a hand through her hair, sending it cascading all around her. The blonde catches the afternoon light, and for a moment, Kate is dazzled.

“I suppose it’s natural for you to want to know what happened during the past five years. But it’s a bit of a story, so buckle in.”

“After...that night...in the dorm, someone told my parents about everything that happened. I think it was Courtney, but to this day I still can’t really be sure. Either way, they found out, about all the parties and the drugs. The flew off the handle, blaming each other, blaming me, blaming the school. They called me a disgrace, a let down to the Chase family name.”

Victoria sighed, and hunched her shoulders together. Kate knew how hard it must be for her to tell this story, but she didn’t want to interrupt, to tell her it was okay not to tell her. It was selfish, maybe, but Kate wanted to hear all of it.

“They basically disowned me,” Victoria continued. “Sent me far away to some boarding school in the middle of nowhere. I was two months in when I decided to say fuck it to it all.”

“I dropped out, without their knowledge, by the time the school found out that I wasn’t on the grounds and called my parents, I was already on a plane, holding all the cash I could carry and my camera.”

That revelation stuns Kate for a moment, but she knows how headstrong Victoria can be. God help anyone who stood in her way of leaving that day.

The barista returns, placing their steaming drinks on the table before walking away. Victoria picks up the teaspoon, stirring her back coffee slowly as she continues.

“It wasn’t necessary to hold on to all that cash, now that I think back to it. My parents never did cut me off from their money. Out of guilt or whatever I don’t know. Either way, I stayed just out of reach, constantly on the move. I couldn’t stand it, the thought of being under their thumb for the rest of my life. Maybe it was something about that boarding school, seeing all those other kids being molded into exactly the person their parents wanted them to be.”

“It disgusted me, Kate. Sickened me to think that I would end up like them. I had to find a way to be my own person, even if it killed me. So I drifted, from city to city. The plane brought me back to Seattle, and from there I bought a secondhand bike and travelled the open roads.”

She takes a sip of her coffee, and Kate watches as the black liquid lingers on her lips. She can’t believe it, that the person sitting in front of her, so poised and confident, went through such a tough time.

“But even then, I was still just a drifter, lost in every city I visited until one day, in a divy bar in the centre of Hobart, I met this photojournalist. He told me the stories of all the people he met on his travels, and how, through them, he had found himself.”

“I knew then, that that was something I needed to do. To see and hear the stories of others. Maybe then I’d know where my own was going. So I packed up, and travelled with him. You saw that shot? The one of the woman and the child in Nepal? That was taken on that trip.”

“I wrote their stories, took their pictures, and sent them to newspapers and magazines under pseudonyms. Always pseudonyms, so my parent’s wouldn’t know what I was doing. Slowly, I started getting popular again. That photographer and I parted ways, but his work still influences me, and we still stay in touch. Then one day, he wrote me a letter, asking me about who I was before he met me in that bar so many years ago.”

“So I told him, all about our story. And he wrote back, saying that maybe I should use that as an inspiration, to look back on my journey so far and wonder about the journey ahead.”

Victoria pulls out her wallet, and takes out a small white card. On it is a beautifully shot picture of tree, silhouetted against a night sky. Kate takes it, then flips it over, reading the inscription on the back.

“May your roots hold fast, as your branches scour the heavens.”

Victoria nods, taking another sip. “Basically he means that it’s because of who I was that makes me who I am. And that no matter how bad the past was, the future can always be better.”

Kate nods slowly, returning the card. “That’s why you made that show? To look back on what makes you who you are?”

Victoria nods, folding the card back into her wallet and gingerly setting it aside.

“It’s been a...difficult, journey.” Victoria says with a sigh, stirring the coffee in her mug. “But hey, that’s life in a nutshell, isn’t it?”

Her phone buzzes, and Victoria picks it up. Reading the message intently. Kate takes the time to study her face a little more. The lines are a little more defined now, the frown lines between her brows more defined by the slightly untamed brows. It was still clear, how much Victoria took care of herself. But no matter how hard she tried, it seemed like the life she had lived was etched permanently on her face.

Kate liked it. Perhaps it was immature to think this way, but she thought that the scars and lines made her more of a person, and less of the perfect model of a human she used to be.

She stirs her tea, watching the swirls spin in her mug, hypnotic and slow. If anything, she was just trying to avoid staring as Victoria intently tapped out her reply. Her fingers were still long and slender, but they were decorated now, adorned with a spiderweb of faint wrinkles that wrapped around her fingers. She couldn’t touch them, but Kate was willing to bet that they’d be like sandpaper.

Victoria’s fingers danced across her screen, and she glanced up, an apologetic look in her eyes. Kate raised her eyebrows, her question writ large on her face.

“Kate, I’m sorry. Something’s come up with my latest article, and I need to rush off to speak to the editor about it. I know I promised we could hang out a little longer but…” Victoria glanced to the side, averting her gaze, but Kate could see the flash of guilt just before she turned away.

“Oh!”

Victoria perked up, reaching into her bag to pull out her wallet, rifling through it’s contents as she spoke.

“Tell you what, why don’t you come by later tonight?”

Victoria pulls out a card, and quickly scribbles on it before handing it over to Kate. Kate takes it, turning it over in her hands. It’s a simple business card, and her address is scrawled across it in neat little words. It's a apartment complex in the middle of town, near the gallery.

“Im renting it while the show’s going on, just a temporary measure before my next adventure, but it’s getting a little lonely. Maybe you could come over, and we could catch up. What do you think?”

 

---

 

“I think it’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard in the history of ever, Kate. I watch daytime television and they have better ideas than that!”

Watching Alyssa throw a minor tantrum in the small frame of the video call on her laptop is a pretty amusing sight, especially because she’s struggling to keep up her temper while holding on to her cat. The cat, on the other hand, seems to have made it an immediate life goal to escape her grasp and terrorize everything within reach. Kate smiles fondly, watching Alyssa struggle.

“Honestly Alyssa, I don’t think there’s any reason to worry. It’s been years! If she really wanted to hurt or embarrass me she could have done it at that gallery. Heaven knows she was in her element there.” Kate ended quietly. She didn’t want to “throw shade” as the term was these days, but it would be foolish not to admit that Victoria could have embarrassed her in front of all the high-flying guests at her show at any moment.

She could have easily ruined her career, if Kate was honest.

But underneath the confident facade that approached her in the gallery that morning, Kate wondered what else Victoria was hiding. What happened to the Victoria of old? The storm of emotions that she used to hide underneath a confident stride and air of superiority? What did the photos inside the main exhibition mean to her? Kate had so many questions, and she was determined to find the answers to them.

Alyssa frowned. She gave up the battle with her cat, shooing it out of her room and closing the door behind it before striding back into the view of the laptop camera.

Kate sees her come back into view, and her face is a mask of concern.

“Kate… I don’t know how to be anything but blunt, so I’ll just say it: She tried to kill you, Kate.” Alyssa says with a sigh. “I know it’s been a really long time, and she’s probably changed. But I think it might not be healthy for you to get back in touch with her. Didn’t your therapist say something about that?”

Kate fell silent. It was true, her therapist had said that if she ever came in contact with Victoria again it was probably in her best interest to stay away. Even if she had changed, just being near her could bring back traumatic memories.

But Kate felt like she needed this, needed to prove to herself that she wouldn’t be defined only by the events of that year in Blackwell. She’s moved on so much, from starting a help group at her local church, to pushing her career as a illustrator. So maybe she hasn’t seen as much as Victoria has on her travels, but maybe that’s exactly why she should hang out with her again.

There couldn’t be two more different people in a room together. And that’s the wonder of it all.

“Alyssa… I don’t think you’re being fair. I don’t think any of us are being fair about what happened back then.” Kate says. She bites her lip, carefully considering her next words. Technically Alyssa couldn’t physically stop her from going, but she was still her friend, and Kate wouldn’t want to leave Alyssa worried about her.

“None of us were in a good place during that year, Alyssa. Maybe it’s easy to look back now and think about how wrong what some of us did was, but back then, I don’t think any of us could have thought of how to do it better.”

“Kate, this is crazy!” Burst Alyssa. “Don’t you remember what she did? Even putting aside the video she took, there’s still that night that you wont tell anyone about!”

Kate nervously pulled on the hem of her skirt. She did remember, and that night was still only between her and her therapist. It had been five years, but of all the scars that Blackwell and Arcadia bay had inflicted on her, that one still felt fresh and raw. She knew what would help though: Closure.

Maybe that’s what tonight should be about too. Change and closure. A fresh step ahead.

“Alyssa,” Kate said, this time with a little more steel in her voice. “I know how this probably looks. And I know that theres a huge chance that this is gonna be another mistake in my history with Victoria, but if there’s a chance, no matter how small, that we could become friends? I’d take it.”

Alyssa looked doubtful, so Kate continued.

“I know you and everyone else cares for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. But I think that I was lucky to have you, Max, Chloe and everyone else to help me through my troubles. Nate didn’t have anyone...and look what happened.”

Kate’s voice went quiet, and Alyssa expression softened.

“...From what I’ve heard, Victoria’s had almost no one to count on. I can’t imagine what living like that must have been like. If she’s changed for the better, then I think she should start deserving better too.”

There was a pregnant silence. Then Alyssa heaved a heavy sigh.

“If anything goes wrong Kate, you let me know ASAP, okay? You still have me on speed dial, right?”

Kate smiled.

Chapter Text

Kate felt slightly ridiculous. Her grip on the bouquet of flowers tightened and she toyed with the wrapping nervously.

Kate was fully aware that showing up alone to a girl's door with a bouquet of flowers was generally reserved for dates, not nights spent catching up with old friends (if they even were that). But she couldn't think of anything else to get, and she thought that flowers brightened up any home, no matter how high-rise or temporary.

And those were two phrases that deeply suited this apartment, at least from what Kate had seen before getting into the elevator.

It was a tall, steel and glass facsimile of a home, little units tucked away from the prying eye by darkened windows. As she had entered, the guard at the front desk had barely glanced up from his portable TV as she brushed past, on her way to the elevator. She was thankful for that, at least. She didn't need anyone extra to talk to as they tried to pry into why she was here.

But there was still tension in her, and it tightened her shoulders as the elevator climbed the floors. This was going to be the first time she and Victoria would be alone together in five years. If the last time they were alone in a room was anything to go by, this night might end poorly.

Kate shook her head, trying to dispel those thoughts as she hugged the flowers tighter. No, she couldn't let herself think like that. Victoria wasn't the “Queen bitch” of Blackwell anymore. She was just a lonely woman, who's seen a lot of the world.

The elevator dinged, shaking Kate out of her thoughts as the doors slid open. She stepped out tentatively, looking around the floor. It was deserted, but well lit and lined with plush carpet. Honestly, this building resembled a hotel more than a home. Kate found it difficult to picture children and families living their lives here.

Maybe this apartment was on a rent-only basis.

Kate wandered around, taking in the quiet surroundings before she found Victoria's door. She stood in front of the polished oak, taking a deep breath.

Last chance to run away.

Kate reached up and knocked, and waited with bated breath as she heard footsteps approach the door. The sound of the door unlatching and the locks being drawn back seemed thunderous to Kate.

Then the door swung open, and there stood Victoria.

Kate throat suddenly felt insanely dry.

Victoria's hair was damp from a shower, clumping together in a mess hanging over her left shoulder. She wasn't wearing makeup, and her eyebags were puffy, her lines not as accentuated. But her eyes were wider, possibly because they were framed by a pair of black glasses. They brought out the deep blue of her eyes, and Kate struggled not to be lost in them.

Victoria was wrapped in a light pink night dress that ended above her knees, and Kate admired her long legs as she stood barefoot at the door. The dress hung loosely from her shoulders, and loosely hugged Victoria thin waist and hips. Kate stared, perhaps for a little too long, but she couldn't help it.

Even after all these years, Victoria was beautiful.

Victoria cleared her throat, and Kate was stunned out of her reverie. She glanced up, and caught sight of Victoria flashing a subtle cocky grin. A blush spread across Kate's face, her cheeks searing.

“Well. Hi.” Victoria said simple, and the smugness of those two syllables made Kate want to throw herself off the side of this building.

“Hi.” Kate replied meekly. Victoria was still staring at her, and Kate stepped closer. If anything, Kate wanted out of this hallway. If she was going to blush and act like a hormonal teenager she was going to do it inside, damn it.

“Can I come in?” Kate said, and Victoria stepped aside, opening the door wide. “Make yourself at home. MI casa and all that jazz right?” Victoria said, closing the door behind her. Kate padded into the apartment, looking around.

It was a simple enough apartment, but Kate got the impression that it wasn't a home, not by a long shot. A folder and some stationery lay open on the coffee table, and apart from a TV, a sofa and a tiny kitchen, the apartment was bare. It was pretty, in a way, with polished marble tile floors and a window overlooking the city skyline. But Kate didn't feel at home here. Victoria didn't either, if the bare walls and lack of anything personal lying around was anything to go by.

Victoria pushed past Kate, making for the kitchen. “Why the flowers, Kate?” Victoria frowned, rummaging through the cabinets. Kate glanced down, looking at the colorful bouquet in her hands.

“Oh! Um, you mentioned that your house felt lonely, and I thought that maybe this might… brighten up the place…?” Kate glanced over into the kitchen as Victoria turned to look at her over her shoulder.

Victoria grunts as she shifts a particularly hefty stack of plates, rummaging around. “While I appreciate the gesture, Kate, I do wish you had given me a heads up. I don't think I even own a vase.” Victoria frowns as her hands scrape the back of the cupboard. “yeah, nope. I do not own one”

Damn. The thought hadn't even occurred to Kate. Of course she wouldn't have a vase, she's only living here for a while. What was she thinking?

“Um, you don't have to put them in water right now, and I could come back around tomorrow with a spare one from home?”

Victoria turned, smirking as she raised an eyebrow.

“Smooth, Kate, just inviting yourself to my place again like that.” Victoria teased.

Kate was fairly certain that hellfire had nothing in the searing heat on her face. She must have been redder than a tomato.

“I, um… didn't mean it like that…”

“Oh? You don't want to see me?” Victoria said, mock-pouting. “Now I really am offended.” There was a long moment of silence as Kate stared at Victoria in disbelief, and Victoria struggled to maintain her pout.

Then Victoria chuckled, and the moment broke. Kate beamed widely as Victoria dissolved into giggles. Kate couldn't remember the last time she had heard such a happy noise from Victoria, and it was a delightful sound to listen to.

Kate struggled not to think of the history between them. Or rather, not to let the history between them affect the atmosphere tonight. Sure, it might have been the reason why she came here in the first place, but she didn't want it to get awkward. Awkward silences weren't on the menu tonight. Not if Kate had her way.

Thankfully, Victoria seemed to have the same idea. She was puttering about the kitchen in a flurry of movement. Pulling out glasses and a plate from a drawer, and starting to cut up some apples and oranges to lay out. It was lovely to watch Victoria like this, a master of her own space. Black glasses, no makeup, nothing to prove, just a comfy night dress and the quiet air of the night to set the atmosphere.

Kate wondered how many nights she had spent alone here, curled up in front of the TV, on the sofa by the window. The image of her, a slender and beautiful waif, curled up on the sofa illuminated by nothing but the TV and the night sky. It was an enrapturing thought. Another lovelier thought was that she might soon be a part of that image.

Victoria's voice brought her back to her senses. “Kate, I know this might be inappropriate, considering our history… but, it seems only fair that I offer you a drink.”

Victoria was standing in front of Kate, a bottle of wine in one hand, and two glasses in the other. She had the most abashed look on her face, and Kate felt a hint of apprehension creep back into the air.

It's not like she hadn't drank at all in the years after Blackwell. Of course she had! Business meetings, social gatherings, there was always the wetting of tongues. It made discussions go smoother, after all. And Kate had done it often enough to know her limits now, know the difference between being drunk and… whatever she was that night.

But still this seemed like a bad idea. To have a drink with someone who abused you so much before? It was a bad decision.

But hey, so was coming here tonight. She had already thrown a large amount of caution out the window. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Kate slowly nodded, taking the glasses and bottle from a very surprised Victoria. “Sure. It seems like we're in for a long night, and I think this will help. But I get to decide when we stop, okay?”

Concern flashes across Victoria's features, then she slowly nods and smiles. “Sure, Kate. Sorry for making a big fuss out of this… I just… want to help you feel comfortable around me again.”

Kate hears Victoria sigh, and she's about to reassure her when Victoria turns away, walking towards the kitchen to fetch the plate of fruits she's laid out. By the time she returns, she's all smiles again, and the reassurance dies on Kate's tongue as Victoria speaks.

“Look at me, there I go again, being a downer on the mood” Victoria offers an apologetic smile as she passes Kate, heading for the sofa. Kate falls in behind her, padding across the apartment. Victoria lays the plate down and settles onto the sofa, patting the space next to her. Kate sets the glasses down, and uncorks the bottle, setting it down too. Then she sits next to Victoria as she leans forward, pouring an… extravagant amount of wine into a glass. The other glass she fills is significantly less full, and Kate can only guess that that's hers. Victoria then passes her the glass with less (obviously), and raises her own into the air.

“What should we toast to?”

Kate mulls it over, looking at Victoria. This new Victoria, the hospitable, smiling, teasing and remarkably unprideful Victoria. She thinks back to what Taylor had told her, so many years ago. Maybe this wasn't a new Victoria, just one that had been lost for a little while.

Much like she was.

Kate lifts her glass. “To old friends, and new beginnings.”

Victoria smiles, and their glass clink.

The wine is dry, and it almost hurts Kate's throat as she swallows, but Victoria downs a big mouthful like it's nothing, and Kate reaches over to grab a slice of apple, taking a small bite to cover her urge to cough. If Victoria drank enough to treat this wine like it was nothing, then she must have been lonelier than Kate thought.

Sighing in satisfaction, Victoria set her glass back down onto the table, turning and curling up on the sofa so that she faced Kate, her knees curled to her chest. It was an adorable sight.

“Hey, when did you start to wear glasses?” Kate asks, taking another sip of wine. It hurt less this time, and she started to savour the taste a little more.

Victoria’s hand flies up to her glasses. “Oh!” She huffs, taking them off and placing them on the table. Kate’s sad to see them go. “Not too long ago, really. Too much time staring at a screen, you know?” Victoria explains sheepishly. Kate smiles.

“Usually I wear contacts, but I wanted to be comfortable tonight.”

“Well, I think they look good on you.” Kate says, and Victoria gives her a small smile in return. one hand reaching out to snag the glasses off the table and fiddling with them. She doesn’t put them back on though, like Kate had expected her to. There’s a long silence, then Victoria sighs, placing the glasses back on the table and looking squarely at Kate.

“So, ask away.”

Kate looks at her and, not for the first time tonight, realizes that she has no idea what she really wants to know. She's heard about her life for the past five years, and there were still a lot of questions she wanted answers to, but what about the ones from Blackwell? Why did she kiss her that night in her dorm? What would she have done if Kate hadn't freaked out? And why had her kiss felt…familiar?

Victoria looked at Kate, who was nervously fiddling with her wine glass, and took pity on her. It must not have been easy, choosing to come here and meet her alone. If she was honest, she was half expecting her not to turn up at all. Maybe she was setting the wrong tone for the night, trying to get Kate to spill out all her questions in one go.

“Okay, maybe we shouldn't aim too high, ” Victoria says.

Kate looks up quizzically, and Victoria continues.

