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Four Hundred and Eighty, Give or Take

Chapter Text

Chris looks westward.

She knows, as she watches the sun slowly descend to meet a distant ocean, that her eyes will burn. She knows that when night comes, her retinae will be so overexposed she'll be stumbling blindly through starlessness.

But Chris looks westward, her fists thrust into the pockets of her hooded sweatshirt, chin tucked just slightly into the collar. A breeze snaps past, throwing strands of her hair and chilling her ears.

She imagines that it comes from the Pacific Ocean.

---

They were so damn busy with their lives, they hadn't noticed.

Four days without a call from them.

I mean, who could blame them? Modern life is an involved thing. Work, school, making dinner, picking the kids up, meetings, practice. A single oversight can be forgiven, right?

After all--what was four days? Sometimes it'd be two or three without a call or even a text. Why worry over four?

---

On the fifth day, a call comes, but not from them.

Her mom answers it, since Chris doesn't really like answering phones. What fourteen year old does?

Chris comes down from her room, heads into the kitchen, looking for something to eat. She glances over at her mom. "Who was it?"

But her mom is staring out the window.

---

More calls come. More calls made. They have to make sure.

When her mom tells her, Chris doesn't react, at first. Because, well, it's ridiculous. An obvious mistake.

Russell and Jess, dead? Chris almost reprimands her mother for joking about things like that, but stops at her expression.

---

Hours pass instead of days. Chris wants to answer the phone, now, but every time her mom tells her "let me handle it, Christina".

Words from a day ago begin to slowly arise in Chris' mind.

---

Less than a day.

They were in Arcadia Bay for less than a day. Going from Seattle to Eugene and onward down the coast. Just staying long enough to see what few sights that tiny town could offer.

Pre-honeymoon, they called it. Well, what they eventually called it. They wanted to take Chris along, but with school, it didn't work out. Chris' mom said she wanted at least one daughter to annoy, anyway.

---

The emergency crews had seen nothing like it. 'Nothing like it' was the new motto of Arcadia Bay, after that storm.

Rolled in, made an impression, rolled out. All in the course of a single night.

The same night Jess and Russell were driving through.

---

Details were slow to come.

A gust of wind knocked the car off course--just enough for it to run off the road, into the mud, into a ravine. Trees had fallen nearby in a tangle. The ravine was overflowing with both water and debris.

When they found the car, it was upside down.

---

"So... you and Russ, huh?"

Jess turns to look at her sister, expression amused. "Yeah, me and Russ. Jess and Russ. Sounds like a bad sitcom or something, doesn't it?"

"I dunno." Chris reaches out, tugging on the branches of the trees they pass. She brings back a few pine needles, sticky and sharp but smelling good.

They walk in silence, letting the birds carry the conversation for them.

"Give him a chance," Jess says, ducking under a low bough. "He's a good guy. I wouldn't love him otherwise." She pauses for a moment. "He reminds me a little of you, actually?"

Chris rolls her eyes, incredulous.

"Quiet, thoughtful, a little weird. But!" She says, finger uplifted, cutting off Chris' objection, "nice through and through."

"I'll take your word for it," Chris mumbles. "Biased as you are."

"Oh, you don't have to. He's coming over for dinner."

---

Turns out Jess had better taste than Chris gave her credit for.

I mean, this Russ guy sucked at Devil May Cry, but no one's perfect, right?

---

They've stuffed the car with luggage. Chris' mom won't let them fill the back entirely, though. She wants them to be able to use the rearview mirror.

Makes sense.

Hugs all around, then. Jess promises to take a lot of pictures for Chris to Photoshop. Russ promises to bring back something at least slightly interesting from every town or city. Chris' mom promises to leave the lovebirds alone.

Chris doesn't make any promises. She doesn't see the need.

---

"So, we were talking about baby names--"

"Oh, gross."

"Chris, you can stand to at least pretend to be mature about this--"

"Your procreation and offspring is your business!"

"Wow, put it like that, why don't you. Anyway... Russ and I were thinking, you know, maybe if we had a girl... we could name her Christine."

Chris tilts her head to the side. "What, to confuse everyone?"

"Hey, I like the name, Russ likes the name... but it's almost your name. So, it's only right that I ask permission."

Chris shakes her head. Her family is ridiculous. "Permission granted."

---

Chris looks westward.

The sun dips below the horizon, and darkness settles over the world.

In the dark, she thinks, she could cry. No one would see her, no one would know.

But the earth is wet enough.

So she doesn't.

Chapter Text

Thunder rolls over the world, low and slow and deep like water in dark places. Helen's ears perk up.

She is at the back door in a moment and throws it wide open, not giving a singular damn for the howling wind or raging rain.

"JESS MASON!"

Say what you will, but Goddamn, the woman can yell.

Helen peers out into the dense cloudfall, out into the line of trees encroaching upon the backyard.

And there, between the dark and swaying trunks, is a furious slash of red.

As another thunderclap cleaves the clouds and burns the sky, Jess bolts from the treeline and barrels into the house, all muddy boots and rainsoaked denim. "Hey, mom," she says, nonchalantly shrugging out of her favorite red jacket. Right onto the dry floor.

"Don't you 'hey' me." Helen looms over Jess. "What did I say about climbing trees in the middle of storms?"

"But I wasn't--"

Helen plucks a piece of bark and a few leaves from Jess' hair.

"... Uh."

Jess was born in the rain.

When she was a wise old woman and a grandmother of many, Helen thought, she'd probably die in the rain, too.

Chapter Text

Johns isn't in hospitals very often.

Once, for appendicitis. Another time for food poisoning when he was really young. But that's about it. Hasn't broken a single bone in his body--but, well, it'll happen eventually. A rite of passage when you play football, after all.

So when he wakes up in a hospital bed, Johns is understandably confused.

He looks around, looks at the sheets, looks at the IV stand, looks at the catheter in his arm.

He blinks a few times.

He watches the drip-drip of the saline--well, he hopes its saline.

Navigating through the fog of what seems to be a hangover from Hell, he tries to remember.

---

Of course, a name like 'Mortimer St. Johns' is too damned much for a kid who only started speaking at four years. So Johns had to do.

Johns was the rare type of person to be called by his last name by his parents. He wore this as a badge of pride, partly because it was one of the few badges he had.

---

When Johns was eight years old, his unthinking shithead of a neighbor lost his grip on his pit bull.

That was the day Johns realized he could run.

---

See, Johns isn't what you would popularly call a... well, an intellectual. Sure, he likes books, but more the concept of books versus reading. And maybe he couldn't tell you the difference between a novel and novella. And yeah, he can't read cursive, but really, who can?

But to think Johns an idiot is, well, idiotic in itself. Sure, all through grade school teachers kept trying to shunt him into special education, but they just didn't get it. Johns wasn't slow, he was deliberate. And that's a whole three syllables more than slow.

After all, Johns can measure anything. Point at something, point at something else, and within three ticks of a watch he'll tell you the distance within an inch (he doesn't really get the metric system). The guy can ace your geometry test but take a literal hour to explain the Pythagorean Theorem. Rubik's cube? A joke. Probably why he's never dropped a pass once at Blackwell. Warren's the one who told him the term-- spatial cognition. Mental rotation.

Nice guy, Warren. Really doesn't deserve to get shit on the way he does.

---

See, odd thing. Johns was sure he'd hate Courtney. She was the archetypal (see? He's not an idiot) preppy girl that had always given him shit.

So the first time she tried to eviscerate him with some degrading comment in class ("Interesting how someone can be fast and slow")-- he didn't need to think, he had years to deliberate on counters like this-- he easily snapped back with something equally trenchant. Everyone stopped, conversation died in-air and hit the desks, Kate gasped, Hayden laughed, Max stared, Victoria's mouth hung open, and the teacher yelled at Johns to step outside. As he got up and shouldered his backpack, he shot a look at Courtney-- and she shot one back.

And there was a smirk on her lips.

Later, he realized it wasn't the smirk that set him off. It was those lips.

---

And somehow a competition of more and more creative insults turned into a competition to find more and more creative ways to hang out on the supposed pretense of, you know, being rivals. Yeah.

Well, of course he went with her to the mall and helped her pick out stuff she'd look good in. "She needs all the help she can get!" Johns would claim, eyes flicking left and right. That's what rivals do, right? Passive-aggression?

And there's no real reason that sometimes Courtney comes out of the changing room wearing something a little too small, or that certain shade of blue Johns likes for some reason. No reason. Not to see him redden a bit and turn away and mutter "try something else."

And there's no reason that, if one were to catalog Johns' growingly elaborate put-downs, he stopped using Courtney's sexuality as a basis for insults, and he'd snap at anyone who did. No reason.

---

Now, Johns isn't what you'd call popular. He's certainly known. Not like Zachary-fuckin'-Riggins the Goddamn quarterback who gets free tickets to the movies and eats for free half the time since the football team is one of the very few things Arcadia Bay has going for it. Running back just doesn't sound as cool as quarterback. Same number of syllables, though, so that's something.

And known is generally the cusp of Vortex Club material. Catching footballs and running fast and jumping over entire humans is all well and good, but knowing the right people and being in the right places and saying (or not saying) the right things? Much more so.

Zach and Logan vouched for him, of course. Hayden sung his praises too, probably because Johns was the only one willing to get up at five thirty to run every Goddamn morning (in reality, it was because of Johns' obscene skill at FPS videogames, which Hayden determined was an indicator of hidden potential).

And Courtney... well. You can imagine.

But it was Victoria, ever Victoria, who would decide his fate.

---

He stands out there for a good seven minutes. Seven minutes and thirty two seconds. It's two fourteen AM.

Alright, that's enough deliberation. Just... fuck, just do it, man. Shit! Fuck! Okay!

He reaches up and gently raps his knuckles against the window.

And waits.

And Courtney lifts up her window. He can smell the pumpkin spice latte from here. Probably three or four cups of them.

"What are you doing? Did they forget to lock you in?"

"Why are you still up? Don't you need your beauty sleep?"

Courtney sighs. "Victoria has a paper due in the morning. I've finished mine, but--"

Johns lifts up a hand. "Come down."

He sees the play of her face--Goddamn, even wired on caffeine and with circles under her eyes, she looks beautiful. "I can't--"

Johns spreads his arms. "Yeah you can. I'll catch you."

"That's not what I meant," she huffs, but Johns just grins that stupid grin of his.

Rolling her eyes theatrically, she mumbles something about him being clingy and needy and obviously being up to no good, enticing a girl out of her room at night, how scandalous--but there's that little smirk again that makes Johns' blood spike.

"Don't drop me."

"I'll drop you if I want to."

She puts her hands on her hips, squinting down at him. Johns simply shrugs.

And with a properly ladylike squeal she lands in his arms, and he catches her effortlessly.

In the darkness, under the stars, they can lace their hands together and walk and nuzzle and not worry about anyone or anything.

"See that?" Johns points up. "That's Lyra. The brightest star there, that one's... Vega, I think."

Courtney leans into him. "It's so pretty," she murmurs.

"Not--not as--" Fuck. Cringeworthy, man. Johns looks down at her, already preparing himself with a comeback and counter-comeback--

But she's just looking up at him, starlight in her eyes, lips parted.

For many days afterward, that kiss is all Johns can deliberate on.

---

Johns shakes his head. He looks around the hospital room--there's got to be a button, right? You push the button, a nurse comes. That's a thing, right? It's in all those TV shows.

Okay, come on. Only three minutes and--and--twenty one... twenty two seconds have passed. Figure it out. Why are you here? Where were you last? Backtrack! Rotate!

---

The End of the World Party is dead, long live the End of the World Party; for here begins the afterparty.

Maybe it was the song, or the shitty beer, or that weird pill Logan gave him, but Johns dances with Courtney and his hands moved free and her hips grind against him and he didn't give a shit who sees.

Now the revelers are trickling back into the dorms, oblivious to the rain and wind, to pass out or vomit a small intestine's worth of alcohol or fuck or who knows who cares because Courtney is on Johns' arm and holy shit he's on fire.

A gust of wind throws a handful of icy needles at them, and Johns pulls Courtney close. But the wind keeps picking up speed, and the rain comes harder. Courtney's laughing, pulling Johns by the hand to the girls' dorm, and Johns feels like he might split his head he's grinning so hard--

And then a fist of wind strikes them both to the grass, and as Johns tumbles he sees the other partyers falling. The rain's coming in sheets, now. Big knife blades of water. Black clouds moving like--like--

He gets up--you don't play years of football without learning how to get the fuck up--and pulls Courtney to her feet. He yells something to her-- maybe "are you okay" or "we have to go" or something--and they try to force their way to the dorm.

They're at the steps, soaking, freezing, stunned-- when Johns, master of spatial perception, observes two things:

1. Hayden coming out of nowhere to shove him with the most spectacular pass interference he's ever seen

And

2. A tree branch the size of Johns' torso coming at him at approximately sixty five--

---

Johns throws his bedsheet off--

And looks down at nothing.

He blinks.

He... felt them. He can feel them right now! He saw them under the sheet! How--how the fuck--

He blinks, again.

