Sorry this took forever again, guys. Please don't hate me!
Note to Emmy – I'm sorry you have trouble sleeping. So do i. But if good stories help you sleep, try checking out some books by Malinda Lo, especially 'Adaptation'. They're all sci-fi/fantasy books about bi/lesbian teenage girls kicking ass and saving the world. Pretty cool!
Hugging Max was such a bizarre thing.
In private, it was great. It was warm and soft. Or tight and desperate. It often led to snuggling and kissing and staring into her eyes for hours like some totally pathetic movie character. Talking about deep stuff – stuff she didn't tell anybody else. It was the only thing she wanted at the end of a bad day, and the only sure-fire way she knew how to cheer Max up when she was sad.
But hugging her in public? That was an empty thing. It was stiff, functional. Sometimes it was as if Max didn't even smell the same. It was more about the strangers around them than it was about them. Today at lunch, for example – they'd greeted each other with a hug, rather than a kiss. And now, they sat side by side at a sushi train, deliberate space between them. It didn't make her feel warm. It made her feel like her relationship wasn't worthy of being seen – that it wasn't meant for daylight. That her feelings for Max were abnormal and weird and ugly.
It made her feel like there was something wrong with her.
She felt Max nudge her, breaking her from her reverie. "I can practically hear you thinking," Max chuckled, deftly popping some sushi in her mouth. "What's up?"
There was something about her smile that made Etta forget she'd ever felt bad. She smiled back. "Nothing. I'm just glad you're here." Feeling herself blush, she glanced up at the sushi train cruising past them. "Want some more of the cucumber ones? They were addictive."
"Are you sure I can't tempt you with some salmon?" Max joked.
"Come on…" she coaxed. "It's really tasty."
"It's a murdered animal!" Etta laughed back. "I have morals. You can't drag me down."
"You sure? Go on, you know you want to!" Max lifted a piece of salmon sushi with her chopsticks, waving it in the direction of Etta's face.
"No!" Etta laughed through her feigned terror. She waved her arms as if to put up great resistance. "Somebody, help! I'm being attacked!"
Max clamped a hand over her mouth, and Etta wished in that moment that Max would use her lips instead to make her stop talking. So she playfully kissed the girl's palm.
But Max's laughter halted for one panicked second. It was so brief you might have missed it, but Etta saw the way her eyes flashed around, to see if anyone was looking at them. Max withdrew her hand, turned back to her food.
Etta did the same. She was used to this by now – this routine where she pretended Max's touch didn't electrify her. Some sacrifices were worth making, she reminded herself. She didn't want to have this argument again. Not today.
Fiddling with her chopsticks, she asked, "You're still coming tomorrow, right?"
"Of course," Max told her, a slight smile adorning her face. "It's your birthday. The big one-six. I'd never miss it."
"Are you feeling OK about it?"
"I can handle it," Max told her, though her bravado seemed forced to Etta. "Your family's been nice to me so far, so meeting more of them can't be so bad, right?"
"They already love you."
Max snorted. "Your aunt and cousin haven't met me."
"Well, they like the idea of you. You're practically all I ever talk about."
"Speaking of which…" Max chewed her lip a little. "My brother's coming down from New York soon. Mom and Dad won't let him spend Christmas with us, but he always finds a way to visit me over break." She swallowed, pushed food around her plate. "Anyway, he doesn't know…about me. About what I am. You know?"
Etta made a face. "Max, you're not a gremlin. You're just g-"
"The point is," Max cut her off before she could say the word. Etta realised that she'd never heard her say it. Max still seemed far too uncomfortable to ever associate herself with that label. "The point is… I want to tell him."
"I've been reading some stuff online about it," Max continued, starting to ramble. "I think it's time, you know? Like, he's my brother, for fuck's sake. He should know. And he loves me to death, so it's not like he'd flip out… Right?"
"Well, I don't really know much about your brother," Etta reasoned, looking her in the eye with sympathy. "But if he really loves you that much then it should be OK. Like, he might be shocked at first, but he'll get over it. And if you need anything from me, just ask, OK?"
"Well actually, I was kind of hoping you could…that you could be there, you know?"
That floored her. It was so rare for Max to let her into her life like this.
Max must have noticed the surprise on her face, because she started to back track. "If you don't want to, that's OK."
"No, I'd love to. Whatever you need." She wanted to take Max's hand then, but decided against it. Not here.
Max caught the mood shift and decided to change the subject. "Don't you have to meet your cousin soon?"
"Shit," Etta breathed, checking her watch. "Yeah, you're right."
