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    The first photo you take is along the side of yet another endless stretch of highway. Despite the crumbling asphalt and the fact that it hasn’t rained there in, like, eighty-two years, a runt of a flower is pushing its way out of the dirt. Its petals are probably meant to be red, but the last two have faded to a murky, shit brown, and the whole thing’s done for the next time the wind blows.

    It’s either poetic or artistic, you figure. Whatever the difference between those two is. You figure it’s pretentious enough to warrant the cost of the instant film.

    You snap a photo, wait for the camera to whir as it chucks out a photo, and shake it in that way Max always does. It’s all in the wrist, or something. You wonder if it makes any difference whatsoever, wait for the photo to develop, and tuck it into your back pocket.

    Max is still in the gas station, stocking up. You finish off what you tell yourself is your last cigarette, financial strain and all, smoke it right down to the filter, and stomp on it. You consider doing the same to the flower -- putting it out of its misery and all -- but something about obliterating your subject after shooting it makes you sneer.

    Jesus.

    Eventually every instinctive action will stop making your mind snap back, right?

    “Yooo,” you say as Max wanders back towards the truck, glad of the distraction. “What gourmet are you serving up tonight?”

    Max opens the bag, letting you see for yourself.

    “Max, are you, like, intentionally picking out the same damn meal every day?” you ask, snatching what’s probably supposed to pass for dessert before Max can slap your hand back. “I’m gonna get cabin fever.”

    You rip open the candy bar, bite off a chunk, and Max rolls her eyes, rather than tell you that cabin fever doesn’t work like that. If the universe wanted you to know what it was all about, there wouldn’t be a boring-ass film named after it.

    “It’s the cheapest thing, and it has the most protein,” she lectures. “That money won’t last forever.”

    And don’t you know it. You’ve got a suitcase of stuff between you, half of it salvaged from Arcadia Bay, the rest of it bought from charity shops or slipped into your back pocket in a store you’ll never see again. You’ve got all the essentials: a few change of clothes, toiletries, phone chargers. But no beer! No weed! No more buying cigarettes, because that’s a waste, don’t you know that you can get a day’s worth of food for the cost of a box, Chloe Price.

    Christ. It’s like being on the road with your--

    Nope.

    You’re not following that train of thought anywhere. Placing a hand on the small of Max’s back, you lead her over to the truck and offer her what remains of the mangled candy bar.

    “Thanks,” she says, opening the passenger door.

    It takes you a moment to reclaim your hand and scoot over to your side.

    You start up the engine, tell Max she better have peed, because you’re not stopping again any time soon, and the road opens up, wide and endless and empty. Max leans against the window, watching the scenery without taking any of it in. She’s not entirely distant, but she’s not quite there, either.

    You twist dials and punch buttons until the radio tunes into a station playing something she likes. You think. It takes her a second, but the music reaches her ears and she smiles at her own faint reflection.

    You go on like that for an hour, and then two. You do a good job of not watching the fuel gauge too obsessively, because Max not wanting to turn to a life of crime is oddly stressful on you, and you tap at the photo in the pocket of your jeans.

    You considering taking it out and showing her, and your teeth grind together as you go over how it’s bound to turn out.

    Hey, check this out. / Chloe, why did you even have my camera? You shouldn’t be messing around with it. / Your camera? Dude, that was a gift from my dad, and someone has to use it. / That doesn’t mean you can just go through my things. / Fuck you, Max. We can’t all have a natural gift for selfies.

    Sighing, you rest your elbow against the door. The light’s slowly fading, turning the horizon a dusty orange, and shadows play across the soft contours of her face. Why the hell would you ever say fuck you to her? What kind of asshole plans out an argument in their head, anyway?

    She saved your pathetic life over and over and you’re not even certain which grudge you’re even clinging to.

    Holding the wheel loosely, you fish the photo out of your pocket. This isn’t about your ego. It’s about Max, and the fact that Max doesn’t seem much like Max without a camera in her hands. What’s the point in her saving you if she’s losing herself in the process? Without her, there’s nothing but endless empty highways worth sticking around for.

    “Here,” you say, tossing the photo her way. “Check it out. Blackwell was insane for kicking me out, right?”

    You give her your best grin. It’s not very good, but she’s not looking, anyway. She twists the photo in her hands, turns it upright, and does nothing but blink at it.

    For a moment, you’re scared she’s going to fall in. Not because it’s a photo -- it isn’t even of her, isn’t more than a few hours in the past -- but because you’re more convinced than terrified that she’s just going to up and vanish. If it’s not time-bullshit, then it’ll be her having enough of putting up with your bullshit; she’s got her family out there, over in Seattle, and you’ve got a beat up truck and a few thousand dollars to your name.

    “I know, I know,” you say when she doesn’t speak up. “Totally overdone, right? Story of my life. Chloe Price: Growing Like A Weed, In Spite Of A Thousand Fuckers Trying To Mow Her Down. How’s that for a title.”

    The corners of Max’s mouth twitch. In the past weeks, three seconds is the longest you’ve managed to make her smile for.

    She looks like she doesn’t know what to do with the photo. She passes it from one hand to another, so you reach out, cover her hand with your own, and give it a little squeeze before reclaiming the photo.

    You toss it onto the dashboard and she says, “... it’s a good angle. But you caught your own shadow in the frame.”

    “What if that was intentional?” you ask. “Y’know, framing it with my... own presence. Something real deep like that.”

    She looks thoughtful. Her brow furrows in a way that’s far too cute for what it is.

    “Then you need a starker contrast. Better light,” she decides.

    “Tips from the master,” you say, winking at her. “Thanks.”

    She does a little no-problem raise of her eyebrows, settles back into her seat, and keeps watching the road.

    It’s a start, you decide. It’s something.

    Your next photo will be better.

*
    You stay at motels every few days. You’re both cool sleeping out in your truck, but sometimes you’ve just gotta take a shower and stretch out. Plus, sometimes there are toiletries you can steal, or bits of food and clothing left by previous patrons.

    Mostly there are just weird stains, though.

    You keep an eye out for the cheapest ones on the road. So far your best stay is this one: $22 a night, complete with a bolted down TV and as much ice as you can find a use for. The walls are so thin they’d probably tear if you knocked on them, and when the dickhead next door laughs, it fills your room, too. You absolutely don’t trust the glasses left on the side, and let Max take care of washing them for what’s probably the first time in months, while you drag all of your belongings into the room.

    No way you’re leaving stuff in the truck. This is a prime location for getting robbed, and you’ve literally got your entire life packed into these bags.

    Well. In these bags and in the bathroom, washing glasses.

    Dumping them at the foot of the bed, you pull across all the latches and bolt and ignore the scratches slashed into the door. The last place you stayed in had a half-chewed up headboard, so you figure this is an upgrade. You fall down on what’s become your half of the bed, exhausted from driving and driving and driving, and the room’s paper-thin curtains let in flashes of blue light from a cop car.

