It takes Max a full 32 hours to realize that she is an equal partner in their relationship now, but when she does, she doesn’t waste any time.
She catches Rachel before first class the following Monday, assuming (correctly) that Chloe would never show up early to anything, and pushes her into the same supply closet she did two nights ago, and Rachel barely has enough time to work up hope that this time will be less hurried and more steamy before her eyes adjust to the dim light of Max’s phone and she catches her very serious expression.
“Uhm, hi,” Rachel says, trying for a neutral tone of voice, leaning against a shelf and crossing her arms. “What’s up?”
“So, there is no nice way to say this.” Max takes a breath. “If you’re cheating on Chloe and me in any way, shape or form, I will find out and I will make sure there are consequences.”
“What?!” Rachel asks. She spends a few seconds trying to figure out what this is about, and comes up empty. Unless – “Is this about me kissing you before we were officially a thing? Because you rewound that, and anyway, I am reasonably sure Chloe would’ve been on board-”
”-draob no neeb ev’dluow eolhC erus ylbanosaer ma I ,yawyna dna ,taht dnuower uoy esuaceB ?gniht a yllaiciffo erew ew erofeb uoy gnissik em tuoba siht sI“ – sselnU .ytpme pu semoc dna ,tuoba si siht tahw tuo erugif ot gniyrt sdnoces wef a sdneps ehS .sksa lehcaR ”!?tahW“
”.secneuqesnoc era ereht erus ekam lliw I dna tuo dnif lliw I ,mrof ro epahs ,yaw yna ni em dna eolhC no gnitaehc er’uoy fI“ .htaerb a sekat xaM
Max flickers for a moment, and then wipes at her mouth in a now-familiar gesture, so Rachel supposes she figured there were nicer ways to say this after all. “In the reality I come from, you cheated on Chloe with your pot dealer.”
Rachel’s mind immediately skips to Frank, and she recoils hard enough into the shelf to make her head spin.
“Frank?” she says, dumbstruck.
“Yeah. I realize that in this timeline, you probably didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t be paranoid about it, but just know that if anything like this ever comes up, I will tell Chloe, and I will leave you, and I will make sure that she does as well.”
Rachel feels the back of her head for a bump.
“I know Chloe can’t find out whether you’re lying, but I can,” Max continues.
“Yeah,” Rachel says. “That sounds fair.”
She doesn’t like the knowledge that there is a timeline in which she is a cheater, even less so than she likes the knowledge that that’s the timeline in which she ends up drugged and dead and buried in a junkyard.
She doesn’t know what to do with this information. That she has that capability. That she has it in her, somehow, to become that kind of person, to betray her partner like that. With someone like Frank, for whatever fucked up reason.
Max, opposite her, shakes her head and starts raising her hand, and Rachel very much does not want to relive this moment in any way, even if it will be the first time again. More importantly, she can’t imagine a timeline where she reacts better than this. She stops Max’s hand with hers.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I’ll get there. Give it time.”
Max laughs like someone who can turn back time. Like someone for whom the worst thing she can imagine is to let it play out, an endless line stretching in front of her, and it probably is.
Rachel pulls her in, very carefully, until she can place the lightest of kisses on her lips.
“Thank you for telling me,” she says. “But that’s not me. I’m alive, and I’m not cheating. But I will take care not to turn into,” she pauses, “your Rachel.”
“No, I didn’t know that Rachel. You’re my Rachel,” Max says immediately, like Rachel knew she would, like she was hoping she would, and kisses her back with a little more urgency. Rachel sighs and snakes her arms around Max’s waist.
Just as she feels the tension bleed out of Max’s shoulders and she shuffles closer, the bell rings, somehow even louder in the tiny confined space of the closet. Groaning, they disentangle themselves.
Max pushes open the door, only to walk directly into a grinning Chloe’s arms.
“Were you two getting it on in a broom closet without me?” she asks, and Max blushes so hard Rachel worries for a second that she’ll pop a blood vessel.
