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Bloom

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It’s strange how well things have gone so far.

Max considers each one as she pulls out the bottles from the plastic bag, treating each one like a ritual object as she places it on her dresser. They shouldn’t be in plain view, but she needs to make sure that they’re real, that they’ll stay.

Spironolactone. Her parents convinced the administration to put her in the girls’ dorm. It didn’t even take that much work; they’d sent something about “Blackwell Academy intends to be at the forefront of diversity and progressive initiatives.” Her real name’s on the attendance rolls, in the class registries. She is Maxine Caulfield and no one else.

Estradiol. No one looked twice at her when she moved all her stuff in here. She faded into the background like any other girl. There was that one girl, beautiful, blonde, leaning against the wall in the hallway with that feather earring dangling, but the way she looked at Max wasn’t prying. Just curious, friendly, and she was really pretty. She gave Max a smile that brought back memories of another blonde girl, long ago.

Progesterone. That’s the other good thing. Max is a year behind Chloe, always was, and this is her senior year. Chloe can’t be here. She’s probably out of town already, at some nice college where she’s getting an engineering major or something. And no one else could recognize her on sight like Chloe and her parents. No one here knows she was ever anyone other than Maxine Caulfield.

And of course, the pills in these bottles, themselves. Max unconsciously feels her chest, the tiny silicone forms she stuffs into her bra. Finally. It took forever to get off those expensive-ass blockers and into real puberty, but Max is more than ready for it. She may look like a girl in her clothes, may pass just fine, but she wants more, she wants it all. Maybe she won’t get taller, maybe she won’t have much at all in the end (her mom’s nothing to write home about in that department and Max sure did her research on what that means for her) but still. First dose tonight.

All right. Enough being happy. You’re at Blackwell now, you’re in school, time to pack your shit away. Last thing you need is getting outed before classes have even started.

She sighs as she stuffs them in a drawer, looking around her room and not particularly wanting to unbag her clothes and hang them up, or make the bed, or organize her school supplies on her desk. Everything’s going too well right now. Instead, her gaze lingers on the bare wall above her bed, then travels to her camera bag. She needs to fill that space. She left her old polaroids in Seattle; she said at the time, “I need Blackwell photos for my Blackwell wall.” Why not get started now? Her room can stay a mess for a while.

She takes the camera and straps it around her neck, taking a quick picture of her plant in the light of the window. She likes what pops out of the camera, the lonely little Lisa in a room that’s halfway to inhabited. A good start. She leaves it on her bed, then steels herself for the outside world.

She steps out of the door and beholds a tall girl with short blond hair dragging a fancy-looking white couch into her dorm. When their eyes meet, the girl loses her grip and drops it right on her foot.

“Fuck!” she hisses, shooting Max a dirty look.

“Oh, sorry!” Max exclaims, though she knows rationally it’s not really her fault. Still, those brown eyes could kill. The last thing she needs is an enemy. Max scans the hallway quickly and sees no parents ready to help her move in, so she offers, “Want me to grab the other end?”

“I got it,” the girl says through grit teeth, picking up the couch again and hurrying into her room. The door slams shut in Max’s face.

Good job, Max. One conversation into Blackwell and already you’ve messed up. She sighs, rubbing her forehead. Maybe she shouldn’t be out in public right now.

“Don’t worry about her,” a voice says beside her, making her jump. “That’s just Victoria. She’s...like that.”

Max turns to see that the girl from before has sidled up to her, leaning against the wall, her unbuttoned red plaid flannel hanging off her frame. She’s a touch taller than Max, but not by much; it’s the curves that really separate them. Max tries not to stare. She clears her throat and tries to look at her hazel eyes.

“New here?” the girl asks, like the answer’s not obvious enough.

“Uh, yeah. I’m Max.”

“Max.” Something flashes in the girl’s eye. “Cute name. I’m Rachel.” She grabs Max’s hand suddenly, shaking firmly. “So what’s with the camera?”

“Oh! Yeah, this,” Max says lamely, running her hand over the object in question. “I’m, uh, here on a photography scholarship.”

“Nice! So you’re not loaded, you’re just talented. I like that.” Did Rachel just throw an insult at Victoria? Victoria’s clothes were really nice. “And it’s perfect, actually.”

“Perfect for what?” Max asks. She feels dumb. She knows Rachel’s playing some kind of game with her, why else would anyone just start talking to the lame dowdy girl? She’s waiting for the shoe to drop. Does she know already? Is she just winding up to some joke on her?

“I wanna be a model, and like, I know the photography program here is good, but I always like working with new people. You planning to use that thing?” Rachel pokes Max’s camera, squishing it against her chest.

“Oh! Um, yeah, I was gonna go out and get some photos for my wall.” Rachel cocks her head, and Max starts babbling, “I, I like having a photo wall up in my room, but I wanted some new ones for a new place, you know, so I was just gonna—”

“That’s adorable!” Rachel coos, ruffling her hair. “Hipster chic. I love it. If that’s what you’re doing, why not start with me? I’m the best-looking thing in Arcadia by far.” She pushes off the wall, standing in the center of the hallway, hand on a cocked hip. Wow. She poses like a natural, and that’s quite a smile, and well, why not?

Max snaps the photo. “Oh my God!” Rachel cries as the film slides out of Max’s camera. “That’s so retro! I didn’t realize it wasn’t digital!”

“I like the instant film,” Max explains, feeling a little bolder now as she pockets the photo. “I can’t mess with it. I just have to shoot and hope it comes out right.”

“Live in the moment, huh?” There’s that smile again. Rachel’s infectious. “Me too. When can I see it?”

“It’ll be ready in a little bit.”

“I’m not gonna take it from you, but I do demand that you at least show it to me,” Rachel warns, holding a finger in the air. There is something about her that’s so Chloe it’s practically giving Max deja vu, but...well. Maybe that’s just the kind of person she clicks with. If this is clicking. Maybe Rachel’s just like this with everyone.

“You’ll get a nice long look before it goes up on my wall.”

“Kickass.” Rachel looks around and considers for a second. “I’m all moved in. Want me to show you some good places for photos? Bus’ll be coming by in a minute, we could hit the beach, or the lighthouse...”

“Oh!” Jeez, she’s really just adopting Max right now, isn’t she? Max wants to feel suspicious. She remembers people pretending to be her friend in Seattle just for a good laugh when the rug was pulled out from under her.

But no one here knows. And she’s nice. Maybe this could just be a friendly person who likes Max. It’s hard to believe that.

Max’s pause was definitely too long and awkward, so she rushes out a “Surewecoulddothat!” with her ears burning. The rest of her face follows suit when Rachel gives her a warm hug and a “Yay! This’ll be fun! I’ve been dying to get out of here.”

“Didn’t you just get here?” Max asks. “Move-in was just today.”

“Yeah, and now I’m bored. C’mon.” Rachel grabs at her hand and starts tugging her down the hall.

Max tries not to look down, she really does. But really. There goes the whole “I’ll be straight when I transition” thing, right out the window. Dammit. Like she needed anything to make her stand out. Like she needed anything to make her more like a boy.

She’s brewing in her thoughts too much to really notice her surroundings until they’re in the quad and Rachel stops in her tracks. “Max!” she hisses, pointing. “Cute alert.”

Max looks around, blinking. All she sees is a girl in a white blouse, black skirt and cardigan, rolling a cart in front of her down the sidewalk. “The girl?” Max asks, a little too fast. Jesus, Max, let your gaydar do its work , you don’t have to so obviously probe.

“Oh, yeah, her too, but look on the cart.”

Max should not think score and she should not get her hopes up, that’s stupid. Look at the cart.

The little cage sitting on top, with the black-and-white rabbit in it, makes everything click suddenly. “ Bunny ,” Rachel breathes, letting go of Max suddenly. “Max, hold on. I need to make a friend. I need that bunny on my tummy when I’m high.”

Max barely has time to question her before she makes a beeline for the girl, bounding up to her and saying hello as Max follows awkwardly. If Max is socially awkward, Rachel is awkwardly social.

“What’s his name?” Rachel asks, gently poking a finger through the bar of the cage as the girl gives them a good-natured smile.

“She’s Alice,” the girl says, the gold cross around her neck flashing. “I’m Kate.”

“I’m Rachel. This is Max. Max, you should totally take the shot.”

“Huh? What?” Max sputters. Rachel’s mind moves so fast.

“Everyone likes cute animal pictures, Max!” Rachel says.

Max suddenly realizes what she means and quickly snaps a photo of Alice, Kate giggling a little. She probably thinks they are so weird. And the cross around her neck makes Max nervous.

“Kate, I am totally dropping by your room later to check out that cutie in greater detail.”

“Oh!” Kate’s cheeks flush a little. “Um, okay. That sounds fun.”

“Right now we’re going on an adventure, though. Seeya, Kate!” Rachel waves a little goodbye as she grabs Max’s hand again, dragging her towards the bus stop.

“So, where d’you think? Lighthouse? You been there before?”

Uh. Max isn’t sure what to say. Yes, I used to go there all the time when I lived here? And then would come the questions, why she left, if she knows anyone here, and she can’t.

A white lie never hurt anyone.

“No, is it pretty?” she asks.

“Gorgeous,” Rachel replies as the bus pulls up in front of them, a strange quirk in her smile. “You’re gonna love it. It’s almost a cliche in the Bay, Blackwell kids going up to the lighthouse for photoshoots, but cliches are cliches for a reason, y’know? ‘Slike horoscopes. People don’t always perfectly fit their sign, but sometimes you get to know someone and you can just peg ‘em.” She places a foot on the first step of the bus, then turns her head to look at Max. “What about you?”

“Hm?”

Rachel smirks. “I’m asking a cute girl her sign and she’s still not getting it,” she moans to the heavens.

“Oh! Oh. Virgo, I think.” Max rubs the back of her neck. Spirituality’s not really her strong suit, if she’s honest.

Rachel purses her lips. “Hm. Maybe you’re not so cliche. You’ll be interesting.” She hops up the rest of the stairs.

Max doesn’t see what she types out on her phone before she joins her at the back of the bus. Rachel’s very careful to hide it from her.

chloe

give me a week and i think i have someone who’s gonna rock your world

no spoilers XOXOXO

Chapter Text

Rachel shouldn’t be this good.

It feels so surreal, this first day. The way Rachel keeps up the chatter all the way out to the lighthouse as Max clumsily stumbles through their conversation, trying not to give too much away, it doesn’t make sense. People like this always get bored of Max and her mumbling, quickly. She’s not interesting unless they know too much about her, and then she’s a target instead. But here Rachel is, talking about how her horoscope told her she’d make a new friend today, telling stories of firepit parties up on the cliff, and on and on. She keeps asking Max little questions, too, like how she knew about Blackwell, how she got in, if she’s planning to join the Vortex Club.

She asks this last question as they reach the peak of the cliff and behold the lighthouse in all its glory. Max tries to avoid glancing at the tree she and Chloe carved their names into.

“What’s that?” Max asks as Rachel hops over to the bench, leaning against its back, her hair flowing in the wind.

“It’s just this school organization. To be honest, most of what we do is party. This bigshot land developer around here, his son’s in it, so we can do basically whatever we want.” Rachel flashes her a grin.

“Oh.” Max looks at her feet. “I don’t...really think I’d fit in there.”

“Why not?” Rachel asks. “You’re cool. You’re willing to let a strange girl cart you across town on a whim and you take good pictures. And I am sure you’ve got the dance moves.”

Max can’t help but laugh. “Rachel, have you seen me? I’m like a pile of sticks. Rhythm and grace are not in my vocabulary.”

“Well I won’t know for sure ‘till I see it, will I?” Rachel challenges. “Come on, please?”

“I don’t know, Rachel.” Max feels her voice descend back into mumbling. “People in clubs like that don’t like me.”

“Well, I like you. And to be real? People follow my lead. Victoria thinks she leads the pack, but seriously, Max, I think you could have a lot of fun with us.”

Max can’t come up with a good response. Her cheeks feel hot, and she knows she’s letting Rachel down, and soon this nice thing will be over and she’ll be invisible again, and—

“We’ve got a party tomorrow, you know, ringing in the new school year. I’d love to see you there.”

It’s hard to say no to Rachel, especially when she softens her voice like that, especially when Max looks up to meet her hazel eyes.

“I—Yeah. Okay. I’ll give it a shot.”

Rachel’s suddenly hugging her, squealing. “I knew you would! Trust me, Max, you’ll really like it. Come on.” Suddenly Rachel’s hands are on Max’s chest, taking hold of the strap of her camera and lifting it off her neck. “Let’s get a nice picture of you. First day in Arcadia Bay, right?”

Max swallows, sweating not just from the sudden contact, but the idea of someone else taking a picture of her. She got used to taking pictures of herself back in Seattle, to document her own progress, but they were always just for her, and she looks so bad in family pictures. Rachel will want to see how this picture turns out.

Still. It’s hard to say no to Rachel.

“Where do you want me?” Max asks, trying to fake confidence as she struts towards the lighthouse.

“Let’s have you lean against the wall. I can get you against the ocean.”

Max tries to go for a cool, casual look, folding her arms and putting one leg behind her. She still winces when she hears the camera click.

Rachel plays keepaway with the photo until it develops, keeping it just out of Max’s reach. She smiles at it once they’ve settled down on the bench. “It’s good. You look all pensive. Like a deep thinker,” she says as she hands it over to Max.

“Yeah, or like an anxious wreck,” Max mutters.

“Don’t beat yourself up!” Rachel admonishes. “You look good, girl. If I do say so myself. What d’you think, should I get a career in photography instead of modeling?”

“It’s...a pretty nice picture,” Max admits. “You could probably do both, honestly.”

“Flatterer.” Rachel sighs and leans back, staring out over Arcadia Bay. “This place really is awesome. I don’t go here enough. Sometimes I just wanna be out in nature quietly, y’know? No parties or music or projects or anything.”

Maybe Rachel’s not as intense as she seems. Max tries to relax as she puts the photo in her bag. First day in Arcadia Bay. Not entirely true, but close enough. First day as Maxine.

It’s really not going bad at all.

They sit there in the quiet for a while, until Max sees a doe in the foliage and gets up to take a picture. Rachel’s eyes lazily follow her as she wanders about, getting shots of everything that catches her eye. It’s strange, but the watching doesn’t feel predatory. Max kind of likes it, in a way.

After a time, Rachel speaks up again. “It’s like 1:30. Wanna go grab lunch?”

Max is honestly surprised Rachel doesn’t have more to do, but she’s not gonna reject food. “Sure!” she says, maybe too eagerly. “Where were you thinking?”

“There’s this old fifties diner in town, the Two Whales? They’ve got the best—”

“No!” Max exclaims. Chloe’s mom could still work there. Rachel raises an eyebrow. “I-I mean, me and my parents had breakfast there when we were moving in today, and we made like this big spill on accident, so I don’t really wanna show my face in there right now,” Max hurries out.

Rachel laughs. “All right, if you say so, I won’t bring you back to the shame cube. Let’s hit up Taco Bell or something, then.” She stands and stretches. “My treat.”

Max breathes a sigh of relief as they start heading back down the trailhead. She knows she should be proud of how far she’s come. Knows she should be proud of herself, her identity. But it’s so much easier to be invisible. Invisible people don’t become targets.

Once Rachel’s fed her and they’ve taken the bus back to the dorms, Rachel telling stories of the Vortex Club and all its members the whole time,  Max finally feels like she can breathe. It was fun, it was a lot of fun, but god damn. She feels like something’s gotta give. “I need to finish moving in,” Max tells Rachel as they enter the building.

“All right, if you say so. You’re letting me see that photo wall sometime, though,” Rachel says with a wink. “I gotta get things set up for the party anyway. See you in class tomorrow?”

“Yeah, of course!” God, Max, tone down your crush. Honestly. And that is what this is, Max thinks miserably as she steps into her dorm room. Hopeless. Even if Rachel’s gay or bi or something, she’s not going to want someone like Max. No one really does.

Max sighs at herself. She accepted that whole aspect years ago. At least she can have a friend. As long as she doesn’t screw things up.

At the end of the day, her dorm is fixed up and organized, photos strung on the wall under Christmas lights, just like at home. A little empty, but she can’t have it all filled up on the first day.

She looks at the picture Rachel took of her, holding it up in front of her, looking for somewhere to put it. It is a nice shot. Rachel’s probably in her photography class. Probably knows the teacher she came here to study under. Aleidia Varte isn’t exactly a conventional photographer, but as soon as Max looked her up online, she was entranced. Like a new Salvador Dali, although if the interviews she’s read are any indication, Varte would hate that comparison. Looking at this, it’s clear Rachel has at least a little of that knowledge, if not that crazed eye.

She puts it up in the center of the wall. Maybe that fact that it’s not hers, but it is her, makes that the right place for it.

 


 

The next day is predictably boring, despite getting to see Varte in all her short pixieish glory, puttering about the classroom and handing out the syllabus herself. But every class is just watching teachers give lectures on the basic structure of the year, and what they should expect to learn in this class, and blah blah blah blah blah. Max spends most of her time doodling in her journal, sneaking glances at Rachel whenever they’re in the same class and whenever she’s feeling bold enough.

When her last class of the day lets out, she’s somehow not surprised to be met right outside of the building by Rachel, bounding up to her effortlessly through the crowd.

“Y’know on Monday they’ll have us do those stupid icebreakers,” she says as they start heading for the dorms.

Max cringes. “Oh, joy.”

“Don’t worry about it. Everyone cool’s gonna be at the party tonight, so it’ll be no sweat. That’s our icebreaker,” Rachel says with a grin. “You still up for it?”

Max sets her jaw. No backing out. Don’t be a shy cliche geek. “Uh huh.”

“Great! I’m actually gonna roll out to the skatepark if you wanna come, but I can just come by your dorm later if that’s not your scene,” Rachel explains as she opens the door to the building.

Max tries not to show panic. Skatepark. Chloe loved that place, and the people there...It’s unlikely, but she can’t.

“Yeah, I’m just gonna hang out for a bit, unwind, you know?” she replies after probably too long.

“I can respect that.” Rachel breaks off and starts unlocking her room. “Catch you later, Max!”

Max breathes a sigh of relief. She doesn’t really have anything to do, but a little quiet and relaxation will give her the energy to attend the party tonight. Hopefully.

Almost as soon as she’s in her room, reaching for her stereo, strings start floating through the air, emanating from somewhere else in the dorms. Someone practicing violin, it sounds like. Max pokes her head out of her room and determines that it’s coming from Kate’s door. Well. That’ll do nicely.

She takes one of the books that’s on her Lit syllabus and lays back in her bed, reading until dinner, then sort of fidgets on the internet in her room until a knock comes to the door. She shoots up out of her office chair, sending it crashing against the desk and almost knocking her camera off of it. It takes a moment to smooth everything out before she opens the door and finds Rachel standing there, looking vaguely amused.

“All ready to go?” she asks. “Party’s in the gym.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.” Max adjusts her camera bag.

“Ooh, taking the camera here too? I dig it. Come on.” Rachel reaches out and grabs Max’s hand. The touching, always the touching with Rachel. Max isn’t sure if she minds.

She drags Max across campus, looking radiant under the streetlamps. Max wants to take a picture of her right now; she’s not too different from her look yesterday, but she’s got this whole different way of carrying herself now, like she owns this entire property. When they find the entrance to the gym, Max steels herself. She can hear the beat pumping from here.

As soon as Rachel throws the doors open Max can see that this is a capital-P Party. The place is already trashed, a DJ in the center of the gym going hard on his table while kids dance like animals before him, others grinding away in the corners or downing cups of colorful liquid. There’s a curtain stretching behind the DJ’s makeshift stage, and Rachel points them straight through it, weaving through the crowd with more grace than Max (who nearly spills at least one person’s drink). A girl at a table in front of the curtain gives them a cursory glance, but Rachel seems to have all the clearance they need for the “Vortex VIP” section.

It’s a bit quieter once they pass beyond the curtain, and Max beholds a circle of people on a couch stuffed into the corner, passing a pipe between them. Rachel sits herself down on the edge, making a little room for Max to join her.

“Who’s the new piece of ass, Rach?” a blonde boy pipes up from beside Rachel, leering over her lap to peer at Max.

Rachel playfully slaps him away. “Don’t call her that, Nate!” Max shrinks beside her. She really, really shouldn’t be here. “This is Max, she’s super chill.”

Max offers a little “Hi” to the group, spotting Victoria’s strange stare across the couch from her. When Max meets her eyes, Victoria puts on a disgusted face that quickly vanishes once Rachel shouts, “Tori, pass that piece!” She obeys Rachel instantly, passing to the right down the row of strangers until it makes its way down to Max. Max stares at it, not sure what to do.

“Oh, Max, have you smoked before?” Rachel asks. Max turns red. She should not be here.

“N-no,” she admits, hearing a little snicker from Victoria.

“Oh, okay. Let me handle it,” Rachel suggests with a sweet smile, taking the pipe back and sucking in a mouthful of smoke. Rachel’s arm suddenly snakes around Max’s waist and she’s kissing Max and — oh. Max opens her mouth and breathes in Rachel’s smoke as the blonde boy — Nate? — and a couple of others cheer appreciatively. Max doesn’t want to be their show, but she also likes the taste of Rachel’s lipgloss. She misses her when she pulls back.

“Nice, didn’t even cough. Try it yourself,” Rachel suggests, like nothing just happened. Is she just like this? Max isn’t sure she can handle that. But she does take the pipe, putting her thumb over the carb like Rachel shows her, letting Rachel light the bowl as she sucks in hard. This time she does cough, and she feels buzzy, too. Her nerves itch.

Rachel pulls out her phone as Victoria gets up to take the pipe from Max and start the circle again. “Ooh, shit, gotta take care of this,” Rachel says, patting Max on the back. “I’ll be back in a few.”

Max wants to just run. Running worked last time. For a certain definition of worked, anyway. She resolves to just breathe instead as Rachel gets up and leaves the VIP section, trying to just not get noticed for a little while as the pipe goes around again. Nate scoots closer in order to give her the pipe, and after she takes her hit and passes it off to Victoria again, he looks directly at her.

“So what’d you do to get Rachel all into you?” he asks, a predatory grin on his face.

“Leave her alone, Nathan,” a tall girl in the middle of the couch calls, brown ponytail swinging as she leans forward. “She’s obviously super nervous.”

“What? Chill out, Dana, I’m just trying to get to know our new member. Does Rachel just like hipster chicks?” Nathan asks, and suddenly there’s a hand on Max’s thigh and she freezes entirely.

He knows. They all know. They can’t possibly know, there’s no way, but something in Max’s head is screaming that they know, that this’ll go like the last time someone touched her at a party she was invited to, as a joke, as a trap, hands tugging and grabbing at her clothes, people trying to prove she’s not a real girl, and running worked that time. She got away. She hid behind a fence and called her mom and begged to be picked up.

She tries to stay calm, but she shoots up anyway. “Sorry,” she murmurs, trying to keep her shaking under control. “Have to go to the bathroom.”

“It’s out there, on the left, near the front doors,” Dana says, pointing nonhelpfully at the curtain. “I’ll let Rachel know.”

“Thanks.” And now Max is gone, rushing out through the sweaty dancing bodies and out the front doors and into the cool air of the night, shivering from something other than the cold, hugging herself as she goes around to the side of the building where no one will see her. She tries to hold back the pathetic choking sound that’s escaping her, past the lump in her throat. Her eyes sting.

Such an idiot. She fucked it all up. She’s not chill, she’s crazy, and people will be just as terrible here as they were in Seattle. Why should she expect any different?

She lays down against the wall once her shaking subsides, not sure where to go. Just head back home like the total loser she is? Sounds reasonable enough, honestly. Why bother pretending that things could change, just because she’s in a new place? She’s always going to be like this. Awkward and fumbling and scared. What was she thinking, coming here like it’d be a fresh start, like she could change who she is? Everyone else here is probably just as talented as her.

Still, when a squirrel wanders under the lamppost in front of her, she snaps a picture. It’s all she can do. A plain brown little thing, running around without purpose. Not so different from herself.

“Everyone likes cute animal pictures,” Rachel says from out of goddamned nowhere, making Max jump suddenly. She crouches down beside Max. “You okay?”

“Uh, yeah,” Max lies. “I’m — I’m fine.”

“You’re not looking fine.”

“Is it that obvious?” Max sighs. She covers her face with her hands. “Sorry. I’m such a loser, I just—”

“Must’ve been a sativa.”

“What?”

Rachel flops down beside her. “The pot. Made you paranoid, right? Kinda jumpy? Should’ve started you off on something more relaxing.”

“O-oh.” Was that really it? Just the drug? Maybe she should’ve said no, but...it’s supposed to not be so bad. And it didn’t taste as bad as beer. And it meant Rachel kissed her which honestly was the best part of anything that just happened.

“Y’wanna get out of here? Chill out somewhere quiet?”

Max turns to stare at her. She didn’t screw this up? Rachel still wants to be around her? She clears her throat. She can still have a friend. Maybe. “Y-yeah. If you want, I don’t want you to ditch—”

“It’s fine, it adds to my mystique,” Rachel says, smiling and waving her hand dismissively. “C’mon.”

Rachel leads Max back to the dorms and unlocks the door to her own room, beckoning Max inside. Max almost wants to run again, because now she’s in a girl’s room, which shouldn’t be a big deal because she lives in a girl’s room, but still. It’s a soft, comforting environment in here, though, as Rachel turns on a blacklight over the window and turns the place violet. “You can totally take the bed,” she tells Max, “I need to get my playlist going.”

Max settles down on top of Rachel’s covers, wringing her hands on her lap as Rachel pops open her laptop and starts iTunes. The sound that washes over the two of them is like the ocean waves by the lighthouse, and Max takes a deep breath and lets it go. It’s okay. It’s just her and Rachel, now. That’s not... too scary.

“Wanna smoke? Got a killer strain that’ll really mellow you out,” Rachel suggests, opening the window and sticking a little box fan inside, then leaning down and stuffing a towel under the door.

Max shrugs. “Sure, I guess.” Nothing better to do, and after the way she’s ruined Rachel’s night already, no need to mess up her plans any more.

“You sure? I don’t wanna, like, force you.” Rachel actually looks nervous when Max turns her head, biting her lower lip.

“No, no, it’s fine.”

“‘Kay.” Rachel brings a bong out from a door in her dresser, fills it with a water bottle on her desk, then loads it as Max tries to swallow her apprehension. Hopefully this will actually work and she’ll be less of a human disaster for ten seconds.

Rachel sits on the edge of the bed, showing Max how to take out the bowl when she can’t take in any more smoke, and for a while it’s just them passing it between them with hazy indie rock playing over the scene. Max feels sluggish after a couple of hits, sinking further into Rachel’s very comfortable, very colorful galaxy bedspread, closing her tired eyes for a moment as Rachel dumps the bowl into the trash can.

Rachel, for her part, ends up lying on the floor, talking to Max about the glow-in-the-dark stars studding her ceiling, explaining how she arranged them all to look like real parts of the night sky. Max grins.

“You’re a space-nerd,” she slurs.

“I am such a space-nerd,” Rachel agrees. “I know it’s, like, stupid or whatever, but it’s fun to think our destinies are written in the stars, sometimes. Like people were meant to come together.”

God, is Rachel flirting or just talking the way Rachel talks? It’s so absurdly hard to tell. Max shifts to get a look at her face, to try and gauge the situation that way. Rachel’s hair spreads out behind her on the floor, but she’s not smiling like she usually is. She looks worried.

“Like no matter how much you screw things up, there’s someone out there who you can rush along to their fate. I dunno. Greek prophecy shit. Although that sometimes ends with literal mother-fucking, so maybe not.” Rachel giggles to herself.

Max’s mouth is dry. Does she mean that she thinks Max was meant to meet Rachel right now? That Rachel has some part to play?

Or is she just high and saying nonsense words, the way Max is thinking nonsense thoughts. That’s more likely. Lighten the mood, Max.

“So a space-nerd and a classic lit nerd. What are all the popular kids gonna say?” Max teases, leaning almost the entire top half of her body off the bed, her fingers grazing the carpet as she hangs upside-down, grinning at Rachel.

“They aren’t gonna say shit. They all love me,” Rachel declares dramatically, spreading her arms out. “Pisses off Vicky something fierce, though.” She giggles again as the song on the laptop slowly fades. As silence filters in, suddenly Max hears strings again, and Rachel makes eye contact with her.

“Max,” she says, face breaking out in a wild grin. “Bunny.

Oh, no. This had been going so nice, just the two of them, but...well, Rachel did want the rabbit to hang out with when she was high. As Rachel rises up, Max reluctantly rights herself, standing up a little woozy from all the blood that went to her head.

“Wanna go see Kate with me? You can totally bail if you want,” Rachel says. “Enjoy your high in your own bed.”

“Nonono,” Max says, because she likes this, she likes being with Rachel, and maybe Kate’s not so bad just because she’s religious. Maybe she brings up bad memories of judgemental girls in Seattle who turned their heads away when she tried to talk, but she’s not those girls. She’s someone new. “I wanna keep hanging.”

“Cool.” Rachel’s smile is softer now than Max remembers it being. “C’mon.”

She follows Rachel out, letting her knock on Kate’s door. The violin stops, hurried footsteps coming to the door. “Sorry,” Kate says immediately, “Am I playing too loud, or—”

“No, no, it’s all right!” Rachel says with a laugh. “It’s pretty, actually. It reminded me that I needed to come see your bunny.”

“Oh!” Kate smiles at the two of them. “Oh, yes, I remember you two!”

“Can we come in?” Rachel asks, literally batting her goddamn eyelashes. Max is almost jealous.

“S-sure! I’d love to have a little company.” Kate opens the door for them and Rachel immediately flops down on Kate’s couch like she belongs there, Max taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

“It’s nice to see you guys again,” Kate admits as she sits down at her computer desk. “I felt a little lonely in class today.”

“It’s just ‘cuz everyone was busy sleeping at all the syllabuseses,” Rachel says, intentionally slurring the last word. “People will warm up to you pretty quick. Especially if word gets out about cute animals living in here.”

“It’s nice that you think so,” Kate murmurs. “My mom kept saying coming here was a mistake.”

“What? That’s bullshit,” Rachel says immediately.

“Why did she say that?” Max asks, trying to be an actual part of the conversation this time.

“She’s just...worried, that’s all,” Kate says, looking away and fingering the cross around her neck. “About me being away from home.”

“My mom was like that too,” Max says, adding for a different reason, probably in her head. “She thought if she couldn’t be there to ‘protect’ and ‘support’ me and stuff...”

Kate laughs. “Well, I’m glad it’s not as doom-and-gloom as my mom said.”

“Kate, honey, I really hate to interrupt you but can the bunny come out of her cage?” Rachel says, swinging her head to look at Kate. “I wanna pet her.”

“Oh, yeah! She’s really well-behaved. Just don’t let her nibble on your shirt, she likes the taste of fabric,” Kate says, smiling as she gets up and unlocks Alice’s cage, carefully lifting her out.

“Put her right here,” Rachel says, slapping her belly. Kate giggles as the little furry thing squirms in her hands, then settles down as Rachel starts smoothing her ears back. “She’s so soft,” Rachel murmurs happily.

“So what are you here for?” Max asks, looking around the room. “I got in on a photography scholarship, but—”

“I’m on a scholarship too! Illustration,” Kate replies eagerly. “The arts program here is supposed to be amazing. My mom doesn’t like Varte, but I looked up her work before I came here, and it’s really cool. I think.” She sounds hesitant on the last two words.

“Planning to join the Vortex Club?” Rachel asks.

Kate frowns, tugging at her collar. “N-no. I’m actually gonna start a school abstinence club next week. I thought there might be one already here, but there’s not even a Bible study.”

Max feels something coil up inside of her. So she’s that kind of girl after all. If she’s going to do that, she probably has all sorts of opinions on what men and women should be. Max shrinks into herself. She sees Rachel peering over Alice, hazel eyes full of concern, but Max can’t tell her what’s wrong. That’d be even less cool than she’s been all night so far anyway.

Rachel takes the lead, thankfully. “Oh, that’s cool. I’m not exactly the abstinence type myself, but there should be that kind of stuff represented around here, y’know?”

Kate nods. “I’m not trying to change anyone,” she says carefully. “I just want them to know there’s an option and support if they need it.”

“Ooh, and I bet I know some kids who’d be into Bible study — especially if you study the Talmud and the Qu’ran, too,” Rachel adds. “Diversity of opinion and stuff, right?”

“That actually sounds really nice,” Kate replies, though she keeps looking around like someone’s listening who wouldn’t like to hear that.

Max phases out of the conversation as Rachel brings up kids she knows that Kate might get along with, programs that already exist to cover her interests. All Max can think is, she’d hate me, if she really knew me. And that thought hurts somewhere in her chest, and it repeats too much.

She knows she’s being a bad friend right now. Not exactly a great conversationalist when all she can think about is herself. She wishes she could be as free-floating as Rachel, so open and willing. For the millionth time tonight, she wants to just disappear.

Rachel yawns suddenly. “All right. I think Max over there is just about dead. Been a long night for us,” she says. She gives Alice a pat. “Thanks for having us over, Kate. It was nice.”

“Thanks for coming over!” Kate replies, smiling. “It was nice talking.” She picks up Alice and silently offers her fur to Max, who strokes her a couple of times. Wow. She is soft. Max offers the best smile she can muster as Rachel gets to her feet.

“Nice meeting you too, Kate,” Max says politely.

“I’ll see you guys in class!”

As Rachel and Max leave the room, Max’s shoulders slump. She’s been such an embarrassment all night. And she is actually tired, now that Rachel mentions it.

Rachel walks with her to her room just up the hall, stopping her just in front of her door with a hand on her shoulder and a “Hey.”

“What’s wrong?” Max asks, fearing the answer. I’m not cool enough to be Rachel’s friend. I can’t even hack it with the quiet Christian girl. I don’t belong anywhere.

“Look, I...” Rachel grasps for words. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Max asks.

“I’ve just been dragging you around all night to people you don’t really click with, places you’re not comfortable. Don’t try to spare my feelings, I know when I’m screwing up,” Rachel warns. “I really, really don’t want you to think it’s your fault. I just...I like you, all right? And I run in a lot of circles. I was trying to find a place for you. I think...I think I know where it is now. Please tell me you’ll give me another chance?”

“I—Rachel, I’m the one being all weird and lame, I—”

“No, you’re not,” Rachel says forcefully. “It’s okay. Really. Not everyone should be a Vortex Club member and that’s fine, those people are still cool. Let me take you out to meet someone next weekend, all right?”

Max is shocked she’s not just being friend-dumped right now, so all she can say is, “Of course. I like you too, Rachel.”

Rachel breathes a sigh of relief. “Okay. Come here.” She wraps Max in a hug. “I’ll try to keep you out of weird stressful hangs from now on, okay?”

“I—okay.” No point in arguing with her now.

“Goodnight, Max. Sweet dreams,” Rachel says, sauntering off down the hall.

As Max comes into her room, feeling drained and stupid and yet kind of hopeful, she remembers the pill bottles that had seemed so promising this morning. As if they’d fix everything.

But she still needs them, so she takes two of them with water, stuffs the E under her tongue like the doctor told her to, and falls right into bed, letting them dissolve alongside her conscious mind.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, Rachel seems sincere about her promise not to overwhelm Max anymore. Over the weekend they’re able to just hang out in Max’s room for a little bit each day, or wander around campus (Rachel seems to like giving tours, and Max won’t stop her), and things just aren’t so...intense. Max can finally breathe and settle into her new life in Arcadia Bay, and Rachel is content to just occasionally introduce her to one person at a time, and never forces her to stick around long.

She learns the names of skater boys, nerdy girls, cheerleaders and football stars, most of which go in one ear and right out the other. She does end up spending some time with a girl called Stella, getting surprisingly opinionated about politics; the girl’s got a sharp mind and a surprising bite to her. Max leaves that conversation feeling like she might have an ally after all. She doesn’t give anything away, though. She catches herself when she starts to say ‘we’.

It’s not that she’s ashamed. That’s what she tells herself as she heads to bed on Sunday. She just...can’t live the way she did back home. Maybe after she’s out of college. After she’s graduated Blackwell, at least. One day she can be honest about where she comes from.

For now it’s nightly pills taken where no one can see them and bringing her clothes into the shower with her. It’s writing in her journal and stuffing it under socks in her dresser. It’s hiding, but it’s also living without — well, not without fear. But with a little less of it.

The first week of school is as uneventful as she probably should’ve expected, but there are a few nice surprises. A boy, Warren, sits down next to her in Chemistry and they almost instantly end up talking about weird old movies, and from then on that class always has a little bit of offtopic conversation between lecture and reading. She gets a flash drive full of film by the end of the week, and a vague promise to hang out sometime and watch the really good ones.

Victoria continues to be weird. Little insulting comments under her breath when Rachel’s around, outright mocking when she’s not, as soon as Max hands in her first photography assignment and gets Varte gushing about how photography can be all about capturing a moment. Nathan’s quick enough to join her, muttering something like dyke when she passes him in the halls. She shudders. Well. Better than other words she could be called. She’s not sure what she did to piss off Nathan, but she doesn’t want to bring him or Victoria up to Rachel. No reason to ruin her good time.

Rachel’s busy most of the time, and that’s all right, because Max is busier than she ever expected; the homework comes fast and brutal. Max doesn’t even get to touch her guitar the whole week despite casting longing looks at it whenever she hears Kate’s violin; but there’s stoichiometry to agonize over. Senior year, after all.

Rachel drops by her dorm once school lets out on Friday, though, and just from the look of her Max can tell she isn’t going to let a Friday evening go to waste. Her smile’s infectious as ever as she struts into the room, briefly touching the photo Max took of her on the first day.

“So,” she says, swirling around. “I know the Vortex Club isn’t your scene, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the skate-stoners wouldn’t really be your crowd either. But I have this...friend.”

“You have a lot of friends, Rachel,” Max points out.

“Pft? What? No, I don’t,” Rachel says, waving her hand.

Max squints. “What about everyone in the Vortex Club? Or those guys, Justin and Trevor?”

“I mean, they’re okay,” Rachel replies with a shrug. “And Vortex Club is fun for the parties, but like, c’mon, Max, Nate’s a shitbiscuit.”

Max stifles the sudden laugh that comes out of her. Rachel’s grin grows. “He was acting so shitty the other day, saying you had to be a lesbian because you didn’t like him touching you.”

“Y-yeah, he kind of creeped me out,” Max admits.

“This girl, though." Her hands just don’t stop moving. "She doesn’t go to school here, but she’s like, the coolest person I’ve ever met. She’s the one I hang with when I’m tired of Blackwell bullshit, y’know?”

“Oh. I see.” Max feels a twist in her gut somewhere. She was sort of hoping she could be Rachel’s relief. She’s starting to feel more like a pet project than anything else.

“The thing is, though, that’s just me and her — she doesn’t, uh, play well with others like me. But you.” Rachel has a glimmer in her eye. “You two really should meet. Then I can have two best friends.”

“I—if you’re sure,” Max says doubtfully. Just sounds like another thing she’ll screw up, and then Rachel really will give up on her. Maybe that would be for the best. Maybe it’s better to be invisible. Everyone she’s met has brought up “Rachel’s weird Max thing.” Rachel would be better off without her, and Max could just...find a couple more nerdy friends like Warren and Stella.

But Rachel doesn’t seem like the type to just stop, either. She’s got a determination that Max can’t help but like.

“I am absolutely sure. Come on, I told her to meet us at the junkyard. That’d be a good place for the new photo assignment, right? Finding mood in the environment?” Rachel has those big puppy-dog eyes again.

“All right, Rachel, I’ll see about this mystery woman. She better not be a witch,” Max warns.

Rachel laughs. “No, she’s not really the mystical type. I picked up Wicca for a little bit last year, though. Didn’t work out.” She shrugs. “Anyway, come on, bus should be coming soon.”

 


 

It’s quite the hike from the closest bus stop to American Rust, but Rachel repeatedly assures Max that they are getting a ride back. Rachel chatters the whole way up, telling stories that don’t really sound like things Max would do, except there’s a tint of familiarity to them; they’re things that one does only with a trusted companion, in the dark of night, when mischief reigns and rules seem less important. Like sneaking wine out of the cabinets at Chloe’s house. And these stories of late-night runs always have that element of the stupid mistake that somehow makes everything more fun later.

Rachel still won’t name her friend, though. Max feels like she’s watching a snare tighten in slow motion and wills herself to stop being so damned paranoid. No one knows and no one cares. Rachel’s just like this, that’s what she has to remember.

Once they pass through the junkyard gateway, past a truly beat-up looking truck, Rachel points at squat stone building near the back. “She oughta be in there,” Rachel says, weaving a path through junked cars, around a big old schoolbus and under a plank connecting it to a boat. Max can see the signs of habitation in this place; the bottles lined up carefully on the hood of a car, the little flywheel spinning above the building Rachel’s leading them towards, the paths worn through the dirt by teenage footprints. In a strange way, it suits Rachel; Max wonders if her jeans are torn because it’s trendy, or because she likes to almost gore herself on the sharp edges around here.

She can hear movement as she approaches the little building, graffiti on the inside walls visible from the doorway. “Come on, come on!” Rachel urges, tugging Max in. She stops and clears her throat. “Maxine Caulfield, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the one and only Chloe Elizabeth Price.”

Max’s world enters stasis.

She turns, slowly, towards the assemblage of junk at the back of the hideout that passes for seating. It would’ve taken a second to know her had Rachel not just done this, but that’s definitely Chloe. Still tall, taller than Max or Rachel, her hair cut short and dyed a bright electric blue under a black beanie. She’s got her combat boots up on a spool that somewhat resembles a table in front of her, a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, a leather jacket wrapped around her shoulders.

They stare at each other for a long moment, Chloe’s blue eyes wide as wheels, mouth hanging open. Max’s mind slowly comes to life, like a computer booting up, fan whirring in the processor.

Rachel knew.

She had to know. The whole time. It was a trap, and now she’s going to tell everyone, and she brought Max here just to remind her of where she came from, what she tried and has constantly failed to escape. She wants to run, but what good would that do? What’s the point of any of it?

“Max?” Chloe asks at last, slowly taking her feet off the table.

“Oops, gotta take this,” Rachel says as she pulls her phone from her pocket and dashes out the doorway. Max’s eyes water. It was all just a game.

“Shit, wait, do you want it to be Maxine?” Chloe asks, stopping in mid-rise as she gets to her feet. “Sh-should I—? Fuck. Shit.

Max looks at her feet. Stupid.

“Dude — fuck, no, I shouldn’t call you dude. I...” Chloe hesitates for a second, then chugs her beer. “So that’s where you were,” she says once the bottle’s empty, awkwardly standing a couple feet from Max.

Max waits for someone to hit her. To call her names. To tear her down and leave her friendless again. But as she looks up, Chloe looks just as freaked out as Max feels. She bites her lower lip.

“...yeah. Sorry.” Max knows it was shitty, leaving Chloe without a word, without a call or a text, for five years. But she was afraid. What would she say? And it’s not like Chloe needed someone going through Max’s difficulties around when she was already dealing with her dad dying. It had been easier to just...cut all ties with her old life.

“You wanna sit down?” Chloe asks. “I got a couple beers.”

Max tries to make eye contact. Jesus, Chloe looks terrified, but she attempts a smirk as she adds, “Or are you still a total booze wimp?”

Max lets go of her breath. “Beer is gross, Chloe.”

Chloe chuckles nervously, running a hand through her hair. Blue looks good on her. “Yeah. You haven’t changed one bit.

Max smiles back at her, still shaking but breathing better, buzzing with something that feels like hope. It feels like when she was accepted to Blackwell. A chance to start again.

“Well, I need another beer,” Chloe says, turning around and taking a new bottle out of the cooler in the corner. “And seriously, sit down, it’s comfier than it looks.”

Max sits down in a chair that might’ve been taken out of the schoolbus they passed earlier, feeling it rock beneath her. She stares at her lap. This is going better than it could be going, but she still feels that rock in her gut. What was Rachel’s game? How is Chloe really going to react once the shock wears off?

Chloe pops the cap off her beer with her keys, then takes a long drink. “So, like, first thing’s first — you still cool with being Max, or is it always Maxine now? And...and I’m assuming, like, she and her and stuff.” Chloe taps out the ash on her cigarette, then takes an unsteady drag.

“Max is fine. And yeah, she, her, her’s,” Max replies. “I—I used to always go by Maxine, but Max is fine. Here. It’s — names are hard. I just didn’t want to be Maxwell, you know?”

“Yeah, I can get that. Don’t wanna sound like a cannibal from a dad rock song, right?” Chloe smiles at her.

Max laughs. She clears her throat before she talks again, though. She has to be honest, now. No point lying anymore. “...or a boy.”

“No, yeah, I get you.” Chloe stomps out her cigarette. “So, like...if it makes you feel any better, I’m hella gay.”

Max is able to look over at her now, and, well, yeah. That checks out, honestly. Beanie should’ve been the real clue.

“Not the same. Obviously. But, solidarity and shit, right?” Chloe’s voice is practically pleading.

“O-of course. Honestly, it makes sense,” Max says, smiling, her heartbeat calming as she realizes that this may not really be the end of the world.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, kinda makes sense for you too,” Chloe admits, leaning forward. “You always were a girly little pipsqueak. I had to protect you from the big kids, remember?”

“Didn’t you break a guy’s nose one time?”

“We thought I did. His pencil just snapped when I slammed him into the blacktop. Crack. ” Chloe slaps her hands together for effect.

Max giggles. Chloe’s still Chloe. No matter what else has happened. But that thought reminds her of how she left Chloe, still heartbroken and angry.

“I’m...sorry that I never told you, Chloe. I should’ve called, or—”

“No — Max, I...I get it. I was pretty pissed about you leaving. But like, if you were dealing with that shit, no wonder. Last thing you needed was my whiny ass demanding attention.” Maybe Chloe means it like a joke, but it doesn’t sound like one. She takes another sip of beer. “If I’m gonna be real, I’m kind of glad that you had, like...a reason. That you didn’t just hate me.” Chloe sniffs and wipes her nose.

“I — of course I didn’t hate you, Chloe. I was just scared.”

“You know I wouldn’t have—I woulda been there for you, you know? Or I woulda tried. I dunno.” Chloe hangs her head. “I just — I’m not some shitty Bible-thumper, you know?”

“I didn’t — it wasn’t about you, really,” Max says. “I just thought it’d be easier to pretend I never lived here. School in Seattle...didn’t go so great. Everyone knew, a-and...” Max trails off, rubbing her arm. She can’t even think of where to start with school.

“Shit.” Chloe huffs. “Kids are assholes, man. Shit, sorry, I shouldn’t keep saying ‘man’ and shit, right?”

Max chuckles. “I—you can if you want. It’s fine. I know the way you mean it.”

“‘Kay. I’mma still watch my mouth around you, though.”

“Chloe, I think you’ve said ‘shit’ sixty-five times since I walked in here.”

Chloe snorts. “I just mean for lameass gender shit. I’m not gonna stop swearing just ‘cuz you’re a girl. I’m a girl too, you know.”

“All right, you have a point,” Max concedes.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking...did you, like, start right after you moved?”

Max swallows. “Y-yeah. I did. I got on...medicine about six months after I got to Seattle. I told my parents as soon as we moved in, pretty much.”

“It’s cool that they helped you. That you caught it early, and stuff.” Chloe looks down, face tight, like she’s deciding something. She glances back and forth between Max and her boots, one leg jiggling. Finally, she says, “You make a pretty cute girl, Max.”

Max feels heat come to her cheeks. She can’t stop smiling, staring down at her shoes.

After a moment, she clears her throat, trying not to be too dorky. “So, anyway, I obviously missed out on some stuff with you...”

Chloe leans back in her chair. “Oh, my life sucks,” she says bluntly. “Mom married this total shitbag after you left, I ended up dropping out of school for...” She looks away. “A lot of reasons, and just...it’s kinda blew since you left. But I guess it was like that for you too, huh? Man.” She sighs, then catches herself. “Fuck! Sorry. But, damn, I mean. I shoulda called you.”

“It’s all right, Chloe. I’m...I’m actually glad to see you again.”

“Me too. Hey, come here.”

Chloe gets up and then crouches right in Max’s face. Her eyes flit towards the door as Max feels her nerves come right back, being this close. “Rachel’s listening outside,” she says in a low voice, cocking her head in the same direction. As Max looks, she can see Rachel’s shadow on the ground, leaning against the wall. “I say she’s earned a ditching, huh? Springing me on you like that. That asshole, she totally knew, I bitched about you all the time when we first met. Had pictures in my room and stuff.”

Max’s eyes widen. “Are you saying—”

“Count of three, we run for the truck like the pigs are on us. You in?”

Max shouldn’t be smiling. This is mean. But Chloe has a point, after all. Maybe Rachel could use a little bit of pushback. And this is just so Chloe, so much like old times, and Chloe could always talk her into doing stuff like this. Why not? It’s a chance to get away with her best friend. Rachel will understand, if she knows Chloe in the same way Max knew her.

And it would be really nice to get the upper hand on Rachel for once.

She nods forcefully, getting to her feet. “Three, two, one,” Chloe whispers, and then they’re sprinting out of the hideout, Max colliding with Rachel and knocking her into the dirt on the way out. Max stops on her heels and puts her hands over her mouth, turning to help her, but Chloe calls “Come on! She’s fine!” and Rachel’s getting up and they’ll miss their chance if Max stops, so she just flies through the junkyard, breathless and weightless.

Chloe hops in the truck first and unlocks the passenger side just as Max reaches it, climbing up clumsily into the high vehicle just as Rachel shouts a loud “What the fuck?!” from behind her. Max slams the door closed and Rachel’s there at the window a second later, face a mask of confusion.

“Lock the door!” Chloe urges, and Max pounds down on the lever by the windowsill.

Max shouts a “Sorry!” through a smile as Chloe peels out of the junkyard, their shared laughter filling the space between them, a burning orange sun lighting their way home.

Chapter Text

Not a minute passes before Chloe’s phone emits a series of loud power chords. She laughs as she pulls it out of her pocket, grinning at Max in the passenger seat. “Take a wild guess who it is,” she challenges as she puts it on speaker.

“You guys are assholes! ” Rachel says dejectedly from the phone. Max giggles, remembering Rachel’s face.

“Takes one to know one, Rach. I know you like drama and shit but what you did was mega uncool. You coulda warned me, or Max.” Chloe’s voice has suddenly lost its laughter. “This shit is serious. You know that.”

“Am I on speaker? I bet I’m on speaker. Max, I expect this kind of thing from Chloe, but you?” Rachel whines.

