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there was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one

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They watch for a long time. From here, it looks almost easy: the plaster from houses peeling like clay, lampposts bending and getting uprooted as easy as you’d pluck a flower. Bridges crack and houses are ripped from their scaffolding.

From the hill, it doesn’t look violent. But Max has been down there, has seen houses crush each other, has seen impossibly heavy things swirling around her head like they were made of paper. She’s all too aware what the people of Arcadia Bay must be feeling right now.

Granted, it was in another timeline, but it happened. She walked through those hurricane-heavy streets. If Max can remember it, it happened to her. That’s her reasoning, at least. Though she might want to pretend otherwise in the future, she knows- why remember something awful if no-one else does, even the people who were there?

She swallows a shudder as it floods over her- the crazy shitfest this week has been, everything she remembers that never came to pass. She’s probably going to get PTSD. She probably already has PTSD.

“You okay,” Chloe asks. She squeezes her hand.

Max had forgotten they were holding hands. She squeezes back as an afterthought.

She’s shivering. When she looks, she notices Chloe is too. Neither of them are equipped for this weather.

I should rewind and get a big jacket, Max finds herself thinking. She closes her eyes as it registers. No. No more. Never again. Not if this is the consequence.

“In-” Max wets her lips. She doesn’t know why. The rain is wetting them better than her tongue ever could. “I went into town, in another timeline. They started evacuating. They’re- they’re probably doing that now. Everyone will be fine.”

Chloe’s fingers are as cold as Max’s. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“What was it?”

“Are you okay?”

Max laughs. Once she starts, she finds she can’t stop. Her knees wobble and then give out. It’s never happened to her before- one moment her feet are solid under her, the next her legs are pressed into the mud.

Her hands aren’t- Chloe never let go when Max fell. For some reason, this makes Max laugh harder, until it hurts. She curls onto her side, and she’s filthy- mud and dirt and grass. Rain. Blood.

No, not blood. Nothing happened tonight that could get blood on her. Her wrists weren’t chafed bloody from being strapped to the chair. She never tripped on debris and skinned her palms on the broken sidewalk forcing her way into the diner Warren was inside.

None of that ever happened, but god- god, it happened to her.

Max’s ribs ache as the laughter turns into dry sobs, and Chloe keeps saying things into her hair, pulling her into her lap.

“It’s okay, Max. Everyone’s gonna be fine. You did so good.”

She’s shaking. Max doesn’t mention it. She’s pretty sure she’s shaking, too.

 

 

-

 

 

Max calms down from her hysteria-freakout around about the same time the storm dies down, and they run-stumble their way back into Arcadia Bay.

The streets are empty. Or, the streets are strewn with things that shouldn’t be there- bits of buildings and street signs and household objects- but there aren’t any people.

Any live people, anyway. The first time Max spots a dead body, she stops walking and doesn’t realize it until Chloe’s hand tugs at her’s.

“Come on, man-”

Max isn’t looking at her, but she can tell when Chloe traces her gaze because Chloe drags in a low breath and mutters, “Jesus,” in this quiet, trembling voice that makes Max want to hug her to shoo it away.

They make it to the Two-Whale Diner and stand there for a whole minute without speaking. Eventually Chloe says, “They were evacuating.”

“Yeah,” Max says. The table they always used to sit is lying sideways on the remains of the counter. The spot she hugged Warren goodbye is eviscerated.

“They were evacuating,” Chloe repeats.

She squeezes Max’s hand.

Max squeezes back. Their hands are still cold, but less so, and the same kind of cold as each other. They haven’t let go of each other since the hill, and Max’s fingers have long since gone numb. Still, she doesn’t dare let go.

 

-

 

 

The next few days are a blur- buses start coming in, and one of them picks up Max and Chloe. They’re driven to a small town about a mile away, and Chloe’s mom and Step Douche- Step Dad, now apparently- run out of the place they’re staying to hug the hell out of them both.

 “Oh my god,” Joyce keeps saying as she clutches at them. “Oh, my god.”

David’s breathing goes funny like he’s going to cry, but he never does. After a hug that surprises all of them- David included- he draws back, clears his throat.

“What happened to you two?”

“We stayed safe,” Max answers before Chloe can. For some reason, she doesn’t want anyone else to have even a vague picture of her and Chloe standing beside the lighthouse, hand in hand, watching the storm Max wrought bring destruction to their doorsteps. She wants that to be theirs and theirs alone.

Don’t you have enough of things that are yours and yours alone, whispers a voice in Max’s head, and images flicker in front of her: David shooting Mr. Jefferson in the head, the blood pooling onto the floor as David’s hand shook around his lowering gun. Giant squirrels outside her dorm window. Kate jumping into a doorway made of light.

Chloe dying in a bathroom. Chloe dying on the train-tracks. Chloe dead in front of her too many times to count- she took forever to save her from the train. She had to rewind at least a dozen times after hearing Chloe’s terrified scream, cut off by the train.

“Max.”

