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It's our third date. 

 

That particular sentence has echoed around in her mind at least a couple of hundred times since she arrived at Ted's place. All throughout dinner, through clean up and the last ten minutes spent cuddling on the couch, her mind has never let her forget the implications of that evening. Keeley had been quite elaborate while explaining the rules of modern dating.

 

Of course nothing had to happen if she didn't want it to. They'd been taking it slow, going on a few dates before being physically intimate. Not that they weren't ready to jump each other's bones at the end of their first date. It was more about delayed gratification and laying a proper foundation for their relationship than anything else. They’d both been quite unlucky in love to say the least, so neither of them were in any particular rush. Their attraction towards each other was quite evident. So there wasn't any real pressure to deliver, not really.

 

But Ted's lips against hers felt different tonight. Soft and sweet like they usually were, yes, but more passionate. His nips at her lips more urgent, his tongue against hers a little hotter, a little heavier. She can feel his want in the way he kisses her. Wanting her, wanting to feel her. Wanting only as much as she is ready to give. 

 

And yet as his gentle but firm lips glide along hers, she can feel the dark storm clouds rolling in at the edge of her consciousness. She can feel the shadows of the past creep into her mind, digging their ugly limbs deep into her present. She feels a part of her brain switch off and another part switch on. And even though there's a part of her that protests this shift, it's but a soft weak voice, silenced easily by the force of practiced ways.

 

She knows what to do. She knows how to do it. A learned behaviour that feels as natural as shrugging on an old coat. She pushes him back against the couch, her lips relentlessly biting and sucking and licking at the skin of his face and neck. 

 

Not too hard, not too soft. And never leave a mark. 

 

It's a mantra that repeats on loop in her mind, and had she paused to check in with herself, she'd realise why that voice sounded eerily familiar. But she doesn't pause. She doesn't stop. She can't stop. She's learnt the hard way what happens if she does. So she keeps going, eyes wide open to see him leaning against the cushions, his eyes screwed shut, one hand at the nape of her neck, the other clenched into a fist and resting on his forehead. 

 

She doesn't see his moustache, doesn't see his brown hair. She doesn't feel the tender way his fingers caress the back of her neck. Instead she sees demanding eyes, greying hair and insistent, rough hands that tug and hold her in a bruising grip. She sees a mouth that praises hers while he receives pleasure, and degrades her for it after. 

 

She sees, but she doesn't feel.

 

Slowly, she lifts herself off the couch and hovers over him, peeling off his polo and throwing it onto the floor behind them. She knows she'll hear about her callous handling of his clothes later, but for now she simply wants to see this bit through. 

 

Her mouth finds its way to his collar bones and she holds back her natural instinct to bite. No biting. You might be a bitch, but these aren't your bones to nibble on. Instead she presses small kisses there. Not rushed, but also not lingering. 

 

She feels his hands squeeze her waist, sees his lips move in question, but she doesn't hear a word, doesn't realise when a soft 'yes' falls from her lips. It's instinctual, because no matter what the question is, her answer should always be yes. And suddenly she feels his hands untucking her blouse to run his palms up and down her sides and instead of tender touches she feels a bruising grip. She feels bony fingers dig into her soft flesh. She vaguely wonders why those rough palms haven't already grabbed at her, haven't taken what they want from her, haven't forced her down to the floor so hard her knees ache for weeks after. But she doesn't dwell on it, because if it isn't that it'll be something else, and she mentally prepares herself for whatever is yet to come.

 

She unbuckles his belt, pops open the button of his pants with practiced, quick moves, running the palm of her hand over his clothed erection. She spreads his legs apart, just wide enough for her wiggle to the floor between them. Her knees protest the move, already aching, but she pays them no mind. She quickly undoes the zipper and goes to pull him free but suddenly there are hands gripping her wrists, moving them away from their destination. She looks up at him, eyes wide and scared, worried she had made a mistake, worried she had done something he didn't like, or not done something he did.