Max shrugs, then remembers Rachel can’t see her. “I dunno. Wanted to catch up with Chloe.”

“You coulda done that with me,” Rachel pouts.

“You earned this, Rachel,” Chloe says, smirking over at Max. “I’m not coming back for you. I’m taking this girl to dinner.”

There’s a long sigh on the other end of the line. “So how am I getting home?”

“C’mon, Rachel, you got so many friends!” Chloe replies, her tone shifting right back up. “Call up Vicky, she’d love that.”

Max suddenly feels apprehensive. “Well, we could go back and get her, it was just a joke—”

“Nope!” Chloe replies cheerfully. “Rachel needs to go to time-out. She’s been bad.”

“I’m getting you back for this — both of you,” Rachel warns.

“Looking forward to it. Love you!” Chloe says, hanging up and dumping her phone in the cupholder.

“Are you really just gonna leave her there?” Max asks.

“She can call somebody up and get a ride in ten minutes, no questions asked. It’s really not a big deal, Max,” Chloe says. “Besides. I actually do wanna catch up with you without Rachel Rachel-ing things up for a little bit.”

“I thought you were friends?” Max asks.

“Oh, yeah, best friends. But sometimes she pisses me off.” Chloe grins at her. “And I really am gonna buy you dinner.”

“Why?” Max asks.

“‘Cuz...I owe you,” Chloe says, turning her gaze back to the road. “I spent the last five years complaining about you to anyone who would listen, and the whole time...”

“You had no idea,” Max says. “And it’s not like you were saying it to my face.”

“Doesn’t make me feel like less of an asshole. But thanks anyway.” Chloe sighs. “Whatever. I can get free food at the Two Whales, but...Mom still works there. Dunno if you’d be cool with that. Figured I’d ask.”

Max looks out the window at the trees speeding by them. She wants to just ignore this feeling in her gut and go. Be courageous, unafraid, unashamed. But the thought of seeing Joyce again just clenches her muscles.

“...maybe not today,” Max mumbles. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s cool. She’s, uh, okay with me. I think. Never really, like, told her outright, but I don’t think I’m super subtle or anything. We don’t talk much these days.” Chloe rubs the back of her neck.

Max remembers when Chloe and Joyce were always joking and laughing with each other. The Price household had always been a place where things seemed light and airy, where anything was possible. Max shudders to think of that place without William. Without her. Chloe stagnant, alone.

“Well, anyway, we can drop by the whitest Chinese place in the Pacific Northwest, or we can hit up, I don’t know, McDonald’s or something.”

Max suddenly remembers Rachel’s words from before. “McDonald’s sounds good,” Max says quickly. “And uh...can we go somewhere?”

“Well that narrows things right down.”

“I’ve got a photo assignment due Monday. Trying to find mood in the environment.”

Something lights up in Chloe’s eye. “Y’know, I got just the place.”

 


 

Max grins as soon as they park in front of the squat old red-brick building, recognizing it immediately. She stuffs her remaining wrappers in the paper bag and throws it behind her.

“They turned it into an ‘alternative’ high school a while back,” Chloe tells her as they get out. “But I figured you’d like to see the old stomping grounds.”

Max sweeps her gaze over the decaying building that once was their elementary school, smiling at the imprint of the old name in the paint on the side. The sign’s changed to Halcyon High, but Arcadia Elementary still lingers in this building’s bones.

“The playground’s the creepiest part,” Chloe says with a smile, hopping up over the bed of the truck to grab her skateboard. “You wanna talk mood...”

Max follows her around the side of the building, and Chloe’s very right. From the blacktop, Max can see that what’s left of the playground, in the sand, is covered in graffiti, holes punched in the slides, swings hanging from one chain. It’s perfect, especially in this golden hour.

“I shoulda gone here,” Chloe says, almost to herself, as she lays her skateboard down.

“Where were you?” Max asks.

“Blackwell. Had a resounding 1.7 GPA,” Chloe replies, hopping on the board.

“Why Blackwell?”

Chloe shrugs. “Rachel was there.” Before Max can ask what that means, she’s off, flying across the blacktop. “Let me know when you’re done!” she calls.

Max wanders the playground, finding angles that catch the light just right to show the beauty of this static place, which isn’t really static at all. Slowly, so slowly, it’s all falling down.

She also ends up snapping a few pictures of Chloe as she tries her skate tricks, apparently in the belief that Max isn’t watching because she’s not really showing off, just practicing. Like Max could take her eyes off Chloe for too long, at any point. Everything about today is so surreal, but so good.

She’d been so used to thinking she had to leave everything behind when she transitioned. Even the good things. It was something she just accepted, tried to live with, for so long. And now here she is. Hanging with her best friend like nothing’s changed at all. Her, wandering around an abandoned area with her camera, and Chloe entertaining herself but still staying connected with her, still part of her experience.

Of course things are different. Max is different, Chloe’s different. The past five years are still between them, a bridge they’ve yet to cross the full length of. But here and now, the distance doesn’t seem like much at all.

She hops back up out of the sandpit and snaps one more picture of Chloe before calling out, “Done!” Chloe rolls over, stopping herself just before colliding with Max and snatching the photo out of her hand.

“Hey!” Max sputters as Chloe holds the photo above her head, way out of Max’s reach.

“Yep, you’re still good at this,” Chloe comments. “But I don’t really think of myself as part of the environment, Max. I know I’m irresistibly hot, but...”

Max blushes. Apparently Chloe picked up some attitude from Rachel, which is just great. “Shut up.”

“No counterpoint, huh?” Chloe’s got the grin of a jackal. “You want this back for those lonely lonely nights?”

“I want something for my photo wall, you ass,” Max says, leaping up and snatching the photo out of her hand. “You should be on there. Rachel already is.”

“Oh, really?” Chloe’s eyes darken a bit. “So how’d you two meet, anyway?”

“She just sort of...picked me out on move-in day,” Max admits as Chloe picks up her board and starts heading back to the front of the building. Max’s stomach sinks suddenly. “She...she probably recognized me.”

“Yeah, I bet she did. ‘Specially when you told her your name.” Chloe’s face has shifted fully to a glower, now.

“Chloe...I know you’re her friend, but...was I just a project to her?” Max asks. “I was feeling like that even before today, and now...”

“Rachel just does shit like this,” Chloe replies. “I think she probably actually likes you. I mean, who wouldn’t,” she adds, ruffling Max’s hair. “But...I don’t know. Hope she didn’t come on too strong.”

“Well, strong is definitely the word,” Max says as Chloe gets in the driver’s side, tossing her board in the back.

“Rachel’s a lot.” Chloe lets out a little laugh. “It’s a good thing. Mostly.”

As Max climbs into the passenger side, she looks up to see Chloe aiming her phone at her. It let out a click. “There we go, one for me too,” Chloe says. “Fair’s fair.”

Max lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine,” she huffs, pulling her seatbelt on.

“Shit, I actually need your number,” Chloe says, frowning at her phone.

“Um, one sec.” Max hesitantly types out ‘hi’ and sends it to the contact named ‘Chloe’ in her phone.

Chloe’s phone buzzes. She looks down at it and sighs. “Jesus, you kept it?”

“...yeah.” Max looks out the window to avoid seeing Chloe’s face. “I don’t know why, just...every time I got a new phone I still put it in.”

“I deleted yours after the first year,” Chloe admits.

“We changed to Verizon after a couple of months,” Max recalls.

“I know. I tried calling it once when I was high.” Chloe puts her phone away. “Whatever. You, uh, wanna go back to Blackwell?”

“Y-yeah. Sure.” Max sinks into her seat, mulling over what Chloe said. So she was already getting high at fifteen, then. Was Rachel there for her? She can at least hope.

Chloe, thankfully, cranks the stereo on the drive back, sparing them too much awkwardness. They’re both thinking more than talking, but Max is determined to hold onto that hope she’d had. When they pull up in the Blackwell parking lot, Chloe turns down the music and unbuckles her seatbelt.

“Hey, Max. This was a lot of fun. Let’s do it again sometime, yeah?”

“Yeah! Of course,” Max says with a nod.

“I got a job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Not, y’know, glamorous, but if you ever need a coffee...”

Max smiles. “That sounds great.”

“Give me a hug, dude. Shit, wait, not dude, but—”

Max leans across the seats and embraces her, breathing in whatever disgusting body spray she uses (if it’s Axe, so help her God.) But Chloe’s arms are strong, and this feels like coming home.

“Thanks, Chloe,” she says after they pull apart. “For everything today.”

“No problem, Max. Anytime. Don’t disappear again, all right?” Chloe’s voice lowers as she looks away.

Max nods. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Good. Seeya, Max.”

Max hops out of the truck and gives Chloe a wave as she heads off to parts unknown. She runs a hand through her hair, and she knows she must look like a total dork, smiling this much. But today went so much better than she ever thought it could have, despite the start.

She heads back to her dorm and busies herself by going through her photos, selecting which ones are going to be turned in Monday and which ones go on the photo wall. She finds that she kind of wants a picture of her and Chloe together to go on the wall, too. It feels right. Maybe next time they hang out; Max is determined that there will be a next time. No more running.

Once she’s done with that, she decides to do the rest of her homework Sunday and flops down on her bed, stereo ready to lull her to sleep (theoretically she should undress but that’s hard. ) Maybe she should get her guitar, too. But the evening feels lazy and content.

A knock at the door makes her blink. She suddenly realizes who it must be, and girds herself against all the thoughts that come with that, all the things that tell her she’s not special at all, just a project, just a curiosity. But she and Rachel have to talk sooner or later.

So she reluctantly gets up and opens the door. Rachel’s standing there, as she’d suspected, two absurdly large cinnamon rolls in her hands.

“Apology Cinnabon?” she offers, cocking her head.

Max sighs. Those do look good. “Sure,” she says, stepping aside to let Rachel in. Rachel takes a seat on Max’s couch after Max takes one of the pastries and leans against the wall.

“So, Rachel...” Max begins, picking at the wax paper she’s holding the roll in.

“Chloe called and gave me an earful,” Rachel says quickly, “And she was right, and I’m sorry.”

Max scratches her forehead. “It was really...I almost had a total panic attack, I—”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry,” Rachel repeats.

“You...” Max struggles for the words. “You made me feel like a thing. Something to play with. Rachel...”

“I didn’t mean to,” Rachel murmurs. “I thought — I thought it’d be good for both of you. You know, she was so mad about you, and you were obviously lying and I could tell that didn’t feel good, and I—I don’t know. Kinda thought it’d be fun too.”

Max takes a bite and chews thoughtfully before replying. “You didn’t have to do it like that, though. And my life isn’t something for you to have fun with.”

“I know, I’m sorry, it just — It seemed like the most direct way. It was good, right? You two didn’t fight, or anything?” Rachel hasn’t touched her own food.

“No, but still, Rachel. I don’t even know if you really like me or if this was just a game to you.” Max is shaking, saying this, but the knowledge that Chloe’s already talked to her about it makes her feel like she has some backup.

“I know.” Rachel sighs. “Chloe said you’d feel that way. I’ve never heard her that mad at me. Well, not for a long time, anyway.” She plays with her feather earring, twirling it around with one finger. “I do like you, Max. Actually, I think you’re kind of inspiring.”

Max raises her eyebrows. “Huh?”

“Like...you did it. You changed yourself to exactly who you wanted to be, and you didn’t let anything stop you. That’s really cool.” Rachel tears a small piece off of her bun, idly raking it with her fingernails. “Sorry if that’s, like, not cool to say or something, but it’s how I felt since I saw you. Like, there’s a whole lot of reasons to not, but you did.”

Max rubs the back of her neck. “I’m nothing special, Rachel. You said it yourself, I’m lying all the time. I’m not exactly running around with the trans flag on my back.”

“It still takes a lot of...I’d say ‘balls’, but that’s probably offensive.”

“Not the best choice of words, no.” Max looks carefully at Rachel. She’s not doing her...Rachel thing, all smiles and eye contact and making you feel special. She’s just staring at her cinnamon roll, eyes foggy.

“I really am sorry. I didn’t want to make you think I didn’t like you. Kind of the opposite, actually. And—and I won’t tell anyone, you know. Not unless I ask you first.”

“You’d better not!” Max says. “I hope you weren’t considering that.”

“No, no, never. Except for the thing with Chloe, which, yeah. My bad. Not again. Okay?”

“Okay.” Max feels some of the tension roll out of her body.

“Can we still be friends?” Rachel asks after Max takes a few more bites.

“Like you’re friends with Nathan?” Max replies.

Rachel winces. “Ouch. But no. Like I’m friends with Chloe. I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted two best friends, and like I said, you’re pretty cool. All around. Both of you. I don’t wanna lose you guys.”

“Okay. But no more surprises,” Max says firmly.

“Deal.” Rachel relaxes, stretching her legs across the floor. “So, heard you and Warren were gonna do a little movie night.” Oh, no. Here comes the Rachel thing again. “You and him...?”

“What? No! We’re just friends,” Max says, blanching. “Jeez, Rachel, I’ve only been in school a week. Besides,” she adds, looking down. “No one would...really want to date me. Not if they knew.”

“I wouldn’t say that...” Rachel looks at her over the remains of her dessert, eyes dark.

“It’s not a date, Rachel,” Max insists.

“All right! In that case, mind if me and Chloe crash it?” Rachel says cheerfully.

Oh. Huh. “Sure!” Max says. “I’d have to ask him, but...”

“Sweet. Told you I’d get you back.” Rachel winks. “It’ll be nice to hang again. And I’m glad we’re out in the open and stuff.” Rachel polishes off the last of her food and stands up, stretching. “Thanks for not kicking my ass, Max. I swear I’ll try not to so royally fuck things up again.”

Max puts down her half-eaten bun on her bed as Rachel comes in for a hug. It’s different from Chloe’s, a tight squeeze, but it feels good to know everything’s not ruined or fake.

Rachel gives her a kiss on the cheek before she goes, leaving with a soft “Bye,” as Max brings her hand up to feel the lipstick stain.

Well, damn.

She sighs at herself. A little self-control never hurt anyone, Max. Rachel is unavailable, or probably should be, for your own damned mental health. And what’s worse is the feeling when she looks over her photo wall and her eyes just keep catching on the Chloe pictures there.

She always sort of knew, when she was a kid. Completely typical, looking back on it. She’d always wanted to be close to Chloe, always wanted to touch her, to sneak into her room during sleepovers when the boys and girls were supposed to be separate.

But Chloe knew her as a boy, and she’s ‘hella gay.’ No way on that one, either.

She groans as she flips off the light and starts undressing. Can’t she just be satisfied with how well today went? Why does she have to think about shit that will never (and probably shouldn’t) happen? Two hopeless crushes in just one week of school. Honestly, Caulfield. Get a grip.

The worst thing is that she hears those thoughts in Chloe’s voice.

Ugh. Enough. Go to bed.

She takes her pills first, unhooking her bra, dropping it and her forms to the ground as the E dissolves. She feels her chest, as if a week is long enough for anything to happen.

Oh. Well, uh, something happened. She shivers when her fingers brush over a nipple, feeling like she’s pinching her nerves, pleasant, welcome. Probably not quite there, it might even get better later, but for now it’s...more.

Patience is what she tells herself as she lays down in bed. For everything. Wait for the medicine to do its magic. Get to know the new Chloe. Settle into life at Blackwell with Rachel.

Try not to want anything you can’t have.

 

Chapter Text

“Hey, Warren, I’ve got a couple of friends that want to join our movie night...is that cool?” Max paces around her dorm, phone to her ear, glancing at the clock on her laptop with each pass.

“Oh! Um. Yeah, I guess that’s fine.” Warren sounds less than certain and Max is suddenly struck with the deep fear that maybe it was a date. Well, in that case this is for the best. She’s not sure Warren could handle the news if he really was interested. And it’s way too early even if Max was available, which she isn’t, not here, not now. She promised herself she wouldn’t get her hopes up. “Who?” Warren asks.

“Rachel and Chloe,” Max replies.

“Oh, good. I was worried it’d be a guy and I’d have to assert my dominance. You know how we are,” Warren says with a little laugh. “Rachel, huh? She’s still into you?”

“She’s my friend, that’s all.” Max hopes he can hear her shrugging through the phone. “Chloe doesn’t go here, you wouldn’t know her, but you’ll probably like her. She’s a nerd at heart.”

“If you say so. Your dorm, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll let you in.”

“Cool. See you in an hour!”

As Max hangs up, she sighs. Maybe she should’ve done this sooner, but starting a phone call is always a little nerve-wracking, still. She’s just glad her voice never dropped too far.

She calls Rachel and tells her that movie night’s on, then frets on the internet getting approximately nothing useful done until her phone buzzes. She’s just unlocking it when it buzzes again. A new message from Warren...and then another one from Chloe that reads i found ur pet nerd.

Max sends back don’t before getting up, then replies to Chloe’s dont what? with just don’t as she leaves her room. When she opens the door to the dorms she sees Chloe practically leering over Warren, clearly enjoying her height advantage.

“So how’d you meet up with Max? Me, I’ve known her since I was like, five,” Chloe says, her familiar smirk in place.

“Oh, uh, we met in science earlier this week,” Warren replies, shrinking slightly. “We started talking about movies and stuff.”

“Oh, cool, good she’s making other friends since I’ve just been her lifetime companion and stuff for forever and it’s like, she needs to branch out a little, you know?” Chloe catches Max’s eye and winks. Max sighs as she hops up and wraps her in a crushing hug.

“I said don’t,” Max whispers in her ear.

“What? I’m just giving him a little shit.” Chloe grins and slaps Max’s shoulder. “C’mon. Let me haze him a little.

“We just met back up again, you’re literally lyin—”

“‘Sup, Max?” Warren says as they break apart, Max trying to give Chloe the don’t glare before turning to Warren, who’s holding his arms out for a hug and has been doing that for a little too long. Shit. Thanks, Chloe, Max thinks as she gives him a quick squeeze.

“Where’s Rachel at?” Chloe asks as they head inside. Max checks her phone and sees a message reading be right there w/ a present which is not as reassuring as Max would’ve hoped.

“Rachel’s doing her Rachel thing again,” Max replies. “She says...”

Max trails off as she sees Victoria’s door open, Rachel hauling a big flatscreen TV out of it with clearly a lot of effort for her size.

“Nice, burglary!” Chloe hoots. “This is my kind of night!”

“How did you even get in there?” Max asks.

Rachel shrugs. “You know how it goes. A girl picks up a hobby once in a while, like lockpicking. I’ve been wanting this thing for ages.

“Rachel, you can’t just—”

“It’s cool, she’s out tonight,” Rachel says, hefting the set as she tries to keep it from slipping. “We’ll be done before she knows it.”

Max groans as Rachel approaches her door. “C’mon, open this up before someone sees me.”

“So these are your friends, huh?” Warren says, elbowing Max. “Gotta say, not really what I expected.”

Max smiles at him apologetically while she unlocks her dorm. “Well, you know. Sometimes you pick your friends, sometimes they pick you.”

“Careful, Max, you might make us think we’re not wanted,” Chloe says, casting a glance at Rachel.

“Me? Not wanted somewhere? That’s not a thing, Chloe,” Rachel replies as she sets the television on Max’s bed. Max looks at Warren, who’s looking off to the side at nothing. She grits her teeth. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake. But it’s in motion now regardless, so away Max goes.

They busy themselves for a time with choosing the movie, connecting the HDMI, and figuring out how to balance the TV so it doesn’t fall off the bed. Warren convinces them all to watch this Norwegian movie about trolls, which he swears is not the same movie he keeps quoting about pissing on hospitality. Max is the first on the couch, and she’s immediately flanked by Warren and Chloe while Rachel starts the movie.

As soon as Rachel flops down beside Chloe, Max feels something. She starts to look behind her and — oh. Chloe’s wrapping an arm around her shoulder like it’s no big thing. She’s not looking at the screen, though, she’s looking right at Max and giving her an extremely familiar shit-eating grin. Max tries to glance in Warren’s direction without being weird and he’s keeping his focus on nothing but the screen.

Once everything settles in, though, Max finds the whole experience is giving her some deja vu. Watching movies with Chloe always was something of a snark-fest, and Rachel keeps up her end of that bargain pretty well. Warren actually adjusts pretty well, which is better than Max was hoping; he can laugh at the movie with them, and Max can actually sort of relax. Even though Chloe’s arm is around her and it’s kind of warm in here with all four of them.

As it goes on, Max finds herself sinking into the couch, into Chloe’s hold. It’s nice. Even if it’s just to mess with Warren (which Max is one hundred percent certain is the case), Max is content to feel like she really has her best friend back. Lifetime companion, huh? she thinks. Maybe.

When the movie’s done, Warren stands up and stretches. “That was a lot of fun, guys,” he says, smiling down at Max. “We should do this again! You guys would love Splice, that one’s fucked up as hell.”

“Oh, you’re on,” Chloe says. “Anytime, nerdboy.”

“Yeah, sounds like fun,” Rachel agrees.

“I’m gonna go get my actual homework done,” Warren adds. Max stands up to say goodbye, giving him a brief hug before he heads out, head low as if he’s afraid someone will catch him in the girls’ dorm and rat him out (Max is not terribly worried given the amount of men she’s seen in here in one week alone). As soon as he’s out the door, Chloe starts laughing.

“That guy is so fucking in love with you,” she manages after a second, leaning forward on her knees and grinning. “Maxine Caulfield: Man-eater.”

“He super is,” Rachel agrees, leaning back.

Max covers her face and groans. “You really think?”

“Uh, yeah du—Max,” Chloe replies. “You see the way he was looking at you? It’s like you’re his nerd-Mecca. Don’t tell him you like video games or it’s all over.”

Max thinks about the clearly-visible Steam icon on her desktop and wants to groan again.

“Do you not like him?” Rachel asks. “He seems okay.”

“I just...” Max sighs, starting to pace the small length of her room. “He’s nice, but...”

“Got an issue with boys?” Chloe asks, goddamn her. “‘Cuz, I mean, me too, sistah.”

Max’s face reddens. “N-no, I—”

“Oh, shit, are you like, asexual or whatever?”

God, no, that question’s even worse. “No,” Max mumbles, and somehow it feels dirty to admit that. That she wants something like that, despite being who she is. “It’s just...I don’t know if he’d take the news well, if anyone would, and I d-don’t — I don’t need it getting out if they don’t, I just wanna get through this year without having to-to think about it all the time and be afraid and—”

“Woah, woah. Shit.” Chloe shoots to her feet. “S-sorry Max, I didn’t mean to—I was just—fuck.” And then Chloe’s arms are around Max, and she can breathe again.

“I’m sorry,” Max murmurs. “God, you were just teasing, I’m such a fucking baby—”

“No, Max, it’s my bad,” Chloe sighs. “I just say shit sometimes without fucking thinking about it.”

“It’s okay,” Max replies. “Just—it’s...”

“Hard thing to talk about. I get it. But, like you know you can, right?” Chloe asks, pulling back. “To me?”

Rachel stands up and puts a hand on Max’s shoulder. “Me too. I’m not exactly a hundred percent straight either, Max,” she says with an enigmatic smile. “You can trust us with this stuff.”

Max nods. “Okay. Sorry, guys, I didn’t mean to...bring down the mood or anything.”

“You’re good, girl.” Rachel pats her shoulder. “Now someone help me sneak this thing back into Victoria’s room before she comes back in...” She checks her phone. “Five minutes, I think.”

“You said she wouldn’t be back tonight!” Max says, laughter coming into her voice despite herself.

“When?” Rachel replies, a smug smirk growing on her face. “I just said it’d be back before she knew it. So don’t make a liar out of me, you two.”

 


 

The next time Warren sits next to her in Chemistry, he’s got an oddly thoughtful look on his face. After the assignment’s handed out, he turns to Max.

“So are you and Chloe dating or something?”

Max’s pencil skitters out of her hands and drops to the floor, leaving a long graphite line in the middle of her name.

“What? What? No,” Max stammers, ducking down beneath the table so that Warren can’t see her blush (and to retrieve her wayward writing utensil.)

“She was like, all over you last night, though,” Warren points out.

“She’s just...territorial,” Max says, grabbing her pencil but staying under just a little longer anyway. “She wanted to make sure you were cool.”

“...you know if you were, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, right?” Warren sounds a little unsure of himself as he talks. “Like, I just can’t compete with her, but if—”

“Warren.” Max sighs as she crawls back out and struggles up onto her seat. “I’m not dating anyone and I’m not going to for a long time. Okay? It’s...we’re just friends, really.”

“Okay. Sorry. I just, like, heard some rumors about you, and I want you to know I’m not a shithead about that kinda stuff just in case they were true, y’know?” Warren rubs the back of his neck. “I do seriously think she might be into you, though. Just a vibe, I guess.”

“We’ve been friends for a long time, that’s all. We’re comfortable with each other.” Max erases and rewrites her name on the sheet.

“Ugh, sorry I got all awkward on you.” Warren gives her a sheepish smile. “Anyway, do you think Brooke would help us out? She’s pretty smart...”

Max sighs in relief as Warren crosses the room to find the short little brunette. Maybe he is interested, but hopefully what she said will stick. The last thing she needs is someone chasing her right now. Blackwell’s hard enough as it is.

 


 

Things start to settle into a sort of comfortable rhythm for a while. At lunch, that girl from the Vortex Club, Dana, waves her over one day when Rachel’s off somewhere, and Max finds herself surprisingly welcome at the cafeteria table with her, her friend Juliet, Kate, Stella, and Alyssa. Dana seems a little different than the people Max has come to think of as representing the Vortex Club (that is, Nathan and Victoria,) but it still feels really weird to be sitting down with someone even remotely popular.

Max still feels a little uneasy around Kate, but she really doesn’t seem intent on pushing her religion on anyone. Still, when she shyly offers to meet up in town sometime after Max mentions a liking for tea, she has to politely decline. Max can handle Kate in these group settings, but she knows herself well enough to know she’d be a nervous wreck one-on-one. No reason to subject Kate to that.

The next movie night has Brooke joining them, sitting beside Warren as they watch this story about a genetically-engineered girl, humanlike, but still animalistic; when it becomes male in a twist near the end, Max finds herself looking away from the screen, a buzzing filling her head. It all ends in an orgy of blood and violence that seems to please Chloe (and Brooke, interestingly enough) at least.

Max knows she’s being quiet during the post-movie talk, which is mostly Warren, Chloe and Brooke arguing over how likely literally anything in the movie was. Rachel peers across Chloe’s chest and the two of them make eye contact, Rachel giving her a sympathetic look. At the end of the night, Rachel gives Max a longer hug than usual.

Rachel seems to take on a sort of guardianship of Max, which honestly, she should have expected. It’s not like when Max and Chloe were growing up together, though; Rachel isn’t always by Max’s side, ready to throw an insult or a fist at the slightest provocation. Instead, she works in other ways, that are almost invisible, until Friday.

As Max starts to leave Photography, Victoria suddenly shoves her out of her way, sending her off-balance. As she stumbles, she feels her camera slide out of the top of her bag. She’s too late to stop it from falling to the hard linoleum of the hallways, and when she hears the tinkling sound, sees the little metal pieces skidding across the floor, her heart stops.

“Ooh, too bad,” Victoria coos from behind her as she scrambles to get down on the floor and try to retrieve as much as she can.

“Poor clumsy Caulfield,” Nathan adds with a smirk, walking off down the hall with Victoria. Max should say something, fire back, but what can she do? It’s already broken, and she knows getting angry and trying to insult them will always backfire. Rachel crouches down beside her, silent, brow furrowed.  Tears sting at her eyes.

They gather everything up without a word, the pieces clicking against each other in Max’s bag. Rachel gives Max a hug and murmurs, “I’m sorry. They’re shitbags, huh?”

Max nods into her shoulder.

Rachel pulls away, looking back into the classroom. “I’ll catch up with you in a minute, okay? I gotta talk to Varte.”

Max wipes her eyes. “Okay,” she mumbles.

Her mind’s consumed with her camera for the rest of the day. She considers trying to fix it, but she knows she’s not really that good with machines, and some of the pieces look distinctly broken, not just jostled loose. She thinks about calling her mom and asking for a new one, and how long it would take to get here, and how much it would cost, and she thinks about just crying because she loved this stupid instant camera for a thousand little reasons and now it’s gone in one single stupid moment.

She gets home exhausted, dumping her bag without really looking at it and falling down into her office chair. She reluctantly logs onto her email, getting ready to give Mom the bad news, but there’s a message from Varte at the top of her inbox.

Hey, Max,

Your friend Rachel told me that another student broke your camera today and that you were really upset about it. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve got a whole selection of cameras lying around that I don’t necessarily use that often. Rachel told me you prefer instant-film cameras — I’ve got one that seems right up your alley that I haven’t touched in years. On Monday, come into my office first thing and I’ll get it to you, if you want. And if you don’t have your assignment done yet, consider it extended.

All the best,

Aleidia Varte

Max reads the message over and over again, not really comprehending. She takes a moment to breathe.

She texts Rachel thank you so much and receives a for what? ;) in return. Max finds herself laughing, and everything seems all right.

The next morning, as Max turns off her shower and starts toweling herself off in the stall, she hears something very interesting.

“Hey, Victoria.” Rachel’s voice seems to fill the soundscape where Max’s shower was. “How are you doing?”

Max can hear Victoria sucking in air through her teeth. “Fine.”

“Really? Interesting. Because I hear you’ve been having some trouble with Max.”

The drip of Max’s showerhead seems unreasonably loud.

“You know, the way you talk about her is a little bit familiar,” Rachel continues. “Kinda giving me deja vu.”

“What do you want, Rachel.” Victoria’s voice cracks.

“Maybe just don’t break any of her stuff, huh? You can be a bitch, if you want, but you know how it is when something’s on the tip of your tongue. Sometimes it slips out and people hear.”

With that, Max hears the door of the showers swing open, then shut. Victoria punches something, breathing heavily, until she takes a long sniff and regains her composure. Max waits until she’s sure Victoria’s gone before exiting the shower and hurrying down to her room. She’s not sure what that was about, but it felt like a threat.

Almost as soon as she gets back inside, she hears her phone buzz on her desk.

Chloe:

happy birthday nerd

im in the parking lot

get out here b4 stepshit chases me off

Max blinks, checks the date, and smacks herself in the forehead. Jesus, Chloe remembered and she didn’t. She’s so scatterbrained ever since she got into Blackwell, she’s honestly amazed she can function.

Her phone vibrates again.

NOW girlie

Max grins and stuffs it in her pocket, practically running down the hall. She finds Chloe leaning against her truck in the parking lot. She opens her arms wide as Max approaches, and Max throws herself into them.

“Welcome to legality, Max!” Chloe says cheerfully, ruffling her hair.

“What are you doing here?” Max asks.

“Uh, wishing you a happy birthday and taking you to breakfast? Are those not things that best friends do?” Chloe raises her eyebrows. “What, am I being suspicious?”

“Well, I guess not,” Max admits. “Just...kinda amazed you still remembered.”

“Or, you know, I looked at your Facebook like some kind of millenial,” Chloe replies with a smile. “You still haven’t accepted my friend request, Caulfield. I’m hurt.”

Max wants to facepalm again. “Shoot, I haven’t been on it since I got into school, I keep getting distracted—”

“It’s cool. You up for going to the Two Whales or do we dine at Sir Denny’s?”

“Denny’s is fine,” Max says, rubbing her shoulder. “Sorry—”

“Quit apologizing, Max. I asked, didn’t I?” Chloe swings her keys around on her finger, walking around to the driver’s side. As she gets in and leans over to unlock Max’s door, she says, “Oh, and I did get you something, kind of.”

As Max hauls herself up into the truck, her eye catches on something sitting in the middle seat.

She carefully picks it up, turning it over in her hands. “I figured Dad would want you to have it,” Chloe says, looking out her window. “Rachel said your camera broke, and I...I dunno, it’s like the only one of his things Mom didn’t take and stuff in the attic somewhere.” She sniffs. “‘Cuz I didn’t let her, but, you know.”

Max hugs the camera to her chest, closing her eyes so the tears don’t escape. “Chloe...” she breathes. She can’t really say what this means. But it means something, it means Chloe’s trusting her with something that’s so precious, even after all the neglect over the past few years.

“Don’t — don’t make it a big deal, Max. You know he’dve given it to you sometime. He loved you. I bet he’d love you now.”

Max gingerly puts the camera down beside her and gives Chloe a slightly awkward hug. “Thank you,” she murmurs.

“Thanks for coming back,” Chloe replies. “It’s been really awesome having you around again, you know?”

Max draws back. “I...I don’t know, I thought you and Rachel were probably—”

“Rachel’s not you.” Chloe’s voice is firm. “She...she saved me. After you left. But she’s not you. She never was.” Chloe traces a line on the inside of her wrist, and as her skin catches the light, Max shudders at the others that join them there. Max isn’t blind.

She’s seen them before. She hasn’t asked; people’s secrets are their own to keep and she knows that better than anyone.

She reaches out and takes Chloe’s hand, squeezing for a brief second. The silence in the cab makes her heartbeat pound in her ears. This is weird. This is all weird. But Chloe seems to breathe easier after a moment, clearing her throat.

“Anyway. Let’s drown ourselves in grease, then maybe head out for a hike or something? It’s my day off,” Chloe says as Max draws back.

“Sounds good.” But an idea strikes Max as Chloe turns the key in the ignition. She snatches up the camera and scoots over to Chloe. “Smile!” she calls. Chloe looks up just as Max snaps the picture.

“There we go,” Max says, quickly getting the camera and photo out of Chloe’s reach. “I’ve needed one of those for a while.”

“You are such a cheeseball,” Chloe says, her smile coming back to her. “Kinda missed it. Now let’s get rolling, birthday girl, the day’s not gonna waste itself.”

Chapter Text

Max is almost home. After a long study session with Warren and Brooke that she’s not sure helped anything, she couldn’t be more ready to head to bed. But just as she fishes her key from her pocket, she hears Chloe’s voice.

“Come on, let’s go.” She sounds pissed off, and Max turns her head to see why. “We should at least get her out of the hall.”

Chloe and Rachel walk down the hall with Kate between them, each supporting one of her arms as they lead her to her dorm. She’s looking down at the floor, head lolling, her feet dragging slightly as she follows their lead.

Max quickly stores her key and runs over to them as they stop in front of Kate’s door.

“Kate, honey? Do you have your keys?” Rachel asks softly. With a lot of visible effort, Kate raises her head and stares blearily at the door.

“What’s going on, guys?” Max asks.

Chloe jumps. “Gah, fuck, Max! Shit. Sorry. Just—”

“Kate’s been drugged,” Rachel says quickly.

“What?!” Max squeaks.

“Kate, honey, can you hear me?” Rachel says, turning back. “Your keys?”

“Purse,” Kate mumbles.

“Shit, it’s in the truck,” Chloe says. “Be back in a sec.”

“We—we can bring her to my room for a little bit,” Max says. “Just so she can lie down.”

Rachel looks at her, eyes shining, and nods forcefully. “Yeah. Yeah, let’s do that. Thanks, Max.”

Max runs over to her door and unlocks it with shaking hands, standing aside to let Rachel bring Kate in. Rachel carefully sits Kate down on the edge of Max’s bed as she flips on the light.

Rachel kneels in front of Kate, taking both of her hands. “Kate, sweetie? Are you feeling better?”

Kate’s eyes are fogged, unfocused. “Where am I?” she asks, hugging herself. “Rachel?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me, it’s Rachel,” Rachel whispers. “We’re in the dorms.”

“Wh-what happened? I was at the party, and Dana said she’d be there but she wasn’t there. Why wasn’t she there?” Kate’s biting at her lower lip, one hand going to stroke the cross around her neck.

“I don’t know, Kate, I’m sorry.” Rachel stands up and runs her hands through her hair.

“Rachel, what did happen?” Max asks, starting to jitter in place as she looks down at Kate’s shivering, silent little form.

“I don’t know,” Rachel repeats. “I—I just, I saw these guys on her, and she looked confused but they were just laughing and — and passing her around, making out with her in front of everyone, and I could tell, I just knew something was fucked up, and Victoria was filming it and I just...” She draws in a sharp breath. “I took her phone and I threw it against the wall and I grabbed Kate and I ran outside.”

“And then you told me not to take her to the fucking hospital,” Chloe says, throwing Kate’s purse onto the bed and startling them both, though Kate doesn’t respond. “For, uh, what fucking reason again?”

“It—it wouldn’t do her any good,” Rachel stammers, standing up further and trying to look Chloe in the eye. Max sits down beside Kate, taking one of her shuddering hands in both of her own, trying to calm her shakes. “We already know what happened, and all the hospital would do is — is ask her a bunch of questions that she doesn’t know the answers to, and charge her a fortune, and —”

“Mom was right about me,” Kate murmurs, and Max squeezes her hand tight.

Rachel glances down at her. “And that, I — her parents will be notified—”

“Uh huh, yeah, sure, and your fancy little club might get a bad reputation. Wouldn’t want that, would we?” Chloe’s hands are balled into fists at her sides. “The police need to know about this, Rachel, someone’s out there giving these drugs to kids! Someone else could get hurt!”

“What will bringing her in prove?” Rachel asks. “All it will do is hurt her more—”

“She’d at least have a fucking police statement saying it’s not her fault, at least someone would be on the lookout! This is the right thing to do, Rachel.” Chloe folds her arms. “But you don’t give a shit because it might get your club shut down and then you can’t run around and fuck any wasted guy you see—”

Rachel clenches her fists. “That’s not—

“Then she should go to the hospital.”

“Both of you, stop!” Max hisses as Kate curls into herself. “This isn’t helping anything.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Chloe says angrily. “Fuck it. Rachel can keep having her fun. Doesn’t ever matter who it hurts.” She turns on her heel and marches out the door.

“Chloe, wait—shit.” Rachel’s head whips back and forth for a moment between Kate and the door. She kneels down in front of Kate again. “Kate, I’m going to leave you here with Max for a minute, okay? She’ll take care of you.”

“Max?” Kate says, blinking. “Max doesn’t like me.”

“That’s nonsense. Stay safe, okay?” Rachel stands up, gives Max one last look, then runs out the door, calling Chloe’s name.

“Max,” Kate repeats, turning her head to look at her. “Max, I want you to like me.”

“What?” Max replies, stiffening.

“I—I don’t know why I want you to like me, but I do, and and I think about you a lot and I don’t know why and I’m so confused, I do-don’t know what’s happening, Max, what’s happening?

Oh, no.

Oh, Kate.

Max shifts and gives her a long hug while Kate sniffles into her shoulder, mumbling nonsense. Max’s chest feels tight. This poor girl. What’s she going to go through, after tonight? If everyone saw what happened at the party...

Max digs her nails into Kate’s back at the thought. She remembers what it was like to be called names, to never be believed, to be a target. It doesn’t matter what Kate does or doesn’t do, whether she goes to the hospital, whether she files a report. People are cruel. She knows that all too well. And her own mind won’t be better for her, if what Kate’s saying right now is how she really feels.

“I’m here, Kate,” she whispers. “I’ll be here from now on, okay?”

Kate seems limp and heavy in her arms, and Max actually breathes a sigh of relief as she realizes Kate’s asleep. She’s going to need some rest. Carefully, Max separates herself and guides Kate’s body down onto her bed, slipping her shoes off and putting her purse on the floor. She takes a seat on the couch, leg jittering up and down, waiting for Rachel to return.

When she does, black tear tracks mark her cheeks, her eyes red and puffy. She sniffs as she steps back into the room, sitting down beside Max with a sigh.

“Is-is she all right?” Rachel asks.

“I think so. For now. I don’t...I don’t really know how those kinds of drugs work.”

Rachel stares at Kate, watching her breathe. “Should she just sleep in here for now?” she asks.

“Yeah. I can just...take the couch.”

“I have some extra blankets and pillows in my room. I’ll be right back.”

When Rachel returns, the two of them tuck Kate into Max’s bed, then turn the couch into something of a nest. They sit back down on it regardless, though, some nervous energy in the air telling Rachel not to leave just yet, obvious enough to Max.

“Max...” Rachel breathes, her hand clenching and unclenching on her knee. “Am I a good person?”

Max has no answer to that.

“I—I mean...” Rachel leans forward, putting her palm on her forehead. “Chloe’s right. Why am I in the Vortex Club when I know this kind of shit happens there? I mean, who are the people you think of when you think VC? Me, Victoria, and Nathan. The fuck kind of company is that to keep? And, and if I wanna really do this, be a model, aren’t those exactly the kind of people I need to keep sucking up to?”

“Rachel, I—”

“I feel like I’m not even having fun anymore, y’know? Like I’m only still in there to...to be ahead. Because it looks good on a resume or some shit. Because I think I have to be on top but I don’t like it there, not anymore, and sometimes all I want to fucking do is be good and I’m not. All I do is fuck things up. Putting you and Chloe back together, this, a...a lot of things, last semester, I just...” She sniffs again and Max scoots closer, touching shoulders, reaching for her hand.

“Maybe we should report this to the police?” Max suggests.

Rachel shakes her head. “I don’t wanna put her through that.”

“I—I don’t know, an anonymous tip?”

Rachel’s head snaps up. She bites her lip. “Y-yeah. Actually I think — I think I know who might’ve sold the stuff. The police know him already, but a tip might be enough to get a warrant. I...” She brushes her hair out of her face. “That’s — that’s what I’ll do. It’s not enough, but at least...I wanna be better, Max.” She draws in a deep breath, twining her fingers with Max’s. “I want to know who I am. Like you.”

Max looks at her then, her bleeding mascara, her shuddering breath. “I think that’s a good idea,” she says, finally.

“Okay.” Rachel swallows and stands up. “I’m...I’ll do it. She’ll be safe in here with you. Take care of her in the morning, okay? She’s gonna be really confused.”

You don’t know the half of it, Max thinks, but Kate’s words will stay with her. Kate’s secrets are not hers to tell. “I will,” she promises.

“You’re the best, Max. I can see why Chloe likes you so much.” Rachel sighs. “I just wish I could be like you.”

Before Max can respond, Rachel’s gone, closing the door behind her. Max realizes, with a sort of uncomfortable resignation, that she’s sleeping with her bra and forms on tonight. No reason to make Kate’s morning any more messed-up. She takes her pills and lies down on the couch, listening to Kate’s regular breathing until it lulls her to sleep.

 


 

Max wakes up before Kate, probably because her back is aching and the couch pretty much directly receives the rising sun. She adjusts her inserts (crooked boobs aren’t a great look but that’s what happens when you sleep on them) and stands up, stretching out and looking down at Kate. She looks more peaceful than last night, but who knows how long that’ll last?

She decides to wait for Kate to wake; the thought of Kate waking up alone in her room after last night prevents her from going to take a shower. So instead, she sits down at her computer like nothing’s happening at all, turning in an assignment online, checking Facebook (finally), doing anything to pretend that she’s not just sitting here silently and waiting for Kate to stir.

When she does, it’s with a long groan. Max turns to see her curling up on her side, clutching her head.

“Kate?” she asks, standing up from her chair. “Are you all right?”

“Max?” Kate asks, struggling to sit up, blinking at the light coming in through the window. “Why are you in my—” She looks around for a second. “This isn’t my room.”

“Kate, do you remember what happened last night?” Max asks, choosing her words carefully as she approaches Kate.

“I—I went to the party, and Dana wasn’t there,” Kate says, her shoulders starting to shake. “I—I had a drink, just one, and I didn’t even drink much, but...” She brings in a deep breath. “I—I don’t know. Everything was confusing. I remember Rachel taking me out of the party, calling her friend...she brought me back here, right?”

Max nods. “You fell asleep before we could get you into your own dorm. Kate...there’s no easy way to say this.” She takes a deep breath. “We think you were drugged.”

Kate hides her face in her hands and starts to cry.

“Kate — it’s, it’s okay, you weren’t hurt, we made sure—”

“This is my fault,” she whimpers, “I knew I shouldn’t have gone, Mom would never let me, because this would happen and it’d be my fault because I wanted to be around the—the—”

Max hugs her tight. “It’s not your fault,” she whispers. “Someone attacked you. They’re the one to blame, not you.”

“D-did I do anything?” Kate asks, pulling back and sniffing. “O—or say anything, or...I don’t know...”

“Rachel said...” Max swallows. “Rachel said that some guys were...taking advantage of you. Kissing, I think, nothing — God, I don’t want to say nothing too bad, because it’s awful, but...”

Kate’s lip quivers and she clearly needs a hug again, so Max provides. “I’m sorry, Kate, I’m so sorry,” she mumbles into her shoulder.

Kate cries in Max’s arms for a few moments. When she’s managed to gasp enough air in to speak, she says, “T-thank you.”

“Kate, you don’t—”

“You and Rachel helped me. I’m glad I didn’t...I didn’t wake up alone.” Kate draws in a deep breath. “Oh, God, what am I going to tell my parents? What—”

“We...we didn’t take you to the hospital or file a report. We didn’t know if you’d want that, or if it would do any good. But Rachel and I are here for you, no matter what you decide to do.” Max pulls back, keeping a hand on Kate’s shoulder. “Okay?”

Kate nods. “I...” She sighs. “I guess I have no idea who did it, huh.” She hugs herself. “No idea who tried to...”

“No, Kate. I’m sorry. Rachel said — she said she thinks she know who sold it, and she gave the police a tip. Hopefully that means whoever did this can’t do it again.”

Kate looks down at her feet. “Okay. I...I’m glad she did that. I wish I could do more, but if my parents found out...”

“Whatever’s safest for you, Kate. I’ll have your back. So will Rachel.”

Kate gets to her feet, slipping into her shoes. One hand goes to her cross, holding it tight. Max can only hope it gives her some comfort.

“I...I guess I’ll get ready for class,” Kate mumbles. “I’m sorry I kicked you out of your bed because I was so stupid—

“Kate, it’s not your fault. Any of it.” Max puts a hand on her shoulder. “I can give you my number. Call or text me if you ever need to talk, all right?”

“Um...all right.” Kate bends down and fishes her phone out of her purse, letting Max punch in her contact info. As Kate takes her phone back, she glances at the time. “I really do need to get ready for class.”

“No one would blame you if you took the day off, Kate,” Max assures her.

“No one even knows except you and Rachel, right?” Kate replies with a sniff. “Everyone else probably just thinks I’m a drunk whore.”

“Rachel wouldn’t let anyone say that about you. Neither will I,” Max promises.

Kate wipes her eyes and opens the door to leave without responding. Before she goes, she looks over her shoulder.

“Max...I didn’t...I didn’t say anything last night, did I? Nothing...”

“Nothing that made any sense,” Max says, trying to give her a smile. “I’m glad we got you home safe, Kate.”

“Me too,” Kate says, but her heart’s not in the words.

 


 

The day is long. Max tries to stay by Kate’s side when they’re in classes together, even though Kate's friends seem unusually distant and cold towards her. Dana’s still nowhere to be seen. And Max isn’t deaf; she hears the whisper of “hypocrite whore” from Victoria loud and clear as they pass her in the halls. It’s when Nathan snickers something about ‘sucking cocks for Jesus’ that Max has to stop in her tracks and face him.

“Leave her alone,” she growls, clenching a fist at her side. Something inside her is telling her this is stupid, this will only get her beaten up or worse, this is a mistake, but he’s not insulting her. He’s attacking Kate, who never did anything wrong.

“What, is she your girlfriend now? She’s everyone’s girlfriend, after last night,” Nathan sneers, stepping closer. “Little bitch starts an—”

“Nate, that’s enough,” Rachel says, suddenly materializing behind Nathan and putting a hand on his shoulder. “You know she was drugged, right?”

“Sure, that’s what they all say,” Nathan says with a scoff. But his eyes are darting around the hall like he’s looking for support, and even Victoria’s backed off now. “Whatever,” he says at last, tugging out of Rachel’s grip and stalking away. Max breathes a sigh of relief.

“You don’t have to do that,” Kate mutters. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Kate—”

But Kate’s already walking off down the hall to her next class. Rachel sighs.

“She just needs time. I hope,” Rachel says.

Max runs to catch up.

 


 

Max eats dinner in the cafeteria with Kate in silence, and bids her farewell in the dorms. As she heads to the bathroom, she nearly knocks someone over.

“Dana!” she says as the girl in question rears back, bracing herself against the wall.

“Oh. Hi, Max.” Dana clutches at her stomach, a pained look crossing her face.

“How come you weren’t in class today?” Max asks. Don’t overstep, she warns herself, but Kate could really use an answer.

“S-sick. Not feeling good.” Dana crosses her arms over her chest.

“Is that why you weren’t at the party last night?”

Dana blinks. “Wha—”

“Kate said you were going to be there with her.” Max is trying not to be angry. It’s not Dana’s fault either, but...

“Max, did — did something happen to her? I’ve just been lying in my room all day feeling sorry for myself but—”

“She was drugged, Dana.”

Dana’s eyes widen. “What?”

“Rachel got her out of there, and she spent the night in my dorm, but...Dana, she could really use all the friends she can get right now.”

“Oh my God,” Dana whispers, closing her eyes. “I’m such an asshole, I totally forgot, she probably — it’s my fault—”

“Dana, whoever drugged her is the problem. But...she feels abandoned right now, by her friends. Go show her she’s not, okay?”

Dana nods. “Okay. Thanks for being there for her, Max. Even if I wasn’t.” She runs her hands down her face. “It’s been a hell of a week already.”

To Max’s surprise, Dana reaches out and gives her a brief squeeze. “I’ll go talk to Kate. I’m...I’m actually glad you caught me.”

“Me too. I hope you feel better.”

“Same here,” Dana says with a tired chuckle. They give each other a brief goodbye, and when Max next leaves the bathroom, she gets to see Dana entering Kate’s room, the door closing behind her.

She hopes she’s done good enough. Rachel’s question still reverberates in her mind as she heads into her own room. Just as she sits down to start on homework, her phone buzzes in her pocket.

Chloe:
hey lets get mcflurries no arguing

Max sends back wouldn’t dream of it and receives a good bc im already here in reply. She couldn’t be more grateful, if she’s honest. Sweets with Chloe after this awful day feel more than welcome. Studying can wait.

She finds Chloe in the parking lot, not offering her usual hug but sitting in the driver’s seat and smoking. The passenger side is unlocked, and Chloe offers a low “Hey,” as Max climbs in. She throws her cigarette out the window as she turns the car on.

“Litterbug,” Max teases, and Chloe manages a little smirk.

“It’s a parking lot, Max. That’s basically a giant ashtray anyway.” She puts the car in gear and rolls out of the lot, stereo turned down low. She anxiously drums her fingers on the steering wheel as they drive in near-silence.

As they turn to get into town proper, she says, “I’m sorry you got mixed up in all this shit.”

