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Rachel Amber: Bad Cop?

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All that’s separating one Rachel Amber from her interrogator is a small table. Therefore, Rachel feels highly justified about feeling highly annoyed at this small table.

(It’s not her fault that her interrogator is one Max Caulfield; her… make-out buddy? They haven’t really settled on a label yet.)

(And, yes, Rachel Amber did once, in a fit of grand hope and fancy, use the word ‘dating’ to describe her relationship with Max.)

(Max’s response of “Um, me too…” however, was not awe-inspiring as a… final word on the subject.)

(Anyway, she’s separated from Max by less than two feet and the space is killing her.)

But Max is waiting for an answer, and Rachel decides on her angle. “Why, Max, you don’t remember? I can’t be that forgettable can I?”

Max flushes. “You’re the one who wanted me to pretend that I didn’t know!”

Rachel rolls her eyes, though she feels the secret thrill of Max, her Max, being all flustered and confused. “Well it all started when you and I were…” ever the dramatist, she takes a moment to bite her bottom lip and looks up at Max with… sultry eyes, “talking about what our costumes should be for Dana’s Halloween party.”

(Rachel remembers the event fondly; there were no words to be found on their tongues, for they were being dramatically occupied elsewhere at the time.)

Max, for her part, just rolls her eyes. “Ugh, Rachel, is that what this is all about? I thought it was suspicious when you demanded I interview you first, since you had nothing to do with anything. It’s just so you could… flirt with me.”

Giddiness washes over Rachel as she watches the adorable flush fill Max’s cheeks when she stumbles over the word flirt. Rachel bats her eyelashes. “Well, is it working?” Max only pouts; the closest to defeat that she’ll admit in the moment. Rachel’s mirth softens as pure affection seeps into her veins. So she shakes her head with a bright smile and stands. “Don’t pout, darling. It’s unbecoming to your lovely features.” When Max just turns away, Rachel reaches out and pulls Max into a hug. “Fine darling, you have forced my hand; I will stop teasing you.” She turns Max in her arms, catching her eye with a wide grin. “But, fiiiirst…”

Max’s eyes grow wide, flickering all over Rachel’s face, though continually returning to her lips.

(Rachel can’t blame her, not really. After all, where else is someone supposed to look when your faces are this close? Especially when you can remember the faint warmth of lips that’s just… nice to feel.)

(Anyways, she’s doing much the same, but at Max.)

Despite this… delicious distraction, Rachel actually has something to say. “I do have to tell you, though, that I didn’t… request you to interrogate me first because I wanted to be locked in a closed room with you. Not… entirely.” At Max’s confused glance, Rachel shrugs. “If I’m going to be your partner in detectiving, you had to be sure I had nothing to do with it.”

Max sighs out a muted chuckle and buries her head in the crook of Rachel’s shoulder. Rachel just holds her tighter, so Rachel feels Max’s voice vibrate pleasantly against her neck when she finally speaks. “Should I even ask why you couldn’t just assume I knew you didn’t have anything to do with anything because I was with you at the time?”

Rachel laughs. “Where’s the narrative drama in that, partner?”

* * *

Rachel’s first interrogation subject (and Max’s second, technically), is one Victoria Maribeth Chase. A well-dressed, blonde heiress with a bob cut, she’s the entire reason that Amberfield Investigators are on the case. But… the facts can come in a moment.

(This interrogation takes place somewhat later than the previous one; time was needed, both for Rachel to appropriately costume herself [Max herself had been unwilling to change from her proper uniform: a comfy and worn-out hoodie] and for Rachel to get distracted by sharing a few kisses with Max in between proper costume changing.)

(No, Rachel does not have a thing for making a particular cute girl see her in various states of undress. She’s just confident about her body. That’s completely it.)

Rachel adjusts the hem of her costume (a tasteful black dress that goes down to the top of her knees; its neckline is elegant, just like Rachel herself), when Max opens the door on their subject, who does not seem as impressed or terrified as she should be.

Victoria Chase’s sitting behind the small table, looking boredly at her nails; when she speaks, her tone is flat. “Maxine, I thought this whole investigation thing was just an excuse for your girlfriend to make out with you. But figures, you’re just — ” She looks up, presumably to emphasize her nettle-coated tongue as she spits out whatever barb she meant to toss at innocent and pure Max, and stops talking; her eyes having landed on Rachel.

Victoria’s voice goes somehow even flatter. “Oh, so she’s sitting in. What, don’t trust your pet detective.”

That wasn’t a question, and Rachel’s hands are already searching for her pearl-handled pistol (unloaded of course), hiding in her thigh holster.

(So, go figure, Rachel may have a bias in this instance.)

But before Rachel lets her temper run Max shrugs. “I’m not… it’s not… look I’m just going with it; it’s a lot easier when you do.”

Victoria snorts. “For you maybe.” Max doesn’t even flinch.

(And, if Rachel doesn’t swoon a little, the casual way that Max ignores all of Victoria’s insults.)

(Rachel, however, can’t.)

Plastering on the widest grin she can, Rachel makes her way to Victoria’s side of the table. “Now ‘Tori,” and Victoria bristles, “I’d think twice before you say more things about Max.”

Victoria remains immobile, but her voice comes through clenched teeth. “Or what?”

Before Rachel can retort, Max just sighs, loudly. “You know, the two of you are actually friends, right? You do actually realize that? Victoria, I’m also your friend. Can we stop… trying to prove who’s...?” She pauses, her face screwing up in the way that it does when she’s trying to think of the right word.

Rachel can’t help but soften at that adorably confused expression. “Who’s the baddest bitch around?”

Max blushes, but doesn’t deny it.

(Rachel never said her help would go perfectly; even when she actually tries at that, she fails.)

Victoria takes a few deep and calming breaths, pinching the bridge of her nose (a fact that Rachel files away for later use. Is that a… breathing exercise? From Victoria Chase?) before she manages to nod. “Fine. I just want this to be over with anyway so I can go back to — ” She cuts herself off, and Rachel pounces on the opening.

“So you can go back to doing what, Ms. Chase? Get back to your dramatic scheming and…” she jabs an accusatorial finger at Victoria, “Murder?”

Victoria faces Max. “Can I finally start telling my side of the story or will your girlfriend,” (Max’s shoulders tense at Victoria’s words, but if Victoria noticed, she doesn’t show it) “keep on interrupting me?”

Rachel opens her mouth to jump in, to deflect, but Victoria doesn’t let her.

“So, it all began three days before Dana’s stupid fucking Halloween party.”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF VICTORIA MERIBETH CHASE

AS TRANSCRIBED BY INVESTIGATOR RACHEL AMBER

[TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE: 1. ALL TRANSCRIPTS HAVE BEEN EDITED FOR CLARITY AND SO THAT I DIDN’T HAVE TO WRITE OUT ‘AND THEN SHE SAID/ ‘AND THEN I SAID’ 1000 TIMES. SO THANK YOU. 2. ALL OTHER TRANSCRIBER’S NOTES WILL BEGIN WITH ‘TN:’. MUCH LOVE! — INVESTIGATOR AMBER <3]

So, it all began three days before Dana’s stupid fucking Halloween party. Now, because Taylor pouted at me and for absolutely no other reason, Rachel wipe that smug fucking grin off your face, I was trying to think up a masterpiece of a costume.

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER DID NOT, IN FACT, HAVE A “SMUG FUCKING GRIN ON [HER] FACE.” IT WAS AN ENTIRELY PROFESSIONAL FACIAL PRESENTATION.]

Dollar store costumes? I think not. And don’t even get me started on all those slutty costumes. Like come on, have some class, you know? Anyway, I was in the beginning stages of actually pulling together the costume and I was thinking about using some unusual materials, and well, who should I happen to stumble upon in that Arts and Crafts store, whatever it’s called, but Kate Marsh? What a coincidence, right?

Anyway, because I am not a bitch to people who don’t deserve it, I obviously said hi, and she started telling me about what she was working on.

[TN: AT THIS POINT, MS. CHASE STARTED TO STARE OFF INTO SPACE FOR SEVERAL MOMENTS, SEEMINGLY LOST IN THOUGHT. ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE WHERE HER THOUGHTS LED HER TO; PRESUMABLY MORE … CHRISTIAN PASTURES. WHEREVER HER MIND WENT, MS. CHASE EVENTUALLY DEIGNED TO CONTINUE SPEAKING TO US.]

Well for the sake of… accuracy, what we actually said was… let me just go over it. So here I am, next to Kate and she begins talking.

[TN: MS. CHASE BEGAN MIMING WHILE NARRATING; WHAT SHE WAS MIMING, HOWEVER, LEAVES EXPERTS BAFFLED. INVESTIGATOR AMBER IS FAIRLY CONVINCED IT WAS A SERIES OF LEWD ACTS.]

‘Victoria! What a pleasant surprise!’

I, of course, rolled my eyes good naturedly at that. ‘What, you didn’t think that I could have any need at a… quaint and darling store like this?’

Her response, obviously, was to blush, as if she were a flower first meeting the sun, and quickly demurred her earlier statement. ‘Of course not Victoria!’, so Kate began, ‘I just… haven’t seen you here before. Are you looking for anything… specific?’

I snorted. ‘Does an artist begin with with materials or inspiration?’

‘Um… I’ve done it both ways.’

[TN: WAY TO GO MS. MARSH!]

I smiled, glad to see that my student had understood the point. ‘Exactly. I came here with the intent to…’ And by fortuitous chance we just so happened to be next to some felt scraps. Actually, I don’t know how fortuitous it really was: the felt was an ugly brown, but I was suddenly struck with a lightning stroke. `I came here with the intent to incorporate some felt into my costume, for Dana’s party.’

‘Oh! You’re going to Dana’s party?’

I stood confidently, trying to impress upon Kate how one must approach an event like Dana’s party. ‘I was at least thinking about it. Are you going to it?’

