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Everything's Different Again

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Change had never come easy to Maxine Caulfield. 

Arcadia Bay had changed in the years she’d been gone. On the surface, it seemed the same -- same tall, green trees towering over almost every building, same lighthouse by the same sea reflecting the same blue skies, speckled with clouds that danced like butterflies. But there was something different now, a change in the energy, a subtle shift in the sunbeams that bathed Blackwell in oranges and reds. Any other day, Max would have taken a picture, captured the moment and kept it in a box to cherish, but not today. Not when it felt so painfully familiar, yet so alien.

Leaving Arcadia Bay had been the hardest moment of her young life. She never thought coming back would be so bittersweet. It wasn’t like change was foreign to Max by now, after all the time and effort she put into making Seattle feel like home. She’d even started transitioning in her time away, and God knows she couldn’t think of a bigger change than that. Coming out, again and again, having to tell everyone over and over that she wasn’t the boy they’d always thought she was. 

In some weird way, coming home for Max was almost like a new start. Arcadia Bay was different, but so was she.

Despite it all, Max is glad to be back in Arcadia Bay.

*****

The giddiness Max feels the first time somebody calls her “the new girl” is completely worth the effort of lugging all those boxes to her dorm.

It’s just as freeing as she’d hoped. Back in Seattle, where everyone knew, she never could’ve faded into the background the way she can now. Here in this strange new town, her old home, where everything’s different, Max is just another girl in the crowd. Not “the girly boy” or “the trans girl” everyone couldn’t see past. She’s just the new girl now. No reason to be singled out. She can just be normal.

She’s still full of nervous excitement in her dorm room, the same buzzing feeling she felt the first time she’d been sent to the girls’ locker room back at her old high school. The duality, the I’m not supposed to be here grinding against the this is where I’m meant to be. Her head’s full of a whirlwind of names and faces she still can’t match together, the girls she’s sharing a hall and a bathroom with for the next nine months. She hopes at least one of them likes her enough to be her friend. Everyone’s been courteous to her, at least, polite, if not genuine. The Seattle Freeze clearly reaches this far south. One girl, at least, seemed honestly pleased to meet her, even if Max can’t remember her name, but Max remembers the cross around her neck and wonders if she’d still want to know her if she knew her past. It doesn’t stop her from making plans to grab tea together someday soon, though the thought fills her equally with hope and anxiety.

The first week goes by so fast Max can barely remember it. Her journal entries seem like a stranger’s work, half-coherent scribbles Max squeezed in between the overwhelming homework weighing down her backpack from the first day on. She has new contacts in her phone she’s still too scared to text. Dana. Kate. Brooke. Taylor. Warren. Alyssa.

Her teachers like her work, at least. One embarasses her unexpectedly, putting one of her polaroids under the doc-cam on Friday, calling it, her words, “an excellent example of the quality you’ll need to get an A in my class.” This clearly bothers the blonde girl in the front row, shifting back and forth in her seat for the excruciatingly long five minutes it takes before the bell rings. On her way out the door Max overhears the girl, Victoria, grumbling to one of her friends that her photo was clearly a shoo-in A-quality example, so much better than “the new girl’s hipster trash” that Victoria could’ve “scraped out of the dumpster.”

She winds up spending her first weekend with her first friend at Blackwell, Warren Graham. It’s so much easier for her to talk without the pressure of eye contact and full attention. She takes full advantage of it, chatting idly about everything and nothing as they watch Planet of the Apes, swap Steam usernames, and set up a farm in a frustratingly laggy Minecraft server. Listening to the giggly passion in his voice makes Max wonder if she has a type, makes Max think of Chloe.

She wonders if Chloe still knows the names of every star in the sky. Wonders if she’s still in Arcadia Bay, if she remembers Max. She doesn’t know if she wants her to or not. Does she remember Maxwell Caulfield, the boy who left without a trace five years ago? Who would lay with her on the grass, enraptured as she counted out the stars? Who would do anything for her, would never back down from a dare, always eager to prove himself to her? 

Max knows she couldn’t ever forget Chloe Price. She’s a year ahead of her, probably out finding her place in the world, moved past Max Caulfield to broader horizons. Still, Max can’t shake the feeling that Chloe’s still here somewhere, in this strange, new Arcadia Bay so unlike her childhood home. Despite its changes, the roads repaved and signs replaced, the town still hides a hint of mischief Max finds herself hoping might belong to her old pirate captain.

Chapter Text

Max can’t shake the feeling that this is a trap.

She remembers her tea date with Kate, her second Saturday at Blackwell -- it went better than she’d expected, better than she could’ve hoped. Kate is the sweetest human being Max has ever had the pleasure to meet, but Victoria… She remembers Kate’s words.

“She’s a good person, deep down,” Kate said, taking a sip of her Earl Gray. “We all are, if we let ourselves.”

Max frowned. “Are you sure about that? I have class with her, and everything you’ve told me…”

Kate chuckled mirthlessly. “She chooses to be cruel. I wish we could kill her with kindness, so to speak, but it’s probably for the best to stay away from her.”

Everything Max knew about Victoria Chase was telling her not to listen. She had reason to dislike Max, on top of her natural abrasive personality, but there was something in her voice, a hint of genuine excitement that Max really hoped wasn’t fake. 

That, and there was no way she’d get out of Victoria Chase showing up outside her dorm herself and inviting her into the VIP lounge of the year’s first Vortex Club party.

She’d tried to turn her down politely. She wasn’t even lying -- she did have plenty of homework, she wasn’t a party girl, and she definitely got anxious around large groups of strangers, but Victoria wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

“You’re new here,” Victoria said, blasé. She blew a hair out of her face in a move that had to be calculated, Max thought, because there’s no way Victoria freaking Chase leaves a single hair on her head out of place. “It’s the start of our last year in high school, and you know basically nobody. Do you want to go friendless for the rest of the year?”

Max shook her head dumbly. “Thought so,” Victoria smirks, raising her chin almost imperceptibly, looking down at Max even more than her three-inch height advantage already gave her. “Caulfield, you’re a promising photographer at a school for people like us. Even if you are a mousey little hipster, shouldn’t you at least know your peers?”

Max’s face was hot. She hoped Victoria couldn’t see her blush, but Victoria had called her promising, hadn’t put her down beyond her clothes, which, admittedly, prioritized comfort over cosmetics. Maybe Max had a chance of getting on Victoria Chase’s good side, if she was lucky, if Victoria wasn’t sharp edges and hard ice all the way to the bone. Maybe Kate was right, that Victoria had a heart just like everyone else. Max at least didn’t want to let her down after finally telling her she’d go.

The party was, after all, a short walk from her dorm room in the brisk autumn weather. And maybe, just maybe, everything would work out exactly like it hadn’t back in Seattle. Max tried not to get her hopes up, but could keep her mind from wandering. Thoughts of new friends, just as passionate about their art, of maybe even melting the Ice Queen of Blackwell proved a siren song too strong for Max to resist.

“Here goes nothing,” Max said to herself. She could already hear the music, bass barely muffled through the walls. With a deep breath, Max opened the door and took the plunge into the Vortex. 

Everything about the party was overwhelming. The scent of booze hit Max’s nostrils hard enough she was barely able to keep herself from pawing at her nose. The lights were dimmed, leaving the room lit mostly by the neon glowing in the blacklights, shining through the artificial fog. The music was so loud she couldn’t hear herself think. 

Max steeled herself. Every instinct in her body told her to bolt, to scramble back to the peace and quiet and isolation of her dorm. She pushed them down. She was Maxine Caulfield, and she was tired of running. She was here to party and make some goddamn friends, even if she has no idea how she’s supposed to do that.

She wanders towards the punch table, turning down a warm beer from a boy she’s never seen before. The red solo cup feels alien in her hands, even if it’s only holding punch. Her mouth is dry, but she can’t bring herself to take a drink yet. 

There’s lasers in the air now, green and red and purple caught in the fog. The lights are flashing in time with the beat, and the whole room smells of sweat. Max almost considers joining on the dance floor as she finds a seat near the punch table. She decides against it almost immediately, a frog in her throat as her mind wanders. Everyone’s grinding against each other down there, drunk and sweaty and not quite sure who’s who. If her tuck came undone, if somebody got too grabby -- Max crosses her legs uncomfortably, taking a sip of her punch.

“Max!”

She’s not quite sure she heard correctly at first. She looks from side to side, knowing it makes her look like a dork, but she can’t do anything more than that without looking even dorkier than that.

“Maxine Caulfield, what are you doing sitting in a corner like this?” Victoria Chase appears from the thick crowds. She’s still wearing her pearl necklace, though she’s swapped her miniskirt for one a little longer, a black pleated thing flowing around her knees. “I told you to come to the VIP lounge, remember? Or is that pretty little hipster head of yours lost in the clouds again?”

Max hopes her blush isn’t visible in the low light. “I, uh, I couldn’t find it.” Not that she really tried.

Victoria rolls her eyes. “Of course you couldn’t. Do you know your way out of a wet paper bag, Smallfield?” Before Max has time to answer, Victoria’s grabbed her by the hand and hauled her to her feet. She can’t help but shrink under the intensity of the taller girl’s gaze. “Punch? Really? Oregon’s home to the best breweries in the country and you’re drinking the punch? Smallfield, we spent a fucking pittance on that shit, I’m sure we have some beer underground enough for your hipster ass.”

“I don’t really drink,” Max says, her voice small in the noise of the music and the crowd. “My, uh-” she cuts herself off. She knows she shouldn’t drink with her meds, her hormones, but how the hell is she going to tell Victoria goddamn Chase that? “My parents,” she finishes lamely. “They don’t want me to drink.”

Victoria lets out a high, cackling laugh. “Caulfield, are your parents here right now?” She raises an arm like a queen showing off a work of art. “Is your mommy in that crowd? Your daddy playing DJ for the night? Come on, Max, get the stick out of your ass and learn to have a little fun.”

Max can barely mumble “okay” quietly enough she’s not sure Victoria even heard her before she’s being dragged through the crowd. She clutches her punch like it’s a life preserver in a stormy sea, desperate not to spill and sour some stranger’s evening. Everyone’s so tall. She loses track of where she’s going, where the exit is, but Victoria’s grip is like a vice around her wrist. 

When Victoria pulls her out of the crowd, Max tries not to gasp for breath like she only just learned how to breathe. She barely even notices the bouncer standing in front of the red rope, the brusque nod Victoria gives him before he pulls it aside. Not bothering to say anything, Victoria drags Max further, behind the curtains, and Max can almost get her brain back in order by the time she realizes she’s in the VIP section now.

The curtains do little to muffle the music, but there’s at least air conditioning back here. The room is small, despite its high ceiling. The room’s a circle of couches around an oversized coffee table, strewn with drinks half-empty and tipped-over plastic cups, with just shy of a dozen people sitting around it. The smoke in here is different, too. Max closes her stinging eyes, crinkling her nose. Weed. Makes sense.

“Welcome to the VIP lounge,” Victoria smiles, baring a few too many teeth to put Max’s mind at ease. “Nobody gets in here without my or Nathan’s permission. You should feel honored, Smallfield. Don’t you feel the greatness in the air around you?”

“Mostly just the weed,” Max admits.

Victoria sniffles condescendingly. Max has no idea how Victoria can make a sniffle condescending, but Max can hear the haughtiness in her breath more easily than she could make out words in the other room. “I should’ve taken you for a stoner girl, of course,” Victoria says. “Hipster hoodie like that, shy and meek and modest, no wonder you prefer it to fucking booze.”

“I uh,” Max says. “I’ve never actually smoked before.”

Victoria pinches Max’s cheeks. “Oh, you poor, innocent, sheltered child,” she says in a mock baby voice. “I’m going to show you how to have a good time, okay? You’re so nervous you look like you’re about to throw up, and I do not want your hipster vomit on my cashmere blouse, okay, little kiddo?”

Max swallows and nods. Victoria’s expression brightens immediately, eyebrows shooting up higher than Max thought possible. “Fan-fucking-tastic, Smallfield. Let’s give you a proper introduction to the real Vortex Club, shall we?”

More names, Max thinks as Victoria pulls her to the head of the table. She feels more like a prize pig for the slaughter than a girl being inducted into a club. Was she being hazed? Is this what hazing is? Max tries to stand up straight, to make a good impression instead of looking like a scared little girl.

To be fair, though, she is scared, and little, and a girl. Sometimes you can read a book by its cover.

“Meet the one and only Maxine Caulfield,” Victoria says, her hands tight on Max’s shoulders. “Say hello, Max.”

Max smiles, giving a small wave. 

“Good enough,” Victoria says with a huff, pulling away to crack open a can of beer. “Maxine, that’s Nathan. Make sure to remember that name.”

“I will,” Max says. Her cup of punch is still in her hand. She stands awkwardly, unsure what to do, what to say.

Victoria, somehow, saves her. “There’s Hayden. You know Taylor, right? In our hall?” Max nods. “Good girl. Juliet, there. Courtney, Dana, Logan, Juliet. Got that? There’s Hayden and Zachary, and, of course, our guest of honor for the night, the one and only Chloe Price.”

Chloe.

Max’s whole body fills with ice. She hadn’t recognized her when she came in, with her long blue hair and sleeve tattoo, but now that she knows, it’s unmistakably her. Her long neck, a jawline sharp enough to cut marble, those fierce eyes wide in surprise. Her mouth is wide open in shock, and Max feels a thousand emotions at once.

“I’m told you knew each other back in the day,” Victoria says casually, but Max can’t miss the smirk on her face. “You can’t get away from the past, you know?” She takes a sip of her drink. 

Max can hardly breathe. Victoria set this up. She knew Max knew Chloe, that Max had left. She’d known who Max was the whole time.

