Scars & Souvenirs

twenty-four

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Her work inbox has only one new message when Max logs in, sent just twenty minutes ago:

Makenzie, your parents rang me and told me the news. I’m glad to hear that you’re safe now, and I am so very sorry that you had so much that you were dealing with. I wish I could have helped you more. I know that you said you were ready to come back to work, but I want you to take another week. Don’t worry - your projects are being well taken care of. Please let me know if you need more time or anything else.
-Hank


Max stares blankly at the email, then sighs heavily. As much as she wants to get back to work, to lose herself in editing, she knows Hank has a good suggestion. She still twitches at the sound of a door slamming too hard, and there hasn’t been a full night of sleep since she stopped taking the pain medication. Niall has helped, just him being so close, but he can’t fight the monsters that dwell in her mind.

He can’t take away the things that haunt her, no matter how hard he tries.

She calls her parents if only to smother the quiet. Katherine talks about all Max has missed since she left Ann Arbor, and Martin asks Max how she has fared over the last two and a half years. Max barely speaks, afraid to believe this is true.

She wonders why they aren’t at work, if they still have the same jobs they had when they helped her load up the tiny beat-up Honda and disappeared from the rear-view. If they still live in the cosy two-room home she grew up in. Her mother doesn’t mention moving, and Max doesn’t ask.

The trip to the market takes very little time once Max has made her list. Cooking is a bit more of a task, though it’s easier. Following the instructions gives Max something to focus on other than the silence and how the isolation doesn’t feel quite so safe now. She burns herself once, but the meal remains unharmed.

By the time Niall comes home, his footsteps heavy on the stairs outside, Max has cleaned up the flat and set the table. She stands by her chair as he comes to a stop in the archway. His gaze tracks over the plates, her face, then back to the dishware. She chews on her lower lip, fidgeting when he stays quiet.

“What’s this?”

“It’s dinner. Uh, we have pork chops in a port sauce, rosemary red potatoes, and Parmesan asparagus. I, um, I wanted to cook for you.”

The smile lights up his face, and Max could drown in the tender edges of it. She grabs silverware while he sets his work-bag on the couch and goes to wash his hands. Her appetite is gone, but when his eyes widen with the first bite, she realises food would never satisfy - she’s starving for something less tangible. She needs the validation that she’s done something right.

“Thank you,” she whispers, and Niall pauses, brows furrowing. Max draws in a steadying breath before continuing. “For, well, everything. You’ve cared about me when you didn’t have to. You gave me friendship. You brought Nikki, Harry, Liam, Louis, and Zayn into my life. You let me fit myself into yours.

“Most of all, though, you… you protected me when I needed it. I, I would be dead if it weren’t for you.”

Niall carefully sets his knife and fork next to his plate, dabs at his mouth with a napkin. His expression has closed off, and his eyes are darker than normal. Max swallows thickly as he pushes his plate away and folds his hands on the table in front of him. Did she say the wrong thing? She thought she did what was right - showing gratitude shouldn’t warrant this reaction.

“Can we not talk about that?”

“I- what?”

He sighs, scrubbing at his face with one hand. “The thought of you being dead… I don’t like it. You’re right. I do care about you, Max, so to think that he could have killed you, it hurts. And it terrifies me. I keep thinking ‘What if I hadn’t gone back? What if I had ignored my gut telling me something was wrong’? I wake up from nightmares every night, dreaming about the what ifs.”

Max stares at him, mind racing, trying to fit together the pieces of this puzzle. She struggles to find clues that he was so affected by what happened - he’s never acted as if he was.

Sure, he has taken care of her. He’s given her a place to heal until she can get back on her feet. He has held her through nights of uneasy sleep, memories that steal her breath and set her bones aflame, fears that burrow so deeply into her soul that she worries she will never be separated from them.

But he has never let on that he struggles with the same fears she does.

A pleasant warmth spreads beneath her breastbone, growing stronger the longer she thinks about what he’s admitted. Her gaze flickers from her plate to his face then back again. How can she possibly tell him how much it means to her?

It isn’t something that should be on anyone’s mind, being petrified of someone’s wrath like this, but she finds comfort in the fact that she’s not alone. She isn’t the only one bearing the weight of that fear.

He smiles at her from across the table, as if he knows what she’s thinking. Max hesitates then reaches for his hand. The surprise on his face sends a tiny prickle of sadness through her. Swallowing harshly, she ignores the remorse at his shock and squeezes his fingers with her own. She lets the strength and warmth in his hold keep her grounded to this moment.

A small part of her knows that this can’t last. That she is relying far too heavily on him, praying that his kindness can smooth out the sharpness of her fractured pieces. But when Niall is watching her so closely, that brilliant light in his blue eyes, Max can find no reason to question or reject it.

She wanders into the living room while he cleans up, sits on the couch and listens to the sounds of dishes clattering together. His words echo in her mind, melding with the words Dolly spoke just this morning, until Max is struggling to find where one voice ends and another begins. It’s almost impossible to think of how necessary the solitude was, how she managed to survive being alone for so long.

The memory of that chilly December night slithers to the surface, the ghost of panic and pain disrupting the calmness. Her thoughts take a drastically different turn. Instead of musing on the support she has received since she moved in, she wonders about why Niall had seemed so off when she said they were just friends. Why he’s been so willing to protect her, to take care of her. The kiss he pressed to her lips when she came back after court.

Why hasn’t he brought it up? Max is aware of her own reasons for leaving the subject where it lies - if she speaks on it, it can only serve to sever the connection or, worse still, deepen it. But she is utterly clueless as to why he’s not mentioned it. She frowns, picking at the seam of the cushion as Niall sings quietly in the kitchen.

He saved her. Even before the attack, he saved her from the loneliness and gave her a place to belong. He kept her company even when she knew she should be alone. He has never made her doubt his friendship, him. He’s kissed her lips, cheeks, forehead. He began sleeping in the same bed as her just to be there, holds her tightly to drag her away from the nightmares. He made himself sick with worrying about the ‘what ifs’.

Would he have done all that if she’d never apologised?

To: Nikki
Can we have lunch tomorrow? Just you and me? We need to talk.