Sending a very happy birthday to dv36muskan! Hope you enjoy this super long chapter!

TW: Mentions of suicide

Chapter 18

"So you guys really haven't slept together yet," Cat asked.

"Oh my gosh, Cat, no," Audrey exclaimed. The pair was in Audrey's room on Saturday morning. They were lounging on Audrey's floor as Cat did her friend's finger and toe nails. Audrey had her music booming quietly through the speakers sitting at her desk. At the moment, Cat was laying on her stomach as she painted Audrey's toe nails a pale pink. Audrey was laying on her back, her di-colored curls spread out around her head like a halo. "Have you and Noah slept together yet?"

"Dios, no. But he is a hell of a good kisser."

Audrey giggled. "So are you guys a thing now or still just hanging out?"

Cat shrugged. "I think we're still just hanging out. He hasn't said anything about us being boyfriend and girlfriend. I doubt he's going to. I'm not exactly the material you bring home to meet your goody two shoes mother."

"Of course you are," Audrey said as she sat up. "You're gorgeous, you have the best body out of all the girls in school, and you have an actual personality; you're feisty and funny and real. You're the kind of girl guys should bring home to their mother." She lay back down. "Noah's mom would love you."

"I guess. I don't know. I think I'm so used to not meeting parents, I've just become indifferent towards it." She paused. "You really think Noah's mom would like me?"

"I'd think she'd love you."

Cat smiled. "Thanks."

The two turned their attention to the door at the sound of a soft knock. Mrs. Walsh stood in the open doorway. She was dressed in a simple white blouse, black jeans, and simple black heels. She smiled at the two girls. "Good afternoon ladies," she said.

"Hi Mrs. Walsh," Audrey said as she sat up. "I thought you weren't visiting until next weekend."

"I decided to bump it up a week. I think there's some things we need to talk about."

Cat and Audrey exchanged a glance. "I'll see you later," Cat promised. "Noah and I were gonna go to the roller rink tonight if you and Max wanted to come."

Audrey smiled. "Yea. That'd be fun."

Cat offered her one last smile before she exited the room. Audrey reluctantly got to her feet as Mrs. Walsh shut the door. The teen sat on the edge of her bed. Mrs. Walsh quietly sat down beside her. The older woman examined the scars on the girl's arm, particularly the red horizontal marks on her wrists. Audrey noticed her stare and crossed her arms. "I'm fine," she said before the red haired woman could ask.

"It doesn't seem like you're fine." Mrs. Walsh examined the clouds forming in the teen's eyes. "I've received some concerning news regarding your mental health recently. Not just from your fathers, but from your therapist as well. Is there anything you'd like to tell me?"


"Audrey." The woman gently put her finger under the girl's chin and guided her green eyes to meet her own. "Talk to me. I'm here to help figure out what's best for you, and I need you to work with me so I can make accommodations possible if needed. Tell me what's been going on."

"I met Wyatt."

"I heard. He's a nice boy, isn't he?"

"Yea. He's very nice."

"I also heard he told you about your mother…about what happened to you."

Audrey averted her eyes. "Yea."

"Have the memories come back?"

"Not completely, but I can…I can picture her now. I remember what she looks like, some of the things she did, some of the men who touched me, all the pain I felt." Audrey's eyes brimmed with tears. Her scars began to sting at the mention.

"How has that been making you feel?"

"Awful," Audrey admitted. "I'm sad and in pain every single second of the day. I'm feeling everything my brain tried to forget. And I keep questioning why I'm even here. My mother didn't want me; she tried to kill me. I should be dead. I shouldn't be alive. So why am I here? Why am I still trying to be happy when it's been made very clear that I'm not supposed to be? I'm just some stupid mistake; a damn love child my mother had with a man she barely knew. I'll always be a mistake she tried to get rid of. I'll never get over that. Every day, for the rest of my life, I have to live with the knowledge that my mother tried to kill me because she hated me that much over her own actions. I didn't ask to be born! I didn't force her to have an affair with that man! I didn't ask to harbor all of her pain and suffering! So why am I? Why can't I just do what she should've done when I was in the womb? Why can't I just end it?"

Mrs. Walsh blinked back the tears brimming her own eyes at the sight of the ones falling down Audrey's cheeks. "Why do you want to end it so badly?"

"Because I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of existing and living with all this pain. I'm going to tell you the same thing I've told everyone else: I'm not sure how much longer I can do this. I know that sounds horrible, and you're probably going to want to put me in a psychiatric ward, but I'm just being honest. I really don't know how much longer I can last bearing this weight – enduring this suffering."

Mrs. Walsh put her hand over the teens. "Have you considered thinking about those who care about you? Benny, Marc, your friends, your boyfriend; have you considered how they're going to feel if something were to happen to you?"

"Yes; they'll be sad at first, but they'll get over it. That's what happens when someone dies around here. Everyone is sad for a little while, but they move on. The same will happen for them. Will they miss me from time to time? Sure. Will they hate me for what I did? Probably. But it's something they'll eventually move past."