“I wouldn’t have taken you for the sort. At least wait for me,” Chloe adds, and there’s a spike of jealousy in her good-natured tone that Rachel takes care to note. Maybe she has a reason for it. In a different reality, she definitely does.
“Don’t worry, Max only gave me a very stern talk about what it means to be in a relationship with her,” she says, trying to sound reassuring and falling into something like sarcasm instead.
Chloe visibly doesn’t believe her until Max nods at her.
“Oh?” She says then, like she doesn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed, “How come I haven’t gotten that talk yet?”
“You’ll get one, don’t worry,” Max says lightly, and steps out of the closet and out from between them.
Rachel leans in to kiss Chloe good morning. For the first time, she wonders if her talent to lie flawlessly is actually a burden. If not for her, then for the people around her.
“I’m not lying,” she says quietly. It’s something she has chosen to be honest about. She may lie, she sometimes finds it impossible not to, but when she says she is being honest, she is.
Chloe accepts it immediately. She nods, gives her hand a squeeze, and says: “Thank you.”
Adding a third member to the relationship poses some external difficulties that they tackle one by one:
Firstly, spending the nights together is something of a problem – not the first time around, when they just have a ‘sleepover’ at Chloe’s place, the air mattress on the floor empty as they all crowd onto Chloe’s queen sized bed.
Not the second time around either, when they repeat the ‘sleepover’ charade at Rachel’s place – her bed is smaller, but they manage.
Not even the third time, when Rachel and Chloe tell their parents they’re staying with a friend at Blackwell and they all pile up in Max’s single.
But after that, things get tricky.
Chloe has adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell strategy, in which she doesn’t tell Joyce what’s going on exactly, but doesn’t hide how much time she’s – they are – spending with Max.
“If she wants to know, she’ll ask,” she says, shrugging. “If she doesn’t, she’ll just keep saying how glad she is that we’re both getting along with Max so well, and how much of a good influence she is.” She gives a sardonic smile that turns into a gasp when Max responds by pointedly sucking a bruise into the soft skin just above her clavicle.
Max is not telling anyone anything, but she overhears people talking sometimes – Victoria especially seems to have made it her personal goal to out them to the entire school – and sometimes Rachel catches Kate looking when Max is being particularly cute with Chloe. Rachel can’t help but feel it’s a brittle peace.
Rachel — and she is not proud of this — is lying through her teeth to her parents. This is the problem with being good at lying: you just sort of start resorting to it whenever it’s convenient. She tells them she is staying at Chloe’s, at Dana’s, she lets Max in through the back door when Chloe is supposedly the only person staying over.
Nobody notices, because Max can turn back time and because Rachel is just that good of a liar.
Another problem that surfaces is that beds… are not made to be occupied by three people.
They all lose a lot of sleep over it, quite literally.
Even though they’re all thin, and Max has a tendency to cling to whoever is available at night (It’s Rachel. It’s always going to be Rachel. Chloe likes to kick everyone out of touching range when she gets ready to sleep), a queen size is not big enough for three, let alone a single.
There’s always someone teetering over the edge or squished to a wall, and the one lying in the middle (Max) complains about overheating.
None of this is helped by the fact that Max gets restless in the night – the first time Rachel realizes this is during that first ‘sleepover’ at Chloe’s place – because she has night terrors.
There is no nicer name for them.
Rachel is a heavy sleeper, so by the time she’s woken up by Chloe and Max’s quiet voices, Chloe is already halfway through talking her down from what looks like quite the panic attack. Max is shivering; Rachel can feel it, still pressed against her. There is no space for privacy, here.
“They buried her, Chloe,” she’s saying, and Rachel realizes with a lurch that they are talking about her. “They buried her, and by the time we found her, she was -”
She makes a gagging noise, and Chloe squeezes her arm. “She’s right here, Max,” she says.