‘Why, yes! Dana came and invited me and then I got a hug out of it after I said sure and Dana does have a nice smile, don’t you think? Oh! She also stayed for tea and played with Alice for a while.’

Sadly, social niceties sometimes require one to not share their full and honest opinion. ‘That sounds… lovely.’

Kate, however, rolled her eyes at me. ‘You barely tried to even conceal that judgement.’

And, well, so much for social niceties. ‘Dana is… not exactly how she first appears.’

‘Really?’ Kate did not sound convinced, and so I moved to make it otherwise.

‘Yes, really. She’s a best friend stealing slu—sliiightly bitchier version of me. Acts all nice about it and then stabs you in the back. Even after all those times you help her out by giving her fashion advice, telling her which guys are interested in her and letting her join the Vortex Club, despite the fact that her GPA was below the cutoff point.’

This airtight logic, however, earned me little more than a frown. ‘Are you sure that’s not just a reflection on you? I’m not sure that’s a list of super charitable deeds. And best friends are hard to “steal” but are more likely to be lost, as you know.’

I scoffed at that, frankly ridiculous, notion. ‘Tell that to all my best friends ever.’

Kate’s frown softened at that, as if pitying me — as if she ever had the right. ‘Victoria…’

I… may have snapped at that point. ‘What?’

Instead of immediately responding to my question, Kate shrunk into herself, shrunk away from me. I decide to try again. ‘I—I’m sorry Kate. It’s a bit of a sore subject at the moment.’

Kate sighed; in relief or disappointment, I do not know. ‘I understand Victoria, but,’ her voice hardened, ‘sometimes, the facts suggest self-reflection and not blame. And don’t give me that disbelieving look. You’ve been nothing but nice to me so far, but a girl hears things through the grapevine.’

I will freely admit to being humble enough to acknowledge when someone makes a good point. ‘I—I concede the point.’

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER GASPED OUT LOUD AT THIS ACCEPTABLY DRAMATIC MOMENT. INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD AND MS. CHASE IGNORED HER. RUDELY, INVESTIGATOR AMBER WANTS NOTED IN THE RECORD.]

A moments silence followed the statement. ‘S-so, want to hear about the latest thing I’m working on?’

‘Sure.’

* * *

“Wow, you are able to recall that conversation in just a stunning amount of detail.”

“Rachel!”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF VICTORIA MERIBETH CHASE (CONT.)

So, as I was saying before I was rudely interrupted by a buzzing gnat, she began telling me about her Children’s book, a scintillating tale about a rabbit and her friends going to school together, as we ambulated around the store, picking up items. Really, that girl is something of a prodigy. But then, as time is wont to pass, we found ourselves at the counter, paying for our possessions. Or, I say paying, however… poor Kate had forgotten her wallet in her room. Her lips were trembling with sudden grief, and I knew I had to step in.

‘She’s on me as well.’ As Kate tried to protest, I step over to the counter, running my credit card through again. ‘I’m not going to leave you here, torn by your lack of possibility of payment. It’s on me.’

She levelled me with a stare, even as she grabbed her shopping bag. ‘But you still didn’t have to do that. Let me pay you back. I want to pay you back.’

‘Ridiculous. This? A minor pittance. Let me do something nice for a friend.’

Kate shifted on her feet. ‘Um, I still want to thank you. C-could we do tea tomorrow? I’ll pay.’

I smiled at her. ‘Of co—’

THE TESTIMONY OF VICTORIA MERIBETH CHASE (END)

* * *

“I smiled at her. ‘Of co—’” Suddenly, Victoria’s phone blares with an obnoxiously loud ringtone. Without missing a beat, she answers. “Courtney.” A beat. “Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. No. Ughhhh. Of course not. Ugh fine, just wait where you are.” She stands. “Well, this has been a… terrible conversation. I’m, very fortunately, needed elsewhere. If you need anything else, don’t call me, don’t talk to me, don’t do anything with regards to me. Capiche?” Without waiting for any kind of response, Victoria storms out through the door.

Rachel and Max sit there for a moment. Rachel, mulling over Victoria’s words and Max… well Rachel catches Max staring at her leg from the corner of the eye? She smiles, feeling the fondness of, at least, her clothing choices having the desired effect. Until:

“Rachel?”

She turns toward Max.

(Max with the beautiful pensive look on her face; really, Rachel could stare at it for ages.)

“Yes, darling?”

“Why do you have a gun in your thigh holster? Scratch that—actually don’t because that’s really super important—but why do you have a thigh holster?”

Rachel laughs. “An actress is always prepared for her role.”

* * *

Next up under the harsh light is Taylor Sarah Christensen. She’s sitting on the interrogator’s end of the table, reading a thick book when the two founding members of Amberfield Investigations walk in.

(Amberfield Investigations needed a small changing break after Victoria; on the insistence of Max, who apparently was not a fan of the thigh holster and pistol combo. This time Rachel is wearing a pinstripe vest that’s a little too tight for her, pinstripe trousers which are a little too loose, and has folded a pinstripe jacket over the crook of her elbow. Rachel Amber can do nothing like she can commit to a theme.)

The door closes with a soft noise, and Taylor doesn’t stir. Rachel coughs pointedly. Taylor doesn’t even look up from her book.

“Good book, Tay?” Still no response.

Max speaks up, albeit in her timid squeak of a voice; the quiet churchmouse version of Max. “Whatcha reading there, Taylor?”

Taylor simply closes the book and holds it up, cover facing the two. It reads The Sword And the Dollar and in smaller print below Imperialism, Revolution and the Arms Race. After a moment, she opens it up again in her lap.

Max speaks up again, a little more confidently this time. “Any good?” Rachel catches the little tremor in Taylor’s shoulders. She grins.

(It’s a quirk of Taylor’s that Rachel first noticed about a year ago. At the time, Victoria had yet to do her rapid debitchening and Rachel hadn’t done her ‘reevaluating her whole life’ bit, and just by pure happenstance, Rachel happened to discover something very interesting.)

(Young Taylor Christensen had a box of history and politics books stashed under her bed. Graduate level ones, too. And this gave Rachel Amber an idea.)

(While the full tale of the idea must be, unfortunately, left to a less pressing time, what is relevant is how she made herself familiar with the basics of Robert Paxton’s work—after finding a copy of The Anatomy of Fascism lovingly dogeared and with a cracked spine hiding at the bottom of the box.)

(Rachel then subsequently proceeded to be wrong about the basics in front of Taylor. Repeatedly. For several days.)

(And, finally the relevant portion, she noticed this quirk of Taylor’s. Each time she said something wrong, Taylor’s shoulders trembled slightly. At first, Rachel had believed that it was embarrassment; fear that her dark literary secret had been discovered and she was about to be outed. But, when Rachel deigned to say something correct, the tremor didn’t exist.)

(It didn’t take Rachel much observation to put together what that meant: Taylor was bursting to talk. The same tremor existed in class before she would answer a question and the same tremor existed moments before she would excitedly tell Victoria and Courtney and Rachel about the latest makeup trend. It was Taylor’s tell: she knew something and wanted to share it with the world.)

(She saw the same tremor when she had her little conversation with Taylor about Dana as well, but, well that didn’t take that long to sort out.)

(While the memory does cause a stab of guilt to Rachel’s chest, admittedly, she did learn a lot about fascism that week. Also, and far more relevantly, it let Rachel know how to handle Taylor at this moment.)

“Hey, Max?”

Max cocks her head at Rachel, like the confused little bird she is. “Uh, yeah, Rachel?”

“Did you know, according to the historian Robert Paxton, that left-wing fascism is a very real phenomenon?”

Taylor’s shoulders convulse.

“I—what?”

“Yeah. Weird right? He denies the relationship between nationalism and fascism which—”

“Rachel!” The chair scrapes loudly as Taylor stands up. The book hits the table with a bang. “We’ve been over this before! I know what you’re fucking doing!”

Rachel shrugs. “What, me? Just because you’re mad at—”

Taylor interrupts again. “I’m not mad at you. I’m fucking livid! I thought you were getting better with Max around but no, of fucking course not! You’re just pulling the same shit as usual! Everybody knows Victoria was in here earlier and now you’ve fucking dragged me into this? Haven’t changed a fucking bit.”

Rachel’s breath locks in her throat.

(Taylor’s not wrong. She can’t… she’s slipping isn’t she? Rachel knows, can see as clear as a placid lake on a calm spring day, this isn’t, that she can’t—this is the phone, each phone every phone all over again and she’s a fucking liar and cheat and—)

“Taylor.” Max’s icy voice cuts through Rachel’s panicking thoughts; the room reasserts itself. She notices that Taylor is sitting, looking somewhat sheepish.

(Taylor’s jaw is tight, however, as tense as her shoulders were. Rachel wonders how her gums are doing. After this is all over, she’ll make sure to tactfully check on it.)

An awkward tension permeates every crevice of the room; it squeezes Rachel’s chest through her too tight vest and fills the space between her too loose pants. She takes a deep breath, and kneels next to Taylor.

(It doesn’t really help, but it’s something.)

“Tay, I’m sorry.”

Taylor’s jaw loosens somewhat.

(Another deep breath before she pushes forward.)

“I know, I’ve been a bitch before. And I know I’m dramatic—” Taylor snorts. “And this may all seem like an elaborate thing that I would have done in the past to no one’s real benefit but my own entertainment. But all I can tell you is,” a third, and final, deep breath, and Rachel rests her hand on the corner of Taylor’s chair. “I promise that I’m just trying to help. Beyond the flair and underneath this frankly ridiculous vest, I just want to—” Rachel trails off. “Look, you don’t have to stay. Walk away, and we won’t stop you. No hard feelings, promise. But one day, I would like to show you what I’m like when I’m not being a shitty friend.” She smiles, at the end.

Taylor pauses a moment before sighing loudly and rolling her eyes. “What do you want to know?”