He pulls the blanket over his legs--his legs that are definitely, undeniably, absolutely still there--and waits. Whatever's in that IV bag must be doing this. Or that pill. He's tripping. Yeah. Everything is fine.

Courtney is fine, too, Johns reassures himself in a dreary haze, tamping down the panic. Of course she is. How could she not be?

Someone will explain this to him.

He just needs to wait.

Deliberate.

Chapter Text

Johns pokes his head out into the corridor.

Looks left. Looks right. Empty. Good.

He steps out of Courtney's room and carefully closes the door behind him, easing it shut so softly it doesn't even click. He wipes his palms on his jeans, even though they're not sweaty, and he's never had his palms actually sweat, but it seemed like the thing to do.

He'd prefer to depart via window, really, he would--comings and goings by window are romantic, right?-- but it's too conspicuous with the morning light and--

He runs into someone as he turns around.

"Sorry," he blurts automatically.

Max Caulfield blinks sleepily up at him, pupils suddenly pinpointing like a camera shutter. Even in this light, Johns can see a blue vision of himself reflected in her big eyes, his body framed perfectly next to Courtney's room nameplate. Her eyes flick back, then forth. Just once.

"Um," he says.

"Oh," she says.

Dread burrows itself somewhere between Johns' liver and spleen. Okay. She's in her sleepwear. Hair all over the place. Breath smelling like eight hours. Maybe she won't remember this. Think it was a dream. Yeah. Keep it cool. "Evening, Max." Johns' brain rotates slightly upon its axis. "Er, maybe now it'd be 'morning' instead." What the fuck are you saying? Jesus Christ!

"... Yeah," she offers politely, rubbing the back of her neck. Her eyes are so damn big. No light escapes them. And this won't escape her. She can’t dust for fingerprints with her eyeballs, but Goddamn if Johns doesn’t feel like a crime scene.

He licks his lips nervously, but that was a mistake, as they taste of Courtney. "... Okay, so-- we didn’t—we, um, I know this looks like--"

But Max just shakes her head. "I... I won't tell." Her voice is husky with sleep.

"... You won't?"

Max shakes her head.

Johns nods his head like a hanged man. "O... okay, yeah. Thanks, Max," he says, and he's off.

She's alright, that Max Caulfield.

When Johns gets back to his dorm room, he feels like ten pounds of water weight has strained through his pores. If he had run into Kate Marsh? Oh man. Oh man. The goosebumps won't go away.

---

When Victoria describes her as a pretentious hipster pseudointellectual faux-ingénue, Johns just nods with an "uh huh" instead of asking what the fuck an 'ingénue' is. He files away that vocabulary for later. Victoria's fascination with French agitates Johns' Anglo-Saxon-rooted brain to no end.

Chapter Text

They're both standing on the edge of the parking lot, watching people mill about the red van.

"You said you would!"

"Look, I'm not afraid of blood. Or needles. Or scalpels--"

"Then what's the holdup?"

"I don't like the idea of... a part of me being in other people, okay? It's just... ugh. Weird."

"Oh, come on. You're made of--"

"The same water from the dinosaurs, you said that already."

"Then let's go."

Karli is many things. But she's not a coward, and she doesn't go back on her word. She's also left handed, which people called her a devil child in grade school over, and now she wears that title proudly. But that's rather beside the point.

Elise looks at her expectantly, arms crossed.

Karli looks down at the embossed and colorful flyer in her hands, now quite creased after having lived in her backpack for a week. A smiling family looks up at her with dead eyes.

DONATE BLOOD FOR ARCADIA BAY

Chapter Text

"Keep an eye out for whales," someone said before they launched. It wasn't a joke. A young whale, lost or confused, had rammed into a fishing trawler the day before.

Rick peers into the net. A good half of the fish are dead, already rotting and probably crawling with parasites. He grimaces at the smell--and he's smelt some weird shit.

Stetson stares out into the horizon.

"Something's coming," he says quietly.

---

I'm not wearing underwear.

Johns stares down at the message, his brain rotating very slowly, very carefully.

He bites his lip, licks the inside of his teeth.

Steadying his forefinger (yes, he types with only one finger, hunt-and-peck style), Johns crafts his response. Carefully. Because if he misspells anything here he'll fucking kill himself.

And... send.

I don't believe you. You'll have to show me.

Courtney locks onto him from across the room with a smouldering look.

Johns looks back coolly. His insides would make Pompeii look like a church candle.

---

When he looked up "blue balls" on UrbanDictionary, he scoffed. Yeah, sure. Like that's a real thing.

Now, Johns is a believer.

His balls are bluer than the seven fucking seas. Captain Nemo would not dare to fathom those dark depths, and Ahab would lower his harpoon in awe.

---

It's expensive.

Johns doesn't give a shit.

Shining bronze wrought carefully into the likeness of feathers. Turquoise with deep blue-green veins.

The bracelet is heavy in his hand. A good heavy. It's... a new feeling.

"This one."

Chapter Text

It's been hours, and Karli's arm still hurts.

She rubs at it absently, her fingernails snagging on the bandage. She's changed since she's gotten home from school, but it feels like she hasn't--not with that gauze still gripping her elbow, bunched up and sticky. Blasting music in her ears isn't taking her mind off of it. Especially not when she can, by curse of her vivid imagination, associate every second stanza with a storm.

After the whole thing, she felt... lighter. Not a 'weight off your shoulders' lighter, but literally so. Like it took a little bit longer for her feet to reach the ground as she walked.

The crumpled flyer lies on her desk, facedown, just out of reach. She doesn't need it anymore. But throwing it away feels sacrilegious, somehow.

The kids at her school had taken to wearing short sleeves, cold as it was this week. They showed off their bandages with pride, the boys boasting just how much blood they gave and how little it affected them and how the nurse right out of med school had been checking out their biceps. Of course.

Karli spins slowly in her computer chair, knees pulled up to her chest. She considers opening up a local news site and checking on Arcadia Bay, but... her hand hovers, polarized, above her suddenly ferromagnetic mouse.

Who would her blood go to? A firefighter who got hurt rescuing someone? A mom or dad driving fast to get home to their kids? A newborn baby that got hit by debris?

... Whose veins would she be swimming in? Whose heart would beat with hers, miles away, seconds apart?

It's ridiculous, really. But she could drive to Arcadia Bay and sit outside the hospital, watch the people file in and out, and one of them would have her inside them.

She scowls. Christ, she's getting too emo over this. They'll probably just throw her blood away. Too many white blood cells or something.

A lot of kids in her class have talked about going to help the relief efforts over the next few weekends. The survivors are rushing to rebuild as much of the town as they can before winter sets in, but a good number of the survivors have just... left. Drove into the sunrise and never looked back.

Karli can't really blame them.

Chapter Text

Hannah has been awake for fifty-two hours, and she cannot sleep.

She sits in the seat of her (well, it's not hers, technically, but it may as well be) ambulance, fingers laced over the steering wheel. She hums something--and the tune wavers and shifts into something else as soon as she tries to figure out what she's humming. She feels... off. Her eyes feel heavy in her head, but her bones feel so light they may as well be elsewhere. So be it.

She rubs her fingers over one another, picking at her nails. Her hands feel strange without a second skin of nitrile. Her mouth and nose feel strange without the warm cocoon of air from her sanitary mask. When she breathes, she smells blood. She's not sure from where. She'll need to find out, eventually. But for now, she sits and watches.

Arcadia Bay Medical Center hums like a concrete hive.

She watches the people moving outside--police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, staff, EMTs, paramedics, ordinary people, people. It's like an odd dance; everyone has somewhere to go, someone to speak to, something to do. A plan. A sense of control over everything, no matter how tenuous the grasp.

... No, she can see them, now. Some gripping at arms, sleeves, tapping at shoulders, asking if they've seen a certain someone. A son, a daughter, a sibling, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor. And every time, it's the same; a blank look, a short string of words, a shake of the head.

Hannah sighs. This isn't what she expected, really. They were running short on EMTs down in Newport, so she thought, what's a second job, really? Sure, it's not even a job--she's not getting paid, it's all volunteer--but it'll look good for when she finally scrapes together the money for med school.

She watches as a wheeled stretcher is pushed past her side window by a grim-faced duo. A sheet is pulled taut over the stretcher. The shape it outlines is human... almost.

So here she was, along with everyone else from the surrounding counties. This was it: the worst possible scenario that everyone prepared for but everyone wished would never happen. But wishes count for little in the cosmic entropic lottery, she muses.

Her phone vibrates; she recognizes the pattern. Her boyfriend checking up on her--probably an old text, though, as the mobile cell trucks have had trouble getting through all the rubble. Hannah's not in any real danger, of course, but he worries. And Hannah wants to text back, sure, but... it might break the reverie. Remind her that this world where the people you see are just as likely to be dead as alive was the same one she shared with Jake.

Hours ago, they said the morgue was to capacity. Beyond capacity. They started looking for funeral homes that were still standing.

She leans her skull against the headrest, her damp hair sticking. She recalls how she wanted to be a vet when she was ten years old. A puppy-kitten vet, specifically. She smiles at that. If anyone had looked through the windshield at that moment, they would've stopped, confused, and wondered if they were somewhere else, anywhere but here.

Hannah steps out of the ambulance, closes the door, and dons her eleventh pair of gloves.

She will sleep, eventually. Until then, she will make sure the dead do.

Chapter Text

Luke balances his jaw on an upturned palm.

He's bored. Well, more specifically, he's sick with something contagious (coughing, stuffed nose, mucus everywhere, etc.), so he's cloistered in his own home, so he's bored. That's the longform, anyway.

It's been a week, and even at his age with his attention span, all the pirated videogames the Internet can provide can't keep him occupied. He's been so desperate he read a book of all things, and he hasn't read one to completion outside of school since... well, shit, he can't even remember.

So he trawls through the great grey morass of the Internet--he's already jacked off twice today, and that's become boring too--looking for anything to fill his empty cup of time.

He consults Facebook--but between vacuous arguments about politics or sports or people shouting their horoscopes to the world, that loses its appeal as well. The cost of having high school seniors as your peer group, he thinks sullenly.

Luke blows his nose, throws the balled tissue over his shoulder, and scowls at yet another profile picture.

Not due to the person occupying it, if it can be believed. But because of the tiny lighthouse in the left-hand corner.

"Pray for Arcadia Bay." He sees it on people's background banners, as random proclamations. It annoys him in the way everything is annoying when you're already in a shitty mood.

How many of those people--Luke does not index Facebook friends under true "friends"--actually gave a singular fuck about Arcadia Bay, anyway? How many people had actually been there? So it's a few hours (give or take) west, so what? Bad things happen all the time. Car crashes, disease, old age, hold ups gone bad, wrong place wrong time.

Just a big circle-jerk of who can be the most 'compassionate.' People dredging up pictures from years and years ago of Arcadia Bay, going on and on about how it was 'magical' or 'mystical' or 'changed them.' Bullshit. It's been a fucking month! Why are people still all choked up over this?

He glanced at the time--another hour before he could take any more medicine. Damn the FDA for protecting his kidneys.

This isn't productive. He gets up--his head swims, full of mucus as it is--and stumbles out of his room, blinking in the sunlight spilling down the hall.

"Pray for the bay," he mutters thickly to an empty house. "Why pray for something that's gone?"

That's the most poetic thing he's thought in a week. He'll forget it in an hour.

Chapter Text

He's not much to look at. Not too tall, but lean and hard, as if he were iron hammered too thin.

Darren Siegert became a cop because he cared too much. Suffice to say, he's the worst kind of cop, the kind that lasts a few years at most before going brittle and cracking at the edges. But he remained, his eyes just a duller shade of rust.

---

He's the youngest cop on the force. That's not saying much--the median age of the Arcadia Bay Police Department's finest is about fifty or so. But at a fourth of a century, he's out of place. Bleak planes where the others have smile lines.

Darren didn't win the moniker "Switch" for ambidexterity or an impatience with TV channels. It was after he soundly beat down a drunk asshole twice his size when he was still at the academy, back in Salem. It was unsettling to see, a man whose will seemed too great for his body, how his bloodied hands shook but the rest of him was stock still.

"He's like a switch--he's small, but when he pulls back you better start running," one of the old boys on the force had said with a worldwise chuckle. And so the name stuck. Switch. Dumb, but there's worse, he supposes. Everyone calls Richard "ol' big Dick," for example. His wife thought it was hilarious. Richard didn't, for some reason.

---

Why did he come back?

Most kids that grow up in Arcadia Bay either leave or become consigned to the sea like their ancestors before them. Or scrape by in what little tourism the town has to offer.

When Darren left, well, everyone thought his back would be the last they'd see. But return he did, in a police uniform and an overpolished badge, just in time for the announcement of Pan Estates.

They didn't know whether to feel joy or dread.

---

It's a small department with a small budget, so it has a small shooting range. Not like they thought much about it at the time--way back when the place was built, if you wanted to test a gun, you just went out and shot at the trees or the water or the blacks. Now you can't piss in peace without some environmentalist from the east coast raining hellfire.