"I disagree with you." She began to wipe the tears from the younger girl's face. "Losing you is not something the people in your life will just get over. You're Benny and Marc's daughter; you're their flesh and blood despite your origins, and they love you. Your death would destroy them. Your friends would also suffer from your absence. They care about you, and they need you. I know this is probably repetitive phrases you've heard from them, but it's true. You mean the world to people. Just because someone else didn't see your worth doesn't mean other can't see it as well." She paused. "Do you remember the day we met in the hospital?"


"Do you remember what you said to me?"

"Are you my mommy?"

Mrs. Walsh could've smiled. "You did say that. But you also told me you were a princess. You said you were going to change the world one day with your kind heart and special abilities of compassion. I know you were so young and the context seems a little silly now, but you should still stand by that philosophy. You have a beautiful heart, Audrey, and you are going to do great things with it. You just have to see the potential in yourself. I know it hurts, I know it does, and I know it won't stop hurting; but you have to work hard, if not for the people you love then for yourself. Your soul is too kind and pure to throw away. Don't let the princess living in the back of your mind down; she needs you." She welcomed the girl into her arms and held her close to her chest. "Keep fighting, baby girl. You've got a long life to make the best out of."

Audrey squeezed her social worker. "I'll try," she promised. "I'll try." She let the woman hold her for a brief moment before she pulled away. She turned her eyes to her carpet as she spoke. "What happened…to my mother?"

Mrs. Walsh sighed. "She was arrested and charged with multiple accounts of varied forms of child abuse and attempted murder. She was found guilty after her trial; Wyatt's testimony and your wounds were more than enough evidence to convict her. She committed suicide while incarcerated about three years ago. She can't hurt you anymore if that's what you were afraid of."

"Why did she hate me so much? Was there any explanation other than because I was a love child?"

"The psychiatrists who cross examined her never got any other answers besides the fact that you were the unwanted result of an affair she had; she blamed you for her shortcomings when her husband divorced her and took her anger out on you. It's a cruel and evil motive, but that's the only one there seemed to be. Your mother was stable otherwise. She ran her own business, was very popular in the social scene, and was very wealthy. The only place she seemed to exhibit psychotic tendencies was when it came to you. None of the psychiatrists could ever really understand it. In her eyes, you were a trigger of sorts; your presence unleashed her anger, and she projected it onto you." Mrs. Walsh tapped her hand. "I'm sorry, Audrey. I know this isn't what you want to hear."

"What about my father? Does he even know I exist?"

"Yes; he signed your birth certificate, but he signed over his parental rights the same day. That's why you were placed in foster care; legally you were an orphan."

"I'm assuming there was never any speculation as to why he signed over his parental rights?"

"Nothing tangible. The police assumed your mother or her husband paid him off. Since he signed your birth certificate, and agreed to a paternity test, there is evidence he's your biological father, but there's never been word as to why he gave up the possibility of ever being a father to you."

"He didn't make an appearance once he heard about the trial?"

"The trial wasn't publicized. Your mother paid a lot of money to make sure it stayed under wraps. A couple newshounds here and there got the full story, but it never made any big headlines or appeared on the television. Your mother's lawyers made sure if the story were to get out, it would only be published as newspaper articles on print or online."

"So hardly anyone knew about what happened?"


"Oh." She was silent for a brief moment. "What were their names? My mother and father?"

"I had a feeling you were going to ask me that." Mrs. Walsh dug through her purse for a long white envelope. She shook out the contents of the envelope to reveal five pictures. She handed the photos to Audrey. The teen scrutinized the blonde woman in the photos. She was stunning with her wide lime green eyes, voluminous blonde hair, dimpled smile, fair skin, and slender body. In four out of the five photos, she was dressed in beautiful gowns with her hair done and her makeup painted to perfection. In the last photo, she was standing beside a handsome man with chocolate skin, warm brown eyes, and burly muscles. They were standing in front of a field under a blue sky. She was dressed in a simple yellow sundress while he was clad in a tank top and jeans. Audrey's thumb gently caressed the bottom of the photo. She didn't remember the man's face, as expected, but the woman's beautiful smile was a drastic contrast from the cold glare that haunted her mind. "Their names are Giselle Davis and Sterling Montgomery."

"They looked happy," Audrey murmured.

"They do."

Audrey gave the pictures back as tears spilled down her cheeks. "I'm guessing no one knows why Giselle killed herself?"

"Not particularly. She left a few letters, but they didn't offer any more information that the court already knew. She addressed one letter to you, but I thought it'd be best if you didn't read it."

"Why not?"

"Because she was unapologetic of what she did to you. Her last words to you were echoes of all the harm she'd done to you, and the regret of not being successful in what she'd done. She was cruel to you, even in her last moments. You don't need any more of her insults bouncing around your brain. She's put you through more than enough." Mrs. Walsh rubbed the teen's back. "I know it's been a long, hard battle for you, but you can't give up. You can't let her win. She doesn't deserve the satisfaction of breaking you. You deserve to be happy. Promise me you'll keep fighting?"