Jumping up with a grin on her face, Rachel claps. “Well, tell me honestly…” she nods at the book. “How is it?”

Taylor laughs.

(As a peace offering, Rachel sits on the interrogatee’s side of the table.)

(The true peace offering, of course, is not informing Taylor of this fact.)

“Well, if I’m speaking honestly, the book is great but…”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF TAYLOR SARAH CHRISTENSEN

AS TRANSCRIBED BY INVESTIGATOR RACHEL AMBER

Well, if I’m speaking honestly, the book is great but… you wouldn’t have this whole setup if that’s what you were after, right? Let me guess, you want to know about what happened at Dana’s Halloween party?

[TN: BOTH INVESTIGATORS NODDED. INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD LOOKED REALLY CUTE WHILE NODDING.]

And both of you were there for most of it… wait, were you there for the game of Truth or Dare? You weren’t were you? What, sneaking off and being girlfriends together again, if you know what I mean? That’s what you two want to know about, isn’t it? Not the being girlfriends part, obviously you know all about that, but the Truth or Dare part.

[TN: IN FACT, INVESTIGATOR AMBER WOULD HAVE VERY MUCH LIKED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GIRLFRIENDS PART. SHE, OBVIOUSLY, DID NOT DISCLOSE THIS TO MS. CHRISTENSEN. OR INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD.]

So, Truth or Dare began about… well sometime after midnight at least. Dana, me, Kate and… Victoria were there. Dana’s the one who wanted to do it, so of course I was for it. Dana and I were crossfaded but the buzz was wearing off. At least for me. Can’t speak for anyone else. It was like any other game of Truth or Dare. Ya know, start off slow, first couple of rounds are innocuous shit. But Victoria… there was something off about her. For the whole night, really. First off, she wore an aviation costume, complete with a muddy brown leather helmet. And she once told me that brown is literally the lowest of the lows that you can go! B, she spilled some food on her outfit and didn’t freak the fuck out!

But it got really intense during the game. She was quiet. And not in that usual Victoria way, ya know, where she gets all quiet and smug because she thinks she’s got something on you or she’s better than you or that she just called out Uno and her last card is a Plus Four Wild Card.

Now that I think about it, I don’t think Victoria drank any booze. Or smoked any shit. Which… huh, that’s unusual. Wasn’t acting like her usual crossfaded self either, so I don’t think she… partook prior to the game.

[TN: THERE WAS A PAUSE, BEFORE MS. CHRISTENSEN SHRUGS.]

Well, whatever was up with her, we started playing Truth or Dare. I remember… I got to go first. Ended up asking Kate what her favourite colour is. Don’t really remember what she said. And that’s all I can remember about the first few go arounds. All of us were too lazy or too… cautious to get wild with the dares. I think I asked Dana to eat a pretzel that had fallen on the floor, well… only God knows when. She did because she’s an absolute champ. Dana then dared me to go get more booze; we never did open that bottle of moscato.

It was also Dana who moved the game to the next level. ‘Ughhhh this is boriiiiing. We’re just sitting here and making each other do silly things. There’s no stakes to this.’ Then a dangerous gleam entered her eyes; it’s a look I know well and, uh, usually enjoy. ‘Guys, we should play Truth or Truth.’

Victoria, of course, had to be the one who puts a damper on things. ‘Uh, how is that any different than what we’re currently doing?’

Dana waved her hand dismissively. ‘Truth or Truth is way different to Truth or Dare. See, it’s only truths.’

‘So it’s only half the game!’

‘Uh, yeah, the best half of the game. Truths are often more dangerous than dares.’

‘Pssh. That’s weak talk. Dares are where the real fun is at.’

Kate, finally, chimed in. ‘I don’t know, it might be fun. Also, I think I’m too lazy to do anything more active than talk.’ And, get this, after she said that, she fucking lays her head on Victoria’s shoulder. I hadn’t even noticed that those two were that close; those sneaky lesbos.

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER SNORTED VERY DELICATELY AND LADY LIKE AT THIS MOMENT. INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD GAVE INVESTIGATOR AMBER A GLANCE, WHILE MS. CHRISTENSEN SMILED QUICKLY.]

As you can imagine, Victoria shut up pretty quickly after that.

And that’s how we managed to create a… partial circle, staring at an app on Dana’s phone that was apparently ‘so we don’t have to think up of truths to ask each other.

‘Talk about something you have never done that the players don’t know about.’ We all stared at the question.

Victoria’s snort breaks the silence. ‘That’s a dumbass question. Why would I talk about something that I’ve never done?’

I lazily flipped her off. ‘Excuse me, you’re the fucking worst at ‘Never Have I Ever’. You always drink to the party and drug ones and never to the sex ones. And the things you’ve ‘never’ done are always ridiculous fucking things, like ‘Never have I ever drank ten coffees in one sitting’. No one ever has done those things.’

Victoria became a very bright shade of red — I also remember the slight hint of a blush on Kate’s face as well, which… odd. Those sneaky lesbos strike again? Anyway, Victoria continued her weak defence. ‘It’s not the same; this would be me calling myself out at the cost of no one else.’

Dana grinned cattishly. ‘Well Tori, you can always tell us something that you’ve done that none of us know about.’

‘Who says I have to answer the question? We haven’t even decided on a fucking order yet.’

That earned another bird from me. ‘Well you were the one who complained about it sooooo. We’ll go clockwise from there.’

‘Ugh fine, I once was really drunk and fell in love with a stop sign. Figured I needed it for all the men in my life. So I stole it.’

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER REMEMBERED THIS INCIDENT, SLIGHTLY. SHE MORE REMEMBERED HOW SHE, MS. CHRISTENSEN, MS. WAGNER, MS. CHASE AND MS. WARD STAYED UP ALL NIGHT WATCHING THE WEATHER CHANNEL FOR THE HUMOUR. LIGHT SHOWERS THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT ARE APPARENTLY HILARIOUS WHEN YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT MINDSET.]

Kate giggled once Victoria finished talking; Dana laughed raucously. I wisely decided not to mention how I and Courtney had actually been there with her, and actually did the stealing. Victoria’s lips thinned into an almost invisible line. ‘Ha ha, very funny, I know. Taylor you’re next.’ She hastily tapped the phone, and the words on the screen changed.

‘Who do you trust more, the player on your right or the one on your left?’ Despite being able to see everyone, I made sure to slowly turn to the right — Victoria — and left — Dana. This… this was a dangerous situation, obviously. Victoria’s lips somehow managed to thin into nonexistence, and her eyes were cold. You know her: she was sending clear signs that if I didn’t choose her, it would be a major slight against her. Like potentially her cutting me out of her life and/or me finding a horse’s head in my bed one morning. On the other hand, Dana was there and warm and has never berated me over random ass bullshit.

I guess, in the end of the day, there was no real choice.

‘Dana.’

The taut string of tension in Victoria snapped like a guitar string shredded upon too hard for too long, and I swear, the temperature in the room dropped ten degrees. The freeze settled amongst the four of us like a thick fog; I could feel Dana, as bold and brave as she is, hold her breath in anticipation. Poor Kate, she probably had no fucking clue what was going on.

When Victoria finally spoke, she spoke in a low growl, unlike anything voice I’ve ever heard her use before; and trust me, I thought I heard them all. ‘You trust Dana more than me, huh?’

All I could do was shrug. ‘I answered the question.’

VIctoria raised her voice. ‘Like fucking hell you answered the question!’

Now… now the anger spiked within me and all I could see was red. ‘What was wrong with my answer?’

With a rising voice and quicker and quicker words, Victoria just would not, possibly could not, stop the abuse. ‘Oh, was it Dana that got you into your first real party? Was she the one who held your hand when you came out? Was she the one who drove you to—’

[TN: MS. CHRISTENSEN PAUSED HER STORY, JAWS CLENCHED TIGHT, HANDS TREMBLING. INVESTIGATORS AMBER AND CAULFIELD LET THE SILENCE SIT. EVENTUALLY, AFTER SOME DEEP BREATHS, MS. CHRISTENSEN CONTINUED.]

What exactly Victoria yelled at me doesn’t matter. What exactly I yelled at her back doesn’t matter. She insinuated that I only chose Dana because I’m fucking her, I told her that she’s a raging mega bitch who has real fucking problems that need to be dealt with, and that she can’t actually stop me from having a girlfriend. You know, shit like that. I don’t remember how the argument ended. One moment I was calling out Victoria’s jealousy problem. The next, I was in Dana’s room, sobbing into her shoulder while she held me.

I haven’t seen Victoria since.

THE TESTIMONY OF TAYLOR SARAH CHRISTENSEN (END)

* * *

“I haven’t seen Victoria since.” Taylor ends the story with a sigh. “Do you two need anything else? Because I really really fucking need a smoke.” Without waiting for a response, Taylor dismisses herself from the room. The door slams shut on her way out.

Silence falls thickly over the two investigators; Rachel chews the inside of her lip, her tongue stuck between the many threads her brain had provided. Her eyes flicker over toward Max, hoping for inspiration in the profile of her… partner’s face. Max’s gaze, however, seems not to register Rachel at all. No, Max’s sharp eyes fuzzily stared at an imaginary world mere feet in front of her; the gears turn and twirl in her mind. Her lips are slightly slack and the two front incisors on her top lip peak out. Rachel decides to admire the profile.

(Rachel remembers, once, wandering around a forest. She had nothing in particular to do; no deadline, no pressing engagement, no plans at all. Her parents were taking a weekend away, and she had until Sunday to live on her own terms — for once.)

(Eventually she stumbled into a small creek; quite literally, considering how her heel didn’t quitecatch that stone, and suddenly the front of her tights are soaked through and her ankle sports a bright red abrasion and there were seven small cuts on her palms — she made sure to count — but she didn’t scramble up onto her feet; not immediately. Instead she let her eyes droop close as she lets the scent of pine alter the fingerprint of her memories.)