“What? No, I’m — I’m happy I was there to help,” Max replies, trying to look at Chloe, but her eyes are laser-focused on the road.

“Not just that. I mean the shit between me and Rachel,” Chloe says with a sigh. “The shit I said last night wasn’t—you didn’t need to hear it.”

“Wait, what’s going on between you guys? I thought you were friends,” Max says, confused.

Were being the operative word. Everything kind of...blew up last summer. For a while I thought we were never going to even talk again.” Chloe scratches the back of her neck, eyes still on the road. “I...shit, Max, I shouldn’t lay this all on you, not now. But just...we haven’t really hung out together, without you, since she sprung you on me. I’m, like...I’m trying to get my shit together. Rachel’s never been a big help with that. And it just seems like Rachel hasn’t changed, or learned fucking anything, since last summer.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Max asks.

“I mean — God. We hung out for a while the week before I met back up with you, and then the next time I see her she’s basically toying with people for fun. She lied a lot to me, and she lied to you already. And I was so fucking angry at myself last night because I didn’t just drive that girl to the hospital, I just let her decide everything, again.” Chloe’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel.

Max feels trapped in this cab, unsure what to say to someone who’s so angry at someone she’d come to think of as one of her best friends. “Chloe, she — she feels awful about everything that happened,” she tries.

“Whoop-de-shit. Doesn’t do anything for Kate, huh? Or anyone else. Just lets those rich VC shits off the hook,” Chloe growls.

“She said she called the police about the guy who might’ve sold the drugs.”

Chloe turns to her as they stop at a red light. “What?”

“Y-yeah. She called in an anonymous tip.”

Chloe raises her eyebrows, her face softening. “Oh. Huh.” The light turns green, and she turns her attention back to the road. “Didn’t think she’d do that.”

“Why not?” Max asks.

“Shit, Max, I...fuck it. You should know all this stuff if you’re hanging around Rachel. Feels like I’m the only one who does and I don’t want her to hurt you — again.” Chloe pulls in a deep breath. “God, where do I even start. Well, I guess she just did something for me, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know the guy she tattled on? Name’s Frank. Half my paychecks have been going to him for the last three months.” Chloe pulls into the drive-thru line and puts the car in park, leaning back in her seat.

“What?!” Max yelps. “But—”

“I borrowed a shitload of money from him last year to fix up my truck, because Rachel told him I was good for it. We skipped town before we ever paid him back. We were supposed to be gone, never coming back.” Chloe pulls forward in the line. “You can see how that turned out. Shit didn’t work out like we thought it would in LA. Rachel got one contract and we thought they’d keep coming. They didn’t. Her parents said it was time for us to give it up, try again next year or something. It wasn’t fun anymore, anyway.” Her voice breaks on the last word, and she looks pissed at herself.

Max feels like someone just dropped a cement mixer on her chest. Her mind’s gears are clicking and spinning, trying to work out how this all makes sense. “So, wait,” she begins. “Were you two...together?”

“I thought we were,” Chloe mumbles. “But when I got here after dropping her off at home, guess who was really pissed at me for running off with his money and his girl?” She pinches the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes, and Max has to remind her to move forward when the next car moves up. Chloe grumbles their order into the speaker, then fishes in her jacket for a cigarette.

“She never told me about him. Or the...other people.” Chloe takes in a sharp breath. “Not until I called her and asked her what the fuck was going on, anyway. We fought. Sounded a lot like last night did. I decided...I decided I was done with waiting for her to love me back. I feel like I wasted my life on that girl.” She lights her cigarette and sucks in a long breath of smoke, blowing it out the window. “So I...I started trying to get my GED. Got a job. We only started talking again because I was fucking desperate and didn’t have any other fucking friends, and then she brought you out.”

“So last night felt like a fucking flashback. Me doing whatever she wanted even if I didn’t really want to, making her happy, because...I don’t even fucking know! Sometimes I think I’m still in love with her and I feel like such a fucking idiot. The one good thing she’s done for me in six months was bring you back, and she even fucked that up with her...Rachel-ness.” Chloe takes another drag, cigarette jumping in her hand.

There’s silence in the cab as they proceed through the drive-through, hit the window, get their ice cream. Chloe pulls into one of the spots in the lot, putting the truck in park and throwing herself against the back of her seat. She sighs, the treats untouched in the cupholders between them.

Max isn’t sure what to say. But a lot of what Rachel said last night makes sense now. And if Rachel and Chloe haven’t really seen much of each other, maybe Chloe doesn’t know.

“Chloe...I think she did learn something. I think she wants to be better,” Max says softly, unbuckling her seatbelt and sliding across to touch Chloe’s shoulder. “She tried to take care of Kate today, and — and she’s been watching out for me a lot, too. She apologized to me after that whole fiasco, you know. I think she really cares.”

Chloe groans. “I know,” she says after a moment. “I know she’s trying. But I almost...” Her breath shakes. “Last night I almost...” She pulls back the sleeve of her jacket, staring at her scars. Nothing fresh, thank God, but Max can guess what Chloe almost did. She reaches out and takes Chloe’s hand again, and it’s starting to feel less awkward, less weird, to do that. To touch Chloe and comfort her like this, for things that Max wasn’t around to see. Chloe squeezes back tight.

“I just want Rachel out of my system,” Chloe says at last. “But I know she’s your friend, and I don’t want to lose you again by being all shitty about her. Having you back is so different but it’s really fucking good, it makes sense, you know? Even you being a girl. That makes sense to me.” She sniffs. “I just — being around her is still hard, sometimes.”

“I understand,” Max says. “All of that sounds like — God, I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”

“Me too,” Chloe murmurs, and Max winces.

“But—but I think you should give her a chance. You two should talk to each other about this, not just to me.”

Chloe groans again. “Do I have to?”

“Chloe.”

She looks over and gives Max a half-hearted smirk. “All right, mom. Honestly, I don’t know what I want from her, I just...

“I don’t think she knows either,” Max says.

Chloe releases Max’s hand, going down for her McFlurry and taking a spoonful. Max joins her, since the conversation’s apparently over, at least for now.

When they’re both about halfway through, Chloe says, “Thanks, Max.”

“For what?” Max asks through a mouthful of ice cream.

“Dunno. Coming out here with me, I guess.”

“Chloe, it’s free ice cream.”

Chloe chuckles. “And for like, taking care of Kate and stuff too. I...I know Rachel had a point about that whole thing. Probably why I didn’t just say fuck it and take her. I just wish there was an easy answer once in a while.”

“I know how you feel.”

“I hope she’s all right. I mean, with you and Rachel on her side, she’ll probably...Rachel somehow kept the cool kids from bugging me in that school most of the time. She can probably keep the sharks off Kate. And you’re a good friend, to me at least, so she’ll have someone to help her.” Chloe ruffles her own hair. “Anyway. Where do you want to go now?”

“We can just hang out in my room for a while, if you want,” Max offers.

“Sounds good. Stepdouche is pissy today because of the ‘rumors’ going around. Could use a break.”

“Me too,” Max sighs. “I think everyone could.”

She leans into Chloe’s side as they head back to school, their hands linking again. Despite everything, she’s grateful to be here in this moment with Chloe. She feels like maybe, just maybe, she can help.

Because for once, she was here for something important.

Chapter Text

Max flops down onto Kate’s couch, groaning exaggeratedly as Kate putters over to her desk and sets down her backpack. Kate laughs softly, which is all Max wants, really. Coming over here after class has become a bit of a routine between the two of them on the days they have their last classes together (Max spots Dana in here on the other days and has decided not to intrude on them.) Kate seems grateful enough for the company.

“Something wrong?” she asks, heading over to Alice’s cage and starting to fill up her feeder.

“Do you have any ideas for the new photo assignment?” Max replies, rolling over so she’s looking at Kate upside-down. “I’ve been thinking about it all day and just like, blanking.”

“So that’s why you fell asleep in math,” Kate murmurs with a small smile to herself.

“Kate, I always fall asleep in math.” Max pulls her phone out of her pocket, squinting at the new text message.

Chloe:

max im bored

do you have any photo assignments u need a chauffeur for

im dyin here

Max’s brain immediately lights up. “Hey, Kate,” she begins, “so for ‘in motion’...”

“You sound like you have an idea,” Kate says, raising her eyebrows.

“Chloe wants to hang out and she’s a heck of a skater. We could probably get some good shots if we all go to the skatepark. What do you think?”

Kate looks down, chewing on her lower lip. “Chloe’s the one who...who drove me out of the party, right?”

Max wants to just hiss shit at herself. Kate’s been doing so well. Even the bullying hasn’t been getting to her so bad, not with Max, Dana, and occasionally Rachel there to support her. But all Chloe is to Kate is a blurred half-memory of the worst night of her life.

“Yeah. Yeah, that was her. She’s a good person, Kate, don’t let her tell you anything else,” Max says, trying to keep the lightness in her voice.

“I don’t remember her very well,” Kate mumbles.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. But she’d probably like to see you there. She’s...kind of my best friend,” Max admits. “I’d like you to meet her for real. I think she’ll like you.”

Kate looks around the room for a moment. “I should at least thank her, I guess,” she says after a moment. “If you like her, she can’t be all bad, right?”

“She’s only like twenty-five percent bad, promise,” Max says, hefting herself off the couch and sending Chloe the plan. “Come on, grab your camera. This’ll be fun!”

Kate doesn’t look so sure as she gathers up her things and follows Max into the hall, but Max wants to try. Kate deserves to know the real Chloe, and maybe...

Max feels a little guilty, but she can’t help thinking that maybe having Chloe around, being herself, might help Kate be herself too. She hasn’t forgotten what she heard when Kate’s walls were breached. It’s in the back of her mind, always, when she’s with Kate. Max doubts that Kate’s upbringing left her with a healthy relationship to her desires. It’s not that she wants to be with Kate; although it’s nice to know she’s the target of a girl’s crush, she still feels like a false flag for Kate. Bad enough for Kate to think she has a crush on any normal girl — if she knew the truth, it might just knock her completely off-balance. But if Kate can meet Chloe, become comfortable with her, maybe she can see that it’s not all bad, the way Max felt the first time she heard a stranger call her “miss.”

It’s a quiet walk out to the parking lot, and Max almost wants to hold Kate’s hand to help her relax, but she scolds herself at the thought. Don’t lead her on, for God’s sake. Max knows well enough, at this point, what it feels like to have a hopeless crush endlessly fed by meaningless little gestures.

Speaking of such, Chloe immediately bounds forward and nearly lifts Max off the ground when they spot each other. “Max, you’re a serious lifesaver,” she says. “And, hey, Kate, right?” she adds, dropping Max to the blacktop and turning towards Kate.

“Y-yeah,” Kate says, her eyes wide as she looks at Chloe, the hair most obviously drawing her eyes.

“Chloe.” She offers a hand to Kate, who gives it a fairly limp shake.

“Thank you for...for driving me home,” Kate says, avoiding eye contact.

Max cringes, waiting for Chloe to point out the argument between her and Rachel, to say she’d wanted to take Kate to the hospital, but all she hears is “Anytime, man. So which one of you bite-sized girls is taking middle?”

“No reason to squish Kate all up in your truck. I’ll make the noble sacrifice,” Max declares as Chloe makes her way around to the driver’s side.

“Don’t fall for this, Kate,” Chloe warns, hopping in the truck and putting her seatbelt on. “She’s pretending to be self-sacrificing so she can touch my hot hot bod, thats all.”

“Shut up!” Max laughs, shoving Chloe and trying to ignore the heat in her cheeks. Meaningless little gestures.

Kate gets in beside Max as she puts on the lap belt, smiling faintly. Okay. Going well so far. And so what if it is nice to sit right next to Chloe like this, touching shoulders. There’s no harm in it. Max wonders if Kate feels the same way.

As they drive off, Chloe starts asking Kate questions. What she’s doing at Blackwell, how long she’s been into art, idly comparing her interest in drawing to Max’s in photography. Kate’s answers are nervous and hesitant at first, but Chloe seems to be withdrawing from the teasing that always defined her in Max’s mind. She just seems open and curious and caring. Max knew she could be these things, but her tone with Kate is so different.

She’s not turning off the energy and speaking quietly to her like she’s fragile, either. The girl’s got a loud voice and she’s not afraid to use it. But she’s not swearing (which is kind of a shock) and she’s not even bringing up the first time that she and Kate met. Max is so absorbed in thinking (and maybe staring at Chloe a little bit) that she doesn’t end up saying much at all, but she doesn’t feel awkward between them, either.

Once they’ve reached the skatepark, Max following Chloe out the driver’s side, Kate looks sort of nervous again, her fingers twitching at her sides. Max looks around while Chloe grabs her board from the back and spots the problem, Rachel’s golden hair flowing behind her as she glides down a ramp in front of two stunned boys that Max recognizes as Justin and Trevor.

“Hey, Kate, is something wrong?” Max asks as Kate turns her head away.

“No, it’s — it’s nothing. I just thought I recognized one of them but I didn’t. Except for Rachel, anyway,” Kate says with a shudder.

“Oh, hey, Rachel’s here?” Chloe asks, approaching the two of them and squinting. “Huh. Thought there was a VC thing after school, saw stuff on her Facebook about it. Oh well, no big deal, you guys can get shots of her too if you want.” She looks a little down, but almost immediately perks up once she’s actually on her board. “Snap this, photo-nerds!” she challenges as Max and Kate quickly dig their cameras out of their bags.

Rachel turns at Chloe’s shout, a grin on her face, and Max and Kate have plenty of fodder as they skate past each other, passing closer and closer as if playing chicken, their movements syncing up the longer they’re both on the pavement. Max gets an incredible shot of the two of them flying off of opposite ramps. They seem so natural together it’s hard to believe there’s all that history between them buried under the surface.

Max and Kate compare shots after Chloe and Rachel pull off the park for a minute to catch their breath, Trevor and Justin taking their place. Chloe heads over to them while Rachel leans against a tree, leaning down for a water bottle.

She stretches her arms behind her back, a glimmer in her eye. “So the teacher gonna be cool with both of you handing in pics from the same thing?” she asks, looking over Max’s shoulder at her Polaroids.

“Oh! It shouldn’t be a problem,” Max says. “People partner up all the time.”

“Still, though.” Chloe’s smile is worrisome. “Maybe a different, what’s the word, subject for one of you, huh?” She taps Kate on the shoulder. “Kate, you ever learned to skate?”

Max whirls as Kate slowly turns. “Chloe, don’t,” Max warns, but Chloe’s looking right at Kate.

“No...” Kate says, squinting suspiciously.

“Well, I know Maxaroni over there falls over if you breathe on her too hard, but you might actually have some balance,” Chloe says, laying her board down in front of Kate. “Come on, give it a try. You don’t have to do anything fancy, but Max can take some shots of you and then there’s no problem.”

“Kate, you don’t have to,” Max tells her quickly. “Chloe’s just trying to get you to fall.”

“Max, just because you nearly broke your face every single time you touched my board doesn’t mean she will,” Chloe chides. “But yeah, you don’t have to or nothin’. Just an idea.”

Kate looks at the board. “You guys kind of looked like you were having fun...”

“Plus you’ll look so different on it than us. Here.” Chloe takes Kate by shoulders and helps her steady herself as she hops up. Max takes a few shots as Chloe shows Kate how to balance, lets go of her, lets her give riding a shot. Justin and Trevor stop to let her pass, and Max can watch her learn how to lean into the turns, occasionally stumbling and losing the board but never falling. Rachel and Chloe cheer from the sidelines while Max gets some of the most incredible pictures she’s ever shot; this totally foreign combination, the straightlaced prim and proper girl in her black skirt and cardigan on Chloe’s battered, years-old deck, gold cross flying in the wind, bun loosening with every push off the concrete, all in the long shadows of dusk.

She stops herself just in front of Max, panting and sweating, her white blouse lightly sheer. Kate looks down and, blushing, starts buttoning up her cardigan to cover it while Chloe and Rachel come over to congratulate her.

“Get this chick in some skinny jeans and Vans and we’ll have ourselves competition, Rach,” Chloe says, ruffling Kate’s hair and causing her bun to almost completely come undone. She quickly raises her hands to protect herself, shoving bobby pins back into place as Max giggles.

“Just let it fall, girl,” Rachel suggests, cocking a hip. “You’d look good with your hair down.”

Kate blushes further, but she’s got a wide smile. “That was actually pretty fun,” she murmurs. “Thanks, guys.”

“Anytime, Kate. Hey, you two wanna run out and get some dinner? My treat,” Chloe offers, swiping her board up from the ground. Rachel’s face falls as she looks away.

“Oh! Sure!” Kate replies. “That sounds great.”

“And I know Max is down. Seeya, Rachel!” Chloe says cheerily, but Max is looking at Rachel and remembering conversations past midnight.

“Actually, Kate, I’m gonna hang out here for a little longer if that’s cool? Me and Rachel should catch up, it's been crazy lately,” Max says, meeting Rachel’s eyes.

“Oh.” Chloe’s voice seems to have lowered a full octave. “Yeah, that’s fine, Max, you’ll just miss out free food or whatever. Kate, still up for it?”

Kate looks a little nervous, but Chloe flashes a smile at her. “Y-yeah.”

“Great. Saves me a couple bucks. Bye, Max!” As Chloe and Kate head to the parking lot, Rachel looks over at Max, seeming slightly perplexed.

“Why’d you leave her alone with Kate?” Rachel asks, attempting a smile. “She’ll come back with a nose piercing.”

“She’ll be okay. Chloe’s actually been really good with her today.” Max approaches Rachel, unsure how to start this. “I...we haven’t really talked since you brought Kate to my room.”

Rachel makes an mmm noise, turning her head to watch Trevor and Justin take to their wheels again. She heads over to the tree where her backpack and water bottle lay, sitting against it, Max following her down and crossing her legs beside her.

“Chloe said there was a VC thing today...” Max begins. “Are you not going anymore?”

Rachel shrugs. “Dunno. Didn’t feel it today.” She digs into her backpack and produces a small green bag, then pulls out a pipe and a small prescription bottle full of green. She looks at her paraphernalia somewhat dejectedly, setting it aside instead of starting the process. She rubs her eyebrows and sighs.

“Are you feeling okay?” Max asks.

“She didn’t even invite me,” Rachel murmurs.

Oh. Max hadn’t really considered that Rachel might feel this way, that the rift between them was bothering her, too.

“She, um...” Max hesitates, not sure if she should share what she knows, but Rachel’s been honest with her enough already that maybe she deserves it back. “She told me about...about LA.”

“Had to come out eventually,” Rachel says with a shrug. “Girl can’t keep anything bottled up too long. It kills her.” She looks back to her drugs and seems to make a decision regarding them, opening the bottle and extracting a nugget. “I dunno. I thought things might get better. Today felt like old times, just skating together like that, y’know? And if it was old times, we’d ride off together. Wouldn’t even matter that there’s no room in the truck, I’d ride in the back or something. But I fucked everything up.” She crushes the weed into her pipe and produces a lighter from her pocket.

Max leans into her side, unsure what to say. “She...she did put a lot of pressure on you,” she says at last.

“We could’ve worked that out. But I lied to her. I knew what I was doing, I just hoped we could get away from it before we had to deal with it.” Rachel takes a long, crackling hit, exhaling a plume of smoke from her nose as she leans her head against the tree. “And now things can’t be fun anymore, or normal. I can’t be who I was anymore. But I don’t really know what to be now.”

There’s a moment of silence, Rachel offering the pipe to Max and Max just quietly shaking her head. Rachel puts it down beside her.

“Sorry,” she says. “I know I’m kinda dumping on you.”

“That’s what friends are for, Rachel,” Max teases gently. “I am your friend, right?”

“It’s just — I don’t know. It’s something about you. I always felt like...like even with Chloe...she needed me to be strong. To be there for her. And I tried, I swear to God I did, but I fucked up. And now I’ve lost her. I thought...” She chokes suddenly, covering her mouth. Max frantically looks towards the boys, but they’re engaged in their tricks. “I love her, Max, I really do, I never lied about that, I know she doesn’t believe that I ever did, and why would she, but...” She sniffs hard, closing her eyes and crossing her legs, clamping her hands over her knees. “Shit. I can’t ruin my makeup again,” she mutters.

Max wants to just give the girl a hug, but they aren’t really in a good position to do that so she just leans her head on Rachel’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” is all she can think to say. “I wish you two could make up too. You’ve both been so kind to me, and it’s been a lot of fun to hang out with you. If we could all do it more, together...”

“I know. It’s not fair to have you all caught up in the middle like this,” Rachel says, her breath stabilizing. “But I do really like you too, Max. I wanna be your friend. Someone who’s good enough to be your friend. I might...drop out of VC. Just for a little bit. Think I need to work some stuff out. Kinda just been...acting like LA didn’t happen.”

“You are good enough to be my friend,” Max insists.

“Doesn’t feel like it,” Rachel mumbles.

Max does give her a hug then, even if it’s awkward, even if other people can see them. “I’ll be here for you,” Max promises. “Whatever you need.”

“I know,” Rachel says. “Just, um. I know how much you’re trying to help Kate, and you’re reconnecting with Chloe, and I...don’t stretch yourself too thin, Max. I can handle myself.”

As they separate, there’s a moment. Just a moment, where their eyes meet, where their faces are too close, where Max can feel Rachel’s breath on her own lips. Max’s throat goes dry, because it doesn’t seem impossible, suddenly. Rachel’s obviously pretty open, and she’s beautiful and kind even if she screws up, and she’s been flirting with Max, and maybe, maybe, maybe. But then Chloe’s words come back to her, and Rachel’s own admissions, and Max’s stomach falls, thinking of how much of that might have just been Rachel having ‘fun.’ Thinking about her body and the pills she takes nightly that aren’t changing things as fast as she wants them to. Thinking about how no one could really want her, anyway. She breaks the eye contact first and stands up, looking out over the skatepark.

“It’s, uh, it’s getting late,” she says lamely, looking at the darkened sky. She tries to ignore her own shaking, the way she feels sick.

“Yeah. We should get back home,” Rachel agrees, getting to her feet and stashing her barely-touched pipe. “Hey, Justin!” she calls, and it’s like she wasn’t about to cry two minutes ago, her voice loud and clear, her smile wide. “Mind giving us ladies a ride back to Blackwell?”

They all end up piling in Justin’s minivan and running through a drive-thru, Max and Rachel in the back, still leaning into each other a bit. The boys chat with Rachel about how cool it was to see Chloe again, ask Max if she’ll take shots of them too, and she gives them a shrug and a maybe. By the time they’ve split off to go to the girls’ dorms, it’s dark and Max is only just realizing the mountain of homework she’s going to have to power through tonight.

They both stop at Rachel’s door for a moment, looking at each other. Rachel’s hand grazes Max’s ear and she thinks of maybes again and all the pain that comes with them.

“Thanks for everything today, Max,” Rachel says, cupping Max’s chin and giving her a soft kiss on the cheek. It feels agonizingly slow, Max’s heart pounding out of her chest. She composes herself enough to give Rachel a quick goodbye hug before power-walking down to her own room and slamming her back into the door to close it.

She puts her hand over her eyes, trying to breathe. It’s just flirting, for God’s sake. It’s just Rachel. And Chloe. The two people she feels most connected to in the world right now, who are also very attractive, and keep giving Max hope for things that will not happen. She resigned herself to that years ago, so why does it hurt now? Why does her stupid brain have to keep hoping?

She almost doesn’t feel the vibration in her pocket, and doesn’t check her phone until after her heartrate’s slowed and her eyes have stopped stinging.

Kate:

Chloe is really nice.

I was worried when you left me with her. I was afraid you were ditching me. But I know you probably needed to talk to Rachel, and anyway, I’m glad me and Chloe got the chance to talk one-on-one.

She knows what I’m going through. Not what happened to me but the way I feel. She gave me her number so we can talk more later.

Thank you for everything, Max. I don’t know what I’d do without you and Rachel and Chloe and Dana.

I just wanted you to know that. Sorry if this is weird. I’ve never had friends like you before. I’ll stop texting now, you’re probably busy.

And just like that, Max is smiling like an idiot. She starts thinking of what to say, how to assure Kate that’s she’s never going to be a bother, that she’ll always be welcome with Max and her friends. She checks and notices that there’s another alert. The other conversation is:

Chloe:

u missed out on pie but kate’s almost as cute as you anyway so ur forgiven

make her hang w/ us more often

hope ur talk with rachel went ok

Max settles down on the edge of her bed, playing with her hair. She shouldn’t get sucked into texting this late, not when there’s so much to do. But she has things to tell the both of them. The night will stretch as long as it needs to.

Chapter Text

As Max heads down the hall, she quickly checks through Kate’s open door. As she’s come to expect, Dana’s keeping Kate company, the two of them spread out across the room with their homework exploded all over the floor. Max is ready to give her usual wave and move on, but Dana suddenly perks up when she catches a glance, scrambling off of Kate’s bed. “Max!” she says, bounding to her feet. “I was hoping to talk to you.”

“Oh, um, what about?” Max asks, stepping back instinctively. Dana’s a rather big and intimidating girl at the best of times, not that it’s really her fault or anything, and any sudden enthusiasm tends to make Max nervous.

“You remember that girl’s night out we did a couple weeks back? Nightmare Before Christmas?” Dana asks as Kate peers around Dana, raising her eyebrows.

“Yeah. So we’re doing another one?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s gonna be a little different. We’re setting it for Halloween, and the thing is, like, I wanted us to do an actual night out somewhere,” Dana continues, tapping her fingers against her hip. “So Justin’s house is open ‘cuz his parents are out of town, and I figured we could all get dressed up and hand out candy and stuff too!”

Max considers for a moment. “That sounds good, but isn’t there a Vortex thing on Halloween?”

Dana shrugs. “Yeah, but I already went to their End of the World thing and I wanted something quieter, you know? Anyway. Reason I’m asking you is, well, I don’t have your number, and I wanted to see if Rachel and Chloe could come too, and I figured...”

“I’m the official Chloe and Rachel contact point?” Max finishes for her, smiling.

“You kinda are. You three are peas in a pod,” Dana says. “Anyway, gimme your number so we can work all this out before Thursday, all right? People need rides and junk.”

Once they’ve exchanged numbers and said goodbye, Max immediately heads into her room to quietly panic. Of course Kate would love to have Rachel and Chloe there; over the past month both of them have really stepped up for her. And she has no idea of the history between the two of them, while Max most certainly does.

Well. No point in delaying anything. She texts Rachel first to see if she’s interested, which gets her a hell yeah!!! in response. Then she texts Chloe.

The first text is so is this byob or what ? which means Max has to ask Dana if booze in general is fine at the party; the reply is Sure! As long as we’re all responsible ^.^ which lets Max relax a tiny bit. And then she thinks about Chloe and possibly Rachel being drunk around each other and tenses right back up.

She sighs. All right. Fine.

Me:

so Rachel is going to be there too and she’ll probably need a ride

is that okay?

Chloe:

yeah its fine

i can be civil u know

we hang out with her plenty

plus i cant find frank anywhere so she saved me a couple hundred a month

so at least that shits done w/

i will b getting fuckin wasted tho been a while so r u cool w/ sleeping there assuming u cant find another ride?

Max considers the possibility. On the one hand, that means sleeping with her bra on, and being around people in the early morning, and worrying about being outed. On the other, it reminds her of old times, sleepovers at Chloe’s house a million years ago, and besides, everyone who’ll be there is at least a friendly acquaintance.

She sends back a sure, then sits down at her desk and ponders whether she just made one single good life choice. Oh well. Youth is for making mistakes anyway, right?

 


 

Judging by the racket that Rachel’s backpack is making as they set off for the parking lot, she’s decided tonight is BYOB as well. It doesn’t quite match her outfit, a pink-and-scarlet midriff-baring ensembles with poofy pants and small sandals, which looks just unbearably cold for the night to Max, though Rachel shows no sign of worry. Her hair’s up in a long braid trailing down her back, and Max knows it isn’t the right color, really, but it’s pretty clear she’s Ty Lee. Max needs to remember sometimes how much of a nerd Rachel is.

Not that she can really blame her or claim she’s any less of a nerd. Max is dressed in a giant sunhat over a long black wig, a slathering of gray bodypaint, high-waisted jeans and a red tank top, complete with cowboy boots and long yellow gloves. She even strapped her guitar to her back; it might not be an axe-bass, but it completes the Marceline look well enough for a little house party.

When Chloe’s truck pulls up to the entrance, Max catches just a glimpse of Chloe’s combat helmet before she parks and gets out for Max to observe the entire look. A denim vest over a tank top with a target painted on the chest covered from head to toe in ammo belts and pouches, big heavy combat boots and jean shorts with thigh-high leggings.

“Tank Girl!” Rachel calls out, beaming.

“Ty Lee and....whatshername...” Chloe says, stopping just in front of Max for a minute. “That other show Rachel liked—”

“Marceline,” Max interrupts.

“That’s right!” With that, Chloe gives Max one of her giant, lifting-your-feet-off-the-ground hugs. “Gay vampire chick, right, right.”

“Bisexual,” Max corrects her quietly, but she enjoys the hug regardless.

Once Max is dropped, Chloe offers Rachel a quick fist bump before ordering Max to put her guitar in the back. Max spies what appears to be a freaking thirty-rack of craptastic beer, along with a handle of rum and another of tequila. She hopes nothing slides around too much as she lays her guitar gently in the truckbed, then hops in, getting squished between Rachel and Chloe.

“I think this is the first time I was actually invited to the same party Rachel’s going to instead of just crashing it,” Chloe says as they set off into town.

“Oh, come on, Chloe, everyone knew you came with me,” Rachel replies, smiling over Max’s chest. “We were a package deal.”

Chloe snorts. “Yeah, if the package always had a dead rat in it.”

Well, this is off to a bad start. Max isn’t sure whether to interrupt the brewing fight or not before Chloe suddenly says, “Anyway, Frank’s off my back now. Haven’t seen him for a while. Max tells me you did that.”

“...yeah. At least, I think so.” Rachel rubs the back of her neck. “I gave him too many chances.”

“No shit. But...you know. Thanks, I guess, for un-ruining my life a little. You dropped out of VC too, right?”

“I’m taking a break. After what happened with Kate...” Rachel huffs. “I wasn’t having fun anymore anyway. I tried to go to their last party and I just kind of...got bored. Left an hour in.”

“Huh.” Chloe chews on her lip as she turns. There’s a brief silence in the cab, Max wondering if any of that was actually good or if they’re avoiding a fight for Max’s sake. Chloe turns the stereo up as they drive, and Max takes a second to relax and breathe. Things seem mostly all right until Chloe pipes up again.

“Anyway!” Chloe says, her voice pitching up. “You guys are gonna flip when you see Kate’s costume. I spent like an hour talking her into it.”

“Oh my God,” Rachel says.

“What did you do?” Max demands, a smile breaking out.

“You remember how she joined us for movie night with Warren once? Well...You know what, we’re here, so I’m not gonna spoil it,” Chloe says mischievously as they park in the driveway of a frankly enormous house that Max would never in a million years suspect Justin to live in. They pile out in the light of the setting sun, everyone grabbing their supplies from the truck bed and lumbering up to the door.

Dana greets them first, clad in a bloody, torn white t-shirt and jeans, her face caked in some pretty good zombie make-up. “You must be Chloe,” she says, smiling.

“That’s me. I’d shake your hand but I’m carrying approximately one shitload of booze, so...”

“Right!” Dana hops out of Chloe and Rachel’s way, letting them head past the living room and into the kitchen to set down their party favors. Max looks towards the couch once Dana’s gotten her hug out, spotting Justin and Trevor first, clad in what appears to be a Shaggy costume and some kind of Scooby Doo onesie. But Max nearly yelps at Kate’s costume.

She’s in a white prom dress complete with crown, a river of blood staining her from head-to-toe. She smiles almost devilishly as she rises to greet Max.

“So this is what Chloe does when I’m not looking,” Max says with a smile, exchanging a quick hug with Kate as Dana wanders off to the kitchen, exclaiming “Holy shit, guys, do we need all of that?”

“It sounded fun, Chloe just convinced me no one would mind,” Kate admits. “My parents would never let me go out in this.” She bites her lip, looking away. “But it is kind of fun...”

“Eyy, Max,” Justin calls, leaning over the back of the couch and shaking a brown bag at her. “Want some Scooby Snacks?”

“Don’t eat the Scooby Snacks,” Dana warns as she heads back into the living room. “Not unless you want to astral-project, anyway.”

“They aren’t that strong,” Justin pouts, reaching in and taking a brownie out of the bag. “Man, I made a bunch of these,” he says, turning it over in his hand.

“Justin, friend, boy, buddy, pal, throw it right here,” Chloe insists, following after Dana and holding out her cupped hands. Justin obliges, passing another to Rachel as she copies Chloe’s gesture.

“Alyssa and Stella should be here in a couple minutes, and then we can get a group shot,” Dana says, flopping down on the end of the couch. Trevor looks for a second like he’s about to scoot over and join her, but Kate drops down next to her before he can make his move.

Max ends up settling between Rachel and Chloe again as everyone drinks their preferred beverages and chats idly about school and new assignments and skipping the VC party for this. Kate keeps getting up to hand out candy while the choice of movie is discussed; after Stella and Alyssa arrive, it’s settled that The Mist will be the film of the evening, with Chloe deciding that there will be a drinking game: whenever a character does something immeasurably stupid and gets killed, take a drink.

Once the drinks are made and all is settled (and the trickle of trick-or-treaters has slowed), Max ends up watching Kate more than anything else. She loves to cling to Dana anytime something jumps out and nabs someone on screen. She thinks idly of the bi-monthly and bi-friendly ;) at the end of Dana’s handmade posters and smiles to herself. Well. Maybe someday.

And speaking of maybes. As Chloe and Rachel drain and refill their drinks (seeming to have a more generous definition of what a ‘drink’ is during the game,) Chloe does her thing again, wrapping an arm around Max, her body hot even in the small amount of clothing she’s wearing. Rachel, for her part, leans her head on Max’s shoulder, slouching slightly to do so, one hand stroking up and down her arm when nobody’s looking at them.

Max’s heart is in her throat, sweat on her neck. This can’t be a coincidence anymore, right? And yet there’s a million reasons it has to be anything but real. She’s relieved when the movie’s over and the trick-or-treaters have stopped coming, because it means people get up from the couch and stretch, Chloe and Rachel going into the kitchen to have shots.

Stella announces, “All right, guys, I’d stay longer but class tomorrow is a thing. Anyone besides Alyssa want a ride back? Max, Kate?”

Kate looks at her slightly-tipsy friend and shakes her head. “It’s all right. I can stay here tonight, Dana will get me home in time.”

“You know it, Kate,” Dana says, ruffling Kate’s hair. She really does look good with it down.

“Max?” Stella asks again, and Max has to think for a moment. Leaving a drunk Rachel and Chloe to each other would probably be a mistake, and she can probably wake Chloe up tomorrow if she really tries. Besides, the idea of a sleepover with Chloe again is kind of fun, and it feels like the night’s barely even started.

“I’m all right,” Max says, waving her off.

“All right, and I assume Justin and Trevor are good?” Stella receives a nod. “All right. Bye, guys! Have fun!”

“We will!” echoes out of the kitchen, and with that, Alyssa and Stella are gone.

Almost as soon as the door closes, Justin says, “We should do beer pong.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Dana says. “But Kate and Max don’t drink.”

“What is it?” Kate asks warily.

“We just set up cups on either side of a ping-pong table and try to throw balls into them, if you land one the other team has to drink,” Dana says.

“I can play even if I don’t drink,” Kate says. “That sounds fun.”

“Me too,” Max agrees.

“Sweeet,” Justin says, standing up. “Go grab Chloe and Rachel, we’ll set up in the garage. Make 'em bring the beer.”

As Max enters the kitchen, she hears glass rattling, and turns to see Chloe with her back against the little table, bracing herself against it while Rachel’s hands grasping her waist, standing on tip-toe so her smug grin is right in Chloe’s face. Chloe’s looking away, but Max can see her chest rising and falling, hear her panting breath.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Hadn’t Rachel said that she loved Chloe? She was just using Max to get close to her again, wasn’t she? And if Rachel is improving herself, maybe she and Chloe can make it after all. Max was never really an option, she knew that already. So why does seeing this hurt?

Max clears her throat and Chloe’s head turns around. “M-Max!” she exclaims, shoving Rachel off of her unceremoniously. “What’s up?” she asks, looking jumpy as she circles around the table to be at Max’s side.

“We’re setting up beer pong in the garage and we need beer for that,” Max informs her, peering at Rachel, who’s looking at her shoes more than anything else.

“Oh, sweet. I call your team,” Chloe says quickly, hefting the 30-rack of beer up from off the floor.

“I get her next,” Rachel says, throwing her head up and smiling at Max. “We can switch off.”

Max’s mind is so focused on the meaning of what she saw and heard that she totally fails to lead them to the garage, first finding a linen closet and then a bathroom before finally getting herself un-turned around. No matter how she squares it, none of it makes much sense.

Still, at least the game is structured enough. Kate and Dana team up, as do Justin and Trevor, and the three of them swap off one member per round. Dana, Rachel, and Chloe all declare that they’ll take the drinks meant for their non-drinking partners, and as a result there’s quite a few empty cans thrown into the recycle bin in the corner of the garage by the time they’re playing their last game.

It’s down to one cup on either side, Max and Chloe’s turn, the two of them tense while Justin and Trevor stand anxiously at the other end of the table and wait for their destruction. Chloe’s hand shakes a little as she holds her ball up to eye level.

“Hey, Max. Let’s make it interesting,” she suggests. “Both at the same time.”

“You’re on,” Max agrees. “Three, two, one!”

Their balls fly across the table and circle the cup, one landing right after the other while the entire garage loses their minds. Chloe shouts something and holds both her hands up for a high-five.

“What was that?” Max asks as Chloe wraps an arm around her neck and gives her a noogie, threatening to displace her wig.

“Drift compatible, dude!” Chloe calls out, releasing Max from her hold.

“What on Earth does that mean?” Max asks.

“Oh my god, this chick hasn’t seen Pacific Rim,” Chloe announces, Rachel’s hands flying up to her mouth in shock.

“Emergency movie!” Rachel cries.

“Hell yeah,” Justin says. “C’mon, we can totally just rent it on demand.”

Completely bewildered but encouraged by both the party’s enthusiasm and the brief exchange of a look between her and Kate that says What?, Max follows everyone back into the living room. Dana and Kate take the loveseat this time, Dana’s head lolling as she nearly flattens herself against the couch. She’s got a blush in her cheeks to match Kate’s as her arm drapes over Kate’s shoulders.

Once the cable service is wrangled into showing them their movie, Max finds herself between a very drunk Rachel and Chloe, their cuddliness turned up to eleven. Max is worried for a minute that she won’t be able to pay attention to the movie until the first giant monster shows up on screen, and then decides to lose herself in the fun for a while.

By the end, Trevor’s passed out on his back and Justin isn’t far behind. Dana’s somehow managed to stretch herself across the loveseat with Kate nestled up against her chest, both of them with their eyes closed.

Max stands up, trying to keep herself quiet as Justin whispers, “You guys can take my parents’ or my sister’s room, either one. Shit, I should clean up...”

Rachel offers to help and Chloe distinctly doesn’t, so Max lets her lean on her while they make their way up the stairs towards the master bedroom. Her heart’s pounding knowing that they’re going to be sleeping in the same bed for the first time since they were kids (and they were never technically allowed to do that anyway) but surely it’s big enough for both of them and it’s the best choice, right? Chloe wouldn’t even judge her if she took her forms off, anyway...

She’s thinking too much as they head in and Chloe throws herself face-first onto the bed, not even bothering to take off her boots until Max asks. She grumbles and turns over as Max goes into the bathroom, taking the little ziploc bag out of her pocket and taking two of the pills with water.

“That your medicine?” Chloe’s voice nearly makes Max drop the two little blue pills cradled in her palm.

“Oh. Um. Yeah.” She closes her fist around the estradiol, not really looking at Chloe, though she can see in the mirror that she’s leaning against the doorframe, her combat helmet hanging at her side.

“Um...if you don’t mind me asking...shit, don’t tell me anything if you don’t want, I’m fuckin’ drunk.” Chloe runs a hand through her hair. “But like...what do they do?”

“A...a lot of stuff.” Max isn’t really prepared to give Chloe a Hormones 101 lesson right now, but she might as well know. “I didn’t really go through puberty, so...this is starting the right one. Instead of the one I blocked.”

“Oh, so you were on different stuff before. Kay.” Chloe hisses out air through her teeth. “So, like...boobs?”

Max blushes hard, feeling a drop in her stomach. “...yeah. Eventually.”

“Sweet, dude. You’ll love em. So you got fakes in right now, huh?”

Jesus Christ, Chloe. But she might as well know. Max has never talked to anyone about this stuff except her parents, and it’s Chloe, her best friend. She should have someone she can tell this to.

“Y-yeah, I do,” Max confirms, fist still clenched. “You, um. You don’t mind if I take them off to sleep, right?”

“No, girl, do what makes you comfy. Sorry, I’ll get outta here if you wanna do that.”

“Yeah, I’ll need a minute.”

“Kay.”

Max breathes a sigh of relief as Chloe leaves, closing the door behind her. She puts the pills under her tongue and strips down to just her jeans and tank top, leaving her boots, wig and gloves on top of her bra. She takes a deep breath before heading back into the bedroom, Chloe under the covers and looking up sleepily at her. Max feels exposed, her top hanging loose off her chest. She crosses her arms over herself as Chloe stares.

“Get the light?” Chloe mumbles, looking away.

“Yeah.” Max quickly runs over and shuts it off, crawling shakily into bed beside Chloe. And then Chloe’s suddenly got her in a sideways hug, her arms strong and warm and protective, face-to-face with her.

“You’re shtill cute,” Chloe slurs. “Mmmprettygirl.”

Drift compatible is the first stupid thought that comes to Max’s mind. Chloe can always tell what she’s thinking, what she wants to hear. That’s never changed. Goosebumps rise on her skin as she wraps an arm around Chloe’s waist and presses against her, nuzzling her chin under Chloe’s neck.

What should she say? She wants to just say, “Thank you,” but that seems too small.

“M’glad you’re here,” Chloe says into her hair. Then she does something even more crazy and kisses Max’s forehead.

“Me too,” Max squeaks out.

Max shouldn’t doubt, at this point. This has to mean something. Tangled up in each other, in the same bed, saying sweet nothings, God dammit, this has to mean something. Chloe’s low “mmm” vibrates against her and she feels her eyes watering. God, she would. If Chloe really wants to do this, Max would, in a heartbeat.

But Chloe’s a lesbian, and lesbians like real women, right? And Max isn’t that. That’s what people kept telling her, over and over, no matter what she felt. Even if...Chloe still knew her as a boy, grew up with her as a boy, she’d never.

She isn’t sure how long her mind turns in circles, listening to Chloe’s breathing slow and become regular, her limbs heavy around Max. They shift so Chloe’s spooning Max, Max facing the door. That’s how she knows when Rachel looks in on them.

She eases the door open, light spilling in from the hallway as she leans in. Their eyes meet briefly, and Rachel gives her a little smile and a wave. But her acting’s not at its best right now. Max can see the disappointment on her face, the work that went into that smile.

“Wrong room,” she whispers. “See you in the morning, Max.”

Max’s mind goes back to the scene she interrupted in the kitchen as Rachel closes the door and flips off the hall light. She remembers Chloe’s words. Sometimes I think I’m still in love with her and I feel like such a fucking idiot.

She wonders if she caused a problem, or if she solved one.

Chapter Text

Max wakes up still in Chloe’s arms, her body heavy, her breath steady. She wants to stay here forever. What could be more important than enjoying this moment?

But she realizes Rachel will need a ride home and she does technically have class today (though she’s been assured by Blackwell veterans that the classes after Halloween are always easy street to account for hangovers), and that means that someone could come in here and see her undressed. She starts to extract herself slowly from Chloe, hearing blurred objections that don’t really coalesce into anything but “Mmmnnnoo.” Chloe squeezes Max for a second, but does eventually let her go when she says she needs to go to the bathroom.

She basically has to get back into costume before she heads out; the easiest way to carry clothes is to wear them. She checks the time; barely eight o’clock, so Chloe can sleep a little longer and Max can get herself some water. Once she’s back in the bedroom she sees that Chloe’s stretched out and starfished on her back, the light from the window perfectly centered in the middle of her body. Max wishes she had her camera; she looks so peaceful. Beautiful. She settles for snapping a picture with her phone.

Chloe opens one eye at the fake shutter noise. “You know, one day I’m gonna take pictures of you half-naked in bed. See how you like it,” she groans, turning over and burritoing herself in the covers. Max is glad she’s not looking at her anymore because her entire head feels like it’s burning up.

She escapes the room as if it’ll leave Chloe’s words trapped in there and heads downstairs to the kitchen, passing by a Dana who’s now sleeping face-first in the loveseat, snoring quietly, makeup smeared all over her face. She almost wants to give the girl a reassuring pat as she walks by; that cannot be good for her back. Trevor seems to have migrated elsewhere during the night, and Max hears quiet sounds in the kitchen, a chair scraping on linoleum.

She enters to find a kettle on the stove, Kate at the kitchen table steeping a mug of tea. Her hair’s a mess, a vague imprint of grey, red and black smeared on the back of her dress; Dana’s makeup, no doubt.

“Ooh, that looks amazing,” Max says, eyeing Kate’s mug. Kate gives her a little smile.

“There’s plenty more hot water. It wasn’t boiling, though. Didn’t want to wake everyone up with the whistle. Their selection is mediocre, though,” she adds at the end, gesturing at the box she pulled her bag from.

“I’ll settle,” Max says, starting to search through the cupboards for a mug.

As Max locates everything she’ll need for a morning cup of tea (honestly Kate had the best idea), she can see Kate’s smile dissipate. She stares into her mug, swirling her spoon around, never really taking a sip. Max leans against the kitchen counter, stirring her own, when Kate decides to speak again.

“Did you and Chloe sleep together last night?” Her eyes are piercing as she turns her gaze to Max.

Max’s blush returns. “I—I mean—”

“Oh, sorry, I mean — I mean like me and Dana, sorry,” Kate corrects quickly.

“Oh, um. Yeah. Same bed. There was room.” Max feels sweat beading on her neck. This feels Important and she’s sure she’s about to screw it up.

“Are you two together?”

That’s the second time someone’s said that out of the blue. Does it really look that way? “No, we...we’re just friends,” Max says lamely. Even she feels like she’s lying.

Kate looks into her tea again. “...you don’t have to lie to me, Max.”

“Kate—”

“I’m not some — some stereotype, okay? I can handle it. You don’t have to hide who you are from me. I’d think we were better friends than that.” She sounds legitimately angry.

“Kate, I swear, I’m telling the truth.” Kate looks up at her again, a downright glare. Max swallows. “We...we aren’t together.” She mumbles out her next words. “But I sort of want us to be.”

Kate releases a sigh, closing her eyes and finally actually taking a sip of her tea. After she swallows, she says, “Okay. I’m sorry, I just...” She rubs her eyebrows. “I’m not like that, okay? I hate it when people see me as...as something I’m not.”
You and me both, Max wants to say, but she bites her tongue.

“You’re my friends — both of you. I want you to know that means I won’t cast judgement on you. I’m not God. I can’t do that.” Kate’s spoon rattles in her cup as she sets it down. “You two would be...good together,” she says, her voice strained like she’s forcing the words out. “She talks about you all the time.”

Max isn’t sure how to respond. She knows what prompted this, more than anything she and Chloe had done last night. Like me and Dana. She wants to reach out, tell her it’s all right.

But before she can do anything, Dana enters the kitchen with a yawn, one hand on her forehead. “Mm. Hey, guys. What time is it?” she asks as Max and Kate break eye contact.

“Eight-twenty,” Max says after a quick check on her phone.

“I gotta get back to the dorms and scrub this crap off my face before class,” Dana says. “Maybe grab breakfast on the way. Kate, are you ready?”

“After I finish this, sure.” Kate’s voice is small, but she smiles when she looks up at Dana.

“I should go get Chloe and Rachel up.” Max quickly exits the room as Dana sits across from Kate. She hopes she’s not messing with Kate’s journey, however it’s going to go. And then she remembers that she just admitted, out loud, to another human being, that she likes Chloe and wants to be with her. She knows Kate’s not a gossip; that’s not the issue. It’s the fact that she’s going to see Chloe right after admitting that and still having to clamp all that down.

Chloe’s already up when she gets into the master bedroom, tugging on her boots. “Classes usually start at like ten, right?” she asks, looking up as Max enters the room.

“Yeah,” Max replies, trying not to stare at any one particular part of Chloe (why are they all good?) “Easiest place I’ve ever gone.”

“Didn’t stop me from dropping out.” Max winces until Chloe gives her a smirk. “But we better get going if you wanna have time to shower off all that gray shit. Where’s Rachel?”

“I’ll go find her,” Max assures her. She turns and heads back into the hallway, unsure of where exactly she should even be looking in this house, but luckily a door opens just past the stairway. Rachel sneaks out, her red shoes in one hand as she closes the door gently.

She gives Max a little wave, then puts a finger to her lips. “Justin’s still passed out,” she says with a smile.

Max’s eyes widen. Did she...? Rachel laughs a little at her face. “We just cuddled, Max,” she scoffs, rolling her eyes. “Sleeping alone is boring.”

“I wasn’t — I didn’t—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Rachel puts her shoes on as Max hears the door open behind her.

Chloe swings her keys around on her finger. “We all ready?” she asks.

“You know it,” Rachel replies. “I need like six cups of coffee. Chloe, we’re dropping by your work on the way.”

Chloe shrugs. “Maybe we are. If y’all are good. C’mon.”

They make it out to the driveway and see Dana’s blue sedan receding into the distance. Chloe cracks her neck. “I actually just wanna go home and pass out again, so y’all are going straight home,” she informs them as she climbs into her truck, Max squeezing in beside her with Rachel on her other side.

“Aw, but coffee!” Rachel whines.

“Rachel, I know for a fact you have an illegal coffeemaker in your dorm and all the artisanal Whole Foods bullshit in the world,” Chloe reprimands her. “You are gonna be fine. Now let’s race Dana.”

They end up arriving in the parking lot around the same time, Rachel and Max following Dana and Kate into the dormitories with a quick goodbye to Chloe. The whole way across campus, Max is expecting Rachel to make a comment about her and Chloe sleeping together, to tease her about her (apparently really obvious) crush, to be...Rachel. But she’s quiet, her face a mask of impassivity, at least until Dana and Kate head into the bathrooms together to wash off their makeup.

“Those two are so cute,” she says, a little of her spark returning to her. “You think they’ll figure it out before they graduate?”