"I'll try," Audrey said.

Mrs. Walsh pressed her lips together. She kissed the girl's temple. "I'm gonna head out. Have fun tonight with your friends. Don't bruise yourself on those roller skates."

Audrey almost smiled. "I won't."

Mrs. Walsh squeezed Audrey's hand one last time before exiting the room. At the soft click of her door closing, Audrey flopped down onto her bed. She curled herself into her blankets and pushed her face into her pillow. The colorful cushion consumed her quiet sobs. Her blankets held her in a tight hug. She lay there for hours, crying herself into an undreaming sleep.

She woke up to a harsh rapping at her window. A soft groan escaped her lips as she reluctantly opened her eyes. Max was standing at her window, dressed in a simple white tee and sweatpants. Audrey got out of bed and opened the window for him. "You alright?" He asked as he swung himself into her room. He reached out to touch the tear stains on her cheeks.

"I'm fine," Audrey said as she backed away from his touch. "Did Cat tell you we're going out with her and Noah tonight?"

"Yea. I'm wondering who gave you permission to make decisions for me, but I guess I'll let it go this time."

Audrey rolled her eyes. "I'm guessing you came down to wake me up."

"I came down to check on you. You haven't answered your phone since Cat came home." He gently grabbed her hips and pulled her against him. "I got worried."

She rubbed his biceps. "I'm sorry. Mrs. Walsh came over to talk to me, and I fell asleep after she left."

Max raised an eyebrow. "What did the two of you talk about?"

"We'll talk about it later," Audrey promised. "I think it'd be a good idea if I spent the night in your room tonight. Is that okay?"

"Yea. That's fine." He kissed her forehead. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Later," she sighed. "We'll talk later. Right now, I don't want to think about it. I want to have fun – with you." She smiled. "I can't wait to see you fall on your ass at the rink."

Audrey giggled.

Max pressed a gentle kiss against Audrey's lips. "I'll pick you up in an hour. Sound good?"

"Yea. See you then."

He kissed her one last time before he climbed back out her window. Audrey tried to convince the smile on her face to stay after he was gone, but it disappeared the moment he was out of her sight. She wandered to the bathroom to take a quick shower. She avoided looking in the mirror as she dried herself off. She knew the dark clouds would come rushing at her the moment she made eye contact with herself. At the moment, she was content with them simply floating around in her head. She didn't want them to open up and inflict a thunderstorm on her mind – not one a night like tonight. Audrey promised herself she was going to have fun. She was going to hang out with her best friend and her quasi boyfriend at the skating rink; she should be happy. She was happy. The clouds in her mind just liked convincing her otherwise.

Audrey dressed herself in a simple yet chic attire of light wash skinny jeans, a fitted white long sleeved V-neck tee shirt, and a pair of brown boots. After briefly straightening her curls, she added bouncy waves to her di-colored locks. For her makeup, she added subtle gold and bronze color to her eye lids, swiped on a tiny bit of brown eye liner to emphasize her green eyes, and applied some mascara to flare out her eyelashes. As she was rubbing pink lip gloss on her lips, she saw Max walk up behind her in the mirror. He was clad in a black tee with a zip-up hoodie overtop it, dark wash jeans, and black Nike's. A black snapback sat atop his short cut curls.

"Don't you look beautiful," he purred. His arms slithered around her torso and caged her against him. He pressed his lips to her cheek.

"I don't look any different than usual," she managed to reply despite her racing heart. "We're only going to the skating rink. I didn't want to get too dressed up."

"You still look beautiful to me."

A smile stretched across Audrey's lips as he swayed her in his arms. "Thanks. Now let go so I can put on some perfume."


"Do you want to smell like vanilla and marshmallows?"

"Oh hell no." He immediately let her go and took a few steps back. "You can keep that shit to yourself."

Audrey shook her head at him as she spritzed herself with the perfume. She quickly grabbed her jacket and her purse. Max held her hand as they descended the steps. Audrey promised her father's she'd be home later on their way out the door. Together, they walked to the nearby skating rink. From the outside, the brick building didn't look like much. There was a sign referring to the interior as a skating rink, but there were no other decorations. The inside, however, was completely different. The lobby was a bright neon blue with a sales booth and waiting area for those who were in fact waiting for their friends to arrive. Jordan, and his blonde girlfriend, were there waiting for the two of them. He and Max greeted each other with a brief handshake while the girls offered polite hello's to each other.

"Ah so he finally grew balls and asked you out, huh," Jordan asked Audrey as they all got in the sales line.

Max playfully shoved his friend. "Shut up."

"So are y'all boyfriend and girlfriend now?"

"Not yet," Audrey chirped.

"She's making me do the 'make it official' bullshit," Max explained.

Jordan laughed. "Damn. She's really tying your ass down, isn't she?"

Audrey looked to Jordan's girlfriend, Emily. "You made Jordan formally ask you to be his girlfriend, right?"

