Scars & Souvenirs

forty

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“You’re awfully quiet, honey. Is everything okay?”

Max nods at her mother’s question then shakes her head. “Not-not really.”

“What happened?”

Max huddles into the jacket she grabbed on her way out the door. She hasn’t spoken to Niall since last night when she practically begged him to make love to her. When she lied, said she was sure about what they were doing. She wasn’t even able to look him in the eye this morning when she clambered out of the bathtub where she spent the night.

Her body aches from sleeping in the tub and the remnants of having Niall inside of her. He had been so gentle, but she can’t scrub herself clean. The mortification and self-hatred cling to her without remorse, each icy tendril wrapped tightly and whispering that Niall is going to walk away. No matter what he said, he will never mean it. After all, what man can go without sex in a relationship?

Gabriel certainly couldn’t. Niall can’t be that different.

“Makenzie?”

Max sniffles and wipes away her tears. Katherine pulls her to a stop, disregarding the others on the pier. Martin’s arm wraps around Max’s shoulders. She doesn’t deserve this affection. The comfort. She deserves to be alone in her rotten world, where no one can ever think they love her again.

“I had a panic attack last night. While Niall and I were, uh, being intimate.” She cuts a glance at her father, embarrassed with the topic. He only stares back. No judgement resides in his eyes. “He tried, but I freaked out and fucked everything up.”

Katherine’s face falls in sympathy, and she strokes a thumb over Max’s cheek. “Oh, baby, I’m sure you didn’t. How did he handle it?”

“Okay, I guess. No, actually, he handle it really well. He gave me space and promised he wasn’t angry. I can’t tell if he was lying or not.”

Martin frowns and turns to stare out over the sea. Max exchanges a look with her mom, who shrugs in response. Steeling her spine, Max leans against her dad.

“I thought you liked Niall.”

“I do. As much as I can like any decent man who’s maybe-dating my baby girl. I just...” Martin scrubs a hand over his face and smiles down at her. Sadness paints every facet of his face. “I just wish it could have been different for you. I hate that you two only met because of the circumstances.”

“Better late than never, right?”

“He really is wonderful, Mack. He’s got some horrors in his past, doesn’t he?” Martin looks askance at his daughter without turning toward her. As if he’s afraid of her answer.

“Yeah. He has things he’s still working through. And he still deals with my bullshit.”

Katherine snorts and rests her elbows on the railing. “That’s how you know you love each other. Letting him in, him helping you... He’s everything we ever wanted for you.”

Silence reigns as the trio walks back to the car. Max chews on her lip during the drive, unable to voice her thoughts. She is absolutely certain that she is in love with Niall, but it isn’t a guarantee that he feels the same. Or that he will for long.

Her parents leave for the airport shortly before four, insisting on hailing a cab instead of Max or Niall having to fight traffic. Katherine swears she will call as soon as they make it home. Martin shakes Niall’s hand and thanks him again for everything he has done to keep Max safe. One last embrace, then her parents are gone again.

At least this time, it is with the knowledge that they will be back soon.

Max locks the door and rests her head against the wood. She has so much to say but no clue where to begin. An apology. That’s what she should start with. Showing remorse for her behaviour last night.

“Niall?” She waits until she feels his body heat behind her, closing her eyes to find her strength. “I’m... I’m so sorry for last night. I just-”

“Shh, it’s okay.”

His fingers brush along her shoulder, then he pulls her closer. His heartbeat thumps against her shoulders, and she finds herself matching her breaths with his. When he speaks again, his lips are at her ear.

“I meant every word I said last night. I wasn’t angry. I’m still not. I only wanted you to be honest with me. I, I’m concerned that you think my pleasure was worth putting yourself through Hell.”

“I wanted to make you feel good, like you made me feel,” she admits; her voice breaks, and she turns in his arms to bury her face in his chest. “I tried, and it only made things worse.”

“Nothing is ‘worse’. Nothing between us is even bad. Please don’t ever think I will hate you or punish you for putting yourself first. Especially in that situation. Now c’mon, I need some cuddles with you.”

She can’t help it: She giggles and lets him lead her to the couch. They fall together in a sprawl of limbs, her stretched out on top of him, and his arms immediately come up to wrap around her waist. She rests her head on his chest, listening to his breathing. The steady thump of his heart. The odd gurgles of his stomach every so often.

“Can I ask you something?”

His words vibrate in his chest, and Max closes her eyes. She knows what he’s going to ask. She can already hear the question: Why don’t you trust me enough to actually have sex with me? She wishes she had an answer.

She nods.

“Why did you hide in the bathtub?”

She pauses. That isn’t the inquiry she expected. If she’d had to guess at what she would hear, that wouldn’t even be on the list. “What?”

“Don’t think you have to answer. I was just curious.”

“I hide in the tub because...” She clears her throat and tries to speak through the tightness, “It started when I was married to him. I thought I could wash away his sins he inflicted on me. That I could burn and scrub the filth of him off my skin. That I could be clean, even if only for five minutes.”

She can see, when she looks up at him, that the answer breaks his heart. That he is saddened by what she’s just told him. There is no pity in his eyes. She can find no ‘poor girl’ gleam in the sea of blue. Max loves him that much for that. His pity would destroy her.

Warmth blossoms under her ribs, and it takes a moment to recognise it for what it is: Pride. She reconnected with her mom and dad. She was honest with her parents, with herself, with Niall. She tried, though failed, at being close with him in a way she never would have dared before. She lets herself revel in the pride and the heat of her love for Niall and his love for her.

When his stomach growls again, Max laughs and pushes herself off of him. He slowly sits up, stretching his arms over his head, and scrunches up his face. Max thinks it’s unfair that he can be so adorable at his age. He stands, reaching for her hand, and kisses her forehead. She closes her eyes and smiles to herself, giggling when he tells her he is too lazy to cook.

“Pizza?”

“Pizza.”

She chews on her lower lip, fidgets with the hem of her T-shirt. “Can we get pepperoni, sausage, and green peppers on it?”

“On half, sure. I’m getting mushrooms on my half.”

They eat in comfortable silence, though Max twitches in surprise when his foot hooks around her ankle under the table. She cleans up while he showers, then it’s her turn. He kisses her at the door before heading to the living room. She turns off the light and steps into the tub once the water is going.

She dresses in one of his sweaters and a pair of leggings then joins him in the living room. He’s made her a cup of tea. Steam spirals from the top, and tears prick in her eyes. It’s such a simple action, having tea ready for her, but she never had that before. She never experienced anyone caring enough to make her life easier.

Max drops to sit on the far end of the couch, and he rolls his eyes with a smile as he scoots closer. On his lap is a pile of papers, a binder sitting open next to him, and a pen rests between his ear and skull. She nudges him with her foot.

“Want some help?”

He sighs and tells her about the science lesson for the week - insects and their place on the food chain - and she frowns while she tries to dredge up memories of her time in fourth grade. The activities her teacher thought up to make the lessons more interesting, more engaging. As they bounce ideas off of each other, Max reaches for her laptop where it sits on the table.

The flat falls into peaceful silence. He writes in the binder and grades homework, and she edits the manuscript assigned to her. She isn’t sure when she places her feet in his lap, knocking the papers aside, but she notices when his fingers wrap around her ankle. Press into the arch of her feet. Even as he focuses on his own task, he makes sure she’s relaxed, taken care of.

How could she have doubted his love for her?
♠ ♠ ♠
just a reminder: once this story is finished, i will be taking it down. there will be a couple weeks between the finish and removal, so you'll still have some time.