Rachel spends the next few weeks getting to know Max again.
Sometimes, she feels like she’s there already: Max is still herself, soft-spoken, slightly awkward, unapologetically nerdy. Kinda nosy. But then she sees her talk to Kate with a voice that betrays a kindness Max used to reserve for her closest friends, or get Dana to engage in conversation that goes beyond small-talk, or talk back to Victoria without hesitation, and she has to reevaluate.
It’s probably a side-effect of being able to rewind time: if you can erase any missteps from people’s memories – why not talk to them? If you can rewind and have a witty remark at the ready, why not step up to your enemies? It could be threatening, seeing Max rise in everyone’s esteem until she rivals Rachel in popularity.
Instead, it’s refreshing to see her maneuver her way through conversations so deftly.
It takes her a while to realize she’s in a lot deeper than she thought. It happens in passing, really: Victoria makes a disparaging comment towards Kate, who apparently was invited to a Vortex Club party in early October and “didn’t even drink, you know, like a nun”, and Max, who happens to be on the way past, whirls around, murder in her eyes.
“Maybe you should have channelled your inner nun instead of sexting your friend’s boyfriend and then framing another friend for it, Victoria.” Dana perks up at that, and suddenly her whole fight with Juliet that Rachel unsuccessfully tried to mediate a few weeks ago makes a lot more sense.
Victoria stares. There is a twist to Max’s mouth that says she will pull up the receipts if she has to. She is a head shorter than Victoria, but the tilt of her head is sideways, not upwards. Rachel moves from where she was talking to Dana to stand at Max’s side, because she may not be Kate’s friend but she’s never on Victoria’s side of an argument, ever.
“H- how- have you been in my room?!”
“And if I have been?” Max sounds a little defensive. “Do you really think that’s worse than stealing someone’s phone to send juicy texts?”
She shakes her head and raises a hand.
.dnah a sesiar dna daeh reh sekahs ehS
”?stxet yciuj dnes ot enohp s’enoemos gnilaets naht esrow s’taht kniht yllaer uoy oD“ .evisnefed elttil a sdnuos xaM ”?neeb evah I fi dnA“
“Funny how you feel like I invaded your privacy, do you think Juliet feels the same way?” Max says. She sounds clipped, almost bored. Like she’s done this a million times. Maybe she has.
This is the moment that Dana steps up with a hearty “I do, actually”, and Rachel uses Victoria’s distraction to pull Max to the side.
“That was vicious, my friend. Vicious.” She has to fight to keep the amount of audible adoration reasonable, and judging by the knowing quality of Max’s answering grin, she doesn’t quite succeed.
“C’mon, let’s grab the spot at the fountain before they can. We deserve it.”
“I don’t know about deserve,” Max sighs, but lets herself be gently nudged in the direction. “I’ll have to have a long conversation with Victoria about her insecurities at some point, but you know. She’s been getting on my nerves in all timelines, every run-through. Nobody else has managed that shit. But I know it’s tough for her, she trusted Nathan more than anyone else here and put a lot of hopes into Jefferson, and now they’re both gone and not even she will be able to remember them fondly.”
Max sounds tired then, and Rachel gives her a few pats on her back. She smiles a bit, but her eyes haven’t lost any of their intensity. She still, through the tiredness and the grateful smile, looks ready to pounce on anyone who threatens or insults her friends.
That is the moment Rachel realises she’s not going to be able to backpedal on this, if it goes wrong.
Ah, well, she thinks, sitting down on the edge of the fountain, she’ll have to let Max handle the backpedaling.
She’s not too worried.
Chloe joins them before too long, swooning back on top of the low wall surrounding the fountain and crossing her legs in the air dramatically, already halfway into a tirade about the uselessness of math and the futility of trying to teach it to her.
Max sits down with her back to the wall, leaning her head back into Chloe’s hip, and smiles. They’ve got ten minutes until math starts, and life is good. Rachel lets herself have a moment to admire the casual closeness that has been building between Chloe and Max.
