Scars & Souvenirs

fourteen

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Five things you smell.

Lemon, but astringent. Floor cleaner, maybe? Deodorant - clean, strong, pleasant. Faint trace of bleach no, you’re safe, you’re in Niall’s bathroom, not scrubbing up blood. Apples and cinnamon, like a pie in the windowsill of a 1950s home. Mint toothpaste; Niall must have brushed his teeth just before everyone got here.

Four things you hear.

The show, Lucifer. Someone must have turned it back on. The others talking. A knock on the door oh god no, what do you hear. The neighbour’s music coming up through the floor.

Three things you can feel.

Soft cotton of her knit sweater. Hard wood behind her back. Heart racing, pounding painfully, in her ribs.

Two things you can taste.

Mouthwash. The tap water she drank.

One thing you can see.

Safety, here in the dark. No one can find her here. She’s alone, tucked away.

Max’s breathing evens out gradually, her heart slowing as she repeats the grounding exercise. She’d found it in an online forum, desperately searching for answers the first time she couldn’t breathe and thought she was going to burst out of her own skin. Changing up the order of the senses keeps it effective.

She doesn’t know how long she’s been hiding in here, but something tells her it’s been far longer than what’s “normal”. Hoping the layout is the same here, Max fumbles for the sink. Her fingers bump into a box to the right - tissues. She grabs one, sniffing carefully at it, then wipes the tears from her cheeks.

By the time she re-enters the living room, she feels less like she’s falling to shambles. Nikki looks away from where Amenadiel and Lucifer are arguing on the television, holds a slice of pizza in the air. The cheese and mushrooms start sliding toward the floor, pulled by gravity, and she hurriedly catches the mess with her mouth.

“Dinner is served, cupcake.”

“I’ll show you where the plates are,” Niall offers, climbing to his feet.

Max follows him obediently into the kitchen. He opens a cupboard and pulls down a plate, then gestures toward the three boxes on the counter. Max takes the plate with a trembling hand. It isn’t what she expected. Not the dishware - she has no room to judge; her new set is a mismatched collection decorated with various prints picked up at the Goodwill.

No. What she’d anticipated was a barrage of questions, of criticisms. Instead, she got… nothing. That not quite so true. She got these people still willing to include her.

It’s going to hurt when she leaves.

The panic attack slowly leaves her mind as she sits on the couch between Niall and Harry. No one speaks while they eat, but Max can practically feel the concern radiating off of Niall when all she does is nibble at her own pizza. Cheese only, since she isn’t sure her stomach can tolerate anything else. She used to love pepperoni, sausage, and green peppers.

“You want more?”

Max shakes her head at Nikki’s question. “I’m - I’m okay.”

“Full after one slice?” The disbelief in her voice causes Max to shrink in on herself.

“Yeah, I, um, I had a late lunch.”

Why does it hurt so much to lie? Max has told untruths for so long, they have become second nature. It never bothered her this much before. She’s wished she never had to, certainly, but she has never wished so hard to tell the truth.

Not like this.

Somehow, the laughter and gentle teasing relaxes Max in ways she never found in isolation. Even when Harry throws a pillow at Nikki, or Louis and Liam begin wrestling in the middle of the room. Max isn’t scared. She’s too tired to remain on high alert, searching for a danger that isn’t here. She doesn’t speak often, only answering questions that are asked of her, but no one seems to mind.

“Tell me you’ll have wine next time,” Nikki pleads as she pulls her shoes on a few hours later., and Niall laughs.

“Just for you, promise.”

“Good. It was great to see you again, Max.”

Max forces a quick smile when Nikki hugs her without hesitation. Now that Nikki, Louis, and Harry are leaving, she isn’t nearly as comfortable with the thought of staying here. Too many memories crowd her brain, flashes of times just like this - the safety net leaving her alone with the monsters who wrecked her world. Who made her hate herself more fiercely than she could ever love Gabriel.

“Thanks for inviting me,” she mumbles, glancing quickly at Niall through her lashes.

He’s frowning, the same dark shadow flitting across his face. Max ducks her head; she doesn’t think he’s angry with her, but she can never be too careful. All she wants is to know what he’s thinking.

But then his expression clears again. He grins and the room brightens.

“Come over whenever you want. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be much fun to be around, but I can always use the company. My door’s always open.”

“Literally. The idiot rarely locks it,” Liam adds with a disapproving shake of his head.

Niall really should lock his door. There are evil people in this world, filled to the brim with horrid intentions. She’s proof of that.

It isn’t until she’s changed back into her pyjamas and made a cup of tea that she realise she recognises the sadness in Niall’s eyes. The desperation that darkened his face. Of course Max would. It’s the same thing she sees every time she looks in the mirror.

It’s the slipping of a mask that hides a painful past.

Whatever is in his history, her neighbour is hiding a secret of his own.

__________________


Max is comforted by the fact that Niall is just as haunted by his past as she is her own. It’s a twisted thing, she knows it is, to find solace in that knowledge, but she continuously reminds herself of it when the memories grow too large to fight. It helps her less alone, even if he’s never spoken of it.

It’s late afternoon a week later when she finds herself stood outside his door. He came home an hour ago, and she spent that time mustering up the courage to do this. To knock on the door and invite herself over.

