Maybe read Part II to get back into the flow of the story . . .? (My way of apologizing for how late this is!)
It was the third time Kennedy ran into Mack that she knew he would become important in her life. But back then it almost seemed ridiculous. She hardly dated, and when she did, they were boys her age, not men who were already successful in their respective careers, and certainly not men who looked like they belonged in suits. But Mack was it, and this whirlwind romance that set her whole body into flames was the same one that had her running for the waters.
She knew she made a mistake as soon as she told him she needed space. He made her feel like her life wasn't real, but a fairy tale. It felt like she was watching this happy tale unfold, but holding her breath, and waiting for everything to come crashing down.
Still, she was hard-pressed to say whether she regretted it or not. She needed to take that step back to rediscover herself without a man. But at the same time, she had to let the greatest love of her life go, hurting him deeply in the process.
But right now, watching his self-assured movements in her kitchen, she knew she made the right choice coming back to him.
"What?" Mack gave a side way frown as he watched the oven. Kennedy realized she'd stopped chopping the vegetables then, but only smiled at him.
"Nothing," she said, but didn't take her eyes away from his.
A smile began tugging his lips. "No, really. What's on your mind?"
The warmth in her chest reignited at the sight. "Can't I look where I want to?" she asked cheekily.
Amused, he merely shook his head.
"This is what I missed the most," Kennedy said suddenly, causing him to glance back at her. She swallowed. She didn't mean for it to slip out, but the overwhelming relief she's been harboring for days kept her lightheaded. Mack lowered the oven temperature slightly and gave her his full attention when she made a hesitant move toward him. "When we were separated . . ." she trailed off, sighed, and gave him a little smile. "What I missed the most was doing things like this with you. Simple things."
"Like cooking?" he said quietly with a small smile on his face. "I missed it too."
"It was the little things. Dinner. Grocery shopping. Walking in the park. I didn't realize that it was the little things that made a life together with someone, not a label." She broke off, glancing at him. He had an almost strange look on his face as he looked back at her. "They were things you couldn't just cut off. I stepped away from you, because I needed a breather. To find my own rhythm. Not from you, but from what we had." She felt herself slowly start to turn red. "But now I know where I belong."
Mack's expression didn't change. "Did it help?" he asked slowly. "Did your feelings ever change?"
Kennedy smiled. "Not at all."
Billy Colm strolled into Alana's open door to find said woman standing in the middle of her living room, squinting at the green wall.
"Didn't you just paint your wall a few months ago?" he asked mildly. After her brief smile and hug did she answer him.
"Yes, but I just bought new furniture," she said as she waved a distracted hand at two large rectangular boxes near the kitchen entrance. "I'm changing up the look."
Billy grinned. "I need to come over often, who knows how else your place looked."
"It's been a while," she said absentmindedly, just as they heard muffled voices from the door. "Oh, that's probably the new couch."
"You got a new couch?"
She glanced at him, puzzled. "Let's be real, Billy. Those—" she pointed to the furniture, "—aren't going to match with what I have. It's no big deal; I donate the couches. What else can I do with my money if not have a little fun with my house?" Besides, she added silently, it's another one of my neurosis where I need to feel like I have control. But he didn't need to know that. "Thanks for helping me out. Therese usually likes painting, but since she's pregnant . . ."
Billy's familiar glum look passed his face. "I know."
Alana laughed. She promptly directed where the couch could be left, before she turned back to him when she closed the door. "Billy. Are you really that terrified?"
He glanced away from studying the boxes. "To be responsible for someone else's life? I can barely decide anything for myself!"
Alana muffled her laugh. He made important decisions all the time, but maybe he was right. Maybe it was different. "You're not doing this by yourself, you know."
He stopped. "Therese knows what to do. She helped raised her little brother. She's had siblings. Her parents weren't like mine."
Alana smiled. "Exactly. And you aren't your parents. You know exactly what not to do." She slapped a pair of gloves against his chest. She ignored the surprised look on his face and looked at him skeptically. "And please tell me you brought a change of clothes to wear."
"Oh, crap. I forgot." He frowned down at his slacks. "I don't suppose you . . .?"
Alana rolled her eyes good-naturedly but grabbed an old shirt and jogging pants Mack left a while ago.
"Hope they fit," he joked, but she saw him frowning intently at them. Alana bit her lip to keep from smiling. She wondered if he wanted to ask, but Billy was easier to deflect than Mack. Then again, they didn't share the same relationship.
"Don't wear your shoes," she advised.
Soon, they had the living room completely stripped down with newspaper and plastic lying all over the floor. Billy was an efficient worker, and was less distracted than she was. She stared at the green wall, remembering the lazy day she and Mack decided on the colour together to match her furniture. Mack had quickly realized she was more interested in recounting office irritations or dancing to the song playing on the radio that he was forced to take charge. She couldn't help it; she always felt this way when it had to do with her house. A home she made her own.
Alana frowned, slapping the beige over the green. A home she managed to build with Mack. They had the same taste and train of thought, and she loved everything they picked, but the green only reminded her of the days when they painted, finished off with slow love making that made her toes curl remembering.
"Not that I don't mind," Billy said an hour or so later in a lull of silence, "but isn't Mack the one who usually does this with you? I remember him complaining how it was a like trying to get a kid to sit still with the way you paint. I see what he means now."