“Oh, leave them alone,” Max chides gently, giving her a light shove towards her dorm room.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Rachel’s lips turn down, only visible for a second before she turns away. “Nobody needs me fucking with their life.”

Max stops in her tracks, turning back towards Rachel as she gets her keys out of her backpack and starts fiddling with her lock. “Are you feeling okay, Rachel?”

Rachel lets out an exaggerated sigh. “I just need my coffee, Max. I’m fine.”

Max doesn’t have the chance to work out a response before Rachel’s out of reach, inside her dorm with the door locked. Max can’t waste time worrying, not right now. It’s time to face the day.

 


 

Max is ready to take the rest of the day off by the time she’s back in her dorm. She really, really didn’t get enough sleep to handle even the thought of the homework due next week. She’s just starting the process of moving her laptop to her bed to marathon cartoons she’s already seen when her phone lights up.

Chloe:

can we talk?

If ever there were three words to instantly cause anxiety, those would be it. Max wants to just not reply, but after last night, she and Chloe are too close for that. She powers through the sinking feeling in her gut.

Max:

What about?

Chloe:

complicated

can i call you actually

Sure, why not throw some more icewater on Max’s head.

Max:

Of course!

Her phone rings a half-second later, and she sits down on her couch with her teddy bear in her lap, ready to receive the bad news. If her crush is that obvious to everyone, surely Chloe’s noticed now too and this is the rejection she should’ve expected. At least she’s nice enough to do it over a phone call instead of text.

“Hey,” Chloe says from the other end of the line. “So I had this, like...this idea.”

“Yeah?” Max replies. She hugs Captain closer to her chest as she waits for it. Although this isn’t how her feverish mind had imagined this conversation going.

“So, like, we’ve been hanging out a lot,” Chloe begins, and Max’s nails dig into the stuffed animal, “And...my mom and stepshit don’t know where I’m going. I haven’t told them you’re back and shit. I figured you didn’t want the attention. They’re all paranoid that I’m out with Rachel again or getting high or getting into fights and shit. I can handle that, but it’s like...” She sighs. “I want ‘em to know about you. I want to, like, reintroduce you. So I was thinking, instead of you going further away on Thanksgiving break, you could...stay over here. With me.”

Max is blanking entirely. “You mean...”

“You know, stay in the guest room, have dinner with us, just...hang for a couple of days. I don’t like hiding you anymore. God — this is fucking cheesy. I’m warning you. Ugh.” Chloe groans at herself. “I’m...thankful to have you back.”

Max can’t help but let out a giggle. “Seriously?”

“Seriously! I couldn’t stop thinking that when I was thinking about Thanksgiving and like...you being gone again. I dunno. I want you around.” Chloe mumbles the last few words.

Max can feel herself blushing. She picks at Captain’s ear, thinking.

“So, um...would that be okay?” Chloe asks. She sounds like she’s pleading.

Max makes her decision. “If...if you tell Joyce beforehand.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not gonna pull a Rachel, I’m not gonna spring you on her. We’ll need to talk about it anyway.”

“I’ll need to talk to my parents, too...I’m sure they wouldn’t mind not having to drive six hours, though.” Max shouldn’t be feeling this light about this. This is a big deal. This means something. Not just her ideas about maybe getting to spend more time with — yes, her fucking crush — but also being able to reconnect with Joyce, who was always so kind to her, and there’s just something that sounds so fun about staying in Chloe’s house again, like having sleepovers as a kid.

“All right. Huh. Yeah. Okay.” Chloe’s got some awkward laughter in her voice. “I...yeah. I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I’m sure you have to get back to studying and shit. Seeya later, right?”

“Of course.”

 


 

At their next lunch meet-up, sitting in the corner booth of a cafe, Chloe says, “So I talked to Mom.”

Max swirls the spoon in her soup. “So, um, what’d she say?”

“A lot, actually.” Chloe scratches her ear. “We, um...we talked about a lot of stuff. Best talk we’ve had in a really long time. We—we talked about Rachel, and about me being gay, and about LA, and a bunch of stuff that we mostly just yelled at each other about or ignored before. It was...It was nice.” She takes a bite of her sandwich as Max considers.

“Not to be selfish, but what about me?” she asks.

“Well, I showed her a picture, told her you, um...transitioned, right? And she was a little confused at first, I think. But I tried to explain. Best I could. That you don’t want to be a girl, you are a girl, and you always have been, and stuff.” Chloe pauses for a moment, sipping her coffee. “She said, ‘Well, whatever makes her happy.’ She wants you to come over, to meet you and stuff. She thinks you’re a good influence on me or some shit.”

“So Thanksgiving break is...” Max prompts.

“Yeah. Totally cool with her. And David, probably, although I told her to maybe not mention the whole gender thing. Dude’s kind of an old-fashioned shit.”

Max hasn’t had many encounters with Blackwell’s security chief, but she has no reason to doubt Chloe’s testimony. He’s gruff and hostile at the best of times and seems to be happiest stalking silently about campus looking for trouble.

“Thanks for looking out for me,” Max says quietly.

“Anytime, Max.”

 


 

The day before break is full of noise, students rushing to get enough packed for the three-day trip home. Max is already ready; she sent her bags off with Chloe this afternoon at lunch, and now she’s just waiting for the text to tell her she’s in the parking lot.

She’s got her door propped open just to keep the air circulating as she sits on her couch and idly plucks at her guitar, trying to remember her last lessons in Seattle before her skill completely rusts.

“Freebird!” jolts her out of her thoughts, her guitar nearly falling to the floor as Rachel saunters into her room.

“‘You suck, play some Skynyrd’, I get it,” Max replies, smiling as Rachel plops down beside her.

“Just giving you shit,” Rachel assures her. “But put that thing down for a sec. Dana’s giving me a ride to the airport in a minute.”

Max places the guitar on the floor and Rachel leans over and hugs her close, tight, warm. She smells like wet earth, the scent of healthy soil in Lisa’s pot.

“You and Chloe have fun, okay?” Rachel murmurs. “I’ll miss you guys.”

“Rachel, it’s just three days,” Max replies, smoothing Rachel’s back. Rachel feels nice against her, and she wonders once again what the hell she’s thinking, balancing two crushes at once like this.

“I know, but home’s kinda...lonely these days,” Rachel admits as she draws back. “Text me constantly, okay? If you and Chloe aren’t...aren’t busy, I guess. I hope you make her happy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Max asks.

“N-nothing. She was just always miserable when I’d go home for the summer or a break or whatever. I’m glad you’re sticking around for her.” Rachel gives Max one more squeeze. They look at each other for a moment and Max feels it again, like at the skatepark, something resting on the tip of Rachel’s tongue. But Max’s phone buzzes, and Rachel stands up. “Anyway, I’m gonna go get my shit together. Bye, Max!”

As Rachel makes her exit, Max checks her texts and sees get the fuck out here girlie and jumps to her feet. With a quick glance around the room, she assures herself that nothing’s missing. She flips off the light, locks the door behind her, and practically skips her way across campus.

She runs into Chloe’s arms, feeling her feet lift off the ground as Chloe swings her around. She’s always a little shocked at Chloe’s strength, despite occasionally taking a minute to enjoy her biceps.

“Ready for another super awkward reunion?” Chloe asks as she sets Max down.

Max shrugs. “The first one didn’t turn out so bad.”

Chloe chuckles. “Got me there.” She hasn’t taken her hands off of Max’s waist, and as soon as Max notices that, she’s pulled in closer again, their foreheads touching. “I’m really glad you’re staying,” she says softly, sending a shiver down Max’s spine.

“Mom was happy to hear we’re friends again, so she was totally cool with it, and...and it sounded fun.”
Chloe draws back, smiling. “Shit yeah it’s gonna be fun. Now I really have my best friend back. C’mon, let’s get rolling so I can kick your ass at Soulcalibur 2 again.”

“Excuse me, we left off at exactly equal wins and losses!” Max objects as she climbs into the truck.

“Ring-outs do not count.”

“They totally do!”

It’s easy to slip back into old arguments about the PS2 and the games that apparently still live in Chloe’s closet, and it’s such a nostalgia trip that Max barely realizes they’re traveling. It’s only when they pull in front of Chloe’s house and she sees the paintjob, still half-complete, like William left it, that she remembers what she’s about to do. She grows quiet as Chloe pulls into the driveway and parks, sliding out of her seat and chewing at her lip.

Chloe stops her just in front of the door. “Hey. It’s gonna be okay, all right?” she says, taking Max by the shoulders and looking her right in the eye. “I promise.”

“Yeah. I know, you—you said she was okay with it, I just...”

“I know.” Chloe gives Max a brief squeeze, then pulls back, taking her hand. “You ready?”

Max nods and Chloe pushes the door in. “Mom?” Chloe calls out, slipping her hand out of Max’s and leaving her feeling untethered.

She hears a chair scraping across the hardwood floor, and then she emerges from around the corner, as big and beautiful as Max remembers. The years have gotten to her a little, or maybe just the stress, but it’s still Joyce Price — or is it Madsen, now?

She smiles as soon as she sees Max. “Maxine Caulfield in the flesh,” she says, her soft southern voice all too familiar as she approaches Max. “Come here, you.”

So Chloe gets her hugging prowess from her mother, it seems. Max buries her head in Joyce’s shoulder and feels herself relax. Joyce pulls back, giving her another up-and-down glance. “You must be eighteen now. What a pretty young woman you turned out to be.” Joyce casts some kind of smirk at Chloe, who folds her arms defensively.

“It’s good to see you again, Joyce,” Max says once she’s sure she won’t stutter or shake.

“Right back at you. Chloe here tells me you were too scared to drop by the Two Whales, and that’s just a crying shame. I miss having you two in the booths,” Joyce says, putting her hands on her hips.

“Calling bullshit on that one, Mom,” Chloe scoffs. “Didn’t you chase us out of there a couple times?”

“There’s still a permanent ceasefire in the ketchup wars,” Joyce warns. “But drop by anytime, either of you.”

“Free food?” Chloe asks, cocking her head.

“You technically have a tab, Chloe,” Joyce says. “I just take some off it now and again.”

“Gotcha, free food. Now this girl,” Chloe says, grabbing Max’s wrist, “needs to get her ass beat.

“We’ll call you down for dinner. I’m sure you’ve met David before, but I’m sure it’ll be nice to introduce you two properly. Have fun, you two.”

Chloe pulls Max up the stairs as she waves a little goodbye with her free hand, Joyce giving one back. Max is suddenly thrown into Chloe’s punk explosion of a room, graffiti in Sharpie covering the walls, clothes all over the floor, the tiny CRT TV in the corner like she left it there yesterday. There’s a beer can on the windowsill and Chloe’s height chart has been scratched out, and there’s enough half-naked women on the walls to convince her she’s walked into an auto shop, but somehow this still feels familiar. Like Max belongs here.

The two of them busy themselves with first finding and then connecting the PS2, then locating the scratched-up old copy of Soulcalibur 2 that somehow still runs. As the game loads up and they take their positions on the floor, Chloe elbows Max.

“Well now I know why you always played Talim,” she says smugly.

“I played Talim because she’s awesome, thank you,” Max replies, choosing the character in question as soon as they’re in the versus screen. She feels bold enough to add, “And she’s cute.” She wonders if that’s the first time she’s said anything like that around Chloe. If Chloe knows she’s...available.

“What, did you wanna look like her? ‘Cuz, just sayin’, I think you turned out better.”

Chloe takes the second of confused sputtering that Max gives out to deliver a powerful blow with her character’s zweihander, and from then, the game’s on.

It’s more than fun, it’s exhilarating. It’s reliving the past, but better, because she’s herself now and not feeling strange and wrong for playing the girls and not fearing judgement for being who she is and just existing alongside her best friend in the world for some friendly competition.

And it doesn’t hurt that Chloe’s grown up well, and she’s still flirting with Max like crazy, and things don’t seem impossible at all. She knows she’s getting her hopes up. She knows all the risks here. But she can’t bring herself down right now.

They are called down for dinner eventually, and David’s only a little bit weird. But he seems to be making an effort to look good in front of guests, and even says “Welcome to our home,” in a gruff sort of way. Chloe spirits her back upstairs as soon as their plates are clear and shuts the door tight.

“I actually got the newest game if you’re down,” she says, disconnecting the PS2 and stuffing it back in her closet. “I kinda splurged on a 360 when I got my first paycheck because...I dunno. Me and Rachel were on the outs and I needed something to do that wasn’t studying.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t pick one up before,” Max replies as Chloe connects the newer console and activates the wireless controllers.

“I dunno. Rachel wasn’t really into games, so I wasn’t for a while. She, uh, doesn’t like losing.” Chloe shrugs. “I tried to play this, just, yknow, single-player, but it wasn’t the same without someone to beat up.”

“I’m flattered, Chloe.”

“You better be. Now check out all the dumb shit they did between games.”

Max doesn’t want the evening to end. They get off the fighting games eventually, switching to Burnout (Chloe loves crash mode and there’s always been something endearing about the light in her eyes when her schoolbus causes a fifty-car pileup) and then cycling through old co-op games (and Chloe convinces her to try Gears of War for a game or two). But Max’s eyelids are starting to feel heavy, and it’s probably past midnight. Chloe’s yawning too as the screen flashes VICTORY before their eyes.

“I gotta go take my pills,” Max says, standing up and stretching.

“‘Kay. I’ll get PJ’s on and junk. You come back here and say goodnight or I’ll kick your ass,” Chloe warns. Her voice shakes as she talks, but Max attributes it to the yawning.

Once she’s dug in her bags in the guestroom to find her pills, taken them, and changed into her pajamas (she’s keeping her inserts in just in case, for the moment), she heads back out to Chloe’s room. A goodnight does seem necessary, and maybe she might want to be roped into just one more game.

When she cracks the door to Chloe’s room she finds the girl in question stretching out in a white t-shirt in front of the pale blue light of the TV. Her breath catches in her throat at the sight and she tries not to look down but oh no she’s taken her bra off and she has piercings. The outlines are super clear in this light and no, Max cannot stay for one more game, she has to get out of here before she gets caught being a total perv.

Chloe catches her eye and smiles, beckoning her in. When they hug, Chloe holds on tight.

“You should stay in here tonight,” she mumbles into Max’s hair.

Max draws back. “What?”

Chloe cocks a hip. “I dare you.”

Max raises an eyebrow. “Uh, again, Chloe, what?”

“Dare you. Sleep in here with me.”

Max’s chest feels like it’s going to burst. “C-Chloe, this isn’t—-it’s not like when we were kids, and we were just going against the rules about boys and girls being separate for fun, this is—”

“Kiss me.”

Max freezes.

“Double-dog dare you, Max,” Chloe says, stepping forward.

“C-Chloe...” Max can’t breathe.

Chloe cups Max’s chin and lifts her head. “You’re right, Max,” she says, her fingers trembling. “We’re not kids anymore. And you’re not a boy.”

Max is looking into those blue, blue eyes, the television light still dancing across the two of them.

“It’s just a dare,” Chloe whispers.

Max puts her hands on Chloe’s shoulders and leans up on her tiptoes and fucking does it. Chloe grabs her waist a second later and Max lets herself be lifted, curling her legs up on either side of Chloe, exploring her mouth and her taste and enjoying the way Chloe’s body sways underneath her. Her lips are chapped and warm and feeling them fills Max with an incredible lightness, her stomach fluttering.

Her first kiss.

So worth the wait.

Chloe eventually falls back on the edge of her bed, Max essentially in her lap, and Max breaks away to breathe.

“Holy shit, Max,” Chloe pants, a wide smile on her face. “When you go for something, you go for it.”

Max buries her head in Chloe’s chest, trying to think coherent thoughts. “T-this is real, right?” she asks, her shoulders starting to shake. “It’s not a dream, or a prank, or—”

“No, no, Max, it’s as real as it gets.” Chloe wraps her arms around Max and squeezes tight. “I’ve been trying to find a way to kiss you all day. Come on.”

She gently rolls Max off of her and crawls up the bed, motioning for Max to join her. They lay their heads on the pillows, facing each other, Chloe reaching out to stroke Max’s arm.

“The second you walked in with Rachel, I was like, oh shit, she brought me a cutie,” Chloe whispers, a smile coming to her face. Max still can’t stop shaking. “It took me a second to realize, oh wait, that’s Max. And then I was just like, Max is a serious cutie.”

Max bites her lip. “B—but, you know, what I am—”

“I do,” Chloe confirms, squeezing her shoulder. “I was trying to figure it out for a while too. On—on Halloween, when you said you were gonna take out your fakes, I was like, oh, good, I’ll see her as a boy again and I’ll stop feeling weird. Guess what shit didn’t happen. I know I was drunk, but I meant what I said. I’m not confused anymore. You’re a girl. I can’t see you any other way, and you’re so fucking cute, and you’re my best friend, and I just...” Chloe sniffs. “I really, really like you. And I’m...pretty sure you like me. Right?”

Max scoots forward and lets Chloe’s arm envelop her, head in Chloe’s chest again. She nods forcefully. “I do, I do,” she repeats quietly.

Chloe lets out a sigh of relief and hugs her tighter. Max’s eyes sting and she can’t help it, can’t stop herself, there’s too much inside of her to keep locked away right now. She sniffles into Chloe’s shirt, tears rolling down her face.

“Woah, woah, hey, what’s wrong?” Chloe asks, her voice wavering and worried.

“N-nothing,” Max manages even as she rubs snot into Chloe’s front. “I j-just never thought anyone would, would want me, I never thought you would actually...I’ve liked you for so long...”

“Oh, Max...” Chloe sounds a little choked-up herself. “Of course I do. How could I not?”

It takes a while for Max to stop crying, even with Chloe’s strong hold on her, her soft whispers of reassurance. Finally, she’s able to pull back from Chloe and wipe her face.

“Ugh, I’m sorry, this should be happy,” Max murmurs, trying to clear the mess off of herself.

“It is,” Chloe assures her. “If...if you’re sure. If you wanna be my girlfriend. For real.”

At the word girlfriend Max feels goosebumps prick across every inch of her skin. She nods again, unable to do anything else.

“Hey. Max. Come on. Let’s make this official right fucking now, one A.M. on a Thursday morning,” Chloe says, her laughter coming back into her voice as she rolls over and grabs her phone off her nightstand. “And...there. In a relationship with Maxine Caulfield.” She drops her phone and pulls Max close again, giving her a quick peck and making her want to cry all over again. “Go confirm it for me?” she says, her crazed smile back in place.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Max slips out of bed and tiptoes to the doorway, casting a glance back at Chloe before she heads for the guest room to find her phone. Chloe’s got her hands behind her head, a big dopey smile on her face. It’s real, it’s real, it’s real, Max chants to herself as she sneaks around, finds her phone, and confirms her relationship status. Seeing their faces together on the timeline shouldn’t matter so much, but God, it so does.

She heads back into Chloe’s room to see her smiling at her phone and she honestly can’t look at Chloe for another second without wanting to kiss her again. So she gets into bed again and does just that, making Chloe drop her phone. They press against each other in the dark.

“You can take ‘em out, if you want,” Chloe murmurs. “Don’t mind.”

Max nods. She knows Chloe won’t mind. She knows how Chloe sees her now and she’s never felt more at peace. Chloe gets up and shuts off the TV while Max quickly gets out of her bra and forms.

They settle under the covers together, entwined like during Halloween. “Goodnight, girlfriend,” Chloe says softly, kissing Max’s forehead.

Max can’t think of a time that “goodnight” has ever been so literal.

Chapter Text

When Max wakes up, she almost expects to be in the guest bed, or on the floor. Even though Chloe had assured her it was real, it didn’t feel concrete until now. Now, when she’s under the warm covers, wrapped around Chloe’s chest, it all solidifies and she wants to bury her face in Chloe and hold tight and never, ever let go.

But as she clings, suddenly an image comes back to her, Chloe and Rachel in the kitchen at Justin’s house, so close. She doesn’t want to think about it. Doesn’t want to be jealous or insecure because dammit she can’t ruin this that quickly. Chloe wants her, Chloe kissed her, isn’t that enough?

Chloe stirs, straining against Max’s hold. She extracts her arm from where it’s been pinned at her side by Max, wrapping it around her shoulders instead. “Morning, clingy,” she murmurs, leaning down to kiss Max’s hair. Max nuzzles into her chest more, hating that word even if she knows Chloe’s joking.

“Hey, something wrong?” Chloe asks, smoothing Max’s back. “I...I thought you were happy?” Her voice shakes. “Max—”

“I’m sorry,” Max says. “I have to know.”

“Know what?”

Max takes in a deep breath. “You—you said on Halloween, you knew you wanted to be with me, right?”

“Yeah. That’s why I got all cuddled-up with you and shit. What’s this—”

“What were you and Rachel doing in the kitchen?”

Chloe freezes for a moment. She lets out a sigh. “She...she made a move on me. She does that sometimes, still, and sometimes I kinda fall for it. I fucking...” Chloe grunts, bringing Max closer and using her other arm to stroke Max’s side. “I was really...confused that night. Rachel was being good, and I wasn’t sure how into you I was, and I didn’t know if I could be with you, and you and Rachel were flirting, it was — it was all a mess. I was glad when you walked in and saved me or I mighta done something fucking stupid.”

“L-like what?” Max asks.

“I don’t know, slept with her or something. I—fuck. The only way I’ve gotten through the last couple months is fucking hating her,” Chloe says suddenly, her nails digging into Max’s skin. “I had to be strong enough not to fall for her bullshit again, so I didn’t cut, I got a job, I’m trying to get my shit together. If I didn’t do that, she could rope me in again like she did the first time and I’d just be the idiot who keeps falling for Rachel.”

“Was it really so bad?” Max asks, shifting against Chloe.

“I mean...no. Not all of it. I mean, she was the only one who gave a shit about me after you left. It seemed like she really cared. She was always trying to cheer me up. Give me a good time. But that’s not enough, and it made me stupid.” Chloe sniffs. “Ugh. Fuck. She just...she really, really let me down. I was in love with her for years, and when we finally get together, it turns out she was lying to me about shitloads of things. And it wasn’t just that, like, even if we’d made it out there...there was always something she wasn’t telling me.” Chloe rolls over on her side, meeting Max’s eyes. “I know you wouldn’t do that.”

“I wouldn’t,” Max murmurs. “Not to you. But are you sure you wouldn’t...you wouldn’t rather be with her? With a —”

“If you say ‘with a real girl’ I’m going to tickle you to death,” Chloe warns. “And, like...yeah. There was a lot between us. But it’s like, she saved me from...from myself, you saved me from her. I can’t keep falling in with her again and again when you’re right here.” She brushes her hand over Max’s cheek. “Being you.”

Max giggles when Chloe kisses her forehead. “Okay,” Max murmurs. She nuzzles under Chloe’s chin.

“So, uh, if we’re talking Rachel...” Chloe swallows. “Are you into her? Just like, some of the things you say, or the way you guys were around each other...”

“Um.” Max’s cheeks turn pink. She shouldn’t admit this, not right now, not when things are going so well. But she’s been asked. And she won’t keep anything from Chloe, she just said that. “Y-yeah, I kind of have...a crush.”

“But? I assume if you really wanted to...” Chloe prompts.

“She’s...a lot. I don’t really know how she sees me. There have been times that I could’ve...I could've started something, but I, I didn’t.”

Chloe chuckles. “Good instincts.”

“She...she doesn’t make me feel like you do.” Max closes her eyes.

“And how’s that?”

“Safe.”

Chloe wraps both her arms around Max, squeezing tight. “Jesus, Maxaroni,” she says, her voice shaking. “No crying this early in the fucking morning.”

Max laughs into Chloe’s neck, daring herself to plant a kiss there. Chloe lets out a strange, staggered sound.

Max draws back, on her hands and knees as Chloe lays on her back, propping herself on her elbows. “Sorry, did I—did I do something wrong?”

“Uh, huh, no,” Chloe replies, running a hand through her hair and smiling sheepishly. “That was, um, a good noise.”

Max tries to control her breath as she stares into Chloe’s eyes. It’s hot in here. Probably.

“S-so,” Chloe stammers, “Both of us have a thing for Rachel, a little bit, but us — us is better. Right?”

“Right,” Max confirms, still thinking about Chloe’s voice and the flushed look in her cheeks and the fact that she’s in her pajamas and looking totally stunning. Still staring at her. Her mouth’s dry. “Us is better,” she repeats, crawling back towards Chloe and sitting in her lap.

Chloe’s breath hitches as Max leans in to kiss her. Slow, soft, sweet. Max puts a hand under Chloe’s chin, cradling her. Her skin feels so soft.

Max realizes she could do more. That she sort of wants to do more, not too far, not too much, but she doesn’t really want to stop kissing Chloe. Chloe’s arm is hesitant when it circles her waist.

Max breaks the kiss momentarily, leaning back just enough to look Chloe in the eye again. She looks away, smiling guiltily.

“Uhm,” she breathes, “Is it...is it weird that I kinda wanna make out with you right now?”

“Then we’re both a little weird,” Max says. They catch each other’s eye again, Chloe looking like a deer in headlights, and Max just starts giggling, throwing her arms around Chloe and putting her head on her shoulder. She feels she could explode. She can’t remember the last time she felt this happy.

Chloe laughs with her, squeezing her tight. She sighs into Max’s ear. “You know...” she begins, rubbing Max’s back. “You make me feel safe too. It’s...when I was with Rachel, things were always sort of uncertain. With you...it’s different. God, I can’t believe you fuckin’ kissed me.” She pulls back, grinning.

“I can do it again,” Max offers. Before Chloe can say anything, she does, and this time she puts her hand on Chloe’s neck. As she slowly runs her fingers across Chloe’s skin, Chloe groans into Max’s mouth, her lips tightening against Max’s. Max presses in, deeper, and Chloe’s whole body shivers. Chloe hisses in a breath through her nose as Max drums her fingers on Chloe’s spine, as her body gets a little too warm for comfort. Max breaks off, laying her head on Chloe’s shoulder. Chloe’s chest rises and falls underneath her, one hand going up to tangle in Max’s hair.

From where Max’s head lies, it’s only a short distance from lips to neck. She could. She knows how Chloe reacts to that and that how Chloe reacts is very, very important. But she can feel something stirring in her and it feels like too much. Overwhelming, but almost in a good way. She’s not sure if she could handle it becoming stronger.

“Breakfast, girls!” startles both of them, Chloe falling backwards and Max flying away from her, landing on her hands.

They look at each other and pause, then each let out guilty little giggles. “Okay, um,” Chloe says. “Yeah.”

Max nods. “Uh-huh.”

Chloe shakes her head and swings her legs over the side of the bed. “Okay, Max, get your boobs on and let’s go. You know you want my mom’s cooking, don’t even try to lie.”

Max blushes, but there’s also something nice about how casually Chloe just said that. Like it’s not even a big deal. Like it’s just the kind of woman she is, and it’s all right.

She stands and faces Chloe’s closet as she puts her bra and inserts on, trying not to turn around and see Chloe changing (if that is what she’s doing, nope not looking.) Once she’s ready, she turns and sees that Chloe’s still in her pajamas anyway, stretching out in front of the window.

“Can I turn around now?” Chloe asks.

“Yeah.”

Chloe pivots, then give Max a quick hug and a kiss on the forehead. She grabs her phone, wraps an arm around Max, and holds it out in her other hand. “One sec. First-day picture.”

Max smiles for another person’s camera for the first time in a long while. “All right. Come on.” Chloe grabs Max’s hand and leads her out of the room and down the stairs.

Joyce and David are already at the breakfast table when they arrive, and Max is wondering if they shouldn’t be holding hands when Joyce pipes up with, “Well that didn’t take long.”

“Hm?” David looks up from his plate. “Oh.” He stabs his cut of waffle while Max and Chloe sit down, Max trying very hard to give Chloe the What? look that hopefully she’s perfected at this point.

“I...kinda told Mom I had a crush on you when we had our talk?” Chloe says, rubbing her neck.

“It’s all right, Maxine,” Joyce says with a smile. “Chloe’s had some bad luck, but I’m sure you won’t let her down. Besides, if you do, I think I still have your mother’s phone number somewhere. You won’t get away from me.”

“I’ll treat her right,” Max promises, to Chloe’s snort.

“Please. Max is chemically incapable of fucking with me,” Chloe says, stuffing a piece of bacon in her mouth. “You all know I’ll be the one screwing this one up.”

“Language, Chloe.”

After that brief exchange, conversation is replaced with the sounds of forks scraping and Chloe chewing way too loudly, and Max feels some small measure of peace. Eating with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s parents, like normal during a stayover visit like this.

Goddamn.

When breakfast is finished, Joyce insists that Chloe join her in the kitchen to deal with dishes, which leaves Max awkwardly sitting with David at the breakfast table, unsure if it’s okay to bail and go shower and change yet.

Before she’s made her decision, David clears his throat. “Maxine,” he begins, looking at her seriously over the table. “I know about your...situation.”

Max freezes, gripping the tablecloth.

“Blackwell let me know so that I could protect you if anything went wrong. That’s what I’m here to do. Protect people.” David reaches over and takes a sip of his coffee. “Now I know Chloe still doesn’t like me, but...things are different around here than they were. After Chloe took off in the night without telling anyone where she was going and we didn’t see her for two months...” David sighs. “My wife blamed me. We fought. By the time Chloe came back...let’s just say I haven’t raised my voice since. But I do still aim to protect my step-daughter. So.”

Max gulps, looking around, hoping Joyce or Chloe will save her, but the sound of the water is overpowering their quiet conversation as they do dishes, so she’s just stuck here.

“It’s not my place to decide whether you’re a girl or not. I figure you and Chloe know that better than me. I don’t know much about all this...new nonsense. But.” David sets down his coffee and folds his arms. “She doesn’t need any more mistakes in her life. Don’t get her pregnant.”

Max would very much like to sink through the earth like a glitching videogame character and burn up in the core right about now.

She can’t explain all the myriad reasons that’s not going to happen, nor can she even look David in the eye right now, so she just stares at her lap and mumbles, “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Glad we talked.” David gets up. “Take care, Maxine.”

He claps her on the shoulder as he walks by, making her jump. As he thumps up the stairs, Max breathes out, slowly.

God. Did he have to mention sex like that? So soon? If this is David when he’s nice, she shudders to think of what he must have been like before LA. Poor Chloe.

She gets up a few minutes later to shower and get ready for the day. If that’s just hanging in Chloe’s room...well. That’ll be just fine.

 


 

Maybe five days is too long to spend exclusively with the new girlfriend.

At least if Max wants to take things slow.

It’s not that she wants to do anything that would make Chloe pregnant (despite the fact that that comment is still sitting unwelcome in her mind) it’s just that...

This is the third time.

She’s surprised nobody’s caught on to them sleeping in the same room, or they just don’t care, but either way it keeps ending up like this; Max on top of Chloe, their lips practically sealed together, hands wandering everywhere but the most obvious spots. Chloe’s neck is still definitely, definitely her weak point and when Max leans down to kiss it she cries out, bumping her head against the wall.

Max pulls up. “Oh, sorry, was that—am I—”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Chloe says, bringing a hand up to Max’s neck and pulling her back down against her chest. “Just...huuh. Fuck.”

Max settles herself with her ear to Chloe, listening to her heart pump. “...am I going too fast?”

“Mm.” Chloe chuckles. “Thought that was me.”

“It’s just — I don’t want to go further, but...” But she likes the way Chloe accepts her every affection and silently begs for more. It seems unfair.

“I mean...me and Rachel got pretty hot and heavy pretty fast once we ‘got together,’ but it’s not like I can’t handle waiting.”

Rachel again. Max makes an involuntary whimpering sound and rubs her face in Chloe’s shirt.

“Woah, hey — shit. Sorry. Shouldn’t talk about the ex.” Chloe sighs. “Max, I—I’m never gonna...I’m not comparing, all right? This is a new thing. My first relationship that isn’t fucked from the start.” Chloe swallows. “Except that it has me in it, I guess.”

Max’s grabs a handful of her shirt. “Chloe—”

“Look, just — whatever you want to do is okay. I’m just glad you’re here.” Chloe wraps her arms around Max. “I want this to work. Nothing else matters.”

“Okay,” Max murmurs. They breathe with each other for a time until Max turns over and curls up, Chloe wrapping an arm around her waist from behind and kissing the top of her head.

“Goodnight, Max.”

Max stays awake for a while. Chloe’s words, except that it has me in it, turn over in her mind. She wonders how much Chloe leaves unsaid.

 


 

It feels weird to be going back to school.

The drive there is mostly silent, Max checking Facebook on her phone. A whole lot of likes on that relationship status, as well as congratulations — one from Kate, most notably.

Rachel hasn’t liked or posted anything since Thursday.

That girl still hangs between Max and Chloe, despite the talks they’ve had. Max still can’t help but think maybe they would have been happier together, if things had gone differently. But at the same time she really doesn’t want to lose Chloe and she does seem happy with her choices, but...

She puts her phone away, unbuckles her seatbelt, and leans on Chloe’s shoulder.

“Hey, Maximum Crash Risk, I actually do have to use this arm,” Chloe says, looking down and smiling at her.

Max grumpily sits up and puts her hand on top of Chloe’s on the gearshift, and that works just fine. She feels the vibration of the car through Chloe’s slender fingers, the warmth of her presence.

God, she’s going to miss Chloe.

They pull into the parking lot with all the other returning students and quickly get Max’s bags out of the back. They weave through the small crowds to get to Max’s dorm, dumping their haul on her bed as they get inside.

They stand in the small space, facing each other. Chloe reaches down and cups Max’s cheek.

“I’m gonna miss you,” she says, and now Max has to be the strong one despite how much those words sting.

“You live ten minutes away,” Max points out, smiling.

“Yeah, but we need to like, get an apartment next week or something. ‘Sbullshit we don’t already,” Chloe says, grinning as she pulls Max closer.

“Don’t be a U-Haul lesbian, Chloe.”

“Can’t help it. It’s in the blood.” She leans down and kisses Max softly. “Text me tonight after work, okay?”

“Yeah. Of course. I’d do it anyway,” she assures Chloe, running her hand down her arm and twining their fingers for a moment.

Chloe licks her lips, starting to say something, then stopping. “I...”

“Yeeees?” Max asks, looking into her eyes and grinning.

“You know what, just for that, forget it,” Chloe says, shoving her off as red comes into her cheeks. “I gotta get to work. Bye, nerd,” she adds, kissing her cheek and walking out the door. Max watches her go.

She sets about putting her clothes and pills away. She’s just one armful in when her phone goes off.

Chloe:

i was gonna say i love you

you asshole

now you gotta wait til next time

Me:

I love you too, Chloe. ^.^

Chloe:

unbelievable

horrifying

fake and gay

anyway im at work now so i wont be able to insult you for a minute or two

Max giggles at her phone, then gets back to work. By the time she’s got everything packed away, the dorms have quieted down, and Rachel’s come back into her mind. She makes a quick decision and leaves her room, walking down the hall to find Rachel’s door open.

She leans against the frame, seeing Rachel bent over her phone, cross-legged on her bed. She taps lightly on the wall and Rachel’s head shoots up.

“Oh. Hey, Max,” she says, stuffing her phone in her jeans but keeping her gaze lowered.

“Hey, Rachel.” Max takes a step in, isn’t stopped, and continues to sit beside Rachel on her bed. “You seem sorta down.”

“It’s nothing,” Rachel says, waving her off. “Just glad to be back here, honestly.”

“Oh. So—”

“How was your break?” Rachel asks, looking over at her.

Something tells Max that she knows already, but the question was asked. “Um, well, me and Chloe are dating now,” she says, smiling involuntarily at the fact that she just said that out loud.

“Coulda seen that coming,” Rachel mumbles, looking down again. “You’ll make her happy, right?”

“I’m gonna try. Rachel—”

“Sorry, Max, I actually gotta go. Me and Dana are gonna go and sign up for Kate’s volunteer thing today. She’ll be happy to have some friends in her program too.” Rachel slides off her bed, posture tight. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

“Uh, ‘kay,” Max replies, following Rachel out the door. “Hey. Movie night Saturday?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Rachel says, throwing her a smile. She gives Max a brief hug. “Glad to be home.”

She runs off for Dana’s room, and Max slinks back to her own, feeling vaguely nervous. But there’s nothing to be done with someone who doesn’t want to talk.

That night, she receives a message, lying awake in her bed and missing Chloe’s gangly limbs.

Chloe:

sleeping alone is bullshit

fuck this

Me:

I totally agree

Do you wanna come over?

Chloe:

i mean yea

but also no because idk self improvement and shit

gotta be less fucking clingy

Me:

You’re not clingy! I miss you too!

Chloe:

still though

i love you

gonna try to sleep

thinking about you though

goodnight

Max hugs the phone to her chest. She never thought she’d get to be the girl who gets goodnight texts.

But she can certainly get used to it.

Chapter Text

Max wakes up the next morning to a series of texts.

Rachel:

hey sorry i was weird yesterday

home’s just stressful ever since la and im kinda offkilter

ill try to be better im sorry

Max blinks at her phone, lying on her side and staring at it. Max hopes that’s all it is, but she’s still uneasy about Rachel’s total lack of real acknowledgement of what Chloe and Max mean to each other now.

But the thought of bringing it up and rubbing it in Rachel’s face seems like too much. She doesn’t doubt Rachel’s story at all; no one could come back home from what Rachel and Chloe did to any great reception.

She decides to just be Rachel’s friend, right now. Nothing more and nothing less.

Max:

It’s all right

You know I’m here if you ever need to talk, right?

You don’t need to deal with things all alone

Rachel:

you have enough on your plate max

your so good

dont waste your energy on me i can handle it ive been handling it

Max:

The offer still stands

Rachel:

okay

sorry

im being shitty again ignore me

im still on for saturday if youll have me

Max:

You’re not being shitty, and of course you’re welcome to come. I missed you over break!

Rachel:

okay

sorry again

see you in class

Max crawls out of her bed, still staring at her phone and chewing on the inside of her cheek. Rachel’s done talking, but she hasn’t really talked at all. Max wonders if she ever really will.

She gets her shower stuff together and starts heading down the hall, but Kate’s door opens right as she passes by. Kate calls her name, then wraps her in a hug, their shower caddies clacking together on one side. “Congratulations!”

Max laughs. “For what?”

“You and Chloe, duh!” Kate says, pulling back. “It really cheered me up to see that after I went home for break. You liked her so much.”

“I still do,” Max says, smiling.

“I would hope so,” Kate says, putting a hand on her chest in fake indignation.

“Thanks, Kate. It’s really kind of...a pleasant surprise that you’re...” Max rubs the back of her neck. She shouldn’t have said that, it’s stereotyping like Kate said, but—

“I understand that,” Kate says with a sigh, a frown forming on her face. “Sometimes people of faith can be...less accepting than they should be. I used to hear all kinds of things about that stuff at home.” She slouches a bit. “I did when I went home for break, too. But you and Chloe are good for each other. That’s obvious. I can’t see why God would have a problem with it.” Her confidence returns, a little shakier, on her last sentence.

Some things click together in Max’s mind. If her family’s homophobic, and they saw Kate’s comment on Max’s post... “I hope I didn’t get you in trouble or anything,” Max says.

“It—it’s fine. Dana talked me through it, and, and I’m here now. It’s okay.” Kate tries to smile at Max. “Sorry, you don’t need me babbling about my boring break. I just saw you and wanted to say hi.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t boring,” Max assures her. “But I’m glad to see you too, Kate.” They head to the showers together, idly discussing how much homework they did and did not do over the break (Max thinks back guiltily to the night before she moved back when she let Chloe pull her away from her essay) and for a while, the Rachel problem seems distant and manageable. She’ll come around.

 


 

Everyone’s busy as the school starts gearing up for finals, so it’s no surprise that Max and Rachel don’t have much time to hang out one-on-one, especially with Rachel volunteering for Meals on Wheels. She does show up for movie night, as promised, and continues her habit of stealing Victoria’s TV. But she doesn’t cuddle up to Max, like usual; Chloe and Max are left alone on one end of the bed, while Rachel’s all the way on the other against Dana. Warren and Brooke have taken to the floor, Brooke’s legs over Warren’s lap as she munches microwave popcorn.

Max can’t help but lose focus on the film for a while; she and Chloe have mostly only been able to have lunch together this week thanks to Chloe’s schedule and Max’s homework load. So maybe they steal a few too many kisses and maybe Max strokes Chloe’s hand a bit too much. But laying her head on Chloe’s shoulder feels so nice, and Chloe’s arm around her makes her feel safe. Just like she said.

Rachel jumps up as soon as the credits roll and starts disassembling the TV while the now-standard arguments start making their rounds, Max ignoring most of them in order to rub her face against Chloe and close her eyes.

“All right, guys, someone hold the door for me,” Rachel says, and Dana jumps up to help her sneak the device back into Victoria’s room. Chloe’s still talking to Warren and Brooke about whether or not zombies can be cured by the power of love (disingenuously, Max can tell, it’s in the smirk), but Kate and Max remain quiet, Max content and Kate sneaking glances when she thinks Max isn’t looking. Max tosses her a smile just as Dana comes back, Rachel lingering in the doorway.

“I gotta go, guys,” she says, leaning on the frame. “Homework and stuff.” Everyone offers up a quick, “Bye, Rachel!” and she leaves with a smile and a wave. Chloe pulls Max closer, looking a bit reserved.

“Thought she was going with us for shakes after,” Chloe says.

“Wait, shakes? Why didn’t I hear about this?” Warren asks, turning his gaze up and looking upside-down at Max and Chloe.

“Because there’s no boys allowed,” Chloe replies smugly, squeezing Max. “But I guess you can come if Brooke vouches for you.”

“Eh.” Brooke pops her gum. “He’s okay. Flip a coin?”

“Brooke!” Warren whines to Brooke’s repressed chuckle.

As they pass Rachel’s room on the way out of the dorms, Max gets a hint of the skunky smell of weed, the soft sounds of old hippie music. She wants to check in, but Chloe’s herding her by, arm around her waist, and she can’t just stop in the middle of everything for Rachel.

 


 

Chloe:

uh yo max

so

ok fuck it just come let us into the dorms

Max blinks at her phone. It’s not exactly late in the day, though she did have to bail on Chloe’s skatepark trip in order to get finished on this essay (not that she’s beyond the first sentence or anything.) The message may be puzzling but at least answers are a two-minute walk away.

She gets up and heads down the hall, opening the door for Chloe and...Rachel, who’s hanging off her with a hand clamped over her bleeding nose. Max can see that her other arm’s been a bit cut up too, a nasty case of road rash that’s covered her arm in dried blood.

“Fell on my board,” Rachel says, muffled through her hand.

“And she apparently left her dorm without her keys,” Chloe sighs. “Can we use the first aid kit in your room?”

“Oh! Oh, yeah, that’s fine,” Max says, quickly walking ahead of the two of them and opening her door. She grabs the first aid kit from the wall and Chloe takes it quickly, ushering Rachel into the bathroom to fix her up while Max taps her foot and tries to decide whether to help them out. But Chloe seems to know what she’s doing, and there’s no need for Max to get in the way.

So she just sits back down at her computer desk, leg shaking annoyingly as she tries not to think about what any of what just happened means, keeping her door open in case they need her.

It’s a while before someone knocks on the doorframe. “Hey,” Chloe says as Max swivels around. “She’s fine, by the way. Looking for the janitor to let her in her dorm.” She steps inside and closes the door behind her, sitting down on Max’s bed and putting her forehead in her hands. “Ugh.”

“What happened?” Max asks, getting up and sitting beside her.

“She showed up stoned out of her fucking mind and ate shit,” Chloe sighs. “She asked me to take her back here, then we figured out she’d locked her keys in her room. She wanted to climb in through the window.”

“Is she...do you know what’s going on with her?” Max asks.

Chloe leans back, kneading her fist on her knee. “Yeah. Think I do. Think she’s jealous.”

Max’s stomach sinks. “...I think she might be too. Ever since we came back from break she’s been...weird to me. Avoiding me.”

“Fuck.” Chloe takes in a shuddering breath. “Should’ve fucking known. Can’t do anything right.” Max looks at Chloe, uncertain how to read that.

“What do you—”

“Of course the second I think I did something right I screw someone else’s life up.” Chloe’s hands are shaking. “I shoulda—shoulda just let her have you, then you’d both be happy and she wouldn’t be—I wouldn’t—”

“Chloe!” Max exclaims, taking hold of one of her hands and squeezing tight with both of her own. “I-I don’t regret anything, it’s not your fault—”

“Should’ve fucking killed myself when I came back like I wanted to—”

Max’s throat closes up and she wraps her arms around Chloe, moaning “No,” into her neck. Chloe takes a minute to get her breathing under control, but she can’t seem to stop talking, “I’m fucking worthless, Max, she’d be better for you anyway, at least she’s gonna graduate—”

Max has no idea what to say, so she just squeezes Chloe tighter until she can’t seem to talk anymore, finally hugging Max back. “Fuck,” she hisses, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, I’m sorry, I’m scaring you, I know I am, I scared Rachel all the time too.”

“It’s — it’s okay, Chloe, just...none of that’s true, okay?” Max says, holding her close. “Rachel — I don’t know what’s going on with her. If she’s jealous, that’s not your fault, or mine. And I told you before, I wouldn’t feel comfortable dating her.”

“If I wasn’t here, you two could just be happy,” Chloe mumbles.

“No, we wouldn’t. I needed you when I came here. Rachel made me nervous. She confused me. You don’t.” Max nuzzles Chloe’s shirt. “I love you, Chloe. I don’t care what could’ve happened.”

“Okay,” Chloe mumbles, slackening in Max’s arms. She breathes deep, in, out. “I’m sorry,” she says at last. ”I just — I just get like that sometimes, and I don’t know how to stop it, and it always freaked her out and she always wanted to just drag me away, she never talked to me. I haven’t done it in front of anyone for a while. I thought I was getting better at it.”

“You don’t have to hide anything from me, Chloe,” Max promises, pulling back and lifting hair out of Chloe’s eyes.

“‘Cuz you don’t hide anything from me. Right.” Chloe sniffs, laying back with her feet dangling off the bed. “Shit. Not used to this.”

“Not used to what?”

“Feeling better after one of those.” Chloe rubs at her eyes. “Is it — is it cool if I stay here for a while, though? I still got...I don’t know. I feel like...I don’t wanna be alone right now.”

“You can stay as long as you want. But lay in the bed like a human being.” Chloe chuckles weakly and rights herself so that her head’s acually on the pillow, and Max cuddles up beside her, a hand on her chest. She holds Chloe for a time, until she speaks up again.

“Sorry you got caught up in all this mess.” She runs her fingers down Max’s arm. “This shit with Rachel and me...wish it hadn’t gotten all fucked-up.”

“I know, Chloe. It’s all right. We’ll figure it out.”

“Caulfield, I’ve been trying to figure her out for years. Hasn’t worked yet.”

“By our powers combined?” Max suggests, kissing Chloe’s cheek.

“We would make the worst Captain Planet ever,” Chloe retorts. “Some fucked-up half-hippie piece of shit who keeps littering and then yelling at herself for it.”

Max giggles, glad to see Chloe’s silly side back in action even if it’s a bit self-deprecating. Maybe homework can wait after all.

 


 

Rachel doesn’t show up for the next movie night, without even a single text of explanation. It delays the start of the movie for a while (and everyone’s a little bit grumpy about the lack of a huge plasma), but eventually everyone decides she must be busy while Chloe and Max trade glances with each other. Chloe takes a while to leave the room, mostly because Max’s tongue is stuck in her mouth, and then Max is staring at her phone in bed, at the last text she got from Rachel, over a week ago.

She should call. Or go see if she’s in her room. Something. Sure, Rachel can be intense, but Max was getting used to having her around, being pushed out of her comfort zone a little, and Rachel was fun. It feels like the one constant she’s had since her first day at Blackwell is suddenly missing. It hurts, in a way she didn’t expect, to think of going through all of next semester like this.

She gets up at that thought, dropping her phone on her desk and heading for her door. She can’t let Rachel fall away like that. Not like what she did to Chloe all those years ago, letting her struggle alone.

But just as her hand closes around the doorknob, she hears something thump. She hangs back and peers through the peephole.

Rachel has Victoria pinned up against her own door, hands on her waist, their chests pressed together. She can just barely hear Rachel’s voice in sultry, slurred whispers, can barely see Rachel’s hand reaching up to stroke Victoria’s cheek. She can’t see their faces, but she can see Victoria’s body language. She’s tense. Fists at her sides. Suddenly, she throws Rachel back, hissing something like “Get the fuck off me,” and rapidly turns and unlocks her door, wavering on her heels as Rachel tries to grab at her sweater. Victoria slaps her off, again and again, until she’s through the door and free, closing it in Rachel’s face.

Rachel stands in front of the door, putting one hand against it, then her forehead. She stays there for a moment, then turns around and slumps, sitting with her back to it and curling her knees up to her chest, her hands covering her face.

Max swallows. But she can’t leave Rachel like that, so she gathers up all her will and turns the knob. Rachel looks up at her as she steps out.

“Rachel?” Max asks.

Rachel just starts to shake. “M-Max—”

“I—”

“You saw that, didn’t you? You heard it,” Rachel whispers, almost to herself. “Oh, God, you saw it, you heard it—”

“Rachel—”

Rachel pulls in a deep gasp, putting a hand on her chest as she starts to noisily gulp in air. “You’re seeing me, you can see this, you can—” Max kneels down and grabs Rachel’s wrists.

“Rachel, come on, get up,” she pleads. She has to pull to convince her, then drags her across the hall and into her room, feeling the shakes running through Rachel’s whole body. She knows exactly what she’s seeing, and as she closes the door behind them, Rachel breaks away again, hugging herself and curling up on the floor.

“I—don’t—want—” Rachel stammers, covering her face, “—for—you—to—see—this—”

“Rachel, Rachel, hold on, okay?” Max asks, heart pounding as she tries to suppress the screaming welling up within her, trying to match Rachel’s pitch. She can’t fall apart now. She knows this. She knows what’s happening to Rachel and she needs to help.

She kneels down in front of Rachel, taking her hands again. “Rachel, you’re having a panic attack. Breathe with me, all right?” she asks, trying to find the calm she remembers. The words of her therapist. Her mother, arms on her shoulders in her bedroom in Seattle, taking her through the exercises, the day they had to remake Max’s Facebook. She repeats them to Rachel, taking her through until her shakes subside, until she’s able to breathe without gasping.

When Max stops talking, Rachel makes a little whimper and curls up again, taking her hands out of Max’s. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m sorry, no one should see that, I’m sorry.”

“Rachel, please,” Max says, leaning forward and putting a hand on her shoulder. “What was all that?”