    You snort. That’s a junkie or a john’s night ruined. Still, it looks kinda cool, so you grab Max-slash-your-dad’s camera and snap a shot of the window frame. The photo rolls out, takes its time to develop, and you punch the air because fuck yeah. Perfect timing. Blue light’s flooding in like nobody’s business.

    “I’m beat,” Max calls from the bathroom. “I’m gonna shower.”

    “’kay,” you call. “Lemme know if you want any company.”

    Like you didn’t completely chicken out the first and last time she kissed you. Don’t talk the talk if you can’t blah blah blah, Price.

    The shower comes on with a groan and a creak you hear through the wall. Dropping the photo onto Max’s pillow, you close your eyes, and let the sound of running water lull you halfway to sleep. You’d be done for, if it didn’t keep spluttering as the flow stopped and started.

    You keep your eyes closed when the bathroom door clicks open. You don’t need to see her in her pyjamas -- one t-shirt, zero pants -- and you definitely don’t need to see her wet hair cling to the line of her jaw and the side of her neck. Nope. No way.

    “You missed the pig party,” you say. “They probably busted the only supply of weed around here.”

    You groan, privately grateful that Frank never got you into anything harder. Methhead-Chloe, as fate seemed to have to set a course for, before Max Caulfield stormed into your life (shit, no, bad phrasing, shit), wouldn’t have stood a chance without a constant stash. Stoner-Chloe gets through the day by whining. A lot.

    The bed dips next to you. You open an eye to peer at Max, and see that she’s looking at the photo you’ve left on her pillow.

    “No more words of wisdom, O Mighty Maximus?”

    “It’s a good shot,” she slowly concedes. “The lighting’s better. Just... don’t rush it, okay?”

    “Got it.”

    She tucks the photo under her pillow, and you go back to staring at the ceiling. Neither of you think about turning the TV on. Now that you have every opportunity to sleep, it’s surprisingly hard to close your eyes. Your brain’s going at a million miles an hour.

    Pulling your beanie off, you run your fingers through your hair. Jesus. That’s a lot of grease. The bathroom’s right there, but your feet are sooo heavy, and you swear that you’re not being creepy or anything, but there’s a nice kind of warmth radiating off Max.

    The guy next door laughs at something and you groan, turning onto your side.

    A moment later, Max does the same, mirroring you.

    What is this? Your tenth motel on the road, and your tenth shared bed? Not that it counts for much. There are still a million miles between you, and you can’t bring yourself to reach so much as a hand across the gap.

    “Where to tomorrow?” you asked, just like you always do.

    And just like always, Max says, “Wherever the roads takes us.”

*

    It’s dark. Blink-and-you-won’t-be-able-to-tell-the-difference-dark. Hella dark.

    The light from your cell phone is the only thing dissuading you from the idea that you’ve gone completely batshit blind.

    The ground is cold and damp and malleable. If there are spindly flowers growing here, you’re crushing them with every handful of dirt you rake towards yourself. It squelches between your fingers, catches under your nails, and smears up the insides of your arms. Gross. Fucking gross.

    But you’re not stopping. Not for anything or anyone. You’re digging and you won’t stop, can’t stop, because no matter how you know what’s under the muck, you need to see it for yourself.

    Your heart’s in your throat. It tastes like the aftermath of one shot too many, vomit and bile congealing in the back of your mouth.

    But you’re not scared. You’re angry. Fucking furious. It’s Rachel down here, hiding away from you in the belly of the earth. Hiding away from you after she banged Frank without a goddamn word to you. After you thought that she-- that you and her might-- that the two of you were-- argh!

    Fucking Rachel. You’re going to pull her out of her own shallow grave and let her know exactly what you think about this whole fucked-up situation. Ugh. You can’t believe you called her your angel. You’re embarrassing yourself.

    With a final haul of mud, you stick your arms in deep and pry her fetid corpse out of the bloated ground. You turn the body over, let it thwump against the ground, and--

    And it’s not Rachel.

    It’s not Rachel and you’re throwing up into the ground all over again. You’ve nothing left to give but your stomach churns and demands more and more of you. Max. Max is in the ground. Cold and pale, flesh sliding off in chunks under your dirty hands.

    Max. Gone. Completely fucked over because she tried to save your ungrateful ass. You’re such a waste of space that a grave would’ve been too much for you, but Max, she didn’t deserve this, doesn’t deserve to be stuck with you, to--

    A train thunders past, waking you right the fuck up. You jerk forward in your seat so sharply that you would’ve been decapitated, if you’d had a seat belt on, and smash your knee on the steering wheel. The pain doesn’t register. All you can focus on is your heart beating at a thousand miles a minute, and Max, Max, Max.

    Max, who’s sitting next to you. Max, who despite the train and you jerking awake like you’d been struck by lightning, is still sleeping.

    “Just a dream,” you mumble. “Pull it together.”

    You take a deep breath. You definitely don’t cry, but rub at your eyes regardless. You should be used to this by now. You haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since your dad drove down to the Sav-Mart, and the toxic cocktail that is your conscious meeting your subconscious hasn’t exactly improved in light of recent events.

    Max should be the one flipping out in the middle of the night. She’s the one who’s lived through things you only experienced in another reality. She’s the one who was taken by that goateed fuck, who had her own passion turned against her.

    You grip the steering wheel. Your hands shake, and not just because of the dream.

    Another deep breath. You bang your forehead against the steering wheel, hammering in the fact that Max is alive. She’s alive. She might not be okay, because this world is too fucked up for someone as good as her, but she’s alive. She’s with you.

    But sometimes, knowing isn’t enough.

    You swivel in your seat. You’ve parked in the middle of nowhere, off a hard-packed dirt road. She’s bundled up in the corner of the passenger seat, chair tilted back a little. She’s got your jacket draped across her like a blanket, and she clings to the edges like it’s the only comfort in the world.

    You look at her, by moonlight. It might be sappy, if you could get the image of her being ripped out of a makeshift grave out of your head. Still, you find comfort in staring at her. It’s no wonder she was always taking selfies. Part of you wants to dig out the camera, but most of you doesn’t want to move from her side.

    Reaching out, you press a hand to her cheek. She’s warm. She’s real. She’s the only damn thing left that matters.

    She stirs under your touch. She makes a noise that kind of sounds like your name, if you’re being generous.

    “Shhh,” you tell her. “Go back to sleep.”

    With a muffled okay, she nuzzles her face against your hand, lips grazing the heel of your palm.

*

    “Bullshit,” you say, turning your phone towards her. “Look at these sickos, getting off on tragedy porn.”

    Max rests her elbows on the sticky diner table to lean across and get a good look. Her eyes flicker across the screen, and she frowns, but doesn’t manage to reach any kind of outrage. You shoulder that burden for the both of you.