Doesn't matter much, as Darren's one of the few that ever use the range. It's a simple ritual--twelve shots a day. One whole cylinder, a reload, then yet another cylinder. No more, no less.

Maybe he should have an autoloader in wondernine like everyone else, but the other cops think it's kind of funny. They haven't filled a bad guy full of holes in years--who cares?

---

He thinks about money often. He dwells on the small talk he'll make with the teller he's known since his parents would drag him to the bank as a child.

He thinks about his old family house that he still lives in, albeit alone. Would he one day take a wife home to that very same two-bedroom, two-bath with the long dark hallway? Could he even find a wife in a town like this?

He thinks, and drives, and stares at the trees that line the roads.

---

Blackwell Academy is an oasis of iniquity in the desert of injustice.

Or... something like that, he thinks. Darren's not a poet, failed English twice (eventually passed with a C+, thank the extra credit), but he can read you your Miranda rights like your life (in prison or otherwise) depends on it.

But why is Blackwell a black hole of social morality (stretching there, Switch.)? Sound ordinances just don't matter around Blackwell's walls. Or open container laws. Or parking violations. Or indecent exposure. Nothing matters, really.

He's put the local liquor stores on notice for fake IDs, but that was before the old timers pointed out that they don't even check, and no one's going to roll through grainy black-and-white CCTV footage for an high school beer sale. 5% ABV? Who the fuck you kidding, Switch?

Besides--you want those Prescott grants for the town? Want a new car? New uniform that fits? New revolver? Enough money to finally fix your house's foundation?

So Darren grips the steering wheel of his aging patrol car and drives past that campus, looking out over the mountain range of his knuckles.

---

The Two Whales diner.

Darren frowns into his coffee. Bit of a misnomer. Just one whale, now. William's gone, and you can feel it in every inch of this place. Darren doesn't know if whales mate for life, but, well... Joyce and William. What a pair.

The coffee at Up-All-Nite is cheaper, sure. But Darren can't help but patronize this place. Joyce is too kind, after all. Her daughter... well. Darren sighs. People mourn in different ways.

---

He drives late at night, listening to the sound of pavement and five thousand revolutions a minute. He calls it a patrol, officially. But it's just therapy.

He sees a flicker of red, upright like a candle flame, making its way along the side of the road.

He watches it, mesmerized.

It's a person. He slows, gets out, waits.

"It's two AM," he obviates.

She doesn't say anything.

"Do you need a ride home?"

Her eyes glint with suspicion.

"Blackwell?" he asks, noting her hooded sweatshirt with BIGFOOTS printed across the front.

It isn't until she's in the backseat, she asks:

"What are you going to do to me?"

It's distant and resigned and makes Darren's skin fucking crawl.

"I'm taking you home."

She looks out the window.

---

They find him, eventually. It takes a few days.

In the runoff, his body is tangled in driftwood and telephone wire and roof tile. It was easy to pass him over, at first--his limbs were twisted this way and that, he was more puzzle than human--but someone glanced down, and with the right lighting--

"Oh my God."

His eyes catch the light, a brighter shade of rust.

Chapter Text

Some romances burn. Others smoulder.

And there are those that go down like Operation Rolling Thunder, and all you can do is run for cover.

That's the great love story of Ethan and Olivia. You know the cycle--meet at university, Olivia's the flint, Ethan's the steel. Sparks; a firestorm of lovemaking and passion, married within two years.

There's an old English saying: quickly come, quickly go.

This is no surprise to anyone with a passing interest in anthropology. The sex is spectacular, the fights are spectacular (woe to the neighbors). I love yous and I hate yous in equal measure. Mountains and valleys, not a single steppe in sight.

They commit the prehistoric sin: believing having a child will stabilize them.

Thus Julius is born, the prophet meant to unite two feuding kingdoms.

But children make poor martyrs, and Ethan and Olivia could never decide who would stay home.

---

Half time with mom, half time with dad. It was what was "best for the child," so said childless therapists everywhere.

Were the mom not in Washington and the dad in Wyoming, he muses, this whole ordeal might be a little more bearable.

This is Jules' life. He's become an expert at doing homework on trains and sleeping in moving vehicles.

In Cheyenne, Ethan tries to be a dad. You know--hunting, fishing, camping, working on the car, talking (American) football. Jules had only been about ten or so before he realized that his dad really wasn't an outdoorsman, but he kept his mouth shut and sat in the boat with a beer in his hand all the same. By thirteen, he realized that the reason his dad kept asking him to 'grade' the female sports reporters wasn't because he was actually that immature, but because he was afraid of his son being gay.

He decided to keep him in suspense, there. Didn't last long--his dad found his charcoal sketches of nude models, and discharged a sigh of relief to find that they were all quite odalisque.

In Seattle, Olivia... is kind of a mom, he guesses. Somewhere between aunt and older sister and... friend. In a way, he prefers that. Jules is no fool (despite what schoolyard taunts would lead you to believe)--he knows he's going to need some serious psychiatry later on in life. But at sixteen, you can't dwell on those things. He knows that much.

Then again, the scenery is better in Wyoming. Once you get out of Cheyenne, anyway. Sometimes, when his dad is still asleep, Jules sneaks out of the tent before sunrise and arms himself with his charcoal and paper--and draws. And draws. And draws the earth and sky into his fingers and draws.

Not as if his dad is against the whole 'art' thing. Moreso, when his dad first caught Jules with a pencil in hand and artistic intention afoot, he got him more paper. Graph paper, notably. A ruler, protractor. He was dead set on Jules being an engineer, for some reason. When Jules asked what kind, Ethan's reply was mystifying inaudible. Jules'll take that over the shouted incredulity that was his dad's response to why he wouldn't play (American) football: "What do you mean, you want to protect your fucking fingers?" Maybe Jules could have said "So I can finger my wife and we can actually please each other," but he's not the spiteful kind.

This was commonplace. Whether it was dad's house or mom's apartment, the moment he was through that door they would look at him like he needed to be deprogrammed. With the mom, Julian--modern, approachable. The dad, Julius--classic, imperious.

Just Jules, but no one ever asked him.

Sometimes he wishes he had siblings, but then again, he thinks wryly, he wouldn't want anyone else to bear his burden.

Jules is like that. A half-martyr, at best.

---

For art in Wyoming, you go outside. For art in Washington, you go inside. Jules has probably spent more time in the Frye Art Museum than in his mom's apartment, and they both know that, and he gets the sense that she almost prefers it that way.

He's already gone through the top ten museums, the underground scene, gotten to know a few of the more ambitious taggers. He's almost starting to feel like something of an authority on art--what kind of authority and what kind of art he couldn't tell you, but still.

So he's surprised when he's ambling through downtown Seattle one dreary, drizzling Saturday morning and spies... a rather compact art gallery.

With the arrogance of an adolescent boy, Jules thinks, "Well, let's see what this place can show me."

He pushes open the glass double-doors, crosses the threshold and realizes that he is thoroughly outclassed.

Geometry and black and white and and unyielding angles and and unrepentant confrontational perspective and surgically clean lines so sharp you could pass through them and be bisected without knowing.

So much glass. Polished chrome, fused quartz--just so much glass. When the rare color appears it's like the fucking second coming of Christ. What do you call that kind of thing? Neo-futurism from some unknown dark hell?

He stays there a while. Not just looking... watching. And thinking that maybe he was in hell but hell was alright.

Jules is transfixed in front of a sculpture--he thinks--of three figures, tangled up in each other in what he could only call a fractal orgy, suspended from the ceiling by metal so that the piece was hovering just a foot over the ground. The column of metal keeping the sculpture airborne looked remarkably like a bolt of lightning.

He looks at it.

With mild surprise, he notices that he is slightly hard.

"What do you think of this one?"

Jules shoves his fists into his pockets so fast you'd think they lived there. "What? Of this?" He nods to the sculpture.

"Yes, obviously," the voice responds dryly. "You've been looking at it for ten minutes."

Jules wants to call hyperbole, but he knows when he's lost. "I, um... I think I've formed an opinion."

"And?"

So that was when Jules told this mysterious voice what he thought of the sculpture.

And silence followed.

"... That was, uh, a bit much." Something cool pools in the pit of his stomach--embarrassment, soon to become shame. "I could've said, you know, 'It has a certain je ne sais quoi' and saved you the rambling, but--"

"Tais-toi," the voice says sharply.

That does it. One year of French class and a lifetime of pride awakes. Jules turns on his heel, ready for whoever had accosted him. "What did you--"

"Your critique," she says, her lips pulling into a smirk, "was merveilleux. You have a good eye."

His eyes were staring a good deal at the girl in front of him.

"Uh," he said.

"If there's one thing I despise," she continues, walking past Jules and putting arms akimbo, "It's when talented people apologize for their talent. That's why there's trash on exhibit at the Met and why people like you--" She points a red-lacquered nail at Jules-- "let it happen."

Jules stares at the back of her head. With her hair, her clothes, her nails, she seemed so out of place, here--too much color, too much vividness amongst the glass and white and black. And yet--it draws all eyes to her.

He decides to save some face, at least. "Well, you know, I don't know if I'd call myself talented," he lies.

"Liar."

Damn her.

"I know an artist when I see one. Do yourself a favor and drop the 'humbler-than-thou' act. It's not flattering."

Jules grunts. "Nice to meet you too, I guess."

The girl laughs--sweeter and clearer than he expected--and he blinks. "Victoria," she says, extending her hand with perfect composure. "The pleasure is all yours."

A heartbeat of hesitation. Jules receives her hand, gripping just enough. "They call me Jules."

And that was how the Chase Space became his favorite art gallery.

Chapter Text

Jules isn't the kind to have friends. He moves too often for that. He ignores messages on MySpace and texts as though it were an art. Acquaintances? Perhaps--but no more. He was and is a lonely child. He is more familiar with voices coming from headphones than from vocal chords. This has always been the case.

But he meets Victoria, and that changes.

Call it bildungsroman, call it ego salience, call it whatever you want. The name doesn't matter. It's more a feeling than anything else. A sharp-nailed fistful of feelings, a toothy mouthful of feelings, vivid and colorful and new and dangerous.

Victoria is the agent provocateur, the psychopomp--emphasis on the pomp, but Jules' eyeballs are finely tooled for rolling anyway. She shows him Seattle in the course of a week--not Seattle the city, Seattle the idea. Seattle the canvas. They go to the underground arthouses, the hidden galleries where styles are born and die--and Victoria provides the exegesis. Or tries to--Jules interjects, and interjects often. Slowly, at first. His critiques are tenuous, wary, reminiscent of pre-Cambrian life. But the more time they share together--the more Victoria goads him--the bolder he becomes.

He's about to walk in when he spies the look on her face. "What?"

"Starbucks? Really?"

"They have free wifi, and--" He throws up a hand, perhaps a bit too dramatically. She has that effect. "Did you have somewhere else in mind? Coffee is coffee."

Victoria shakes her head, beckons with a single finger. "Such naïveté. Viens par là," she says.

So he follows. Follows her to some obscure yet expensive coffee shop where the drinks are served in double-walled glasses.

"Blackwell," he muses, thumb flicking the screen of his phone.

"The one and only."

He glances up at Victoria, her chin precisely balanced upon palm, radiating... pride would be a euphemism. Smugness, yes, that will suffice. "So this is where you proper artists learn your tradecraft," Jules says wryly.

"I like to think that I've been dazzling you with my natural talent."

"Uh huh." The cost of tuition is conspicuously absent.

"From there, I'm planning on going to Parsons or the Royal. I haven't quite decided," she intones, tapping a nail against the polished steel table between them. Carmine, crimson, vermillion... what color is that--?

"There's a... community college in Cheyenne," Jules says, squinting at the pictures of smiling students. Rule of thirds applies even in the PR shots, apparently. "Laramie. Online classes, so I won't be stuck with my dad full time."

Victoria laughs--then abruptly stops upon seeing Jules' expression. She covers her mouth. "Oh my God. Oh my fucking God, you're actually serious."

"What, they allow jokes at fancy places like this?"

"Jules." Victoria leans forward, the earnestness in her voice almost unsettling. "You can't."

"It's fine." He shrugs. "I'll just have an impressive portfolio on hand. I mean, did Caravaggio or, or... Rich Avedon go to some top-ten art school? Does it really matter where artists go to school, anyway?"

"Absolument." Ah, she's speaking French with an American accent. That means she's serious.

Their drinks arrive--damn, at Starbucks they sure as Hell don't deliver to your table. "Well... I'll have to manage."

"You can't just waste your vision at--" She gestures vaguely-- "Some backwater extension of a highschool."

"I'll make some fine prints of that backwater. You can put them up on your wall in your dorm. It'll be great."

Victoria's mouth becomes a thin red line. "And then?"

"And then..." He shrugs one shoulder, this time. "I don't really know. Maybe transfer. Maybe work. I'll figure it out. It's fine."

She just looks at him. Sips at her coffee. Looks at him more.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing. I'm just trying to visualize you in a room full of high school dropouts. I can't quite picture it."

