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The Rule of Thirds

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Two years later

 

Victoria hated airplanes. They were loud and they smelled weird. Over the years she’d become decidedly more frugal, but she still refused to fly coach. First class comforts were the only thing that made flying tolerable. But after those unpleasant few hours were finally over, she couldn’t help but smile to herself as she made her way through the bustling crowd to collect her things from baggage claim. As busy as her schedule was these days, she didn’t have as many opportunities to visit as she would have liked, but this was a special occasion. She’d made arrangements the moment she’d heard that Max had finally gotten some of her work accepted by a gallery.

 

She’d been a child the first time she’d visited New York City, accompanying her parents on one of their many trips. Back then she’d been enraptured by the sheer size of everything, and the speed. To her, everyone had looked so important and busy, like they were on their way to the most interesting places she could imagine. As an adult, her take on things wasn’t quite so rose-colored, but she still felt echoes of that sense of wonder sometimes. This was a city for opportunities. For dreams and risks and fresh starts. There was beauty in that.

 

She sometimes fantasized about relocating here someday. For purely practical reasons, of course.

 

Max was waiting for her near the exit, and in her mind’s eye Victoria took a snapshot of the moment they spotted each other, the little smile that bloomed on Max’s face as their eyes met. Max’s hair was ever so slightly longer but otherwise she looked the same as she always did. The sight of her made Victoria feel instantly lighter, somehow.

 

“It means a lot that you’re here for this,” Max said as they hugged each other. “I’m really glad you could make it.”

 

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”

 

They headed outside, where Chloe pulled up in the truck, which was still functional by some miracle, and hopped out to do her usual nudge-shove-arm-punch thing, which Victoria pretended to be annoyed by. The drive back to their place took extra long because it was rush hour, but in a way Victoria didn’t mind. This routine—bickering over music, teasing each other over their respective picks—was so familiar now. All of it was.

 

Their apartment here was even more cramped than their apartment in Seattle had been. Victoria never thought she’d be the type to crash on someone’s couch rather than stay in a hotel, but it was nice to wake up to the sight of their place, even with its tacky decor and general clutter. When the three of them got back, the first thing she had to do was take a shower, because that horrible airplane smell still clung to her. After she was finished, she joined them in the tiny living room.

 

“So,” Chloe said as Victoria sat down. “We’ve got a bone to pick.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Dude, you were on TV and you didn’t even tell us!”

 

Victoria felt her face flush.

 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Max asked.

 

“I was waiting for the right time to bring it up.” This visit was supposed to be about Max’s accomplishments. Max had been trying so hard to get her work shown, and now it was finally happening for her. A few minutes on some talk show was hardly worth making a fuss over. Victoria wasn’t sure how they’d heard about it in the first place. They didn’t even own a TV anymore.

 

The corner of Max’s mouth quirked up. “You thought we wouldn’t notice that you’re famous now?”

 

“I’m not famous. It was one interview.” It was a segment about the Chase Foundation—more specifically, about its founder and executive director. It was unfortunate that the actual goal of the foundation, and its contributions to disaster relief, often seemed to take a backseat to Victoria’s oh-so-tragic origin story, but she’d agreed to do the interview for exposure’s sake. “How did you even find out?”

 

“From my mom,” Max said. “Which was super embarrassing when I had no idea what she was talking about, by the way.”

 

“Sorry about that.”

 

“You should be! Now she thinks I’m totally out of the loop. I am totally out of the loop.” She grinned. “And you’re totally famous.”

 

Victoria rolled her eyes. “I’m totally not.”

 

“Seriously, though, it’s really great, what you’ve been doing.”

 

Victoria smiled despite herself. She supposed she could allow herself to be proud of this. Finding a suitable place for the bulk of her inherited fortune was a way of making her parents’ deaths mean something.

 

“It was the only thing that made sense to do.”

 

Throwing money at problems was, after all, a Chase family tradition.

 

Once she’d managed to convince them to drop that particular subject, the three of them made small talk as she got settled in. Chloe made dinner and told a story about one of her coworkers doing something stupid, but she might as well have been speaking Russian for all Victoria understood of her grease monkey lingo.

