Scars & Souvenirs

ten

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I really should have stayed home. Why did I agree to this? God, I’m an idiot.

This thought has gone ‘round and ‘round in her head, a loop of self-loathing that has yet to end. The drive hasn’t been particularly long, but it has been painfully awkward. Niall had attempted to start a conversation once or twice in the beginning, though he’d quickly given up.

The car comes to a stop at the end of the long driveway, and Max stares up at the house in front of them. Niall’s hand hovers at the edge of her peripheral vision, then it rests gently on her arm. She twitches, wants to pull away from the warm contact, but then she turns her head to meet his curious gaze.

Niall smiles, a sweet thing that Max wishes she could keep in her life but knows she can’t. “Are you ready?”

Once she nods, he pushes open his door, stepping out of the vehicle. She knows she can’t linger - Niall will worry, and his friends will ask questions - so she does the same. To her surprise, he strides up the walk to the door and enters the house without so much as knocking.

She hasn’t had a friendship like that in… far too long. Her throat tightens, and Max struggles to breathe. Val is the last person that Max had been close to, and Max has regretted that friendship ever since she was seventeen. Seven years have gone by, but she still says a silent apology to the young woman who tried to save her.

Niall steps back out onto the porch a moment later, frowning when he sees Max frozen in place by the car. She chews on the inside of her cheek as he slowly makes his way to her side. Thankfully, he doesn’t reach for her; she might have just run all the way back to her flat if he did.

“Something wrong?” he asks quietly.

“N-no. Nothing.” She swallows thickly, shoves her hands into the pockets of her jacket to hide them trembling. He’s looking at her with too much concern. Too much, too much. Look away. “Are you sure they won’t mind me being here?”

“Of course not. Nikki is thrilled to make a new friend, and all the lads wanted to know is if you drink beer or wine.”

“I don’t drink,” she answers far more quickly than could be considered casual.

Niall’s brows draw together over his eyes, but all he does is nod in understanding. “And that’s fine. No one is going to make you drink if you don’t want to. All we want is for this to be fun and stress-free for everyone involved.”

Max blows out a breath and reluctantly follows him into the house, forcing herself not to jump when he announces their arrival on a shout. It’s been two years, and she still reacts just as viciously as she did before she left.

She hates herself a little more for that.

Nikki comes to a stop at the end of the hall, throws her hands in the air. “Yes! Another chick! It’s so great to see you again.”

“Again?” Niall questions as he stares between Nikki and Max. “You two have met before?”

“Sorta. I stole her toilet the night of your birthday bash.”

“Oh. So that’s where you disappeared to.”

“C’mon, Max, I’ll introduce you to the rest of my favourite losers.”

Max lets Niall take her jacket before Nikki has a grip on her wrist, tugging her to follow down the hall. The living room is a mess; a mass of blankets are piled on the navy-carpeted floor, topped with pillows, and the furniture has been pushed up against the walls except for a large round table.

“Okay, guys, this is Max. You’ll be nice to her, or I’ll hurt you. Max, that’s Zayn over there in the corner, Liam and Harry are the idiots trying to wrestle, and that handsome devil is Louis.”

Max waves shortly, forcing a smile, and drops her gaze to the floor quickly. Every ounce of her being wants to go back to the flat and hide away. Be out of sight, out of mind to everyone. But Niall had been so happy when she agreed to come, and she doesn’t want to hurt him.

She doesn’t even know him, but hurting him is the last thing she wants.

Maybe because she knows what it’s like to hurt. Her wounds were intentional, and perhaps that exacerbated the pain of the scars. Whatever the reason, Max is choosing to not inflict pain on the first man - the first good man besides Hank - to reach out a helping hand while she drowned.

Oddly enough, it’s almost easy to consider this group “harmless”. Max finds herself watching them interacting, wondering to herself what it might have been like to know them before fearing for her life became the normal. They are honestly the type of friends she would have sought out when she was younger.

Dumber.

Innocent.

She stands just at the edge of the room, watches them move about the kitchen. As lovable as each of these people seem to be, Max can’t help but tremble and struggle to breathe. She hasn’t been near this many people in years, and the wall of noise is jarring.

Her heart races under her ribs, her palms have gone clammy, and she still has to admit that the laughter is nice. No one is screaming at anyone else, no one is calling anyone else vicious names or threatening them with bodily harm - the worst Max has heard so far is “you prick!” from Nikki when one of the guys steals her beer. Even then, it’s said with a smile on her face and a softness in her eyes.

“You don’t have to be a wallflower.”

Max twitches and grits her teeth against a shriek. The voice isn’t particularly loud - in fact, it’s almost inaudible underneath the chatter from the others. But it was unexpected, and unexpected has no place in her life.

She swallows down the urge to fall to her knees at Liam’s feet, to beg for his mercy. He smiles gently when she turns to face him. His brown eyes are dark with concern, narrowed in thought, and Max is struck with the unsettling fear that he can read minds.

Instead of letting slip her fears, she forces a smile. “It’s just…”

“A lot?”

“Yeah. That.”

His lips twitch, and he nods slowly, staring around at his friends. “There’s a reason we don’t usually all get together like this. Not regularly, anyway. Nikki, Niall, and Harry are ridiculous on their own, but put them together with Louis? There’s no hope for normalcy. Or quiet, really.”

“So you’re saying that we should have a fire brigade on standby?”

“Something like that.” He pauses, and Max tenses up when his fingers brush against her arm. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine, I promise.”

“Good. Then come on. Get some food, and go sit down. Enjoy. Revel.”

Max watches him walk away, questioning why he’s being so kind considering he doesn’t know her - Hell, none of the people here actually know her, yet here she is, encroaching on their dinner. She was invited by Niall, sure, but that doesn’t mean she should have accepted.

With a quiet sigh, she edges closer to the counters where the feast is laid out. Nikki grins widely, lets out a quiet cheer, and passes over a plate.