    Another day, and another nobody with a tumblr starting threads about how terrible it must’ve been to be swallowed up by that storm; how everyone’s thoughts should be with the victim’s families; and hey, here are some needlessly graphic photos of the carnage. They’re definitely doing it out of genuine empathy, and not for the notes.

    “I’m replying,” you say, snatching your phone back.

    “It’s not worth it, Chloe,” Max says, and spears her fork into an unsettlingly grey sausage. “Just ignore it.”

    “Like every newspaper and news broadcast?” you ask, angrily tapping your thumbs against the screen as you register an account. “Fuck that. You need to let yourself get angry, Max. We’re the only ones left to give Arcadia Bay a voice. Hah. They’d hate that.”

    You hate it, too. You hate the way you’re dragging yourself back into the place you couldn’t wait to leave.

    Max doesn’t say anything, though her shoulders rise. You bite your tongue. No point in goading her into a fight. Even you’re over driving in terse, uncomfortable silence because of some stupid shit you just couldn’t keep to yourself.

    She toys with her phone while you reblog a string of insensitive shitheads. Prayers for the victims your ass. You keep glancing up at her as you put all of your eloquence into your reply, and you know what’s on her mind. It isn’t yet another news report. God knows you’ve endured enough of those to last a lifetime. You keep driving and driving away from that hellhole, and it’s all anyone around you is talking about.

    Not that half the people care about some nowhere town. Most of them are just worried the storm’s going to show up out of the fucking blue in the middle of their precious cities.

    Nah. Max isn’t thinking about that. The both of you are pretty damn numb to it, or at least you try to be. It’s her parents. She’s texted them, but that’s the long and short of it. They keep calling and calling (and who could blame ‘em), but Max mutes her phone or looks the other way. She’s not herself, and that’s down to you.

    You want to shake her. Want to remind her that she still has parents, and that they’re worried sick about her. But you don’t want her to leave. It’s selfish as hell, but you don’t want her crawling back to Seattle.

    So you say nothing, and hit post.

FUQ THIS NOISE.
none of you have ANY idea what it was like. i was there. we were there. we watched Arcadia Bay get sucked into that storm. we lost friends. family. and ur all talking about it like it’s a bad episode of one of your shitty shows. leave this shit alone.

    You show Max the message. Her mouth slants at the corner, which you suppose is better than her not reacting at all.

    She puts her cutlery on her plate in the universal sign for I’m done, and you slap some cash on the table.

    “My treat,” you say, nudging your plate towards hers.

    Before you leave, you snap a photo of the two mostly-empty plates, smeared with grease and crumbs and a little ketchup. You decide the coming together of a pair of partly demolished meals symbolises... breakfast.

    You slip the photo into her hand. She glances at it, gives you an encouraging nod, and pockets it. You wink at the waitress on the way out, and Max lets out a long-suffering laugh, before tangling her fingers with yours.

*

    She rushes out of the gas station, slams the door behind her as she gets into the truck, sits down and shakes.

    You’ve been busy mooching off some moron’s unprotected wifi in order to argue with even more morons who didn’t believe you’d really been in Arcadia Bay that day, but you put your phone down and turn towards her.

    “Max?” you ask. She doesn’t respond. You wave a hand in front of her face and nothing. “Anyone at home in the Caulfield residence? Speak or forever hold your silence.”
    Without blinking, she pulls a carton of cigarettes from her jacket pocket. Jackpot.

    “Dude!” you manage, before she pulls out another pack.

    And then another.

    And another.

    “Uhhhhh.”

    “I wanted to see if it still worked,” she says, hands trembling. She knits her fingers together like she’s having to stop herself from reaching out and twisting her wrist. “So I. I asked the guy for a pack of-- of whatever was popular. He got them out, slammed them on the counter, all smug about carding me. But I took them, and I-- I asked again. For another pack. And I kept doing it, just to be sure, and...”

    Her eyes are welling up with tears. You’ve never been so bummed to see a mountain of free cigarettes.

    “Super Max lives to fight another day, huh,” you say quietly.

    “It works,” she whispers, and the first tear rolls down her cheek.

    “Hey. Hey, hey, hey,” you say, arms instinctively reaching for her.

    Leaning awkwardly over the handbrake, you wrap your arms around her and pull her close. It takes her a moment to realise she’s being held, but when she does, she crumbles in your arms. She folds in on herself, taking your heart along with her.

    “It’s okay, Max,” you murmur. You’ve never been good at this comforting business, but if it’s for Max, you’re sure as hell gonna try. “It works. Nothing bad happened. A few stolen cartons of smokes does not a career criminal make.”

    She laughs into your shoulder and it comes out bubbly, stuttery. You squeeze her with everything you have, and when her fingers twist in the back of your shirt, smoking is the last thing on your mind.

    “It still blows her mind that we’re doing this,” you whisper. “That we’re here. That we’re together. Talk about fate. Talk about...”

    You bury your face in her hair. Now isn’t the time for that. It’s never the time for that, because days turn into weeks turn into months and you still haven’t gathered the damn courage to give her so much as another stupid dare.

    “I’m glad I’m with you,” Max says, and sniffs loudly.

    “Convincing,” you say.

    “I mean it,” she says, pulling away from you. Looking up at you. Christ. Even with her eyes all red and puffy, she still... “I know I’m not myself. And I know you’re going to say that no one expects me to be myself after all that shit we’ve dealt with, but I just know that... that if we can keep on going, keep driving, I can be more of myself than I was before I was with you.

    “It’s just... I’m scared to use it. I’m scared to lose it. We’re out in the real world now. What if there’s more trouble? What if it’s down to me to protect you again, but I can’t, because I’m too rusty?”

    “You listen to me,” you say sternly. “With or without your powers, you’re still Super Max to me. And just you being here makes me want to take better care of myself than I have been, alright? I know that’s hella lame, but me-without-Max probably would’ve accidentally-on-purpose driven into a fucking tree by now. Yeouch. Sorry, alternate me. Waaay insensitive.

    “Point is, we’ll look after each other. You and me. We’re all we need. Got it?”

    “Got it,” she says, but bites her lower lip and glances away before you can commit to holding eye contact for too long. “... thanks, Chloe.”

“What are you thanking me for?” you ask, playfully pushing her back. You hold up a handful of cigarette cartons and grin from ear to ear. “I hit the jackpot.”

*

    You find a lake outside of a quiet little town that doesn’t look too dangerous. Hey, there probably aren’t any three-eyed fish in it, anyway. Your truck’s running on so little gas you might as well push it, and there’s nowhere you can get fuel at this time of night.

    All the pieces are in place. You guess the mood’s been set or something, because your brain doesn’t get the chance to go over exactly why this is a terrible idea and why Max will never care about you in the way you’re drawn to her after all you’ve forced her through. You give her your best smirk, say, “Skinny dipping?” and that’s that.