They split the bill and headed out to catch a subway. Ella had promised to take Etta shopping for her birthday, so Etta was going to meet her while Max went home. They would need to take separate trains eventually, but stayed together for as much of the route as possible. Max pulled out her iPod and shared her earphones with Etta, allowing them to forget their paranoia about being watched and just argue about music for the rest of the ride.
But luckily it was a quiet day, and the other members of their carriage began to disappear one by one. Etta nudged Max as the last man left. "He's gone," she whispered, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
It seemed to be contagious, because Max grinned back, and when the train sped off towards a new station with only them inside, the energy between them picked up with the same momentum. Max took her hand, kissed her cheek. "I've wanted to do this all day," she murmured.
Etta responded by smiling, lifting Max's hand and pressing a light kiss to the inside of her wrist. Max sighed into her hair. They went back to arguing about music, but this time they talked a little louder, laughed a little harder. They were alone. They could be free. And when the train approached a tunnel and plunged them into darkness, they reached for each other, kissing hard and hungry.
When Etta switched trains to meet Ella, it was as if her entire body went into withdrawal. Like a cloud had passed in front of the sun. Her hands didn't know what to do with themselves. The seat beside her felt empty.
On the other side of the carriage, an older girl was kissing her boyfriend. He was cute, Etta noticed. Olive skin, stubble, brown eyes. Etta watched him smile against the girl's cheek, whisper something sexy in her ear. Briefly, Etta wished she was that girl. She blushed in embarrassment, hugged her torso and looked away. She couldn't watch them anymore. It wasn't fair. She hated them. She hated that they got to be happy, out in the open, with no concern for what others might think.
And briefly – shamefully – she hated Max for it.
"I think these are the ones."
Ella looked her over, admiring the new shoes on her feet with a wide smile. "Oh yeah. Those are the ones. They'll go so well with that blue dress you have."
Etta smirked a little. "I don't think Max has ever seen me wear a dress. I mean, I've got nothing against them, I just don't wear them often. Still, might be a bit of a surprise for her."
"Well, I'm sure she'll fall head over heels in love with you all over again, you adorable little creature," Ella laughed, nudging her a bit.
Looking down at the strappy silver shoes on her feet, Etta grimaced. "Thank God the heels aren't too high. I'm still learning how to wear them."
"It takes practise. You'll get there."
"Can I help with anything, ladies?" a friendly saleswoman asked them.
"Do you have these in half a size up?" Etta replied.
"Let me see," the woman answered, shuffling through some boxes and handing her a new pair. "Are you shopping for Sadie Hawkins too? It's so strange they held it in December this year, huh?"
Etta glanced around her, noticing for the 50th time how every other girl her age was shopping for dresses and shoes for the dance just before winter break, chattering excitedly about who they were going with. The light fell away from her smile. She couldn't be like those girls.
She hadn't even bothered asking Max to go to Sadie Hawkins with her. She already knew what the answer would be.
"No," she replied, managing a small smile to be polite. "I'm not going."
"Fair enough," the saleswoman made a quick recovery. "It's not everyone's thing."
Etta turned to her older cousin, trying to change the subject. "Do you think Max will like these?"
"What's important is that you like them."
"I do. But I want Max to like them too. Tomorrow night's a big deal."
"Honey, don't worry. It's always a little stressful bringing someone home to meet your family, but it'll be fine. Just enjoy your birthday. If you like the shoes, we'll get them."
As she took them off, Etta glanced over them again, taking in the delicate crossing straps, the shiny faux stones adorning them. They were simply beautiful – so unlike the faded Converses she usually wore. "Yes," she said with certainty. "These are the ones."
Ella said to the saleswoman, "We'll take these, please."
"Sure thing," she replied cheerily, turning to Etta. "I'll just pack these up for you."
They followed her to the counter, Ella handing over cash to pay for them. Etta nudged her. "Thanks so much for these, El."
"You're welcome, hun. You only turn 16 once."
"Here you are." The saleswoman cheerfully handed her the bag with a kind smile. "Happy birthday! And I wouldn't worry, sweetie, your boyfriend's gonna love the shoes. Pretty girl like you – he's very lucky."
Etta's eyes widened in a moment of internal panic. Do I correct her? she wondered. Is it even worth bringing up?
She felt the heat rise in her face, uncomfortable and unrelenting. Forcing a polite smile, she said, "Thanks," grabbed the bag, and quickly left the store.
"Etta!" El called after her. She placed a hand on the young girl's shoulder. "You OK?"