Jules grunts. The scrape draws sparks from his ego--but he tamps it down. "It's not--it is what it is, Victoria. That's life. I'll be fine."

She just peers about the cafe, measuring up the clientele. There's a tightness around her eyes. Like she's blinking with nictitating membranes she remembers but doesn't have. Jules has looked at enough human faces to know that Victoria is displeased. He sighs, opens his mouth--

"No," she says sharply.

A few heads turn. Jules remains very still. He can feel the veins in his neck hissing with blood.

"It would be a waste. You can't be a cashier or a waiter or anything like that. Anyone can do that. Machines can do that."

"It is what it is," he says quietly.

"And stop saying that. It's so defeatist." She leans back into her chair, crosses her arms. "You know what they talk about at Blackwell? Helvetica. Photoshop. Filters. Selfies on Facebook. Shit. Anyone can be an 'artist,' now--and now it doesn't mean a fucking thing."

"Who cares?"

"I do--" She aims a finger between his eyes-- "and you do!"

"You--" Jules unclenches his teeth. "You just met me."

The conviction wavers for a moment, but returns, resolute. "Oh, I've noticed the way you look at art. The way you talk about it. You've been shitting on pop art for the past week. You're real."

And there it is--he's been had. Someone looked at Jules and saw all the way through. It's a horrific feeling--cold, dry, naked. He looks away, sees people staring, looks down instead. He glares at his dark reflection in the coffee. "My parents don't own a gallery. I didn't go to private school. I don't have... connections. This is all I have."

As soon as he's said it, heard himself say the words--he thinks on what he is. Sixteen year old boy, resigned to an unknown life and an unknown death, little joy in either.

Victoria's lips quirk, and he sees teeth.

---

It's not long later that an envelope arrives at Jules' place--well, Jules' mom's place. Thick, course paper. Addressed to him--not Julian, not Julius, but Jules, the man. Upon the red wax seal is impressed an illuminated 'B.'

"Oh, fuck," he says.

Chapter Text

Put someone in an empty, enclosed space long enough and they come to certain realizations about themselves. This is self-evident--exiles and hermits alike have shown us this. The monastery is upon the mountaintop, not within the metro.

So there's something Jules comes to realize when he's sitting in his dorm room at Blackwell, silence all around him, the deepening of dusk making the shapes of light on his carpet slowly fade.

It's nice to be alone.

---

Victoria inducts him into her circle of friends with so little ceremony Jules wonders if they're aware of him. Then again, Jules doesn't know what a circle of friends looks like--at best he'd been section of a crescent of people of similar interests.

But he falls into the vortex without the jump as if weighted with lead and feathers. He doesn't feel the need to keep his back so straight or shoulders so square. Of course, Victoria and Taylor take him out a few times to the nearest boutique ("Because the mall is too mainstream for you, isn't it?" Jules notes dryly) to try and instill within him some sense of fashion; something beyond military surplus store and garage sale. Reforming Jules into a proper metrosexual will be a long-term project.

At the very least Courtney cuts his hair so you can see the contours of his face. Shaves more than once a month, like he means it. Stops casting his eyes to the ground whenever someone looks at him on the sidewalk.

He goes to the football games (which he had never done at public school), shows the correctly measured amount of enthusiasm, goes to the parties, the afterparties, learns how to drunkenly brood and pseudophilosophize after the afterparty. It doesn't come naturally, per se, but it's no less alien than the other social norms he had been expected to follow.

Classes are hard, admittedly. Above-average in the public schools of Washington and Wyoming translates to just barely passable in the ecology of private tutors and extracurriculars--but his Vortex comrades help, and by help that means cheat, and by cheat to learn how to make it in the real world. He turns down the Adderall--he values his creativity more than his grades.

Nathan respects that, he thinks. He spots Nathan looking over his work--eyes narrowed, pupils dilated. Jules can't help but appreciate Nathan's eye, as well. Not the way everyone else praises his work--he can see it for what it is, between the shadow and light, reflections betraying yet another image.

He cements a place within the Vortex Club quickly. By his own merits? Probably not. Proximity to Victoria, yes, and his uncanny ability to banter with her, coming precariously close to insult, without quite waking the dragon. One would think they had been friends for years, the way they lazily jab at each other back in forth in French, in an indican haze, draped across furniture or other warm bodies.

A chuckle from Hayden. "You're kinda like Rachel, like that."

"Who?"

"You'll meet her."

---

He walks into Victoria's room, shopping bag in his hands.

"If you think I'm going to wear leather pants--"

He stops midsentence.

"Yes?" she says, annoyance tinging her tone. She finishes clasping her bra.

His brain ignites once more. "... then you're fucking mistaken," he finishes, albeit with less effect than he would've liked.

Victoria shrugs, turning around to pull on a pair of sharp slacks. Jules turns too. "Then at the very least wear the black jeans."

"Yeah," he says, looking at anything else.

"Belt and shoes match," she calls out after him as he goes.

---

It's not so much that Jules dislikes Johns. Well, he dislikes that they share an initial letter--it'd be nice if he was the only capital J in the Vortex club (Juliet Watson is 'Waston' to him)--but that's trivial. It's moreso that Jules... can't quite get a sense of who Johns is. Or what, for that matter.

Talking to Johns is like shouting into an open cave--all you get back is what you expected, albeit quieter and less satisfying. He is large and empty and leads to fuck knows where.

In the Vortex Club, there are those who lead and those who follow. Followers aren't of any less worth--just different. Specialization of labor, really.

But Johns... doesn't lead, or follow. Jules isn't really sure what he does, aside from exist. Well, Johns is Courtney's boyfriend. And he's on the football team, but that's hardly guaranteed entry. Victoria and Nathan and Hayden tolerate him, so he must have some hidden redeeming quality.

One day, he sees Johns carrying around a cardboard box. Kate Marsh is ahead of him, carefully pinning flyers for her 'Prayer Group' to one corkboard after another.

Jules simply watches.

---

Jules has nothing against Kate Marsh and her piety. People--well, most people--need something to believe in. Gods, goddesses, fate, an underworld, objective morality. Something that makes their suffering now worth it. Who can blame them?

But not for Jules. His mom didn't care much about religion--she took the 'spiritual' route--and his dad... well, that was complex. His father's desire to be moral conflicted greatly with his desire to be no one's bitch--gods included. Maybe there was someone in the Norse or Egyptian pantheon for him, were he daring enough to look.

---

"Uh... hey, Jules."

He looks over. Johns is standing there awkwardly, card in one hand and pen in the other.

"I--" He looks down at the card. "We were going to visit Kate. At the hospital," he adds, as if clarification were needed. "You wanna sign?"

Jules just looks at him for a moment. And then: "Think that'll make her not want to kill herself?"

A silence grows between them. Heavy, angling downward. "It's a gesture of goodwill, Jules," he says, tone somewhere between exasperation and honest explanation.

It's so condescending without meaning to be it makes Jules grit his teeth.

Johns swallows. "I've read--"

"You read a lot."

"--that it's best that people who are depressed aren't alone. Or, uh, at least, not alone, figuratively."

"You were there, weren't you?"

"What?"

Jules crosses his arms, leans against the wall. "At the party. Where they shot Kate's video." He shrugs. "Kind of ironic."

"I wasn't there," he said. "I didn't watch it. Don't want to."

"Didn't say you did."

A pause. "Did you?"

"Does it matter?"

"I asked you a question."

Jules has never seen Johns mad. He's pretty sure on the color wheel of emotion that Johns possesses 'mild curiosity' and 'mild contentment,' at most. But there it is--the voice, slower, deeper. Each word born with deliberation. Is this what anger looks like?

"Just the beginning," Jules says, more rushed than he expects, "before..." He waves a hand. "You know."

Johns nods. Looks away. "You were there."

"So?"

They look at each other.

"I was..." He squints. "With Juliet. Talking with Juliet." That sativa he had sourced from Nathan had been something else. "If you think I did anything to Kate--"

"Okay, okay. Shit." Johns sighs. "Sign or not?"

A pause, and then: "When... were you planning on visiting?"

---

He feels the bubbles of air leaving his lungs, one by one.

Burning to death or drowning... he had dwelt on that often, in the past. Both poetic and painful in equal measure.

Or so he thought. Now--now it was just water, ordinary water, with him in it. No art here. No beauty here.

As his thoughts cloud over, he thinks of his parents.

He thinks of Kate.

He thinks of Victoria.

I want you to live, he thinks, and closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

Jules keeps his art in black notebooks.

Black, blank, hardcover faux-leather notebooks. Unlined, acid free, 120 GSM, pure white.

He draws and draws and draws until he has a single blank page left, and stops. He slides the notebook under his bed, and forgets about it as he plots to find another.

Most Blackwellians have portfolios. Jules knows he should have one--that's the prescription for success in the art world. And he is, whether he likes it or not, of that world, now.

He sucks the charcoal from his fingers. Can't get it out from beneath his nails, though. Burnt pine. Simple stuff. Willow had always been too expensive.

He's been looking at the trees around the campus, then beyond, into the forests shrouding Arcadia Bay--which tree would meet the fire just right, fall dark and ashen between his fingers, grant him the power to show the world as it truly is.

One day he walks into his room and finds Nathan there, kneeling, poring over an open notebook.

Jules feels himself die inside, slow but sure.

---

Maxine Deirdre Caulfield.

It's a sharp and hard name for a... well, Max is soft and fuzzy around the edges. Out of focus. The longer you look at her, the more she seems to phase into the world around her.

---

Jules sees Johns in the girl's dormitory. Johns, being a boy, technically shouldn't be here. Jules, also being a boy, technically shouldn't be there, either. However, he has devised some exception that makes it perfectly fine for him to be lounging about in the very den of perfume and estrogen where men fear to tread.

He's rather high, right now. Jules, that is. It makes sense--a sort of sense--in his head. Jules' red eyes track Johns as he walks on through--short, slow steps, hunched shoulders, chin pensively down. He walks like a man half his size.

"Johns," he calls out from Victoria's threshold.

Johns stops, turns around.

"Quo vadis?"

Johns stares at him blankly.

"... Where are you going?" he repeats. His eyeballs then dilate enough to allow in the light to let him see just what Johns has in his hands. "Is that... the fuck are you doing with lettuce?"

"It's for Lilith," he says, shifting the green leaves from hand to hand, doing all he can to avoid acknowledging the absurdity of the image.

"Who?"

"Kate's bu--rabbit," he says. "Max is taking care of her, so... yeah." He lifts the lettuce, as if that explained all things, and turns and goes.

Jules hums to himself, leaning against the doorframe. He hates to, but--grudgingly--maybe Kate Marsh does have a little art in her, after all.

---

Victoria is good at drinking. Jules concludes that's the conclusion of years of a glass of white with lunch, red with dinner. She doesn't take out the wrought crystal that costs more than Jules' very life--she just takes neat pulls from the champagne bottle, over and over again, with a grace ever more unsteady.

Too good, maybe.

Between Taylor and Courtney and Nathan and Jules, there just isn't enough to buoy her. Outside the dorm she is queen regnant, composed as ever. Within her atelier, she is quiet and listless.

Jules doesn't know how to support people. Not really. Most people learn it from their parents, he supposes, and, well--that speaks for itself.

She's lying in bed, staring at the wall.

Jules perches on the edge of the bed.

They stay like that, for a while.

They listen to the sounds of footsteps coming and going, shouts and laughter down the hall.

He sighs. "If... if I said it wasn't your fault, it wouldn't make you feel better, would it?"

Silence.

He reaches down, wraps his fingers around the neck of a half-full bottle, takes a pull for himself. Grimaces. Tastes like the ninth circle of hell and Victoria's lipstick.

He licks his lips unconsciously.

"You didn't want it to happen," he begins. "Neither did I. No one did. She didn't even want... she didn't jump, after all."

Movement. A shake of the head.

"No one knew--"

A slight intake of breath. Jules stopped. Waiting for Victoria to say something, anything--

No. Silence.

He gets up, takes another pull from the champagne. Shakes it--finds there's less than a quarter left--and downs the rest right there. His stomach roils and revolts.

"I think you've had enough," he says, throat raw.

Nothing.

Jules looks down. "If you need me... just call. Or text. Or anything, okay?" At a loss, he pats her on the ankle, and pads out of her room, closing the door softly.

He bumps into Nathan on the way out. He's looking stressed. Moreso than usual, anyway.

"How is she?" Nathan eyes the champagne bottle loosely hanging from Jules' fingers.

"You better talk to her."

His mouth becomes a thin line, and he nods.

Chapter Text

Lori sits in her office and grades.

It's part of the job. It's therapuetic. It kills time.

---

"Would you like something to drink?"

Lori doesn't. Not really. But she accepts, because, as she understands it, that's the polite thing to do.

So Wells pours her a drink--what appears to be exactly an ounce of Tenessee straight whiskey, without ice--and pours one for himself. Lori looks closely at the crystal glasses, calculates how long it would take for her to afford them on her old salary. Answer: a long fucking time.