"Of course," Emily replied. "He complained about it too, but he did it." She showed Audrey the simple silver charm bracelet he'd gotten her. "You've just got to force their hand a little, but they'll get to it eventually."

"What'd you hold over his head?"

"I threatened to move on if he wasn't going to take things seriously. Thankfully he liked me enough to actually claim me."

Jordan threw his arm over Emily's shoulders. "I would give Max some time, Audrey. He's probably going to need to grow another set of balls before he'll ask you to be his girlfriend."

Max kicked at his friend. "Shut up, esé."

Audrey giggled at him as she wrapped her arms around his torso.

The two couples paid for their admission and skates. They walked through the double doors into the neon orange locker room. They picked up their roller blades and locked up their belongings in a locker. After all of them had put their roller blades on, they wobbled out into the dark main area of the rink. Loud music boomed through the speakers, rumbling through the couples' ears. The actual skating floor was a large wooden circle with dark hallways that were lit with neon colored shapes splattered on the wall. The hallways were a maze of sorts. People could come in and out of the pathways, exiting and entering different areas of the circle as they did so. The room itself was lit with multi-colored neon lights and flashing strobe lights. A DJ booth sat within the wall above the skating floor, playing popular pop and hip hop music. Arcade games lined the perimeter of the sitting area with benches littering the space. Besides the sitting area was a concession area with cushioned booths and glowing menu.

The couples skated towards Cat and Noah who were sitting at one of the benches. "Hey guys," Cat greeted them. Noah helped to her feet. Jordan introduced Emily to the pair before exchanging a sly smirk with Max. "Should we play?" He asked his friend.

"We should definitely play."

"No, you guys should be good boyfriends for one night," Cat told them as she put her hands on her hips.

"Nah," the two boys said in unison.

Noah and Emily exchanged a look of confusion. "What are you guys playing exactly?" Noah asked.

Jordan grabbed onto his arm and tugged gently. "Don't worry about that. Just follow us. You'll catch on."

"Jordan," Cat scolded. "Don't corrupt my boyfriend!"

"Too late. Bye chicas," Max said. He helped Jordan tow Noah off towards the rink, and the three disappeared into the crowd.

"What just happened?" Emily asked with a worried crease between her brows. "Are they going to go sacrifice him or something?"

Audrey smiled. "No. They're playing a game with us."

Emily raised an eyebrow. "What's the name of the game?"

"There's not really a name," Cat chimed in. "We used to come here all the time when we were younger – well we still do come here a lot. But anyway, usually when we come here, the boys like to play a game where we basically manhunt each other. If you see someone from the other team, the goal is to chase them, knock them down, they chase you, etc. It's kind of like tag, but with skates and busting the boys' asses. When we go in groups, especially double dates like this, our targets are our dates. So, Jordan's goal is to be on your ass, and our goal is to be on our boyfriends whenever we can."

"Do you have to knock the other person down?"

"Not necessarily. Since you're new to the game, Jordan might just tap you or nudge you or something. Same with Noah. Audrey and Max are the ones who are going to be kicking each other's asses."

"And the workers don't stop you from hurting each other?"

Audrey shrugged. "Nah. Lots of people here play it with their friends. That's why at the front, they make us sign those waiver forms. They know we're going to do this kind of stuff so they just let us, but legally they're not paying for us if something goes wrong."

"Has anything gone wrong?"

Cat put her hand on her chin. "I think Max broke his wrist once."

Audrey tapped her friend's arm. "To be fair, he'd just gotten in a fight that day so I think it was messed up to begin with."

Cat smiled. "Yea, then you put him on his ass and broke it. That's definitely a story the two of you must tell your kids. It'll be hilarious to see their reaction to the story of their five foot tall mother breaking their six foot plus father's wrist at the skating rink of all places." Cat turned to Emily. "But as you can see, he's perfectly fine now."

Emily offered them a weak smile.

Audrey tugged at her wrist. "Relax. It's fun. Besides, Jordan won't hurt you. He's a lot nicer than Max on more levels than one."

Cat agreed. "It's a wonder how they've been friends so long."

Audrey shrugged. "They balance each other out; Max gives Jordan a thrill here and there, and Jordan keeps Max out of trouble for the most part. It's a beneficial friendship."

"Hey short stack," Audrey heard her boyfriend call. She looked to see him standing over the railing separating the rink and the sitting area. Noah and Jordan were flanking his sides. "You three coming or are you too scared?"

Cat grabbed onto Audrey and Emily's wrists. "Come on girls. Let's go get 'em."

