Max closed the most recent of the journals, and reverently placed it back into the box. She gave a hard sniff, one of many over the past three hours.

"Jesus…" she breathed out, before reaching up to wipe a fresh wave of tears from her eyes.

She didn't know whether to be in awe, or jealous of the woman this Max grew up to be. To live for five years with the fear of certain doom hanging over her head, and yet still find a way to make a wonderful life for herself, in what she assumed was a scant handful of remaining years.

After a few seconds, she realized that jealousy was a ridiculous notion. She was this Max, and this Max was her. Nothing had been added or taken away from, other than pure experience. She hugged herself tight as she ruminated upon their two different paths. Max realized now how brutally and unfairly she had traumatized her younger self, just as she herself had been, growing up. Both of them survived their respective trials by fire, and this Max forged herself into as formidable a young woman as the Max currently, albiet temporarily, taking her place.

I did my best to survive and make it through five years of hell. Be the best at all my training, try and ignore the fact my parents were more or less dead to me. It definitely screwed me up, but I came out of it strong, in my own way. And yeah, this other Max got screwed up too, but she came out, just as stronger!

Deep inside, Max still didn't want her own life to end. Who could blame her? She was only human after all. She could, however, take a large measure of comfort in the fact that her actions, her sacrifice, went on to create a much better world; not just for herself, but for so many of the people she loved. A world with parents who still remembered her and an amazing girlfriend, who stayed in school and made it to just about the very top of her class. One where Kate never tried to commit suicide, where Rachel and Victoria apparently didn't have to run away from Russian agents in fear for their lives.

...huh. I wonder, though. Journal says they mysteriously went off to New York, around the time that Incident 34 would have happened. So does that mean they're working for S.O.A.P.? But they're still students here at Blackwell! Does that mean Martinet lightened up? Or maybe he's not in charge. Oh! Maybe this is a timeline where he totally died in a car wreck or got ripped apart by wild dogs or…!

Max immediately stopped herself; she wasn't going to let anger or some reflexive need for vengeance cloud what few remaining hours she had. All that mattered is that as far as she could see, this world was the best one she could have hoped for.

I don't want to waste my whole day reading, though. I think I've got enough figured….

She glanced over to the cell phone on her desk; it was locked, but there was a handy "Master guide" left to her with every password to every account that the new Max set up. Soon, she was dialing her parents in Seattle, only to discover they were neither home, nor picking up their cell phones. She then tried Chloe.

She winced as it went straight to voicemail.

"H-hey. Hey baby.'s me. I'm really missing you today. So give me a call as soon as you get this, okay? Bye...oh! I love you."

Ah! God! What the hell, world? Is this some sort of cruel joke? Give me a day, only this is the day where no one is picking up the fucking phone?!

Max was on the edge of tears when she sent Chloe a text, only for it to go unanswered over the next half hour. While she waited, she jumped online, confirming that New York City was indeed wholly intact. She was too nervous to try searching for anything else, at least anything sensitive: Damocles or any of her friends there...none of whom would remember her, anyhow.

But Cammie would of know of me, assuming she read the big long letter I wrote her. Oh! She must have, because clearly she sent Alanna to do what was obviously a contact scan back in 2010.

Deciding that she was wasting way too much time, she impulsively strode out from her dorm room and into the hallway. She then immediately turned around and went back inside after she noticed her reflection in a window and saw that her makeup was a complete wreck from crying. It was another few minutes of hasty correction before she went out and tried again.

After a quick check of the directory, she made her way to Kate's room.

Please be here, please be here. Don't be some shitty ironic Twilight Zone kinda thing, where I'm the only person in the world because this is really just my last dying dream or something…

It was with great relief that the door opened; Kate glanced over, and then smiled happily. "Hi, Max. What's up? Are we still on for tea next week?"

"Huh? Oh! Yeah. Tea. Definitely. We are definitely on...because I definitely love tea! Uhhh." She blushed, cleared her throat, and then suddenly leaned in to hug Kate tightly. The embrace was returned, and at first Kate laughed gently, before pulling back and looking at her with concern.

"Max, are you okay?"

"Yeah! Yeah...I'm….I'm I mean, I had a weird dream last night. Nightmare, really. I dreamed that I only had a few hours to live, but I couldn't find any of my friends or family, or people I cared about, to say goodbye. It felt super-real at the time, and I just...I wanted to see all my friends today, and give them hugs, because I'm a dork. That's all."

Kate let her come inside, and nodded. "Of course! I totally understand."

Max gratefully entered and started glancing around the room. She wasn't sure what she was looking for. Signs of distress? Some clue that things weren't as perfect as they should be? Some hidden cost, or an ironic twist? Like maybe Kate secretly worshipped Satan now, or was permanently estranged from her parents.

How bad is it that I'm finding normality completely freaky? Also: don't be an idiot Max. Kate was your junior year roomie. I'm sure I would have discovered anything weird about her in the journals.

"Actually, I'm glad you're here; I've been meaning to ask you this all week, but you've been kind of hard to pin down lately. Ms. Leibovitz mentioned that we could collaborate on our end-of-term project, and I was thinking...we always talked in the past about working together on something, and now's our chance."

Max smiled, almost painfully wide. She closed her eyes and flashed back to that moment in the hospital, before answering.

" think maybe a book?"

"Oh! Maybe? I figure we can sit down and brainstorm later this weekend or next week. But it sounds like you have some ideas already, huh?" Kate smiled happily at this.

"Yeah…" Max said softly. She then turned around and said in a more confident tone, "Yeah!" She reached over, taking Kate's hand. "A book. Like, you do such awesome drawings. Why not something that had illustrations and photography together?"

"That sounds really great, Max. I like it! The only hard part will be figuring out what to make it about."

"I got some ideas, Kate. Believe me. But look, it's Saturday. No school talk on a Saturday." She winked and continued. "How about lunch? We could go to Two Whales? My treat. But...but I'd like to bring some other folks. At the very least, Rachel and Tori.

Kate paused for a moment, as an uncertain look crossed her face. "Well, I don't want to be a third wheel..."

Max winced. There were a few entries she'd read that made it sound like though she herself was surprisingly popular with a wide range of students at Blackwell, that didn't mean everyone in her social circle got along with each other.

"I...uh...I know maybe you and Victoria don't see eye to eye on some things and...well, it's just important for me to be with a bunch of my friends, is all. I'll play peacemaker if I have to." She followed this up with what she hoped was a winning enough smile.

Kate tilted her head and said, "Oh. Alright then." She paused, then asked, "Are you sure you're okay, Max?"

"Yeah! Yeah, I'm great. Like I said just creeped out from that nightmare. Anyhow, I'll text you when we're ready. Let me go and see who else I can grab."

Exiting Kate's dorm, and then making her way down the hall, she softly knocked on Rachel's door and waited. She was about to knock for a third time when the door opened.

Rachel was wrapped up in a long, white terry-cloth towel, her hair hanging in wet strands down her back. She smirked, and waved off-handedly. "Yo, M. How's it going, girl? You recovered yet from last night's shameless excesses?" She held out a fist, and Max paused, before realizing she needed to give it a bump.