 

The walls here weren’t totally covered with Polaroids like they’d been at their old place. Instead, they had a small cork board with an ever-changing spread of a few carefully selected shots, reserved for favorite memories. Whenever she visited, Victoria made a game out of trying to spot which ones were new. There were a few new ones this time. Chloe redyeing her hair, hands stained violet, grinning at Max’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. Kate with her bunny in her lap, mid-laugh. A shot of Victoria and Chloe, one Max had taken during Victoria’s last visit.

 

Her eyes lingered on that one, and she smiled as she recalled the moment. Max had captured it perfectly: Chloe’s teasing smirk as she said something annoying yet endearing, Victoria’s lips just starting to curl into reluctant amusement.

 

When Max and Chloe had first moved here, she’d worried that the distance would drive a wedge in her friendship with them, widen the chasm she’d only just started to cross. But it hadn’t happened that way, and now, the visits were something she looked forward to more than anything else. Through all the ups and downs of the past two years, they were something solid to hold onto.

 

That night, she fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.

 

***

 

The following day, they all headed to the gallery, taking the subway because driving was too much of a hassle. The receptionist recognized Max, greeting her cheerily as Ms. Caulfield. They made their way to the small exhibition room on the upper floor, where Max and a handful of other new artists had their work on display as part of a group show.

 

Victoria couldn’t help but mentally compare every gallery to the Chase Space, even now. She’d spent so much of her life there, and whether she liked it or not, it was a part of her. This gallery had a totally different feel to it. More bohemian, less rigid. Max’s work looked right at home here; she’d refined her intimate, candid style, and each shot had a raw sincerity that was nothing short of captivating.

 

She’d certainly come a long way from falling asleep during class.

 

If Victoria was honest with herself, part of her still felt envious of Max, as childish as she knew that was. She knew her own work was mediocre by comparison, and she still wasn’t quite able to take photos regularly anyway, despite the progress she’d made. But she was also genuinely happy, knowing how satisfied Max probably felt to finally see her dream come to fruition. Max deserved this.

 

“Max, these are…” Victoria searched for the right word. Everything seemed to fall short. “…really good.” She internally cringed at herself.

 

Max smiled a bit, looking as frustratingly bashful as she always did when she was on the receiving end of praise. “Thanks.”

 

“No, I mean—they’re more than good. They’re incredible.”

 

You ’re incredible.

 

Max’s smile broadened. Victoria’s heart skipped a beat and her mouth went dry, and she felt a twinge of embarrassment, looking away.

 

“You know I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you, right?”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Victoria said quietly. “You need to give yourself more credit.”

 

“I’m not saying it never would have happened. But your advice, your expertise… It’s been a huge help.”

 

Victoria swallowed. “I’m glad I could help.” She knew how lame that sounded, but she couldn’t think of anything better to say. All she could think about was how disgusted she was with herself for having these feelings for someone who clearly thought of her as a good friend and nothing more. Someone who was taken, taken by someone who also thought of her as a friend. After all this time, she’d hoped she would have gotten over this pathetic fixation, but if anything, it had grown stronger.

 

It wasn’t like she was ever going to do anything about it. Obviously.

 

But it was getting harder to pretend.

 

As the night went on, Victoria noticed that Chloe was being uncharacteristically quiet. Happy for Max, maybe, and toning down her usual antics so as to take a backseat. Or maybe it was something else. Victoria couldn’t shake the feeling that Chloe was reading her mind. She couldn’t help but recall that night Chloe had visited her at her parents’ house, and what she’d said—your little crush on Max. Neither of them had brought up the subject since, and Victoria had hoped it was just going to be one of those things that remained unacknowledged forever.

 

But there was something guarded about the way Chloe was acting around her tonight, a tense edge to her usual humor. Max seemed too swept up in excitement to notice anything, and Victoria almost managed to convince herself that she was imagining it. But when they ended the night with pizza back at the apartment and Chloe stopped eating after one slice, Victoria knew for sure that something was wrong.

 

Before long, Max was yawning every thirty seconds, and she announced that she was going to bed.

 

Chloe kissed her goodnight as she rose from the couch. “I’m gonna stay up for a bit.”