“You—you shouldn’t worry about me, all right, I can do this, I just—”

“You don’t have to do it alone. Whatever it is,” Max says, a lump forming in her throat.

Rachel shakes her head violently. “No, no, nobody wants to see this, everyone has bigger problems than me, I’m just a fuckup.”

“Rachel—”

“I never let Chloe see this, I couldn’t, I couldn’t,” Rachel mumbles to herself.

“Rachel.” Max gently takes Rachel’s hands away from her face, looking her in the eye. “Please. Talk to me. I’m your friend, remember?”

Mascara’s bled down Rachel’s face, and she takes a deep sniff before answering. “I—I thought I would be okay,” she says softly. “I thought I could be okay and better and good enough but I wasn’t and I lost you, I lost both of you, I’m never good enough, I’m a bad model and a bad friend and a horrible girlfriend and—” She starts gasping again, and Max squeezes her hands tight.

“You haven’t lost me, Rachel. I’m right here.” Max rubs her thumbs over Rachel’s palms.

Rachel shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she breathes, “I’m so selfish, I w-want, wanted, I...”

Max wraps her in a full hug, awkwardly enough given their position. But it steadies Rachel, enough for her to breathe.

When she pulls back, she lets Max pull her up off the floor, sitting beside her on the couch. She puts her face in her hands immediately, though, staying silent as Max rubs her back.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Max asks.

“I do,” Rachel whispers, “but I don’t know if I should.”

“You deserve to be honest with someone.”

“No, I don’t. I—it’s better when no one knows. Then things don’t get all fucked-up.” Rachel sniffs, wiping her nose.

“You can talk to me,” Max assures her.

Rachel swallows. “Okay. Okay.” She lets out a long sigh. “I went to the VC party tonight and I drank a bunch and I was trying to hook up with Victoria.”

Max blanches. “Wait, what? Does she — is she even —”

“She is. I’ve known since the start of last semester. She was super weird and jealous of me for a long time, and then we went to a party and got drunk and we ended up making out in the garage. That’s how I figured out I was...” Rachel takes in a deep breath.

“A-anyway. We were kind of together. Sort of. She was always jealous of Chloe, and she didn’t want to be out, and it was just this fucking mess and I was awful to her. We broke up pretty fast and that’s when I started...started realizing I’d been in love with Chloe for a long time. But I was dating Frank, kind of, and I just wanted to get away from this place, with Chloe, and everything would be fine.” She chokes out a sob. “But I fucked all that up too, and now even Victoria doesn’t want me. She probably has someone better too.”

Rachel falls back against the couch, rubbing her eyes. “I really wanted you to like me,” she mumbles.

“I do like you,” Max insists.

“Not the way I wanted you to.”

Max feels goosebumps rise on her skin. But if Rachel can talk to her, she can talk to Rachel. “...yes I do,” she says, her voice a whisper.

“Then why didn’t you ever...” Rachel looks over at her. “I wanted you to make the first move. I kept — every time I forced someone into something it went wrong. I wanted you to want me enough to...”

“Rachel, I’m not always the bravest person around,” Max says with an involuntary laugh. “Chloe just...took me by surprise. But she asked me.”

“I know,” Rachel says miserably. “I was being shitty again, trying to manipulate you so I wouldn’t feel like some fucking creep. I swear I’m not, Max, I just like you a lot, and—”

“It’s all right, Rachel,” Max interrupts.

“And the worst part is,” Rachel continues, “I—I thought that if I couldn’t have you, I could get Chloe back, somehow. I still love her. But you made the right choice.” She runs a hand through her hair. “I was so bad for her. LA proved that. I tried, I swear to God I tried, but...” She takes in a gulp of air, and Max’s muscles clench but she doesn’t start hyperventilating again. “I knew I was screwing up. I’d sit in her truck and, and have these attacks, when I didn’t get my contracts, I had to get over them before I saw her so I could be there for her, so I wouldn’t freak her out.”

Max thinks back Chloe’s breakdown a few nights ago, thinks back to her words on Thanksgiving. Rachel never let her in after all. “Maybe that was the problem,” Max suggests carefully.

“What?”

“If you’d just told her how you were feeling, if you’d told her the truth — Rachel, she has problems but she’s not a fragile little flower. Maybe she could’ve helped you. Lying to her, pretending everything was fine for so long — it just made it all worse.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right. I just...” Rachel shivers. “Every time I think about someone seeing me like this, even you, I feel like, like it shouldn’t happen, like that’s not who I’m supposed to be.”

“You’re supposed to be who you are,” Max says. “Nothing else.”

“I guess you would know, huh?” Rachel asks. “God. Listen to me, talking about all this in front of you, like you haven’t had it a thousand times worse.”

“It doesn’t matter who has it ‘worse’, Rachel. You still need someone to be there for you.” Max puts a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “And I can be that for you, but — but you should talk to Chloe about all this, too. Really talk about it. Have you done that yet?”

“No,” Rachel admits. “I told her a lot of things but that’s ‘cuz she knew them already. From Frank. ‘N other people. I don’t even think I said I was sorry, but I am. I wish last year hadn’t happened.”

“I want you to be my friend again — and hers,” Max tells her.

“Okay.” Rachel leans over, resting her head on the couch’s armrest. “Okay. I want that too.” She wavers for a moment, smacking her lips, trying to say something. “M-Max, I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”

Max’s eyes widen at the thought of what Chloe might think of that. “Rachel—”

“I’ve been alone a lot lately and—and sometimes when I’m alone I don’t feel real and I’m not sure who I am or what I’m doing or why I feel like this, and I want to feel real, and I want to not be alone. I—I can go back to my room. If you want.”

“...you can stay, if it makes you feel better.”

“Thanks, Max. I—I’ll stay on the couch, I don’t want to get between you and Chloe. I want you both to be happy. I’m sorry you have to put up with me.”

“You’re the one who brought us together in the first place, Rachel,” Max reminds her, getting up and heading for her desk, taking her phone.

“And I screwed that up too.”

“I’m still glad you did it, in a way. I don’t know if I’dve ever met up with her again without you,” Max replies as she starts drafting a text to Chloe. “You’ve been good to me in a lot of ways, Rachel. Don’t forgot that, okay?”

“Mmkay.” Rachel doesn’t sound totally convinced, but she shifts against the couch and seems to settle in a comfortable position. “I’m...can you turn off the lights? I’m so tired.”

“Sure.”

Max finishes her text, So Rachel’s sleeping in my room tonight and flips the switch, laying down in her bed with her phone above her head as the reply comes in.

no offense max but ur crush sleeping in ur room is gonna need some goodass explanation for me to not be pissed

“Who are you texting?” Rachel asks.

“Chloe,” Max replies.

“Oh. About me?”

“Yeah. I want her to know what’s going on.”

“Mm.” Rachel shifts so her face is in the couch.

Me:

She’s having a lot of problems right now

She said she doesn’t feel real when she’s alone sometimes

Did she ever tell you that?

Chloe:

lmfao she never told me shit

far as i ever knew she was happy slutting it up at vc parties and never getting a job

fuck im sorry im getting all bitter

i actually hope she’s doing okay

Max:

She’s sleeping on the couch and I think she’s doing better

But you guys need to talk

She told me some stuff that she should’ve told you. And I want us all to be friends again.

Chloe:

your such a goodie-two-shoes you know that

but okay

if you say so

you still want me right

you dont think shed be better for you

Max:

Of course I want you! I love you! That’s why I’m telling you all this

I think it’ll help you both and I don’t want you to not know what’s going on in my life

Chloe:

okay

i love you too

also its like fuckin 2am go to bed well figure this shit out in the morning

goodnight nerd

Max puts her phone on her nightstand, heart pounding. Rachel stirs on the couch.

“Max?” she asks the air.

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad I talked to you that first day.” Max swallows, thinking of how big her crush was on that very first day, how hard Rachel tried. How much she’s done for Max, even if she’s stumbled along the way. How Max still kind of wants to kiss her sometimes.

“Me too,” she says, and even she’s not sure exactly what she means.

Chapter Text

Max wakes up to Rachel’s groaning. She looks over and sees her looking totally unkempt; hair frazzled, makeup smeared, eyes half-lidded and crusted. Rachel rubs at her eyes as she sits up.

“Fuck me,” are the first words out of her mouth as Max slides out of her bed, looking at herself in the mirror and grimacing. She quickly adjusts her inserts while Rachel yawns, putting a hand over her mouth.

“How are you feeling?” Max asks once she’s all sorted out.

Rachel shrugs. “Got a headache.” She scratches her head. “And I’m tired. God, that was ugly, I’m sorry—”

“It’s okay, Rachel,” Max says, feeling like she’s repeated those words a thousand times. She feels an ache in her bones. “I’m glad to help.”

“Me too,” Rachel admits, standing up. She suddenly gives Max a hug. “Thank you,” she mumbles into her shoulder. “I needed that. All of that.” She sniffs. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Max holds her for a moment, then steps back. “I’m glad to be here too. Do you...do you wanna talk to Chloe today?”

“Should probably get all this shit cleared up before break,” Rachel says, deflating somewhat. “God. I really made a mess of all this.”

“We can at least start by getting everything out there.” Max heaves a sigh. “Two Whales at lunch, maybe? I’ll text you both. For now...I need a shower and stuff, Rachel.”

“Right, yeah.” Rachel nods. “M-me too, I guess. Let me know about plans for today, all right?”

“Okay.” Max doesn’t want to explicitly say get out of my room because she does want Rachel to be okay and to feel better but she could also use a moment to herself, to think, to breathe.

“See you soon,” Rachel murmurs as she leaves Max’s room. As soon as the door shuts behind her, Max flumps back down on her bed, grasping for her phone.

Me:

Lunch at the Two Whales with Rachel? She wants to talk

Chloe:

i guess

want me to pick you guys up or just meet there

Me:

We can take the bus. I’ll let you know when we’re on our way. You’re off today, right?

Chloe:

aw u know my schedule thats sweet

and only a little creepy

nerd

Me:

Thanks, Chloe.

Chloe:

for calling u a nerd? cuz i can do that all day

nerd

Me:

For giving Rachel another chance.

Chloe:

its only cuz u make very sad noises and i cant take it

no i mean really it might be good to like

know what the fuck was going on with her for fucking once

ill give it a shot yknow?

thanks for helping her out

i really dont want her hurt still

maybe shit can be okay. idk. you help with that a lot

Me:

I hope so too.

I gotta go take a shower and stuff

Chloe:

ooh spicy

Max isn’t sure whether to blush or roll her eyes, and ends up doing both. She sends a Quiet, you >.> back, then grabs her shower caddy and sets off down the hall.

When she returns to her room, she considers her options. What she should do is study. Finals week starts tomorrow and between Chloe, Rachel and Kate, Max really hasn’t done much of...anything to get ready for it.

On the other hand...

She sets her alarm for eleven and falls right into bed again.

 


 

She awakens to her alarm, along with Rachel’s knocking at the door. She silences both of them, her phone with her fist and Rachel with “I’m coming,” groggily getting up and dressing herself properly. She texts Chloe to tell her they’re taking the 11:30 bus, then heads outside and meets up with Rachel, who’s refreshed herself and looks nearly as radiant as ever — though her posture is withdrawn, fingers tapping nervously on her thigh.

“Ready?” Max asks.

“Yeah. I guess so,” Rachel replies, chewing on her lip. “I hope...I hope this works out.”

“Me too.”

They head to the bus stop and share a quiet ride downtown, Rachel leaning her head on Max’s shoulder the whole way. Max rests her head against the window, watching her hometown go by, thinking about the mess she managed to land herself in. She doesn’t have regrets, not really. But she could use a break once all this is sorted out.

As they head into the diner, Joyce pokes up from behind the counter like a prairie dog. She smiles at Max, then catches sight of Rachel and her eyes lose a bit of light. She steps out as Rachel and Max head towards the corner booth.

“Nice to see you, Max,” she says. “Gotta say, didn’t expect to see you around these parts again, though.” Joyce gives Rachel a hard stare.

Rachel winces. “Uh...”

“You ain’t banned, but I’m keeping an eye on you,” Joyce warns.

“We’re meeting up with Chloe to talk,” Max explains. “Rachel wants to apologize.”

“Hmph. That so.” Joyce narrows her eyes. “Well, I guess I’ll trust that you’ve got her best interests in mind, Max.”

She follows them to their seats, Max having a brief moment of crisis before deciding to sit next to Rachel and wait for Chloe there. “Y’all wanna order or you need a minute?” Joyce asks.

“Just coffee,” Rachel says quietly. Max orders tea, and then they wait.

Chloe shows up just after their drinks do, plopping into the other seat and stretching herself across it.

“Hi, Chloe,” Rachel says weakly, spinning her spoon in her mug.

“So what went down last night?” Chloe asks bluntly. “Max said you slept in her room?”

Rachel swallows. “Um. Yeah.”

“And why’d you do that?” Chloe’s eyes bore into Rachel, and Max almost wants to grab Rachel’s hand for support.

“I...I had a panic attack,” Rachel admits, glancing over at Max like she’s making sure she’s saying it right. “I’ve had them before. A lot, actually.”

“What?” Chloe narrows her eyes in an eerie imitation of her mother. “Since when?”

“...since always, I guess.” Rachel hugs herself. “More lately, though. Since LA.”

“How the fuck could you be having panic attacks all the time and I never saw ‘em?” Chloe accuses just as Joyce comes over to take their orders. Max and Rachel quietly request breakfast food while Chloe snaps “You know what I want, Mom,” and gets in a brief snit with her about respect before an apology gets her out of their space for a moment.

Chloe rubs her eyebrows. “Seriously, Rachel. What’s going on?”

“I just...” Rachel sighs. “I hid it from you. I hid it from everyone. When things started...not working out in LA, I started getting them a lot, and I’d just hide in the truck before I got home. I...you needed me to be strong. Chloe, I swear, everything I — I hid, everything I did, I never wanted to hurt you. I wanted it all to work out. I just wanted us to leave Arcadia Bay behind, just like you did.”

“You know what else I wanted?” Chloe asks, gritting her teeth. “A girlfriend who would actually talk to me. If I’d known — Rachel, if you’d told me all this shit before everything went to hell, about Frank, about the shit that happened with Vic, or you actually told me you loved me, or you helped me out when I was getting all crazy instead of just getting me high or drunk or fucking me—”

Max coughs politely, and Chloe shoots her an apologetic glance. “Point is, you lied to me. You didn’t treat me like your girlfriend. Hell, I never knew what we were. And you never said you were sorry.” Chloe folds her arms. “That’s...all I want, really.”

“Chloe...” Rachel gulps and reaches a hand across the table, leaving as though waiting for Chloe to take it. “I’m so sorry. For everything I put you through. For fucking up in LA, for not being honest with you, everything. I’m...I’m trying to be better. I never want to hurt someone like that again. I’ve done it enough.”

“She means it, Chloe,” Max says softly. “I know she does. She feels really awful about how everything went.”

Chloe closes her eyes and pitches her head towards the ceiling. She lets out a long, steady sigh that sounds almost like a groan. “Okay, Rachel,” she says after a while. “I guess...I guess we’re okay. Kinda. Probationary basis. ‘Cuz Max said. You fucked up hard with her, and I’m not gonna forget that either.”

Rachel nods. “I know.”

“But you know, you are fun once in a while,” Chloe says, flashing a smirk at her. “Just don’t...you know you can actually talk to us, right? For so long I thought you were, like, a fucking goddess or something. You acted like nothing mattered, you were above it all. And then I thought you were a sociopath because you didn’t even seem to care about how fucked up things were, you just kept acting like I could forgive everything just like that without you even apologizing or changing anything. You acted like all you ever wanted to do was have fun.”

Joyce arrives with their orders just then, and Chloe starts stabbing half-heartedly at her waffles, not really making any legitimate cuts. Rachel purses her lips, staring down at her veggie burger.

“I thought it’d all be easier if I pretended things were fine. Fake it till you make it and stuff. But...” She sighs. “Max kinda helped me figure out that sometimes you gotta feel like shit to feel better.”

Chloe snorts. “Yup, that’s my girlfriend all right. Group therapist of Blackwell.”

“I am not the group therapist,” Max insists.

“Right, you just keep ending up being in exactly the right place when someone’s going through brain shit,” Chloe replies. “Seriously, Max, thanks. I never thought she’d actually say sorry.”

Rachel looks down. “I’m sorry I made you think that.”

“Well, we’ll see where shit goes from here. Kinda missed you, Rach. Don’t tell anyone. You neither, Max, can’t have people thinking I’ve turned into a pussy.”

“Chloe, that’s sexist,” Max chides gently.

“Oh, whatever. Point being, Rachel, you ever wanna hang sometime, gimme a call, kay? We can talk more.”

“That sounds nice,” Rachel admits.

Max’s muscles suddenly release all the tension she hadn’t realized she’d been maintaining, and she’s able to relax and eat with the two of them, sharing the silence and the quiet contemplative mood with them.

“So what’re you guys doing after this?” Chloe asks.

“I really should get my studying done,” Max says, rubbing the back of her neck. “I’ve been, like, super slacking...”

“It’s ‘cuz you keep hanging with us fuckups,” Chloe points out.

“You’re not fuckups!” Max replies insistently.

“It’s cool, though. It’s finals week, isn’t it?” Chloe chews thoughtfully on her last bite of bacon. “So what’s the plan for break?”

“Oh!” Max has let it totally slip her mind. “Do you...do you want to come visit?”

Chloe’s eyes immediately light up. “Uh, hell yeah! I wanna shock your parents with my gay bluehaired ways!”

Max chuckles. “Chloe, after all the crap I put them through, I don’t think they can be shocked by anything anymore. Besides, they know we’re together.”

“So like...maybe I drive you out there, take a couple days off work? Come back here after Christmas?”

“Yeah, sure! I’ll ask my mom.”

“What about you, Rach?” Chloe asks, turning to a somewhat shrinking Rachel. “Anything cool going on in California?”

Rachel shrugs. “Not really. I don’t really hang out with my friends there anymore. And my parents are pretty lame.”

“We’ll keep in touch, right, Chloe?” Max asks. “Maybe do movie streams or something.”

“Yeah, sure,” Chloe concedes. “Know what it’s like to spend breaks and summers alone. I thought you had a crew in Cali.”

“For a while, I did. But...I dunno. After LA, and this semester, I kinda don’t...” Rachel shrugs. “It’s basically the VC, y’know? And I’m...I’m done with all that.”

“Right, I get you.”

Joyce drops by at that moment, leaving the check with them. Chloe reaches for her wallet, but Rachel gets to her own first and tips exorbitantly. “I figure I owe you both,” Rachel explains with a soft smile.

“Sure, if it saves me money,” Chloe says with a shrug, pulling herself out of the booth.

Once the money’s laid on the table, the three of them head out to the truck, Max taking her place in the middle as always. Chloe seems genuinely happy to have Rachel singing along with the loud punk on the stereo, and to have Max’s hand over hers on the gearshift.

When they reach Blackwell, everyone piles out, Chloe insisting that she has to give Max a goodbye kiss. After a quick tiptoed peck, Chloe spots Rachel standing awkwardly off to the side.

They look at each other for a moment, and then Chloe crosses the blacktop and hugs Rachel, holding her close. Rachel doesn’t want to let go, hair hiding her face as she buries it in Chloe’s chest, her body tense. One of Chloe’s hands comes up and pushes on the back of her head, and they look so intimate and right that Max has to look away.

She wonders if they’d be better with each other, after all.

She hears Rachel make a little whimpering sound, a whispered “I’m sorry.” As they pull apart, Rachel sniffs and wipes her nose.

“Um,” she begins, “Do you want to — I don’t know, you wanna hang out at the junkyard? For old times’ sake? I...I got more things to tell you...”

“Sure.” Chloe puts a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “One second, though.”

She runs over to Max, picks her up and whirls her around quite suddenly, eliciting a bout of surprised laughter. She sets Max down and kisses her on the forehead. “Thanks for everything, Max,” she says, ruffling her hair. “Oh, shit, wait, before I forget...” She runs around and hoists herself up above the truckbed, reaching in and grabbing a long, rectangular giftwrapped box. As she hands it to Max, she notices how heavy it is.

“Kate’s Christmas present,” Chloe informs her. “Could you give it to her? Dunno the next time I’ll be here and I’ve already forgotten to bring it like twice.”

“Sure,” Max replies.

“You’re awesome, babe. Study hard.” Chloe leans down for one more kiss before she and Rachel hop back in the truck. Max watches them go with a little termite eating away at her gut. As selfish as it is, she can’t help but hope their relationship doesn’t entirely recover.

She heads back across campus and into the dorms, stopping at Kate’s door and knocking. It swings open to reveal Dana, Kate sitting at the back with books spread out all over her desk.

“Study session?” Max asks, smiling at Dana.

“You got it,” Dana confirms as Kate spins in her chair.

“I’m just here to drop off Kate’s present,” Max says. “Chloe says Merry Christmas.”

Kate lets out a little gasp and leaps off of her chair. “She didn’t,” she whispers as she pushes past Dana and lifts the box out of Max’s arms. She tips it and feels the weight. “Oh my gosh.”

“What? What’d she give you?” Dana asks eagerly.

“She kept talking about giving me a board, but...” Kate grins at the box. “Can I open it now?”

“She didn’t say you couldn’t,” Max says with a shrug.

“She better not have put any half-naked girls on that thing,” Dana says. “I saw her room in that photo you put on Facebook, Max.”

“She wouldn’t do that to me,” Kate insists as she starts tearing at the wrapping paper. “Thanks so much, Max!”

“I’m just the delivery girl,” Max says, waving her off. “Have fun, you guys. I really gotta get working.”

“Good luck!” Dana calls as Max starts off for her own room.

Once she’s in her little sanctuary, Max sits down on her bed and pulls out her phone. She might as well make the arrangements now.

“Hey, sweetie!” her mother says as soon as the call goes through. “What’s up?”

“Hey, mom. I, uh, wanted to talk to you about break?”

“Oh no, young lady, you’re not spending it at Chloe’s again. We miss you!”

Max chuckles. “Oh, no. The opposite plan, actually. Chloe thought she might drive me out to visit you and save you the trip.”

“Of course! I’d love to see Chloe again. You know, when you were kids, I always thought you had a crush on her. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she’d love you back.”

“Lucky for me she turned out gay,” Max says with a laugh.

“Really? I guess that’s — hmm. Yeah.” Vanessa hums. “I was so happy to see that you two got together, though. For a long time I wasn’t sure that you’d...” She sniffs. “That you’d be happy.”

“Mom...” Max feels a lump in her throat and powers through it. “I am, though. I’m really happy here. I’ve got a lot of friends, and even though some things have been hard for all of us this semester, it’s really...it’s been good.”

“I’m sure you can tell me all about it when you bring your girlfriend home next week.” Vanessa sighs. “But I’m sure you’ve got things to do. It’s finals week. Study hard, Max.”

“I will.”

After she hangs up, Max actually manages to pull out her books and get to work. It’s not until the sun’s set that she gets a couple of texts from Chloe.

Chloe:

hey maximum strength adderall

i know for a fuckin fact that u havent had dinner

u never eat when ur studying

so me and rachel grabbed lil caesers on the way back

u have five minutes to prepare

Me:

You’re so cruel to me.

Chloe:

i know

Indeed, moments later a knock comes to the door, Chloe standing there with two orange boxes. Max peers around her shoulder but sees no sign of Rachel.

“Rachel’s chilling in her room,” Chloe says. “She’s gotta fix her makeup.”

“Is she okay?” Max asks as Chloe sits down on her couch and opens one box, handing the smaller one to Max. She opens it and immediately smells the Italian cheese bread and thanks God for her girlfriend.

“I mean, kind of. It got pretty intense, but...” Chloe shrugs. “It’s actually sorta nice. Knowing that she’s as fucked-up as me. It’s weird too, though. I feel like...like I know her better than I ever have. And we were friends for five years. We were girlfriends, for fuck’s sake, how did she hide all this from me?” She bites off a piece of pizza and chews it, looking down. “Am I just fucking stupid or what?”

“You’re not stupid,” Max says, putting a hand on her wrist. “She’s pretty good at pretending.”

“Yeah. Guess you’re right.” Chloe leans down and kisses her, getting grease all over her lip.

“Ugh, pizza kisses,” Max complains.

“Better than cig kisses, right?”

“God, yes,” Max groans, shuddering at the memory of the time she kissed Chloe right after her smoke break.

“Guess we’ll have to try a couple more, if we wanna compare everything right,” Chloe teases, setting down the box at her feet and plucking Max’s out of her hands. She lays on top of Max and Max reciprocates her affection, feeling dizzy when Chloe lays her head on her chest and sighs.

“I love you, dork,” she mumbles. “It’s like you just came back into my life and fixed everything. It’s crazy.”

Max runs her hands through Chloe’s hair. “I’m just trying my best.”

“Well it’s pretty fucking good,” Chloe murmurs happily, nuzzling against Max’s neck and kissing it and oh. That’s why Chloe reacts the way she does when Max does that. But Chloe doesn’t seem interested in getting into a real makeout session right now, and eventually the two of them move on to finishing their food, discussing plans and schedules for break.

Chloe idly hangs around while Max keeps studying, lying on her bed and listening to Max’s music as it comes from her tinny laptop speakers. Even without speaking, Chloe’s presence makes Max feel calm. She wonders why she was ever worried about her and Rachel, whenever she looks over and catches Chloe’s warm gaze on her.

She thinks back to her conversation with her mother. It’s been the best semester of her life, despite it all.

When she settles down beside Chloe for the night, exhausted from the past couple of days, she’s able to find some peace in Chloe’s hold. She finds herself thinking something that she was never able to, back in Seattle.

It really does seem like things are going to be okay.

Chapter Text

Max sits on the edge of her bed, bags packed at her feet, leg jittering up and down. Roadtrip with Chloe. Roadtrip with Chloe. Granted, not a particularly long one, but there’s something to be said for it regardless. The only problem is waiting to go.

Rachel knocks on her open doorframe. Max looks up at her and smiles as she steps over Max’s bags to join her on the bed.

“Been a hell of a semester, huh?” she asks, curling her legs up and crossing them.

“It really has,” Max agrees, falling back so she’s lying with her legs dangling. “I never thought coming back home would go like this.”

“I know what you mean. I’m glad it did, though.” Rachel toys with her hair, twirling locks around her fingers. “I’m glad I met you. God knows where I’d be right now without you. Or how Chloe would be doing.”

“It’s been good, right?”

“Yeah. I have my best friend back because of you.”

“I could say the same thing, you know.” Max remarks with a chuckle.

“Really, though! It’s like the old days, before we were together, only she’s not so obviously crushing on me all the time.” Rachel looks down at Max and grins. “It was actually really cute. The way she acted around you reminded me of that.”

Max feels a little twinge in her gut, thinking of Chloe pining after Rachel for so long. She’s still not sure if she’s comfortable with that history being brought up. But it’s not like she can just tell Rachel — or Chloe, for that matter — to forget that part of her life. Max clears her throat and tries to keep the conversation going. Don’t get weird. “What do you mean, like the old days?” she asks.

“Just, you know...we talk more. She texts me first and actually keeps it going. We went to the skatepark on Wednesday. It’s nice.” Rachel sighs. “Between you two and Dana and Kate, I feel like...I don’t know. Like I belong. Like I’m real.”

Max looks up at Rachel, and their eyes meet, and Rachel’s smile is so soft and she looks so happy, really content, that Max can’t help but smile back. Rachel reaches over and runs her fingers down Max’s arm. “I’m really gonna miss you,” she murmurs.

“We’ll get in a couple Skype calls,” Max assures her.

“You better. But I won’t blame you if you get too buried in Chloe.” Rachel looks off into the middle distance with a wistful smile. “She has that effect on people.”

“...do you miss her?” Max asks. She shouldn’t ask this, but they might as well have this in the open if everything else is too.

“Yeah. Sometimes. But, you know. It was always up and down with us. Nothing stable.” Rachel shrugs. “You’re better for her. Anyone can see that.”

Max is spared from having to respond to that via Chloe’s sudden appearance in the doorway. “Hey guys!” she chirps, stepping in as both Rachel and Max get to their feet. “Ready to roll out, Max?”

“Yeah,” Max confirms just before getting swept up in Chloe’s hug.

“This is gonna rule. And hey, Rachel,” Chloe adds, dropping Max for a moment. “You have a good break, got me?”

“I’ll try,” Rachel promises as Chloe approaches her. She seems caught off-guard by Chloe’s fierce hug.

“Text me if shit’s going south, all right?” Chloe asks, pulling back with her hands on Rachel’s shoulders. “Your last break obviously sucked ass. Let’s not do that again, kay?”

“Don’t worry about me, Chloe, I’ll be okay,” Rachel says, waving her off. “Bye, guys! I’ll see you next year!”

Max gives Rachel a quick hug before she heads out towards her own dorm, and from then on it’s a matter of logistics, getting all of Max’s stuff together for one trip out to the parking lot. Once everything’s been thrown in the back of Chloe’s truck, Max stops Chloe before she can get in.

“I’ve got a present for you,” she says slyly, reaching into the pocket of her hoodie.

“Uh, Max, you could at least wait till Christmas, I’m literally gonna be at your house,” Chloe says, raising an eyebrow.

“I won’t get anything out of it if I don’t give it to you now,” Max explains, pulling the device out. She hands it to Chloe, who looks over it, confused. “It goes in your tape deck and you plug your phone into it. Now you don’t have to keep burning CDs like some kind of savage.”

“You only got me this so you can play your hipster crap in my car,” Chloe accuses through her smile.

“Oh, you don’t want it? Guess I’ll take it back then.” Max grabs for it, but Chloe holds it above her head.

“Nope. Mine now,” she teases. “I’m just gonna hook it up and stream metal for all six hours.”

Max has an idea, leaning up and kissing her. She takes Chloe’s moment of shock to jump and snatch it back.

“You little shit!” Chloe accuses as Max turns around, hugging the player to her chest as Chloe wraps her arms around her and tries to pry it out of her grip. “You can’t just give me a present and steal it back!”

“You didn’t show enough appreciation,” Max replies smugly. “Now it’s mine again.”

“Not enough appreciation, huh?” Chloe asks, her voice suddenly dropping a few notes. “How’s this?”

Before Max can’t ask How’s what? she gets the answer, Chloe bending down and pressing her lips to Max’s neck. Goosebumps travel down her body as Chloe sucks, her tongue swirling on Max’s skin. Max’s grip on the player loosens, and Chloe simply plucks it out of her hands as she continues to mark Max’s neck.

Max’s mind is nearly blank by the time Chloe pulls away. One hand unconsciously reaches to feel the spot that Chloe’d been on. She gulps as Chloe chuckles.

“Good enough?” Chloe taunts, running a hand down Max’s back.

“Yeah,” Max breathes. “Haah.”

Chloe giggles, dragging her hand across Max’s chest, over her bra, as she backs away. “Now let’s get rolling, babe. I got a family to shock.”

“Okay.” Max shakes her head, trying to clear the fog from her mind, before turning around and climbing into the passenger seat. She checks herself in the rearview mirror and blushes furiously when she sees the deep purple circle that Chloe left on her neck. Jeez. She feels a strange rush looking at it.

“Yo, Earth to Max, cord’s yours ‘til lunch,” Chloe says, snapping her fingers in front of Max’s face. Her smirk is too much. Max fumbles for her phone and plugs it in, and she tries to relax as her soothing Syd Matters plays over Chloe’s stereo.

There’s something so easy about traveling with Chloe. They hardly need to say anything while on the road, the music playing over them, Chloe singing along to the songs she knows with a soft singing voice that Max remembers well. When they stop for lunch it’s an excuse to throw wrappers and condiments at each other, to laugh, to make out in the truck until Max has to rest her head on Chloe’s shoulder and gain her breath back.

This is so much better than any vacation she’s ever taken.

She’s almost disappointed when her GPS tells her she’s arrived at home, when Chloe pulls up to the curb in front of her house. She can imagine getting a hotel room with Chloe, and traveling across the country with Chloe, and going with her to beautiful places. But they’re home, and it’s time for Chloe to meet the folks.

As they get out of the truck, taking their bags out of the back and heading up the porch, Chloe keeps throwing glances Max’s way, along with smiles. When they reach the front door, she stops, leaning down to kiss Max’s forehead.

“Ready?” she asks.

“Yeah. Of course.”

Chloe hits the bell, and a few moments later the door swings inward, revealing Max’s mother. Her face lights up as she recognizes them. “Honey, they’re here!” she calls over her shoulder, standing aside to let them in. Once Max has dropped her bags, Vanessa wraps her in a big hug, then steps back and appraises Chloe as Ryan comes into the hall.

“You got big, Chloe,” she says.

“You’re just saying that because you Caulfield chicks are tiny,” Chloe says with a grin. “Nice to see you again too, Van.”

“You are not calling her Van,” Ryan insists, folding his arms.

“I’m not calling her Miss Caulfield, that’s weird,” Chloe retorts.

“Fair enough. I guess you’re not a kid anymore,” Ryan says with a shrug. “Welcome back, Chloe.”

“I’ve never been here,” Chloe points out.

“Well, you know what I mean. Welcome back to our lives. It’s really great to know that Max has her best friend again.”

“Uh, excuse me, even better, Max has a girlfriend, ” Chloe says, wrapping an arm around Max and squeezing her tight.

Max blushes and then realizes her hickey is probably very visible to her parents, but, oh well, it’s happened already, hopefully no one brings it up.

“That she does,” Vanessa says warmly. “Hardly seems fair. You already knew us, you didn’t have to do the whole meet-the-parents thing. Dinner’s going to be ready in just a minute, though, you girls are right on time.”

Max follows Chloe and Ryan into the dining room, and over a delicious curry, her parents interrogate them as gently as they can. Chloe tells them the story of their reunion, tells them about Rachel, even things about LA come up and she doesn’t shy away from them. “It seems like you’ve been through a lot these past few years,” Vanessa says as they’re clearing their plates from the table.

“Well, I mean, Max did too,” Chloe says, raising her eyebrows.

“I guess that much is true.” Vanessa runs a hand through her hair. “We’re very proud of her.”

“I’m right here, Mom,” Max chides.

“I know, I just...I’m so glad this has all worked out. When we sent you to Blackwell I was so worried. Now it seems like you’re happier than ever.” Vanessa sighs happily as Ryan comes back in. “You two were always so close. It’s good to have you back to raising hell.”

“Hey, when did we say we were raising hell?” Chloe asks. “You haven’t seen us raise hell.”

“I think you’re just better at not getting caught these days. Keeping track of you two was a four-person job back in the Bay,” Vanessa replies with a sly smile. “I’m sure you’re getting up to something based on the state of Max’s neck.”

“Mom!” Max cries, covering the mark and burning up. Chloe cackles as she sputters. Vanessa and Ryan chuckle along with her, which doesn’t help anything.

“Oh man, you two are still shit-stirrers! I was worried you’d gotten all soft without me and Mom to help you kick Max’s ass.”

Max shrinks further in her chair, not sure whether to continue being embarrassed as hell or happy that Chloe and her parents are getting along, even if it’s kind of at her expense. Chloe pulls Max close and kisses her cheek. “You know we’re just teasing, right?” Chloe asks lowly. Max nods, and Chloe smiles, burying her head in Max’s neck.

“Do you girls wanna watch a movie?” Ryan asks. “Chloe, you still into sci-fi?”

“You know it,” Chloe replies, pulling up but keeping an arm around Max.

“Great. Come on, got this movie called Moon I’ve been wanting to watch for a while...”

Max and Chloe settle in on the loveseat, and while the movie’s a bit dark and lonely and quiet, and pretty interesting, Chloe isn’t as fascinated as Max might expect. Instead, she’s rubbing Max’s thigh under the blanket, trailing her fingers up and down, making Max’s breath hitch and her body warm. She can feel Chloe’s nervousness, her hand shaking as she touches Max. They sneak glances at each other and Max sees Chloe lick her lips.

They make quick excuses once the movie’s over and move the bags into Max’s room as fast as they can. Chloe looks up at the photo wall hanging over Max’s bed, freezing in place.

“Woah,” she breathes. “Is this, like...a timeline?”

Max swallows. “Um, yeah.”

“You used to wear your hair longer. And you wore dresses? ” Chloe scratches her head. “I mean...you look cute in those, but like...”

“W-when I went out to Arcadia Bay I wanted to be...less noticeable, I guess.” Max shrugs. “I used to always go by Maxine too. I guess I just...I don’t know. Wanted to be a less girly girl for a while.”

“I get that, believe me. God it’s weird seeing these boy pictures of you, though. I put mine away. It felt wrong to still have them around.” Chloe turns around. “It’s...kinda cool seeing it, though. You’re really something, Max.”

Chloe reaches out for her, and Max falls into her embrace for a while. They separate eventually to get ready for bed, Max taking her inserts out in the bathroom after she brushes her teeth. She brings her bra back into the room to see Chloe pulling down a pajama shirt over herself, nothing but boxers below. As Max stuffs her clothes in her dresser, she avoids looking too long at Chloe. She’s too pretty.

Chloe flops down on the bed first, lying in the center with her back propped up against the wall. “Get the light?” she murmurs, staring at Max with half-lidded eyes.

Max nods, her mouth dry. Once she’s flipped off the lights and started crawling towards Chloe on the bed, she feels Chloe reach out and pull her into her lap, hands on her hips.

“Bet you know this, but...you got a little something going on up there,” Chloe whispers, hands traveling up Max’s sides.

“Uh, y-yeah. It’s actually getting a little uncomfortable to...to wear my inserts,” Max says, swallowing as Chloe pulls her closer. Chloes pulls at her lips, teeth scraping against her, and she falls into it with nerves in her stomach and heat in her veins. She keeps her hands on Chloe’s hips, at first, but then she feels Chloe grab one of her wrists, breaking off for a second to whisper “Max,” as she draws Max’s hand slowly up her chest. Max can hardly breathe.

She knows she wants to do this. She’s thought about it, dreamed about it. But the need in Chloe’s voice fills her with chills. As her hand settles over Chloe’s breast, she feels Chloe seize beneath her, repeat her name again. Max is slow and cautious, feeling the hard little bump beneath her palm, rubbing carefully, watching Chloe’s reaction. She’s hot and cold at the same time, can feel something stirring in her, and she hopes she can control it, she doesn’t want to think about this so hard, she just wants to do it, but she’s too aware of her body right now, what’s between her own legs even as Chloe’s hips buck up against her.

Chloe’s hand tangles in her hair and pushes her lips towards her neck, the other settling over Max’s and squeezing. Chloe’s hissing breath as Max obeys her silent instructions has Max’s head spinning, her chest compressing. She loves making Chloe feel this way, loves the whimpers escaping her, wants to do more, but she knows Chloe will want to touch her and she’s thinking too much, she knows she is, and now Chloe’s reaching under her shirt and no, this has to stop.

“W-wait,” Max stammers, pulling back and grabbing hard at Chloe’s wrist. “I—I’m sorry, I—”

Chloe jerks her hand away. “I—It’s okay, Max, I—”

Max squeezes her eyes shut, trying not to think, trying to ignore the nausea rising in her, but it’s not working even though Chloe’s wrapped her arms around her and holding tight. She can’t be touched. She slides out of Chloe’s grasp, rolling off her lap and burying her face in the pillow.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats. “I—I can’t...” The image of what men are supposed to do with women comes unwelcomed into her mind and she feels tears sting at her eyes, bile rise in her throat.

“Max, it’s not your fault, I — I shoulda asked. Shit.” Max feels the springs shift beneath her, Chloe crawling over her to sit on the edge of the bed.

“I just can’t do that,” Max mumbles into her pillow.

“...can’t do what?” Chloe asks cautiously.

“Y-you know.” Max’s face is burning up. She squeezes her eyes shut. “...that.”

“You mean sex?”

Max groans and wants to disappear. She feels Chloe’s hand on her back, slowly rubbing up and down.

“I’m sorry. It’s just — you said you weren’t asexual, so I thought...and I wanted to...” Chloe swallows. “I didn’t want to make you...”

Max can feel the tears coming, can feel a lump forming in her throat. “I...I want to, sometimes, but, but I don’t have...”

“I...I figured. I looked into it, you know? And I thought about it, and I still...you know.” Chloe takes in a deep, shaky breath. “I still want to.”

“But I can’t, ” Max insists, rubbing her face into the pillowcase. “I don’t have the right parts, and I—I never want to — to be like a man, to—”

“Wait, wait, hold on. You don’t think I want you to like — fuck, no good way to say this,” Chloe sighs. “L-look, Max. I’m a lesbian. We’re not really known for wanting dicks in us, all right?”

Max grabs the pillow and wraps it around her head. And yet, somehow, she feels calmer, hearing her say that.

“That’s not what I—what I expect from you, or want from you, or anything. I just...I dunno. Wanted to see what you wanted, I guess. Try things out. But if you’re not — we don’t have to do anything, if you don’t want to.”

Max finds that she can breathe easier. Chloe just wants to experiment. There’s no pressure here, no need to do — that. The mood’s definitely broken, but...Max is curious. She swallows and sniffs, not quite ready to turn around as she asks, “...what kind of things?”

“I, ah...shit, I dunno.” Max gathers the courage to turn over and can see Chloe’s cheeks flushed dark in the thin light from the hall. “Just...you know, stuff.”

Max smiles at Chloe’s flustered words. “...like?” she prods, wiping at her eyes.

“Like...um, you could use your fingers. Or, or your tongue, if you wanted. I’ve, um, kinda been thinking about that one. A lot.” Chloe covers her face. “Sorry, I’m so gross—”

“N-no, it’s...it’s fine.” Max can feel herself blushing right along with Chloe as she sits up beside her. “Um. Yeah, that’s...I might be able to, um. Do that.”

“Is...is there anything you want?” Chloe asks. “Like, if you don’t want me to touch you or anything, that’s okay. I want to, but, I don’t wanna make you feel weird.”

“You want to? Even though I don’t have...”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m guessing you want surgery sometime, and I can wait for that if you want and stuff, and I like pussy better for sure, but I still wanna make you feel good. Like...” Chloe pushes her hair back from her forehead. “I...I slept with a couple of guys when I was kind of fucked up about Rachel, before LA. It seemed like it made her happy, and I thought it might, I dunno, fix me. And it wasn’t the worst or anything, but I didn’t love them. Didn’t even like them, really. I do love you.”

Max shudders. She doesn’t want to make Chloe feel like she’s with a boy. She doesn’t want to remind of her of the mistakes she’s made. And she’s not sure if she does want anything. Chloe’s touch left tingles on her skin, but still, she’s not right. That’s always going to feel like a roadblock.

“I don’t know,” Max replies at last. “M-maybe you could try...touching my chest, or something. It feels a little different up there now. And...I don’t want you to...to see it.”

“That’s okay,” Chloe assures her. “T-totally fine.”

“You could also — I — maybe over my clothes?” Max hears her voice squeak and kind of hates it. “I’ll tell you if it’s okay.” She slowly reaches out and puts a hand on Chloe’s thigh. Chloe covers it with her own, intertwining their fingers.

“All right. Sorry I just...we shoulda talked first, I was just kind of...turned on, I guess, and I was worried I’d say something wrong.”

Max leans into her side. “It’s all right.” She remembers some of Chloe’s words and shivers. “I’m glad you don’t think I’m...I’m gross, or anything.”

“You’re not gross.”

“I just, I feel like — if you were with a —”

“I said you don’t get to say real girl, Max,” Chloe scolds. “Yeah, it’s different, but I love you, okay? And I want you.”

I want you gives Max a surge of warmth. “Okay,” Max murmurs. Chloe turns and kisses the top of her head.

“Are we okay?” she asks. “I’m really sorry. Shouldn’t have...shouldn’t have just gone for it like that.”

“It’s all right. We’ll do better next time.”

“Next time, huh?” Chloe says with a small, hesitant smile.

“Mmmhm.” Max hums into Chloe’s shoulder. “I love you.”

“Love you too, nerd.” Chloe starts shifting herself, crawling around the bed and lying down behind Max. As Max nestles into Chloe’s front, she relaxes, glad that’s over but somehow eager to try again.

They’ll do better next time.

Chapter Text

Chloe wakes up before Max does, promising to either find or make her breakfast as she leaves the bed. Max reaches out and grabs her around the waist, not letting go until Chloe kisses her on the forehead and assures her she’ll be back soon.

Max lays in bed, eyes closed, until Chloe’s body heat has faded enough that she needs to get up and put socks on anyway. She considers putting her inserts in, but they are getting a bit uncomfortable and they were specifically bought to not be very big. She didn’t want to get her hopes up. And, well...Chloe noticed the changes. And nobody’s here but her parents and her girlfriend. She might as well just be comfortable.

As she pads out of her room towards the kitchen, she hears Chloe talking softly (she can do that?) with someone.

“I didn’t wanna ask her, you know. I figure...it probably all hurts.”

“It was hard on all of us.” Max recognizes her mother’s voice and stops before she enters the doorway. “We didn’t realize how much she was hurting. We felt like we were bad parents, like we’d missed something really important. She used to cry, looking in the mirror. We didn’t know that until she told us.”

“Kids hide all kinds of things, you know? It’s not like I really knew, either. I mean, looking back...” Chloe pauses. “There’s stuff she did that makes a lot of sense, but it just wasn’t on my mind yet, you know?”

Max breathes shallowly. Chloe has plenty of right to be curious about what it was like while she was transitioning, and she’s just talking, not prying. She doesn’t want to interrupt this or make her feel bad for being curious. It’s natural.

Vanessa makes an mm-hmm noise. “Us too. Once we worked out what to do as a family, we really tried our best. For a long time I was worried that nothing would make her happy. She hated school here, because everyone knew, and every time she tried to make friends...” Vanessa sighs. “Something would get in the way, or it’d be a trick, and she’d just be more lonely than ever. I really...” Max hears her mother choke and tries to suppress the lump in her own throat. “I’m really glad she’s getting at least one good year out of high school. Thank you for that.”

Max has to sneak back to her room, close the door, and take a moment. When she leaves her room again, she ensures that the door squeaks, and makes her footsteps heavy. Once she enters the kitchen, Chloe turns around from her spot at the counter, exclaiming, “Hey, Max! Just in time, your parents made me their cooking bitch today—”

“You asked if you could cook!” Vanessa objects from the table, a laugh in her voice.

“And I made your favorite,” Chloe continues, undeterred, whisking up a plate from the counter and bringing it over to Max. As she kisses Max’s cheek and urges her to eat up, Max can look around her and see the people who truly love and accept her for who she is, despite everything. It’s a good way to start a Christmas break.

 


 

Rachel calls on the second day, when Chloe’s in the shower. Max is waiting in bed with her laptop when her Skype goes off.

“Hey, Rachel!” Max says, yawning as she takes in the image on the screen. Rachel looks just as unkempt as herself right now, hair a frizzy mess across her face, threadbare pajamas covering her body. Max is struck suddenly by the fact that this is the first time Rachel’s seen her without her inserts, and finds herself not minding very much. “How’s your break?” she asks.

“It’s, uhm...” Rachel scratches her head. “I couldn’t sleep last night, so I used that account you gave me...”

“Oh!” Max considers for a moment. “Have you slept yet?”

“Not really? But it’s cool, I’m gonna crash in like half an hour here. I just, uh...” Rachel swallows. “I just finished that game you told me to play?”

Oh. Oh. “Gone Home?” Max asks hesitantly.

“Yeah. It was...it was really, really good. I wanted to talk to you before I fell asleep.” Rachel swallows. “It just...thanks. For letting me borrow it. But like...”

“Like what?” Max prompts.

“It reminded me of what I thought was going to happen. With me and Chloe. You know, run off together, live on our own, no more assholes keeping us down.” Rachel chews on her lip. “It was...romantic, I guess. But I know how that works out now.”

“Rachel—”

“It just — thank you, Max. Honestly. Maybe my life isn’t going to end up a grand romantic adventure. Maybe that’s okay. You’ve kinda shown me that.” Rachel takes in a deep breath. “I used to think I wanted — I don’t know. Excitement all the time. That that’s what life should be, you know? But hanging out with you and Chloe now...it’s different than it was before. I like it a lot. I like it better than before, when I had all these plans and things.”

“I was kind of worried it’d just make you sad when I first saw you this morning,” Max admits. “Are you feeling all right?”

“I actually really am. I’ve been thinking, and it’s made me realize that I need more time to work out what I wanna do. I don’t think modeling’s really gonna work out in the end. It’s not too late to apply to colleges...where are you going?”

Max blushes. “Come on, Rachel, you should go where you want to go. You don’t need to follow me around.”

“Uh, but I want to. Even if we don’t get into the same one, there should at least be a chance of it.  Seriously, where have you applied to?”

“I sorta wanna do Reed,” Max admits. “I applied to OSU though, and a couple other places. Art schools and stuff too, I can send you my list sometime.”

“Sweet. I need to get working on it.”

Chloe enters the room, towel wrapped around herself, and bounces down on the bed. “Whoya talking to?” she asks, then, “Rachel! ‘Sup, girl?”

“Hey, Chloe, just having a little life-changing moment,” Rachel says with a smile.

“Dope,” Chloe replies. “Hey, uh, so how are you doing with the whole not-feeling-real thing?”

“Uh, better. I actually...ended up telling my parents about it. They want me to try seeing a counselor when I go back to school. I don’t know if I want that. But...after telling you guys all that stuff, and talking to you, it’s easier to stop it now. Still happens, but I can...” Rachel shrugs, looking away. “I’ve got better ways to deal.”

“You wanna stream a movie tonight?” Max offers. “Maybe we can get Kate in on it too. I got her Skype before she left.”

“Sounds good. I’m gonna go crash. Text me when you’ve got a time, okay?”

“Of course! Sleep good, Rachel. And try to fix your schedule before school starts again, all right?” Max says with a teasing smile.

“No promises. I never had a sleep schedule. Bye, guys!”

The call shuts off after both Chloe and Max say their farewells.

“Glad she’s doing good,” Chloe says. “Haven’t really gotten to talk to her since break started.”

“We have been kinda busy,” Max admits.

“Mhmm. We have.” And then Chloe lifts off the laptop and sets it aside so she can get on top of Max.

Max immediately feels her pulse start racing at having her very-nearly-naked girlfriend straddling her, and her crazed grin isn’t helping anything. “You are so cute in the morning,” she murmurs, leaning down and kissing Max’s neck.

“C-Chloe,” Max stammers.

“Mm?” Max feels Chloe’s teeth scrape her neck.

“I’m, uh...” Max swallows. “Can you...sorry.” She gently pulls back. “Get dressed?”

