Scars & Souvenirs

thirty-nine

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Max doesn’t sleep that night. She tosses and turns and prays that her parents don’t read the letters. Or that they do, so they can know how hard she has fought to get to where she is. Niall tries to comfort her, but there is nothing he can do. Nothing he says will change how mixed-up she feels, how she can’t decide what is worse.

By the time the sun comes up, she is more tired than when she went to bed, and Niall looks just as exhausted. He kisses away the apologies after they’ve brushed their teeth. Every time she opens her mouth to tell him how sorry she is for keeping him awake all night, his lips are on hers again and stealing away the words.

“Stop it.”

“I’m-”

He places his hand gently over her mouth, frowning. “I would have slept on the couch if it bothered me, okay? So please stop apologising.“

“Just one more?”

“One more,” he says as he rolls his eyes.

“I’m-”

She can’t stop laughing when he kisses her again. Shaking her head, she heads to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee while he answers the door. Katherine‘a voice is the first thing Max hears, and she turns toward the archway as her mother comes into view.

“Morning, Mom.”

“Good morning, sweetheart.”

Her eyes speak volumes. Max knows they read the letters. Katherine draws in a deep breath, but Max beats her to speaking. She tells her mother nothing needs to be said. She understands.

“Baby, it’s not something we ever wanted you to experience. We... we didn’t know how bad it got.”

“Not like I could tell you.”

“I know. I’m so sorry you went through all of that, but your dad and I are so damn thankful you made it through. You won, baby.”

Max hands Niall a mug, placing another three on the countertop. He stays close even as he pours the coffee, and she waits until he’s set the carafe back on the burner to lean into his side. His answering smile is brilliant, beautiful. She wants to drown in it. To make him smile like that every single day. He kisses her hair and passes the mugs to her parents.

Martin sits at the table, shifts awkwardly in the seat. “You know, I don’t think Ann Arbor holds much for us anymore. And we’re getting old, so winters don’t agree with us. Too cold.”

Niall freezes then ducks his head quickly, but not before Max sees the grin tugging at his lips. She frowns and takes a sip of her coffee as she mulls over her father’s words. They still don’t make sense - disconnected from anything they have talked about since her parents arrived.

She wraps her hands around the mug, clinging to the warmth bleeding into her palms. “What do you mean?”

“If you’re okay with it… How would you feel if we moved out here?”

“Are-are you serious?” Max breathes, not daring to believe the words she hears.

“If you’re okay with it,” says Katherine as she joins Martin at the table. “We want to be able to see you as much as possible, to rebuild a relationship with you.”

“Oh, my God. I… Yes! Yes, I’m absolutely okay with that. Please move here.”

“It will take a few months,” her dad warns, but Max shakes her head.

“I don’t care. It could take a year, and I would still be okay with it.” Max turns her head to look at Niall, her heart in her throat. She whispers through her tremulous smile, “They’re moving here to be with me.”

He huffs out a laugh. “So I heard.”

“So what is there to do around here?” asks Martin.

Max has no idea - she rarely leaves her flat, but Niall takes charge. He lists off a variety of attractions in the city, parks and restaurants, and even the beach. He catches Max’s blanch and hurries to imply it might be too cold for the ocean.

Her parents choose the planetarium, so off they go. After that comes lunch, then a walk through the park. Max hears more about her family, how everyone has fared in the last two years. Her heart breaks when Martin tells her that Mister Carver from down the street passed away just before Thanksgiving.

Mister Carver had fruit trees in his backyard, allowing the neighbourhood kids to ‘steal’ as many apples and oranges and lemons as they wanted. His wife made sweets in the winter and passed them out to everyone on their street. Every Halloween, the Carvers could be relied on for full-sized candy bars and caramel apples wrapped in spooky cellophane. Hearing the woman is now alone makes Max wish she was back in Ann Arbor.

Once night falls and her parents are tucked away in her flat, Max pulls down the comforter on Niall’s bed then sits on the edge of the mattress. He understands - god, when will he stop being able to read her like a book? - and tugs on her hands. She curls against his body, presses her face to his chest.

“What if they regret moving here?”

“Why would they?” He pulls away when she doesn’t respond, and she glances up at him in time to see his brows drawing together. “You still think they won’t love you for who you are now.”

“I’m different and-and broken.”

“Thomas told you that you weren’t broken, love. You just have things in your past you’re working through.”

“What if I can’t be what they want me to be?”