 

The apologies fly freely from her mouth, profuse and heartfelt and she must imagine the way his eyes are filled with heartbreak, because that is not how things usually go. His lips are moving but she still can't understand what he's saying, the silence around her suffocating yet deafening. He holds both her hands in one of his, the other one coming to rest at her cheek, and she can't help the involuntary flinch she gives in response. 

 

She still sees his lips moving, the silence now turning into a thunderous roar and she snatches her hands out of his hold to cover her ears in a futile attempt to block it out. His hands rub at her shoulders and suddenly the storm clouds rumble and the waves break harshly at the shore and she's drowning in their depths. 



**



Everything hurts

 

It's the only thing she's aware of at first. 

 

Her limbs feel sore, her throat feels dry and scratchy and there's a slight pounding in her head with potential to transform into a raging migraine. She tries to take a deep breath and her chest feels like there’s a heavy weight on it, resisting the air trying to flow in. It takes a while before it gets easier to breathe and for her to notice that her aching body is actually lying on something cushioned. It doesn't feel like her bed, the material is scratchy against her cheek and it smells off. Familiar, but off. It smells a little bit like- 

 

Fuck

 

Ted.

 

Their date.

 

Their third date.

 

It all comes back to her in a rush of memories and snippets of conversation. A pleasant dinner. Cuddling on the couch. Things getting heated…

 

But then she had to go and ruin it all by panicking. She remembers looking up at Ted and seeing Rupert instead. Knowing it was Ted but feeling Rupert on her skin. She'd messed it all up. Their first time together should have been sweet and magical or hot and sweaty or a mixture of all of it, not unsatisfactorily ending with her having a panic attack. 

 

The rational part of her brain knows Ted- sweet, kind, thoughtful Ted- won't hold this against her, but she can't help but feel a little guilty and a whole lot embarrassed for what had happened.

 

“You haven't ruined anything.” 

 

She startled at his voice. It's the first time he's been so quiet she hadn't even felt his presence in the same room. 

 

She opens her eyes and stretches her muscles, flexing her palms to get the blood flowing through them, trying to dissipate the soreness that still lingers. It's only then that she sees she's lying on his couch with the throw covering her from the chin down. All the lights in the room are on, which aren't much, but it bathes the room in a deep yellow glow. The television had been switched off while she was out cold and Ted had taken up a chair on the other side of the coffee table. 

 

She meets his eye and sees the concern and fear in them. She hates that she's the reason they are there. She hates even more that they're going to have to have this conversation now, in what people would call the "honeymoon phase" of their relationship. She'd thought she'd at least get to enjoy a few months of peace with him before she dumped all her emotional baggage on the table. Guess not.

 

“"I know you're probably beating yourself up over what happened, but you've gotta stop that. It's not your fault that it happened, but I'd like to talk about it whenever you're ready. It doesn't have to be tonight, but soon?”

 

She sits up slowly and nods at him, her eyes welling up at how kindly he treats her, at how well he understands her. He nods back and she sees the conflict raging across his face. She watches him struggle to contain the urge to reach out and comfort her. The fear that he might do something wrong and hurt her again. She hates that she makes him feel afraid, because he's the one person she feels the safest with. 

 

“Come here, Ted.” She extends a hand towards him, silently urging him to take it. She senses his hesitance even at her explicit request and it breaks her heart.

 

He seems to make a decision and stands and makes his way to the kitchenette to fetch her a bottle of water before he sits down on the end of the couch furthest away from her. He places the bottle between them, careful to avoid any contact with her. It's ridiculous, she thinks. They're both fully clothed and about to discuss something incredibly delicate and personal. He even has his socks on for Christ's sake. Still, he walks on ice around her, perhaps afraid even the slightest touch might set her off again.

 

She knows it's up to her to bridge the distance because Ted won't intrude upon her personal space until they have their talk. She sips the water slowly and it eases the pain in her throat. Setting the bottle on the coffee table, she slowly shifts on the sofa, moving closer to him before laying down again, this time with her head on his lap. She can feel him tense in response, feel the way his hands freeze between them and she gently takes one of his palms and places it on her hair. 

 

“You can touch me Ted. I'd like it if you would.”