Chloe looks down at herself and chuckles. “Oh, uh, yeah. Sorry, didn’t wanna imply I was gonna do anything, but the parents are out...”

Max does take a second to consider as Chloe climbs off of her and drops the towel to the floor.

“You’re looking,” Chloe accuses, stretching out.

“I am.” Max likes the way her shoulderblades move. She also likes the pink flush that’s running up Chloe’s upper half.

“If I get clothes on and you just take ‘em off again I’ll be pissed,” Chloe complains as she reaches into her bag and pulls out underwear and a t-shirt.

“No, you won’t.” Max loves this. Loves the influence she has over Chloe. Loves knowing that she’s telling the truth, that Chloe does want her.

“You don’t get to be smug just because you’re right,” Chloe says as she turns around. Max pulls back the covers so there’s less between them and lets Chloe crawl up the bed and over her.

There’s something to be said for interplay, Max decides. She likes it when Chloe’s on top like this, but she loves it when she’s in her lap, too. She feels it again, like she did the first night, but this time it isn’t so scary. She knows Chloe won’t do anything without asking.

Chloe keeps things light, soft pecks to Max’s cheek, nose, lips. Max pulls at her collar, brings her closer, takes her bottom lip between her teeth. Chloe’s alarmed little noise is perfect. She pulls back (once Max lets go) and looks into Max’s eyes.

“Do you actually wanna...?” she asks.

“Maybe,” Max answers, as truthfully as she can. “Come back here.”

Chloe shrugs. “All right.” She smiles against Max’s lips as she comes back.

It’s not long before Max has Chloe’s collar clenched in her fist again, dragging it down. Chloe laughs. “If you want it off, you gotta go the other way,”

“Who says I want it off?” Max replies.

Chloe raises her eyebrows. “Your grabby hands?”

“Do it yourself,” Max challenges.

Chloe grins. “Aye aye, captain,” she quips, and Max groans even as Chloe does that thing where she crosses her arms and grabs the hem of her shirt.

“Ugh, turn-off! You can’t call back to stuff from when we were kids!” Max objects. “Besides, you were always captain.”

Chloe’s shirt is already half-covering her face, but she stops and mumbles into the fabric, “You want this shit off or not?”

Max answers her by trailing her fingers up her sides. Chloe quickly whips her shirt off, and, um, wow. So this is now actually happening. Max’s girlfriend is straddling her topless.

“You’re looking again,” Chloe teases, stretching her arms out behind her head.

“Yeah,” Max breathes. She pulls Chloe in, but she doesn’t kiss her this time, just wraps her arms around her. Chloe seems comfortable enough with her head on Max’s chest, ear to her heart.

Max rubs Chloe’s back, amazed at how soft her skin feels. “I’m not going too fast, right?” Chloe asks, her voice vibrating against Max’s shirt.

“No,” Max says quickly. “I, um...” She licks her dry lips, trying to think. She doesn’t want to stop, but she’s not really sure how to go forward either. She gently pushes at Chloe’s side until she understands that she wants to roll over, switch places. Not having Chloe’s weight on her makes it a bit easier to decide what she wants. In Chloe’s lap, she feels a little more in control, and she likes the way Chloe threads her fingers through her hair.

“Just cuddling?” Chloe suggests. “I can seriously do this all day, you weigh like nothing.”

“Mmm.” Max slides down Chloe’s body and nestles her head between her breasts. She doesn’t want to admit how much her blood’s pumping right now. It feels like this should be more special. Like they should save it or something.

She takes a chance and glances up to see Chloe looking down at her, a hazy smile on her face, eyes half-lidded. They make eye contact and Max blushes, smiling too much, burying her face in Chloe’s chest again.

“I love you,” Chloe says, unprompted, perfect. Max decides right then. This is as good a time as any.

She thrusts forward and kisses Chloe, sitting back up again as Chloe braces her back against the wall. She needs to show Chloe just how much she returns the sentiment, needs to show her how badly she wants Chloe now that Chloe’s shown her the same.

Touching her piercings directly is as much of a thrill as she’d imagined. Chloe squirms with the slightest attention. “Not too hard,” she pants as Max carefully takes one between two fingers, not squeezing yet. “K-kinda super fucking sensitive since I got ‘em pierced.”

“I was wondering about that,” Max admits. She pinches, just a bit, and Chloe lets out a little “Fuck.”

“Uh, huh, hah,” Chloe sputters, “S-so, like, I sorta got ‘em so that...” She swallows. “I don’t know if you wanna...”

“What?” Max asks.

“Y-you know. Use your mouth.”

Max feels shivers run through her body. Instead of giving a verbal answer because somehow that’s more embarrassing than this, she simply leans down and seals her mouth around Chloe’s nipple. Chloe’s hand clenches in Max’s hair as she lets out a strangled, “Oh, fuck.”

Max experiments with her tongue and finds that Chloe likes that very much as well. Her breath hisses through her nose as she slowly runs one hand down Chloe’s bare stomach. Chloe spreads her legs and Max has to adjust her posture, giving Chloe a minute to breathe. Max wraps one arm around Chloe’s shoulders, the other tracing the waistline of her boxers.

Max savors the anticipation in Chloe’s tight muscles, drawing it out, until Chloe finally blurts out “Jesus, Max, are you gonna go for it or what?”

Max takes in a deep breath. This is a plunge, she knows it is. But she’s ready to take it.

She slips her fingers under the cotton and runs them through curls, Chloe groaning at how slow she’s going. She’s so soft. When Max’s hand reaches her lips, brushing lightly over them, Chloe sighs in relief.

Max can’t help but feel a little jealous as she presses in and finds Chloe wet and willing. There’s an ache in her, wishing her body could match Chloe’s, wishing she could receive what she’s giving.

She has to disconnect from her own wants and focus just on what she is, what she’s doing. She’s a girl pleasing her girlfriend with her fingers, like she’s supposed to, that’s what women do with each other. This, at least, is right.

She runs up and down Chloe’s slit slowly at first, feeling the jolt whenever she passes over her clit. Chloe’s stopped even talking now, just leaning her head back with her eyes closed and her teeth cutting into her lower lip.

Max presses kisses into Chloe’s collarbone, slow, soft, sweet. She likes the way Chloe’s skin tastes, and she wonders if that’s weird. “Faster,” Chloe urges, and Max starts to alter her speed, feeling for Chloe’s reactions, listening to her breath, her quiet little curses.

Chloe starts shuddering, squeezing Max closer to her chest with one hand, the other playing with her own breast. Max has an idea and leans down, taking Chloe in her mouth again, and that’s enough to get her begging, “God, please, faster, Max...”

Max can feel it when she comes. She doesn’t get loud, not like she expected, but her mouth hangs open and little choking sounds come out as her hips twist and shake. Max keeps going, letting her ride it out, until Chloe suddenly grabs her wrist and whimpers, “G-god, stop, fuck.”

Chloe slides down the bed until she’s totally flat, Max laying down beside her, resting her right hand on her chest. Her wrist aches, but in a pleasant way, knowing what she used it for. Chloe runs one hand through her sweaty hair, panting roughly. Max feels her eyelids getting heavy as their breathing starts to synchronize. She feels comfortable cuddled up against Chloe’s side.

Chloe suddenly shifts, turning to face Max, running a hand down her cheek. They kiss softly. “Is it okay if I...?” Chloe asks, fingers trailing up Max’s side.

Max thinks about it, and she thinks about it too much. Her stomach drops. “Sorry,” she whispers, breaking eye contact and shifting onto her stomach, head in the pillow.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Chloe assures her, rubbing her back. “If you’re not ready—”

“I should be, I just —” Max sniffs. “I wish I was okay with it.”

“Your body, you mean?”

“Y-yeah. Sometimes I am, but other times, just, little things set me off, and I liked doing that to you and I was turned on and I felt good but just...” Max huffs, feeling a little spike in her head. “It’s not fair.

“Max—”

“Sorry, sometimes I just get mad. That I can’t...” She turns over, staring up at the ceiling. “That I don’t get to be a normal girl. I can’t just let you touch me, I have to do all this thinking, and trying to block stuff out, and it sucks.”

“Sounds like it, God,” Chloe mumbles, hugging her tightly. “But you know I’m okay with it, right? We can wait until you’re not feeling weird.”

Max sighs. “Yeah. Okay. I want to, okay? I don’t want you to think that I don’t.”

“Mmm.” Chloe runs her hand up and down Max’s chest. “I know. You’re so cute when I turn you on.”

Max smiles, closing her eyes for a moment, enjoying the physical sensation of Chloe’s touch, her warmth. Chloe grazes Max’s neck with her fingertips, sending goosebumps down her body. Chloe’s neck kiss draws a little gasp from her.

“Feeling a little better?” she asks, still stroking Max.

“Mm. A...a little...” The frustration’s drained from her veins, and that warm fuzzy feeling is back. “You can, uh...”

Chloe’s suppressed laugh signals that she knows what Max is asking for. She slowly, deliberately drags her palm across Max’s nipple, and holy shit. She twitches. “Woah,” she murmurs, “That’s, uh...”

“Different when someone else does it, right?” Chloe asks with a smile.

“Yeah, it—” Max is cut off by her own stuttering noises, Chloe circling her nipple with her finger, so light, she can’t believe the shocks it’s sending through her. She can feel herself growing hard beneath her sleep-shorts, and it doesn’t feel wrong, somehow. It’s just happening. Her mind’s in a pleasant fog.

“Do you want your shirt off?” Chloe asks tentatively.

“J-just this for now.” Max doesn’t want to trigger anything. This can just be... an exploration.

Chloe does explore, test, and eventually Max lets her put her hand beneath the fabric. “Ah!” she hisses when Chloe pushes, suddenly too hard. Her chest aches. She’s gotten used to that happening occasionally, but it’s really inconvenient now.

Chloe tries to be lighter, but suddenly everything feels like it’s pinching, first on one side and then the other, and the moment’s gone. Her body relaxes, almost against her will, but she softly tells Chloe to stop.

“Sorry, it’s just — they hurt sometimes,” she explains.

“Oh, yeah, I remember that, actually,” Chloe says. “It’s fine, really.” She leans over and kisses Max’s cheek. “We can give your boobs a break. They’re still growing, right?”

“And we’re back to unfair again,” Max murmurs.

“Stuff takes time,” Chloe says. “You know, I went and...I looked stuff up. Puberty takes a while, you know?”

Max sighs. “Yeah, I’m supposed to be patient. Just feels like I shoulda gotten it done and over with already.”

Chloe hugs her tight. “I know.”

Max wraps an arm around her, and despite her frustrations, she manages to sleep in a little bit longer.

 


 

Max and Chloe call up Kate before the movie night is officially supposed to begin, the two of them sitting in bed together with the laptop between them. When the call connects, Kate does a double-take.

“Right!” she says, looking a little flustered. “Hi, Chloe! I forgot you guys were staying together for a minute.”

“Of course we are.” Chloe gives Max a kiss on the cheek. “I couldn’t leave this cutie all alone for two weeks.”

Kate giggles, a flush coming to her cheeks. “I guess you couldn’t. Thank you so much for the gift, by the way. Lynn was totally scandalized when I brought it home with me. I’ve been practicing.”

“And you haven’t been sending me snapchats? Boo,” Chloe objects.

“I can ask one of my sisters to take some later,” Kate concedes. “So, um, do you guys mind if I add Dana to the group call? She’s a little lonely in Arcadia Bay right now.”

Chloe exchanges a quick glance with Max, who tries to put the don’t in her eyes. She’s not sure it worked, especially as Chloe asks, “And how do you know this?” with a bit too much interest.

“We’re friends, we talk!” Kate says, a bit defensively. “She and Juliet are apparently having a falling-out over some boy. She needed someone to talk to.”

“That’s nice of you,” Max says before Chloe can open her meddling mouth.

“It’s really not even a problem. She’s...” Kate sighs, putting a hand on her chin. “She’s my best friend. I don’t know if I’ve had one before. And I know it’s thanks to you, Max, she told me you told her to talk to me.”

“Yep, that’s my girlfriend the peacemaker,” Chloe says, rubbing Max’s head.

“Oh, and, um, Max...” Kate clears her throat. “When school starts up again, can we, um, talk? In private?”

“What, you can’t tell me?” Chloe teases.

“I just...I need to think on it a little more, and I wanna be totally alone.” Max can see her shaking on the webcam feed.

“It’s all right, Kate,” Max assures her. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Thanks.” Kate lets loose a whew, and Max has the impression she just saw Kate take a first step towards something.

“Mind if I add Rachel? We’ll start the stream in a minute,” Max offers.

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Dana and Rachel are ready, Chloe informs everyone that the movie of the night is Die Hard (“Because it’s the best Christmas movie ever!”) and they settle in, Kate putting in headphones so no one will hear the explosions and gunshots. It doesn’t take long for Max to realize that Chloe’s not as interested in the movie as she is in stroking her thigh again. She’s not sure how to feel about that. Shouldn’t she be tired of trying by now? Isn’t being with Max just a stream of frustrations?

On the other hand, it still feels nice. She’s not going to stop Chloe, not yet. By the time everyone’s said their goodbyes and the laptop is closed and on Max’s desk, she can feel a lump in her throat, nerves buzzing. Chloe crawls back into bed, on top of her again, kissing her softly and sweetly and Max wishes she could just fucking enjoy it. Chloe hand trails down her chest, and Max breaks the kiss, squirming. “Chloe—”

“Yeah,” Chloe says with a sigh. “Gotcha.” She rolls off and lies on her back, not even touching Max. “Sorry. Just wanna...give back, but I’m being a selfish asshole again.”

Max tries to get Chloe’s name out again, but she just continues with, “And I know I should be patient, and I know it’s hard for you, and I know this shit’s serious. I just keep thinking if I was better...”

“You can’t force your way through it. Or out of it. I’ve tried,” Max scolds. “It doesn’t — doesn’t matter how good you are, or how hard you try, if it’s a bad day, it just...it just is.”

Chloe huffs. “It’s bullshit.”

“Now you know how I feel.”

“Shit, sorry, didn’t mean to — I don’t blame you. I really fucking don’t. I can’t even imagine.” Chloe runs a hand through her hair, scratching vigorously at her scalp. “I just don’t want everything to be one-sided here. Sometimes it feels like...all I do is take.”

“You don’t,” Max whispers, turning over and putting her hand on Chloe’s stomach. “You’ve been so good to me.”

“But I — all I ever do is dump my problems on you, and fill your life with drama, and go too fast, and take you away from Rachel—”

“Stop,” Max demands. Rachel again. “You didn’t take me away from anyone. You’ve been — you...” She swallows, trying to put into words what Chloe’s done for her. How she’s made her feel. “You just...the way you talk to me sometimes, you make me feel invincible. You believe in me. You try so hard, and I love that about you.” She nuzzles into Chloe’s shoulder. “You’re the best girlfriend I could ask for.”

“E-even if I—if I can’t...”

“It’s not anything you can’t do,” Max corrects her. “It’s just how it is. And that’s okay.”

“Okay,” Chloe repeats. “Is there — I can stop trying, if it’s making you uncomfortable.”

“...not forever,” Max says after a moment of contemplation. “But — maybe for this break, we don’t try. Not for me. We let it happen naturally. It kinda feels like you want to before you leave again, and I get that, but—”

“Too much pressure?” Chloe asks, some bite in her voice.

“...yeah. I don’t want to feel like I’ll let you down.”

“Shit, you — you’re not and you won’t. But if you wanna wait ‘till school starts again, that’s cool. Or until you get surgery, or...as long as you need.”

Max actually finds herself laughing a little. “I don’t think I can wait for surgery.”

“Oh!” Chloe swallows. “That’s, uh, good.”

“Mmm.” Max enjoys Chloe’s body heat for a moment. “We’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah.” Chloe’s voice sounds warm and rumbly. It’s enough to take the weight off of Max.

 


 

When they wake up on Christmas morning, Max clings tight to Chloe, arms around her neck. Chloe’s leaving in a few hours. It’s not right and it’s not fair.

“When’d you turn into a koala?” Chloe asks sleepily.

Max makes a noncommittal whining noise, wrapping her legs around one of Chloe’s.

“Max, you won’t get my present if I can’t get up.”

Max groans. “If you get up then it’s today.”

“Usually people think Christmas is a good thing.”

“Mmf.” It is a good thing, the thing that sucks is that it’s also the end of seeing Chloe. Or anyone. It’s going to be her, back in this house, alone in Seattle again. She can’t believe how terrible it sounds now when it was her life for five years.

Chloe rubs Max’s back, slowly and carefully. “You feeling okay, Maximus?”

“I’m gonna miss you.”

Chloe’s chest compresses beneath Max. “C-come on, we don’t have to talk about that now. Besides, it’s just a week.”

“We haven’t gone a week without seeing each other in months,” Max notes.

“We went five years and things turned out all right.” Chloe kisses Max’s hair. “We’re not doing that again, though.”

“Never,” Max promises.

“If you do, though, make sure you have this good of an excuse next time or I may be mad.”

Max giggles. “I think I only get one of these.” She frowns. “I hope I only get one of these.”

“You seem pretty fuckin’ down with being a girl. Don’t think that’s gonna change.” Chloe rises, taking Max with her. “I smell breakfast.”

Max aggressively hugs her until the scent makes its way to her, too, and she has to relent. She follows Chloe to the kitchen, leans her head on her shoulder at the table as her parents serve them cinnamon rolls and ask Chloe how she’s getting home, when her parents expect her. Max doesn’t want to think about any of that, she wants Chloe and her truck and her goofy smile and her constant support to stay here.

She’s never thought of herself as the clingy type, but she doesn’t want to go back to before Blackwell. She has to remind herself that she’ll still be talking to her friends — plural! — until she can see them again.

Her mood lifts a little at that, and gets a big shot in the arm after they move into the living room and Chloe’s present for her is rolled out — a box absolutely full of film cases. Chloe explains that she searched all over to make sure her dad’s camera would keep Max company for at least a couple of years, “assuming no bitch-related damage.”

She hugs Chloe fiercely, squealing just a tiny bit while her parents look on with that slightly-annoying parental smile. Chloe gets a present from the family, too, a watercolor painting from Vanessa (“So Caulfield chicks are all artist-types, that’s right,” Chloe quips,) and a pair of spiked bracelets from Ryan, who says something about his own “punk days” (Max looks at him doubtfully.) Max gets nerdy shirts and a new sky-blue hoodie, which she tries on in front of Chloe, who declares her extra-cute.

Once everything’s open, though, Max finds that she just wants Chloe to herself again, and rises up from the couch with her hand in Chloe’s.

“You do have to come out of that room sometime, you know,” Ryan says with a smile. “You two have practically been in there all break.”

Max can only shrug helplessly. There hasn’t been much to do besides...exist with Chloe. Comfortable and warm and by themselves. She could stand to have a little more of that.

They cuddle in silence for a long time, napping eventually. There’s little enough to say.

It’s only when Chloe's alarm goes off at noon that they really speak again, as Chloe gets up and gets dressed for real.

“You know, I kinda thought I’d always be the clingy one,” she comments as she straps on a bra. “Kinda nice to see that you...that you’re gonna miss me.”

Max sits up, hugging her knees to her chest. “Of course I will.”

“It’s just...I dunno. Like, I’m gonna miss you like hell too, I always do, but it’s like, when I see you’re feeling like that and I gotta comfort you, I comfort myself, kinda?” Chloe shrugs. “It’s weird. Rachel always seemed fine with leaving.”

Max finds that she doesn’t really want to indulge in shit-talking the ex. “She hid a lot of stuff,” she says. “Maybe she hid that too.”

“I guess.” Chloe sighs. “Come here.”

Max slides off the bed and into Chloe’s arms.

“I love you,” Chloe says. “This is like literally my best Christmas. Just ‘cuz it’s with you.”

Max giggles. “Who’s the sappy nerd now?”

“Come on, we both know we’re both huge dorks.” Chloe rests her head on Max’s shoulder, though she has to bend down a bit to do so. “We always were.”

Max leaves tear stains on her shirt when she goes. She watches the truck recede into the distance, her mother’s hands on her shoulders.

 


 

New Year’s is just a little less lonely this year.

Her parents are still out at some work function or another, like usual, and she’s home alone, like usual. But right now, she’s content.

She’s sitting in bed, laptop open before her, three-way call connected. The movie was over ten minutes to midnight, so now it’s just a feed of Chloe and Rachel, all of them miles apart from each other. Chloe’s setting aside her joint, Rachel with a glass of some creamy liquid in front of her on her desk, sipping occasionally. They’ve got champagne at the ready, though Max’s glass, beside her hot chocolate mug on the nightstand, just has sparkling cider in it. As the clock ticks down to midnight, Rachel speaks up first.

“Holy shit, what a year,” she sighs.

“No fucking kidding,” Chloe agrees. “Been a ride, that’s for sure.”

“Lot of ups and downs. We could do with less downs in 2014,” Rachel declares. “No more huge stupid mistakes. No more fights. Between any of us.”

“Rachel, I can’t guarantee one single fuckin’ part of that,” Chloe replies with a laugh.

“I know. But I don’t...” Rachel blinks rapidly, looking away from the screen. “I thought I lost you this year, Chloe. I never wanna feel like that again. And for a while I thought I’d lost Max too. You guys are so important to me. No matter what. Even — even this...you coulda just done a couples thing. You didn’t need to bring me in.”

“I’ve spent enough New Years alone,” Max says softly. The way Chloe looks at her through the webcam is enough to make her shrink, but it’s the truth. There was no leaving Rachel out of this moment.

“God, you’re sweet,” Rachel murmurs. “Thanks. Both of you. For everything.”

“Anytime, Rach,” Chloe says, a little smile coming to one corner of her mouth. “As long as we fucking talk to each other from here on, I think...I think things might be okay.”

“Sounds good. 2014, the year we fucking talk to each other and nothing gets fucked.” Rachel raises her glass. “We have thirty seconds. Who’s with me?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Chloe agrees.

The three of them clink their glasses against their laptops — the best they can do, really — and Chloe and Max blow kisses at each other before downing their drinks. Max sinks into her bed, laptop open on her chest. She closes her eyes. Though they’re far away, she can imagine they’re with her.

“She is so cute,” Chloe mutters. “Look at her.”

“She is,” Rachel says. Max smiles. It still feels strange to hear people say nice things about how she looks, instead of confusion or hate or jealousy.

“You going to sleep, Max?” Chloe asks after a time.

“Mhmm.”

“Well. Happy New Year, girlfriend. Have good dreams. I’ll see you soon.”

“Chloe, wait,” Rachel says suddenly. “Do you mind keeping this call up? Just for a while?” Max hears a tremor in her voice.

“Yeah. Of course.” Chloe’s voice is soft. “If you want. Cool with you, Max?”

Max shifts, putting the laptop beside her and giving it a sleepy thumbs-up. Rachel can have all the company she wants. She can’t help but trust Chloe. And she can keep an ear on any conversation they have.

Mostly what she hears is Chloe’s stereo turning on, soft rock lulling her to sleep. She glances occasionally to see her two best friends in the world sharing this moment with her, quiet and contemplative in their own spaces.

For the first time she can remember, the new year looks promising.

Chapter Text

Max sets her bags down in her room, stretching out as her parents file in and dump what she couldn’t carry on the floor. Vanessa hugs her as soon as her hands are free.

“Have another great semester, honey,” she instructs as she pulls back.

“I’ll do my best,” Max promises. “I need to tell Chloe I’m back.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Ryan says with a wink. “That’s the signal, dear, we need to get out of here.”

“We could go and see Joyce while we’re in town. Do you know if she’s working today?” Vanessa asks. Max shrugs helplessly. “Well, let’s check out the Two Whales anyway.” She gives Max another quick squeeze before she and Ryan give their farewells. Max sits down on her bed, reminded of the first day of school all those months ago. She wonders if Rachel’s here yet, or Kate, or if she’s the first to arrive. She texts them and Chloe all at once with a simple I’m home :) .

Chloe:

O SHIT WADDUP

SKJDADHKA IMMA BE AT YOUR DORM AS SOON AS IM OFF WORK STG

WE HAVE MAKEOUTS TO CATCH UP ON

Rachel:

hey girl!!

i’m omw home rn

got like 2 hrs left

tell chloe i said hi bc im sure you’ll see her b4 me

Kate:
Hey, Max! I’m home too! I can stop by if you’re okay with that.

Max confirms makeout plans with Chloe (she gets off in an hour,) then looks at the message from Kate. She remembers the question posed during Christmas break, the idea of a talk between them. Maybe that’s what she’s trying to get at.

She gets up and leaves her room, walking right over to Kate’s and lightly knocking on the door. Kate opens it a second later, her bun a bit messier than usual, her movement a little bit jittery.

“Hey, Max!” she says, smiling shakily. “Nice to see you again — in person, I mean.”

Max gives her a hug and says, “Nice to see you too.” As she pulls back, she looks into Kate’s green eyes. “You said you wanted to talk?”

Kate swallows. “You—you don’t have to, just...”

Max walks in and closes the door behind her. “Are you doing all right, Kate?”

“I...yes and no.” Kate sits down on the edge of her bed, folding her hands in her lap. She stares down at her fingers. “I’m better than I’ve ever been, some days. But...but I need your advice.”

“About what?” Max asks, taking a place beside her.

Kate takes in a deep breath, starts to say something, then stops again. She lets out a dry laugh. “Ugh, I promised myself I’d go through with this,” she says quietly. “It’s just harder than I thought.”

“Take your time,” Max urges, despite the sinking feeling in her stomach. She’s got a pretty strong feeling she knows what’s coming.

Kate starts false sentences a few times, then seems to settle on something. “Do you think Dana has a crush on me?” she asks.

Okay. Tread carefully, Max. “What makes you think I’d know? We don’t hang out much...”

“Because — you’re — you know.” Kate’s cheeks turn pink. “There’s — there’s signs, right?”

“What kind of signs have you seen?” Max counters.

“Well, it’s just...” Kate gulps. “When you guys got together during Thanksgiving, I talked to her about it. I really wanted to like your post and congratulate you, but I knew my family would see it, and we were talking in Messenger and she said I should show support. She mentioned...she said she was bisexual, and that she’d like to see me supporting people like her. My mom got mad about it, she said I shouldn’t be friends with you, but Dana kept me calm on the phone and — well, it didn’t go smoothly, but she was there for me and she didn’t have to be.”

“Is that all?” Max prods.

Kate takes in a deep breath. “N-no. She, she likes to cuddle with me, a lot, and she hugs me a lot, and, and, we hang out all the time and she calls me pretty to cheer me up sometimes, and...”

“And?”

“Okay.” Kate blows air out her nose. “Um, over break, she told me she and Juliet were fighting about some boy, and she said it was stupid, because she was already interested in someone and it wasn’t him. I asked her who, and she backpedaled, said she just meant that she has good friends and she isn’t interested in boys right now. I asked her what she meant, and she said...”  Kate pauses for a moment, gathering her breath, looking hard at her lap. “She said, ‘I have you. What else would I need?’”

“Oh.” That’s all Max can manage for a moment.

“Yeah,” Kate agrees. “S-so, do you think...?”

“She might,” Max says cautiously. “Does that...bother you?”

Kate breathes in sharply. She puts her head in her hands. “No,” she mumbles quietly.

“...no?”

“I like it. Max, I...” She sniffs, and Max hears her voice break. “When I started to figure it out, I...I was excited. I feel good thinking about it. I want her to like me. I hope she likes me.”

Max takes in a deep breath. “Kate...”

“Do you think I’m gay, Max?”

Max gulps. Jesus. Way to push the issue on someone else, Kate. “I can’t decide that for you,” she says gently.

“But—but you’re gay—”

“I’m not sure if I am or not,” Max interrupts. “I like women. Sometimes I like men. I don’t...I’m not comfortable calling myself that right now.”

“But you’d know, right?” Kate says desperately. “You — you should know if I’m gay.”

“I...” Max sighs. “Kate, what makes you think you might be gay? Can we start there?”

“Well, I...” Kate hugs herself. “T-there was this teacher at my old school. I thought she was really pretty, and I really liked her, and I thought about her a lot...”

“That could be a crush,” Max concedes.

“And it’s just — when I think about Dana, I feel good. I think about hugging her, and maybe other things, and...and I’ve had dreams about her,” Kate admits. “A-and I’ve never felt like this before. Except about — another girl,” she adds, looking away from Max. “N-never with a guy.”

Max sighs. She’s not getting out of this without flat-out defining Kate’s identity for her, is she?

“Kate, that all sounds pretty gay to me.”

“Oh, God.” Kate buries her head in her hands again.

“Kate, there’s nothing wrong with—”

“I know,” Kate says harshly, “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, I’ve — God, I’ve been friends with you and Chloe and Dana and Rachel for months, I know you’re all not straight, I’ve seen how you and Chloe love each other so much and there’s no way God hates that the way people say He does, but this...I can’t be this!”

“Why not?” Max asks, putting a hand on Kate’s shoulder.

“B-because, I know my mom would kill me, and this is — I’m not supposed to be like this, I’m the oldest, I can’t let my family down like this.”

Max’s stomach drops. This poor girl. “You’re not letting anyone down,” she says, rubbing Kate’s shoulder. “If this is who you are, then it’s who you are. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. What your mother thinks...you already know it’s wrong. Why should it be any different when it’s you?”

“I wish I didn’t know,” Kate whispers, apparently not listening anymore. “God, it’d be easier if I didn’t know.”

“Kate, you would have found out sometime. I’m glad it’s now, with me and all your other friends here for you.” Max gives her an awkward side-hug. Kate leans into it, her words apparently spent.

“What do you want to do now, Kate?” Max asks after a time, separating from her but scooting close.

“I don’t know.” Kate wipes her eyes. “I really don’t know. I...I wish I was straight. Everything would be easier.”

Hearing those words is too familiar to Max. “I know it’s hard, at first,” she replies. “But...I’m glad I am the way I am. I love Chloe. If I was straight, I couldn’t be with her.”

“But I can’t be with anyone,” Kate mumbles. “Even the one I want.”

“Who says?”

“I’m not — I’m not ready for this, any of it. I can’t tell my mom, I can’t...be out, I should just go to therapy and—”

“Stop right there,” Max commands. “You don’t need to be fixed. You wouldn’t want someone to throw me into therapy and separate me from Chloe, right?”

“No, but—”

“But what? Why is it better if it’s you?”

“Because I’m not a good person like you!” Kate exclaims. “I’m the idiot who got herself drugged and had to be saved, I’m the one people always need to help because I’m feeling down, I take up Chloe’s time and Dana’s and I’m just awful, Max, the least I can do is try to be a good daughter and not screw that up too.” Sobs start making their way into her words and Max sees fresh tears rolling down her red cheeks, her eyes puffy. She hides her face and chokes.

Max tries not to cry herself, hearing her friend describe herself in such an terrible way. She has to steady her voice (which doesn’t quite work) as she asks, “Is that really how you see yourself?”

“What else can I see?” Kate murmurs.

“Kate, we love you. All of us do.” Don’t cry, Max. Talk her through this. She needs this. “You’re so kind, and talented, and you’re fun when you let yourself go. And you are a good person. You volunteer for the elderly for God’s sake, Kate! You got Rachel and Dana to do it with you! You’re the definition of a positive influence on the community!”

Kate actually laughs a little, then swallows, as if confused at her own reaction. Max decides to keep going.

“And what happened to you wasn’t your fault. None of us believe that. Some piece of shit attacked you. That’s all that happened.” Max is surprised that the vitriol’s still in her throat after all these months, but the thought of someone trying to take advantage of Kate still makes her blood boil.

“...okay,” Kate says after a while, lifting her head up and wiping her eyes again.

“You deserve to be yourself, Kate. You deserve to be happy.”

“I—I’m not ready yet,” she says. “I won’t go to therapy and I’m not going to — I won’t force myself to not be like this. You’re right. But...”

“You don’t have to ask Dana out or anything,” Max assures her. “Take your time.”

“I...” Kate leans forwards on her knees, looking down. “Idunwanhertothink,” she rushes out, then shuts her mouth.

“What was that?” Max asks.

Kate clears her throat. “I don’t want her to think I’m not...available, though. She probably thinks I am. Why wouldn’t you, people like me, we’re supposed to be...not like this.” She shudders. “We’re supposed to be mean and, and keep people out, and tell people what to do.”

“That’s not true at all.”

“That’s what my mom’s like,” Kate mutters. “She wants me to be like that.”

“Well, she doesn’t get to decide who you are. You do.” Max thinks for a moment. “Do you want to signal Dana somehow, or...”

Kate shakes her head. “I’m too nervous just thinking about this. Making a move...” She huffs. “I think I’d die right there on the spot.”

Max smiles, glad to see some of that dry humor back. “Wear a pride bracelet?” Max teases.

“No!” Kate says with a giggle. “That’d totally clash with my wardrobe.”

“We just need to get you that skater gear Chloe’s always talking about giving you, then you’ll match.”

Kate laughs, then lets out a sigh, wiping her eyes again and leaning into Max’s shoulder. “Thanks, Max. I’m glad I could talk to you about this. Chloe kind of...teases me about me and Dana. She doesn’t mean anything by it, but it felt like it’d be hard to actually say she was right.”

“She would switch gears in a heartbeat if you got serious,” Max promises. “But I’ll talk to her about it if you want her to stop. She’s just being an ass.”

“I know, just...you’re really easy to talk to.” Kate relaxes against her. “I’m glad you’re my friend.”

“Right back at you, Kate.”

“For a while I thought you were cold. That you didn’t like me,” Kate admits.

“I was a little afraid of you,” Max replies, figuring she might as well be honest. “I’ve had some girls...judge me before, and you reminded me of them. But you proved yourself.”

“It’s weird to think I’m a good example of something to someone,” Kate says with a dry laugh. “But thanks.”

After a moment of comfortable silence, Max asks, “Do you wanna grab lunch? The cafeteria should be open by now...”

Kate stands up and stretches. “Yeah. That would be nice.” She pauses. “That was really good to get all that off my chest. I’ve been...questioning since Halloween.”

“I figured that much,” Max says with a smile. “You two were so cuddly that night. You were adorable.”

“Shut up!” Kate exclaims, blushing.

Max smirks at her cheekily as she stands up and heads for the door. As they leave for the cafeteria, she looks at Kate, her face still red, eyes still puffy, but a smile on her face. She’s glad that she’s gotten to see Kate grow.

 


 

Rachel joins them for a while at lunch, getting a big hug from Max and a briefer one from Kate, and the three of them idly share stories from break with their parents as well as Christmas hauls until Max’s phone lights up. She immediately jumps up and excuses herself to run across campus to the entrance of the dorms, where Chloe claims she’s waiting.

And so she is, leaning against the door, arms stretched behind her head in that sexy way of hers, and Max bounds up the steps and straight into her chest.

“Hi,” she says, grinning up at her wolfishly.

“Hi,” Chloe replies, wrapping her arms around Max. “Believe we had an appointment, Miss Caulfield.”

Max gasps in laughter as Chloe grabs her under the thighs and hoists her up to kissing height, supporting her weight as Max wraps her legs around her. She’s so lost in Chloe’s lips that she hardly remembers where they are until she hears a disgusted voice say, “Jesus, would you two get a fucking room? People go to school here, this isn’t the lesbo porn studio.”

Max pulls herself off of Chloe’s face for a second and looks over her shoulder at a very cross-looking Victoria, standing on the steps with her hip cocked. “Well?” she asks. “You two gonna get out of the fucking way or what?”

Chloe lets Max slide down her front, but pulls her close with a hand on her neck, lips to her ear. “Normally I don’t move for Queen Bitch, but I think we might need a room,” she grumbles lowly.

Max giggles and nods, and with that Chloe flips Victoria the bird, pushes the door in, and hoists Max up over her shoulder, running down the hall with Max’s head bobbing as she looks back at a bewildered Victoria.

Chloe has to drop Max so she can unlock her door, but once it’s open Chloe’s pushing her inside, closing the door behind them with her foot as she attacks Max’s neck with her lips. Max’s knees get weak immediately, and as she shakes and sighs in pleasure, an idea comes to her mind.

She starts slow, but she needs to make her intentions clear. Her hands wander under Chloe’s top and over her bra, drawing out a surprised groan. Max chuckles. Yeah. This is the time. She’s as pent up as she’s ever been and Chloe’s surely even worse.

She pushes Chloe towards the bed, sitting her down on the edge of it and kneeling down to unlace one of her boots. “Oh, fuck,” Chloe whispers, but she gets to work on the other the best she can as Max tosses the boot behind her onto the couch. Once she’s free of her footwear, Chloe unzips herself, letting Max pull her jeans off her legs. Max slowly, deliberately works down her boxers next, savoring Chloe’s little “Holy shit.”

She decides to warm Chloe up a little bit with her fingers, keeping her mouth close so Chloe can feel her breath on her skin. She somehow feels confident doing this, running her finger up and down — it’s not like Chloe didn’t want this every night back in Seattle, but there wasn’t enough privacy, and maybe there’s really not now, it’s not like the walls are thick, but God.

Chloe grabs a handful of Max’s hair and asks, “Please,” and Max obeys. She puts both hands on Chloe, spreads her, kisses her. Tasting Chloe is a strange experience, because it shouldn’t make her feel this good, it’s supposed to be gross in some way, right? That’s what guys always said as they laughed in the backs of Max’s classes. And yet Max doesn’t mind it, not at all, she loves being this close to Chloe, buried in her, making her hold on tight to Max’s hair and let out little whimpers.

The hardest part turns out to be staying on target while Chloe’s hips move of their own accord. Chloe’s grip on Max’s head proves only somewhat helpful, but with one final, long suck, Chloe comes undone, letting loose a long moan and shaking above her. Hearing her voice fills Max with warmth and want and need and she knows, she just knows, that now has to be it.

Chloe barely has a chance to recover before Max lies down with her head on the pillows and tugs her up, urging Chloe to be on top of her. Chloe takes it remarkably in stride, goes where Max directs, leaving marks on her neck and collarbone, tugging down her shirt to do so until Max lifts her arms above her head.

“Are you sure?” Chloe asks, holding herself above Max with her hands flat on the covers.

“Take it off,” Max pants. “I want you.”

Chloe’s eyes widen and she nods, stripping Max’s top off easily. Max sits up so Chloe can fit her arms around her back, and she directs them there by the wrists. Chloe swallows, but trusts Max, taking off her bra and carefully laying her inserts on the nightstand. Max falls back to the pillows, one hand going up to her hair, feeling how sweaty and messy it is and feeling oddly okay with that, the other on Chloe’s head. She pushes Chloe’s lips toward her chest.

Chloe starts with light touches on her other side, just enough to start something in Max’s stomach, stirrings between her legs. But she wants to know how it feels, and tugs on Chloe’s hair. She must look like quite a sight, because Chloe’s eyes flit up to meet hers and she looks downright shocked at what she sees, face pink, blue eyes blown wide. Max’s throat is dry and she can’t say what she wants, but Chloe seems to get it.

Her tongue feels amazing, and Max suddenly thinks What if that was pierced too and groans, bucking her hips beneath Chloe. Chloe detaches for a moment, a string connecting her mouth and Max’s body before she wipes it away, smiling nervously.

“Don’t hurt today, huh?” she asks with a cocky and too goddamn attractive smarm in her voice. Max can’t answer except in a whine, wanting more, wanting Chloe. She raises her hips again, hoping Chloe will get the hint.

Chloe goes back to her chest, and while that certainly keeps Max going strong, she can’t help but feel impatient. “Chloe,” she whispers, pushing her back and reaching down for her own zipper. Chloe shakes as she helps Max out of her pants, laying beside her cautiously once she’s finished.

“O-over the clothes, right?” Chloe asks, her hand slowly working its way down Max’s bare stomach.

“Yeah,” Max breathes, because she can imagine that Chloe’s rubbing something else if she does that, no one has to see it. When she tentatively brushes it, Max feels herself tense, all over. It feels good this time, though. She can feel Chloe’s closeness, her breath, her love, and she wants to feel it more.

Chloe is slow at first, one hand snaking around behind Max and settling on her opposite breast to massage. Careful attention, enough to get Max fully ready, squeezing her eyes shut and panting. “F-faster,” she urges, “Not too much, but...”

Chloe’s body is tight around her, but her hand’s warm and soft, even through the cotton. Max is almost impatient with how long it takes, even though she wants it so badly, until something shifts and she can feel herself racing towards something. She moans to hear herself, to let Chloe know she’s close, to urge her on and tell her she’s doing good, this feels amazing. Nothing like when she was first starting to sprout ugly wires from her face and her own urges betrayed her. Softer.

And when she comes, it’s different too, not just centered on that thing but starting at her stomach and spreading through her limbs. It’s hard to even breathe. She feels like she’s having some kind of seizure, sure she must look like a crazy person, but Chloe gently rides it out with her until it starts to chafe and Max has to gently guide Chloe’s hand back to the center of her chest.

“Feeling good?” Chloe asks, her voice small and uncertain, so unlike her normally.

“Yeah,” Max huffs. “Yeah.”

“S-so, if you don’t mind telling me, why...”

“Why was it different?”

“Yeah.”

Max is too tingly to think it through too clearly. “I...I guess...I don’t know. A good day. My chest isn’t hurting, and going down on you was really fun too and it made me feel good.” She lets loose a whew, feels her body grow softer and she's grateful. It was starting to edge into her thoughts. “Sometimes I just...don’t feel so bad, if everything else is working okay. And I didn’t feel pressured, I just wanted to.”

“Mmm.” Chloe trails a finger up and down her chest. “So, sometimes, I still don’t get to touch you. Right?”

“Probably,” Max admits.

“Okay. Just don’t wanna force you to do anything.” Chloe pauses for a moment, then squeezes Max tighter. “Holy fuck I can’t believe you went down on me. Thought you’d save that for Valentine’s or something.”

Max laughs. “I’ve always kind of wanted to do it...”

“Do you know how long I’ve been thinking about that? Wait, actually, nevermind, it was like way too early,” Chloe says quickly. “Fuck.”

Max giggles and rolls over on her side, face-to-face with Chloe. Well, if Chloe’s admitting things...“I saw your piercings the first night we got together,” she informs Chloe. “I was about to run away I was so turned on.”

“Glad you didn’t,” Chloe says with a grin. “They’re not supposed to be girl-repellants.”

Max laughs and embraces her fully, burying her head in Chloe’s shoulder. She can feel her eyelids getting heavy, her body exhausted from all of Chloe’s work.

“Nap time?” Chloe suggests.

“Mhm,” Max agrees. “Sleepy.”

“Yeah, it’s like that,” Chloe says with a smile.

As they shift to get under the covers, Max notes the wet spot on the front of herself and curls up her nose. Ugh. Well, one day that will never happen again except in the good way. She throws the blanket over herself so she won’t have to look, and focuses instead on Chloe’s arm across her back as she lays face-down in the pillows.

Maybe it won’t ever be perfect. But it’s worth all the effort to feel this close to Chloe. The next time this comes around, the next opportunity that arises, she’ll gladly take. Otherwise...well. Even if she doesn’t technically get anything out of it, Max could always stand to see Chloe in ecstasy again.

 


 

It’s time for the first movie night since break, and Max and Rachel are standing in the hall, Rachel kneeling in front of Victoria’s door. She experimentally turns the knob. “Huh. Not locked,” she murmurs. She stands up and pushes in.

Someone yelps, and very shortly afterwards Max sees why as the door swings open. There’s two people on the bed, and as the one on top (on top!) turns her head, Max recognizes those heavy blonde bangs. Taylor, one of Victoria’s friends. They haven’t talked much. And under her, rising up and glaring hatefully at Rachel and Max, is Victoria herself, hair a mess, an extremely visible mark on her neck.

“Get the fuck out!” she hisses, and Rachel quickly slams the door shut, eyes open wide. She looks over at Max with a deer-in-headlights expression.

“Well.” She clears her throat. “No TV tonight, I guess.”  

“Yeah, I guess.”

The two of them look at each other for a minute longer, then break into involuntary giggles. “Well,” Max says after a moment. “Knock next time, maybe?”

Rachel pulls out her phone. “Oh my god she’s texting me all kinds of threatening bullshit. Holy shit, she’s mad.” She suppresses a laugh again. “She needs to chill, I’m not gonna tell anyone...’cept maybe Chloe.” She stops, looking down, pursing her lips. “I’m not like that anymore.”

“I know you aren’t,” Max says, putting her hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Let’s just set up my laptop, yeah?”

Rachel nods, and the usual crew piles in once things are ready for them, Rachel and Max giving them the vague excuse that Victoria’s room was ‘occupied.’ Rachel takes her place on Max’s side again, just like before. Max can’t complain about being between her two favorite girls in the world, and Chloe doesn’t seem threatened. Rachel’s not as cuddly as Halloween, but it still feels nice. Kate seems to be intent on signalling Dana, snuggling into her shoulder and closing her eyes most of the time. Dana throws an arm around her, looking nervously excited, and Max smiles.

Rachel stays behind once the movie’s over, reaching around behind Max to tap Chloe on the shoulder once the door swings shut behind Warren. “So guess what I saw when I tried to get the TV,” she says with a smirk.

“Ooh, is it juicy gossip time?” Chloe asks as Max sinks into the couch happily.

“Victoria Chase, with a girl on top of her,” Rachel says with a grin.

“No way! She finally got a girl? Who is it?” Chloe asks eagerly.

“You wouldn’t know her, she’s new this year. Taylor. I noticed them getting close while I was still in the VC.” Rachel hums to herself. “I thought Vic might have another crush. She gets ‘em super easy. When I was with her it was like every time we talked about, like, how we figured ourselves out, she’d have another girl that just confirmed it for her. She...she used to hate it. I thought it was sort of cute, but...” Rachel sighs, suddenly losing her lustre. “She didn’t want to be gay. I hope she treats Taylor good. And that Taylor’s...better to her than I was.”

“Hey, Rach...” Chloe says as Rachel stands up.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have even said anything, this isn’t funny,” Rachel murmurs. “I’ve outed her to both of you and never even asked, and I — I used it against her.”

“What?” Max asks, sitting up and looking at Rachel. “What do you mean?”

“When Victoria was bullying you. She did the same thing to me. She obviously had a crush and she wanted to pretend she didn’t. So I sort of...implied I’d out her if she kept screwing with you,” Rachel admits.

“Jesus, Rach. Hardcore,” Chloe says.

“It’s not hardcore, it’s shitty. And I shouldn’t have done that. And I shouldn’t have tried to get back with her just to make myself feel good, and I should be happy for her, it’s just...” Rachel starts to shake, and Chloe immediately jumps up. “E-everyone has someone but me, and it’s always my fault, I drive everyone away—”

Chloe hugs her fiercely, burying Rachel’s face in her chest. Max stands up as Rachel whimpers.

“Hey, hey,” Chloe murmurs. “You don’t need a boyfriend or a girlfriend, Rachel. And you don’t need to hook up, either.”

“I just feel so shitty. No one could ever love me, not when they know me,” Rachel sobs. Max can’t think of what to say, this time, knowing how much this is kind of her fault. She didn’t date Rachel, even though she could have. She chose Chloe and took both of them out of Rachel’s reach and made her feel unloved.

“We love you,” Chloe states, like it’s a fact. Because it is. Max comes up behind Rachel, joining in the hug, resting her head on Rachel’s shoulder. “You know that, right? You’ve got us. Always.”

“Not always. You left me.”

“Never again,” Chloe promises. “Fuck, Rachel. I like you more now that I do know you. The real you.”

“Me too,” Max says awkwardly, but it’s the truth. Having Rachel is her life is worth a lot. “You were scary before. You intimidated me, but now...I see the real you, and you’re really kind, underneath it all. You just wanna do what’s right now. And you look out for me almost as much as Chloe does.”

Rachel stays silent for a while, squished between them. It takes her a while to take in a deep breath and whisper, “Okay.”

“Okay?” Chloe asks, pulling back and looking her in the eye. “You’re hella beautiful and so much fun. People are already in love with you all over campus, you know.” Max isn’t sure how to feel about Chloe telling Rachel that. It’s not that she doesn’t trust Chloe, or that she doesn’t think the same about Rachel, and they’ve already talked about feelings for this girl, but...Well. She supposes it’s perfectly natural and decides to keep clinging to Rachel.

Rachel laughs, wiping at her eyes. “Not the ones I want, usually.”

“It’ll work out sometime. It’s gotta.” Chloe pats her on the shoulder.

“Can I stay with you guys for a while?” Rachel asks. “Just...hang a little longer?”

“Sure. Let’s hit up Sonic or something. Maybe chill in your room for a bit after. Sound good?”

Rachel relaxes. “Yeah.”

Chloe leads them out of the dorms, joining hands with Max as they head to the parking lot, Rachel trailing slightly behind. It feels strange, exclusionary. Sitting between them in the truck is better. Max leans her head on Rachel’s shoulder while they drive, her hand over Chloe’s on the gearshift. Rachel’s got control of the sound system, and Max nearly falls asleep to the sound of her songs, soft electric guitar accompanied by promises of change.

Chapter Text

Kate:

Do you and Chloe have any plans for Valentine’s Day?

Max smiles at her phone as she walks into her dorm, dumping her bag on her bed. As much as she loves Kate, the girl can be pretty transparent at times.

Me:

Not really

Is this an excuse to talk about yours? ^.^

Kate:

Maybe. You’re too good at this.

I like hearing about you guys though. I’m a little jealous, I guess.

I’ve been trying to give Dana hints but I think I’m bad at flirting with girls. Or flirting in general.

I want to try being with her before the semester’s over. I want to see what it’s like before I lose all you guys and I have to go back home.

I’m sorry, I’m multi-texting you a lot. I’ll stop rambling now.

Me:

You’re very cute when you ramble :)

And you didn’t actually get to the part where you tell me your V-Day plans

Kate:

See! This is what I mean!

You’re way better at flirting and you already have a girlfriend!

Me:

You’re still avoiding the question

Kate:

You’re mean.

But I want to do something before she gives up on me or something. I don’t know what. But I’m putting a time limit on myself for doing something either before or on Valentine’s Day. I just need ideas.

How did you and Chloe start dating? For real?

Max smiles at the memory, flopping down on her bed and holding her phone above her head.

Me:

She dared me

Kate:

I don’t think I can pull that off.

Me:

I agree, it’s not you

Chocolates? Roses? Traditional stuff seems more up your alley...

Kate:

I like the idea of giving her a rose...

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just ask if she’s free that day and...go out to dinner or something.

Actually no that’s terrifying. Maybe just my dorm. After class. So I can tell her how I feel in private.

Do you think she’d say no? Am I just getting my hopes up for nothing?

Me:

Kate Beverly Marsh.