Max looks over to see them all staring at her in concern. A touch on her hand makes her startle.

“Just me,” Chloe says. She rubs a thumb over Max’s knuckles, tries for a smile. “You with us, hero?”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Alyssa told me you pretty much saved her life,” Joyce says. “I gotta agree with my kid here on this one, Max. You’re something.”

I’m something, alright, Max thinks. “How many people died?”

Chloe’s smile falters.

“Don’t you worry about that,” David tells them.

Joyce puts an arm around Max’s shoulders. “Why don’t we get you two inside. You both look frozen half to death.”

 

 

-

 

 

The next day, Max learns that the death toll was under forty.

Her free hand flexes at her side. It would be so easy to hold it up and feel the seconds slough backwards into minutes, into hours, into yesterday-

She purses her lips, puts her hand in her pocket. Saving them means losing Chloe.

She looks across the room- everyone’s been set up into cots in what looks like a school gym. Chloe has been put with her family, and Max’s cot is beside hers. Last night, Max had stayed awake the whole night and watched Chloe breathe. There were moments when Chloe would wait too long to take one, or her soft snores would stutter.

Max would have to reach out and touch her wrist, which was hanging out from under the blankets. Max would touch her pulse-point until Chloe’s heartbeat put her at ease, or as at ease as she could be.

On the other side of the room, Chloe is poking microwavable macaroni-and-cheese around a plastic bowl with a plastic fork. She’s complaining; Max can tell from her expression. She’s in whatever clothes people could spare: a NY shirt and cut-off jeans. She looks younger in them.

Max looks at Chloe, then back at the death list pinned on the wall. She stares until Chloe calls her back, her voice faux-casual in a way that lets Max know she noticed what Max was looking at.

“You good,” Chloe asks, clapping Max on the shoulder as she sits down on Chloe’s cot. Her hand lingers, brushes Max’s shoulderbones through a shirt so thin Max is pretty sure everyone can see the colour of her bra.

Max nods. “I don’t regret it,” she admits in a low voice. She examines her knees as she does this; doesn’t want to know how Chloe is looking at her. “Does that make me terrible?”

“I think it makes you fucking weird,” Chloe says after a second. Her voice is odd, but Max can’t figure out why. Her chin nudges Max’s shoulder, then her cheek does. She leaves it there. “But no, it doesn’t make you terrible.”

Max doesn’t believe her, but she lets Chloe drag her into a spare room to play shitty video games until they get called in for dinner, which is cold baked beans for Chloe and cup-a-noodles for Max.

 

 

-

 

 

Max’s parents call several times a day. Each time, they offer to buy Max a plane ticket home.

“I’m good here,” Max always says. “Thanks anyway.”

She doesn’t know what she’d do if she went back to her old house. If she saw her parents in the living room, her Dad doing the crossword and her Mom knitting, both of them squeezed onto a ridiculously tiny sofa.

It feels like a hundred years since Max has been home. It feels like she’s eighty instead of eighteen.

How much time has she lived that doesn’t count? Did that week count as double that? Did it count as a month? More? She doesn’t know how many times she rewound during it.

“I’m not going to rewind ever again,” she tells Chloe one night.

They’ve found their way up to the roof, thanks to Chloe’s boredom and Max’s ability to hit a rusty lock with her foot until it broke off.

It’s too dark to know if Chloe’s looking at her. Max has her head tilted towards her, and if Chloe’s doing the same, that means their faces are a breath apart.

“Fucking fair enough,” Chloe says. “’S caused you more than enough bullshit. Gotta admit it came in handy, though.”

“It wasn’t worth the consequences,” Max says, and then pauses. “I mean. Saving you was. But- everything else, it was just- it was a clusterfuck, Chloe. I never want to cause that kind of destruction ever again.”

Then there’s silence, with nothing but the wind and the birds to break it.

Max feels Chloe’s breath on her face and smiles into the darkness. How much shit has she waded through to make sure Chloe was breathing?

“Fair enough,” Chloe says, soft this time. Max will never be used to how soft Chloe can be- she always was, even when she was all barbs and sharp edges everyone cut themselves on. She never cut Max on them, not even when she tried to force it.

Chloe lifts her hand, flutters her fingers lazily at the stars. “Hey.”

She says it like she wants to continue, but wants Max to say something first. She does this a lot. “Yeah?”

“So I feel really fucking selfish for being alive now. Like, all the time.”

Max closes her eyes. When she opens them, the moon has come out from behind the clouds. It shines enough that she can see Chloe’s silhouette beside her. “You shouldn’t. It was my choice.”

“Oh, great. That makes me feel so much better.” Chloe shifts on the roof tiles. Max doesn’t blame her. They’re very uncomfortable. The only reason they even came up here is because the hall was starting to get stifling with everyone sharing their grief and space all the time.

“How do you, uh. How do you feel about it.”

“You sound like my therapist.”

“Do you have one? A therapist?”

“No. Never did.”

