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but it’s a conversation i just can’t have tonight

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Merril stays silent for a few more moments, stroking Max’s warm cheek with her thumb, her fingers a hot brand on Merril’s wrist. I always liked your hands , Max had said, and Merril turns the words over in the back of her mind. Max is sick, is the thing. She’s out of it, unfocused, not paying attention to what she’s saying. Merril should not put any stock in it. She should forget it, or at least put it out of her mind.

Max said she missed her.

Merril definitely needs to put that out of her mind. It’s not the sort of thing Max would have said clear-headed, and, well, it’s not like she’ll even remember in the morning. Merril shouldn’t be feeling this— hope. It’s an awful hope anyway, all mixed up with guilt and concern, making her heart beat off-kilter like she’s a fucking teenager again. She’s going to forget about this, and never bring it up or think about it again. She is.

“Why’d you stop,” Max mutters, and Merril realises after a beat that she’s let her hand still. Her hand, which is touching Max’s face and being touched by Max’s still-wet fingers. She swallows, and shifts her arm up so that she’s touching Max’s hair instead.

“Sorry,” she murmurs, as Max lets her hand fall and leans further into her touch. Like every time she says that word, it feels too big— like she’s talking about more than the current moment. Maybe she is; she sure as hell has a lot to apologise for. Maybe she won’t ever stop apologising.

Careful, she runs her hand through sweaty hair, and Max sighs quietly. Contentedly. Merril’s heart warms and stumbles, and her hand stutters for a moment before she continues.

“Is this helping?” she asks, and Max shrugs.

“Maybe?” Her speech is still slurred and quiet, and Merril isn’t sure she could hear her if she wasn’t so close. “Hard to tell.” She still looks awful, worse than Merril’s ever seen her look, and okay, maybe she gets why everyone was so worried about her when she had that concussion.

Merril runs her fingers through Max’s hair again. “Might help to wash some of this sweat off,” she suggests, glancing around for a washcloth of some sort. 

Max scrunches her nose, and even now it’s so fucking cute that Merril’s heart stumbles again. “Probably,” she mutters. “Feels gross.”

There’s probably a washcloth in the cupboard. Merril untangles her fingers from Max’s hair despite her soft sound of protest and pushes herself to her feet, stepping over to the tiny cupboard next to shower and pulling it open. She takes out a washcloth, then a towel for good measure, setting the towel next to the sink before settling back next to the bath.

She holds out the cloth. “Here,” she offers. “Do you want to do this part?”

Max nods, slowly reaching out for the cloth, then some soap. Merril turns her eyes to the ceiling, shifting until she’s sitting down rather than kneeling next to the tub, and wraps an arm around her knees. Quietly, she listens to the movement of water and Max’s soft noises of displeasure at the cold.

“Thanks,” Max says after a few minutes, and Merril looks back at her. She’s rubbing at her arm, a little weak but determined, and Merril finds herself smiling, just a little.

“Of course,” she says. “I’m— you know I’m here for you. Whenever you need me.”

Max meets her gaze, and she looks so sad that Merril’s ribcage just about cracks open. She opens her mouth to speak, and Merril hurries to say something.

“Are you going to wash your hair, too?” she asks, and Max closes her mouth, then shrugs. Merril lets out a shaky breath. That was probably shitty— but if Max had said she missed her again, had said worse ... If Max is going to say something, she should say it when she isn’t sick. That’s the sort of conversation people should have clear-headed, isn’t it?

At the very least, it’s not a conversation she’s prepared to have right this moment.

“M’tired,” Max says after a moment. “I’m— my hair’s gross but…” She lets the washcloth drop into the water and wraps one arm around herself.

Merril nods, then takes a breath, considering. “I,” she starts, then pauses. “I— um, could wash it for you. If you want. Your hair, I mean.”

Max meets her eyes again. “Okay,” she murmurs. There’s no hesitation in it, no thought.