“I mean, I can't really expect you to just, I don't know, ask a few questions and go home happy, right? This isn't a job interview.” Victoria smiles, hugging her knees closer. She was a little nervous being this close to Kate. Not only that she might bring back traumatic memories for Kate, but that Kate may bring back her self destructive tendencies again.

No, she was better than that now. She'd changed, and she would prove it. She could have a normal conversation with this lovely girl, if it was the last thing she did.

“Tell you what, you know all about me now, after what I told you in the cafe. But I don't know what's happened to you. What have you been up to these past five years?”

Kate perked up, glad that there was finally something easier to talk about.

“Well, after I finished my time in Blackwell, I still didn't really have any idea how to move on.” Kate started, and Victoria leaned in, listening intently.

“I didn't know where to go or what to do, but I did know one thing, I wanted to draw. That was the only reason I was in that photography class, you know. I wanted to understand what went into a good scene so I could draw it out. It's probably much easier to draw it out than to set up and photograph a scene… but it's still what I wanted to do.” Kate said, glancing up at Victoria. Although it had been the photojournalistic pictures that had blown her away, Kate was still very impressed by the pictures that Victoria had clearly staged. She had never seen Victoria at work, but she couldn't argue with the results.

Victoria took another sip of wine, swirling the red liquid in the glass. “You really shouldn't shortchange yourself like that Kate.” she sighed. Kate stared, and Victoria chuckled.

“You tilt your head when you don't understand something, did you know that? Like a little puppy. It's cute.”

If Kate was blushing as hard as she thought she was, then Victoria must have been blind because she didn't notice. Victoria continued, “I mean, it's one thing to be able to see a scene and photograph it exactly to your liking, but to take something out of your mind, and put it down the way you want to? That takes talent and work, Kate.”

Kate took another quick sip of wine, hoping the dry grating on her throat would cover her embarrassment. A compliment from Victoria Chase? She thought she'd never see the day.

“Thanks… I'm glad you think that way. A lot of people sure didn't, when I first started trying to get my work out there.”

Victoria started. “Really? Aren't you producing children's books? I don't mean to sound pretentious but I don't think there's too high a art standard on those.”

Kate sighed, “Yeah well, apparently some people do still have high standards. I was lucky to have someone actually open my books and take a look.”

“Wow. This world really is full of assholes.” Victoria seethed.

“Tell me about it.” Kate sighed.

Victoria smiled at Kate, and she took another sip of wine. It had just struck her, this was something that she had used to do with her friends. Bitch about life, about shit people and drink until the alcohol and each other's company made life a little easier.

So Kate was officially a friend of hers now. There's a nice thought.

Kate continued. “It wasn't until after the fourth or fifth company I sent my manuscript and drawings to that they actually reached out to me. I was so happy to receive that call I remember rushing down to meet them as quickly as I could. I forgot to eat breakfast, and throughout the meeting I was worried they could hear my stomach rumbling” Kate smiled fondly, and Victoria returned it.

“From there, things just seemed to take off. People like the stories of bunnies making friends with bears, it seems.”

“Of course they do, people are suckers for animals. My New Zealand set was one of my most popular ones, I think some people actually used my images in animal calendars.”

Kate laughed, the thought of the old Victoria, hearing someone else call her work cute was hilarious.

And all of a sudden, the conversation seemed to flow more easily, as did the wine. They talked about everything, about whether shit publishers were worse than vision-less editors, to whether bunnies were just as cute as dogs, if not more so. Victoria loved her idea of rewriting Alice in wonderland with Alice being a bunny and wonderland being a sprawling cityscape. Kate, in turn, listened to her plans for her next adventure, how Victoria wanted to fly to Asia, to feel and understand the culture coexisting with the cities, to photograph the people caught in between.

“It's just going to be a relaxed trip, a way to feel the culture of the world again before I go off to somewhere a bit more… well.” Victoria looked away, staring out over the city's night skyline. Kate followed her gaze for a moment, before looking back at her. Victoria’s face was troubled, and Kate wanted to know why. But she knew better than to badger her about it. Victoria would share in her own time.

Victoria pulled a pack of cigarettes out from her night dress. Drawing one out with her slender fingers, while with the other hand she drew a lighter. Kate watched her graceful movements, staring at the way her thumb flicked the wheel of the lighter, and the casual way she drew the flame to the cigarette. She hated smoking, but she wouldn’t preach to Victoria. She was free to make her own life choices. And it was interesting to watch.

Victoria took a drag, slowly letting the smoke out above her head. She caught Kate staring, and smiled guiltily.

“I know, I know. These are bad for me. But I'm weaning myself off them, really. This is my first in, what, three days? Most days I can go without, but tonight… tonight it just feels right.”

Kate nodded, saying nothing as she took another sip of the wine. The bottle was only a quarter full now, and Kate could feel her flush. She had barely drunk a quarter of the bottle, but she could tell Victoria still had a better grip on her wits than her.

Victoria smoked slowly. She leaned back on the couch, sliding her long legs down until she was lying in a almost awkward angle. But it let her watch the way the smoke curled in the air, and she that’s what she did for a while. Kate stared too, at the way Victoria's chest rose as she took a drag, almost painfully slowly. Then the way the smoke curled out of her mouth as she left it open, not exhaling. There was grace, and a quiet desperation to the way she smoked.

Kate's not sure she's ever seen anything like it.

Victoria breaks the silence.

“After Asia, I'm going to the Middle East.”

Kate sat up bolt upright. “What?!” she exclaimed. “Victoria that's… that's!”

Victoria sighed. “I know, I know. But I'll be safe, relatively. I'm partnered with this big newspaper that wants in depth coverage of what's going on there. I suppose I got myself a bit of a reputation these past few years. ‘Always gets the shot’ they say.” Victoria smirked mirthlessly, another lung full of smoke sucked down.

“Kate, that's why I wanted to see you tonight.”

Kate felt her heart sinking. This couldn't be happening, right? She had only just barely got to know her again!

“I wasn't even sure you'd respond to my invitation to come to the gallery showing. But I'm really really glad you did.” Victoria set her cigarette aside, then sat up, scooching over to where Kate sat on the couch. Kate looked up as she came closer, and felt Victoria's hand alight atop hers.

“Kate… these past few years I've taken the time to come to terms with a lot of things. But the one thing I can't live down is you. I couldn't find it in myself to leave it where we did, and I'm really really thankful that you chose to come here, to give me this night to remember.”

Kate looked up at Victoria. She smelled thickly of cigarette smoke and soap, with alcohol and ash on her breath. But her eyes. Her eyes were clear as they stared into Kate's.

“Kate, I'd like for us to be friends. Real friends, this time. And if there's anything, anything at all that I can do to make that happen, please. Tell me.”

Kate turns her hand, taking Victoria's into her palm. It was rougher, but Kate could see that Victoria still took the time to take care of them. Her nails were still manicured, a small leisure that she must allow herself. Beauty on the outside, tough on the inside.

Victoria's changed so much. And now Kate knows what she came here to ask.

“... Why did you kiss me?” Kate asks, and she looks directly into Victoria's eyes. For a moment, surprise crosses them, than Victoria steels herself, taking a breath.

“Well, that depends on when you're asking about.”

“There was only the once, Victoria.”

“No. No there wasn’t.”

Kate stared at her, and Victoria sighed.

“Kate… the night you were drugged… I… I kissed you. Out in the parking lot. As you were being dragged away by Nathan.”

As Victoria said those words, she felt an almost physical weight lift of her shoulders. Kate's mouth had opened in disbelief, and she was tracing her lips with a finger, almost unconsciously. Victoria quickly continued.

“Yeah. I’m not proud of it, but I think you deserve to know the truth.”

“I kissed you that night because I was jealous, hideously so. I was jealous of how simply you led your life, how you could keep your head high when everyone was laughing behind your back. How strongly you believed in whatever you wanted to, and refused to do anything just to make anyone else happy.”

“Kate, I was in a terrible place. I know that doesn't excuse me, and it shouldn't. It's just how I justified it to myself then.”

Victoria struggled to maintain her eye contact, and Kate could clearly see the guilt in her eyes. Victoria's grip on her hand was anxious, not painful, but still just slightly too tight. Victoria held her gaze for as long as she could, but eventually she turned away.

“I understand if you can't forgive me. Honestly. I just wanted to chance the be completely honest with you, and I'm already thankful for that.”

Kate takes a long moment to think, and in the silence Victoria worries that she might just up and leave.

It wouldn't be a surprise, really.

“... What about the other time? In the dorm…”

Victoria looked up, and Kate was still staring at her. Kate's hand was gentle in her own, and she hoped that the answer would make her happy.

“Kate… I…. Was really high that night.” Victoria starts.

“I went out partying, and by the time I was in the hallway I could barely see straight, let alone think. Sometimes memories if that night are still hard to remember, if I'm honest. But I do remember that when I saw you, that night in your room. I…”

Victoria hesitated. Was she really going to dump all of this onto Kate? Kate probably had had enough torment to last her a lifetime. Should she really be adding more to her plate?

Then Kate squeezed Victoria's hand, and she nodded encouragingly. Victoria sighed.

“Kate, I thought you were beautiful. And I wanted you. I sometimes wish that night had gone down differently, that if I had only been gentler, if I could have controlled myself then maybe… maybe…”

Victoria's voice trailed off. She couldn't find the strength to continue, and she couldn't bear to just sit there any longer. She stood up, turning away from Kate and walking over to the window. Her arms were folded, and she stared out at the night sky.

Victoria spoke without turning.

“Kate… if you want to leave I understand. I'm...not good for you. I don't think I deserve to even be your friend after all I've done.”

There was a long moment of silence, and Victoria braced herself to hear the door open behind her. She couldn't bear to look, to see Kate turn her back on her again.

She heard footsteps behind her, and closed her eyes. This was it. This would be the moment when her last shot at redemption literally walked out the door. She'd blown it, again.

Then the footsteps got closer, and she gasped as Kate wrapped her arms around Victoria's waist. Kate rested her head against Victoria's back, and it took all the strength Victoria could muster to not cry in relief.

Kate's voice was barely a whisper.

“I waited five years to hear you tell me the truth. Did you really think I was just going to walk out after we were done?”

And Victoria loses the fight as she feels a single tear creep down her cheek.

She turns, and Kate keeps her arms around her waist as they come face to face. Kate was smiling weakly, and Victoria couldn't help but return the smile as Kate reached up to brush away her tears.

Victoria returns the hug, and for a brief moment, all is right in her world.

“So…” Victoria says after a while. “Where do we go from here?”

Kate breaks the hug with a smile. “Well… You could start by giving me your number, and we could start talking regularly. That sound good?”

Victoria's heart is impossibly light, and she's sure she's strained a few muscles by smiling so much.

“It's a start.”

Chapter Text

And that's how it began. Small, and quiet, so unlike everything that's happened between them so far.

Victoria called Kate a cab home, and Kate watched her walk back into the apartment as her cab pulled away. The ride home is silent, and before she knows it, she's showered and clambering into bed. She laid there, trying not to close her eyes. For some reason, she was afraid that if she does she'll wake up, the events of tonight just a dream.

In the darkness of her room, she smiled. Her thoughts are childish, instead of lonely tonight, and she's thankful for that, really.

She does pinch herself, once, just to make sure it isn't a dream.

The sunlight soon streams through her curtains, and she sits up, rubbing her eyes before throwing the curtains wide, revealing the sprawling cityscape below.

Her phone's notification light passively flashes, and she picks it up. A text, from an unknown number.

Unknown:

“Hi, sleep well?”

Kate smiled as she replied.

Me:

Who is this? How'd you get this number? Whatever you're selling I don't want it.”

She tosses her phone aside, sitting up and stretching. The light cascades through her window, and Kate enjoys a silent moment, watching the dust particles dance in the light.

Her phone buzzes.

Unknown:

Har har, Kate. This is the sex line you called. Your credit card maxed out and we're foreclosing on your house. Serves you right for being a thirsty ho.”

Kate smirked, starting to tap out her own snarky reply. Today really was a good day. But before she could send it, her phone vibrates again.

Shit, wait I didn't mean it like that, fuck.”

Kate's brows furrow in confusion. What on earth was Victoria talking about? Her phone quickly vibrated again in quick succession.

Unknown:

I know you're still abstinent and I respect that now I mean”

“ I didn't mean to bring up that night again oh God I'm so sorry.”

It quickly snaps into place, and Kate sighs. Victoria, the silly little thing. Kate quickly sent a message out.

Me:

“Victoria.”

She waited, watching the little dots on her iPhone dance until Victoria finally sends:

Unknown:

“...yeah?”

Confident that she finally had her attention, Kate typed as quickly as she could.

Me:

Victoria, you don't have to be on your toes around me anymore. I didn't spend the last five years wallowing in self-pity, you know.”

“I've seen therapists, talked to friends, and dealt with everything Blackwell threw at me. I'm still standing, Vic, and I was genuinely laughing at your joke.”

“We're friends now, and if you or I ever feel like we're uncomfortable, it should be up to us to let each other know.”

Kate sends it, then sits and stares at her phone. It's a cold morning, but that has nothing to do with why she wraps the covers around her. She pulls them tighter as the three dots appear, and she awaits Victoria's reply.

Unknown:

Thanks Kate… sorry I kinda freaked out. Last night just still feels kinda too good to be real, yknow?”

Kate sighs, turning to look out the window. Somewhere, on another side of the city, she imagined Victoria, sitting alone on her bed, waiting for a reply.

Kate type out,

Me:

It was real, Vic. And good morning, to you too.”

The reply is swift.

Unknown:

Yeah, it is a good one. Thanks Kate.”

Kate stares out the window after she reads that text, and tries to imagine Victoria smiling on the other side.

 

---

 

The days soon go by faster and faster. Kate can barely keep up with it all: The demand for a new book has her drawing and writing double time, and her frames often have to be reworked over and over again before her editor gives the green light.

“Don't you think this frame is a little too…green?”

“Alice is in the forest.” Kate said, slightly exasperated. They've been going back and forth over this frame for an hour, and no conclusion seemed to be in sight. Kate was almost ready to explode out of her chair. Not that Jack, her editor, had an unfounded opinion, but the constant push and pull was enough to take it out of anyone.

She sighed, and Jack glanced at her. He knew how exhausting the process could be, and even after three successful books under their collective belts, it just never really got easier. The clock read 6.30pm, and he loosened his tie, collapsing into a chair.

“Look, Kate. I know we've been over this many times, and it's getting late. Why don't we pick this up again tomorrow?”

Kate glanced back at her artwork on the screen before nodding listlessly. She liked to think she wasn't an artist that believed she was perfect, but sometimes Jack could really be a-

Her phone buzzes, and puts a quick end to that uncharitable line of thought. She fishes it out of her pocket, turning away as Jack spun idly in his chair.

Victori:

Hey, how's your day going?

Kate sighed again, tapping out a quick reply.

Me:

Exhausting. You?

Victori:

Busy, but surviving. You sound like you could use a booster though.

Me:

Nah, at this point all I want is to go home and crawl into bed.

Victori:

That won't do at all! Your place, one hour. See you there. Promise I'll put a smile on your face.

Me:

Wait, what?

Victoria, you can't just come over like this!

Tori!!! I know you're reading these message!

Victori:

First of all, who gave you the right to use that nickname (I'm kidding please use it) and secondly, your place, one hour, how hard can it be?

Victori:

Actually, it's 55 mins now, so get that rear in gear.

“Something wrong?” Kate looked up, and Jack was watching her with a bemused expression. Kate glared, and Jack chuckled.

“I’m guessing your boyfriend isn’t too happy with you spending all your time with another man.”

Kate wanted to laugh, and probably would have if she wasn’t worried about Victoria’s hijinks. If only Jack knew. Pissing Victoria off would probably be worse than any possessive boyfriend, not that Kate cared to find out.

“I gotta go.” Kate said, hurriedly collecting her things. She poured them all into her bag and dashed out the door, a goodbye from Jack echoing out behind her as the door swung closed.

The elevator pinged open, and Kate dashed in. As the doors slid to a close, she whipped out her phone, quickly tapping.

Tori, the publisher's office is at least an hour away from my place. There's no way I can make it in time!

Kate sent it, anxiously watching the numbers on the elevator display count down. They crawled along, and Kate let out an exasperated noise. Her phone buzzed again.

Victori:

Tsk Tsk. It's bad manners to keep your lady date waiting.

Victori:

Hark! Chivalry is dead! But still though, hurry back here, yeah?

In spite of the annoyance bubbling inside her, Kate couldn't help but give a small smile. Leave it to Victoria to just barge into people's lives, even when she was trying to cheer them up.

Me:

Alright, alright, I'll catch a cab, it'll probably be faster. What do you even have planned?

Victori:

Get over here and find out ;)

It was exactly 72 minutes later when Kate rushed out of the elevator of her apartment block. Her apartment was round the corner, and she must have looked a mess. Her hair was dishevelled, and her clothes were crumpled from running. But she glanced at her watch as she ran, and couldn’t find it in herself to slow down.

Okay, so maybe she was just a little anxious to see Victoria.

She rushed around the corner, and there she stood. Victoria turned and smiled at Kate, and maybe it was all the running, but for a moment, Kate’s breath was taken away.

Victoria was dressed casually, skinny jeans, heels and a pink sweater. Her hair was loose, and it flowed softly down past her shoulder. She was carrying two paper bags in her arms hefting them as she shifted. Kate couldn’t understand it, how Victoria still managed to look like a model, even with such simple clothes and little to no makeup. She wasn’t even wearing eyeliner, for crying out loud.

Victoria hefted the paper bags she was hugging again, lifting them a little higher as she motioned towards the door.

“There you are,” she said. “Hurry over here and open the door, these bags aren’t light you know.”

Kate returned the smile, brushing past her as she fished the keys out of her bag. “Well, maybe if you gave people some forewarning you wouldn’t have to wait as long.” She quipped, unlocking the door.

“Point heard, and duly ignored.” Victoria announced as Kate opened the door and she stepped into the apartment. “After all, you knew what you were doing when you told me where you lived.”

Kate made an exasperated noise as she locked the door behind her, staring incredulously at Victoria’s back as she moved further into the apartment. “If I had known you were going to pressure me home like this I-!”

“Woah…” Breathed Victoria, cutting Kate off. Kate looked up, and smiled.

Being a bestselling author paid well, even if it was for children’s books. Kate had never really pondered the luxuries that she lived in, if she was honest. She mostly just remembered her agent saying something about it being out of the public’s eye, and a decent haven for an artist. But looking at Victoria as she stared out across the city through her tinted full length windows, she suddenly appreciated it a whole lot more.

Victoria was mesmerized by the evening glow of the sun across the city, watching in silence as lights started flickering on in the distance. Seattle was coming alive for the night, and Kate had never realized that she had a front row seat to it. She walked slowly until she was level with Victoria, who turned and looked at her.

“Looks like you're doing well for yourself, huh?” Victoria said, offering her a small smile. Kate smiled back, saying nothing. The moment lingered, then Victoria glanced over the apartment, past the living room with a opulent couch to the open kitchen in the corner of the room. She walked over, setting the bag down on the counter. Kate watched her curiously, and Victoria looked over at her.

“You're doing that thing again, tilting your head.” Victoria grinned, and Kate blushed, remembering the compliment that usually accompanied that observation. She didn't see Victoria very often (which was a sad situation but she was a busy woman, what could she do about it?) but now, even when she wasn't around, Kate had started to catch herself tilting her head.

She couldn't decide whether she should stop or not.

“... What's in the bags?” Kate huffed, hoping to cover her embarrassment. Victoria smiled, puttering about as she started pulling stuff out of the bags. A slab of raw salmon fillet, vegetables, a fresh bottle of wine started appearing, and Kate finally caught on to Victoria's surprise.