What's she talking...oh...wait. Didn't they have like a major smoke session yesterday? That's probably what she's talking about.

"Hah. Uhh...yeah? Not all the way though, had a weird dream, left me feeling kinda freaked. You?"

"Well no shit, babes. You hit those dabs like it was last your last night on Earth or something. Must have gone through half the 'wax' I brought back from New York. Just do me a favor and pay a sister back in kind next time. And I do mean in 'kind'." Rachel was smiling wide and easy as she spoke.

Max shook her head, pretending to be embarrassed. "Yeah. I guess I did go a little crazy...huh?"

Rachel shrugged. "Whatev. I mean, we did sorta get into a contest about it. You fucking win, by the way. I'm woman enough to admit that. Anyhow, what brings you 'round?"

"Oh! Well I said. Feeling freaked. Looking to surround myself with friends. I wanna take some folks to Two Whales for lunch. On me. You down?"

"Free food and cool company? Oh gee, let me fucking think about that one for a moment. I have such a busy social calendar this season." Pantomiming grabbing a book and looking through it, Rachel muttered, "I did have tea scheduled with the Sultan of Dubai, but fuck that guy, he's a dick. Let's do it!"

"Great!" Max exclaimed. "Why don't you text me when you're ready. I'm gonna track down Victoria, and ask her if she wants to come."

"Victoria already did, half an hour ago." said a voice. Max turned around, spotting the short-haired blonde who was wrapped in a black silk bathrobe; she was heading away from the direction of the bathroom. Victoria gave her a wink, and then pushed Rachel back into her dorm room, stealing a quick, intense kiss from her.

Blushing furiously, Max gave a laugh and murmured. " wanna come with us to the diner? I'm paying. And uh...Kate's coming with, too."

Victoria paused, glancing over at her, and then Rachel, who said, "Max had a pretty fucked up night last night, nightmares and shit. She's looking to hang with her homegirls. I know you and K aren't super best friends, but maybe…?"

After a short pause, Victoria said, "Uhh...yeah. Okay. Sure. I can be nice, actually, when I want to be. Also, sorry to hear about that. Believe me, I know how much being overstoned like that sucks. On the other hand, you were totally overdoing it. So much for that vaunted tolerance of yours, huh?" She smirked, but not unkindly.

Max groaned softly, wishing she felt half as cool as she apparently was in this timeline. She smirked right back, however, and said, "Yuuuup. Guess so. But I still beat both your asses down, didn't I?" eliciting a laugh from both of them.

"So two lovebirds get dressed, and I'll be waiting outside."

An hour later, the four of them were ensconced in a booth at the diner, idly chatting away as they looked through the menu, decided what to eat, plotted out what to play on the jukebox, and discussed how to spend the rest of their weekend.

Naturally, Max had an ulterior motive for specifically heading to the Two Whales. She knew there was a good chance she'd run into Joyce there, and her heart leapt when it quickly became clear that this was one of the days she was working.

"Well howdy, darlin'!" Joyce walked up, leaning in to plant a motherly kiss on the top of her head. "Always good to see you." She nodded over to the others in greeting, then turned back to Max. "Must admit, I thought you were headed up to Corvallis to go hiking with Chloe. She was doing that...oh what's it called? Geo-caching? The thing with the GPS? You two love doing that together, don't you?"

Max chided herself for not studying the journals more intently before heading out the door. She'd have to fake it as best she could.

"Yeah! Oh, def. But uh...I got kinda sick last night, so I had to beg off. Miss her though. I actually kinda...uh...forgot about the hike? Guess that's why she didn't pick up when I called her when I woke up this morning."

Joyce nodded in agreement. "Mmmhmmm, not a lot of signal out where she's headed. Anyhow, what can I get you all?"

Max ordered far more than she should have. On the other hand, this was literally her last meal, assuming she didn't have dinner.

She tried not to think about it; she did her best to ignore the finality of the act, and how it made the lizard part of her brain scream at her, at how dare she simply embrace the notion of going gentle into that good night. She knew the truth of the matter though: whether or not she ordered the chilli waffle fries, the bacon cheeseburger, the malted chocolate milkshake, or the slice of pecan pie wouldn't have any bearing on what would happen to her when the sun came up tomorrow.

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow I actually die.

And fortunately, one of the nice things about having friends is that they're more than happy to help you eat your chilli fries.

Max did her best to facilitate the conversation and keep it flowing, but she was reluctant to actively participate. There were too many opportunities for her to slip up. While she was keenly aware that any oddness in her behavior would easily be explained away once she returned to 'normal' tomorrow, she thought it best not to cause too many problems for 'Neo Max'. Instead, she bantered lightly and easily with Rachel and Kate. She smiled to herself when Kate and Victoria actually started having a terse, if respectful conversation, working past whatever strain and weirdness existed between them.

Despite her caution, there were moments Max couldn't quite help herself, especially when it came to satisfying her curiosity about New York City.

"So...New York. Did you two spend the whole time in Manhattan?"

Rachel nodded once, answering around a mouthful of salad. "Mostly. Went to Brooklyn once. Had to check out Williamsburg, of course. Although I'm told all the hip people are bailing out for Jersey City these days."

Max glanced down, smiled mischievously, and asked, "Did you guys check out Chinatown?"

Rachel didn't blink, but there was a perturbation in Victoria's body language that, combined with years of training, told Max everything she needed to know. Again, Rachel did the talking.

"Oh, we passed through there. You know, had to take in the whole city experience, but we didn't get to sightsee as much as I would have liked. Still, oh my God though, we do need to go as a group. It's huge. Bigger than you can imagine. Way more than Seattle or Portland. And it''s different. Hard to explain more than that, except to say the East Coast is not the West Coast.

Max of course immediately understood what she was talking about. But then she took it a step too far, her enthusiasm and desire to participate causing her mouth to run ahead of her common sense.

"I was in Chinatown once. There was a really neat cafe, full of Asian desserts. And then I wandered around for a bit, on Orchard and I think Elizabeth Street. Some of it was cool, but there were a couple of big old abandoned buildings that were sad and creepy."

Victoria paused, narrowed her eyes, and pointedly asked, "Max, when were you ever in New York City?"

Mouth growing dry from nerves, heart thudding hard in her chest, Max realized she'd completely painted herself into a corner. The power of five years of force of habit, honed into unthinking instinct, compelled her to try and rewind.

Naturally, she was reminded that avenue was no longer available to her.

For the first time in her adult life, Max was going to have to save herself from her own mistakes without the benefit of time control.

Fuck! Think...think! You've been actually trained for this sort of thing. Think about what you've read, what you know. Get yourself out of this. You can do it!

Still, she paused, longer than she probably should have, quickly filling in the missing time with a slurp of her milkshake, giving herself a brief window of excusable time to compose her thoughts.

And then it hit her.

"When I went to Iceland and Italy, duh." She smiled pleasantly. "Had a long connection in New York. Enough to dart into the city to look around, because when the hell else am I going to get a chance to do that? Better than cooling my heels at JFK for seven hours."

Victoria's eyes widened, and she nodded. "Oh! Right. Well, it probably hasn't changed all that much in two years…"

Max was fairly certain she'd managed to cover herself, and did her best to keep from giving into paranoia over it. All the same, she was more diligent about checking herself for the rest of the conversation.