Alana smiled briefly, giving a distracted nod. She scratched her arm, leaving a smear. "Yeah, but he's busy."
Billy's skeptical look didn't ease. "Really?"
He was onto her. She wondered what he knew. While Billy didn't pry, he was far more perceptive than Therese. It's been weeks since all four of them have been in a room together. In fact, she figured she was starting to look a little transparent.
"If you're tired," she said with a mock, long suffering sigh, "all you had to do was say so, Colm."
He scowled. "Hey, I did two walls. You're just finishing your first."
Alana grinned. "Thanks again," she said happily, and headed towards the kitchen. She pulled out the sandwiches she made earlier and a glass of orange juice for each. "It'll be dry by tomorrow," she said after she swallowed a bite. "What time are you coming by?"
"Probably the afternoon. You'll be here?"
"Yes. I already have the artwork I want to put up." She went into great detail describing her purchases and the reasoning. "It's going to look great."
He didn't recognize the perpetual sinking feeling in his stomach for what it was, until he stopped by Billy's to pick up the coat he left a few days ago and saw him in his paint splattered attire—but even more jarring, they were his clothes.
Billy was getting out of his own car when Mack pulled up and waved as he caught sight of him.
"Hey," Mack said slowly as he approached his friend.
"Hey, your coat's inside. Come on."
"What's with the paint?" he said, unable to help himself. Billy glanced down at himself as if he forgot and raised his eyebrows.
"I was at Alana's. She's redoing her living room. Completely redoing it. I mean, she got new couches and everything." Billy laughed. "You were right about her painting, too."
"I—what?" Mack felt slightly ill. It was the result from the combined sudden feelings of disbelief, confusion and betrayal. "She asked you?"
Billy's humour faded slightly. "Yeah. She said you were busy."
He stared in completely disbelief, unable to comprehend. "On a Saturday?" He shook his head. "But we always . . ." he trailed off, and everything clicked into place. He stilled. Of course. He, of all people, should know how smart she was. Call him every now and then to cover the basic pleasantries. Stop by for a few minutes when they decided to get together. Smile and joke around. All the while, keeping herself firmly away from him.
She valued their friendship, of course she did, but she valued her survival more. As she should.
Mack's eyes burned when he remembered the calculated look on her face that Christmas night. Was he so blinded by Kennedy that he couldn't recognize that same expression whenever she talked about her ex-husband? No wonder she scarcely talked about her past with him. Why would she if her audience was an insensitive, self-centered asshole?
"Are you okay?" Billy asked apprehensively.
Mack realized he was staring blankly into space, and turned away from him so he could blink his eyes clear.
He wondered how much he hurt her.
"Yeah," he answered tonelessly. He stalked towards the front door, jaw clenched, throat constricted. "What colour did she pick?"
"Beige," Billy said warily as he unlocked the door.
The churning in his chest sharpened. "Bet she's going to paint a mural on one wall."
Billy only looked mildly surprised. "Yeah, she said she wanted her painting to match the artwork she bought." His best friend observed him for a moment. "She didn't ask you, did she?"
Mack tried to control his expression, to hide this disproportionate devastation about something so mundane. How many times have they renovated a room throughout the four years? She believed he thought she was crazy, but he understood. He didn't understand everything about her—apparently so with the way he managed to do this without notice until too late—but this was something he did. He could see it with her carefree movements and mindless chatter. How distracted and happy she was when they were doing these little projects together.
"No." His jaw felt glued together as he pushed the words through. "She didn't."
Billy's eyebrows furrowed as he looked at him. "Is there something you need to tell me?" he said quietly, lightly. It wasn't a demand; Mack was perfectly free to deny him. He didn't know if their friends suspected; they were generally careful about the way they acted, but sometimes Mack couldn't help but smile at Alana in a way that went beyond a platonic relationship.
He looked at his best friend. "I fucked up," he said flatly. "God, no wonder she doesn't want anything to do with me—I wouldn't want anything to do with me."
"I think you should start from the beginning."
Mack stiffened at the ominous note in Billy's voice, and only belatedly remembered that Mack wasn't the only one protective about Alana. He's known her almost as long as Therese, and he was there to watch the light fade from her eyes under the abuse of her ex-husband.
"Not that it's anyone's business," Mack said, almost challengingly, "but we . . . were lovers." The word rolled off his tongue, unfamiliar, but it didn't leave the bitter taste he'd expected from another word like fuck buddy would. Instead, it felt more than right.
"What?" Billy looked aghast, shock clear in his eyes, before anger bled into them. "Even after you knew—"
"Before you bite my head off," Mack raised his voice, his own eyes narrowed, "it was consensual, obviously. We're adults, Billy. She's old enough to make her own decisions." As she's told him many times, Mack thought vaguely.
"How long?" Billy asked tightly.
This time Mack looked away from his eyes. The new-found shame welled in him, but perversely, he was glad he was being forced to say this, to face how insensitive and despicable he was. "A few months after Kennedy left. And then . . . she called it off when she found that Kennedy was back."
Billy's eyes widened. "Four years? You son of a bitch—" Billy took a menacing step towards him, but looked like he had to force himself to stop. Mack was tense, but he knew he wouldn't dodge if he decided to take a swing. Billy didn't welcome violence, but he protected what he called his own. "No wonder she didn't want you there."
Mack flinched against his own will. "I know."
"So? What are you going to do?" Billy asked, the hostile clear in his voice.