Audrey smiled as Cat tugged her into the crowd of people on the skating rink. The three girls disbanded as they searched for their dates. Audrey narrowed her search down to the hallways. After years of chasing Max, she knew he liked to hide in there; with his all-black attire, he'd be hard to spot. Usually he'd sneak up behind her and knock her into one of the walls. Then he'd skate away as he blew a raspberry back in her direction. Not tonight. Audrey was going to get him first this time – or at least she was going to try to. She stayed alert as she searched between the maze hallways. It took her a while to find her childhood crush, but she found him. He was skating up ahead of her, his eyes glancing around his surroundings. A smile crept up Audrey's lips as she accelerated in speed. She tickled at his side as she passed him, causing him to lose his balance. She laughed as his feet went out from under him and he tumbled to the ground. "Sucker," she shouted as she stuck her tongue out at him.

"Oh you're dead, Chiquita," Max yelled back.

Audrey giggled. She increased her speed and disappeared around another hallway. It didn't take long for Max to catch up to her. He tugged at one of her curls. She'd looked back at him just as he nudged her into the wall. She tried to control her balance, but her skates slipped under her feet. She fell on her backside with a loud squeal.

Max held up his middle finger with a smirk as he skated away. Audrey smiled. She got up from her spot and raced after him.

The two chased, and tripped, each other for the first hour and a half before they stopped for food. Audrey had been on the search for Max when she felt his arms wound around her waist. "Truce for a second," he yelled over the booming music. "I'm hungry! You want something to eat?"

"Sure!" She intertwined her hand with his and followed him to the concession area.

Max paid for a large cheese fry for them to share, a few slices of pizza, and two drinks. Audrey helped him carry their dinner to an empty booth against the wall furthest from the rink. "Damn you're fast," Audrey sighed as she sat down. She pretended to lay down in her seat. "I'm ready for a nap."

"You can sit right on this lap and I'll put you to sleep." He winked at her as she sat up.

"You're gross."

Max stuck his tongue out at her.

They ate in a peaceful silence. Both of them gently bobbed their heads to the music playing. It was a much needed break from their physically straining game. Audrey quietly resolved she was going to take her time chasing him when they got up. He'd really taken the energy out of her – and he hadn't even done anything to her. They just hadn't played the game in what seemed like forever; she'd forgotten how much stamina was needed for it. The food built her energy back up. Shortly after they were finished, they threw their trash away and were back out on the rink.

Max didn't make her chase him this time. Instead, he held her hand and skated around the maze with her. Audrey was grateful for the slower pace – and for his romantic gesture. She enjoyed holding his hand as they glided across the glossy wooden floor. Her smile stayed on her face without much effort. For once, she was sincerely happy. Simply skating around with the boy she loved meant more to her than she thought it would. She didn't want the night to end. She just wanted to continue blissfully roaming around brightly lit hallways with the handsome bane of her existence.

At the end of the night, all the couples went their separate ways. Jordan and Emily headed towards center city where she lived. Noah and Cat headed in the opposite direction of the Guerra house; Noah thought the two could stay out for just a little while longer. Audrey and Max headed back toward their own homes. Max could tell Audrey was tired, from more than just the physical strain. While he'd been ecstatic to see the genuine smile on her face, he hadn't forgotten her promise to talk to him once they'd gotten home. He didn't want her dark thoughts lingering in her head. He was afraid they'd capture her again. The malicious feelings were already beginning to get to her. The conversation they'd had a few weeks ago still haunted the back of his brain. He didn't want anything to happen her. He wasn't sure what he'd do if she were to vanish from his life. The arm resting around Audrey's shoulders pulled her closer to him at the thought. It was then he noticed the tension in her shoulders. He blinked out of his murky mind and looked down at Audrey. "Hey, you alright?"

Audrey didn't have the chance to respond before he heard his name being called. "Hey Guerra," he heard Tommy's voice echo through the wind. Max followed the sound to see his sister's ex-boyfriend accompanied with Carter and some other guys from their crew. All of them had their blue bandanas hanging from a spot on their body; it varied from their heads to their wrists, and tied to one of their belt loops. Max pushed Audrey behind him as Tommy approached him. "I think we have some unfinished business, esé," Tommy said as he gave Max a harsh shove.

Max's anger simmered beneath his bones. He felt Audrey's grip on his wrist tighten. "Not now," Max said.

"Not now?" An evil grin appeared on Tommy's face. "You think you call the shots now? You think you're pick and choose when you wanna fight? That's not how it works. You don't run shit when it comes to us."

"Move," Max said firmly.

"Make me." Tommy gave Max another harsh shove. Max collided into Audrey and nearly knocked her over from the impact. She let out a soft whimper from the movement. Tommy's grin widened as he glanced around Max to Audrey. "Oh look at what we have here, boys." He motioned for Carter to step forward. "Isn't that your girl, esé? The one our friend here tried to bust you up over?"

Carter smirked. "Yup, that's the wretched the little bitch."

"So is that what we're doing now, Guerra? We're fighting over bitches?"

"Don't talk about them that way," Max growled. Red was gradually seeping over his vision. The heat within his veins were beginning to spark flames.

"Why not? That's what they are. Your little girlfriend's a wretched bitch, and your sister is a stupid bitch. You don't really think I'm done with her, do you?"

"You better stay the fuck away from my sister."

