Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-one

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The nightmares still reach her here. Max wakes screaming the first three nights, but Niall is there before her eyes even snap open, his voice soft and pulling her into the safety he promises. He keeps a careful distance between his body and hers, murmurs assurances, and doesn’t skip a beat when she tentatively reaches for his hand.

That first touch of contact, without consequence or rebuke, spurs her to seek out more. By Sunday night, she finds herself letting him hold her against his chest, soaking up solace and comfort in his arms. It should be uncomfortable, unfathomable after all that she’s endured, but instead, it is everything Max has disavowed since the destruction of her life. It’s hope, affection, security, an aching tenderness that slowly works to soothe the invisible wounds deep in her soul.

It is all that she has yearned for, and Max allows herself this one weakness. After all, it doesn’t feel much like weakness when he’s humming softly under his breath, whispering a vow that she will always be safe. It feels like a strength she’s never known - a strength she’s only able to draw from him. A courage he offers to share with her. And how could that ever be a weakness?

So she stays. Even when she wakes in the dead of night with her heart in her throat and fear burning her alive, she stays. Because all she has to do is look to her right and there’s Niall, sleeping next to her with his hand outstretched toward her. Max doesn’t dare touch him, but the fact that she can is enough.

Nights are hard. Days are worse. Niall can’t keep calling off work - and Max refuses to ask him to - so he leaves her in the care of Dolly whenever he has to leave. Occasionally, Zayn will come over with his laptop and another for Max to use, and Harry has taken over the duties and spent the hours having Max quiz him over terms and case precedents. It’s Dolly, though, who most often comes over in the mornings after breakfast and leaves when Niall comes home.

Max is appreciative of all the time and effort these people are putting in for her, but she hates the fussing from Dolly. She hates the hovering, the scrutinising glances every thirty seconds. The frustration is tempered easily enough by pretending that, for once, she has a mother again. That the grey-haired woman fluttering around the flat is the woman who raised Max from birth.

Dolly and Katherine look nothing alike, but their personalities are damningly similar. Both women have a strong sense of justice and enormous hearts. Max knows that if her mother was here, there would be no chance in Hell that she’d ever be allowed out of bed, not even for appointments with her doctors.

“Are you sure you have everything?” Dolly asks for the fifth time, and Max resists the urge to roll her eyes - the woman’s heart is in the right place. That’s what matters.

Not how aggravating it is to be doted on every second that Niall isn’t here. At least he trusts that she will tell him if and when she needs something.

“Yes. I have water, milk, juice, tea, seven different kinds of snacks, the remote, my notebook and pens, and my phone. I think I’m set for the ten minutes it will take for you to walk Sugar. And if I need anything, I have your number, along with Niall’s and his friends’. I even have Mrs Dubenich’s from upstairs.”

Dolly sighs but relents, and the door closes quietly behind her. The silence left is disturbing, eerie, the first bit of quiet that Max has experienced since the first night here that hasn’t come after a nightmare and an inability to fall back to sleep. Even Zayn usually has music playing from his computer speakers when he’s here, and Harry doesn’t seem to know how to be quiet while studying.

Max closes her eyes and exhales as carefully as possible. The swelling in her eye has gone down, so she has full use of both, but her ribs still ache like Hell. Experience has taught her that it will be at least another month before the pain is gone, and she is impatient for that to happen. Nikki has already insinuated in texts that Niall won’t be comfortable with Max going back to living alone until she’s recovered completely - and even then, he will constantly check in on her.

Not even five minutes after Dolly left, the flat fills with muffled shouting, and Max jolts in surprise, crying out with the surge of agony in her chest. She holds her breath and hopes it’ll pass. It slowly fades to a throbbing instead of a wave, and she wipes the tear from her eyes as she draws in a shallow breath.

It isn’t the weekend. The yelling is too early. She swallows thickly and checks the time. Dolly still has another six minutes. Mister Dubenich’s voice grows impossibly louder, even through the ceiling. A thud that shakes the flat. Is that -?