“Not going anywhere,” Rachel confirms, voice still rough with sleep. “Here, come here.”
Max hitches a breath and turns to face Rachel.
“I saw you,” Max says urgently, eyes wide, “Rachel, I saw your face, it was the first time I saw you in real life, and your skin was crawling
bugs, and for a split second, you wonder if this is the feeling people call ‘someone walked over your grave’, except worse. Someone discovered your grave and dug up your decaying body.
It’s visceral and horrifying and it means absolutely nothing the second Chloe says “Rachel?” and you can feel her grief, her despair in the air around you. “No – no, Rachel, please not her –”
No, you try to say, I’m here, I’m fine, come find me – but there’s nothing, not even the wind turning into a whisper for you as Chloe turns away to retch, and then cry.
Beside you, Max moves to comfort her and you can’t, and that’s not right.
“What kind of world does this?” Chloe asks, and – if you could just – make them come to your world, it would be fine – a sign, they need a sign –
So you go up, further, into the blue sky, faster and faster until the world is tiny beneath you and you’re surrounded by darkness, and you try to make a sign, whatever that means.
Rachel realizes at once that she both has no idea how to deal with this and also has to figure it out right now, for Max – because nobody else can help her with this.
So she pushes aside the memory of what she thought at the time was a nightmare of her own, pulling Max closer.
“And then you saved me,” she says. “Aren’t you glad it was this way around? I’m fine and I’m alive and I am so gone for you, look at me, come on.”
Max isn’t looking at her, she has rolled up into a ball and tucked her face into Rachel’s chest, and it takes a few seconds for Rachel to realize she’s listening to her heartbeat.
She looks over at Chloe, or at the Chloe-shaped shadow on Max’s other side. Chloe shakes her head.
Between them, Max is slowly calming down. Slowly.
It takes Rachel a while to go back to sleep after that, between feeling the phantom crawl of bugs on her face and remembering the look on Max’s face when she told her how they found her, urgent and desperate.
They take turns comforting Max, after that.
Max seems to grow used to the timbre of their soothing voices quickly, and she calms down faster. Squished between them, she falls asleep again, leaving them awake with the aftertaste of whatever awful detail she remembered that night.
It gets to a point where Chloe jokes that people should be able to tell that they’re together by the dark circles under their eyes, and she’s not wrong.
They start splitting up for the night, taking turns – Rachel and Max cozying up on the single in Max’s room while Chloe curls up on her bean bag chair, Chloe and Max in Chloe’s bed while Rachel holds Max’s hand from the air mattress on the floor, Chloe and Rachel – no – Max climbing into bed with them in the middle of the night, shaking and apologetic.
Rachel remembers moments like this from previous flings, when the lovestruck first few weeks gave way to reveal problems that couldn’t be solved by simply pouring more affection on top. The discomfort always made her want to leave, an urge to stop this mess of feelings and weirdness and never look back on it.
This time, Rachel finds that there is no part of her that wants to leave, not even the icy sole of her foot that she keeps braced against the floor so she won’t fall out of the bed. Even cranky and so tired she aches, with Max’s hair constantly getting into her mouth, she has faith: They’ll figure it out. They have all the time in the world, and after this semester is over, maybe they can save up for their own apartment, where nobody can question the size of their bed.
The following days, whenever she can’t sleep, Rachel finds herself fantasising about their potential future apartment.
Eventually, the nightmares get less frequent, then seem to stop entirely. Rachel allows herself a tiny amount of pride.
Rachel doesn’t really mean to keep lying to everyone about their relationship for the rest of her life. It’s just that lying comes easily to her, and it doesn’t cost her any effort, so she doesn’t question it.
Sometimes, she looks at Max deftly wind her way through an elaborate construct of lies, tissue already in hand, and she remembers that not everyone is getting through this on instinct.
She waits for the inevitable with a little bit of unease.