"Or else what?" Tommy stepped into Max's face. "What are you gonna do?"

"Get out of my face."

"Make me." He snapped his fingers. At the signal, two of the boys grabbed hold of Audrey. They ignored her screams and writhing body as they dragged her a few feet away from her boyfriend. Max tried to intervene, but the other boys blocked his way. Tommy grabbed his shoulder and turned him around to face him. "Don't worry about her. I promise we'll take good care of her after we're through with you."

"You're not gonna lay a hand on her."

"Says who? You'll be lucky if you're alive when we're done with you." Tommy flashed the knife hidden up his sleeve. "We'll give her a good fuck to help her get over your death. I'm sure she'll be able to take more than one of us at a time."

Lord knew Max was ready to swing at that moment. He didn't care about the knife in Tommy's hands or the weapons the other boys may have had. He wasn't going to let him disrespect Audrey like that. He wasn't going to let him hurt her either.

A loud gunshot prevented Max from throwing a punch. All of the boys flinched at the sound. The group turned to the small group of older men standing nearby; all of them had red bandanas tied to their belt straps. Mateo was standing in front of them with his gun pointed towards the sky. "Evening boys," he said. He lowered his gun as he walked towards the group of boys. "We weren't invited to the party. Someone mind telling me what the fuck is going on?"

The young Crips were silent. They stared at Mateo, and the gun in his hands, with wide eyes. Mateo's identity, and his reputation, wasn't a secret. They knew he'd shoot them without even blinking if they made even the smallest mistake. If there was one thing the young boys were afraid of, it was of dying by the hands of one of the cruelest men in the game.

"Let her go," Mateo waved his gun at the men holding Audrey. He looked to Tommy as he held his gun up.

"Dad," Max started.

"Shut the fuck up," Mateo snapped without looking at him. He continued towards Tommy. He pressed the gun up against the boy's head. "I have two options, chiquito; I can blow your brains out for putting your hands on my son or I can let you go with a warning. You know I don't give warnings, but it'd be a shame to kill you in front of such a beautiful girl. But then again, you wouldn't care now would you, Audrey?" He looked to the trembling girl. "Aren't these the assholes who've been harassing you about your body?"

"Dad, leave her out of it," Max spoke up.

"I'm gonna say this one last time, Maximiliano: shut the fuck up," Mateo said firmly. He nodded to Audrey. "Answer the question, linda."

"Yes," Audrey murmured.

"Hmm, that's not very nice. Tell me, linda, what should I do with them? A few bullets through the skull or them running with their tails between their legs?"

Audrey hesitated. She glanced at Max for help. Her boyfriend wasn't looking at her. His eyes were trained on his father.

"It's alright, linda. Choose what you think is best."

"Just let them be… Let them go."

"Hmm, unfortunate." He grabbed a handful of Tommy's hoodie. "You're lucky la Chiquita has a kind heart. Pero this will be the last time I'll let you punks go without putting a cap in one of your asses. Stay the fuck away from my son, my daughter, and their friend. ¿Comprenden?" Mateo shoved Tommy away. "Now get the fuck out of my face before I change my mind."

Tommy and his crew were silent as they backed away from the three. Mateo watched them go with hard eyes. Max turned away from his father to go to Audrey. He gathered the trembling girl in his arms and held her close to him. "Hey, you okay? You alright?"

Audrey didn't respond. She wrapped her arms around Max and pressed her face into his chest. Max clenched his jaw at the feel of moisture seeping through his shirt. "Shh, it's alright," he told her. "Don't cry. Por favor, no llores, mami. Lo siento. Lo siento mucho."

"Is she alright," Mateo asked as he approached the couple. His eyes were on Audrey's di-colored curls rather than his son.

"No," Max replied in a low tone. "Thanks for your help. I'm gonna get Audrey home now."

"Mind if we follow a few steps behind? Just to make sure those kids don't bother you again?"

"Sure. Whatever. Just keep your distance." Max kissed Audrey's head. "Come on, bonita," he whispered into her curls.

Max guided her back to their townhouses. Neither of them spoke as he did so. Audrey kept her face pressed into Max's chest, and Max resisted the fire still raging through his veins. His father and his crew silently followed a few footsteps behind them. When they reached his house, Max walked with Audrey up the porch steps. The older Bloods stood a few feet away from the stoop.

"You good from here, mi hijo," his father called after him.

"Yea, we're good. Thanks," Max replied. He gently pushed Audrey into the house. "Text your dads before you forget," he told her as they ascended the steps to his room.

Audrey complied with his request. She typed a quick message to her fathers letting them know she was staying with Max for the night. She sat on Max's bed the moment they got into his room. She watched him with watery eyes as he raided through his drawers for clothes she could wear. While she was absolutely crushed their night had gotten ruined, and Max had almost gotten seriously hurt, she was more concerned about the fire burning in Max's eyes. Audrey waited after both of them were changed into comfortable clothing to speak. She was still sitting on Max's bed, watching him fiddle with his television.

"Come here," she said simply.