(Whenever she needs to center herself, whenever she needs to force a calm against all the whirlwind force winds that is being at the center of a hurricane named Rachel Amber, she goes to a world infused with a scent of pine.)

(The image of Max’s face, slack and thoughtful and open? Her calming world got just a little bit fuller.)

As the silence long settled into a more comfortable one, Max blows some air upwards, shoving some hair that had fallen over her eyes up, before it settles into the exact same spot as before. Her nose wrinkles and the spell is broken; her eyes return from… wherever Max goes when she lives in her own head. “Well, that could have gone better.”

Rachel stretches her arms above her head, smirking to herself when she catches Max’s eyes wander to the sliver of belly that is suddenly on display. “I don’t know, we learned quite a bit here. But,” her stomach growls and she can feel the red rushing up her neck and cheeks, “Lunch?”

Max giggles (charmingly, Rachel feels compelled to add) and nods. “Lunch.”

* * *

Rachel Amber’s third and fourth interrogation—which so happens to be Max’s fourth and fifth—which had been scheduled with Chloe Elizabeth Price and Stephanie… Flaming Lesbo Gingrich (so sue Rachel for not knowing Steph’s middle name; it’s not exactly something that comes up in day to day conversation) does not go quite as planned.

“Could you two not defile the interrogation room?”

A shocked exhale comes from Chloe’s lips, which had, only moments before, been attached to Steph’s neck — like a vampire, Rachel uncharitably notes. “You’re using the fucking utility closet as an interrogation room? I was wondering where the table came from.” Chloe starts to wheeze with laughter.

“It’s a big utility closet!”

“Uh, duh, Rach. Why do you think we’re making out in here, you ding-dong bitch?”

“Making out, my ass. Where the fuck is Steph’s shirt? And your hands are halfway down her pants!”

Were. My hands were halfway down her pants until you rudely came in and interrupted us!”

“You knew we were going to come here! I texted you—”

For their part, Steph and Max had a… different kind of conversation.

“Hey, Max.”

“Uh, hey, Steph. I, uh, have your shirt here.”

“Thanks, Max.”

Needless to say, Amberfield Investigations receives no useful information from this particular pair of interviews.

* * *

The only highlight of the absolute failure that were the previous pair of interviews is that, for once, Amberfield Investigations happened to be present in the interrogation room when their next interview happens to… burst onto the scene is one way to put it. A different, but fuller description is that Dana Emma Ward rushes into the interrogation room, panting, cheeks ruddy with exertion and long legs nearly fully on display in her short shorts. The Cartoon Otter sitting in the center of her chest swims in its own sea of sweaty grey cotton. All in all, it’s an absolutely striking look.

(Rachel catches Max’s blush and furious attempts to look anywhere but at Dana; it’s an absolute cute look.)

(Rachel would hate how Dana manages to make ‘drenched with sweat’ a sexy look and how it drew the attention of her Max but, well, Max wasn’t the only bi girl in the room.)

As Dana begins to speak, she fans herself vigorously with her left hand. “Sorry y’all, cheerleading was a lot today. Homecoming is coming up soon and, you know, that’s always where we do the most involved routines!”

(Rachel did indeed know this; she’s done her own fair share of boredly observing the cheerleading squad in training. Wandering around and observing the various sports prepare themselves for whatever competitive goal they had fixed in their mind that week is a time-tested and honoured way of passing the time.)

(So Rachel can confirm from first hand note taking that the more the Blackwell advertises an event to their own students, the harder the coaches push the students under their care.)

(With this knowledge in hand, she’s made some small preparations of her own.)

(Well, Chloe did the actual preparing on Rachel’s behalf, but it’s her punishment for forgetting that Rachel asked her to the interrogation room to be interrogated.)

With her right hand, Rachel gestures magnanimously toward the interogatee’s seat, and with her left, she hits the switch of a small fan that usually sits on the corner of her desk. Next to the door, Max pushes a full cup of water into Dana’s hands. Dana drains it in one go, her free hand flipping the chair around and she drops down on it, legs spread wide. “Thanks you two. So whaddya need?”

And so Rachel Amber’s fifth interview begins.

Rachel cocks a disbelieving eyebrow. “You don’t know?”

Dana laughs. “Fair enough, but you’ve also already dragged several other people here, like Taylor and Victoria, so who knows what you’ve already heard in this room, let alone out there,” she gestures vaguely behind her, “and so I decided to cut to the chase and ask directly.”

Max bites her bottom lip, her neck straining to keep quiet, before she manages to compose herself. “Well, I’m glad you brought up Victoria already because we want to know about what may have… set her off at your party. Any ideas? Anything you can tell us at all?”

Dana bites her lip for a moment, her eyes flicking around in memory before she snorts. “Okay so, wanna hear about Kate and Victoria’s coffee date that I accidentally interrupted?” Rachel gestures at Dana, giving permission to say more, and Dana leans forward, twinkle in her eye. “So, really, how was I supposed to know that Arcadia Bay’s one tea shop would be frequented by Victoria Chase, uh, wooing Kate Marsh of all people?”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF DANA EMMA WARD

AS TRANSCRIBED BY INVESTIGATOR RACHEL AMBER

So, really, how was I supposed to know that Arcadia Bay’s one tea shop would be frequented by Victoria Chase, uh, wooing Kate Marsh of all people? Like really? I mean, okay, we all know that Katie-Bun goes to the tea shop all the time but, really, how could I guess that Victoria was trying to woo her!

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER COCKED AN EYEBROW IN DISBELIEF. MS. WARD WAVED HER HAND DISMISSIVELY.]

I know, I know, how could I not know? Taylor and I are very close, right, so that must mean that she told me everything she knows about Victoria, right? But actually Tays doesn’t really talk to me about Victoria that much. Not even after their blowup during the party. I don’t know, I think it’s some protective best friend instinct. But she’s not quite as secretive with Courtney’s secrets and I don’t know why she is but well, people are allowed to keep their best friends confidence right?

I should tell you, I only have about twenty minutes until I have to meet Taylor to study for our anatomy exam later so I’ll just try to make this as fast as possible, okay?

[TN: INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD OPENS HER MOUTH TO INTERJECT — PRESUMABLY WITH SOME INSIGHT ON HOW BLACKWELL DOES NOT ACTUALLY OFFER AN ANATOMY COURSE — BEFORE WISELY CLACKING HER TEETH SHUT WITH A FIERCE BLUSH. MS. WARD LAUGHS.]

Sorry Max, I couldn’t help myself. Anyway, I was rushing inside to the tea shop to grab myself my usual box of Peppermint Vanilla Chai tea leaves, since I can’t properly sleep before big games without a mug of that, and I was running low. I didn’t even really mean to stay that long, maybe buy a coffee to go as well; Tays and I had already made plans to talk about our costume coordination and I was obviously exciiiiiiteeed! But whose big brown doe eyes should catch mine as I step in except our favourite Christian, Katherine, Patron Saint of Small Fluffy Creatures — don’t tell her I said that please, I don’t think she’d appreciate my Catholicism coming out somewhat here — sitting at a table with some other girl laughing and having a great time and what was I going to do, not say hi? And, let me reiterate, was it really my fault if I didn’t immediately recognize the fact that seated at the very same table as Kate was resident Queen Ice Bitch Victoria Fucking Chase, with a grin plastered on her face? Of course not. So keep these facts in mind while I recall the following tale.

As I mentioned, I obviously pulled our dear Kate out of her seat and into a tight hug, in which I proceeded to make sure she knew how much I had missed her in the three hours since I last saw her. There may have been some spinning involved; I can neither confirm nor deny. It is only after Kate had a moment to steady herself on the ground that I turn to our beloved Kate’s companion and I fucking froze. I remember seeing the girl sitting in that seat laughing, merry, happy, gleeful, joyous, ebullient, beatific and yet, well, you already know the punchline: sitting in that very chair was no one other than Victoria Chase, She-Who-Knows-No-Joy.

Though, to be fair, once I managed to appraise her, she had obviously regained her more usual regality. The frigidity that I felt extended toward me almost made me a virgin again, I’ll tell you that. To give her credit, she didn’t immediately try to strip me of my skin with her tongue, which sounds way kinkier than I intended it to huh, anyway she greets me in that annoyingly neutral way where you just know she’s on her best behaviour but would tear you to pieces if you were alone with her, you know she was all like 'Dana' —

[TN: MS. WARD MANAGES TO DO A VERY CONVINCING IMPRESSION OF MS. CHASE. INVESTIGATOR AMBER IS IMPRESSED.]

— and I decide there’s no reason to start any shit with her, not when she’s just trying to get her snatch game tested or whatever her thing is and I’m not going to cockblock Kate or anything if it was what I thought it was, so I decided to not ride either of them too hard or anything and, again, to be perfectly clear, I wanted them to have a nice little date on their own where they can snuggle up before they make out and get kicked out of our blessed Kate’s favourite tea shop for indecent exposure because I consider myself a —

Max are you okay? Are you okay?

[TN: INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD’S FACE GLOWED TO THE VERY TIP OF HER EARS WITH A VIBRANT RED AND SHE TRIED A FEW TIMES TO SPEAK BEFORE SURRENDERING AND SHAKING HER HEAD. BEFORE MS. WARD COULD CONTINUE, INVESTIGATOR AMBER GAVE INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD’S KNEE A QUICK SQUEEZE, WHICH RESULTED IN INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD’S OTHER KNEE TO BANG INTO THE TABLE. INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD MURMURED A STRANGLED AND BARELY AUDIBLE APOLOGY, BEFORE LETTING MS. WARD CONTINUE.]

Okay Max, sorry maybe I got a little carried away by how cute you are when you’re progressively getting redder and redder. I thought Rachel’d have gotten you over that by now but I guess not. Anyway, I really did want to give the two of them their privacy, right? I merely intended to say hi, buy my things, maybe say bye and head on out. I even told them that I just was quickly stopping by to say hi. But our Saint Kate decided that she and Victoria deserve another round of drinks and so she’d order them at the same time that I was buying my things and it’s not like I could say no to that now, could I?