She knew.

So much for a new start is all Max can think to herself. Victoria knew, everyone’s going to know, and Chloe’s going to kill her and it might be a mercy.

Max winces as Chloe stands up, downing the rest of her drink and tossing the plastic cup behind her. She says nothing as she walks right up to Victoria, standing as if the single inch of height she has on her is a mile. 

“Hi,” Max says. “It’s, uh, been a while.”

Chloe plucks Victoria’s drink from her hands as if she’s done it a million times. She obviously hasn’t though, given Victoria’s irritated squawk. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private, huh, Maximum Strength Adderall?” Max nods, her eyes wide, her lips pressed together.

“What, without me?” Victoria drawls sweetly, batting her lashes as if she actually cares. “After all the work I put into bringing the two of you back together after all these years?”

“Fuck off, Vicky,” Chloe says, not bothering to look back as she flips her off and makes for the exit. “C’mon, Max.”

“That’s Victoria to you, Price!” Victoria’s voice is sharp, all traces of her former gentleness banished in a flash. “Enjoy my goddamn drink!”

“I think I will!” Chloe shouts back, pushing through a door to reach the alley behind the building. Max follows. Once the door is shut, the music muffled and the cold autumn air biting at Max’s ears, it really starts to hit Max what’s going on.

Chloe leans against the wall, her lanky body towering over Max. She takes a sip of Victoria’s drink, her other hand tucked into her pocket, save for the thumb playing on the belt loop of her jeans. When she finishes, she lets out an exaggerated “ahh,” her breath a cloud of white.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Chapter Text

“I, um, I’m sorry I didn’t-”

“What are you doing here?” Chloe interrupts. “Max, it’s been five years and radio silence from you. Would you have even told me you were back?” She tucks a strand of blue hair behind her ear. 

“I wanted to, Chloe, I just-” Max bites her lip. “It’s not like I could’ve said ‘hey, it’s your childhood BFF, sorry we haven’t talked in years, but I’m a girl now, hi.’”

Chloe takes an angry sip of Victoria’s craft beer. “You could’ve said you were trans. I would’ve understood, y’know?”

“I didn’t know if you would,” Max says. 

Chloe looks down at her, incredulous. “Duh? Have I not been giving off the strongest dyke energy in the world since the day I was born, Maxipad? C’mon,” she ruffles Max’s hair, “even you can’t be that oblivious. Besides, we were best friends. Best friends get each others’ backs.”

Max can’t meet her eyes. “It- it had been years by then, I figured you hated me for abandoning you when y-you needed me most, and- and-”

“I did, but you had your reasons, and that reason is you’re frickin’ trans, Max!” 

“So, uh,” Max says, meeting Chloe’s eyes for half a second. God, why did they have to be so bright, so blue? Max can’t take it. “You’re not mad?”

Chloe shrugs. “I mean, I was angry. I was really angry for a long time, but Jesus Christ, Max, this explains everything! God, I can’t believe I bitched about you for years while you had your own bullshit going on. Can’t imagine it’s been easy for you, y’know, with the whole hormones thing, and, like-”

“I’m the one who should be apologizing!” Max clenches her fists, blinking away a tear. “I abandoned you, Chloe! How can you just ignore all of that?”

“I thought it was something I did,” Chloe says. She takes a drink. “Thought I’d fucked up and you didn’t care about me anymore.”

“Chloe,” Max says softly, crossing her arm over her body “Chloe, I could never.”

“C’mon, Max, don’t get all mushy on me.”

“Can’t I be mushy after five years?”

“Uuuuugh,” Chloe groans, smirking. “If you insist, hippie. Look, point is, I bitched about you to Icky Vicky for, like, a solid year and she knows you’re easy pickings.”

“How the hell do you two even know each other?”

Chloe’s expression darkened. “We, uh, have, had a mutual ex.”

Max’s jaw drops. “Hold up, she’s gay t-”

“Damn, how shitty is your gaydar, Maxaroni?” Chloe smirks. “Look at that shaved-sides pixie cut and tell me that girl’s straight.”

Max flushes. “Shush.”

“I wasn’t even gonna come to the party tonight,” Chloe says. She takes a long drink. “Victoria and I don’t exactly get along. Never have, but, like,” she shrugs. “She called me out of the blue. Told me she had a surprise I couldn’t miss, y’know? Wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I figured whatevs, free booze.”

“You’ve always been easily tempted,” Max ventures. Chloe snorts. She runs a hand through her hair. Max giggles along, but can’t find the words to say.

There’s an awkward pause between them. Max can feel a thousand thoughts swirling around her skull, none of them coherent. She fiddles with her sweatshirt, unsure if she should zip it up in the cold, cover the thin pink shirt she’s wearing, or if there’s some unspoken rule she’d be breaking. All she can do is focus on the world around her. Chloe, leaning against the concrete wall plastered in graffiti and posters old and new. The dim orange glow of the streetlights. Chloe’s blue hair seems almost green. The muted music from the party, bass thumping like a shaken heartbeat. 

“But uh, yeah,” Chloe says, gesturing towards nothing with her free arm. “Rachel dated Victoria before me. They didn’t work out.”

“Are you and her…?”

Chloe shakes her head, sniffles, and wipes her nose on the back of her hand. “She, uh, she skipped town. Didn’t even say goodbye. Didn’t tell me what happened for two weeks, and she’s never coming back, apparently.”

“I’m so sorry,” Max says. She tentatively puts a hand on Chloe’s shoulder. It’s awkward, she’s reaching up too high, and she’s just gonna make Chloe feel uncomfortable, oh god, but Chloe bends her knees, smirking at Max. 

She wipes her eyes. “I mean, you know how bad it sucks for somebody to leave with no warning, right?”

Max winces. “I can just go if you want me to, if- if you don’t want to ever see me again-”

“Are you kidding?” Chloe stands up, pushing Max’s hand from her shoulder. “You better be kidding, Maximus, because I am not losing my best friend when I just fuckin’ got her back.” She pulls Max into a bear hug, resting her head atop Max’s own. “God, I oughtta fuckin’ thank Victoria for bringing you back to me.”

“What?” Max says, her voice muffled by Chloe’s shirt. Oh god, her face is up against Chloe’s exposed bony collarbones, and she smells so nice, and Jesus fucking Christ she wants to enjoy it but she’s being crushed half to death. “I- I can do it for you if you want?”

Chloe bursts into laughter. “Holy shit, Max, will you still do anything I ask?”

Max is glad she has the excuse of being crushed in a hug to explain why she’s blushing so badly. “Did I really? Back then?”

Chloe’s smirk is so smarmy Max can taste it. She wants to taste Chloe’s smile, feel her lips against her own, and oh fuck, she’s in too deep and it’s barely been five minutes. “If I had a laser pointer you’d totally chase it.”

“Would not!”

“Would too,” Chloe says. “If I dared you. You could never back down from a dare, SuperMax.”

Max presses her hand against the back of her neck. “I- I could too! You can’t just manipulate me that easily!”

“C’mon, Max, tell the truth,” Chloe says, leaning back against the wall again. She holds out Victoria’s drink to her. “Finish this off. I dare you.”

“What? No!” Max raises both her hands, taking an involuntary step backward. “I don’t know where Victoria’s been!”

Chloe snorts. “I should’ve known you were trans this whole time, Maximum Overdrive. Makes sense, since you’re such a pussy.”

Max pouts. “Chloe, you know that’s sexist-”

“Take the drink, then!” Chloe grins. “C’mon, I double dare you.”

Shit . Max can only see Chloe, the can she’s holding out. She double dared me.

Before she knows it, Max’s eyes are slammed shut and the can is upside-down, the sickly taste of some kind of high-end craft beer flooding her mouth. She tries not to gag as she chokes it all down, but based on the look on Chloe’s face, she must’ve shown how gross she thought it was.

“Can’t handle your beer, girlie?” Chloe squeaks out through her laughter.

“It’s so gross, though,” Max says, grimacing and crossing her arms. “How do you drink this stuff?”

Chloe chuckles, snatching the empty cup back from Max and tossing it behind her. “Like I said, Max, you’re a pussy. Like, this shit’s just beer, I’d love to see you whine if you had to drink tequila.”

“Why not whine over wine?” Max says, “ba dum tshh.”

“Hashtag punning,” Chloe winks. “Wine is, like, the most boring alcohol ever. Does anyone besides middle-aged moms and, uh, I dunno, fuckin’ priests drink wine?”

“I’ve had some,” Max says, trying not to sound like she’s boasting. She isn’t, but it’s the closest she can honestly come to it. Wowzers, she’s lame. “You remember my Bar- m-my Bat Mitzvah, right?”

Chloe pauses for a second. “Aw, shitfuck, I haven’t thought about that in fuckin’ years, dude- wait, shit, not dude-”

“It’s fine, Chloe,” Max says. “I know you didn’t mean-”

“Look, the last thing I wanna do is scare you away again, okay?” Chloe says, slinking to the ground. “Like, for- for five years, I- look, let’s just get out of here.”

“Chloe-”

“Never mind,” Chloe groans, pulling herself to her feet. “C’mon, hippie, let’s blow this popsicle stand!”

“Chloe, you can’t just beat yourself up over calling me dude, dude,” Max laughs shakily. “I’m not gonna get scared of you. I’m not a deer that’s gonna prance away if you get too close or something.”

“Oh really, Jane Doe?” Chloe pokes Max in the center of her chest. She squawks, pulling back and crossing her arms, but Chloe just throws her head back and laughs. “God, look, like, you totally set yourself up for that, girlie!”

“Wish it was on purpose.” Max brushes her shirt, straightening it out. Her chest feels warm and fuzzy, almost wobbly, as if she’s full of gross, hot Jell-O. She rolls her shoulders. “I wish I was that clever.”

“Hey, you’re the one at wonder school for wonder kids. I dropped out, like, halfway through sophomore year.”

“You went to Blackwell?” Max knits her eyebrows. “I mean, I figured, I- I mean I hoped so, you were always so into space, and everything-”

“It’s where I met Rachel,” Chloe says. She bites her lip, barely visible in the alley light. Max tries not to space out about Chloe’s lips again. Especially when she just mentioned her ex. “And for the record, Blackwell’s science program sucks ass. Can you believe they don’t have a single class on the night sky? Like, there’s classes on so much irrelevant shit, but, like, Max, look up!” She throws up her arm at the clear night sky. “Like, it’s always there!”

“It’s beautiful,” Max says. “I forgot how little light pollution there is out here. I wish it was easier to take pictures of the stars.”

“You oughta take a picture of me, then,” Chloe smirks. “After all, I’m smokin’ hot.

Max flushes. She was totally, completely unprepared. She didn’t have her camera, the lighting was all wrong, she wasn’t in the proper headspace at all, and- 

And Chloe was absolutely correct. She was smokin’ hot.

“My camera’s back at my dorm,” Max is barely able to mumble out. Her face is burning. 

“Use your phone, Maxipad,” Chloe says, taking Max’s hands and moving them to her pockets. “What, are you too starstruck for this, hmm?”

“Ah! W-was that a pun?”

“You betcha.” Chloe pats on the tops of Max’s thighs. “Where the fuck do you keep your phone, hippie?”

“These pants don’t have pockets,” Max says. “Y-you know, girl clothes.” She hopes the strain in her voice isn’t obvious, but it’s not like she can really do anything to keep Chloe from practically groping her. “Jacket pocket! Jacket pocket!”

Chloe snorts, pulling away with Max’s phone in her grabby hands. Mercifully, she doesn’t seem to notice how red Max’s face is, or if she does, she doesn’t mention it. “C’mon, get a selfie of the two of us! Put those mad photography skills to good use!”

“I, uh.” Max takes her phone back, fumbling with her passcode. “I’m a big fan of selfies, yeah!”

“Better make me your home screen then, homegirl,” Chloe chuckles. She winks at the camera, holding up her fingers in a peace sign. Max tries not to force her smile, but she’s all blushy skin and square-faced on the screen. She snaps the picture anyways, promising to herself she won’t comb over it, looking for flaws that may or may not be there. 

Chloe wolf-whistles at the photo. “Lookin’ good!”

“You really do,” Max says. She blushes for the umpteeth time, wishing she could bury herself in her hair. “I- I mean, you are.”

“I was talkin’ about you, Mad Max,” Chloe says. “I mean, like, look. You grew up nicely. You’re so much cuter as a girl.”

“Oh.” Max’s face is on fire. She kind of wants to curl up in her clothes and die right now. Vomiting on Victoria’s blouse probably would’ve been less embarrassing. “T-thank you.”

Chloe slaps her on the back, breaking her focus. “Alright, hippie, let’s get out of here. The night is young, the world is ours!”

“I, uh, I was just thinking I’d go back to my dorm and catch up on my homework, but-”

“Oh, fuck yeah, of course. Show me that lair of yours, girlie!”

“You, uh.” Max’s hand finds the back of her neck. “You really want to go to Blackwell? After, um, everything?”

Chloe frowns. “No. No! It’s fine. No way I’m gonna look at Blackwell and bust into tears or some shit. I missed you, Max. It’s been five years, I wanna hang out with you, wherever, okay?”

“I-” Max starts, before realizing she has absolutely no idea what she was going to say. “Yeah! Let’s go, let’s do this!”

Chloe pulls her into another hug, gentler than the last. Max tries not to melt into a puddle of embarrassment, particularly as oh God Chloe’s so strong, Max bets Chloe could lift her up like it’s nothing and fucking Christ she’s so screwed. Five years has done nothing to quash the feelings she once had for the unattainable, iconic Chloe Price.

Chloe lets go of her. Max stumbles finding her footing, hoping, praying she doesn’t look as dazed as she feels.

“It’s good to have you back, Max.”