Mack sunk into the couch. "I don't know," he said. "Damnit."
Alana was already smeared with the beige paint when she heard the doorbell. "It's open!" she called over the loud music blasting from her laptop just at the boundary of the room and away from the paint. She was smart this time and wore a t-shirt instead of a long sleeve. "Hope you brought a change of clothes this time," she said when she heard the rustle of the papers from the ground.
"I hope you don't mind. Billy said he'd be back in two hours or so."
Alana stiffened at the voice and her head whipped to see Mack standing in a pair of faded jeans and a nondescript white shirt. His hands were hanging at his side, and occasionally he would press his palm against his thighs, rubbing his hands. But his face didn't betray anything.
"Oh, hi," she said calmly, despite the way her heart began to race. She put the roller down and straightened. "Where's Billy?"
"He had an impromptu meeting. He said he'd be back, but he didn't want you to do everything by yourself." The corner of Mack's lips tilted up. "He also isn't too sure about your attention span."
Alana felt the blood rush to her face, and was glad the cheeks hardly showed the colour. "That was nice of him, but I could have waited." She thought maybe she should have explained to Billy that she didn't want Mack to know, but then he would have pried. She bit back a sigh. "So he sent in a substitute."
"I didn't mind. It's not like I'm too busy to help you out," he said casually, but she felt the jab with his words. Obviously Billy told him what she said.
Alana schooled her expression, her mind racing trying to grapple with the new situations. "Well, okay. The paint is over there. We did the first layer yesterday."
Alana quickly turned back to her wall to hide her grimace. She felt like she was caught red-handed with her hand in the cookie jar. What was worse was that he wasn't confronting her about it. Why wasn't he saying anything about it? Mack never hesitated about things like this and where they stood—it was one of the reasons she thought their physical relationship would be uncomplicated—at least on his part. He was always honest about his feelings.
"How are you?" she asked after a minute of silence. "Did your mom call you back?"
"I'm fine, and yes, she did. The doctor gave her a clean bill of health."
Alana smiled at her paint-splattered hand. "I'm glad." She waited, almost with bated breath, for him to rip into her. But silence greeted her, and she exhaled slowly. Well, okay then.
"Billy told me you wanted to do a mural."
Alana's smile widened at the thought, "I am. I wanted it on that wall because of the sunlight, but I'm not completely sure I know what I'm—" she cut herself off quickly before she divulged too much. The point was to do this by herself, and sharing anything with him would be a repeat of the past. "I mean, I do know," she amended after the pause. "I don't want to say anything before I completely decide on the final look."
This time, she couldn't help but cast a glance in his direction. Other than the odd rigidity of his back, he didn't look like he wanted to interrogate her. "You'll let me see when you're done, won't you?" he asked, and he sounded almost wistful, but she pegged it on her imagination.
"Of course," she said. She didn't offer more, and he didn't try either. For the first time in four years, they worked silently together, and she bit hard on her lip to keep herself under control.
"Are you hungry? We can eat now." Alana asked after forty or so minutes of silence. Her nerves had accumulated. She knew how to handle his direct confrontations, but the fact that he refused to admit that anything bothered him kept her strung.
The hairs at the back of her neck were probably straight, and she was bracing for a fight. Something changed. She didn't know what, but the dynamic between them was different. She took the time in the kitchen to scrutinize him. There was slight tension in his movements, but he only gave a puzzled look when her eyes narrowed slightly in thought. She didn't want to pry because she didn't have an answer for the inevitable question as to why she didn't ask him to help her with her project, as she always did, instead of Billy. And if he wasn't going to ask, then she wasn't going to start.
But still. This was certainly different . . . foreign.
Despite everything, she made herself relax. At least, in this fragile impasse, she could appreciate his presence. "Thanks for coming," she said after she handed him the bowl of pasta she heated from yesterday's dinner.
He nodded with a little shrug. "You know I like painting."
"It's calming," she echoed his words from the past. "Though I don't know how when you're breathing in all the weird smell."
"It's probably the smell, then."
She smiled, but he merely gazed briefly at her before his eyes swept back to his bowl.
"It was delicious," he said. "I haven't had your pasta in a while." He collected both their empty bowls and washed them. Alana tossed him a water bottle and they headed back to the living room.
Soon, she was bopping to the beat of the music, but managed to focus on her task to keep Mack from bossing her around. His quiet demeanor was starting to worry her, and she began to believe that it had nothing to do with her choosing Billy.
"Is everything alright, Mack?" she asked finally, straightening to give him her undivided attention. "You've been awfully quiet since you've arrived."
He glanced at her but didn't stop his painting. "I'm just fine," he said shortly. Then took a deep breath. "Sorry. I'm . . ." he glanced at her, and an odd look came on his face. "There's just a lot on my mind. Doing this helps me think through it."
Alana nodded. She understood that. In a weird way, this situation was going better than she thought it ever would. It was almost peaceful for her, to have this different atmosphere with Mack. It was comfortable but it wasn't fueled by passion or lust.
"I do understand why you do this," Mack said so suddenly that Alana felt she imagined the words.
He gestured to the wet walls and to the hallway where the new furniture was stashed away. "Change everything."
He said nothing more, and Alana's heart started to race once again. It's not that she didn't think he would understand, she's just never told him. She could hardly explain it to herself. But he never did question her. Mack was confrontational and straightforward, but not about this. Still, she knew he meant his words.