Wells talks. Eloquently. At length. With great volume. For hours. About a lot of things--ontology, the history of education, the American education system. It's vaguely interesting at best. Between the low rumble of Wells' voice and the dusky light and the picturesque view of the bay, she would like to doze off in the chair--but she doesn't. That would be inconsiderate.

She thinks instead about the photographs she saw in Wells' home. Smiling people. A woman. Children. But his house is empty. She wonders, but not too far.

---

Dolores Iglesias is going to be Blackwell Academy's new math teacher, and fuck all is she terrified, 100%.

Of no singular thing in particular. She has taught troubled, at-risk youth. She has moved before for jobs--to Albuquerque, then Reno. She has dealt with helicopter parents and egotistical administrators. It is, perhaps, the sum of these things that is undoing her.

Not undoing her entirely. Just enough that she stares at her ceiling at night and wonders that maybe, maybe she should have just been an accountant and settled for a cubicle.

---

Wells talks like... like a book.

He doesn't stutter. He pauses only for dramatic effect. Lori wonders why he is a principal instead of a politician or great orator--he has a certain way of saying obvious, platitudinal things in beautiful and enlightening ways.

---

Private schools usually aren't particular about one's credentials. They mostly bank on experience.

But Blackwell? If you don't have a master's degree, forget about it. Her double bachelor's combined with her master's combined with her recommendations helped, sure. But she feels lacking, somehow. Somewhere among the brackets, something's missing.

---

Lori observes that Wells has a remarkable memory.

Well, no, that's not entirely accurate. Or, it's halfway accurate--he can, without fail, recite story after story of his students. Trevor did this, Juliet did that. Lori can't help but wonder if Wells created these stories to populate his mind, but then--

"You may think I'm making all of this up," he says, raising his glass and pointing it at her conspiratorally, "but for better or worse, all of this is true."

That didn't fully convince Lori. Only about 25% of the way there.

---

"Morning, everyone. So--you probably figured this out--I'm going to be your algebra teacher for this year."

Silence.

Maybe that was for the best.

---

Lori is many things. Lori is no fool. She watches, learns, reacts, remembers.

Brooke is the wiseass. Smart, but a wiseass. Not a smartass; wiseass. Usually bored. The glow of a cellphone will often illuminate her face.

Warren is earnest, maybe too much so. Wants to prove something--to himself, the girls of the class. Often bored.

Kate raises her hand without fail, even when the others yell out answers. Politely attempts to not look bored.

Rachel is the bellweather--when she's in good spirits, the class is. When she is moody and morose, the class is solemn as a mausoleum. Appears bored 30% of the time.

Max keeps her mouth shut and head down, but she turns in her homework (it's nothing extraordindary). Maybe bored? Hard to tell.

Victoria is... Victoria. Tautologies are tautologies. Ready with an answer as if it's the most self-evident thing in the world, or otherwise bored.

Nathan looks out the window most of the time. Turns in his tests first because he completes the least. Lori doesn't blame him, as much as her pride wants to.

---

Wells looks pensive. This is not unusual; however, he looks more pensive than usual.

"What have you heard about the Prescotts?"

Chapter Text

Frida Henriksen sits. She has her hands clasped, fingers laced.

Juliet continues talking.

"... And, like, I feel like people are expecting me to keep them all up to date and in the know, but like, even about stuff that's none of their business, you know?" She rests her chin on her palm, staring off into the distance pensively. "I want to tell people the truth, like, all the time. And when I was younger, you know, I would always be like 'truth is the best policy,' but the older I get the more I see how straight up telling people stuff can hurt them, like seriously hurt. And I know that it’s all just, like, school and drama and dating stuff, but it’s the—" She waves a hand. “Principle.”

Frida simply nods.

“Like—for example—a girl has a right to know if her boyfriend is a cheater, right? Even if he cheated like once in freshman year. Some couples do the whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ thing, but they’re going to be thinking about it even if they swear they aren’t. That’s how people are.” She frowns. “But… people can change.” She taps the heel of her boot against the carpet. “I mean… I know I have. I’d hate myself if I met me at thirteen.”

“Why?”

Juliet picks at the hem of her skirt. “I could, um, be mean. Sometimes.”

Frida is silent; she has heard this story before, but this isn’t about her. Juliet’s eyes are up and to the right, flicking back and forth. Paging through old memories, indexing, peering at the margins of her life.

“I would… tell people things they didn’t want to hear because I thought it would help them. Like if a girl had fat thighs or… or bad acne, or if boy smelled really bad after PE even with deodorant. And then I got mad when they got mad, because I felt like they were refusing my help.” She buries her face in her hands. “God, I was so stupid.” She giggles, once, the self-deprecation bleeding free.

“But you learned,” Frida offers.

“Eventually.”

“And now you offer people help in more constructive and gentle ways.”

“I… try.”

Silence. And then:

“I’m not a bully,” Juliet says resolutely, not to Frida, not to the room.

Progress. By God, progress, after seven sessions.

---

When parents pay that much for tuition, they expect a lot more.

Good food, good housing. And when overly protective parents listen to one too many news reports about depressed and suicidal teenagers, well, suddenly it’s not just graduation rates and class sizes that matter, but the merit and mettle of the school psychologist.

It’s a step down from her usual work. Marriage counseling, postpartum, couples therapy, infertility, infidelity, mid-life crises. The agonies of teenagers are simultaneously less destructive yet more volatile.

She dwelt on how to be less intimidating to teenagers—especially the boys. Her office is uncluttered, populated most by potted plants. Slacks and shirtsleeves have turned into jackets and jeans. She has spaced the chairs a little farther away from each other, and given the patients—er, the kids—a clear line to the door.

It will do.

---

Dana talks about her abortion.

Zachary talks about the pain in his joints and the headaches he hides from his coach.

Taylor talks about her mother.

Logan talks about Dana’s abortion. Or, more specifically, about what it means to be a man.

These are things Frida can work with.

---

There are a few students that do not walk through her door.

Stella. Considering her background, her family likely saw any mental health issues as a sign of weakness. But considering all of her extracurriculars and the circles beneath her eyes, it’s only a matter of time before Wells concocts some benign reason for Stella to end up in Frida’s office. HIPAA, Frida found, was less important in Blackwell than student retention.

Far be it from her to complain. Rather a broken Hippocratic Oath than a kid found hanging in their dorm.

Nathan Prescott, of course. He had announced to her—with an odd combination of disdain and resignation—that his parents had a ‘professional’ psychiatrist make house calls for him.

“Well, if you don’t feel like waiting, you know where I am,” she had said over her shoulder as she walked away.

Rachel Amber. Two possibilities: her father had appointed an expensive practitioner in Portland, or her father’s preoccupation with the ‘perfect daughter’ persona meant that he saw no reason for her to address her mental health. Frida hoped that Mr. Amber knew his daughter well enough to do the former.

But, Frida muses, then again, few know Rachel well. Even Rachel herself.

---

Kate Marsh is, as her mother had so eloquently stated it, a ‘good girl.’

“If it’s not too much trouble—” She had prefaced in a tone that meant you have no choice—“Please sit down with Kate about once a month to make sure she hasn’t been negatively influenced by her peers.”

Frida spun a pen betwixt her fingers. “That is reasonable,” she said levelly. Kate was eighteen; her mother couldn’t make her do shit.

“And, of course, inform me or Mr. Marsh if anything unseemly comes up.” Unseemly. Frida thinks on the last time she read Jane Austen.

“Of course,” Frida said, then twirling the phone cord around her forefinger. Not a fucking chance in Hell, but whatever you say, patron-of-mine.

---

Kate and Frida have been sitting in dead silence for a solid sixty seconds. And then:

“You said…” Kate pauses, swallows nervously, continues— “No judgment?”

“None.”

Kate looks at her guardedly.

“This isn’t a confessional, Kate. You don’t just speak your sins and walk out that door. You talk, I listen, I talk, you listen. We work together. Casting judgments isn’t part of that process.”

Kate takes a deep breath. Her hand reaches up to clutch at her cross pendant.

“Okay,” she says, in a small and tight voice.

More silence.

Kate is staring down at her lap.

“I have a bunny,” she blurts.

Frida doesn’t know how to respond to that. So she settles for a worldly and neutral “okay.”

“Blackwell has a no-pets policy on campus and in the dorms but I didn’t want to leave Lilith at home because Lynn is busy and I didn’t—” She claps a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispers through her fingers.

Frida shakes her head. “Say what you want to say, Kate. This office is yours as much as it’s mine.”

“And… I know it sounds childish, but I didn’t want Lilith to be lonely. And I knew I’d be lonely. So I… I lied to my parents. When my mom asked, I said I had called Blackwell and that they said that cats and dogs weren’t allowed but rabbits would be okay if she was in her cage.”

“Your mom,” Frida notes. “What about your father?”

“He… said that it makes sense that they would allow pets like hamsters and fish,” Kate says slowly.

Frida leans forward slightly. “It’s easier to talk with your father.”

Kate hesitates. “About some things. I love my mom, she’s done so much for me, but—” She presses her lips into a thin line until they whiten. “She… doesn’t… understand, at times.”

Leaning back, Frida puts an elbow on the armrest. “That’s a common thing, between parents and children, Kate.”

Kate sighs—a shallow, shuddering one. “I know that.”

Silence, and then Kate looks up, blinking:

“Oh! Lilith is—that’s my bunny’s name,” she said. “Sorry, I should’ve—“

“I figured it out, Kate,” Frida says, smiling despite herself. Kate reddens.

---

“Miss Frida, do you know the story of Job?”

“I do.”

Kate has her hands clenched together so tightly no angels could ignore it.

“Kate… what’s wrong?”

---

The first session is all introductory. He doesn’t say much.

Ten minutes into the second session with no more than ten syllables out of him, Frida puts her hands and her knees and says: “Evan, listen. If you don’t want to be here, I’m not going to force you to stay. I don’t want to waste my time, and I’m sure you don’t want to waste your time. If there’s anything you need, my door is always open. But don’t let me keep you.”

He gets up and goes. She doesn’t expect him back.

Frida, somehow, successfully masks her surprise when Evan does return a week later. His eyes scan the room and he works his hands. Frida waits.

“I… feel… like no one really gets me,” Evan says. It’s not arrogant, just a dispassionate statement. “That’s such a cliché;” he spreads his hands out, framing the words in the air. “‘The teenager nobody understands’ and so on.”

Frida leans forward. “So let’s say no one understands you.” She shrugs. “So what? Why do you care if they get you or not?”

Evan looks at her like she just spoke heaven and earth and sea into existence.

---

Hayden was a curious case. He was less patient, and more informant.

Deflection if she had ever seen it, but she is patient.

“Well, let’s see.” He begins ticking off fingers. “There’s Johns—ah, that’s Mortemer St. Johns—nice guy, kind of weird, quiet. Not like school shooter levels of weird and quiet, but… he’s a special edition, if you know what I mean. Then there’s Jules Renard. Rolls with the Vortex crowd, but doesn’t really fit there, or anywhere. Really self-conscious, crosses his arms a lot. Daniel de Costa, shy, but you know that. Max Caulfield…” Hayden pauses, eyes narrowing in thought.

Frida waits.

“Mysterious,” he says at last, with but of a flourish. He grins. “Okay, okay. I’ll think of something better.” He glances at her empty hands. “You taking notes, Doc?”

Frida taps the side of her skull.

Chapter Text

To say Nathan Prescott was raised by wolves is an insult to wolves.

She keeps her dossier of him in her head, where it is safe.

---

It is the hammering at her door and the incessant ringing of the doorbell—who if not the earless can let that go?—and she has half a mind to come to the door with a knife or something, because what if it’s some psychopathic stalker—

But, no.

It is Victoria Chase, shivering, hugging her arms tightly about herself, floating afore in the sea of night.

Frida is admittedly at a loss.

They stand there until Victoria lifts her chin and pushes past her and crosses the threshold out of the black moonlight. Victoria lingers in the foyer, surveying Frida’s house with her characteristic coolness. It must be a strange sight; Frida's office is bright and alive and warm, with plants and colors. Her house is cavernous and dull and empty in comparison.

“So this is where you live,” she drawls out, eyebrow cocked. But to Frida’s ears she hears So this is how you live.

Frida studies her. This is a simple thing; in her home, in her element, she sees all. The expensive heels with a waterline of dirt. The attire equally sophisticated and risqué. The slight sway in her usually curated stance, the tremble and hunch of the shoulders, the unsteady roll to her gait. So: she walked here from a party. She is drunk… and hopefully just that.

Frida needs to say something eventually. She settles on: “Is something wrong, Victoria?”

Victoria purses her lips. Her eyes continue to rove—she looks anywhere but at Frida. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” Frida says patiently, “so you are.” She glances sidelong into the kitchen, the open bottle of wine still waiting for her on the counter. She suppresses a sigh. “Would you like to talk?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

There’s a brief moment, as they meet gazes, where a shard of panic flashes in Victoria’s eyes. Her pupils, blown out like lunar craters. Weren’t her eyes… green? It’s hard to tell.

