Scars & Souvenirs

twenty

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Waking is harder to do this time. The signals from her brain to her body seem to get lost in transit, disappearing into a void instead of stretching out her legs and opening her eye. Her heart beats steadily beneath her ribs, and even the soft voices around her don’t send alarms blaring. The lack of nightmares would be concerning if Max wasn’t so relieved.

Eventually, she manages to pry her eye open, sitting up with a quiet groan. Nikki stops speaking but only for a second. Then she’s asking how Max feels, does she need anything? Heat, pleasant and soothing, diffuse through Max’s chest at the concern - she may not deserve the kindness, but she wants so desperately to stop questioning it. Harry said they wouldn’t do this if they didn’t want to. She has to start believing it.

“Zee, I have a question for you, and please be honest.” At Max’s tentative nod, Nikki exchanges a look with Niall. “Do you want to keep staying here, or go to Niall’s?”

The worlds settle like lead in her chest, more painful than her broken rib. Max can scarcely breathe. Is this Nikki’s way of saying she’s tired of Max sleeping days away on the couch? As if wrapping it up in the form of an inquiry, a choice, will make it any easier on Max to hear? Max knew she was a burden; no amount of pretty words and promises from Harry can change that. After all, it’s Nikki who has sat up with Max after each nightmare, and Liam and Louis who have had to leave their own home because of her.

“Hey,” Niall murmurs, his hand settling gently on Max’s shoulder, dragging her from the storm of guilt swirling in her mind. “Nik’s just letting you know you have options, that’s all. No one is going to force you to stay or leave.”

Nikki gasps, face pale when Max can finally meet her gaze. “Oh, God, no. You are allowed to crash here as long as you want, Zee. I only asked because, uh -” Here, her eyes dart to Niall then back to Max, and she runs a hand through her hair. “You seemed to sleep better with Niall nearby.”

“And don’t worry. Come to mine, stay here… Whatever you choose is completely fine.”

The reassurances should have relieved her panic, but instead, the anxiety has morphed into something else. Max is overwhelmed in the face of choices - the only time she has had options is when it came to which state she ran to next. Never which friend she could rely on.

How does she makes this decision? How can she choose which person she can accept help from? If she chooses to stay with Nikki, Max runs the risk of making Niall think she doesn’t trust him. But if she goes with Niall, what would Nikki think?

“I…” Her voice disappears as she stares at the floor. The voice in her brain has vanished, up and run and left her to fend for herself. She wants to tell them that they are asking too much of her. She needs them to make the decision for her. “What do you mean, I slept better?”

Nikki blows out a breath, face serious in a way Max has never seen before. Not like this. “When it was just you and me, and even you and Harry, you-you would fall asleep, but it didn’t really look restful, y’know? Like you were being poked every minute or so, because you’d twitch and whimper a bit. But you just slept for five hours without moving at all. So…”

“I don’t know what to do,” Max admits, frowning, and Niall reaches for her hand; his movements are gentle, slow, as if he is giving her the chance to pull away without repercussion. She lets him fold her fingers beneath his.

“How about this. Stay with Niall tonight, just for tonight, and see how it feels.” Nikki smiles softly, her gaze flickering from Max’s face to where her hand is wrapped in Niall’s. “Then you can make an actual comparison, since you’ll know both places.”

“And you’re okay with this?” she whispers to Niall, hardly daring to believe that this is an opportunity freely given to her.

He nods, squeezes her hand. “Yeah. I am. It’s your decision, though.”

The tenderness in his blue eyes, the easy acceptance of whatever she chooses, and the way neither Nikki or Niall push for an answer make this one of the easiest decisions Max will ever make:

“I guess it’s worth a try.”

It isn’t a perfect ‘yes’, but almost instantly, Nikki is on her feet and making her way to the kitchen. Niall hesitates then heads toward the front door, leaving Max alone on the couch. She stares down at her hands as the room fills with the sound of pills rattling in a bottle and shoes thudding against the wall. She wonders if she’s made the right choice, or if this is going to go so horribly wrong.

Nikki was right, though. Max does feel more rested, if in more pain than before, than she has since she was discharged from the hospital.