Max glanced over at her. "I will in a second. There's nothing good on TV."

"Leave the television alone. We're not going to be watching it anyway. Come here. Ven aquí,"

Max could've smiled if he weren't still so upset. With a sigh, he joined Audrey on the bed. He pulled her into his arms and lay both of them down. "I'm sorry," Max whispered into her curls.

"There's nothing to be sorry for," Audrey replied. She looked up at him. Her hand gently caressed the short cut hair on his jaw. "I know you weren't trying to fight them. I saw how hard you were trying to walk away. I'm proud of you for that."

"Yea, we saw how well trying to walk away worked out." A deep sigh escaped his lips. "No matter what I do, whether I fight or walk away, those fuckers who push my buttons are always going to come back. They're always going to try to hurt me or the people I care about. I just don't know what else I can do to make all of this stop. I'm trying to change, I really am, but I'm running out of options as to how I can protect you and make sure no one else hurts you."

Audrey's brows crinkled together. "What are you talking about? Running out of options?"

Max hesitated. "My dad…he wants me to join the Bloods. The little stunt he pulled earlier was to make a point: the Bloods protect their own; I can use them to protect you…if I join them."

Audrey picked her head up from his chest to look down at him with wide eyes. "What?"

"My dad wants me to join the Bloods," Max repeated. "That's the only reason he makes these little appearances. He thinks I have the potential to be of use to the gang and carry on the family legacy. Each time he comes, it's just a check-up to make sure I haven't changed – or to revert me back if I haven't. This time, he's here to recruit me. He said I'll be dead to him if I don't join by the time he's finished with whatever business he's taking on here. He said we'll all be dead to him."


"I don't want to join them. I never had any intentions to, but I can't…I can't keep going on like this. I can't keep having the Crips sneak up on us and waving their guns and weapons in our faces. I can't keep watching them drag you away from me and then hear them threaten you. I can't wait until the day they actually do something to us to take the threats seriously. I don't know what I'd do if they hurt you…" He paused. "Joining the Bloods would offer us some protection. They'd look out for you when I'm not around, and they'd protect you if something bad were to happen to me. You, and Cat, would be safer if I got jumped in."

"Don't talk like this," Audrey said as she put her hands on his face. "Nothing bad is going to happen to you, and you're not joining a gang. You're better than that, Max. You're going to college in the fall. You're going to make something of yourself. You can't just throw all of it away over your father – or protecting me. I know how close you were to your dad, and I know how much you miss the bond you two had; but Max, you need to understand that what he wants from you isn't what's best for you. It never has been, and it probably never will." She rubbed his chest. "You're a passionate person, you're an emotional person, but we both know the only reason you fight with everyone is because that's exactly what Mateo taught you; it's the only thing he's ever praised you for. And I'm sorry he corrupted you in that way, but you can't let him ruin your life too. You can't let him succeed in molding you into the perfect Blood soldier. He doesn't deserve the satisfaction." Tears brimmed Audrey's eyes as she realized she was repeating Mrs. Walsh's words. The conversation from earlier echoed in the back of her mind. Mrs. Walsh was right. She couldn't give up – and neither could Max. If they did, then they'd be hurting not only themselves, but the people they loved. Audrey couldn't let that happen. She wouldn't let that happen. Not even if she wanted to.

"I guess," Max said with a shrug. He raised his hand to cup her cheek. He caressed the baby curls around her ear with his thumb. "Lo siento."

"It's okay." She bent down to peck a soft kiss at his lips.

"Did you still want to talk about what was bothering you earlier?"

"It's nothing."

"Tell me."

"Mrs. Walsh showed me a picture of my parents… She told me my father signed off his parental rights the day I was born, and that my mother killed herself a few years ago while she was in jail." Audrey averted her eyes. "Even in her suicidal state, she still made sure to write me a letter stating how much she hated me."

"I'm sorry, mami."

"You don't have to apologize. It's okay." She met Max's gaze again. "I think I want to move forward…from what she's done to me. I want to work on getting closure, being happy, loving myself – and letting others love me. I don't want to live in this pain anymore, but I'm going to try to rid of it in different ways than I have been. I'm going to be better…for you and Cat and my fathers. I'm going to work hard. I'm going to fight. I won't let her win. She doesn't deserve the satisfaction of breaking me."

Max smiled. "You are the strongest woman I've ever met, you know that?"

Audrey smiled. "I do now."

His smile took a mischievous turn. "But you wanna know the only thing you can't defeat?"

She raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"


Before Audrey could question his response, a pillow smacked her in the face. The impact knocked her down onto the mattress. She giggled as Max got on top of her. He continued to hit her with the pillow. "Mhmm, I ought to beat your ass for making me bust mine so many times at the skating rink," he said.