So the two of us are standing in line — Victoria had… elected to remain seated — and I finally couldn’t help myself any longer. I needed to know what was happening. So I asked Kate, 'So what are you doing here with Victoria of all people huh?’

That was a mistake, let me tell you. As soon as the words left my mouth, I could see how her lips tightened and her smile grew more fragile and tenuous. Kate.exe was facing an error, but she still answered the question. ‘I’m not one hundred percent sure. But,’ her fingers wrapped around her cross and her usual quiet certainty returned to her, ‘I’m sure it’s something good. She’s been really going out of her way to make me feel welcome here at Blackwell.’

My jaw dropped a little at that, I will freely admit. ‘That’s surprising. Are we talking about the same Victoria Chase?’

Kate simply laughed at me. ‘I know she has a prickly exterior, but when she warms up to you, I really think she has a heart of gold.’

‘I’m pretty sure your heart is made of the purest gold in the world Katie-Kins.’ She grimaced and I chuckled, flicking her bun gently. ‘Didn’t like that particular nickname, huh?’

She shrugged apologetically. ‘I’m sorry but…’ and well suffice it to say that the rest of the time we were standing in line ordering our drinks, I lectured Kate about the appropriateness of having boundaries, which include having people only refer to her by nicknames she’s comfortable with and not any old nickname that someone just randomly gives her. In fact I was wrapping up my little spiel with a firm ‘So never apologize for not liking something, even if that something is a friend’, when we just so happened to arrive back at the table the two were sitting at. I with my to-go cup and Kate with her tray of tea and coffee.

Kate placed the tray down and, instead of passing Victoria her new coffee like I would have guessed had been her plan, she just opens up the sugar bowl and adds sugar! To Victoria’s coffee! She carefully measured it out too; a spoonful and a half. She counted the spoonfuls out loud out loud. And after she finished doing that, right, she just stirred the sugar in, pushed the cup in Tori’s waiting hands and smiled brightly and said in that innocent voice of hers, and I couldn’t make this up if I tried, 'Exactly how you like it, right?' As you can imagine, I was standing there the entire time just making this face.

[TN: MS. WARD OPENED HER MOUTH INTO A SMALL O SHAPE, EYES WIDE IN SIMULATED SEVERE DISBELIEF. INVESTIGATOR AMBER’S EYEBROWS WERE IN HER HAIRLINE, WHILE INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD LOOKED VERY ENDEARINGLY CONFUSED.]

Oh uh, yeah, sorry Max, I just realized you might not know that Victoria only ever drinks coffee black no sugar and only black no sugar — she’s always on about how she hates sweet coffee — and so I’m guessing there are some more obvious lesbian shenanigans that happened prior to my arrival because how would Kate ever get the impression that Victoria drinks her coffee black? And Victoria, of all people, accepted it! She didn’t grumble. She even made a small content noise when she took her first sip of it! I mean really, who the fuck stole our Victoria and replaced her with that?

As this shocking display continued in front of me, Kate furthermore had the audacity to look at me with those big eyes again and ask if I’d ‘like to have a seat, if only for just a moment’. So I obediently sit down at their table, cautiously sipping at my coffee and keeping my peripheral vision firmly planted on Blackwell’s very own Regina George. After she had ‘enjoyed’ her coffee, Victoria’s frigid hostility sprung back in full force. Perhaps even harder; honestly I don’t remember Victoria ever being so intense. She didn’t even say anything, just exuded an unwelcoming presence. T B H, I kinda wish I had that energy, especially when Logan’s around and trying to fuck me and/or with me buuuuuut when it’s being directed at you in full? It’s a…

It’s almost an absence. This extreme and overwhelming fact that she’s decided I wasn’t worth her time, energy, attention, acknowledgement at all. Like she had so thoroughly blocked out my entire existence to the extent that even I’d even wonder if I was real; and not in the fun, ‘you’re too high and having existential thoughts’ way. I couldn’t even listen to what our sweet Kate was even saying; I was that distracted by Victoria’s attitude. I mean, obviously, this was like two days before the party so I kinda understand why she was so pissed at me better now, but I thought she was trying to kill me with her brain because I interrupted their… little outing. I kept on trying to project to her that this wasn’t my fault and I wanted to leave the two of them alone but I’m not psychic, or Tori’s not or neither of us are because she just… wouldn’t receive the message. Kept her gaze to a point somewhere just above Kate’s head.

And poor Kate, I can’t imagine she didn’t at least feel the sudden rise of tension. But the dear soldiered on with her attempts at small talk and trying to bring everyone back into the fold. I shouldn’t, and therefore won’t, waste any of our times recounting everything that Kate said. All you need to know is that it was as awkward as any conversation where one person is trying to make the other two participate against their wills. At least until Kate mentioned you Max.

[TN: INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD’S EYES WIDEN, AS SHE POINTED AT HERSELF QUESTIONINGLY. MS. WARD LAUGHED AND NODDED.]

Yes, yes, Max, you were mentioned. What, do you think no one chats about their friends when they’re not around? Not that we were gossiping about you or anything. Your name just came up in passing. But, let me set the scene: Kate, in her desperate bid to get the two of us to engage at all had started talking about what she had and hadn’t seen yet in Arcadia Bay. But, if you really wanted a comprehensive list of where Kate Marsh had or hadn’t been, well, you should ask the girl herself.

‘ — and I haven’t been to the lighthouse yet even though Max was talking about it the other day and she said it was her favourite places to photograph, especially during the golden hour. I’d like to go and do some sketching but, well, I’ve always preferred visiting new places with other people. So,” Kate shrugged, 'I don’t know when I’ll be able to go. But,' she sighed dreamily, 'it sounds really fun.'

‘I’ll go with you.’ said not one but two voices at the same time. I, with much joy and excitement, and Victoria, with boredom and distraction. And suddenly three pairs of wide eyes were hurriedly bouncing between each other; I don’t know what the other two were thinking, but, well, I was pondering the fact that I wasn’t sure that Victoria even knew where the lighthouse was.

But whatever thoughts they were having, it was Victoria who spoke first, through mostly gritted teeth. 'Oh, I’d figured you’d have lots of plans with Taylor; you two seem nearly inseparable recently.'

My instinctive reaction, I am ashamed to admit, was to throw the conflict back into her face. I even found sharp words on the tip of my tongue. Something like, ‘What would know about inseparability, you’d have to actually have a heart’, but… I don’t know, just a little voice in my head suggested that I definitely shouldn’t say that — that I should be nicer to her. Sounded like Taylor. So, instead, ‘I figure that of course we’d make time for Kate. We both adore you,’ I turned to Kate to make sure she knew I was talking to her, ‘and of course we’d take you whenever you want.’

However, it was Victoria who raised her eyebrow — trying to cow me I suppose — and spoke up, not Kate. ‘Yeah? And let her interrupt your… alone time with your gal pal in such a secluded spot?’ I merely shrugged. Another jab found its way on my tongue, ready to slip out when—

My phone chose that moment to buzz; a text from Taylor asking where I was. One I had read it I stared Victoria in the eye. ‘Speak of the Devil, she’s wondering where I am right now. I guess I should go to visit my new… gal pal.’ When I broke eye contact, I could only see Kate’s face, pinched and lips tight. My stomach bottomed out, but it was… well too late to do anything to fix it. I just made a mental note to apologize to Kate later but, well, next time I saw her was during the party and I hate apologizing over text.

So instead, I stood up and gathered my things and—

THE TESTIMONY OF DANA EMMA WARD (END)

* * *

“I stood up and gathered my things and—”
bzzt bzzt
Dana jumps slightly before quickly checking at her phone. “Speak of the Devil, uh yet again, my very own gal pal wants to unwind after a long, tough and stressful day, wonder if it has anything to do with you, Rachel,” a distinct dangerous chill runs down Rachel’s spine despite the casual and nonchalant way Dana speaks, “which means she probably wants a bottle of whiskey. Or wine. I’ll be safe and pick up both. Oh and I should ask her whether she’s got any weed.” Her fingers skip across the keyboard in a near blur, even as Dana looks up to look at her two interrogators. “But uh, before I do… any of those 100% definitely legal activities, is there anything you want to ask me?”

Max scrunches her eyebrows as Dana settles. “Two things. One, do you know if Kate and Victoria ended up going to the lighthouse?”

Dana hmms in response, tapping her bottom lip. “Um, Taylor mentioned that Tori was gone for most of the next day but she didn’t tell me where she was. I don’t know if Taylor even knew.”

Max’s nose wrinkles as she absorbs Dana’s answer. “Thanks. So for my second question, you don’t seem as megapissed off at Victoria for being… Victoria as I expected you would be. Even if not because of what happened to you but, well, how she yelled at Taylor during the party. So, uh, why?”

Dana pauses for a moment before simply shrugging. “What can I say? I’m more disappointed than anything. I thought she’d be over this petty defensiveness by now, but get her in a room with a cute girl she’s trying to impress or the best friend who has a new smoking hot girlfriend, and then suddenly it’s six months ago and everyone is secretly fantasizing about her fall from power.”

Max nods along with Dana’s logic.

(A sudden thought slashes through Rachel’s mind, the cutting pain pulling her thoughts inward: would Dana have said this about her if it weren’t for her course correction at the last second with Max? If she had fucked up just a little harder, a little bit more, would Dana be saying this about her to… well whoever Dana would talk to in that particular world? Victoria maybe.)

(The cut to her soul oozes pus with a rank smell; while the taste of the thought lingers like a bitter fruit.)

“Well it’s always nice to have a gab sesh with friends!” Dana presses kisses against both of their cheeks and Rachel hadn’t even noticed Dana getting ready to leave. Quick goodbyes exchanged, Dana skips out of the room.