“Wait, you're… cooking?”

Victoria nodded absently as she laid out the ingredients, then began rifling through Kate's drawers like she owned the place. She produced a knife and chopping board and few bowls before continuing.

“Absolutely! I know how a busy schedule can play havoc with your life. When was the last time you really had a proper meal?” Victoria asked pointedly, glancing over at Kate. Kate looked away.

“... Not that long ago…” Kate answered in a small voice, not meeting Victoria's eyes. Victoria raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“Oh really.” Victoria said, gesturing towards the fridge with her knife.

“So if I open that, you're telling me I won't find a slew of microwave meals staring me in the face?” She asked, her voice just daring Kate to disagree.

“Okay, so I've been busy!” Kate exclaimed, and Victoria laughed.

“Well, never forget to take time for yourself okay?” Victoria said, pulling out a bowl to hold the recently diced potato. “Even if you come home exhausted, putting in the energy to cook even something small can really lift your spirits. You'll see.” Victoria said. She raised her arm and flapped her hand in a general come here motion, and Kate padded over.

“Alright alright, so what are we making?” Kate asked, a tired smile spreading on her face in spite of herself.

“Salmon steak with a red wine and pepper sauce, with stir fried potatoes on a bed of fresh vegetables.” Victoria announced. She grabbed a kitchen towel, draping it over her forearm as she turned to Kate, giving a very good impression of a stuck up maitre D. Kate giggled, and Victoria smiled.

Admittedly, Kate didn't do that much in the kitchen that night. Not because she was useless in the kitchen, she had helped prepare enough family dinners to be decent. But Victoria only had her focus on cutting and preparing the ingredients, insistent on doing the actual cooking herself. She had a convincing argument, which was that Kate only owned one apron. But it wasn't like Kate needed much convincing to sit back and watch Victoria work.

“When did you learn to cook?” Kate asked, watching as potatoes hit the frying pan, a delightful sizzle rising into the air. Victoria talked as she worked, and Kate admired the efficiency with which she was cooking. When Kate cooked, which was rare these days, but when it happened, she worked step by step, making each part of a dish separately. Sometimes that ended up with some parts coming out slightly too early and not being as warm as she would like when she finally sat down to eat. Victoria, one the other hand, seemed to have no trouble multitasking, one pan with salmon and sauce bubbling away, the other skilfully stir frying the potatoes.

She left them both to cook, turning around to arrange the vegetables on the plate. “l picked it up when I was living alone. You can learn just about anything online these days, and after a while, drive thrus just don't cut it anymore, y’know? Pass me the cherry tomatoes, will you?”

Kate handed the small plastic box over, trying to picture what the old Victoria would say to this new one. The old one that hated even a speck of dirt on her outfit, and this new one that was perfectly happy to stand in the way of bubbling oil, apron on her waist and spatula in hand.

Victoria turned back to the food on the burners, gently pushing them around. “You know, Kate, I've never actually cooked for anyone else before.” Victoria said. “I really hope you like it…”

“Don't be silly Tori!” Kate said. “Of course I will!”

That wasn't just for the sake of the compliment, though. The smell currently flooding the kitchen was downright mouth watering, and Kate had been salivating ever since Victoria had started on the sauce. She hadn't really realized just how hungry she had been, but if the smell was anything to go by, it was going to be amazing.

“Besides, I really doubt you'd ever show anything to anyone else if you didn't already know if it was amazing.” Kate continued. Victoria smiled at that, before turning off the gas.

“You little sweet talker. Keep this up and I might just spring for dessert.”

Kate watched as Victoria starting arranging the food on the plate, her movements graceful. “Yes, my ingenious plan for free food is working.” She teased, and Victoria waved her away.

“Oh hush you, make yourself useful and grab some forks or something”

Kate obliged, and by the time she walked out of the kitchen Victoria had laid out the plates, and was already filling the glasses. She looked up as Kate walked around to sit next to her and smiled as she settled down. Kate passed her a fork, and as Victoria accepted it, she glanced towards the window.

In the time it had taken them to cook, the sun had completely set, and night descended upon Seattle. The city lights illuminated the night, and the city was cast in an almost ethereal glow. Victoria stared at it, smiling as she thought what a good photo it would make. Pity she left her camera at the gallery.

“Not bad,” Victoria mused, glancing at Kate. “Dinner and a view.”

Kate smiled, and they dig in.

---

Their laughter echoes around the house, and Kate wishes that it could stay.

There are dishes piled high in Kate’s sink, but talking to Victoria was so enrapturing that she could hardly stand the thought of breaking the conversation just to wash dishes.

She’d wash them tomorrow, when she didn’t have such interesting company over.

“Anyway, we finally decided on the shot of the tree with flowers by the beachside, even though it was clearly staged. But he stopped complaining when critics were praising him for his ‘brave artistic choices’.” Victoria said with a roll of her eyes, ending the tale of the “young lost artist that seeked her help”. Kate smiled.

“Well, anyone would when the person complimenting them was from Time magazine.” Kate said, taking another sip of wine.

They had cleared the table, save for their glasses and the bottle of wine. Kate’s fingers curled around the neck of her glass, gently swirling it. Victoria was holding on to hers, leaning back in her chair. Kate sighed, and it caught Victoria’s attention. She speared her with a gaze, and Kate shook her head, sending a weak smile her way.

“Sorry, it was a rough day at the publisher’s office.”

Victoria continued looking at her, nodding gently as she took another sip of wine. Kate continued.

“There’s a new book coming up, and my...editor… has some questions about my direction of it.” Kate sighed. “If I’m honest, so do I. I know that they’re just children’s books, and that technically they don’t need any great direction but…”

Kate looked at Victoria. “I just feel like it isn’t my best work, you know? Like, I can do better.”

Victoria frowned. “What happened to the idea of Alice in wonderland where wonderland is actually a city? That sounded like a good idea to me.”

Kate toyed nervously with the base of her glass. “I’m saving that for the next book, and I know that that’s probably going to be a good one, but I need to finish this one first.”

Victoria leaned forward, then reached over and covered Kate’s hand with her own. “Kate, you worry too much. Even if it isn’t your best work, I think you’re very much like me.”

Kate tilted her head, leveling a questioning gaze towards Victoria.

“You know, wouldn’t put anything out there that you didn’t already know was perfect? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be fretting so much about this.” Victoria said, and Kate nodded.

“True, but at this point i need to put something out there, and I have no idea how to make it better.”

Victoria pursed her lips, thinking, and Kate stared listlessly into her own glass. She had been feeling like this for a while now, like she was out of ideas. Not that she’d ever admit it to Jack, but it was really starting to get in the way of her work.

“Well, maybe you can restart?” Victoria suggested. Kate glanced at her, and she continued.

“Whenever I do studio work I don’t just pick up any old prop and start setting up shots. The same probably goes for your artwork. You have to pre-plan, and decide on concepts and colour palettes, all of that. And while I know you’ve probably already done that and had a pretty clear idea on how you want to tell this story, maybe you can go back and try again, see what else pops up. I can suggest a few good children’s movies that might help.” Victoria said with a smile.

Restart the process? Kate thought. It wasn’t half-bad an idea, after all when you’re stuck somewhere, double back and try again right? Who knows, she might even find a better idea on the way.

On the other hand, Jack would probably kill her if she brought this up. To restart everything would take an insane amount of time, and effort and resources that she wasn’t sure they had. Jack trusted her, she knew that, but would that trust be enough to push through this? Kate chewed her lip as she thought it over. On one hand, a much better book and more faith in her work, on the other hand, the risk of falling out with Jack. Was it really worth it?

Kate sighed, Victoria had always had an eye for a good project and how to go about it. Maybe she should take her advice. Food for thought.

“Sure, at this point I’ll do anything that might help.”

Victoria smiles. “Okay, then I’ll send you a list of films that might give you some inspiration. First one off the top of my head? The last unicorn. It’s got mythical animals, magical forests and a story that makes you cry buckets. Seems right up your alley.”

Kate nodded, taking a quick note on her phone. Right. The Last Unicorn. Can do.

When she looks up again, Victoria is leaning forward on the table, one hand on her cheek. The other is still clasped on top of hers, and the smile on her lips has changed from benign to teasing.

Uh oh. Thinks Kate.

“...why are you looking at me like that?” Kate asked warily, already dreading the reply.

“Weeeeellllllll,” Victoria says, dragging out the syllable to unimaginably cocky proportions. “It seems to me like I’ve just done you a favour.”

Kate shifted uncomfortably in her seat, suddenly hyper-aware of her body. Her bare feet squirming on the floor, the wine warming her stomach, the flush on her face that was definitely because of the wine, and nothing to do with Victoria’s knees rubbing against her own, or how nice her hand felt wrapped around her own.

“Sounds like you owe me one, and I want to collect.”

Kate’s mouth goes dry, and she swallows before answering.

“Okay...what do you want?”

Victoria quirks an eyebrow.

“I want to play a game, and you can't say no.”

 

---

 

“Are you serious??!”

“Come on, Kate, have you never done this before?”

She hadn’t. Kate, crossed, tucked a strand of stray hair behind her ear, pouting. It really was getting long and kind of messy, and tying it up was a hassle. She should get it cut soon, but she just could never find the time. Sighing she looked back at Victoria, jealous that her hair was effortlessly flowing and staying in front of her shoulder.

They had moved to the floor, the now half-empty second bottle of wine atop the coffee table. Victoria was cross-legged, on a pillow across from Kate. She had a half-pout on her face, and Kate was pretty sure that it kind of matched her own.

“You went to college, didn’t you?” Victoria asked, staring incredulously at Kate.

“What does that have to do with this??” Kate questioned.

“And in all your time at college, you seriously never played ‘never have I ever?’” Victoria continued, completely at a loss. Sure, she had jumped into her career immediately after Blackwell, and never really got around to getting her degree, but even she had played this game. Memories of friends, new and old, that she had made on the road, and of nights that they had spent in bars playing this game.

There was no way Kate didn’t know it, right?

Kate crossed her arms. “Uh, no. I didn’t. I didn’t want to spend my college days drinking and partying you know.” Kate looked away, adding in a quiet voice. “I kind of had enough of that for a lifetime.”

Victoria pauses, then looks away, guilty. “That’s a low blow, Kate.” She sighs.

Kate looks back at her, concern in her eyes. “Yeah. I’m sorry…Look, I don’t mean to be an ass, okay? Victoria, You were nice enough to even come over and cook and cheer me up after you found out I had a bad day.” Kate reached out, taking Victoria’s hand. “And if I’m honest, this does sound like fun.”

Victoria looked at their joined hands then offered Kate a small smile. Kate returned it.

“Okay, just explain the rules again to me.”

“Well, It’s basically a ‘get-to-know-you’ kind of game? We take turns, saying something that we’ve either done or haven’t done. Y’know, like ‘I’ve never done drugs’ or ‘I’ve wandered into a boys locker room,’ ‘I’ve never murdered anyone before.’ Stuff like that. And if the other person has done it too, they drink, then they have to tell the story.”

Kate gulps. Okay, so this game basically puts her entire life story in the hands of Victoria Chase. Absolutely nothing wrong can come of this.

On the other hand... she could ask Victoria any question she wanted. This could be fun.

“Okay, I go first.” Victoria says, reaching over to refill both their glasses. Kate’s fingertips are starting to feel a little numb, and the she could feel the flush of wine on her neck, but she knew she could take a little more. It was worth it for this opportunity.

Victoria toyed with her glass, a thoughtful gaze striking Kate.

“Okay… I have never… Gotten in trouble at church.”

Kate raised an eyebrow, and Victoria tried to pretend like she couldn't already hear the sass coming.

“Right, because you've spent a day in church” Kate said, and Victoria blushed.

“Hey! I have too!” Victoria exclaimed, indignant. A moment passed as Kate never broke her gaze, then Victoria added in a small voice. “... When I was a kid… maybe…”

Kate smiled, shaking her head. Then she reached over, picking up her glass and taking a sip. Victoria smirked. “Ha! I knew you couldn't be that good and innocent. Spill the beans, what did you do? Did you sleep during a sermon? Or, ooo maybe you overheard someone's confession? ”

Kate swallowed, shooting Victoria a scandalized look. “Nothing like that!” Then she looked down, guilty. “I may or may not have… kinda… pocketed my contribution for tithe. ”

Victoria was startled. Kate, wholesome, unselfish and kind, could do that? She felt like she was witnessing something impossible, like the birth of a unicorn.

“What did you do that for? Isn’t the tithe, like, how you pledge your allegiance to the church or something?” Kate raised an eyebrow at Victoria’s blank expression.

“That time you were in church as a kid really did you no good did it?”

Victoria at least had the decency to look guilty before patting insistently on Kate’s hand.

“Okay okay! Um...That was awhile before I got Alice, and I had been dying to get a pet for forever. I thought that as long as I could pay for it by myself my parents would let me get one, so I was scrounging and scraping every last penny I could.”

“And I think I was really close to like, almost fifty bucks? Which, y’know, silly little Kate thought was enough to get everything necessary for a pet.”

Victoria thought of a tinier version of Kate, in a tinier little green jacket and blouse and big pleading eyes, begging for a pet. Silly wasn't the first word that came to mind. Adorable, maybe.

“I doubt that got you in serious trouble though, right? How much do you guys even contribute anyway?”

“Actually a lot. Back then, and I guess now, it's a big deal to my family. Surprisingly, my dad wasn't completely angry. Of course, he was pissed, but I think he had a grudging respect for how determined I could be about wanting the pet.” Kate smiled fondly as she finished the tale. “The week after that, I got Alice.”

Victoria smiled, trust Kate to turn a story about being a bad girl have such a sweet ending. Kate looked up.

“Okay, my turn.”

Victoria braced herself, already reaching out for her glass. Even if Kate was slowly proving herself not to be the wholesome angel her image said she was, Victoria knew she still had seen more in life than her.

Still though, thought Victoria, she probably isn't gonna ask about anything too raunchy, right? This'll probably be something tame, like-

I've never had a one night stand.”

Victoria balked. If she had been drinking her wine, her spit take would have left Kate's floor in a irreparable state.

She stared at Kate, who stared right back with a gaze of steel. It was a gaze filled with challenge, a gaze that said you started this, so let's play.

Fine, thought Victoria. If you wanna play it like that, let's play.

She reached out, as painfully slowly as she could manage, and took a slow drag of wine. Kate stared as Victoria lifted the glass, gaze unwavering as Victoria took the longest drink of her life.

Then Victoria placed the glass back on the table, and stared right back at Kate. If Kate wanted all the gritty details of sex, then she was gonna have to roll up her sleeves, and drag them kicking and screaming out of Victoria.

Kate waited for as long as she could. Her eyes never left Victoria's, but when Victoria finally arched an eyebrow and lets a cocky smirk dance across her lips, Kate couldn't hold it in anymore.

“Well??” Kate demanded, annoyed.

“Well what?” Victoria asked, innocently.

Kate's eyes narrowed. So this was the game they were playing. “Well, where's the story of how it went down? I thought that's what we were doing with this whole ‘little game’”

Victoria chuckled, a deep, caramel-thick laugh that sent tremors up Kate's spine. When had Victoria ever laughed like that?

Although, Kate had never really heard Victoria laugh until recently, so she wasn't exactly an expert on the subject. All she knew was that that deep laughter had a note of mockery to it, and she kind of liked it.

“Oh Kate, baby, I’ve had quite a number of ‘one-night stands’, I don’t want to bore you with all the...dirty details.” Victoria said, mockery lighting up her eyes. “If you want to know more, you can ask.”

Kate blushed, trying to ignore the twinge in her chest when Victoria had called her “baby”. Okay, so maybe there was a teensy part of her that asked that question out of revenge. She wanted Victoria to feel at least a little embarrassed, just so she could take some satisfaction out of it. But it backfired, and now Kate was put on the spot. Did she really want to keep pushing the subject?

It's not that Kate had never thought about sex. If anything, she had asked Victoria that question out of a deep curiosity that had started as far back as Blackwell, maybe even before. There was only so much she could learn from books, and she had always been too shy to ask anyone else. She thought she could have gotten away with gathering Intel under the pretense of only wanting to embarrass Victoria, but damn her and her perceptive mind. She obviously knew what Kate wanted.

On one hand, she'd have to deal with giving Victoria another Victory. On the other, she may never have another opportunity to ask anyone else.

Kate sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Maybe… tell me about your best one?” Kate mumbled, and Victoria's grin resembled a wolf who just spotted a stray sheep.

“Oh, who to pick? There are so many. There was the one that liked to choke me, that was fun, or maybe the other way around? Oo, how about the one that literally tore my clothes off? I mean, he had to pay for all of them but it's not like he couldn't afford it.” Victoria smirked, knowing full well that with every syllable she was making Kate more and more uncomfortable. Kate was already blushing, and Victoria was capitalizing on it. She even brought out the sultry voice she reserved for hooking people in bars. Every trick in the bag, just for Kate.

She deserved the best, after all.

Victoria leaned closer, laying the predator on thick. “I know. Maybe I'll tell you about the perfect one. The one that pushed me against a wall and ravished me till I could barely stand.”

Kate was frozen, almost afraid to breathe. Victoria stared at her as she continued.

“Do you know what that's like? Having someone lean over your shoulder, whispering into your ear things dirtier than your fantasies? Until all you can do is whimper and beg for more.”

Victoria stared hard at Kate, and Kate tried, she tried as hard as she could to look away, but all she could do was let her eyes drift down towards Victoria’s neck, imagining things she would never tell anyone else.

Victoria smirked, taking a chance. “And finally, when I could barely think, when all I could do was moan her name, she gave me what I needed.”

Kate gulped. Oh. Oh.

And Kate can’t stop it, can’t stop the sudden rush of memory, of a dark night in a dorm room so long ago. Of a girl with a body on fire, of lips that felt just as hot pressing against her own as she was forced backwards. Of the arms that wrapped around her, desperation and need and passion pulling her closer.

Kate swallows as she remembers, remembers the beauty and need in Victoria’s eyes. That younger, more reckless Victoria.

Kate clears her throat, and glances at the Victoria staring at her from across the sofa. Had her expression changed? It must have, because Victoria’s smile had faltered on her face. Like a TV frame that had been frozen on screen. Kate glances at her, trying to ignore the flush of heat on her cheeks. How different was this Victoria, though?

That was the million dollar question for tonight, Kate realised. In fact, it had been the million dollar question for a very long time now. If she went back in time, and told the younger version of herself that she would one day spend the night watching Victoria cook for her, she probably would have died of laughter.

But so much was different now. She was different. Victoria was different. And despite, or perhaps because of this game, she had no idea where they stood. That night, all those years ago, what did it mean now, to the both of them?

And where did they stand now?

Kate had spent a few sleepless nights thinking about it.

After everything’s changed, what’s left between us? Kate thought. She still hadn’t found an answer.

Victoria’s smile slowly faded, and she tried not to look too disappointed. If she was honest, Kate’s silence had scared her, and she didn’t want to make Kate too uncomfortable.

“This is a dumb game, isn't it?” Victoria asked, softly.

Kate coughed, trying to pretend like she wasn’t thinking about that night.

“Yeah,” Kate agreed. They stared at each other, then broke into a small quiet laughter.