And the only difference has been Niall’s presence.

Niall comes back with her shoes in hand, and she chews on the inside of her cheek as he slides them onto her feet, fingers nimbly lacing the strings. Something slots into place in her chest, the fragile hope burning that much brighter. Maybe it won’t be nearly as awful as she anticipates. Maybe she can make it through this without sending him running for the hills.

Nikki follows close behind as Niall leads Max out the door, to his car that sits out front. He fumbles with the keys then finally hits the right button on the fob, and the headlights flash and the locks disengage with a thunk.

Once he’s tossed his work-bag into the backseat, he carefully lowers her into the passenger seat, asking the entire time if she is doing okay. Max lies as steadily as possible. The pain is worse now, sixteen hours after her last painkiller, and she just wants to sleep.

“Okay, I rang the guys, told them you two were on the way,” announces Nikki, sliding her phone into her sweater pocket. “Liam said he’d stay there until you showed up, in case you needed help getting in. Zee?”

Max opens her eye - when had she closed it? - to see Nikki smiling down at her. “Thank you.”

The other woman seems to understand the depth to the words. She nods succinctly, shoves at Niall’s shoulder until he moves, then ducks down to hug Max. Niall slides into the seat behind the steering wheel, starts up the car, as Nikki runs a hand over Max’s hair.

“Come back whenever you need to, okay? You have a key.”

Nikki sets a Ziploc bag on Max’s lap, the pill bottles jostling together, then steps back so she can shut the door. Max bites down on her bottom lip, waves awkwardly, and watches her friend disappear in the dark of night as Niall pulls away. Settling into the seat, she rest her forehead against the window and hopes Niall won’t try for conversation. Not right now. She’s too close to falling apart.

The only reprieve from the silence comes in the form of soft music floating through the speakers. Max doesn’t recognise the songs that play, but she lets the gentleness of them lull her into the small room in her mind. The one in which she hid during the worst of Gabriel’s “episodes”, the ones that left the most scars. The ones that broke Max just that much more.

If the room was a tangible thing, it would be her favourite room in the entire world. Pastel blues and golds, gentle pinks, springtime rains and summer sun. The peacefulness that comes with being an innocent child who’s never known nothing but love. Fluffy pillows would line the massive bed in the centre of the room, and she would have the space for all of her hobbies - painting, reading, building with plastic knobby blocks, origami.

Everything that brought her joy before the light was drained from her life, it would all be there, ready for her. Val would smile at her and tell her she should be an architect if she wants to design buildings. Her parents would be there, too.

How did her life get so off track?

“I’m so sorry for all of this,” she whispers quietly once the car comes to a stop outside of their building.

Niall frowns and picks at a seam on the steering wheel cover. After a moment, he looks at her, his eyes impossibly blue in the glow from the dashboard. “You have nothing to apologise for. I don’t, I don’t know who taught you that you did, but they were wrong. We - I - want to help you, Max, and you should never feel guilty about that.”

In a mimicry of when she first arrived at Nikki’s, Liam is there helping her out of the car, murmuring an apology as he scoops her into his arms. She buries her face into his neck to hide the tears and the blood on her lip as she chews on the inside of her cheek hard enough to break skin. His shoes scuffle against pavement, squeak on linoleum, then Max hears the telltale thump of footsteps on stairs. Her fingers cling to his dark T-shirt, panic buzzing in her blood. What if he drops her?

But he doesn’t. Liam gingerly sets her down on the couch while Niall sets the bag of medication on the counter in the kitchen. Max presses a hand to her ribcage, gasping in shallow breaths in hopes of easing the pain. Of course it doesn’t work. Liam crouches down beside her, dark brows furrowed together.

“Are you okay?”

“‘M’fine,” she whispers, but his expression doesn’t clear. On the contrary, his eyes grow wider, and his jaw clenches, tics as he stares at her.

“Did I hurt you?”

Max shakes her head and swallows down the urge to beg someone to just put her out of her misery. Fortunately, Niall is there within seconds, one hand curled up, the other holding out a glass of apple juice. Liam scoots out of the way so that Niall can hand her the pills in his palm - one white oval, one yellow rounded rectangle, and an ibuprofen. She swallows the medication without protest. She may hate the way the painkillers gunk up her brain, the way she feels like she can’t think properly, but this is a level of pain she can’t ignore easily.