After a few more minutes of idle chatter, Kate finally spoke up. "Did you all hear about Nathan? And what happened last week?"

Rachel nodded once, frowning deeply. Victoria reached over and took her hand, clearly far more torn and conflicted. She clenched her jaw as she glanced sideways towards the window.

Max did her best to fish for more details, without seeming like she was doing so. She feigned a slip in memory. "Ohhh...yeah. The…."

"The suicide the correctional facility." Victoria breathed out.

Max nodded once. "Yeah. That. Heavy shit."

Fuck. Jesus, not like I knew Nathan. I mean, he went so nuts that he tried to kill Chloe, and insane-at-the-time me had to stop him. But in the end, the journals made it sound like he was a troubled kid getting it both ways from his Dad and Mark Jefferson. Christ. I...I never thought...I mean, it never occurred to me to tell myself to find Nathan and try to be a friend, so that people like Mr. Jefferson couldn't get their hooks into . I didn't know...

She couldn't help but feel sorry for Nathan now. Worse yet was the sudden realization that maybe she could have altered the past so that Nathan was possibly saved as well. Redeemed. Given a shot at a better life than being held in custody somewhere, and driven to the point of trying to kill himself. If only she'd tried harder, or thought it through better. Thought of him as an actual person, and not as only some asshole antagonist that needed to be 'dealt with'. Suddenly Max found herself filled with regret, wishing she could go back. One last time, to somehow try and make things just a little bit better.

I can't. Not any more. I have to take the good and the bad of what I've done, and...well. Live with it. For uh...sixteen more hours at any rate.

Kate continued, "I've been thinking a lot about that. About people in general, who feel lost and alone, and...and what would drive someone to that kind of despair. So um...I was thinking about volunteering at a suicide prevention hotline." She turned to Max and said, "Maybe we could make our project about that kind of thing?"

Rachel tilted her head, intrigued, "Oh? Project?"

Max quickly answered, "Yeah. Kate and I are talking about joining forces, since we're allowed. For the final project, y'know?" She grabbed one of the remaining fries, using it to scoop up what few bits of cheese and chilli remained. She suddenly remarked out of the blue, "Four people would work as easily as two. Maybe better?"

She cringed inwardly, as she looked over the other three girls, each of them appraising her. She couldn't stop herself from wondering…

...oh God. Is this something the other Max would say? Would she be cool with any of this? Am I totally wrecking her social life right now?

It was Victoria who spoke first.

"I...I think that would's a good idea. There's - uh - I mean there's no reason why this project can't be artistic and socially meaningful at the same time, right?" She then glanced over at Kate. "And Kate. Um, when you go and sign up for this suicide prevention thing? Maybe you could bring me along? I'd at least like to see more about it."

Kate stammered, clearly unsure what to say at first, but then smiling as she found her voice.

"S-sure. I mean...that's wonderfu!. I'd really like it if I could do this sort of thing with a fri- ah - with someone I know."

A soft silence fell over the table, broken by the sound of Rachel slurping the last of her soda through the straw, giving a soft sigh of satisfaction, and then saying with a impish grin to both of the blondes, "Awesome. Now kiss!"

Max laughed, as much in relief as in good humor.

Lunch lasted for almost another forty-five minutes before the four of them went their separate ways. They made plans to meet up again tomorrow, so they could try and plot out some actual directions their project might take. Max hung back, wanting to spend time with Joyce when she took her break.

"Awww, thank you, sweetheart. You didn't have to," she said. "Appreciate it all the same. Have to admit, it's still strange seeing you here without Chloe right by your side. But little less than a year, you'll both be off somewhere else. Together, the way it's always meant to be."

Max bowed her head and blushed. She nodded, a wide smile on her face. As the two of them made small talk, she couldn't help but notice a difference between the Joyce that was here now and the Joyce she met earlier in her subjective week. There was a light inside; it wasn't anything that was missing in the previous version, but it was something far more vibrant. Only now did Max fully appreciate how much having a daughter who made it through school with top marks, and who managed to find at least some sort of vaguely peaceful co-existence with her stepfather would impact Joyce. There was a subtle but profound change to her outward personality. Well, perhaps not so much a change as a brightening of what was already there. Life was clearly good for her, so why wouldn't it show?

Max returned to her dorm in the late afternoon. The sun was beginning to set, and soon enough, night would fall. She tried Chloe again, to no avail, then called her parents.

She suddenly realized she was completely unprepared for what would happen when they answered the phone; what would she say, how would she act? From her perspective, years had passed since she'd last seen or heard from them, in a timeline where their memories of her were destroyed. Worst of all, she'd never be able to share her relief, or obviously shed her tears of joy at hearing them whole and healthy.

Her father was the one to answer.

"Heyyyy kiddo! How are you?"

She willed her shaky breathing to calm, pleased that her voice only cracked in the very beginning as she responded.

"H-hi Da...daddy."

"Ut-oooh." Ryan Caulfield said with a humorous tone. "You haven't called me that since you were fifteen. Are you in trouble?"

"What?! N-no. I just...I missed you! That's all. But, um, I had a really bad dream last night. One where everyone I knew and loved...they were gone, and I was never going to see them again. I know it sounds silly, but it really shook me up. I woke up - uh - almost crying. I'm okay now, but it did make me want to hear your guys voices again."

"Awwwwww. Max. S'okay. We're here, and we're fine. Hold on, let me get your mother." He moved his mouth away from the phone, calling out, "Vanessa! Hon? Pick up the phone. It's Max!"

A few seconds later, an older female voice chimed in.

"Hi sweetie. My goodness, three calls in a week and a half from our teenaged child. What an age of wonders we live in!"

Max clapped her hands over the cell phone, muffling the worst of the sobs that suddenly tore through her. She kept the phone to her ear as her body shook for a few seconds more with the effort of calming herself down.

"Max? Are you there? Are you okay?"

"Fine...I'm fine, Mom. Just...rough night."

"Seems Max had a pretty nasty nightmare last night," Ryan said

"Oooh! Honey, I'm sorry to hear that. Anything we can do?"

It hurt so much to swallow down her emotions; instead, she focused on her exuberant joy, letting it spill into her voice.

"Yeah, you're doing it already, Mom. Really good to hear your voices. Just because I'm an adult now - ah - you know, sometimes I might act like I'm embarrassed by my parents, but you know, I love you both. No matter what."

"Hah. we'll take mushy any day of the week, Max." her fathered replied. "Doesn't matter. We loved you when you were broody and aloof at fourteen, and we love you just as much now, as the young woman you've become."

Max held it together, as she was fussed over and reassured by her parents. After the first five minutes, it got easier, as the initial tsunami wave of emotion passed. She asked them about their day, their week. What her father was doing these days at the architectural firm. She discovered her mother had returned to practicing law.

Max was incredibly grateful for the coded index that was available to her; pulling that out along with a few journals, she was quickly able to pull up a few details on the fly, topics for conversation, memories to reminisce about. Camping trips, excursions to the city. She could at least, on her own, recall and talk about the old days when they all lived in Arcadia Bay.