“Okay,” she echoes, then shifts forward, reaching across Max to pick up the shitty hotel shampoo and conditioner. “Uh— could you wet your hair? Lean back in the water a little?”

Max grimaces but follows her direction, dunking her head under the water carefully and coming up scowling. “‘S’cold,” she says, and Merril hums in sympathy.

“I’m sure you’re cooled down enough to get out after this,” she replies, pouring some shampoo into her palm. She doesn’t really know how this works, but it’s probably helping somehow. It’d at least be good to be clean. “Tilt your head back a little?”

Carefully, she runs the shampoo through Max’s hair, lathering it gently. She massages it into her scalp, then runs her palm softly over the shaved side. Max sighs gently, and Merril swallows. The cold tile is a little uncomfortable under her knees, but she doesn’t move.

When she finishes, she draws her hands back, dipping them into the water to get the suds off. Fuck, it is cold. “Wash that out?” she says, and the words feel awkward in the comfortable quiet. Max nods, slipping back under the water. She’s grimacing again when she resurfaces, and all of a sudden Merril feels so fucking fond. She swallows the feeling down, feeling it settle into something soft and warm inside her ribcage.

It takes a beat for her to remember what she was meant to be doing. The conditioner, right. She pours some into her hand, then reaches up to work it through the ends of Max’s hair gently. Max sighs again, murmuring something that Merril can’t quite catch, but she doesn’t ask for clarification. Instead, she continues to run her fingers through Max’s hair, careful not to pull too hard.

After a moment, she pulls away, leaving Max to rinse it out. “Do you want to get out?” she asks her, and Max nods. 

Merril pushes herself to her feet, then reaches down for Max, who leans heavily against her as she helps her to her feet, then out of the bath. The cold of the water offsets Max’s too-warm skin, and Merril swallows again.

This is, she thinks suddenly, the most she and Max have touched since she left, years ago. This is the closest they’ve been, pressed together and soaked in cold water, Max so sick she can’t even think straight. There’s got to be some sort of irony to this, but she can’t muster up the presence of mind to find it.

She reaches out for the towel, and shifts away just a little so that she can wrap it around Max without letting go of her entirely. As soon as the towel is secured, Max leans back against her— and Merril shouldn’t feel so fucking warm about it. Max is sick . Still, she can’t help but close her eyes for a moment and savour it. They’re practically hugging, and Merril hasn’t hugged anyone in— a while.

“Okay,” she murmurs. “Let’s get you to bed, okay?”

“‘M’comfortable,” Max replies, though there’s absolutely no way that’s true. “But okay.”

Together, they shuffle out of the bathroom and toward Max’s bed, and Merril steps back as soon as she’s sitting down, not letting herself linger.

“I’ll go let out the water,” she says. “And then I’ll go so you can— you can change and maybe sleep? If you’re tired.” She looks away from Max, curled up in a fluffy white towel, because if she looks at her too long her heart might actually burst.

“You’re sweet,” Max murmurs as she’s turning toward the bathroom, still croaky, and Merril feels her face warm. She doesn’t meet Max’s eyes.

“I’m just doing what you’d do for me,” she replies, though she’s not sure how true that is. She hopes it is, but it’s probably not the sort of thing she should expect from Max, after everything.

Max hums in what sounds like agreement, and Merril continues into the bathroom, draining the water and wringing out the washcloth. She grabs another towel from the cabinet while she’s at it, pulling it around herself.

Then, she takes another breath and ducks into Max’s room again. “I’ll be back to check on you in a bit,” she tells her. “I’ll bring dinner if you’re awake, yeah?”

“Okay,” Max nods, and Merril nods back, feeling oddly rooted in place.

I missed you , Max had said, earlier.

Merril opens her mouth— but what is she going to say? What’s the likelihood Max is going to remember any of this? What’s the point of having a conversation she’s not ready to even think about in depth if Max is probably going to forget it anyway?

When they talk about this— if they talk about this— it’s going to count .

She opens her mouth again, then closes it. Then: “Sleep well,” she says finally, and leaves.