Nothing more was said between them. And that, she felt, said a lot more than words ever could.
He'd said he understood, but standing there, frozen a few feet away from Kennedy's apartment door, the feeling washed over him like a tidal wave. Hot, and then cold, coupled with a tightened chest and the rushing of blood in his ears. He'd never felt more reluctant and determined simultaneously in his life than he did that moment.
Four years ago, when Kennedy told him why she needed to be apart, he told her he'd understood. And he thought he did, but the feeling had never been so clear to him as it did this moment.
He needed to do it. There was no other way around it; no other way he could move forward unless he went through with this.
Jaw tightened, he straightened and rapped thrice on the door.
There was no time for bated breath. The door swung open and Kennedy's wide smile greeted him, and he was inside her apartment. It was odd, this situation, when he knew exactly how it felt to be on the other side of the conversation. He remembered the pleasure—always the pleasure—at seeing her face. He would see the beauty of the world just at the thought of her smile, her laughter. The hope in humanity instead of inevitable death, a thought that haunted him ever since he'd lost his sister.
His lips barely moved, but the words were still clear in the silence between them. "We need to talk."
Mack had never thought he was a coward. He knew how to speak in public, knew how to handle confrontation, and knew the power of honesty in a relationship. But it hit him like a lightning bolt, so suddenly that he couldn't understand why the thought had never crossed his mind before. But why would it, if he was so comfortable in himself? Why would he need to question the confidence he had that allowed him to face reality?
Kennedy's smile faded slightly. "Sure."
He ignored her gesture to sit, too coiled to look comfortable while he broke her heart.
The words left his lips at that moment, and he felt detached to the point where he fought to stay in the moment. He could pinpoint her expressions with the emotions erupting in her chest, in her stomach, all over her body. There was the shock, the disbelief, the hurt and the pain.
Mack could hardly swallow; his mouth was so dry.
Silence between them stretched, punctuated only by Kennedy's deep breathing. His jaw clenched hard, his throat burned and his eyes stung. But he didn't regret his words. Was this how Kennedy had felt?
"Are you doing this to get back at me?" Kennedy finally whispered, voice thin, and his face broke seeing the tears rolling down her cheeks. Almost angrily, she wiped them away.
"No!" The word sounded vicious, but it was the truth. "I would never hurt you like that, Kennedy. I . . ." love you. Loved you.
"You what?" she asked quietly, tone dry. "You love me? I . . . I thought it was going well. Is this a break? Was I going too fast? You could just tell me, Mack, and I'll wait," she said, eyes beseeching, but he saw her hand tightly gripping the couch handle.
"I do love you," he said gently. "But not the way I loved you four years ago."
Kennedy was rigid in her stance. "Oh, God," she muttered, face crumpling. "I'm not going to apologize for leaving four years ago." Her words were broken, but she said them with dignity. Mack's own eyes filled with tears. "I made the right decision, for myself, because—" she cupped her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, but immediately inhaled sharply, "—because I needed to be sure."
Mack took a step towards her, unable to stand seeing her in pain, despite the fact that he was the one throwing the daggers.
"You don't have to," he heard himself choke out. "I . . . understood. I do understand."
"Then why are you doing this?"
"Kennedy . . ."
"I told you why we broke both our hearts four years ago," she said fiercely through her tears. "You could at least grant me the same . . . courtesy."
It's not you; it's me.
The clichéd phrase ran through his mind, but he knew he could never utter them, no matter how true they were. His rehearsed words flew out of his mind, and it almost felt like four years ago, when he watched Kennedy walk away from him. Betrayed, helpless, and weak.
But no matter how little time it felt between then and now, the reality was that four years had passed. Four years, time where he learned how to live without the haze of Kennedy clouding his senses. She was good for him, he realized, because she awakened his senses when he thought he would never feel again. Her touch would stay with him for the rest of his life, as the touch of his sister would.
"Would it have made a difference," he said quietly, "if I had stopped you back then?" It was a question that had burned in his mind all this time.
Kennedy stared at him, a mixture of emotions crossing her face. He saw incredulity and anger. Despair and agony. "No," she grounded out. "It was for me, Mack. It wasn't about proving our love!" she was shouting now. "It was a decision I had to make for myself. But I never stopped loving you." The last words were whispered.
"Would it have made a difference if I at least tried?"
Kennedy's frown deepened, her small stifled whimpers slowing. He saw her answer in her eyes, knew it even if her lips never formed the word. And in truth, he loved her too much to ever hold her back.
But they would never know. Because he'd never tried.
"What's this about, Mack?" she asked quietly.
He eliminated the space between them, and she didn't pull away when he cradled her face in his hand. His heart softened at the sight, and he pulled away, physically, metaphorically.
"I thought it would be simple, easing back into what we had. But it wasn't . . . It's a long time, Kennedy. And for a long time, when you left, it hurt me more than I led people to believe." The words clawed his throat, but his voice was steady. They were words never spoken before now, but seen through his actions. "I just wanted to go back, but I knew you needed this."
Her next words were barely a whisper. "And now you don't need me."
A moment of silence passed. "Did you believe we could just have picked up where we left off?" He wondered this too. Even if they started slowly upon her return, they eased into it almost as if she'd never left, never changed . . . that both of them never grew.
Kennedy laughed, forcedly, a grim smile on her face.