 

It seems to do the trick because the tension in his body melts for the most part and his fingers begin to cautiously run through her hair in a soothing, repetitive manner. She hums in contentment and he seems encouraged by it and brings his other hand to join the first. He alternates between massaging her scalp and running his fingers through her hair. She feels her body relax in response, and were it not for the heaviness of things unsaid that hung in the air between them, she'd have no problem drifting off to sleep right there with his hands in her hair.

 

“He-” She swallows, trying to tamp down the nerves that had suddenly made an appearance. She had never said this out loud. No one knew about what happened in her marital bedroom but her. “He used sex as a weapon..as a means of control. He took what he wanted, when he wanted it, without any regard to me or my consent. I tried to resist in the beginning, but he made me feel like I owed him my body.” She gets it all out in one breath. The bullet points will have to do for now, they can get into the details another time.

 

She feels Ted stiffen under her again and she rubs his thigh comfortingly.

 

“It wasn't that bad. He never used brute force. Physical altercations were never Rupert's style. I tried to establish boundaries and talk about consent, but anytime I denied him he'd find a way to make his displeasure known through his words. It was relentless. Eventually it was easier to just switch myself off and give him what he wanted rather than endure the mind games and taunts. Like I said, it wasn't that bad.”

 

“Like hell it wasn't Rebecca!” Ted growls dangerously.

 

She's never heard him so enraged. His body is basically thrumming under her and she can feel his anger on her behalf. It's touching to know he cares, but she wishes he didn't have to. 

 

She opens her eyes and looks straight up at him. She sees the fury simmering in his eyes. Not at her, never at her. She gives him a small smile. 

 

“It's alright Ted. It's all in the past.”

 

“It's not though, is it?”

 

He's got a point there. If it were all in the past, the events of that night would have never transpired. As much as she is loath to admit, Rupert's shadow still looms over her in some ways.

 

She sighs. “No, it probably isn't. But it doesn't happen every time. In fact, I can't even remember the last time this happened.”

 

“What happened?”

 

She closes her eyes and turns her head away from him. She can't bear to look at him as she delivers the blow she knows will haunt him forever. 

 

“One moment I was here in your arms and the next I was right back there in that godforsaken house with him. I panicked and fell into old patterns- switching off my mind and body and focusing on what needs to be done instead so it could be over and I could be free.” Her whisper cuts through the silence like a siren and the words continue to echo long after she has said them.

 

Ted doesn't say anything. For a long time. It begins to worry her and she musters up the courage to look at him again. 

 

She's surprised to find his eyes on her already. A thousand different expressions flitting across his face- some she can name, others she can't. 

 

“Ted…”

 

“Do I make you feel unsafe?” His voice breaks and her heart mirrors it in response. It's the most uncertain and pained she’s ever heard him be. 

 

“Oh Ted, no . God, you make me feel so safe. I've never been as safe as I am with you. You have no idea just how secure you make me feel.”

 

He nods once, still a little tightly, still a little uncertain. “Was it something I did? Some way I touched you? Something I said?”

 

“Ted, what happened today was not your fault. Nothing you did or didn't do caused me to go back there. It's just something that happens sometimes. And I'm going to bring it up at my next therapy session so that I can make sure it never happens again.” She tries to be as firm as she can manage, given her current state. She needs to make sure he knows he's not at fault. She cant have him worrying about this the next time they try to have sex. At least, she hopes there will be a next time. 

 

She reaches up and touches his cheek, gently caressing along it and his jawline. This isn't how she had envisioned their first time going. She’d imagined passion and tenderness, and knowing Ted, perhaps even a little humour. Never in a million years had she ever considered this outcome as a possibility. She knows this is the first time for Ted after his divorce and Sassy, and she had wanted it to go smoothly for him. She had wanted it to be good for him. Instead she had gone and done the complete opposite. A part of her fears where this leaves them. What this means for them as a couple. He's known all along the baggage she brings with her, he's even helped share its weight at times, but to experience first hand just how deep her trauma runs is another game entirely, one he probably wouldn't be too keen to sign up for. She’d be devastated obviously, but she would understand if this was too much for him. There was a reason men her age chose to be with baggage-free twenty something year old women after all. 