“Ha. Neither.” Chloe’s hand bumps Max’s wrist. “I just- you said you didn’t regret it. And that’s cool. But- I mean, are you okay? Like, I feel like you should be having a buttload of moral dilemmas.”

“I try not to think about it.”

“That’s healthy.”

“Says Miss Wake and Bake.”

“Hey! It’s the breakfast of the Champions.”

Max grins and sees Chloe’s flash of teeth as an answer. Max itches for the camera that was in her backpack, which is now fuck-knows where among a pile of rubble somewhere.

“Just checking up on you,” Chloe continues. “Like always.”

“I’m fine.”

“You always say that.”

“I’m always fine.”

“And I’m Bill Clinton.”

Chloe snorts. “Bill Clinton? Really?”

“Yeah, he’s a stud.”

This jolts a real, choke-on-your-breath laugh out of Chloe. Her hand skates against Max’s again as she shakes with it. “Oh, god. Never say anything ever.”

“Okay,” Max says. She’d happily lie here on the roof with Chloe forever. If she could make time stand still, this would be the moment she’d pick to live in.

Maybe you can, she thinks. Then she forces herself to think about how she can feel the warmth of Chloe next to her, how Chloe’s chest rises and falls as her lungs fill and empty.

“You’re worth it,” Max says. “You’re worth everything. I’d do it all the same if I had to.”

Chloe doesn’t say anything, but she takes Max’s wrist and holds it until they’re blinking sunrise out of their eyes.

 

 

-

 

 

Compared to the previous week, the week in the hall passes quickly.

Max waits in food lines, she lies on the roof with Chloe. She sits with Alyssa and gets taught poker by Frank, and then plays charades with Warren and Kate, and makes increasingly-not-awkward chitchat with Victoria.

It’s a little awkward at the start, but Max thinks that’s mostly her fault. For their first conversation after the tornado, all Max can think about it Victoria’s mouth moving against Chloe’s, of Chloe telling Victoria she was a real woman, not a ‘little woman’ like Max was.

After a thank-you for being warned about Nathan, Victoria accepts it when Max tells her she’s feeling kind of off. Their next talk, a day after that, is more or less comfortable.

By the time Victoria leaves- on a helicopter, no less- to be with her family, she even hugs Max goodbye. It’s quick, and Victoria avoids her gaze after it happens.

“Uh. Text me. Or don’t, whatever,” she says.

Max grins. Two weeks before this, she’d never expect to be grinning over anything Victoria-related, but it’s been a very strange couple of weeks. “See you, Victoria.”

“Mm,” Victoria says. Her hand flicks over her shoulder in a wave as she turns to board the helicopter. “Later, sluts.”

“I still hate her,” Chloe says, from where she had politely refrained to comment during their last conversation. This had been mostly from Max’s repeated foot-stomping whenever Chloe opened her mouth.

“I get why you do,” Max replies, and waits until the helicopter has taken off before saying, “She died. In another timeline. Jefferson killed her before he was going to kill me. I talked to her before it happened. She was really scared.”

Chloe gets quiet. She always does when Max brings up the other timelines. Sometimes she comments on whatever Max said, but other times she changes the subject. Max gets it, really. She’d do the same thing in her place.

“In another timeline, we were friends,” Max continues when it’s clear Chloe isn’t going to speak up. “This is a timeline where I’m in the Vortex club, but. Still.”

“You were in the VORTEX CLUB,” Chloe bursts out, and by the looks of it she thoroughly regrets it as soon as it comes out of her mouth.

“Apparently,” Max says. “In another world.”

“Another world,” Chloe echoes.

She and Max watch as Victoria’s helicopter turns into a speck, and then disappears into the horizon.

 

 

-

 

 

Max tells Warren about ten minutes after she decides.

“Chloe and I are going on a road trip.”

Warren blinks. Then he swears when his minute hand-twitch turns his stack of cards into a lump of cards. “Uh. Okay, cool! Where you guys gonna go?”

“We don’t know yet,” Max says. “Everywhere we can go in a truck, I guess.”

Warren hums, turning his full attention to Max, like always. “Always jealous of your girl for that truck, honestly. That is one boss-ass truck, I’m really glad it survived the storm.”

“It is indeed a boss-ass truck, ” Max says, trying to clamp down on the part of her that’s singing your girl your girl your girl on repeat. “I’ll snapchat you the whole way.”

Warren gasps, puts a hand on his chest. “Just snapchat? Have I hurt you in some way, Max?”

“I’ll text and call,” Max says. When she holds her arms out, Warren folds himself up in them. He does the best hugs, as she found out pretty early in their friendship. “What about you? What are you gonna do?”

“Eh,” he shrugs. “Figured I’d look into time travel.”

“Warren.”

“I’m not gonna name names, I promise!” He holds up his hands in surrender. “Just- I might need more details, Max. For research. If you’re ready to talk about it, of course.”

