Scars & Souvenirs

forty-one

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Thomas is gobsmacked when Max tells him her parents visited over the weekend. His pen stays poised over the notebook, though he doesn’t write anything, and he stares at her with wide eyes. When he finally asks her how it went, his voice is oddly strangled.

Max frowns and shrugs before saying it went fine. Her parents were great, especially when meeting her friends. She also admits that she showed them the letters she’s written over the years. Then her words disappear, vanish into nothing. He cocks his head.

“What’s on your mind?”

“They want to move here to be with me.” She blows out a breath and continues, “And before you ask, I’m both okay and not okay with it. On one hand, I get to see them whenever I want if they do. But on the other, I haven’t seen them for five years, because of my ex. So it’s going to be a massive change, and I’m... I’m so tired of change. I want stability now.”

“Okay, why are you paying me if you’re going to do my job for me?” Thomas laughs, shaking his head, and sets aside the notepad. Max shrugs and giggles; he has a point. “In all seriousness, it’s understandable to be so scared. I’d be terrified if I were you. But this weekend went well, and that should lend some comfort toward future visits going just as well. Do you really think your parents would be upset or hate you if there are a few backslides?”

Max hesitates but the question has an immediate answer, even if she doesn’t voice it. Her mom and dad would do their best to support her. They would never leave her to fight through on her own. She knows it isn’t going to be easy - not when the thought terrifies her to her core - but she wants to do this.

Thomas seems to agree. He leans forward, a gentle smile on his lips, and says, “You can do this. I have no doubt about that. After all, you’ve fought for a lot more than this.”

“My life?”

“Your life.”

She leaves the appointment feeling more at ease, as if this is something she can do. A relationship with her parents is finally in her grasp. She makes the decision to not let it slip through her fingers.

Nikki flops down onto the couch, and her head immediately lands in Max’s lap. The last few days have been hectic for all of them, especially Nikki and Niall.

School is nearing its end,. They both have struggled to draft up end-of-year testing to ensure their students are ready to move on to the next year. Max has only been able to listen to their incessant ramblings and ply them with food.

“I’m bored. Let’s go to the beach.”

“Who?”

“All of us, duh. Liam and Harry agreed already, but Louis has to work. Zayn will be on board if everyone else is.”

Max chews on her lower lip as she plays with her friend’s hair. It’s an awful idea. Nikki lets out a soft sigh before meeting Max’s eye. Her face twists up into an exaggerated pout, and Max can’t stop herself from giggling. Finally, she agrees - if only to get Nikki to stop begging so pathetically.

It isn’t until they’ve settled down in the sand, Harry rushing toward the water, that Max realises no one besides Nikki and Niall have seen the scars on her body. The imperfections that mar her skin. As always, he knows what she is thinking. He reaches for her hand, squeezing gently, and assures her she doesn’t have to do anything she isn’t comfortable with.

She hesitates before removing the T-shirt that covers her body, the leggings she chose to wear even in the sweltering heat. Liam grins as she drops the clothes to the sand, and Nikki leans into her side. Zayn passes over a soda.

There are no questions. No pitying looks. They all accept that she has her scars, and Max could cry with the relief. Niall leans over to kiss her temple, his lips warm against hot skin and murmuring how proud he is.

Even Nikki taking pictures can’t disrupt the pleased ecstasy that Max embraces.

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Niall isn’t doing anything differently than usual. He grades papers, helps Max cook dinner, and keeps his foot pressed to hers under the table. They cuddle on the couch as they normally do.

But then she looks at him, and it’s exactly like her mother said: There is nothing special about this moment, this random Tuesday evening, but it’s everything. He’s loved her and stayed by her side even when she thought he’d walk away. The fear vanishes.

Max doesn’t know how to say what she is thinking or feeling, so she does what she can. He hums in his throat, momentarily freezing, as she kisses him. She wraps her hand around the back of his neck while the other drifts along his chest, stomach. Niall grabs her wrist when her fingers slip beneath the waistband of his jeans.

“Love, what are you doing?”

Her face heats up with mortification - does he not want this? - and she presses her face into the curve where his shoulder meets throat. “I just…”

He understands more than she’s able to say. He nudges her face toward his and brushes his lips to hers once more. Whispering for her to follow, he helps her to her feet. Max trembles as she follows him to the bedroom, her fingers laced with his, and her stomach lurches.

But she wants this. More desperately than she’s ever known. She wants to love him as he deserves, as she deserves. She’s ready. Another kiss, then Niall releases her hand and moves to stand in the centre of the room.

“What-what are you doing?”

His smile is too tender for the nervousness that fills her veins. “You set the pace, love.”

Max hesitates then takes a tentative step forward. He stands still with his hands at his sides, and the lack of movement emboldens her. She takes another step, then another, then another, until she’s stood right in front of Niall. His eyes track her movements as her shaking hands come up to rest on his shoulders.

She breathes as steadily as possible while pushing his shirt up. His skin is warm, soft, beneath her fingertips. He only moves to raise his arms, but then they’re back at his sides as she drops the T-shirt to the floor. Max drags her hands along his chest; hair tickles her palms, and she presses her hand firmly above his heart. The rhythmic thump is soothing, and she relaxes further.