Chapter Text

“Max? Are you alright?”

“Huh?” Max brushes a tangle of hair away from her face and tucks it behind her ear. It falls forward again, so she just leaves it there. “Oh! Hey, Kate.”

Kate Marsh slid onto the bench beside her, a breakfast bagel in one hand and a mug of cocoa in the other. “Hey Max,” she says, taking a bite of her bagel. 

“Do I, uh, do I really look that bad?” Max asks. She smiles. The last thing she wants is for Kate Marsh to worry about her. The girl’s been nothing but kind to her, and Max is determined to repay her tenfold. “Late night, y’know?”

Kate gives a small nod, taking a sip of her cocoa. The two of them sat near the window in the Blackwell dining hall, bathed in the golden sunlight of the morning. “The homework wasn’t this bad last year, but Mx. Dog never said they taught an easy class. No, wait, you were at the Vortex Club party last night, right?”

“For like, ten minutes,” Max says. “It was, uh, loud.”

“I bet,” Kate chuckles. “Did I ever tell you about the time I went to one?

The only reason Max didn’t jump out of her seat was the overwhelming exhaustion in her bones. “What? You?”

“Yes, me,” Kate smiles. “Is it that unbelievable?”

“You’re, like,” Max opens and closes her mouth like a fish. “Ugh, it’s too early for words. But- but, like, people were drinking and smoking and-”

Kate holds up a hand to quiet Max as she takes another sip. “I’ll admit, it’s not my scene, but if it were, it’s not like beer is stronger than communion wine.”

“...Fair point,” Max says. “I just can’t picture you at one of those.”

“It wasn’t pleasant,” Kate admits. “The friend who invited me didn’t show. I might’ve had a drink if she had.”

“Kate Marsh? Drinking outside of church? It’s more likely than you think,” Max grins, hoping Kate will get her reference. The universe is merciful, and Kate chuckles. “Sorry you were there alone. Getting ditched sucks.”

Kate shrugs. “It’s past.” She lets the silence between them hang in the quiet murmurs of the lunchroom. “I hope your time ‘getting krunk’ was better.”

Max suppresses a giggle. “Believe me, it was the exact opposite of ‘getting krunk,’ Kate. I just ran into an old friend and we left early. Stayed up way too late together.” It was true. Max had finally kicked Chloe out once the clock had ticked past midnight, begging her to let her rest and promising to text her, only to realize she had homework that needed doing. If meeting Chloe was going to be a regular occurrence, Max figured she’d have to get used to the lack of sleep. She rested her cheek in her hand, elbow on the table, trying to remember what exactly Chloe had said last night about her dorm that had made her laugh so hard. She should’ve written it down in her journal, that’s what journals are for!

“That much fun, huh?”

“Wha- not like that!” Max flushes. The wry grin on Kate’s face is unmistakable. “She and I are just friends, and-”

“I’m not naive, Max,” Kate chides gently. “It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption! Old friends reuniting after years, up late at night, alcohol’s involved, it would make perfect sense if-”

“Kate!” Max buries her face in her hands. “God, how am I more embarrassed by this than the abstinent girl?”

“Because I’m slut-shaming you,” Kate says matter-of-factly. If it weren’t for the glint in her bright, hazel eyes, Max wouldn’t have recognized the other girl’s dry sarcasm. 

“Nothing even happened,” Max mumbles, wishing she didn’t blush so easily. Kate opens her mouth, but Max shushes her. “Even if I’d wanted it to, okay? Chloe and I are just friends.”

“Chloe Price?” Kate asks, cocking her head. She lets out a small hum at Max’s nod. “I had an elective with her in my freshman year. I never talked to her, but she seemed nice enough. Is she still pretty?”

“Very,” Max answers before her brain can catch up with her mouth. “Kate!”

She does the thing where she covers her mouth with her hand as she giggles. Max pouts. “You set me up. Unfair.”

“I won’t deny it.” Kate takes a bite of her bagel. 

“I swear, you’re as bad as Victoria.”

“I can stop if you want me to,” Kate says suddenly, the whiplash nearly sending Max’s head spinning. Right. Victoria. Not exactly a good topic of conversation with Kate. 

“No, no, it’s fine!” Max raises both her hands, trying and probably failing not to overplay her apology. “You just totally caught me off-guard, ‘s all.”

“The whole point of abstinence is knowing what I’m missing out on,” Kate shrugs. “Proving my willpower and my faith doesn’t need to stop me from-”

“Teasing me?” Max elbows her. “I see that now. I should know better than to assume, besides, like-”

In a strange way, it was almost a relief that Max spotted Victoria out of the corner of her eye, because she had no idea where she was going with that. She was flanked by Taylor and Courtney, as usual, impeccably dressed despite the early hour. Kate caught her silence and followed her gaze, tensing visibly at the sight.

“Maybe she’ll ignore us,” Max says softly. “We’re not her problem.”

“She won’t.” Kate shut her down. Max waited for her to say something, anything more, but that was it. Max took an awkward sip of orange juice, anxiety pooling in her stomach. She wished Chloe were here. She wouldn’t take any shit from her, Max knew that much, and her presence might give her the courage to stand up to the Queen Bee of Blackwell herself.

When she set her juice down, she made direct eye contact with one Victoria Maribeth Chase.

Victoria raised an eyebrow. She walked with purpose, smirking, Taylor and Courtney right behind her, almost as if transfixed. 

“Oh look, the hipster and the bible-thumper getting tea.” Victoria meets Max’s eyes. There’s a glint of something smug, a cruelty Max can’t mistake. “Now that’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

What, because I’m trans? Max thinks. It’s 2013, asshole. Kate’s better than that, she’s gotta be, have you looked at her?

“Pull your bench in. The coffee machine’s behind you, selfie queen,” Victoria says, checking her nails as if to seem casual. It has to be calculated. Max knows it. “Do I need to say ‘move, bitch, get out the way?’ Lamefield, you’re almost as much of a bimbo as little Katie-kins over here.”

Kate shifts her weight, dragging the bench with her. Max is still too stunned to speak, catching her weight on the table.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” Victoria says, blowing a kiss towards Kate with a roll of her eyes. Her pink lipstick sticks to her fingertips. Taylor’s brows furrow, but she says nothing. Max figures she must be thinking the same thing she is: do not mess with Victoria before her coffee.

Victoria grabs a cup as the coffee machine whirs to life. As the bitter scent of it fills the air and black liquid drips away, Victoria pulls herself up onto the counter, crossing her legs delicately. Max takes another drink of her orange juice just to have something to do. Kate’s cocoa is empty, but the girl’s sitting very still, as if Victoria can’t see her if she doesn’t move. Victoria Chase, the human T. rex, Max thinks.

“That’s really what you’re wearing, Marsh?” Victoria drawls, looking the smaller girl up and down. “Jesus Christ. That frumpy shirt’s even worse than your skirt. You should just take it all off, you’ll look better naked.”

Max didn’t think it was possible, but it’s unmistakable. Kate stiffens further, staring down at her half-eaten bagel.

“It’s not like you have anything to lose,” Victoria shrugged. “Virgin blood’s precious. You might as well flaunt it, lose that v-card before one cult or another gets their hands on you and your adorable innocent little ass.”

“Victoria.” Kate’s voice was strained. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all!” Victoria chirped, taking a sip of her hot coffee. “Oh, wait, when we’re done, you’ll have to cancel your little abstinence club meeting. Shame. You would’ve had the time of your life with it, too.” She leaned forward. “Aww, is your mascara running? Just from my voice, at the thought? Delicious.”

“You got your coffee,” Max says, her voice gravelly. She wants to stand up, spit it in Victoria’s face, but she can barely manage speaking. “What are you doing sticking around two losers, Vicky?”

“It’s Victoria, Smallfield,” she says, rolling her eyes. There’s a lipstick stain on her coffee cup. “Point made, though. Didn’t we have somewhere to be, Courtney?”

Courtney blinked, as if she’d forgotten she was there. “Uh, oh, yeah. You can play with your ‘little Katie-kins’ later.”

Victoria scowled, dropping to her feet. “Not while she’s wearing those clothes.”

“Or any clothes,” Courtney smirks, walking off. She says it loud enough it’s clear she doesn’t care Kate can hear her.

“Her entire wardrobe is so gray and shapeless,” Victoria huffs, just within earshot. “It has to be on purpose, don’t you think? Too scared to let everyone know she’s got a body to die for.”

Kate flinches when the door to the dining hall slams shut. Her knuckles are white. Victoria wasn’t wrong; her mascara is running.

“Kate, I-”

“It’s fine.” Kate lets out the breath she’s been holding. “Max, I-”

Max puts a hand on her shoulder. “Kate, she shouldnt’ve- I mean, she had no reason to-”

“I said it’s fine, Max.”

“Kate, she hurt you, you shouldn’t just repress-”

Kate looks at her from underneath the shadow of her bun. There’s a smudged black line running underneath her right eye. “It’s nothing. She just gets to me sometimes. It’s like she can only see the worst in people.”

“The worst?” Max tentatively pushes her arm further, wrapping Kate in a half-hug. “How is your abstine-”

“It’s fine,” Kate says, swiping at her eyeliner with a single push of her knuckle. She takes a deep breath and lets it out, crossing her arms. Her cheeks are flushed. “I don’t want to think about Victoria Chase right now.”

“But she just-” Max jumps as the door to the dining hall slams once again. She shakes her head, the brown frizz of her hair billowing around her face. “I- I mean, Kate-”

Her expression softened. Brows knit, Kate blinks, hazel eyes unfocused. “Every time she does this, every time she-”

“Whaddup, SuperMax?!” Max blinks in surprise as Chloe slams her hands down on the table. “Kate, I presume? Max tells me you’re hella chill.”

Max’s head is spinning. “Chloe, I-”

“It’s nice to officially meet you,” Kate says courteously, extending a hand.

Chloe shakes her hand, winking and pointing a finger gun immediately after. “Love the bun. Max has good taste in friends.”

Kate smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “You realize you’re complimenting yourself as much as me, right?”

“I deserve it,” Chloe says, puffing out her chest as she slides onto the bench, sandwiching Max between her and Kate. “Humilty’s overrated.”

Max stares up at the tall girl. “Chloe, what are you doing here?” 

“Figured I’d surprise you,” Chloe grins, adjusting her beanie. “Betcha didn’t expect me up so early, huh?”

“So you just-” Max struggles for words. “You just waltzed into the dining hall and figured I’d be here?”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Chloe smirks. “And trust me, I’m saving the waltz for Kate. You seem like the kind of gal who can dance, right?”

“Just a tad,” Kate says. She laces her fingers together. “I wouldn’t take you for ballroom dancing, though. A waltz isn’t very punk.”

Chloe’s lazy smirk is exactly what Max doesn’t need right now. She’s too aware of her lips, of her own tongue thick and unwieldy in her mouth. She swallows, as if that’ll clear her head.

“You ever slow danced to Green Day, Kate? Makes you feel powerful,” Chloe says. “Better than Mozart or whatever.”

“Tell that to her violin,” Max says. Somehow, thank God, she didn’t stutter. “She played Mozart like, yesterday morning.”

“You recognized it?” Kate perks up.

“She’s a nerd,” Chloe says, ruffling Max’s hair. She glares up at her, trying to pretend she didn’t just enjoy that more than anything she can think of. She shouldn’t be this easy , like a dog on a leash for Chloe, even just hearing her use the proper pronoun makes her chest warm. “Fortunately, I’m here to make her cool. You don’t mind if I borrow her for the day, do ya?”

“She’s all yours,” Kate says, standing up. “I should check in on Alice anyways. Later M-”

“Who’s Alice?” Chloe raised her eyebrows twice in quick succession. “She sounds cute.”

“She is,” Kate smiles, eyes half lidded, leaning in towards Chloe. Standing up, she’s about on par with Chloe sitting down. “She’s very dear to me, I can’t believe Max didn’t mention her.”

“Oh, yeah, Max, why didn’t you mention this cute little Alice to me, huh?” Chloe elbows her. Max wishes her arms weren’t so boney, that Chloe wasn’t so big, that the slight ache in her shoulder now didn’t make her face feel like it was on fire.

“Alice is her rabbit,” Max squeaks out, bursting into laughter as Chloe’s expression jumps from confident and collected to surprised and then an amiable glare in Kate’s direction.

“Coulda told me that, instead of leading me on, thinking I could steal your girl, Katie.”

“Where would the fun in that be?” Kate cocks her head. The morning sunlight dapples her face, and Max can still see the hints of the tear tracks yet to dry. “Goodbye, you two.”

“Bye, Kate,” Max says. Kate won’t meet her eyes.

“Later, Kate-er!” Chloe grins, hitting her with a pair of finger guns. “C’mon, Max, let me show you a good time.”

“What are we-”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out, Max Battleaxe,” Chloe says, grabbing Max by the wrist. “Slowpoke! Get your ass in my truck! I’ve got so much shit to show you, girlie.”

Chapter Text

“Chloe! Slow down!”

“Get longer legs!” Chloe laughs.

“Maybe I will,” Max grumbles, desperate to keep her balance as Chloe drags her by the wrist. She winces as Chloe pushes on the pull door, stopping the two of them in their tracks for the moment it takes Max to find her balance.

“Look, it’s my first full day with my BFF back in town,” Chloe says, dragging Max into the uncomfortably bright parking lot. “You think I’m gonna waste a single second with you, Maxaroo?”

“No?” 

“Exactly.” Chloe’s smile seems almost dangerous. “You’re mine today, Max.”

Max wishes those words didn’t make her face so hot. That Chloe wasn’t so obviously, irrefutably right. Chloe has her to herself, just as she had all those years ago, back when Max would follow her around like a lost puppy. The more things change, the more they stay the same, Max thinks.

