Scars & Souvenirs

seventeen

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Over the next week, Max can’t stop herself from replaying Dolly’s words in her mind. A support system. Dolly said that’s what Max needs. Max used to have that - people she could rely on, people who loved her and supported her and gave advice. Then Gabriel happened, and she’s been alone since.

Niall is gone for New Years. His voice never comes from the landing, and his Toyota isn’t in the car park. Max can only assume he is out with his friends, ringing in 2019 in style as a group. Laughing. Drinking. Having fun. Not having to look over his shoulder for danger. He probably even called his parents.

He is able to do all the things she misses.

Jealousy is a wasted emotion, but Max can’t fight it. Does Niall know how lucky he is to have that freedom? No matter what he has hidden in his past, it obviously hasn’t inhibited his ability to do what he wants when he wants.

Max sighs and crosses her arms over her chest. The beach is empty, bitter-cold rain keeping citizens indoors. Goosebumps explode into existence, racing along her flash, as she toes off her sneakers and peels her socks off her feet.

She wants to feel the earth beneath her. The gritty, wet mush of sand promising a life away from the chains, instead of the shoes that only sentence her to more running. The cold under her feet drags her into the moment, and she blinks against the icy mist clinging to her cheeks.

There’s no one here but her, and she has never felt so large. Obtrusive. Miles of coastline broken by a dark-haired woman in a black jacket. Her vision blurs more the longer she stares at the grey ocean, and the beating of her heart mirrors the crash of waves against shore.

If she were to open her mouth, her words would surely be swallowed by the steely haze or thunderous whispers of water on sand. Millions of grains being devoured by wave after wave, taken from its home to the wild unknown.

Max lets the tide sweep up over her bare feet, shuddering in relief at the freezing water swirling around her toes. She wonders what it would be like to let herself give in. To follow the sand’s lead. Would it be frightening, surrounded by the nebulous dark? Or would it be peaceful - as simple as closing her eyes, breathing in the salt, and sinking as one with the sea?

She almost wishes she’d taken pictures or a video. Anything to have as evidence of the untamed power she witnessed. But capturing the scenery on a camera-phone had felt like an injustice, so Max drives home with nothing more than the echoes of the waves in her ears. A siren’s song of a final, desperate hope for release.

Niall stands by the wall of postboxes, sorting through a stack of envelopes, by the time Max steps into the building. His blue eyes darken with something nearly unrecognisable, but then he smiles and waves a flier in the air.

“I hate adverts.”

“What’s it for?”

“Some vegan cafe opening up next month.”

Max shakes her head. “I could never be vegan. Like, nothing against them, but I like pepperoni too much.”

“You okay?” he asks quietly as she shifts her weight between her feet, hands pushed into her pockets.

“Yeah. I, um, I wanted to apologise. For, for how I reacted the other night and for avoiding you lot ever since. I just… there’s really no excuse, so I’m not even gonna try to justify it.”

“No worries, Max, I promise.” Niall chews on his lower lip for a moment then sighs. “Look, as I said before, you’ve obviously got a lot of crap in your past that you’re trying to work through. I’m not going to make you out to be some sort of villain for not handling it like the world thinks you should. And if that means you run away every so often, then who am I to judge?”

“Thanks. I’m still sorry,” she mumbles.

“And I still say there’s no need for it.”

Max doesn’t bother trying to argue any more. Something tells her Niall has a stubborn streak a mile wide, and she is far too exhausted to fight over anything less than her life. So she lets him think he’s won this argument and focuses on the stairs. He frowns but stays quiet when she jumps at his hand on her arm.

“Can I give you my number? Just in case? And Nikki’s, because she’d kill me if I didn’t give it to you.”

Max has no desire for it. Having his number can only end disastrously. But she’s just apologised for her reaction a week ago, so she can’t potentially offend him now. With a forced smile, she agrees and reluctantly passes over her phone.

“I’m off to Nikki’s so we can plan our room decorations for the term. Want to come along?”

No. Max exhales slowly and shakes her head. “Can’t. I have some work to do tonight. Thanks, though.”

Niall hesitates, face scrunching up in thought, before opening his arms. The gesture is clear, comprehensible in any language. It’s exactly what she has yearned for over the past few years - a connection, no matter how small, with another person. Max swallows down the fear of unfamiliarity and steps into his space.

He could have been so amazing, a small voice whispers in the back of her mind. Max ignores it in favour of melting against his chest, even for a second. The warmth and steadiness of his embrace quiets the ghosts, and god, does she wish she could hold onto that.

She watches him head back down the stairs, whistling a jaunty tune, and turns toward her door. As she twists the key in the lock, she can’t help but smile to herself. Today has been a good day. Meeting the family that lives upstairs hadn’t been terrifying. In fact, Max had managed to say more than three words before darting back into the solitude of her flat.

Dolly brought by a batch of homemade hot chocolate and more cookies.

Max had peace and quiet at the beach.