    Okay. So it’s not quite skinny-dipping. But there’s definitely stripping involved, and underwear’s as good as a swimsuit, right? You dive in first to prove to Max that it’s not that cold (spoilers: it’s really fucking cold), and lazily drift around and stare up at the partially star-splattered sky as Max gets rid of her jeans and generic dorky t-shirt number fifty-two.

    You’d expected more resistance from her, but you guess you’re just that good of a bad influence. She’s muttering about freezing her ass off once she gets out, and you tell her that her ass would still be cute, icicles and all. Huffing, she splashes an armful of water your way, and you think that she just wants to have fun.

    She wants to relax and act like a dumb kid and not see the faces of everyone from Blackwell whenever she blinks. You heard her talking to her parents on the phone the other night, heard her sobbing into the line through the thin bathroom walls, and then you went ahead and pretended you were already asleep when she dragged herself back to bed. Maybe it was the right thing to do. Maybe it wasn’t.

    Either way, you’re gonna do better tonight. You’re going to be present. You’re not going to abandon her, emotionally or otherwise. Basically, you’re not going to do the thing you accused the rest of the world of doing to you.

    Have fun. Unwind. Dunk her sorry ass into the bottom of the lake.

    After half an hour spent goofing off in the water and faaar too much accidental tangling of limbs, the pair of you swim up to a conveniently placed rock and lean against it. The moonlight makes it hard to pick out much more on the horizon than the bulk of your truck, but you can’t miss Max’s face when it’s so close.

    You smile. She smiles back.

    Another moment worthy of immortalising in a photo.

    Not that you’re starting to think like her, or anything.

    But she has quite the collection of them, now. Photos from the road. Diners you ate at, cool birds you saw. Pictures of whatever the hell struck your fancy. A few shots of Max that you snuck, as though you weren’t going to hand them over to her later on.

    “My parents want me to come home,” she says, out of nowhere. “They keep begging me. Just to see me. Just to visit. They say they understand if I don’t want to stay...”

    The night’s almost ruined. An ugly feeling washes over you, as though the cool lake water has been replaced by thick, lumpy sludge. Your words stick in your throat and your thoughts grind against the inside of your skull, because you’re instantly convinced she wants to leave.

    She wants to leave you. Max wants to leave you. Max, who fucked with time until her nose bled and her body was battered; Max who endured torture, drugging and all, for your sorry ass; Max, who chose you over an entire town, who decided that your pathetic life was worth more than the hundreds in Arcadia Bay.

    Max who’s there with you now, shoulder-deep in muddy water, a million miles from anywhere. Max who’s started to notice your nightmares and nestles up behind you in her sleep, keeping you close and keeping you warm.

    You don’t wait for another word out of her.

    Turning, you wrap your arms around her waist, and for a second she’s certain you’re going to tackle her into the water at the worst possible moment. Your wet arms slip around her wet waist, and Jesus, there’s so little to her that you cling on with everything you have.

    “Wowser,” she says. “Totally not the reaction I was expecting.”

    She laughs a little, but it only takes her a moment to get it. Everything changes in an instant. Her arms find their way across your shoulders, and she runs her fingers through your hair in a way that makes you never want to wear another beanie in your life. Under the moonlight, the both of you hold each other, skin wet, bodies close together, fighting off the chill late fall brings with it.

    This is it. This is what she saved you for. You’re supposed to be better than you were. You’re supposed to take better care of yourself, to act like you give a shit about the consequences of your actions and what the words you say mean. You’re supposed to make your mom proud, even though you’re pretty sure that if she was still around, you’d still be a total bitch and keep on taking her for granted.

    But Max is there, and Max makes you want to try.

    “If you wanted... I mean, fuck, it’s not like we have a destination. We can take a detour on the way to nowhere, right?” you say, nose pressed to her collarbone. “We could go... together. Hell, it’s been waaay too long since I’ve seen your ‘rents. I want to totally freak them out with the blue hair and my self-styled drop-out look.”

    Max’s arms loosen around you. Leaning back, you stand straight, so that you’re towering over her. As you should be.

    Her arms drop to her side, but then a hand finds your wrist. It’s a light, casual grasp, and she probably doesn’t even realise she’s taken hold of you; she just feels more grounded when she’s touching you than when she isn’t.

    Her lips press tightly together like she very much wants to say something, but can’t, and newsflash: this isn’t the ideal time for your heartbeat to drown out whatever she manages to get out.

    “For now, I just... I want it to be you and me,” she says, “Maybe that’s selfish, but I don’t care. I went through so much to be with you, Chloe, and I’m not ready to deal with anyone else. After everything, you’re my priority. You’re what matters. I want to see my parents, I really do, but I can’t face them yet. You’re the only one I want to see me like this. And I still can’t...”

    She looks away. Her face twists in frustration.

    You knock a fist against her forehead.

    “Just me and you against the world, Maximillian,” you say. She smiles for an entire four seconds, and you can’t wipe the smug grin off your face. “C’mon. Before that cute ass of yours really does freeze off.”

    You lead her by the hand out of the lake. You both hiss between grit teeth and swear and stumble because why is it so fucking cold. Once you’re done flailing around, you pull out a bunch of towels stolen from seedy motel     039, and wrap them around yourselves.

    You sit together in silence, sheltered from the wind by your gasless beast of a truck, and she rests her head on your shoulder as clouds drift past the moon. You sit there, skin against skin, and you wish you could tell her how beautiful she is, but it’d only come out as You are awesomesauce, Max Caulfield.

    You opt not to ruin the moment.

*

    The washing machine rattles against your back as you kill time in a grimy little laundromat that’s probably going to make your clothes more dirty than they were going in. There’s a fast food place next door that provides both breakfast and mega-slow wifi, so whatevs. You’ll live.

    Max is sat at the other end of the bench, flicking through the polaroids you’ve produced over the last month. There are forty-five in total, and you are spending way too much money on film.

    You scroll through your tumblr. It’s been a few days since you had the chance to catch up, and miraculously, it’s doing something other than piss you off today. Your initial reblog was met with scepticism, because of course you just love impersonating armageddon survivors for attention online, but after you threw out a your names and some basic details, some internet detectives got the dirt on you.

    There are still idiots hassling you, because surprise surprise, the online world isn’t exempt from shithoses either, but you’re honestly shocked by all the positivity coming your way. Sure, some people come off as nosy, but it seems like a lot of them genuinely want to know if you’re alright, and where you are now. Some even want to know how they can help you.

    “Sweet,” you say, deciding you’ll deal with the bazillion asks later. “Three hundred new followers.”

    The washing machine grinds to a halt. You spin on your butt, throw your legs over the side of the bench, and flip the door open. You lug the damp laundry into a rickety looking dryer, drop in a few quarters, and with a clunk, it reluctantly starts rolling.

    On the way back to your seat, you steal a few of Max’s fries, along with one of the photos she’s shuffling through like a deck of cards.