They chatted away for the better part of an hour and a half before the conservation came to a natural conclusion. Resisting the urge to keep them on the phone all night, Max let them go.

"Max, this was so lovely. Thank you for calling us today," her mother said. "Would you mind if we came up for a visit next weekend?"

"No! I at all. That'd be really great."

"Alright, well, it's Saturday night, so I know you're probably itching to head out and party. Just don't get into too much trouble, alright?" her father asked as he chuckled.

"Hah. Yeah. Don't worry, Dad. Believe it or not, I think I'm gonna keep it low key tonight. Um, so talk to you soon, I guess. G'bye."

"Goodbye, Max. Have a great day tomorrow."

"Goodnight, sweetie. Love you."

She breathed out quickly, before ending the call.

"I love you, too."

It was a good five minutes before she stopped crying again.

After the phone call, Max spent time walking about campus, smiling to herself as the darkling sky slowly extinguished the remaining light of the day. She waved to the friends who recognized her, but did her best to politely avoid getting pulled into lengthy conversations. As she walked up to the edge of the campus treeline, where the forest awaited her, she hugged herself tight, staring hungrily into the distance.

There was a whole world out there. Places she'd never seen. Things she'd never done. She could be free now. Or she could try to be, at least.

I could run. I could just take off, and keep going, and going, and going...and maybe that would be enough. Maybe the Universe would let me stay here somehow, and I could live this way for the rest of my life. I could run all the way to Chloe, and then we could hit the road, like we were gonna, in the old timeline...

And if she could? Then what? How much would it cost her? Her soul? If her staying meant the other Max, the one who actually belonged here, was gone forever?

Max bowed her head, took a deep breath, and turned away. Whatever was out there? It wasn't for her.

At least, not this version of her.

"I got to talk to my parents. I actually got to tell them I loved them, one last time." she whispered to herself. "And I'll probably talk to Chloe tonight, too."

She could see it now: that was the prize, the consolation for her impending dissipation.

What else did she really want?

What more could she possibly need?

She smiled, sad but satisfied as she turned around and walked back towards the campus.

It was almost nine o'clock when she gently rapped on Rachel's door.

"Hey M. You come to drag us away for a free dinner now?"

"Hah. No. But - uh - you guys mind if we chill tonight? I mean, if you and Tori had other plans, that's cool. But we could go to my room, and watch a movie, or get baked. Heh. Or whatever, you know?"

Victoria poked her head over Rachel's shoulder. "We're already watching a movie, and smoke'm the peace pipe, so get in here quick, bitch." she laughed.

Max stepped inside, smiling warmly. "Awesome. So whatcha guys watching?"

"Oh, some old weird cartoon movie. Because Ms. Anime has a fetish for that sort of thing."

Victoria gave Rachel a playful smack on her rear. "And what's wrong with that? Heavy Metal is...rough, but unappreciated. If nothing else, you could say it led to better things."

"Yes, yes, right, of course. Forgive me, oh my Queen." Rachel replied.

Max couldn't help but blink, covering up her mouth as she suppressed a laugh.

"What?" Rachel inquired.

"Oh. Nothing. Only...have I told you lately how adorable you two are? And Heavy Metal! Oooh! Yeah, I've seen that one before. Not all that long ago. With the green orb, and the woman with the white hair, right?"

"That's the one!" Victoria called out as she started packing the bowl of a small bong. "Babe, plug up the door with a towel, would you?"

And so the movie was watched. Weed was smoked. A pizza was ordered and eaten. The three of them laughed and chatted through the movie, making fun of the more cringeworthy scenes, the hamfisted voice acting, and of course, the smut. They commented on the visuals and the use of color, and how stupid but enjoyable 'old people' music was way back then.

When it was over, the topic of watching another movie was discussed. Max's phone started to buzz, prompting her to pull it out of her pocket.

Chlo-stick: Hey baby! I just got back. You 'kay?

Chlo-stick: Feeling better?

Max smiled from ear to ear, as her heart lept. She quickly replied.

Maxymillions: Much, now that I'm talking to you!

Chlo-stick: Wanna Skype?

Maxymillions: Yes! Gimme a min.

" guys wanna get started without me?" she asked. "Gonna go back to my room for a little while and talk to Chloe."

"Sure. Go. Tell her we say hi. We can wait a little bit for you." Rachel said.

"Unless you two start having phone sex again. In which case, you're on your own for the rest of the night!" Victoria said, dissolving into giggles as she curled up on the bed.

Max blushed, quickly darted out and returned to her room. She hopped onto her laptop as quickly as possible, finding the Skype control panel was already up, with a waiting request from Chloe's end. The smile on her face grew in radiant intensity as Chloe's face filled her screen. She then pulled back a bit, giving Max a better look at her body.

Haha. Wow. Weeeeird. With the pink hair's like she's totally Chloe! But, so totally not, either.

She was the same, but significant differences. There were more nose and ear piercings, but far fewer tattoos. Gone was the full sleeve running down the arm, replaced with a smaller, but vibrantly colored blue morpho butterfly on her bicep, wings spread, with rainbow colored tendrils curling in its wake. The trademark beanie was nowhere to be seen, and while her hair was roughly the same short length, it fell across the right side of her face, partially obscuring it.

"Heyyy babydoll." Chloe softly cooed. "Are you feeling better from this morning?"

"Huh? Oh. Oh! Yeah. Kinda. Mostly. I had a really bad dream last night. Sad, and weird, but I took a bunch of people out to lunch, and that helped me feel better."

"Awww. Sorry, cutie. You didn't sound so hot when you called me to cancel last night. Just as well, it turns out that some asshole ahead of our group wrecked the cache when we found it. Man! That is totally against the code you know? Anyhow, I stuck around longer than I meant to, because someone had to clean it up, put in a few new goodies, and update the log book. But I seriously missed you, sweetie. This has always been our thing, and it was hella weird doing it without you."

"Yeah, well." Max whispered, smiling wide to keep the tears out of her eyes. "Sometimes life gets complicated. But it's okay. We can try again next weekend or something, right? Oh...oh wait. My folks are coming down to visit next weekend. Later this month?"

"Right! I've already got the next one in mind. It's just outside of Portland, awesome walk near the mountain and everything. We could do it close to Halloween, so we could make a really special weekend of it, tooooo." Chloe said, waggling her eyebrows.

"Mmmmm! It's a date!" Max laughed, ignoring the steel fist viciously squeezing her heart.

"So who did you go out to lunch with?"

"Oh. The gang. Rachel and Victoria. Even Kate."

Chloe blinked slightly. "Wow. Kate and Victoria? I mean, they don't throw down in the halls, but they're...they're not friends."

"I know. But I think maybe it was time to get them hanging out together. I actually got them all to agree to work with me on our final project. Kate's idea, actually. Um, I think they're bonding a little? After what happened with Nathan Prescott last week. We're thinking about doing a project on suicide prevention."

Chloe shook her head and hummed. "Wow. Yeah. Hella fucked up. I mean, I'm still really fucking pissed at him and Jefferson for what they tried to do, but in the end, it sounded like Nathan was absolutely screwy in the head and being manipulated. I remember Victoria saying he almost seemed relieved that she caught and stopped him….but. Well, you know, I like her well enough, but I think she's biased on this. I never liked the guy, and I never will. Anyhow, good for you! That's a really great thing. And if anyone can bring people together, it's my Maxima. That was always your secret mutant power."