"It was real though, what we had," he said. "Never doubt that."
"Can you pass me the hammer?" Alana said distractedly as she scrutinized the step-by-step photo instructions that came with the furniture pieces. Day three of her project, one week from the painting day the next weekend, and Mack was once again helping her. This time she didn't mind. It gave her an excuse to figure out what was bothering him without having to ask their friends or, god forbid, asking him directly. Though her escalating concern was working against her.
"Al?" Mack waved the object in the air to catch her attention.
"Thanks." She took it from his hold. Truthfully, they both knew the process would go a lot faster if Mack took control, but he knew when to back off, and he said nothing when she immediately seized leadership of this increasingly tedious task. At least they were almost done. With Mack's few comments, she was on her way to completion.
"How was your date last night?" Mack asked suddenly.
Alana looked up from inspecting the provided bolts to see his expressionless face, which immediately shifted to curiosity as soon as she met his eyes.
"Fine," she answered.
It was more of a companionable dinner than a date. She and Conner agreed that while they liked each other, what they had wasn't exactly what they wanted. But he was funny and comfortable, and they shared similar interests. Besides, she recognized all the signs of being in love, and after patient persuasion, she managed to find out he'd had feelings for his neighbor of over two years. C'est la vie.
"We went to this cozy restaurant off of Avie Street. The food was great."
Mack's response was a vague hum. She almost expected him to ask for Conner's profession, but his voice never came. Interesting. Instead of concern, her curiosity piqued. This was a different side to Mack, not unwelcomed, but unfamiliar. She leaned back on her heels and observed him looking at the other unopened box.
"Okay," she said finally, her eyes back to her handy work. "The roles are reversed, and I'm stepping up to the plate." She grabbed the remaining bolts and pieces. "Talk to me, Mack. I'm non-judgmental and retribution-free. What's on your mind?"
He gave a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"
She listed the top reasons. "You're subdued, quiet. You brought up Conner without the interrogation."
"Does he have a last name to go with that?"
She refused to be sidetracked, even as she smirked at the little grin on his face. "If you didn't want to be here, it's really okay."
"No," he said, almost forcefully. "I do want to be here. We've been doing this for years, why would we stop now?"
Alana suddenly felt as if the proverbial elephant was pointed out. "If this is about Billy . . ."
"It's not. Although I did wonder, since you brought it up."
She nearly hit her forehead with the hammer. Well, walked into that one, and judging by the expectant look on his face, he was well aware of it too.
She fell into the ease of a confrontational atmosphere. "These projects together fit perfectly into our life as lovers, Mack, but not as friends. At least not yet." She stood and gazed down at his bent form, speaking honestly. "I'd hope in the future that maybe we could do this again. But I needed space."
His face turned expressionless when she started talking, and it stayed that way until her last words.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Alana swallowed hard under his unwavering gaze. There was definitely something up, but how could she approach this rationally when he had the ability to render her speechless with one look?
"If I really didn't want you here right now," she said slowly, "you wouldn't be."
Mack studied her a moment longer and nodded. It was a true statement. She realized that it wasn't fair to compare this relationship with her marriage. Mack didn't make her feel worthless or insignificant; all he ever wanted was whatever she wanted—at least until she wanted to push him away. But pushing him away permanently wouldn't help her move forward if she couldn't accept this unrequited love as a reality. She needed to acknowledge it, not run away. Or else he'd always be a shadow in her life, pulling her back.
"In that case, let me take you out for dinner tonight." Mack caught her odd look, and added, "We'll go to your favourite restaurant."
"You hate it there."
He agreed. "It's overcrowded, the food is mediocre, and the service is terrible."
Alana was torn between addressing his comment about the food (which was better than he would ever make it out to be) and the snub about the service. In the end, she settled with a disproving look at his cheeky one but agreed.
This was a nightmare. He hadn't the faintest idea how to go about romancing her when all he felt like was standing in the sidelines for fear of hurting her again. Besides, she wasn't interested in him in that way, but the option of staying out of her life was even less appealing.
"I'm probably going to get enchiladas," Alana mused from across the table. "Or this combo . . . What about you?"
"There's only one good thing about this place," he said, opting to look at her instead of the menu he knew like the back of his hand. They've been here so many times over the years it was a wonder that Alana bothered to pour over the text for longer than five minutes.
When their waiter left with their orders, Mack felt the sear of anxiety once again. The food won't be in their presence for a while, and he knew he should at least have a faint idea of how to proceed in this conversation, but . . .
"Hi. Hello. Mack?"
Alana was staring at him rather pointedly.
"Sorry?" he said automatically.
Alana gave him a puzzled look. "You're really out of it. Is something bothering you?"
He picked up the menu and pretended to inspect the selections. "No." But almost immediately, he put it down and looked at Alana's furrowed eyebrows. It was an odd combination of tension, exhaustion and desperation that made him say, "Do you remember when we started our arrangement four years ago?"
Alana noticeably stiffened, but her face remained neutral as she gave a nod.
It was a normal dinner at Alana's house, one of many they shared throughout the years. Mack was in a terrible mood because of an incompetent associate and Alana faced the brunt of his displeasure. She was nodding now and then as she painted her nails, and Mack paced in front of her, more or less ranting to himself. When he'd plopped next to her with a scowl, she nonchalantly ordered him to give her a back massage. It wasn't out of the ordinary seeing as he'd done it before, but maybe it was the way his emotions were boiling over, and Alana wasn't quiet herself either, with a passive demeanor that made him look twice.