Rachel almost sees it coming when Chloe uncrosses and recrosses her feet, giving it a smidge too much momentum and toppling over into the fountain, comically wide eyes going briefly blank as her head hits stone with a sickening noise –
– esion gninekcis a htiw enots stih daeh reh sa knalb ylfeirb gniog seye ediw yllacimoc ,niatnuof eht otni revo gnilppot dna mutnemom hcum oot egdims a ti gnivig ,teef reh sessorcer dna sessorcnu eolhC nehw gnimoc ti sees tsomla lehcaR
Rachel almost sees it coming when Chloe uncrosses and recrosses her feet, giving it a smidge too much momentum – then there’s a sudden blur, and Max is up on her feet, catching Chloe before she can fall into the fountain, pulling her over and onto the concrete below. Her face is white as a sheet.
Chloe is laughing, gathering her limbs with a lack of grace that looks on purpose in a way that is uniquely Chloe. “Oh God, thank you, Max, as much as I’d have liked to miss math to get changed…” she trails off. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Max says.
She hasn’t looked away from Chloe at all, as though she might catch fire at any point. Rachel gets the sense that this is not about the fountain.
“Hey,” Rachel says gently. “She’s okay. She’ll be okay.”
“How would you know?” Max snaps, and then pulls a face, raising a hand. Rachel puts hers on top of it.
“Don’t rewind when you’re rude to me. I can take it.” She only releases Max’s hand when Max nods, and then says: “No offense, but I know her better than you. We’ve been through some shit together. She can be a bit reckless, but she doesn’t have a death wish.”
“She’s also standing right next to you guys,” Chloe says, sounding half amused and half annoyed, as she does.
“Yeah, but she’s bad at finding the right words, so I’m taking over. Max, I get why you feel responsible for Chloe and maybe even a little for me. But I promise, we can take it from here. You made sure we’d be fighters. Well, here we are.”
Max nods slowly. “It’s not that I don’t know that, it’s just that I’m afraid anyway.”
“No,” Chloe says, “no, that makes sense, you’ve been through hell, of course that would leave scars.”
Rachel gives herself a moment to love Chloe for how earnest she sounds whenever Max brings up her alternate past.
Max cards a hand through her hair. Rachel resolves to help her through whatever she has accumulated in the past few weeks of her own reality.
“I’m such a mess,” Max sighs. “You know, it’s hard to believe that the worst thing this week has in store for us is math -”
“- Not that math isn’t the worst,” Chloe is quick to intercept.
“If you had paid attention at any point in the last ten lessons, you wouldn’t think that,” Rachel says.
“See, only someone who’s good at math could say something like that. Math is a mystery. I fail to see any reason in it. There’s nothing natural about it. Humanity just fucked around and created it out of thin air for no good reason.”
Max is looking between the two of them, amused. She doesn’t seem to have any stakes in the discussion, happy instead to let it guide them away from the heavy topic.
“I take it back, you should have paid attention in like the first ten math lessons you ever had. You’ve got some misconceptions.” Rachel takes Chloe by the wrist, tugs her close to press a kiss to the corner of her mouth.
She watches Max out of the corner of her eyes. Max is still standing by the fountain, wide eyes fixed on them. It’s hard to believe she’s the same person who faced down Victoria ten minutes ago without even blinking. Rachel loves making her blush, racing herself to it, and there it is, the color rising in Max’s cheeks like a sweet reward.
Rachel turns it into a little show for her, and Chloe goes along willingly enough. She takes care to make it look easy, spinning Chloe, then dipping her a bit and kissing her again on her laughing mouth.
Max, when Rachel looks back to her, is smiling a bit, like she’s not quite sure this is for her but she’ll take it anyway.
Rachel angles a wink at her right as the bell sounds.
“Are you flirting with my best friend,” Chloe whispers out of the corner of her mouth from where she’s still dramatically swooning in Rachel’s arms, “by kissing me?!”
Rachel shrugs. “I’m nothing if not efficient.” She steadies Chloe and starts towards the main entrance, throwing a smile over her shoulder to whoever may catch it.
Rachel is good at getting what she wants. She may not always know why she wants what she wants, but questioning that has never gotten her anywhere. Besides, Chloe and Max both are great at getting in their own heads. She can let them do that part.
So she sets out to woo Max, and reassure Chloe, and maybe help Max with her demons while she’s at it.
Two’s company. Three’s a crowd, her mom likes to say. Rachel has always been good with a crowd.
“Sometimes,” Max tells her in a quiet moment, sandwiched between lessons and homework, “I wonder if any of it actually happened.”
They’re up by the lighthouse, just the two of them. Chloe is having one of her tea sessions with Kate. It’s getting cold, wind whipping salt into their faces, the sea below gray and wild. Max does not get tired of stating how much she loves it, even if she sends worried glances to the horizon every so often.