Max covered up her eyes to keep the tears from showing, making sure to keep smiling and softly laughing all the while.

...she's so much like my Chloe. But...but she's totally not, either!

Already, Max could see it, similar to what she saw in Joyce: this version of her was softer. Gentler. All those sharp edges worn down over the years by a kinder life and better influences. This Chloe's soul was one that had long ago made peace with the losses existence had cruelly dealt her years earlier. She'd moved ahead with her life a long time ago, whereas the blue haired skater punk Max had fallen so hard for was only just starting that journey of healing when they'd parted.

Oh God. She suddenly missed her so much, like hooks tearing through her heart. Certainly, this Chloe, with her pink hair, loving devotion, and curious hobbies was wonderful, and Max knew that if she was stuck here forever, she'd of course learn to love her in a heartbeat. But she wasn't her Chloe, all lean, wiry frame, smoldering stare, fuck you-attitude, and ready to slap you down if you dissed her or anyone she gave her heart away to.

That Chloe was gone forever. Not even dead; she never even existed. Only now did Max see that the timeline she came from, despite its doomed state, its darkening pall, and moments of ugliness, held elements of timeless beauty and joy. Triumph and wonder. Her blue-haired soulmate had been a thorny rose, growing defiantly in the cracks of a parking lot. The Chloe that belonged to the new Max was more like a tall, triumphant orchid, lovingly nurtured in a hothouse, where it was allowed to grow to its full potential. Beautiful as well, but still so unlike the rose.

Max had left behind a whole precious universe, one with every right to live. One she'd been forced to destroy, in order to save it. She finally understood the truth of the matter, at long last: she was the sole survivor of a world that was long gone. There would be no permanent place for her here, and she was quickly wearing out her welcome.

But she was here now, for a little while longer. No point in letting the time go to waste.

"Max? Honey? Are you okay?"

Wiping away at her eyes, and smiling through her watery vision, she quickly nodded. "I...I am! Sorry, it's really good to hear your voice. So tell me everything you did today, okay? I want to hear all the details!"

It was nearly one in the morning by the time their call ended. Max knew she'd be staying up the rest of the night.

What's the point? I'll be sleeping forever, soon enough.

She lovingly extracted a few more journals, pouring through them at random intervals. Laughing, crying, gasping, raging; there was so much here, more than she could possibly go over, even if she spent her remaining hours doing nothing else. Deciding to leave her mark, she began writing commentary in the margins and the blank spaces.

OMG. You met Alanna! She's not crazy, she's actually really awesome and sweet. I uh...I know her. I think she was trying to find out if you were really me. I hate to ask you this, but if you have her card still? Don't call her. It would only make things confusing.

Japan!? I always wanted to go there. I kind of sort of have friends there. The furthest I ever got in the Pacific was Fiji...I think?

Uhhh….does Chloe do that know...where she crosses her eyes, if you nibble on that one little spot, right behind her ear?

Ugh! Warren. He was a nice kid in middle school, but he totally came up and tried to take a drunk selfie with my in my timeline, two days ago. Can't believe he ever thought he stood a chance, when we have both have our Chloe's.

It's funny, that your first kiss with Chloe was at the bunker in the junkyard. I thought to myself that if I never got picked up by the Feds, the two of us would get together anyhow, and have it there. Guess I was right. For the record though, in my timeline, it was on a Ferris wheel, at the Marion County fair. She did the most amazing thing, where she bribed the attendant to stop the wheel at the top for a few minutes, so she could confess her feelings to me.

Don't beat yourself up over Stella; you definitely made a difference! In my timeline, Rachel suddenly left town a few days before Stella was kidnapped and murdered. I always assumed Stella was the primary target, but now that I'm thinking about it, what if she was just the consolation prize? What if the original plan all along was for them to go after Rachel? I had no way of knowing, and as I didn't give you a lot to work with, neither did you. Still, it doesn't matter, either way. Whatever the truth is, you still rose up, grabbed a gun, and got yourself ready to protect her. That's more than most people would have done.

She paused in order to use the bathroom. As she washed her face and hands for the last time, she glanced over, watching as a sleepy looking Rachel made her way in. Max walked over and gave her a tight hug.

"Mmmmmhey. 'Zat for?" Rachel yawned, sleepily returning the embrace.

"Just...stay awesome, okay Rache?"

The other woman laughed low, trundling her way over towards the stall. "Hey, s'me. Mmmmalways *yaaaaaawn* awesome. G'night, M."


Max quickly walked out.

Rachel sat down on the toilet. It was a good minute before she rubbed her weary eyes, blinked, and glanced up.

"Wait, what?"

Max had two hours left before sunrise. Grabbing the latest journal, she turned to the next blank page, and wrote:

October 13th, 2013

I woke up yesterday morning, but I wasn't feeling like myself.

Ha ha!

Okay, for cereal.

Dear Max,

That was pretty crazy, wasn't it? You waking up, thinking it was going to be your last day. You waking up the day before that, thinking you only had two days left. And a year ago, and you thought, "This is it. My last year." I am totes in awe of what you did. Embracing and accepting this fucked up destiny. And your last act was to make my life easier, even as you thought I was stealing it away from you.

Jesus, I mean, who does that?! Who is that cool?, I guess. That's who.

First off, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I put you through all that. It was such a shitty and thoughtless thing to do, traumatizing you that way. But maybe that was for the best, right? Part of me hoped that if you saw it coming, you'd be able to survive, and maybe that had something to do with how well everything's worked out in the end

Thank you, first of all, for giving me this day, however you pulled that off. I was so scared, right at the moment where I realized I was going to die. Afraid, and lonely, and angry. I needed time to come to grips with what was happening. To find a measure of peace in my life. The way you did.

And I have. More or less.

Because I did have a pretty great day today! If people ask you if you're okay, and why were you acting so weird, I apologize, I really don't know how to be you. But boy, people do like you! You're friends with so many other folks here at the school, and like Rachel, you come by it naturally. I don't have time to tell you all of the shit in my life, and the less you know, the better, but I spent almost all my teenage years locked away in a dungeon. Yes, literally. That fucks a person up. I mean, duh, but yeah. It damaged me deeply. But I think seeing what I could be like, the person I could have become if I was given the right chance and the proper circumstances, was healing. Kind of like watching an ugly little cygnet turn into the most amazing swan!

By the way, I got you roped into a class project with Kate, Victoria, and Rachel. Sorry if it accidentally wrecks anything you already had in mind, but I think you'll like it. I'm pretty sure you'll agree it's important, if nothing else.

So, I ate too much food at the diner, and I got to talk to Joyce, and I got to talk to Chloe, too. Your Chloe. I told you a bunch about mine already in some of the pages in your journals.

And I got to talk to my parents, Max.

Your parents, but still mine, too! You have no idea how happy that made me. I don't want to freak you out, but in my timeline, my folks got their minds crazy damaged. Their memories of me were taken away from them. In one possible future, the damage was repaired, but not without someone else paying the price. So - uh. It really doesn't matter. Where I'm from, or what happened to it. All I care about is that for the first time in two or three years, I got to hear their voices! They told me they loved me, and I told them I loved them back.