“Earth to Caulfield,” Chloe says, snapping her fingers in front of Max’s face, making her jump. “You in there?”

“Mostly,” Max says. She blinks her eyes, squinting in the morning light. “Tired, y’know?”

It’s unfair how smug Chloe’s smile is. “My bad. Won’t keep you up so late again tonight,” she grins, ruffling Max’s hair like she’s a damn puppy dog. Chloe knows, oh shit, Max is in so over her head. “Y’know, unless you want me to.” Chloe waggles her eyebrows.

“Y- you still haven’t even told me where we’re going!” Max shakes her head, half to get Chloe’s (soft, lovely) hand off her scalp, half to try and hide her face. “What, is that for you to know and me to find out, or did you just come abduct me without a plan?”

“Pretty much, yeah!” Chloe chirps, pulling Max in the direction of a red, mildy rusty-looking truck. “The- the first one, duh. Totally not just improvising.”

“Totally,” Max says, trying and failing to manage a smirk as half as smug as Chloe’s.

“I mean it!” Chloe laughs. “I have plans, c’mon! If I didn’t, why would I drag you out of your lair-slash-dorm room?”

“Point made,” Max says, rolling her eyes. “That’s your truck?”

“Shit.”

“What?”

“Fuckin’ step-douche’s out and about,” Chloe mutters. 

“Your stepdad? The only person out here is Mr. Madse-” Chloe’s look silences Max in a flash. “Oh.”

“I don’t wanna deal with him right now,” Chloe groans. “Ugh, we should just wait this out-”

Max purses her lips. “Can we just give a polite hello and get past him, or-”

“Max, it’s not just, like, ugh,” Chloe rubs her forehead. “He knows about you.”

Ice fills Max’s limbs. “What?”

“I mean,” Chloe says, dropping to Max’s level, hands on her shoulders. “Like, look, I missed you, okay? Joyce knew it, and she doesn’t fucking keep anything from him, so he knows I’m angsty at a Caulfield and I don’t want him putting two and two together, or he might do something extra-assholey, like, twice the assholery of usual, you know?” Max can only nod. “Great. Let’s just chill by this tree until he moves along?”

“Wouldn’t it be better to not be conspicuous?” A sudden worry worms its way into Max’s brain. “Chloe, do you have a parking pass?”

Chloe curses under her breath, and Max wishes it wasn’t as ridiculously attractive as it is. “It would be just like step-douche to give me a goddamn parking ticket. We gotta just fuckin’ run for it.”

“Shouldn’t your stepdad cut you some slack?” Max bites her lip. “Are you really sure that’s necessary?”

“What, scared you can’t keep up on those little legs of yours, Max Munchkin? Run with me, like old times!”

“I’m rusty, Chloe- hey!”

“You used to always wanna race me as a kid.”

“Yeah, when I was seven!” Max pouts. She’d cross her arms, but Chloe’s grip is ironclad. “I’m not-”

The glint in Chloe’s eye is downright evil. “You’re just scared you’re gonna be too slow.”

Max isn’t quite sure why that set her off. Perhaps it touched a memory, Chloe outpacing her time and time again. Maybe Max was more competitive than she gave herself credit for. Either way, the world seemed to blur as she darted wordlessly from behind the tree towards Chloe’s truck. She didn’t even see David Madsen anymore, having eyes for nothing but the pavement underfoot and the car ahead.

She didn’t even notice Chloe running alongside her at first as anything more than a streak of blue, a chuckle on the wind. Max only realized what was happening when Chloe shouted something unintelligible back at David, who’d been shouting her name and something about a parking pass.

There’s a moment of Chloe fumbling with her keys, a cackle of triumph as the doors unlock, and with a rumble and a roar, Max is scrambling with her seatbelt as Chloe backs out of the parking lot at hazardous speeds. Chloe’s still howling with laughter as she peels out onto the road, tapping the gas pedal, the truck roaring underneath her.

“Holy shit, Max!” Chloe says, flashing her a thumbs-up. “You’ve got some fight in you yet, eh?”

“W-was that really necessary?” Max is laughing, but from exhilaration or adrenaline, she can’t quite tell. “You drive like a- like-”

“Like a badass,” Chloe adds helpfully.

“Like a bat out of hell!” Max exclaims, bouncing in her seat in a way she desperately hopes doesn’t seem childlike. “I swear, I thought you were gonna kill us both!”

The car comes to rest at a stoplight. “What, you think I’m gonna get us killed right after I get you back? Oh, cruel fate, to reunite us now, only to separate us in death!” Chloe holds her hand up towards the sky as if she were an actor reciting a monologue. The light turns green halfway through and she scrambles to get both hands back on the wheel, the truck shooting forward hard enough Max falls back in her seat.

“Chloe!”

“All right, all right,” Chloe says, raising her fingers, palms on the wheel. “I’ll drive better, you wimp.”

“So, uh,” Max says, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “You still haven’t told me where you’re taking me.”

“You’ll see when we get there, chillax, Max.”

“Are you kidnapping me?” Max smiles. She can barely see Chloe’s face, silhouetted against the morning sunshine. 

“Maybe,” Chloe says. She shrugs. “Oppa gangnam style!”

“Chloe!” Max giggles. “That’s so last year! What are you-”

“Ayy, sexy lady!” She winks at Max.

“Keep your eyes on the road there, ladykiller.”

“Forever alone,” Chloe says, contorting her face to mimic the meme.

Max puts her hand on her forehead, chuckling back and forth. “For somebody who hates emoji so much, you really just went and referenced dead memes in real life.”

“You understood them,” Chloe fires back. “At least I’m unironic in my nerdery, hipster.”

“Yeah, you were a straight-A student when I left, no matter how much you wanted to break the rules.”

“Got you to break ‘em with me.”

“Chloe.” Max’s voice softens. “What happened? You weren’t…”

Chloe sighs. “I got that gifted kid burnout real good, y’know? David gave me someone to rebel against for once. Doesn’t hurt that he was so uncaring, I guess.”

“I know I never said, uh,” Max flounders. “I’m sorry. About your dad.”

“Traded out the good dad for the bad,” Chloe shrugs. Her expression’s neutral, almost carefully so. “Least I discovered weed. Dulled the pain and pissed off step-douche all at once. Literally no downsides.”

“Chloe-”

“Can we not talk feelings right now?” Chloe says, eyes on the road. “Feelings are gay.”

“You’re gay!”

“Also true,” Chloe smirks. Max would bet anything she would’ve pointed finger guns at her with that wink, but, thank God, she’s still got her hands on the wheel. “C’mon, though, we’ve got all day. We’re almost to the lighthouse, Max!”

*****

“In my defense, I was not expecting it to be this cold.”

“It’s late September on the Oregon coast, Chloe,” Max says, arms wrapped around herself. “What were you expecting, balmy mid-seventies with a breeze?”

The two of them had hiked up the hill towards the base of the lighthouse. From up here, you could see almost all of Arcadia Bay, from Blackwell and the Two Whales to the junkyard in the hills. Despite the bustle of the town before her, Max’s eyes couldn’t help but drift to the sea before her, waves as gray as the sky above stretching off past the horizon.

In Seattle, she’d missed it. The Puget Sound was nice, of course, but it wasn’t really the ocean. It was always sealed in, the horizon full of the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, it was contained, tamed. Now, back in Oregon, back where she belongs, the Pacific is unbound, bigger and broader and full of so much mystery Max can hardly comprehend it. She wishes Chloe had let her swing by her dorm and grab her camera.

“At least it’s not stormy?” Chloe grins. “Imagine if it was raining.”

“Don’t jinx us,” Max says. Her teeth chatter, despite her best efforts to hide it. Chloe laughs.

“Anyways, uh,” Max flounders. “We used to spend so much time up here. Do you remember where we were playing pirates, burying that-”

“Nope!” Chloe rubs her hands together. “I mean, yeah, I remember doing it, just not where. Hopin’ you would.”

Max shakes her head apologetically. “That’s, uh, why I asked you.”

“Dammit!” Chloe curses, chucking a pebble towards the sea. “Guess I can’t blame the weed here.”

“I mean, you could,” Max says. She smiles, but her teeth chatter way too noticeably. “You’d be wrong, but you could.”

Before she realizes what’s happening, Chloe’s shucking off her jacket and holding it out to Max, her tank top rippling in the breeze.

“Chloe, I- I can’t!”

Chloe chuckles softly. “Let me be a gentleman for ya, Maxaroni. C’mon.”

“You’re a woman, Chloe, I-”

“Chloe Price, butch icon.” She flips her hair. “I dare ya.”

The jacket is still warm with Chloe’s body heat around Max’s shoulders. It’s a little big on her, the sleeves enveloping her hands, but that’s more of a perk than anything. Max knows she looks dorky, and despite the warmth, she can’t help but shiver at the way Chloe’s jacket feels on her.

“You’re sure you aren’t cold?” Max asks.

Chloe rolls her eyes. “You know I’m hot as fuck, Max. I mean, look at me!” 

“Looking,” Max says before thinking. She flushes under Chloe’s smug grin, a single eyebrow raised. “Shush.”

“Want me to be seen, but not heard? How barbaric, Caulfield.”

“Chloe!” Max hides her face in the jacket, and God, this was a bad idea, why the hell did she do this?!? It smells like her, like men’s deodorant and weed and something sweet she can’t quite place. It’s a minor miracle she hasn’t fainted like it’s chloroform, stirring up the butterflies in her stomach into a veritable tornado. 

“I’m not stopping you, Max,” Chloe says, tucking her arms behind her head and jutting out her chin with a brutal smirk. “You’ve got five years of lost time to make up for, after all.”

Max’s head is spinning. She’s pretty sure she hasn’t been this embarrassed all her life. She can feel cold weight in her stomach, the nagging fear that she’s doing something wrong, that she’s overstepped a line she didn’t know was there, and everything’s going to go wildly wrong because of it-

“You okay there?” Chloe’s bent down to look Max in the eyes, which under any other circumstances would seem demeaning. “I’m sorry, I don’t wanna make you uncomfortable or-”

“It’s fine!” Max’s voice is shrill, and she’s certain she said the words too quickly, but it’s the best she can do, for what it’s worth. “Th-thanks for your jacket.”

“I must use this power for evil,” Chloe murmurs. Max can’t help but chuckle at it. “Seriously though, no problem, du- sis!”

“You can call me dude, Chloe,” Max says gently. “I don’t mind, I promise.”

“Jus’ wanna put the effort in, y’know?” Chloe laces her fingers, settling herself down on the grass. “Gotta make up for all the shit I said about you to Vicky.”

“She was bullying Kate right before you came in,” Max says, curling up cross-legged on the ground next to her. “I don’t know how she gets under her skin so easily like that, but-”

“She does it with everyone,” Chloe says, fiddling with a blade of grass. “Look, the only reason I hung around her at all is ‘cause she was also upset when Rachel left. Misery loves company.”

Max shudders. “Not a good decision.”

“Could’ve been worse, honestly,” Chloe shrugs. “Who better to bitch to than a bitch, amiright?”

“I guess,” Max mumbles.

“While I was with her, we kinda just worried 'bout Rachel together. We didn’t know if she was okay, or if we should be mad at her, or what, she was just gone.”

“Just like me,” Max says. “No wonder you b-bitched to her about me.”

“Don’t say that,” Chloe says, putting her hand on Max’s knee, and by some force of will, she’s not blushing. “You didn’t chose to move away, and you had a lot of shit going on. It made sense at the time, but, like,” Chloe huffs. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize.” Max puts her own hand on top of the larger girl’s. “I didn’t even text you. You had every right to be angry, and it worked out! If you hadn’t mentioned me to Victoria, we wouldn’t be here right now, right?”

“Okay, okay,” rolls her eyes, her head lolling on her shoulders. “But, like, anyways, is Kate okay? I didn’t interrupt anything, did I? I’m so sorr-”

“Don’t worry about.” Max gives her hand a squeeze. “She and I can talk about it later, and you even made her laugh. You’re all good, Chlo.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“‘Cause I’m not all good, I’ve got ten Maxes worth of pure evil in this bod, girlie.” Chloe grins, pulling up her hands to press her fingers together as if plotting something. “Also, if we sit here any longer, you’ve got a jacket to sit on, but the morning dew is soaking my goddamn ass and I promise I will bitch about it all day.”

“Back to the car!” Max says, shooting to her feet, trying not to visualize Chloe’s words. “I swear, if the lighthouse was your only plan-”

“You’ve been out of town for half a decade, Max,” Chloe sighs, cracking her neck as she stands back up. “I gotta show you everything that’s changed. Itinerary is packed, hippie!”

*****

It might’ve been five years, but Arcadia Bay wasn’t unrecognizable. It was a sleepy small town, after all, with not that much going on. 

That being said, the boardwalk was stunning now that the sun was out. When Max had left, it was pleasant, sure, but half in disrepair, looking almost like the driftwood scattered across the beach. Now the pale wood shone in the noon sunlight, smooth and clean, a splash of freshness in the old town.

The food was just as good as she’d remembered. Max had recognized a cook at the old seafood place Chloe’d dragged her too, but if he’d recognized her in return, he didn’t show it. 

“Seriously Max, nobody knows,” Chloe says, shoving some of Max’s fries in her mouth. “If Vicky didn’t introduce you like that, I wouldn’t have even recognized you.”

“Says you, Miss Body-mods,” Max replies, taking a bite of a fish stick. “Blue hair, sleeve tattoo, piercings?”

“We both look so much better now,” Chloe agrees.

“Not my point, but-”

“Am I wrong?”

“...No.”

“Exactly.” Chloe steals another fry with a flourish, and Max thinks she couldn’t look more cheeky if she tried.