    You take a photo of it on your phone, completely disregarding the point of polaroid cameras, and post it. one from the road, you write, not sure where the fuck me & Max are, other than together.

    “Hey,” Max says. Not Hey, stop stealing my breakfast, but Hey, here’s something you need to listen to. You put your phone down. Not before you take a peek and see that you’ve already got sixteen notes. Killing it. “Why do you keep taking photos. It’s not... really your thing.”

    You put your feet back on the bench, and draw your knees towards your chest. You rest your chin on your knees, and just look at her, for a moment. If you keep staring at her so openly, she might start blushing.

    “This is gonna sound hella lame,” you begin. “But I’m taking them for you. I know you, Max. You’re never so happy as when you’ve got a camera in your hands. You were, like, made for taking selfies. And I know why you don’t want to take photos at the moment. I get that it hurts. But you’ve gotta believe that you’re stronger than that sick fuck, alright? That camera’s your life. It’s part of you. Seeing you ignore all that talent and let him get to you... that hurts, too. I want you to be able to be you again, but I get that it’ll take a while. So I’ll just keep taking shitty pictures for you until you’re ready to pick up the camera again.”

    Max blinks way more than she needs to. She doesn’t know what to say, which is good for you, because you’re in the running for Loser of the Year with the lump that’s clogged itself in your throat. She fixes her gaze very determinedly on the photos you’ve taken, goes through them all without seeing, and eventually, whispers, “... you’re getting better. See this one? That’s. That’s worth posting. You should post it.”

    Leaning forward, you grab it from her hand.

    “You’ve got it, partner,” you say, voice verging on the vulnerable side of soft.

*

    Monday, November the 10th. Ten forty-seven am.

    Max Caulfield touches a camera again.

    She doesn’t do anything with it. You’re packing after another night spent in another motel room you’ll never see again (read: you’re smoking the last of the stolen cigarettes while she tidies up after you) when she scoops the camera out of your discarded jacket. She holds it up, turns it in her hands, and shrugs.

    She drops it into her bag.

    You raise your eyebrows and say, “Hoooooly sheeeeeeet,” almost choking on the cigarette in the process.

    You deserve that. You shouldn’t make a big deal about of it. Just play it cool.

    So cool that you practically stage-dive her on the way out of the room, flinging an arm around her shoulder and knocking your forehead against her temple.

*

    Max has tears streaking down her face and blood running from her nose, and she looks so frightened that for a moment, you think she’s crying because someone punched her straight in the face. You only left her alone for five seconds! You don’t have time to think about kicking anyone’s ass, because holy fuckballs, her nose is bleeding.

    “Max. Max,” you say, planting your hands on her shoulders and holding her in this time frame. “What happened? Did you-- did I...?”

    You swear to god, if you died again...

    She shakes her head. Her eyes are wide and your hands move to her cheeks, thumbs brushing back her tears.

    “I didn’t do anything,” she says, voice hoarse. “It just started bleeding.”

    Your entire body remains tense. She’s stopped crying but your thumbs are still wet with her tears, and the blood dripping from her nose touches her upper lip. Nothing happened. She didn’t rewind; more importantly, you didn’t fuck up and force her to use her powers. Christ. Relief doesn’t hit you, not straight away. It takes far too long to remember to breath.

    “Wait. So.” You frown so deeply you give yourself a headache. “Nothing happened. No one... killed me, I didn’t get myself killed, or do anything dumb. We’re just freaking out because you’re having a nosebleed.”

    “Um.”

    “Don’t um me! Get a tissue,” you say, but it’s hard for her to do that with your hands on her face.

    She looks a little sheepish, and you let go, making the effort to dig through your back pockets. It seems like the sort of thing you should laugh about, but Max isn’t in a laughing mood. She didn’t come to you because something had happened; she came to you because she was freaking out, and you completely dismissed that out of hand.

    “Look. C’mere,” you mumble, finding a crumpled but clean tissue in your jacket pocket. “It’s fucking dry out here. No wonder it started bleeding. But I’m here, yeah? You’re here. We’re okay.”

    She nods, snivelling into the tissue. Goddamn. How fucked up does your life have to be to mistake a nosebleed for your umpteenth death.

*

    You’re sitting on a picnic bench that hasn’t been used in a million years. There are more slats missing than there are left, and you’ve had to navigate rusted, upturned nails in order to make yourself comfy. You’ve got a cigarette between your fingers, and you’re damn well going to smoke it: you paid for this bad boy with what little cash you have left.

    There are a trillion trees on each side of the road, and the sun’s setting, spearing the last of its light through the forest. It looks nice. The golden hour, Max said. You take another drag on the cigarette, and you finally understand why she likes -- liked -- snapping that camera so much. This isn’t bad moment. You wouldn’t mine capturing it.

    You’re not at peace -- you are still Chloe Price, after all -- but each day feels better than the last. Each night feels a little shorter, a little brighter. For the first time in your sorry life, you finally feel like you’re moving towards something.

    You smile around the cigarette. Hella lame, but that’s the truth.

    The sound of a shutter closing shoves you straight out of your thoughts.

    There’s nothing else it could be, but when you glance over your shoulder and see Max holding up her camera, it surprises you. Not in a way that makes you start, but in a way that softens your edges. She looks right, holding your dad’s old camera between her hands. She looks like more of herself than she has in months, and fuck if that doesn’t make your heart do all kinds of twisty-clenchy gay shit.

    “Sorry,” she blurts out. You want to shove her shoulder and ask her what the hell she’s apologising for, but you can’t stop staring at her. “I just--I finished sorting out my stuff and my camera was just there, and you looked so... well, you looked gorgeous.”

    You jerk a thumb over your shoulder, pointing in the vague direction of the sun.

    “That’d be nature doing the hard work,” you say. “Lighting and all that.”

    “You always looks good,” she protests, giving the photo a little shake.

    “Even in seedy motels?”

    “Even then.”

    She stares at the photo as it develops, expression rippling in anticipation, and you can’t pretend that the first photo she’s taken in months being of you doesn’t mean something -- everything -- to you.

    But you don’t want to say too much. Don’t want to startle her. (That’s a convenient get-out: you’ve never been good with words and you know it, and something that’s been brewing in your chest for a long, long time is bubbling in your throat.)

    “Post it,” you say, when you can finally say anything again.

    “Post it?” she asks, raising her eyebrows slightly. She doesn’t take her eyes off the photo, and if she’s been staring at you like that all this time, then you’ve been fucking blind.

    “You’re the photographer here, Max. You’re the one oozing all this untapped talent,” you say, handing her your phone. “I’ve already got a fucking ridic following with my shitty snaps. You could get millions.”

    You don’t know whether the thought of exposure encourages or deters her. You hate that you have such a hard time reading her when she needs to be understood most of all.

    “’sides, I’ve had some super creepy messages, and I’d hate to disappoint all the weirdos out here in tumblr-land.”