That alone was worth it.

It won't be long now. I'm heading up to the roof. I wish I had more time to tell you about myself. About what I saw, and did. But some of it, a lot of it, was bad. Horrible. Shit you don't need haunting you. But I also had an absolutely amazing last week. Like the universe knew my time was coming to an end, and gave me all those days as a final send off. I got to see my best friend for the first time in five years. I got to help her heal, and move away from all the pain and trauma she'd been living with after her dad died. We fell in love. We made love. We even joined up with Rachel and Victoria, though it was mostly because they were trying to bring us in to the Zaibatsu for a five million dollar payday.

That...yeah. I'm gonna leave you hanging on that one. Don't ask them about it though. Trust me. They probably wouldn't understand.

But I got to see that everything is going to be okay. Really, that's all I can tell you, Max. No matter what. Everything is going to be absolutely great now. I promise. Please don't lose that amazing spirit of yours. Of ours. That fearless courage. Do me a favor, and keep living the way you have been up 'til now. Not for me, or for anyone else, but for yourself!

I feel like there's a million more things I should be writing here. I could fill this whole book.

But I'm tired, Max. I'm suddenly so tired. And It's time to put this story to bed.

Keep having the best life. And thank you for letting me have a day of it.

Love forever,

The Once and Future Max Caulfield.

Up on the roof, where in another reality, she talked Kate into stepping back and choosing to live, the weariness that began creeping through Max's bones continued to weigh her down. She could feel her energy fading away, bit by tiny bit. Already, the distant glow of false dawn was chasing away the thick of the darkness.

She clutched the smartphone in her hand, fingers tapping away as she inputed a complicated sequence of letters and numbers, just as she did in New York City. There was one last person to call. A few final questions to have answered. Then she could watch the sunrise...and stop.

Just stop.

She leaned back against the wall next to the door, and slowly sunk down into a sitting position, as she heard the phone ring on the other end.

Be nice if this works. If she picks up. I mean, not anything I can do about it if she doesn't.'d be nice.

After a good twenty seconds, the line was answered. A voice inquired, "Are you there?"

Max took a breath, smiled to herself, and answered, "Hello, Camilla. This is Max Caulfield."

Dead silence filled the line. She waited a few seconds before asking, "Are you there?"

"W-what?" Camilla stammered. "Yes. Yes! My God. Are you really her?"

"Yeah," Max said quietly. "It's me. You got my big long letter, I see. Anyhow, sorry for not calling before, but I couldn't have done it before today. And I won't be able to do it after. Ever again. It's...complicated."

"That's putting it mildly! Of course, I'd always hoped something like this might happen, but I had absolutely no reason to believe it ever would. Your letter made it quite clear that when you created this new timeline, you'd have no memory about or knowledge of me. About anything related to all of us. And after keeping you under observation for the better part of a year, I had no reason to believe otherwise."

"Hah. Yeah, I know. I saw. In 2010, I think? You sent Alanna to probe her, right? Spill the coffee on her...the Max of this timeline, I mean. She wrote about it in her journal, but she thinks Alanna was just some overemotional wacko. You and I know better." She paused. "Okay, out of curiosity? What did your scan show?"

"Well, clearly you weren't a Special. But there were some curious anomalies. Nothing I would expect to see in a normal human. So you weren't a Special, but you weren't exactly not a Special, either. In your letter, you said your plan was to convince your younger self to somehow not Emerge? Which, to the best of my knowledge, is absolutely impossible."

"Neat." Max breathed out. "

"Obviously, whatever you did worked to the point where she didn't develop powers, but you...she...was changed. In ways I've never been able to fully understand, not without being able to drag her into my lab and subject her to a battery of tests," Camilla continued. " But as she didn't pose any threat to national security, I left her be."

Well, that probably explains some shit. Like how I got to be here, today. She must have been just 'special' enough to change the game.

With a rising note of concern, she asked, "Max? What's happened? I imagine something extraordinary must have transpired for you to be calling like this."

Max started to laugh. "It occurred to me that this is my last chance to tell you I'm officially resigning from S.O.A.P. and hanging it up as a Damocles agent. Sorry. You can even tell Martinet I fucking quit. Or...don't. I mean...I hope you didn't tell him a damn thing about me? You know, like I asked? I figure you must have kept him in the dark, because you left Young Me alone."

"Ah, the former director hasn't been a problem for a long while. The whole bailiwick is mine now, actually. I do so hate sitting behind a desk most of the time, but you made me realize the importance of ensuring that the right people stay in the right places."

"Ha! Really, no shit? How did you pull that off?"

"Oh! Nothing untoward, I assure you." Camilla said. "Your - pseudo-Emergence - whatever you want to call it, was never an event we could confirm or triangulate with PAN-Opticon. There were also other - ah - complications involved, that I can go into detail about if you like? To be honest, I would have never known about any of it, had I not received your letter. Martinet spent the whole two and a half years of his tenure rattling sabres and threatening to upset the fragile detente that existed between us and the other various Specials groups. With no proper justification whatsoever. Perhaps if he had something to show for it, say, a girl who could manipulate time, or a boy who could cause nuclear explosions, he might have been able to justify his paranoia and unpleasant management style to Homeland Security."

There was a playful lilt in Camilla's voice as she added, "But for some strange reason, he never found out about your letter. I brought Rodrigeuz and Reese into my confidence to secretly monitor you from afar, and for some strange reason, they never told him either." She laughed lightly. "But in the end, he rubbed too many feathers the wrong way. Eventually, a new Secretary took over DHS and personally asked me to take the position. Paul was quite displeased over being - shall we say - cashiered out, but he's no longer a threat to you, or to anyone else."

Max gave a pleased sigh. Maybe it wasn't as viscerally satisfying as personally smashing her way into Martinet's office and emptying a couple of slugs into him, but the fact that he wouldn't hurt another innocent child, take them away from their parents, or kill them outright? It would have to do.

"Cammie, I don't have much time left. The whole reason I'm even able to talk to you is due to a - er - like I said, it's complicated, but long story short? I got one day. One day to take over and see the world. See the way I put it back together. Limited time offer. I've only got a few minutes left. Then I'm gone."

Camilla paused, then asked, uncertain, "Gone?"

"Yeah, poof. The last survivor of the old timeline, fading away. The last dying ember of some massive fire that consumed another time and place. And when I do go, the Max of this timeline gets her life back. All she'll have to show for today is a big fuzzy gap in her memory."

Her voice filling with tension, Camilla asked, "Is there anything I can do to help you? If you tell me exactly what's going on, I might be able to…"

She interrupted her old mentor, "It's okay, Cammie. It's fine. It needs to be this way. I can see it now. Just answer a few more questions for me, okay? While I'm still here to ask."

"O-of course. Anything. Anything...ah. Within reason."

"Hah. Anyhow. New York City. Can't help but notice it's not a hole in the ground. You took care of it?"