*****

“Are you really sure we should be here?”

“Chill out, Max, would I get you into trouble?”

“Yes!”

Chloe grumbles something under her breath, but Max is still wearing her jacket, and honestly at this point that’s good enough for her. She still can’t say she feels safe this far out from town in the evening, let alone in the junkyard, but she trusts Chloe enough to see her plan to the end. 

“Point is, Max, it’s private out here. No one’s gonna bother us, and you know what that means.” Chloe digs through her bag in the back of the truck, hoisting a couple bottles of beer up to the sky. “Let’s par-tay, hippie!”

“Did you really just drive us out this far for beer, Chloe?” Max rolls her eyes, but she can’t help smiling. She should’ve expected this, honestly.

“Nuh uh!” Chloe points her nose in the air. “I also brought weed. What do you take me for, a wine mom on Facebook or something? I’m a lesbian vodka aunt at least.”

Max giggles, hopping up on the back of Chloe’s truck. “As long as you’re not expecting me to have any, I’m down to party.”

“Pussy.”

“Don’t you peer-pressure me!” Max swats at Chloe’s bare shoulder playfully.

Chloe swats her back. “Can’t be peer-pressuring if we ain’t peers. You’re at wonderschool and I’m a legal adult.”

“Hey! I turned eighteen, like, a week ago!”

“Happy birthday,” Chloe snickers. “Have a drink, birthday girl.”

Max rolls her eyes. “Give it here, you’re just gonna dare me anyway, you asshole.”

“Attagirl!” Chloe passes her the bottle she’d opened. Max tells herself it’s no big deal, drinking from the same bottle. That putting her lips on the same place Chloe has isn’t like kissing at all, no matter if she wants it to be, that the blush on the bridge of her nose is just the alcohol and not the thundering of her heart.

“Slow down there, tiger,” Chloe says, pulling the bottle away from her. “It’s not like you can hold your booze yet.”

“Can too,” Max grumbles, sticking out her tongue. “Dammit, Chloe, warm beer is so gross!”

“It’s gross cold too, just less so,” Chloe says, taking a drink. “They say it’s an acquired taste, which means you get used to how much it sucks.”

“Chloe!”

“Am I wrong, though?” Chloe chuckles. She holds up the half-empty bottle towards the setting sun, letting the light play on the glass. 

“The weather’s been nice,” Max says, watching the dappled sunlight patterns swirl and change on Chloe’s face.  “It’s been so sunny, especially compared to Seattle.”

Chloe lets out a dry laugh. “There was actually supposed to be this huge storm, but since you’ve been here it’s been hella sunny. Thanks for bringin’ the sunshine, Max.”

Goddammit, why did that have to make her blush? “It’s nothing,” Max said automatically, blinking repeatedly as if that might make her less of a flustered mess.

“More than that,” Chloe says, leaning back on her elbows, “it’s a clear sky tonight. We’re far enough out of town the light pollution shouldn’t be too much of an issue. I’m gonna see how many constellations I can name.”

“As if there’s any you can’t.”

“Hey, when I’m stoned I’ll mix up the Big Dipper and Pegasus. Always make that mistake.”

“If you know you’re gonna make the mistake, just remember that and switch it up?” Max smiles. 

Chloe guffaws. “Last time I did that turned out I was right the first time! I’m cursed with being wrong, hippie.”

“We’ll see tonight,” Max muses, stretching out on the back of the truck. “The stars’ll be out soon, yeah?”

“Sunset’s in, like, half an hour,” Chloe says, digging through her bag. “I’ll roll up some joints while there’s still light. Sure you don’t want any?” Max nods. “Sweet, more for me.”

*****

“That’s Hercules, right next to Draco,” Chloe says, holding her arm up lazily at the sky. 

“Mhm?” Max squints at the sky. She’d been trying to pay attention, but she’d been running on too few hours of sleep for a day this long. 

“Andromeda and Perseus are the best, though,” Chloe says. Max lets out a murmur of agreement. “I mean, like, look! There’s the whole legend up in the sky, and we’re just on our phones and shit. Like, fuck, man! Wait, shit, not man.”

“I don’t mind,” Max says, trying to keep her eyes open. “Promise, Chlo.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure, Chloe, I-”

“I just don’t wanna scare you away, you know? Like, I thought for years you didn’t text me because I- I did something, and I don’t want to-”

“Chloe.” Max rolls onto her side, staring at Chloe. The taller girl doesn’t meet her eyes, still staring up into space. “It’s not your fault, okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Chloe says, covering her eyes with her arm. “Ugh, ignore me, I’m high.”

“Chloe, it’s not your fault, okay?” Max puts a tentative hand on her shoulder. “I swear, I’m the one who should be apologizing to you, okay? I’m not going to abandon you ever again.”

“Sorry, Max,” Chloe says again, and Max lets her. “I just- ugh, I got so scared when you got back, y’know?”

“I know,” Max says gently. “Everything’s okay.”

“I just, like, R-Rachel was here for me like you were, and then she just left, with no warning, and I- I don’t know if it was something I did, or-”

“She’s an idiot, okay?” Max bursts out. “Anyone who would do that is an idiot, I’m an idiot! She left you with nobody to talk to but Victoria!”

Chloe chuckles, though her eyes are teary. “‘S why I’m so glad you’re back, Maxipad.”

Max flushes, thankfully hidden in the dark.

“Let me be the bigger person?” Chloe asks. “More than just physically, I mean, ya pipsqueak.”

“Anything for you, Chloe,” Max says softly in the dark. “Anything.”

“What were we talking about before?” Chloe frowns. “I can’t…”

“Constellatio-”

“Right!” Chloe shouts, propping herself up on her elbows. “Okay, but, like, the best ones up there are Andromeda and Perseus, right? You know that myth?”

“Kind of? Perseus saves her, right?”

“You don’t know the half of it, sistah,” Chloe grins, though her eyes are still squinty from the weed. “Like, Andromeda’s dad’s gonna sacrifice her to a sick-ass big monster from Poseidon because he pissed him off, but Perseus is gonna kick its ass and save her ass, yeah?”

“Whole lotta asses,” Max agrees, and Chloe chortles. 

“Anyways, it’s just so cool that we’ve straight-up got Clash of the Titans painted on the night sky, y’know? The drama, the romance, the giant monsters, we’ve got it all, girlie!”

“So they’re your favorite constellations?”

“Nah,” Chloe says, waving her hand dismissively. “Gotta go with Orion for that one.”

“No way,” Max mumbles. “What’s his story? How could it better than Perseus?”

“He’s wearing a belt so his pants won’t fall down, but Perseus has to cover his ass.”

Max can’t help but laugh at that. Halfway through, it turns into a yawn.

“It’s, like, 8:30, Max, how the hell are you so tired?”

“Ask the girl who kept me up past midnight last night,” Max says, stifling another yawn.

“She better have been hot as hell, girlie.”

“Right now she just looks like a big pillow,” Max says, rubbing her eyes. “May I?”

“I am soft and warm,” Chloe says, stretching out her arms. “Like mash potato.”

“If I’m not allowed to use emojis, you need to stop referencing memes, Chlo,” Max grumbles, shifting to rest her head on Chloe’s belly. A million alarm bells ring in her head, telling her that she’s doing something wrong, that Chloe’s going to hate her for this, that she’s ruining their friendship, but she’s so tired and Chloe’s so warm she doesn’t care. 

“This is nice,” Chloe mumbles, playing with Max’s hair. “Soft.”

“Mm,” Max says in agreement. She can hear Chloe’s heartbeat, slow and steady. It’s comforting, oddly enough. She never thought Chloe could be so sturdy, so reliable even in her rebellious chaos. But right now, all she feels is the steady beat of Chloe’s heart soft and sure in her ears.

“Hey Max?” Chloe asks.

But Max is already asleep. 

Chloe chuckles to herself, stroking Max’s hair again. If Max were awake, she wouldn’t be able to parse the expression on Chloe’s face. Deep in thought, she took another hit, then leaned back, staring back up at the stars. If Max’s asleep, Chloe might as well have another smoke before it’s time to take Max home.

The stars are bright above them, and the smoke glows pale white in their light. Chloe sighs, and takes another hit.

Chapter Text

September passed quickly. Max found herself surprised at just how easily she got into the swing of things. Between homework, gaming after class with Warren, her tea dates with Kate, and her unexpected, erratic abductions from Chloe, Max was pleasantly distracted from her discomfort with her body. She nearly missed her hormones once, and wound up having to call Chloe to drive her to the pharmacy. 

Her classes, thank God, are every bit as good as she’d hoped. Max can barely look at her photographs from last summer without cringing -- not just because she looks less like herself in her selfies and more like a strange young man, but because she can see the hints of beginner’s mistakes she’d never make now, not after a month and a half of the most intense photography training she’s had in her life. Mx. Dog, even with their praise of Max’s work early on, did not play favorites, and pushed Max harder than she thought she could handle. 

It’s nice, though, despite how tired it leaves her. Better to work on her passions than to let her mind wander in history like last year, to doodle in her notebook through math, or struggle through gym. God, it’s so fucking great to be done with gym forever! No more would she suffer in the men’s locker room, where the lights were always half-dimmed, the rubber mats dank with sweat and testosterone. Max is free! She has friends, she’s following her passions! Life is good!

Not that it’s perfect. Max still has plenty of problems, and half of them are Victoria. 

Everywhere she looks, it seems Victoria is there, waiting for her with claws out, ready to pounce. It had started small -- well, at least small by Victoria Chase standards, which, as far as Max knew, was still several times more grandiose than necessary. She’d been casually playing some Team Fortress 2 with her Certified Gaming Pal, one Warren Graham, before they’d been stabbed in the back by a Spy player with the username Xx_MASTERCHASE_xX. They’d tried two more times to find a match where they weren’t hopelessly outclassed by this edgy stranger before giving up and returning to their Minecraft world to farm wheat in peace. Max hadn’t realized it’d been Victoria until Kate told her about the cackling she’d heard through her wall the other day at one of their tea dates. 

Max finally confirmed it a few days later. Matchmaking finally put her on the same team with Xx_MASTERCHASE_xX, and the sound of Victoria over voice chat told her everything she needed to know. How she’d found Max’s username, let alone caught her playing at the same time, Max had no idea. 

Then again, through money, all things are possible.

She really should’ve taken Victoria for a gamer from the start. Her competitive nature, her drive towards achievement, her cocky entitlement and irascibility. She was almost as invested in getting hats in TF2 and skins in CS:GO as she was in seeking real-world fancy outfits. Beyond that, Max figured she was probably the type to get a “better females” mod for Skyrim. She seemed like the kind of gamer to complain when female characters weren’t hot enough for her elusive tastes.

Victoria didn’t just stop in the virtual realm, though. Max still had to put up with her snide condescension in more than one of her classes. For a woman who knew the power in looking powerful without saying a word, Victoria seemed to always be a hair’s breadth away from bragging her heart out the minute Max entered a classroom. 

If it had just been that, Max might’ve been able to let it be. She knew Victoria was a bitch. Some people are just bitchy, that’s the way it is. Only thing to do about it is shrug and be kind, hope to balance it out. 

But it wasn’t just Max that Victoria was after. 

Max only saw a fraction of Kate’s interactions with the Queen Bee of Blackwell, mostly at their weekly tea dates. But through the bits and pieces she saw, Max slowly put everything together. When Victoria was cruel to Max, it was always for her own benefit. Cut her down to bring herself up, as rivals do. But towards Kate…

Victoria never talked about herself when she went after Kate. Never tore her down, mocking her appearance or her skills to contrast with her own, not bragging at her or saying she’s so glad she’s not her. If Max was feeling generous, she might venture to say that maybe Victoria thought Kate was better than her somehow, or at least that Victoria thought Kate thought so.

But no. Max wouldn't give her the benefit of the doubt. Victoria was cruel to Kate for the sheer fun of it.

And that was why Max finally snapped.

It was a week before Halloween by the time Max couldn’t take it anymore. There was something different this time when Victoria came by, interrupting Max’s tea date with Kate almost as if she had a schedule. She was alone, unflanked by Courtney and Taylor, a cup of coffee already in hand, not bothering with any excuse any longer. Everyone knew what she was here for anyways. 

Max can’t remember what exactly Victoria said to set her off. Whether it was another cut at Kate or actually directed at her. If it’d actually been more hurtful than anything she’d said before, or if it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Didn’t matter in the long run. 

She didn’t know when she stood up, the bench squealing against the tile underfoot, Kate, shifting to try and keep her seat. Max might’ve slammed her hands down on the table, might’ve just used it as leverage as she rose to her feet. Even standing tall, at her full height, she’s glaring up at Victoria. She can’t hold her gaze, eyes fixed on Victoria’s acrylic nails clutching at her coffee cup like talons. 

“Why do you have to be such a colossal bitch all the time, Victoria?”

“Excuse me?” Those red acrylic nails tighten. “Lamef-”

“I mean it.” Max feels her teeth grinding. “I get it! We both get it! You’ve made your point!”

“The fuck, Caulfield? What poin-”

“You’ve been bullying Kate this whole time for fun, and I know she’ll turn the other cheek, but guess what, Victoria? I won’t. This needs to stop, because all you do is hurt her! Hell, the only nice thing you’ve ever done was reuniting me with Chloe, and that was meant to be a trap!”

It wasn’t until her words stopped ringing in her head that Max realizes Victoria had gone silent. The knuckles of the fingers topped in acrylic are white. When Max finally, finally meets Victoria’s eyes, she didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. Victoria’s green eyes are wide, eyebrows knit, mouth hanging open slightly, as if she’d let out a gasp too quiet to hear beneath Max’s outburst. 