    “Yeah,” she says, quickly, breathily. Like she’ll never be able to do it if she doesn’t do it now. Her hands shake as she fumbles with your cell phone and though you want nothing more than to cover her hands with your own, you sit there, flicking the wheel of your four-for-a-buck lighter.

    “Got it,” she mumbles, once she’s taken a picture of her photo and navigated onto the app. “So I just... ?”

    “You’re the geek here,” you say, and she clicks her tongue at you as she makes her first appearance online.

    It takes about four minutes for your followers to start losing their shit.

*

The motel is called Highland Springs. That’s Max’s assumption, anyway. The peeling sign reads IG L D SPR GS, and the guy behind the counter, who looks like he’s had his ass plastered to the reception chair since the day his mother squeezed him out, grunts when you ask him what the place is called. Max, second only to Sherlock when it comes to putting shit together, decides that it’s gotta be Highland Springs, despite the fact that everything around you is as flat as Max (she punches you in the arm for that) and the closest thing to springs within a hundred miles is a leaking faucet.

    It’s a good sort of evening. The sunset looks artistic, judging from the way Max’s camera goes click-click-click, and you’re so relieved that she’s using the camera again that the sound of instant film whirring out is more comforting than your own heartbeat. You’re happy. Your dad would be happy, too.

    You have more takeout than the two of you should rightly be able to get through, but you’ve never been one to turn down a challenge, and though money’s drying up and up, Max’s parents keep slipping a little cash into her account every time they realise she’s not coming home, just yet. It’s one of those things you don’t talk about.

    The restaurant next door has free wifi. Max’s phone picks it up, when she scoots to the corner of the bed and sits with her back plastered against the wall.

    “Look at this. Another article. Wowsers...” she mumbles, focus sapped away from you and dinner alike as she scrolls through another self-gratifying garbage piece that’s probably called These Teens Survived The Apocalypse, What Happened Next Will Give Your Ancestors Cholesterol. “Okay. It’s less an article, and mooooore... someone copy/pasting our photos, and adding captions to it. Inspiring. Moving. Light out of the darkness. Oh, this one is good.”

    She grins wickedly, eyes flashing in a way that makes you want to snatch the phone out of her hand.

    “The softer side of Ms. Price,” she says, barely suppressing a snort.

    She tosses her phone to you, and there you are, half asleep as you perch on the tilted-back chair of your truck. Your beanie’s scrunched up in one hand, and it’s one thing having Max take these pictures of you, but when other people see them...? It’d almost be an invasion of privacy, if you didn’t trust Max to frame you as she has.

    The picture’s juxtaposed with a screencap of one of your tumblr rants, where you told someone to fuck off in -- admittedly -- more sentences than were necessary. You scroll up to the top of the article and shove some sweet and sour chicken into your mouth (slightly rubbery, but drenched in enough sauce). To your surprise, it’s not the sort of bullshit people were coming up with to begin with. It’s less meaningless prayers for dead people they’ve never met and more focusing on your and Max’s journey. The article opens up with a spiel about how you and Max (but mostly Max) are showing the world what it means to keep going, to keep your past behind you, to find moments of peace in a world that’s taken so much from you.

    It’s kind of... nice? Maybe. You browse through the pictures they’ve selected from the dozens upon dozens you’ve uploaded, and it hits you all over again that even if Max is taking photos of photos, that she really does know what she’s doing. You mean, how many people actually like photos of themselves they weren’t expecting to be taken?

    “Oh my god,” you say, swallowing your mouthful of food like a snake going to town on a greased up mouse. “The Quick-Tempered Chloe Price, Pictured With Her Closest Friend, Maxine Caulfield. Dude, we’re fucking holding hands. How straight is this author?”

    You realise what you’ve said when Max’s lips twist into the start of a question that’s never given a voice. Maybe she doesn’t understand. Maybe she understands, but doesn’t want to.

    “... this chicken’s cold. Gross. Wouldn’t even want this when I’ve got the munchies,” you say, but keep chewing another mouthful. “How come we never get a room with a microwave?”

    It takes Max a second.

    “This room did have a microwave,” she says, pointing at the far side. Lo and behold, there the brackets are.

    “Assholes,” you say, slumping down. “Beat us to it.”

    You slog through dinner, one splintered forkful at a time, and your stomach aches like you’ve got one of those prickly scrubbing brushes in it, but it’s so worth it. It stops your brain from working. Or barely working, as the case usually is. Max takes more photos, the microwaveless brackets included, and okay, sometimes you don’t super get what she’s going for. But the shadow looks cool?

    She posts the pictures, replies to some threads. It’s weird. You thought getting out of Arcadia Bay would be a fresh start. It is, but you thought you’d disappear in the minds of those you used to know and be someone new to the rest of the world. But here you are with legions of followers (fans?) tracking your every movement. Wanting to know how things are going. Asking if you need anything.

    Some people have even offered to let you crash at their place if you pass through their cities. Creepy as hell, but cool. You shower as you let Max reply to the bulk of the asks. She might use way too many emoji (read: any), but she’s better with people than you are. The motel shower barely reaches room temperature when what you’re after is flesh-melting lava-spew, and suddenly bringing up that one person who offered you a hundred bucks for a photo of you making out doesn’t seem quite as funny.

    You flop into bed without drying your hair. Max gives her phone some respite and lets it charge while she tolerates the water that’s probably straight-up cold by now, and you try to think about anything but Max, Max, Max, as she crosses the room in her “shorts” that probably wouldn’t pass as underwear in polite company.

    You’re glad you never bothered with the pretence of separate beds. Highly impractical for nightmares. Still, when she turns off the lights and crawls into bed, she feels as far away as she was when she was in Seattle. The beaten mattress dips with the familiar comfort of her weight, and you let the duvet graze across your toes as she tugs it at the bottom corner.

    Time to sleep.

    Half an hour later and it’s still time to sleep.

    Max is awake. You can always tell when she’s asleep because she does this restless little thing with her breathing that isn’t quite a sigh, but is too intentional to be a product of sleep, and you wonder if you should speak up. What do you say? Oh boy, can’t wait to drive another gazillion miles tomorrow and stare at the horizon and hey maybe you could take a photo or two. Neither of you ever said it out loud, but you’ve both sworn off asking how the other is doing.

    So you say nothing, but you let her know you’re awake by noisily rolling onto your side and punching a suitable face-dip into the pillow.

    You expect it to take a moment. For Max to have to gather her words, if not her courage.

    But they tumble straight out, almost with frightening speed.

    “I love you,” she says. No hesitation. No accusation. Just something pulling her words taut and doing the same to your heart. “I love you, Chloe.”

    It’s not the sort of thing you can say haha love you too dude to.

    There’s a lot more she’s got to get off her chest.

    “I mean, I chose you. I was gone for five years, and five days was all it took to make those years seem like nothing. Like my life had been on pause until I ran into you again. It took five days for me to realise that I loved you. That my choice wasn’t really a choice.”