She is different when they’re alone. Half of Rachel hopes that she’s the same with Chloe, and half of her wants it all to herself, her openness, her secrets. Rachel hesitates to talk to her about the second half of her dream journal, the one that sometimes features Max, but there’s a sort of quiet understanding between them regardless: Like they both know what Max means when she says she’s been through hell. Like it’s real to them in a way it can never be to anyone else.
“I thought I was just straight up making all of it up before you came out with all your stuff,” Rachel replies. “I’m glad we’ve got each other.”
Rachel reaches into her bag to get her dream journal. It falls open in her palm, and a loose page almost flutters out. She snatches it out of the air and hands it to Max.
“If you ever doubt it again, read this,” she says.
“Thank you,” Max says, tucking the page safely into her bag.
They sit together quietly, watching the sea, the gray sky.
“Do you ever think we could be a thing?” Rachel asks eventually, on a whim, when they’ve been quiet too long for her taste.
“All the time,” Max replies, like it’s easy.
Rachel laughs. It’s that easy? She never thought it would be that easy. She leans forward and kisses Max straight on the mouth, and Max kisses her back with absolutely no restraint or hesitation, and it’s –
– s’ti dna ,noitatiseh ro tniartser on yletulosba htiw kcab sessik xaM dna ,htuom eht no thgiarts xaM sessik dna drawrof snael ehS .ysae taht eb dluow ti thguoht reven ehS ?ysae taht s’tI .shgual lehcaR
.ysae s’ti ekil ,seilper xaM ”,emit eht llA“
“A thing?” Max asks, like she doesn’t understand, but she’s suddenly sitting bolt upright.
“The three of us. Do you think it would work?”
Max stares at her, like she honestly never considered the possibility that Rachel might bring up the elephant in the room.
Rachel has to remind herself that this Max and her don’t actually know each other that long yet. Max doesn’t know that bringing up the elephant in the room is sort of what Rachel does.
“I don’t know. I feel like it would be unfair to Chloe, maybe. Because I was in love with a different version of her, and it might make her feel like she’s just a substitute. Which she isn’t.”
Rachel notices blood on her upper lip, a slow trickle. She may not know this Max too long, but she knows her long enough to understand what that means.
“What did you say before that? I don’t want the update. Give me Max 1.0,” she demands.
Max holds the back of her hand to her nose and stares some more.
“Max 1.0 was overwritten, remember,” she says flatly.
“Well, give me the uncensored version of this one,” Rachel corrects herself blithely. “I promise I’m old enough to handle it. I can show you some ID if you want.”
Max laughs, a little incredulous. “I said, ‘all the time’, and you kissed me,” she says. “I felt like maybe you’d want to talk to Chloe about it before doing something like this.”
Rachel sees the point in that, she does. She still feels cheated of her first kiss with Max.
“Mhm. Maybe I should. You hold onto that kiss until then,” she says.
On the drive back to Blackwell, Max unfolds the page Rachel gave her, probably at least 90% to not have to look at her. She is beet red.
Rachel grins to herself as she drives.
This is a good one, you think as soon as you appear next to Chloe this time. Or, as good as they get, here.
She’s lying on a rooftop, puffing clouds of smoke into the summer-blue sky. She seems as happy as she gets, alone and quiet. A small wireless radio is playing Queen in a quality that does not befit the band.
Chloe is humming along, and as the chorus comes up, so do you, shaping the words into existence.
(She’s a killer queen
Dynamite with a laser beam
Guaranteed to blow your mind -)
Chloe sits up so fast you can almost feel her dizziness. She remembers the joint in her hand just in time before she tries to shield her wide eyes from the sun. She stops singing along, and now you hear your own voice singing, distorted in the way that radios do to people’s voices.
“Rachel?” Chloe says, incredulous, peering over the edge of the rooftop.
Yes , you say. It comes out warbled, staticky, but it comes out.
Chloe zeroes in on the radio, then on her joint, and she deflates.
“Fuck, but I miss you,” she says on a sigh.
I’m here, you say. I’ve been here the whole time.
(Insatiable an appetite)
“But you’re not. You left me, like everyone else.” Chloe flops back onto her back, arms spread wide. A cross, until she sacrifices her dramatic pose to take another drag.