“They want you. They aren’t your ex. They don’t expect you to be perfect. They just want to have a relationship with their daughter who is brave and strong and beautiful and smart and-”

Max giggles despite herself, kissing the bare skin of his collarbone. “Wow, plying me with compliments. What do you want?”

“Whatever you’ll give me,” he whispers as he nudges her face up.

The kiss starts off soft, slow, and Max closes her burning eyes at the tenderness. An unfamiliar heat flares in her belly, a tendril of something she can’t identify. She hasn’t ever felt it before. Niall’s hand runs along her back until it rests in the curve at the base of her spine. Max exhales sharply, lips parting beneath his, and he takes it as permission.

The sweetness disappears. It morphs into a feeling even she, with all of her inexperience, can recognise as want. Desire. She trembles but fights through the fear; this is strange territory. Lands she has never stepped foot in before. She trusts him. Her hands curl around his shoulders, and Niall comes willingly where she leads. His body blankets hers, a warm solid line she instinctively arches into.

“Fuck, Max…” he groans against her lips, and she huffs out a fragile laugh.

“Please?”

His head snaps backwards, and he stares down at her. She squirms under the scrutiny, regrets speaking when his face twists up and he blows out a breath. Finally, he presses his forehead against hers. He doesn’t say a word, but then he’s kissing the corner of her mouth, her cheeks, along the curve of her jaw.

“Are you sure?”

Max hesitates. She isn’t sure. She has no idea if she is ready for this. But if there’s anyone she wants to try with, it’s him. It’s the man who has saved her and protected her and built her back up into being a whole. The man who has loved her enough for the both of them when she couldn’t love herself.

Instead of replying, she reaches up and places her hand on the back of his head. He follows where she leads, kissing her with a force that should scare her. She dives headfirst into it anyway. She’s his, and being his means trusting him. Loving him like this means allowing him access to the parts she has kept hidden, locked away, for so long.

Niall undresses her carefully, glancing up at her with each touch. Max nods every time. She thinks she wants this closeness. To know what it feels like to give herself wholly to someone who deserves it. He presses his lips to her skin - her belly, her hips, her thighs, even her ankles as he drops her pyjama bottoms on the floor. He sits back on his heels and meets her eye.

“Tell me to stop, and I will.”

“Don’t.”

With a quick nod, he gently pushes her legs until they part, give him enough room to settle between her thighs. Max wishes she could hide away, but she can’t. She started this. She needs to follow through. Her lungs constrict, and a gasp bursts free with the first touch of his lips to her core. It’s... unknown, attention she has never experienced.

Her body reacts as her mind starts screaming, telling her to get away. Her stomach jolts as he works his tongue and lips in tandem, and heat pools in her gut when he licks into her. Is this what it’s supposed to feel like? Even in the beginning, Gabriel had never given her this kind of happiness. He’d only cared about himself, forced himself into her until her body gave way.

Niall slides a hand under her thigh, fingertips pressing firmly into her skin, as he drapes her leg over his shoulder. Max listens to the heavy breathing, the whining, whimpering that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. It takes a moment to realise - she is making those sounds.

The heat grows hotter, her legs tightening around him and quaking with the tension squeezing her more and more. Her fingers lace in his hair, and she cries out at the tidal wave crashing through her.

Her head falls to the pillow. She gasps and struggles to draw in enough oxygen as he works her through the first orgasm of her life. I love you I love you I love you. Niall kisses the inside of her thigh, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and clambers across the bed to lie beside her. His fingers trail up her belly, to her breast, and he chuckles even while he kisses her.

“That was fuckin’ beautiful, Max.”

Before she can respond, he’s moving away. The nightstand drawer scrapes along the track, and rustling comes from his side of the bed. He drops back next to her with a foil-wrapped square in his hand. She hesitates then watches as he opens the packaging. Her gaze drifts along his body, memorising the planes of his chest, the subtle divots of his abdomen, the shaking of his thighs. Then she gets distracted with the smoothness to his movements as he rolls on the condom.

He sucks in a breath at the touch of his own hand, but then he’s moving to kneel between her legs once more. She swallows thickly. Fear flickers to life; what if she can’t actually do this? It will disappoint him, and he will grow to resent her for not reciprocating. Her doubts only grow when she looks along her body to see, really see, everything he’s offering.

She honestly wonders if he will even fit inside of her. Her only basis of comparison is her ex-husband. Gabriel wasn’t particularly large, but Niall… Niall definitely is. In contrast to Gabriel, anyway.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” The lie quivers in the air, and she hopes he doesn’t hear the truth. She has to do this.