Etta sighed. "Yeah. Just… God, I feel so stupid. Should I have said something?"
"Max is kind of a guy name. It was an easy mistake for her to make," Ella sympathised.
"I didn't want to embarrass her, you know? She was just being nice."
"I know, sweetie, I'm sorry." She placed an arm on Etta's shoulder. "You were only trying to be polite."
Etta blinked away tears, the red in her cheeks burning bright. "So why do I feel like I just betrayed my girlfriend?"
"Oh you didn't, sweetie, you didn't. You love Max to death, everyone knows that. But sometimes it's easier to let some things slide, you know? Why make something a big deal when it doesn't have to be?"
"I guess…" Etta mumbled, though it still didn't sit right with her.
"Come on." Ella started tugging her away, trying to cheer her up. "I have one more place to drag you to."
"No, El, it's OK – I mean, thank you – but you don't have to get me anything else."
"Oh, shut up and let me spoil my favourite cousin."
"I'm your only cousin."
"All the more reason to spoil you then."
Etta resigned herself to her cousin's whims, letting herself be dragged. Ella reminded her so much of her aunt Rachel these days – bossy but kind. She was lucky to have people like that in her life. Again, she felt a flutter of excitement in her belly. I can't wait for Max to meet her.
But she was surprised when Ella drove her to the South End – Boston's gay district. To a little bookshop on the corner, specifically. Rainbow flag above the door and all.
She'd never been to a place like this before.
"El…? Why'd you bring me here?"
"Because you're a word nerd," she teased. "And there's a friend of mine I want you to meet."
Heading inside, they found a pretty Asian girl with thick black hair and a bright smile coming out from behind the counter. "Hey, El!"
"Hey Raya! This is my little cousin, Etta."
Raya raised an eyebrow. "Ella and Etta?"
"Our family's imaginative," Etta muttered, laughing and shaking her hand anyway. "Nice to meet you."
"You too. I'm Raya – I'm in El's social work course at Harvard. Can I help you guys find anything?"
El turned to her younger cousin. "Can I tell her?" Etta nodded. "We were wondering if you guys had a teen section? Etta's in her first relationship and I wanted to get her a book that might help her sort some stuff out."
"You kidding? That whole back section is YA. Fiction's broken up into fantasy, sci-fi, crime novels, poetry, comics, you name it."
Etta's mouth dropped, the geek in her coming to life. "You have a whole section on teen gay sci-fi?"
"Gay, bi, trans, everything. A bunch with straight female heroes too. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Totally," Etta breathed, a grin forming on her face.
Raya lead them over. "Then there's the YA non-fiction wall. That's your autobiographies, self-help books, feminist essays, your guides to all things queer. Feel free to ask me anything. If you need recommendations, I'm your girl."
Etta practically dived into the shelves. She was a huge reader already, but she'd never known places like this existed – places built for kids like her. Kids who were still figuring it all out. She found books on every subject imaginable – coming out, feeling safe dating in public, knowing your rights in school, queer culture, identity, labels. Falling in love. Sex.
That last one had definitely been on her mind lately.
And then there was all the fiction. She scanned every blurb, finding girls solving crimes, stomping on zombies' heads, mastering magic powers, backpacking through the jungles of South America, battling aliens on foreign planets. Girls saving people. Saving the world. Falling in love. Trans girls, lesbian girls, bi girls, straight girls. Girls who refused to label themselves. Girls who didn't know what they were yet.
Girls like her.
There were other girls like her.
And just like that, she didn't feel like something was wrong with her anymore.
It was Raya, checking in on her. Etta smirked. "Only every single book in the store."
"I know, right? That's why I got a job here - I couldn't stay away." She leaned over, checking out the books Etta had picked up. "Oh that one's great. It's got a lot of stuff on dating someone who hasn't come out yet. And how to come to terms with your own feelings too, but it doesn't pressure you to label yourself. I read it when I was your age – totally blew my mind."
"I feel like my girlfriend could really use something like this," she sighed. "She's still kind of uncomfortable with herself. I mean, she loves me and everything, but her parents don't know about us. We're keeping it private from pretty much everyone."
"That must be hard on you."
She shrugged, almost defensively. "I can handle it."
"Well listen, you can come by the store anytime if you want to ask anything. And we host a bunch of youth events here you might be interested in. Support groups, movie nights, stuff like that. It's all run by the queer students' society at Harvard – it's kind of our way of giving back to kids here. Maybe you and your girlfriend would like to come sometime."