    “Max...” you find yourself whispering.

    “But I still feel--like I don’t deserve you. Or any of this. All those people. Gone, because of me.”

    “Max,” you say, firmly, this time. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine, okay? I was the one who couldn’t get my shit together for long enough to go a day without dying. You fought so hard for me, and I still don’t totally get why the hell you would, but I’m super fucking grateful you did. I’m here with you. Because of you. I owe my whole fucking life to you like, ten times over. You’re a superhero, Max.”

    “But all those people...”

    “Max. Listen. We don’t know what would’ve happened if you’d gone back. If you’d let me die that day. Ripping that photo up didn’t just stop you from going to San Fran, did it? Maybe not letting me die would’ve caused... I don’t fucking know, that creep show to have murdered everyone in the damn bay one by one? Like, compared to that a storm is a blessing. Not that they were... listen. We don’t know what would’ve happened. Maybe you would’ve made a bigger mess of time and more than Arcadia Bay would’ve been hit.

    “You can’t think about what-ifs anymore. If you’re not rewinding, you have to deal with being as powerless as the rest of us mere mortals.”

    There’s a long, terse silence. Either Max isn’t convinced, or she’s trying really hard to convince herself to believe you.

    “... it was fate,” she says, sighing. “Me finding you after so long. Getting my powers. Saving you. Hell, maybe Seattle was all part of that. Maybe I had to go away for all that time to properly appreciate you when I got you back.”

    “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, huh?”

    “Yeah,” Max agrees, and something in her voice cracks.

    You offer out a hand. She doesn’t take it, but she presses her fingertips to your pulse point, letting you know she’s there.

    You listen to her breathing and don’t let your shoulders go slack until it evens out. She shuffles on the piss-poor excuse for a bedsheet, and her fingertips bump against yours.

    You let it sink in. She said she loves you. And not in a BFF way. Her heart was in her throat and even though it’s dark as hell, you know there were tears in her eyes, but amongst all the doom and gloom you try driving further and further away from, she loves you.

    She sacrificed everything for you. Chose you over everyone else. Kicked your abandonment issues in the dick.

    And she’d do it again.

    Hell. Maybe she already has.

    You take her hand and squeeze it tightly.

    “Max Caulfield,” you say, “You are hella fucking gay.”
*

    “Piece of shit,” you yell at the ATM screen for two very good reasons.

    One: it refuses to spit out any crumpled bills, and your dashboard light’s been making vague threats of you having to push the truck if you don’t fill up soon.

    Two: you kicked the wall the ATM’s shoved into and now your toes hurt like a bitch.

    “What do you mean insufficient funds?” you demand, and oddly, the inanimate machine doesn’t answer.

    Max is standing off to the side, fiddling with her phone. It’s her card -- the cash ran out a few days ago -- but you don’t have it in you to ask her to text her parents for a few more bucks to survive the night. Just enough until you... what? Get a job?

    Groaning, you lean against the wall and slide down to the floor. You muss at your hair, irritated. Maybe you could get something for your beanie. That’s gotta be an Arcadia Bay memento, right? There’s gotta be some pervert out there who’d pay for the pleasure of sticking his--nope, okay, you like your beanie way too much to follow that train of thought.

    Grumbling, you take out your phone, because ranting on your blog is better than taking it out on Max. OUT OF FUCKING MONEY!!!!!! is the gist of the post. ROADTRIP ENDS HERE MOTHERFUCKERS. You briefly consider asking Max if there’s an emoji that accurately conveys all the deep, dark hate you currently feel towards capitalism itself. Getting out of Arcadia Bay was one thing, but the rest of the damn world has the same bullshit constraints.

    You refresh your dash and hit the notes. Oh no!! someone helpfully adds. Are you gonna be okay? D: another asks, as if fucking emoji are going to stop your blood pressure from rising. But then it happens. It’s like a ray of sunshine in the middle of the shitstorm that is your financial state.

    Shit. Do you guys have paypal?

    “Do we have PayPal?” you ask Max.

    Max, of course, has a PayPal. You make another post along the lines of someone asked if we have paypal so what the fuq here it is donate if you wanna see more of Max’s mad photo skills.

    There’s no way it’s going to work, you tell yourself, but you’re calming down bit by bit. You take Max’s hand and lead her to your truck, and together, you sit and refresh her PayPal balance.

    The sun starts to set. You desperately need to pee but you can’t take your eyes off Max’s phone. $15 from Anonymous. $10 from another dozen of them. Three hundred-fucking-dollars from someone you’ve never met, but has loved going on this journey with you and doesn’t want the snapshots to end. It all adds up, until you have $846 in barely four hours.

    Max hurries to withdraw it into her bank account before she wakes up from whatever dream this is. She rests her head on your shoulder, and for the first time since your dad left to pick up your mom from the Sav-Mart, you start to believe that it might be okay.

    That you might be okay.

*

    You stay in a motel with a microwave and hot water. It’s so classy that if you squint and tilt your head sideways, you could call it a rundown hotel. You’re doing your best not to burn through your donations too quickly, but you can’t be expected to live in squalor, y’know?

    You stop off in a big city and a middle-aged woman on the street recognises you. She clasps your hands and says God bless, and it’s all kinds of surreal. Adults usually only want to talk to you when they’re accusing you of something they think you did or lecturing you over something you definitely did. The donations slow to a trickle after the initial burst, but they don’t stop coming in.

    And one morning, Max wakes you up with a nudge from the passenger seat and says, “Do you think people would want to buy my photos? Like, with actual money? For the originals?”

    “Max, we have twenty-four thousand followers. People would probably pay actual money for a candy bar wrapper you touched,” you say, yawning yourself awake. “You’re fucking incredible, Max, and I have no idea why that didn’t occur to me before. Probably because you’re the brains of this insidious operation. Hell yes people would pay for the originals. We’ve got a brand going. Sad Teens Against The World, Spreading Hope.”

    “You’re just saying that. Because you think...” Max trails off.

    You desperately want her to finish that sentence, but don’t push her. Instead, you tap her cheek with her fingers.

    “You’re doing good, Caulfield. Your photos would be good without the whole... unfortunate background... and there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of this platform we’ve scraped together.”

    She doesn’t look entirely convinced, because Max Caulfield is frustratingly oblivious to how amazing she is, but that doesn’t stop her from taking photos with more focus than ever before.

    You take your truck in for a repair and she makes you sit on the bonnet while she snaps away, like you’re the one who fixed it. An elderly couple recognise you in a middle-of-nowhere diner and buy you a solid meal, as they put it. Max invites them over to the booth and squeezes the four of you into a photo frame. On a day when she’s herself, the self she should be without a thousand non-existent pasts tugging at her, she presses her cheek against yours while you’re driving and gets the perfect shot.