That girl has a huge crush on you

It can be seen from space

Rachel and Chloe both know it

Rachel keeps talking about when Dana’s gonna put the moves on you

She’ll be so happy

Kate:

If you say so.

Thanks for talking to me, Max. I’m going to think more about it. I still like the rose idea, maybe I’ll start with that once she comes in.

Is it okay if I keep dumping this on you, by the way? I don’t want this to be a burden on you or anything.

Me:

Kate

I know this is going to work out

And it’s gonna be very cute

This isn’t stressful now that you’re happier with yourself

So please keep me in the loop :3

Kate:

Okay. Will do. Thanks again.

I’m actually really excited about this. I know I can’t put it on Facebook or tell my family or anything, but still.

I really want to be with her.

It’s weird to type that.

Max lets the phone drop to her chest as she closes her eyes and smiles. All she knows about her own upcoming Thursday is that she and Chloe will spend the night together, that they’ll do something after school. That’s all she really wants or needs, but she’s thrilled to see Kate doing so well.

She wonders, idly, how Rachel will spend the holiday. If this will trigger her self-worth problems, her old worries about not being good enough for people. She can only hope that she’s doing well enough; Rachel hasn’t had another breakdown since the first week of the semester, but Max figures she’s always going to worry.

 


 

Chloe arrives after school on Thursday and whisks Max away in her truck, driving them to some ‘secret’ destination. Max is happy to simply control the stereo while they curve along the coastline, watching the early sunset of winter. She knows where they’re heading a few minutes in, recognizes the route from the bus she took with Rachel, at the very beginning of the year.

Her heart beats strong as Chloe holds her hand, pulling her up the steep path. It feels like she’s retracing steps walked by a different person, in a different life. But that life wasn’t all bad. The people weren’t all bad.

“So I kinda had this idea,” Chloe says as they step up onto the lighthouse plateau. She tugs Max towards a familiar tree, the one with the carving. Max and Chloe, BFF Pirates 2008.

“And what’s that?” Max asks, leaning into Chloe’s side as they stare at the old graffiti.

Chloe digs a Swiss Army knife out of her pocket. “Figure this needs an update.” As she pulls the blade out, she lets Max’s hand go, kneeling down to mark an area below the original carving.

It doesn’t take Max long to figure out she’s drawing a Venus symbol, finished off with a C inside the circle. “So, like, you can do that thing where...” Chloe mimes with her fingers. “Like they’re on a keyring or whatever? You know what I mean, right?”

Max nods, not wanting to talk and reveal how tight her chest is right now. She takes the knife from Chloe and does as she asks, intertwining a second Venus symbol with Chloe’s, putting an M in the center of her own. She writes 2014 under the twin signs.

She hands the knife back to Chloe, who quickly kneels down and sketches a heart outline over the whole thing. As she folds the knife and puts it back in her pocket, Max hugs her hard, because no words can express this.

Chloe pulls her close and strokes her hair. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Max.”

Max can only manage a sort of whining sound, trying not to cry. Valentine’s Day was spent alone, even missing school one year. And now here she is, with her best-friend-turned-girlfriend, making their commitment known to the world.

Chloe leads her over to the bench eventually. After long enough of just cuddling in their coats and watching the coast, Max manages to say “Thank you.”

“‘Course,” Chloe says simply. “I’ve actually been wanting to come back here for a while. Like, me and Rachel hung out here sometimes, but it was never really our place. That was the junkyard. Here...this was always you and me.” She squeezes Max with the arm that’s wrapped around her shoulders.

“She actually took me up here my first day at Blackwell,” Max says.

“Really?” A troubled look crosses Chloe’s face. “Bet she was trying to see how stealth you were trying to go.”

“Maybe. It was still kind of nice. She got a good shot of me up here. She talked about liking to just relax sometimes.” Max shrugs. “It’s...I know she was doing it because I’m trans, and because of you, and all, but...it’s a good memory. She was the first person to really be good to me at Blackwell.”

“She was like that for me, too.” Chloe sighs. “Like, after my dad died, and you left...didn’t have a whole lot of friends. Or, like, any. And she just swoops in and decides to be my new bestie. I mean, despite everything...glad she was around for both of us.”

She still looks a bit downcast, and Max realizes she probably wanted to be the first to take Max back here. But she was the best, so Max gives her a soft kiss on the cheek. “It was better this time,” she whispers.

Chloe smiles and holds her close, until Max’s phone suddenly buzzes. She untangles for a moment to see what she’s got. It’s from Kate, a message simply reading MAX!!!!!!!!! and a photo.

“Who is it?” Chloe asks as Max opens the photo and turns her screen to see it better. Two hands intertwined, one with Kate’s black sleeve, the other with Dana’s bangles falling down the wrist.

Max hands her phone to Chloe, who grins widely in response. “About time,” she says affectionately. “Kate’s so fucking gay.”

Max giggles. “She’s been texting me nonstop about how to maybe get with Dana. We had a couple talks about it.”

Chloe snuggles up closer to Max. “You are legitimately the best girl in this town. You just spread gay everywhere like a walking Pride parade.” Chloe kisses her forehead. “Oh yeah, speaking of gay. One more idea.”

Chloe digs in her pockets and produces what appears to be a mess of thin rope until she untangles it. Max’s eyes widen. She noticed that Chloe hadn’t been wearing her bullet necklace before, and thought nothing of it, but now...

Chloe carefully drapes the single bullet around Max’s neck, then takes the other necklace, now with only two left, and puts it on herself. “Cheesy as fuck, I know, make fun of me all you want,” Chloe says, looking away.

Max crawls on top of her and kisses her half to death.

 


 

Much, much later, after a date at a fancy restaurant (well, Olive Garden, but Chloe tries) and plenty of time in the dark of Chloe’s room, Max lies awake, Chloe satisfied and sleeping beside her. It’s a quiet moment, staring into Chloe’s ceiling, thinking about everything that’s happened today.

She can’t help but feel a little guilty for not having anything nearly as romantic for Chloe as what she got, though the new Offspring and Green Day albums seemed to make her happy enough. But that’s a minor thing. The love she’s shown Chloe is more than enough, she knows. Chloe’s certainly made no secret of it.

Her phone vibrates on the nightstand and she quickly snatches it up, making sure not to wake Chloe. She turns it to total silence before looking at the text.

Kate:

Max help me and Dana are still hanging out and watching cartoons

We hugged and cuddled and held hands when should I kiss her?

Me:

I can tell this is serious because your grammar is breaking down

Kate:

Max really help she’s in the bathroom she’ll be back soon

When did you and Chloe have your first kiss?

Me:

She dared me to kiss her, that’s what started everything

You can go slow if you want, there’s no rush

Kate:

Oh. Okay.

You’re right, maybe I should take this slower. I’m just so happy! I never thought I’d feel this way.

Thank you so much for everything, Max.

I’ll keep you posted because I’ll need to tell someone!

She’s coming back, I’ll talk to you later.

Just as Max sends back a Good luck!, another message comes in.

Rachel:

max! how was valentines with chloe?

i bet she was sickeningly sweet, she’s so cute when she’s fallen super hard, which she has

Me:

She gave me a bullet from her necklace and carved our names into our old tree again

Rachel:

oh my fucking god

gay

Me:

She’s amazing

But how are you? Feeling okay?

I thought Valentine’s might be rough on you...

Rachel:

i’m all right

like, not super great but you’d know that. because you know me.

but i’m all right. had a beer or two, watching imagine me and you

i know i could go out and like spend the night with someone idk

like you said, lotta people like me

but i don’t want just anyone anymore it’s not enough and it never was

is it weird that i kinda just wish i was hanging with you two instead

i know that’s literally the definition of third-wheeling but

idk. you guys always cheer me up.

Me:

I’m sure we can find sometime for us to hang this week, tomorrow even

You’re not alone

Rachel:

i know.

so i was thinking like

what about spring break?

i don’t want to go home again for it and i don’t think my parents even know the date

you think I could crash at chloe’s with you? assuming that’s how you’re doing it

Me:

oh! I hadn’t even thought about that yet

I’ll ask Chloe when she wakes up

It would be fun to spend spring break together!

Rachel:

thanks max

you’re a serious lifesaver

i was gonna scream if i was stuck at home for another week

let me know, k?

imma put on another movie and go to bed

tell chloe i said hi

Me:

Will do. Goodnight, Rachel

Rachel:

goodnight, max

oh btw kate and dana are totally fucking dating now

they are *trying* to hide it but like. c’mon.

i assume this is your fault

Me:

Only a little!

Rachel:

goodnight little blackwell matchmaker

sweet dreams

 


 

 

“So about that spring break thing,” Chloe says, smiling over the pipe she’s just taken a hit off. “Guess what?”

“What?” Rachel and Max both ask, leaning off their chairs in the hideout.

“Mom and stepfuck are taking a couple’s retreat for spring break to sort out their shit,” Chloe informs them. “Which I helped pay for totally out of the kindness of my heart. And like, a little guilt. And also because now we get the house to ourselves.”

“This is literally a dream come true,” Rachel says, smiling wide. “I used to love staying at your place, except for the whole sneak-out-before-David-knows thing.”

“I know, right?” Chloe leans back and smiles. “This is gonna rule. You guys know my birthday’s in break this year, right? I’m completely taking that off work. I have the right.”

“You do,” Max agrees.

“This is pretty much what I always wanted. Having you two in the same place and we’re all actually friends and shit. I’m so ready for this.” Chloe passes the pipe off to Rachel. “One rule, though.”

“What?” Max asks suspiciously.

“You.” Chloe points at her. “Your birthday present to me is that you get drunk with me and Rachel. I wanna see you let loose.

Max considers for a moment, remembering the few times she’s been around Rachel or Chloe when they have a couple of beers during movie night or when they’re out here in the junkyard. It honestly looks sort of fun. Only...

“No beer,” Max replies, crossing her arms. “You make me nice girly drinks.”

“Deal.”

Rachel and Chloe have the grins of demons.

 


 

It’s pretty much as good as Max imagined, sharing Chloe’s house between the three of them.

Once they settle in on Friday, the weekend is mostly spent quietly, with Chloe going off to work while Rachel and Max hang in the living room, trading stories of their own Chloe adventures and browsing their laptops. When Chloe comes back, she makes them all dinner, and they’ll watch a movie or some of Rachel’s cartoons, or take turns gaming, or just talk late into the night, Max snuggled up against Chloe on the couch. It’s on the night of Chloe’s birthday that things get different.

“So,” Chloe begins as Rachel and Max clear their plates, “I actually kinda got good at mixing drinks back when I was going to VC parties, because it was something to do, y’know? Max, you want a mojito, tequila sunrise, margarita...we got plenty of shit in here.” She rummages through the liquor cabinet as she speaks.

“Just make me whatever tastes good, or at least not awful,” Max replies.

“Tequila sunrise,” Chloe confirms. “Prettiest drink I can make.”

“So how are we doing this?” Rachel asks.

“Thinkin’. We can’t do never have I ever because that’d just be me and you getting wasted because Max is vanilla as fuck — no offense, love you — so...fuck you pyramid?”

“Oh my God, that’s mean,” Rachel says with a giggle, sitting back down at the kitchen table with Max. “It’s just gonna be us two ganging up on poor little Max.”

“Speak for yourself,” Chloe says with a snort. “Like I’m letting you off the hook.”

“What are we doing, exactly?” Max asks.

Chloe explains the game while she mixes drinks, a card-based deal where they flip over a card in a pyramid laid out on the table, and anyone with a card matching the suit or number has to lay it down and declare “Fuck you!” to someone else at the table. Anyone with a suit or number matching that card has to put that down as well, until no one can add any more cards and someone is finally chosen to drink. That person drinks as long as the person who ‘fucked’ them takes to count the final card tally.

“That does sound mean,” Max admits as Chloe starts laying down the pyramid. “You guys will go easy on me, right?”

“Oh, sure. You weigh like 90 pounds, I’m not gonna mix your drink super strong or anything. But I do expect my girlfriend to defend herself,” Chloe says with a wink, sinking down beside her and taking up her own drink. “First thing though — to twenty fucking years. Sometimes I didn’t think I’d make it,” she says, holding her glass above the table.

“Glad you did,” Max says, clinking with her.

“Glad we all did,” Rachel adds.

And with that, the game’s on.

 


 

It’s only when Max stands up that she understands exactly how drunk she is.

“Woah, there, Maxster,” Chloe says, standing up and steadying her by the shoulders. “You okay? Rachel fucked you a lot, which is my job, by the way,” she adds with a glance over her shoulder. Rachel just giggles while Max breaks into involuntary laughter, because God, it’s embarrassing but it’s true.

“I’m okay,” Max replies, leaning into Chloe and nearly tipping her chair over.

“Sure.”

“I’ll kick your ass,” Max mumbles. “I’ll kick both your asses.”

“Sounds like a challenge,” Chloe says.

“It is, ” Max says, grinning up at her, because beating Chloe and Rachel up in fighting games sounds so fun right now. Once she manages to get this idea out of her head, with a lot of stumbling and slurring, Chloe agrees, and even Rachel decides to give ‘your stupid video game’ another shot.

Once the console is set up downstairs, what actually ends up happening is that the three of them discover the create-a-fighter feature together and spend over an hour toying with one poor soul who becomes a horrific amalgamation of parts painted green, purple, and orange. Rachel honestly has the best suggestions. By the time they’ve finished their monster, Max is nearly crying with laughter, bent over Rachel’s lap with Chloe leaning hard on her side.

“The voice! ” Max squeaks out as Rachel absently strokes her hair, looking down fondly at her.

“We have to see this guy in action. Let’s just run him against the AI,” Chloe suggests. Rachel nods in agreement, and Max gratefully settles further into her lap, Chloe lounging behind her on the couch, their bodies parallel.

Something about this feels nice. It feels right, especially as Chloe lets go of the controller and leans against Rachel’s shoulder, her arm around Max. Watching what’s on screen is funny, but not nearly as distracting as Rachel’s continued hair-stroking, her nervous, trembling fingers.

Eventually they do have to shift positions, declaring themselves too drunk to fight each other and instead settling on watching random episodes of Adventure Time by plugging Max’s laptop into the TV. For once, Rachel ends up beside Chloe instead of Max, and Chloe puts her arms over both of them, bringing them close. Chloe kisses Max on the forehead, which seems to prompt Rachel to go for Chloe’s cheek. When Max sees it, she giggles, watching Chloe’s face redden. She should be jealous, or worried, but she knows that this is just how Rachel is, and there’s no way Chloe’s going to somehow leave Max. She hazily recalls the way they both admitted having feelings for Rachel, but that ‘us’ was more important.

She’s struck by a thought, and she’s not sure she should like it. She tries not to think about it, because it’s impossible.

Eventually, Chloe puts on music through a phone speaker and the TV’s turned off, Rachel and Chloe heading outside to smoke. Max sits cross-legged between their lawn chairs on the patio, leaning against the sliding glass door and letting their rambling conversation go over her head. Something about Victoria, and Taylor, and Dana and Kate.

“Blackwell’s like a hive of lesbians,” is the phrase she remembers the best, because she bursts into laughter and hits her head on the door as she falls backward.

Chloe and Rachel immediately jump up, asking if she’s okay, and she’s fine, she just bumped her head. The both of them lay down their paraphernalia and hoist her up to her feet regardless.

“I think this one needs to go to bed,” Chloe says, ruffling Max’s hair. “She’s fading, man.”

“Mmm,” Max murmurs, burying her face in Chloe’s chest, enjoying Rachel’s hand still rubbing her back. She won’t object to laying down and cuddling with Chloe for a while. That sounds nice. Especially if—

No. It won’t happen.

She lets Chloe lead her up the stairs before she remembers she has to take her pills, and wanders her way into the bathroom while Rachel and Chloe change into their pajamas in their own rooms. She drinks a few glasses of water, too, remembering vaguely that you’re supposed to do that before heading back to Chloe’s room and collapsing beside her on the bed. She cuddles up against her side and gives her a slightly sloppy kiss before settling in.

A shadow blocks the light from the hall, and Max looks up to see Rachel standing in the doorway, leaning on one side. There’s a question in her face, uncertainty in her stance.

Max and Chloe exchange a brief look. Max knows that Rachel doesn’t like to sleep alone. Chloe has to know too. Chloe...she felt it tonight, right? The way it felt when the three of them were together, physically? This can’t just be Max’s imagination.

Their glance is longer than Max expected, but Chloe slowly turns her head back to Rachel and raises a hand in the air, beckoning her. Max’s heart beats like a kettle drum.

Rachel smiles shakily, closing the door behind her as she enters, carefully settling in beside Chloe and pulling the covers up over the three of them. She reaches across Chloe’s stomach and grabs Max’s hand in the center of her body, their fingers intertwining. They breathe at the same labored pace, eyes meeting, Rachel looking terrified but utterly excited, too, her eyes wide and her lips quivering in that scared smile.

“Goodnight,” Rachel whispers.

Chloe and Max mumble their goodnights in return, even as Max’s blood pumps madly. Chloe brings her up a little to share one last kiss, and then Rachel leans up as well, kissing Chloe’s jaw and drawing a little gasp, sending a thrill through Max’s system.

Either this is happening, or it’s just drunken affection.

Max hopes it’s happening as she drifts off to sleep. The last thing she hears is, “Happy birthday, Chloe.”

 


 

When she awakens, less groggy than she thought, she feels Chloe’s arm tense against her. She looks up and sees Chloe with a worried look on her face, chewing on her lower lip, glancing furtively down at the still-sleeping Rachel. They share a brief, nervous glance, but neither of them want to move until she does.

Rachel stirs, groaning as she lifts her head off of Chloe’s chest for a moment, her hair a shaggy mess. She flips it behind her head, then, without opening her eyes, lays back down again.

Chloe clears her throat. “Uh.”

“Mm?” Rachel hums.

“So, um, what...what was going on last night?” Chloe asks, eyes darting to Max again. “Like, something was happening, right?”

Max can see Rachel tense up.

“Rach?”

Rachel turns over, leaving Chloe’s body, curling her limbs up. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles.

Max rises, sitting up against the wall and looking over at her. “Rachel, what’s wrong?” she asks as Chloe’s arm circles her waist, the other hand running through her own hair nervously.

Rachel lets out a frustrated sigh and shifts again, sitting at the edge of the bed, facing away from them. “I’m fucking greedy, that’s what,” she mutters, knotting the sheets in her hands.

“What do you—”

“I thought, somehow, I—I don’t know, I was drunk, and I just, you two, and...” Rachel takes in a deep breath, clearly trying not to hyperventilate. “I, I know I shouldn’t, but I...”

“Rachel, breathe,” Max says, crawling over Chloe and putting a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. Chloe shifts behind her so she can still see Rachel, but her expression hasn’t gotten any less terrified. “What are you trying to say?”

“I just thought, maybe...” Rachel swallows, her hands shaking. “I...I love both of you. So much. I thought I’d lost you when you got together, I c-couldn’t be with you, but last night it felt like...”

“Like what?” Max asks, though she knows the answer.

“Like you could...include me.” Rachel covers her face with one hand. “Like I could be with — with both of you. Like I didn’t have to lose either of you.”

Chloe takes a sharp breath behind Max. Max looks over her shoulder, and their eyes meet, and there’s some kind of...something, there. Max takes the plunge, despite the fear that Chloe will reject her if she admits this. She nods, silently.

Rachel keeps talking, “And I know that’s fucked up, and it’s weird, and people don’t do it and I’m just being greedy, but I, I couldn’t help it, I wanted it so bad, it felt so good, and I—”

“So, um...” Chloe clears her throat. “I was kinda feeling that too? Kinda? Like...when you kissed me...” She shivers. “And, like, Max — Max, did you—”

“Yeah,” Max admits. “I...” How does she even admit this. How does this even happen. Max, you’re completely crazy, this is a dream.

But last time it wasn’t a dream.

“I liked it a lot when you came to bed with us,” she says at last. Rachel’s gone completely still. “C-Chloe, would you really...?”

“Shit, I dunno,” Chloe says, clutching at her head. “Fuck, I...How would it even work? Like, I don’t...it’s...fuck, Rachel, you know how fucking in love with you I was, and like, that hasn’t all gone away, and I know Max has a crush on you because who the fuck wouldn’t, and us getting close has been good, better than before, but I don’t wanna leave Max, fucking ever, but... Can we even do this?”

Max’s mind is short-circuiting and she needs to close her eyes to think. “We could...we could try,” she suggests. “I, um...I’m not opposed. At all. It sounds really nice. If it’s always as nice as last night...”

“You’re not joking,” Rachel whispers, covering her mouth, still not looking at them.  “Right?”

“We’re not,” Max assures her. “Look at me?”

Rachel turns, and Max strokes her arm nearly unconsciously. “We can try this,” Max says, despite the tremors in her limbs. “If you really want. We—we’ll need rules, and stuff, but...” She looks over her shoulder at Chloe again, and it’s Chloe who nods this time.

“Yeah, it’s, um...It’s gonna be something, but...I wanna try.”

Rachel turns her whole body and puts a hand on Max’s shoulder, getting on her knees. She sniffs. “Um, if there’s gonna be rules...can I kiss you? ‘Cuz I really fucking want to kiss you right now.” Her eyes flick towards Chloe, who nods, and then back to Max.

Max’s mouth is totally dry, but she’s wanted this for longer than she can consciously remember. She closes her eyes, parts her lips slightly. Rachel’s kiss is something, stronger than Chloe’s, intense and certain and burning. Max can hear Chloe’s breath hitch, hopes she’s not jealous, hopes this really can somehow work out.

When Rachel pulls back, Max opens her eyes, and Rachel still looks just as nervous as before. But she crawls past Max, straddling Chloe, looking deep into her eyes, and Max can see what Rachel must’ve always done to her. She looks totally helpless, and somehow it just makes Max’s gut heat up in a pleasant way, watching them kiss.

Rachel rolls off, settling on Chloe’s other side as Max comes up to cuddle again. Everyone’s breathing a little harder than usual, and Max has to kiss Chloe, just to make sure she knows that nothing’s changed between them.

Rachel starts sniffling, curling up against Chloe’s side, face in her shirt.

“Hey, Rach,” Chloe attempts, putting an arm around both of them and squeezing tight. “It’s okay, really. We can make this work.”

“I just—I’ve spent so long missing you, and wanting Max, and it’s — this shouldn’t — I never thought I could really have you both. That I haven’t lost anything.” Rachel heaves in a breath that sounds more like a sob. “I don’t deserve you, either of you, I fucked up so much—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Max assures her, reaching across Chloe and trying to touch her shoulder. “We’re here now. We both care a lot about you. I know we do.”

“Yeah,” Chloe agrees.

Rachel can’t seem to talk anymore, making a little moaning noise and clinging tight to Chloe, grabbing Max’s hand.

“We’ll make this work,” Max promises her. “We’ll find a way.”

Months ago, she could never have imagined being here, with two women who love her enough to want to share her. But this isn’t the first day of school anymore.

Max knows they can do this. As they all cling to one another, she knows this can only make them stronger, no matter what happens. She’s never been more certain of herself in her life, and she has these two to thank.

The least she can do is hold onto them, and wait to see what comes next.

Chapter Text

No one seems to want to move.

Which Max can understand, given that she’s not sure she should move either. If one of them moves, they have to continue after everything they just said. They have to really do this.

It shouldn’t be this scary. They’re her two best friends in the world, and she loves them both. But this is uncharted territory.

But she remembers that being with Chloe at all was uncharted territory, once. So was coming back to Arcadia Bay. So was transitioning.

Besides, she’s getting hungry. And her mouth is like a desert. She should’ve had more water last night.

Chloe’s trapped, and Rachel’s still recovering. Max’s turn to make the first move. She crawls out from under Chloe’s arm, sitting on the edge of the bed and stretching.

“When do you work today, Chloe?” she asks, like nothing’s happened. She figures that’s how this has to start. Pretending this is all normal.

“Oh. Uh, twelve to six,” she says.

Max finds her phone on the nightstand. “It’s nine-thirty. We should get breakfast going.”

“Yeah.” Chloe shifts, rubbing Rachel’s arm. “Good idea. You guys get showered and dressed and shit, I’ll see you downstairs.”

Rachel stays put, getting a kiss on the forehead as Chloe makes her way off the bed. Max gets a quick peck too before Chloe thumps down the stairs.

Rachel sits up, playing with her feather earring. “Hey, Max,” she says as Max starts to head for the door. “Thanks.”

“For?” Max asks, turning around and giving her a smile.

“Everything, I guess. You make Chloe so happy, and you’re giving me this chance, and you’ve just been so, so good to me.” Rachel stands up and suddenly throws her arms around Max. “I promise, I’ll try not to let anyone down this time.”

Max hugs her back. “You won’t,” she assures her. “But I get first shower.”

“I think I can handle that. Gives me a little time to wake and bake. I super need it if I’m gonna get through breakfast without freaking out on you guys again,” Rachel explains as she pulls back.

“Just don’t get so stoned you can’t talked to us,” Max warns.

“I’ll watch myself,” Rachel says. “I...I know I could...” She looks away. “There’ve been times I didn’t have a great handle on that stuff. Drugs and alcohol and all that. It sucked. I’ll be careful.”

“I trust you.” Max thinks for a minute, and dares. She kisses Rachel’s cheek. “I’ll see you downstairs.”

They separate, Rachel heading to the guest room while Max showers. As she dresses in Chloe’s room, she decides to experiment.

She tries on her bra without the inserts, tests it out. And it fits. There’s a little room to grow, but it fits.

Something in her wants to break down and cry right now. It feels so comfortable. So right. She’s grinning as she finishes dressing. Now she can really be herself, nothing else required. Around her girlfriends. Plural.

That’s gonna take some getting used to.

As she heads downstairs, she sees Chloe hard at work making pancakes, looking just a little bit stressed. She pads into the kitchen and hugs her around the waist, nearly making her drop the mixing bowl.

“You almost fucked up your own breakfast there, Caulfield,” Chloe says affectionately, putting the bowl down and ruffling Max’s hair. “Doing okay?”

“Mm.” Max rubs her head into Chloe’s chest. “I’m all right. A little nervous.”

“No shit,” Chloe says with a chuckle. “Like I’m not? But...I can tell you want this. And I kinda want it too. We should...talk more when Rachel gets down here. Figure out what the fuck we’re doing.”

“Sounds good,” Max agrees. Chloe kisses her forehead and shoos her off to the table, where she waits for breakfast and Rachel by running through her phone contacts and trying to figure out if there’s anyone she can talk to about...this whole thing. Kate? Definite no, at least for now. She’s just figuring herself out, she doesn’t need to get extra confused by Max’s new situation. Maybe Dana?

As she’s mulling things over, Rachel comes down the stairs, wet hair hanging down her back. She takes a seat as the table just as Chloe brings over their plates. Chloe remains standing, leaning against the kitchen counter and jittering her leg nervously as she stabs at her pancakes.

“So,” she says after a couple of bites. “How are we doing this?”

“Um...” Max and Rachel both look at each other. Rachel swallows and takes the first step.

“Have you two...slept together, or anything?” Rachel asks, twirling her fork in her hands so she doesn’t have to look at either of them. “Like, how should we...”

“We do,” Chloe says simply while Max ducks her head to hide her blush. “But, Rachel...” She sighs. “I know we’ve been together before, but let’s take it slow this time, because last time we super didn’t and I think that was part of the problem, y’know?”

Rachel looks down and nods. “Yeah, yeah, that’s...that’s fine. Sorry for bringing it up like that, but...”

“You’re kinda needy. I know. But we all need some time just to get used to...us.” Chloe draws her finger in a triangle between the three of them. “And I’m not losing Max, so we’re being careful.”

Max can’t help but smile despite the worry in her gut, the light jealousy. Because Rachel has what Chloe really wants. Can satisfy her in ways that Max just can’t, not right now. But Chloe’s love for her overrides that, and she’s not being selfish, and keeping Max is important to her.

God, how did she luck out this hard?

“So, like...what’s cool, what’s not?” Rachel asks, looking over at Max.

Max clears her throat. “Kissing is good,” she murmurs quietly, watching for Chloe’s reaction. Chloe nods. “A-and cuddling and stuff.”

“Even while Chloe’s at work this week?” Rachel adds.

“Yeah, it’s — yeah. I think Max will like that while I’m, like, gone.” Chloe takes in a deep breath. “And you guys can hang out and stuff when school starts up again. As long as Max sends me cute pictures of you guys once in a while.”

Max lets out a little laugh. “I think I can do that.”

“And just, like — we’ve got a whole week to figure shit out, so let’s keep it slow, like I said,” Chloe says. “I don’t want to screw this up. I...I missed you, Rachel, but...”

“I know,” Rachel says quietly. “I messed up. It...it makes sense that you don’t want to jump into anything again. I’ll try to be good for you two. I want you to be happy. If that means this can’t keep going at some point, then...then I’ll go.”

“We won’t stop being your friend either way, Rachel,” Max promises, reaching across the table and taking her hand. “You’re important to us.”

“Yeah. I don’t wanna lose you either. That sucked,” Chloe opines. She checks her phone. “I gotta get ready for work and junk, but...you know, I’ve had two best friends. Fell for both of ‘em. Can’t say having them fall for each other too is a bad thing.” She smiles at them, that rare completely unsarcastic Chloe smile, and Max feels like melting.

She kisses them both before heading off to work. It really shouldn’t make Max so tingly to watch them, but there’s something about their casual familiarity that looks really nice. And she’ll admit, she kind of wants some of that magnetism that drew those two together for herself.

 


 

Spending time with Rachel is surprisingly normal, despite the shift. She’s still funny and a little flirty, still pushing Max a little out of her comfort zone. She takes Max on a walk around town, looking for good places to do their over-break Photography assignment. They end up in the skate park, because of course they do. Max really cannot resist getting shots of Rachel as she rides.

The differences is, this time when they take a break under the shadow of the trees, Max can actually kiss her.

It’s a short, quiet moment — Justin’s hanging around, so they don’t want any rumors getting spread — but it gets Max’s heart pumping regardless. Rachel lets out this cute little giggle after they separate, something rumbling low in her throat.

“Careful, Max,” she murmurs. “You could get more than you bargained for...”

Max blushes, leaning her head against Rachel’s shoulder and giggling guiltily. “I really didn’t expect this,” she whispers as Justin skates by.

“Me neither. But...I’m glad we’re all out in the open now. Don’t get me wrong, I loved flirting with you and making all those little freckles blush, but like...” Rachel puts an arm around Max and squeezes. “I was so done with the teasing stage.”

Max laughs. “What was your plan before I got with Chloe? Wait for me to get up the nerve?”

“I thought I could be patient!” Rachel objects. “It’s...I like making the first move, usually, but I was scared. You don’t, uh, mind if I take the first move once in a while now, right?”

Max’s heart skips a beat. “N-no, not at all,” she admits. “Chloe is...she’s nervous about initiating stuff because it went bad a couple of times. Just, um...”

“Take it slow. Right, I know.” Rachel runs a hand through her hair. “I mean, I’ll try, Max, but you’re really fucking cute and you always have been.”

Max looks away and blushes again, smiling, and Rachel shakes her by the shoulder. “See! This is what I mean!” she says, leaning over and kissing her on the cheek.

“I’m glad we didn’t get together before now, though,” Max says quietly. “I really love Chloe, and being with her...”

“I know, right? She’s really...she made me feel right, when I was with her. Like we could really take on anything. I didn’t feel fake with her, even if I kept things from her.” Rachel sighs, leaning her head back against the tree. “I really never thought I’d get her back. And thanks to you, I did. I get a second chance. And a plus one.”

Max nestles her head into Rachel’s chest. She could stay here forever, honestly. It’s comfortable and quite soft. Not that Max has anything to complain about with Chloe with her toned frame and long arms, but she is kind of a beanpole in comparison. Rachel rubs her head.

“Lunch?” she asks, and they’re off to find somewhere nice in town.

 


 

They return home an hour before Chloe’s due. Max just barely sets down her camera bag before Rachel’s grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her silly, her presence warm and overwhelming and smelling of patchouli. Between that and the Axe, Max thinks for a split-second as Rachel leads her over to the couch, I’m going to smell like a combination of a middle school boy’s locker room and the entirety of Portland.

And then she doesn’t think much at all, because Rachel’s on top of her, gently kissing down her jaw, her neck. She doesn’t go any further, keeping herself limited to exposed skin, but Max is almost dying anyway. God. No wonder Chloe was so into this girl. Her body envelops Max, her heat and weight suffocating in the most pleasant way. Max can only reciprocate, only accept her affections, until at last Rachel raises herself up and flips her hair behind her head.

She looks down at Max with a wolfish grin. “Been waiting to do that for a while, too,” she says with a smirk, laying down on Max’s chest and shuffling herself so she fits comfortably in Max’s nooks and crannies. “Mmph. You’re bony,” Rachel teases, running a finger up Max’s neck. “So’s Chloe. She’s been working out though, looks like.”

“You balance us out,” Max replies, happy to keep up the game. “And she has. She can pick me up no problem.”

“Good. She always wanted to be tough, but she was always so stressed out with her stepdad and...and me, and stuff, she was always just high and tired.” Rachel kisses Max’s cheek. “She’s doing so good. ‘Cuzza you.”

“I can’t take all the credit,” Max says, shrugging. “She’s taking care of herself.”

“She got a lot more motivated when you came along, though. There was a big difference between the first couple times we met up after LA and after you two met back up.” Rachel sighs happily. “She needs to get here so I can cuddle her too. I wanna tell her how proud I am of her. I thought things would get bad after we broke up.”

“...they did,” Max tells her softly. “But she kept strong anyway.”

“With you to help.” Rachel loops her arms around Max and squeezes. “I hope I can be good for you guys, too.”

“You can,” Max assures her, stroking her hair, marveling at how soft it is. She must work hard on it, but it looks so effortless. Like a lot of things about Rachel, really.

They fall into silence, and Max feels herself slipping towards a nap when the door opens. Rachel lazily raises her head up and says, “Hey, Chlo!”

“Hey yourself. Is Max under you?” Chloe asks, walking over and peering over the edge of the couch.

Max looks up at her and waggles her fingers with a sleepy smile. “Hi,” she offers.

“Called it,” Chloe says with a smirk. “You guys have fun today?”

“Mhmm,” Max replies as Rachel climbs off her. “C’mere.”

Chloe leans over somewhat precariously to give Max a kiss. As she stands up, Rachel leaps up on her, wrapping her legs around Chloe’s waist and giving her a quick peck. “Your girlfriend is adorable,” she informs her.

“I know,” Chloe says, grinning. “Y’know, I could get used to coming home to this...”

The evening proceeds much as the first weekend did, only now there’s no tension in the air, nothing hidden between any of them. Chloe makes dinner and everyone settles down to watch a movie to cap off the night, Rachel and Max on either side of Chloe. It feels so...easy. Natural.

It’s not even a question that Rachel gets to go to bed with them. Max walks in after putting her pills under her tongue to find Rachel straddling Chloe again, and her heart stops in her chest. Their eyes are locked on each other, breath heavy in the air.

Max immediately wants to join in, so she does, crawling onto the bed and positioning herself behind Chloe, legs on either side of her. She nuzzles her head into Chloe’s neck as Rachel kisses her again, waiting for the pills to dissolve so she can kiss Chloe’s neck.

When she does, Chloe lets out a little whimper, exactly the sort of thing that would normally spur Max to start lifting her top off, take things further. But she stops herself. Rachel’s here, and they really should take things slow, especially since this is so new. Being with Rachel for a day really put Chloe’s words this morning into perspective. It would be so, so easy to let Rachel have control. She’s intoxicating. Even the idea of sharing Chloe with her gets Max’s heart racing.

But Rachel hasn’t been with them for long, and they need time. And...and Max doesn’t want a repeat of Christmas break. She needs Rachel to know some things before anything starts to happen.

So she separates from Chloe, lies beside her as Rachel rolls off. Chloe runs a hand through her hair. “Holy shit, you guys,” she breathes, laughing a little. “I’m gonna, like, need a minute.”

“Sorry,” Rachel mumbles. “You’re just—”

“Hey, Max seemed like she was having a good time. And I didn’t say no.” Chloe blows out a long stream of air, her chest deflating under Max’s hand. “Max, you doing okay?” she asks. “Nothing too fast today?”

“Y-yeah.” Max swallows. She needs to take this initiative for herself, no matter how scary it is. But she can tell that it’s something Rachel needs to know. “Rachel, I—I like being with you, and kissing you and stuff, but there’s some things that...that I can’t do.”

“Oh?” Rachel lifts her head up to look at Max.

“J-just...” Max breathes out. Fuck, this is still hard. “Like...When we make out, or whenever we get closer to actually...”

“Max, it’s okay,” Rachel says gently, reaching across for Max’s hand. “Whatever you need.”

“Sex is hard for me,” Max admits, breaking eye contact with Rachel. Chloe squeezes Max for reassurance. “Just...you’ll have to ask. Before you touch me, in any way. I know it’s not as easy as with normal people, I know I’m a lot, and I’m sorry, I just—”

“O-oh! Yeah. Yeah, of course.” Rachel toys with her own hair nervously. “That, uh, that makes sense.”

“Glad you told her now,” Chloe murmurs, kissing Max’s forehead. “You’re getting better at this.”

Max groans. “I wish I didn’t have to say this...”

“Hey, Max, it’s totally cool. Like...I’ve honestly been dry for a while, ” Rachel tells her. “I can wait more, and I don’t wanna pressure you into anything.”

“Wait, seriously?” Chloe asks with a chuckle. “You haven’t been with anyone since we broke up?”

“Not really,” Rachel admits. “So, really, Max, it’s totally fine. It doesn’t even have to come up for a while, you know? I think I’m getting better at just making out.”

Chloe snorts. “Yeah, for real, in that you actually got off me this time instead of just going for it like, what, every other time before?”

Max shrinks against Chloe’s shoulder. So it was easier with Rachel. There wasn’t any of this negotiating, or this fear, or this disgusting mismatch. They could just love freely.

“That was...” Rachel sighs. “I know I was sometimes a little too much for you, Chloe. That’s why I took a break. And sometimes I just did it because I didn’t know how else to...to love you.”

“Mmm.” Chloe rubs Max’s shoulder. “Me and Max have it pretty good now. We gotta be careful, like, introducing new stuff, ‘kay?”

“Okay. I’m just glad you’re willing to include me at all, honestly.” Rachel puts her head on Chloe’s chest. “I love you guys, you know?”

“I know, Rach.” Chloe sighs. “There was...one more thing I was thinking about, today. About rules and stuff.”

“Yeah?” Rachel asks.

“Like, this week, I’m working, so you guys get a lot of alone time. And even when school starts again, like, you live in the same building. Just...me and Max gotta get some quality time too, okay? Talk things out, make sure we’re doing okay with this whole new thing we got going.”

Max nods against Chloe’s shoulder. “That’s a good idea,” she murmurs. She wants to talk to Chloe about her worries without Rachel there, because it’s not really Rachel’s fault, and only Chloe can reassure her.

“Yeah. Makes sense. You were together first.” Rachel swallows. “Sorry I’m making this all so hard. You don’t have to—”

“This is fucking awesome, Rach,” Chloe interrupts. “Seriously, coming home to you two being cute was great. And if Max ever gets behind me like that again I may die. We just...gotta work at it so we can keep doing it and nothing explodes.”

“Okay,” Rachel concedes. “Okay. Yeah.”

“The really fun part is when we have to tell our friends what’s going on before they start thinking we’re cheating on each other,” Chloe says with a chuckle.

As they fall into silence and sleep, Chloe’s words still rattle around Max’s mind. She’s right. Max doesn’t want to hide away her feelings for Rachel in public, and that’s gonna bring questions. She keeps coming back to one simple thought:

What the hell am I going to tell Kate?

Chapter Text

It feels so strange to be heading back to Blackwell.

They’d found some kind of equilibrium in Chloe’s empty house, the three of them living their lives alongside each other, content and carefree. But of course, eventually real life has to resume. They have to leave their bubble and explain what the hell happened this week to their friends and try to move forward. As a trio.

That thought is still nice. And college acceptance letters will be coming soon, and Chloe’s test appointment is next week. They’ll figure things out.

Max leans her head against Rachel, her hand over Chloe’s on the gearshift, like before. Rachel’s got an arm wrapped around her shoulders, rubbing slowly up and down. Max takes this moment of peace before they have to re-enter the world.

Chloe helps them carry their bags back into their dorms. They’re all a little quiet as they file into Max’s room, setting her bags down on the couch. Chloe looks at the two of them,  unsure on her feet. She runs a hand through her hair.

“So, um...” She swallows. “You guys be good, all right? Keep me in the loop?”

“Of course,” Max reassures her, stepping up and putting a hand on her shoulder. “Come by later tonight? Just you and me?”

“Yeah,” Chloe says, nodding. “I...shit, I gotta get to work.”

“Come here,” Max says, putting her hands on Chloe’s shoulders and leaning up. They kiss, and Chloe holds her for a moment, squeezing tight. Rachel joins in on the hug shortly, and once they all separate, gives Chloe a peck on the cheek.

“We can do this, Chloe,” she says warmly.

“No offense, Rachel, but you kinda said that before,” Chloe says, glancing away from Rachel. Rachel winces, looking down.

“Chloe—” Max begins, but Chloe’s already apologizing.

“Fuck, I’m sorry, I’m an asshole.” Chloe hisses at herself. “I—I gotta go to work. See you guys later?”

“...yeah,” Max says, heart fluttering. She’s seen enough of Chloe to feel when she’s holding something back. Tonight. Later tonight, they’ll have to talk.

“All right.” Chloe sighs and brings them both back in. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Rachel and Max murmur. Chloe heads out the door, down the hall and out of sight.

Rachel sinks down onto the edge of the bed, twirling her feather earring with one finger. “Did I do something wrong?” she asks, her voice small as Max sits down beside her.

“I think Chloe’s head is just...getting the better of her right now.” Max rubs Rachel’s thigh unconsciously.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right. I remember.” Rachel takes in a deep breath. “I could never pull her out of it. I’d just...watch her get worse and worse. God. I...I did stop her, once. When it was really bad.”

“I know,” Max says softly. “She showed me the scar.”

“T-there were other times, too. When she had a gun. I was just barely holding onto her, she was going down so fast...and then you came along, and she got so much better.” Rachel puts a hand over her face. “I’m so bad for her, I don’t know why I thought we could do this—”

Max takes her other hand, squeezing tight. “She’s been like this with me, too,” Max explains. “I don’t think anyone’s responsible, and...and there might not be much she can do about it. She just needs time and support. I’ll talk to her tonight, and we’ll be okay. I promise. She wants this, I know she does, but it’s...it’s new, and scary, and she has a lot of feelings tied up in you.”

“I know,” Rachel mutters. “I want this to be a new start, though. I’m not who I was when I was with her before. I know I’m not. I wish that old me could just...go away.”

“I know how that feels,” she says, elbowing Rachel and smiling at her.

Rachel laughs. “Okay, you got a point.” She reaches over suddenly, lifting up Max’s single bullet with her palm. “You know, it’s kinda nice to see you wearing this.”

“Why?” Max asks, looking at her strangely.

“It means you really know her. That you matter enough for her to make something for you. She’s a lot more creative than she lets on, you know?” Rachel twirls her feather earring. “She made this for me. When we were sixteen.”

“Oh! Really?” Max asks, staring at it now.

“Yeah. She was planning to make two, but I spotted it when it was just this one finished. I liked keeping it around, even after LA. She’s always meant a lot to me.” Rachel leans her head on Max’s shoulder. “Just...it feels like it’s something we share. And when you talk about her, I know you actually know what you’re talking about. I have someone who can help me figure out how to be good for her.”

Max smiles softly to herself. “Well, perks of having a third person, I guess,” she says, kissing Rachel’s cheek.

Rachel hums. “Guess so. It’s nice. You take good care of her tonight, okay?”

“I’ll try.”

They stay there for a moment, content with each other’s warmth. Rachel lets out a sigh, then looks to Max with a smirk.

“So who’s telling Kate?”

 


 

 

It’s Max, of course. Max is telling Kate.

It’s not that Max wouldn’t trust the others to break it easily, but she’s shared enough secrets with Kate that it feels like a natural next step. Besides, Kate’s eager enough to head down into town for lunch and tea before classes start up tomorrow. Probably because Dana’s not moved back in yet, Max notes to herself as she leaves the dorms.

They meet at the bus stop, Kate wrapping Max in a big, giddy hug.

“You’re in a good mood,” Max says as they separate.

“I’m just so happy to be back,” Kate sighs. “I can’t wait to see Dana again, it feels like it’s been forever.”

Max laughs. “And yet you still haven’t kissed that girl.”

“I’m working up to it!” Kate insists as the bus pulls up beside them. “Every time I think I should do it, I just...I get nervous, and she’s so careful.” She sighs. “But it’s not a big deal,” she assures herself.

“Keep telling yourself that, Kate,” Max teases as they board.

“I will, thank you,” Kate says stubbornly.

As they get to their seats, Kate rubs her wrist absently. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to hide it away,” she says quietly.

“Do you really have to?” Max asks.

“I—I know it must seem like I’m a huge coward.” Kate looks out the window, hands shaking as they clutch the hem of her skirt. “But...my mom. If she knew, she could pull me out of Blackwell, take away my computer and my phone, I couldn’t talk to Dana anymore. I wish I could be strong, like you and Chloe.”

“Our parents aren’t like yours,” Max says carefully. “You do whatever you think is safest. I wish you could be open, too, but...”

“Dana says she doesn’t care.” Kate shrugs. “I just...I wish I could tell everyone how happy I am with her. That I could share her with more than just you and Chloe and Rachel.” Kate slumps. “W-when I was at home, and we’d Skype every night, I had to whisper when I told her I loved her. It made me feel...dirty.”

“Kate...”

Kate leans her head against the window, and Max leans into her in turn.

“I wish they’d understand me the way you do,” Kate murmurs. “They’re supposed to be my family, but I can’t trust them.”

“I’m sorry, Kate,” is all Max can really offer. “But there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. Any of it.”

“Thanks, Max, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling like a fake.” Kate frowns.

“Someday you’ll be in the right place to come out,” Max assures her. “It doesn’t have to be now. I’m just glad I can be here for you right now.”

“I’m glad, too.”

They’re quiet for a while, until they reach their stop and hop out. Their preferred tea shop isn’t a long walk away, and they tend to be quieter out in public anyway when it’s just the two of them, packed close together and avoiding strangers on the sidewalks.

Once they’ve settled in, gotten their tea and ordered food, Kate asks, “So how was your break? It must’ve been pretty, uh, eventful with you three all in one house together with no parents...”

Max freezes up. Yes, this is precisely the conversation that she came here to have, and yet here’s Kate looking at her with that faint smile and those big green eyes and it’s hard to tell her that, oh yeah, she’s even weirder than previously assumed.

“So, uh, something did happen...” Max begins, swirling her spoon in her tea and avoiding looking at Kate.

“Is it like that one time that Chloe almost got arrested?” Kate teases.

“You were no help with that,” Max points out, “You were in the back of the truck with everybody else.”

“I didn’t think it was illegal!” Kate objects, giggling. “Swear!”

“Sure, Kate.” Max takes a sip of her tea.

“So what happened?” Kate asks eagerly, putting her hands under her chin. “I’m sure you guys had all kinds of adventures. You always seem like you’re having so much fun with those two.”

Max swallows. How does she even start to explain this? It’s not like Kate really has the vocabulary, and Max herself only just found a word for it after kind of freaking out and searching online.

“So, um, we had a party for Chloe’s birthday,” Max begins, “And, um...” She scratches the back of her neck. “The three of us kind of...”

Kate balks. “You mean—”

“No!” Max says, suddenly realizing what Kate’s thinking and blushing furiously. “Not like that. But, uh...We sort of...started dating Rachel, too?”

Kate squints. “Max, what are you saying? I’m...you mean you and Chloe...”

“We, um, we brought her in. It’s...we’re a trio now.”

Kate leans back in her chair, teacup clutched in her hands like a security blanket. “Jeez, Max.”

Max stares into her tea. “I—I know it’s weird, but...we both love her a lot. And she loves us. So we decided we wouldn’t leave her out anymore. And it’s...it’s good. So far. We’re all taking it slow, it’s a big change, but she’s important to us.”

Kate runs a hand through her hair. “I...don’t know what to say,” she admits. “I knew you three were close, but...I just...” She sucks in air through her teeth, closing her eyes for a second. When she opens them again, she’s looking right at Max. “I can’t say I really understand it. Or that I’m used to seeing things like this. But...are you happy?”

“Yeah,” Max says, smiling at the memory of sharing a bed with Rachel and Chloe, warm and safe and so wonderfully entwined. She already aches at the thought of sleeping alone again. The moments where there was no fear or jealousy or worry between the three of them, just love and communication and that sense of connection, those are what she thinks back to. “It’s a little bit complicated, but when it’s working, it’s all worth it.”

“As long as you’re happy, Max,” Kate says. “As long as all of you are happy. I know there was — something, between Chloe and Rachel, before. I don’t know all the details, but some of the things they’ve said...”

“There’s a lot going on between us all, really,” Max says with a chuckle. “I just wanted to make sure that if you saw me and Rachel together you wouldn’t get the wrong idea, I didn’t know if you needed the full story.”

“Well, tell me. We’ve got plenty of time,” Kate says, smiling at her.

Max breathes out. Well. This will take a while. But Kate’s open, and curious.

She can at least tell her most of the story.

 


 

 

Chloe texts Max once she’s off of work, promising food in her truck and telling her to get out to the parking lot. Max leaves Rachel’s room with a quick kiss, a promise that things will be all right. Rachel hugs her tight before she goes.

Chloe leans against the passenger side of her truck, Taco Bell bag in her hand. She thrusts it at Max.

“You always get the same shit,” she says with a soft smile, before Max can object to not being asked her order. Max swipes the bag and leans up to kiss Chloe’s cheek.

“So what’s the plan?” she asks, peering into the truckbed and noting an abundance of blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.

“Got a place to go,” Chloe says with a shrug. “If you want.”

“Of course.”

They get into the car without much noise, the stereo turned down low as they drive. Chloe plays something soft while Max eats and thinks. She keeps her hand over Chloe’s, as has become their natural state. They still need to talk, Max knows they do, but in this moment she knows that nothing will explode. Worries and fears to be confronted and comforted and eased. Chloe may not be the most stable person, but after the last few months, Max knows that their bond is as steady as they come.

Chloe leads them through backroads that Max never got the chance to know before, stopping near a small trailhead, the parking lot empty.

“Nice clearing here,” Chloe says. “Stars are pretty clear. You wanna spend the night out here?”