Max turns to Rachel with a warm smile. “Gab sesh, huh?”

Rachel grins. “Bless and love her beautiful soul.”

While Max’s smile softens and deepens, a seed of concern lays buried deep within her eyes. “Do you, uh, wanna tell me about where you disappeared to there for a minute while Dana was gathering her stuff?”

Rachel raises an eyebrow. “Hm?”

Max’s stare turns knowing. “You got trapped in head again. I was wondering if you wanted to talk about it.”

Rachel sighs, raising her hands in surrender. “I guess it’s probably healthy to talk about things. I just… I realized that, well, what Dana said about Tori it… that could have been me, couldn’t it? I came… really close to just blowing everything up in my face and only the… the…” Rachel feels a few tears prickle at the edge of her eyes, but she screws her eyes tight and pushes through, “if it weren’t for y-you or Chlo or e-even Tori at times, I’d have fucked up and would deserve words like Dana’s all the time. And realizing that, that… that… it hurt. Surprisingly deep.”

Warm arms wrap around her frame and Rachel instantly folds herself into the embrace. The comforting scent of Max (like mainstream coffee and whatever soft detergent she uses, of unscented soap and hastily chosen shampoo) fills Rachel’s head with a soft white noise. Max runs her thumb across the back of Rachel’s neck and there they remain, holding each other, Rachel basking in the support Max shows when she (frequently enough) can’t find her voice. But Rachel understands.

* * *

The final interview for both Max and Rachel is with one Kate Marsh.

(Of course, Rachel needed to touch up her makeup; though she hadn’t bothered to replace her mascara, and used a lighter touch with everything else. Just to hide the few pockmarks leftover from her youthful acne, and even out her undertones.)

(She hopes… she hopes people prefer seeing a barer version of her.)

(Of course, that doesn’t stop her from putting on a very bright red lipstick; she just oh so loves how it looks against Max’s neck.)

Max is hurriedly wiping her neck with a cloth when the door opens.

Kate smiles softly. “Max. Rachel. It’s good to see you both.”

“Same to you Kate!” Rachel wraps the small girl in a hug. Max, leaning slightly against the Interrogatee’s chair, gives a small wave; she has a large blush and avoidant eyes, and drops her hands to her side, fiddling with her fingers. Max avoids eye contact even after Rachel has dropped Kate and sauntered to her seat. Kate stands expectantly by the table.

Time passes, as Kate continues to stand expectantly by the table, apparently incapable of pushing the issue, and Max continues to avoid eye contact and fiddle with her fingers and her cheeks remain red, simply oblivious and lost in her own embarrassment.

(And Rachel would hurry this up, clear her throat and break the moment. She really would, but… she has an entirely scientific curiosity. Which one of them will break this awkward standoff first?)

(It’s like toprate, heart pounding television but in real life.)

Eventually, Kate’s the one who breaks first. “Uh, Max, are you okay?”

Max springs into nervous action, jumping to one side and pulling the chair out. “O-oh, of course Kate, yeah, of course. Sure.” Kate giggles before sitting, while Max returns to her customary position, next to Rachel.

Kate bites her lower lip, looking between the two investigators. “So, uh, Victoria told me that this was a whole like detective bit?”

Rachel grumbles, “Are all the witnesses just talking to each other?” at the exact same time Max responds with “Uh, yeah, it totally is.”

(Rachel decides to let go this betrayal, to hone in on a much more important point.)

“So you talk to Ms. Chase pretty regularly, do you?”

Kate pauses, eyes narrowing. “I mean Victoria and I are friends.”

“That seems almost saintly, considering that Tori just been so hot and cold to you, right? She’s almost impossibly tsundere in nature. Like, uh, remember that time, Max, that she told you to make ‘medium talk’ in an ill conceived attempt to seem more friendly with you?”

Max nods, while a fond smile teases the edges of Kate’s lips, who responds for Max. “Sounds just like her.”

Rachel turns to Max, victory on her pointer finger and gloat on her tongue. “See even the new girl has seen enough of Victoria to know that I’m right and that is basically exactly something she’d do!”

Max very obviously rolls her eyes. “I didn’t even deny it, you nerd. I wouldn’t deny it. That’s literally Victoria Chase 101.”

Rachel pivots back to Kate, clearly on a roll. “Speaking of Victoria Chase 101, I heard that you and Victoria may have gone to the lighthouse, what the day before the party? Did you guys? Was that the first time you guys spent quite a bit of time together?”

Kate takes a deep breath, and clasps her hands on the table, like a teacher ready to begin lecturing. “So, yes, we did go to the lighthouse, but…”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF KATE BEVERLY MARSH

AS TRANSCRIBED BY INVESTIGATOR RACHEL AMBER

So, yes, we did go to the lighthouse, but… there are things that we talked about while out there that I can’t, in good conscience, share with you. I hope you understand.

[TN: BOTH INVESTIGATOR AMBER AND INVESTIGATOR CAULFIELD BOTH NOD IN AGREEMENT. KATE INCLINED HER HEAD.]

Thanks guys. I really appreciate it. So, uh, I guess I should, what’s that thing you keep on saying Rachel? Set the scene?

[TN: INVESTIGATOR AMBER LIT UP WITH A BRIGHT GRIN AND NODS ENTHUSIASTICALLY. THIS WAS ONE OF THE PROUDEST MOMENTS OF HER LIFE.]

It was the day before Dana’s party, and Victoria had decided that we would have an outing. I had, uh, told her the day before that I hadn’t gone to the lighthouse while I’m here, but Max, the way you talked about that lighthouse and how much it means to you and how your best photos are taken there and so, I’ve wanted to go ever since I’ve heard you talk about it. And after I had mentioned it to her, Victoria was absolutely determined to ‘rectify that oversight’, is how she put it. But I hadn’t expected it the next day; let alone before dawn.

But, lo, I was in the middle of my pre-dawn hair brush, looking forward to trying a new set of water colours to capture the beautiful explosion of colours that would be illuminating my window when the sun decided to peak her head above the horizon. I think that day sunrise would have been about ten to 8? That sounds about right. So all of this was probably happening at like 7:15.

Anyways, Alice was out of her cage at that moment, since she loves to watch dawn with me; I was feeding her a celery stick with my free hand. Her favourite. I was on my thirty-third brush stroke. And then, a knock on my door.

I called out, ‘One moment,’ and ran the brush through my hair one final time, before opening the door. Behind it stood a fully made up, cardigan wearing, Victoria Chase.

Victoria seemed… nervous to be speaking to me. Her eyes were fixed at the corner of the doorway. ‘So, I, uh, figured you’d be awake already.’

* * *

“Wow, so, uh, she’s been keeping a close eye on you, huh?”

“Rachel! Shhhhh!”

“…sorry cutie.”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF KATE BEVERLY MARSH (CONT.)

I… did not make any observations like that. I just stepped to one side and indicated for her to come on in. ‘You figured correctly.’

After I had closed the door behind us, I saw that Victoria had her eyes fixed ‘How’s Thumper doing?’

‘Her name is Alice.’

‘Oh. Uh, sorry.’ Victoria blanched, lips pursed as she looked over at me, making eye contact for the first time. Her lips suddenly parted. ‘Oh, your hair is down. It… it looks really nice.’

[TN: WHAT GAY NONSENSE.]

Before I had the opportunity to say… well anything, Victoria barrelled on. ‘So, I’m here to take you to the lighthouse. What do you need before we can go?’ I blinked at her a few times. She blinked back ‘You said you wanted to go to the lighthouse for golden hours and sketch right?’

I could only stare at her, and I couldn’t even form full sentences. ‘Uh, yeah, I said I wanted — but I wasn’t expecting uh. Now?’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Well if we leave anytime later than,’ she glanced at her phone, ‘ten minutes from now, we’ll miss the sunrise. And that’s if traffic is good to us.’

My mind had finally caught up, and I laughed. ‘You know, Tori, I didn’t necessarily mean the next day before dawn.’ And then something dawned on me, excuse the pun. ‘Uh, don’t we have class at 9? Are we going to… are you suggesting we play hooky?’

Victoria rolled her eyes. ‘Of course I’m suggesting we play hooky. Thought that was clear. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening today; they know Halloween parties are happening and Courtney will take notes for us anyway.’ Her posture fell a little, her shoulders slumping. ‘Also I don’t know when I’ll be able to take you to the lighthouse, if its not today.’

‘Fine.’ The next moments were me gathering my sketchbook and art supplies before letting Alice jump on top of it, settling herself in a little fluffball. I also made sure to grab some celery sticks for her. When I turned around again Victoria glared at me. ‘No.’

‘No? No what?’

‘No, I am not letting Alice in my car.’ Which, frankly, was unimpressive in an attempt to dissuade me. I just gave her a look like this.

[TN: MS. MARSH SUDDENLY APPEARED TO BE A VERY, VERY DISAPPOINTED MOM; TRULY A CONVINCING ARGUMENT.]

‘I said no. What if she gets fur everywhere and nibbles the upholstery and —’

Alice felt very comfortable in my lap as we drove in silence. Victoria had her hands tight on the wheel, her fingers tapping against the wheel in an irregular matter. She… she glanced over every few seconds; probably to make sure that Alice was being the good girl that she is.

It was still dark out, and even if I knew the different routes to the lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But the trees along the road; shadows overran the green and they were just — dark, unclear shapes outside in the world. If we were going by foot, maybe I would have asked us to stop so I could sketch it, but I said nothing. Too bad, it would have been an excellent time to practice my shading.

Eventually, the silence seemed to wear on Victoria. The tapping and glancing increased in frequency, and it seemed to me that she was on the verge of saying words several times. I’m not sure though, maybe the silence was actually weighing on me. I was running my fingers through Alice’s fur fairly quickly.

[TN: MS. MARSH SHRUGGED BRIEFLY.]