Next thing he knew Alana was perched on his lap and her lips were on his. They never looked back, at least not until Kennedy walked back into his life.
"Hey, if people in stable, loving marriages don't have sex, then a relationship based solely on sex doesn't necessarily need strings attached," Alana said when he took too long to continue. Her blasé tone used to comfort him, but now it set his teeth on edge.
"I agree with you. But it's not like our relationship is completely string-less." He felt idiotic phrasing it as he did, but either way, everything felt like it was unraveling before him. Alana was untouchable, and he didn't know what he had to offer. At least, nothing she would accept.
"We're friends," Alana agreed.
Silence stretched between them as they stared at each other.
"Oh," Alana said, almost as if it were an afterthought. "Did you tell Kennedy? Does she have a problem with us being friends? I don't blame her."
"I didn't take you out for dinner to break up with you," Mack couldn't help but add dryly.
"Alright," Alana said, but he could tell she was withdrawing into herself as her face remained neutral. "Look Mack, we've slept with each other. We've 'broken up' as lovers. There's really nothing you can't tell me, you know. It's obvious you want to say something."
"I could say the same for you," Mack said before he could stop himself.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He didn't know if this was a good idea, but it was the only opening he had. "There isn't anything you can't tell me," he said, "but I also know that you don't like talking about it."
Alana had noticeably stiffened. "If you're going to talk about my marriage—"
"I know you don't want to talk about it. I get it; it's in the past. But pretending it doesn't exist—"
"I've already told you what happened." Her tone was icy, but it was obvious she was unbearably uncomfortable. "There is nothing else to add."
For one moment, Mack felt the same sharp feeling of disappointment whenever she shut him out. It wasn't his business, he knew that, but he also knew that remnants of her past still haunted her, and even though there wasn't really anything he could do, he didn't want her to go alone through this.
"You know how it feels," Alana said, her voice still slightly defensive. "As if you ever wanted to talk about—" she cut herself off when, for once, the food arrived within an appropriate time. Of course, of all the days he counted on their service to buy him time, they do the opposite of expected. Mack gritted his teeth.
"About Kennedy?" he said pointedly, despite the waiters in their presence.
She looked at him like he grew a horn in the middle of his forehead. "Well . . . yes."
"You're right. I didn't want to talk about her. But I knew shouldering it alone wasn't the way to go."
"Everything looks better in retrospect," Alana pointed out. "Besides, you had an outlet. It wasn't as if you had to deal with the backlash completely by yourself. We wouldn't have started what we did if you didn't feel the way you did."
Mack felt as if he'd been punched. "Are you saying I only slept with you because of Kennedy?"
Alana had the audacity to look at him as if he were the one asking an outrageous question. "I understood, Mack. You wanted to forget about her."
"Are you implying that I simply used you to try and forget someone else?"
A small part of Mack was glad Alana started to look nervous, because that meant she was recognizing the implication of her thoughts. But Mack's indignation was only growing at the face of such indifference.
"Stop it, Mack. You and I both knew you were crazy for her. You needed a distraction. Like it or not, those are the facts, and I was availa—"
Alana didn't often give into commands, especially when she was the one interrupted, but the suppressed rage behind those two quiet words had her clamping her mouth shut. Mack had the look of murder in his eyes, but for all the warning signs, she wasn't afraid of him.
Nervous, maybe, but not afraid.
"What we started—" Mack cut himself off, seemingly having trouble controlling his emotions. Alana watched him, alarmed, but didn't speak. It was rare for Mack to behave this way. He was often quick to temper, but around her all she saw was a laidback, dryly-humored man. "What we started has always been between us," Mack said steadily. "At no time was I under the delusion that by making love with you, I would forget Kennedy."
Alana knew what he meant, but there was still a sharp sting in her chest at his words. How easy it was to receive his words as never being good enough for him.
"For four years . . . was that what you really believed?"
She didn't expect the incredulity or anger. She didn't expect the hurt. Alana could only stare stupidly at the swirl of emotions on his face, unable to respond, but knowing the truth would only set him off.
"I…" Alana swallowed hard when his eyes darkened at her hesitation. But then she steeled herself against it. She didn't need to feel ashamed of her feelings—unless they became too real. "Look, I'm not going to lie. Yes, I believed Kennedy had a huge part. How could she not? And obviously we were attracted to one another. It was easier to continue through the motions than to stop and pretend nothing happened."
"Isn't that what happened anyway?" Mack said edgily, stating the obvious.
Alana felt her temper flare, but almost immediately it burned away, leaving her weary once again. She didn't want to fight. She didn't want to talk about this anymore. She just wanted to have a nice night with someone she cared about without trying too hard to control how she acted when she was around other people.
"Yes," she said simply instead when she realized he was glaring at her for an answer. "If you wanted to interrogate me, Mack, you didn't need the guise of dinner to do so. At least it was private in my house."
Mack seemed to lose all fight as she spoke; she noticed it with the way his tensed shoulders slumped and watched the way the fury drain out of his eyes.
"It seems I can't do anything right when you're concerned." Mack looked as weary as she felt right then. "I'm sorry, Alana. I'm acting like a huge jackass."