Kate felt some of the tension slip away, just like that. Okay, so maybe after everything that’s happened between them, there would always be a little tension, a knot that they would never truly be able to untie, but that’s wasn’t the end of the world, was it? Kate looked at Victoria, who was adjusting her sweater. She looked at the little frown she made as she tucked her hair behind her ear, trying to pull down the sweater sleeve that had ridden up. Most people would have seen a very pretty girl, trying to tame a uncooperative garment, but that’s not all Kate saw.

Kate looked and Victoria and saw a face that had softened over the years. She saw the girl that used to scowl at the world, now able to smile. She saw a girl who had seen the horrors of the world on her journeys, and had resolved to not be a part of them. Kate saw Victoria as who she used to be, and how far she had come since then.

Kate saw something magnificent. Not perfect, but she didn’t need to be.

And maybe, just maybe, Kate saw something she wanted.

 

---

 

A few drinks and an embarrassing story about Jack later...

Victoria glanced at her watch, and was stunned. It was almost 2 in the morning. How had all that time slipped by? Crap, thank God she hadn't driven here, she was way too drunk to drive home, but getting a cab at this time was going to be hell.

Kate glanced at her. “Oh no you don't, Missy. You're not going home this late. You came over and cooked me food, the least I could do is take care of you.”

Victoria wanted to fight it, she really did. But the thought of going home this late, and waking to no one but a hangover was not a good one. Still, she tried. “Kate, I don’t want to bother you, and I have nothing to wear! I have to go home.”

Kate reached over, placing a woozy finger on Victoria's lips. Her heart was hammering, and her head felt pumped too full of blood. Darn, had she really drunk that much? Usually by the time she started feeling like this she was ready to crawl into bed. Not placing her fingers on another girls… very soft lips. Did Victoria have lipstick on? It didn't feel like it, but her lips still looked nice. So nice…

“Um, Kate, baby?”

Kate snapped out of it, looking up to Victoria, who was looking at her with concern writ large in her eyes. Damn, how long had Kate left her finger there?

“Oh! Sorry.” Kate huffed, regretfully withdrawing it. “I just wanted to shush you. Firstly, you’re not a bother, okay? And secondly, I won't take no for an answer! You can borrow some of my clothes.” Kate yawned, stretching. “I don't mind, Tori… really.”

Kate smiled as she stretched out on the couch, and Victoria couldn't help but return the silly grin.

“Okay, okay, you win.” Victoria conceded. “Let me just get changed okay?”

Kate yawned, nodding. “Yeah, okay. Um, the closets in my room, over there.” Kate pointed, before letting her arm flop back onto the couch. “Just wear a pajama top or something.” Kate turned to give Victoria an amused stare. “I bet you'd look cute in one of my big sweaters.”

Victoria smiled fondly as she sighed, and leaned down to ruffle Kate's hair. “I bet I would too, Kate.” Kate batted playfully at her hand, then waved her away. “Go get changed, I need to shower before I sleep too, y’know.”

Victoria quickly stepped away, closing the room door behind her as she went in. Kate's room was dark, and she couldn't make out much, but she didn't want to snoop. She let her eyes adjust until she could see the light switch, then flicked it, before hurrying over to the closet. But before she reached it, something on the bedside table caught her eye. It was a picture frame, but that’s not what caught Victoria’s attention. No, it was the fact that the frame had been turned down, facing the table as if someone didn’t want to look at the picture anymore. She walked over, picking it up and turning it over.

It was a photo of Kate, smiling and happy, flashing a peace sign with some girl Victoria didn't recognize. But she was beautiful, with jet black hair and emerald green eyes, and cheekbones that could cut. Kate was beneath her, her smile turned upwards towards the camera as she took the selfie. And the other girl was draped over her, her arms wrapped around her neck as she smiled down at Kate.

They looked so...happy.

Who is this? Victoria wondered. It couldn't be one of Kate's sisters, there was almost no resemblance between them. A friend then? Probably. Victoria shook her head, setting the picture aside. She had already decided not to snoop, what the hell was she doing?

Checking to see if anyone else makes Kate as happy as you wish you could.

Victoria sighed, ignoring the voice in her head. It had been a long time since she had paid it any mind, anyway. She quickly stripped, piling her clothes in a small pile on the floor before pulling a oversized sweater out of the wardrobe. It looked like something a jock would wear, but that's probably why it was so comfortable. It's sleeves were so long that they ran over Victoria’s arms, and she delighted in flopping them around for a moment.

She considered putting on pants, then decided she was more comfortable without them anyway, before heading back out into the living room. It's not like Kate would mind, right? It's not like Kate would ever think about what she looked like in her underwear, not like she would go all red in the face when she saw Victoria with no pants on. Kate was straight.

Right?

Victoria's mind ran a mile a minute, trying to figure out a response to that question before she rounded the sofa.

And Kate's gentle snores silenced her thoughts.

She looks so peaceful. Thought Victoria, sitting down on the floor next to Kate. She toyed with a lock of Kate's hair, smiling as she squirmed in her sleep.

“Goodnight, Kate” Victoria whispered,before stretching out on the floor and closing her eyes.

If she had looked at Kate just a moment more, she would have seen her smile in her sleep.

Chapter Text

“Jesus, Kate, you look awful.”

Kate barely had the energy, but she did still bristle at the Lord's name being taken in vain. She said nothing though, just rubbed her eyes and stared blearily at her two screens. On the right was her art program, and on the left, a Skype call screen. Alyssa’s face filled the screen, and concern filled her voice.

Kate couldn't blame her. She couldn't even remember the last time she had had more than four consecutive hours of sleep. Her eyes felt puffy and she could smell her own hair, which was never a good sign.

Kate sighed. “Why do I do this to myself, Alyssa?”

Alyssa took one look at the exhausted Kate on her screen and decided this probably wasn't a good time to joke around.

What did Kate need right now? Alyssa mulled. A few days ago, Kate had come to her for advice about her latest book, and whether or not she should redo the whole of it thanks to this “spark of inspiration” that had hit her. Against her better judgment, she had told Kate to do what her heart told her to, and now, she was witnessing the consequences of her actions.

Kate on the other hand, was witnessing one of the most productive and simultaneously self-destructive spurts of work she had ever experienced. After watching The Last Unicorn, amongst other forest-related fairy tales, she had been inspired to shift the focus of her latest book. While this had it’s advantages, namely that she didn’t have to redo the entire project, Kate had severely underestimated the amount of work she had on her plate.

This was day eight of her ramen and energy drink-fueled work binge, and the end was only barely beginning to come in sight.

Kate groaned as she spammed command+z once again, watching the wide strokes of colour disappear from the screen. Her command of colour still wasn’t second nature, and it always took her many tries to get them down. Tedious, exhausting work that drained her, which was why she usually had a very well-planned work schedule. But, extenuating circumstances called for extreme measures. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had pulled consecutive all-nighters like this. Had they always been this tiring?

Alyssa knew better than to suggest taking a break. Shuffling in her seat, she recalled the times she had told Kate to do that and received the most passive-aggressive meltdown she had ever seen. Kate would never put herself through this if she had a choice. So all Alyssa could do was try to distract her for a moment, give her a breather so Kate could center herself and attack her work with a gusto. And she knew just what to say.

“So,” Alyssa began, taking a cautious sip of her tea. “You never did tell me how your...meetup… with Victoria went down.”

That gave Kate pause, and she glanced over at the screen with bleary eyes. Then slowly, as nonchalantly as she could pretend to be, Kate carried on drawing and casually asked: “What would you like to know?”

It wasn’t that Kate didn’t want to tell Alyssa anything, on the contrary, if circumstances were any different she would have called Alyssa as soon as she had stepped into that cab. But over the years, Alyssa and the rest of the girls had come to see her as something like the “little sister” of the group, needing to be protected from the world.

Kate appreciated that, but it was suffocating. It was never very obvious, but since Blackwell it had become steadily more noticeable. It started small, just glances in her direction anytime a boy happened to strike up a conversation with her. To be fair, back in Blackwell, after everything that went down there weren't many boys that were willing to speak to her anyway. But as she had moved on into her college life, it had slowly become almost overbearing. The endless advice and texts to make sure she was still sober and safe when she was on a date, the way they almost aggressively kept her away from any alcohol. She was lucky that only Alyssa went to the same college she did, otherwise she may have never gotten any time to herself. There was once where Kate was pretty sure she saw Max and Chloe slinking around the corner of the restaurant she was at, but she could never prove it.

The nonstop texting had driven away more than one date, though.

And besides, she couldn’t see any benefit in giving them any more ammunition against Victoria. In fact, Kate mused, perhaps it would do them good to see what Victoria was like now, so different from what they remembered. But that was a plan for another day, and right now she had to worry about Alyssa first.

Alyssa bit back a disapproving frown, keeping her voice neutral. “Well, what did you do?”

“I bought her flowers, and we sat around for a while catching up.” Kate said, idly colouring in a line. The image was taking shape now, and Kate continued slowly adding colour.

In the frame, Alice was standing at a fork in a forest clearing, surrounded by fireflies. One road she knew led to a long and arduous path to the midnight flower that she was seeking, and the other was shorter, but fraught with danger. The longer, harder path, was illuminated by the moonlit sky, and had a simple, understated beauty, one that the rest of the forest dwellers saw almost every day. But the shorter path cut through the woods, lit only by the fireflies. In the next frame, one of the fireflies would dance in front of Alice, enticing her in.

Alyssa pursed her lips, mulling it over. “Wait, you bought her flowers? Why?”

Kate glanced at her. “Well, it seemed rude to show up to her place empty-handed. Any good home could use flowers.”

Alyssa gave her a small smile, deciding not to comment on it. All she was thinking was how much it was like Kate to do something like that. “Well, what did you talk about?”

“Not much, really.” Kate said, trying to skirt around the issue. “A little bit about work, about life and what it’s been like since we...last saw each other…” Kate trailed off, and Alyssa didn’t push her. She knew that Kate never wanted to talk about that night, and pushing her about it usually pissed her off. It didn’t seem like it, but Kate did have an angry streak. Back when they had shared dorms in college, it had manifested in slammed doors and brusque tones in conversation until either one of them caved and apologised in their own unique way. Alyssa had baked many a batch of apology cupcakes for Kate.

Now though, Alyssa shuddered to think what angry Kate would be like over the internet. She would never miss their weekly skype session, she knew, but trying to apologise or do something nice for her like this would be damn near impossible. She had to tread carefully.

Time to change the topic.

“And what has her life been like? We literally heard nothing from her up until that invitation showed up in your letterbox.”

Kate had started adding the spots of colour that were the fireflies, and the spots of yellow on her screen were illuminating the dark of her room, casting a ethereal glow on her face. She smiled as she doodled in the brightly coloured spots.

“She’s been busy, and seen a lot of the world. Did you ever see the photo titled: Protection? Apparently it was in a couple of pretty big news publications.”

Alyssa nodded, pulling up her browser to do a quick google. “Yeah, I remember seeing it. It was after the Nepal earthquake, right? What about it?”

Kate smirked, casting her gaze at the screen. She knew she would want to see Alyssa’s reaction for this. “That was Victoria’s photo.”

If it were possible for Alyssa jaw to physically hit the floor, the gong it made would have been clearly audible. “Bullshit.”

Kate shook her head, finding the energy to muster up a small chuckle. “Nope, One hundred-percent her work. It was under a pseudonym, obviously, but that was one of the works on display at her show. Amongst others that were never published anywhere else. She even showed me a scar that she had gotten on her travels. She’s been to some crazy places, and she’s in Asia right now, sightseeing.” Kate stopped there, trying not to think about Victoria's next trip after that.

It wasn't that Kate doubted Victoria, if there was anyone who could defend herself it would be her. But that was in the city, against lechers and gross men who could be turned away with a spritz from a pepper spray can or a swift kick to the groin.

Not against guns and bullets and the haze of war. Kate couldn't help but feel worried for her.

No. Kate closed her eyes, banishing the thoughts. Victoria was smart, and careful. She'd be fine.

She’d be fine.

Alyssa, meanwhile, had found the official gallery listing, and was scrolling through the works that were shown online. She couldn't deny how talented Victoria was, and probably always had been. Some of them were downright beautiful, others haunting. A wondrous showcase of a full life spent seeing many different parts of the world.

Hell, Alyssa would love to talk her again. Who knew whether she would even recognize the new Victoria.

She looked back over at Kate, who by now was dimly illuminated by the art on her screen. As she doodled, Kate furrowed her brow in concentration, and stuck her tongue out between her lips. Alyssa smiled as she watched. It was something that Alyssa had seen many times over, especially in college. It was a sign of Kate devoting herself wholeheartedly to whatever task she was setting her mind to.

It was something that had been missing for a while, if Alyssa was honest. At least something good had come out of this, then.

Alyssa sighed. “Well, if that's all that happened, then I guess I can't really say much. It is your life to lead, Kate.”

Kate didn't reply immediately, afraid that the knee jerk response would be far cattier than Alyssa deserved. She just nodded, leaning into her screen as she focused on her work.

“I mean, it really seems to have done you good. And it's not like you're going to be seeing her very often anyway, right?”

Kate paused, and bit her lip.

“Well… there was one more time we met…”

 

---

 

It's hard to take a good photo in a temple. Victoria realizes, as she plays with her focus for the umpteenth time. She glances around at the ornate decorations, the varnished wood and beautiful stone floors, and she bites her lip in frustration. The problem was that the best parts of the temple, the altars and prayer rooms, were overflowing with incense smoke, and it was playing havoc with the light and that was interfering with her camera's sensor. Her photos were either blurry or undersaturated, and she didn't know how to fix it.

Hipster Max's film camera is starting to look like a good idea right about now. Victoria thought, a small bitter smile creeping across her face.

She flicked through the past few photos she had taken, then turned off the camera, sliding it back into the bag slung by her hip. Sighing, she walked over to a nearby stone bench, and sat down. She glanced around, staring at the tall red pillars and arching terracotta ceilings of the Yonghe temple.

Sitting there, watching as people came and went, kneeling on the ash stained cushions to pray before the statues, and lighting joss sticks to offer, she couldn't help but begin to draw parallels to other religious places that she had seen in her travels.

Unlike a lot of them, the temple had a subdued air about it. There wasn't a lot of pomp or circumstance in the way the altars were laid out, and statues of prominent gods that people knew well shared spaces with lesser gods that still had their fair share of worshippers.

Looking around, Victoria noticed how everyone just seemed to do their own thing, and everyone else just… respected that.

There was an distant, but inclusive air to the place that Victoria had only ever experienced once before. Back in Nepal, where she saw how people came together to try and keep their chins up after their world came crashing around them. It wasn't as prominent here, but it's ghost lingered about. A quiet sense of community that maybe, only a visitor could see.

Or maybe she was just suffering from an extreme case of wanderlust.

Victoria smiled ruefully, pulling out her phone. She paid for global coverage, which was a necessity in her line of work, and she started scrolling through her emails, hoping that she hadn't missed anything, or, more accurately, no one had sent her anything. This trip was technically a artistic holiday, and she didn't want to be bothered during the trip.

Checking her email was just a habit, a tick from the workaholic within Victoria that never really took a break.

But there wasn't any email, and Victoria sighed, putting away her phone. Around her was the sound of a light hustle, of a small weekday crowd milling about the temple. China was, as it always was, an industrious country, and it’s people usually spent their weekdays working hard. The only people about the temple were grandparents and, presumably, grandchildren. She felt several stares thrown her way, but nothing malicious. Mostly the crowd graciously noting the presence of a lone foreign blonde haired girl. Victoria even returned a few of the cautious smiles sent her way.

She was put her phone back into her bag, gathering it up before standing. She had about two hours to kill before she was to head back to her hotel for dinner, and she was tired of trying to take a photo in these conditions. Those that she had already gotten were good enough, and she already had better plans for tomorrow anyway. A guide was going to bring her to the overgrown and desolate parts of the Great Wall, and that trip promised a few good shots at least.

Victoria started walking, wandering about the courtyards of the temple. The sun was setting, and the golden hour cast a glow across the whole place. She did grab a few more shots, but mostly, Victoria just tried to soak in the atmosphere. She had never been deeply religious, (how could she be, the only thing her family truly believed in was money), but even back in nepal, there was something to it that she was beginning to appreciate. She had seen how it could give hope when there seemed like none was at hand, and the good that that hope could bring. Sure, there were people that were misguided, but there were people like that everywhere, right?

Victoria sighed, shaking her head. She was thinking way too much about this. By now, she had wandered to the outskirts of the temple grounds, and the way out was through a incense-filled shrine. She glanced at her watch. Another hour and a half before she should be heading back to her hotel. There was still time to wander, and see if any good photo ops presented themselves.

Victoria was about to turn, double back into the courtyard and see if there was any interesting nook or cranny about the place that she had missed, but something caught her eye. A tiny metal shelf, glinting in the evening sunlight as it stood proudly next to the entrance of a shrine within the temple. She wandered closer, and saw that it was a bookshelf, fashioned out of metal that had been stained by the dust of incense ash and the leftover rust of rain. But it stood proud, having done it’s duty. The books inside were dry as bone, and Victoria reached out to touch one.

She smiled as her fingers ran across the rough paper. The book on top, the one she was touching, was a book made of fragile rice paper, old and worn around the edges. It was much like the ones underneath it, and it gave the book shelf the impression of a worn out time travel machine, holding ancient knowledge and wisdom after having come back from a very harsh trip.

Victoria pursed her lips, considering it, then nodded, making up her mind. She backed up a couple of steps, raising her fingers to form a rectangle. She backed up down the stairs, standing out into the courtyard as she tried to frame the shot. It was perfect, the golden light draping just low enough that it cast a shadow across the shelf, glinting off its edge and giving it an austere air despite its beat-up look. She lowered her hands, gazing thoughtfully at the scene. In Victoria’s mind, her photo was already coming together,already finalizing the settings of the camera that would bring out the best quality of the image. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO setting, check. Even before she lifted her camera to look at the scene again, she had already set it up, and lifting it up, she was almost ready to smile to herself.

Perfect.

Well, almost perfect.

Victoria frowned as the second glint of light cut into the sight of her camera. There were two, one was wanted, the one dancing atop the shelf that gave the shot it’s magic. The other, wasn’t. Victoria lowered her camera, making a mental note of where she had been standing as she trudged back over to the shelf. Frowning, she bent down, looking for the second source of reflection.

There it was, four books down from the one on top. A modern volume, wrapped in cheap plastic that was reflecting the light and ruining Victoria’s shot. She felt a sense of vindictive victory pulling it out, and holding on to it as she walked back to take the shot, she laughed quietly to herself. A sense of vindictiveness in a Buddhist church? She really needed to work on her spirituality.

She set the book down by her feet.

Click, snap.

She quickly inspected the few shots she had taken, then huffed when she was satisfied. Bending down, she picked up the book, brushing dirt and stone dust off the plastic cover. Then she noticed.

The cover was written in Chinese, but beneath it was the english translation. “Walking the Path: A collection of Buddhist folklore and tales.”

A colon? Victoria thought, smiling and shaking her head. The only books that should have colons in their titles are textbooks, in Victoria’s perfect world. That way no one would ever actually read one.

Then again, it’s not like Victoria had anything better to do. She glanced at her watch, and she still had just over an hour to kill. Sighing and shrugging off her bag. She sat down on the stone steps and flipped to a random page.

 

---

 

“Kate! I can’t believe you drank with her! Alone!”

Kate pinched the bridge of her nose, turning away from her computer screen to face Alyssa on her laptop. This was making her work incredibly difficult, and she could no longer focus on drawing. Alyssa’s face was red, exasperated and indignant. Kate could feel the twinge of annoyance growing, and she tried her best to quell it. Alyssa has been nothing but a friend, in the best way she knows how. She can’t be ungrateful.