Audrey grabbed the other pillow off of his bed and began to hit him back with it. He snatched the pillow from her. He alternated between the pillows, smacking her with one at a time. From underneath him, she rolled onto her stomach. She tried to crawl out from beneath his weight, but he wasn't having that. "Where do you think you're going," he asked as he discarded the pillows. He threw them on the floor before grabbing Audrey into a headlock. He rubbed his knuckle into her curls as she wriggled and giggled beneath him. She managed to roll onto her back and wrap her arms around him. She flipped the two of them over so she'd be on top of him. She escaped from between his long legs. Her own legs straddled his hips as she grabbed hold of his wrists. She pinned him down to the bed with a smirk.

"What was the one thing I couldn't defeat again?"

"I let you win."

"Oh really now?"

"Yes. You know if I wanted to put your little ass on the floor, I would've. But I prefer this position much, much better. Ahora dame un beso."

"Hmm, I don't know. Do you deserve a kiss? You were pretty mean to me at the rink earlier."

"I was good for the second half. Dios knows I could've continued to put you on your ass, but I decided to be nice and hold your hand."

"That is true. But you did also just beat me with not one, but two pillows – and you messed up my hair."

Max rolled his eyes. "Ven. Quiero besarte."

Audrey grinned. "No."

"No?" Audrey giggled as he freed his wrists. He wrapped one arm around her waist while his other hand cupped her face. "Ven," he repeated huskily. He brought her face down to his as he continued to speak. "Bésame."

Audrey's lips gently crushed onto his. The fuzzy sensation in her stomach spread throughout her body as he kissed her. Their lips started in their usual, slow lyrical dance. Gradually, they acquired the speed and tempo of a sensual tango. Max's tongue wrestled with Audrey's as he pulled her body closer against his. The hand on her face crept into her soft curls while the other slid beneath her shirt. He caressed the scarred skin on her hips as his hands slowly moved up towards her sides. Audrey hummed into his mouth at the soft flares his touch sent through her body. For the first time, she didn't mind the foreign sensation of hands against her skin. Perhaps it was because these hands weren't uninvited or unwanted. She welcomed Max's touch even more so as he flipped the two of them over. Audrey wrapped her legs around his waist and rubbed her hands against his bare shoulders. Her hands continued to wander over his firm chest and sculpted abdomen. She was so distracted in memorizing the feel of his body that she didn't feel him tugging his tee shirt off of her. She didn't realize he almost had it off until he'd brought the cloth up to her arms. Like a bomb, her insecure thoughts rumbled through her mind.

You're hideous.

You're wretched.

He's not going to love you with all those scars.

You're probably a good fuck once he gets past them.

But at the end of the day, that's all you'll ever be.

"Max," she said as she pulled out of the kiss. She sighed in relief as his touch vanished from her skin.

"What's wrong? Am I making you uncomfortable?"

"Just a little," Audrey murmured as she pulled the shirt back down. She wiggled from under him and wrapped her arms around herself. "I don't want you to see my scars."

Max frowned. He didn't want to remind her that he'd already seen them, but he did want to know why she was so ashamed of them. "Why not?"

"Because they're hideous. They're going to scare you away. You won't want to love me after you see them."

"Ven, mami."

Audrey obeyed his command. She crawled into his arms.

He pushed her chin up so she'd look at him. "You're beautiful, Audrey. You've always been beautiful to me. The scars on your body don't make me think any less of you. In fact, they make me love you even more. They're reminders of the battle you fought as a kid; the battle you lived through. They show your strength and endurance. I know you've never liked them because of the story behind them and the way they look, but you shouldn't be ashamed of them. They're a part of who you are, and I love them just as much as I love you." He placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "You don't have to hide from me, Audrey. I love you, and I'm not planning on going anywhere -even if you are funny-looking and annoying."

Audrey smiled around the tears in her eyes.

Max smiled at the sight. He wiped away the few tears that fell from her green eyes. "I love you, bonita."

"I love you too, Max." She placed a gentle kiss on his lips.

Max held her there, with his arms wrapped tightly around her and their lips intertwined, for a long moment before he let her go. "Can I mess with the television now? I can't fall asleep unless there's some noise in the background." A seductive smirk appeared on his lips. "Or I can make some noises come out of you."

Audrey rolled her eyes. "Go fuss with the TV and maybe I'll think about making out with you again?"

"Do I need to do a little convincing beforehand? I can be very persuasive?" He purred.

Audrey giggled. "Get out my face," she replied with a playful shove at his shoulders.

He pecked a kiss at her cheek before sliding off of his bed.

Audrey lay down against his mattress and watched him fiddle with his television again. A genuine smile lay on her lips as she stared at her beautiful neighbor. Yet as the events of the day slowly cycled through her head, the smile vanished from her lips and the dark thoughts she thought she'd be able to keep at bay mercilessly stomped through her mind. The clouds forced their way to the forefront of her consciousness, and for a moment her little speech of fighting and happiness was an impossible goal. But then Max crawled into bed beside her, gathered her into his arms, and kissed her with every inch of his being. The clouds retreated as the flowers Max brought bloomed in her heart. She smiled against his kisses and thought perhaps maybe she could win this battle after all.

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