“Maybe we should tell Kate,” Max says at some point, the three of them crammed into Max’s room, ostensibly to do homework, but in a state of undress that’s unfit for a study group of any kind. They’re acutely aware that as soon as anyone knocks at the door, they’re as good as found out, but it’s not enough of a threat to put on more clothes.
Rachel looks to Chloe, who is lying upside down on the beanbag chair, bare legs crossed against Max’s desk. She’s wearing the same half-amused, half-surprised expression Rachel probably is. “How did you get Kate when thinking of people to possibly tell?”
“Because!” Max looks frustrated for a moment. “She’s a fundamentally good person, okay? I trust her to work it out with God, like she did when you two got together.”
She has a point. When Rachel tries to find someone else who she trusts enough to tell, she comes up empty. Worse, it makes her think of Nathan, and for all she’s good with empathy how bad her radar for creepy fucks is. Maybe she shouldn’t be at the forefront of this particular mission. “Okay, sure. You tell her. If it freaks her out too badly, you can always go back, right?”
Chloe sits up slowly, her back emitting a series of alarming cracks. Rachel admires the curve of her spine for a second as she stretches. “I think I’d like to come with.”
Max spins around to her, surprised.
Max gets surprised by a lot of things, still. Most of them involve Rachel, but Chloe’s continued closeness with Kate is on the list, as well.
Rachel loves it most of the time.
Chloe doesn’t look like she’s loving it, right now.
(Rachel waits for her flight instinct to kick in, as it does when the people she loves start arguing, but it doesn’t. There’s discomfort, but overpowering it is the desire to figure it out together, and the trust that they will.)
“No offense, Max, but you’ve been friends with her for longer than she’s been friends with you, and I know she trusts me. Plus, I think at least someone who is not the new member of this relationship should be present, so she doesn’t think any of us are just cheating.”
Max’s face does something complicated, like she doesn’t know what to do about Chloe being harsh with her or maybe like she’s already planning to fix it.
“Well, by that logic, I should be there, too,” Rachel drops in lazily. Max drops the hand she’s been raising. “So she doesn’t think the two of you are cheating on me.”
“How painful exactly do you want that conversation to be for Kate?” Chloe hisses, and Rachel laughs.
“Not at all, that’s why we’re taking Max!”
Chloe shakes her head at her, but Rachel can tell there’s a smile waiting in line behind that beautiful face of hers, and Max is already laughing.
It’s the easiest thing in the world, defusing their arguments before they happen. Rachel resolves to do it as often as they need her to.
“Good, then,” Max says. “Who wants to help me with math?”
Chloe groans and makes a show of hiding underneath the beanbag chair, wearing it as a sort of puffy turtle shell, and Rachel turns towards her. “What do you need explained?”
“Just – exercise nine has it out for me, apparently.”
Rachel settles into Max’s lap, laughing, and is just about to begin explaining when the door slams open. They all spin around to see Warren, red-faced, raising his hands like they’re about to shoot him.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry—”
”—yrros os m’I ,doG ,hO“
.mih toohs ot tuoba er’yeht ekil sdnah sih gnisiar ,decaf-der ,nerraW ees ot dnuora nips lla yehT .nepo smals rood eht nehw gninialpxe nigeb ot tuoba tsuj si dna ,gnihgual ,pal s’xaM otni selttes lehcaR
”.yltnerappa ,em rof tuo ti sah enin esicrexe – tsuJ“
”?denialpxe deen uoy od tahW“ .reh sdrawot snrut lehcaR dna ,riahc gabnaeb eht htaenrednu gnidih fo wohs a sekam dna snaorg eolhC
”?htam htiw em pleh ot stnaw ohW“ .syas xaM ”,neht ,dooG“
“That settles it, then,” Max says, bringing a hand up to her nose. “It’s all of us or no one. And now let’s put on some clothes, Warren is about to burst in.”
Not for the first time, Rachel thinks, I could get used to this.