His eyebrows go pinched and worried. Max doesn’t blame him. They’ve talked about the time travel before, multiple times since getting to the hall. But Max has always ended it prematurely, or, once, started having a panic attack in the middle of the hall that she’s pretty sure Warren is going to be apologetic about until they’re both old and grey.

“I’ll tell you everything I can,” she promises. “For research.”

“Don’t say anything you can’t handle, okay,” he says. “Not that I think you can’t handle stuff, you totally can, you’re a superhero, it’s just-”

“I know,” Max says, remembering dragging in breath after breath as she huddled on the floor, Warren’s hand hesitant on her shoulder as he tried to reassure her. “It’s okay, Warren.”

His shoulders sag in relief. “Right. Uh, okay, then. Tell Chloe I told you guys to have an awesome trip. When’re you leaving?”

“Tonight.”

“Yeah? That’s soon.”

“Yeah,” Max says. She gestures around them- the hall, the cots, the people milling around. “Just. Yeah.”

Warren nods. “Gotcha. Call me whenever, about anything. Always here for you, Max.”

“Back at you.”

Warren opens his arms for another hug, and Max laughs as she steps into it.

“Also I’m totally gonna get over my crush on you while you’re away, promise,” Warren says, his words a jumble in her hair.

Max laughs, not unkindly. “You better.”

“Yeeeeah. It was getting kinda creepy, huh?” He gives Max a look when the hug ends. “I know, I know. You’re too polite to agree, but I know my creep-ometer. I’ll get it down to nonexistent by the time you get back. Text me when you find out when that is, by the way.”

“Will do,” Max says. “Keep me updated on you and your things, Warren.”

He gives her a thumbs up, and is still giving her a thumbs-up when she leaves the hall.

 

 

 

-

 

 

 

Max doesn’t remember who suggested the road trip first. It could’ve been Chloe yesterday, it could’ve been Max last week, it could’ve been either of them when they were eleven or eight or six and dreaming of having a license.

“I can’t drive,” Max admits as she buckles her seatbelt. “Legally, anyway.”

Chloe checks the rear-view mirror. “But you can drive drive, right?”

“Yes, but-”

“Then we’re set!”

“Not if cops pull us over.”

“Then we’ll drive. Very. Carefully,” Chloe says, right before lurching out of the driveway. She groans when she sees Max glaring. “What, okay, what did I do.”

Max’s gaze flicks from her torso back up to her face, tugging meaningfully on her own seatbelt.

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“I never joke about road safety,” Max says, faux-sweet.

Chloe sighs, but reaches over to do up her seatbelt. “This from a girl who drove all the way across town in a tornado.”

Max sticks her tongue out at her. Chloe pinches it, and cackles loudly when Max yelps.

 

-

 

 

At the first rest stop they come to, Max buys as many disposable cameras as their budget can allow. The first picture she takes with one of them is after getting back in the car: it’s Chloe looking amused and weary, in the middle of an eyeroll.

“Well, there’s a shock,” Chloe says as she blinks the flash out of her eyes. “Should’ve seen that one coming.”

Her jaw cracks around a yawn. “Shit. Haven’t even been on the road six hours and I’m bushed. Wanna take over?”

“I don’t have a license, Chloe.”

“So what? If we get caught, you can just rewind and-”

Don’t.”

Chloe’s lips thin. She looks out the windscreen.

“Sorry,” Max says. It had come out tighter and louder than she expected it, more a snap than a warning like she had meant it to be. “I- I meant it when I said I wasn’t going to do that anymore, Chloe.”

“I know,” Chloe says. She eyes the road, the white lines out in front of them. “I was joking.”

“Oh.”

“Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

“Good, so we’re both sorry,” Chloe says too fast. Her hands find the wheel, her fingers tighten around it. “You know what, I think I can clock in a couple more hours. We can pull over and sleep if I start falling asleep at the wheel.”

“We’re pulling over before you fall asleep at the wheel, Chloe.”

Chloe flashes a smile at her, a ghost of the smile she had on when Max got in the car a minute ago. Max wants to rewind and do it over again, but-

But it’s Chloe. Chloe gets it, Chloe’s always been able to take whatever Max threw at her. Even when Max feels like she’s shaking apart, Chloe sticks with her and strokes her hair and reminds her of her time and place in the world. She talks about Rachel and how she’s thinking about going to community college, maybe, and how she wants a dog at some point.

Even if she didn’t understand something about Max, she stuck with her through it anyway. She went to the Hannah Montanna movie when they were kids even though Chloe hated her guts with a visceral passion. When they were 12, Chloe stayed up with Max all night as Max hunched over the toilet and heaved out a stomach’s worth of food poisoning.

It’s always been them, Max and Chloe, Max-and-Chloe, even when it wasn’t. Even after being apart for five years, it only took five minutes for them to slip, near-seamlessly, back into best-friendship, or something like it.

Max has always known her relationship with Chloe wasn’t like it was with her other friends. What she had with Chloe wasn’t like what she had with anyone, and re-kindling that only made it worse as Max realized what it had always been.