Max’s heart practically melts. Chloe is so much more romantic than she pretends. “Are you kidding me?” Max asks with a laugh. “Duh! Come on, let’s go.”

They pile out of the truck and spend a few minutes nestling in, until they’re both content and covered in blankets, staring up into the clear night. Chloe links hands with Max, breathing carefully.

“Did you want to talk?” Max asks.

“Did. Trying to work out how to start. I know I can’t just — I wanna just pretend everything’s fine, like, I’ll get over this in a month. But I used to think that when I was with Rachel before.” Chloe sighs. “It’s just, like, this is nice. And I wish it could just be this. I wish my brain would shut the fuck up.”

“I know, Chloe,” Max says softly, turning on her side and putting a hand on Chloe’s chest. “But...but I don’t want you to bottle things up. If you’re worried about something...”

“It’s stupid, but...” Chloe groans. “It all just kinda hit me when I was bringing you guys back to school. I’m a dropout, y’know? I’m a huge loser. You guys are artists and you’re smart and you’re probably gonna go to college soon, and...and what am I gonna do?”

“You’re going to get your GED and move with us, or me, at least,” Max says firmly. “You’ve been studying all year.”

“But what if I don’t? What if I just totally fuck this up like I’ve fucked up everything else?” Chloe’s voice breaks and Max snakes an arm under her, holds her tight. “Why would you guys want me even if I pass? I—both of you, you’re so much better than me, and like, what do I even add?”

“Chloe—”

“Why wouldn’t you guys just drop me at some point? I, I love you both, I do, but—”

“Chloe,” Max says, more firmly, bunching up Chloe’s shirt in her hand. “Rachel’s loved you for a long time. She knows who you are. So do I. That hasn’t put us off. You say we’re smart, like you’re not? You’re practical. You know how to cook, you’re holding down a job, you’re — you’re really trying to be something stable. The two of us?” Max can’t help but laugh a little. “You said it yourself. We’re artists. That means we’re kinda the opposite of grounded.”

Chloe’s breathing a little easier, Max making sure to meet her eyes, shining with reflections of the stars. She has to tell Chloe more. Everything. “And...I don’t know. She said something a while back, that you’re the kind of person she can be peaceful with. I feel that. She’s...she’s exciting, and she’s got a lot of energy, but when I want to just hang out with you and relax, here you are.” She snuggles up closer to Chloe, putting her head on her chest. “Like right now.”

“And besides,” she adds, “I don’t think I could handle Rachel on my own. I need the backup.”

Chloe laughs at that, which is all Max wanted, really. “Yeah, that girl needs a team,” Chloe says, squeezing Max close. “But, like...if I just want to have a place, with you two, will that be...enough? Like, if you go off and become a bigshot photographer and Rachel’s a model...who wants to come home to the blue-collar bitch at the end of the day?”

“Well, me,” Max says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “And aren’t you getting ahead of yourself a little? I don’t even know if Rachel really wants to be a model anymore, and even when she did, she still wanted you in her life. And if I really...start getting somewhere, I’ll want a home base. With you. It wouldn’t mean anything if I lost you.”

Chloe’s quiet for a while, holding Max and breathing. “Okay. If...if you say so, Maximus. Just, like...I dunno. Leaving you guys alone together at home was different, I knew you were always waiting for me, but out here at school...feels like you’ll figure out you don’t need me.”

“We both missed you. Just because we can’t be together all the time doesn’t mean we love you any less. It’ll always be better to have you with us.” Max kisses Chloe’s jaw. “And you should talk to Rachel about this, sometime. She’ll tell you the same things, but we should all share with this kind of thing, okay?”

“All right. Makes sense.” Chloe sniffs and wipes at her eyes. “I do wanna have some time with her too, if that’s okay? We need to like...work out some old stuff, just between us. Stuff I still haven’t told her, mostly.”

“Whatever helps.” Max hooks one leg over Chloe’s, kissing her neck and making her gasp. “But I have you tonight.”

Yeah, you do,” Chloe breathes.

Max giggles. “So we’re okay?” she asks, before doing what she really wants, which is maybe giving Chloe a hickey.

“Y-yeah, we’re okay. We should spend the night together sometime soon, all of us.”

“We’ll celebrate after your test,” Max says. “And we have movie night Saturday.”

“Mm. Sounds good.” Chloe looks down at Max. “You’re really the best, you know that, right?”

“I’m a pretty decent girlfriend,” Max says nonchalantly. She swings herself over Chloe’s lap, straddling her in just the way she likes. “And so are you,” she whispers, bringing her lips to Chloe’s ear. “Don’t ever forget that.”

Before Chloe can respond, Max nibbles her ear and shuts her up. She’s done with words. She needs to show Chloe that her love is as strong as it’s ever been.

Because it is. Here, lying under the stars, Max has never felt more at home. As much as she can’t wait for the next time all three of them are together, it’s Chloe that makes her feel this safe, even in the dark in the middle of the woods. Safe enough to admit love for another, safe enough to let Chloe love her too, safe enough to be shared between them without worry.

Right now, as Max draws her favorite sounds from Chloe, she knows the future may be uncertain, but they’ll tackle it together.

Chapter Text

Max knew this would happen.

Nobody had been able to figure out who should tell Warren or Brooke (Dana already knows, courtesy of Kate) before the movie night, and Chloe and Rachel are taking full advantage. They’re both wrapped around Max as...something plays on Warren’s huge gaming laptop (she stopped paying attention shortly after Rachel started running her fingers along Max's thigh.) Rachel’s got her head nestled into Max’s neck, planting occasional kisses there as Warren glances up at them from the floor with a very confused expression. Rachel grins down at him, Chloe acting totally nonchalant  despite crossing one leg over Max’s, her hand rubbing Max’s back.

Max looks over at Kate, who’s staring wide-eyed back at her. Max hopes her expression reads like the plea for help that it is, so that at least she can have some sympathy.

Kate just smiles guiltily and snuggles further into Dana’s shoulder. Useless.

When the movie’s over, Warren shifts uncomfortably at their feet. Usually, the the arguing begins with Chloe, but she’s too busy playing with Max’s hair. Brooke turns her head.

“So are you three dating or what?” she asks in her standard monotone. Warren looks nervously excited, electing to avert his eyes from the three of them while Chloe starts cackling.

“I knew I liked you, Brooke,” Chloe manages, reaching down and slapping her on the shoulder. “Called it.”

“Wait, what — how?” Warren sputters looking up at the three of them. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, hot, but—” 

Brooke punches him in the arm.

“It’s just something we’re doing,” Max says, shrugging and giving him a conciliatory smile. “I don’t know. Not much to explain.”

“Uh, okay...” Warren rubs the back of his neck as Dana and Kate rise from their position sunken deep into the couch.

“It’s better than okay, it’s awesome,” Rachel says, sitting up and stretching.

“Max told me right after break. You didn’t know?” Kate asks teasingly.

“We...didn’t really find a time to tell him,” Max admits.

“I mean, I knew there was something weird between you three,” Brooke says, shifting her position. “While we’re at it, when were you two going to fess up?” she continues, pointing directly at Kate and Dana.

“W-what do you mean?” Kate asks, slowly separating from Dana.

Warren looks at Brooke strangely while Max avoids eye contact with anyone. “Yeah, what do you mean?” he asks.

“Those two have been dating since at least February,” Brooke states. “You’re telling me you haven’t seen Kate jump into Dana’s arms like, every day after school?”

“I, uh, no,” Warren admits. “But I don’t live here, you know?”

Dana sighs, squeezing Kate closer. “Look, we’re not exactly trying to make anything public, all right?”

“Don’t tell anyone, please,” Kate begs, looking down at the floor with wide, fearful eyes. “If my parents find out, I...”

Warren runs his hand through his hair while Brooke looks smugly self-satisfied. “I’m not gonna tell anyone your business, but me and Warren are supposed to be your guys’ friends,” she says. “Don’t leave us out of the loop.”

“Wait, seriously, you two are dating? Jeez, when did I get so totally surrounded by lesbians?” Warren asks, scratching his head.

“I dunno, Warren, what makes you get along so good with us dirty queers?” Chloe counters with a smirk. “Something you need to tell us?”

“Shut up, Chloe,” Warren says. “I know when you’re screwing with me.”

“The boy does learn,” Chloe replies, her smirk growing into a proud smile. “Maybe one day you’ll drop that alpha/beta bullshit too.”

“Oh, he has,” Brooke says with a slightly disturbing little smile. “But, anyway. I was just trying to figure out what we’re doing for prom, to be honest.”

Max blinks. Oh. Right. Proms are a thing, and a thing she can go to while reasonably expecting to not have pig’s blood dumped on her head. In her old school, she’d never stay on campus for a second longer than necessary. School events were always out of the question. How strange it feels to consider going.

But she does want to go. But with both of them?

“I think we’ll stay in,” Dana says softly, rubbing Kate’s shoulder. Kate looks a bit downcast, and Max realizes she probably doesn’t ever want to go to any kind of big party like that for a long time, leaving aside the fact that getting prom photos with Dana would result in some serious drama.

“I mean...I don’t even go here,” Chloe admits, sinking down into her seat and folding her hands in her lap. “If just you two wanna go...”

“That’s something we’ll figure out on our own,” Rachel says quickly. “We’ll let you know what we decide, kay?”

“All right. If you guys skip out we should all plan some kinda anti-prom thing. Everyone wears their shittiest clothes and nobody dances.” Brooke stands up, stretching. “C’mon, Warren, let’s get back to my room. Text me when you guys have a plan, ‘kay?”

“All right. See you guys!” Max says with a little wave as the two of them leave the room. Kate and Dana stand to leave as well.

“I know me and Kate aren’t going,” Dana begins, “But I seriously wanna see all three of you in prom pics later. Shake this school up a little, y’know?”

“I’ll think about it,” Rachel promises.

“Goodnight, guys,” Kate says quietly, clinging to Dana’s hand. “I’m sorry I can’t be with you on prom, I’d like to, I just...”

“It’s all right, Kate,” Dana assures her, giving her a quick hug. “We’ll have a nice night in.”

Kate nods silently and heads out with Dana, Chloe and Max giving their farewells. Once the door closes, Chloe sighs and leans forward.

“I don’t know, guys,” she says, hands hanging off her knees. “Technically I shouldn’t even be on campus.”

“David’s not so angry at you anymore, is he?” Rachel asks. “You can ask him, he might not kick you out. Besides, if anyone sits out it should be me. You two have been together longer.”

“Any ideas, Max?” Chloe asks.

Max considers for a moment, glancing between her two girlfriends as Chloe gets up and starts pacing the room. “It’s going to be a big night. I want both of you there. I want to go and have a normal — well, kinda normal — high school experience, you know?”

“I...guess I’ll talk to step-prick,” Chloe says. “Rent a suit or something.”

“Oh my God, you’d look so fucking hot in a suit,” Rachel groans. Max can’t help but agree.

“This’ll be fun! You’ll see,” Max promises. “And we can leave early if it’s super boring. That’s what Chloe’s truck is for, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sounds good. Bet if I pass my test next week, he’ll let me go.” Chloe looks down at the two of them. “...is it weird that I kinda want you guys to sleep over at my place tonight? Kinda miss having you in the bed...”

“Daring stealth mission into Chloe’s house? I’m down,” Rachel says, jumping off the bed. “Plus I can watch you two beat the crap out of each other on that dumb fighting game, that’s always fun.”

“No class tomorrow,” Max says, smiling. “David’s asleep by now, right?”

“Probably?” Chloe says, shrugging. “I mean, it’s just you two. They’re okay with me bringing people over now, as long as we don’t make too much noise. David’s chilled out a little bit. I’m still not telling my parents about me having two girlfriends though. Sorry, Rach, you’re still just the ex to them.”

“No, that’s cool, I get it. I’m still going anyway and making out with you two hard.” Rachel pulls Max up off the couch. “C’mon, let’s roll. Weekend’s ours.”

 


 

It’s surprising how normal it all seems, after a while.

Max spends alternating nights with Chloe and Rachel, with both when it’s deemed reasonable to take over Chloe’s house for an evening. Max and Rachel usually end up studying together (and wow, Rachel is really smart, more than Max ever expected; no wonder she’s kept that 4.0) and going to dinner together, sneaking in kisses and occasionally getting quite heavy in Rachel’s bed. Max knows that Chloe should be there the first time they go all the way, though, and Rachel always pulls back in time, always asks before she does anything too exciting.

Warren and Brooke get over the initial shock quickly, and Kate and Dana are supportive as ever. Their next movie night is uneventful, save for Chloe’s nervous energy after taking her test that day. Max lets Chloe stay in her room that night, though sadly there’s not nearly enough room on the twin bed for Rachel to join in too. But there always seems to be a measure of understanding from Rachel, whenever Max and Chloe go off alone; she gets plenty of time with Max, after all, and they make sure to have plenty of time with all three of them together, too. Skate parks and midnight snack runs and evenings at Chloe’s house all blend together, easily, like nothing about this whole scenario is unusual at all.

It’s routine by the second week that they’re back in school. The only thing that troubles Max now is the fact that at some point, this has to end. She can only hope that the letters of acceptance will arrive soon for her and Rachel, and that they can at least figure out where they might go after the summer ends. And if Chloe could join them, all the better.

 


 

Max gets the call from Chloe as she and Rachel relax in Rachel’s room, incense coloring the air. Rachel grabs Max’s phone from between the two of them on the bed and sets it on speaker.

“What’s the news, Chlo?” Rachel asks. “Got your results back yet?”

“I, uh...I passed.” Chloe sounds dazed.

Max and Rachel both squeal, setting off a round of nervous laughter from Chloe’s end of the phone.

“Congratulations, Chloe!” Max exclaims. “How’s David taking it?”

“He actually said ‘good job,’ which I didn’t think he was physically capable of doing with me in the room,” Chloe says. “And, uh, yeah. So. Prom’s on.”

“You really want to do that?” Max asks. “If...if you want, we can still go to the anti-prom thing Brooke talked about, she’s holding it at Warren’s dad’s. Apparently Alyssa and Dana and Kate are all gonna go.”

“No, but, like...it’s something your mom said. That you should have at least one good year of high school, you know?” Chloe sounds hesitant. “It’s your senior prom, Max. You should get to go. I didn’t, and like, I probably wouldn’t have anyway, but...”

“It’s not a big deal!” Max insists. “Totally fine to be the weird kid.”

“I just...” Chloe sighs. “I feel like you should get to do the whole thing! Like, get a nice pretty dress and dance with your girlfriend and all that shit. I know...I know school used to be hard for you. I want you to go out with a bang.”

“Chloe, you are speaking my language,” Rachel pipes up. “C’mon, Max, let’s have you make a splash at the end of the year. Come out swinging with your two girlfriends and take no shit.”

“If you guys are sure,” Max says warily. “I have a nice dress in my bags somewhere.”

“I am totally getting a suit,” Chloe declares.

“I’ll figure something out,” Rachel says. “How short’s the minimum length? Anyone know off-hand?”

Max giggles to herself as they chatter on about plans that will likely disintegrate in a week. While she can feel nerves buzzing in her stomach over the idea of going out in public with her girlfriends, they make it sound fun and exciting. And no matter what happens, she knows she’ll remember it for the rest of her life.

 


 

Rachel knocks on the door just as Max pulls one of her dresses out of her closet, a simple black number with a hem just above her knees. She runs over to the door and opens it, hiding behind it so that the whole hall doesn’t see her in her underwear.

Daring prom look, Max,” Rachel teases as soon as the door’s closed, running her fingers along Max’s bare shoulder.

“You’re one to talk,” Max replies, eyeing her outfit. It’s not quite a traditional prom dress, that’s for sure, a firey orange sleeveless minidress that shows entirely too much leg for Max’s own good. She looks damned good in it, though.

Rachel helps Max into her dress, zipping her up and finishing with a kiss to her cheek. “Chloe will be here soon. Wanna head out and meet her?” she asks, her smile bright and kind. She looks so excited.

“Sure. Let me just grab my bag.” Once Max has her phone and camera stashed away, the two of them leave her room, heading down the hall. Kate exits her room as they pass by, clad in ratty old jeans and a stained pink hoodie, her hair in a messy ponytail.

“Ooh, grunge Kate, I like it!” Rachel says, stopping to ruffle Kate’s hair.

“Brooke said wear our worst clothes,” Kate says with a sheepish grin. “This outfit is actually really comfortable...”

“Dana’s going too, right?” Max asks with a quick glance around to make sure they’re alone. After Kate nods, Max says, “Well, send me pictures! I hope you guys have fun.”

The three of them make their way down the hall before leaving Kate behind at the door to Dana’s room. Once they’re out of the dorms, Max spots Victoria sitting on one of the benches in the quad, lighting a cigarette and looking pretty good herself in a tight, almost businesslike dress. Rachel stops Max with an outstretched arm, pursing her lips.

“Hey, hold on a sec,” she says.

“For what?” Max asks.

“Need to talk to Victoria. I think. And like...she’s not usually alone like this.” Rachel takes in a deep breath. “All right.”

Max carefully shadows Rachel as she approaches, trying to stay out of Victoria’s vision range. She braces herself when Rachel says, “Hey, Victoria.”

“Hey, Rachel,” is the only response she gets, which feels really weird. Max isn’t sure she likes it.

“Are you going with Taylor tonight?” Rachel asks softly, and Victoria’s head swivels, her eyes hard slits.

But then she relaxes, looking down at her lap. “I’m not sure yet,” she admits. “You and Max are a thing now, huh? Shouldn't Chloe know?”

“Sort of,” Rachel says, boldly taking a step and sitting down next to Victoria, leaving Max feeling a bit like an awkward hanger-on. “Chloe’s involved. It’s complicated.”

“It’s always complicated with you,” Victoria says with a soft laugh. “God. You know what you’re getting into, right, Max?” she asks, looking up at Max with those piercing brown eyes.

God this feels weird. They haven’t even had a casual interaction (well, Max hasn’t been casually insulted) since Rachel and Max walked in on her. “I do know,” Max says uneasily. “She’s told me a lot about last year.”

“I’m sure she has.” Victoria takes a long drag off her cigarette.

“You feeling okay, Tori?” Rachel asks. “I’d expect you to tell me to fuck off by now.”

“I am, actually. I don’t know.” Victoria shrugs. “Ever since you dropped out of VC, it’s...I don’t know. I like being with Taylor, and things have been going pretty good for me. I actually got accepted to a gallery yesterday.”

“That’s awesome, Tori!” Rachel leans over and hugs Victoria, who stiffens and looks mildly panicked. “I’m so glad you’re doing okay. After what happened last year...”

“I was a bitch. So were you. It’s whatever, it’s over.” Victoria separates herself from Rachel. “High school is over soon, you know? Soon I’ll never see you again and none of this bullshit will matter. I’m sick of being pissed off all the time.” She smiles, a small curve under half-lidded eyes. “When I’m with Taylor, I’m not pissed off.”

“What about Nathan?” Rachel asks. “Is he coming?”

“I don’t know. Nathan’s Nathan. Sometimes being around him is just exhausting,” Victoria sighs. “We haven’t been hanging out much since...since the whole thing with Kate. He’s been weird. I wish he’d actually go to his therapist.” Victoria sucks in air through her teeth. “Why are you suddenly so interested, anyway? We’ve barely talked since September.”

“I just...this is a big night. And I really did care about you. I still do. I didn’t want to end the year without knowing if you’re doing okay, after everything we went through.” Rachel runs a hand through her hair. “Everything exploded last year. I’ve been trying to make it better. Stuff between me and Chloe is better now, better than ever, and I’m...I’m actually happy. I’m glad you are too.”

“I’m just in a weird mood because I ate one of Justin’s brownies,” Victoria says with a snort. “It’s not like I’m all out and proud or anything. Me and Taylor are thinking about being public tonight, but most of the VC still doesn’t know. Calling me happy is a fucking overstatement.”

Rachel lets out a laugh. “Sure, okay.” She checks her phone. “Chloe’s gonna be here soon. Have a good night, okay?”

As Rachel gets up, Victoria says, “Yeah, I’ll try. Oh, and Max?”

“Yeah?” Max replies, shifting her weight uncertainly.

“There’s gonna be another photo contest before the end of the year. This time, fucking submit. It’s no fun when I’m basically winning by default,” Victoria says with a smirk. “At least try so I can crush you properly.”

“Oh! Um, okay, Victoria,” Max says, scratching the back of her neck. Everything about this feels off. She should go before she accidentally makes another friend. “I’ll see you at the dance.”

“Maybe you will.”

As Rachel and Max head for the parking lot, Max hears the door open behind her and sees Taylor coming out to join Victoria, their eyes meeting across the quad. However that happened, it seems to be a good thing.

She’s never had a bully act nice to her for even a second before. A good last year of high school, indeed. A downright surreal one, she thinks as she links arms with Rachel, leaning into her side and smelling her perfume.

Chloe’s truck pulls into the lot as they approach. The completely crappy vehicle seems incongruous with the well-groomed woman who steps out of it, her short blue hair actually combed for once, her navy blue suit and tie clinging to her body in an extremely flattering way. Jesus. Rachel was right.

Chloe saunters up to them and gets between them, entangling her arms in theirs. “Now this is the life,” she says, squeezing them both against her sides. “Walking around all gay as hell with a woman on each arm.”

“You’re a regular Casanova,” Max teases. “A real player.”

“Rachel’s the player,” Chloe points out. “Or she was.”

Rachel laughs. “Maybe once. Now it’s just you two. We ready to go?”

“Two is still more girlfriends than average, Rach.” Chloe pulls her close and kisses her. “Let’s tear Blackwell down.”

“Calm down, you two,” Max warns. “It’s not gonna be that dramatic. It’s just a high school dance.”

“You know the Vortex Club is basically in charge of prom, right?” Rachel says with a laugh. “It’s gonna be all EDM and strobe lights in there with like, a second to declare king and queen.”

Max steels herself. Well, she wanted this. But before the evening really gets started...

“Selfie!” Max cries, lifting her camera out of her bag and trying to get an angle where all three of them are in the shot. Chloe helps out by actually having arms of a decent length.

“We need three,” Chloe says, whipping the photo out of the camera and handing it to Max. “We’re not gonna be together this summer.”

Rachel and Max agree, and soon enough they’ve all got their own, developing in a dark place somewhere on their bodies (Chloe is downright cheating by having pockets.) And then, it’s off to the actual event.

Chloe eventually uncouples herself from them, too full of nervous energy to not take the front and bound ahead, heading for the gym near the back of campus. Max and Chloe link up again at the door as David looks their tickets over, then lets them in with a gruff “Don’t make me regret this.” Rachel follows close behind.

It’s not as insane as the Vortex Club party Max attended at the start of the semester, probably because it’s an official school event and some authority is present. The punchbowl, at any rate, is probably not spiked, although the dance floor indicates that some people definitely pre-gamed regardless. A small stage has been set up at the back, currently empty.

“Bets on whether Vicky or Rachel gets queen?” Chloe asks, cocking an eyebrow at Max.

“That’s...actually an interesting one,” Max says, humming to herself.

“Yeah, Victoria’s got a bad rep, but I haven’t really been around since that whole drama with Kate,” Rachel says with a shrug. “I told people not to vote for me.”

“Who’d you guys vote for?” Chloe asks eagerly.

“Kate,” Rachel says with a wicked smile. “Once I knew she wasn’t gonna be here...”

“Shit-stirring as always,” Chloe says affectionately.

“I voted for Hot Dawg Man. For both king and queen,” Max says proudly.

“That’s my girl.” Chloe ruffles her hair, then turns her ear to the ceiling. “C’mon, hippies, let’s dance.”

The beat is heavy, the air burning with the heat of teenage bodies, and once Max is thrown onto the dance floor, she becomes a part of it. Rachel and Chloe are at home here, and they practically own her there, tossing her back and forth between them as a partner, Chloe eagerly grinding herself against Max whenever she has the chance while Rachel finds an agreeable friend somewhere on the floor — Max sees her with Juliet, with Zach, with Justin, until she inevitably finds her way back. Chloe can kill it entirely on her own, clearly she’s practiced at it — though Max wonders where she got that practice. Chloe’s mentioned things about being left alone at VC parties before, waiting around for Rachel. Max hopes this is better than that.

It’s surprising how little she has to think throughout the evening. Rachel and Chloe make her feel like she’s being carried in a palanquin for the night, free to take their movements as her own. She passes by a dozen half-familiar faces, most notably Taylor and Victoria, who seem lost in each other’s eyes. She spots Nathan halfway through the night, latched onto Juliet, their “dancing” completely inappropriate, but it’s Prescott, what can you do?

Rachel and Chloe get her drinks and snacks when they’re tired of dancing, sneaking over to a corner to kiss her, Chloe on her lips, Rachel on her neck, Max backed up against the wall and feeling Chloe’s hand gliding up her thigh. Chloe breaks off and nips at her ear.

“We gotta get back to the house,” she murmurs as Max runs a hand down the back of her neck. Rachel’s body presses against Max, hot and soft and slick with sweat. “Mom’s not home and David’s here as long as prom’s going. We need to go now.

“Yeah,” Rachel breathes. “Yeah, we do.”

Max’s head is spinning despite the total lack of alcohol at the venue, but she manages to clear her throat. “We can’t ditch yet,” she whispers. “We should at least wait for the actual king and queen thing.”

Just then, Varte steps up to the stage, sparing Max any further deliberations. Her girlfriends detach themselves briefly, Chloe throwing an arm over Max to watch as the music fades and the student body turns their attention to the front.

“All right, let’s get this antiquated tradition out of the way so everyone can be young and stupid for the rest of the night!” Varte announces, holding two crowns above her head. A cheer comes up from the crowd. She places the two crowns on a podium while retrieving an envelope from the inside pocket of her bright green pantsuit jacket.

“Your Blackwell Prom King for the class of 2014 is...Nathan Prescott!”

Chloe mimes gagging herself, then continues, slumping to the floor and falling into the fetal position, making hideous vomiting noises until Rachel kicks her and shushes her. Luckily, her performance is drowned out by applause as the boy in question mounts the stage a bit clumsily and raises the crown up, placing it on his head so he looks like a complete idiot.

“And your queen is...Kate Marsh!”

Rachel doubles over laughing as the crowd nervously shifts around, looking for and completely failing to locate the girl in question. Nathan looks insulted, and Varte puts the crown on her own head.

“Well, one of you should let her know,” she says. “For now, I’m the queen, and I say we’re done with the boring part. Hit it, DJ!”

As the beat starts back up, Chloe leaps up from the floor and grabs both of them around the waist, leading them out past David as quickly as she can.

“You had something to do with that queen shit,” Chloe accuses.

Rachel giggles. “I didn’t think it’d work! I was just floating the idea around some of my friends, no big deal...guess it got around. Max, you should seriously text her and tell her. She’s a real rebel now.”

“You two should seriously get in my fucking truck like right now,” Chloe counters, running ahead of them again.

Max sends off a text as she walks with Rachel back to the parking lot, a quick Hey you’re prom queen, Miss No Show.

Kate:

Oh! I really, really didn’t expect that.

But it doesn’t matter.

I kissed Dana tonight.

Max lets out an involuntary squeal, and Rachel peeks over at her phone.

“Go Kate!” she exclaims happily.

“What happened?” Chloe asks as they near the parking lot, Chloe jogging backwards, her limbs full of jitters.

“Kate finally kissed Dana.”

“Fucking aces. Tell her congrats on the lady-smooching. Now let’s go.

Chloe practically slams herself bodily into the driver’s seat, getting the thing in gear just as Max gets into the middle seat and Rachel closes the passenger side door. Max doesn’t even get a chance to put on the lap belt before Rachel’s on her, grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her deeply. This is not safe driving, Max thinks as Chloe curses and starts driving to her place, but she can’t really bring herself to push Rachel off, either, especially not as she drags Max into her lap and trails her fingers up her sides.

“Can I...?” Rachel whispers, bringing her hands to Max’s front and slowly tracing the curve of her bra. Max swallows. She knows what the plan is anyway, and right now she doesn’t want to say no to anything. Especially not this.

She nods and lets Rachel touch her, leaning in so she can keep contact with Rachel’s lips. Rachel bites a lot more than Chloe does, and now she’s timing it just right. Max can feel Rachel’s thigh pressing between her legs, less comfortable than it should be, but she wills herself not to think about that, not tonight, please not tonight.

“God dammit, you guys are really fucking distracting,” Chloe hisses, and Max has to break away to laugh and crawl off of Rachel, planting a kiss on Chloe’s neck. The truck lurches as they hit a stop sign, Chloe’s foot hitting the pedal a little too hard. Max giggles in her ear.

Chloe closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and starts driving again as Max’s fingers dance on top of her hand on the gearshift, Rachel snaking an arm around Max’s waist and tickling her ribs, just barely avoiding her breast. Max settles into the warm anticipation building in her stomach, waiting for Chloe to finish her white-knuckle drive.

Once they’re in the driveway Chloe leaps out of the car, giving Rachel just enough time to murmur in Max’s ear, “Let’s gang up on her once we’re in.”

Max makes a sound of agreement and piles out as Chloe struggles with the housekey. Once she’s in, she kicks off her dress shoes and bounds up the stairs, giving Max and Rachel just enough time to get rid of their own footwear before following.

Max closes the door to Chloe’s room behind her as Rachel practically pounces on Chloe, her knees hitting the edge of the bed as Rachel attacks her with her lips. Max’s chest feels like it’s about to explode as she kneels between Rachel’s legs, unbuckling Chloe’s belt and sliding her slacks down. Chloe’s jacket hits the floor beside her, followed quickly by her shirt.

Chloe falls back onto the bed, bringing Rachel with her and almost hitting Max in the back of the head with Rachel’s body. Max gets rid of the pants and socks, Rachel in Chloe’s lap, marking her chest with hickeys, her hands fixed on Chloe’s chest.

Max circles around on her knees, leaning over the bed to take Chloe’s lips with her own as she falls back flat on the sheets, one hand in Rachel’s hair, the other grasping for Max. She’s making incredible noises. Max isn’t sure where to go next, it’s not like they’d ever really talked out the mechanics of what’s going on here, but she will have to shift her position soon.

Rachel’s “Max” brings her out of her own thoughts, and she looks up to see that Rachel’s got her hands around Chloe’s back, poised on the clasp of her bra. Rachel gives Max a long, serious look, their eyes meeting, a question,  Is this okay?

Max nods her assent, and Chloe gasps as Rachel lifts the bra off of her. “I wanna eat you out so fucking bad,” Rachel growls, and Max’s gut flares.

“Max,” Chloe pleads, looking over at her with huge blue eyes.

“She can go ahead. But sit up.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Chloe pants as Rachel slides down to the floor. Max climbs onto the bed and gets behind Chloe, wrapping her arms around her, reaching for her piercings as Chloe pitches her head to the ceiling. Max can feel it, when Rachel starts her work — Chloe jumps in her arms, and Max has to keep up, because she can tell that Chloe’s breaking apart under both of them and that just makes her want to push it all the further.

She sucks on Chloe’s neck, adding to the considerable amount of marks already on her skin. Chloe reaches up one arm to grab for Max, the other on Rachel’s head, urging her on. Chloe’s breath comes in short spurts, mixed with loud moans.

She shouts Max’s name when she squeezes, and then follows it with a breathy, “Fuck, Rachel,” grabbing at the sheets with the hand that had been circling Max’s neck, knotting them in her fingers.

She comes undone in Max’s arms, shaking, practically screaming, and it might be the most beautiful thing Max has ever seen. Max has to support her as she throws herself back, and finally collapses limp in her arms, panting. Rachel giggles from the floor, then raises herself up and crawls on top of Chloe, kissing her upturned jaw as Max scoots back to hold Chloe’s head between her legs.

“I missed hearing you moan. You have such a sexy voice,” Rachel says with a sigh, playing idly with one of Chloe’s piercings. Chloe twitches, eyes squeezed closed.

“Holy fuck,” is all Chloe manages to say, to Max’s guilty little laugh. Chloe breathes carefully as Max toys with her hair, looking down until Chloe opens her eyes. Chloe stares back, expression softening as she reaches up, stroking Max’s cheek.

“You’re okay with this, right?” Chloe asks softly. Max chuckles.

“Duh.” Max swallows, feeling herself unconsciously, shifting her hips. “I’m here, right?”

“Yeah. You are.” Chloe covers her face with her hands.“ Both of you are. Jesus Christ.”

Rachel laughs, taking Chloe’s hands in hers and kissing her. “Still can’t believe it?”

“Straight up? No.” Chloe’s grinning at Rachel now. “But hey, I’ll take it. You two are wearing way too many clothes, though.”

Rachel smirks, shifting so she can brace herself against the bed as she lifts her dress over her head. Max stares without shame. Her lingerie is entirely too lacey and black and way, way too sexy for Max to really handle right now. She hears Chloe gulp.

Rachel undoes her bra, then lifts herself off of Chloe for a moment to rid herself of her panties. She grins as she straddles Chloe once again, walking forward on her knees. Chloe’s eyes widen as Rachel approaches her face.

“Bet you missed this,” Rachel purrs. Chloe whimpers her assent, and suddenly Max’s stomach drops. Another thing she can’t do for Chloe. Something Rachel can do and Max just can’t.

Rachel reaches out for Max, her touch light, bracing her hands on Max’s waist. “Come here,” she whispers. Max gets on her knees, and Rachel kisses her, slow and careful. Chloe’s hands reach up and grasp Rachel’s thighs for stability, and Rachel shudders and breaks off, letting out a quiet “Fuck.”

“Mm, you, ah, you okay, Max?” she asks, bringing her closer and resting her head on her shoulder, holding onto Max for dear life as spasms rock her body.

“I-I’m fine—”

“I always wanted to, mmf—” Rachel pulls Max closer and lets out another little moan “M-make out with someone while, while...” She loses her train of thought somewhere, but Max gets the message. This is about Rachel, right now. It doesn’t have to be about what she has and doesn’t have.

She obliges Rachel’s wish, grabbing at her breasts and pulling her into a kiss. Rachel bites with each little jolt through her body, hissing through her nose. Her hands wander, move up to Max’s chest, and then she breaks off, still keeping a hand on Max’s shoulder to balance herself as she asks, “C-can I take your dress off?”

Max looks down. She likes how she looks right now. The more of her that Rachel can see, the more wrong she’ll obviously be. “I’m sorry—”

“No, no, it’s fine, but can I...” Rachel slowly moves her hand down to Max’s thigh, then raises it under her hem, stopping just short of Max’s underwear. Max’s breath gets caught in her throat.

“Just through my clothes,” Max says, barely audible. With Rachel’s hand there and her desire pulsing in her veins, she can forget. Just for a moment, she can accept this, because she needs to.

“Okay, ah—ah!” Rachel leans forward again as she starts to rub, resting her head on Max’s shoulder and letting out cries of pleasure as Chloe’s tongue goes to work. Max bites her lip, rocking herself against Rachel’s hand even as Rachel sinks teeth into her shoulder and hisses.

It’s not perfect. It’s not what Max really wants. But it’s something, and Max needs something right now.

Rachel seizes up first, her hand shooting out from underneath Max’s dress to hold onto her other shoulder, Rachel letting out a final groan as she finishes. Chloe slips out from beneath her as she tries to regain her breath, taking hold of Max’s shoulder and gently pushing her and Rachel down onto the pillows.

Rachel flips her hair behind her head and swallows. “Y-your turn,” she says, a shaky smile on her lips.

“If you want,” Chloe adds hesitantly. Max nods, closing her eyes tight so she can just feel and stop thinking. Rachel rolls off and Chloe’s hand makes its way beneath her dress instead. Chloe carefully reaches under her panties and untucks her, her fingers light and soft, so cautious, retreating to the outside as quickly as possible but continuing her attentions. The light touch sends warmth surging through Max.

Rachel helps, playing with her chest, kissing her neck and collar and then reaching beneath her collar and cupping her breast, slipping fingers under her bra. She lets out a little gasp of surprise when she feels Max’s skin; Max supposes she might’ve thought she was wearing inserts. Not tonight. Not ever again.

Their kisses are perfect, light and loving, Chloe whispering I love you into one ear, Rachel nipping at the other. Max’s toes curl, her back seizes, and she lets loose a choking sound as she comes.

Chloe withdraws her hand quickly, laying it on Max’s chest.

“You okay, Max?” Rachel asks, drawing designs on Max’s wrist.

“Yeah. Better than okay. Hah.” Max sighs and settles further into the bed. “That was...”

“You’re not forgetting this prom night,” Rachel says with a demonic grin.

Max chuckles. “No. No I am not.”

“Max...” Chloe brushes her fingers against Max’s cheek, and she turns her head, making eye contact. “This was...I didn’t push things too far, right? You...”

“It was a good time,” Max tells her, as truthfully as she can. “I love you. Both of you.”

Rachel hums in contentment and snuggles into Max’s side, slinging an arm over her stomach. Chloe does the same, linking hands with Rachel over Max’s body.

“Sure you don’t wanna get rid of some clothes, Max?” Chloe asks after a while. “I’m gonna pass out here in a second and you’re gonna burn up.”

Rachel nods in agreement, and Max has to concede the point. She gets up for a moment and takes off her dress and bra, stealing one of Chloe’s oversized shirts before heading back to bed. They end up centered around Chloe, her arms encircling Max and Rachel.

Tomorrow, Max will wake up in their arms. Tomorrow, they’ll still be together. This crazy experiment has lasted this long, gone this far. They’ve taken such good care of Max, dealt with everything she thinks is awful and wrong about herself. She can’t see herself ever leaving them, or they her.

A year ago she would’ve never imagined this. Never imagined being in love. Never imagined kissing someone, making love to someone, let alone two people. And yet here she is.

And here she’ll stay.

Chapter Text

Max wakes up before Chloe, as usual. What isn’t usual is Rachel lying beside her, naked and awake, hand softly stroking her arm.

“Hey,” she murmurs, her hazel eyes shining in the dawn light. She smiles softly, like she’s in a pleasant dream.

“Hey,” Max offers, smiling back.

“Feeling okay? Last night...that was okay, wasn’t it?” Rachel’s voice is quiet, a little shaken.

“Yeah. It was.” As much as it can be right now, at any rate. But things will change eventually.

“Good. I really...I didn’t want to mess it up. I, um, I kinda asked Chloe before we did anything...” Rachel admits, biting her lip, her smile turning apologetic. “She had to, uh, let me know some of my ideas were wrong.”

Max takes a second to process that, but... “That’s actually really sweet,” she says, rolling over and kissing Rachel’s forehead.

Rachel lets out a little laugh. “Glad you think so, because I felt like a huge perv.”

“You are a huge perv,” Chloe mumbles sleepily, cuddling up against Max’s back. “What are we talking about?”

Rachel and Max laugh, their fingers twining together. Max holds tight to Rachel.

“So...when can we do that again?” Rachel asks.

Max sighs happily. “I’m sure we’ll find the time.”

 


 

Max looks over her stack of college letters. Rejection, acceptance, rejection, rejection, acceptance. Rachel, laying on her bed across the room with her own paperwork spread out in front of her, sighs dramatically.

“Well the only one that we actually match for is WSU,” she says.

“We don’t have to go to the same college,” Max replies uneasily. “If...if there’s somewhere you’d rather go—”

“I’m actually kind of sick of the elitist shit you get in these fancy schools,” Rachel interrupts. “I wanna go somewhere with a lot of people, a lot of different people. I wanna do clubs that are about more than partying, and keep up the volunteering, and just...I wanna live. And I wanna do that with you and Chloe.”

Max tries not to let the warm feelings that Rachel’s words just gave her distract her from the task at hand. “I...yeah. Okay. If that’s cool with you. It’d save my parents a lot of money and we could, um...save up for something.”

“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Max.” Rachel looks over at her. “I want you to be happy. We could get an apartment in Pullman, you could get surgery in summer, and we’d be there to take care of you.”

“I just...I don’t want either of you to give up your future for me.”

“Chloe’s future is you,” Rachel retorts. “And I don’t know what my future is yet. But I want to be with you while I figure it out.”

Max covers her face with her hands. “Rachel, you’re being too romantic right now, I actually can’t deal with this.”

Rachel lets out a high-pitched laugh. “What’s life without a little romance? We’ll make it. I know we will.”

 


 

Max jumps at the knock on her door. Her nerves are still a little rattled from class today. Varte had very carefully tiptoed around the reasons Max didn’t want to show the rest of the class her contest-winning collage, and she’d felt people staring at her as she left.

She hopes it’s Rachel, or maybe Chloe coming to congratulate her. But when she opens the door, it’s Victoria standing there, hands on her hips.

“If I’m going to lose, I should at least see what I lost to,” she complains, stepping into Max’s room without so much as a can-I-come-in. “Show it, Caulfield.”

Max folds her arms. “I don’t have it with me. I gave it to Varte.”

“Hmph.” Victoria turns up her nose. “You know I live in Seattle, right, Max? I’ll just go down to that gallery when it’s on display and see it for myself then. Don’t tell me it’s just because it’s got Chloe’s tits in it or something. That’d be really disappointing.”

If Victoria was ever going to be further involved in Max’s life, Max might be worried. If she wasn’t surrounded by people who love her, exactly as she is, she would be afraid of Victoria telling everyone exactly what she’ll see in that gallery.

But Victoria was right on prom night. High school’s over soon. A new part of her life is about to begin, and she might be tired of hiding, anyway.

So all she says is, “Well, I live there too. If you want to talk about it, give me a call once you’ve seen it.” She smiles, hoping her grin is as sinister as Chloe’s is. “I’m sure you’ll find it really interesting.”

“Don’t pull the manic pixie girl shit on me, Max,” Victoria warns. “I’m calling your bluff. Expect a call.”

“I will.”

Victoria turns and leaves, closing the door behind her. Max sits back down at her laptop and re-reads Varte’s email again, still kind of amazed that she just did everything she did this week.

Maxine,

Your submission to the Growth contest was incredibly brave. I had no idea you were trans! Using yourself as the canvas is a time-honored tradition in photography, and you still show such a strong grasp of how to use that little instant camera of yours — and I’m sure that I’ll have to pick your brain about what you did to the film to get these results. Your submission is the best, no question in my mind. But I know how personal it is, and you might not want me to share it with the rest of your classmates. I only want to go ahead if I have your complete and unconditional permission.

I am proud to have been your teacher this year. If you need any letters of recommendation in the future, consider them written and sent.

All the best,

Aleidia Varte

 


 

The final movie night of the year has a melancholy tone to it, not at all helped by the choice of Grave of the Fireflies (seriously, Warren?) and the fact that everyone’s done with finals and they’re just waiting for tomorrow, when everyone goes home. Most of them won’t come back.

Once the movie’s over (and Kate has wiped her face on Dana’s shirt) talk turns to where it was always going to.

“So where’s everyone going?” Brooke asks. “I got into MIT.”

“You’re just asking us so you can brag about it,” Chloe accuses.

“Okay, so maybe a little bit, but come on. This is our last day. I don’t wanna just totally lose track of everyone.” Brooke puts an arm around Warren in a rare public display of affection.

“Kate and I are going to go to Oregon State,” Dana says, squeezing Kate close. “We’re roommates in the dorms, we already signed up.”

“Now that’s how you game the system,” Brooke says approvingly. “They probably wouldn’t let me and Warren do that.”

Kate laughs to herself. “That’s one advantage, I guess...”

“We’re going to WSU, before you ask,” Max says. “Me and Rachel. Chloe’s coming too, she’ll be our cook.”

“I can find some crappy service job. Or maybe I’ll do tattoos, I’ve been thinking about it,” Chloe says, stretching out her sleeved-up arm. “We’ll figure it out.”

“You guys seem to be good at that,” Brooke says, smiling.

“You’re the weirdest group of friends I’ve ever had,” Warren says suddenly. “But, like...it’s been pretty great this year. Don’t forget about me just because I’m gonna be stuck here all alone, okay?”

“Don’t worry, little baby nerd,” Chloe says, leaning forward and ruffling Warren’s hair. “I’ll keep an eye on you. You know my Facebook comment game is on point.”

“My grandma called me up, like a real phone call, to ask who that ‘rude girl’ who kept talking about lesbians was,” Warren says, narrowing his eyes.

“Yeah, like I said. On point.” Chloe relaxes and puts her arms around her girlfriends’ shoulders.

“We’ll keep in touch,” Rachel promises. “Max will make us.”

“I do not have a good track record, don’t listen to her,” Max warns.

“Max, you’re supposed to be the responsible one,” Rachel chides. “”If you start slacking like me and Chloe we’re never gonna get anywhere.”

“I’m keeping an eye on you three just to see if you explode next year,” Brooke says. “But...thanks, guys. Really. It’s been a good year.”

“Amazing year,” Rachel sighs. “None of you get to disappear on me.”

“I won’t,” Kate says quietly. “Not ever.”

 


 

 

Max sits on her bed, staring around at all the packed boxes, phone on her lap. She packed the last of her things away this morning. By the end of the day, she’ll be back in Seattle.

She already did her crying last night, nestled between Rachel and Chloe in Chloe’s bed. She should be fine. She knew this was coming. But the room looks so bare and empty now, her photos down from the walls, her posters sealed up, all the signs of this incredible year tucked away. She’ll never come back here. It’ll never be like this again.

She wipes her eyes. Come on, Caulfield. Chloe’s getting off work soon and then you and her and Rachel will have one last outing together. A text lights up her phone.

Kate:

Are you leaving soon?

Me:

My parents should be here to pick me up around 3

Kate:

Would you mind if I stopped by for a minute? I wanted to tell you something.

Me:

You don’t have to ask

A knock comes to her door a second later, meaning Kate was probably standing outside the whole time looking nervous. God, Max will miss her too.

She lets Kate inside, sitting with her on the edge of the bare mattress. She takes a few seconds, looking down at her hands.

“I just wanted to thank you,” Kate says at last. “A-all of you. You, and Rachel, and Chloe. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me at that party.”

“Kate, you don’t have to—”

“That was the worst night of my life. But you three came together and helped me, and you stuck by me ever since.” Kate’s voice shakes. “And you just...you helped me realize I love Dana, and you’ve given me something I, I don’t think I’ve had before. I’ve never felt so...so accepted and at home and I didn’t want you to go without telling you how much you mean to me.” Kate sniffs. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

Max gives her a long, silent hug, because what can she even say?

“I’ve never had friends like you before,” Kate admits. “And just...God, I practiced this, but I can’t say anything other than thank you.”

This girl is entirely too cute. “Anytime, Kate,” Max whispers. “We’ll keep up on Skype, okay? Just like during Christmas break.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds nice.” Kate lets out a long breath. “Home’s going to feel like a nightmare after the last couple months.”

“You’ll make it through. You’re strong, Kate.”

“I’m glad at least one of us thinks so,” Kate says with a wet laugh, pulling back and wiping her eyes. Max’s phone buzzes again, Rachel telling her that Chloe’s arrived.

“Chloe’s here,” Max says quietly. “You have a good summer, okay?”

“I’ll try.” Kate rubs her nose as she stands up. “I was supposed to help Dana pack today, anyway. I just...I had to catch you.”

“I’m glad you did.”

 


 

 

Chloe takes them to the junkyard after one last meal at the Two Whales, the mood somber between the three of them. But Chloe has something she wants to show them, and won’t tell them what it is.

She leads them into the hideaway, taking a Sharpie out of her pocket and handing it to Max. She points at two lines of graffiti on the wall.

CHLOE WAS HERE

Rachel was here.

“You were here too,” Chloe says, elbowing her. Max smiles, crouching down to add her name to the list. Rachel embraces her from behind as soon as she’s finished, making her drop her pen. Chloe puts her arms around both of them, tries lifting, fails, and grunts.

“Obviously I gotta hit the gym more. Need to carry one girl over each shoulder,” she says, kissing Max’s cheek. She pulls them over to the seating, well, what can generously be called seating considering it’s really just junk with flat surfaces on the floor, and sits between them.

“So, uh, I got one more thing before you leave.” Chloe reaches into her jacket, and Max remembers a very similar moment from a few months ago, checks Chloe’s neck, and...yeah.

Chloe pulls out a necklace with just one bullet as its pendant, handing it to Rachel. Rachel’s eyes widen, her mouth dropping open. She swallows. “Chloe...”

“I had three,” Chloe says with a soft smile, reaching for Rachel’s hand. “Come on. Put it on.”

Rachel does, still looking awestruck. “Chloe, this is...I thought...”

“You’re just as important to me as Max,” Chloe says firmly, grabbing Max around the waist and pulling her against her side. “And I just...we should all have one. So we’ve got like, a connection, no matter where we are.”

“You are so cheesy and you don’t even admit it,” Max accuses as Rachel snuggles up against Chloe’s side.

“So? What are you gonna do about it?” Chloe challenges.

“Nothing. Stay like this forever.”

“I think I can do that.”

Cuddling in this little corner of the world isn’t the most comfortable thing. But it makes Max think of how Chloe and Rachel must’ve done it a lot, when they needed to escape the rest of the world, and now she’s a part of that experience too.

They stay there, until they have to leave.

 


 

Max doesn’t like being on the passenger side of the car, with only Rachel against her instead of both of them. But Rachel’s flight leaves soon, and Chloe will have to drive her to the airport as soon as they drop Max off.

She leans against the door, stomach permanently dropped, eyes watering. It feels cold, despite the oncoming summer heat.

They’d talked, of course, about meeting up sometime in summer, finding some time that worked for all of them. But that’s so far away right now. She just wants to stay.

The truck pulls into the Blackwell parking lot, perhaps for the last time. Chloe parks, staring straight ahead until Max unlocks her door.

“See you in Washington,” she mumbles, and then Chloe utters a quick “fuck” and quickly gets out of her side, running over to hug Max close as soon as she drops out of the truck.

“I love you,” Chloe murmurs as Rachel slides out and joins the group hug. “I’ll text you every day.”

“Me too,” Rachel adds. “We’ll be okay. It’s only three months.”

“I love both of you,” Max says, choking on her words. “I’m gonna miss you like crazy.”

“I know,” Rachel says with a laugh. “Have a good summer, Max. We’ll be there when you come back.”

They separate themselves from Max, each of them giving her a long kiss to remember them by before piling back into the truck. Max watches them go, watches the truck recede into the distance, Rachel turned around and waving at her until they’re out of sight entirely.

Max turns and clambers up onto the wall that divides the parking lot from the quad, dangling her legs over the side and staring at her shoes. It’s not long before her parents show up, parking in the same spot Chloe did and calling her name.

She hops down into her mother’s arms, feeling her squeeze tightly. “Ready to go?”

Not really. But she has to, so Max nods.

Her dad comes up from behind her, patting her on the shoulder. “Had a good year?” he asks, looking down at her. That, she can answer easily.

“The best.”