Max is on her feet before she can think twice, making her way to the door on shaking knees. Her body screams in protest as she carefully climbs the staircase, her mind begs for her to go back to Niall’s and pretend she heard nothing. But she can’t. She has to do this.

The door opens before she can knock more than once, and Dubenich scowls at her. “What do you want?”

“You need to stop yelling.”

“I don’t have time for this.”

Max shoves on the door as he tries to close it in her face. The surprise on his ruddy face would be amusing if her heart wasn’t thundering in her chest, if she didn’t feel like puking on his cheap patent-leather shoes, if she didn’t feel like cowering in the corner and pleading for mercy.

She grabs hold of the strength that made her come up here, clings tightly to it as she draws herself up to her full height. Dubenich is still taller than her by an inch or so, but she doesn’t let it derail her.

“There are kids in there. Your kids, who hear you screaming at their mother. I’ve heard you’re a great father to them, but what kind of father puts his children through this? If you have a problem with their mother, then you speak to her civilly. You don’t scream at her and make your kids cry.”

“Listen here -”

“No, you listen, sir. I have listened to your loud-ass voice for the past six months, and I’ve regretted never saying anything. But I am tired of listening to you being an abusive piece of crap. Leave her alone. Stop torturing her and the kids. Be a real fucking man, not a sleaze-bag who has to intimidate people into listening to him.”

Dubenich gapes, mouth and opening as if to argue, but the conversation is derailed by Dolly’s frantic voice coming from the floor below. Max turns on her heel and strides toward the stairs, the very image of confidence though she is shaking like a house of cards inside. At the top of the staircase, she pauses - they seem steeper from this angle than they did on the way up.

“Uh, Dolly? I’m-I’m up here.”

“What? Oh, honey, you scared me!” Dolly appears at the bottom of the stairs, frowning up at Max with her hands on her hips. “I am too old to survive another heart attack, young lady.”

Max grimaces, fidgeting with the hem of her T-shirt. “Sorry. I, um, I might need help.”

“Oh! Of course, doll, I’m coming.”

Dubenich closes the door as Dolly scrambles up the stairs. Max shakes - with pain or anger, she isn’t sure - she wasn’t finished with the conversation. He deserves to know what the other residents think of his behaviour. But then the landlady is easing Max down the steps, and she lets the subject drop.

It isn’t until she’s sat on the couch again, holding an icepack to her ribs, that the panic sets in. What the Hell was she thinking, confronting a complete stranger? One who’s larger, stronger, meaner than she is, and especially when she is still healing from the last man she had in her life?

Her hands tremble violently. The ache in her chest no longer comes from fractured ribs but the rapid hammering of her heart. Oxygen grows scarce, she struggles to breathe, and folding in on herself only worsens the pain.

“Okay, you’re okay. C’mon, c’mere to my arms.” Dolly holds her gingerly, the touch screaming of a fear of breaking Max further. “You’re okay. You did good, doll. Now it’s time to let that panic go. Nobody’s gonna get ya here, I promise. It’s just you and me.”

Dolly keeps up the reassurances, her hand gentle as it strokes over Max’s hair and shoulders. Her voice grows stronger and more confident the more Max reacts instinctively. She reaches over to wrap her fingers around Dolly’s wrist, forcing herself to fight through the panic and meeting the woman’s gaze. Dolly frowns and cocks her head.

“Don’t tell Niall,” Max whispers.

“Honey -”

“No. He-he can’t know that I did something so monumentally stupid. He’ll worry, and I… I don’t want him to worry.”

Dolly’s face twists up, as if she wants to argue. All she does, however, is pat Max’s hand gently then stands. Max shifts the icepack and watches as the landlady moves toward the kitchen - most likely to make tea, the same as she’s done for the last three weeks. The same as Max suspect she always will.

___________________________


Milky white light spreads across the floor, slatted bars on carpet, as the moon inches its way through the sky. A car drives past on the street below, a rush of air then it’s gone. Even the inhabitants of the apartment building are quiet—the silence is overwhelming after so long of habitual noises being a lullaby.