"Thanks, but…my girlfriend would never risk coming here," Etta admitted. "And I don't really know how I feel about it. I mean, I've never thought of myself as an LGBT kid, you know? Like, part of a community or anything. I'm just me, I guess."
Raya shrugged. "That's cool. You don't have to identify with the community. But sometimes it's just nice to meet other people like you. It's easy to forget you're not the only one sometimes."
Etta knew exactly what she meant. She'd felt that loneliness – that difference – in the pit of her stomach all day. "Thanks. I'll think about it." Etta bit her lip, trying to decide if she should reveal more of the whirlwind in her head. "Being with my girlfriend has been so confusing," she finally admitted. "I love her so much. Sometimes I wonder if I'm gay but then I realise I can't be, because I'm still attracted to guys. God, I used to have this huge crush on one of my guy friends, like forever. So I can't tell if that means I like girls more than guys, or…"
"…or if you only like this guy, but love your girlfriend."
"Yeah," Etta sighed, relieved to find someone who got it. "Yeah, that's exactly it."
Raya shrugged again. "The truth is, you don't have to have a name for what you feel. You don't owe anyone an explanation for it. Human love and attraction is way too big and complex for us to shove into boxes. You can just like who you like at the time and let that speak for itself."
The younger girl considered Raya's words for a moment. The idea of not using labels was already growing on her. She'd tried to put a name to her feelings, experimented with calling herself bi, but the word had fit her so uncomfortably she couldn't wait to take it off. She responded by giving Raya a soft, thankful smile. "I like the thought of that."
By the time they were done talking, Etta had a stack of books to buy. But of course, her cousin insisted on paying for them - giving her one tomorrow night for her birthday and waiting to give her the rest for Christmas. Etta tried to argue, but it was no use. El was adamant about making sure Etta was the most spoiled baby Dunham alive.
And that night, her last night of being fifteen, Etta found herself wide awake, staring restlessly at the ceiling. In the morning, she'd be sixteen. Sixteen. When she was a kid, she thought sixteen year olds were so cool. So together. Now that she was seeing it up close, sixteen seemed like any other age – awkward, confusing, scary. But exciting, too. The thought of the year ahead fluttered in her belly like a bird not quite ready to leave its nest.
Beside her on the bedside table, her phone buzzed. The clock glowed 12:01. Only one person would text her at this hour. Checking her phone, she couldn't help but beam at the message on the screen.
Happy Birthday, beautiful! Love you always xxoo
"I love you too," she whispered as she typed a reply, and went to sleep smiling.
It was Shy's wet tongue on her face that woke her the next morning. "Eugh," she groaned, wiping the slime off her face. "Thanks for the present, Shy."
The dog barked with excitement, his tail wagging happily as he turned and trotted downstairs, following the wafting scent of bacon. Her Dad was cooking. Yes, Etta thought to herself. The day was already off to a perfect start. Nothing was better than a Bishop breakfast.
"Here she is!" Her Dad grinned and wrapped her in a hug when she entered the kitchen. "Happy Birthday, princess."
"Dad, you're squishing me," she mumbled into his shirt.
Laughing, he let her go. "Sorry kiddo. Breakfast in five. Blueberry pancakes, eggs, bacon – the real stuff and your awful veggie crap. All the nutrition a growing Bishop needs."
"You're the best, Dad."
Her mother, Etta noticed, had been watching quietly in the corner, a mug of coffee warming her hands and a kind of bittersweet smile on her face.
"Mom, you OK?"
Olivia nodded. Putting the coffee down and opening her arms. Her baby – not exactly a baby anymore – moved into them on autopilot, allowing herself to be cocooned in her mother's warm embrace. God, she'd been so small a minute ago. Now her daughter seemed so grown to her. So wise and big and brilliant.
"Happy birthday, baby girl," she whispered into Etta's hair.
Olivia released her daughter, tucking some hair behind her ear. "Are you still spending your birthday with your hockey friends?"
"Yeah. We're just hanging out at the lake."
"Sounds like fun. Just make sure you're back here in time for dinner at Nina's."
Etta bit her lip. "You guys will try and be there, right?"
"Of course, kiddo," her Dad replied, forking the last of the bacon out of the frying pan and onto everyone's plates. "We wouldn't miss it for the world."
"We'll try our best," her mother corrected him earnestly.
Etta was grateful that at least one of them was honest with her.
"How goes it?"
At Peter's question, Astrid raised her head from the pile of files she was sifting through. "Could be better," she admitted. "We're still going through all the Costas family records – every bank notice, every acquaintance – looking for some kind of motive. All three of their kids are missing, so this definitely wasn't a random attack. There must be some reason why this family was targeted."