That wasn’t what had startled Max, though. As much as the unflappable Victoria Chase appearing decidedly not unflapped could’ve been enough, it was not this uncharacteristic helplessness, as if she’d been parried and disarmed. What alarmed her was the gloss over Victoria’s eyes, almost as if-

No. That couldn’t be possible. In everything Max knew of her, Victoria Chase did not cry.

She storms away in silence, her jacket billowing behind her like black smoke. Max can only stand, stunned, desperately trying to process what was happening. She’d struck a nerve. She’d struck a nerve with Victoria. Was that a good thing? Had she stood up for herself, for Kate? Had she just opened the floodgates, brought down the full force of Victoria’s rage upon the two of them? 

Only as Kate rose to her feet herself did Max truly realize what had happened. She’d hurt Victoria. Regret washes over her like the surge of a geyser as the part of her brain which processed empathy comes back online. 

“Kate, sit back down.”

“Max, but-”

“This isn’t your problem, okay?” Max puts a hand on Kate’s shoulder, trying and failing to meet her eyes. “Finish your tea?”

Kate nods. “Just… Be careful, Max. I don’t know if she, um, I mean, what she’ll-”

“It’s her I’m worried about,” Max says, slipping away from the table. She nearly trips over her unlaced shoes. “Just-”

“See you soon, Max.” Kate’s voice wobbled.

With a nod, Max turned. Then she was off after Victoria, her mind a tangled web of conflicting thoughts, whirling in circles like photographs in a storm.

Chapter Text

Max finds Victoria just outside behind the dining hall, fumbling with a lighter, a cigarette clenched between her teeth. Her mascara’s running in thin black lines down her cheeks. She gives Max a glare, but rather than follow up a trademark Victoria Chase insult, she looks away. The lighter flicks sparks up into the gray October sky without a hint of flame. Victoria spits the cigarette on the ground, grinding it into the gravel with her heel.

“What are you doing here?” Victoria doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’m not going to talk about my feelings with you of all people.”

“Who else?” Max says, leaning against the brick wall. “If you had somebody else to talk to I wouldn’t be-”

“I have friends. You’re not one of them.”

“The Vortex Club?” Max asks, her ears ringing. “You haven’t been hanging out with Nathan, not if the amount of time you spend trying to cyberbully me is any indication.”

“Fuck you,” Victoria snarls, sliding down the wall. “And- and I was just trolling you for shits and gigs.”

Max sits down next to her. She tries not to be awkward, to have a little care and gentleness, but she’s not entirely sure Victoria doesn’t bite. “You, uh… you didn’t deny it.”

“Read my lips,” Victoria says, enunciating slowly, as if to a child. “I have friends. I don’t need to talk to you, Caulfield.”

“You owe me this, okay, Victoria?” Max sighs. “You outed me in front of everyone around and-“

“Did not,” she says. “Nobody else in the Vortex club knows. It’s not like Chloe ever bitched about you to any of them, how the fuck would they know you’re trans? As far as they’re concerned, you’re just some bitch who’s got history with her.” 

“Really?” Max’s hand finds the back of her neck. “I thought-”

“Do I look like an idiot?” Victoria scoffs. “Believe me, Caulfield, I know better than to out someone to total strangers, let alone the Vortex Club.”

“Not good people to talk about your feelings to, huh.” Max says. “I mean, nobody parties to get involved in self-examination or anything, right?”

“Fuck it all,” Victoria says, her head hitting the brick wall with a painful thunk. Her voice is shaking, all her usual cocky confidence gone. “Shitfuck.”

Max reaches out a hand towards the other girl’s shoulder, pulling back almost instantly, as if Victoria will bite her. “I- Victoria, I’m sorry.”

It’s like a dam breaking. Victoria’s arms are wrapped around her legs as she buries her face between her knees, a strangled sob squeaking from her throat. Max can’t tell what set her off, what she’s supposed to do. She can’t leave her, not now, not like this, but Victoria’s like a caged animal, reacting to everything with aggression with the barest trace of self-preservation. In light of all of this, Max can only sit there awkwardly, nothing to say but, again, “I’m sorry.”

Victoria groans from deep in her throat, a guttural, rasping growl that sends a shiver crawling up Max’s back. “Fuck off!”

“You’re crying ‘cause I apologized,” Max says, trying to keep her voice steady, ignoring Victoria’s glare, black-rimmed eyes red with irritation. “Your Vortex Club friends don’t do that?”

Victoria turns away, sniffling. Max can still hear her crying, but it’s obvious how hard Victoria’s trying to stop it.

“Good friends say they’re sorry,” Max says. She can’t tell where she’s getting this confidence from, this strength to stay by Victoria’s side even as she gives her the cold shoulder. “You deserve better.”

“I have what I deserve,” Victoria says. It takes Max a second to parse the words, her mind working overtime, nearly overheating. “You r-really are an idiot, Caulfield.”

“Enlighten me,” Max says. A second later, hearing the confrontation in her voice, she caves. “Please?”

Victoria uncurls, pulling herself to her default perfect posture, chest puffed, head held high. She slips back into a slouch almost immediately, choking down a sob.

“Victoria-”

“I am winning,"  Victoria screaks, still looking away from Max, her eyes on one tree or another in the middle distance. “Look at me with your eyes for once and not the tiny Polaroid camera in your brain with a half an inch of film. Don’t- don’t-” she whines, like a nail on glass, eyes clenched shut, black tears staining her cheeks.

“Don’t see the forest for trees?” Max offers.

“Fucking hippie,” Victoria mutters, wiping at her face with her bare hand. Black stains her acrylic nails. “I have the life, Maxine. I’m the best. I’m successful, I’m partying my fucking heart out, why am I- I’m-”

“You’re lonely,” Max breathes. Victoria scowls down at her, emerald eyes gleaming bright in sharp contrast to the smudged wet blackness around them. “You’re using-”

“Shut the fuck up, little miss therapist,” Victoria says, shoving Max’s shoulder. Max can tell her heart isn’t in it, or maybe she’s just that weak right now, Max barely moves an inch.

“Parties and drugs aren’t the same as having a conversation with another human being, Victoria.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Victoria snaps. “Don’t patronize me. You think you know better just because I set you up with your little punk princess and I-” Victoria stops herself with a sniffle. She pulls a handkerchief from a pocket Max was sure was purely decorational, blows her nose in it, and rolls her teary eyes, teeth bared in a grimace. “Don’t act like you know better than me.”

“I don’t,” Max says, surprised at how casual her voice sounds. She can’t move her body. “Why would you think-”

“You’re telling me things I already know?” Victoria cocks an eyebrow. “You’re giving me that look. You fucking pity me. Don’t speak, I know what you’ll say.” Victoria takes a shaky breath. “You’ll say you don’t but I can see it in your fucking eyes, you feel so sorry for poor, lonely Victoria, boo fucking hoo, she can only do nice things by accident like a bumbling buffoon!”

“Victoria, I-”

She throws her head back against the wall again, groaning. “For the last time, fuck off. I’m too good for your pity, too good for everyone but fucking-” she cuts herself off with a roar through her clenched teeth, deep enough Max can feel it in her chest. Victoria lurches forward, her head hanging limply with another sob, her bangs flopping forward, casting her face in shadow. “Kate fucking Marsh, that bitch, perfect pure untarnished little slut, I swear I-”

“Kate?” Max can barely find her balance sitting down, dizzy from whiplash. “Victoria, Kate’s just religi-”

“You’re so blind, Caulfield,” Victoria snarks, her lips curled up in a sneer. “I can’t believe you don’t walk into shit on your way to class. You don’t see people when you look at them, you’re so busy worrying like ‘ooh, do I pass? Does anybody think I look manly today? Oh god, oh fuck, please, nobody look at my crotch, what if my pants are too tight, oh nooo!’”

“Don’t make this about me,” Max says, fighting the urge to cross her arms. “You’re the one looking at everybody in exactly the way we’re afraid of, you get under Kate’s skin like a goddamn mosquito, you make her cry-”

“You think she’s so blind, huh? Just like you?” Victoria laughs humorlessly, a harsh, wet laugh that trails into a sob. “You don’t see her judgement? She’s so good at not saying it, at holding her pretty little tongue and nodding along, but you don’t see the way she looks at me, those plucked eyebrows knit in holy disappointment, as if she’s sad for all our fucking sins or whatever when she’s so- so-” Victoria groans, waving her hands in front of her. “You know what I mean. You’re an idiot, not a baby .”

“Kate’s not-” 

And suddenly, all the pieces click into place. Victoria’s unrelenting torment of Kate, her scrutinizing eyes, her impossible expectations, her rigid fragility like ice, the content of her cruelty. Sin. Maybe Victoria really was right, Max realizes. She’s been so blind.

“You’re- you want- you’re into Kate,” Max says, dumbly.

Victoria chuckles to herself dryly. “Lament for me, Caulfield, the poor fool of a Chase, the bitch who fell for the virtuous chaste Christian.”

“You have feelings for her so you’re mean to her? That’s it?” Max can’t keep the incredulity out of her voice. “When did you turn into an elementary school boy pulling on a girl’s pigtails, Vi-”

“Can you not feel her judgement?” Victoria snarls, pushing her bangs back into place. “I know she hates me, she’s just so fucking superb at at playing the kind, forgiving Christian schtick-”

“Kate’s not like that!”

“She hides it well. Being nice and forgiving and shit is a behavior, not a personality trait, Maxine.”

“You need to get to kno-“

“Have you told her you’re trans? Hm?” Max is quiet. “thought so.”

“It hasn’t come up, okay?” Max says quietly. “It’s not something for sharing.”

“You can tell she’s uncomfortable with it. Just look how she reacts when I hit on her.”

“You call that hitting on her?” Max blinks. She wants to check her ears, to pinch herself, make sure she’s not imagining this conversation, that Victoria Chase, who can pick out an insecurity from across the room can’t see the truth in front of her nose. “I didn’t see it, how would she think you were-”

“Smart girl like you has got to have heard of negging, Maxine.” Victoria drags her acrylic nails across her handkerchief.

“You’re hurting her, Victoria. She thinks you see the worst in her, you hate her-“

“Maybe she should learn how to take a compliment,” Victoria snarks. “It’s the fucking modesty that’s the most stupid. She’s hot and talented and she doesn’t want to flaunt it? Do we not have a God-given right to flaunt it if we’ve got it?”

“You should tell her that, Vic.”

“Victoria,” she snarls, those acrylic nails digging into the top of her knees. “You should know to call people by their preferred name, Maxine.”

“You can call me Max, you know,” she says. Take the friggin’ olive branch, Victoria. “You don’t need to emphasize that my name is female, I already know-”

“If I use your nickname, people might get the wrong idea and think I give a fuck,” Victoria smirks, wiping away the tear tracks down her cheeks. 

“Victoria, it’s not me you should be talking to. You need to tell Kate what’s going on and stop being so cruel to her that she cries. Tell her you’re sorry, at least.”

“No way you’re gonna make me-“

“Don’t I owe you one?” Max feels a surge of energy rush through her as an idea pops into her head. “You reconnected me with Chloe, the least I can do is help you talk to Kate.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. How is that even a favor? Nobody’s going to enjoy that-“

“Then you owe me one,” Max says, raising a finger. “You didn’t give me a choice in meeting Chloe, let alone a warning. You can make it up to me with this.”

Victoria rolls her eyes, her mascara still slightly damp. “You’re one stubborn bitch, Caulfield.”

“Coming from you? That means a lot to me, honestly.”

Victoria lets out a dry laugh, sniffles, and dabs at her eyes again.

Max rises to her feet, pushing herself up against the wall. “Alright, Victoria, let’s do this.”

“Right now?” Victoria looks up at her, green eyes wide with disbelief. “Why the fuck would you-“

“Gotta do it while you’re still running on adrenaline. If you walk away now, you’ll never let this happen.”

“Fuuuuck this,” Victoria groans. She pulls herself up, slouching low enough to be on Max’s level. “Let’s get this over with.”

The walk back into the dining hall is the most awkward Max has ever felt. Victoria’s only a couple inches taller than her, but it feels like miles. Max can’t decide where to put her hands, whether to stand right beside her or behind her. The dining hall is nearly empty, but she can feel a pair or two of eyes locked on her. Victoria’s presence fills the room instantly, and Max feels like an afterthought, a footnote, tied to Victoria but secondary, supplementary. She wonders briefly if this is what it’s like for Courtney and Taylor, day after day, if they like the secondary attention it brings them. Max, for what it’s worth, absolutely doesn’t, and wishes everyone would look away, Kate most of all. She can see confusion written plain on her face, like a raccoon in the beam of a flashlight, unsure if she should freeze or bolt.

“Kate?” Max says, her voice hoarse. She clears her throat as she comes to a stop next to Victoria, standing at the table. “Kate, Victoria has something she needs to say to you.”

“Okay…?” Kate says, eyes flicking back and forth between them.

Victoria blushes. This was not part of the plan. Max didn’t see this coming, didn’t expect Victoria, who always had a sharp word, to freeze up with embarrassment. Max realizes a second later that it’s the first time she’s seen Victoria with less-than-perfect makeup, her cheeks not hidden under foundation and contour thick enough to hide the crimson in her cheeks.

“Hey,” Victoria says weakly, looking at the ground to her right as if looking Kate directly in the eyes will turn her to stone. “I’m, um, I’m sorry.”

Kate opens her mouth. Closes it. Opens it again, wordlessly.

“I’m sorry and I wasn’t bullying you,” Victoria says in a rush. Max can see her fingers twitching at her side, acrylic nails tapping against her thigh. “Not- not that I’m denying I hurt you, I know I did, I just- I wasn’t trying to, I just think you’re really cute and-” Victoria clenches her eyes shut, drawing in a sharp breath. “Fuck! God, I’m- this is so fucking awkward, I’m- goodbye!”