Once the front door closes behind Liam, Niall twists the lock, sets the chain in place, then sighs heavily. Max watches him closely, wincing when his head thunks against the wood. Should she apologise again? No, he already said she has no need to. She wishes she knew what to do or say right now to make this all better. To make it go away. But there really isn’t anything.

“C’mon, let’s get you to bed.”

“I’m…not sleeping on the couch?”

Niall shakes his head vehemently, scowling at the thought. “‘Course not, you’re injured. You can sleep in the bed.”

“But what about you?” she asks, even as she lets him guide her to her feet.

“I’ll sleep on the couch.” He steers her down the dark hallway to the bedroom. “Remember you have the appointment tomorrow morning.”

Is it really the fourth? How has time flown by so quickly, when the last two and a half years have seemed to drag on for infinities? Max blames it on the pain medication and sleep.

Niall leads her into the bathroom, and there’s her toothbrush already on the counter, her hairbrush. Even the packet of hairties she no longer uses. She glances up at him, but she doesn’t ask. He answers anyway, and she’s struck with the thoughtfulness he’s shown by sending Louis into her flat for her belongings so she wouldn’t have to.

Niall leaves her then with a soft smile, and Max inhales shakily before facing the mirror. She isn’t sure exactly what she anticipated seeing, but the reflection staring back at her is somehow different. She knew there was still bruising around her eye, along her cheek, and her hair is a greasy, tangled mess.

But still, she’s taken aback by the face she sees. Her hand trembles as she reaches for the brush, though she makes no further moves once it’s in her grasp. Makenzie is gone, no sign of her to be found in the reflection. All that is left is the battered, broken husk that Max has allowed herself to become.

“It’s okay,” Niall whispers from the doorway, and her gaze seeks him out. He smiles softly back at her in the mirror. “You’re gonna heal. The bruises won’t last forever.”

She wants to laugh. He thinks she’s upset about her appearance. She is, somewhat, but also, she isn’t. She is angry that yet again, Gabriel has managed to leave her with more pain to remember him by. She is so bone-deep enraged that he has shattered the security she has worked so hard to build. She loathes him for what he has done to her, and she hates herself for ever falling for him.

She doesn’t say anything. Instead, Max turns away from Niall and starts combing the knots out of her hair. The patchy dark spots are fading worse now; it’s hard to colour hair when no one is helping, and it has been months since Max last bought a box of dye. The black bleeds out of the natural brown of her hair.

Niall leans against the doorframe, watching her with gentle eyes, until she finishes readying for bed. Max takes on final look at herself in the mirror, her pale face warping before her eyes - or maybe that’s the Percocet kicking in - then shuts off the light.

Niall has already turned down the comforter on the bed by the time Max steps into the room. She pauses in the doorway to examine her surroundings, a new environment that speaks volumes about the man who stands behind her.

A framed collage takes up most of one wall, photographs of people he knows and loves. A small pink bow is pinned between one picture of two young boys and another with Niall giving the camera a thumbs-up in front of a school. An acoustic guitar sits in a stand by the closet; even in the dim lighting from the bedside lamp, Max can see the layer of dust that discolours the wood.

His hand on her elbow, Max lets him lead her to the bed. His eyes are darker than usual, something unreadable lurking in the blue, and he’s frowning as he tucks her into bed. His hand runs gently over her hair. She wants to swat his fingers away if only to never let him feel the filth that’s accumulated there.

A feather-light stroke of his thumb over her cheek, then he’s turning the lamp off. Darkness blankets the room, the stretch of black only broken by the streetlights through the blinds and the living room lamp spilling a white-orange glow down the hall.

At the door, he stops, turns to face her. She feels so small in this bed alone, and she wonders if he can see that. He clears his throat quietly. “Goodnight, Max.”

Max is almost asleep - the comfort of the bed and the painkiller have done their jobs of forcing her to relax, and who is she to try to fight against the clutches of sleep? - but she still manages to mumble, “M’name is Makenzie.”