"What about the licence plate from the car that took them? Could forensics pull anything from the security footage?"
"Yeah, they got the tag. We put an APB out but so far no one's seen the vehicle."
"Well, Olivia and I just got back from talking to the girls' teachers. They said they were good students, but fairly average. No special abilities to speak of."
Olivia exhaled in frustration, taking some of Astrid's files to go through herself. "We're missing something. I just can't see it."
Behind them, the door of the lab creaked open, the bottom of it scraping against the floor. It was Alex Costas. He exuded none of the fire and might that had been bursting from him like a caged bull the last time they'd seen him. Instead, his shoulders were slumped, his eyes red. He seemed, for lack of a better word, small.
"I'm sorry to interrupt like this." He paused, cleared his throat. "But Agent Broyles told me I could find you here. I just… I wondered if I could have a moment of your time, Agent Bishop."
Ignoring the pain around his eye that still lingered from the man's earlier blow, Peter nodded his head and stood. "We can speak in my office," he said, leading Mr Costas to the back of the lab.
"I should have come by sooner," the man said once Peter closed the door. "But these last few days have been…"
"I understand. Please, have a seat."
Costas shook his head. "Thank you, but I won't be staying long. I know how busy you are." He ran a hand over his face – knuckles still bruised purple – and swallowed. "Agent, I'm sorry for hitting you the other day. It was uncalled for. You were only trying to help find my girls."
Peter brushed him off with a wave of his hand. "There's no need to apologise."
"Yes there is. I let my anger get the better of me. I lost control."
"Mr Costas," Peter reasoned, "you'd just lost your girls. And believe me, we're breaking our backs trying to find them. I'm afraid there's nothing else you can do right now but wait."
For a moment, he thought the man might cry. His shoulders trembled, he bowed his head. Lifting a hand, he squeezed the bridge of his nose and let out a heavy breath. "You have kids, don't you?"
"Fifteen. No, sixteen. Her birthday's today, actually."
Costas lifted his eyes. "Tell her that you love her. Every day. She has to know."
"Of course," Peter replied, meeting the sincerity of the man's gaze.
Trembling, Costas lifted his hand to cover his face. "Since Theo… We didn't let the girls ride the school bus anymore. I thought it'd be safer if I picked them up. They were supposed to be safe with me. That was my job. And I fucked it all up."
"No," Peter murmured, coming over to place a hand on the man's shaking shoulder. "This is not on you. You hear me? This is NOT on you. You can't blame yourself."
Peter had no idea if the man had even heard him. Mr Costas seemed frozen in space, staring at his feet – teeth clenched, tears threatening to fall from his eyes, his hands balled into fists. There was a storm behind his eyelids, but he didn't dare let it out.
After seeing his wife die over and over, losing his father, and seeing the universe fall to pieces at his doing, Peter understood the feeling. That feeling of needing to push everything back in. The feeling of knowing that if you let it take over, you'd burn the entire world to the ground.
"Can I look yet?"
"No. No peeking or you don't get your present," Ethan teased, his gloved hands firmly clasped over Etta's face. Around her, she could hear the guys laugh over the icy breeze. The lake's uneven ice grated under her skates as she shifted impatiently on her feet.
When Ethan finally released her, her hands flew to her mouth. Mike, Ezra, Jamal and all the others were standing on the ice before her, Mike holding a brand new hockey stick in his hands. "Happy birthday, Seven." He grinned and handed her the sleek, shiny piece of equipment – a top of the line model from Easton.
"You can't be serious," Etta gasped as she weighed it in her hands. It was so light. A stick like that must have cost a fortune.
"No joke, it's all yours," Ez told her. "All of us chipped in."
"I don't know what to say. Thank you, guys. Thank you so much!" She skated around and hugged each of her teammates individually, unable to believe that they did this for her.
"It wasn't an entirely selfless purchase," Mike admitted. "I'm hoping you'll use it to score some sweet points for us in the rest of this season."
"Sure thing, Captain." Grinning, she started to skate to the middle of the lake, gesturing for the others to follow her. "Let's go christen this baby, huh?"
The guys cheered, chasing her out onto the ice. They played without rules, jokingly shoving each other into piles of snow to get to the puck first. They'd focus less on scoring and more on showing off fancy stickhandling tricks they'd been perfecting lately. Etta even showed off a few figure skating tricks she remembered from when she used to do it as a kid. This was her favourite way to play. She'd wait all year for winter to come around just so she could spend entire days on the lake with her friends, with rough ice, fresh snowfall and woods all around. There was nothing like it.