It had come to a crest on the hill, though it had been blooming under the surface for the past week, or however long Max fit into that week.

For a moment, after Max ripped up the picture and Chloe had looked at her with hard, almost disbelieving eyes, Max nearly kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she found herself seconds away from it, only to pull herself back at the last second.

She didn’t do it. Of course she didn’t. They were Max-and-Chloe, like always.

Max leans her head against the window, then thinks better of it and winds it down. When she sticks her head out, the wind blurs any sound that might reach her. Everything turns to white noise. If she closes her eyes, she can pretend she’s anywhere. Anywhen.

She sifts through it all, tries to think of a place she’d rather be. She doesn’t concentrate too hard, though, lest she send herself back there.

It doesn’t take long for her to realize there’s nowhere she’d rather be right now, even with Chloe pissed off in the seat next to her, because it still means Chloe’s in the seat next to her.

 

 

-

 

 

For years, Max entertained tiny fantasies about being Not Normal. About being whisked away to a fantasy land she was secretly princess of, or discovering she was always a mermaid if she did this one special thing underwater, or finding a doorway to another universe.

She doesn’t like thinking about that last one anymore. It gets her thinking about all the timelines she left where things were Awful with a capital A.

She always wanted, deep down, to be Not Normal in an extraordinary way. Now, she’d give anything to be Normal.

One week. One week plus whatever her time travel added on, and now she wakes up scrabbling at her wrists, trying to pry off nonexistent duct-tape. She wakes up choking on Chloe’s name as her best friend dies on the train tracks, on a dirty bathroom floor, on the wrong end of a bullet as their teacher stands over her with a gun and a needle.

She jumps at loud noises, she has to get out of the car to have panic attacks and dry-heave into the dusty grass at the side of the road. When a storm rolls in, Max can’t sleep until it quietens down, curling under the motel sheets and covering her ears.

Once, they’re walking through a carpark when Max notices an abandoned syringe in the gutter. She feels sick for the rest of the night, has to sit down on the carpet and push her cheek into it, convince herself she isn’t back in the Dark Room.

Chloe’s good about it, which Max expected- she’s awkward, and she says the wrong things sometimes, but she’s trying. She’s always tried so hard, and doubly so when it comes to Max.

When Max wakes up in the middle of the night, spots the neon lights of the diner outside and starts to have a panic attack, Chloe is there. Around about the second week of the road trip, they started sleeping in the same bed.

“Saves money,” Chloe had said when she first suggested it, after nights and nights of Chloe having to climb into Max’s bed to calm her down. “C’mon, we can buy more junk food with this money! Don’t you want more junk food? You know you do, Max.”

Max curls into Chloe and gasps, trembles against Chloe’s solidness as Chloe relays the time and date.

“You’re fine,” Chloe repeats, over and over. “You’re in a hotel in Maine. You’re with me. You’re fine. I’m alive, you’re alive, everyone’s alive. Here, feel.”

She does what has become their ritual: she takes Max’s shaking hand and presses it to her neck, against her pulse-point. She takes Max’s other hand and presses it to Max’s chest. “Feel that? We’re all fine. Heartbeats and everything. Remember tonight? We ate shitty Chinese and watched Conan. I made you laugh with me at his haircut. Remember that?”

“Yeah,” Max manages. It’s a croak. Her mouth is always dry when she wakes up like this.

Chloe wipes at her cheeks. The rational part of Max’s brain thinks oh, great, I’m crying again.

Chloe holds Max until she stops shaking, until her breathing’s evened out and she’s making her way back to sleep one step at a time.

I’d give anything to be normal again, Max thinks.

Around her, Chloe’s arms adjust. Her breath is warm on the back of Max’s neck. She isn’t asleep yet. She doesn’t fall asleep until Max does.

Max shifts back so they’re pressed together as tight as they can.

I’d give everything except you, she amends. Not you.

She doesn’t need to wonder if she means it. She’s already come through on it.

 

 

-

 

 

Max makes them stop at every crappy tourist trap they come across, including the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.

“It’s not actually that big,” Max admits. Then she nudges Chloe. “C’mon, let’s take a picture.”

“For Wa-rren,” Chloe singsongs. She rolls her eyes. She’s been pissed ever since an employee told her to put her cigarette out. “God, that dude is so thirsty. I bet he jerks off over these.”

“It’s our blurry faces in front of a giant twine ball, Chloe.”

“Hey, I don’t judge what freaky shit people are into.”

“Chloe.”

Chloe moves into place, slings her arm around Max’s shoulder. She gives Max bunny ears, and Max only notices until after she’s sent it with the caption ‘V. UNIMPRESSIVE.’

“Could you be more twelve years old,” Max says, gesturing at the bunny ears.

Chloe looks over her shoulder at it, then snorts. “Whatever.”

“Weren’t you the one who told me what that means?”