Ghosts of her past dance along the outskirts of her mind, each remembrance more painful than the last, dredged up by tomorrow’s proceedings. Her bones ache, and her thoughts spin in dizzying arcs without end.

Max sighs and reaches for her phone, glancing at the illuminated screen. 11:48. She has to be awake in six hours, but sleep is nowhere on the horizon. She drops the device to the nightstand, carefully rolls over in the bed.

To her surprise, Niall is still awake; his eyes, washed pale-silver in the moonlight, skim over her face. Max tenses up when he moves, but all he does is brush her hair from her cheek.

“Everything okay?”

“I’m scared,” she admits on a low whisper, as if speaking any louder will summon the devil she married. As if he can touch her here, and there is nothing she can do about it. “I-I’m not ready to see him. Not again.”

“The past few days have been hard, I know, but they’re almost over,” he murmurs back, his thumb brushing away a tear she hadn’t noticed slipping free.

“Can you tell me a story?”

Niall stares at her for a moment, blinking owlishly, then his face relaxes into a sweet smile that sends her heart racing. “Of course, sweetheart. C’mere.”

Once she’s closed her eyes and curled into his side, she drapes her arm over his waist and listens to his heartbeat under her ear. His voice fills the silence between them - a steady rhythm that immediately enraptures Max, smothering her in warmth and peace.

He brings to life the tale of a kind, loving princess with dark hair and soft eyes, who ran her kingdom with fairness and humility. Nobody went hungry or unheard. Every citizen was pleased, content in their lives. But the princess wanted one thing more than anything else in the whole world: To be a brave warrior like those who defended the borders.

“But she was sure it would never happen. After all, she was scared of the world outside, and she was absolutely terrified of the giant, fearsome dragon that terrorised the lands. How could she ever be a knight if she couldn’t imagine leaving her castle?

“One by one, the king’s knights faced the dragon in hopes of being the one to end the reign of nightmares, only to fail. Finally, the princess was all that remained to protect her people. So she donned the strongest armour, armed herself with the sharpest sword, and took up the toughest shield she could find. Though her knees trembled and her heart felt like it could burst from her chest, she set off to slay the dragon.

“Through deep valleys and over high peaks she trekked, growing more and more afraid along the way. Shadows seemed to creep out, ready to gobble her up, and horrible creatures haunted the paths. After days of walking, she finally reached the edge of her kingdom where the great best resided in a dark cave. The walls were slimy from rot, and the air was thick with the stench of monsters. She knew she’d arrived by the rumbling earth and the hulking form that slithered from the depths of the cave.

“She wanted to run, the princess. She was only a young woman on her own, untrained and brimming with fear. But she knew there was no other who could save the kingdom, so she fought as bravely and fiercely as she could, hiding behind rocks that crumbled within the dragon’s flame, stumbling under the weight of the armour and the world she was trying to protect. She was no match for the dragon. It had years of experience, where she’d never wielded a weapon in her life.

“She yearned to give up, exhausted and frightened, in pain and so small against such a large creature. But just when all hope seemed lost, as the dragon stood over its latest victim and prepared to blow out her final breath of life, the princess mustered up the last of her strength, held her sword high, and remembered what she was fighting for: Her home, her family and friends, and herself.

“The sword hit its mark, straight and true. The dragon let out a mighty scream of despair, one that shook the earth beneath their feet, before it collapsed to the ground, lifeless and no longer able to harm anyone ever again. The princess waited with breath held to see if it would stir again, but she’d vanquished it.

“The fight of her life was over, and with that, the princess dropped to her knees and cried. For everything she had lost and everything she had won. She’d saved her kingdom at long last, and she faced her fears in the process.”

“Did the princess get her family back?” Max slurs, half-asleep and already dreaming of winning against her own monster.

Niall huffs out a quiet laugh and presses a tender kiss to her hair. “Yes. Yes, she did. Go to sleep now, princess. We’ve a dragon to slay.”