She made a noncommittal sound as she ate her food. Mack slowly started to do the same until the only sounds between them were the clink of glass and utensils. Mack was burning holes into his plate, and Alana tried to understand what was happening to him but she gave up when she realized she was only going to get a headache.
"It didn't make it any less beautiful," Alana said suddenly. She couldn't stand to see the look on his face. Frustration, anger, distress—all directed toward himself. Probably from what she said, too. "What we had," she clarified at his brief look of bemusement, "it was beautiful. It didn't matter how we came to be."
Mack's expression was unreadable, and after a few beats of silence, it was clear he wasn't going to reply.
Alana felt faintly embarrassed but she didn't take her words back. Why would she when they were true. But still, he was in love with Kennedy and hearing that probably made him feel awkward.
Their meal went by faster than she wanted it to, and the silence still prevailed besides the perfunctory, "Are you ready?" from Mack. Alana led the way out of the restaurant, and she was about to reach for the car keys when Mack suddenly said, "Can I drive?"
Shrugging, Alana tossed him the keys. It wasn't unusual for them to switch no matter whose car. She made herself comfortable in the passenger seat, and maybe it was because she felt so comfortable that it took her longer than it should have to realize he wasn't heading back in the direction of her house. Only when she recognized the tall building that was his condo did she tense.
"Did you forget something?" Alana asked carefully.
Mack shut the engine and stepped out. "Come on. I want to show you something."
The sun was long gone, and she felt strangely more vulnerable coated in the blanket of the night. Alana figured that she would let him say whatever his piece may be and leave. There were so many possible topics to choose from, however, that she couldn't fathom what he wanted to say to her, especially here of all places.
A few minutes later, Alana stood back and gazed around her. "The roof," she said. "You wanted to show me the roof?"
Mack had been gazing up at the star-lit sky, but had turned his head the moment she spoke.
"I thought this would be a good place."
"That sounds like the opening of a clichéd murder scene."
As she'd hoped, Mack's serious expression melted into a faint grin. "I would never dream of doing such a thing," he said teasingly, and suddenly his eyes were warm, so Alana forced herself to take it up a notch.
"How sweet of you," she hummed. "All we need now is a bouquet of flowers and you in a tux with all that charm. Killer combination." Before he could continue the banter, she said, "But seriously, Mack. Why did you bring me here?"
"I like the roof," he said, almost defensively. "Besides, brings back good memories."
"Reduced to nostalgia," she mused. "Interesting. Does this have anything to do with why I'm here?"
"Of course. All those memories are with you."
"Give me a break, Mack," Alana almost groaned. "You're speaking in riddles and I'm too impatient right now." Not to mention aggravated, she thought, because she had those same memories.
"I'm just going to say it," he started, and almost immediately said, "I love you."
She didn't know how long she stared, just that her eyes were wide and she was pretty sure she looked incredulous. Mack, to his credit, only looked slightly nervous, but waited with patience that surprised even her—mostly because of her reaction.
"You have a girlfriend," she said blandly, unable to say anything else. She could've played it off as any of his other affectionate confessions, but he looked too serious, and she was too frazzled by this abrupt scenario.
"We broke up a few weeks ago." Mack's eyebrows furrowed. "I take it you… didn't know."
"Obviously not." Alana was shaking her head before she even realized she was. "What is this really about Mack?"
"I'm not expecting anything," Mack said, as if expecting her denial. "You don't have to do anything with that piece of information. I know you're involved with someone else . . . but to be honest, I wanted you to know."
"I see," Alana said. "And what do you propose I do now?"
Mack had a hard time keeping her gaze; his eyes seemed to flicker, but he always managed to bring his eyes back to hers. "I'm not good with this," he said honestly. "I don't know how to woo or court someone—at least someone like you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Alana narrowed her eyes.
Mack shoved a hand through his hair, visibly frustrated. "Someone I'm already in love with," he practically snapped. "Alana, you became my rock when Kennedy walked away four years ago. You weren't a replacement or any bullshit like that. I'm sorry if I made it seem like you were. I drew strength from you. The only time I felt at peace in that nightmare was when I looked over to see you next to me. I . . . don't know how plainer I can say it." But Mack looked tense and angry, despite his tender words. "I'm telling you because I hate how you've pulled away. I have to ask Billy how you are, because all I can get from you is 'I'm fine, and yourself?'"
Alana felt a headache creeping up her temple. "It's because I am fine," she said just for pity's sake.
"And yet you rant to Billy about the plumbing in your first-floor washroom."
He was looking at her like she'd committed a great crime.
"So?" she said incredulously.
"You never even mentioned anything like that to me," he said, outraged.
Alana gaped, and the next thing she knew she was bent over, laughing. It was ridiculous, completely absurd, and yet . . .
"You're ridiculous," she said. Mack, however, looked put out. A smile stretched her lips as she walked slowly toward him. "Does that really bother you?"
"Yes. Billy already had his chance to redecorate with you. Don't take inane conversation away from me either."
"Oh, Mack." She touched his arm lightly. "My plumbing problem isn't inane."
Mack looked at her silently, and she felt the smile slip off her face. "I'm only going to say this once," he said lowly, "because I don't think I can do it again. I can't stand by at the sidelines, wondering what-if. I won't love someone from afar anymore. If you really don't want me in your life, you have to tell me right now and I'll do it. I'll walk away."
"You'll still be my friend even when I'm dating someone?" she said mildly. "That's selfless."