While they took a water break, Jamal skated over and gave her a nudge with his giant goalie pads. "You having a good birthday?"
"Of course," she laughed, shoving him back just as playfully. "I'm so lucky to have you guys."
"Likewise." He peeled off his helmet, taking a sip of water. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"Are you going to Sadie Hawkins?"
Oh God. This conversation.
"Uh, no," she stammered. "It's not really my thing."
"It's kind of lame, right?" he agreed, almost laughing. "A dance where the girl asks the guy. Is that supposed to be a stab at feminism or something?"
"I know," she chuckled back. "Like we can't do that ourselves anyway."
"Yeah." He swallowed some more water. "It's just, I heard you hadn't asked anybody."
He'd asked about me? Breathe, Etta. Breathe.
Because my girlfriend would never say yes.
"I dunno," she muttered. "I just didn't want to. School dances are kind of lame."
"Well, me and a couple of the guys are going stag, so you could come with us?"
Etta snorted a laugh. "No offense, but getting all dressed up just so I can pay for a ridiculously overpriced ticket, eat shitty food, dance to shitty music, get felt up by some asshole from math class and watch you guys go around trying to pick up stag girls isn't exactly my idea of a fun time."
"Yeah, I guess you've got a point." Underneath the chuckle in his words, he seemed disappointed. Etta wondered if this wasn't just an invitation to go with friends. Maybe this was just his half-assed way of asking her out.
God, she hoped it wasn't that. But either way, he seemed to take it fairly well. Not wanting to give the conversation any more weight, she nudged him a little and began to skate away. "Come on. I want to beat your ass a few more times before we go home."
So they played for hours and hours. When it started to get dark, they set up a fire on the shore. Mike had brought marshmallows to roast on the flames, while Ez and a couple of other guys were cooking up hot dogs for everybody. Ethan made his contribution by passing around a bottle of Fireball he got from his brother. She didn't have much, since she had dinner with her family later. Etta always hated the stuff – cinnamon and whiskey were never meant to mix, in her opinion – but those few sips made her brain a little fuzzy in a way that she liked.
"Your cheeks are all red," Ethan teased her.
"It's just the cold."
She blushed a little more. Clearly, she hadn't developed the Dunham/Bishop liver of steel yet. But right now, she didn't care. She was in the woods with her friends, laughing and telling terrible ghost stories. Over the lake, the sky was darkening down into the most beautiful shade of indigo. The stars were starting to ignite over her head, like a quiet sign that the year ahead, her sixteenth year, was going to be beautiful.
There was nowhere else Etta would have rather been. She was so, so blessed to have friends like these.
"I'm trying." Etta sighed, tilting her face up again so Max could cradle it in her hand. "I don't know why I let you talk me into this."
"Because secretly you're just as girly as me," Max laughed, continuing to draw eyeliner around Etta's eyes. "It's just a little bit. I'm not gonna turn you into a clown."
"I don't mind using make-up on special occasions, I've just never been any good at it. I always poke myself in the eye or something."
Max laughed. "Well, you don't need it anyway. You're gorgeous. Especially in a dress."
"Liar," Etta chided her playfully, grimacing as she self-consciously rubbed a pimple on her chin that had refused to go away all week. She internally cursed her teenage skin. "We both know you're the pretty one."
Max responded by putting down the eyeliner, coming close, and kissing her softly on the mouth. "Let's just agree to disagree."
Smiling against her lips, Etta returned the kiss, but pulled away before they could get distracted. "Are you gonna be done soon?"
"I'm done already. Look."
Etta turned to face the mirror, a little surprised at what she saw. Knowing that Etta didn't like using a tonne of make-up, Max had only used a little eyeliner and lip gloss on Etta's face. It was subtle, yet seemed to make a huge difference. "Woah," she breathed. "Thanks."
"I like." She hooked her arms around Max's neck and kissed her. Their lip gloss tasted fruity and sweet. They stood close for a while, just breathing the same air, feeling each other's warmth. "You nervous about tonight?"
"I'm fine," Max replied, but Etta could tell she wasn't. She kissed the girl's cheek as a sign of reassurance.
"They don't care," Etta told her for the hundredth time. "We don't have to hide in front of them. My Aunts Astrid and Claire are even coming."
"I know that," Max replied stiffly. But nerves edged her voice.
Etta leaned her forehead against hers. "Max… I know you're a little scared about tonight."
"I'm not scared," she scoffed.
"I'm not," Max snapped, pulling out of the embrace. She went to the dresser to start putting away their make-up.