“What what means-” Chloe pauses in picking at the rope that stops them from getting at the twine ball. “Ohhh, yeah, that was definitely me. Hey, Caulfield- what do bunny ears mean again?”

Max tries to look disinterested, but it’s hard when Chloe’s smiling at her like that, all danger and pinpricks and just a hint of nerves. “You’re such a dork.”

“No, really, I can’t remember.”

“Like shit you can’t remember.”

“I can’t! Please remind me, O wise one, so older than your years, impart your wisdom upon-”

“Oh my god, stop, it means you want to kiss that person. Which I still think is bullcrap our school made up.”

“I’ve heard it in other places,” Chloe says.

Max wants to do something  stupid, like grab Chloe and shove her against the wall and kiss her right in front of all the tourists and the guard and the World’s Biggest Disappointment of Twine. She wants to make her voice go all low and flirty, like Chloe can actually do, and ask Chloe, well? Do you?

She shouldn’t be so twisted up about it- it’s not like they haven’t kissed before. But that, Max reasons, was a hurried joke-kiss in Chloe’s bedroom that they both laughed off.

Chloe keeps looking at her like she’s waiting for Max to say something, and Max keeps waiting for Chloe to say something, since Chloe was always the braver of them both.

Tell me you want to kiss me, Max thinks. It’s the closest thing she’s come to prayer since her brief stint at trying to believe in God when she was 13. Or just do it. Come on, Chloe. Come on, self, grow some ovaries and kiss her if she isn’t gonna do it. Someone move.

Neither of them do, and eventually a tourist comes and jostles them and Max says, “Oh, sorry,” and Chloe says, “Watch where you’re fucking going,” and the spell’s broken.

“We should- head back to the car,” Chloe says.

Max says, “Right,” and leaves with her stomach in triple-knots.

 

 

-

 

 

 

It’s like being in limbo, though it’s a hundred times better than that mind-fuckery that happened right before choosing Chloe over Arcadia Bay.

Most of the time, they drive. They talk and rest their feet on the dashboard and shove their head out the window and pee in the bushes at the side of the road. Junk food wrappers litter the backseat, which they only clean out when one of them has to sleep on it. Chloe smokes and manages to get the smoke out the window, most of the time.

The radio is on almost constantly, blasting or on as soft background noise.

Sometimes they stop to stretch their legs or check into a motel or walk around a new town, ducking into second-hand bookshops or warehouses or supermarkets. Max loads up on maps and more disposable cameras while Chloe pretends not to be seriously considering shoplifting.

Max remembers them vaguely talking about a road trip when they were younger, before Chloe’s dad died and before Max moved away. She remembers wondering what it’d be like.

This, she decides, is better than anything she could’ve thought up back then.

 

 

-

 

 

Somewhere in Missouri, Chloe spots a tattoo parlor and drags Max inside. Max goes without much protest.

They get tiny matching infinity symbols inked on their inner elbows.

“It’s us,” Chloe says. “Because forever. And time and shit.”

“Thought you wanted to keep that arm ink-free,” Max had asked when they’re discussing it.

Chloe had made a noncommittal noise. “I’ll make an exception for you.”

Max touches the plastic wrap the tattoo artist wrapped around her inner elbow. Under the flimsy material, the ink is dark and vivid, the skin around it is swollen. It’s not bleeding, but Chloe’s is; the faintest dots of blood peeking out and making odd patterns in her plastic wrap.

I choose you, Max thinks. It’s the only coherent thought she can manage and it gets stuck on repeat as her fingers ghost over her new hurt. I choose you and I always have and I always will and I don’t regret it even in those times I’m sick with guilt.

“Max,” Chloe says, and Max realizes she’s been staring at her new ink for a good thirty seconds without saying anything.

“I,” Max says, and then she walks out. She keeps walking until she reaches the side of the building, and then sits down against it. She braces her head on the plastic wrap, so close to the tattoo that she can’t see it: her elbow is a plastic-wrapped blur in front of her eyes.

It’s seconds before Chloe joins her. She sits down next to her, boots scraping the gravel. “The artist back there said that was the most dramatic case of tattoo regret she’s ever seen.”

She says it lightly, but Max knows her. She knows her in so many timelines she can’t count, and she loves Chloe in every one.

“I don’t regret it,” Max says. She raises her head, looks at Chloe because she has to know this, really know it, not just believe it when Max tells her. “Not once. I almost wish I did, Chloe, I- god, people died because I chose you. Nathan- he sent me a voicemail, before. I let the cops record it and then deleted it, but sometimes I kind of want to listen to it and I don’t know why, he sounded- he warned me, he tried to fix things, in the end. I recognized so many names on that death list back in the hall. I knew almost all of them, and if I let you- if I let you-”

She can’t say die, so she swallows and says, “If I chose Arcadia Bay over you, you’d be the only casualty. Nathan would be in a mental ward getting the help he needed instead of in the fucking ground. You know the cops still haven’t found him?”