There’s been no sign of Gabriel - no emails, no texts, no creepy late-night phone calls. Nothing. It’s as if he fell from the face of the Earth.

And now she has made up with Niall.

If everyday is like this, she thinks she might be okay.

Max steps inside, nudging the door shut behind her. Sweet chocolate and gingerbread fill the air, mingles with the rich coffee that still sits in the carafe. Her brows furrow, and she sniffs at the air again. There’s something not quite right.

Lightning crashes across her vision, a starburst of agony blooming from the back of her skull. The plain beige walls give way to blackness, and scuffed wood rushes up to meet her.

A loud thud.

Shouting, incomprehensible and violent.

Snarling, a yelp, screaming.

Guttural begging - “please, oh my god, no” - and sweeter, desperate pleading - “no, oh my god, please.”

Pain, fire and ice, agony more acute than ever known before.

Warm hands branding against skin, wiping dampness away - no, more than dampness. A flood.

Blue eyes swimming in tears, shining brightly in the light spilling through the door.

An angel’s face twisted up in ugliness, a vision too confusing.

Max tries to breathe, but her lungs are engulfed in flames. She smells that familiar stench - copper, sweat, the tang of blood seeping into hardwood floors no matter how hard she scrubs at it. The bleach doesn’t work. It never works.

It never works.

“Max, c’mon, please.”

The angel is crying. Why is he crying? She isn’t worth the tears.

She never has been.

“No, baby, open your eyes. Please open your eyes. Stay with me. Max, please, don’t - don’t, just please don’t go. Don’t make me lose you, too. Fuck, where the Hell are they?”

‘They’? Who’s ‘they’? No, stop crying, angel. Save your tears for someone worthy. It’s okay. I’ll be okay. I just… need…

“No! Max -”

“Stay with her, sweetheart. This one isn’t goin’ nowhere.”

Cigarette-stained voice, colder than the arctic. It’s okay, angel of mine, you’ll have her. She’ll keep you safe.

“Stay with me, please.”

I wish I could. God, I wish I could. You could have been amazing. But I’m nothing that you deserve. You deserve - better. Please stop shaking, stop crying. I can’t hold on any more, but you’ll be fine. You don’t need me.

“I need you, Max. Please. D’you hear me? I need you.”

Oh, angel…

“Niall…”

{~•~}


Even with her eyes closed, Max knows exactly where she is. She has been in a hospital bed often enough to recognise the piercing fluorescence of the lights through her eyelids, the ding and din of overhead announcements, the medicinal sting of antiseptic in her nose. But do the beds always have to be this uncomfortable?

Everything hurts - but in that weird, muted, fuzzy way that means she’s got the good stuff in her IV. There’s no doubt that whatever damage has been done is extensive. She just wishes she could remember more.

She remembers apologising to Niall, embracing him on the landing before he walked away. Then the memories are gone, as if her brain took a vacation, leaving only snapshots behind. Flashes of what happened, and none of them make sense.

None of them explain why she’s here.

Goosebumps race up her flesh as snarling echoes in her mind, vicious and promising pain; why was Sugar there? Max has never heard Sugar do so much as growl, let alone making that awful sound. Is Sugar okay?

Dolly - where is Dolly?

“Hey, shh, it’s okay. You’re okay, Max, you’re safe.”

On instinct, Max turns her head toward the voice - her angel! He’s come back for her. Her right eye flutters open, closed, then open again. The left one won’t open, and the fact that doesn’t frighten her scares her. She blinks a few more times, but then Niall is smiling at her. His face is framed in a brilliant hazy halo.

“You’re an angel,” she whispers, her voice cracking and shattering.

“I don’t have wings,” he laughs quietly, and his face falls a second later. “God, I was so… Max, I was so scared. I’ll be right back, I’m gonna get the doctor, okay?”

“Don’ - don’ leave.”

He’s up out of his chair, disappearing into the corridor, and something in Max’s chest snaps wide open. Something beeps louder, faster. Panic spirals and consumes her. The agony in her body grows stronger than the morphine, but still, she struggles to sit up, to follow her angel.

To bring him back.

If he’s here, no one can hurt her.

No harm can come to her as long as he’s around to wreak vengeance.

“Sweetie - lie back - it’s - you - ‘pam -”

Disjointed words that make no sense, and still, Max fights to get out of the bed. But then her angel is there, against the wall and staring at her with wide, fear-filled eyes. Fire eats her bones and sinew, muscles melting with the pain.

Then -

The walls no longer swirls in wide arcs. The world stops tilting on its axis, flinging her about like a ship on an angry ocean. The panic recedes, and Max barely gets turned onto her side before she’s vomiting on the floor.

A hand rubs circles onto her back as she dry-heaves, nearly screaming with the pain. The nurse says something, and a faceless shadow leaves the room with quick steps. But her angel still stands there, still watches over her.

“Okay, honey, I gave you a small dose of Diazepam,” the nurse says soothingly while she helps Max recline against the pillows again. “Just an anxiety medication. You may get drowsy or dizzy, even nausea or a headache. Those are common but not something that happens with everyone. Tell someone if it happens, can you do that?”