Etta sighed. "Max, I didn't mean to upset you. I'm just saying, if you…you know…if you aren't ready, we don't have to go."
"It's a little late for that. Your parents are waiting downstairs."
"But if you got uncomfortable, you'd tell me, right? We wouldn't have to stay."
Releasing a slow breath, Max closed her eyes and shook her head. "It's your birthday."
"Screw my birthday," Etta murmured, carefully approaching her from behind, wrapping her arms around her waist and resting her chin on the girl's shoulder. "We could totally ditch it. Do something else. We could…I dunno…go to the movies."
Max couldn't help but smirk, looking down at the dresses they were wearing. "Well, we'd certainly be the best dressed people there."
"We could always stay here…" Etta whispered, pressing a teasing kiss right behind the girl's ear.
Max melted into the touch, but pulled away. "Don't tempt me." She twisted around to face her girlfriend. "Etta, I know you like feeling like you can protect me," she said, looking Etta in the eye. "But I'm a lot stronger than you give me credit for. I can do this – you just have to let me. OK?"
Realising she was right, Etta let out a sigh, nodded, and kissed her cheek. "OK."
Peter shouted up from downstairs, "Girls? You ready?"
"Coming, Dad!" Etta took Max's hand. "Come on, we should go."
They found Etta's parents waiting in the kitchen. "Girls, you look beautiful," Olivia said, causing Etta to blush. Her mother pulled her into a gentle embrace, holding onto her a little longer than usual. Olivia couldn't help but feel like her daughter's entire life had flown by in seconds. It seemed as if only a few days ago she'd been four years old, mispronouncing words and feeding ducks on the river. Now here she was, a teenager already – a strong, creative, determined, beautiful young woman.
Had she really given birth to this incredible girl?
Etta hugged her back just as tight. "Thanks, Mom."
"She's right, you both do," Peter agreed. He handed them their jackets, kissing his daughter on the cheek. It hit him just as hard, how much she'd grown. "I can't believe you're already sixteen," he sighed.
Etta groaned. "Dad, please, spare us the 'my baby's all grown up' speeches tonight."
Peter laughed, giving her a teasing wink. "Can't make any promises, kiddo."
The drive to Nina's house was largely uneventful. Max was quieter than usual, staring out the window at the passing streets. The lights from outside sailed across her face – gliding over her soft cheeks, her slightly parted lips. God, she was so beautiful. Trying to cheer her up, Etta leaned over in the back seat and kissed her shoulder. "You OK?" she whispered.
Max nodded. Taking her silence as a cue, Etta left her to the thoughts in her head.
When they approached the house, Nina's security men buzzed them through the main gates. For the first time, Max spoke. "What's all that for?"
"Oh. Aunt Nina's the CEO of Massive Dynamic."
Max chuckled. "In our whole relationship you failed to mention that your aunt heads a multi-national conglomerate."
"Well, she's not really my aunt, she was my mom's foster mom. Besides, I don't like to make a big deal out of it. She's really nice, I promise."
Once they entered the house, it was all warmth and welcome. Ella and her boyfriend Mark were already there, as were Astrid and her wife Claire. Everyone was so excited to meet Max that they greeted her with hugs. Etta thought this might be a little overwhelming for her girlfriend, but if she was, Max hid it well. It did overwhelm Etta, though. Her family's immediate and undeniable acceptance of her girlfriend almost made her want to cry. Max was part of the family now.
Nina's reaction was more understated, but just as honest. "Happy birthday, sweetheart," she told Etta, wrapping her in a tight hug. "I can't believe you're already 16!"
"People keep saying that."
"When you're a mother, you'll understand."
Etta rolled her eyes at that. She wasn't even sure she wanted kids. But in her mind, she saw a flash of a future she'd never even considered before. Her and Max, married, parents to a beautiful little boy with Max's dark hair and striking blue eyes. Going and saving the world by day at her job, then playing hide and seek with her kid by night. It was a crazy fantasy – having kids was never something she'd thought about at 16 – but suddenly the idea of doing it with the right person didn't seem so far-fetched.
"And you must be Maxine," Nina greeted the young girl.
"Yes, ma'am. It's nice to meet you."
Nina laughed. "No need to be so formal, dear. Just call me Nina."
"Your house is amazing."
"Thank you. I'm just glad Etta finally brought you over here so I could meet you. I've heard so much – you're all this girl talks about," she teased her niece, making Etta blush a little. "But Etta told me you were a dancer?"