"Yes. Yes, we most certainly did. I have to admit, I didn't know what to think, what to believe, when I first got your letter. The day you were supposed to have Emerged, we detected the sudden materialization of an extremely complex and highly structured quantum resonance, which spread out from coast to coast. We couldn't figure out where it came from or why...except that it kept growing stronger as the days went on. After a month I was able to calculate that it was going to build to a certain maximum level sometime in September or October of 2013. I theorized that something happened in the future, the aftermath of which spread out in waves towards the past. Like dropping a pebble into a lake. Once I received your letter, I finally understood what actually occured. Suffice it to say, you are, not to put too fine a point on it, a big damn bloody hero. Without your intelligence, I'm sure we wouldn't have known what to expect. Where precisely to go, what exact resources to bring. Shimiko and I had to develop an entirely new technology in order to keep that young boy's mind in stasis, after you described how his body adapted so quickly to anesthetics. We'd never know to even try that sort of thing without your warnings."

She'd done it. She'd saved New York for certain. The right way. She hoped that the rest of the world would follow suit.

"And this quantum resonance…?" she asked.

"Yes! We took to calling it The Mandala…" Cammie started.

"Is it gone?" Max interrupted. "I mean, is the world safe? You know why I'm asking. You know why it's so important…"

"...yes Max." She could hear the rising note in Camilla's voice as she answered the question. "Everything is perfectly fine. The Mandala disappeared into complete and utter nothingness almost immediately after we subdued the boy. Oh, and to answer one of your other questions in the letter, his name is Chenglei Wong. We've brought him to an extremely isolated oceanic outpost for the time being. Once he's past the flare window, we'll carefully rouse him, and see how he's faring. But there's no sign of any long term temporal-spatial disruptions. No 'cracks' in the bedrock of the universe. Whatever fate consumed your timeline won't be visited on this one. Not that I like to guarantee anything with complete and unquestionable accuracy, and I'll be maintaining constant vigilance for years to come, but I am frightfully smart and clever, and I would bet real, hard currency on everything continuing to be fine"

Max bathed in relief, practically tasting personal redemption. She'd managed to cancel out the greatest mistake she'd ever made in her life. Her first - and last - mission was now well and truly a complete success.

And...and he has a name. I finally found it out! Oh God. Thank you. Thank you for not letting me die some sort of murderer!

"Just...just promise me...I need to hear the words. You're gonna do right by him, okay? Won't try to turn him into a weapon, or keep him away from his parents, or...or cage him up, make him feel like a freak." Her voice was almost a cracking, emotional whisper now, as she spoke.

"Of course, Max." Camilla reassured her. "The first thing I did when I took over as Director was to re-establish the Register. Cost me some political capital, but damnit, I bloodly well earned it. I've gladly crushed the nightmare that Martinet was creating under my boot heel. As long as no Special is an obvious and immediate threat to national security, we're not going to force anything on them. They'll have to be Registered, and we'll keep an eye on them, but that's all. Of course, we're more than happy if they decide they want to join. Sometimes, we even call on them for help and consultation."

Max smiled slyly to herself, "You mean like Rachel and Victoria, last week in New York?"

"Yes, exac-. Wait a moment. How could you possibly have known that?" Camilla asked.

"Alternate timelines, remember?" Max said, half-laughing..

"...of course."

The first fingers of light crept over the horizon. Already, Max could feel the stirrings of a presence that was distinct and different from her own. New Max was waking up, no doubt ready to take her life back for good.

"I only have a couple minutes left. Wish we had more time, you know? So much to ask. And tell each other. No time for that now….heh. No more time at all. Except to say: thank you. It was a massively shitty situation, when you guys took me away from home and kept me prisoner, and I should hate you all. But you kept me sane, watched out for me. You were the closest thing I had to a mother, after Joyce, and my own Mom. You almost made it good, you know? You gave me an amazing education, taught me how to push myself to the limit. There were some decent parts in it, too. In that whole shitpile. So thank you, Cammie. Thank you...and Alanna, and Meredith, and...and Chen and Villanova. And I even fucking forgive Nicole." She was weakly laughing and crying at the same time now.

"Max? I just want to say, I am so sorry. I know it wasn't us, I know we'll never truly appreciate what you went through, or what happened, but at the same time, it was still us! Different versions under different circumstances, but we can't just ignore what that says about us as people. I, for one, will never forgive myself for how I ultimately allowed that terrible man to abuse you in your timeline. If there was anything more I could do to make things right, I would. And...I just want to say, before it's all over, something I never thought I'd get the chance to: You're a hero, Max. You are, quite literally, the greatest hero that history will never remember." Cammie started to lose her cool facade of emotional control, voice growing more fraught with sadness and pride.

"Thank you. Thank you for saving us." Camilla swallowed hard now. "The whole damn bloody world. I just wish I could have gotten a chance to actually know you. As more than just words on paper."

"S'okay...this is good. It's...goodbye, Camilla."

There was a brief pause, before the other woman's voice broke into a gentle sob at last. "Goodbye, poppet."

The line clicked dead.

With the last of her ebbing strength, Max performed a hard factory reset on the phone; it wouldn't do for her other self to be in possession of a direct line to one of the most secret agencies in the entire world.

She took another breath, staring out as the sun peeked over the horizon, and uttered her final words.

"Hey world. Look at me. I was here."

At long last, she was ready to let go.

Well, mostly.

Even after everything today, there was still a part of her, a tiny one, that wanted more. And why not? It was perfectly natural for someone, especially someone young, to want to live. Especially in the future hope of a brighter tomorrow ahead. Of course there were regrets, but then again? Too few to mention.

She was okay with this, with an end that would claim her any moment now. The sun was already shining in her eyes: bright, golden, and luminous. It filled the entirety of her vision.

Maybe she'd lived too brief a time on this planet, and suffered horribly for a good third of her life. But she saved so many people, touched so many lives. Billions on Earth, millions in New York City. Given faith to Kate, when she'd lost her own. Brought peace and a sense of closure to her best friend; the one woman she desperately wanted to love and be loved by. And for the light that now shone in Chloe's eyes, she'd die a thousand times over again.

On top of everything else, she'd been given a single day, remarkable and fantastic, in order to see with her own eyes that her end had meaning and purpose. And before that, she'd had a week; the best farewell present she could have hoped for. To finally taste freedom again. To comfort and be comforted. To laugh, and dance. Cry and mourn. To well and truly live life, warts and all, for however brief a time as the fates saw fit to give her. To take back even a measure of what had been cruelly stolen away from her.

So yes, she was okay with this. With all of this. Because she was going out a hero; the hero she always wanted to be.

I got to be SuperMax. I got to save the world!

What else did she really want?

What more could she possibly need?


A/N: ...

Whew. Well. That's Black Swan, kids. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

It's always weird, doing the very end of a long series. Especially an opus such as this. Hard to believe it's been nearly a whole year since this started. A lot has happened with this story, and in my life in general. While not my longest work, I would say this one was the most...challenging. Technically, I was trying to do a lot of complex, involved things, and I would say that they worked out to only various degrees of success. Indeed, in my darker hours, I would gripe that Black Swan would probably be remembered as my greatest and most successful failure. The first third is always going to be a bit contentious, and if I ever republished this on A3O or the like, I'd probably try to figure out how to make chapter 13 happen as soon as possible, and tell the rest in flashbacks. I don't really know how to pull that off, but I don't think I can republish without at least taking a long hard look at what to do different. Thanks to everyone who persevered through chapters 6-12. I asked a lot of you!