That’s not true, you say. I’m as here as I can be.
(She never kept the same address)
Chloe curls towards the radio, like she sometimes does towards you. A question mark. A parenthesis that you wish you could complete.
I love you, you say. You don’t have anything else to say. You don’t have to say anything else.
“I love you too,” Chloe says, and finishes her joint, and dries her tears, and (You wanna try?) turns off the radio.
She seems calmer than before. It’s the best you can do, you figure.
Max meticulously refolds the page. “You skipped this one when you read your journal to us,” she says, keeping her gaze forward.
“It felt personal.” Rachel slows the car to a crawl as they descend the hill in a winding pattern. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted either of you to know. And then I didn’t know if it was you I wanted to know or Chloe.”
“And now I feel silly for hiding from either of you. We’re in this together. This is our story.”
Max’s hand lands on Rachel’s arm, a warm weight. She squeezes once, lingers for a second too long, then pulls it back.
Rachel smiles at the road. “Do you ever want to skip town?” she asks offhandedly.
She has asked Chloe the same question so many times she’s lost count, and Chloe has always, unfailingly, replied, “No, I want to help it get its shit together”. But that was before Max came back, before Chloe’s obligations were over and done with, and now there’s three of them, and they saved Arcadia Bay, and maybe three’s just barely crowd enough to survive LA together.
“Not until right now”, Max replies, dreamy. Then she frowns. “I mean, Chloe and I were about to skip town when I left the other timeline, I suppose, but that was because everyone was dead.”
She never applies any of the ridiculous sounding tenses Chloe continues to make up to her situation. Her past is her past. Chloe died, and then died again, and again, and they found Rachel dead in a junkyard, and Chloe died again, and Max was tied to a chair and was almost killed, and then when Chloe finally didn’t die, everyone else did.
Rachel’s mind likes to skip over the fact that these things are an irremovable part of Max’s life, not just fragments of a bad dream like they were for her. Like a flat stone across water, only ever briefly touching the surface of it all, and then shying away again.
Everyone was dead.
It’s too much for a single person.
But maybe three’s enough of a crowd to share the burden.
“Do you want to make the road trip you two would have made?” she asks, and regrets it immediately.
She’s not a part of that imaginary situation. She’s not invited, not even in the backseat, not even as the disembodied voice that occasionally filters in through the radio.
Max is staring at her, and Rachel adjusts her grip on the steering wheel, trying to keep her gaze on the road. She’s good at hiding stage fright, but she’s a stranger to regret. It’s harder to reel in.
“Yes”, Max says, something like wonder in her voice. “That is a good idea. Let’s do that.”
Rachel nods, relieved. She clears her throat. “I mean, we’d have to wait until we’re free – maybe Christmas is…”
“Fudge, Christmas is perfect!” Max yells, startling Rachel into a swerve. “We’d make the trip to Seattle and spend Christmas at my parent’s place!” More quietly, she adds, “I just have to hold out until then.”
The idea that there is a clear end to Max’s problems in the near future is almost as far-fetched as the idea that it’s going to be because of a road trip the three of them go on together, but Rachel knows of the importance of hope, and doesn’t say anything. Seattle isn’t LA, but it’s not Arcadia Bay, either, so Rachel counts that as a win. They can work their way up from there.
“You know,” Max says, her voice like spun glass. “I don’t trust the fact that things are looking up. I keep waiting for everything to get worse, and worse, and worse again.”
Rachel nods. “That makes sense.”
“I guess I always knew that stuff could go wrong. I just thought there was a rock bottom you’d hit eventually that you could work your way up from.”
She’s staring straight ahead now, and Rachel pries one of her hands off the steering wheel to touch her shoulder. It feels like stone underneath the cloth.
“There isn’t,” Max finally says, choked. “There’s no rock bottom. There’s always worse.”
Rachel thinks of the way Max ended up here, and indeed it doesn’t sound like climbing up from rock bottom. It sounds like free-falling into an abyss and then being instantly transported onto the top of a hill. It was too fast. No wonder Max can’t quite believe it.
“Let’s talk it out,” she says. “On the road trip, or right now. Get used to things going well again, without losing sight of what went wrong.”
Max nods, and gives her a brittle smile, and puts her feet up on the dashboard. “On the road trip. I’m already practicing.”
Rachel lets it slide. It’s not like it’s her car, anyway.