 

As Max headed off to bed and Chloe plucked a joint from her pocket and nodded towards the fire escape, Victoria bit the inside of her cheek.

 

Something told her that this wasn’t going to be fun.

 

***

 

Chloe leaned onto the railing, watching traffic go by below them as they smoked. The tense line of her mouth, the tightness in her shoulders, could have been nerves or anger or anything, but whatever it was, Victoria was becoming more and more sure that it was directed towards her. Chloe was bouncing one heel incessantly, which Victoria recognized as a sign that she was jonesing for a cigarette or was trying to figure out how to say something, or both. Probably both.

 

Neither of them said anything at first, and the longer the silence stretched on the more nervous Victoria started to feel. The weed added another layer to her anxiety. She wanted to ask what was going on, but she wasn’t sure that would go over well. There wasn’t much room for both of them on the fire escape, and she felt like the space was getting smaller and more confining by the moment.

 

“Question for you.”

 

Chloe’s voice, flat and impassive, punched through the quiet so suddenly that Victoria almost flinched.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Do you still have feelings for Max?”

 

Victoria’s heart jumped into her throat.

 

“I’m not—I don’t—” She tried to stammer out a reply, but she had no idea what the fuck to say.

 

Then the thought occurred to her that she could have just said no, and she mentally berated herself for not going with that. Or she could have denied ever having had those feelings in the first place.

 

Too late now, dipshit.

 

Chloe looked over at her. “Dude, chill. I’m not gonna freak out.”

 

Victoria had to force herself not to look away. She was too stoned for this shit. She was sure Chloe would be able to tell if she lied.

 

“Where is this coming from?”

 

“You didn’t answer the question.”

 

Fuck.

 

“If you’re going to drag me outside in the middle of the night to interrogate me, the least you can do is tell me why.”

 

Chloe was the first one to look away. She twisted the joint between her thumb and forefinger, peering at it as if inspecting it for defects.

 

“I’m not interrogating you, alright? It’s just… Shit. Never mind. Forget it.”

 

Victoria felt a burst of annoyance at that. Part of her—most of her—wanted nothing more than to drop the subject, but she knew that neither of them would be able to spend the rest of this visit, and every visit after it, pretending this conversation hadn’t happened. Trying to would only make shit way worse in the long run. Better to get this over with, whatever it was.

 

“You don’t get to pull that shit. Clearly there’s something you want to get off your chest, so just say it.”

 

Chloe passed Victoria the joint without meeting her eyes. “Fine. Answer first.”

 

Victoria could feel her pulse in her throat. Even though she didn’t necessarily want to get higher than she already was, she stalled by taking a couple of drags from the joint before handing it back over to Chloe.

 

“It doesn’t matter whether I do or not,” she said eventually.

 

“That’s not an answer.”

 

“I don’t care. It’s the truth.” Chloe’s cageyness was starting to piss her off. “It doesn’t matter. Even if I did, what difference would that make? You should know by now that I would never…”

 

She faltered, annoyed at Chloe for making her say this shit out loud in the first place. She wished Chloe would just yell at her or whatever she was going to do and get it over with.

 

Chloe kept smoking and didn’t say anything.

 

Dragging shit out like this was just unnecessary. Victoria didn’t know why she was even entertaining this nonsense.

 

“If you want me to leave early, I will. I’ll tell Max I have to take care of a work emergency, or something.”

 

“It’s not like that.”

 

“Then say whatever it is you need to say so we can move the hell on.”

 

Chloe looked up then, and Victoria was thrown off by the expression on her face. Something raw had broken through the blankness—not anger, which would have made sense, but a sort of resigned sadness that looked entirely out of place on her.

 

“Just, seeing you two together tonight. Made me think.”

 

“Think about what, exactly?”

 

Chloe looked down again. The tip of the joint glowed bright and orange as she took a long pull.

 

“About how both of you are going places and I’m going nowhere fast.”

 

She couldn’t possibly be saying what it sounded like. Victoria had been sure that Chloe had dragged her out here to set her straight. To tell her in no uncertain terms that Max was taken and she could forget about ever having a chance. That would have been bad enough. This was way worse. Chloe’s implication that she was somehow jealous of Victoria was nothing short of absurd.