Max nods though she isn’t sure she really registers what the nurse is saying. The woman seems to understand, turning to Niall and asking - something. Max’s eyelids grow heavy, and she slips back into the painlessness of sleep.

“Where’s Ni’?”

Max’s words are slurred, edged with sleep and morphine. But Kristin understands them - she must do this a lot, if she can understand a jumbled mess like this. She smiles down at Max and adjusts the IV.

“Your fiance should be back soon. He looked dead on his feet, and since you were resting, I told him to get a meal to go with his coffee.”

“Doctor’s orders?”

“Something like that,” laughs Kristin. “All right. So it looks like the Diazepam worked earlier. If you need more, don’t hesitate to ask for it. We want to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible.”

“When is the doc’ gonna get here?”

“He should be almost done reviewing the scans. Maybe another hour at most. He’s very thorough.”

Max nods against the sudden exhaustion sweeping over her. A small part of her wonders how she is ever going to afford this - her health insurance is fine and all, but it definitely won’t prevent her from going into debt just to pay off the bill. But she can’t think of that now, not when her eyes are slipping closed, morphine and pain and the thought of Niall still in the building all pushing her further toward sleep.

A low voice brushes against her ears, waves of soft words crashing gently into her awareness. Max slowly lets herself be pulled away from the grips of subconsciousness, and she fights to break the surface between sleep and awake.

Niall’s hand is warm around hers when she finally manages to open her eye, his lips curved into a gentle smile. A to-go cup of coffee sits on the bedside table. Someone clears their throat at the end of the bed, and though Max doesn’t want to look away from Niall, she forces herself to focus on the doctor.

“Kristin told me you had a panic attack and tried to get out of bed. How are you feeling now?”

“Like I just went ten rounds with Ali.”

The doctor ducks her head, hiding a grin. “But other than that, no panic? No nausea, headache, anything?”

“I’m mostly just tired,” Max mutters. Moving her hand causes the needle to twitch, and she stares down at the IV, her skin itching under the adhesive. She needs to scratch it, needs to get rid of that annoying feeling, but Niall is still holding tightly to her other hand. Letting go of him isn’t an option.

“Okay, that’s understandable. Your body has gone through a significant trauma, and it’s working hard to repair itself. And I’m sure the pain medication doesn’t make it any easier to stay awake.”

“What happened?”

“I...” Doctor Bahl exchanges a look with Niall then turns her attention back to Max. “I’m going to let your fiance explain, since he knows more than I do, but I can tell you the extent of your injuries.”

Max can’t breathe, lungs constricting, as Doctor Bahl lists off the damage - one fully-broken rib; three fractured ribs; an orbital fracture, which is why her left eye is swollen shut; and two relatively minor stab wounds to her shoulder and abdomen. Thankfully, none of them seem to be life-threatening, and the doctor is certain that Max will make a complete recovery. At least physically.

Max knows the mental wounds will last a helluva lot longer than the six weeks it’ll take for her body to fix itself. Niall squeezes her hand comfortingly, and it forces herself to focus on the contact, the warmth and strength in his grip, and not how Gabriel has broken her even further.

“We’ve scheduled a follow-up appointment for in a few days,” the doctor continues. “You’ll be sent home with some prescriptions. Take the antibiotics as instructed, but you are under no obligation to actually take the painkillers. However, I suggest not trying to tough it out. You’re going to be in a lot of pain for a while. Any questions?”

Max shakes her head, slumps against the pillows. Doctor Bahl hands Niall a pamphlet and asks if Max has anywhere to stay during her recovery. He immediately nods and says she will be with someone at all times. Max doesn't bother trying to argue. She's too tired.

Besides, not being alone sounds pretty damn good right now. The gaps in her recall are terrifying. Not knowing what happened, if it was Gabriel, if he’s been caught… She can’t handle not knowing.

Max loses any focus she had, staring blankly at the tiles of the ceiling. Doctor Bahl’s voice continues, fills the room though it’s muffled. As if coming from a distance.

A quiet click, then only the beeping of the monitors remains to break up the silence. Max forces herself to concentrate, to turn her head, to look at the man who’s saved her so many times.

A bruise covers his jaw, spreads ugly purple-black fingers up his cheek, and dried blood covers his bottom lip. Her eyes drag along his face, throat, the scratches on his arms, then to the hand still clinging so tightly to hers.

“Wha’ happened?” she asks, mesmerised by the split skin over his knuckles, red and scabbed over.

“What do you remember?”

“Hug’n you. Then… nothing.”

Niall blows out a breath, presses a kiss to the back of her hand. “Do you wanna wait until you’re not being pumped full of painkillers?”

“Will you be here?”

“Of course, sweetheart. I’m always gonna be right here.”

Max’s smile hurts, but she doesn’t register much of it. Her eyes slowly close, and she allows herself to slip back into sleep with Niall by her side.