Whatever the truth, I was the one who decided to pull the trigger on conversation. ‘You know, I was doing some introspection last night —’

Victoria finally turned her head to give me her . . . well as much attention as she could while driving. ‘Introspection?’

I sighed. ‘Yes, introspection. It is an important duty for Christians to perform.’

Victoria snorted. ‘I always thought Christian duties were just praying, compassion and charity or some bullhooey like that.’

[TN: MS. MARSH WAVED HER ARM DISMISSIVELY.]

Okay so she didn’t actually say ‘bullhooey’, but you know what she actually said. Anyway, I decided to engage in some education. ‘Victoria, while prayer and charity are important duties for a Christian, there also has to be room to grow within yourself. As it says in 2 Corinthians: Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. So yeah, introspection about our actions and whether they’re really what a good Christian would do is good. And, before you snark at me, people who aren’t Christian should still introspect, because they should figure out if their actions have been good.’

* * *

“I didn’t know that particular verse, but then again I’m a terrible Episcopalean. Did you know it Max?”

“Um, Rachel… I’m Jewish. Never read the Bible, sorry Kate.”

Kate shrugs, while Rachel stares at Max with her mouth ajar, surprise on her lips. “You’re Jewish?”

Max returns Rachel’s stare. “How did you not know this? I mean I don’t hang a mezuzah on my door, but I must have mentioned it at some point, right?”

“Uh…” Rachel can feel her face freeze in a grimace, her mind going through every interaction she’s ever had with Max.

“Oh Dog. I — I never mentioned it, before have I?”

Rachel rushes for an alternative explanation. “Or maybe I forgot that you told me!”

Max levels her with a disbelieving look. “Rachel, you once quoted, verbatim, an entire discussion we had about peanuts. And, I’m going out on a limb here and guessing that my feelings about peanuts is a little less important to remember than this.”

“Hey, some people really, really care about peanuts.”

Max merely shakes her head with a small chuckle. “I know you’re trying to make me feel better. It’s sweet. You’re sweet.” Warm lips press against Rachel’s cheek.

(Rachel suddenly feels very warm, and has an intense desire to her wring her wrists like wet towels, as if it would loosen the knot in her stomach.)

Kate coughs politely. Max and Rachel both blush.

(Well, Rachel may have already been blushing from the cheek kiss but she’ll take this readily available out.)

“Sorry Katie-Pie! Please continue!”

* * *

THE TESTIMONY OF KATE BEVERLY MARSH (CONT.)

I apologize for all the religious talk, but I promise I’m almost done with it.

Victoria just rolled her eyes, though I’d like to say a fond smile found her lips. ‘So yeah, you were doing your Christian duty and introspecting last night. ‘Bout what?’

I grinned at her. ‘Charity and compassion.’

She suddenly laughed. ‘So you were introspecting about one of those bullhooey things I was on about earlier. I should have guessed.’

‘Yeah well, I was just wondering about how much charity should factor into compassion.’ Victoria’s raised eyebrow seemed like permission enough to continue speaking. ‘I just… there are people out there who hurt people. I don’t think anyone is irredeemable and everyone has a chance to learn and grow but… well you won’t see me going to bat for hateful people or intolerant ones. But sometimes, these people change. They start acting kinder. They believe better things. But how much does that matter considering the suffering that person already caused.’

Victoria raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you mean—’ but before she could complete the thought I cut her off.

‘I was just thinking about A Christmas Carol; I know, it’s October but sometimes a mind wanders. Like, by the end of it, Scrooge is a very charitable man, but… if he had actually existed, then people were made homeless by his greed lost their homes because of him. Does our joy and love in seeing the man repent and his correct outweigh our compassion and love for those who were irreparably hurt by him? Are we supposed to forgive his sins just like that?’

Victoria didn’t respond; not immediately. Instead her hands turned the wheel left, and her car moved correspondingly. We began to slow down, and suddenly we were there. It was that moment before, minutes before dawn, when the light was just starting to peak around the bend of the world. I could just make out some minor reds and oranges spilling over the bay, fading into darkness as the waters got closer and closer to the shores. I didn’t have the time to take in that peace, however, for the moment was shattered by the slamming of Victoria’s door, her hands instantly busy digging around in her purse. A packet of cigarettes and a lighter hung limply between her fingers.

Puckering her lips, she stuck a cigarette between them, letting it dangle between them. I could see a vague slight pink imprint on the white confirming that Victoria was indeed wearing lipstick. She flicked the lighter a few times, frustration building in her entire frame each time the light flickered out. Without saying a word, I stood next to her, giving her a small wind-shield with my hands. She nodded with, presumably begrudging, thanks, as finally the cigarette smoke enters her lungs.

After a deep drag or two, she finally turned back to me, sarcasm dripping around the cigarette. ‘Kate Marsh doesn’t wholeheartedly approve of Scrooge? How very Christ-like of you.’

‘Victoria, Jesus whipped the ‘moneylenders’ and literally said that they turned a place of worship into a ‘den of thieves’. Jesus would not like Scrooge prior to his redemption.’

Victoria laughed. “Would love to see Jesus take the strap to good ole Uncle Joe.”

[TN: MS. MARSH STOPPED TALKING, SEEMINGLY LOST IN THOUGHT. AFTER A MOMENT, SHE BIT HER LIP AND STARTED AGAIN.]

Um, so here is where I have to do a fast forward. Not that long, because it was only three minutes later that dawn was finally upon us. And… what a view it is. I’m not sure I have the words, and I didn’t bring the sketch I did so you’ll just have to take my word on it.

[TN: MS. MARSH GIGGLED.]

Anyway, I’m sorry for all the buildup to the lighthouse without much payoff, but genuinely little I can say happened after that. For long periods I just sketched in silence, and we’ve already mapped my inability to describe that in words; sometimes we chatted about things, mostly stuff I think Victoria wouldn’t appreciate me repeating. Victoria took some photographs. Alice sat in Victoria’s lap for a few minutes, as Victoria clearly only put up with it for my sake — though, she gave Alice two whole celery sticks when she thought I wasn’t looking, and really the nerve! As if I don’t always have an eye on Alice.

[TN: MS. MARSH POUTED, HER BOTTOM LIP WOBBLING IN PURE INDIGNATION.]

And eventually, at about 9 or 9:30, we just… drove back, almost entirely in silence again and then I, at least, went to my afternoon classes — after making sure Alice got her lunch, obviously.

And that’s really all I have to say on the matter.

THE TESTIMONY OF KATE BEVERLY MARSH END

* * *

“And that’s really all I have to say on the matter.” A sigh escapes Kate’s lips, her shoulders slumping, almost certainly relieved for no longer feeling like the center of attention. “Uh… do you guys need anything else from me?”

Before Rachel can say anything, Max is shaking her head. “Just any photos of Alice you can send our way would be appreciated.”

Kate laughs. “Oh Max, I can do you one better; after you two are done with… all this, swing by and you’ll get some quality Alice time.”

Rachel finally has a chance to speak. “Actually we’re almost done! You were the last interro — uh, interview, so we’re going to get everyone together. Mind coming back in like ten minutes? Just need a moment with Max.”

Kate looks taken aback a little, but nods. “Oh sure. Want me to go get anyone?”

“Well if you run into Victoria, Dana or Taylor you can bring them along. I think that, for the sake of your innocent mind, you should leave Steph and Chloe to us.”

As the door swings shut behind a nodding and waving Kate Marsh, Rachel suddenly feels a warm hand on top of hers. She turns, to find Max looking inquisitively at her. “You sure you want to call everyone in?”

Rachel nods, pulling out her phone and typing even as she speaks. “I mean yeah, we interviewed everybody and sure we don’t know everything, I think it’s all we’re going to get out of them. Time to get everyone up to speed. I really think people will feel a lot better once we clear some of the air here.”

Max simply shrugs her shoulders. “If you say so.”

Rachel pauses, her thumb hovering over the send button of a… rather crude text she was about to send Chloe. “Do you think I shouldn’t?”

Max freezes. “Uh. I just feel… What are we even going to say to people?”

Rachel simply smiles. “Oh, just leave that to me.”

Max bites her lip, clearly words on the tip of her tongue. Rachel just looks expectantly. “And you’re sure this isn’t going to hurt anyone or go too far?”

It’s Rachel’s turn to freeze.

(The question ”Will it?” ratttles around in her mind, a constantly unknowable factor; an echo of a time not that long ago.)

(She doesn’t have an answer for that challenge; she never does, not anymore. But… But Max asked. And she can’t just not answer.)

In the end, all Rachel can do is shrug. “I really really hope not. I can’t say for sure; I just don’t know if everyone will walk away happy and okay. But I won’t be trying to force any particular result. And the situation already blew up so it’s not like I’m trying to do anything but cleanup, but also I don’t know if that’s just a bunch of rationalizations I’ve come to wholeheartedly believe to justify further shitty behaviour.”

Max stares at her for a moment, processing that answer before giving a decisive nod. “Okay. Call everyone back in.”

Rachel blinks. Once. Twice. Thrice. “Uh, now you’re okay with it?”

Max just gives Rachel a bright smile. “Well yeah, now I know for sure that you’re not doing it out of some grand meddling scheme. And that’s all I really wanted to make sure of.”

With a sniffle and a wet smile, Rachel, finally, presses the send button. Well, she presses down on the screen where the send button would be but her screen had turned off while Max and her were having their heart to heart. She then has to unlock her phone, and then press the send button.

Fucking Phone. Rachel thinks, completely justifiably.

* * *

Kate actually did run into some of the interview subjects; specifically Taylor and Dana, who are swinging entwined hands when they return. Kate simply takes one of the seats and begins to knit — because of course — while Taylor and Dana decide to be gross and coupley on the interrogation table.

(Max keeps glancing at them with stars in her eyes so Rachel, rarely one for patience, pulls Max to sit on her lap. Max spends the next several moments red as a sunburnt lobster, while also relaxing into Rachel.)