And then there is the fact that I started out wanting to tell primarily an emotional piece and a love story, but made the mistake of creating too interesting and compelling an AU universe, which didn't get explored enough. I really regret that. And then there's the ending, which was like wrestling an armored and chaingun-equipped Kodiak bear to pin down, and was complex as hell to execute. I knew some people were going to like it, and some people were going to hate it, but it was something I've wanted to do artistically for a while, and this felt the most satisfying to me. For the handful of readers who were also here for my Mass Effect fic Once More Unto The Breach, you guys probably didn't know that Corentin IV and I nearly talked ourselves into making Shepard's ending similarly bittersweet. It was going to be revealed that the neurological damaged she did to herself couldn't be fully healed by the Y'gis-nataal, and Shepard's thread would end with her slowly losing her mind and sense of identity, until Liara finally says goodbye to her in a medical facility for the last time, with Holly not able to even recognize her.

But I quickly realized that wasn't going to fly, especially given the sadness that was going to mar Liara's life in the millennium to come. But I could go more...shall we say...Darkonian with a LiS piece, because Donnie Darko is one of two films that Life is Strange borrows heavily from (The Butterfly Effect being the other). Sorry the same time, I was not quite so initially sympathetic to the people who were heavily invested in the story and the characters and who were upset by what appears to be SwanMax's death. For that you do have my apology; I should have been my sympathetic, even though I would still go down this path again.

God knows, I have in equal parts hated and loved this story over the months. Sadly, I even ended up losing a friend due to this story, a while back. Don't want to go into details, but it was something I very much regret happening. But there were times I'd sworn I would never write again after this was done, and yet...ideas never stop coming to me, no matter how much I want to deny them. Like any good film, there is tons and tons of "footage" on the cutting room floor that didn't make it into the final cut. I, of course, know exactly what was in Max's letter to Camilla. I know what she told her, what secret knowledge she used to convince her that she knew her for real. I know what Camilla was doing and why it took her so long to answer the phone. I know what Rachel did when she visited Victoria, and I remember the conversation Alanna and Reese have after she makes a contact scan on Max. I have literally written a chapter or two that were completely tossed out and unused. I have plotted out and almost written a scene where Shimiko, Rachel, Victoria and Camilla all take care of New York.

And thank God I was finally able to give that poor Chinese kid a name at last! :)

Anyhow, I don't want to ramble, because there is stil a lot to get through. I said this before when I finished OMUTB, but...I didn't get to the end alone. A lot of people helped.

First and foremost, thank you to Corentin IV and NuQueerWarhead, my Sisters from Other Misters. I have sung Cory's praises for the better part of three years, and she has taught me so much, not just about writing, either. I was really jazzed she was still willing and ready to help me out on Black Swan, after I kinda-sorta tricked her into helping me with OMUTB ;-D. Her life has gotten so crazy, and while we still talk, I do greatly miss our work together, but more important that that, I miss her incredibly excellent Sinchi writing, which I hope that she will be able to return to someday soon. Thank you, Cory. Now and always *hugs*

And OMFG, NQW, who...btw...happy birthday again, Sis. :-) She and I met almost exactly a year ago when she gave me the most incredible advice for a story of mine. Very quickly, I got her opinion on a "superhero LiS" piece I was kicking around in my head, and she heavily influenced those initial plot seeds. She gave me all sorts of ideas that cast a heavy shadow across the entire series. For instance, she's the reason for the whole running gag about codenames. And then she gave and gave some more, picking up the editing cat-o-nine-tails when Cory needed to sadly step back. Nuqy is one of the most fascinating people I've had the pleasure and privilege to know in my life; she is laser smart and razor sharp. I would say that a lot of the inspiration for "The Last Day' arc came from her excellent "Precious Gifts" stories, which you should check out now. And like Cory, she is very good at making me stop and reconsider story ideas and design choices, pushing me to get to the next level.

Okay, if I don't stop now, I will fill up another 10K with lionization of them both. So let me get to the rest of the thank yous! I always hate naming people because I live in utter fear of accidentally forgetting someone, and slighting them unintentionally

But my deepest thank yous to:

Theodur, metaladdict and Alpenwolf: Who have been there from the start, with both my epic babies. You should check their stuff out, too!

Candle In The Night: Who has been an absolute delight to converse with, a good cheerleader, an excellent sounding board. Thank you for everything.

Reilovernat1213: I haven't seen you in a while, but never forget that you are the reason why Alanna Rodriguez turned into a notable secondary character, and not merely a one-shot throwaway mention for chapter 6.

Darquan0: Binge reader extraordinare. Your passionate feeling for Max will not be forgotten :)

jim89: Holy crap, dude! You and thos reviews of yours! :-D

Grumpycat42, TM Calypso, Guardian of Azarath: You guys came in..I can't quite remember when, but you've been around. Your reviews have been ever appreciated, your loyalty touching. Thank you so much.

Lonesomebard: My fellow Gen X-er, and an accomplished writer on his own. The extra bit where Max reassures herself about how she handled Stella Hill was inspired by what he said. He probably inspired a few other things too. :)

rowanred81: Caesarina of the LiS set, at least in my estimation. We don't get to talk as much as we used to, but I've always been happy to call her my friend.

painkiller08: Someone else I haven't seen a lot and miss as much. Thanks for organizing that online Christmas Party! :)

White Story: You didn't like everything I did, but you always were wiling to chat. I know Grande Dame was more your cup of tea, but thank you for sticking with Black Swan :)

And...and everyone else! I'm so sorry if I can't remember all the names, and all of the exchanges we might have had together over the years, so please don't allow my shitty memory to diminish your importance!. All you quiet readers lurking in the background, all you binge readers tearing through this work in a couple days. Everyone who took the time to say something, or several somethings. Everyone who somehow knew when to write me, when my confidence was low, and I was ready to give in. Everyone who came and supported me from Twiter, and especially from Tumblr! (You Tumblr folks rock!)

To everyone who I should have listed by name: maybe we talked a lot, but it was only for a day, or a week, or a month or two, and we've drifted apart since and now I stupidly can't immediately remember your name...but I could not have gotten here without any of you!

Welp, some folks will want to know where I go from here. I have two weeks vacation and then a rolling six week project at work I need to get through. I have Riotgrrls in Love to kinda...well I have to do SOMETHING about it. Then I have a one shot sequel to Grande Dame I'm kicking around, a possible Chasemarsh BDSM know. I was convinced that my writing days were more or less over after Once More Unto The Breach was done, not realizing that my best days were yet to come. And sure, there are days where I scream to the heavens I want to not write anymore, and will quit, but I think I know, in my heart of hearts, that I will always be around here...for a while, at any rate.

(Though I'm pretty damn sure it will be a very long time before I try an epic length series again! :)

There is one last parting thing I will say: Some readers may note that I appear to have left myself a measure of wiggle room at the very end of this chapter; we never actually see what happens seconds later.

This is intentional.

In a year or two, you may find out why :-).

Stay frosty, kids.