“Max-”

“Don’t tell me it’s alright,” Max says. She doesn’t jerk away, doesn’t want to, but she feels like she should. “It’s not alright. I- people died so I could have you with me. I have to live with that. And- god, I’d rather live with that, I’d rather live with this insane fucking GUILT until my dying day rather than lose you, Chloe. I really would.”

She chokes on a laugh, buries her head into her arms and then relents when her new tattoo twinges. “Fuck. I never thought I’d be this selfish and I don’t even care ‘cause you’re here and we just got matching tattoos and I’m never going to use my powers again, not ever, I don’t fucking care if- if- I don’t care what happens, if you’re here then I’m good. I’m good.”

“You are good,” Chloe says. Her hand comes up to Max’s hair. She smoothes it over her ear, and Max closes her eyes to revel in it. “You- made some really tough fucking choices, Caulfield. Choices no one should ever have to make, and you did. That’s, that- it’s incredible. You’re incredible, Max. Time-wizardry or no.”

“I could, I could-” Max chews her cheek. “I could save them. Those people who died. But I won’t. And I- god. God. I’m awful.”

“You’re the best, bravest person I’ve ever met,” Chloe says. She puts her arm around Max’s shoulders and Max all but melts into it, pushing her nose into Chloe’s neck.

“’S not your job to save everyone, Max,” Chloe says into her hair, and Max breathes, listens to Chloe breathe.

 

 

-

 

 

“Hey,” Chloe says one day. They’re in a motel bed after one too many days of sleeping in the car. One hand is under her head and the other one is going through Max’s hair.

“Yeah?”

“You don’t have to answer this.”

“Buuut?”

Chloe’s thumb rakes her ear. “How many times did you see me die? And- when? I just want to know, it’s so weird remembering things and knowing you had an entirely different experience-”

Max supposes she’d want to know, if she was in Chloe’s place. “Oh.”

“You don’t have to-”

“No, it’s-” Max sits up, and Chloe’s hand falls from Max’s hair to her waist, barely touching it. “I’d rather get it over with.”

“Okay.” Chloe looks up at her. The hair dye is growing out- a good third of it is mousy brown now. It would be a crappy look, if it wasn’t Chloe, who could always make anything look good.

Max skims over most of it. A couple times in the bathroom, ‘cause Max couldn’t get the hang of it the first few times. Too many times to count on the train tracks. One time when Max gave her an overdose to end her pain. And once, when Mr. Jefferson shot her.

By the time she’s finished, Chloe’s expression is unreadable.

“Say something,” Max tells her.

“God.” Chloe’s fingers are a warm band on her waist. “That’s so shitty. Shitty can’t even describe it, that’s-”

She sighs, worrying absently at Max’s waistband. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that, Max. You can’t even get therapy for it, ‘cause any doctor’s just gonna think you’re nuts.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“It’s okay,” Chloe says. She shuffles closer, rests her cheek on Max’s thigh and looks up at her. “You can always talk to me. Or Warren, I guess.”

She rolls his eyes when she says it, like she does most of the time when she says his name.

“You know you always sound jealous when you say his name?”

Chloe’s face does this weird twitching thing and then she’s sitting up. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Max says. Chloe isn’t facing her, but their shoulders are brushing and if Chloe turned her face then they’d almost be kissing.

C’mon, Chloe. You were always braver than me, Max thinks. But Chloe continues not to say anything or turn her head, and Max gets a fleeting memory: Chloe at 8 years old, smuggling her nightlight over and pretending not to know what it was when Max asked.

She remembers saying something to Chloe like, I’m not gonna judge you for being vulnerable, but in eight year old words, which were probably much shorter and involved more of calling Chloe a dork.

“You’re a dork,” Max says.

That gets Chloe turning, though not as much as Max would like. “Oh yeah? Says the queen dork?”

Something about it- the normalcy of their bodies slung against each other in a dark motel room, the tail-end of their teenage years spiraling before them, the abyss of trauma Max can only talk about with two people, the still-healing ink on both their elbows, the clutter of photographs wedged into Max’s suitcase and the percentage of them that are Chloe- pushes Max forward.

She kisses her cheek first.

Chloe stills, and then turns. It isn’t as panicked as Max thought it’d be. Instead it’s cautious. Fast, but cautious, eyeing Max with something like fear and something like hope and something like pure fucking love that Max hopes is mirrored in her own face.

Slowly, Max leans forwards. There isn’t much space to cover, they’re already so close, like always- but Max makes sure anyway, holding Chloe’s gaze to ask a silent question.

Chloe jolts forwards, an answer in the form of clumsy lips and accidental teeth.

“Ow,” Max says into her mouth.

“Shit,” Chloe says. She pulls back with the beginning of a frown. “Fuck. Sorry-”

Max shakes her head, takes both her hands off the mattress to frame Chloe’s head in her hands.

The next kiss is softer, deeper. Max sighs without meaning to when Chloe touches her hair, pushes her fingers through it.

They kiss long into the night. Neither of them speak, and Max falls asleep with near-numb lips and a fuzzy, happy feeling bouncing around her bones.