“… Okay, go ahead and sit on the couch. I’ll get you some water.”

Victoria stands there for a moment, watching Frida, but then abruptly nods and carefully makes her way into the living room—not before shedding her designer coat and shoving her purse into Frida’s hands. With a frown, Frida perches them on a nearby coat rack (has she ever used it until now?).

Out of earshot, Frida frees that sigh. This isn’t how she had envisioned her Saturday night, but Blackwell has been doing all it can to deny her normalcy. Then again, Blackwell bought her this house (it’s technically a bungalow, but there were no questions asked), and she’s making a standard deviation more than any other school psychologist in Oregon.

When she returns to Victoria, the girl has kicked off her heels and is lounging upon her couch in a rather pathetic attempt at an odalisque. Perhaps in her mind she is graceful and composed on that array of pillows—Frida will allow her that merciful lie. She hands Victoria the glass of water—Victoria very conspicuously squints and checks for fingerprints about the rim of the glass—then sets it aside on a side table. And almost misses the table. Frida sits in a chair a safe distance away.

“Miss Sorensen,” she says (and how she says it!), resting her jaw artfully upon her fist, “what was it that convinced you to become a therapist?”

No convincing was needed. “Henriksen. I wanted to help people, clichéd as it sounds.” No pause, no consideration. Frida has been weathering that question since the beginning. “So here I am.”

“What do you know about me?”

Enough. “Aspiring professional photographer, heir to the Chase Space in Seattle.”

She scoffs. “Practically nothing, then.”

“I’ve never had the opportunity to speak with you, Victoria. I don’t have a thorough dossier of every student of Blackwell, contrary to popular belief.”

“You and I both know that’s not true.”

“Your classmates bring me enough material. I don’t need to collect my own.”

A smirk. “Do you enjoy it?”

“I enjoy helping people, yes.”

The smirk stays, but her eyes become intense, accusatory. Darkness gathers over her brow. “You know what I mean. Do you like picking people apart like this,” she twists her hand in the air— “piece by fucking piece? Like… fucking puzzles?”

“I don’t think of it that way.”

Victoria looks at her.

“I look at you and I see a person, Victoria. Not a puzzle. Not a problem to be solved.”

Her lip twitches in just the ghost of a sneer. “Ugh. Were the platitudes part of the training?”

“I picked them up along the way. Some people find trite things comforting.” A pause. “Do you want a blanket?”

“Do I want a—No, of course not.”

Frida gets up and gets her one anyway. Victoria pretends to accept it out of mere condescension.

“How was the party?”

Victoria seems to struggle for a moment to remember. “Unremarkable,” she supplies. She swipes at her nose.

“Do your friends know where you are?”

“I’m sure they’re still preoccupied.”

Frida moves the chair a little closer to the couch. Victoria watches her warily. Frida takes note of her bloodshot sclerae, and then:

“Is there something specific you wanted to talk about?”

Victoria looks away. And then, finally:

“A few things.”

---

Victoria talks.

And talks more.

The words come out slowly, at first, but then pick up speed. She gets up, she paces, she gestures.

Frida has no chance to interject. She has no desire to; she simply listens.

Her voice grows louder, the gestures more vehement. She paces—no, stalks—across the carpet, eyes ever moving. She rubs at her neck until her skin reddens and pulls at her hair, locks between fingers, then by handful of highlights. Her words move faster and faster, tangling into each other, bound up in her teeth and tongue, and the more tangled they become the more agitated she becomes.

It does not surprise Frida when, at long last, Victoria throws her head back and screams.

Frida rises from her chair and sinks to her knees next to Victoria, holding her gently as she sobs. Her fingers claw at her shirt and collar and her nails score into her skin, but Frida just murmurs into her hair, over and over again.

“It’s okay. I’m here. It’s okay.”

---

Victoria doesn’t sleep well.

She turns, she wakes up a few times, she kicks off her blanket now and again.

But Frida just pulls the blanket back up around her shoulders. “Go to sleep,” she says.

To her credit, Victoria tries.

Frida sits in her chair and watches the clock.

---

It’s early when Frida drives Victoria back. Early enough to be unnoticed, anyway.

“I have an office,” Frida says. “You can talk to me there.”

“I appreciate the thought, but I know you have a busy schedule. I do too.” The words fall out and die in Victoria’s lap without conviction. Frida waits. And then, hesitantly: “It’s… not that simple. I can’t just—” She waves a hand.

Frida sighs. Of course it isn’t.

“You look fucking terrible,” Victoria notes.

Frida fixes her with a stare. Victoria looks away. Frida has to admit that, even hungover, Victoria is remarkably skilled at covering up dark circles in transit.

“…Thank you, Miss Henriksen. Frida.”

The automatic response is “What for?” but Frida knows not to drill salt into the wounds of ego.

“Of course, Victoria. I’m always here.”

Victoria almost says something, but she simply nods and gets out of the car.

Chapter Text

Lori—or, as of right now, Miss Iglesias—has some unusual practices in her classroom. Call her, if you are feeling academic, experimental in her pedagogy.

Before the period begins, she stands right outside her classroom door and shakes the hand of everyone who passes over her threshold. You aren’t getting in without a handshake.

“Improve your grip, Logan,” she says sharply. “You’re shaking a hand, not holding a football. Use your thumb.” He just looks at her in disbelief, and then upon realizing she was deathly serious, shoots a baffled glance at Zach and headed on into class.

It wasn’t easy. Warren went into every handshake at high velocity, as if he were expecting a high five, leaving Lori’s palm stinging. Kate was painfully delicate, unable to look Lori in the eyes when she shook. Victoria used her nails—her nails!—as if it were some kind of ritual dominance display, tearing fine lines along the back of Lori’s hand. Alyssa is the only one whose shake is satisfactory that first week, and she’s surprised and bashful when Lori tells her.

Lori wants to wash her hands afterward—terribly so—but she can’t. It’d ruin the illusion.

There are other oddities, too.

For one, every student must sign each and every assignment at the end. Homework, quiz, test, midterm—she doesn’t care. She wants to see a signature at the bottom of the page. She learns the quirks of each in due time—Brooke’s precise script, Juliet’s freeflow between print and cursive, Dana’s hearts dotting her I’s, Luke’s curiously slanted italic, Max’s… name, printed no differently from her ordinary handwriting. Chloe, amusingly enough, has a signature reminiscent of a signal flare, capitalized in bold dark lines.

This doesn’t make up for the fact that Lori isn’t a very good teacher.

Do not misunderstand—she knows the material absolutely. Her patience is drawn from some starless and distant well, and she has not once raised her voice in ire. Her knowledge is so vast its farther reaches are obscured in darkness.

She simply… makes math boring. Or keeps it boring, depending on your perspective. Perhaps she would be a better graduate professor than high school teacher, in that regard. But her students, effused in ennui as they are, sit behind their desks and glance at their phones and politely endure rather than riot, tie her to Tobanga and burn her alive.

So she’s doing something right, somehow.

---

Arcadia Bay does everything it can to convince you it is genuine. No corporate stores or restaurants to be seen and the only car dealership is for used ones—‘classics.’ Stories of friendly rivalry extend back years—like the polite feud between Up-All-Nite and the Two Whales, for example.

There are two churches in Arcadia Bay. One Protestant, one Catholic. Chapels, perhaps, if you are feeling specific considering how small they are. If you want more choice in your strain of salvation you’d better be willing to drive to Rockaway or Bay City every Sunday with an alibi primed for God.

Lori likes to watch. Maybe it’s sadistic in a clinical way, but watching brings her a form of satisfaction. The people rise from their pews, then sit, then kneel.

She sees Kate at neither the Protestant nor the Catholic church. She doesn’t think much of it. The heads here are white or grey or hairless.

---

Frida’s phone vibrates. She doesn’t notice, at first.

She looks at it. People don’t call her. Not really.

She lifts it to her ear.

“Finally. Do you always wait for the last ring?”

Frida frowns. She is very particular with who has her phone number. So how…? “Nice to hear from you too, Victoria.”

A pause. “Are you busy?”

“I appreciate the thought, but appearances notwithstanding… I’m always busy.” She pauses, looks at the clock. “Do you want to talk?”

“… Yes.”

“I’m not going to do a session over the phone, Victoria.”

“No? It’s quite convenient, for both you and me.”

“It’s convenient for neither, actually.”

“I can meet you at your home, of course.”

“My office is a space more conducive to a session, Victoria.”

“I disagree.”

Frida grits her teeth. She can’t crush Victoria’s aloofness when she’s hidden behind a phone. “I’m afraid you’ll have to trust me on this one.”

“I think I would be more comfortable at your residence, and therefore be more reflective,” Victoria says smoothly. She recited that, no doubt. “I’m sure there’s some way I can compensate you. 2012 was a good year for Merlot, so perhaps—?”

“Victoria.” Not accusatory. Just a word. “On my terms. Or not at all. You do not negotiate. This is not a game.”

Frida almost hangs up immediately—but she remains steady. Instead, Victoria hangs up first.

Good.

---

Kate brings tea.

Frida invested in an electric kettle (her salary certainly allows it), and it’s not as if paper cups are hard to find. But Kate brings her own cup, a delicate yet colorful thing, so in time Frida brings her own, too.

It takes the edge off. Gives Kate something to hold, look at. Even after so many sessions Kate still has a tendency to hide—to clasp her hands, hold them in her lap, look down, make herself smaller. Things practiced over years and years, not to be undone in a matter of months.

But Kate has moved her chair closer to Frida’s. Perhaps it has something to do with the tea between them, but progress is progress. They both watch the sachets float in the steaming water and talk.

---

“I’m not a fucking stereotype,” Brooke says.

Frida listens.

“I’m—okay, I’m Asian—and people don’t even know where the Philippines or Thailand or Vietnam fucking are--and I like technology and science and I have color in my hair, guilty as charged, but—” She strikes a balled fist against her knee, enough force to bruise, to remember by. “That’s what people see. The daughter rebelling against immigrant parents. And I’m like—fuck! Fuck that! Fuck them! What if I just like these things? What if this is just who I am, and not part of a demographic--" She waves her hand-- "assumption?”

“Who believes you?”

“What?”

Frida waves her hand in mimicry. “Who in your life… sees you, as you?”

She simmers and seethes, for a time. Frida waits, patiently, because she waits in no other way. And then: “… Warren. Max. Daniel. Alyssa.” A pause. “Even… even Victoria." Frida hides her surprise under her skin and saves it for later. "Even if she’s a massive fucking bitch.”

“Anyone else?”

A deep breath. “I… I think so. Probable.”

Frida does something painfully, obscenely rare: she smiles. A real one. Teeth and light and air. Somewhere, a civilization ends. “Count me among them.”

Call it bias, but Frida cares for Brooke differently than she does the others. No—not any more, or any less. Just differently, in a way she can feel and know.

When Brooke slides up the sleeves of her hooded sweatshirt to show her wrists, her forearms, Frida nods. Doesn’t say anything—just nods, and Brooke slides her sleeves down, and for the time that’s enough, that’s it.

---

Madsen doesn’t call or send emails. If he wants to talk, he’ll appear to you.

First, he suggested that Frida wear a vest—bulletproof, stabproof, and so on. In case one of the students simply snapped during a session.

“And if they went for my neck?” Frida asked mildly.

Madsen didn’t have a response to that.

---

Nathan approaches Lori’s desk. His first few strides were sure, but the last two were wary.

“Nathan,” she says.

“Yeah?”

She lifts a few papers. “I’ve noticed that you’re quite proficient at mental math. So proficient that—” She hands the papers back to Nathan—old tests, requisitioned from students so as to foil cheating—“you never show your work.”

Nathan looks at her, unsure if his defiance should be cool or fiery. “And?”

“Part of grading is predicated on showing of work, Nathan. You’re smart enough to do it, even if it feels like a waste of time.” She sighs. “And, between you and me, it is a waste of time.”

Nathan raises an eyebrow.

“For some people,” Lori clarifies. “But I can’t grade you differently just because I know you can do it.”

They stand there for a moment, looking at each other.

“Is that it?”

“Yes.”

Nathan turns and leaves.

Lori sighs.

Chapter Text

They hunt for a time.

Wild pig is plentiful around here.

They speak little, and if they must communicate they do it with tilts of the head and subtle gestures.

Ten thousand years ago they would be hunting woolly mammoths with chert-tipped spears. But it is 2013 and mammoths are museum curiosities, so they must hunt feral pigs instead. They make do.

There are times they crouch in the undergrowth and wait. They become shadows and their shadows become darkness itself.

There are times they move, they creep, slowly, painfully slow.

Caleb glances back, wondering. But Jeff’s eyes are hard and patient and vigilant. Caleb nods to him. Jeff nods back.

---

They’re sitting in the back of the truck, beers in hand. Keys are in the ignition. Radio is on. Jeff is surprised that Caleb likes this station (it’s rather modern, with its pop and such), but Caleb is full of surprises once you cut through all the dull layers he wears so readily.

“Ever been to Arcadia?”

Shake of the head. “Where’s that?”

Caleb points with two fingers. Jeff looks; west, then.