 

Even if Max did leave Chloe—which she wouldn’t, because they were like fucking obsessed with each other—Victoria was probably the last person she’d pick. The idea that Victoria, of all people, could get in the way of their relationship was ridiculous. The idea that she would want to do that was insulting enough to begin with.

 

“Is this a fucking joke?”

 

“Does it fucking sound like one?”

 

“You can’t be serious. Max is crazy about you.”

 

Chloe let out a sharp breath that could have been a laugh.

 

“Crazy for wanting anything to do with me, more like,” she said bitterly. “Even her parents think I’m dragging her down.”

 

Victoria felt a twist of something in her gut. She craved a cigarette. She didn’t have any on her. She was cutting down—trying to, anyway. Conversations like this didn’t help.

 

Chloe seemed to be gaining momentum, now that she’d gotten started. “She’s doing all this amazing shit, both of you are, and I’m just some depressed idiot she’s dragging around. I mean, it just makes sense, right? Sooner or later she’s gonna realize she’s wasting her time on me.”

 

“You can’t seriously be saying this shit.”

 

“It’s true, though, isn’t it? I’m just along for the ride. I’m her idiot sidekick.”

 

Victoria wanted a drink. She wanted a cigarette. She wanted a fucking drink and a fucking cigarette and she wanted Chloe to shut the fuck up and stop fucking talking about herself like this.

 

“That’s not true. Even if it was, you can’t possibly think I’m a threat to you. And whatever you’re accusing me of—”

 

“Not accusing,” Chloe said, almost too quickly. “Just asking.”

 

“Same fucking difference! Jesus, listen to yourself!”

 

Chloe looked taken aback, and Victoria had to remind herself to keep her volume down. Yelling wasn’t going to help. She clenched and unclenched her jaw, took a few breaths.

 

“Max loves you,” she said, relieved that her voice came out steady. “And you love her. That’s what matters. Don’t ever let me hear you talking like this again, understand?”

 

Chloe had the decency to look ashamed.

 

“Yeah.”

 

She pinched the joint out and stuffed the roach into her pocket, then turned to head back inside without another word. Victoria couldn’t think of anything else to say, so she followed.

 

***

 

The next morning, Victoria insisted on making them breakfast, mostly to have something to occupy her hands and thoughts so that she wouldn’t dwell too hard on last night. It didn’t work. She couldn’t stop replaying the conversation in her head, and things were made worse by the fact that Chloe seemed determined not to meet her eyes.

 

Still, she managed to whip up three omelettes that were more than decent, and at least Max was apparently still oblivious to everything, displaying her usual cheeriness as they ate and chatted about their plans for the next couple of days.

 

Soon, Max left to go to work, and things got that much more awkward.

 

Chloe was probably intent on not acknowledging last night at all. Victoria should have been more than happy with that course of action, but if they were going to be here alone all day she knew they had to clear the air. She’d barely slept, having spent the better part of the night trying to figure out what the hell she was going to say.

 

“So,” Chloe said, still looking anywhere but Victoria’s eyes as she gathered up their dishes and set them in the sink. “What should we—”

 

“Sit.” Victoria tilted her head towards the seat next to her on the couch.

 

Chloe raised an eyebrow but didn’t argue, and she sat down beside Victoria.

 

Victoria swallowed.

 

It was so much harder now to work up the courage to speak, with her anger drained away and the pale morning light drawing out all the tired lines in Chloe’s face. For a while the only sound was the low hum of the ancient fridge.

 

“I’m not going to get between you and Max. I need you to know that I wouldn’t do that. To either of you.”

 

Chloe sighed and slumped back in her seat.

 

“I know you wouldn’t, okay? I shouldn’t have brought it up. I didn’t mean to make shit weird or ruin your visit.”

 

“You didn’t ruin anything.”

 

“I kinda did.”

 

She looked down at her mug, ran her thumb over a chip in the rim.

 

“We’re supposed to be celebrating. Max has been waiting for this for so fucking long, and I should be happy for her. I am happy for her. But I just had to go and get all wrapped up in my own head. Leave it to me and my shitty broken brain, right?” She gave a humorless laugh. “Sorry. I know you don’t wanna be hearing this shit.”