Breathe, Kate, breathe.

“Alyssa, really, it’s no big deal.” Kate replied evenly, trying to keep her expression neutral. “Look at me, The night came and went, and I survived. Victoria isn’t some hideous monster that I can’t let my guard down around. She’s just someone who’s made a lot of mistakes. Who can fault her for that?”

Alyssa balked. Kate, the one who’s suffered so much at the hands of Victoria, the one who almost killed herself because of her, coming to her defense? She never thought she would see the day.

Kate quickly continued. “Alyssa. I’m done letting that week define who I am. Done letting the monsters of my past decide my future. I’ve been done with that for a very long time now, and I think Victoria’s trying to be, too.”

Alyssa went quiet, and Kate waited. It was a hideous silence, a silence that filled the static of the skype call with tension. It was heavy with the weight of the past, and the possibilities of the future, and Alyssa chewed her lip as she mulled it over.

Realistically, Kate could just choose to not care about Alyssa opinion and carry on with her life, but she had no doubt that Alyssa would summon her army of Blackwell girls to come bearing down upon her and her bad life choices. And maybe they were bad life choices, Kate knew they may very well be. But they were her choices to make. Ironically, this felt like the conversation she had with her parents to let her go to Blackwell, trying to convince them that she was old enough to decide what she wanted.

Alyssa turned away from the laptop, and Kate held her breath. Then Alyssa’s shoulders sagged, and she spun back around.

“Damn it, Kate. Is there a term for being pissed off and worried and frustrated all at the same time?”

Kate smiled meekly, knowing she was about to be let off the hook. “Caring for someone else?” Alyssa scoffed, shaking her head. “Yeah...I suppose that’s right.”

Then she leaned forward, clasping her hands together. “Well girl, tell me you at least had the brains to try and get some dirt on her as well.”

Kate blushed. “Well...I tried...but it kinda backfired…”

Alyssa’s brow furrowed. “How?”

 

---

 

The entire book was made out of a combination of plastic and paper, and as Victoria turned the pages she grimaced. The smoothness of the pages felt artificial, unreal and alien to her fingertips. But it was the only version she could understand, and Victoria sighed as she glanced over at the rice paper volumes resting upon the shelf.

Maybe next time, she thought to herself.

Casting her eyes back to the book, she started to read.

She had turned to the middle of the book, hoping to pick a random story to read to kill the time, but the page she had arrived on was an almost blank page, filled with a short introduction, a brief look into the stories about to follow.

 

On Forgiveness and Wisdom

Buddhism practices many beliefs, but it’s biggest teachings are serenity and acceptance. The belief of leaving behind your worldly troubles and accepting the world as it is has a paradoxical strength to it, and Bodhisattva himself exhibited this strength on multiple occasions.

The following stories are accounts of these occasions, where we may get a glance into the wisdom and serenity of this man.

Victoria’s brow furrowed as she turned the page. A “paradoxical strength”? What was that supposed to mean? Shaking her head, she flipped the page. Hopefully this wouldn’t be another long and preachy lecture about religion. She had had her fill of long and preachy from the various people she had had to deal with on her travels. Victoria would hate to have to feel the need to burn this book, if only to stop anyone reading anything with a colon in it’s title.

She smiled ruefully. There she was again, thinking less than charitable thoughts in a place where those were frowned upon. What would Kate think? She sighed, then turned her attention back to the book, focusing on the story.

A long long time ago, the Buddha and his disciples were gathered under a tree, resting amidst their journey to spread the word of Buddhism. They were sitting around, sharing stories and the Buddha was seated beneath the tree, sharing his worldly views and teachings through the stories of his disciples.

Just then, a man from a nearby town came and spat in his face.

Woah. Victoria thought, her head jerking back in surprise as she read that again. This escalated quickly. If that had happened to me, that man would be rewarded with a swift kick to the nuts and a trip down to the nearest police station. Guess that’s why I’m not a Buddha.

Victoria carried on reading.

Just then, a man from a nearby town came and spat in his face

The Buddha took a moment to collect himself, then wiped it off his face. Then, calmly, he asked: “What next? What do you want to say next?”

The man was puzzled. He never expected that this would have been the buddha’s response. He had insulted many people before and they had become angry and they had reacted. Or if they were cowards and weaklings, they had smiled, trying to bribe him. But the Buddha was like neither, he was not angry, nor in any way offended, nor in any way cowardly. But just matter-of-factly he said, “What next?” There was no reaction on his part.

Victoria raised an eyebrow. Really? This was the buddha’s reaction to something so offensive? There were slaves that had been slaughtered for much less. How could this man, this paragon of a religion built all around him, be treated this way?

The Buddha’s disciples, on the other hand, reacted with anger. They rushed to the defence of their teacher, yelling at the man. But the buddha raised his hand to stop them.

“You keep silent.” Said the Buddha. “This man has not offended me. He is a stranger, and must have heard from people something about me, that I am an atheist, a dangerous man who is throwing people off their track, a revolutionary, a corrupter. And he may have formed some idea, a notion of me. He has not spit on me, he has spit on his notion of me. He does not know me at all, so how can he spit on me?”

“If you think on it deeply,” Buddha said, “he has spit on his own mind. I am not part of it, and I can see that this poor man must have something else to say because this is his way of saying something. He has something so powerful, so intense that language has become useless to him, and he has resorted to action instead. There are moments like this, in intense love and hatred, that his actions speak louder than anything he can say. I can understand him, and he must have something more to say. So I ask, “what next?”’

The man was even more puzzled! And Buddha said to his disciples, “I am more offended by you, my students, because you know me, and you have lived for years with me, and yet still you react.”

Puzzled, confused, the man returned home. He could not sleep the whole night. Again and again he was haunted by the experience. He had never come across such a man; the Buddha had shattered his understanding of his life, and he could not find a reason why.

The next morning he went back. He threw himself at Buddha’s feet, and when the Buddha saw this, he asked him again, “What next? This, too, is a way of saying something that cannot be said in language. When you come and touch my feet, you are saying something that cannot be said ordinarily, for which all words are too narrow; it cannot be contained in them.” Ananda, the buddha’s closest disciple, watched intently, and the buddha turned to him, saying, “Look, Ananda, this man is again here, he is saying something. This man is a man of deep emotions.”

The man looked at Buddha and said, “Forgive me for what I did yesterday.”

Buddha turned, smiling wisely. “Forgive? But I am not the same man to whom you did it to. The Ganges goes on flowing, it is never the same Ganges again. Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.

“And you also are new. I can see you are not the same man who came yesterday because that man was angry and he spit, whereas you are bowing at my feet, touching my feet. How can you be the same man? You are not the same man, so let us forget about it. Those two people, the man who spit and the man on whom he spit, both are no more. Come closer. Let us talk of something else.”

There was a brief passage after the story, but Victoria had already closed the book, briefly considering flinging it aside. Not out of anger, but maybe more a sense of disbelief. That was something that had always prevented her from subscribing to any form of religion, and she felt that old cynicism come creeping into the corners of her mood.

Back when her parents and society in general was still forcing her to put up a perfect image, she had found it difficult to believe that anyone could be perfect in any way unless they were trying with all their might to be. How else could you explain all the unhappy people smiling in every event her parents dragged her too? Perfection had to hurt, that’s just one of the rules of life.

But after recent events, after the things she had seen and the people she had talked to, all of that was slowly starting to wane. Maybe when she was younger she heard the stories and views of religion, she had just cast them aside without thinking about them. But now, something about it was starting to change. Was she getting sentimental?

Vic smirked, half-laughing as she put the book gently back onto the shelf. A sentimental Victoria? Over religion? That would be the day. There was still too much pride, too much Chase in her for that.

Still, as she started to walk away from the church, the story lingered in her head. She walked out of the temple, and down the street, watching as the sun began to dip behind the skyscrapers in the distance. And in the evening glow what she saw around her slowly began to change. She thought of a calm man, sitting beneath a tree, and his forgiveness of another man’s blind rage.

She sighed again, thinking about how she’d been doing that a lot lately, then headed back to her hotel for dinner.

 

---

 

“Stop laughing at me!” Kate admonished, and Alyssa almost fell out of her chair as she continued laughing.

“Oh man,” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “She played you good, Kate. How could you ever think that you could embarrass Victoria Chase?”

Kate chewed on her lip, half-pouting. So maybe she wanted a teensy bit of revenge, was that so bad? Sometimes it seemed the world really did have it out for her. Alyssa smriked.

“Oh come on, little Ms. pouty face. So the big bad lady turned the tables on you, what happened next?”

Kate opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, her phone vibrated, it’s screen casting a light across the darkness of her room. She reached over, reading the notification.

Victori

Hey, back in my hotel. Got a minute for a call?

Kate chewed her lip as she stared at the message, her gaze flicking over to the screen for the barest moment, but Alyssa caught it.

“...It’s her, isn’t it.” Alyssa said, her voice barely higher than a whisper.

Kate waited a beat, then nodded guiltily.

Alyssa sighed, smiling sadly as she looked back at the screen. On it, Kate was looking at her, a pleading and guilty smile spreading across her face. Alyssa shook her head.

“Fine fine, go. Just promise me that I’ll get to see you soon.”

Kate beamed, nodding enthusiastically.

“Absolutely! I still miss everyone, even though we haven’t talked in awhile.”

Alyssa smiled, then waved at her screen as Kate moved to click disconnect. As the call window turned black, she froze for a moment, then leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. She stared for a long time, and it was only when her phone notification popped up that she tore her gaze away.

Reaching over, she opened the message.

Taylor:

So, is the plan on?

Alyssa glanced back at the empty call screen, then over to her desktop, where Illustrator sat open on her latest project. A postcard, artfully designed with all the good memories from Blackwell. She snorted. Man, did she have to dig deep to find those.

Alyssa replied:

Me:

Yeah, It’s on.

Alyssa sucked a long breath of air through her nose before she typed the first e-mail down…

 

---

 

Victoria stared out the window and ignored her cappuccino for a moment. Despite all the advancements China had made thus far, the entire country still had no idea how to make a decent coffee. She stared at the swill drifting in her cup, then glanced out the window.

The memory of Kate’s voice over the phone still danced in her head.

It was strange now, how much more Victoria knew about Kate now. Not just the facts of her life, but the tiny things as well. The way she could hear the smile in Kate’s voice when she spoke, The way she knew that Kate covered her mouth with a dainty hand when she giggled.

Whenever they talked on the phone, Victoria could almost imagine Kate in the room with her.

She leaned back in her chair, tipping her cigarette into the ashtray before taking a drag. She blew the smoke out of the window, watching as it drifted across the city skyline.

She hadn’t said much over the phone, mostly just told Kate that she was doing fine, and asked her about her day. She didn’t share the story that was still plaguing her, and now she wished she had. But it had been too late, and even over the phone Kate had sounded exhausted, though she very skillfully avoided telling Victoria why.

Victoria smirked, watching the embers in her ashtray. Even after everything, they were still holding back from each other.

A ping interrupted her reverie and she looked down at her phone...an e-mail?

She didn’t recognize the address, but as she read the subject line, her cigarette slipped from her fingers, and her jaw dropped in shock.

 

From: EePoetic64@gmail.com

To: VCphotography@gmail.com

 

RE: Blackwell 2013: The Reunion.

Chapter Text

“I really wish you had given me more time to prepare Alyssa!”

Alyssa smirked, leaning back on the couch as she flicked idly through channels on the TV. Honestly, she wasn’t even really watching it, but clicking it made time feel like it was passing a little quicker.

“Oh please, and give you time to schedule something so that you could flake on us? Not a chance!” Alyssa retorted, turning to face the closed door to Kate’s bedroom. They were in her apartment, and Alyssa was waiting on her hair to dry so that she could finally get her makeup on. The party was in an hour, and at least two hours away, but she wasn’t worried. The stars of the show always showed up late, obviously. Chloe and Max had already texted and told her that they would hold down the fort before she showed up.

So now she was stuck here, talking to a door that had been closed for almost half an hour, as Kate got ready for the party on the other side.

“That happened one time, and it wasn’t even my fault! Who knew Jack was going to plan out a big book release event on the same day?” Kate retorted and Alyssa shrugged.

“Not my problem, girl, so long as you don’t skip out on tonight.”

“Trust me, after all the work I’ve done, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

There was a loud crashing followed by frustrated noises that came from behind the door, and Alyssa whipped her head around at the sounds.

“You alright in there?!”

“I’m fiNE!” Kate yelled back, and Alyssa sniggered, thinking back to the time she actually had sat Kate down and applied makeup for her.

It had been for Kate’s very first book release, way back when they had just barely graduated from college. She had been rushed out of her mind, juggling between trying to finalize things with her publisher, and cramming for her graduation exams. And she had been so rushed that she came close to forgetting the launch party that she needed to attend, so the look on her face when she came back to her dorm and Alyssa was sitting there, makeup locked and loaded, was priceless.

That said, she had made Kate look stunning that night, and when she had finally gone up on stage to deliver her speech, Alyssa had had to fight back the urge to tear up. To think that the quiet little church mouse she had met so long ago would finally have that day? It was a beautiful moment, and one that Alyssa was unlikely to ever forget.

And now, as Alyssa looked around Kate’s plush apartment, all she could think of was how proud and happy she was to be Kate’s friend, and how far she would be willing to go to protect her.

To protect her…

Alyssa toyed idly with the remote in her hands, staring at it as she let her mind ramble.

Alyssa wasn’t an idiot. She knew that even back in Blackwell she hadn’t exactly been a social butterfly. Hell, if she fit in anywhere on the social food chain, cockroach would probably be the most fitting.Nowhere near the top, but everyone knew that she’d be there till the end of time. Back then, in her adolescent youth, she remembered thinking that she was just way above it all, more interested in the dramatic and amazing journeys of fictional characters. But there were at least a few people who went out of their way to make themselves a little more special in her life. People like Max, and Kate.

Kate. Katie. Dear sweet little Kate. That had always been who she was to Alyssa. Which was why sometimes, when Alyssa couldn’t sleep, she still thought back to that week from hell, and to the many weeks leading up to it.

Some self-proclaimed protector she turned out to be. When the video and all the ensuing bullying went down, Kate just shut down and retreated into herself. And every time Alyssa tried to reach out Kate just either turned her away or flat out ignored her. Alyssa had misjudged, thinking that Kate was a smart, strong and independent girl, and that when Kate was ready, she’d reach out for help and Alyssa would swoop in and save her, finally getting an excuse to whoop Victoria along the way.

But that never happened.

And it’ll never come to that again, thought Alyssa, not if i have anything to say about it.

She reached over to the other end of the couch, picking up her phone and flicking over to her email. She scrolled through all of the party responses, the RSVPs, the catering and open bar threads until she finally came to the one she was looking for.

The one she had sent to Victoria.

There had been no reply, not that Alyssa had actually expected one. Alyssa stared at the screen, feeling a quiet sense of anger slowly filling her up. Who the hell did Victoria think she was anyway? Not even bothering to reply to her email. Couldn’t she even have a basic sense of decency to let her know she wasn’t coming?

Alyssa sighed, casually throwing her phone aside. She sat there, quiet for a moment, as she felt that familiar wave of rage come rising up inside her. It always had, whenever Victoria and Kate came up in conversation. She had lashed out at many people before, every time they chose to bring this up, not willing to dredge through the failure that she felt every time she thought of the moments she had seen Kate on the roof, or when she had come out of her dorm room to see Kate crumpled on the hallway floor, sobbing.

Always a moment too late.

“So, how do I look?”

Kate’s voice startled her, and Alyssa swung around to look at her as she stepped out of the bedroom.

Kate was dressed in a white turtleneck sweater and green dress combination. She had on a pair of black tights, and her hair flowed and curled in gorgeous but simple waves. All of it, was simple and elegant, yet exquisitely beautiful. Alyssa couldn’t help but let her eyes drift over the black accents that brought out her thin waist, and her gaze finally settled on Kate’s face, framed by her hair, and covered in the simplest makeup.

She really was beautiful.

“Eh, you’ll do.” Alyssa smirked, pulling the towel off her head. “Now It’s my turn.”

 

---

 

Kate’s mouth dropped as Alyssa drove up to the party venue.

“Alyssa, you have got to be kidding me”

The smirk on Alyssa’s face and the crowd of cars and people in the driveway of the mansion informed Kate that she was not. It was a beautiful mansion, standing tall and proud, tucked away on an abandoned stretch of road that took up most of the travel time, and it was already dusk by the time they arrived. The setting sun was casting a purple glow across the sky, and the amount of headlights and cars on the massive driveway made the whole thing look a lot like the beginning of a music video.

As Alyssa parked, Kate glanced around, catching glimpses of familiar faces as they streamed into the mansion. She thought she saw Dana, hanging off the arm of an extremely wealthy looking young man in a shirt and waistcoat. She also saw a quick flash of frizzy hair and freckled skin that could only be Max, but she ducked back behind the closed door of the mansion too quickly for Kate to be sure.

Then the car was parked, and Kate found herself climbing the front steps towards that door. As her legs climbed the steps, she suddenly found her heart hammering inside her chest. There were people here that she hadn’t seen in years, and the last time she had attended a social event with some of them...well.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. In her mind, she pictured a spiral, growing and spiraling back into itself, and breathing along to its rhythm. An old calming trick she learned from her therapist.

In, Out.

She stood where she was as she felt her heart rate slowly settle down. Behind her, Alyssa shut the boot of the car where she was rummaging for her party contributions, carrying the massive box up towards Kate. Kate glanced around.

They had arrived on the tail end of the main crowd entering the party, apparently, as the driveway that was bustling just moments ago was now almost empty, with only a few stray faces that Kate didn’t recognize milling about. Alyssa trudged up to her, and Kate smiled as her eyes continued dancing across the carpark.

“Looking for someone?”

Kate hadn’t heard the door open, and the voice made her turn around in shock. A wave of brown and dirty blonde hair filled her vision, and then all Kate could see was a dazzling smile.

“Taylor!” Kate exclaimed rushing forward to pull her into a hug. Taylor returned the hug tightly, smiling as she pulled Kate close. “Hello Kate, it’s nice to see you too.” She held Kate at arm's length, and Kate got a better look at Taylor. She was wrapped in a black dress that glittered in the electric glow of the carpark, and her leg peeked out a slit that had been cut into the right side of the dress. She looked gorgeous, scandalous and graceful in one fiery package, and Kate felt ecstatic to see Taylor the way she was now.

Taylor gestured towards the now-empty driveway, and Kate turned to see that Alyssa had made it up the stairs, and was standing next to her. “Sup, Tay.” Alyssa said, smirking. Taylor returned a knowing smile, and Kate couldn't help but feel that there was a joke somewhere that she wasn’t getting. But before she could ask, Taylor turned back to her. “So, are we ready to go in?”

Kate turned back towards the dimly lit driveway, getting darker every moment the sun crawled below the horizon. She didn’t see it, didn’t see the Mercedes that she knew Victoria used to drive, or the beloved second-hand Harley that Victoria had told her about many times over. But she supposed there could be any number of reasons that they weren’t here.

Maybe she hitched a ride. Kate thought. Maybe she’s already inside.

Kate turned back to Taylor. “Yeah, let’s go.”

 

---

 

Taylor pushes open the door, and Kate is stunned by what lies inside. If the exterior of the mansion is impressive, the interior is downright breathtaking.