(Both Rachel and Max ignore the side-eyes this earns them from the other twosome.)

Fortunately, any awkward silence was broken by a door opening. Unfortunately, the person on the other end of the door was one Victoria Chase, who looked at what Rachel could only imagine Victoria would call “the display” in front of her scoffs, rolls her eyes, and goes to the back corner, as far away from anyone involved. So, in sum, the awkward silence was delayed a total of fifteen seconds.

(Rachel’s pulse quickens, sudden stress flooding in; what if she can’t actually reconcile everyone in the room? What if she fails to bring any kind of closure? What if —)

(Rachel gently wraps her hands around Max’s shoulders, gently kneading, working off this anxious stage fright through more useful, constructive actions. The way Max sinks into it is just icing on the cherry on top of the cake.)

And, finally, their deliverance is brought about five aggravatingly slow minutes later when the door swings open one final time and, in bursts one Chloe Price with a grin on her face and a pep in her step. The grin and pep only grow as she takes in everyone who is here, her eyes especially focusing on:

“Hey, yo it’s Daaaanaaaaa!” Chloe runs up to Dana, who leaps up from the table, and they start to engage in a very complicated… hand routine? Greeting? Cult ritual? Really, Rachel can’t figure out what exactly is going on. She caught the handshake, the fistbump, the jazzhands, but got somewhere lost with the foot circle hop and, really, her eyes couldn’t catch up again.

Once their routine was over (a whole minute later), Rachel finally feels safe enough to speak up. “I didn’t know you two were so… familiar.”

Chloe shrugs, confused. “What do you mean? Dana’s a total fucking boss. Hooks me up with some of the good shit. She’s my bestie when you,” she nods at Rachel, “you,” Max, “and Steph aren’t around.”

That’s the moment when Victoria decides to finally speak up. “What the fuck is she doing here?”

Chloe just shrugs. “Well considering that Rachel’s a dramatic bitch, I figured she invited everyone she… interviewed to… uh whatever the fuck we’re doing here.” She turns to Rachel. “What the fuck are we even doing here exactly?”

Rachel grins, and spreads out her arms like a conductor at the front of her orchestra. “Well, we solved the mystery!” Only blank looks greet her. She sighs. “Max, tell them what we figured out.”

Max fidgets by Rachel’s side, adorably. “Um, well… Rachel, you know that there isn’t really a mystery, right?”

Rachel rolls her eyes goodnaturedly. “That’s just because you’re the genius detective who figured out everything before everyone else.”

“No, Rachel, I mean… there is no mystery. No one’s phone is missing, nothing’s broken. There was just… a fight? Between two friends who aren’t talking to each other?” Max looks down sheepishly, avoiding Rachel’s look. “I… I kinda thought you just wanted the gossip? And to like, make everyone friends again?”

“No, the mystery, my faithful genius detective who is only a little embarrassing to me right now, is why is Victoria so pissed off? Why did Taylor respond in kind? Why… did any of it happen? Why did Victoria ask me to investigate?” All eyes swivel toward Victoria, shock and confusion playing out amongst the crowd.

(Okay so maybe the reason that Rachel didn’t mention this very pertinent detail to anyone, not even her partner in crime solving, Max, was to elicit such a reaction at such a right time.)

(She’s an actress dammit. She’s allowed a flair for the dramatic.)

Victoria, for her part, looks on the edge of apocalyptic. “Uh, I didn’t ask you, bitch.”

The eyes ping pong back to Rachel.

“Uh, yes you did. Don’t get all shy about it now. Why else do you think I did this? I have been pursuing a… relatively non-interventionist policy recently.” Rachel reaches into her pocket, pulling out a small, crumpled piece of paper. Everyone suddenly crowds around her and Max, trying to peer at the note.

(Everyone but one Kate Marsh, who seemed content to sit in her chair and continue her knitting.)

Written in a neat, highly controlled scrawl, were 8 words: Find out about the fight at the party

Victoria scoffs. “That’s not my handwriting.”

Before Rachel can retort, Dana speaks up. “Yes, it is.”

Taylor shakes her head. “Sorry babe, but no it isn’t.”

(And if Max doesn’t get hearteyes after hearing that, then Rachel doesn’t know what the term actually means.)

“Uh, babe, this is exactly what Vicky’s writing looks like. We had to work together on that English project earlier this year, remember?”

“Only because Taylor wouldn’t pretend to be in that class,” Victoria mumbles under her breath.

Taylor waves away the grumble. “And I’ve handwritten… probably an unethical amount of Victoria’s work. I know her handwriting inside and out. Whoever did this came close, as you can tell by the,” She grabs the note from Rachel’s hand, and begins pointing at it, “‘about’. It’s masterful; they captured the way Tori,” Victoria scoffs… again, “runs the a and b together and the way her u’s have a particularly large counter — uh, a particularly large negative space created by the upswing of the u.

“However, it’s the ‘the’s that give away the game. Tori’s ‘the’s are cramped, with no space between any of the letters. Here, there’s almost too much space, and the separation is careless; the space between letters vastly differs between the different ‘the’s. But the thing is, with Tori, once you get how she spaces her letters, it’s annoyingly consistent tbh. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to start an entire page over again because I messed up the spacing.”

(Rachel has a quick look at the note over Taylor’s shoulder. And, she’ll be damned, but she sees it.)

“So, I feel pretty confident in saying that this is not Victoria’s handwr—” The last of Taylor’s words are swallowed up by a sudden mouth on hers.

(Specifically, the mouth of Dana Ward. Rachel hopes the clarification is unnecessary, but clarity is preferable to confusion.)

As the seconds go by, the room is filled with the wet noise of two people making out — and Dana seems more and more intent on finding the nearest wall to push Taylor against — everyone else begins to shuffle uncomfortably on their feet.

(Everyone but Chloe and Steph, that is, who just give each other a look and then a fistbump. Chloe somehow has a bag of popcorn in her other hand.)

(Rachel wonders when that girl will start using her superpowers for good.)

Eventually, Victoria clears her throat once. Twice. Thrice. Never getting the reaction that she so desired.

“Ugh you two should just get a room and kill two birds with one stone.”

Dana flips a middle finger at Victoria, but after one last press of her lips against Taylor, does pull back. “So uh,” Dana coughs, clearing the roughness of her throat, “who was pretending to be Victoria?”

The nervous sound of a churchmouse draws everyone’s attention. “I’m sorry everybody.” All eyes swivel toward their final target, Kate Marsh, standing and hands wringing. Everything about her posture screams nervousness. Her eyes flit over each and every staring face before she continues. “I — I wrote the note.”

Rachel’s face lights up. “Why, Ms. Marsh! You did whaaaaat?”

(Max, not so subtly, elbows Rachel in the side.)

Kate’s back straightens, and her voice is filled with more confidence than before. “I wrote the note. I faked Victoria’s handwriting.”

Pure, shocked silence descends over everyone. Victoria, in particular, recoils from it, her entire body on guard, lips thinned and… some particularly powerful emotion clearly rippling under her skin, trying to push itself out. Victoria is also the one to speak first, and she speaks with betrayal and guilt instead of rage, like Rachel was expecting. “Why?”

Kate glances around at the audience, lip between her teeth. “Can we talk about it, in uh, private?”

Victoria doesn’t even get the chance to answer before Rachel and Max are pulling the other four interlopers out of the room. The last thing Rachel sees before the door closes is Kate, staring at Victoria, and Victoria, half-turned away but firmly rooted, arms crossed and fingers pinching at her own wrists.

* * *

Max and Rachel are hanging out in Rachel’s room, hands gently linked between each other, as incense wafts through the room. “There’s one thing still bothering me, Max.”

“Yeah?”

“How did Kate figure out how to fake Victoria’s handwriting so good that it tricked me? I know I’m technically not perfect, but it’s not like Katie-Honey’s had very many chances to observe Tori’s handwriting and it was close enough that, at a glance, even Taylor admitted it was a good copy.”

Max hmms noncommittally. “That’s the only question you have? I don’t know. Maybe Kate’s just a really quick study.” After a moment, she gives a decisive nod. “I suppose that’s a mystery to solve next time. Like after Victoria and Kate resolve… uh whatever issues they’re dealing with. But uh, Rachel, can I tell you the one thing that’s still bothering me?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart.”

Max goes silent in that way that means she’s working to push out the exact words she wants. Rachel smiles softly, the image endearing. Eventually Max manages to speak assuredly. “So, girlfriend.”

Rachel stops in her tracks; she has to school herself into a neutral expression as she turns to meet Max’s gaze. “Girlfriend, huh? You sound awfully confident.”

Max blushes, and looks away, words cascading from her mouth almost quicker than Rachel can catch them. “Well, everyone else thinks we’re dating and, uh, well, I’m not sure we aren’t dating, but also I know we never really talked about it. I mean, you said that you wanted to be girlfriends, but then I didn’t actually give you an answer and I don’t know for sure if you still want to be girlfriends. So…” Max looks at Rachel with hope gleaming in her eyes. “Girlfriends?”

Rachel… Rachel can’t answer fast enough. “Girlfriends!” Without pausing, Rachel pulls out her phone and taps a few times, before putting it up to her ear. “Hey, Lesbian Soul Sister, guess what?” The other end murmurs, and Rachel rolls her eyes. “No, not that you ding-dong bitch. I’ve got a girlfriend now!” More murmuring. “No, you ass. We weren’t girlfriends before, we were… make-out buddies? I don’t know, we didn’t actually talk about it.”

Rachel takes a moment to press her lips against the back of Max’s hand, who shows her appreciation for the gesture with a smile more brilliant than the sun.

This Rachel thinks to herself as Chloe keeps on yammering away in her ear about whatever nonsense she’s on about (some bullshit about how Rachel and Max clearly have been dating for a while now) and Max’s palm feels warm and comforting against her own, This is a nice beginning.