 

“Don’t apologize,” Victoria said. “You think I don’t know what that’s like? I have PTSD, remember? My brain is literally a flaming trash can.”

 

The corner of Chloe’s mouth twitched at that. “I guess you and I have never really talked about this stuff before.”

 

“Maybe we should.” Victoria looked away, biting down on the inside of her cheek. “I’m not just here for Max, you know. You’re my friend too. I care about you.”

 

She needed Chloe to know that much, at least.

 

“Jeez, when did you get so soft?” Chloe said with a smirk. Then her face softened into a real smile. “Yeah. Same here.”

 

Victoria smiled back at her. She thought of last night, when Chloe had called herself Max’s idiot sidekick, and she felt a twist of shame at the fact that she had once seen Chloe that way. Now, she saw the real person behind the cocky, careless façade, and she knew how unfair and untrue that was.

 

Now, she knew that Chloe was smart, smarter than she gave herself credit for, smarter than she pretended to be. When she was actually interested in something, she dove in head-first, throwing herself at it with an intensity and focus that bordered on frightening sometimes. Like her car stuff, as Max would put it. Or her skillful playing of her instruments of choice, something which was still a source of fascination for Victoria.

 

Now, she knew that Max was lucky to have someone like Chloe. Someone ferociously loyal, and protective, and funny, and sweet in her own way.

 

And now, sitting there with the sunlight catching on the steam rising from their mugs of cheap coffee, she realized for the first time how incredibly blue Chloe’s eyes were, and—

 

And—

 

Oh, shit.

 

***

 

“It’s funny, isn’t it?”

 

Max looked up from gazing out the window of the truck, where she’d been watching the airport disappear behind them in the side mirror. “What is?”

 

“Her. Us. All of it.” Chloe had an indecipherable little grin on her face as she maneuvered them through the congested midday traffic, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music she'd selected for the drive home.

 

“I don’t follow.”

 

“She’s changed a lot. That’s all.”

 

Max hummed. “I noticed you gave her an actual hug goodbye this time.”

 

“Did I do that? Don’t tell anyone. Gotta maintain my image.”

 

“Your secret is safe with me,” Max said.

 

She smiled as she turned back to look out the window and watch the city pass them by, but a tiny twinge of guilt twisted in the pit of her stomach.

 

She loved Chloe. Chloe was her rock, the love of her life. She’d never do anything to jeopardize the life they shared together.

 

But she had eyes. And Victoria was attractive.

 

More than attractive. Passionate, and intelligent, and driven, and so many other things that Max started noticing little by little and then couldn’t stop noticing. She’d always found Victoria beautiful, from the moment they’d met, but back then Max had never even considered the possibility of actually being attracted to her. The meanness had been too much of a turnoff. But now that Victoria was nice, it was easier to appreciate the good things about her. Maybe too easy. Max found herself thinking about her constantly, these days, random thoughts that popped up out of nowhere, like how sometimes when she laughed really hard she snorted a little bit which was just fucking adorable, or that face she made when she was concentrating really hard on something and wanted it to be perfect. Her visits were always over too soon, and Max missed her more and more each time they had to say goodbye.

 

If Chloe picked up on it, she didn’t let on. Max planned on talking to her about it. Eventually.

 

She wanted to be honest, and communicative, and other things people were supposed to be in relationships, but she was worried about hurting Chloe’s feelings. Even though she knew nothing would ever come of it, she felt like a scumbag for thinking about Victoria this way in the first place. And she could only imagine how freaked out Victoria would be if she ever found out.

 

And then there was that niggling little thought that still wormed its way into her head from time to time: if Victoria knew the truth about everything that had happened back in Arcadia Bay, would she even want to be friends anymore?

 

Max held back a sigh. There was no point in stressing herself out over this. She would talk to Chloe about it. Just not yet. It wasn’t the right time. Things between them were good, better than before, and she didn’t want to screw things up by giving Chloe the wrong idea.

 

But she would talk to her about it. And everything would be fine.

 

Having a crush on a friend wasn’t the end of the world.

 

Right?