The party is centralized on the ground floor, where a fountain takes the center of the entire area. Friends and guests are milling about the foyer, dressed in all different kinds of outfits, but definitely to the nines. Kate spies Brooke in a flowing black dress, her hair done into a small bun that makes her face look sharp and stern in her glasses. Kate also sees Juliet, hanging out by the set-up counter bar to her right, and she looked stunning in her blue cocktail dress, matched with a cobalt choker. She waves at Kate, and Kate smiles back, watching as someone walks up to her.

He’s dressed in a simple outfit, white shirt, blue pants and a blue waistcoat, but he’s rolled up his sleeves, and is holding his blazer draped over his shoulders. Still as broad and muscular as ever, but there was no mistaking him, that was Zachary Riggins. Juliet smiles as she sees him walk up, and he put his arm around her waist, giving her a gentle peck. Their foreheads touch as he says something, and Juliet giggles.

So they ended up together after all. Kate thought, smiling quietly to herself. She had never been too sure about the drama between those two in Blackwell, but she liked to think that she knew genuine happiness when she saw it. Juliet looked happy, and that was enough for her.

Looking around, however, Kate wasn’t sure she was enough for this party. Everyone seemed so dressed up, so powerful, so important. And who was she? A small time artist coming here in such a simple outfit. There was no way she cou-

“Stop it.”

Kate glanced over at Alyssa, who had set aside her box of party favors and alcohol, and was standing next to her, arm outstretched with a small flute of champagne in her hand. Kate looked at her quizzically.

“Stop what?”

“Thinking that you’re not good enough for this party. Don’t even try to deny, I’ve seen that look before.” Alyssa smiled, stepping closer. “Remember Kate, you’re a best-selling author, a beautiful woman and above all else, the kindest person I know. You’re gonna kick their asses, trust me.”

Kate faltered, then smiled. Trust Alyssa to be the one to always be there for her. She glanced towards the flute of champagne in her hand. “You sure you trust me with that?” Kate teased.

Alyssa shrugged, “Meh, I’m here, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Kate smiled, shaking her head, and graciously accepted the glass. She took a sip, and the crisp, sweet taste of the champagne soothed her nerves a little.

Alright Kate, she thought, You can do this. Go out, have fun.

“KATE! ALYSSA!”

A voice called out above the chatter of the party, and Kate turns to see someone she doesn’t recognize. She’s tall, and wearing a pantsuit that cuts her into all sorts of sharp angles that makes her look powerful and alluring at the same time. Blonde hair bobs around her shoulders, and smile lines age her extremely pretty face. Kate doesn’t recognize her at first, but she feels recognition dancing around the edge of her mind, struggling to connect what she saw in front of her with someone she knew and had come to love. But it wasn’t until She raised her arm in a wave, and Kate spied the splash of colour on her wrist, that she remembered the tattoo, and then the girl in front of her.

“Chloe!” Kate responded, and rushed over for a hug. Chloe swept her up into her arms, hugging her close. Chloe had been one of Kate’s favorite people to hug, back when those were still regularly on the table. Ever since they had parted ways after Blackwell, they had been few and far between, as their lives prevented them from meeting. It had been almost a year since Kate had last seen Chloe, and even though a lot had clearly changed, there was one thing that Kate felt sure never would.

Chloe and her strong arms always gave amazing hugs.

Kate pulled away, and Chloe reached over to hug Alyssa as well, before smiling at Taylor.

“Damn, girl. That’s one hell of an outfit.” Alyssa said as they separated, and Chloe smirked, giving them a twirl. “I know, right? It was Max’s idea, but I was on board the second she said “Not a dress.” We did argue about the heels, but sometimes you gotta give a little leeway, right? Just wish I could bump and grind in these. I bet Max and me would look amazing on a dance floor like this.”

Alyssa chuckled, and Kate hid a smile behind her hand. “And where is your better half?” Asked Alyssa, looking around. Chloe shrugged, picking Alyssa’s champagne out of her hand and smirking as she took a sip. “Ah, you know her, probably ran off into some pretty little corner of this place, taking pictures. She’ll turn up.”

“Oh, speaking of which, how did you even manage to get this place?” Kate asked. “Alyssa was adamant about telling me nothing until we got here, and all I know is that you two were part of planning, so come on! I’m dying to know.”

Taylor smirked, and glanced over at the crowd. “Well, technically I was only in charge of decorating this place, getting the lights, the party streamers, I even dolled up the fountain.”

Chloe piped up, “And Alyssa was in charge of getting everyone here. Invitations, transport info all that kinda stuff. I just hit up a couple of my old friends, at least, the ones that didn’t go to jail. Some of them even went legit, so I hit them up, and they gave us a good deal on that bar over there.” She said, pointing over at the pop up bar that was filled to the brim with alcohol and customers.

Kate nodded along, “But wait, so who even got us this place?”

Chloe, Alyssa and Taylor looked at each other, before nodding in the direction behind Kate. “She did.” They said.

Kate turned, and was almost tackled to the ground by a ferocious bear hug. Before she could react, her assailant pulled away, and Kate saw a wide grin plastered across a familiar face.

“Dana!! Oh how long has it been?” Kate exclaimed. Dana was, surprisingly, dressed the most simply out of all of them, a small black dress that ended in the middle of her thighs. But her smile was brighter than the chandelier, and Kate was more than happy to see her again.

“Almost two years, Kate.” Dana said, a chiding tone in her voice. Kate blushed. It wasn’t exactly her fault that she hadn’t kept in contact with Dana.

...Okay, maybe it was kind of her fault. She had basically dropped all contact with her friends as her career had taken off, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Alyssa basically forced her to skype at least once a week, she probably would have lost contact with her as well. As it was, Kate was just kind of happy to be surrounded by friends at this party. And as she looked around at the smiling faces, she felt a slow sense of home begin to creep in.

“Hey, you aren’t leaving me out, are you?”

A mess of curly hair and freckles emerged from the crowd, preceded by the sound of a shutter clicking. Max pulled the lever on her camera, before looking up and smiling at Kate.

Chloe moved over, pulling Max into a hug. “Of course not, if only you would stop running off without telling us where you went.”

Max smirked. “Where’s the fun in that, gotta keep things interesting.” Thrusting her camera into Chloe’s hands she quickly ran over to the group, hugging Kate. before pulling all of them close together. Chloe rejoined them, raising her arm high for a group selfie as Kate smiled. And, for the first time in a very long while, her smile felt like it really did come from her heart.

It was nice to finally be surrounded by friends again.

But as Chloe lowered the camera and everyone started commenting on how they wished film camera’s came with previews so they could see how that shot turned out, Kate couldn’t help but cast her eyes around the party, hoping to catch sight of blonde hair and an air of confidence.

She had to be coming...right?

----

An hour later into the party, and it was painfully obvious. Victoria wasn’t here.

Where could she possibly be?

Kate wanders around the party, diving in and out of conversations as she tries to catch up with what everyone has been doing with their lives. But as she tries to strike up a conversation with anyone else at the party, she starts to notice that everyone seems tentative.

It takes her a while to realise that they’re all tiptoeing around her, skirting the topic of her suicide attempt.

Every conversation just becomes exhausting after that, as Kate just finds herself looking for the point in conversation when they shift, stop being comfortable, start holding back. It’s kind, but Kate finds that she’s unable to appreciate that kindness for very long. How long would it be before people stopped defining her by her tragedies? Every time she tried to start a conversation with someone new, someone potentially interesting, all Kate could see was how their eyes lit up at first, and then slowly watch that light die as they realized that yes, this is the girl that tried to kill herself.

It’s so endlessly frustrating. So many years later, and still she was shackled to that studio floor.

Maybe that’s why she’s taken to just hanging around her friends, skirting at the edges of their conversation, smiling and laughing along when she can. Chloe seems to take charge of a vast amount of the talking, sharing story after story of her travels with Max, and Kate enjoys the window into their world that she provides. Kate learns that Max has grown increasingly freckled from the time she spends on the back of Chloe’s Harley, traipsing up and down the country on random road trips funded by Chloe’s garage job.

“Oh, tell them about the time you totally freaked out on top of that cliff in Cali.” Chloe laughs, waggling her eyebrows at Kate, a “this is gonna be good” smirk plastered across her face.

Max splutters, flabbergasted. “Oh come on, don’t make it sound like I was overreacting!”

“You were though…” Chloe mutters, knowing she was egging Max on and enjoying it anyway.

“Kate, settle this for us.” Max pleads. “Okay, so we’re up on a beautiful cliffside in Cali, right? And there’s this tree right on the very edge, just clinging on for life. And I mean, like, half of it was already dangling out in midair, just threatening to collapse. And so I take a photo of it, and just randomly, I say that it would be nicer if there was something hanging onto the branch, something to offset the beach scene, right? Just random artistic whimsical comments, right??”

Kate nods warily, knowing the twist to the story was coming and already dreading it.

“Well,” Max continues, “next thing I know, I look up, and Chloe is just chilling on that branch, like, A HUNDRED FEET OFF THE GROUND.”

There’s a collective gasp around the table, and everyone turns to Chloe, who has a sheepish grin on her face. Kate tries her hardest not to smile, but ends up giving in anyway when Alyssa is the first to chuckle, and then the table bursts into full on giggles. All except for Max, who’s just shaking her head in silent disbelief. And Kate looks around and tries her best to feel at home again, to feel like everything is alright.

Then, an all-too-familiar voice comes from behind her.

“Well, did you at least take the photo?”

Kate froze, her grip on her glass suddenly tightening. Across from her, Kate saw Chloe’s mouth drop into a silent “O”, and the rest of the table fell into a shocked silence. Taylor bit her lip, an anxious look crossing over her face before she tried to cover it up, trying to force a smile that ended up more like a concerned grimace. Alyssa caught her eye from across the table, a look of disbelief flashing between the both of them before they looked back at the tall blonde leaning against the back of the sofa, just behind Kate.

When a gentle hand falls on Kate’s shoulder, she looks up. Victoria smiles down at her, and Kate tries her best to remember what it’s like to breathe.

Victoria was wearing a long-sleeved red velvet dress that swept past her knees on one side, and revealed her leg on the other. Her hair was hung loose, hanging over her shoulders and framing her very pretty face. Kate felt her own cheeks heat up as her eyes held Victoria’s gaze for just a moment longer than she probably should have. Long enough to see Victoria’s smile falter just a touch, about to change into something...else. But then Kate looked away, and Victoria’s gaze was left wanting.

The rest of the table falls into a stunned silence, that’s finally broken by Max.

“Holy smokes...Victoria?”

Victoria glances over, flashing a dazzling smile that could charm a snake. “You really should learn to curse like an adult, Maxine.”

Max huffs, then quickly recovers “Please, I know how to curse, who do you think I’m dating?”

Chloe scoffs, and even though her eyes never leave Victoria, some of the tension in the air dissipates. Everyone nervously fidgets in some way or another as Victoria saunters around the sofa, plonking herself down next to Taylor, across Kate.

Kate can’t help but wish she had sat down next to her instead.

“Taylor, how have you been?” Victoria asks, her voice a perfect balance of composure and charm. Kate takes a small sip of her wine, trying to keep her expression neutral as she watched Victoria. It was amazing to watch Victoria like this. The confident pose, the charming smile and the lilt in the voice that could carry any conversation. It was almost a performance, and Kate was enraptured. It was amazing, that the wonderful, complicated and broken person that she had had the privilege of seeing in that apartment, could also be this formidable, confident and amazing individual.

Taylor smiled. “I’ve been fine, Vic. I’ve mostly just been focusing on work, and it’s been awhile since my last party.”

Alyssa toyed idly with a lock of her hair, eyeing the exchange. Taylor had been out of touch with Victoria for years now, and Alyssa had slowly come to learn the subtleties of bitchiness that Taylor dropped from time to time into conversations, especially with people she didn’t like. If you weren’t careful, Taylor could run rings about you and you could leave the conversation without even knowing you had been insulted.

But Taylor hadn’t forgotten who taught her how to do that, and she saw a glint in Victoria’s eyes, for just a fraction of a second. Like spotting the curtain raise just a little and seeing an actor peek out onto the stage, waiting for their cue.

Victoria knew exactly what Taylor was getting at, trying to bring Victoria’s last party into the conversation. Fine, if Taylor wanted to start the night with a verbal firefight, she’d happily dust off her skills and fight back.

Lock and load, old friend. Victoria thought bitterly.

But just before she opened her mouth, she glanced across the table, and there sat Kate, her face a mask of barely composed stress and concern. And just like that, the bitterness in Victoria disappeared.

I can’t let this turn into another meltdown. Thought Victoria, unconsciously chewing on her lip. If not for my sake then at least for Kate’s. But letting this slide isn’t an option either, I won’t leave my first meeting with these people after five years with my tail between my legs.

Time for some controlled combat then. Lose the battle, but win the war.

Victoria had tried this several times before, but it was a tactic she usually reserved for business propositions. She once sat in a art gallery manager’s office, letting him harass her relentlessly about the events of Blackwell for a solid fifteen minutes, biding her time until she realised that his many questions were in fact his way of trying to seek advice on how to go about letting people know that he was gay, and managing the fallout from that revelation. The advice she had given him that day not only allowed him to do so with ease, it gave her a exhibition space and secured a friend.

There was merit in this strategy, but the stakes had never been so personal before.

Deep breath, Vic. She thought. Stalk your prey, and bide your time.

“Really? I’ve been on the road for quite a while, so it’s been a long time since my last real party too.” Victoria said, keeping her tone even. “What have you been working on?”

Kate watched this exchange in silent awe. If she could have frozen the moment and gotten the chance to draw it out, her artistic instinct would have been to clad both Vic and Taylor in battle armor, clashing swords out on a windswept battlefield. She had no idea how it would end, and could not tear her eyes away from the scene.

Taylor swallowed. “Oh I’m with a modelling company now, nowhere near the front lines obviously, that’s way too much stress. I mostly handle the scheduling and artistic directions of various shoots. Interesting work, but probably nothing compared to what you’ve been up to. Finally achieved your dream of becoming a world-famous photographer?”

Courtney chimed in, “Yeah, we haven’t heard a peep from you in almost five years! Then all of a sudden we hear from Alyssa that your photos have been in major magazines under fake names? What’s that about?”

“Now now, guys.” Max said, glancing around nervously. “Maybe we should let her tell us in her own time.” Max had developed a nose for trouble, especially after so many road trips with Chloe and having to pull her out of many poor situations. Judging by the way Chloe’s grip was tightening on her arm, she could smell it too.

But Alyssa wasn’t having any of that. “Oh come on, Max. If Victoria needs us to back off, im sure she would tell us, right?” She said, glancing at Victoria. Victoria kept her expression even, fighting the urge to return Alyssa’s gaze with a glare.

“So come on, tell us what happened to the old Victoria Chase.” Alyssa adds.

So, thought Victoria bitterly, I have a firing squad on my hands then, all out for blood.

Victoria would be lying if she had said that she hadn’t expected this. Honestly, she was just surprised that they chose to do this so quickly after meeting her again. But she supposed that after all that had happened between everyone here, they had every right to be wary of her. Maybe she should be thankful just to have this small chance to redeem herself, no matter how small it is. But now that she had a fighting chance, she still had no idea how to start.

Kate, watches from her place on the sofa, wondering how all of this was going to turn out. This was what she was worried about, and why she was looking around for Victoria when she first arrived. She had wanted to talk to her, to warn her that this might happen. But she hadn’t gotten that chance, and now Victoria was in this situation unprepared.

But she doesn’t have to be in it alone, thought Kate.

“‘May your roots hold fast as your branches scour the heavens.’” Kate said, her voice ringing out clear in the tense air between all of them. All heads turn towards her, a variety of expressions decorating them, but all Kate cared about was the thankful smile that spread across Victoria’s face after a moment of surprise. It was all the encouragement Kate needed to push ahead.

“That’s what that photographer friend of yours said, right?” Kate asked. “Right before you went out on all of your adventures?” Kate tried to ignore Alyssa’s subtle look as she spoke. There was no doubt in her mind that Alyssa did not approve of her place in this conflict, but she couldn’t let them attack Victoria like this, not now that she knew that Victoria was so much more interesting than they gave her credit for.

Victoria nodded. “That was just before he and I left to go to nepal, not too long after the earthquake.” Kate gave her a small nod, silently urging Victoria on. Everyone around the table was listening with their full attention now. Victoria cleared her throat and continued.

“During that trip, I learned something that I never really understood in all those classes that we took. Photography is an art form, but it’s so much more than painting with light, it’s truly being able to capture a moment, a life fully led, in one little square. I used to hate on Max’s work, but ever since I came to understand this, I think I’ve really started to appreciate her photos a lot more.” Max tried her hardest to pretend she wasn’t blushing as Victoria nodded towards her, and Chloe’s arm around Max loosened just a little.

Victoria continued, “Taking all those pictures, listening to the stories of all those people, I came to understand that. And then, in the middle of the trip, my parents called.”

Kate fingered her glass, listening intently now. There was something new to learn about Victoria here.

“They hadn’t spoken to me in a few months by that point, and I thought it was probably best just to give them a heads up on where I was, you know? Wouldn’t want there to be a unidentified dead photographer in a landslide somewhere in Nepal.” Victoria said mirthlessly.

“Anyway, when I told them where I was, they flipped out, naturally. I don’t really remember much of the argument, there was a lot about me just leaving the boarding school and wasting their money since they had paid for the whole year and whatever. But the part that really got to me was when I told them what I was actually doing there. Even after hearing all the tragic stories of all the people there, and what I knew I could do for them if I could just get their stories out into the world, they told me that it wasn’t befitting of the Chase name.

Victoria spat out those last three words, and Taylor barely suppressed a gasp. There was so much venom in those words, and if she were younger, the way Victoria had said them would have made Taylor quake in her boots. Victoria was quietly seething, her eyes almost clouded over in that memory, and everyone at the table shifted uncomfortably. Dana could barely believe what she was hearing in all of this. She was never very close to Victoria, even back when she was a Vortex Club member, but by all accounts, Victoria had always been insanely proud of her name and the reputation that came with it. To hear that something so callous about it could have changed Victoria was interesting, to say the least. Back then, Dana wouldn’t have put it past Victoria to have just shrugged off a comment like that about the Chase name, but maybe she really had changed. Only the rest of the story would tell.

“...So what happened after that?” Dana asked.

Victoria’s eyes seemed to snap back into focus, coming out of her haze of memory. She glances over at Dana as if she’s noticing her for the first time. Then she gives her a small smile, and Dana tries to remember if she’s ever seen such a genuine smile on Victoria’s face before.

“After that?” Victoria asked, taking a sip of her champagne and her brow furrows as she continues. “After that I realised that if I put the photos I took on that trip out under my name, my parents would denounce them and I’d never truly break free from them. If they can’t even care about people whose lives have been literally rocked by destruction, then why should they care about me, right?” Victoria glances around the table, and a few of them nod in assent.

“Right. So I asked my photographer friend for a little help. He put me in touch with a photojournalist column in a huge newspaper, and a few more trips and pseudonyms later, here I am. Just another photojournalist still trying to make a new name for herself.” Victoria finishes with a sigh. She glances around the table, a little more subtly this time, and catches almost everyone at the table glancing very quickly at Kate before averting their gaze. And that’s when she realizes.

This is all because they know I’ve gotten closer to Kate, and they’re worried about her. Victoria thinks, smiling mirthlessly to herself. Even after all this time they’re still worried about her.

Victoria turns to look at Kate, who looks much less shaken now. Kate catches her gaze, and beams before turning to Alyssa, who’s leaning back on the couch, mulling the whole story over with her glass of wine.