Max seemed a little surprised by the question. "Yes, ma'am. Ballet. I go to a performing arts program at my school."
"Nina, please," she kindly corrected her.
"Max is an incredible dancer," Etta gushed, smiling proudly at her girlfriend.
Max blushed. "I'm not that good."
"Yes, you are. You're in the top quarter of your grade."
"Well, Massive Dynamic is one of the key sponsors to the Boston and New York City ballet companies," Nina said. "The artistic director is a dear friend of mine. I'll be sure to give him a call for you and see if he could give you a tour of the studio during one of their rehearsals. I think you'd really enjoy it."
For a moment, Max seemed entirely lost for words. "That'd be amazing. Thank you."
"Anytime, dear," Nina said. And Etta could tell that she meant it. Beside her, she could feel the emotion coming off of Max in waves. The girl clearly hadn't expected this much warmth from Etta's family.
They went inside for dinner, and Etta was convinced the day could not be more perfect. Her girlfriend was with her and her family, and her aunt's cooks had prepared an enormous meal of all her favourite things. Nina was always about spoiling the family like that, at every birthday and Christmas and Easter.
Her entire family embraced Max whole-heartedly, asking about her school, her dance classes, her music, etc. It wasn't all serious though. Peter poked fun at Max, as he always did, during arguments about which Nirvana album was the best they ever made, and Nina embarrassed Ella by asking when she and Mark were going to finally get married. But nobody teased Etta for holding Max's hand under the table, though their smiles made it clear that they'd noticed. Etta was left-handed and Max was right-handed, so they could hold hands and eat at the same time. It was one of the many little details that made Etta so sure they were made to fit together.
Etta found herself imagining that they had rescued Max from her own family and adopted her into theirs. That would be the best thing in the world. Her parents got on so well with her. She would fit into their home so easily. But Etta new it was fantasy. With her parents' jobs, they had enough trouble looking after her, let alone another teenager. And Max couldn't just leave her parents and move in with them. It was a childish pipe dream.
When Max went to the bathroom, Etta nervously lifted her eyes to meet those of her family. "So…? Do you guys like her?"
"Are you kidding?" Ella laughed. "Honey, she's great. I love how gutsy she is, playing in a band and all. She seems so tough and determined."
"She's a lot like you that way, actually," Astrid added, and Aunt Claire nodded in agreement.
"Not to mention, she's cute," Mark added with a cheeky smile. "You did well, kid."
"Always a gentleman, my boyfriend," Ella sighed in faux hopelessness, but Mark just murmured "I'm just teasing, babe" and gave her a peck on the lips, causing her to burst out laughing. Etta smiled watching them. They were so good together, had been for years. It was obvious they'd get married one day.
"No, it's OK," Etta chuckled along. "I know she's out of my league. I've practically spent this whole relationship trying to work out what's in it for her."
Nina sighed, shaking her head. "You're just like your mother sometimes. Always being hard on yourself. So I'm going to tell you something I told her many years ago: you were blessed with many gifts, but the one you don't have is knowing it. You're growing into such an incredible young woman, Henrietta. Maxine sees that in you. We all do."
Later that night, when dinner was done and they took a break before dessert, the family gave Etta her presents. She'd told everyone repeatedly they didn't have to get her anything, but she belonged to a family of spoilers. Ella and Mark had already given her the shoes, but now gave her one of the books she and Ella had bought the day before. Nina gave her a Kindle so she could continue her reading obsession on the long subways to and from school. Astrid and Claire got her some jewellery, and her parents got her and Max tickets to the NHL Winter Classic game that was being held in Boston this New Year's Day. But the best present came last, when she unwrapped the gift that Max had given her.
It was a beautiful polished wooden box. The words Faber Castell were etched onto the surface in gold font. Opening it, she discovered rows and rows of coloured pencils. Grey ones too, of various shades. Graphite. Charcoal.
Max chewed her lip, anticipating a reaction. "I know you like drawing, so…"
"It's beautiful," Etta breathed. She couldn't wait to sketch everything under the sun with this. "Thank you, so much."
And it was beautiful. But this still wasn't the best gift she received that night. The best gift, the most unexpected, was when Max then leaned over, kissed her on the cheek, and whispered, "Happy birthday."
For the first time ever, Max boldly initiated a sign of affection in front of Etta's whole family. In front of anyone.
It almost made Etta want to cry. But she held it in, hugging her girlfriend close in thanks. And moments later, when the cake was brought to the table, she blew out the candles and, with childlike faith, wished that she could be with this girl forever and ever.
Review time, y'all! Your words are always appreciated.