Unfortunately, even with how slow he moves, an aching fire races through her. Pain and panic make it worse, and she grits her teeth as he pushes into her. He is nearly vibrating with his own need, but he doesn’t rush. Inching into her steadily and giving her a moment to adjust. It’s everything she wished Gabriel had allowed.

The glow of her orgasm abruptly vanishes. Niall pushes forward once more, then his hips settle against her. Max bites her tongue against the tears. She doesn’t want this anymore. Bile rises in her throat. Still, she doesn’t say anything.

Niall pulls back, sets up a gentle pace, and Max clenches her fingers in the bedspread. She doesn’t tell him to stop. She closes her eyes so she won’t see his face, the disgust in his eyes when he realises she will never be able to give him what he wants.

A memory of Gabriel, in much this same position, flashes behind her eyes. His body pins her to the mattress. She can’t breathe with the hand on her throat, can’t scream for him to stop. Agony and terror go hand-in-hand with sex.

His thrusts are too rough, splitting her open with no regards to her well-being. Her head swims with the lack of oxygen. She comes to with his hips jerking, his hand spasming around her throat, and the stench of beer on his breath.

“Max? Max, darling, open your eyes. It’s okay, I promise, just… Please look at me.”

The pain is gone, lingering only as a mild ache. She feels empty and cold, and Niall is at the end of the bed when she finally obeys with his request. He’s tugged his pyjama pants back on, covered her with a blanket. She bolts upright and, shoving the comforter aside, scrambles off the bed. His footsteps don’t follow as she scurries into the bathroom and slams the door behind her.

Of course she’s messed this up. Max barely makes it to the toilet before she is gagging, vomiting, sobbing. She knows he will never love her after this. She will be left alone because she can’t do one simple thing for him. She couldn’t just let him have this. She ruined it. After scrubbing her teeth, she shuts off the light and climbs into the bathtub.

Goosebumps race up her flesh as she settles against the cold porcelain, and she shivers before curling up as tightly as she can. She doesn’t know how to breathe through the tears and snot, and she isn’t sure she wants to. Maybe if she stays here, she will suffocate. She will never be able to make such a horrible mistake.

“Can I come in?” Niall gives her a moment to reply. She doesn’t. “I… I’m not going to make you talk, Max, but I wanna bring you a blanket. Is that okay?”

She croaks out her permission, and the door slowly opens. Light from the hallway spills through the crack. Niall doesn’t say anything as he digs for something in the medicine cabinet. A click, whoosh, and the candle is burning on the counter.

Freshly washed linen. She chose this candle on their last shopping trip. The cinnamon-apple one made her too hungry all the time. The flame flickers merrily, beaming through the dark both in the room and in Max’s chest.

The candlelight casts Niall’s face into shadows, a sharp silhouette of a man she’s let down. He drapes the comforter over Max where she lies in the bottom of the tub, crouching beside her. His hands fold together on his knees. He doesn’t touch her. She wants him to touch her. She doesn’t want him to touch her.

“Just so you know, I’m not angry with you. I’m concerned that you didn’t tell me to stop, but I’m not angry. I couldn’t ever be angry with you, especially not over something like this. But Max? If we ever try again, I want you to enjoy it, too. What I want isn’t important if you don’t want it.”

This is a trick. A trap, a plea for her to let her guard down so he can punish her. For what? For lying to him. For not letting him use her body for his own pleasure. For starting something she couldn’t finish.

“Do you want me to leave you alone?”

She nods, a slow dip of her chin. Her stomach churns at the spike of panic shooting up her spine. Another way she has failed. But he smiles at her so sweetly, and she wants to believe he means it when he says he isn’t angry. That he’ll be in the bedroom whenever she wants to come out. That there is no rush and will never be. He'll wait.

She wants to believe that he will still love her tomorrow.

He stops at the door, hand on the knob, and looks at her over his shoulder.

“Nothing has to happen tonight. Or ever, if you don’t want to. I’m gonna be here no matter what.”

He closes the door, and the tears come again. How could she not trust him? How could she ever compare what he’s given her with what Gabriel did? He has never been like Gabriel, not even when he shouted at her in December. He’s been so kind and loving. He showed her what it is to have someone care. What it is to have another’s attention in a way she’s never experienced.

Thomas was wrong: Max is beyond broken, and her desire to be whole will never be fulfilled. She’s a fool to ever have thought otherwise.