Mack winced. "Well, I would've found some way to win you over," he said. "I'm not entirely selfless." He took a step forward but stopped himself, seemingly unsure. "This probably looks like it came out of nowhere, but I promise you Alana, I will make you see how good we are together, if you'll give me the chance."
"And if I walk away?"
Mack's jaw clinched. "I'm not going to watch you walk away—not for the second time."
Alana gazed at him for a moment, feeling like she was falling off a cliff. "It's not going to be easy," she said, doubtfully. She could see the tension in his face as she spoke, but the words kept coming. "There's the awkward phase, where we pretend everything is fine and dandy. And my guilt over Kennedy would make me stay away. You'll get angry and frustrated, but you'll understand. Then there's that period where we both don't speak to each other. I figure I'm going to break under pressure and start talking to you first . . ."
Mack had a combination of amusement, hope and wariness on his face. "You're a psychic now?"
"You'll probably yell at me, and I'll yell back, and it'll accidentally slip that I've been in love with you for three years."
Mack went still. "You've what?"
Oh God. Was this a mistake? But she couldn't take the words back, so she powered through. "Yeah. It was kind of stupid. We were at a restaurant, and the waiter asked if we wanted dessert. And you went off and said, 'Coconut ice cream for her, and I'll take your strawberry cheesecake.'"
"Wait a minute, I remember that. You told me I was being highhanded."
Alana gritted her teeth together and felt heat fuse her cheeks. This was embarrassing. "Mostly I was happy."
Mack looked at her like she grew a horn in the middle of her forehead. "Happy?"
Beyond embarrassment. What was beyond embarrassment? "Yeah. Because you remembered what my favourite ice cream was." The words came out forced and grudging.
"And that matters to you."
Alana cleared her throat, but her red face was a lost cause. "Yes . . . My ex never bothered to remember anything that had to do with me."
This time it was Mack who stared at her. She didn't know how she looked, but she forced herself to remain still. If he could do it, so could she. Alana was in the middle of thinking that her competitive streak was, perhaps, in more domains of her life than she realized, when Mack made the closing decisive step forward and pulled her into a kiss in one fluid movement.
It was not unlike any of their past kisses, and her body responded to the familiar feel of his skin on hers. The smell of him was drugging her already addled mind, and he was kissing her so deeply that she didn't know if she was breathing.
And then he pulled away, and she inhaled sharply, breaths coming out in pants.
"You know that's the first time you brought your ex up without my prompting."
Alana fought through the haze setting in her brain, and she had to step away from him to clear her mind. "Was that why you kissed me? Because of my ex?"
But Mack was too serious to humour her words. "I will always be here to listen, whenever you're ready." Mack looked solemn. "I wanted you to know. I don't think you really knew how serious I was, even before I knew what happened. Everything is always clearer in retrospect . . . but I know that I'm not going to let you walk away. Not like Kennedy. Even when she came back, I never fought for her. But for you . . ."
The intensity of his eyes made Alana more flustered than she'd like to admit. And she figured she had enough awkwardness and embarrassment for one conversation. "What does this mean?"
Mack looked thoughtful, but she also noticed the mischievous gleam in his eyes at her reaction. "Okay. Let's get this straight. You're in love with me. I'm in love with you." He looked at her expectantly, so she nodded, albeit stiffly. "I trust you with my life. Do you trust me?"
Alana gazed at him, his face more familiar to her than the contours of her own. She saw, despite his attempt to hide it, how nervous he was waiting for her answer. "I do."
She had to smother a smile. How silly of him to even question it. With him, she'd discovered the comfort found in a relationship where two people cared deeply for one another.
Mack smiled, and held out his hand.
Despite the marks of their pasts and the obstacles in their future, Alana implicitly knew that this was something with Mack she had to go through. It was a way to challenge and stimulate her mind and soul. Something that showed she was more than her past relationship, more than the problems of the present. And this time, with Mack, she would get it right. They both would.
Alana took his hand.
Time flies by! Thank you very much for the insightful and thoughtful comments on this story. I really enjoy your reflective thoughts and feelings about the situation and the characters. Tbh, amarawrrr, I thought about swinging the story that way, but you see, I have this need for happy endings between the two main characters. I should try my hand where they don't end up together (but I feel like it's going to be apparent right from the beginning, because my character bias is painfully obvious with the way I write. Sadly.) And sootyxsnowpetal! Just wanted to let you know your insightful comments stuck with me when I tackled Part 3 and shaped the overall way I wrote this part. Valid points that called out what I was trying to suppress in my own mind :P in the end, my inner romantic won. I hope I developed them a bit better to justify their final decisions, though.
I'm sorry you guys had to keep reminding me about this last chapter. I HAVE RECEIVED THEM AND HAVE NOTED THE IMPLICIT FEELINGS OF IMPATIENCE CAUSED BY MY INFREQUENT UPDATES. I'm kidding, you are seriously all very sweet and patient and understanding. I see a lot of stories where readers go as far as to threaten and insult the writer (ya because that'll make them want to update faster, amirite).
But anyway . . . I think I'm going to take a break with stories that only focus on love . . .
Until next time wonderful humans, thanks again for reading!
PS. If you haven't read it, check out my other story 'To Be Blind' This is the sequel to Pseudocliche, and also features Seth from my other story 'Brown Eyes' :3