There’s a pause, then Alyssa sighs. “Damn,” Alyssa says as she turns to look at Victoria. “That all true?”

Victoria’s looks steadily at her. “Every word.”

“That’s one hell of a life to lead, Vic.” Chloe says, still staring at her. But her posture is less aggressive now, less ready to jump at her if she says anything wrong. Could Victoria have finally convinced her?

“Yeah,” Max chimes in, brushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I just take pictures of a pretty punk girl.”

Everyone at the table chuckles quietly, and the mood shifts to something far less filled with tension. As Victoria starts asking Dana about her new job, Kate watches Alyssa settle down, sees her posture go from ramrod straight to just the littlest of slouches. And as Dana starts to regale the group with the story of how she became production assistant on a big movie set, Kate laughs along with the rest of the group at the twists and turns of the story. With everyone starting to smile again, Kate finds herself feeling grateful and hopeful.

Maybe tonight will be a good night after all.

Chapter Text

And it does turn into a good night. Victoria catches up with everyone that she’s lost contact with, quietly finding out what they’ve been up to since she’s been gone. The conversation flows, whilst the alcohol peters out. As everyone around the table tries to one-up each other in their own interesting stories, it turns into a competition, and by the end of it Kate’s stomach is aching from laughing at all the different stories that everyone has to share.

Victoria smiles, reclining into the seat as Alyssa concludes another story of her time as script writer on what she says was “the most brain-melting reality TV show ever”.

“I still can’t believe that none of it is real though,” Says Dana, doubtfully. “Why are they even allowed to call it ‘reality TV’ then?!” She’s pouting, sticking out her bottom lip like a petulant child, and Kate giggles at the sight.

“Trust you to keep up with this kind of TV, Dana.” Kate chided, a grin across her face. She glanced across to Victoria, and caught her looking back, trying to hide her wide smile behind a hand. Trying and not really succeeding.

“Hey!” Dana, exclaimed, pout growing even more prominent on her face. “It’s good TV for Sunday mornings when I don’t wanna get out of bed okay? A Dana needs her burrito time.”

The table bursts into another round of laughter, all but Kate, as she’s way too busy picturing Dana’s head popping out over the top of a burrito roll.

It is adorable.

As the laughter dies down, Taylor quietly reaches over to pick up her own empty glass on the table in front of her. Then she stands, beginning to walk away, but Max catches the quick glance and subtle nod she flashes to Alyssa as she does, and starts to worry again.

“I’m gonna get a refill, if anyone needs me I’ll be at the bar.” Taylor declares, then before she turns, she fires a pointed gaze at Victoria, who has been staring at her since she got up. Victoria’s brow furrows as Taylor turns and strides away, and she turns to glance at Max, who offers her only a shrug and a apologetic smile.

Victoria glances over at Kate, who missed the entire exchange, too enraptured in conversation with Dana. for the briefest moment, Kate turns to look at Victoria and smiles before tuning back into her conversation. But in that one moment, Victoria felt her heart blossom in warmth.

She sighs, then stands, grabbing her own empty glass before silently making her way towards the bar.

 

---

 

Taylor is already leaning against the bar when Victoria walks up to her, sliding between people in the crowd so she can stand next to her. The bartender, a tall floppy-haired boy in a shirt and waistcoat leaves a drink in front of Taylor, and she smiles at him as he winks and walks away. Victoria suppresses the urge to roll her eyes.

“So, why’d you drag me all the way over here?” Victoria asks, leaning close and lowering her voice so she could beat the noise of the crowd around them. Taylor responded “Honestly, I’m not really sure either.”

For a moment, Victoria considered chewing her out. Taylor just dragged her away from her very comfortable seat at the table and halfway across the party just to tell her she “wasn’t sure”? Victoria had put people through hell for less. But Taylor’s expression was unreadable, a mask of neutrality that must be hiding a torrent of thoughts and emotions she didn’t have a handle on. Victoria had seen that look many times before, a practiced poise that used to linger in her mirror every morning.

How does no one else see through this? Victoria used to think. Looking at Taylor now, she understood it a little better. It wasn’t that no one saw through it, but rather that even if they did, they knew that they weren’t going to get anywhere with that knowledge. People like Victoria and Taylor only let others in when they chose to, and no time before then. All you could really do was hope that the time came, and that you had the privilege of being there when it did.

And so Victoria kept her mouth shut, resting her arms on the bar as her gaze never left Taylor’s face. Standing there waiting, and hoping.

Taylor played with her drink, a finger rubbing along the rim of her drink as she leaned there, mulling it over.

“You’re not subtle, you know.” Taylor says, a faint smile dancing on her lips. Victoria raises a quizzical eyebrow. Taylor takes another sip of her drink, before continuing.

“Even back in Blackwell, you were like this. I did kind of hate it, the way you wholeheartedly threw your efforts at anything that caught your eye. Nothing else would do until either you were done with whatever you were interested in, or if it got boring.” Victoria eyes Taylor warily, and Taylor finally looks up at her. Her eyes are warm, but there’s a strength behind them. Like a person who can no longer be fazed, because she’s seen a lot and understood a lot more.

Victoria has to force herself not to stutter, when faced with that gaze.

“...What are you talking about, Taylor?”

Taylor sighs, then moves a little closer to Victoria. “Look, Vic. I’m not here to judge you, okay? And I don’t think anyone at that table holds a grudge for anything that we did back in Blackwell. It’s been five years, and we’ve all moved on, especially you, might I add.”

“And normally, I’d be completely fine with that. I’d be more than happy to let sleeping dogs lie, and find out more about who you’ve become these past five years. You seem kinder, and more...whole. But most importantly, I think you’re happy.”

“I really want to be a part of that, I want my best friend back, Vic.”

It might have been the alcohol, but suddenly Victoria was aware of her heart pounding in her ears, and the dryness of her mouth. Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought that she would get to hear those words. After rejecting her, and then letting her see all the worst sides of her, Taylor still wanted to be her friend? Victoria feels an indescribable ball of emotions welling somewhere in her chest, and she kinda wants to cry, scream and hug Taylor all at the same time. But none of that would be appropriate, so instead she takes a sip of her whiskey and waits for the catch that was definitely coming.

Taylor takes another long drink, then sighs before continuing.

“Vic. Are you in love with Kate?”

 

---

 

“Kate! Over here!” Max exclaims running along hurriedly down another seemingly endless hall of the mansion. Kate trails behind, trying to remind herself not to run. Even though she was wearing a pair of beautiful oxfords and not the high-heels she had originally considered, she knew that if she tried to keep pace with Max she’d break out into a sweat before long. Max had had many trips worth of running around the country to build up her stamina, whereas Kate’s long hours in front of her computer in her room had drastically sapped hers.

Which was never much to begin with. Thought Kate bitterly as she watched Max patter over to a gorgeous work of art hanging at the end of a hallway. The whole house seems to be filled to the brim with beautiful (and probably expensive) artwork, and Kate finds herself admiring them all, drawing inspiration for some of her own works.

Idly, though, she finds her thoughts wandering. To images of blonde hair and harsh cheekbones.

 

---

 

“Honestly, Taylor? I don’t even know.” Victoria says, and as she admits it she feels a knot in her chest loosen up. Taylor looks at her, stopping herself from interrupting. The last time she had experienced something like this it was when Victoria had finally coaxed her into sharing her fears about her mother. At the time it had felt difficult to start, but when she did it all just came pouring out before she knew it. Like an engine on a cold winter morning.

Looking at Victoria now, Taylor was pretty sure she needed the same thing. So she waited, waited for her friend to trust her with her troubles.

Victoria buries her face in her hands for a moment, rubbing her cheeks. She didn’t really feel a need to do that, but ever since she started weaning herself off cigarettes her hands had been far more fidgety, and she needed to do something with them right now. After a moment, she put them back into her lap, then continued.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever known when I’m really in love with someone.” Victoria admits quietly, moving her elbows back onto the table. “Like, the last person I think I could say I had any real interest in was Rachel, and look how that turned out. I don’t think you could even call that love. Maybe it was just an obsession?”

Taylor nods silently, urging Victoria on. She remembers those days in the dorm well, the days of seeing Rachel slink quietly out of Victoria’s room in the middle of the night, when Taylor was coming back from a midnight smoke. The little glances that Victoria threw Rachel’s way that went ignored, and the small looks of disappointment that broke Taylor’s heart when she saw them.

Taylor remembers the worst parts too, the nights when she heard Victoria storming past her dorm room door, sniffling so quietly no one else would have heard. Those were the nights that Taylor knocked quietly on Victoria’s door, and they would share drinks in her moonlit room, silent except for the music on the stereo.

She must have fallen for Victoria in those nights, so long ago. It was one of the things that let her be brave enough to confess, even if that did end poorly. But she had made a promise to herself that she wanted to be Victoria’s friend again, and after losing contact with her for so long, this was the smallest gesture she could offer.

“No, I think it was something more than that. I think I didn’t like Rachel, I just liked the idea of her, this image that she gave me, like I had a private view into what she was really like, that the rest of the world didn’t get.” Victoria continued, reaching out for her drink before realizing it was empty. The bartender walked over, giving her a quick refill, and she takes another sip as he walks away. Taylor waits a beat before she talks.

“She did have a way of making anyone believe in that.”

Victoria nods, swirling her drink in her glass. “And I did believe it. For as long as I knew her I really bought it. Bought that I was special to her, even if what we had was a secret. And then she died, and so much of her life came to light that I didn’t even know existed and I just…”

Victoria trails off, and Taylor waits for her to continue. They had never spoken about this before, and thinking back now it broke Taylor’s heart to think that all of the confiding had been one way, from her to Victoria. She had never really taken the time to sit down and ask if Victoria was alright, to learn more about what she was feeling. In a way, she too was guilty of believing in an image of Victoria, a lie of confidence and self-esteem.

Kate truly was wise, to know that Victoria is and always has been just another girl, someone who needs help from time to time.

Victoria pinches the bridge of her nose, trying to prevent the onset of a headache that alcohol and sadness always brought on in her. “I just think that after everything, I needed some time to myself, and some time to see the world for what it truly is. So much bigger and with problems so much more important than anything my tiny little life could ever handle. After seeing the things I’ve seen, you really get a perspective on your problems.”

“But then Kate just had to come along, right back into my life.” Victoria smiles quietly as she says this, swirling the glass in front of her. “I remember that day. Walking up behind that shock of dirty blonde hair hoping that it was her. I had told my assistant to invite everyone she could from my life, but she really did a good job unearthing Kate’s address.”

Taylor returns Victoria’s smile, before sheepishly looking to the side. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, by the way. If my agency hadn’t sent me overseas i would’ve-”

“It’s fine,” says Victoria, shaking her head. “We wouldn’t have been able to catch up anyway. I was hardly at the show. Honestly if it wasn’t for the fact that there was an issue with one of the photo prints that day I would have never ran into Kate. But there she was, standing in front of my favorite shot looking gorgeous.”

Taylor smirks. “Seriously? Did she finally learn how to dress up?”

Victoria gives her a playful shove. “Shush, you. And the answer to that is yes and no. She’s still wearing way too much green, but…” Victoria glances back over to their table, to the lovely green dress that Kate is in. “...it really suits her now, right?”

Taylor looks back, then nods. “...Yeah, it really does.”

A comfortable silence fills the conversation for a moment, as they take a moment to look back at their table of friends. A silence laden with the weight of everything said and unsaid between them. A silence bearing the weight of horrors from a week of hell, and of a group of friends suffering far too many consequences from it.

It was a silence like a drop of dew on a flower petal, a heavy weight on something beautiful, but still, undeniably, a part of it.

Victoria is the one to break that silence.

“Kate really is something else, you know? And talking to her...well, sometimes she makes me feel like the rest of the world doesn’t really matter.”

Victoria thinks of Kate, smiling quietly over a candlelit dinner, and thinks of the universe in Kate’s eyes. Taylor looks at Victoria, and hopes for only good things in her future.

 

---

 

The night goes on, and the party seems to only get steadily louder. More and more people mill out on the dance floor in the main landing, but Kate doesn’t really feel ready to join them just yet. Honestly, she’s not sure she’s ever going to be ready to be pushed around like that. Right now, she’s more than content to just be pulled along by Max and Dana, wandering around this incredibly spacious mansion.

“This must have cost a fortune.” Kate observes, looking around the second room that, as far as she can figure, is dedicated to displaying only art. She turns to Dana, who casually shrugs. “How did you all even afford this place?”

“It’s Ethan’s family home.” Dana responds, reaching out a finger to trace a pattern on the side of a vase on display. The vase looked like it was worth enough to buy Kate’s apartment twice, but then again, so did most of the rest of the pieces in this room.

“It has its ups and downs.” Dana continues, glancing at Max as a flash goes off from her camera. “Oh yeah?” Max laughs, pulling the instant film out of her camera before shaking it. “Like what exactly?”

“Well, most days, these spaces are rented out as art galleries to artists who can afford it, and tons of guests come and go as they please. I’ve found strangers wandering my bedroom more times than I can count.” Dana smirks, recalling the various people she’s shocked as she tells them that the room that they were standing in belonged to her.

“From the way you’re smiling, I can’t tell if that’s a up or down.” Kate chides, smiling as she sinks into a nearby sofa. Dana returns the smile and settles down next to her. “Oh, getting to troll people and show off how incredibly rich I am at the same time? Definitely an up.”

Kate giggles, and shifts as Dana and Max pile on to the sofa, on either side of her. She’s almost ready to keep talking before she notices Dana’s aiming a smug smile at her, and raises an eyebrow in response.

“And what’s that look for?” Kate asks warily, as Max slots her camera back into her bag. “Oh come on, Kate” Dana says, snuggling closer to her on the already cramped couch. “Coming to Victoria’s rescue like that? And don’t think you’re sneaky with all those little glances you’ve been giving her.” Dana smiles at her, waving her finger at her in little “naughty naughty” circles in the air. Kate can’t help but laugh, and Max smiles at them. “You never were very good at keeping secrets Kate,” Dana continues. “So tell me! What’s going on between you two?”

Kate looks at both Dana and Max, practically wiggling their eyebrows at her, and shakes her head in amusement. “Fine! You win. What’s do you even want to know anyway?”

“Well, obviously Alyssa’s told me everything she knows, but between us, those lot can kind of forget about the most important thing when it comes to helping someone else.”

“And that is?” Max asks.

“How that person feels, obviously! No good having all those well wishes in your head if all you end up doing is hurting the person you want to help.” Dana says, gesturing in a “that’s so obvious” motion. Kate nods in assent.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions?” Asks Max, and Kate shakes her head. “I prefer the other version of that: Hell is filled with good intentions, heaven with good works.”

“Sometimes, the results matter just as much as the intention behind it.” Dana continues. “So, Kate, what’s going on between you and Victoria?”

Max smiles as Kate turns to Dana. Leave it to Dana to truly know how to talk to people. Guess you didn’t get to become the schools most liked cheerleader without some skills.

“Dana, I really don’t know.” Kate starts, hands nervously playing with the hem of her dress.

“Start with what you do know, then.” Dana says, reassuringly. Kate takes a deep breath. “Well... I know that Victoria’s a good person now. Much better than she was back in Blackwell. She’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s worldly. And maybe, most importantly, she’s learned how important it is to be kind. I know that I’ve forgiven her, about everything that happened back then, and that she’s never stopped trying to make amends. And I think that that should absolve her from all the doubt that everyone still sends her way, you know?”

Dana nods. “So how are thing between the two of you right now?”

“Honestly? Kind of just...good. Late night calls, some coffee dates and just general hanging out? I’ve learnt a lot about who she’s become and I really like being around her now. It so...comforting.”

“Okay, so do you like her?

Kate glances behind her at Max, who only nods as she continues. “Honestly? I have no idea. What I really want is to be able to see inside her head, so I could have some sense of what was going on in there.”

Kate glances at Max, who only nods for her to continue. Kate bit her lip, fighting the urge to squirm.

“It doesn’t matter whether or not I like her or want this to go anywhere. Victoria is this...force of nature who’s met so many different people and has so many different experiences. I’m just Kate. I mean, we’ve only just recently started talking again. Why would she even care?”

“Look, regardless of how much she’s grown and how she deserves a second chance, blah, blah, blah- Let’s be clear here, that girl ain’t friendly.” Dana punctuated with a snap. Kate and Max laughed out loud, “Victoria is really reserved and she always has been. Like, she knows how to play the social game but she doesn’t let anyone in. I think the only person who was ever truly her friend was Taylor.”

Kate blinked as a memory popped up in her brain, a video call they had during Victoria’s trip to China,

-

“No way,” Kate had laughed.

“I’m being serious.” Victoria insisted with warmth, “I don’t really have friends.”

“I don’t believe it,” Kate teased, “Miss I-know-everyone-and-am-invited-to-all-the-parties-and-go-out-every-night-lalala” Kate had grinned when she heard Victoria’s burst of laughter,

“Yeah, I know everyone and go out a lot. But these people are more acquaintances, people I’ve worked with and keep in touch with or a few that are fun to party with. But I can’t talk to them about myself. My past, my worries, what I’m thinking about...that takes someone special, you know?”

Kate listened, feeling something visceral bubble within her chest, “Yeah, I know.”

-

Kate sighs in response, and Dana takes her other hand. Kate turns to look at her and she meets her gaze. “Kate, honey, listen. You’ve already connected more with her in a few months than we did in years. Maybe that means you’re special to her.”

Kate gives a small mirthless chuckle. “Don’t be silly, Dana. Even with her pseudonyms, she’s a big-name photographer that’s gonna be amazing. I just draw animal stories for kids.”

Dana smacks her arm. “And Victoria and Max are just people who push a button on a camera! You can’t look at it like that, Kate. You’ve been this girl’s biggest issue for years, and now you’re becoming her friend! You’ve been, and still are a big part of her life.”

“But does she think I’m special to her?” Kate asks, rubbing her arm where Dana hit it.

“Maybe I can help.” Max pipes up, and both Dana and Kate turn to her. “Well, when I first came back to Arcadia Bay, things between me and Chloe were...awkward. We hadn’t seen each other for years, mostly my fault, and that made a really big thing between me and her. She never really held it against me, I suppose, but we were so out of sync I could never tell what she was thinking anymore.”

Kate and Dana both sit patiently, waiting for more. Max goes on.

“And there was a lot of stuff that...happened. I heard about her dad dying, and what life with David was like, her dropping out of school...Rachel. It felt like I would never be able to reach across that gap and have my best friend back. But after everything that happened in Blackwell, I kind of realised how precious life was, and that I didn’t want to waste a minute of that without her by my side. So one day, at sunset, I just took her up to the lighthouse. We had a little picnic, we talked, and it felt like old times again.”

“Then, right as the sun touched the water, I looked over at her, and she was looking at me, with a smile brighter than any I had ever seen before on her face. I think she knew, then, even if I still wasn’t sure. So I asked: “What are you smiling at?” And she just says, “You.””

Silence fell, and Dana and Kate both smiled gently at Max.

“Gross.” Says Dana, and neither Max nor Kate can suppress a giggle.

“Look,” Max says. “Everyone knew Chloe was a romantic at heart. All I’m saying is, sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and ask. That’s how we started dating, and now, five years on, I can’t imagine home without her. Good things come to those who ask, Kate.”

Kate looks at both of them, and finds herself wondering how she got such wonderful friends.

 

---

 

As the night goes on, alcohol seems to flow more steadily. Victoria abstains from Taylors offer to do shots and let loose with the rest of them, and watches them chug the shots before following them out onto the dance floor. Around them, more and more jackets were being shrugged off, and sleeves rolled up. Victoria even spots a line of high-heels left near a couch, and a group of barefoot alumni end up conquering the centre of the dance floor.