Victoria wrenches an arm as if to escape someone’s grip, nearly elbowing Max in the side, and spins on her heel, walking away with her arm held uselessly bent by her side, as if she doesn’t know what to do about it. Max can only stand and watch, blinking uselessly.

“Max?” 

Kate’s voice knocks her from her stupor. “I’m sorry, let me go get her again-”

“No, wait, I- did that just happen? What did she say?” Kate leans forward on the table, propping herself on her elbows.

“She-”

“Shit,” Kate curses, eyes wide, brushing her bangs out of her face. “She- she likes me. She unironically likes me. She’s been mean because she- can you give me Chloe’s number?”

“What?”

Kate flushes. “She’s the only lesbian I know,” she mumbles. “I want to talk this out with her.”

Max deliberates for a second, feeling the adrenaline still pumping in her veins. “I’m bi,” she admits. “You can talk to me.”

Kate “I know, but-“

Max sits down next to her. “Wait, you know?”

Kate doesn’t roll her eyes, just sighs and smiles at Max, but she knows that’s only because the other girl is too polite. “You’re very obvious with your Chloe-crush, Max. I have eyes.”

Max’s face burns. The adrenaline pumps even faster through her veins, her fingertips almost tingling. “Yeah, w-well, did you know I’m trans, t-too?”

Kate cocks her head. “Really?”

“Yeah, I, uh-“

“But you make such a nice girl!” Kate bursts out. “I- I’m sorry if that’s rude, but are you sure you want to- oh, is that why you go by Max and not Maxine?”

“Huh?”

“Because you’re, um-“

“Wh- no!” Max squeezes her eyes shut, wishing she could pull her hoodie tight around her face indoors. “I’m, um, trans the other way. My body, uh, I used to be-“

“Oh, that makes so much more sense,” Kate visibly relaxes in her seat, “I thought I’d been wrong this whole time and I’d have to change everything in my brain and-“

“Th- that’s okay, right?” Max bites her lip, then immediately stops, trying not to show how nervous she is. She knows Kate’s not going to be weird about this, she’ll say something about how Jesus loves everyone or something, and then they can go back to normal and maybe Kate will still treat her like a regular girl and-

“-Max, I was worried because Chloe’s a lesbian,” Kate says, her hand wrapped around her cross necklace. “If- if you- oh, gosh, I don’t know how to say this, but if you were g-going male, you wouldn’t have a chance with her anymore, and you’d be so cute together!”

“Hu- whah?”

Kate lets out a desperate giggle. “You could’ve crushed that poor girl’s dreams.”

“She doesn’t like me that way,” Max says, putting her hand on the back of her neck. “She knew me before I, um-“

Point being, I need to talk to her, Max,” Kate says firmly. “Please?”

Max’s head is spinning and she can’t really figure out why she wants to argue with her on this, why Kate would want to talk to her anyways. “I, uh, sure.”

“Thank you,” Kate smiles. She copies down Chloe’s number from Max’s phone with nearly inhuman speed, slinging her purse over her shoulder. “I need a moment, Max. No offense.”

“None taken,” Max says, her throat dry. “Um, bye, Kate.”

“See you later!” Kate gives her a thumbs up, nearly skipping her nervous energy straight out the dining hall’s front door.

Max starts to stand, to head out herself, before thinking better of it. She tries to collect her thoughts and fails, staring mindlessly into space, her brain awash with half-formed thoughts and misremembered song lyrics. She shakes her head, rubbing her face. Victoria just confessed to Kate. Victoria confessed to Kate and now she’s asking for Chloe. Kate is asking Chloe for advice. Kate is asking Chloe for lesbian advice.

What the hell did Max get herself into?

Chapter Text

Max never thought being helpful would be so lonely.

Introducing her best friend to her other best friend probably wasn’t the best idea, in retrospect. Kate’s been messaging Chloe a lot, eating through the time Max would’ve spent with either of them, leaving her out in the cold. Idly, in her weakest moments, Max wonders if there’s some deeper reason Kate’s avoiding her, if she did something wrong, before it all comes back to her. Victoria. After all, how can Kate talk to her about her confusing first gay crush if Max winds up telling Victoria?

And so there’s Max, alone in her dorm with nothing but the whir of her laptop’s fans whenever she tries to raise the render distance in Minecraft higher than ten chunks. 

Occasionally there’s Warren, of course, but it’s not the same. Victoria kept up her habit of invading their TF2 matches with enough routine Max actually ran a scan of her laptop for spyware, but it came back negative. At least she’s getting used to Victoria’s tactics, and with Warren’s help, they’re able to scrape up a win against her. They even chest-bump in victory, though it leaves Max’s chest sore and riles up her dysphoria, like a worm in the apple of her mind.

By the time the weekend rolls around, Max can’t get ahold of Chloe for the life of her. One minute she’s with Kate at the Two Whales, the next she’s in the junkyard. Max is almost jealous of Kate, as if she’s going to steal her girl, but she quashes the feelings. Totally unjustified. Mostly. 

Warren isn’t any better, hard at work on a science group project due Monday. Max gets it, she’d cancel to keep on top of her own homework, but it doesn’t quite ease the sting of being all alone on a Friday night.

She wakes up early the next morning, grumbling through her alarm. Just another perk of being trans, Max thinks, trudging to the dormitory bathroom. While the rest of her hall slept in, enjoying their morning off, Max would sneak one of her few opportunities to shave her face. 

The water takes too long to warm up, leaving Max standing awkwardly at the too-low sink, razor sitting uselessly under the stream, tapping her foot in impatience. Max’s eyes flick to the mirror, then away. She can never bear to look at herself with the dark brown thistles budding on her cheeks, shading the edge of her too-square jawline. She splashes her face with cold water, unable to wait any longer to cover up her stubble in shaving cream, despite the bottle’s directions to scrub face with the hottest water you can stand. She can’t look at her face, she can’t, not when it looks like it’s dappled with dirt, soiled in thin flakes of mud oozing from her pores like thorns growing from an otherwise-inviting rose. 

“Finally,” Max groans, her voice too deep and groggy from the early hour. She splashes the warm water on her face, following it up with enough shaving cream to totally obscure her filthy stubble. She picks up her yellow-hilted razor, holding it against the grain when the sound of the door creaking open sends a surge of adrenaline through her body, freezing her in place.

She doesn’t know whether to be thankful or afraid that it’s Victoria who enters, covering a yawn with the back of her hand. She scoffs when she sees Max standing as still as a statue, hunched over the sink, brushing her choppy bangs out of her face. Max is relieved to see her in such a state — proof that Victoria Chase doesn’t wake up perfect, that she wears an oversized T-shirt to bed instead of a Scrooge-esque sleeping cap, or whatever rich people sleepwear actually is.

“Stop ogling my panties, dickwad,” Victoria grumbles, walking past Max with all of the grace one wouldn’t expect of somebody who just woke up. “I get that you’re jealous, but there’s a million cis girls who also wish they looked like me. Get over yourself.”

Max lets out a huff under her breath and gets back to shaving. She’d only nicked her face once since coming to Blackwell, right below her lips, but it hadn’t stopped her from fretting about somebody noticing and jumping to all the right conclusions. Really, there was nothing Max hated more than shaving. Even not shaving felt better, in some backwards, fucked-up way. Bizarre, that shaving her face, cutting off the bits that made her feel so wrong, disgustingly male, hurt more than ignoring them as if they weren’t there, peach fuzz like any other woman.

“So this is what the conservatives are afraid of,” Victoria says absentmindedly, toothbrush hanging half out of her mouth. “When should I expect you to start assaulting me here in the women’s room, Caulfield?”

“Victoria,” Max scowls, splashing water on her face to wash away the last remnants of shaving cream. “Shut it, please?”

“Take a joke, Maxine,” Victoria says. She spits out her toothpaste, rinsing out her toothbrush. “You’re not the only one in here getting rid of unwanted hair, you know. I’ve lost count of how many times Taylor’s borrowed my tweezers for that ‘stache on her upper lip.”

“Did not need to know that,” Max says.

Victoria rolls her eyes. “It’s female bonding time, Maxine. You’re not alone, even if you want to go all emo about it.”

In lieu of answering, Max starts brushing her teeth. She hopes Victoria’s done, that she’ll take that hint and let her be.

She does not. “Caulfield, c’mon. I’m… Fuck it, I’m sorry.”

Now that gave Max pause. Whatever she’d been expecting, an apology certainly wasn’t it.

“Earth to Caulfield?” Victoria’s bite is back, her voice cold in an instant. “Don’t just stand there like a deer in the headlights with your mouth full of toothpaste, oh my god.”

Max spits. “Apology accepted, I guess.”

“I was hoping for a better way to do this,” Victoria says, leaning on a sink, her hip cocked to the side. “Some bullshit reason to push you around, whatever.” She lets out an exaggerated sigh, raising her voice to an octave to a mocking falsetto. “Oh, Blackwell’s Wi-Fi is so shitty, come game in my room, I have a booster!” She drops the voice. “Or some shit like that. Point stands, anyways.”

“Huh?” Max frowns. “What are you-”

Victoria grabs her by the temples. “Caulfield, you idiot, here’s a formal fucking invitation to chill with me today. Yea or nay?”

“Sure, o-okay,” Max stutters, pushing the taller girl’s hands away. “Just let me get dressed first, okay?”

“But of course,” Victoria drawls, her voice faux-saccharine sweet. “I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from wearing the tightest pants you can to hide the fact you’re not quite like other girls.”

“You want my company or not, Victoria?”

She raised her hands in deference, swaggering out of the bathroom. “Point taken. I’d say it’s a sore spot for you, but you’d take it literally.”

Alone again, Max lets out a sigh. Holding herself up on the sink, she stares at herself, eyeing the freckles no longer hidden by dark dots of stubble. She tugs up her pajama bottoms, wishing they fit her just a little bit better, and heads back through the dark hallway towards her room.

*****

Upon first meeting her, Max never would’ve guessed that the pretty, well-dressed Victoria Chase would have a dorm room best described as a gamer pad, but by now, it was pretty unsurprising. No wonder she doesn’t let anyone in here.

Victoria has two desks, one the small, crappy wooden thing the school gave her, but the other seems more like a cyberpunk monstrosity than anything. The red-plated black gaming PC against the side of the desk is nearly three feet tall and the monitor has red LEDs backlighting the keys. Victoria’s couch is close enough that she could conceivably play with a gamepad, but judging on the pristine, expensive-looking gaming chair rolled halfway across the room, it’s clearly not her go-to for gaming.

“You can set up wherever,” Victoria says with a wave of her hand. “Couch or desk?”

“Desk, I guess. Do you have a spare mousepad?”

Victoria passes her a square of rubber. “Go wild, Caulfield. TF2, I assume?”

Max swallows. “Yeah, uh, of course.”

This isn’t the most awkward time Max has ever had, but it’s easily in the top ten. It might even outrank the Vortex Club party and meeting Chloe again. Victoria’s focused on the match, barely speaking to her unless she’s giving orders. “Defend the point!” “Flank their medic!” She calls out, her voice monotone. “Acceptable, Caulfield.”

The match is over after what felt like two hours. Max slouches back in her chair as Victoria gets them into the lobby of another match, flexing her wrists. It’s still quiet in the room, and Max has no idea what to say or what to do. Victoria’s the one who invited her in the first place! Is she really expecting her to try and make conversation?

The match starts up, and Max throws herself into it. For a brief moment, she’s able to cover Victoria from an enemy sniper and an entire cheerleading squad screams her name in her head. She grins for a moment before her smile fades, Victoria’s eyes still locked onto her screen.

“So, um,” Max says. Her voice is a little hoarse, barely audible over the whirr of Victoria’s PC. “Photography, huh?”

“Focus on your aim, Caulfield,” Victoria says through gritted teeth. There’s a beat of silence, nothing but the click of Victoria’s mouse and tapping at her keyboard. “You’re good, you know. For a treehugger?”

Max nearly misses a shot. “Wha- oh, photography, right!”

“I just don’t get why all you do are nature shots and selfies.” Victoria casually headshots an enemy. “Like, on the one hand, you’ve got controlled environments and then you go outside and you’re at the mercy of the weather.”

“It’s, um,” Max stumbles, trying to focus on the game and her words, but her tongue feels thick in her mouth. “Isn’t the whole point of photography to capture a moment? Natural, like, um, what’s that French word, shoot-”

“Vérité,” Victoria says. The word rolls off her tongue as if she’d been waiting for it. Max can’t help but wonder if she just passed or failed a test. “Truthfulness in your work, hmm? That’s why you use a polaroid instead of digital? No touch-ups?”

“It just feels better,” Max says, rolling her shoulders inward. “The way the camera’s mechanical, um, mechanics, you can feel them move under your fingers. It feels more solid.”

“So it’s not a hipster hashtag-nofilter just to stunt?” Victoria scoffs. She eliminates another enemy and Max realizes she wasn’t interrogating her. Genuine curiosity coming from Victoria Chase is just damn near indistinguishable from an insult.

Max sits up straighter in her chair a split second before her character gets sniped from across the battlefield. “So you dig filters? That’s why you go digital?”

“I’m not an Instragram bitch,” Victoria snarks. “Thought you’d prefer digital for the vérité. 4K cameras much? Makes it look more real than your eyes.”

“Honestly, I am a bit jealous of the zoom on some of those things.”

“Exactly!” Victoria’s face brightens, despite her eyes remaining glued to her screen. “The whole point of photography is to take a moment in a very specific way. What you leave out is just as important as what you include.”

“Like zooming in so your dirty laundry isn’t in a shot?” Max jokes.