Niall helps her by stepping out of his jeans once they’re at his ankles. He doesn’t move after that. Max inhales sharply as he stands before her in only his briefs, white cotton a contrast to his tanned skin. She swallows down the nerves and slides her hands under the band, pushing them down. Her gaze lowers to the floor as she crouches - she’s too afraid to take in his body. What if the sight is too much?

“I’m gonna lie down now, okay?” he murmurs, his hand running over her hair. “Whenever you’re ready, sweetheart. No rush at all.”

She nods and closes her eyes, listens to the rustle of the blanket. Silence. Her pulse thunders in her ears, stomach clenching, heart racing. She’s ready for this, isn’t she? Yes. The small voice shows no hesitation, is quick to assure her that she has waited for this moment her entire life.

Head spinning, she slowly climbs onto the mattress beside him. He doesn’t move. Fire and ice embrace her, welcome her into their grip, The sensation shifts along her skin like twin snakes, roiling and dancing as one, and she gasps in a breath. When she meets his eye, Niall is gazing at her with a soft smile on his face.

No pressure. No demands. Only love.

He twitches when her hand rests on his chest once more, but he stays still. She traces the planes of his chest with her fingertips, and watches in wide-eyed wonder, as his chest rises and falls. A steady cadence that sends her careening too close to the edge. The way his heart beats under her touch promises nothing but goodness.

Vows who he is is exactly what she’s shown her time and time again.

Max slides her fingers up the column of his throat and along his jawline then back to his collarbone. Niall doesn’t move as she explores the expanse of warm, solid flesh beneath her hands. The embarrassment she’d felt at his suggestion is gone, wiped from the slate and replaced by awe that he’s allowing this. That he meant it when he said this was her decision to make.

He’s perfect and real and so much nothing of what she deserves. He has his own baggage, but he’s better.

She doesn’t care. She wants this. She loves him more than she hates herself.

Leaning down to paint his mouth with her kiss, Max focuses on the way his lips move under hers and the taste on her tongue. His muscles flutter at the soft touch of her hand as it slides down his belly. He inhales when her fingers brush his hip, the barest touch before her confidence increases.

Max prays to a god long forgotten that this doesn’t end. This is what she wants. Needs. More than the air she breathes, she needs his love.

Time loses all sense of importance, and she loses herself in the kiss. In the heat of his body and the endless patience he holds for her while she grows more familiar with every inch of his body. In the hitching of his breath and the minute shivers that race through her. An easy lightness fills her soul as her mouth moves across his jaw, down his throat, memorising the dips and planes.

Max can’t get enough. All fears and doubts flee in the face of his smile. Warmth pools in her gut, a heady rush that rocks her to the core. She breathes out slowly, closing her eyes, as she hovers over him.

His hands clench into fists in the comforter. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t touch her, doesn’t force her, doesn’t push her for more even as she gasps aloud. It’s never been like this.

Even when Gabriel was perfect, it was never like this.

“Touch me, please,” she whispers into the air between them, her breathing shaky but heart lighter than it has ever been. She longs for more. “It’s okay, you-you can touch me.”

Niall moves his hands to settle on her hips without hesitation. Max nods, palms pressed to his shoulders, and her nails bite into the skin even as she struggles to adjust to the stretch. Everything hurts in the most pleasant of ways, as if the pain is little more than a candle to illuminate the path ahead. Her breath puffs out of her as the ache turns to one of desire.

She lets him guide her, and her veins burst into a kaleidoscope of dazzling starburst. This is what it means to be loved, to be cherished, and to love and cherish what’s before her. Her eyes fall closed against the tears. He murmurs encouragement and praises as she dives headfirst into everything he gives and takes.

His fingers skim along her sides, and she follows where he leads. The kiss is sloppy, too soft to amount to much but more than anything she could have dreamt of. The ghosts of her past still reside somewhere in the recesses of her mind, but they have been blown out of focus by the heaven she and Niall have carved out of reality.

Max moans quietly, heart pounding for a different reason, as his hand runs up and down her spine. His hips push up to meet her thrust for thrust, but it’s gentle. A tenderness she breathes in, her exhalations releasing the agony she’s held onto for all these years.

She kisses him harder, hopes he understands what she tries to say without words.

“I could fall in love with you,” she says, voice soft and pleading to tell him the truth. She has fallen in love with him, and she will forever be his.

No one else will ever take his place.

Niall kisses the words away, tightening his hold on her neck, and moves more surely beneath her. Max trembles at the tenderness, the sharp puffs of breath that are punched from her lungs, the gasps and whimpers falling from her lips. She reaches blindly for his free hand.

He accepts the permission it is. Her body shifts into his touch, though it’s awkward and stilted, and she pushes against his chest to sit upright. Niall’s hand falls from her hair; his nails drag against her skin, and Max shivers as her thighs begin to burn. One hand on her hip while the other brings her closer to the edge, Niall watches her.

There is no need for his worry. There is no fear or panic as she lifts and lowers herself. As their bodies meet, over and over and over again.

His eyes meet hers, so knowing and brilliant blue in the soft light of the bedside lamp. “I could fall in love with you, too.”

She hears the words he isn’t saying - I love you, too.

Max cries out as she shatters apart.
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