“Just over there?”

“Yeah. Few miles, on the bay.”

“Huh. What’s there?”

A pause. “Uh… hm. Not much. Diner. Lighthouse. Alan—you remember Alan?—he bought a used car there, once, and it’s still going. A Toyota? Yeah. Wait—two diners, now that I think of it. Two Whales is the good one, they have a jukebox. Fishing’s alright, but they’re territorial about it. You know. Small town, small town values.”

Jeff’s can is empty. He looks at it longer than necessary and fetches another, flicking off pieces of ice into the growing darkness. “Yeah. Can’t blame them, though. Portland right there.”

Caleb grunts. “Come on. Do hipsters fish?”

“Probably try. You know—if it looks good in a picture.”

They sit in silence for a while.

“You saw that deer, right?”

Caleb shifts. “What?”

“That deer. I think it—I think it was a doe. No horns.”

“Antlers,” Caleb says firmly. “Anyway, could’ve been young. Takes ‘em a year to sprout antlers.”

“Yeah, yeah, but—did you see it?”

Caleb pauses. “I… think so. I mean –”

Silence.

He can’t keep waiting. Jeff broaches it carefully. “You… think so, huh?”

“It’s hard to tell, sometimes. Especially when you’ve been looking all day. Start seeing things because you want to see things.” He laughs. “Buck syndrome. ‘It was this big!’”

Jeff sighs. “Yeah.”

“You even like venison?”

Jeff shrugs. “Never tried it.”

“Never? Not once?” Caleb laughs. “You can buy that shit in grocery stores now, dude.”

“Nah. Any good?”

“Any—come on, it’s meat. It’s fuckin’ food. Depends how you cook it.”

“Raccoon?”

“Is delicious given you do it right. Better than filet mignon, don’t knock it.”

Jeff peers at Caleb over the rim of his beer can. “That sounds suspiciously like bullshit.”

“I told you, all about how you cook it, alright?”

“Skunk?”

“Cut me some slack, here.”

“Hmm.” Jeff gestures at the bags in the truck. “More of a pork person, anyway.”

“Yeah.” Caleb pauses. Fetches another beer. “Smart as dogs, you know.”

“Don’t tell me that.”

“What?”

“I like dogs.”

“Yeah, ‘course you would—what about it? Does it matter?”

“Sure. Feels different.”

Caleb waves a hand vaguely. “Horses are smart as dogs. Lots of things are smart as dogs. What about it?”

“I told you.” Jeff points with his beer can. “It feels different. Cows, chickens, fish, whatever. They’re not thinking.” Jeff hesitates. “Well, not a lot, anyway.”

“Pigs would eat us, given the chance." Caleb smirks. “What if they are thinking, and we can’t tell?”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“Cows are doing philosophy and math and we can’t tell. You gonna stop with hamburgers?”

“You gonna stop with hypotheticals?”

Caleb laughs. “It’s me, ‘course not.”

Jeff finishes his nth beer. “Yeah. Wouldn’t want you to, anyway.”

“See? You like them.”

“Nah, keeps me good at dealing with kids.”

“Ouch.”

They are silent for a while. The stars burn above them.

“It was just—” Jeff waves a hand. “Weird. That deer, I mean. It’s like—I saw it. But it… almost… faded away.” He takes a long drink. “Just the light, probably.” He chuckles. “Or evolutionary… camouflage.”

Caleb gets another beer. “Eh. You know how it is. They know this forest. We don’t. I mean, we try. But we don’t live here. Someone tried to hunt you in your house?”

Warm rises to the surface of his skin. “They’d be fucked.”

“Ex-xactly. No different here, right?”

Jeff takes a moment to respond. “Yeah. Yeah, guess so.”

“Another day, another deer. Can’t win ‘em all.” A pause. “And if it was, it wouldn’t be very sporting, would it?”

“Sporting?”

“Yeah. We’re not using camo or night vision or thermal or anything. It’s like, how’d our great-great-grandfathers do it? With .30-30s and in plaid and jeans. No tactical bullshit.”

“Yeah.”

Caleb sighs. “But… whatever. Times change.”

A pause.

“You ever see a deer, like… disappear?”

Caleb laughs. “Shit, man. You drunk already?”

“No, seriously. Like it was there, then it wasn’t.”

Caleb crushes his can. “When I was a kid—I shot at this rabbit, right? Quick-like; and I missed. It runs off. I check my rifle—and I had chambered another round automatically. Like, I don’t remember working the bolt.”

“Which was it?”

“That Glenfield .22, my dad’s—the one I showed you with the wood stock? Anyway, sometimes you just… forget things, or miss things, man. I think that’s something our forefathers knew, and we kind of forgot about.” He spreads his hands. “Like, now, it’s all about productivity and efficiency and capitalism. Self-help books about how to turn yourself into a robot. But back in the day? They knew! They knew about human limitation, and they accepted it. But now…”

Jeff sighs. “Alright, alright. Take it easy, Obama.”

“Hey now. I’m just saying, don’t worry about it. Stuff happens. Weird stuff happens.”

Jeff takes another deep breath, peering into the darkness of the woods. He doesn’t see anything. He’s not sure if anything sees him, though. But if they do… “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

The Tillamook State Forest isn’t the biggest forest you’ve ever seen, but it’s dense.

They don’t run into anyone else out there.

---

They’re moving ghostlike between the pines when they see it.

They almost stalk right past it, but it snags on the corner of Jake’s vision and his head is pulled back, neck bending.

Look upon it: long jagged stones and heavy twisted branches, arranged and arrayed and aligned without pattern yet perfectly balanced. Nearly chest-high… no, exactly chest-high. Raised up just right from the earth.

And upon that curious collection rests a deer skull.

“This… now this is fucking cool,” Jake murmurs, walking closer, slinging his rifle over his shoulder.

At the base of it, now he can see: there are bones sown about—not just deer bones.

The trees here seem to lean, curve inward. The birds are singing.

Caleb is silent and watches the light filter through the canopy, the way it seems to disappear before touching the ground. He shifts his rifle in his grip. He does not approach—he remains at an exact distance as he circles that peculiar bricolage, tilting his head this way and that. The pine needles carpeting the ground seem to all point toward—

“It’s like… a grave, or something.” Jake crouches down, digs his fingers into the moss and dirt, upturning the small bones. There’s a smell he can’t place.

“Been there a while.”

Jake glances back at Caleb, then the strange monument. And he’s right; the stones are mossy and rain-worn, the pieces of wood host to fungi. The whole thing seemed to have arisen from the soil some time ago and simply never stopped growing.

“Yeah, but… coyotes would’ve run off with the bones, right? And buried them. Or even feral dogs would’ve…”

Caleb makes a noncommittal noise. He doesn’t get any closer. He seems farther away, Jake thinks.

It’s warmer. Pleasant frissons swim just under his skin of his arms. Jake almost wants to shuck off his jacket, yet moments before he had been ruing not layering his clothing.

“I feel like… Haven’t we passed this way before?”

“No… we would’ve seen this.”

“Yeah… guess so.”

They are silent. The birds are singing. And then:

“Probably just some bored punk-ass kids ditching school—”

“That’s a fucking trophy blacktail, man.” Caleb gestures with a shoulder. “Look at those antlers. This isn’t Swiss-army-knife kid shit. And we’re miles from—” His words run quieter and quieter until he trails off.

Jake looks closer, frowns, wonders dimly why Caleb is whispering. Standing like this, this close—it seems like that big skull is looking up at him, patience and promise swimming in those deep dark sockets. Its horns rise up, forked, like any other tree. In the falling darkness it seems as though the sun does not leave this little meadow. There’s a lightness in his chest, blooming outward, upward.

Look at those antlers,” Jake mimics, his mouth curving just so into a smile. He reaches out a hand—just far enough—and lets his palm hover over one of the points.

He doesn’t touch it. He pulls his hand back, letting fingers come to rest on the hilt of his hunting knife instead. From somewhere behind he hears a shaky breath.

“How big you think—”

“Four hundred, easy.” Caleb clears his throat. “Maybe more.”

Jake keeps looking for words to fill the silence, but they keep falling out of his mouth to be lost amongst the pine needles. Instead, he gestures eastward. “Weren’t there some—”

“That shit ain’t Native.”

Jake’s mouth lifts at the edges. “Alright, you have any ideas?”

“Ideas—yeah, let’s fucking go. Didn’t drive all this way to pick over what the crows left for us.”

---

“There was this guy. Killed his neighbor’s dogs, strung ‘em up in the creek behind our houses.”

“Jesus, dude.”

“Yeah. He got arrested by the time I was in junior high. Killed himself, later. Or got killed. Good riddance.” Caleb finishes his beer. “They always talk about role models, but when you’re young and dumb sometimes it’s good to have, ah, examples of what not to be.”

---

Jake sleeps dreamlessly that night.

He hasn’t slept that well since he was a kid.

---

They don’t talk about it much, afterward.

Time passes.

Jake goes looking for it again. Alone.

If he finds it, he doesn’t mention it to Caleb.

Chapter Text

As is the case, he finds her in the last place he looks.

Leave civilization behind and hike up those hills behind Blackwell beyond the Tobanga without looking back and you will soon be met with the treeline. Breach and go beyond them into that canopied twilight.

Then! Then further, beyond the cigarette stubs and beer cans and the lovers’ names carved thoughtlessly into that indifferent bark. Until you feel you are an intruder amongst the trees and stone and moss and air.

Then! Then and only then, you are in the right place.

He realizes he has been looking at her and upon her before he sees her. Between the dappled light of the pine needles, she seemed to blend flatly into the world around her. Her back is to a tree, a sketchpad in her hands. She’s wearing a wetsuit, cuffs at the wrists and ankles rolled up. The faint smell of salt becomes apparent. Johns rubs at his eyes.

When his shadow passes over she looks up at him, thoughtful. She seems less surprised than curious; she smiles. “Hark; Mortimer St. Johns; the man himself. To what do I owe the honor?”

Johns looks away before he looks back. Rachel always makes him feel like he’s under the burn of limelight, audience there or not. “Hey, yo, Rachel. I, uh…” Scene! And silence; that’s all he can muster before he sighs and sits down heavily next to her. He pulls at a few pine needles, flicks a pinecone. “So… Went surfing, huh?”

“Yeah. Rockaway.” She taps that pen against her chin. “Waves were hella high, for this time of year. Nearly froze my ass off, but art through adversity, right?”

Johns doesn’t respond. He reconsiders this, and: “…Yeah.”

Johns twists a pine needle between his fingers.

Rachel waits.

“Courtney’s birthday is soon,” Johns says, finally.

Rachel throws her head back and laughs. The sound echoes, slithering away up the trunks. “Of all the—so that is what this is about? Oh, Johns, you utterly wretched soul.” She leans forward, looking left and right conspiratorially. “May I be honest with you?”

“… You weren’t before?”

Rachel waves a hand airily. “Had someone traveled back through time and told me you and Courtney Eloise Wagner would become an item, I would’ve slapped them.” She strikes one hand against the other.

Johns gives her a look of utmost graveness.

“Whoa! Okay, shit, I know that expression. So shall I be serious, this once. If only for your wretched, wretched heart.” She schools her grin into a Johnslike frown—for a mere moment, at best, before it wavers and becomes a mischievous smile. She points her pen at him. “Is there a particular reason that you ask this of me, or…?”

Johns tosses a pinecone from one hand to the other. “Dana is more into like seasonal holiday stuff and it’s not like she can keep a secret. Taylor would act all disappointed that I even had to ask other people, because then it’s not romantic, or… something. Victoria would say ‘jewelry’ and I’ve already done that and if I told her she’d say ‘better jewelry, not that Etsy garbage’ so there’s no point, and you know how Victoria is. I don’t think Sarah likes me very much—maybe that’s my fault. Jules doesn’t know anything about girls, like anything. Hayden would just say ‘do what feels right’ and that’s great and all but I’m asking people because I don’t know what feels right here.”

Rachel waits.

“That’s it.” He rests the pinecone between his knees. “I wrote a list. But I threw it away.” He thought about burning it, too, but it with the lighter in hand he realized he was being dramatic and needed to seek out someone more familiar with the… well, as said, dramatic.

She squints into the distance, for a time. Then she looks and at him and nods. “You’re… a hella good person, Johns.”

That takes him aback. He looks away. “Come on.”

“No, for real.” A pause. “Hey.” She touches his arm, waits until he turns just enough to peer at her sidelong. “It’s sweet that you’re putting this much thought into this. Not many boys your age do. No offense.” She leans back a bit, stroking her chin. “And that is a hella nice bracelet. She never takes it off.” She fixes him with a look. “Never, ever.”

“Huh,” Johns says. He thinks of water prisming upon Courtney’s skin. Something warm ricochets in his chest before it settles again.

Rachel giggles, before clearing her throat. “Oh, my apologies. This is very serious. No joy or laughter allowed.”

The sketchpad slips down her lap. He can see it a little better. He leans over, to look—

He frowns.

He doesn’t get it.