Victoria wrinkles her nose. “Yeah, but more like cropping out lamps or a car in your nature shot.”

The seat creaks underneath Max as she leans back. “‘S not as real that way.”

“Doesn’t have to be real,” Victoria says, “it’s just gotta be a fucking good photo.”

Max shrugs. She scrambles forward in her chair when she realizes she respawned five seconds ago. “Shit!”

“Better not cost us this match, Maxine,” Victoria says. Max can hear the smirk in her voice. “Anyway, I’m sure you know plenty about appearances and reality not being the same, and such.”

Max’s heart skips a beat. “I- I’m not sure I like what you’re implying-”

“Oh, fucking chill, Caulfield,” Victoria says. “I’m not calling you a crossdresser or some bullshit. Your appearance didn’t match who you were inside, so you changed it. Forget I said anything.”

“It’s fine-”

“You’re so jumpy. Can’t believe that doesn’t translate to better reflexes in this goddamn game.”

“It’s the lag,” Max grumbles halfheartedly. “We can’t all have beefy gaming PCs.”

“Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m an MLG pro-gamer.” Victoria juts out her chin. “Git gud, Maxine.”

“How does anybody think you’re cool?”

Victoria ignores her. “You have no idea how often I’ve been accused of aimbotting, bitch. And no, I’m just that good.”

“I’m sure pure skill is how you find me and Warren whenever we play together, too.”

“He’s online right now,” Victoria says, nonchalant. “Wanna gank him?”

“Pretty sure that’s not how you use the word ‘gank—’”

“Whatever!” Victoria brushes a hair out of her face. “Let’s fuck with him. Better than trolling random dipshits by, like, a mile, or whatever.”

“What makes you think I won’t betray you for him?” Max grins. She’s met with a blank stare. “Never mind, we’re ride or die.”

She still doesn’t know how Victoria’s able to get into Warren’s match on a whim like this. Is he in on it? On her friends list or something? Whatever. She’s in too deep to question it now.

The game is fast-paced and brutal. Victoria’s spy wreaks havoc on Warren’s team, but whenever she gets close enough to backstab him, a pyro player catches her, almost as if he has a bodyguard. Max dies a lot. A lot a lot. Scout isn’t exactly the most durable character, to be sure, but somehow she never realized that Warren was good at this game. She grits her teeth, counting down the respawn timer, waiting for her chance to take some justified vengeance. 

Some small voice in the back of her head tries to tell her that she’s been holding him back. That she’s a bad teammate. That now, with her on Victoria’s side, Warren has a better chance than usual of claiming victory.

But the voice is small, and it vanishes entirely the moment Max starts up her killstreak. Warren nearly catches her, once, but Victoria appears out of nowhere, knife in hand, and Max takes out another three enemies before half the enemy team remembers how strategy works and what focus fire is and put her down.

By the time the game ends, Max has a better K/D ratio than ever before. Either Victoria’s Wi-Fi booster fixed the lag that had been holding her back before or Max just really wanted to impress Victoria.

“C’mon!” Victoria says, grabbing Max by the arm and nearly pulling her out of her chair.

“Wh-”

“We need to gloat, Maxine.” Victoria’s eyes glimmer. “Show them who they’re messing with.”

“‘Them?’ Victoria, it’s just-”

“Do you really think he spent all day with Brooke Scott without a gaming break? She was his pocket pyro, bro.”

“There’s no way ‘bro’ is part of your regular vocabulary, Vi- hey!”

“Come on, they’re just down the hall, bitch!” Victoria all but drags her out of her room, slamming the door shut behind her. She has Max by the elbow, her posture immaculate, and Max feels so small next to Victoria that she may as well be a pampered Chihuahua in her purse. 

Max finds her footing by the time they reach Brooke’s door, Victoria rapping against it with the back of her knuckles, as if she’s checking her nails. Brooke opens the door with a scowl between her effortlessly bushy brows. Warren waves from his setup at her desk, laughing to himself.

“Good game, you guys,” he says, rising to his feet, hand outstretched. “When did you get that good, Max?”

“It was nothing,” Max says. “Victoria’s, uh, got a Wi-Fi booster.”

“No lag, huh?” Brooke cocks her hip. “Legit, Chase.”

“Only the best for the best,” Victoria chuckles. “You two almost make worthy opponents. Don’t let it go to your head.”

“C’mon, you know Max carried that match,” Warren smiles. “Seriously, Max, why couldn’t you be that good against Victoria instead of teaming up with her.”

Victoria snorts and somehow makes it seem refined. “Oh, please. Don’t you have the power of friendship in your anime and whatever?”

“The anime is mine, thank you very much,” Brooke says. “But hey, Max is your friend now. That’s a ringing endorsement, huh?”

I’m friends with Victoria? Max thinks. I am friends with Victoria. Holy shit. How the fuck did this happen?

Victoria chuckles to herself. “I’ll make a Vortex girl of her yet. Don’t tell her that, though, she’ll get too cocky.”

Max flushes. She shoots Victoria a glare, but the taller girl just responds with a laugh Max can only describe as cackling.

Warren chuckles, though he doesn’t seem to get the joke. He gives a half-bow. “Thanks for the match. Let’s do it again sometime.”

“I’ll hold you to that, White Knight.” Victoria juts out her chin. “Maybe someday you can beat me without your lil’ Max.”

“Hold up, was that a Punch-Out reference?” Brooke frowns.

Why does Victoria want to rematch Warren? Max’s head spins. The world feels topsy-turvy. Max feels like she’s finally starting to understand why Victoria is popular. Beyond her impeccable appearance, her money, her genuinely harsh personality, there’s a person worthy of respect. A girl nice to be around. Somebody loath to give out compliments, but when she does, they’re well-earned. She brings an energy to everything she does, harsh and rough around the edges, but invigorating. Victoria Chase makes people perk up like the scent of coffee beans. It’s the opposite of Chloe, how in even intense situations the blue-haired girl defuses the tension with a joke and mellows everything out.

Thoughts of Chloe lead to thoughts of Kate, and all the pieces slide together in Max’s head. Victoria’s hanging out with her because of Kate. Remembering that, it’s no wonder she’s not spending her time with Nathan and Courtney and the rest of her Vortex Club friends.

“Earth to Max?” Warren asks. Max blinks, shaking her head. “Dude, you know that new meme?”

“Huh- sorry for spacing out. What’s going on?”

“They’re calling it the next Gangnam Style,” Warren says excitedly, his smile lopsided. “You’ve seen it? It’s called What D-”

Victoria gags on nothing. “Don’t even try to make me watch What Does The Fox Say, Graham.”

*****

“He’s so obvious,” Victoria smirks.

“Wh- what?”

Max is back in Victoria’s room, her computer humming on her lap. She’s on the couch next to Victoria now, rather than the uncomfortable dorm chair Victoria didn’t bother to replace. Playing Minecraft with a trackpad’s never been easy for her, but with Victoria doing most of the building, it could be a lot worse.

Victoria rolls her eyes. Max bets she would slap her if she wasn’t trying this whole “being nice” thing. “You are so blind it hurts, Maxine. I swear to God.”

“Warren’s not-” Max starts. “I- I mean, there’s no way-”

Victoria scoffs. “How the fuck would you know? Just look at him, you’re his gamer girl wet dream.”

“We’re not like that!”

Victoria ignores her. “It’s why Brooke doesn’t like you. You’re stepping on her turf.”

“I’m not!”

“You’re new to the whole ‘being visibly female’ thing, aren’t you, Maxine?” Victoria looks at her like she’s an idiot. “Does he even know you’re trans?”

Max opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She flushes, clearing her throat. “I haven’t told him, but I- is it not-”

“You pass, bitch.” Victoria rolls her eyes. “You’re used to being one of the fuckin’ bros or whatever, but you’re available to him now.”

“Come on, Victoria,” Max says, “just ‘cause I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m- you’re friends with Nathan and you’re not a thing.”

“Nathan’s not a nerd. Nerd guys are always desperate for women. Can’t keep a friendship without whining about the so-called ‘friendzone’ or-”

“I had a lot of f-female friends,” Max stutters. “Uh, before I came out, when everyone thought I was a guy, I was-”

Victoria rolls her eyes so hard Max is afraid they’ll pop out of their sockets. “Nerd girl had nerd girl friends, shocker.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t know-”

“Proto-Maxine is not the shining example of a nerd boy you’re looking for. Pick a better option or tell me I’m right already.”

“I-”

“Wowzers, Victoria!” Victoria snarks, raising her voice an octave in a mockery of Max’s. “You’re so smart and beautiful and correct all the time!”

“I do not sound like that.”

“Sure you don’t.” Victoria takes a drink of her soda. “Besides, it’s not like he knew you beforehand, unlike a certain someone.”

Max’s ears ring. “Vic, I-“

“Victoria, Caulfield.” She didn’t take her eyes off her game. “I’m not trying to crush your dreams or anything. The opposite, in fact! Just don’t get your hopes too high.”

Max draws in a sharp breath, her mouth open wordlessly. “Chloe’s not like that.”

“Hmm? So why haven’t you told her how you feel? Aren’t you just a little bit terrified deep down that she’ll only ever see you the way she always has?”

“You really suck at the whole tough love thing,” Max says. She notices she’s clenching her jaw, her knuckles white. She relaxes as much as she can. It’s not much. 

“I’m new to being nice, Caulfield,” Victoria says. She pushes a strand of hair out of her face at ungodly speeds, her fingers tapping at the keyboard. “Sorry for hitting you right in the insecurity, or- or whatever. Bitch.” Victoria groans. “Sorry. Genuinely.”

Max doesn’t know what to think. “I, uh, apology accepted, I guess.”

“Huh. Who knew you could get away with insulting people scot-free if you just apologize afterwards.”

“Welcome to society, Victoria,” Max grins. “Enjoy your stay.”

Victoria lets out a dry chuckle. Her computer’s fans whirr to life, bathing the room in white noise. The only other sound is Victoria taking another noisy slurp of her soda. 

“Chloe has plenty of other reasons to turn me down anyway,” Max says. “You don’t have to bring my history into this.”

“It’s relevant,” Victoria says. “Not much, fine, but it’s far from negligible.”

“Chloe could just not like me that way. Chemistry, o- or whatever.” Max tries not to let her voice waver. “And I left her alone for five years-“

“I know.” Victoria’s voice is thick with smarm. “She bitched about you so damn much, Caulfield. Besides, if it weren’t for me, you never would’ve seen her again.”

“I could just not be her type,” Max barreled on, ignoring the other girl. “I mean, I’m betting I don’t look anything like Rachel Amber or-“ Max cut herself off.

If she hadn’t been paying attention, it would’ve seemed like Victoria hadn’t reacted at all. But Max, armed with her nosiness and photographer's eye, couldn’t help but notice that Victoria missed an easy shot against a creeper the moment Max mentioned Rachel Amber.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly, as though Victoria would shatter if she spoke any louder.

“It’s fine,” Victoria says, exhaling through her nose. “I probably deserved that anyways and you didn’t even try.”

“Chloe said she abandoned both of you.”

“Chloe was right.” Victoria shifts in her chair, rolling onto the side of her hips. “Got the fuck out of dodge the second she got the chance. Selfish fucking whore, said the pot to the kettle.”

“And you and Chloe were so worried-“

“You don’t know how many times she almost got herself killed,” Victoria snaps, eyes still glued to her screen. “Thought a bad decision had finally caught up to her. I was scared I’d stumble on her fucking corpse somewhere out on a smoke break, but nope! Turns out she just didn’t think it was important enough to let her ex know she’s alive.”

“I’m sor-“ Max starts, knowing it won’t be enough. “She really hurt you, didn’t she?”

Victoria scoffs halfheartedly. “Not like we loved each other or anything. She just-“ she swallows down tears. “I always want who I can’t have.”

Max’s eyebrows knit. She scoots over. “Victoria, I-“

“If you try to hug me I will flip my shit, Maxine,” Victoria snaps. She sniffles. “But you may pat my head. Once. If you can reach it.”

“Dork.” Max ruffles her hair. 

“Bitch,” Victoria says, but for once, it sounds affectionate.

Max plops back down in her chair, letting out a sigh. “Think I’m starting to see what you like about Kate. No way she’d ever leave you. Christian girls like her probably don’t believe in divorce.”

“What isn’t to like about Kate Marsh?” Victoria says, cocking her head towards Max enough to show her the smirk on her face. Her voice is half an octave higher, with a smidge of a southern drawl. “She’s such a good girl, adorable, God-fearing, and loyal as a puppy dog!”

“Remind me to get you a graphic tee that says ‘I’m fluent in sarcasm,’” Max says.

“Wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

“I know, but it’s the thought that counts.”

“Speaking of Kate Marsh,” Victoria says, her voice surprisingly earnest. “Not to invade her privacy or whatever, but where the hell’s she been? She avoiding me?”

“Maybe?” Max’s voice cracks. “She, um, she’s working out some feelings, y-y’know?”

“Mhm.” Victoria doesn’t look up. “Off campus? I haven’t seen her anywhere. Don’t you usually have a little tea date with her these mornings? You two are the only ones who get up at the asscrack of dawn on a weekend.”

Max pauses for a moment, before deciding fuck it. “She’s been hanging out with Chloe. I kinda haven’t seen her much.”

Victoria raises a hand to her brow, as if she’s thinking very hard for the first time in a week. “Today?”

“And yesterday, and the day before,” Max says.

Victoria frowns. “Could make a girl jealous.”

“Maybe that’s her plan.”

“She doesn’t have it in her.” Victoria shakes her head. “Still, I can’t help but wonder what the two of them are up to…”

“Yeah,” Max affirms. Her mind starts to wander. “I wonder…”