The lights dim as the clock creeps past midnight, and the music gets a little rowdier, as does the crowd. Victoria loses count of the times she loses track of everyone in the party, and eventually wanders back to their seating area alone. She’s abandoned liquor for the night, settling down with a small flute of champagne instead, and tries to enjoy the quiet buzz of the alcohol in her system. Nothing compared to what she used to do, but she was starting to feel her age anyway. Wouldn’t do her body good to keep rushing around like that.

Victoria settles in the plush leather, nursing her champagne as lasers and lights begin to flash across the hall, and the party, impossibly, gets even louder. She glances over the crowd, watching the sea of rising and jumping faces.

Where is Kate?

Victoria thinks to herself, craning her neck to try and single her out anywhere around the room. Not that she really believed that Kate would be anywhere in that sea of people, but she’d been surprised before.

When Taylor and Victoria had finally made it back to the table, Kate, Max and Dana had disappeared, and all Alyssa had to tell her was that they were off exploring. Victoria was almost shaken by the idea of having to spend a prolonged amount of time with these people without Kate around, but thankfully her speech earlier seemed to have disarmed most of them. They seemed content to just ask after her, and for her to regale them with more stories of her travels. Before long, the party had started to pick up, and they had left to charge onto the dance floor.

It wasn’t that Victoria wanted to abandon her party life completely, hell, if some of the friends she had made on the road were here, she would be more than happy to get down on the dance floor with them. But as it was, Victoria didn’t exactly want to do that on her first meeting with them, and without Kate around the party was starting to lose some of its lustre. For the first time in years, Victoria found herself missing the Vortex Club. At least when they were around, the parties were fun.

She sighed, then stood up and looked around for an exit.

Maybe I’ll have a smoke.

Victoria finds an exit out into the rear garden of the mansion, a large quiet space that was loosely decorated with lights and streamers. Parts of it have been allowed to become overgrown, giving the garden a look that mixed foreboding shadowed pathways with welcoming and flower-decorated clearings. Add the white wrought metal furniture and it was a look right out of a fairytale castle.

Stray bits of confetti littered the grass close to the sliding door she stepped out of, so she slid the door closed behind her, then stepped out further into the grass. She takes a pack of cigarettes out of her clutch, holding it up in the dim light of the garden.

“Those things will kill you, you know.”

The voice came from the shadows ahead of her, and she looked up just in time to see a tattooed arm emerge into the light, before the rest of Chloe came into view. She had discarded her pantsuit jacket too, her sleeves rolled up and hair a wild mess on her head, like she had just come off the dance floor.

“You’re one to talk,” Victoria retorts, but puts the pack away all the same. “I’ve actually been cutting down.” She admits, walking over and sitting onto a nearby park bench. “It’s only about one a day now, sometimes not even that.”

Chloe huffs, before walking over and standing before Victoria. From where’s she’s sitting, Chloe is quite an imposing figure, especially now that her sleeves are up and Victoria can see muscles that are a little more defined than when she last saw her. The hard work was treating her well. Victoria looked up, and caught Chloe’s gaze, but she couldn’t quite decide what emotion was in her eyes just yet.

It was somewhere between doubt, acceptance, and nonchalance.

“What?” says Victoria.

Chloe doesn’t reply.

The distant thudding of the bass rushes in to fill the gap.

Victoria shifts uncomfortably, suddenly being able to relate to how boys feel when they walk into their prom date’s house to pick them up. Chloe stares at her implacably for a moment longer, then she opens her mouth.

“They’re all good people, you know.”

Victoria quirks her head in response, but says nothing.

Chloe continues. “Alyssa, Taylor, Dana, Max, Kate. They’re all good people, people that have been there for me more times than I can count. But I rarely get to return the favor. I mean, all I really know is how to tell people to fuck off, and I can’t really do that when it comes to my own head demons, or theirs.”

“But I love them, I really do. Some more than most, obviously.” Chloe adds with a smirk, and Victoria’s heart squeezes a little in response. What was this? Blackwell’s resident badass talking about wholesome stuff in front of the Queen Bee? Juliet would have had a field day with this, back when she still worked on that student newspaper.

“Which is why I won’t ever apologize for what I did in that hallway that night, Vic.” Chloe says, steel hardening her tone. “What you did was fucked up, and if you ever do anything like that again, I will never hesitate to repeat that performance.” Victoria avoids her gaze, trying not to say anything. Deep down, she knows that Chloe’s right, and that if it ever happened she’d gladly accept her fate.

“But…”Chloe adds, and Victoria finally meets her gaze again, and there’s kindness in her eyes. “That doesn’t mean that I’ll never let you in. We were all fucked up back then, and we don’t get a lot of second chances. You treasured yours, and I think I’m gonna trust that you can keep treasuring it.”

Victoria quirks an eyebrow, trying to stop her eyes from tearing up. “Max put you up to this?” She asks.

Chloe scratches the back of her head as she responds. “Kind of. She’s always on my ass about learning to trust and like people more, and if I’m honest, I can kinda relate to what you’re going through. Shit parents, shit life and all. I think you’re one of the few people in my life that actually deserved the second chance. So don’t make me regret giving it.” She finished with a sting, but she’s smiling, and Victoria kind of wants to too.

“You’re a sap, you know that?”

“Of course I do, but don’t go letting on.” Chloe smirks, and just then, the door opens again. Victoria turns to look, and Kate smiles back at her.

“Oh hey!” Kate says. “Taylor told me I’d find you out here. Chloe, if you’re looking for Max I think she just joined them on the dance floor. You might want to go save her.”

“Psshhh.” Chloe says, passing Kate at the door. “Save her? I'm gonna join her. Girl hasn’t let loose in a really long time.”

Kate smiles as Chloe sidles in, and closes the door behind her before walking up to Victoria.

“Hi.” She says, and Victoria wants to melt into a puddle right there.

“Hi.” Victoria responds, and Kate walks up to sit beside her.

The night air is still, and Kate brushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear as she sits. Victoria watches, and tries not to notice how the nearby lamps makes Kate’s skin glow, or how beautiful her light red lipstick looks in contrast to her dress. Kate, for her part, doesn’t do much. Merely sits and leans back, staring up at the night sky for a moment before turning to Victoria.

“Sorry,” She says with a embarrassed smile. “You probably came out here to be alone, but I can’t be inside there right now, not with that music and all that movement. Plus, I think I just about died laughing at watching Max try to dance, and I don’t think she’s ready to forgive me just yet.”

Kate’s babbling and she knows it, but Victoria doesn’t seem to notice. All she does is smile and take Kate’s hand. “Don’t apologize, Kate. I’m always happy to have you here with me.” Victoria squeezes Kate’s hand as she says that, and her heart flutters at the touch. “See anything interesting while exploring?” Asks Victoria.

“Yeah, apparently when this house doesn’t have a bunch of high-school seniors partying in it, it’s actually quite a nice art gallery that up for showings.” Kate says. “There’s a few wings that have a more traditional feel to them, but a few of the rooms have been redesigned to be more modern too.”

Victoria raises her eyebrows in surprise. “What an industrious use of all this space. Maybe I should ask Dana if she’ll let me put up a showing here sometime. I had some ideas of a “tradition meets new world” showing, and this might be a good place for it.”

Kate nods in agreement. “Yeah, I’m sure she’d be more than happy to let you!”

“I don’t get it though, if it were me, and all of this space was mine, I wouldn’t let absolute strangers just whisk in here on a daily basis. I need my privacy, y’know?”

Kate laughs. “Well, you don’t have Dana’s penchant for flaunting everything I guess. Just your humongous ego- I mean, talent.”

Victoria nudges her shoulder playfully, and they share a small laugh. Under the starry sky and in this lovely garden, their laughs felt lighter, unburdened by the troubled past they shared, and Victoria felt like she could tell Kate anything.

Kate took a breath, and sighed contentedly as a small breeze blew through her hair, carrying the scent of the forest on the breeze. She had always loved the smell of nature, and the soothing scent helped her tune out the thumping bass in the background a little more. She ran a hand through her hair, and let it all come to rest over her shoulder before turning back to Victoria.

“Oh, why were you late today? Did something happen?”

“Oh... it was nothing. My phone lost a data connection on the way here and I got lost for a while.”

Kate squinted at her, before chuckling.

“Did you know that you chew your cheek before lying?”

Victoria snapped to attention, turning to Kate in shock. How did she-

“I noticed it that time we met after you and your editor argued over your latest argument. He called your work “unprofessional”? The first few times I asked why your eyes were red and you kept deflecting it with some excuse about your makeup I noticed it.”

Victoria relaxed a little, chuckling quietly. Only Kate, she supposed.

“I couldn’t help it, how could he call writing about that poor family buried in the landslide ‘unprofessional’? I mean, I get it now, it wasn’t the newspaper’s place to report on personal stories of grief, but still.”

Kate sighed, looking at Victoria expectantly. Victoria avoided her gaze, and held her silence until Kate squeezed her hand, and shifted a little closer. “Look…” Victoria starts. “It’s really nothing…”

Kate just stays silent, and Victoria finally relents.

“...I was...kind of just spent an extra hour pacing around my apartment. I was worried that if I showed up, I’d just ruin the party for everyone.”

Kate was silent for a moment, processing that information. “Well, thankfully you decided to show up anyway, right? Otherwise you’d never have managed to catch up with everyone again.”

Victoria only nods, staring holes into the metal of a nearby lamppost. If she was honest, this was possibly the most stressful night she had had in a while, and that was really saying something. Still though, it was nice to know that Taylor still cared about her, even after all this time. And learning that Kate had so many people caring about her was nice as well.

Kate leans back against the bench, throwing her head back as she enjoys the light cool breeze, and the night sky.

“Oh, I never did get to welcome you back from China, when did you land?”

“Just the day before yesterday, actually. I would have told you when I landed, but the second I came back I had to deal with some newspaper drama, and by the time I finally sorted it out I pretty much crashed, woke up and had to prepare for the party so, not a lot of time to get in touch.”

Kate shook her head, “It’s fine, I just wanted to make sure you were alright. Did you have a nice trip?”

“Yeah, actually got a lot of pictures that I think will sell, but there was one thing I really wanted to ask you about.”

Kate quirks her head, and Victoria takes that as her cue to carry on. So she tells her about finding the story about Buddha in the temple, and taking the time to read it. She leaves out her own personal feelings about it, however, or perhaps more accurately she leaves out the fact that her feelings are in a mess after reading it.

Kate smiles, leaning her shoulder into Victoria, and Victoria tries not to focus on how nice that feels.

“Well, I don’t really know that much about Buddhism, but I do know enough to tell you that it’s not exactly a religion.”

“It’s not?” Victoria asks, her question writ large on her face. Kate smiles at her. “Not in its purest form. Buddhism was actually based on scriptures that described good practices in life, like filial piety, empathy and stuff. The Buddha was technically never a god, and Buddhism is more philosophy than a religion, really. And honestly, his teachings are really good. Like in that story, turning the other cheek, and moving on, accepting things for what they are. We could all learn a bit of that, I think.”

Victoria smiles, small and bitter, and hopes that Kate doesn’t see it.

“But Buddhism does share something in common with all other religions,” Kate continues, oblivious. “A common heart in caring for others, and believing in love and peace.”

Victoria chuckles a little, trying her best to keep her cynicism in check as she says, “Come on Kate. After all we’ve seen, do you really think that this world can be a loving and peaceful place?”

Kate quirks her head, and Victoria takes it as a silent invitation to continue.

“I mean, I know that compared to the rest of the disasters that I’ve seen over the years, it probably doesn’t hold up as well, but some nights, I still think about that week, about Mark and Nathan and all those pictures they found, and I just...I can’t believe that there’s a whole lot of good out there.”

Victoria leans back sighing, and Kate is quiet for a moment.

“Well…” Kate begins. “I don’t think it really works like that, Vic.”

Victoria doesn’t turn to look at her, but Kate carries on regardless. “We don’t have to wait for the world, to turn easier, or for it to be loving and peaceful. All that religion teaches is that love, peace, and kindness is to be found within all of us, in all of it’s shapes and forms. Even if you aren’t mother theresa, as long as you make a single positive change today, then you’ve done something good for the world.”

Victoria listens to this with silent awe, wondering how the hell someone like Kate could exist.

“Even after all we’ve seen?” Victoria asks.

“Especially, after all we’ve seen.” Kate responds, covering Victoria’s hand with hers. “Between you and me, we’ve seen how cruel this world can be, and if we aren’t the ones to take a stand and say no more, then who will?”

A breeze picks up, and Victoria watches as the leaves flutter all around them. It tugs loose Kate’s hair from behind her ear, and as she raises her hand to run it through her hair, she glances up at Victoria, and Victoria swear the light that sparkles in Kate’s eyes melts her heart.

Victoria, are you in love with Kate?

Kate gets her hair back under control, and Victoria finds her answer in the way Kate smiles back at her.

“Sorry, did that get a little heavy?” Kate asks, and Victoria shakes herself out of her stupor.

“U-um...no, It’s just. I wasn’t expecting to have these revelations dropped on me tonight you know?” Victoria jokes, trying desperately to cover up the flush that she feels filling her face.

But as she internally flails, Victoria thinks about Kate’s words, and the story that she read. One line of the story had stuck with her, all this time. Something the Buddha said: “Every man is a river. The man you spit upon is no longer here. I look just like him, but I am not the same, much has happened in these twenty-four hours! The river has flowed so much. So I cannot forgive you because I have no grudge against you.”

Looking back at herself, at her road so far, she knew that she had come a long way. The Victoria of old would hardly even recognize her now, this new scar-ridden and story-filled person. The river has flowed, and she is a long way from she was. But Kate’s changed too, and even if she’s forgiven Victoria for what she’s done, would she ever be able to trust her? If Victoria told Kate how she really felt, would Kate accept her?

Maybe Victoria should find out first. And she thinks she knows how to ask.

“Hey, Kate. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask for a while now.”

“Hm?”

Victoria took a breath, throwing caution to the wind. “You remember that first time I went over to your place? Cooked you dinner?”

Kate nods.

“And afterwards, when you let me change in your room, I...I kinda snooped and turned that photo frame up. The one by your bedside?”

Kate’s falls falls for a second before she sullenly nods.

“Yes, I know the one.” She says, a crestfallen note in her voice that twists Victoria’s heart.

“Listen, I’m sorry I looked, okay? Forget I asked it’s nothing I-”

Kate shakes her head, and Victoria somehow manages to shut herself up.

“It’s okay,” Kate says with a sigh. “I suppose you were going to know eventually.”

“Her name was Sam, and for a while, she was my girlfriend.”

In any other context, the news that Kate was finally open for Victoria to date would have been received with fireworks and the popping of champagne, but right now, as Victoria looked at the sad look in Kate’s eyes, all she could do was stay quiet, and wait for the story.

“After you left, and we all graduated, I went to a art college in Portland.” Kate says. “It was the next big step for me, really. And after everything that happened in Blackwell, it took a lot of convincing to get my parents to let me go. But after they figured out that it really was the next best step for my career they eventually let me do it.”

“But it really was shocking when I finally got there. I had been accepted online, and so I only really got there a few weeks before the first day of the semester, and when I walked into the classroom and looked around, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tattoos and piercings and dyed hair on display, the room looked like someone had repeatedly cloned Chloe Price and stuffed them all in a room.”

Victoria chuckled quietly, and Kate smiled at her too.

“And in the middle of all of them, she was just sitting, chilling, as she would say. The only one out of all of them that even looked somewhat like me, so of course I talked to her.”

“And she opened my eyes up to the rest of them, really. Sam taught me so much about everyone else, and she was my bridge to actually having more than one friend in college, and I’ll be eternally grateful to her for that. And for a long time, we were hardly apart. We went to classes together, ate together, she even joined the college’s tea club to be with me.”

“She was the first person I texted, one night when I woke up after a nightmare about Blackwell, and I told her about everything that happened there. She hugged me as I cried and I...well. I suppose I fell for her somewhere around then.”

“It’s a thing, right? That you do when you’re in college? Experiment.” Kate asks, glancing over at Victoria. Victoria nods silently, and Kate continues. “I suppose being around all the other artists there, their views kind of got to me. But we didn’t really get together until Sam asked me. She told me she really liked me, we had a whole date, a walk by the lakeside and everything. It was really special.”

“But as we neared graduation it seemed more and more like I was just a phase to her. She kept flaking on our dates, and eventually when I asked her about it she told me that she was afraid that our paths weren’t a part of each others. That she had her artistic dream of wanting to be a high art artist and she couldn’t see that in my future.”

Kate smirked, a small and bitter smile. “You would have been proud of me, of what I did then. I told her that it should have been her choice to make me a part of her life, that I would have gladly done the same for her, but if she wasn’t going to bother, then neither was I. Went home and cried to Alyssa over a bucket of Ben and Jerry’s but I got over it. Eventually.”

Kate met Victoria’s gaze, and answered the question she could see inside her eyes. “I kept her picture, because I thought that that was an important part of my life. That she was an undeniable part of my life that I shouldn’t try to forget, that I should accept and live with.”

Victoria scoffed, raising an eyebrow. “Your therapist tell you that?” When Kate nods, Victoria continues, “Fuck that. You were right, I am proud of what you said to her. And your therapist is kind of right too, just not about the right thing you should remember. Sure, she was an important part of your life, but the most important thing you should remember is that you can love a person that much. And that you should give that love to someone who appreciates it.”

Someone like me, Victoria thinks, but she keeps that to herself.

Kate is silent for a moment, then nods. “Yeah. I think you’re right.”

“Hell yeah I am.” Victoria retorts, and smiles at Kate fond shaking of her head. “Kate...I have to ask though, does this...does loving girls...go against your beliefs?”

Kate sighs. “I’m not sure. I don’t even know where my stance is on abstinence now, honestly. I mean, I haven’t really had sex with anyone. Even with sam, the furthest we ever went was...making out…” Kate blushes, and Victoria tries not to smirk at that.

“I mean… it’s not that i don’t want to,” Kate continues, still not meeting Victoria’s eyes. “It’s just more like, every time things get...going...there’s always a moment when a voice comes into my head and just says ‘stop’, and I really can’t push past that.”

Victoria nods encouragingly, and Kate sighs.

“Maybe that’s why Sam left, honestly.”

“What?! No!” Victoria exclaims, and the sudden outburst makes Kate look at her again. Victoria was slightly stunned at the strength in her own voice, but she couldn’t let Kate blame herself for this.

“Listen, Kate. Even if I’m not exactly the best person to tell you this, your body, your love, is your own choice, your gift to give to anyone who you think has the honour. No one should have to pressure you into it, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of your own choices or beliefs. You’ll make your choice eventually, and only when you do, will you give that gift.”

Kate sits in stunned silence for a moment, before a small smile breaks out and she reaches out to pull Victoria into a warm hug. Victoria smells of spices, of sweat and cigarette ash, but even that can’t cast a pall on the rush of happiness her words inspired inside Kate. To know that Victoria, this strong, atheistic, self-assured artist and photojournalist approved of her beliefs?

That meant the world to her.

“Thank you, Vic.” Kate whispers, and Victoria’s heart soars.

The hug lasts a lifetime, and Victoria is thankful for every last second of it.

Somewhere in that hug, Victoria makes her choice. And as they pull apart, she looks into Kate’s eyes and asks.

“Hey...Kate? Would you...like to go on a date with me?”