She snaps it closed. “Not quite finished,” she says with a sudden dismissiveness. “Now!” She makes a frame with her hands, holding it up to the trees. “Let’s take it from the top, shall we? What does your lady lover like?”

“Uh… High fashion, dogs, long walks on the beach, aquariums, holding hands, coffee—”

“You,” Rachel observes, turning her frame upon him with a single closed eye.

“Stripes, blue things, stargazing, bubble baths, staying up late, waking up early…” He sighs, scrubs fingernails over his scalp. “Shit. This is fucking hard. I should know this. She’s my girlfriend.”

Rachel is quiet for a moment. She twirls her pen in her fingers before stabbing it into the dirt. And then: “Stargazing, you said.”

“I… did say that,” he responds cautiously.

Rachel has this thing. She smiles… and her smile becomes large, almost somehow too large for her face, canines nakedly bared and beautifully so but just nearly touching the edge of grotesque. Johns thinks it’s an affectation (he knows that that word means). “What a coincidence.”

Johns cocks his head, widens his eyes just slightly in his way.

“Chloe,” she says, “by purest happenstance, has her dad’s lovely telescope collecting dust in her garage. Quite a shame. Or so my sources tell me.”

Johns looks down, frowns. “Oh... yeah. About that. Uh, so Chloe and I, we don’t really—”

“Chloe and I, as you are well aware, are on hella good terms,” Rachel says with a lilt. “Diplomatic, even. Between you and me—”

“It was her dad’s, Rachel,” Johns says quietly. But it’s forceful enough that Rachel stops, twists her mouth.

She sighs, air through her nose, looking about the clearing. From here, you can just see the very edge of Blackwell. “Her house shouldn’t be a museum, nor she its curator. No one should live like that, Johns.
Funeral black for the rest of your life when the rest of the colors await. Whether you’re a widow, or—” She shakes her head, points at him. He feels pinned to the spot. “Whether you’re anyone else.”

Johns gets the feeling those words weren’t for him. Not really. He shrugs. “I guess.”

“You guess, hm?”

“... Yeah, I do.”

Silence. They sit and look at the trees sway above them. Listen to the birdsong. Johns realizes he has been surrounded by the shock of soundwaves and stimulation for… too long. It’s been a while since he’s just… sat.

“Saddle Mountain isn’t too far away,” he says aloud. “Dark at night.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah.”

A pause.

“Courtney does… enjoy long drives. You know. Scenic ones. Back roads.”

Rachel hums, eyes closed.

They are silent again, for a time.

A grunt. Johns is sitting upright, forward. Staring intently into space, for imagination has rendered it vivid. “If I ask, will you… back me up?”

“For you, wretched Johns, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”

---

Now, imagine, if you will: Jules is hungover and it is a Friday morning.

Drinking on a Thursday night is, generally, the marker of a lack of discipline or a lack of risk aversion. Jules is both disciplined and risk-averse, so now he’s walking the grounds of Blackwell with his hands fisted into his pockets wondering where exactly he went wrong.

It’s late enough (or perhaps early enough?) that if Madsen eyes him at some distance he can just say it’s a casual morning walk. If Madsen doesn’t lean forward and smell the cognac on his breath, anyway. Fucking imagine—he’s gone from Heineken to cognac in the course of two years (“The drink of your ancestors,” Nathan had said with a chuckle as he held it up to the light). It’s on Nathan’s tab, though (or rather, Sean
Prescott’s liquor cabinet), so it only counts halfway. He owes him. He dwells often and solemnly on the day that Nathan collects in some ironic way, comical at his expense. Ah, well.

He finds a tree and sits, back against trunk. The feel of bark scraping up and down his spine is nicely grounding. The feel of dew soaking through his jeans is less nice, but he files it away as a—what did Rachel call it?—an ‘affirmation of the senses.’ Right.

He sits. He feels the breeze roll over his skin and watches the dull slate of the clouds slide along overhead, going wherever they go.

He hears something.

In time—how long he cannot say nor would he admit—he recognizes that sound.

Violin. Bach. Cello suite number one.

He closes his eyes and listens and though his blood is slow and thin it sings with it.

He dreams. In the way that the drunken can find that secret place between sleep and waking, he dreams with his eyes open. He sees—trees swaying in the wind—and clouds rolling overhead—the waves breaking on the Arcadian shore—he sees himself, amongst all that, a little lost but mostly found, alone, but not quite—

“Jules?”

He nearly ejects from his skin.

He turns—and there she is.

Within her window the vision of her is not unlike a diptych. Kate Marsh, her hair down—and look at her hair! What a waterfall of crawling gold and dense, unbound fury!—yet still absently holding the bow of her violin.

“Uh,” he says. “Hi.”

Kate looks down at him. The way she cranes her neck— “Are you—it’s, um, kind of early for you. Are you okay?”

Between Kate knowing of his schedule and how absurd he must look, he flounders. “I—I just—woke up early. Went for a walk, to—it is what it is.”

She looks at him. He wants the roots of the tree to snare him and drag him into the depths of the earth where he may disappear. Then, maybe more to herself than to him, she nods. “Yeah. I do that too, sometimes.” She pauses, purses her lips pensively. “Mostly to walk Lilith, though.”

Jules shivers. He speaks quickly. “I—you—you play really well, Kate.”

She smiles bashfully. No red in this light. “Oh—I’m not that good, really. Just one of those things my parents tried to get me to do when I was younger. To keep me from—” She waves a hand.

Boys. Sex. Life. Truth.

“Yeah,” he says. Old memories coalesce like ice crystals on the surface of his brain. “My mom tried to get me to learn piano, just ‘cause she had one, but—” He shrugs. “Well, she tried, at least. Never really…” He shivers.

“Are you cold?” Kate has a way of stating the obvious in the kindest way. She gives everyone an escape hatch. Even those that don’t really—

“I’m okay,” he lies.

Her elbows are on the sill and Jules is still looking up at her. Of all trees to recline under, why this one? God! God damn it—

“Tonight Alyssa is having a little tarot party,” Kate says suddenly. She’s looking past him, at the rest of the Blackwell grounds. Jules, in spite of himself, raises an eyebrow. “If—if you aren’t busy, and you have the time—and it’s not as if we really believe in that kind of, um—”

Kate’s looking away but looking at him.

“Sure,” Jules says. “Just tell me when.”

---

Victoria taught him how to walk into a room. She had put her hands gently under his mandible and gently eased his head up and said “Regarde moi, ma chérie.”

Not with his chin down and shoulders hunched and jaw tight—not like stalking animal. No, as if everyone was waiting for him and the lights would dim to his shadow and the music wouldn’t start without his ears to hear it.

“You’re the one they were waiting for,” she said firmly.

“Heh. If you say so, ma chérie,” he would say, emboldened by her touch.

That would make Victoria smile, and thus, make Jules smile.

But!

…This being Alyssa’s room, of course, it’s a little different.

There are ten eyes locked onto him, and as he stands there in the doorway he considers (very seriously) turning around and walking right out.

But either his pride or his virtue cuts through. “Hey,” he says, raising his hand in a half-hearted salutation.

There’s a beat of silence, and then: “Jules! I’m so glad you made it!” Kate says, as if Jules has ever had anything meaningful going on in his brief life.

Alyssa. Luke. Stella. Daniel.

And, of course, Kate. Kate, o Kate.

Jules feels like he has stood in the doorway for far too long. At a loss, he ventures a few steps and quickly nestles himself in the largest open space—that one between Alyssa and Luke.

Luke doesn’t look at him but does at the same time. With forefinger and thumb he pulls at the bill of his hat, maybe out of luck, or habit. Fuck, does Jules hate Luke. One of those straight-up assholes that’s just too easy to hate. But Kate’s beaming face makes it easier to ignore him, somehow.

“Everyone is almost here,” Alyssa says.

Her tone is a little too knowing, a little too… prophetic. Jules tries to keep his composure. He’s surrounded by the people who probably despise him most, and if they all fell upon him with knives or hammers he wouldn’t blame them, so—who else could—?

As if on cue, Johns enters with a “yo, hey.”

Jules stares. This was a mistake.

The tension that had been binding the room dissipates. Suddenly, it’s all smiles, everyone is soft and languid and leisurely, reclining against and upon whatever they may find.

Kate smiles at Johns, too. Jules shows teeth in his own way.

Johns sits down and everyone makes room for him—no small thing, given that he’s continued growing since the arrived at Blackwell, broad shoulders and all. His hands can cradle a human skull with no issue.

“Sorry I’m late.”

Alyssa laughs, her throaty little one-two. “We couldn’t start without you.” She casts her eyes around the room, appraising every guest with a mysterious air. Jules is perturbed by how… confident she is, in this way.

So unlike her. This is her room, however, so… “Our audience is present. Shall we begin?”

Nods all around. Luke claps his hands and says, “Let’s do this!” Jules is still.

“As I expected,” Alyssa says. The cross upon her neck sways pendulously until it rests against a collarbone. “Who, if I may ask, shall dare first?”

A pause. Then Stella lifts her Monster, as if in tribute. “You gotta ask? Hit me, girl.”

Alyssa nods sagely. “Done.” She shuffles the cards—Jules is sober, so how can she make them move so quickly?—and lays them in front of her, studying them with a cold seriousness.

Silence. And then:

Alyssa raises a single card with confidence.

“The Lovers,” she says, a grin slowly splitting her face.

The room erupts in laughter. Stella flails an arm. “Oh, come on!”

“The cards don’t lie,” Alyssa says smugly. “But it’s not just about love. See how it’s in the upright position? It’s about duality, and making decisions. Choice,” she emphasizes, striking two fingers against the card, “is at the heart of the Lovers.” She pauses, her sage demeanor broken. “Um… no pun intended,” she says.

Stella’s eyes are thoughtful behind her glasses. She takes a pensive sip of Monster. “You really know your stuff, Alyssa.”

Jules looks at Stella. She’s… attractive, in her own way. Dedicated, focused. Certainly girlfriend material. Maybe not for him, per se, but—

He notices Stella peering at him. He looks away quickly.

There’s a cooler in the corner. Jules hides his disappointment when Luke opens it and he sees only soda inside. His stomach lining is still soft and tender from the morning, but he needs something to do with his hands, or—

“The Ace of Swords,” Alyssa intones. “Upright, you cut through deception and illusion. Your blade reveals the truth in its reflection.”

“Better. I’ll take it.” Stella sets down her empty can and leans forward. “Go on.”

It’s like this for a while. It’s actually, Jules admits, a pretty good time. He’s sober on a Friday night and having a good time, imagine that. Until—

“The Death Arcana,” Alyssa says.

There’s a silence, then. Everyone looks anywhere but at Kate.

“It… doesn’t literally mean death,” she says in that rushed mumble that Jules recognizes. “It just means, you know, shocking and dramatic change. Like getting married.”

A few polite chuckles.

Jules looks at the wall. Jules would rather be anywhere else. He would rather be sitting in Victoria’s room and listen to her go on and on and on about the Munkácsi prints she has honoring her walls, but—

He perseveres. Somehow.

---

Johns is torn between hoping Chloe is there and that Chloe is not there.

But on Max’s door plate, there’s “ACAB” and “FTP." Sometimes it's on Rachel's door plate, instead. But here it is.

He sighs. Calling would be easier, but…

He knocks.

Chapter Text

Caleb can see it clearly, even in this light.

From Jake’s back protrudes a knife, gleaming dimly.

If he pulls it out, Jake will die.

If he does nothing, Jake will die.

He wraps his fingers around the sharp antler hilt. He can feel Jake’s heart beating.

---

“See, so… there was this kid, right,” Jake says. His voice has receded into a soft, distant drawl. “Real asshole. So I punched him in the face.”

Caleb watches Jake tilt his beer can left, then right. Empty—but Jake upturns it over his palm, lets the last few drops collect in the topography of his hand, put it to his mouth and sucks them up gracelessly. Caleb is fascinated and vaguely disgusted.

“But… you know how kids are. He wasn’t really an asshole. Not really. I think he just had enough. It’s a hard time, when you’re that age and no one likes you and, in a way they’re right, since there’s not a lot to like.” Jake sets the can down beside him. He reaches for the flask. His teeth strike the rim with a dull noise. “He had braces. That didn’t help.”

Caleb snorts. “I had braces.”

“Sorry.” A pause. “They worked.”

Caleb makes an amused noise.

“So when I hit him, he fell over, but only he’s surprised, mostly, I think. He’s thinking, ‘man, why would Jake hit me? Me, of all people?’ And I was just looking at my hand, and it fucking hurt, all cut up from his teeth, and I can see the bones of my knuckles, and I looked at how his mouth was all bloody, but it was my blood, and he had my skin—”

“Jesus.”

“Never punched someone before—I think I hurt myself more than I hurt him. So we both get suspended and have to get our shots and stuff. Cross-contamination, right.” He opens another can. “I still feel bad about that. If I ever run into him again… I dunno. I’d apologize. I’d let him hit me.”

“Let a grown ass man just deck you.”

“Yeah.”

Caleb snorts again. “Sure, you do that.”