 

It would take her a long while to recover from this. After all, their few weeks of relationship had been building for the better part of three years and Ted was, well, Ted . And even though she was already in deep, she needed to know sooner rather than later if this meant the end of them so she could begin to pick up the pieces of her heart.

 

“Ted?” She begins hesitantly, unsure how to ask him without putting him on the spot, without falling to pieces before she manages to force the question out of her mouth. By the way tears are beginning to fill her eyes and her throat is closing up, she probably will fail the second. 

 

His eyes move from where they had been focused on his hand moving through her hair and meet her eyes. She must be obvious in her demeanor or perhaps he is just that good at reading her, because his eyes quickly scan her face and his expression of doubt morphs into one of pure conviction.

 

“No, Rebecca. We’re not doing that. It's not even on the table so you can get that worry out of your pretty little head, young lady.” 

 

In all the years she's known him, he has never looked more sure of anything, and out of everything that could potentially break her, it's his faith in them that does it. 

 

A sob breaks free from her chest and the tears flow hot against her cheeks and she feels Ted gather her in his arms and hold her tight, his lips brushing against her forehead, reassuring her that he's got her. She doesn't let herself cry often, and when she does she tries to wrap it up after only a few tears like she does a conversation with a particularly annoying board member. But now that the emotional dam has broken, now that she has Ted’s strong arms around her, grounding her, preventing her from being swept away by the force of her grief, she lets herself weep. 

 

She weeps for the loss of her marriage- not Rupert, but the effort she put into it that will never bear returns. She weeps for the parts of herself she gave up in those years, parts she is desperately looking for now, but are elusive to find. She weeps for the way love has always come at a price for her, a hefty price that she pays even when it's gone. But most of all, she weeps for Ted and his love and his kindness and care, and wonders just what price she’ll have to pay to keep it all. 

 

The tears subside eventually, replaced only with her occasional sniffles. Her eyes feel heavy in a way that is only possible after a good cry. She knows she’s left a large stain on Ted's t-shirt- she can feel it against her cheek- but she finds she isn't too concerned about it. She cracks her eyes open and brings a hand to her head. Ted’s face looms over her, worry in his eyes but a soft smile on his lips. 

 

“Feel better?” He asks, like he knows how much she had needed this. 

 

“Slightly.” She croaks out, her voice already showing the effects of her emotional day. 

 

He smiles wider and brushes his fingers across her cheek before leaning down slowly and placing a gentle kiss to the tip of her nose. She scrunches it in response. Spending god knows how long crying her heart out would have done her face no favours, she is sure. 

 

“God, I must look absolutely frightful.” She can already feel her swollen eyes and knows her cheeks are probably blotchy and red, and her nose a good rival to Rudolph's. 

 

“You look absolutely beautiful. Breathtaking even.” 

 

He says it so reverently, his eyes shining at her with love and affection that she is compelled to believe him.

 


**

 

They go to bed not long after, both exhausted from the events of the day, Ted’s front pressed firmly against Rebecca’s back, their legs entwined so tightly there’s no room for even a stand of hair between them. His solid form grounds her, lets her fall easily into slumber with the security that she won’t drift away in her dreams. She feels him press a tender kiss to the back of her neck before whispering a soft “I love you, Rebecca.” into her hair. In her sleepy haze she wonders if she might already be dreaming. They haven't done this yet. Haven't used the big L word around each other. But she doesn't doubt it, doesn't doubt him , because he’s shown her plentifully with his actions. She’s felt the love for a while now, so it's not revolutionary, but it's still affirming to hear him actually say it. It sends a warmth through her body, starting from her chest and radiating outwards, and she feels content despite the happenings of the evening. 

 

They'll be okay. Tomorrow she’ll ring her therapist to make an emergency appointment and she’ll begin the process of breaking the bones that had healed incorrectly. Then she’ll set them straight and let them heal again. She knows it won't be easy and that things have the potential to go horribly wrong before they set themselves right, but with Ted's arms around her she thinks they can weather any storm.