 

 

-

 

 

When Chloe is gone the next morning, Max tells herself not to panic. She’s on her way to doing the exact opposite when Chloe charges in thirty seconds later, two greasy bags in hand.

“Who’s the best friend ever,” she crows. “It’s me!”

She throws Max a bag, who catches it. It’s McDonalds, Max’s usual order: fries and a Big Mac, no pickles.

Chloe throws herself down on the bed, already halfway through her own fries. She uses one to poke Max’s bare thigh. “You not dressed yet? We got a lot of road to cover today. Thought you could take a turn driving.”

“I don’t have a license,” Max repeats for what feels like the hundredth time.

Chloe shrugs. “Didn’t stop you in Tampa.”

She continues to chew wetly, and Max watches her until Chloe nudges her again. “You gonna eat or what? I spent good money on that and you’re letting it go cold.”

“We should be girlfriends or whatever.”

Chloe coughs up a fry. Then she eats it again.

Max wrinkles her nose.

“Um,” Chloe says. “Yeah?”

“Yeah as in yes or yeah as in do I mean it?”

“…Both?”

Max leans over her. “I mean it, queen dork.”

“Oh, hey, YOU’RE the queen dork, excuse you.”

“You’re excused.”

Chloe grins, the rare Max-induced one that always knock Max’s breath out of her chest. “So if we’re giiiirlfriends now, do I get to kiss you whenever I want? Is that part of the deal?”

“Are we drawing up a contract now? Because I don’t think we’re ready to get married yet.”

“Shut up and answer me.”

“Well, I can’t do both.”

“Maaaaaax.”

Max heaves a sigh like it pains her. “I guess you can kiss me whenever you want.”

“Oh, don’t do me any favours,” Chloe says, but she drags her down and kisses her. She tastes of fries and a coke she probably finished on the way back to the motel. She’s smiling when the kiss finishes. “I could get used to this, Caulfield.”

“Good,” Max says. She touches Chloe’s hair, the new brown roots. She can’t wait to see Chloe in the years ahead, how they’ll grow around each other, if Chloe will cut her hair or dye it again. She can’t wait to find out what will happen to the both of them.

Under her, Chloe waggles her eyebrows. “Can I kiss you where-ever I want?”

Max blinks, says in faux-innocence: “You mean like at the grocery store?”

Chloe hits her with a pillow. Max grabs one, and then it’s war. They get fries all over the bed and floor, and Max eats the bed ones and complains loudly when Chloe eats the floor ones.

“Okay, now I’m not kissing you until you brush your teeth,” Max says when Chloe comes up from the floor, fries still dangling from her mouth.

Chloe pouts. It’s not as efficient with fries.

 

 

-

 

 

They can’t go back to Arcadia Bay. There’s nothing left to go back to, and Max thinks she might be okay with that with Chloe next to her.

Instead, they drive to Victoria’s and stay there for a few days. Chloe and Victoria even manage a few civil conversations before they’re off driving again.

They drive back to the town that Joyce and David have set up shop in. It’s about five minutes down the road from the hall they had to stay. They’ve gotten an apartment by the time Chloe and Max get back.

“It’s too cramped for Chloe, almost,” Joyce says apologetically. “I don’t think we’re going to fit you in, Max. Unless you want to sleep on the floor- we can get you an airbed-”

“She’s sleeping with me,” Chloe says, slinging an arm over Max’s shoulder.

Joyce’s mouth twitches. Her eyes go between the two of them, and apparently whatever she sees, it’s a confirmation. “Is she now?”

“Yeeeep.”

“Well then.” Joyce coughs, not bothering to hide her smile. “That makes things a lot easier. You two enjoy the bed.”

David mutters, “Not too much,” and Chloe manages to make it out the door before she bursts out laughing.

 

 

-

 

 

Chloe keeps a stick of pictures as a bookmark: her and Rachel in a photobooth, flipping the camera off and pulling faces and leaning on each other. In the last photo, Chloe is looking at Rachel in a way that Max has become intimately familiar with since they’ve gotten together, and even before that.

“Nothing ever happened,” Chloe tells her once. “I mean- I wanted it to. But it never did.”

“I’m sorry,” Max says.

Chloe shrugs, then looks over at her. Her eyes are blazing, but that might just be the sunset they aren’t admiring like they came to the park to do. “I’d choose you.”

Max’s heart flutters. “What?”

“Over her,” Chloe clarifies. “Over Arcadia Bay. Over everything. I’d choose you, Max Caulfield.”

Max has said it to Chloe a dozen times now, but hearing it back sets off something in her chest akin to fireworks. She kisses Chloe, closes her eyes, pushes her hands through Chloe’s hair: more brown than anything else now.

Their teenage years are nearly over. The future is barreling towards them now, dragging them into whatever’s next, but Max looks at Chloe, glowing in the orange light, and is, for once, perfectly comfortable with her time and place in the universe.