Gabriel’s voice warns her that she’s making a mistake. She doesn’t have permission. She knows the consequence of doing anything without his permission, does he need to remind her?

“You don’t control me any more,” she whispers viciously to his ghost, closes her eyes as it laughs as coldly as ever.

Steeling her spine against the abrupt racing of her heart, Max inhales as steadily as possible and knocks on the door. A thud sounds from inside, a low curse, then footsteps come nearer. She tucks her shaking hands into her pockets, plastering on an expression that - hopefully - says I’m totally not on the verge of a panic attack right now.

“Oh. You’re early.”

It’s not quite the welcome she was expecting. Max tenses up, her gaze darting to the floor, and swallows thickly. Something must show on her face because Niall scrambles to assure her it isn’t a problem.

“Really, it’s not. I just figured you’d show up later, but now is fine. Er, c’mon in. Ignore the mess. Haven’t had a chance to pick up yet. Was gonna do it after my shower.”

She stands awkwardly as he rushes around, stacking up various sheets of paper. He sets the haphazard pile on the coffee-table then turns toward her. Max manipulates her lips into a semblance of a smile.

“I can go back to mine if you want to, y’know, shower and stuff.”

“Hm? Oh, no, it’s fine. I mean, you don’t have to leave. The others will be here shortly, so don’t worry about it. I do need to shower, though.”

“I’ll…sit on the couch and wait for you, then.”

He grins, bright and real, and heads down the short hall to his bedroom. Max blows out a breath before gingerly lowering herself onto the couch. The isolation in her own flat is familiar - frustrating in its necessity, but at least she knows it well.

Here, though…

The walls are the same colour, the layout mirrored but otherwise identical to her own. But this isn’t the sofa she bought on her way from Colorado. The window is easily accessible, not blocked off by heavy furniture acting as a layer of protection. His coffee-table is in one piece instead of in a pile of splintered particle-board stacked by the wall.

Even with the differences and the current of fear they bring, there comes a sense of something nebulous and warm. As if Niall’s flat is giving her permission to pretend. To be someone else within these walls. Max wishes she was anyone else.

The quiet is shattered by the sound of the sound of the shower starting up. She fidgets, tugging at the hem of her sweater, and tries to focus on all the ways she can hide broken, scarred Makenzie and be fun, lively, friendly Max.

“Did - did you clean?””

Max squeaks in surprise and drops the papers in her hand. She blinks down at them, scattered across the floor, and her heart pounds under her ribs. She hadn’t realised she’d moved from her spot on the couch.

But sure enough, five piles of marked assignments sit on the table, organised by topic. Ellis Farrell needs help, she thinks wildly as she stares at the 48% on the top maths worksheet.

“Max?”

Why did she clean? It was out of line. Not her responsibility. Is Niall going to be mad? Gabriel got mad when she’d clean without permission - he said it was Max being passive-aggressive and implying he was an incompetent slob.

Her fingers find the thin line across her collarbone, a bruising kiss from fishing string.

Gabriel got angry when she cleaned without permission. Gabriel got angry when she didn’t clean. Gabriel was always angry.

Always angry and never hesitant to show it.

“Hey, Max? It’s okay. Just, just sit down. Do you need anything?”

His hand is gentle - painfully so - as it curves around her arm. Max swallows down the scream, the urge to collapse at his feet and beg for mercy. To plead for a night of no punishments.

Gabriel was always angry, leaving her skin mottled with blacks and blues and reds flowing freely as the sea.

Niall isn’t Gabriel.

And somehow, that’s worse.

Max exhales unsteadily and finally pulls her gaze away from the mess she’s made. Seeing him so close… all she wants to do is run. Get away from the uncertainty. But she can’t move, can’t unglue her feet from the floor.

So instead, she watches a droplet of water snake a trail along Niall’s cheek, down his throat to disappear beneath the collar of his plain white T-shirt. It’s mesmerising, much easier to focus on than the dark worry in his eyes.

“I’m okay,” she whispers, and his mouth closes. “Sorry.”

“Wha- why - you have nothing to be sorry for. I’m the one who should be sorry.”

Her thoughts stutter to a standstill. He’s apologising. It makes no sense. He doesn’t need to apologise. He’s not the one who messed up.

“Ellis needs help.”

Niall’s lips tug down at the non sequitur.. “What do you mean?”

“The-the work is nearly right. They’re just putting the numbers in the wrong place. Like their brain is mixing them up without realising it.”

His frown grows deeper as he reaches for the paper, and Max squirms while he examines Ellis’s work. When he looks back up at her, there’s something in his expression that she has to look away from.

“You’re right. I, I didn’t notice.” He puts the sheet back on the stack, then busies himself with putting away all of the papers. “Would you wanna help me?”

“Wi-with what?”

“Marking papers. Maybe an outsider’s point of view can catch things that I miss.”

No. But he’s smiling so hopefully that Max can’t find it in herself to reject him immediately. She tells him that she’ll consider it. Maybe if she declines in a day or two, the sting will be less.

Even as she tries to think of a way to say ‘no’ without hurting him, Max finds herself wishing it could be different.