    You say, “Fuck, Maximo!” because that’s dangerous. You don’t lose control of the steering and the wheels don’t skid, but her cheeks are warm and soft and fucking hell.

    Fucking hell.

    It’s been three months since you left. It’s been three months and she loves you, but every time she looks at you like that, features relaxed and content, with the setting sun making her into more of herself, you want to pull your beanie over your face and scream into the void.

    You’re a loser and you know that. No, it’s worse than that.

    You’re a goddamn coward. In love with a girl you can’t even bring yourself to kiss.

    Not anymore. You’re sick of yourself. You can’t stand your reluctance, as though saving your sorry ass over and over isn’t enough of a sign that she returns your poorly concealed affections.

    (And the whole “I love you” thing. There’s also that.)

    It takes you an hour, but you manage to pull over. Or you manage to swerve so sharply that Max jolts in her seat and looks as though she’s convinced she’s going to be catapulted through the windshield, but whatever. Point is, you do it. And after an interruption like that, there’s no way you can chicken out now.

    You’re alright. You’ve got this. Just don’t bundle your hands into fists like that and your palms won’t sweat.

    She loves you. You love her. You might not understand why yet, but you deserve this. She isn’t going to disappear, because she’s stronger than any force that could try tearing her from you. Even if she never rewinds time again, you’ll never stop believing that.

    “Is everything okay?” she asks, interrupting the start of your totally romantic ramble.

    Max twists in her seat and looks out of the back window, like she’s worried you’ve mowed down an innocent racoon and have left a smear across the tarmac.

    “Max,” you say. Okay. Not the strongest start. Your hands move from your knees to the steering wheel, and even you’re annoyed by your fingers drumming against it. Ugh. Your hands are so fucking clunky, suddenly. What do you usually do with them? “Look. There’s something I need to get off my chest, and if I don’t, I’m gonna explode. I will straight-up go boom. I’ll be one of those fine red mists that’s left behind after a bomb goes off, except it’ll be... a fine gay mist...”

    Uh-oh. No backing out now. Will she believe you’re drunk?

    Shit. Shit. Why is she looking at you like that?

    “Real smooth, Price,” you mutter. You clear your throat, which somehow makes things worse, and oh god, she’s just watching you clear your throat little by little as you do your best to figure out how hands work and where they go. “Look. You must get it. You’re the genius here. I mean, from the way you’re looking at me, I kinda feel like I’ve already blurted this all out and you’ve rewound time over and over, taking pity on me, hoping that I won’t put both of my feet in my throat...”

    Max places a hand on your shoulder.

    “Chloe,” she says. “I’m right here in the moment. Promise.”

    You build up the courage to glance at her, and she’s smiling. Each one of her sickeningly adorable freckles draw your attention, eyes darting around like a pin ball going for a high score, and you can’t believe that you’ve been on the road for this long and haven’t spent nearly long enough staring at her. You could spend hours mapping out her face, and that’s how you know you’re doomed.

She squeezes your shoulder, and you realise that it’s just Max. In the same moment you realise that she could never be just Max, but under all the erratic beating of your heart and the heat your beanie’s suddenly searing into your scalp, you know that she isn’t going to judge you. She understands you. She’s come this far with you and she isn’t turning back.

    More importantly than that, she wants you.

    You reach out. Your hand finds the back of her head, and your fingers tangle in her hair as you pull her close. She doesn’t resist. Doesn’t tense. Her nose bumps against yours, and for a moment your only thought is holy shit her lips are soft. Once it actually sinks in that you’re kissing her, your brain short-circuits and all coherent thought ceases.

    She kisses you harder than you kiss her. You’ve been waiting to realise how badly you wanted to kiss her, but she’s been waiting for you to kiss her all this time. You’re hungry, but you’re not rushed. You kiss her slowly. Properly. She leans across the handbrake and you bump your hip against the steering wheel, but that doesn’t matter. She doesn’t melt into your arms. She just is. She’s there and she’s Max and she fits against you like this is some sappy romance novel grade shit, and you feel yourself sigh into her mouth as your heart pounds like you’re about to overdose.

    She pulls back. Her fingers splay across your cheeks, and her own face is wonderfully red.

    “About time,” she says, nose crinkling in delight. “I was starting to think I might have to triple-dare you.”

*

    Max has four nightmares in a week. She throws up once, and it’s all watery bile. You have a fucked-up dream about thumbs in your eye-sockets and she stops using the camera for a few days, but other than that, things are looking up. Even without actually getting your accommodation paid for a week because some photography hotshot’s desperate for Max to lend him a dozen photos for his latest show, it’d still be an improvement over the first few months.

    It all seems to happen at once, but you’re aware that you got there bit by bit, motel by motel, sleepless night by sleepless night. People aren’t giving you donations anymore. They’re funding your journey, because you’re providing the sort of things they want to see. Quality original content and all.

    Max calls her parents more often. You’re getting more messages online than you can possibly read, let alone answer. At the moment you’re fundraising to buy an RV, and you can’t believe it. You’re out of Arcadia Bay at the cost of more than money, but you’re with Max, and it won’t be long until you have a real home for the pair of you. An actual bed that hasn’t been used by all the people you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley. You’re gonna miss your truck, might even get a little emotional about it, but you’re with Max.

    Max who turned up out of the blue after five years and made you remember who you were. Or rather, made you remember that you were someone, and you were worth something.

    There’s a nagging pain in your chest that you still haven’t got past and probably never will, as though someone’s smashed all of your ribs and it hasn’t healed over properly, but there are more days ahead of you than there are behind you. Your life isn’t perfect and you sure as hell ain’t either, but Max wakes up with you in the morning, whether it’s in a motel or your truck or on the side of the road. Max wakes up with you even when you haven’t been able to shower for four days straight and your mouth tastes like an ashtray.

    Max tangles her legs with yours. She smooths her hands across your shoulders when you kiss her stomach, the curve of her hip.

    Max lazily tangles her fingers in your hair and trusts you when you pick up her camera, even though she’s not wearing a damn thing but the bedsheets. You can be crude when it one-hundred percent isn’t appropriate, but right now, with the morning light seeping through the paper-thin curtains, all you care about is the look on her face. The way she smiles more with her eyes, this early in the day. The way she isn’t completely awake, not yet, but can’t keep her hands from finding your wrists, your hips, your back.

    You hold the camera up, catching her as she digs her head into the pillow, messy hair spread across the bridge of her nose. The button clicks under your finger. A split second later a photo’s spat out.

    You shake it, just like Max does, and watch it develop. It’s the best one you’ve taken yet, if you do say so yourself, but it doesn’t capture a fraction of what’s in front of you. It’s not the Max you can see and touch and kiss.

    It’s not the image burnt into the back of your eyelids.

    Tossing the photo over your shoulder, you set the camera down on the empty side of the bed, and decide to leave it to her, from now on.

    It’s the last photo you take.